Author: Anthony Butler
“Mom, wake up,” Plato said urgently, pushing Browning’s shoulder as she flipped over on the concrete slab the Dominion laughingly called a bed.
“What?” she asked, blinking.
“Chaka is here. Something’s wrong.”
“Oh, is it another conspiracy theory?” Browning asked. “Just because the Jem’Hadar aren’t in a hurry to chat with us…” Plato backed away from her bed, and Browning looked up at the door to her room. Chaka stood in the door, stiffly, staring at her.
Behind him, three other Jem’Hadar stood, with phaser rifles pointed at him.
“Apparently, you’re needed on the bridge, Doctor,” Chaka said.
Browning leaned up. “This better be a really formal breakfast invitation.”
“I assure you, it is not,” Chaka said. “Now please, put on your fluffy pink robe and come along.”
“Commander Richards!” Joan Redding called out, jogging to catch up with Richards as he marched purposefully down the corridor, J’hana and Tilleran at his side.
“Not now, Ms. Redding,” Richards said. “I’ve got…stuff to do.”
“Precisely my point,” Redding said. “I’ve heard that you altered the Explorer’s course, and I want to know why.”
“That information is on a need-to-know basis right now, and you…well guess which category you fall under.”
“Are you getting this?” Redding asked over her shoulder, to the looming Grenthalman cameraman, who simply gave her a thumbs up. “A perfect example of Starfleet’s unwillingness to cooperate with the media.”
J’hana suddenly whirled, drawing her phaser and pointing it at Redding’s face. Kado made a move toward her, but she froze him with a steely glare. Then her eyes shifted back to Redding. “One cannot give a news report if one does not have a throat.”
“J’hana!” Tilleran snapped, thumping the Andorian’s shoulder. She grinned weakly at Redding. “Sorry about this. She’s a tad on edge lately.”
J’hana pushed Tilleran’s hand away.
“We were walking a minute ago,” Richards said, stepping up behind Tilleran and J’hana.
“This must be nipped in the bud. Like a diseased fharbus root,” J’hana said, waving her phaser at Redding.
“Get that thing out of my face!” Redding retorted.
“Stand down, J’hana!” Richards shouted.
J’hana turned toward Richards. “Or. What?”
Tilleran gently took J’hana’s arm and led her down the corridor. “Come on, Jan. Let’s take a little walk…”
J’hana moved off with the Betazoid, but she kept her eyes on Redding as she walked away.
“Sorry about that,” Richards said.
“She belongs in a cage,” Redding said, smoothing her silky blue blouse.
“That’s…” Richards said thoughtfully, then shook his head. “That’s neither here nor there. Now then, I understand you have a life to get back to, and we’re supposed to rendez-vous with your transport later today. Unfortunately, some…stuff…came up, and we had to change those plans.”
“To what ‘stuff’ are you referring?”
“Again, I can’t discuss it,” Richards said. “But suffice it to say, Starfleet security is at issue, and so we ask you to patiently wait and blah blah blah. Contact security if you need anything during your stay.” And he walked off, then stopped and turned again. “You may want to make sure you call someone other than J’hana.”
“No kidding,” Redding said, frowning as she watched Richards walk away. She turned to Kado. “Well, it looks like our plans for the day are shot.”
Panels erupted on all sides, and Baxter ducked a falling girder as the Idlewild picked the fragile Republic to pieces.
Professor Blot sagged against the nearby environmental console, gripping what looked like a sprained knee. “Baxter, what the hell have you gotten us into? Why is what appears to be a Federation ship laying into us like grilled gooberi?”
“Long story,” Baxter said, and stumbled to front of the bridge where a sobbing Nat Wembly cowered behind the helm console. She made Howard Sefelt look absolutely composed. “Nat!” he called out. “You need to execute evasive maneuvers. Divert everything to the engines and take us out of the line of fire!”
“I can’t!” the waifish girl called out.
Baxter put a hand on her shoulder. “Yes you can…”
Blot gritted his teeth. “Curse it, Baxter, take the helm. She’s just a kid!”
“She can do it,” Baxter said. He looked at Ethan Piper, who sat in the command chair, face pasty white. “Well, kid, you can bet that the members of Red Squad aren’t having a day like this.”
Piper looked at the looming ship on the screen. “B…bully…”
“Yes, the guy out there is a big bully,” Baxter said wryly, turning his attention back to the viewscreen as the Republic shook again. “And he could have blown us up in one shot if he wanted to, so he’s playing with us.”
“What do we do?” Colby Mathers asked, his hands shaking at the tactical station.
“You fire, broad beam dispersal. We don’t have enough phaser power to touch his shields, but we can maybe blind him for a second and duck behind that planetoid.”
“We’ll never make it!” Blot cried, easing back against the console. “That ship out there is faster than us.”
“But she’s bigger too,” Baxter said. “Bigger turn radius.”
“You…actually know what you’re talking about?”
“It’s amazing what sinks in when you sleep during staff meetings,” Baxter said, and patted Wembly on the back. “Tight arc, around the perimeter of the planetoid, to the dark side.”
“W-what then?” Wembly asked as she tapped at the helm console.
“We launch the escape pods,” Baxter said, glancing back at Blot. “How many cadets are aboard?”
“My class, Professor Thomason’s class, and a couple teaching assistants in engineering. Maybe forty-five?”
“Mister Piper,” Baxter said, turning to the center seat. “How fast can you run?”
“Fast,” Piper said, scooting out of the command chair. “I get chased a lot.”
“I want you to run through the corridors, knock on doors. Tell everyone to get to the escape pods right away.”
“Why not just sound the all call?” Blot asked.
“Because he’s doubtless listening to our comm traffic,” Baxter said. “And I don’t want to clue him in.”
“He’ll cut us to pieces before we launch the first pod!” Blot shouted back, leaning up and against a railing.
“No. He’ll want to taunt me first. Go, Piper.”
Seconds later, Mathers saw a light blinking at the nearby communication console. “Captain…somebody’s calling us…”
“Hailing,” Baxter said. “What a shock.” He moved to the command chair and sat down. “Put the bastard on screen.”
Mathers leaned over and punched a control, as Blot limped next to Baxter.
The viewscreen shimmered, and there he stood, glasses and all. Alvin Ficker, grinning like an idiot, looking triumphant.
“Captain Baxter. I see they gave you a new ship. It’s cute. Quaint.”
Baxter leaned forward. “Size doesn’t matter. You of all people should know that, Ficker.”
Ficker twisted his mouth angrily for a moment, then the smile was back. “A small joke for a small mind. I’m not surprised.”
“Get to it,” Baxter said, as Blot and the others looked on, in mute confusion. “What do you want?”
“Want?” Ficker asked, his smile broadening. “Why, seeing you there, in command, with all those bright young faces around you, is more than I could have asked for.”
“If you harm one of these young faces, I’ll blow you apart, Ficker,” Baxter said. “Come to think of it, I may do that anyway.”
“Tough talk for a man on a burning, Constitution-class ship. What are you doing on this little field trip anyway, Baxter?”
“I’m a…visiting professor,” Baxter said quickly. “I just had a sudden yearning to teach. You know, to impart the wisdom of my many years of command.”
Ficker’s eyes narrowed at Baxter, and his face tensed. “How nice for you.”
“Far from it,” Ficker said. “I have more than I could have hoped for aboard the Idlewild.”
“Yeah, by the way, I spoke to Section Thirty-One. They want their ship back.”
“It’s serving such an important purpose right now, though,” Ficker said. “More important than you could possibly imagine.”
“Let’s talk about it,” Baxter said. “Release everyone else. Take me. And let’s get everything out into the open, man to man.”
“Oh, you simpering idiot,” Ficker said, turning away for a moment. “You know as well as I do that we’re not men.”
“Something you were meaning to tell me, Baxter?” Blot blurted.
“SHH!” Baxter hissed.
“We’re not men,” Ficker continued, turning back an angry glare on Baxter. “We’re rejects. And rejects win by any means necessary. Am I right?”
“You couldn’t be…righter,” Baxter said.
“Piper to Baxter,” the comm system chirped.
“Yes,” Baxter sighed.
“I’ve sent everyone to the…um, bathroom.”
“Fantastic,” Baxter said. “Prepare to flush.” He looked at the viewscreen. “Show me what you’ve got, Ficker. I’m sure as hell not going to surrender to you.”
“You’re an even bigger fool than I took you for,” Ficker muttered.
“Close channel!” Baxter said, quickly, and hooked his arm around Wembly’s, dragging her out of her chair. With his free hand, he grabbed Blot by the arm. “To the escape pods!”
“Where might those be?” Mathers asked as Baxter stuffed him and the others in the aft turbolift.
“Great question. Let’s look. Quickly!” Baxter snapped as the doors closed, and he felt the Republic rumbling apart.
“You all look familiar,” Browning said, glancing back at the Jem’Hadar behind her as she moved down the corridor toward the Dominion ship’s command center.
“That is because we are Jem’Hadar. We all look similar,” one of the Jem’Hadar rumbled.
“Shut up,” the other one said.
“No, you shut up. I was just trying to explain…”
“Don’t speak to her. You remember what we were told. The more we speak, the more…”
“You all don’t sound like Jem’Hadar at all,” Browning said.
“Please, do not upset them,” Chaka said cooly. “Just do as they say.”
“What’s this about, Chaka?”
“We really must go to the Command Center,” Chaka said. “All will be made clear.”
“Something’s not right about this, Mom,” Plato said, grabbing for Browning’s hand.
“Relax, sweetie,” Browning said. “Mommy has saved you from the Dominion before, remember?”
“Vaguely,” Plato said, shrugging as the group approached a large pair of double doors.
One of the other Jem’Hadar tapped a sequence into the door panel, and it slid open.
The trio of Jem’Hadar pushed Browning, Plato, and Chaka through the doors into the dimly lit bridge, where other Jem’Hadar worked at upright consoles.
At the center of the bridge, broad figure stood, and turned. His face was smooth, almost featureless, like all the other Changeling’s she’d met. But he didn’t have that suspicious look that most of them had. His face was kind, gentle. And, oddly enough, he wore a tropical shirt and bermuda shorts. The tropical shirt was open halfway to reveal a rippling chest.
“Ah, Doctor Browning!” the Changeling said, stepping forward to shake Browning’s hand. “It’s a delight to see you again! I hope you’ll be able to help us out.”
“Have we met?” Browning asked, taken aback by the man’s kindness.
“Yes, briefly.” He smiled. “I’m one of The Hundred, sent hundreds of years ago to explore the Alpha Quadrant. But you may remember me by my given name. I am Pogo.”
Browning’s eyes widened. “The guy from the Breen circus?”
Pogo bowed. “One and the same.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Quite simply,” Pogo said. “We want to forge a kinder, gentler Dominion. Me, and my nice Jem’Hadar friends.”
Browning glanced around. “Nice Jem’Hadar?”
The three Jem’Hadar who’d escorted her dropped their rifles, waving gleefully. “Yes! Hope we didn’t scare you too much,” the one who’d been known as Gaff’igan said. “I swear, Banan’aram almost ruined it with his little attempt at smalltalk.”
“Oh, stop it,” Banan’aram said. “You know Bel’bivdevo was trying to make me laugh.”
“I have no explanation for this,” Chaka’kan said, looking around at the other Jem’Hadar. “But suffice it to say, I am deeply disturbed.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Richards said, ducking into the dimly-lit Stellar Cartography room, where a massive starmap dominated the far wall, with blinking readouts and scrolling text indicating the various star systems on the map. “I was trying to convince Joan Redding not to do a crippling expose on us.”
“I’d be happy to cripple her for you,” J’hana growled.
“At ease, Lieutenant!” Richards said sharply, then turned to Tilleran, who was standing at the main console, reviewing the starmaps. “Well, do we have an ion trace on them or not?”
“I’ve been studying the telemetry from the Orleans,” Tilleran said. “And so far, we have a vague idea of where the Dominion cruiser might have been headed.”
“Well, it’s difficult to say. The Dominion are awfully secretive about their territory. The maps we have now are a lot better than what we had when we were first assigned to the Gamma Quadrant, but there are still major holes.”
Richards sighed and leaned against the mapping console. “A best guess, Tilleran?”
“Well, they’re heading deep into the Dominion. My guess, they’re heading for the Changeling Homeworld..”
Richards gaped. “To do what?”
“I’m not a mind reader, Commander.” Tilleran paused. “Okay, I am, but not from this distance. Even I’m not that good.”
“Well, at least we have a lead,” Richards said. “And that’s something.”
“Bridge to Richards,” came the voice of Lt. Commander Hartley.
“We’re coming up on the Bajoran Wormhole. General Kira’s on the comm asking us what our business in the Gamma Quadrant is. Something about treaty violations or somesuch. She sounds pissed. What should I tell her?”
Richards gave a small grin. “What would you like to tell her?”
“Say no more, Commander. I’ll take care of it!”
“I guess we won’t be visiting Deep Space Nine anymore,” Tilleran said.
“Suits me,” Richards said. “Last time I was there I got sick from the Klingon food and lost three bars of latinum at the Ferengi casino.”
“Polar bears!” Steffie cheered as she ran into the Baxter house, Peterman chasing behind, clutching Boomer and Starbuck by the leashes.
“Yes, I know, the polar bears were very cool,” Peterman said. “The zoo trip was a great idea. Remind me to thank Daddy the next time we see him.”
Steffie bounded onto the couch, rolling on her back and giggling as Peterman sat down beside her.
“No more pushups!” she giggled.
“Right. No more pushups,” Peterman said. “Now be a nice, quiet girl while mommy turns on the holovision. They’re supposed to be interviewing Deanna Troi about her new book on Afternoon Chat, and mommy wants to revel in her hatred.”
“…you’re watching Afternoon Chat, on the Associated World’s Network. I’m Sal Trish, with a special news break.”
“Does that woman ever sleep? She does the morning show, the afternoon news, and a nightly political talking heads thing,” Peterman said, shaking her head.
“…the Deep Space Nine listening post reports that two Federation Citizens were abducted recently by a rebel Dominion faction in the Gamma Quadrant. Sources at Starfleet External Affairs refused to comment, but a source who asked that his name not be used tells us that a Federation Starship, the USS Explorer, was seen heading into the Bajoran Wormhole just moments ago, likely in pursuit of the kidnap victims. We’ve just received confirmation on the two missing persons…they are Doctor Janice Browning, and her son, Plato, both of the same USS Explorer.”
Peterman watched, holding her hand to her mouth, as a picture of Browning stuffing her face at a pie-eating contest, with the words “file photo” written below appeared next to Sal Trish.
“Another abductee has been revealed to be a Jem’Hadar soldier who was serving aboard the Explorer for unknown reasons. Our own Joan Redding is currently aboard the Explorer, where just yesterday she interviewed its current commander, Chris Richards. We haven’t been able to establish contact with Joan yet, but promise to keep you apprised as soon as we do.”
“Holy crap. Andy’s going to be pissed about that ‘current commander’ bit,” Peterman muttered, and reached for the companel.
“…and finally, closer to home, the USS Republic, a Starfleet Academy Training vessel, has disappeared while on assignment in Sector Zero-Zero-Four. The ship was attached to the ‘challenge’ program, which helps wayward cadets achieve success while attending the Academy. Again, we’ll keep you posted on any developments in this and other stories throughout the day. But now, back to Afternoon Chat, with your host, the Starship Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram…”
The holovision continued to play, but nobody was around to watch it, as Peterman was already out the door, clutching Steffie in her arms.
“I’m going to say something,” Harold Raines said, easing forward in his rocking chair and staring out his living room window.
“I really wish you wouldn’t get so worked up about this,” Harold’s wife, Maude, said. “You’ll just inflame your agita again, and you know what the doctor said…”
“It’s ludicrous! It’s a clear, blatant violation. And someone should say something!”
“You’ll just end up getting in another spat, and you’ll need another lurizine injection, Harold. Relax, watch Afternoon Chat with me.”
Harold leaned up, and ambled toward the door. “Nope. No way. I’m going to say something.”
“Harold, please! Your artificial spine!”
Ignoring his wife’s please, Harold Raines grabbed his cane and shuffled onto his front porch, and down the stairs, rounding into his side yard. He stumbled toward the offending object and shook his cane at it. “Look here! I want this thing off my yard now!”
“Sorry, Mister Raines, can’t talk!” Counselor Peterman said, jogging up the stairs that led into the belly of the USS Escort. Moments later, the stairs folded up, and the hatch grinded shut.
“Oh, just too busy for me, eh, too important!” he railed, shaking his cane, beating it against the Escort’s wing. “Well, get out of here! Away with you.”
Suddenly, Raines heard the vibration of the scout ship’s engines, and was nearly knocked backwards as the relatively large ship lifted off the ground and pivoted, sailing off into the sky.
“Harold, what happened?” Maude asked, appearing at the door.
“I gave those Baxters what for!” Harold exalted proudly. “And they ran! I gave ‘em what for, and they ran like hell! Whoo hoo!”
“Are we crashed yet?” Cadet Mathers called out, and Baxter rolled his eyes as the escape pod plummeted.
“No. Just be patient.”
“I thought we’d crashed,” Wembly said from beside Baxter, drawing her knees up to her chin, tugging at her harness. “Why’s it taking so long?”
“Because we’re doing an orbital turn so that…” Baxter shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll say one thing,” Blot muttered, staring at Baxter across the cramped lifepod. “You’re not the weak-willed idiot you were when I taught you.”
Baxter blanched. “Um, thanks Professor. That means a…”
“You’re a strong willed idiot. But you’re still an idiot!”
“Thanks.” Baxter glanced at the telemetry screen. “All right, everyone brace yourself.”
Wembly dug her fingers into his arm. “We’re gonna die!”
“No, we’re not,” he said patiently. “This is all just part of the…”
SLAM! SLAM SLAM SLAM!
Baxter’s stomach did flips as the pod hit planetside roughly and then tumbled end over end several times.
What seemed like an eternity later, he found himself hanging from his seat, over Blot and Mathers, his limbs dangling. “We’re on our side,” he muttered, wincing as his harness cut into his shoulder.
“What do we do?” Wembly squeaked.
“We remain calm,” Baxter said, twisting in his seat and unbuckling his harness. “Just don’t move.” He flipped down, narrowly avoiding kicking an unconscious Blot in the head. Then he braced himself on the side of the pod and helped Wembly unhook her harness, letting her down.
He then hopped down to the “bottom” of the pod, which was once its side, and helped unhook Mathers.
“The atmosphere is liveable,” Baxter said, pulling a panel open and cranking a lever, which pumped the pod’s side hatch open. “Barely. Just climb out and give me some room.” He knelt by Blot and shook him. “Professor, are you okay?” When he got no response, he gently slapped him. “Professor Blot?” He slapped him again, a little harder.
The Bolian’s beady eyes snapped open. “Stop hitting me!”
“I thought you were…”
“No, unfortunately, I’m still alive,” Blot said as Baxter hoisted him and dragged him out of the pod, onto the smoky, rocky surface of Oh-two Beta. He leaned up and looked around. “All right, folks, welcome to Planet Hell.”
“Can we call it something else?” Mathers asked, rubbing his head.
“Call it whatever you want,” Baxter said. “For the moment, it’s home.” He reached back into the pod and yanked out a medkit and tricorder. Then he flipped open the tricorder and turned it in a slow arc. “Yep. There’s a cave ahead that way, forty meters.”
Wembly crept up close to him. “Can you find the others?”
“I’m not reading anything, but the ore in this planet’s crust is interfering with sensors.”
“Uh-oh,” Mathers gulped.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Blot growled. “It’s probably going to save our butts.”
“We don’t want Ficker to be able to track us,” Baxter explained. “But we need to get to shelter.” He lifted the medkit and cracked it open, pulling out a pair of hyposprays. He tapped a combination into one of them, pressed it into his arm, then handed it to Wembly. “Give yourself a shot, and then Mathers. That’ll help us breathe in this planet’s atmosphere.”
While Wembly did as she was told, Baxter turned to Blot. “I’m going to give you the same shot, plus a pain suppressor and something to help you walk, okay?”
“Why not just leave me here to die, Baxter?” Blot asked. “It would be fitting, dying at your hands.”
“Why would it be fitting?” Baxter asked. “And why are you being such a hardass?”
“Do I need a reason?” Blot sneered.
“No, I spose not,” Baxter said, pressing the hypo into the Bolian’s arm.
“So what’s this all about?” Blot asked. “This Ficker character, is he after you for a reason?”
“A little misunderstanding among fellow cadets,” Baxter said.
“Back when you were at the academy? The thing in the asteroid field?”
“It’s not important why Ficker is after us, and besides, it’s a much longer story than that.”
“Humph. My apologies,” Blot harrumphed. “Pardon me for wanting to know why our lives are in jeopardy.”
“Nobody’s lives are in jeopardy,” Baxter said quickly, even as Wembly and Mathers started to cringe. He slung an arm around Blot’s shoulder, and handed him the medkit. “Now let’s get to the caves.”
As the group moved, Baxter used his free hand to tap his combadge. “This is Captain Baxter. Can anyone hear me?”
All he got in response was static.
“They’re on the other side of the planet, for all we know,” Blot said.
“We can boost the gain on the communicator,” Mathers said.
“You know how to do that?” Baxter asked.
“Sure. I’m taking Communications Two-Oh-Two, Improvisational Communication, as an elective.”
“Nice. As soon as we get to the cave, consider that your top priority.”
Baxter gritted his teeth. “No. A-Y-E. As in ‘Aye, Captain.’ It’s just what you say. I have no idea why.”
“Figures,” Blot muttered.
“Blot, if you don’t cut me an inch of slack, I’ll…”
“Captain Baxter?” a voice suddenly called over the comm.
Baxter smiled. “Now we’re talking. Yes. This is Baxter. Who am I talking to?”
“An old Academy buddy. Care to chat?”
“One to beam up, you bastard…”
And with that, Baxter vanished in a flurry of transporter particles.
“I’m gratified that you’re here,” Pogo said, handing Browning a glass of smoky gray liquid as she sat in a slate gray chair in a relatively spacious room that must have been the ship’s changeling quarters.
“You said that,” Browning said, sniffing the liquid, then giving it a sip. “Ahh, the Dominion version of bouillon.”
“It’s a nutrient mix. Not very tasty, but it’s all we can get the replicators to make.”
Browning glanced around the sparse room, which contained little furniture, and a few fake plants and art-deco sculptures, most likely for changeling imitation. “So you stole this ship?”
Pogo walked behind her. “Not at all. It was given to us. Rather, given to me.”
“The Dominion is generous,” Browning said, still not understanding. She took another sip. “Surprisingly, this stuff is growing on me.”
“It had nothing to do with generosity.” Pogo moved in front of Browning and knelt to face her. “This vessel was given to me so that I could put as much distance between myself and the Dominion as possible.”
“Because I’m a disruptive force. Surely you’ve seen my protests, watched my documentary feature, read the newsletter…”
“Afraid not. I’m not very newsy.”
“Suffice it to say, I hold views not popular among the other Changelings. I protested the Dominion War. I argued that the Dominion was ensuring its own extinction by stubbornly holding on to a tradition of hatred, fear, and dominance.”
“Well, they are called the ‘Dominion.’”
“That doesn’t mean they have to act like it,” Pogo said, a little harsher than he would have liked. “I’m sorry. I feel strongly about this.”
“You know, come to think of it, I remember Christopher telling me about this, when he was with you in the Breen Circus.” Browning cocked her head. “Which begs the question…why aren’t you there, leaping from a trapeze, instead of here trying to overthrow the Dominion?”
Pogo stood stiffly. “I do not want to overthrow the Dominion. I just want them to listen to me.” He turned away. “After Christopher’s crippling accident, I left the Circus. He was my only friend in the troupe, and I had trouble getting along with the others. The revelation that I no longer fit in among the solids led to my return to the Gamma Quadrant.”
“Sorry,” Browning said. “I still feel guilty about causing that fall.”
“It led me down a crucial path, both in my existence, and in that of the Dominion. You’ve nothing to apologize for, at least not to me.”
“I did mend Christopher’s bones, so he has nothing to complain about.”
Pogo nodded, if only to be polite. “At any rate, when I arrived at the Founders’ homeworld, I was met with suspicion and mistrust. They told me I was an embarrassment and sent me on my way, along with some of their so-called ‘defective’ Jem’Hadar, presumably to assist me and keep me company.”
“I’m surprised at their reaction,” Browning said, sipping from her smoky cup. “Odo is one of their most trusted leaders, and he was one of the Hundred too, wasn’t he? And didn’t he fight against the Dominion in the war?”
“Yes, but he wasn’t organized. He did not have a newsletter, or flyers, or rallies. Or a logo.”
“Pogo has a logo,” Browning said, and giggled in spite of herself.
“I’m told Odo was the lone dissenting voice in the Link,” Pogo said. “That he wanted them to embrace me, welcome me back. But they’d have none of it. I was banished.”
“That’s very sad, Pogo, but what do you expect me to do about it? Or Plato, or Chaka for that matter?”
“I need to speak to the Founders again, to make them understand. There are others out there, others of the Hundred who deserve to be welcomed back. And the Jem’Hadar have so much to learn from Gaff’igan and the others.”
“So go. You know where your homeworld is, right?”
Pogo nodded. “But they’ll simply turn me away again. Possibly with force this time, as the Founders seldom render a verdict twice.”
“Still not seeing where we can help you.”
“You’re vital,” Pogo said, and knelt in front of Browning, taking her hand. “You’re absolutely crucial. You’ve got to tell your son…tell your son to tell the Founders…to listen to me.”
“And…if that doesn’t work?”
Pogo stood, letting Browning’s hand go, and stepped back. “Then I’m afraid I’ll have to resort to threats…”
Acting Captain’s Log,
Stardate 58013.3. We’re on a routine science mission in the Kyatra sector, exploring a series of unusual gravimetric flux patterns along the sector border. Lieutenant Commander Tilleran reports that we’ve collected some fascinating sensor information, which may lead to new discoveries in the fields of plasmics, subspace physics and…oh for Pete’s sake, I can’t do this. Forget about it.
“You didn’t even try,” Lt. Commander Hartley said, sitting beside Richards in the command area on the bridge.
“I guess I’m a bad liar,” Richards said. “We just won’t have a log today.”
“Suit yourself,” Hartley said. “But I’m not sure how many times Starfleet will let us blow of our orders and go off half-cocked on some reckless mission.”
“I assure you, Commander, I’m fully cocked,” Richards said, which drew a loud snort from J’hana. “And that’s enough out of you, Lieutenant!” Richards snapped without looking back.
J’hana recovered from her chuckles long enough to glance at her panel. “Commander, vessel on approach, at the outside of our scanning range. It’s Starfleet registry, and closing on us quickly.”
“The Orleans,” Richards said, leaning forward in his chair. “Sullivan probably wants to know why we’re getting in the way of her rescue mission.”
“If there even is a rescue mission,” Hartley said wryly.
“She’s hailing us,” J’hana said.
“I’m sure she is. Put her on screen.”
The viewscreen shifted from a view of the approaching Orleans, to a purse-lipped Emily Sullivan. She stood, arms folded, at the center of her bridge.
“Commander,” she said curtly. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for a really good Thai restaurant. Can you help me?”
“I’m looking for Janice. And Plato, and Chaka’kan.”
“How noble. Does Starfleet Command know you’re out here?”
“In fact they do,” Richards said. “They sent us with their blessing.”
Sullivan rolled her eyes. “Can I call and confirm that?”
“Oh, why waste their time,” Richards said. “We’ve got a rescue mission to get to.”
“We’ve been re-tracing the course of the Dominion cruiser that nabbed your friends. Whoever’s running that ship doesn’t know how to mask ion emissions. We’ll find them shortly.”
“We’ll join you,” Richards said.
Sullivan unfolded her arms and put them on her hips. “I didn’t ask for a sidekick, Commander.”
“Those are our people out there, Captain,” Richards said. “We’re going to help you get them back.”
“Why can’t you just let us do our jobs?” Sullivan asked. “We know what we’re doing.”
“Because…” Richards groped for a reason beyond “Because it’s Janice,” but he kept drawing blanks. “Because two are better than one!”
Someone off to the side of Sullivan’s bridge chuckled, and quietly said, “He’s got you there, Captain.”
Sullivan gritted her teeth. “You know, I outrank you, Commander.”
“You came from the Secondprize, didn’t you?” Richards said. “Captain Baxter’s old ship?”
“If a few of the people from the Secondprize were trapped on some Dominion ship, would you trust anyone else to go get them back?”
“You mean other than Baxter?” Sullivan thought about it. “No question.”
“Then it’s settled. Partners?”
“I nearly blasted your ship to bits last year,” Sullivan said, rubbing her chin. “Shame about that.”
“Captain, time’s running out,” Richards said. “The ion trail…”
“Let’s go then.” Sullivan turned and headed back to her command chair, and sat down. “I’m ready when you are. Just give the word.”
“Take the lead, Commander. It’s your show.”
“It’s a really big show,” Hartley said quietly from behind Richards.
“I have no idea what that means,” Richards said, then pointed at the viewscreen. “Lieutenant Madera, coordinate with the Orleans helm. Lay in a course to intercept the Dominion cruiser’s emissions, and let’s go.”
Baxter materialized in a dark room, and for what seemed like forever, it remained that way.
“Hello,” he said tentatively. “Ficker?”
He was met with nothing but a soft echo off the walls of what sounded like a decent-sized room. It could have been a meeting room or a…
The lights came on full, blinding Baxter. When his eyes finally adjusted, he squinted and looked around. A brig.
A security field crackled in front of him, as double doors opened to the right, and Alvin Ficker strolled in, a padd tucked under his arm.
“Good morning, Baxter!” Ficker said amicably, and stepped up to face Baxter’s cell. “How’s the field trip?”
“Fine. I’ve discovered a new kind of asshole. I can’t wait to report back to Starfleet about my findings.”
“Nice to see you’re still trying to bring me down to your level,” Ficker said. “Some people never change. I, on the other hand, am seeking to raise the bar.”
“Oh, don’t give me that crap,” Baxter said, standing and heading up to the forcefield. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m damned sure it has a lot to do with stroking your ego, and very little with anything that’s remotely constructive.”
“This is a fine ship I’m commanding, isn’t it?” Ficker asked, looking around. “It’s quickly become something of a home.”
“Until Section Thirty-One rips it out from under you in the middle of the night.”
“They won’t do that,” Ficker said.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because Roddick visited me, just like he visited you. He told me to use the ship in good health. And, apparently, he wished me luck making your life a living hell.”
“I’m not sure who I hate more right now.”
“I told him I’d do no such thing. That I have far grander plans in store for the Idlewild than making your life hell. It would simply be a pleasant byproduct.”
“Yes, right, I hate you more,” Baxter muttered. “So what, you gonna turn this ship into a mobile talk show studio?”
“Oh, no,” Ficker said. “I’m done with show business. What a pointless exercise, the talk show routine. Trying to change the minds of the masses. It’s foolish to expect to effect any real change that way. No, you definitely have to start with a few small, fresh minds. Minds you can influence. Minds that will follow you to the ends of the galaxy, if they’re convinced you’ll take them where they want to go…”
“What the hell are you blabbing on about?” Baxter demanded.
“A new kind of ship. Starfleet in design, but only in design. It’s a ship for rejects. But not the fools and imposters aboard the Explorer and Aerostar. This is a ship for real rejects. For officers Starfleet doesn’t care about anymore, who were just dealt a bad hand.”
“And just where did you get these…rejects?” Baxter said, inwardly bristling that someone would suggest his people weren’t real rejects.
“Oh, I assure you, they all came aboard of their own free will,” Ficker said, pacing in front of Baxter’s cell. “I recruited them, one by one, with the promise of a better life. Of responsibility, leadership. These are things Starfleet can’t give them.”
“Starfleet gave them to me. I earned them. So did Dave Conway, and all the people on our two ships.”
“You’re fakers!” Ficker said, whirling. “Each one of you doomed to your substandard lives not because you were dealt a bad hand, but because you’re selfish, careless, stupid, and arrogant. Look at you, Baxter. You’re repeating Command Decisions because you took the Explorer off assignment to run around trying to find the secret to godhood…”
“First of all, how did you know I’m taking an academy class?”
“I read the alumni newsletter,” Ficker sneered.
Baxter stomped his foot. “Damn! Why’d they print that!” He shook his hands out, gathered his wits. “And anyway, that’s not what I was doing and you know it. I wouldn’t have had to go on the run if you hadn’t kidnapped Anna Kimmel to begin with, and don’t you think for a minute I’ve forgotten that. Don’t think we’re finished on that count by a long shot.”
“Quit your posturing,” Ficker said, and turned. “Oh, by the way, where is the lovely Anna? Inquiring minds want to know.”
“Far away from here,” Baxter said. “Somewhere you’ll never find her.”
Ficker nodded. “You don’t know either, then. Fine, I can live with that.”
“Let’s skip to the end, Ficker,” Baxter said. “What do you want to do? Fight me, shoot me? Blow me out of an airlock? Let’s just get on with it.”
“I’m planning nothing of the sort,” Ficker said. “I thought it was quite clear that I want nothing to do with you. You just happened to be aboard the Republic, with all those other good souls. An unfortunate reality I now have to deal with.”
“Wait, so you want…”
Ficker smiled broadly. “New recruits. Young minds not brainwashed by Starfleet yet.”
“You sure got off on the right foot with them,” Baxter said. “By coming at them with both barrels blazing…”
“I was quite careful not to actually hurt anyone on the ship,” Ficker said. “And I could care less what happens to the Republic. All I care about is what’s…who’s…inside.”
“They’re Starfleet Cadets. Willingly or unwillingly, you can’t just take them. What makes you think they’ll even listen to you?”
“They’re watching an orientation video right now,” Ficker said, stepping back to the double doors of the brig. “After that, it’s their decision whether or not they want to join me. Anybody who wants to stay behind with you, on the surface of Oh-two Beta, is welcome to.”
“Nice, thus leaving us for dead.”
“A rescue ship will come along,” Ficker said. “And we’ll be long gone.”
Baxter nodded gently. “Leaving me alive is the worst mistake you could ever make, Ficker, you know that?”
“You need to grow up, Baxter. It’s high time you behaved rationally, don’t you think?” Ficker asked..
“No,” Baxter said quietly.
“Well, I wish I could stay, but I’ve got places to be. Why don’t you watch a little film while you wait, to help pass the time?” Ficker smiled gently and headed out of the brig.
As Ficker left, the screen on the opposite wall from Baxter’s cell glowed to life.
There was Ficker, in the command chair, smiling.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Alvin Ficker, Captain of the Non-Aligned Starship Idlewild. Why Non-Aligned, you may ask? Simple. I’m here to help you! And the kind of help you need, Starfleet can’t give.”
The view of the bridge cut to clips of Ficker working on science experiments with other Starfleet officers in a lab, giving orders in engineering, showing dense-looking security officers how to fire a phaser on a target range, then, for some odd reason, climbing a mountain.
“Let’s face it. We all hit a bump in the road from time to time. It just so happens that some of us hit those bumps more often than others.”
The image changed to another montage, this time of a starship crashing into a planet, a space station exploding, a sun going nova, and a crowded village running from a raging rock monster.
“These are just a few of the…setbacks…experienced by my valued crew,” Ficker said, once again pictured on the bridge. Baxter could see a few officers he didn’t recognize moving behind him. “But we need more people. That’s where you come in. You’ve been hand-selected to participate in a grand experiment. Are so-called ‘rejects’ unable to serve as valued members of the Starfleet community? Or do they have more to contribute than just being Redshirts? Which, as we all know, is just another word for phaser fodder.” He turned in his chair, leaning his chin on his fist. “Let’s discover your true potential. Let’s push your skills to the limit. The alternative is that you spend your Starfleet career as an Ensign, forever taking orders from commanders who really aren’t that much smarter than you. What I offer you is training, responsibility, and a real opportunity to one day command your own ship.”
He gave the camera one final winning smile. “All this and more is just a comm away. Won’t you join us?”
Baxter blanched as the viewer mercifully switched off. “Oh, for f***’s sake…”
“Plato, this is Pogo,” Browning said, shifting nervously behind her four-year-old, who was, for all intents and purposes, much more like a teen.
Plato nodded slightly, not forgetting for a moment, that in the back of the meeting room, a group of Jem’Hadar stood, weapons out, with Chaka at their side. Chaka was a great fighter, but he wouldn’t take on three Jem’Hadar, not until he felt he had a tactical advantage. Plato had faith in him, though.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Pogo said, leaning down to face Plato. He extended his hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Plato refused the contact, and stepped back a bit. “The Founders told me about you. They said you were a traitor.”
“It’s just a difference of opinion,” Pogo said. “Something I wish I could explain to them, to mend our fractured relationship.”
“Why?” Plato asked.
“Because they’re my people. They are my family You realize how important it is, don’t you? Family?”
Plato shrugged. “I guess. If you like that sort of thing.”
“I do very much. Will you help me?”
Plato glanced back at Browning. “What am I sposed to do, Mom?”
“We’re just going to help Pogo convince the Founders to meet with him, that’s all. We’re not breaking any laws.” She stared long and hard at Pogo. “And we’re certainly not hurting anyone.”
“It can’t hurt for them to listen to you, I guess,” Plato said.
“I’m glad you see it that way. We’ll be at the Founders’ homeworld soon. I’m happy for your help.”
Several meters away, Chaka’kan looked on, flanked by the “nice” Jem-Hadar, Gaff’igan, Belbiv’devo and Banan’aram. “You realize this is a mistake,” he said.
“What makes you say that?” Gaff’igan asked.
“Because the Founders have ordered you and Pogo to leave the Dominion, and you’re defying those orders.”
“It’s not that simple,” Banan’aram said. “Pogo is a Founder too. And we’re bound by duty to follow him, to help him reach his goal.”
“But what of your goals?”
“My muffins are renowned throughout the ship,” Belbiv’devo said resolutely.
“There are only four of us on the ship,” Gaff’igan pointed out.
“Still. They are magnificent.”
Chaka nodded. “I’ve followed a similar path. Finding ways to victory that did not involve killing wasn’t easy.”
“Killing?” Gaff’igan asked. “What nonsense. Violence is not the answer.”
“Pogo told us that,” Banan’aram said.
“And you’ll pretty much do whatever he says, is that right?” Chaka asked.
“He is a Founder,” Gaff’igan said, as if that finished the conversation.
“And what have you been up to since we kicked you out of our group?” Bel’bivdevo asked conversationally.
“Learning about myself,” Chaka said slowly. “Learning what I am capable of. What we are all capable of, if we try.”
“Sounds boring,” Banan’aram said.
“Not by any means,” Chaka said. “Allow me to demonstrate.” And he took a step forward. The other Jem’Hadar raised their weapons, but before they could make another move, he’d disappeared, rendered invisible.
“Founder!” Gaff’igan called out. “The other Jem’Hadar…Chaka… he is gone!”
Pogo turned. “What do you mean gone?”
“He sheathed,” Browning said. “He’s in hiding.”
“No,” Pogo said, shaking his head. “I do not like this. Find him.” The Jem’Hadar stood and looked at each other. “Now!”
They nodded curtly at him, then headed for the door, sheathing as they went.
Pogo turned to a readout on the briefing room wall. “We’ll be at my homeworld within the hour. Whatever your Jem’Hadar is planning, I hope it’s peaceful resistance.”
Browning turned back and stared at the door, as Plato beamed excitedly, tugging on her arm. “I hope so too…”
Baxter was starting to drift in and out of sleep when it happened. The transporter beam took hold of him before he could protest and he was beamed away. Then again, he really had no reason to protest being beamed out of a brig.
Unless, of course, he was being beamed into space.
He soon found that was not the case as he materialized in a dimly lit cave, face to face with Professor Blot, who was reclined on a stone.
“About ferging time!” Blot snapped, easing up to stare at Baxter. “Do you have any idea what the hells is going on here?”
“I’ve got suspicions,” Baxter said. “Are you okay?”
“Aside from a bum leg, yeah, fine,” Blot said.
Baxter glanced around the cramped cave compartment. “Have you found any of the others?”
“No, I’ve just been sitting here by myself thinking of ways to kill you,” Blot said. “So far I’ve got strangulation, hitting you with a rock…”
“Snap out of it,” Baxter snapped. “Where are Colby and Nat?”
“The idiot twins?” Blot asked. “They beamed away much as you did, more than an hour ago. Now are you going to give me some straight answers about Ficker?”
“I told you, he’s still angry at me from some stuff that happened at the academy.”
Blot nodded. “Ah, so because of that, he commandeered a Sabre- class Starship that isn’t on any registry I’ve seen, and came after you while on a school field trip and tried to blow you to atoms, and kidnapped two academy classes, one of which is mine!”
“Oddly enough, I don’t think I’m the target,” Baxter said. “He’s angling for a moral victory. And yes, more stuff happened between Ficker and I since the academy. We had a few…run-ins. Did you see us on his talk show?”
“I don’t watch holovision. Rots the brain.”
“Figures,” Baxter said, and stared around the cave, pacing it like a caged animal. “We need to get out of here.”
“And out into the scattered ion storms on the planet surface? I don’t think so. We stay here and wait for rescue.”
“Not sure that’s gonna happen anytime soon,” Baxter said, as suddenly he once again felt the pull of a transporter beam. Then again…
“Contact bearing oh-three-five mark one-two-one,” Lt. Commander Tilleran called out, prompting Commander Richards to look up from the command chair.
“Is that our Dominion ship?”
“It’s a massive power surge,” Tilleran said, studying her panel. “And definitely coming from a Dominion ship.”
“How do we know it’s the ship carrying Janice and the others?” Hartley asked, leaning against the engineering console.
“The vessel is transmitting a signal over subspace,” J’hana said. “It looks like some kind of code.”
“Let’s have it,” Richards said, leaning forward.
“Red…skins…Thirty-Five…Cow…boys…Seven?” J’hana’s antennae twitched. “Peculiar.”
Richards stood up, a smile spreading across his face. “It’s not peculiar at all. It’s a signal from Janice, or Chaka. He’s trying to tell us something.”
J’hana’s hands scrambled over her panel. “More encoded messages. Cow…boys…thirty-three. Eagles…fourteen.”
“This is a football thing,” J’hana finally said.
“Yeah,” Richards said thoughtfully. “Chaka watched a few games with Captain Baxter on the holodeck before he went to the academy.”
“It’s more than just football,” Hartley said, her eyes widening. “Three-five-seven-three-three-one-four is a phaser frequency!”
“It is?” Richards said. “Brilliant.”
“Then obviously Doctor Browning was not responsible.”
“Shut-up, J’hana. Adjust our phasers to the new frequency, and have Sullivan do the same. Lieutenant Madera, increase speed to intercept the Dominion ship.”
“We may not even need the frequencies,” J’hana said. “I’m detecting a number of Dominion ships coming at the rogue ship from the opposite direction, weapons hot.”
“Let’s hope they’re as good at diplomacy as we are,” Tilleran muttered. “Getting Janice and the others off that ship won’t be easy.”
“Faster, Madera,” Richards said. He glanced back at J’hana. “You and Tilleran come with me. Lieutenant Commander Hartley, you’ve got the bridge.”
“Oooh, lucky me,” Hartley said, heading down toward the center of the bridge. As Richards passed, she glanced at him. “I guess I’d be wasting my breath if I gave you the whole “‘The guy in charge shouldn’t be the one to lead the away team’ bit, huh?”
“Yup,” Richards said, ducking into the turbolift. “Just disable the ship. We don’t want to hurt anyone over there. Well, not anyone who’s with us, anyway.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Hartley muttered as the turbolift doors closed.
“Thank GOD!” Peterman exclaimed, throwing her arms around Baxter as he stepped off the transporter pad, quickly realizing he was aboard the USS Escort. Blot limped down after him.
“Don’t I get a hug?” he grumbled.
“And you are?” Peterman asked, blinking.
“This is Professor Blot, my old professor from Command Decisions class,” Baxter said. “Remember how I said I liked him so much?”
Blot looked from Peterman to Baxter. “This your wife?”
Baxter nodded, hugging Peterman’s waist.
“Wonders never cease,” he muttered, heading for the door.
“How’d you even know I’d gone missing?” Baxter asked, as Peterman led him out to the corridor.
“You were on the news.”
“Yeah, but the thing with the Explorer sort of took the top headline.”
“What thing with the Explorer?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Peterman said.
“You’ve got to circle back around to the planet,” Baxter said, quickening his pace to the Escort’s small bridge. “There are forty-some cadets and staff down there that we evacuated from the Replublic.”
“I already beamed aboard everyone I could find on the planet,” Peterman said. “Not exactly forty…”
Baxter blinked. “How many?”
“More like seventeen,” she said softly as Baxter bulled his way into the bridge, and found Nat Sparks at helm. She turned around.
“Orders, Captain?” she said a little uneasily, pushing hair out of her face.
“Get us out of here,” Baxter said. “And back to Earth, ASAP.”
Colby Mathers looked up from tactical. “The guy you went to the Academy with is looney.”
“Glad you think so,” Baxter said, stepping to the command chair as Peterman sat Blot down at the science/engineering console and went to look for a medkit. “Did you meet him?”
“We watched a holovid,” Sparks said. “He was kind of cute, but definitely crazy.”
“Well, I’m glad to see some of you have sense,” Baxter mumbled as Peterman knelt by Blot with her medkit and injected him with a hypospray. “So half of you actually fell for Ficker’s pitch?”
The cadets looked at each other worriedly, then turned to Baxter. “We can’t find Piper,” they said in unison.
“He wouldn’t have, I mean…”
“His fellow cadets threw him out a window every morning,” Mathers said. “What’s he got to go back to?”
“But…” Baxter stammered. “But he had to realize…he had to know going with Ficker wasn’t a bright thing to do.”
“If you haven’t realized it yet, people who get funneled into my class aren’t usually the best analytical minds,” Blot said, shaking his head.
“Maybe it would help if you didn’t berate them,” Baxter muttered. If Blot heard the advice, he gave no indication.
“I’ve got problems,” Blot said as Peterman injected him with a second hypo. “How in the hells am I supposed to grade them now?”
“Those medications should help, though you’ll need a check-up when we get back to Earth,” Peterman said, patting the Bolian on the leg.
“Does your wife usually fly around in a little ship and come around to save your ass?” Blot asked, cradling his knee and patting Peterman thankfully on the cheek.
“No,” Baxter said, leaning forward in the command chair. “Sometimes she takes the big ship.”
“These kids were very helpful,” Peterman said. “One of them is below watching Steffie. Another one is in engineering aligning the dilithium crystals. They’re quite responsible.”
“The crystals are out of whack again?” Baxter asked. “Damn, I thought we’d fixed that.”
Peterman stood up beside Baxter. “So what do we do now? How do we find Ficker?”
“We don’t,” Baxter said, sagging back into the command chair. “He’s cloaked. Likely long gone by now. With some of Starfleet Academy’s…well, okay, maybe not finest, but…some fine Starfleet cadets aboard.” He stared at the viewscreen, and its onrushing stars, thinking of Piper, and all the others that had gone to Ficker’s ship. “I’d say this time around, we definitely failed the test.”
“And we missed PT!” Mathers said excitedly, exchanging grins with Sparks.
“Well, as long as we’re keeping everything in perspective,” Baxter muttered.
“Stop doing whatever you’re doing!” Gaff’igan announced as he and the other Jem’Hadar unsheathed, running into the Dominion warship’s engine room.
“We know you’re in here,” Bel’bivdevo added. “Give yourself up, and we’ll go lightly on you.”
Chaka appeared suddenly before them, unsheathing. “Lightly? Don’t you see, all you know is light. You’re all soft.”
“Soft?” Banan’aram asked, looking at the others. “No we’re not. We’re just nice. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Yes there is,” Chaka said, advancing toward them. “You’re weak!”
“Watch who you’re calling names!” Gaff’igan snapped, and lunged at Chaka. “You’re just like us, after all!”
Chaka side-stepped the lunge, then brought a vicious uppercut up into the Jem’Hadar’s chin. Then tripped him and elbow-checked him into the floor.
“You think?” Chaka asked.
Bel’bivdevo and Banan’aram reached for their weapons, but Chaka planted his hands on the floor and kicked upward, catching them under the chin with quick kicks. As they reeled backward, he leapt on them, slamming them both headlong into the floor.
“VICTORY IS LIFE!” Chaka seethed, then lept to his feet and ran out of the room, sheathing as he went.
“My Jem’Hadar haven’t reported back,” Pogo said, looking around the conference room. “Something is wrong.”
“They should know better than to mess with Chaka’kan,” Plato said, folding his arms.
Browning rested her hands on Plato’s shoulders. “Chaka’kan isn’t that kind of Jem’Hadar, Plato.”
“Sure he is. He’s been teaching me to fight for months.”
“Only in self-defense,” Browning reminded him.
“That’s what this is,” Plato said, turning and looking at Pogo. “Self-defense!”
“This is not an attack,” Pogo said, stepping toward Plato. “It’s an act of necessity.”
“Get away from me. Don’t touch me,” Plato said, backing toward Browning.
“Relax, sweetie,” Browning said. “He’s not going to hurt you. No Changeling has ever harmed another…except that one time.”
“Yes, that catch phrase has lost some of its luster,” Pogo admitted.
Suddenly the deck shook, and Browning winced. “What was that?”
Pogo turned back toward a monitor. “Someone’s firing on us. The automatic systems are responding but…”
“Our shields are failing fast,” Pogo said. He turned and looked at Browning. “It’s almost as if they know just where to hit us.”
Plato smiled wide. “Chaka!”
Pogo stepped toward Browning. “Two Federation Starships are heading toward us. They’re firing! You have to call them off!”
“They’re not going to destroy us. Not with me, Plato, and Chaka aboard.”
“You don’t understand!” Pogo said, gripping Browning by the shoulders. “I have to get back!”
Browning gently pushed Pogo’s hands off her. “What’s so important it can’t wait? Why can’t you just talk to the Founders over subspace?”
“Because…” Pogo said slowly. “What I want, I can’t get over subspace.”
“Peace…revolution? Overthrow?” Browning suggested, as more blasts hit Pogo’s ship, and it pitched woozily.
“No!” Pogo shouted. “I want the Great Link! I want to join with it!”
“Oh,” Browning said.
Suddenly the comm system flared to life. “Enemy vessel: This is Commander Megan Hartley of the Federation Starship Explorer. You’re hearby requested and required to stand the hell down, as of yesterday, or you’re going to find the nasty end of my quantum torpedo launchers. Capiche?”
“I wonder why she doesn’t command more often,” Browning said softly.
“Please,” Pogo said desperately, taking Browning’s hand. “Please, help me!”
“I’m not sure there’s anything I can do,” Browning said.
“Lay off my mother!” Plato snapped, grabbing Pogo’s arm. The Changeling turned toward him, eyes widening.
“You’re…I didn’t even consider…” Suddenly Pogo and Plato’s arms softened and intertwined, melting together. Pogo smiled, contentment washing over his face. “Yes…yes you shared so much with them, when you were in the Link.”
“I did?” Plato asked, staring at his arm. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
Browning felt Pogo’s grip loosen, but his hand was still wrapped around her arm. And then she felt something strange. She stared at Plato.
She could feel him. Understand him. Not his thoughts, really, but strong impressions. She didn’t think the Link worked that way, had no idea this was even possible, but suddenly, she felt all that Plato was feeling.
“Plato…” she said, reaching her free hand out to her son. “I had no idea!”
Plato stared at Browning, gaping. “Me neither…Mom. I’m….I’m sorry.”
“And I’m in ecstasy!” Pogo exclaimed.
“Okay, you’re really screwing up the moment,” Browning said, as suddenly the doors crashed open, J’hana kicking her way through.
“You didn’t even try the button,” Tilleran muttered, following J’hana in. “The room probably wasn’t even locked.”
Richards shouldered in between them both, phaser raised, aiming it at Pogo. “Stop right there whoever you…Pogo?”
“Chris?” Pogo asked innocently, gooily stretching between Browning and Plato, half turned to mush.
“You know this pile of goo?” J’hana asked, pointing with her phaser as Tilleran studied her tricorder.
“Amazing. There’s an incredible amount of kinetic energy building among them,” Tilleran observed.
Richards’ hand shook as he steadied the phaser on Pogo. “I don’t know how you’re mixed up in this, or why you’re doing this, Pogo, but detach yourself from them right NOW. Or I’ll blast you into a thousand snack packs.”
“Wait, Christopher!” Browning said. “It’s not what it looks like. He doesn’t mean us any harm.”
“Could have fooled me!”
“Don’t hurt him, Uncle Chris,” Plato said. “I’m Linking with him!”
“This is odd,” J’hana said. “Sir, recommend we shoot them all.”
Richards’ combadge chirped. “Hartley to Richards. You guys may want to clear out of there. A small fleet of Dominion ships just entered the system, and they don’t appear to be in the mood to talk.”
“Stand by,” Richards said, and looked at Browning. “Janice, what the hell is this?”
“You can’t let the Dominion capture Pogo,” Browning said. “You can’t!”
“Are you totally shnarzzled, Doctor?” J’hana asked calmly. “And where is your Jem’Hadar? Did you lose him again?”
Just then, as if on cue, Chaka unsheathed, barreling into the room. He lunged for Pogo, but J’hana grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling him back.
“Stop him!” Chaka cried out. “Victory is life! Victory is life!”
“Did everyone here go nuts?” J’hana asked, looking at Tilleran, as she calmly held Chaka at bay by his scaly neck.
“I don’t know, but the sooner we leave, the better,” the Betazoid replied.
“If you leave me, the Dominion will exile me,” Pogo said. “Imprison me forever. And probably kill, or reprogram, the Jem’Hadar!”
“Christopher, do something!” Browning pleaded.
Richards worked his jaw around thoughtfully. “Explorer: Prepare for immediate beamout.”
Captain Baxter stood in his readyroom/quarters and stared out the window as the Escort streaked back toward Earth. He stared down at the report on his padd, which he’d been tried to construct three times. In none of the versions could he come up with a way of re-telling his recent experience with Ficker that didn’t make him feel like a complete moron. He’d lost, fare and square. Ficker had beaten him. And the worst part was, Ficker hadn’t even tried. Baxter hadn’t even been the target. The cadets were.
Helpless cadets, on a field trip, were now pawns in whatever Ficker’s twisted plan was. And that turned Baxter’s stomach.
He stared down at the padd, slapping it against his hand. He slapped it a little harder. A bit harder.
And then screamed, throwing the padd at the wall. He turned and kicked his desk as hard as he could, falling backwards and grabbing his foot, which suddenly hurt like hell. He fell back to the floor, pulling two chairs down with him.
He roared to his feet, pitching both chairs at the wall.
“FICKER!” he shouted, to nobody in particular.
Then he just stood there, breathing.
The doors to the readyroom opened, and Peterman stood in the doorway, holding a curious Steffie. “Are you about finished?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and slumped over to his couch.
“Good, because Steffie thought a Gorn was attacking you.”
“Not this year,” Baxter muttered, putting his head in his hand. “He beat me. He f***ing beat me, Kelly!”
“Yes,” Peterman said, sitting down next to Baxter. “He did indeed. And you beat up our furniture. So it’s all even now, right?”
“Hardly,” Baxter said. “I’m not finished with Ficker by damn sight.”
“Don’t curse around our daughter, honey. You want her to be all irrational like Daddy?”
“Sometimes irrational is what’s needed,” Baxter said thoughtfully, and rose to his feet. “Sometimes rules are worthless. There were no rules in place to stop what happened today.”
“And do you think you could have done anything differently?” Peterman asked Baxter as he walked toward the door.
“No,” Baxter said. “But I do know, the next time I see Alvin Ficker, I’m going to kill him.”
Peterman laughed nervously. “You mean that like ‘ooooh, I could just KILL him!’ Right?”
“No,” Baxter said calmly. “I really am going to kill him.”
And with that, he walked out.
“Fire!” Richards ordered, staring at the listing warship on the viewscreen. The Explorer and Orleans launched into an array of torpedo shots, and the ship exploded violently, expanding outward in a cascading fireball that caused the Explorer to shake slightly.
“That was satisfying,” J’hana commented.
Browning stepped up beside Richards and took his hand. “Thank you, Christopher.”
“I’m surprised you’d say that,” Richards said. “Now Pogo and his friends will be without transportation.”
“We will survive,” Pogo said, stepping up on the other side of Richards. “And if the Dominion believes you destroyed us along with that ship, then they’ll stop looking for us. It was an ingenious idea.”
“I still don’t know why I’m helping you.”
“Well, whatever the case, thank you,” Pogo said. “If you can just take us to the nearest outpost, my associates and I will take it from there. Changelings are still respected, even in the outlands of this quadrant. We will be treated well.”
“Yes, and some of the planets that used to suffer under Dominon rule will want you dead,” J’hana said. “Just something to think about.”
“Thanks,” Pogo said, and looked at Browning. “Doctor, I believe you promised me a drink.”
“Yes,” Browning said, letting go of Richards’s hand. She hooked her arm in Pogo’s and led him to the turbolift.
“Don’t mention it,” Richards said quietly as he watched Browning and Pogo step into the turbolift.
“I never would have thought,” J’hana said as they left. “The quickest way to a woman’s heart is assault and kidnaping.”
“Don’t look at me!” Tilleran said, glaring at her.
“I was not,” J’hana replied standoffishly.
“Both of you shut up,” Richards said.
After a few moments’ silence, J’hana looked up from her panel. “Sir, the Orleans is hailing.”
Richards sighed and waved at the screen. “Whatever.”
Emily Sullivan appeared on the viewscreen, standing in the middle of her bridge, hands on hips. “So, want to tell me what that was all about?”
“Not really,” Richards said.
“Do I even want to know who all beamed aboard your ship?” Sullivan asked. She then stared up at the ceiling. “Face it, Emily. You’re an accessory to this. That’s what happens when you link up with idiots.”
“There are reasons for everything,” Richards said. “Thanks for your help. Mind smoothing things over with the Dominion? Thanks!”
“Wait a sec,” Sullivan said. “Just wait a damn…”
J’hana joyfully tapped a control, and Sullivan disappeared from the screen. “That takes care of that.”
“I’m going to take a nice long bath,” Richards said. “This mission’s left me feeling… somewhat unclean. You have the bridge, Tilleran.”
“Have fun,” J’hana said with a low growl.
Tilleran moved out from behind her console and headed to the front of the bridge. “Now you’re growling at me? J’hana, really, you need to stop. I thought we’d gotten past all this…”
“You’re right, of course,” J’hana said, and stepped out from behind her console. “If you’ll excuse me. I have to…go to the bathroom.”
“Sure,” Tilleran said, staring quizzically at the Andorian as she ducked into the foreward turbolift.
“Why did you attack us?” Gaff’igan asked, as Chaka’kan stood at the doorway of the lower-level conference room, Plato at his side. “You could have been a lot less rough, you know.”
Chaka said nothing, just stared at them.
Plato tugged his sleeve. “Hey, Chaka? Did you hear them?”
Gaffi’gan, Belbiv’devo, and Banan’aram sat around the conference table. In the back of the room, Ensign Adam Keefler stood, his phaser at the ready, on J’hana’s orders. Two other security officers were outside.
“He’s just a little shaken up from everything on the ship,” Plato explained. “We understand you guys didn’t really mean anything by kidnapping us.”
“We didn’t hurt you,” Banan’aram muttered. “But I have a bruise the size of a wambus rat! In a very nasty spot!”
Chaka pursed his lips and shook his head gently. “No,” he said finally, and turned for the door.
“Chaka?” Plato asked, as the Jem’Hadar walked out.
“What’s his problem?” Gaff’igan asked. “We’re trying to be nice, here! For the Founders’ sakes, that’s what we’re programmed to do!”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Plato said thoughtfully. “There’s, uh, a replicator over there if…oh right, you guys don’t eat. Oh well. Good luck avoiding Dominion patrols and whatnot. Later.”
“Nice boy,” Belbiv’devo said.
“Christopher! I need to finish my report. Do you have a moment?” Joan Redding asked, jogging to catch up with Richards as he moved down the corridor, with Kado, her cameraman, lumbering after her.
“Is this how you get your reports, Joan? You just lurk in the corridors until someone talks to you?” Richards asked over his shoulder, not slowing down his pace.
“When uncooperative subjects force me to, yes,” Redding said. “Now are you going to sit down and interview with me, or not?”
“I’d say ‘or not’ is a good bet. Let’s go with that one.”
“Why are you being so difficult?”
Richards whirled on his foot. “Because I am having a VERY DIFFICULT DAY!”
Redding took a step back. “I see. Well, then. This will have some impact on my report.”
“Report whatever the hell you want,” Richards said, and headed back down the corridor. “I could honestly care less.”
“We’re approaching Earth,” Baxter said, as Blot, Sparks, and Mathers stepped onto the Escort’s bridge. “You guys should get ready to beam down.”
“Does all this mean we don’t have class tomorrow?” Mathers asked.
Blot glared at him. “On the contrary, it means an extra long class. We’re going to talk about what went wrong with this trip, which will take a very long time.”
“I’ll have to get my mommy to write me an excuse,” Baxter muttered.
“You need to find that ship. Find Ficker, find my cadets, and get them back,” Blot said, waving a finger at Baxter. “You’ve got to.”
“First things first. We need to rendez-vous with the Explorer, find out what the hell happened in the Gamma Quadrant.”
“Don’t worry about coming back,” Blot said darkly.
“What, you’re kicking me out of class?” Baxter asked. “You can’t do that!”
“I’m not kicking you out, I’m giving you a ‘Pass.’ It won’t figure into your GPA, but I don’t think you were any kind of threat to make the Dean’s List anyway.”
“W-why?” Baxter asked, turning.
“You being in my class is ridiculous. You don’t need to be there. You’ve obviously been through a lot, learned a lot. You’ve even grown up…some. A very little bit. And you don’t need to be wasting time in my class.” Blot folded his arms. “Besides that, you’re a huge distraction. And I’ve been looking for a way to burn Admiral Nechayev for years.”
“You mean it?” Baxter asked, his lip trembling.
“Stop being such a sap.”
Baxter put out his hand. “I really don’t know how to thank you, Professor.”
“Start by not shaking my hand,” Blot said, backing away.
“I promise you, Professor, I’ll get those kids back.”
“I have no doubt things will unravel as they should,” Blot said. “They always do.” He chuckled to himself as he headed off the bridge.
Peterman stepped up next to Baxter. “Do you think he meant ‘unfold’?”
“No,” Baxter said with a smile. “I’m pretty sure he meant unravel.” He turned to Mathers and Sparks, who were huddled in the back corner of the bridge, whispering to each other. “Folks, I’m afraid the ride’s over. You need to get to the transporter room.”
“We’d rather not,” Sparks said softly.
Mathers gave an uneasy smile. “We have a better idea…”
Commander Richards sighed and eased back into the hot bubbles, stretching out his legs in the tub and sighing. One of the nice things about being promoted to First Officer was getting a cabin with a tub. Richards tried to focus on that, instead of thinking about the fact that it used to be Dave Conway’s tub.
Richards closed his eyes, feeling the hot water soak him, soothe him. It had been a trying day, and all he wanted to do was…
“Surrender, weakling!” A steely hand wrapped around his throat and pushed him under water. Richards thrashed, kicked wildly, and was finally hoisted into the air, dangling above his tub.
J’hana stared at him, antennae twitching. “Are you busy?”
“How’d you get in here?” Richards croaked.
“You imbecile. I’m security. I can go anywhere I want.”
“Yeah, that was smart of us to set it up that way,” Richards muttered, feeling very fragile, dangling there in front of J’hana, stark naked.
“Get over your hopeless fixation with that woman, Richards,” J’hana said. “You’ll never have her again.”
“I don’t see how this is your business…”
“Because we have a good thing going here,” J’hana growled. “It’s noncommital, it’s not fussy. And I don’t need your human idiocy and foibles getting in the way of our good time.”
“Say, you do remember I outrank you, don’t you?”
“Irrelevant,” J’hana said, dropping Richards back into the tub. She quickly stripped her tunic off and peeled down her pants. “I’m teaching a class in the Sherli’buuth fighting style in twenty minutes. You must be quick. Not that you usually aren’t.”
And she leapt into the tub.
Stardate 58016.6. The Explorer has arrived at Earth to reunite with the Escort, along with the rest of our merry band. I wish I could say my visit to Earth has been fun, but that would be a staggering lie.
I’m relieved to find Janice Browning, Plato, and Chaka in one piece after a run-in with a supposedly rebellious Changeling. I’m also eager to find out just how Chris managed to get Janice and the others out of that bind. Not that I’m shocked. When it comes to Janice, Chris always finds a way.
Speaking of finding a way, I’ve got to get down to Mirk’s. I have an initiation of sorts to get to…
“Natheena Anne Sparks…Colby Alphonso Mathers. I hearby grant you full membership on the crew of the USS Explorer, with all the rights, privileges, emotional luggage and drawbacks appertaining thereto,” Baxter said, standing on the small main stage of the Constellation Club.
Beside him, in full cadet uniform, Sparks and Mathers smiled weakly. Baxter handed them each a padd. “Cadet Sparks, you’re assigned to the Conn station. Mathers, you’re going to be assigned to Sciences. Your internship supervisors will be Lieutenant Madera and Lieutenant Commander Tilleran, respectively. They’ll be submitting reports back to Professor Blot on your progress, though I’m not sure he cares. Anyway, welcome aboard!”
“Fun,” Tilleran said, leaning against the bar and sipping her drink. “I get to babysit.”
“You’re in a foul mood,” Hartley noticed, hopping up on a barstool. “Any particular reason?”
“Just a vibe I’m getting,” Tilleran said. “Have you seen J’hana?”
“Nope. I guess she has somewhere better to be.”
“I guess so,” Tilleran said, and set her drink down, walking off into the crowd.
“Nice talking to you too,” Hartley muttered, and turned to the bar, where Mirk appeared, as he usually did, as if from out of nowhere, and polished its shiny reflective surface.
“Another mojito, petito?” Mirk asked with a grin.
“No, I think I’m good,” Hartley said, and leaned over the bar, pulling Mirk into a deep kiss. After a few moments, she pulled back and looked at him. “Mirk, no matter what happens between us…promise me that it won’t get weird.”
“I’m a superpowered bartender from the other side of the galaxy. I worship giant eyeballs, and may one day become one myself. I think if it’s not weird already, it’ll never be.”
Hartley stooped and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank gods…”
“We should be at the party,” Plato said, leaning his head on the table in Space Tastes, watching his mother swoop from kitchen to seating area, arranging, cleaning, tapping instructions into multiple pads.
“You can go a little later if you want,” Browning said. “But I was hoping you’d help me get the restaurant ready. I want to be able to serve breakfast in the morning.”
Plato looked up at Browning and gave a small smile. “Yeah, I suppose I can do that.”
Browning walked up to Plato and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been meaning to ask. Has Odo or any of the other Changelings talked about something like that happening before? A Changeling linking with a solid?”
“No,” Plato said. “Then again, you threw off the curve somewhat when you ate me then gave birth to me. I imagine you pretty much confound them.”
Browning reached down and took Plato’s hand, squeezing it. “Then if it’s me, why can’t we link now?”
“Maybe we need a full Changeling for it,” Plato said.
“Yeah,” Browning said, and sat down opposite Plato. “And the odds of finding one of those just got a lot worse.”
“Pogo will turn up again,” Plato said. “There aren’t many other Changelings out there that will tolerate him.”
“You like him?” Browning asked.
Plato shrugged. “I said tolerate.”
Browning bit her lip thoughtfully. “He was sort of…noble.”
“I’m just glad he helped us…he gave us what he did.”
Browning nodded. “Yeah. I…sheesh…I wish I could put things into words.”
“You don’t have to, Mom,” Plato said. “Let’s just say we understand things a little better now, and move on from there.”
“Does this mean you’ll let me fix you up with one of the nurses in Sickbay?”
“No!” Plato exclaimed with a laugh, and got up to head back to the kitchen. “Can I have some fharbus root?”
“Sure, but don’t load up. It’s past dinner time,” Browning said, and looked around her restaurant. “Gosh, it’s great to be back.”
“Hey,” Plato called from the kitchen. “Have you seen Chaka lately?”
“Mind if I sit down?”
Baxter sat alone at a corner table, sipping his rum’n grapefruit. He glanced up and smiled. “Sure, in your case I guess I can make an exception.”
Peterman sat, folding her hands on the table. “I can’t stay long. The Wolitzers only agreed to watch Steffie for an hour.”
“What, Chaka wasn’t available?”
“I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t answering his comm.”
Peterman shrugged. “He’s been through a lot. I’m sure he’ll come around.”
“Do we even like the Wolitzers?”
“There aren’t many families left on the ship we haven’t alienated.”
“How could I have forgotten,” Baxter muttered.
“Are you going to talk to me at some point, or are you just going to continue to stew?”
Baxter looked up at her. “I’m talking to you now.”
“I mean about Ficker. What you said earlier?”
“That I hated him? Yep, you’ve discovered my dirty secret.”
“No,” Peterman said earnestly. “The other thing.”
Baxter stood up, straightened his uniform. “People say crazy things when they’re mad, I guess. Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go greet our new interns.”
And Peterman watched him walk off.
The sound of grinding metal was so loud it almost drowned out the holovision screen in the Explorer cabin.
“…which leads me to believe that the Explorer’s senior staff had little to no involvement in Bradley Dillon’s trip through time, other than being unwitting pawns,” Joan Redding said, reporting from the small office aboard her AWN transport ship. “Further, I was a bit disappointed to learn the Explorer crew aren’t quite the well-intentioned underdogs I thought they were. We hear so much about ships like the Explorer, full of misunderstood souls, who just need a second chance to succeed. For all those flaws, we never think of them as bearing any kind of ill will. But maybe we should.
“The Explorer crew are selfish people, bent on only satisfying their own needs, and have again and again shrugged off the missions Starfleet has given them to pursue their own agendas. Their judgments are clouded by emotions more wild and unpredictable than those of your average Starfleet officer. And when you’re commanding a 641-meter long vessel equipped with quantum torpedoes, you can’t afford to make irrational decisions.
“Then again, it’s not really our choice who gets these assignments. We can only sit back and hope Starfleet Command knows what it’s doing. But it’s this reporter’s opinion that the command staff of the Explorer are woefully misguided. When you let your emotions rule you, then chaos will surely follow…”
The grinding metal sound stopped.
Chaka’kan looked up from his blade, studied its edge carefully. Then he whirled, and flung it at the viewscreen. It embedded deep in the circuitry, shorting it out with a shower of sparks.
“People can change,” he said, and headed for the door.
Being an Orion with a score to settle isn’t exactly good times. But being on the Explorer with a couple Orions with scores to settle is even worse. Luckily for the Explorer crew, these Orions aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed.