Author: Anthony Butler
STARFLEET COMMAND DEPARTMENT OF STARFLEET OPERATIONS & COMMUNICATIONS
“Shhh! She’s coming!”
“Turn off your monitor before she sees it!”
“It’s not like she’ll even get the joke.”
“She’s more perceptive than you think. She used to be a science officer.”
“That hardly matters. She can’t have been that great a science officer. I mean…seven years…”
“There were…‘extenuating circumstances…’”
“Okay, stop, you sound WAY too much like her, especially for a guy…”
“You think? Wow, I’m flattered. I sound just like Admiral Exp…”
“SHHHHHHHHHHH!” Ensign Kimberly Cohen pulled her finger across her throat in a silencing gesture and switched off her desktop panel.
Lieutenant Jeff Palmer turned away from Cohen’s desk and looked over at the half-wall that surrounded his friend’s cubical, just outside the Admiral’s office.
Sure enough, a little brown hair bun appeared just on the other side of the wall, bobbing gently as its owner approached.
“Just act natural,” Cohen said, calling a starmap up on her terminal and folding her hands on her desk, as the brown bun rounded the corner, revealing a solidly-built but petite woman in her late forties rounded the corner into the anteroom and regarded her and her friend with raised eyebrow.
“Lieutenant. Did you bring me the report on the Sutherland’s position?”
Palmer nodded, thrusting a padd at the Admiral. “Yes, ma’am.”
“What have I told you? Please don’t call me ma’am.”
The woman raised the other eyebrow, shaking her head quizzically. “Just tell me, are we ready to debrief the Sutherland’s crew on their mission?”
“Not quite. I don’t have all the background…”
“What do you have?”
“Well, they faced the Jarada once before, a few years ago.”
“Good, good. Continue.”
“And the captain, he’s got a problem with insects.”
“That could be good. I’ll have to mention that.”
“And the chief medical officer has something of a drinking problem.”
“That could definitely come into play.”
“And I found out from a well-documented source that the Jarada Ambassador despises Starfleet and all it stands for.”
The Admiral nodded. “We’ll definitely have to make a note of that.”
“Yes, si…Yes, Admiral.”
“Well done, Lieutenant Palmer. I think that’s enough for me to work with. You may return to your desk. Ensign Cohen, please put the Sutherland’s captain on my call rotation.”
Cohen nodded and tapped the coordinates into her panel. “Aye, Admiral.”
“I don’t really care for Aye, either,” the Admiral said, hugging her padd. “Yes will do fine.”
“Sure,” Cohen said, sharing a quick smile with Lt. Palmer. “It’s not like we weren’t trained to say ‘aye’ like every day since Montgomery Scott’s time…”
“Hmm?” the Admiral asked, pausing at her door. “I didn’t quite hear that, Ensign.”
“Just put up the next call in the rotation. What is it…the Excelsior?”
“No, Admiral. Explorer.”
The woman’s soft features fell slightly as she stepped into her office. “Are you certain?”
“Confirmed. Their tactical officer reports they’re standing by. She’s, um, a little surly.”
“Fine,” the Admiral said. “Put their background info up on my screen and bring me a greenleaf tea in a few minutes. I’m going to need something to calm my nerves. I just know it.”
“Whatever you say, Admiral Janeway,” Cohen sighed, glaring up at Palmer and rolling her eyes. “Explorer is patched through to your terminal when you’re ready.” On her own panel, she watched the waiting Captain Baxter as she patched the communication back to the Admiral’s office.
Kathryn Janeway stepped around her desk, sat down heavily, and sighed. She glanced at a monitor next to her communication terminal and studied the information, then rubbed her temples, preparing herself mentally as she did for her tougher assignments. She often wished Starfleet had given her a position closer to the action, but Operations and Communications was an important function and it needed to be carried out.
She poked a control on her panel, and the screen lit up with the image of the U.S.S. Explorer’s bridge.
Her captain sat in his chair, leaning forward with a broad smile. “Why, Admiral Exposition! How nice to see you!”
Janeway heard hoots of hysterical laughter from the room outside her office, but it was quickly smothered into a few soft giggles.
“Ensign Cohen,” Janeway said drily.
The Ensign ducked into her office, hand firmly over her mouth. “Yes, ma’am,” she mumbled through her fingers.
“Do you need a short break?”
“Yes, Admiral. Thank you.”
“Please go.” Janeway shook her head and glared back at Baxter on the monitor. “Exposition?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, as he and the fellow next to him, who she presumed was the Explorer’s X.O., continued to giggle. “You know…oh, surely you know!”
Baxter’s smile vanished. “Nothing. Nevermind.”
“Must everything be a joke with you, Baxter?”
“I’ve read up on you. I know you. Know your type. And I don’t like it. Doesn’t sit right with me.”
“Oh yeah?” Baxter asked, standing and walking toward his viewscreen. His image grew on her monitor. “You know, I think it’s funny how both our ships got stuck in the Delta Quadrant.”
“They were very different situations,” Janeway said. “Now, on to the reason I’m contacting you…”
“Very different. Yes,” Baxter said, folding his hands behind his back. “It took my crew and I exactly eleven and a half months to escape the Delta Quadrant. And your crew? The Wagoneer people?”
“Voyager,” Janeway snapped. “My ship was called Voyager.”
“Yes. And how long did it take you and your intrepid crew?”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is, we got back. Now then…”
“SEVEN YEARS!” Baxter said, slapping his thigh and laughing. “And believe me when I say, my people are as incompetent as they come but….” He turned and looked at his X.O. “Seven years!” He chuckled.
“LOOK!” Janeway said. “I had to blow up the Caretaker Array because it was a danger to the Ocampa. It’s all in my book…”
Baxter grimaced. “Yeah, yeah. ‘Life, the Kazon, and Everything.’ I got it on audio. I knew I should have written a book when I got back.”
“If you could string together a coherent phrase,” Janeway said under her breath.
“Nothing.” Janeway gripped her desk, her knuckles white with anger. “Do you want your mission or not? I can always give it to the other ship of imbeciles…the what, the Aerostar?”
Baxter bit his lip thoughtfully. “Sure, lay it on me, Exposition.”
Janeway stared at Baxter. “I don’t get…no, wait, I don’t care. Look, the Andorians were impressed with your recent visit to their planet, though Lord knows why. Your tactical officer maimed a dozen people at a ball thrown in her honor, then beheaded a member of the awards committee on stage at an awards show…”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “But they like that kind of thing.”
“Yes,” Janeway said through clenched teeth. “Apparently. Regardless, the Andorians gave you very high marks. Therefore, Starfleet Command has requested your presence at another diplomatic event.”
“Really? Two in one month? That’s, like, a record.”
“Indeed. You’re to report to the Gorn homeworld, where you’re to attend the closing meetings of the recent summit between the Federation and the Gorn people. You’ll then pick up the Federation delegation and return them to Earth. You should know, one member of the delegation is allergic to pasta. Several other delegates are involved in a quarrel over the position of the Cassiopeia star cluster. Gorn don’t like Andorians, so your Commander J’hana should keep her distance, and definitely not kill anyone. Meanwhile, your people’s last run-in with the Gorn was dicey…”
“I know, I know. You don’t need to go over…” Baxter began.
“Captain, I will get through this, even if we have to sit here all day…”
Janeway gave a barely audible growl. “As I said, your last run-in with the Gorn was dicey. Which is actually an understatement, considering you killed one of their ship captains, who was once Predator- in-Chief.”
“Harth. Yeah, I vaporized him, actually,” Baxter said. “It was cool. Kind of fizzly.”
Janeway narrowed her eyes at Baxter. “It’s also been noted that the Gorn are not receptive to outsiders, and are suspicious of the Federation, which is one of the reasons for the summit. Obviously, you’re to proceed with all due discretion and try not to screw anything up.”
“Admiral, you can count on us.”
“Fortunately, that’s not my department. I just hand out assignments and tell people interesting facts about their assignments that may become important later. Some people actually appreciate it, in fact.”
“I’m sure,” Baxter said, smothering another fit of laughter. “Is that all, Admiral?”
“Yes. Thank God.” Janeway reached to cut the channel, then paused. “You know, Captain Baxter, you’re in luck. You’re so good at getting your ship home from a long distance, you should find this trip very rewarding. From your current location, Gorn space is two weeks away at high warp…”
“DAMMIT!” Baxter smacked himself in the forehead.
“Have a pleasant trip,” Janeway muttered, and closed the channel.
“TWO WEEKS!” Captain Andy Baxter exclaimed, collapsing into his usual seat in the corner booth of Space Tastes. “Do you realize how long that is?”
“Fourteen days,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, situating Steffie in her big-girl stool in the chair beside her. “It’s Gorn space, what are you going to do?”
“Can’t this bucket go any faster?” Baxter demanded.
“We’re traveling at speeds that defy time and space. Trust me, we’re moving at a steady clip. Gorn just happens to be leagues away.”
“If it’s so far away, then why do we want to make peace so bad?”
Peterman shrugged. “Because with a race like the Gorn, having them as a friend is just much better than having them as an enemy. Do we have to reminisce about my kidnaping at the hands of a maniacal Gorn captain and the resulting rescue?”
“No,” Baxter said. “I was there. No need for…” He giggled again. “Exposition.”
“Damn right you were there. And just think, wouldn’t you rather that bunch be on our side instead of against us?”
“I guess. I killed the only one I really couldn’t stand.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, patting Baxter’s hand. “And you’re a big man for doing that.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t placate me.”
“I wasn’t. I was being sincere.”
“You sounded like you were placating me.”
“It’s a habit,” Peterman muttered to herself and glanced back toward the kitchen. “Janice? Could we get the tuna sushi platter? I’ve got an appointment in forty minutes.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” Browning’s voice echoed from the kitchen.
“What’s her problem?” Baxter asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Peterman asked. “She’s still moping about Richards and J’hana.”
“She seemed over it, last we talked.”
“Well, that’s because you’re not looking beneath the surface. Trust me, she still hurts.”
“So what should we do?”
“I have a feeling, when she’s ready, she’ll come to us,” Peterman said, and picked up a padd. “Now if you don’t mind, I have to get ready for my app…”
“Tuna sushi!” Browning said, appearing as if from out of nowhere next to their table, setting down a platter. “How’s your lunch?”
“You just sat it down in front of us, so I don’t know,” Baxter said.
“Oh,” Browning said. “Well, this’ll be good. I put a little cheese in yours, Andy, because I know how you like cheese.”
“You’ve got to stop spoiling him, Janice,” Peterman said, rolling her eyes.
“Food’s my job,” Browning said, and gazed off at the corridor outside, as Explorer crew passed by. “My only job.”
Baxter glanced at Peterman, inclining his head toward Browning.
“Have a seat, Janice,” Peterman said, patting the chair beside her. “Talk to us.”
“Talk!” Steffie said, clapping. She grabbed a piece of sushi and threw it at Browning, who deftly caught it and popped it into her mouth. “Now now, darling. That’s got iodine and toxic enzymes that could put you in the bathroom for three days straight.”
“And yet it’s fine for me,” Baxter said, looking down at the sushi.
“Yeah, sure,” Browning said. “So what do you want to talk about?”
Baxter grimaced at his sushi and turned to Browning. “We know you’ve had a rough time of it lately.”
“Well, with Chris and J’hana and…”
“Goodness, is that all you people chat about! Relationships? There’s more that happens on this ship than crew romances!”
“There is?” Peterman asked, looking at Baxter.
“You’re not upset about Chris?”
“Nah. I was the one who broke up with him, remember? Tilleran’s the one sulking, though I think there’s more to it than that.” Browning shrugged. “I guess I could be better, but romance has nothing to do with it.” She smiled. “Actually, in that department…”
“What?” Baxter asked.
“Nothing.” She looked back at Peterman. “Really, I’m fine.”
“Okay,” Peterman said. “Well, if you’re sure…”
“It’s just that sometimes I feel kinda useless.”
“What do you mean? Your baked ziti keeps me awake at night!” Baxter said. “Partly from the indigestion, yes, but also because I like it so damn much. I keep trying to figure out what you put in there!”
“Well, that’s nice. But I guess, truth be known, that since leaving Sickbay…again… I’ve found life kind of dull. I mean I watch you guys get into adventures, and I remember when I used to be a part of them, and I miss those times.”
“You do?” Peterman asked. “I mean…why?”
“Because, in spite of the danger, and the sheer perverseness of our escapades, at least we went through them together, ya know?”
“She has a point,” Baxter said. “So you want a few more shifts in Sickbay? Want to perform some unnecessary surgery just for old time’s sake? I could talk to Holly…”
Browning laughed. “No, but thanks for the offer. I’m definitely not looking to get back into medicine. But it would be nice to do SOMEthing important around here, other than just keeping your tummy full.”
Baxter looked down. “I think that’s important.”
“That’s sweet. But I need more. Eh, I’ll figure it out eventually…”
“You know,” Baxter said. “You could go down with the detachment to Gorn.”
Browning brightened. “I could? Like an official representative or something?”
“Yeah, we’ll make up a title or something. Maybe you could represent the Federation Chef’s Association or something.”
“Andy…” Peterman spoke up. “Aren’t there limited spots on the detachment?”
“Yeah, I’m only supposed to bring four people with me. Chris, J’hana, Tilleran…and Janice. Perfect!”
Peterman blanched. “What about me?”
“Ah, you said when we went to Andor that you hate it when I commit you to things. Besides, that way you’ll be able to watch Steffie. Isn’t that right, darling!” Baxter giggled and rubbed Steffie’s chin.
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “I suppose.”
“Great!” Browning said, springing from her chair. “I can’t wait. I don’t have much time, better read up on the Gorn. I don’t even know what they eat!”
“Well, you have plenty of time to bone up. We won’t get there for two weeks.”
“Hmm. Maybe I’ll do Gorn week in the restaurant,” Browning said, rubbing her chin. “I’ve got to do some research. And while I’m at it, I’d better go find out if there’s really such thing as the Federation Chef’s Association…”
As Browning left, Baxter turned back to Peterman with a smile. That smile faded as soon as he saw her dark look.
“So, I’m expendable?” she asked. “Guess I see how important I am, as away teams go.”
“You go on like three away teams a year, and you always complain. Especially when the weather’s bad. And Gorn is like Texas, but with fire and more rocks.”
Peterman folded her arms. “I guess. And it will help Janice.”
Peterman brightened. “You think I could manage things while you’re gone?”
Baxter glanced at her. “You want to be in command?”
“Sure. Despite nearly getting blown up on that trip with the Escort and Lieutenant Sefelt, I actually had fun. I’d like to try my hand at it again. Besides, who else you got? Sefelt, Madera?”
“I was going to put Hartley in charge, but come to think of it, she hates bridge command…”
“There. It’s solved.” Peterman smiled and leaned over, kissing Baxter on the cheek. “You should have put me in command a long time ago, baby!”
“Yeah,” Baxter said weakly. “And here I was thinking it would take me the whole two weeks to make up with you.”
“Exactly. Now we can use that time for other things.”
Baxter brightened. “Like what?”
Peterman shrugged. “Let’s take things as they come.”
TWO WEEKS LATER
“Damn that was a great two weeks!” Baxter said, stretching as he skipped out of the turbolift and onto the bridge. “Did you guys enjoy that as much as I did?”
J’hana glanced down from her station to Richards, who vacated the command chair for Baxter. “Indeed we did,” she grinned.
“Relaxing. Restful. And how about that planet we came across, with the…”
“I know!” Baxter exclaimed, plopping into his seat and glancing at the viewscreen. “And that amazing nebula, with all the…”
“And the abandoned Starbase!” Madera piped up. “I’ve always wondered what had happened to that famous Captain, and now we know.”
“It was a great two weeks,” Baxter said.
“I had some great naps,” Sefelt offered up from ops.
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Good times.”
Baxter tapped his hands on the command chair arm. “Who knows though, maybe somebody will one day tell of all the adventures we had during those amazing weeks.”
“Doubtful,” Tilleran said from her station. “Seems sort of like a waste of time.”
Baxter shrugged. “Guess you’re right. Well, then. Time to Gorn?”
“Twelve minutes,” J’hana said. “Are you ready to face your fears, Captain?”
“Fears?” Baxter asked. “I’m afraid of big bugs and slime monsters. But lizard people are fine. I don’t like the ones who try to kidnap my wife, but luckily, that one’s dead. Far as I’m concerned, let’s be friends.”
“That’s an enlightened view, Captain,” Richards said. “Well, all systems are go for the mission.”
“Meaning the transporters are working and our dress uniforms are pressed?”
“Well, yeah. But when you say it that way, it sounds like it didn’t take any work to set up.”
“Fair point.” Richards stood and stretched. “Well, guess I’ll go and put on my dress uniform.”
“Sure I couldn’t talk you into something leather, with spikes?” Baxter asked. “The Gorn might really like that.”
“No. That’s okay, really.”
“Oh. Chris?” Baxter asked as Richards headed for the lift.
He pressed the call button and turned. “Yeah?”
“I forgot to mention that Janice’s coming with us on the trip, as, you know, a thing to make her feel better.”
“Oh,” Richards said, backing into the lift, nearly stumbling into Peterman as she sidled out. “Great.”
“See you in the transporter room!” Baxter said, waving.
Peterman glanced back at him. “Did you finally tell him?”
Baxter nodded. “What can I say. It was a busy two weeks. Anyway, what do you care? You’re in command!”
The counselor circled down to the front of the bridge and looked around. “Wow. The conn. I’m so excited!”
Baxter stood. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Sure! Why not? I’ve commanded before. Only this time, it’s not because I staged a coup, or, you know, everyone else got captured.”
“Just wondering. Okay, I’m off to change. Sweetie, you have the bridge.” Baxter leaned over and kissed Peterman gently, then glanced up at J’hana and Tilleran and pointed to the lift. “Off we go, folks.”
“Call us if you encounter any problems, ‘sweetie,’” J’hana said with a chortle as she followed Baxter into the lift.
Peterman gritted her teeth. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. Hey, and bring me back some leftovers!”
Ten minutes later, Baxter stepped into the transporter room, still pulling on the jacket of his dress uniform.
Janice Browning bounded in behind him, giddily adjusting her beige tartan skirt and frilly blouse. “This is so cool! I’m on an away team again!”
Lt. Commander Richards was already on the transporter padd, along with Tilleran and J’hana. “Yes. Cool,” he said. “Should be fun.”
“Yes,” Tilleran said, averting her eyes. “Fun.”
Baxter walked up to the transporter pad as Browning stepped onto one of the circles and looked at his away team.
He slapped a hand slowly over his face. What had he done?
He’d just sentenced himself to a day trip with four people who absolutely should not be spending any time together, let alone at a summit with a warlike race that dislikes the Federation.
“Problem, sir?” Ensign Yang asked from the transporter console.
“Yes. Several of them,” Baxter said, marching onto the transporter pad. “But none that can’t be mixed with a little…” He looked at his group, who all fairly glowered at the floor, save for Browning, who was happily munching on a breakfast tart. “Diplomacy. Energize.”
“What are they saying?” Browning whispered to Baxter, leaning across Tilleran’s lap.
“They’re talking about trade routes in the Vardamor system, which borders both Federation and Gorn space,” Baxter said.
“No they’re not,” Tilleran said under her breath, glaring from Browning to Baxter. “They were talking about that twenty minutes ago. They’re talking about demilitarizing the border zone now.”
“You’re kidding,” Baxter said. “Hm. Must’ve drifted off.”
“We’ve been here thirty minutes.”
Baxter squirmed in his seat. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. Steffie has started doing this thing where she cackles in her sleep. It’s…unsettling.”
Tilleran had stopped listening, and was glancing about the crowded amphitheater. “Have you seen J’hana and Richards?”
“They’re coordinating with the Starfleet security and ground operations contingent. J’hana has some tips for them.”
“Oh,” Tilleran said. “So it’s not…you know.”
“Can we not talk about this?” Browning snapped. “I mean…there’s some fascinating stuff going on here. Hey, Andy…did you ask them about dinner?”
“If by them you’re referring to the Gorn Foreign Minister and the Federation Ambassador to Gorn, then no, I haven’t chatted them up yet.”
“I just want to fix something, you know, appropriate for the occasion. I’ve been researching Gorn and Terran dishes, and there actually are some similarities. I’ve got a great recipe for chocolate covered grasshoppers…”
“Fantastic,” Baxter said. “Could we, you know, watch the thing?”
“When are they supposed to be back?” Tilleran asked, angling her head toward the door.
Baxter folded his arms. “For two people that have proclaimed, over and over, that they’re happy for Chris and J’hana, you sure aren’t acting happy.”
“Feel free to shoot us with a happy beam, sir, if that’ll make you feel better,” Tilleran snapped.
“And I don’t know what’s up with you. You’ve been all…distant lately.” Baxter cocked his head. “Are you seeing somebody new too?”
“‘Too’?” Tilleran asked, turning to Browning. “Doctor?”
“Shut up, Andy,” Browning said with clenched teeth. “I told you to keep that between us.”
“Godsakes, I feel like a camp counselor sometimes,” Baxter said, leaning back in his seat.
“Ma’am,” Tilleran said, leaning forward and tapping the Bajoran in front of her on the shoulder. “Could you lean over? I’m having trouble seeing the head table.”
The Bajoran glanced back at her, nodded politely, but did not move her head out of the way.
“Ma’am? Could you move your head?”
Again, she did not respond.
Tilleran frowned, tapping her chin thoughtfully. She then glared at the back of the woman’s head, focusing her telepathic powers.
Moments later, the Bajoran turned, cocking her head quizzically. “I’m dreadfully sorry. I should move.”
“Thanks,” Tilleran said.
“Dreadfully, dreadfully sorry. Enjoy your visit.”
“Weird,” Browning said, watching the woman scurry out of the room.
“Glad she finally came to her senses,” Tilleran muttered, sinking a little lower in her chair.
“I’m taking a walk,” Baxter said. “This is getting boring.”
“There’s still like three hours left,” Tilleran noted.
“Yeah. Well…I’m stretching my legs.”
“If you run into one of the coordinating committee members, mention dinner!” Browning called out.
“Sure,” Baxter said, and sidled clumsily out of the row of seats, nearly stepping on a Tellarite, two Gorn, a Bolian, and three Terrans.
He ducked out of the amphitheater and leaned against the nearest wall. “Please, whatever gods the Gorn believe in, please deliver me from this ridiculous relationship crap.”
“Baxter. Andy Baxter,” a voice hissed from behind him.
Baxter turned and screamed. “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
His scream wasn’t totally without reason. What he faced; or rather who, was by far the largest Gorn he’d ever seen (and he’d seen quite a few since beaming down to the Arena Conference Arena).
She (he was pretty sure that it was female) was nearly as wide as she was tall. And she was tall, towering over him, a solid, thick core, stubby but muscular arms and legs, massive razor claws, and at least one row of long, demonic teeth.
Even worse, she appeared to be wearing the same dress Browning was wearing…just bigger.
“Am I right? Baxter?”
“Y-yes,” Baxter said, backing up and immediately hitting the wall behind him. “Do…do I know you? Did we meet at the snack table before the meeting or…?” Who was he kidding, she was the size of the snack table. How could he have missed her?
“You killed my ex-boyfriend,” she snarled.
No way. Not possible. Wasn’t there anyone out there thinking about something other than unrequited love? “Sooooooooo…that would make you…Sharon?”
“Sirron,” the behemoth woman replied, stepping closer to Baxter. He could swear he felt the floor moving. “You deprived me of reconciliation with my beloved Harth…that blattzing fool!”
“Well, the guy kidnaped my wife and tried to kill me so, you know, he wasn’t all that great…”
“SILENCE!” Sirron bellowed, leaning down so her wild slitted eyes glared into Baxter’s soul. “You ruined what could have been a beautiful relationship, with one, thoughtless, cowardly phaser blast.”
Ever so slowly, Baxter sidled toward the door into the amphitheater. “I honestly felt kind of good about it. I mean…it was pretty much him or me. And I’m not usually the confrontational type, so…”
A paw the size of Baxter’s head reached out, took his throat, and hefted him, slamming him into the wall. “I will have vengeance on you, and all those who follow you.”
“Urk,” Baxter rasped, grappling for his throat.
“Hey, Andy…” Browning said, ducking out of the amphitheater. “Do you know if they closed the snack table? Those crispy things were tasty and…WHOA!” Browning’s eyes widened as she saw Sirron wrenching Baxter against the wall.
Sirron turned her bulbous neck and regarded Browning. “Stay out of this, human. This does not concern…wait. YOU’RE WEARING MY DRESS!”
Baxter wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw flames actually blazing in the Gorn woman’s eyes. He chimed into the conversation by saying “urk.”
Tilleran emerged behind Browning, stretching. “I’m going to look for those two. You know, make sure they’ve…” She gasped. “Captain, are you aware you’re being attacked by…a green continent?”
“Urk! Urk!” Baxter kicked his legs, his face turning purple.
“Hey, stop it. You’re hurting him!”
“I cannot BELIEVE you’re wearing my dress!” the Gorn woman snapped, and dropped Baxter like he weighed nothing. The captain fell to the floor like a sack of bricks, grasping at his throat.
“Is everything okay over here?” a Gorn guard asked, ambling up, staff in hand.
“Other than the fact that our captain was nearly crushed by Starbase One over here…” Tilleran said, pointing at Sirron.
“Oh, I hate you already,” Sirron growled.
“Okay, as long as nothing’s wrong. Carry on,” the Gorn growled, and shuffled off.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Baxter rasped, climbing to his knees. “That’s what passes for security around here?”
“The Gorn believe in letting each citizen handle his or her own affairs,” Sirron thundered, looking at Baxter, Tilleran, and Browning, licking her lips. “Unless they’re given the chance to climb buildings. They do like doing that.”
“Where’s the Starfleet security detachment?” Browning asked, glancing around.
“Having the longest meeting ever with my ex and your ex!” Tilleran snapped.
“All of you shut up!” Sirron growled, and stabbed a stubby finger on a device on her wrist. Everyone dematerialized.
Moments later, Richards and J’hana walked up.
“C’mon, just hold my hand,” Richards said.
“You’re a woman. I don’t think women can be emasculated.”
“Well, I do not want to find out.” J’hana looked around, her antennae twitching. “Transporters were just used here.”
“I’m sure they were,” Richards said. “This is a busy arena.”
“Something is not right,” J’hana said, and turned to the Gorn security guard, who stood behind a desk watching what appeared to be a Gorn wrestling match on a monitor. “Excuse me…guard? Have you seen anything out of the ordinary here recently?”
“Nothing,” the Gorn replied and went back to his screen.
“See,” Richards said. “Now remember what I told you. We did NOT have sex in a closet. We were at an important meeting with the Starfleet security and ground operations detachment.”
“Do we even know anyone from that group?”
“No, but we should get a name. Good thinking! See how well we work together?”
J’hana worked her jaw thoughtfully. “Indeed. So you believe nothing calamitous has happened?”
“Sure of it,” Richards said. “Besides, if there’d been something to worry about on this trip, Admiral Exposition would have told us about it. Let’s go in and find the others.”
STARFLEET COMMAND DEPARTMENT OF STARFLEET OPERATIONS & COMMUNICATIONS
“Admiral Ex…I mean Janeway?” Ensign Cohen asked, peeking inside Janeway’s door.
The Admiral was rubbing her temples. “What?”
“Sorry about earlier. I thought you knew…”
“I am a Starfleet Admiral. I’m not concerned with petty nicknames. Forget about it.”
“Understood,” Cohen said with a quick nod, but didn’t leave the doorway.
“Is that all?” Janeway asked.
“Not quite.” She gingerly slid a padd onto Janeway’s desk. “Research just came up with this tidbit about the Explorer’s mission to Gorn. It’s funny, actually…would you believe a member of the Gorn contingent is actually the ex-girlfriend of the Gorn ship commander that Captain Baxter killed last year?”
Janeway arched an eyebrow, looking at the padd. “Really.”
“Should we raise the Explorer on subspace and relay that information?”
Janeway set the padd down. “No.” She chuckled. “It sounds to me just like useless ‘exposition,’ doesn’t it?”
“Well, wouldn’t want to bother the Explorer crew with such trivia. Anyway, it’s a big summit. Odds are they won’t even run into each other. Bury it, Ensign.”
“It’s maddening, not being on the bridge,” Nat Sparks said, rapping her fingers on the table in Space Tastes, as Plato returned from the kitchen with a plate of julienned vegetables and dip, and a tray of assorted meats and cheeses. Browning kept these things, as a rule, just sitting around, in case someone was hungry. The woman liked food.
Colby Mathers leaned over the table and grabbed a hunk of sausage, dipping it in mustard. “I kind of like the time off. It gives me time to think, ponder on…”
Nat waited, watching Mathers as Plato sat down beside her. “Ponder on what?”
“I don’t know,” Mathers said, looking down at the sausage and popping it into his mouth. “But when I find out, I’ll tell you.”
“I wish I could serve on the bridge,” Plato said. “I bet it’s cool.”
“It’s not as fun as you think,” Sparks said. “It’s a lot of wait-and- hurry-up. Then, just when there’s some action, it’s over just as fast.”
“It’s going to be a quiet day,” Mathers observed. “We’re orbiting Gorn during a summit. The best we can hope is some diplomat gets drunk and goes off the deep end.”
“Even then, I doubt science or the helm will get involved,” Sparks said. “You sure you don’t want to switch back to tactical, Colby?”
“No. I’m still having nightmares from my week with J’hana.”
“Lieutenant Commander Tilleran is nice,” Sparks said. “She can be a little distant sometimes, but I think that’s just the way Betazoids are. High-end ones especially.”
“Maybe,” Plato said, dipping a cauliflower in ranch dressing and handing it to Nat. “Here ya go.”
She looked at it. “What, you’re feeding me now?”
“Shush. Eat it,” Plato laughed and popped the cauliflower hunk in her mouth. Sparks giggled and nearly choked, waving a warning finger at Plato.
“Assault on a Starfleet officer is a capital offense!”
“Yeah. Try to catch me,” Plato giggled and bolted into the mall.
“Scoundrel!” Sparks exclaimed, and hopped out of her chair, hot on Plato’s trail.
“There’s no running in the restaurant!” Mihala, the Space Tastes waitress, called out, then frowned. “Whatever. Who cares. Not my restaurant.”
“Could I get something a little more substantial. Like a lasagna?” Mathers asked, obviously uninterested in Sparks and Plato’s chase.
“I’ll see what we have in the back,” Mihala sighed, and shuffled back to the kitchen.
Sparks, meanwhile, flew down the upper corridor of Ship’s Shoppes, nearly knocking over Yeoman Briggs, who fell against the wall, hand to his forehead.
“Watch it! I’m delicate!” he called out.
“Plato!” Sparks called out, nearing the double-door, second level exit. She turned around. He couldn’t have gone far.
Sparks looked up, to see Plato dangling from an overhead buttress, his legs pretzeled around it.
“You’re elusive, I’ll give you that,” she smiled.
Plato’s legs stretched, and he lowered himself closer to Sparks, staring at her intently, upside down. “You are too,” he said softly.
“Yeah, well…” Sparks took a deep breath, and licked her lips.
“Bridge to Cadet Sparks,” came the surly voice of Ensign Adam Keefler over Sparks’ combadge.
“Yes,” Sparks said, blinking and taking a step back, as Plato lowered himself from the ceiling.
“You have a priority one communication from your parents on Earth.”
“My parents aren’t on Earth,” Sparks said. “They live on Beta Zendaris Three.”
“Well, the confirmation code indicates it’s your parents. You want me to tell them you’re busy? Since it’s priority one, I’m sure it’s not a big deal…”
“Thanks for the sarcasm, Ensign Keefler, but I’ll take it in my cabin.”
Plato watched Sparks head toward the door. “Hey…hope everything’s okay.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Sparks said. “My parents are excitable…”
“They’re not the only one,” Plato said, and stood there a good while after Sparks had left.
Moments after they walked in, J’hana and Richards ducked back out of the amphitheater.
“What’s that about no calamitous events?” J’hana snapped.
“So they’re not in there.”
“And their combadges and life signs aren’t showing up on my tricorder, which means they’re either not in a one hundred square kilo radius, or they’re disintegrated.”
“Thanks for the words of encouragement,” Richards said. “What do we do?”
“We talk to the authorities,” J’hana said. “Oh. Wait a sec. I AM the authorities. So I will find our people. If they are alive, I will exact vengeance. If they are dead, I will exact slightly more vengeance.”
“Glad you have a plan,” Richards said. “Don’t you think we should at least discuss this with the Gorn?”
“You obviously did not read your briefing memo. The Gorn security forces are a joke. I will handle this myself.” J’hana tapped her combadge. “J’hana to Explorer.”
There was no answer.
“Explorer, this is Richards. Come in.” Still nothing. Then a buzz over their communicators and a hissy, gruff voice:
“Starfleet personnel, this is Investigator Grong of the Gorn Enforcement Service. Because of a breach of security, we are discontinuing all off-planet travel and communication. Please stand by while we attempt to ascertain and extinguish the threat. Thank you.”
First officer and tactical officer exchanged glances. “Apparently, Gorn security forces got the jump on us,” Richards said.
“To the security office!” J’hana bellowed, and marched off, Richards at her feet.
When they got to the security office, it was already empty. So they turned and headed outside, just in time to be passed by a squadron of Gorn, running mightily by, shaking the earth with their heavy foosteps, seemingly oblivious to J’hana and Richards’s presence.
“Wait!” Richards called after them. “We want to talk to you.” He kept on as more Gorn ran by. “Our friends are missing…we want to help you find them. We’re from Starfleet. We’re here to help!”
“They do not seem to care,” J’hana observed.
Sparks sat down at her desktop panel and tapped in a confirmation code. “This is Cadet Sparks. Please route the communication to my terminal,” she said, staring at the screen.
Moments later, the spinning Federation logo gave way to an unexpected face.
Sparks blanched, her mouth open.
“Shocked?” a grim-faced Ethan Piper said, leaning close to the screen. “Well, me too. I’m shocked you actually answered my communication this time. You know, this is the third time I tried to reach you. I figured if I faked the confirmation code and impersonated your parents, you just might answer the call.”
“I…” Sparks thought back to those unanswered comms from weeks ago, which she thought had been Sefelt attempting reconciliation. “I thought you were someone else.”
“No. I’m certainly me.” He looked over his shoulder nervously. “Nat, I’m in trouble.”
“I’ll say. The Captain’s going nuts about Ficker and his plans, whatever they are. Why…WHY did you go with him? Didn’t you realize he’s a total nutjob?”
“I…kinda had a plan,” Piper said in a low voice. He looked up at Sparks. “I figured, if I got aboard Ficker’s ship, maybe I could do something from the inside. You know…be a double agent or something?”
“You’re a second-year cadet, Ethan,” Sparks said, rubbing a hand over her face. “You have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re even going to get off there, do you?”
“I had enough sense to contact you,” Piper said. “It’s a covert channel. I’m hiding the signal in the Idlewild’s warp core emissions. So I can only contact you when we’re at warp.”
“Where are you?”
“Sector thirty-three thirteen, Beta Quadrant. But I can’t stay on the comm long. I’m being watched a lot more closely since Commander Worthy took over.”
“Ficker’s second. He had to take command when the Betazoid incapacitated Ficker.”
“Betazoid…” Sparks thought back to the Escort mission. “You mean Commander Tilleran?”
“Yeah. She…she did something to his mind, sent him into some kind of shock. He’s been semi-conscious for a few weeks now. They brought a Vulcan in to work on him but I don’t know how it’s going. Worthy won’t say anything. He just keeps sending us on these missions. Federation penal colonies, court martials…we’re amassing hundreds of crew who have done one thing or another to piss Starfleet off. Insubordination, gross neglect, incompetency…one woman really likes potatoes.”
Piper nodded. “The people on this ship…they mean well, I mean they’re Starfleet officers, or at least, they used to be. But they’ve got a new mission now. It’s like…they want to prove something.”
Sparks leaned forward urgently. “What. What are they trying to prove?”
“That Starfleet was wrong for rejecting them in the first place.”
“What good will that do?”
Piper looked over his shoulder. “Damn. My hourly security check. I have to go…”
“Ethan!” Sparks exclaimed. “Why did you not just go to the captain with this?”
“Because I didn’t know if he’d trust me, after what I did. The only one I trust is you, and maybe Colby. But let’s face it, Nat. You’re the one among us who really has her head on straight. Take it to the captain, tell him what’s going on, that there’s another agenda here. And that these people need to be stopped before whatever that agenda is gets realized.”
“I…” Sparks said. “I will.”
Piper tapped a control and disappeared from the screen, and Sparks dashed out of her cabin.
The room was dark, dungeon-like, and sweaty. That it was dungeon-like was weird, as it was above ground. Just a few streaks of sunlight found their way in. Water dripped somewhere in the distance, and Baxter felt stone beneath his feet.
He also felt his arms clasped together in heavy shackles, behind his back, as he sat in a row of chairs, between Ariel Tilleran and Janice Browning.
“You’re up,” Tilleran said. “About time. You were having the oddest of dreams. Why were you bathing yourself in a punch bowl?”
“It’s a recurring thing. Nevermind. What happened?” Baxter said, wishing he could rub his eyes.
“We were given some kind of sedative,” Browning said. “There was a struggle when we beamed in here, but it ended quickly. Let’s face it…none of us are J’hana.”
“I don’t remember any of that,” Baxter said groggily.
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. “You were the first one to go down. Didn’t take too long either.”
A slow, dull ache filled Baxter’s jaw. “I’m sure I was intervening on both of your behalf. Trying to put myself between you and danger.”
“You were screaming ‘oh God, get me out of here! I don’t want to die,’” Tilleran said.
“But you screamed it valiantly, Andy,” Browning said encouragingly.
“So where is she now?” Baxter muttered, pushing that thought aside for the moment.
“We don’t know,” Tilleran said.
“Hold on a sec. Aren’t you a Betazoid?” Baxter asked. “I seem to remember something about that in your personnel file.”
Tilleran narrowed her eyes at Baxter. “Yes. I AM a Betazoid, and a damn powerful one. However, as you might recall, I have something of a…problem…with Gorn.”
“It’s not your fault, Ariel,” Browning said. “You did your best.”
“Well, what would have been great is if you could have used your powers to incapacitate Sirron,” Baxter said. “But, like you said, she’s Gorn. And even if she weren’t…is that even something you can do?”
“It’s…uncertain,” Tilleran said. “But for the moment, it would seem the best idea is to get ourselves out of here.”
Baxter glanced down at his chest. “Guess it was too much to hope she left us with our communicators?”
“She actually crushed them in her bare hands,” Browning said. “It was impressive.”
“Great,” Baxter said. “And no sign of J’hana or Richards?”
“They must still be in their meeting,” Tilleran said. “I hope it’s fun.”
“Enough with the meeting!” Baxter snapped. “Get over it already.”
“Oh, I’ve been over it.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Leave her alone,” Browning said. “J’hana did nothing wrong.”
Baxter turned to Browning. “But Chris did, right?”
“Well, no. But…”
“You two both need to move on. This is getting ridiculous.”
“Is that really what we need to do, Captain?” Tilleran asked. “Because at the moment, I think what we need to do is escape from the giant, murderous, Gorn…who by the way is murderous because of something you did!”
“Oh, so let’s just start the blame game!” Baxter said. “Let’s not forget that when I killed Harth, he was about to slay a whole group of us, INCLUDING your precious J’hana.”
“He’d never manage that,” Tilleran said. “J’hana can’t be killed by conventional weapons.”
“Well, you may have a point there,” Baxter said, and sighed. “And if we’re lucky, J’hana will come roaring through that door any minute, claws bared.”
Tilleran licked her lips. “Yeah. That would be nice.”
“Maybe,” Browning said. “But shouldn’t we assume for the moment that Chris and J’hana won’t be able to get us free…that we’ll have to rely on our own skills to get ourselves out of this?”
“What skills? You just heard Tilleran…”
“Telepathy isn’t the only tool we have at our disposal, Andy,” Browning said. “I’m sure, together, we can come up with something.”
“Or hope that J’hana roars through that door any minute,” Baxter said firmly.
“Captain, please stop the imagery,” Tilleran sighed.
“If I didn’t see it myself, I wouldn’t believe it,” Richards said, standing outside the Arena Arena, and watching as scores of Gorn enforcement officers moved out of the building and leapt into the streets, grasping on to nearby buildings with claws and quite literally “scaling” their way up them, snarling all the way.
“It’s impressive,” J’hana said. “The athleticism, and bravado. It may take them a while to become interested in a case, but once they do, they attack it with zeal.”
“Yeah, but don’t they have, I don’t know…a vehicle of some kind?”
“You cannot detect clues from the safety of a vehicle,” J’hana said. “These are fierce warriors, becoming one with the environment around them. They will find our missing people.”
“But you just said they were incompetent!”
“That was before I saw the wall thing.”
“But you said so yourself. They could be over a hundred kilometers away!”
“Gorn move fast. Have you ever seen a lizard move at full speed?”
“Not really.” Richards glanced up, and watched one Gorn after another spring from building to building, picking up speed, leaping off into the distance. “Wow.”
“So you see, we have nothing to worry about.”
“Except that we can’t climb buildings that way.”
“Yes. I’m quite certain we will have to hail a cab.”
“Do Gorn have cabs?”
“There is only one way to find out.” J’hana turned and raised her arm. “I need a conveyance! Someone drive me or die!”
“What do you mean we lost communication with the planet?” Peterman asked, moving from the command chair and up the ramp to the aft bridge section in an instant, looking at Keefler’s panel.
“Just that,” Ensign Keefler said. “We received an announcement that there’s a security risk at the summit, and that the Gorn authorities have sprung into action, and we should wait for further information.”
“Their words, not mine.”
Just then, Cadet Nat Sparks emerged from the turbolift, breathing heavily. “Counselor! Are…are you in command?”
Peterman nodded. “Don’t act so surprised. What can I do for you?”
“I need to see you. In private. Now.”
“I’m kind of busy now,” Peterman said. “How about you go belowdecks, and I let you know…”
Sparks stepped up and leaned on the railing surrounding the command chairs. She looked into Peterman’s eyes. “It’s about Ficker. We need to talk. Now.”
Peterman nodded dumbly. “Yeah. Okay.” She shook her head as she gestured for the ready room. “Heck of a time for me to be put in charge.”
“So I guess there was too much garlic. So the next night, I tried the recipe again, but this time I used cumin…”
Baxter stared at the ceiling. “I wish Sirron would just come on and kill us, and be done with it.”
Everyone suddenly felt a rumbling in the floor.
“That would be Sirron coming,” Tilleran said. “Looks like your wish is granted.”
“My big mouth,” Baxter muttered, as the door irised open and Sirron lumbered in.
“Ah, dead people!” Sirron said eagerly. “How goes it?”
“You can’t kill us,” Baxter said. “We’re in Starfleet. You’ll derail the peace process.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Sirron said. “I’ve done some research on your people. You’re not exactly Starfleet’s finest.”
“There are worse crews out there, trust me,” Baxter said. “I mean, there’s got to be one or two.”
“Point is, you won’t be missed for long,” Sirron said. “You’re not exactly Captain Picard.”
“And if I was, you wouldn’t kill us?”
“If you were Picard, you’d have found a peaceful solution, rather than killing my ex-boyfriend!”
“Wasn’t it you who broke up with him?” Browning asked.
Sirron whirled to Browning, her teeth glistening. “Yes. But it was an awful mistake. I’ve regretted it since I did it.
“Relationships are tough,” Tilleran said distantly.
“I…left him for material reasons. After his first run-in with Starfleet, he was disgraced, demoted. I couldn’t bear to live with his dishonor.”
“Yeah, that was us too,” Baxter blurted.
“Captain, all due respect, but shut up!” Tilleran snapped.
Sirron turned, growling, to Baxter. “WHAT? It was your ship? You’re the one who forced Harth into prison, after which he came back to me a broken and dejected man?”
“Um…no?” Baxter offered.
Sirron slapped him across the face with the back of her meaty paw. “You will meet an excruciating end for this, Captain. You not only robbed me of my dear Harth’s dignity, but you robbed me of Harth as well. You’ve wronged me, sir, and I will be avenged!” She licked her lips. “But first, I will have dinner.” She stared at the window wistfully. “Oh, how Harth could cook. He once made me a grilled omnipede on a bed of worms and a sweet, rich, cream sauce.”
Baxter and Tilleran turned to Browning, who recognized a cue when she saw one.
“Cream sauce,” Browning said. “That doesn’t sound like Gorn cuisine.”
Sirron paused, turned to Browning. “It was not. But I did enjoy it.”
“Do you remember…was that sauce yellow?”
“Matter of fact, it was.”
“With a milky aftertaste?”
“Yes.” Sirron’s eyes widened as she approached Browning.
“YES!” Sirron’s nostrils flared, shooting a breeze into Browning’s face. “Why? Do you know of it?”
“Of course,” Browning said. “I use it all the time. It’s bernaise. Or it could be a modified Hollandaise. Either way, it’s easy. I can show you how…”
Sirron looked away. “It’s been a long, long time, since Harth cooked for me. I was a slim woman when I met him at a Predators convention. He cooked for me, some of the most breathtaking dishes I’ve ever had. And thus, I bulked up. Equal parts muscle and fat, but always smothering him with my love. And he fed me. He filled my heart, my soul…” Her voice broke and caught. “And my stomach.”
“Well…” Browning said, catching nervous but encouraging glances from Tilleran and Baxter. “Let’s get cooking!”
Sirron turned back to her. “Even the slightest attempt at betrayal, and I will behead you with one of my Axion serrated carving knives!”
Browning gulped. “Well at least I know you’re working with good equipment.”
“Only the best. Off to the kitchen!”
Peterman sat in Baxter’s chair, in the readyroom. She’d probably done that once or twice before in the last seven years, but this was the first time she really took note of it. She was in the captain’s chair, and it just felt odd. She pivoted to look out the viewport, at Gorn spinning innocently below.
Sparks sat in the chair on the other side of the desk, hands folded in her lap, Peterman presumed, to stop them from shaking.
“So,” the cadet asked in a small voice. “What do we do?”
Peterman looked out the window another long moment, then turned back to Sparks. “We get the captain back. Then we tell him, and let him decide.”
“He’s going to go nova, isn’t he?”
“Supernova, yes,” Peterman said. “But he’s got to be told.” She glanced down at the desk. “Tell me again…what’s this about Tilleran?”
“Ethan said she used her telepathy on him. Just…like…knocked him unconscious. He’s been out for weeks.”
“That’s impossible. I was with Ariel the entire time on Montavius, and I saw nothing. Nothing of the…” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Now that’s odd…”
Peterman shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “Nothing. It’s just…like deja vu, I guess.”
Sparks nodded. “Are we having any luck finding the captain?”
“Not yet. And we can’t beam down or communicate with the surface until further notice. Any shuttlecraft we send down is going to be fired on, so for now, we wait.”
“The Gorn take their security seriously, huh?”
“I guess we’re finding that out, yeah,” Peterman said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Too bad we don’t have a ship that could…hold on…”
Sparks looked at her. “Counselor…are you thinking…”
“Do we have a spare pilot available?” Peterman asked distantly.
Sparks smiled. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, we do.”
“So I like to braise it, you know, over high heat, to kill all the bacteria inside,” Browning said, shoving the spatula into the sizzling pile of bugs in the pan. She had to give it to Sirron, she had a nice kitchen. By Gorn standards, which she figured were Spartan, Sirron’s kitchen was lavish. All sizes of pots and pans hanging on the walls. All the best in cooking implements. And knives. Yes, lots of knives.
“But Gorn thrive on bacteria,” Sirron pointed out.
“Oh. In that case, I don’t suppose we need to cook it long. So now we turn to the sauce…”
“Do you use whole eggs?”
“Just the egg whites.”
Sirron nodded as Browning turned to the replicator and began programming. “I don’t usually like working with the replicator, but in a pinch…”
“What creature laid these eggs?” Sirron asked, watching as Browning lifted the fragile ovals from the replicator slot.
“Uh…chickens,” Browning said. “Some like ostrich, but I find that a presumptuous flavor.”
“And a chicken…is that a violent animal?”
“Not really. Actually, the baby ones are kind of fluffy.”
Sirron rested her chin on her claws. “Fascinating.”
“Need I remind you that I hate bridge detail?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked as she followed Peterman down the corridor toward the airlock, with Sparks and Mathers on her heels, along with Ensign Keefler.
“Yet you’ll gladly take command, because it’s important and I need you to, right, Megan?”
“And also because you gave me first right of refusal on all future babysitting requests.”
“A measured risk, but a worthwhile one,” Peterman said thoughtfully, as the group came upon Plato, who was heading down the corridor toward them.
“Hey…Nat…Aunt Kelly! Where are you guys going?”
“We’re going to find…” Sparks began.
Peterman held up her hand. “Little situation on the planet, Plato. Nothing to worry about. We’re taking care of it.”
Plato looked from Peterman to the others. “Is my mom in trouble?”
Hartley and Peterman exchanged glances. Peterman put her hands on Plato’s shoulders. “I assure you, Plato, whatever’s happening down there, we’ll get to the bottom of it. J’hana’s down there, so’s Tilleran, and Uncle Andy. They won’t let anything happen to your Mom.”
“So why do you need to go down?”
“For muscle,” Hartley said, and winked at Peterman. “Hey, you want to hang out on the bridge with me?”
Plato looked up at Hartley, his eyes glazing for a moment. “Well…yeah…”
“We’ll be back soon, Plato,” Sparks said, and gently squeezed Plato’s hand as she walked by. “Don’t worry…everything will be fine.”
Plato nodded, watching Sparks and the others go. “Yeah. Okay.”
Hartley rested her arm on Plato’s shoulder and turned him toward the turbolift. “Let’s go check out the bridge, shall we? And say…you don’t still have a crush on me, do you?”
“Nah. There’s someone else, actually…”
“I still find you hot, though.”
“I’m actually okay with that. But let’s get to the bridge…”
Twenty minutes after they’d boarded their “Gorn in Sixty Seconds” express hovercab, the brown, bubble-shaped vehicle squeaked to a stop in a particularly run-down area of town. The rust-colored buildings were a little more…rusty, and the streets were covered in grime and filth, the origin of which Richards felt he was better off not knowing.
The passenger door slid open, and J’hana and Richards stumbled out as the driver hissed and snarled at them, shutting the door and gliding away with a puff pavement dust.
“That was unfortunate,” J’hana said.
“How was I supposed to know that the Gorn require money for transportation?”
“I offered to kill him so we could take control of the vehicle, but you ‘didn’t want to make a scene.’” J’hana grimaced. “See where your human weakness has gotten us?”
“Do you hear something?”
“My blood boiling at being left out of this investigation?”
“No. Something else.” Richards glanced up. “Look!”
J’hana watched as a triangular shape zipped across the skyline, whipping around and nosing toward the street. It stopped above them, floating above their heads.
“Commander Richards, this is the Escort,” Counselor Peterman’s voice buzzed over Richards’s communicator. “Would you like to come aboard?”
“How much do you charge?” J’hana asked.
Richards glared at J’hana. “Shut up and beam us aboard.”
“It got quiet in there,” Baxter said, watching the doors to the kitchen intently. “Is that a good sign?”
“Difficult to say, although I can sense that Janice is having a terrific time,” Tilleran said.
“But nothing on the Gorn, eh?”
Tilleran’s brow furrowed. “As I said before, I have had a difficult time with Gorn in the past, and continue to struggle reading them.”
“Right. Well, keep working at it. Who knows.”
“Believe me, Captain…I am a very…very capable telepath. It’s just that I can’t read Gorn.”
“Well, we all have our weak spots…”
“It’s not a weak spot!” Tilleran fairly shouted.
Baxter nodded. “Why haven’t we heard anything in there?”
“I’d say the quietness is a good sign,” Tilleran said. “I mean, unless she killed Janice silently…”
“Which you would know about if it happened.”
“So we have nothing to worry about.”
“Unless she plans to kill Janice AFTER dinner.”
“Can we not think about this?”
“Hey, you asked.”
“What is this? A class field trip?” Richards asked, surveying the bridge crew. Nat Sparks was at science, Colby Mathers at helm, and Adam Keefler was at tactical.
“No,” Peterman said, cradling the arms of the command chair. “However, if it was, we’d be having fun, right guys?”
“I’m not a cadet,” Keefler pointed out.
“You’re right, and you’re doing a great job,” Peterman said. “Have a seat, guys. We’re tracking our away team by their life signs. Hopefully there aren’t any other small groups of humans and Betazoids around, because if there are…well, we could be at this for a while.”
Richards stepped behind the command chair. “I should assume command.”
“We’re rescuing MY husband. Do you really think I’m going to relinquish command?”
“I could order you to.”
Peterman pivoted in the chair and stared hard at Richards. “There are more people on this bridge who follow me than follow you.”
“Let her command,” J’hana said. “Besides, she’s so… delicious… when she’s angry.”
“Increase power to thrusters,” Peterman said, rubbing her eyes. “Let’s get this overwith.”
“Dinner’s served!” Browning announced, carrying a large, covered, silver tray out into Sirron’s main chamber, where Baxter and Tilleran were tied.
“Great,” Baxter said. “Delicious.”
“For Sirron, yes. But it would be pretty darn deadly for us. Toxic fluids, flesh eating bacteria, and such. But the hollandaise turned out MARVELOUS!” Browning kissed her fingers. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
Tilleran looked at Baxter. “So to speak.”
“Taking off her apron,” Browning said. “It, um, has a lot of buckles.”
“So let’s get out of here!” Baxter said. “Spring us!”
“Spring?” Tilleran asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t think that’s how this is going to work,” Browning said. “Let’s feed her. Then gain her trust, and then we can ask nicely to be let go.”
“You’re actually good at this diplomacy crap,” Baxter said. “We might get through this without being killed after all.”
“Well, Tilleran and I, at least. She really hates you, Captain.”
“Ta-da!” Sirron announced, thundering out of the kitchen and spreading her arms wide. “I feel alive! I have sampled Doctor Browning’s cooking and find it magnificent! It was better than I hoped. It evoked memories of my wonderful Harth.” She reached down, took Browning’s tiny hand in hers. “My good doctor, you’ve renewed my faith in humanity.”
Browning glanced down. “Aw, shucks.”
“Gotta love happy endings,” Baxter said, looking at Tilleran.
“Indeeed,” Sirron said, and reached down to grab a large knife. “I will slice the bug casserole. Then you can all try some of the side dishes. Not all are deadly…”
That’s when the outer wall of Sirron’s apartment exploded in a rain of rapid phaser fire, revealing the Escort hovering outside, docking lights blinking.
“Um…” Baxter said, his mouth hanging open as the foreward hatch in the Escort’s nose exploded open, and J’hana leapt out, knife clutched in her jaws.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Browning called out, as J’hana leapt upon Sirron, tackling her to the floor with zeal.
Richards and Peterman followed J’hana out of the hatch, and ran to join Baxter, Tilleran, and Browning.
“Everyone okay here?” Peterman asked.
“We WERE okay,” Browning said, turning to J’hana. “STOP BEATING HER UP! I was just getting her to like me.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “We’d finally gotten through to Sirron until you, you know, blew up her house.”
“Hey, we thought we were doing you guys a favor,” Richards said.
Peterman squeezed Baxter’s cheek. “Some thanks that is!”
“She is unconscious,” J’hana said, climbing sluggishly off the unmoving Sirron, whose head lolled, tongue dangling out. “Shall I deal the death blow?”
“No!” Baxter shouted. “No death blow!”
“What’s his problem?” J’hana asked the others.
“We were making headway,” Tilleran said. “Janice…connected with her.”
“How special,” Richards mumbled. “Well, folks, consider yourselves rescued. Anyone want to wait until the magic dragon awakens, or the legion of hopping Gorn guards descends on the building?”
Everyone looked at each other. “NO!” they said in unison.
Stardate 58373.6. Well…don’t we feel foolish. Just when human and Gorn were about to make a stunning breakthrough in communication…not to mention prevent three of us from getting gutted and filleted…is that how you say that? It sounds weird. Anyway, just as…that…was about to happen, the Escort comes crashing in. I suppose we’re lucky that J’hana didn’t kill Sirron, and rather just dealt her a massive head wound. All things considered, we got out of this one lucky.
Not to say that the diplomats won’t have some trouble piecing this one back together. Yeah, we choked pretty hard on this one.
The good news is, Counselor Peterman did a great job in command…except for that last part…and I’m eager for the Explorer to move on to her next mission, whatever that may be.
Plato followed Browning to her quarters, holding her hand. “I’m just glad you’re okay, Mom.”
“I’m fine,” Browning said. “But I wish…I don’t know…I wish we could have done what we beamed down to do.”
“Not screw things up.”
Plato nodded. “It happens.”
“To us, a lot. But Kelly and Christopher meant well. It’s just…”
“Oh, I don’t know. Guess I just wonder how many chances I’ll get to make a difference on this ship.”
“You make a difference to me all the time.”
Browning turned to Plato, grinning wide. “Plato…that’s the sweetest…” A tear trickled down her cheek as she tugged Plato into a tight bearhug. “Sometimes, Plato…” she sighed.
They arrived at their quarters, and Browning keyed her way in. Plato was about to follow when he saw Cadet Sparks walk by.
Browning smiled at them and ducked into her quarters, allowing the door to close.
“Plato!” she said. “Glad to see your mom back aboard, and in one piece.”
“Yeah,” Plato said sheepishly. “Um, thanks for that.”
“Guess you heard it was kind of a madhouse down there,” Sparks said.
“It happens,” Plato said.
“I’m getting that.” Sparks looked at him. “Anyway…I wish I could talk. But I’ve got to get to the bridge.”
“I thought you weren’t on duty till tomorrow.”
“This is a…special thing,” Sparks said, pushing her long, brown hair behind her ears. “Look, it’s probably going to get really busy around here shortly, so I just wanted to say…oh hell with it…” She grabbed Plato by the back of his neck, pulled him toward her, and kissed him deep on the lips.
Moments later, she broke the kiss, and stepped back, allowing Plato to lean back against the door, stunned, his eyes locked on her as she jogged to the nearby turbolift.
“Thanks!” he called out weakly after her, his fingers grazing his lips. “A lot.”
“So what does this mean, long range?” Richards asked, leaning against the back of the chair opposite Baxter’s desk.
“Oh, I have no idea,” Baxter said. “But the Explorer won’t be going back to Gorn anytime soon. Apparently Sirron…uh, carries a lot of weight with the Gorn leadership. Plus, once they found out I killed Harth…”
Richards shook his head. “She broke up with him, they demoted him…”
“And they still reserve the right to be pissed that I killed him. Welcome to diplomacy, buddy.”
“Do you think it was a bad sign that the Federation diplomatic contingent decided to remain on a hostile planet and wait for another ship rather than head back to Federation territory with us?”
Baxter nodded. “Oh, yeah.”
“I’ve got to say though, if there was any bright spot to this, it’s…”
“My wife did a great job in command, huh?” Baxter asked with a grin.
“No, I was going to say that Sparks and Mathers did a great job, but sure, whatever.”
The readyroom door suddenly bleeped, and Richards turned toward it. The door slid open to reveal Counselor Peterman.
“Great job!” Richards grinned, patting Peterman on the arm and walking out.
She walked in, looking askance at Richards. “Do you have time to chat a minute, Andy?”
Peterman gestured behind her, and Cadet Nat Sparks gingerly walked in. They both waited for the door to close.
“There’s something you need to know. Right now,” Peterman said. “I would have told you sooner, but I wanted to wait until you were done debriefing about the Gorn incident, and the Explorer had broken orbit.”
“Sounds serious,” Baxter said.
“Yeah.” Peterman looked at Sparks. “Nat, go ahead and tell him what you told me.”
So she did.
Five minutes later, the Explorer changed course, and shot into maximum warp.
Alvin Ficker shot up in bed, face covered in sweat, eyes glazed.
“My glasses…give me my glasses…”
“You should rest. Your therapeutic sessions are not yet over,” said Shank, the U.S.S. Idlewild’s resident Vulcan and meditation expert.
“I am fine. The fog has lifted. The course is clear.” Shank reluctantly handed Ficker his glasses, and he looked around, as if for the first time. “How much time has passed?”
“Four point five weeks,” Shank said.
“Is the point five really necessary?”
“Captain Ficker, as I said, you should rest…”
Ficker planted his hand on Shank’s shoulder and pushed himself out of bed. “No. There’s too much that needs to be done. I have to confer with my senior staff.”
“May I ask to what end?”
“The Betazoid who knocked me into a coma did me a huge favor, Shank. She showed me the error in my ways. We shouldn’t be trying to make some kind of grand philosophical point with Starfleet. We have to take the battle to them. We have to get in their face.”
“Again, I ask to what end?”
Ficker turned to Shank, his stamina returning by the second. “There’s an ancient Earth saying, my Vulcan friend. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’”
“I am familiar with the aphorism. Sarek coined a similar phrase. So…then what?”
“Then you beat them. Come on…we have a lot to talk about…”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
A revelation about Cadet Ethan Piper leads Captain Baxter to renew his determination to capture the USS Idlewild and bring Alvin Ficker to justice. But as an away team struggles to get aboard the rogue ship and rescue a collection of wayward Starfleet officers and cadets, it becomes increasingly clear that Ficker has no intention of giving up so easily. Final Story Before Mid-year Break!