Author: Anthony Butler
Cadet Natheena Sparks rolled over in her bunk and stared at the blinking message light on her nightstand terminal.
“Ughhhhhhhhhhh…not again,” she moaned, and swung her legs over, leaning up in bed, her long brown hair cascading around her face, in its usual obscuring way. “Wonder if that one’s from Plato or Howie,” she asked herself, and shuffled toward the sonic shower.
Then her door chime rang, and she sighed. “Who is it?”
“It’s Howie. I thought we’d walk up to the bridge together.”
“Oh. Are you on today?”
“Yes. We talked about this yesterday,” he replied over the comm. “Don’t you remember?”
“Somewhat. I just got up. Why don’t I meet you there?”
“Suit yourself,” Sefelt’s voice responded. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you up there!”
“Yeah. Me too…”
“It’s him. It’s Ficker,” Baxter said, pacing the bridge.
“How do you know?” Richards replied, standing behind him, staring skeptically at the sensor data that trailed on the viewscreen.
“Isn’t it obvious? Unidentified Federation ship attacks Orion outpost, steals supplies and delivers them to a needy colony on Farkamus Prime.”
“If it was Ficker, it sure was nice of him,” Peterman said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair in the command area.
“Oh, don’t you start,” Baxter said, whirling. “I know what he’s up to. He’s trying to look heroic, so he can steal our thunder. So he can prove he’s got the best ship of rejects out there.”
“Half of Starfleet’s chasing him,” Richards said. “You really envy that?”
“Yes! He’s doing what we were doing last year,” Baxter snapped. “Running from Starfleet for a higher moral purpose! I bet he’s even got a godlike bartender stowed away on there somewhere.”
“I’m sure we have the only one of those,” Peterman said, and rose, stepping up behind Baxter and putting her hands on his shoulders, sharing a concerned look with Richards. “At any rate, Starfleet Intelligence will catch him. They’re dying to get their hands on the Idlewild, right?”
“And Starfleet can’t afford to have another rogue Starship gallivanting around. He’s making them look bad.”
“That’s for sure,” Baxter said.
“So we relax,” Peterman said, rubbing Baxter’s back. “Ficker isn’t our problem anymore. Be thankful for that.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, gritting his teeth. “You’ve got a point there.” He took a deep breath and glanced back at sciences. “Tilleran, how about you tell us what our next assignment is. Let’s get our minds off the past, shall we?”
Tilleran smiled weakly, looking at her panel. “Apparently, we’re to report immediately to the Veltran system to study the Bermuda Expanse and report back on whether or not they’re exhibiting any strange activity.”
Baxter stared back at her. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope,” Tilleran said. “Says here that the Bermuda Expanse has done nothing of consequence for more than three years.”
“Yeah, according to ‘official’ records, anyway,” Baxter said, making air quotes with his fingers. “Guess we’d better go. Maybe I can stop by Waystation and let Captain Beck berate me a few more times.”
“We don’t have to go anywhere near Waystation,” Peterman said, patting Baxter on the back. “Matter of fact, it’s probably a good idea that we don’t, since I rather made an ass of myself the last time I was there.”
“Better you than me, believe me,” Baxter said with a chuckle, and headed back to the command chair. “Lieutenant Madera, best speed to the Veltran system.”
Just then, the aft turbolift doors opened, and Lt. Howie Sefelt stepped out, glancing around the bridge with an appreciative smile. “Don’t clap, ladies and gentlemen, just go about your regular business. Howie’s here.”
“Mister Sefelt,” Baxter said, gesturing at ops. He gave a look at Peterman, who just shrugged.
“How are you feeling, Howie?” Peterman asked as he took over ops from Ensign Jerrica Ridley.
“Outstanding!” Sefelt said, turning to face Peterman. “It’s corny, but it’s amazing what a good night’s sleep will do for you.”
“Or a major, earth-shaking personality change,” Richards said under his breath as he sat down on the other side of Baxter.
Peterman ignored him. “Say, Howie, I’ve been meaning to speak to you. You’ve cancelled our last six appointments. That’s nearly two days where we haven’t met.”
“I’ve been fine, actaully,” Sefelt said. “You can go ahead and cancel the rest.”
“That may take a while,” Peterman said, taking a deep breath and wondering what on Earth she’d do with all that free time. “But before we do something rash like that, how about you stop by my office this afternoon. Just for a, you know…chat?”
“I suppose,” Sefelt said. “If it’s all right with you, Captain?”
Baxter waved. “By all means. Meet.” He shifted his eyes at Peterman. “I’ll be anxious to hear the results.”
“We don’t talk about my appointments,” Peterman said, gently kicking Baxter in the shin.
“Right. I forgot.”
“Hey, Nat!” Plato said, waiting in the turbolift with Colby Mathers as Sparks stepped in. “How’ve you been?”
“Just fine. Computer, bridge,” Sparks said, looking from Plato to Mathers. “You boys have sure been hanging out a lot lately.”
“His mom owns a terrific restaurant,” Mathers said, shifting from foot to foot.
“We had breakfast,” Plato said, nudging Mathers. “Just talked about…you know, stuff.”
“That’s good,” Sparks said. “You going with us to the bridge?”
“Just along for the ride. My mom says I’m not supposed to step onto the bridge. Something about the captain being accident-prone…”
“A reasonable precaution,” Sparks said with a shrug. “What about you, Colby? I thought Madera was on conn this morning…”
“I’m training on tactical today,” Mathers said. “Commander Richards said that trying other specializations would help us get the most out of our internship. Plus I think I was bugging Lieutenant Madera. She sort of…swatted at me…the other day.”
“I envy you guys,” Plato said. “Serving on the bridge. Nat, maybe you could tell me what it’s like, later today, over coffee or hot chocolate or something?”
“I’ve…kinda got plans…” Sparks said as the lift opened, and she ducked out onto the bridge. Mathers followed, and headed over to tactical, where a glowering J’hana faced him. Plato watched them as the turbolift doors closed.
“Are you strong enough to face death in combat?” she asked gravely.
“No?” Mathers replied, swallowing.
“You will be, once I’m through with you,” J’hana said with a chortle, and patted Mathers hard on the back. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be soaking in the sauna. Have a good shift, people.”
Tilleran watched J’hana go, then looked at Sparks as she stepped out from behind her station.. “Study up on the Bermuda Expanse. We’ll arrive there tomorrow night and will need to make thorough scans.”
“Sure, Commander,” Sparks said, and watched Tilleran make her way down to the foreward turbolift, the one opposite from the lift J’hana had taken. “Thanks!”
“Ahh, the changing of the guard,” Baxter said. “To think, one day this bridge will be full of people we don’t know.”
“And in this future vision, are you still sitting there?” Peterman asked.
“Sure. This is a cushy job. Why on Earth would I give it up?”
“Just asking,” Peterman said with a small grin. “Well, I’ve got some appointments. I’d better get back down to the office.” She headed back to the turbolift and looked at Sefelt. “See you in a couple hours, Howie?”
“Sure thing, Counselor! Looking forward to it!” Sefelt said, and turned back to the ops panel.
“So…Howie. How are things?” Peterman said, setting her padd full of notes on the table beside her, and leaning forward in her chair, folding her hands atop her knees. Truth be known, she didn’t have any other appointments that morning. She’d spent the whole morning getting ready to cross-examine Howie and figure out exactly why he was suddenly so…not crazy.
Howie leaned back, crossed his legs. “Things are great. I’ve never felt better.”
“Could you…elaborate?” Peterman asked, narrowing her eyes, as if to look into Sefelt’s soul. Nope, nothing there.
“I’m just…I feel great. I don’t feel as…antsy as I once did.”
“Is this like when I put you on the drugs?”
“No, because I’m not throwing up.”
“Uh-huh. No throwing up.” Peterman reached for her padd and tapped some notes. “What about the panic attacks? Hyperventilation? Dizzyness? Loss of consciousness? Wake up on a random part of the ship with no knowledge of how you got there?”
“Oddly enough, nope. None of that stuff. I’m just…fine.”
Peterman gave a knowing smile. “Howie, you know that’s now how this works. You’ve been through enough counseling sessions to realize that real growth takes time and effort. It takes work…and little exercises I give you from books. It’s a long, hard process that takes months, if not years of…”
“Yeah, I’m not so worried about it,” Sefelt said. “I’m good.”
“Yes, well,” Peterman said, shifting in her seat, deciding to take another tack. “I understand you THINK that you’re good, but I’m telling you there’s no way you can be…even though I wish it were so.”
“Why, counselor,” Sefelt said, and leaned forward to tap Peterman’s knee. “Are you going to miss these little sessions? Something tells me you got as much from them as I did.”
“Well I don’t know about that…” Peterman looked down, rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Would you consent to a brain scan, Howie?”
He shrugged. “Sure. If you think that’s necessary.”
“It’s absolutely necessary.” Peterman grabbed another padd and started tapping. “And a few neurological tests. Just to…rule some things out. We want to be thorough. Here, take this down to Doctor Wilcox and get started. It may take most of the day.”
“But I’ve got a date…”
“Your mental health is paramount, Howie.”
“But I feel fine!”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Peterman said with a warm smile, as she handed the padd to Sefelt and gestured for the door. “Contact me as soon as you’re finished with the tests.”
Sefelt looked over the padd as he headed for the door. “Brain tissue sample?”
“It’s painless. Really. Now off you go!”
Hours later, Peterman was sitting around the conference table at the senior staff meeting, staring at the stars that streaked past the ship.
“So are we all ready for the Bermuda Expanse?” Baxter asked, pivoting in his chair to face Tilleran.
“Yes, the labs are all standing by,” Tilleran said, shooting a nervous glance at Peterman. “We’ll be requesting some additional resources from engineering for the duration of the study…”
“That’s fine,” Burley said boredly, leaning on her arms. “Can I go? I’ve got a million things to do down in Engineering.”
“No,” Baxter said. “These staff meetings are important. They’re our chance to catch up, evaluate, see what everyone’s up to.”
“And also, it makes him feel ‘in charge,’” Richards added with a chuckle.
“I AM in charge!” Baxter snapped.
“I know,” Richards said. “You’re a very good captain.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Are we done?” Peterman said. “I want to go check on Howie’s brain.”
“We’re not…messing with it, are we?” Baxter asked. “I like the new Howie. He’s efficient. He doesn’t wet himself. There’s no screaming. It’s delightful.”
“It’s damn suspicious, is what it is,” Peterman said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “And I intend to get to the bottom of it.”
“Fine, just don’t reverse it,” Baxter said, meriting a glance from Tilleran.
“May I be excused?” she asked, shifting back from her seat.
“Nobody gives a damn about what I have to say, do they?” Baxter asked. “Yeah, fine. Meeting dismissed.”
“I care, sweetie,” Peterman said. “I think it was a great meeting.”
“What am I supposed to do, have it catered?” Baxter muttered and shifted out of his chair, heading with Peterman out to the bridge.
Tilleran was waiting right by the door.
“Counselor!” Tilleran said. “Do you, uh, want to share a turbolift belowdecks?”
“Sure,” Peterman said. “Actually, you may have a good perspective on this Sefelt thing…”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
As the pair walked to the turbolift, and Baxter and Richards made their way down to the command area, a beep sounded at J’hana’s panel.
“Sir, we’re getting a distress call from our colony on Montavius Six.” J’hana glanced at the readout. “Apparently, they’re running low on packing mulch for their capital city garden.”
“And that merits a distress call?” Richards asked.
“They’re antsy,” J’hana said. “We’re the closest ship.”
“We’ve got a date with the Bermuda Expanse,” Baxter said. “Pass it off to somebody else. I don’t have time to haul mulch.”
“Wait,” Peterman said, stepping toward the middle of the bridge. “Commander Tilleran, you’ll have to go on without me. Andy, can I see you in the ready room?”
“I’ll wait for you, Counselor,” Tilleran said, folding and unfolding her arms, looking a bit antsy herself.
“No, this may take a bit,” Peterman said, motioning Tilleran off, and leading Baxter back to his office.
“What is it,” Baxter said, ducking into the ready room and plopping on the couch. “Do I have something on the front of my uniform again?” He looked down. “Because if I do, it’s right beneath my chin, in that blind spot I can’t see. But I haven’t had anything with cheese today, so that’s weird…”
“No,” Peterman said. “It’s not a stain…” She glanced at Baxter’s uniform. “At least, not any new ones. Look, I just got a brilliant idea!”
“Casual Friday on the bridge? I love it!”
“Um…no, that’s not it at all. What if we sent the Escort to deliver the mulch!”
“Why?” Baxter cocked his head. “And, come to think of it, why is a planet asking a starship in deep space to bring them mulch? Isn’t the planet pretty much…made of that?”
“A fascinating question for another time,” Peterman said. “I think you should send the Escort to Montavius. And I think you should put Howie Sefelt in command.”
Baxter looked at Peterman as if she’d suddenly sprouted tentacles. “Command the Escort? Sefelt? He’s never even led an away tem! He’s never led the Friday night conga line in the Constellation Club!”
“Which is exactly why he needs the practice.”
“He’ll crack under the pressure.”
“That’s the idea. I want to see if this fearless persona of his holds up in a stressful situation.”
“Yeah, and delivering mulch is really going to measure that for you.”
“If Howie’s…still Howie, then even looking at mulch is going to measure that for me.”
“Hmm,” Baxter said. “Fair point.”
“One of two things will happen: Either he’ll fold like cheap Tholian silk, which will prove that he hasn’t changed permanently, or he’ll do a fantastic job, in which case we suddenly added another capable officer. So…bonus!”
“That would make at least one capable officer,” Baxter mused.
“Well, what do you think?”
“It’s worth a try. Set it up.”
Peterman clapped. “Yay! Therapy with real life applications! That never happens.”
“Just one thing. Considering that we’re not sure whether Howie will crack under the pressure or not…”
Peterman leaned over and kissed Baxter on the forehead. “Yes?”
“You’ve got to go with him.”
“This is highly irregular,” Chaka’kan said, watching as crew from cargo services shoveled piles of mulch from his garden-in-progress in the arboretum. “On whose authority…”
“Captain’s orders,” said Brock Bartrum, hefting a sack of mulch on his back and tossing it onto the antigrav cart. “Fifty bags, all for emergency shipment to the Montavius system.”
“You realize of course that, wherever we plan on taking these supplies, it will likely be a planet, which almost certainly has…its OWN mulch!”
“Just following the captain’s orders,” Brock said, and loaded up another bag of mulch. “We’ll be out of your hair soon. Relax.”
“I don’t have any hair.”
“In that case, we’ll be out of your deadly spikes soon. How’s that?”
“Much more accurate, at least,” Chaka said thoughtfully.
“This is it! This is my chance to advance through the ranks!” Howie Sefelt announced, pacing eagerly in Natheena Sparks’ quarters.
“You think? I mean, is it that easy to move up in Starfleet?” Sparks asked, pushing strands of straight hair out of her face as she leaned back on her desk. The message light was still blinking, but was hardly on her mind. With the new, improved Howie Sefelt, and a mission aboard the Escort SHE was invited on…the possibilities were endless.
“If you know the right people, and do your job effectively, yes,” Sefelt replied.
“I’ve got to say, I’m not sure what happened, but you seem like…a…” Sparks searched for the words. “Changed man.”
“I feel like one,” Sefelt said. “And Sickbay couldn’t find a thing to the contrary. No weird brain lesions. No odd neurological disorders. I’m free of all brain ailments! And this is coming from a doctor who’s married to a guy with tons of brain ailments…”
“That’s a relief,” Sparks said thoughtfully.
“Anyway, it feels good to know I’ll finally start making a difference on the Explorer. You realize this opens up so many possibilities…”
“I know,” Sparks said, and stepped closer to Sefelt, who slid his arms around her waist.
“You’re not afraid of germs?” Sparks asked as Sefelt leaned in to kiss her.
“Not in the slightest.”
Maybe the new Howie wasn’t so bad.
“Mom…please! I think it’ll be a great chance to learn about Starfleet,” Plato pleaded, following Browning from table to table as she got the place settings ready for her dinner crowd.
“Why would you want to learn about Starfleet? You’re not interested in joining.”
“Could be fun,” Plato shrugged. “It’ll keep me off the streets!”
Browning stood up. “What streets? We live on a starship.”
“You know what I mean. You know I’ve been kind of…directionless…for the past few years.”
“You were basically a toddler a few years ago.”
“And how time flies!” Plato said, and rushed up to Browning. “Don’t you see? This is my chance to find myself. To figure out if I can handle adversity on my own. It’ll be great!”
Browning cocked her head as she stared at Plato. “This is about a girl, isn’t it?”
“N-no it’s not!” he said, shifting on his feet.
“Oh, it is!” she said, throwing her arms around him. “Oh, that’s so cute. You’ve got a little crush, eh?”
Browning kept squeezing. “And it’s not Lieutenant Commander Burley anymore, right? Because she’s got an omnipotent husband…and she’s pretty dangerous too.”
“No,” Plato said, breaking the hug and staring earnestly at his mother. “Just…Mom, just please do this for me. I don’t ask for much.”
Browning tapped her chin. “I have to admit, asking is a lot better than stealing a ship like you did last year.’
“See! I’m making improvements!”
“That you are.” Browning shrugged. “Okay. Let me talk to Aunt Kelly. If she agrees to watch over you, I’ll do it.”
“Yay!” Plato said, and dashed for the door. “Wait till I tell Na….whoever I end up telling!”
Browning shook her head. “A hopeless romantic, just like his mother. That reminds me…” She turned and headed for the terminal in her kitchen. She had a message from Pogo she needed to return.
“Plato? You think that’s wise?” Baxter asked as he hitched Steffie on his hip and walked with Peterman to the Escort airlock.
“Janice says he wants to learn more about Starfleet,” Peterman said, her eyes shifting a bit. “Which I think is noble.”
“I’m surprised Janice wants him anywhere near a Starfleet mission.”
“Well, it’s not like we’re off to a massive space battle,” Peterman said.
“True,” Baxter said. “You might end up being safer on the Escort, based on our track record with the Bermuda Expanse.”
Peterman came to a stop at the airlock and turned to face Baxter. She put a hand on his face. “Well, don’t go getting sucked into the Delta Quadrant again.”
“I’ll never stray from you. And even if I do, I promise not to visit Beldana while I’m there.”
“Let’s hope not,” Peterman smiled, and leaned in to kiss him.
“Smoochie!” Steffie said, clapping her hands.
“Yeah, and one for you,” Peterman said, leaning over to kiss Steffie on the cheek. “Be good for Daddy! And Daddy…no nights at the Constellation Club while I’m gone. Richard Simmons will be watching you.”
“I like when you call me Daddy,” Baxter said thoughtfully, hefting Steffie on his hip.
“Let’s not analyze that right now,” Peterman said, slinging her small duffle on her shoulder and turning to the airlock.
“Wait up, Counselor!” Tilleran called out, jogging down the corridor.
“Commander, something you need?” Baxter asked.
“Request permission to join the Escort crew,” Tilleran said breathlessly, looking from Peterman to Baxter.
Baxter shared a glance with Peterman. “Why would you want to?”
Tilleran bit her lip thoughtfully. “Well…I didn’t want to get into it. But there’ve been some…problems…with Cadet Sparks. I want to make sure she follows through on her assignments.”
“I’m not sure our science officer will be doing much on a mulch delivery mission,” Peterman said.
“And I need you here. We’re going into the Bermuda Expanse,” Baxter said.
“I wasn’t even on the bridge the first time we went into the Bermuda Expanse,” Tilleran pointed out.
“Yeah. And look where that got us!” Baxter exclaimed. “Discussion over. I’m afraid I can’t spare you, Commander. Return to your post.”
Tilleran’s eyes darkened a moment, and she stared at Baxter and Peterman long and hard. She worked her jaw thoughtfully, seeming to come to a decision. “Captain, I really think you should reconsider…”
Baxter’s eyes glazed a bit, and he cocked his head. “You know. You’re right. Lieutenant Elton can handle sciences for a while.”
“Thanks! I really appreciate it. Let’s go, Counselor,” Tilleran said, hitching her arm with Peterman, who looked at her oddly.
“Um…okay,” Peterman said, glancing back at Baxter as Tilleran tugged her through the airlock..
“Good luck!” Baxter waved, as the airlock wooshed closed. He watched through the window as the airlock corridor, as usual, began to turn, until Peterman and Tilleran were upside down. Such was the cost of having your scout ship mounted to the hull upside-down. But, Baxter reasoned, it was certainly a sleeker look.
“Let’s see mommy take off!” Baxter said, carrying Steffie down the corridor to the foreward observation lounge. He liked to watch the Escort launch from here…especially during those times when someone wasn’t trying to steal it.
“Ah, Counselor. I was wondering if you’d show.” Peterman stepped onto the Escort’s bridge and found Sefelt seated in the command chair, looking far too natural and commanding for her comfort. “We were about to leave without you.”
“Seeing as I’m the ranking officer on this mission, I’d say that would be a bad thing,” Peterman said, stepping up next to the command chair on the crowded bridge. Tilleran followed behind her, taking a position in front of the master panel in the rear of the bridge. “But let’s get moving.”
“Yes, let’s,” Tilleran said, and felt Peterman’s suspicious glance. She busied herself studying the ship’s engine schematics.
“Of course,” Sefelt said, turning to the helm. “Cadet Mathers, detach umbilical and release docking clamps, please.”
At helm, Mathers did as he was told. Peterman, meanwhile, moved over to the empty tactical console, and shared a glance with Cadet Sparks, who sat patiently at sciences, hands folded atop her console.
“This’ll be fun,” Peterman said.
“We have a job to do, Counselor. Fun doesn’t enter into it,” Sefelt said, casting her a wry grin. “But we’ll try to have a little fun anyway.”
Just then, the aft doors cycled open, and Plato stepped onto the bridge. “Are we ready to go yet? Ship’s gravity or no ship’s gravity, I definitely feel like I’m upside down.”
“We were just about to give the word, Mister Plato,” Sefelt said, and punched a control on the chair arm. “Cadet Mathers, Engines ready?”
“Full power at your command, Lieutenant,” Mathers replied, as Nat Sparks gave Plato a questioning glance.
“Off to deliver mulch,” Sparks said quietly, as Sefelt nodded, pointing at the viewscreen.
“Cadet Mathers, engage!”
“Fun,” Peterman said, looking back at Tilleran, who seemed intent on the engine schematics.
THE NEXT DAY
“The Bermuda Expanse,” Baxter said, leaning back in the command chair and looking at the viewscreen at the roiling purple and green mass they’d visited so many times before.
“Yeah,” Richards said. “The Bermuda Expanse.”
“Commence scanning, J’hana,” Baxter said. “See if you find anything, you know…bad.”
“Need I remind the captain that there’s nothing for me to shoot at, at the moment?” J’hana piped up.
“No, because you already reminded me once,” Baxter muttered. “And once again, I’ll remind you that you’re scanning because there’s nothing for you to shoot at, so you might as well make yourself useful. Besides, Elton isn’t here because he…well sometimes he stares at me. I find him unsettling.”
“You would,” J’hana mused, plucking at her panel.
“This is what we call a science mission, J’hana. We’re EXPLORING. It’s what we do, remember? The ship’s kinda named after it.”
“Regardless, I am bored. Permission to go belowdecks.”
“Permission to go belowdecks, too, Captain,” Richards said quickly.
“Oh, for Pete’s…” Baxter looked back at J’hana. “Now see what you’ve made him do?”
“I did not make him do anything,” J’hana said, tapping at her panel. “Yet.”
“This is getting damned inconvenient.”
“I’ve got…paperwork,” Richards said, and rose, heading toward the turbolift.
“Yes. Me too,” J’hana said. “Have a day player take over the scanning.”
Baxter glanced back as Richards and J’hana ducked into the aft turbolift. “Is there anything else I can do for you two?”
“Yes. Send another crew person to join us.” She grinned toothily.
“Wait just a sec…” Richards began.
Baxter sighed. “Fine, go, get out of my hair already…permission granted.”
“Sir,” Madera spoke up. “The door’s already closed.”
“I know that,” Baxter snapped. “Eyes front, Lieutenant. Let me know the minute you see something lash out and try to destroy us.”
“That’ll be the first thing I do, sir.”
Baxter sighed. “At what point did I lose control?”
“You’ve still got me, Captain,” Madera replied encouragingly.
“And somehow I don’t feel at all comforted.”
“Just go over there,” Peterman said, drawing a knee to her chest as she scanned through her psychological journal, sipping Cardassian Seasonings Malevolent Mint tea.
“I don’t want to,” Plato said, staring down at his oatmeal in the Escort’s little grey mess hall.
“She’s sitting with Sefelt. They’re…together.”
“Didn’t you know that before you signed on for this trip?”
“Yeah, but I figured I’d get some alone time with Nat, is all.”
“And you haven’t so far,” Peterman said, putting her knee down and leaning forward. “Or at least, you haven’t tried.”
“Something’s up with Sefelt,” Plato said ruefully glancing back at him. “He’s…too confident. He’s not scared, or whiny. It’s like he’s not himself or something.”
“I had him scanned pretty thoroughly. And interviewed him.” She shrugged. “It’s odd, I know. But people do have a way of changing, if you give them time.”
“Yeah, but do they change so…suddenly.”
“Sometime, if given the right provocation. Maybe something just…clicked for him.”
Plato leaned forward on his arms. “Lucky him.”
“Listen,” Peterman said, taking Plato’s hands and leaning toward him. “You’re a great catch. You’ll find someone. It might not be Nat Sparks, but it’ll be someone special. And you’ll look back on this moment and laugh about how you once actually cared about who Nat Sparks was talking to.”
“Unless it’s Nat Sparks I end up with.”
“Well, anything’s possible, I suppose.”
“Be ready, Counselor. You’ll have to deal with the same kind of thing with your daughter, eventually.”
“That’s a long way off,” Peterman said with a wry grin. “And I’m glad it is. I don’t think I could handle the idea of some…boy…plotting to sweep my daughter off her feet.”
“I’m not plotting,” Plato said. “I’m…planning.”
“Well, all good plans eventually result in some sort of action.” Peterman picked her padd back up. “You should talk to her, if for no other reason than to clear the air. My guess is, things are somewhat…vague between you two.”
“Your guess is right,” Plato sighed, and stared into his bowl of oatmeal.
Peterman glanced down at his bowl. “You going to eat that or not?”
“I don’t think so. It’s peach and…well it kind of looks like one of my relatives.”
“Oh. Sorry. Maybe you should get some eggs instead,” Peterman said, glancing up as Tilleran walked into the room. She locked eyes with Peterman, then immediately turned toward Sefelt, touching his shoulder.
Sefelt glanced back at her questioningly, then stood, and followed her toward the door.
“Now’s your chance,” Peterman said, but couldn’t take her eyes off Tilleran.
“All hands, this is Cadet Mathers,” the helmsman announced over the loudspeakers. “We’re now approaching Montavius. Please report to the bridge.”
Peterman glanced around the little mess hall. “Aren’t we all hands?”
“Yes, and a fine crew we are,” Sefelt said. “Sorry, Commander Tilleran. Our conversation will have to wait until hater. Destiny awaits us. Shall we?”
“Yeah,” Plato nodded, and sat in his chair, watching as Peterman, Sparks, Tilleran, and Sefelt left the room. Sparks gave him a quick glance as she left. “Destiny awaits.”
“Pretty. Kind of bluish,” Peterman said, folding her arms and staring at Montavius Six on the Escort’s little viewscreen.
“No matter. They need our help,” Sefelt said, leaning forward earnestly.
“They need our mulch,” Peterman corrected. “It’s not exactly like there’s a hostile alien fleet in orbit.”
“Nevertheless,” Sefelt said, watching the planet grow larger on the viewscreen. “Cadet Mathers, standard orbit.”
“Aye sir,” Mathers said, tapping on his panel and looking up at the viewscreen.
“We’re being hailed by the Montavian colonial authority, How…” Sparks began, then stopped herself. “I mean, Lieutenant Sefelt.”
“Very well. Let’s see what they have to say. On screen.”
A husky, grey-haired man with a beard appeared on the screen, and nodded discretely. “Greetings from the planet Montavius. I am Colonial Governor Corin Hapley.”
“Greetings,” Sefelt replied smoothly. “I’m Lieutenant Howard Sefelt, U.S.S. Escort, on detached duty from the U.S.S. Explorer, United Federation of Planets.”
“They’re in the Federation too, Howie. It’s our colony.”
“Yes,” Sefelt said. “Ready to assist you. How can we be of help?”
“Well…” the older man said, glancing off-screen. “We could certainly use some mulch.”
“Just so happens we brought some with us, Governor,” Sefelt said with a grin. “We’ll arrange to have it beamed down. Stand by while we…”
“Actually…” Hapley broke in. “We’d prefer if you delivered it personally.”
“Personally?” Sefelt said. “But that’s somewhat irregular. We usually would just beam…”
“It’s colony policy. A bureaucratic matter, I assure you.”
“Mute,” Tilleran snapped, stepping up next to Peterman. Sparks muted the comm channel. “Something’s off. He’s…nervous.”
“You can feel that from here?” Peterman asked.
“I’m sensitive today,” Tilleran replied. “He’s hiding something.”
“He just looks like a guy who really needs some mulch, to me,” Sefelt said.
“Still, I don’t feel good about it. I’ll go down with you.”
“Me too,” Peterman said, looking at Tilleran.
“Not a good idea, Counselor,” Tilleran said. “If my hunch is right, matters could devolve into something messy down there…”
“And you could use a counselor to reason your way out of things diplomatically. We don’t have J’hana with us, so blasting our way out is not really an option.”
Tilleran stared at Peterman a moment. “If you get hurt, I won’t hear the end of it from the Captain.”
“It’s my prerogative. I am the senior officer here.”
Tilleran sighed. “Yes. But you spend your days with appointments. You only come to the bridge when you get bored!”
“Yes. And I’ve been bored longer than anyone else on this ship, so what I say goes!” Peterman snapped.
Tilleran looked at her oddly, considering her words. She gave Peterman a long hard look, then shook her head, as if to clear it. “Very well. I see there’s no…changing your mind. Mister Sefelt, inform the governor we’re both going down there.”
“Suits me fine,” Sefelt said.
Peterman, Sefelt, and Tilleran, along with six cubic tons of mulch, materialized a few minutes later in the lobby of the Gubernatorial complex on Montavius Six.
They soon saw Governor Hapley coming down the hall toward them, a pair of bodyguards at his side.
“Welcome!” he said, clapping his hands together eagerly. His eyes widened as he saw the cargo containers behind them. “You brought my mulch!”
“As requested,” Sefelt replied, stepping forward to shake Hapley’s hand. “I’m guessing you have a gardening emergency?”
“Something like that,” Hapley said. “Can I interest any of you in a drink?”
“No,” Tilleran said, taking a look at Hapley. “I think we’ll just be on our way. We’ve made the delivery, after all.”
Hapley stared back at Tilleran. “Yes. Well, if you’re in a hurry, I understand.”
“This is a trap,” Tilleran said, matter-of-factly.
“Yes,” Hapley replied, equally matter-of-factly.
“What about the mulch?” Peterman asked.
“Oh, we definitely need it.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “We need it bad. We had no choice. I’m sorry…”
Sefelt glanced between them. “Sefelt to Escort. We have a…”
But Hapley’s guards lifted their weapons and shot Tilleran, then Sefelt, then Peterman, felling all three in a matter of seconds.
“Take their badges. Then bring them below,” Hapley instructed their guards.
“Plato?” Cadet Sparks asked, looking back from the center seat.
Plato stepped forward from the aft bridge entrance and looked around. “Yeah. Just checking to see if you were hungry. If you needed a snack, or something…”
“I’m on duty.”
“Well, you could be working up an appetite…”
“I’m in command of the bridge,” Sparks said. “And even though it’s just the Escort, and it might not be a big deal to you…”
“Wait,” Mathers said, and glanced up from his panel. “I don’t have the away team anymore.”
Sparks turned. “What do you mean you don’t have them?”
“They’re not on our sensors anymore. The colony…raised some kind of jamming field.”
Sparks stood up reflexively. “What? Hail them.”
“Montavius Colony,” Sparks said, as Plato stepped up beside her. “This is the U.S.S. Escort. Please respond.”
Cadet Mathers glanced back, shaking his head.
“Well, trace the jamming field back to its source.”
“What is it, Colby?”
“It doesn’t seem like the source is on the planet at all. Matter of fact, it looks like it’s in orbit…”
“Red Alert,” Sparks said. “Raise shields and prepare for…”
“Natheena!” Mathers pointed at the viewscreen, as a ripple cascaded in front of them.
Plato watched, mouth gaping. “Is that what I think it is?”
Sparks nodded dumbly. “Yeah…”
“Wake up, sweetheart,” a voice cooed in Peterman’s ear.
She rolled over. “Andy, stop, that tickles…”
She opened her eyes, and immediately scrambled backwards against the wall, eyes going wide. “FICKER!”
Alvin Ficker stared inquisitively at her as she moved to the back of her little below-ground cell. He stood and wiped off the knees of his uniform pants, and looked around. “Nice place you have here.”
“Wh…what do you want?” Peterman asked, glancing around her cell, and seeing through the bars that Tilleran and Sefelt were unconscious in adjacent cells.
“Peace in the galaxy,” Ficker replied quickly, as if that response had been rehearsed. He glanced around. “You.”
“Well…the peace thing sounds okay to me. But right now, what I want is to know why you’re here…”
“No, you misunderstand me. I want peace in the galaxy. And I want you. And, come to think of it, I also want credit for bringing peace to the galaxy. You know, for posterity.”
Peterman leaned forward, putting her feet down and resting her hands on her knees. “You know how often I’ve had to talk my husband out of blowing you sky high?”
“Please,” Ficker said. “That would require him first finding my ship, and then defeating it in combat. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m so over him.”
“Then why did you capture us?”
“Well, initially, I intended to collect some more officers. Luring a Starfleet ship to an unassuming colony seemed to be the best way to do that. Then when I realized it was the Escort that would be coming, I figured it would be a great chance to dialogue with you people. You know, clear the air a little.”
“Not sure that’s possible,” Peterman said. “Starfleet Intelligence is hunting you down. My husband plans to be in the front row of your tribunal. You’re going to be put away for a long, long time.”
“Starfleet’s so narrow-minded, though,” Ficker said. “Me, I’m a broad thinker. I see great potential in our weakest links. Those who would be thrown away, relegated to bit roles. They’re the stars, Kelly. You and I know it.”
“The Explorer crew does all right,” Peterman said. “We’ve learned a few things.”
Ficker stepped closer, leaning to face Peterman. “But I could teach you so much more.”
Peterman gritted her teeth. “If you’re such a great guy, then why resort to tactics like this to collect more followers? Shouldn’t they be joining you in droves?”
“True change is never easy,” Ficker said. “It was hard at first, you know, to get other planets to join the Federation. But they did, in time. They saw it was wise. Soon enough, my influence will spread. But until then, some subterfuge is necessary. I’m sure you understand.”
“I don’t. But it doesn’t matter. The Explorer is probably already on her way.”
“My dear, that’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say.” Ficker tapped her on the head, and turned to head away. Another officer in a Starfleet uniform opened the door, and stared at Peterman a moment as Ficker walked out.
“Ensign…whoever you are…you realize what this guy is doing is crazy, right?” Peterman asked.
“He’s got a plan,” the younger boy said simply, and closed the door, locking it.
“Yeah, but what is it,” Peterman said softly.
“But that’s the ship Uncle Andy was talking about, the Idlewild…” Plato said, leaning toward Sparks. “It’s Ficker’s ship!”
“Yeah. Not many other Federation ships have cloaking devices,” Sparks said. “You really need to get belowdecks, Plato.”
“I want to stay with you,” Plato replied.
“I’m touched,” Sparks said. “But you’ve got to go.”
“U.S.S. Escort,” a voice called out over the bridge speakers. “This is Commander Roland Worthy, First Officer of the Idlewild. I hearby order you to lower your shields and beam aboard.”
“Um…not likely,” Sparks replied. “L-lower your jamming field immediately so we can beam our away team back up.”
“Your away team is in our custody. And our ship is bigger than yours. Any other questions?”
“N-no…” Sparks tugged on either side of her hair, pullling it down in front of her face. “I…”
“Mute,” Plato said, and Mathers did so.
“You can’t tell him what to do. You’re not even in Starfleet!” Sparks protested.
“Yeah, but we’re friends,” Plato said, eliciting a shrug from Mathers.
“Okay,” Sparks said. “So I’m assuming you’ve got an idea?”
“Well…there’s one thing our ship can do that theirs can’t,” Plato said.
A slow smile spread across Sparks’ face. She looked at Mathers. “Hey, Colby…how are you with crash protocol?”
Mathers turned in his seat. “Um…why do you ask?”
Tilleran’s eyes fluttered open, and she rubbed her temples, leaning up on one elbow. She was in a holding cell, that much was certain. Below ground, definitely. She looked to her right, and saw Kelly Peterman, pacing, back to her, mumbling to herself.
She turned the other way, and not surprisingly, found Howie Sefelt on his back, peacefully unconscious, in the cell on the other side of her.
Glancing again at Peterman, she gently rolled off her cot and crawled, ever so quietly, to the other side of her cell, leaning against the bars.
“Howie…” she whispered. “You awake?”
The lieutenant twitched a bit, but remained unconscious.
Peterman’s mind was an open book. Her thoughts spilled out sloppily, hurriedly, angrily.
He was on this planet; he orchestrated the whole thing. Probably had the colony leadership hostage, his ship cloaked in orbit. He’d done more than a little to rattle Peterman.
Beneath that, though, she found something she’d suspected all day: Peterman was on to her. She didn’t know the particulars, but she suspected something was off with Tilleran, and that it might have something to do with Sefelt’s newfound confidence.
But this wasn’t the time to reverse anything. Tilleran had been trying to do so this entire trip, and had been interrupted at every turn. That could be blamed on the close quarters of the Escort.
But now they were captured, in unfamiliar territory, and she couldn’t afford a panicking Sefelt, adding a seriously unstable element to the equation. She needed him.
Just then, the doors to the cell block swung open, and Governor Hapley jogged in.
“I’m glad to see you’re awake,” he said to Tilleran, looking also to Peterman. “You’ve got to help me.”
“Yeah, we’re real inclined to help you right now, Buddy,” Peterman said, and glanced sidelong at Tilleran. “Wait. How long have you been awake?”
“Just a moment,” Tilleran said, grabbing a cell bar and pulling herself up by it. “Governor, the Counselor has a point. Why should we help you?”
“This whole thing was engineered by that Ficker fellow. He has my home surrounded. Has guards in my office. He’s…they’re Starfleet officers. Why are you people attacking each other?”
“He’s a…” Tilleran looked at Peterman. “Renegade.”
“He’s not to be trusted,” Peterman said, returning Tilleran’s glance. “You need to let us go so we can get out of here and stop Ficker.”
“That was precisely my idea. But you have to promise me…promise me that nobody here will be harmed.”
“We’ll do our best,” Peterman said.
“Do you have access to weapons?” asked Tilleran.
“Ficker’s people took them all,” replied Hapley.
“That’s all right,” Tilleran said, pushing up her sleeves. “We won’t be needing weapons.”
“Ariel…” Peterman began. “This is not a good…”
“Unlock our cells,” Tilleran said, looking earnestly at Hapley. “Counselor, wake Lieutenant Sefelt. Stay behind me.”
“Are you sure about this?” Hapley asked.
“Do you want our help or not?”
Hapley nodded. “Yes. But I also want the mulch.”
Tilleran rolled her eyes. “You can keep the fwarking mulch. Now let us out.”
Plato gripped the command chair with both hands as Sparks sat in it, digging her fingers into the chair arms, as the atmosphere of Montavius Six swung ominously into view.
“We’re approaching on an angle of Z-minus two,” Mathers said. “Hull temperature rising quickly.”
“Reinforce shields to that area,” Sparks replied.
“Idlewild is in pursuit, weapons hot,” Mathers said, his voice shaking.
Sparks sighed. “This is no good. Colby, you’ve been trained on tactical. Move back there, and I’ll take the helm.”
“Are you sure?”
“Just move!” Sparks urged, pushing out of the command chair.
“Where do you want me?” Plato asked.
“The command chair. It has a seatbelt. You’re gonna need it.” Sparks moved to the helm chair as Mathers sidled over to tactical.
“Yes!” Plato said, and sat down, punching a control as four straps shot out from the tops and bottom of the chair, belting him in snugly. “This must be what it feels like to be the captain!”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t wear his seatbelt,” Sparks said, nosing the Escort down into the Montavius atmosphere and diverting more power to shields. “Anyways, Starfleet isn’t for everyone. It’s risky.”
“It’s for you though.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Idlewild closing to weapons range…” Colby said, his voice really shaking now.
“But when you came to the Explorer, you were shy…you were so quiet…”
“I still am, whenever possible,” Sparks said, pushing hair out of her face and knotting it into a ponytail. “But sometimes, the situation calls for something else. You’ve got to adapt.”
“Where’d you learn that? Some class at the academy?”
“No,” Sparks said, and smiled wryly. “From watching your friends on the Explorer. Hold on.”
The Escort, flames licking at her hull, dove down, streaking through the cloud cover, and heading, like a comet, toward the surface of Montavius Six, just as phasers lanced out from the pursuing Idlewild.
“Are you crazy? Don’t shoot!”
Roland Worthy stroked his dark goatee as he stared at the viewscreen. His eyes kind of stared at everything, unfeeling, like a shark’s. His features bespoke someone with no social graces. He glanced back at the source of the panicked voice and chuckled. “You’re in no position to give orders on this ship, Cadet. You’re here at the Captain’s pleasure.”
“He’s right about one thing,” the lieutenant at tactical spoke up. “The hull’s heating up. And a Sabre-class ship isn’t built for atmospheric entry below this altitude.”
“So you just want to turn around, just like the cowards Starfleet thinks we are?”
“Starfleet doesn’t think I’m a coward,” the ensign at helm said. “I just flunked my officer’s exam.”
“I hoard potatoes,” the lieutenant at tactical said. “Lots of them. And I scream in my sleep.”
“I know, Angelina, believe me, I know.”
Cadet Ethan Piper stepped down from the aft decks and approached the taller Worthy, looking up into his eyes. “This is just wrong. One Starfleet ship shouldn’t fire on another! I have friends aboard!”
“You abandoned those friends when you chose to come here, Mister Piper,” Worthy said. “I doubt they’d have you back, any way. And in any event, as our good Captain has reminded us, our mission requires us to operate outside the law for now. It’s essential, if we’re to prove our point.”
“That rejects can function in society?” Piper asked, and laughed. “Don’t you see the irony here? We’re proving right now that we CAN’T function in society!”
“Silence yourself and return to your post, or I’ll remove you from the bridge. And believe me, when he returns, Captain Ficker WILL hear about this.” He pivoted to face helm. “Ensign Kalvert, pull back and return to a stable orbit. We’ll wait until the Escort tries to take off, then we’ll immobilize them.”
“We’re going about this all the wrong way,” Piper said, folding his arms, and marching back to the science console.
“Says you,” Worthy muttered.
“I like this office. It’s understated, yet classy,” Ficker said, puffing at a cigar as he leaned back in the governor’s chair. “When will the governor be back, Mister Snodgrass?”
“He said he just had to check on the mulch,” the narrow, pointy- featured ensign said, standing next to Ficker.
“Did we have him followed?”
“You didn’t ask us to.”
Ficker looked up at him. “I certainly did.”
“Oh. If you did, I forgot.”
Ficker shoved his cigar in the ashtray on the desk. “Do I have to do everything around here? Damn it, Snodgrass, you’re the first person I recruited. I expect you, of all people, to understand my teachings. To live them!”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that means,” Snodgrass said, rubbing his head.
“Idiots!” Ficker exclaimed, rising to his feet and heading for the door. “C’mon with me, Snodgrass. You too Blair, Finnerty.”
They hadn’t even reached the door when it was kicked open. Tilleran stood there, with Peterman, cradling a woozy Sefelt, behind her.
Her eyes blazed extra black. She stared at Ficker. “You wanted to elicit a response from Starfleet?”
“I was hoping to,” Ficker said sheepishly. “Why, you have one for me?”
“Yeah,” she said, and stepped toward him, staring deeply into his eyes.
“Um, Ariel…” Peterman began.
Ficker clutched at his head. “Wha…no…no that’s not pretty! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! No, that’s definitely not pretty! Stop hurting me!”
“You’ll release us. You’ll let us go. And you’ll stop bothering us,” Tilleran ordered.
“Stop bothering you,” Ficker muttered, falling to his knees. His other officers came at Tilleran, raising their weapons. She gave a glance at each of them, who looked at each other, screaming, then ran in opposite directions, smashing into the walls of the office.
Peterman stepped forward and took Tilleran’s shoulder, as she stared at Ficker writhing on the floor.
“Ariel….” she said. “Stop…”
Tilleran turned to look at Peterman. “Quiet!”
Peterman blinked. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Are we in trouble?” Sefelt asked dizzily, sagging against Peterman. “Where are we? Why are we here? How’d we get here?”
“Shush,” Peterman said. “We’ll have this all sorted out in a min…”
Suddenly the whine of a transporter beam sounded throughout the room, and Peterman, Tilleran, and Sefelt disappeared in a flicker of blue.
“…the hell happened?” Peterman asked, running out onto the bridge, followed by Sefelt and Tilleran.
Sparks looked up from the helm console. “The Idlewild happened,” she said. “Grab a seat. I’m taking us out of the atmosphere, and it’s gonna get bumpy…”
“Out! Shoo!” Peterman said, waving Plato out of the command chair, and moved over to it, as Tilleran sat down at sciences.
“They Idlewild is closing,” she said. “Mathers, reinforce power to shields and weapons.”
“I don’t know where to sit,” Sefelt said, looking around, scratching his stomach.
“Just grab onto something, Howie,” Peterman called out.
“Yeah,” Howie said, looking back at a railing along the rear of the bridge. “Grab.”
On the viewscreen, the Idlewild loomed, its weapons ports glowing.
“Evasive maneuvers, Cadet Sparks,” said Peterman. “They may be better at…well, everything else. But we have maneuverability.”
“I’m pretty sure they have that too,” Sparks said.
“Is that…” Sefelt squinted at the viewscreen. “Is that the Idlewild?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said.
“And we’re getting closer,” Sparks said. “Weapons range in two minutes.”
“Increase speed to full impulse once we clear the atmosphere. Then steer hard to port.”
“Oh my gosh,” Sefelt said. “They’re gonna shoot at us!”
“Yeah, nothing you haven’t faced before, right Howie?” Sparks asked.
“No…well I…I don’t know…”
Tilleran glanced back at Sefelt. “Oh…oh my Gods…it’s wearing off!”
Peterman stared at Tilleran, and was apparently the only one who heard her. “What’s wearing off?”
The Escort shot out of the Montavius atmosphere, headed right for the Idlewild.
“Now, Sparks,” Peterman called out. “Turn. Turn!”
On command, the Escort banked to port on a wing, and increased speed. The Idlewild pivoted, giving chase.
“We’re getting instructions to stand down,” Mathers said from tactical.
“Weapons analysis…wait, nevermind, I don’t want to hear it,” Peterman said. “I probably won’t understand most of it, and none of it’ll be good anyway.”
“Y-you’re right about that,” Mathers said, gulping.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! We’re all going to die!” Sefelt cried out, leaping at Peterman and wrapping his arms around her. “SAVE ME, COUNSELOR! SAVE ME!”
“Howie?” Sparks asked, perplexed.
“That’s my boy,” Petersen sighed.
Tilleran looked at her screens. “Wait a sec. The Idlewild is slowing down. She’s powering down weapons and heading back to Montavius…”
“Wonder why?” Peterman asked, though, looking at Tilleran, she had a pretty good idea.
Stardate 58270.6. Having finished the majority of our scans of the Bermuda Expanse, and finding not a freaking thing, we’re making a beeline for the Montavius system, where, apparently, my wife and several members of my crew were nearly nabbed by Alvin Ficker. Kelly says there’s an explanation for the whole thing, but she wants to wait to speak with me in person.
Whatever it is, odds are it isn’t good. And this is reason number nine thousand why I’m going to kick every inch of Alvin Ficker’s ass the first chance I get.
“The Explorer’ll be here soon,” Peterman said, sitting on the couch in the captain’s office/quarters, sipping a hot tea and staring into its steam.
“That’s…good,” Tilleran said, standing by the door, arms folded. “Did you have a good conversation with Captain Baxter?”
“I told him Ficker is crazier than we thought, and that he still has a thing for me, and that he almost destroyed the Escort and took us hostage. So, no, it was not a particularly good conversation.”
“Did you discuss…details?” Tilleran asked, leaning against the door jamb.
“No,” Peterman said. “I was waiting until he got here. We shouldn’t keep the subspace channel open long. The Idlewild might still be nearby, and still be tracking us.”
“They’re long gone,” Tilleran said. “I’d know if they were near, I think.”
“About that…” Peterman said. “What happened between you and Ficker…”
“I was simply protecting us. We had no weapons, so…I guess you’d say I used my head.” She gave a hollow chuckle.
“The same way you used it on Howie Sefelt?”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“During the trip to the Pleasure Magnet…I hear from Cadet Sparks that he panicked, much as he has so many times before, just like he did earlier today. But that you and he got into some king of physical altercation…”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. “We were all under the influence of that magnet. It was making us do things we might not have normally done.”
“Commander,” Peterman said, turning to Tilleran. “Are you abusing your telepathic powers?”
“Yes,” Tilleran said, simply. “I…it started so innocently. Just getting a couple people to do the things I wanted. If an ensign was mad about her shift being changed, I made her happy. If someone was having a bad day, I made it better. Just a tweak, here or there. It’s harmless.”
“You’ve got to stop,” Peterman said. “Forgetting for a moment all of the ethical problems, it’s just not good for you. This kind of abuse of power becomes addictive real quick.”
“I can control it.”
“That’s what all addicts say.”
“But I know I can,” Tilleran said, approaching Peterman, pleading. “Please. I need this. You saw how it came in handy today. Imagine the weapon I can be…an instrument of change, an instrument of good. I can help everyone…”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to talk to Andy. We need to get you help.”
“No,” Tilleran said softly.
“I’m not asking permission,” Peterman said. “This is what we have to do. Please don’t fight me on this.”
Tilleran waved a hand across Peterman’s face. “No. There’s no problem. We’re not discussing this anymore. You don’t even know what we’re discussing.”
Peterman blinked, smiling politely. “I’m sorry, Commander. I trailed off there for a second. What were we talking about?”
“Nothing in particular,” Tilleran said, and smiled. It actually felt really good getting all that off her chest, even if Peterman would never remember what happened. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the bridge.”
“Sure,” Peterman said, and returned to her tea. “Boy, I’m a real airhead today.”
“I’m sorry,” Sparks said from the top bunk of the tiny cabin on the Escort. “I really like you, Howie. I really do. But you keep changing…so quickly. I don’t know who you are right now.”
“That makes two of us,” Sefelt said. “I mean, one minute, I’m unstoppable, then next minute I’m…”
“The same old Howie I first met. The one I liked so much,” Sparks said, finishing his thought. “But you’re dealing with a lot of…fears, I know. And I am too. And I’m afraid we just can’t deal with them together.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
Sparks stared at the ceiling of her bunk and sighed. Throughout this courtship from Plato and Sefelt, an inescapable conclusion finally came to her. She liked being alone.
Not only that, but, shallow as it seemed, she had to admit, she liked the brave Sefelt much better.
Captain Baxter, Lt. Commander J’hana, and Janice Browning stood at the airlock as it irised open and the Escort crew piled out.
“Okay, I want to hear it all,” Baxter demanded.
“Not much to tell.” Petersen looked at Tilleran. “Just your average narrow escape. Your cadets did great. We should give them a commendation.”
“Done,” Baxter said. “What about Sefelt?”
Peterman watched a dejected Sefelt shuffle by, and head down the corridor. “He’s back to the Howie we all know and love…oddly.”
“I’m going to be in my quarters,” Sparks said, looking at an expectant Plato. “Alone.”
“That sounds like a fine idea,” Tilleran said, and headed the opposite direction, not sparing J’hana a glance.
“Nice chatting with you too,” J’hana called after her.
“Hoverball later?” Plato asked Mathers.
“Sure,” Mathers said, and shuffled off after Sparks, toward the enlisted crew quarters.
“Plato!” Browning said, throwing her arms around her son. “No more risky missions for you! Why is it, every time I let you out of my sight…”
“I know, Mom,” Plato sighed. “I’m accident-prone.”
“Welcome to the Explorer,” Baxter chuckled, and took Peterman’s hand. “All right, sweetie, tell me all about it, and why this doesn’t mean I should take off and blast Ficker right out of the stars.”
Peterman shrugged. “Well, first you’d have to find him, which I imagine isn’t going to be easy. One thing’s for sure. Ficker is out there somewhere, and I’m fairly certain, no matter what he might say to the contrary, that he’s out to get us.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Just a feeling I have, in the back of my mind.”
Natheena Sparks sighed deeply as she headed into her cabin, tossing her duffle on her bed and collapsing into the chair opposite her desk. She threw her head back and stared at the ceiling.
“Men. I just don’t get them. One changes shape, the other changes his mind. Both beautiful in their own way, both oddly confusing.” She leaned up. “Is it any wonder I feel like I’m better off alone?”
“Good evening, Cadet Sparks. Message waiting,” the computer informed her.
“Ah, who cares at this point. I need a bath, and sleep. I don’t have the strength to listen to either of those boys. Computer, delete all messages!”
And with that, Natheena Sparks headed off to get that bath.
Roland Worthy escorted Cadet Piper to his cabin, shaking his head with disgust. “This is going in your permanent record. An outburst like that, on the bridge, is inexcusable.”
“I understand, Commander,” Piper replied, sounding deflated. “I was just…trying to help.”
“You have a funny way of showing it. You’re confined to quarters for three days. Think about what you’ve done.”
“What…what happened to Captain Ficker?”
“I’ll assume you actually care what happens to this ship,” Worthy muttered. “And that there’s a chance of salvaging your career here. Captain Ficker was…attacked…by a telepath from the Explorer. He’s somewhat, well…somewhat catatonic right now. He just keeps muttering that we should call this whole thing off.”
Worthy chuckled. “Of course not. We’ve got him sedated, and comfortable. We’ll get to the bottom of what happened to him. In the meantime, we go forward, unencumbered. Do you understand?”
Piper nodded. “Perfectly.”
“Good,” Worthy said, as they reached Piper’s door. He punched a code and it opened. “Off you go.”
Piper nodded, ducked in, and watched as the door sealed him in and the lights came on. He hurried over to his small desk and sat down, turning the terminal to face him. He reached under the desk, grabbed a small, cubical object and attached it to the terminal control panel, then typed in a few instructions.
A spinning Federation logo appeared, and gave way to two simple, beautiful words.
Piper quickly typed in a message, staring earnestly at the screen. “Please, please, Nat. Be there. I’ve got news for you. Please…read this message, Nat!”
A trip to Andor to receive an award for Meritorius Killing provides a chance for J’hana and Richards to spend some time away from the Explorer getting to know each other. Unfortunately, J’hana knows next to nothing about dating human males, and must resort to asking Counselor Peterman for assistance. Her answer? Extreme makeover!