Author: Anthony Butler
STARFLEET TRANSPORT SHIP VERUCA CIALIS SYSTEM
“Is it me, or are they letting more idiots into Starfleet than ever?” Lieutenant Vick Hastings said, turning to his copilot on the cramped bridge of the Veruca.
“I wouldn’t know,” Ensign Dal Adan, a Trill just recently assigned to Hastings’ detail said, punching at controls. “I haven’t been out of the academy more than six months.”
“It’s just that this used to be a boring job,” Hastings said, folding his hands behind his head. “You used to have to ferry crazies and washouts to their exit interviews only once in a blue moon. Now I’ve had to expand my operation. Rumor has it, next month I’m getting a bigger ship. Hopefully, with a bigger brig. Yeah, that would be nice. A bigger brig!”
“You take a lot of joy in this,” Adan noted as she looked at the navigation readouts.
“I don’t take any joy in Starfleet being made fools of. You have any idea what the two guys in our brig are here for?”
“I try not to pry,” Adan said cautiously.
“Well, I do, and these two are doozies. They had a major case of transporter shock, and when they beamed down to Cialis Two, they thought the First Officer was a giant tree-monster, and jumped him.”
“Is that enough for them to get put off the ship?”
“No, but when they came at their captain with a tree-hedger and nearly chopped his arms off…yeah, that would do it.”
“It sounds like they might be mentally…defective.”
“I’m just wondering where they got the tree-hedger. At any rate, they are mentally defective, and an embarrassment to the fleet.”
Adan nodded, looking at her panel. “Well, the embarrassments are ready for beam-over.”
“Energize,” Hastings said, and sighed as he watched the readout indicate that his prisoners were in his brig. “Good stuff. Notify the Exeter that the detainees are in custody.”
“Done,” Adan said, tapping her panel. “The Exeter acknowledged and…they just left the system.”
“If I were them, I’d want to wash my hands of this as quickly as possible too,” Hastings chuckled. “Want to go visit our guests?”
“I hardly see what good that will do.”
“You might learn something, Adan.”
Hastings shifted out of his chair and whistled a happy tune as he ducked out of the cockpit of his ship and ambled down the corridor toward one of the narrow, cigar-shaped vessel’s handful of cabins: The brig.
He tapped his access code and stepped inside, where two bewildered-looking Ensigns stood behind a crackling field, scratching their heads.
“Why are we here…uh, Lieutenant?” one of them said.
“Ensign Cory Gaston. Ensign Ronald Stambling,” Hastings said, looking from one to the other. “You both stand accused of assaulting two superior officers, and attempted murder of said officers.”
“We thought he was a tree,” Gaston said.
“A big tree,” Stambling said. He glanced at his fellow prisoner. “Do we get to go home?”
“Not quite,” Hastings said. “The tribunal will decide if you should spend time in a rehabilitation colony or a penal colony.”
Hastings nodded. “Y’all are in a heap of trouble.”
“But we didn’t mean to!” Gaston protested.
Hastings chuckled. “What I’d like to know is how did you two possibly have the same hallucination.”
The pair looked at each other, and shrugged.
“Just lucky, I guess,” Stambling said.
“Right you are,” Hastings said, and turned for the door. “Room service is at nineteen hundred. You’re in luck. We have creamed chipped beef tonight.” He’d just gotten to the door when his combadge bleeped.
“Adan to Hastings.”
“A ship just decloaked right in front of us, sir.”
Hastings’ eyes widened. “Romulan? Klingon?”
“Federation. Wait…how does a Federation ship have a cloaking device?”
“What the…” Hastings headed for the door, when the ship suddenly shook so violently he fell on his back. The room was suddenly bathed red in the glow of Red Alert.
“Sir, they’re firing on us. We’ve lost shields!” Adan announced over the crackling comm system as Hastings tried to shift to his feet.
He heard the whine of a transporter beam to his left and right, and looked up to see a squarely-built male Starfleet officer on one side, and a slim woman on the other.
The male turned and knelt by him. He had beady eyes and a pointy goatee. He stroked it as he studied the man. “You Hastings?”
“Who are you? What is this about?”
“Deactivate the forcefield, Lieutenant Prouse,” the man said, and helped Hastings to his feet. “I’m Commander Roland Worthy, U.S.S. Idlewild. We’re here to take these men into our custody.”
“On whose authority?”
“On the only authority that matters, in this case. That of Captain Alvin Ficker.” Worthy smiled wide. “Have you heard of him?”
“The biggest loony of them all. Yeah, I heard of him. I’ve been shuttling crazies from one place to another on about fifteen years now, and he’s the biggest reject of ‘em all. I’m just hoping I get to haul him in when he finally gets stuck in Tantalus where he belongs.”
Worthy clicked his tongue, smoothly drawing his phaser and pointing it at Hastings. “Now, Mister Hastings. I was hoping we could do this amicably. But then you had to go and get…haughty. You had to go and besmirch the good name of Alvin Ficker. And we simply don’t do that.” Worthy glanced at the brig, where Prouse was letting Stambling and Gaston out. “Gentlemen, I have an offer to make. You have sixty seconds to decide. Either stay here and go to a penal or rehab colony for at least eighteen months, or come with me aboard the starship Idlewild, where Captain Ficker will ensure your…unique…talents are put to use.”
“Let’s go,” Stambling said, and rushed to Worthy’s side.
Gaston followed. “Yeah, duh!”
“There, that was easy,” Worthy said, and gestured toward the brig. “Mister Hastings, would you please.”
“Now, why…” Hastings growled.
Worthy reared back and slammed Hastings across the head with the butt of his phaser. “Because I said so, you inconsiderate functionary!” He bodily pushed Hastings into the brig, then nodded to Prouse, who reinitialized the field. “Spend some time in there thinking about the way you treat people. When Captain Ficker liberates all the misunderstood, all the downtrodden of Starfleet’s ranks, and builds them into strong, deserving, capable officers, you’ll look back on this and wish you were nicer to me.”
“Or I’ll wish I’d shot you,” Hastings seethed.
“Six of one, half-dozen,” Worthy shrugged, and nodded at Prouse. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a busy day ahead. Just so you know, we’re disabling your engines and communications system. There’s not another ship nearby for weeks. I truly hope you use this time to think about your actions.” He slapped his combadge. “Worthy to Idlewild: Four to beam up.”
“Are they going to join us?” Ficker said, leaning up on the couch in his readyroom as Commander Roland Worthy ducked in.
“They were ecstatic. They went a little crazy after we beamed aboard…but they told me they get transporter shock, at least they did before we put them under sedation.”
“We really need a counselor.”
“I wanted to let you know, Commander, that I will soon be returning to active duty.”
Worthy shifted a bit. “So soon? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Our holographic doctor insists I’m fine. Shank has spent a good deal of time with me and agrees with the doctor’s assessment. I’m returning to duty. There’s much to be done.”
“Like what? We’ve been picking up lots of new crew…stopping to do the occasional good deed to keep public opinion in our favor. What’s there to do?”
“Our run-in with the Explorer was a huge setback. Not just in terms of me being neutralized for so long, but because of the bad press. These…two specimens…are not the brightest of folks, even by our standards. Any self-respecting Starfleet nimrod is not going to come with us so easily.”
“So what do we do?”
“Sweeten the deal,” Ficker said. “Let’s talk…”
“Come,” Captain Andy Baxter said, standing behind his desk and staring out the viewport. He turned to find Chris Richards standing in the doorway.
“You called for a course change. Want to tell me where we’re going?”
Peterman was standing to the side, and nodded in Richards’s direction. “Let the door close, Chris.”
Richards stepped in, then looked from Baxter to Peterman. “What’s going on? Why did we change course? And why is Cadet Sparks pacing around out there like she has Brezalian jumping beans in her uniform?”
Baxter turned. “Ficker.”
“We found him? Have we told Starfleet Intelligence?”
“Because right now all we have is an unverified, unsubstantiated claim from a cadet,” Baxter said, and turned to put his hands on his desk. “I want to verify it.”
“Sparks told you what she saw, Andy,” Peterman said. “It’s verified. I don’t think she imagined seeing Cadet Piper aboard the Idlewild…she didn’t dream up that he asked for our help…”
“We’ll find out if he needs our help,” Baxter said.
Richards nodded, taking it in. “So we’re going to blow off our orders again.”
Baxter looked up at him. “Not yet. Let’s just…see where this leads us.”
“Yeah, because that’s never gotten us into trouble before.”
Baxter shook his head. “Sparks gave us some coordinates. We’re just going to check it out.”
“And if we find the Idlewild there, if we find Ficker…then what?”
“Then we open fire,” Baxter said.
“Are we…” He looked from Peterman to Baxter. “I mean, can we just do that?”
“That is what we will do,” Baxter said. “After some standard Starfleet-style negotiations of course.”
“That’s a relief,” Peterman muttered. “And here I thought you’d just gone round the bend.”
“Do we even know who we’re targeting?” Richards asked. “I mean, if the whole crew is following Ficker, with the exception of this Piper kid, maybe, then aren’t they all complicit?”
“He’s not going to blow anyone up.” Peterman nudged toward Baxter. “Tell him, Andy, that you’re not blowing anyone up.”
“I’m going to stop Ficker,” Baxter said. “He’s kidnaped Starfleet officers. Brainwashed them, or cajoled them somehow, to follow him. He’s gone off the reservation. I’m going to bring him back.”
“In one piece?” Richards asked.
“That part’s up to him,” Baxter said, running his hands over his desk.
“Wow,” said Richards. “A lot changes in a year, eh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Last year, we’re the ones who went off the reservation, and the Orleans, and later the Outlander, hunted us down.”
“He’s not us. Ficker isn’t us. His reasons…”
“He’s crazy,” Peterman said. “And I’m more than qualified to make that call.”
“They thought we were crazy,” Richards said. “Some still do.”
“He’s putting people in danger,” Baxter said. “These supposedly heroic little missions, using a starship they barely know how to operate…that Section Thirty-One may or may not try to get back some day…they’re going to get someone killed.”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Still not seeing the difference.”
“The difference is, he’s Ficker, and he’s got to be stopped.” Baxter looked up at Richards. “Do I have your support in this, Commander?”
Richards shifted from foot to foot. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Good,” Baxter said, and headed for the door. “You have the bridge.”
“Are we going to talk…”
Richards stood there as Baxter stepped out of the readyroom. He turned to Peterman. “Are you comfortable with this?”
“What do you think? Of course I’m not. Andy’s….just…worked up. But I think it will pass. He’s a sensible man, underneath it all. He’ll come around.”
“Yeah, but will he come around before we get to Ficker?”
“I have faith he will,” Peterman said. “The sector we’re heading for is nearly a week away at maximum warp. We don’t even know if the Idlewild will still be around by the time we get there. This could all be for nothing.”
“But what if it isn’t? What if Andy’s the one who goes off the reservation?”
Peterman shook her head. “We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it. But I’m not prepared…”
“You should get prepared, Kelly.”
“We’ll see,” Peterman said, and left the room.
THREE DAYS LATER
“Thank you all for joining me,” Captain Alvin Ficker said, looking out over the crowded cargo bay of the two hundred or so souls aboard the Idlewild. “I know the last few weeks have been a time of uncertainty for all of you. I appreciate your patience, and the fact that you’ve followed Commander Worthy’s instructions until now. I’m happy to report that I’m once again able to return to duty, to lead this crew and fulfill the promise I made all of you.”
Cadet Ethan Piper stood toward the back of the crowd, grimacing inwardly at Ficker’s words. He had hoped Ficker would never wake up from whatever it is the Explorer person did to him; however, having Worthy in charge was not much of an improvement. Not only that, but he could swear the security officers standing along the cargo bay wall were looking at him particularly close.
“We stand at the precipice of a grand undertaking. Who among you has not been turned away by the Starfleet you served so proudly? Who among you has not felt ashamed for who you are, for your very identity?”
“Here, here,” an officer, the lanky Ensign Snodgrass, said quietly from the midst of the crowd. Others joined in, including Stambling and Gaston, softly at first, then chanting louder.
“Yes,” Ficker said, a slow smile growing on his face. He looked down at Worthy, who stood behind him, peering through narrowed eyes at the crowd, and the stoic Shank, who stood on the other side of him, lips pursed, face impassive. “YES! You all know what you’re capable of. You all know about your potential. Your, as yet, untapped potential.” He gazed around the room. “But what if I told you about a way you could all reach that potential. You could all become more than what you are. More competent, stronger…better even…than your so-called ‘normal’ Starfleet counterparts.”
Everyone cheered. Apparently Ficker had hit a chord.
“So I’m pleased…no, thrilled…to tell you that we’re taking steps right now to find a way…” He nodded at Shank. “A…scientific…methodology. That will ensure all of you become the people you’re supposed to be. We’ll become legends, we’ll become kings. And then, when we’re ready…we WILL make Starfleet think twice about throwing us out like yesterday’s garbage!”
The cargo bay exploded into a chorus of cheers, and Ethan Piper sunk a little in his shoes.
“I’m telling you, Captain, this is as fast as we can go,” Lt. Commander Hartley said, climbing down the ladder and ducking out of the Jefferies tube into Engineering proper, as Baxter followed her.
“Yeah, and I’m telling you, I know engineers just say that, when really there’s a little extra left for emergency situations.” Baxter looked around. “This is one of those. So, you know, gun it.”
“I’m glad you think I have the ability to ‘gun it,’ sir,” Hartley said. “But there’s such a thing as design specs, and design specs say…”
“They specs are just that…specs.” Baxter stepped toward Hartley, resting a hand on her shoulder. “But you and I both know, this ship can go faster.”
Hartley looked up at him. “Yeah. It can. Briefly. But…”
“You’re proud of your ship, Commander. You’re proud of what she can do. So how about we both find out just how fast she can go.”
Hartley reached back, rubbing the back of her neck. “I suppose, if we increase power to the injectors, we could squeeze out an extra point or two.”
“Which at these speeds cuts at least a day out of our travel time,” Baxter said.
“You actually studied this? I mean you looked at a map, and a warp speed chart? You made calculations?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said.
“I’ve got to say, I’m impressed. I mean you never seemed so…focused.”
“I have reason to be. So can you help me?”
“Yeah,” Hartley said. “I can. But don’t come blaming me if we blow up…”
“I won’t,” Baxter said, and turned to head out of Engineering. “Because, obviously, we’ll have blown up. Just get it done.”
“Yup, I’m an enabler,” Hartley sighed, and headed toward the warp core, gesturing to her staff. “Okay, guys, gather ‘round. This is what we’re going to do…”
Stardate 58375.6. After a series of muddled communications from Starfleet Command which may or may not have been issuing new orders, we’ve decided to embark on our own expedition, to the ZachAriel sector, where we’ll be checking for…space stuff, while we continue to try to find out why our subspace antenna is malfunctioning. I keep trying to tell everyone that we exceeded our peak minutes, but nobody will believe me…
“Mind telling me what this is?” Richards asked, stepping into the readyroom and tossing a padd on Baxter’s desk.
He glanced at it. “A padd, looks like.”
“Don’t be flip about this, Captain. What’s ON the padd.”
Baxter sighed and paged through it. “Warp core output reports.”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “I was just reviewing engine performance. We’re operating at thirty percent above design limits!”
“Nice to know there’s still a bit of the old engineer left in you, Chris.”
“I talked to Hartley. Somehow, and it’s beyond me why, she’s actually enjoying this.”
“She likes to make things go, what can I say.”
“You’ve convinced her it’s worth putting us all in danger just to catch Ficker.”
“None of us like Ficker,” Baxter said. “If you ask around, you’ll find the sentiment is that we should finish what we started. Your girlfriend included.”
“Don’t bring J’hana into this. Besides, she’ll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
“Ficker embarrassed her and Tilleran…and the rest of us…on quadrant-wide vidivision, or have you not forgotten the talk show thing? Not to mention…”
“So that justifies you being reckless?
Baxter rolled his eyes. “What are you going to do, Chris? Relieve me?”
“It hasn’t come to that point yet, but if it does…”
Baxter stared at Richards. “THEN what?”
“Then I’ll…do what needs to be done.”
Baxter tossed the padd back to him. “Well, until then, get out of my office.”
“You may use your quarters for fifteen minutes, then you will report to the mess for ‘crew togetherness time,’ Cadet Piper,” Lieutenant Angelina Prouse, security chief, said, hovering by the door to Piper’s quarters.
“Well, when you make it sound that inviting…”
“Look, we understand you’re not fully behind the Captain. We forgive you for that. But you’re going to have to come around sooner or later, and leave the ship..”
“Lieutenant, you had a great career…you were chief of security on the Zimbabwe for three years. Why throw that all away?”
“I’m not throwing anything away,” Prouse said. “They threw me away. Just because of a silly thing with potatoes.”
“You threw them at your commanding officer.”
“Because he told me to take them out of my quarters. I found them comforting.”
“You just needed counseling!”
Prouse stepped up toward Piper, gritting her teeth. “I’ve got something much better here. I have support. And you will too, if you just get with the program!”
“I’m getting a shower,” Piper said, tugging his tunic open and ducking into his quarters. “Computer, lock door,” as soon as he was in. He stepped over to his desk and spun his terminal to face him. He reached over and grabbed the cubical object he’d been using to fool Idlewild’s sensors. It was something he’d been working on in tactics class at the Academy. A way to simulate normal computer readouts, overriding sensors, so that one could effectively rewire connections in the computer core, unknown to anyone else on the ship, or the computer himself. His professor commended him for creativity, but cautioned that Starfleet didn’t look kindly on inventions that were capable of overriding a Starship’s command crew. Then again, if a ship fell into the wrong hands, it was handy to have around.
Moments later, the Federation logo stopped spinning on his screen, and Cadet Nat Sparks appeared in its place.
“Nat,” he said. “Seems it’s easier to get ahold of you now.”
“I’ve been told to wait by the comm…and monitor everything that you tell me. The captain knows now. He wants to help. We’re coming…just hold on.”
“We’re altering course, Nat, that’s what I called to tell you.”
Sparks nodded. “Tell me where. We’ll meet you.”
“Tantalus,” Piper said. “But I don’t know why.”
“I’ll pass it on. Is there anything else?”
Piper glanced back at the doors to his cabin, and looked back at Sparks urgently. “Yeah. Hurry.”
“Hang on, Ethan. We’re coming.”
“Tantalus?” Baxter asked, standing in the middle of the bridge as Sparks gave her report. “What could he want there?”
“Besides treatment,” Peterman said from her seat next to the command chair.
“Maybe one of their scientists…” Richards said.
Baxter didn’t look at him. “Or one of their patients.”
“That’s a long list,” J’hana said, tapping at her panel. “Could be anyone. And not a lot of good choices, among them.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to find more reject Starfleet officers,” Tilleran said. “More people to populate his ship….”
“Or something worse,” Peterman said, and looked at Tilleran. Wasn’t there something she meant to talk to her about? It nagged at her, like leaving something behind in a room, and not remembering what. “I guess we won’t know till we get there.”
“Thanks to Commander Hartley, we’ll get there faster, though,” Baxter said, and fixed a glare on Richards. “Isn’t that right, Lieutenant Madera?”
“Seven hours,” Madera said. “Oh, by the way, a nacelle fell off…no biggie.”
Baxter turned toward her. “Et tu, Susan?”
“I’m just saying…we’re going fast.”
Sefelt turned in his seat. “Too fast?”
“Oh, now look what you’ve started,” Baxter said, throwing up his hands.
“What could happen?” Sefelt asked, looking at Baxter. “Did a nacelle really fall off? That’s bad, right?”
“No nacelles fell off, Howie,” Peterman said soothingly.
Baxter looked at Richards. “No reason for panic, people. Just business as usual.”
“Question,” J’hana said. “If I get my hands on Ficker, do I have permission to snap his neck myself, or should I call you over and let you do it?”
“Nobody’s snapping anyone’s neck,” Baxter said, and went over to his seat. “We’ll do this by the book.”
“That’s a relief,” Richards said.
“Once again, I wonder what it is I see in you,” J’hana growled.
Sparks still stood next to the command area, looking a little out of sorts. “Captain, is there something I can do?”
“Would you rather go belowdecks, Cadet?”
She shook her head earnestly.
Baxter gave a small smile. “Good. Take auxiliary engineering. Monitor the warp core. God forbid, if a nacelle does fall off, I want to know about it.”
She smiled back, and dashed to the back of the bridge. “Thanks, sir.”
“Nice to know some people want to be part of the fight,” Baxter said, folding his arms.
“Yeah, and a nice example you’re setting for Starfleet’s youth, too,” Richards replied.
“When you’re fighting for the right reason…”
“Mister Piper,” Captain Ficker said, a broad smile spreading as Lt. Prouse ushered Piper in, then stepped out of the readyroom, letting the door close. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“I thought you wanted me to go down to the crew mess, for, uh, togetherness time…” Piper said, shifting from foot to foot, uneasily.
“Maybe later,” Ficker said. “But before that, let’s just have a talk. Come, sit down…” He gestured to one of the seats opposite his desk. The other was occupied by Shank, the mysterious Vulcan who’d accompanied him until he’d awaken. “You know Mister Shank?”
Piper nodded, sitting down. “Yes. Hi.”
“Greetings,” Shank said, then looked to Ficker. “Let me know when.”
Ficker held up a hand. “Not yet, Shank.” He moved around to the front of his desk, and sat down, arms folded. “Do you like it here, Cadet?”
“Yes…” Piper said uneasily. “I…”
“But you have reservations.” Ficker nodded. “That’s only natural. We all come from different backgrounds. That’s one of the nice things about the Idlewild. We’re all different, but we’re united in one thing…”
“Good intentions?” Piper asked.
“Heavens no,” Ficker said. “We’re freaks. Outcasts. Rejects. I mean, according to your report, you got beaten up all the time by bigger, stronger cadets.”
“I was known as something of a weakling. I guess a…nerd.”
Ficker nodded. “How typical. And how egregious the Academy would let something like that go on.”
“They couldn’t be watching everyone all the time. They tried to instill discipline but…”
“But some cadets operated outside the law.”
“Some of the best, and brightest, I’d expect. The Picards, the De Sotos.”
“So why can’t we operate outside the law as well?”
Piper tugged at his collar. “Because there would be chaos?”
Ficker nodded again. “But who’s to say that’s a bad thing? I mean, sometimes a forest has to burn down every decade or so, to replenish natural nutrients, right?”
“So maybe Starfleet does too, every now and again…to replenish itself.”
“Figuratively,” Ficker said with a broad smile. “Just figuratively.”
Piper glanced at Shank. “So…”
“So I hear you’re not happy here,” Ficker said, leaning over and patting Piper on the knee. “Nothing wrong with admitting that. We all have our doubts. But my friend Shank’s here to help us figure out exactly what the nature of your discontent is. Maybe then we can address your concerns better.”
“Or you could just ask me…” Piper said numbly.
“Yeah,” Ficker said. “But this is more efficient. Relax. If you have nothing to hide from us, then this little session will be a piece of cake. You don’t have anything to hide from us, do you, Ethan?”
Piper slowly rose from his seat. “Could I…be excused for a moment?”
Ficker’s smile faded. He pushed Piper down by the shoulders. “No. Sit back down.”
Shank turned to him, moving his hands to his temples. “Do not fight me, and this will be painless, Cadet.”
“I…” Piper began.
“Just relax,” Ficker said. “This’ll all be over soon.”
Baxter ate hurriedly, glancing at the chronometer on the wall.
Opposite Baxter at their customary table in Space Tastes, Peterman watched him, while cutting the meat on Steffie’s plate, as she sat on the other side of the table in her jumper seat.
“Slow down. You’re going to give yourself gas, sweetie.”
“That’s a foregone conclusion,” Baxter said. “I mean this is Janice’s empanada souffle, so…”
“You just can’t wait to get back to the bridge, can you?”
“There’s a lot going on.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, looking at his plate. “For what good that does.”
“What’s going on with you two?”
“He doesn’t trust me. He’s worried I’m going to go off the deep end or something over Ficker.”
“Oh, not you too,” Baxter said. “Don’t look at me that way. I’m the same guy I was yesterday, only…”
“Only hellbent on revenge. Yes, I see the similarities.”
Baxter sighed, putting his fork down. “Want me to turn us around right now, and just contact the authorities?”
Baxter smiled. “Heh. No.”
“Then I don’t know why we’re even having this conversation.” Peterman took a deep breath. “Look, Andy…I just don’t like you this way. You’re a gentle, good guy. It’s what attracted me to you in the first place. It’s why I fell in love with you. Even last year, when we were all under fire for weeks at a time, being chased by Starfleet, the Orions, and everyone else with a grudge, you were different. You were doing everything you could just to keep us safe. Your friends, your family…”
Baxter looked up at her. “Yeah. And now?”
“Now you just want to…get him. And that’s different.”
“Not from where I’m sitting.”
“Dessert?” Browning asked, walking up, a pie in each hand.
Baxter glanced at her. “Uh, not tonight, Janice.”
“Good, because I was planning on eating both of these.” She sat the pies down on the table and sighed. “Well, what’s going on? I hear you’re having a bit of a nutty today, Andy.”
“Glad to hear you and Chris are talking again.”
“Chris’s not the only one talking.” Browning shared a glance with Peterman. “We’re just worried about you, is all.”
“No need to be,” Baxter said, reaching over and tapping Steffie on the cheek. “Ain’t that right, baby?”
“Doofus!” Steffie giggled, and tossed a hunk of tomato at Baxter.
“Even my daughter’s turned against me,” Baxter said.
“Nobody’s against you,” Browning said. “We just want you to…” she looked at Peterman again. “Be careful.”
“Like I said. No reason to…”
“Richards to Baxter. Thought you’d want to know, we’re entering the Tantalus system.”
Baxter stood, and bolted out of the restaurant.
Peterman and Browning looked at each other.
“I think he was going to say ‘worry,’” Peterman said. She sighed. “I’ve got to get Steffie to Richard Simmons. Crisis or not, she’ll give me hell if she misses toddlercise. Hey, I know it’s middle of the day, but do you want to get a drink after?”
Browning shrugged. “Sure.”
“Report,” Baxter said, stepping out of the turbolift and walking briskly to the front of the bridge as Richards vacated the command chair and stepped up next to him.
“We just came out of warp and are heading for Tantalus Five,” Richards said. “They’ve already hailed us, wondering what we’re doing here.”
“Tell them we’re investigating a reported…anomaly, and leave it at that,” Baxter said. “Any other ships in the system?”
“A Pakled cargo ship, and a Ferengi courier, but that’s it,” J’hana said. “Recommend we go to Yellow Alert, nevertheless. The Idlewild is equipped with a phase cloak, and as such, they could be right next to us and we wouldn’t know it.”
“They could be inside us and we wouldn’t know it,” Tilleran corrected.
“Pleasant thought,” Baxter said. “Agreed. Yellow Alert.”
He walked back to the command area with Richards and sat down. “Thoughts, Chris?”
“You want to know?”
He turned to him. “Yeah.”
“I think we beat them here. Tantalus was actually closer to our position than the last reported position of the Idlewild. Plus, they didn’t, you know, risk blowing up their engines to get here.”
“Cadet Sparks…engine status report.”
“They’re still cooling, sir, but none the worse for wear.”
“Thanks.” Baxter turned to Richards. “Satisfied?”
“We were lucky. One misfired injector and…kablooie.”
“Kablooie concerns noted.” Baxter rubbed his chin. “J’hana, rig us for silent running. Reduce all systems to minimal levels. Susan, bring us just within Tantalus Five’s ionosphere. Activate sensor-reflective shields.”
“Glad those finally came in handy,” Richards said.
“Let me know when we’re in position,” Baxter said, rising and heading to the readyroom.
“Then what?” Richards asked.
“Then we wait for him. If he tries to beam anyone to or from Tantalus Five, we’ll know about it, even if he stays cloaked.”
“And then we pounce,” J’hana said, cracking her knuckles eagerly.
Baxter smiled. “Pounce is right, Commander.”
“Two pink squirrels,” Mirk said, leaning on the bar in the Constellation Club. “Glad to see you two here. You haven’t been around much lately.”
Peterman nodded, glancing over her shoulder at Tantalus as it hovered beyond the slotted viewports. “We’ve been a little…preoccupied.”
“Yeah. The Ficker thing,” Mirk said, polishing a glass. “That’s been all over the ship.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, sipping her drink.
Browning did likewise. “Kelly, I don’t know what you see in these things. Ick. So sweet.”
“What would you prefer?” Peterman asked.
“Two double shots of tequila, straight up, Mirk, and a couple limes,” Browning said, and smiled at Peterman. “Why do people always underestimate me?”
“I’ll never do it again,” Peterman said, and laughed. She leaned on her elbows as Mirk brought the shots. “So…”
“Yeah,” Browning said, looking at her shot.
“So…I hear you’re dating the changeling?”
“So…I hear Sparks is dating my son?”
They both blurted it out at the same time, and Mirk just chuckled.
“I’ll leave you guys a few moments to decide,” he said, and walked away.
“He’s not coming,” Richards said, turning to Baxter.
“It’s only been an hour,” Baxter said, steepling his fingers and staring at the viewscreen.
“Still, he should be here by now.”
“What are you afraid of, Chris? That we might actually run into him?”
Richards looked hard at Baxter. “Maybe a bit.”
Baxter gave Richards a small smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my senses. That’s what I’ve got you around for, anyway, isn’t it?”
Richards smiled back a little. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Andy’s got a big mouth,” Browning muttered. “I was trying to keep the thing with Pogo under wraps. Anyway…it’s not a thing. We’re just talking.”
“A subspace romance,” Peterman said. “Wow, the stuff of holonovels!”
“Not if there’s no romance.” Browning tossed back her second shot. “We’re just getting to know one another.”
Peterman nodded. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“So what about Sparks? Is she…you know, a good person?”
“She seems great. Considering she came from one of the not-so- bright groups at the Academy, I think she’s been doing a hell of a job. I can only guess it just took her a while to come out of her shell.”
“Well, do you think she’s, um…bringing Plato out of his shell? Er, getting in his shell with him?”
Peterman blanched. “You mean, he hasn’t….”
Browning shrugged. “I don’t think so. But we haven’t talked about it.”
“I was sure, that ensign from Stellar Cartography…”
“Nah. Just a few trips to the holodeck.”
“Where he can conjure any sex scene he wants…” Peterman threw her head back and laughed. “Janice, Plato may be less than five years old chronologically, but emotionally he’s easily seventeen or eighteen. He’s doubtless got…you know, urges.”
Browning pounded the bar. “Mirk, I need another shot. Stat!”
Mirk hurried back with another pair of shots. “Doctor, I hate to pry, but if it makes you feel any better, I heard it from Ensign Reader in the arboretum that Plato and the ensign from Stellar Cartography never got beyond hand-holding.”
Browning shuddered. “But…Mirk. His hand can become anything!”
Peterman rested a hand on Browning’s shoulder. “Now, let’s not dwell. Let’s just try to live in blissful ignorance a while longer.”
“Is that my friend talking, or my counselor?”
“Oh, definitely the friend. Denial is ultimately unhealthy and self- defeating, so…yeah the counselor wouldn’t suggest it. But the friend knows you need it right now. Besides, this thing with Sparks could be good for him.”
“Yeah,” Browning said, looking at her shot. “I just hope he knows what he’s doing.”
“King me,” Richards said, looking up from the padd they shared, and Baxter groaned.
“Not again. That’s like, the fifth time. I forgot that I suck at checkers…”
“Contact decloaking, bearing zero three four mark two one seven,” J’hana said, looking up from her panel. “It’s the Idlewild.”
“Red Alert,” Baxter said. “Ready all weapons and raise shields. Lieutenant Madera, break orbit. Tilleran: how did they sneak up on us like that?”
“Two words,” Tilleran said. “Cloaking device.”
“Super,” Richards said. “So what do we do now?”
“We’re being hailed,” J’hana said. “By the way, the sensor-reflective shields are officially not worth a shnarz.”
“Let’s talk to the man, I guess,” Baxter said. “Put him on screen.”
Ficker, looking particularly smug, appeared on the viewscreen. “Looking for something, Captain? Or should I say someone?”
“Ficker,” Baxter said, pushing out of his chair and stepping toward the viewscreen. “Thanks ever so much for saving us the trouble of bringing your ass to Tantalus.”
“Oh, I’m not here to stay,” Ficker said. “Actually, I finished my business a while ago.”
“I’m faster than you. I’m better than you. Smarter, too. I knew what you were doing before you even did it.”
“Then you know my next step is to blow your ass out of the stars.”
“Oh, you could do that,” Ficker said, folding his arms. “Or, you could track down the good Cadet Piper, who was so helpful to us.”
Sparks bit back a gasp, leaning forward at her station.
“Where is he?” Baxter snapped.
“On some moon in this system,” Ficker said. “Can’t quite remember which. But here’s a helpful hint…the air’s kinda thin there. So you’d better hurry.”
“Tilleran, look for human lifesigns,” Richards said. “Scanners to full reach.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other places to be,” Ficker said. “But I do wish you’d learn something from this little encounter, Baxter. It’s smarter to work with me than against me. Ask Cadet Piper. I’m sure he’ll agree.”
Baxter squeezed his hands into fists, his jaw working back and forth as Ficker disappeared from the screen.
“Idlewild just went to warp,” J’hana said. “Do we pursue?”
“You kidding?” Baxter said. “Tilleran, where’s Piper?”
“He’s on the third moon of the fourth planet. Uninhabited. The moon is L-class, barely liveable.”
“Take us there, full impulse. Medical team to transporter room one.”
Richards stepped up next to Baxter as crew milled about the bridge carrying out their orders. “What now, Andy?”
Baxter stared at the viewscreen, gritting his teeth. “What now is we get Piper. We find out who Ficker snatched from Tantalus. And then we get the son of a bitch. You have a problem with that?”
“No, come to think of it. But any idea how we do it?” Richards asked.
Baxter shrugged. “Nope. Not a clue. I was kind of hoping you’d do that part.”
“As a matter of fact, I do have one idea…” Richards said. “But not sure you’re going to like it. Come to think of it, I don’t like it much either.”
Lt. Commander Tilleran stepped into her office, wearily sinking into the chair opposite her desk
“Oh, Commander. You’re here. Good, I didn’t hear you come in. I’ve got the most exciting report for you!” Ensign Brett Marciano said, jogging into Tilleran’s office.
“Can it wait till tomorrow? We’re in the middle of a…” she sighed and rubbed her temples. Lately, she’d not been sleeping well. She figured it was because of the…well, why bother thinking about that? “We’re in the middle of a thing,” she finished.
“But it’s fascinating! I’ve been testing the reaction of amoebas from Vasten Six, and how they interact with local fauna from the neighboring Corova Two!”
“I said LATER!” Tilleran snapped, and stared at Marciano, concentrating her telepathy on him.
The ensign stopped in his tracks, then robotically backed out of the room, turned, and walked away.
“Whew. If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” Tilleran muttered, and turned to her desktop panel.
“Absolutely not!” Joan Redding said over subspace, leaning toward the terminal so Richards could see the irritation building behind her eyes.
“Thanks for mulling it over,” Richards sighed and stared at the desktop viewer in his office, as Baxter paced in front of his desk.
“Did you mention he’s a nutjob, and a danger to us all flying around in that Section Thirty-One super ship?”
Redding smirked. “Kind of funny, isn’t it, Commander, that after your staunch refusal to answer even the simplest questions, you’re now asking me for help.”
“I’m not asking you for help,” Richards said, folding his arms. “I’m offering you help.”
“Oh yes? How do you figure?”
“You’ve worked for AWN for a while now, haven’t you? And in that time, never won the Pennington Award for Journalism. Not even the Cokie, or the Stewart Award. You are, in fact, the least decorated correspondent in the quadrant.”
“Nice, make her hate us more,” Baxter muttered, leaning on the desk.
“I don’t do this job for the awards, Commander,” Redding said cooly. “Now if you’re done dressing me down, I’m due on the air soon and have to prepare…”
“Just give us a ship, with your call letters. That’s all we need,” Richards said quickly. “In return, we promise when we catch Ficker, we’ll give you an exclusive with him.”
Redding stared at the screen. “I don’t do this for the awards.”
“Then for the satisfaction of showing the galaxy what a worthless schmuck Ficker is.”
“Some say the same about you.”
“We’ll be setting the record straight on that too.”
“So you say.”
Baxter moved around to Richards’s side of the desk. “So will you help us or what?”
Redding glared at him. “I’ll have to speak with my news director. Run it through the proper channels…”
“Do whatever you need to do, but do it fast,” Richards said.
“I’ll be in touch as soon as I can,” Redding said, reaching out to close the channel.
“Wait,” Richards said. “Why didn’t you beg to go along with us?”
Redding narrowed her eyes. “Because I’m not crazy. Why?”
Richards shrugged. “Just seemed like something you’d do.”
“Talk to you soon,” Redding said drily and disappeared from the screen.
“Well, that’s one task…half done,” Baxter muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“Don’t worry. Joan pulls a lot of weight with AWN. They’ll do it.”
“You really think this will work?”
“We’re appealing to his ego,” Richards said. “I don’t know any better way to get at Ficker, do you?”
“You’ve got a point. Could I ask you why you’re suddenly with me on this?”
Richards looked thoughtful. “Do I need a reason other than that it’s Ficker?”
Baxter thought about it. “Nope.”
“Tilleran to Baxter. We’ve recovered Cadet Piper, sir. He’s in Transporter Room Two.”
“Have him taken to Sickbay. I want Doctor Wilcox to do a full workup. I’ll meet him there. Baxter out.” He looked at Richards. “Go back to the bridge. Wait for Joan’s call. Get this done, Chris.”
Richards watched Baxter head for the door. “Captain…”
Baxter turned. “What?”
“You’ve, um…you’ve never seemed so…Starfleet before.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” Baxter said and ducked out of Richards’s office.
Baxter ran into Cadets Sparks and Mathers on the way to Sickbay.
“Can we see him, Captain?” Sparks asked.
“Sure,” Baxter said. “Just wait outside for now. Holly needs to check him out. And I want to talk to him.”
Sparks nodded. “Any idea where Ficker is?”
“We’ll know soon enough,” Baxter said, stepping into Sickbay, where Piper sat on the center bed, as Doctor Holly Wilcox ran a medical tricorder over him. “What do you know, Doctor?”
Wilcox shrugged. “He’s fine. A little oxygen deprived, but we made short work of that. His pupil, respiratory and adrenal responses are a bit higher than normal, but that’s understandable considering he’s been through some turmoil.”
“I’m fine,” Piper said flatly, looking at Baxter. “I want to get him.”
“Me too,” Baxter said. “But first things first. Let’s get you some rest and something to eat.”
“I don’t want to eat,” Piper said, his eyes widening. “We have to act now, Captain…he’s going to do something…I don’t know what but…but when that Vulcan touched my mind, I felt something.”
Baxter patted Piper on the shoulder. “Relax, Cadet. We’ll get to the bottom of it. Explorer’s on the case, so you know…there’s at least a fifty-percent chance of success.”
Piper chuckled. “I’m sorry, Captain.”
“For going aboard the Idlewild in the first place.”
Baxter harrumphed. “I heard it from Sparks. You were trying to infiltrate the Idlewild, report back on what Ficker was up to.”
“The way you talked about him, the way you made him seem, and from what I saw myself, it seemed like somebody had to. I wanted to know…”
“Shh,” Baxter said, patting Piper on the back. “Doctor Wilcox is going to give you something to help you rest. Then you can grab something at Space Tastes. You’ve got some friends aboard who’re pretty concerned about you.” Baxter nodded at Wilcox, who pressed a hypospray into Piper’s arm. He laid back, looking at Baxter.
“Don’t trust him. Don’t trust anything he says or does. He wants to destroy…he wants to destroy Star…”
Holly watched him drift off, then glanced back at Baxter. “For all our sakes, I sure hope he was going to say ‘he wants to destroy Star Burger.’”
Peterman looked up woozily from the couch in Browning’s cabin. “How long have we been here?”
“Fifteen minutes,” Browning said, sitting in the nearby chair and staring at her shoes. “Or, like five years. I’m not sure.”
Peterman immediately snapped out of her syntheholic stupor. “I’ve got to get to the bridge. I need to know what’s going on.”
“I’m sure Andy will tell you when he…”
“Mom, mom!” Plato called out, exploding into Browning’s quarters. “I just heard we had a run-in with Ficker and he left Cadet Piper on a moon, and then he left before we could shoot him and now Piper’s back and we should open up Space Tastes because he’s going to want something to eat and I wanna go there too cause I’m afraid Sparks may have a thing for him or something…”
Browning and Peterman looked at each other as Plato gasped to catch his breath.
“Or you could just wait for my young son to give you the update.”
Both women had already cleared themselves of the synthehol’s effects and headed for the door.
“Peterman to Baxter,” she called out as she headed into the corridor, followed by Browning and Plato.
“Weren’t you supposed to get me if, you know…something happened?”
“Everything’s moving quickly. We’re still working out some things.”
“What things? What are we doing?”
“We’re making dinner,” Plato said, tugging on Browning’s arm.
“Yes, and we’re going to drive a phaser rifle up Ficker’s ass.” Baxter paused. “Oops. Plato’s listening isn’t he?”
Plato chuckled. “Yeah, Uncle Andy.”
Baxter sighed. “Go down to Space Tastes with Browning and Plato. Talk to Piper. See if you can figure out if he’s…you know, okay. Apparently he’s had a Vulcan mind meld.”
“That’s silly, Andy,” Peterman said. “Vulcans don’t give mind melds with intent to do harm, or for material gain. Ficker couldn’t possibly have…”
“He does. Just look at the kid and tell me if he’s all right.”
“Will do,” Peterman sighed. “And whenever you can spare Commander Tilleran, I’d like her to consult. She might be able to…derive things…that I can’t.”
“She’s going to be pretty busy here in the next couple hours, but I’ll do what I can. Baxter out.”
“Love you too!” Peterman called out, as she, Browning, and Plato ducked into the mall.
“She did it!” Richards said, stepping out onto the bridge. “The closest AWN affiliate is going to dispatch a ship on autopilot to the Renada system.”
“Great,” Baxter said. “So how do we convince him we’re, um, not us? Holofilter?”
“No,” Richards said. “They might detect that. I’m afraid this one has to be au naturale. I’ve already talked to Holly about it. Apparently she’s worked up a great moustache for me. And higher cheekbones!”
“Sounds like you’ve covered all your bases,” Baxter muttered.
“By the way, Joan wanted to make it clear that she still can’t stand us.”
“We’ll see if that’s true when she’s polishing her brand new Cokie. Or whatever.”
Richards nodded. “Yeah. I guess I really pissed her off.”
“You have a way with women, Chris,” Baxter muttered and turned to Tilleran. “Commander, any word from Tantalus?”
Tilleran looked up from her panel. “Yes, sir. Tantalus reports every patient is accounted for.”
Richards rubbed his chin. “Then who did they take?”
“One of the visitors? The janitor?” Baxter shrugged. “I don’t know. And we don’t have the time to find out. Odds are, we’re not going to like the answer either way.” He turned to the helm. “Susan, lay in a course for the Renada system. Maximum warp.”
“Hungry?” Counselor Peterman asked as Browning whisked out a tray of sandwiches, french fries, and a pile of assorted fruit.
Ethan Piper sat across from Peterman at the table, nodding eagerly and grabbing a Reuben sandwich. “Yeah. I didn’t have much of an appetite on the Idlewild. Of course that’s probably because these two guys in the crew mess were always messing with me.”
Sparks was sitting beside him. “So you were the outcast on a ship of outcasts? Ethan, even for you…”
“Hey, I survived. Give me credit for that,” Piper said between bites.
“So how do you guys know each other?” Plato blurted, perched on the edge of his seat beside Sparks.
Piper looked at Sparks. “Oh, we were fast friends, pretty much from the first day at the Academy. Me, Nat, and Colby.”
Mathers smiled. “You’re not going to eat all these sandwiches, right buddy?”
Browning grabbed a turkey club and handed it to Mathers, then joined the group at the table. “I knew there was a reason I liked this one.”
“Doctor Wilcox says that you’re in excellent condition, all things considered,” Peterman said, folding her hands on top of the table as Piper ate.
“But you’re not convinced,” Piper said, looking up from a handful of fries. “Blue collar. Are you a science officer or something?”
“She’s the ship’s counselor,” Sparks said, nudging Piper. “So no smartaleck answers.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Piper said. His eyes darkened. “Having that Vulcan in my mind. It was…creepy’s probably the best word. Just knowing another mind’s in there with yours, manipulating things…you wonder how much control he had. How much he could have changed…”
Peterman thought about that. Piper’s words resonted with her deeply, for a reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Yes. I suppose it is traumatic, having another person in your mind. Do you know if Shank planted any sort of…suggestions?”
Piper shrugged. “I suppose if he did, he’d bury it so deep I wouldn’t know about it.”
“Yes, I suppose he would.”
“You think he’s some kind of…” Browning began slowly. “What do you call them?”
“Sleeper agent,” Plato said quickly. “Maybe he’s a sleeper agent!”
“He’s not a sleeper,” Sparks sighed, patting Piper on the back. “Are you, Ethan?”
Piper looked at her. “Well, if I was, I wouldn’t know it, now would I?”
Then the two of them chuckled uproariously.
“I’m glad someone thinks this is funny,” Plato moaned, looking to Browning.
“We have plenty to talk about, son,” Browning said with a small smile.
“Well,” Peterman said. “We’ll just need to do some investigating. We’ll bring in Lieutenant Commander Tilleran. I assure you, her probes won’t be nearly as invasive as Mister Shank’s. She’s quite…harmless.”
Piper’s eyes widened. “Harmless? Isn’t she the one who put Ficker in a coma?”
Peterman cocked her head. “Coma? Oh. Right, now that you mention it. Funny…I almost forgot…”
“Yeah, he wasn’t pleased with her, to say the least.”
“You don’t say.”
Suddenly the air rippled next to Piper, and a Jem’Hadar soldier appeared.
“AHHHH!” Piper cried, sliding back in his chair, dropping his Philly cheesesteak.
“Oh, relax,” Sparks said, patting the Jem’Hadar on the belly. “That’s just Chaka’kan. He’s our friend.”
Chaka glared at Sparks. “What have I told you about rubbing my abdomen, Cadet?”
“Sorry,” Sparks said sheepishly.
“Yes, Ethan,” Peterman said, nodding at the Jem’Hadar. “Chaka’kan came aboard three years ago as a special attache from the Dominion. He’s a member of an experimental group of ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar.”
“Now I have heard everything,” Piper said, shaking his head.
“I am relieved you are well,” Chaka said. “I merely came to see if you were all right, or if my services were needed.”
“I appreciate it, Chaka,” Peterman said. “But what did I tell you about sneaking up on people with your shroud?”
“Never to do it.”
She nodded. “Would you like something to eat?”
“Perhaps a white refill?”
“I’ve got some in the back,” Browning said, hooking her arm around Chaka’s and escorting him to the back of the restaurant. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got some Changeling questions for you.”
“Ahh, child-rearing questions about your son.”
“No. More like getting one of them to like me.”
“As you wish.”
“Not the same one, obviously…”
Supplemental. We’ve entered the Renada system and rendez- voused with the unmanned courier ship AWN-12, which will be instrumental in our plan to infiltrate Alvin Ficker’s ship and do many a harmful thing to him. It’s an idea just dumb enough to work. But it definitely is dumb.
“I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this,” Peterman said, walking with Baxter, who had changed into a blue and beige off-duty outfit.
“Nope. This isn’t exactly the kind of thing you send someone else to do,” Baxter said.
“Fear not, woman. He’s brought more than enough protection,” J’hana said, also in casual wear…in this case, a spiked, stilletoed leather thing that Richards couldn’t take his eyes off. “My two boys will not be harassed in the slightest, except by me.”
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel better already,” Richards said, rounding out the group, resplendent in sportcoat and turtleneck. “I’ve got to be the one to play the reporter.”
Browning picked up step next to him. “I think they screwed up your mustache.”
“It’s exactly like it’s supposed to be,” Richards said. “Bushy.”
“Your cheekbones look good. And the chin. It’s distinguished.” Baxter tried not to laugh.
“Yeah, I only hope they can figure out a way to get the dimple out.”
“It’s not too late to bring more people,” Peterman said. “You know, like ten?”
“I want this to be a small group. Easier to manage.” Baxter looked to Richards. “Besides, we have a…backup plan of sorts.”
“That’s a relief,” Peterman muttered, even though it really wasn’t.
As they approached the shuttlebay door, there was an audible THUD as something hit the deck. The door opened to reveal the AWN- 12, with shuttle crew scurrying around it; however, it was currently upside-down.
“Oops,” Ensign Aronitz said, looking up from the tractor beam console. “Must’ve pushed the wrong button.”
“Please turn the ship over,” Richards said, sliding a hand over his face.
“Don’t give me that look, honey,” Baxter said. “I can feel your look.”
“Can you feel mine?” Browning said. She looked to J’hana. “Bring them home safe, Commander.”
“I’d have it no other way,” J’hana said. “And if we don’t make it back, may I say I will miss our awkward breakfasts in your restaurant.”
Sparks sat at a table in the Constellation Club, with Piper, Plato, and Mathers, watching the windows that looked out over the aft section of the Explorer. “We should be going.”
“I know,” Piper said. “Believe me, I’m in no hurry to get back there, but I’d much rather be going with the captain than sitting here on my hands waiting.”
“It could be dangerous,” Plato said, nudging Sparks.
“We’re in Starfleet, Plato,” Piper said. “A great man once said…‘risk is our business.’”
“Maybe,” Plato said.
Sparks put a hand over Plato’s and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not at the point where they’d trust me to go on any dangerous missions yet.”
“That’s a relief,” Plato said.
“You’re not kidding,” said Mathers.
“Well, there’s one thing I learned while I was on the Idlewild,” Piper said, watching out the windows as the small, bug-shaped AWN courier glided out of the shuttle bay, banked up and over the port warp nacelle, and shot off into warp. “If you’re not willing to change, then there’ll always be people out there who will try to change you.”
“I change all the time,” Plato smiled, and squeezed Sparks hand. “You…want to go to the Arboretum, Nat?”
“No,” Sparks said, looking out into space. “Let’s stay here a while longer…”
“Come,” Counselor Peterman said, looking up from her desk.
Tilleran stood in the doorway. “You wanted to see me, Counselor?”
“Yes,” Peterman said. “This’ll just take a moment. I wanted you to know, I’ve spoken with Cadet Piper. He definitely seems the victim of an invasive mind meld.”
“Rare,” Tilleran said, and slowly stepped toward Peterman’s desk, taking a seat in the opposite chair. “But it has been known to happen. I’d like to spend some time with him in the lab, once all this has blown over.”
“I’d rather you did it sooner than later,” Peterman said, looking up at Tilleran. “Before this mission is over. What he knows may be of use to Andy and the others. We have to know what he knows.”
“If you’re suggesting what I think you are…”
“That you read his mind?” Peterman asked. “You’ve done it before. Countless times. You do it all the time, don’t you?”
“Well, when the need arises…”
“Sometimes when the need doesn’t arise,” Peterman said. “And I think this is certainly a time of need, don’t you?”
“He’s been through an invasive mind-meld. He’s bound to be somewhat untrusting of telepaths.”
Peterman looked long and hard at Tilleran. “Yes, Commander, but what does he have to fear from you?”
“Nothing, of course, but…”
“After all, you’re a trusted…” She turned in her chair. “You’re a trusted…”
She heard Tilleran’s voice, whispering in her mind. “Forget…forget…”
Tilleran glanced at Peterman. “Are you all right, Counselor?”
Peterman turned slowly toward Tilleran, her eyes widening in shock. “No. No I’m not. And neither are you…”
“I hope this works,” Baxter said, sitting in the aft compartment of the AWN-12, surrounded by holocameras, padds, a multitude of viewscreens displaying news feeds from across the quadrant, and a worktable with holovision equipment he couldn’t begin to identify scattered about.
“It will work. Commander Richards is always underestimated. He is a substantial man.”
“Let’s not get into that, shall we,” Baxter said distractedly, drumming his fingers on the work bench.
“I’m eager to witness this event,” J’hana said. “You’re about to face your nemesis in a battle royale.”
“I haven’t thought about it like that.”
“Sure you have. Just because you’re cowardly and soft doesn’t mean you don’t have a touch of the warrior in you somewhere.”
Baxter blanched. “Somewhere, I guess. But I’m sure Chris’s touched the warrior many more times.”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
“…which is why I want to interview YOU, buddy!” Richards said with a wink, hoping his wig of flat, parted hair was on straight.
Captain Ficker sat in his command chair on the small viewscreen in the AWN-12’s cockpit. “Well, AWN confirms your credentials. You are who you say you are…Buckminster Gatherington,” Ficker said. “But I have a question. Why not simply interview me over subspace?”
Richards fumbled for words. “Obviously…because we want to capture your greatness on holovision for all to see.”
“And you want to see the layout of my ship. My plans to prove to Starfleet that the castoffs and rejects aboard the Idlewild have a rightful place in their upper echelons…”
“Yes, yes, all that,” Richards said, growing nauseous just from hearing the man talk. “I’ve convinced AWN to broadcast a live subspace feed of our interview for both quadrants to see. You’ll get a chance to make your case against Starfleet in a very compelling way. Unedited, unrehearsed. Just raw, emotional, one hundred percent Ficker!”
“I like what I’m hearing,” Ficker said. A goateed person next to him leaned over and whispered. “What? Oh, I suppose they could be tricking us in some way. But if they are, we’ll just push them out an airlock.” He looked up. “Easy enough, right, Gatherington?”
Richards gulped. “Right.”
“Here are our coordinates. When you arrive there, we’ll decloak and bring your ship aboard. But know I’ll have security with me. So if you try anything…”
“I just want the news, Captain,” Richards said. “We’ll see you shortly. Stay classy.”
“You too!” Ficker said with a smile.
Richards groaned as he ducked into the aft compartment, yanking his moustache off. “That was rough. Talking to Ficker and not looking like I hate him was just about more than I can bear.”
“But you did it, right?” Baxter said, leaning against the aft bulkhead.
“Yes. His ego won out over his common sense, just like we thought it would. We’ll rendez-vous with them in about an hour.”
“Any questions?” Baxter asked, looking from Richards to Baxter.
“Just a request. Never wear that hair thing again,” J’hana said, shooting a glare at Richards, who quickly pulled it off.
“I knew it was only a matter of time,” Ficker said. “I knew if I gave the paparazzi the time to get to know me from afar, they’d want an up-close interview.”
“I reiterate: This is not a good idea,” Roland Worthy said, walking up next to Ficker, Lt. Prouse at his side.
“I think we can take one small news ship,” Ficker said, ducking into the shuttle bay. “Besides, you worry too much.”
They approached the small AWN-12 as it set down in the shuttlebay, its thrusters hissing.
“Scan the interior,” Worthy said to the ensign at the shuttlebay controls.
“Nothing,” the ensign said, looking up.
“Nothing harmful?” Ficker asked.
“No. Nothing. Nobody aboard!”
Ficker and Worthy looked at each other. “Intruder alert!” Ficker called out, and dashed for the door to the shuttlebay.
“Great transporter work, buddy,” Baxter growled as he shimmied through the Jefferies tube on one of Idlewild’s lower decks. “You nearly put me through the bulkhead that time.”
“It’s a confined space! And I haven’t beamed in a long time!”
“We beamed just this morning,” J’hana said gutterally. “Twice.”
“I’m already regretting this away team,” Baxter muttered. “How much farther, J’hana?”
“Another nine meters,” J’hana said. “Again, I’m not sure what this is. But a large portion of the ship’s power has been diverted to there recently.”
“It’s not a bad place to start,” Richards said. “We might find out what Ficker is up to a lot sooner than expected.”
“Or they could have a crewmember with a big pizza oven too,” Baxter pointed out.
“We’re here…” J’hana said, pointing toward the ladder that led down to the deck below.
The group shimmied down the ladder and squatted near the hatch.
“No lifesigns in the room,” J’hana said, looking up from her tricorder.
Baxter nodded at Richards, who tapped on the panel next to the hatch, which quickly slid open.
Everyone slid out and climbed to their feet. J’hana checked her tricorder and looked around the dim room, which was filled with glowing orbs, massive computer panels, and a handful of biobeds.
“It appears to be some sort of laboratory,” J’hana said. “But I’m not familiar with the configuration.”
“Biobeds,” Richards said. “So if it is a lab, they’re studying people.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “But why?”
The door to the room hissed open.
“Why indeed,” Captain Ficker said, stepping into the room. “Computer. Lights.”
Baxter, J’hana, and Richards grabbed for their sidearms, but a female security officer waved them off with her phaser rifle.
J’hana was poised to attack though, and kept walking toward Ficker and his security officer.
Another officer stepped up behind Ficker. Richards recognized him as the goateed man from his subspace conversation with Ficker. Likely the first officer.
Behind him, a Vulcan stepped up, and Baxter was certain that it was the same Vulcan who invaded Piper’s mind.
“Now isn’t this a surprise,” Ficker said. “You’re persistent, Baxter. I’ll give you credit for that much.”
“This was a very bad idea, wasn’t it?” Richards asked, glancing back at Baxter.
“I’m starting to get that feeling, yes,” Baxter said.
“Don’t worry,” Ficker said. “We mean you no harm. We’re all Starfleet officers, after all. And we’ve been through so much together.” Ficker stepped up to J’hana, who was coiled, ready to strike. “Why, it seems like only yesterday I was trying to help you mend your relationship with that Betazoid. That pesky Betazoid who put me into a catatonic state for weeks. The last I can do, I suppose, is return the favor. Mister Shank…”
The Vulcan reached out for J’hana quickly with both hands, like a snake striking. J”hana lashed back at him, but too quickly his hands were on her face, pressing into her cheeks. His eyes met hers. “Sleep,” he said simply, and the Andorian collapsed, limp, to the floor.
Ficker stepped over the insensate security officer and approached Baxter and Richards.
“J’hana!” Richards cried out, leaping at Ficker.
Ficker just yawned and inclined his head toward Richards.
The Idlewild security officer fired her phaser rifle, sending Richards reeling backwards to the deck.
Baxter stood there as Ficker approached, fists balled, jaw working back and forth.
“You want to throw yourself on your sword as well, Captain? I’ll do nothing to stop you…”
Baxter’s words came out slow. “What did you do to J’hana.”
“Give a little, take a little,” Ficker said. “And since the Betazoid isn’t here, I did her one better, don’t you think?”
“What are you planning?”
Ficker considered the question, strolling around Baxter, hands clasped behind his back. “You don’t think I’ll just tell you, do you? Wouldn’t that spoil the surprise?”
Baxter clenched his teeth. “I. Don’t. Want. To. Be. Surprised.”
“Well then you really are no fun.” Ficker shrugged. “Fair enough. C’mon in, Doctor. Time for a family reunion.”
Baxter gaped as Doctor Maura Drake stepped into the lab, a broad smile spreading across her face.
“I’ve had time to think about what I did, Captain Baxter, so don’t worry. I’m quite sane this time around.”
Ficker nodded. “She’s not trying to create a god anymore.”
“Yes, I admit, that was overkill,” Drake said, stepping up to join Ficker next to Baxter. “So instead, we’ve come to a compromise, Captain Ficker and I.”
“You’re both out of your minds,” Baxter said, his voice shaking.
Ficker nodded, seemingly oblivious that Baxter was even talking. “I’m going to help her get the notoriety she so richly deserves, and she’s going to perfect my officers. Give them ability they’ve never dreamed of. But they don’t need to be gods, of course….”
Drake shook her head. “No. They only need to be good enough to beat everybody else.”
“And we will be,” Ficker said, with a slow smile.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
Baxter captured… J’hana and Richards incapacitated… Ficker and Drake in cahoots… Tilleran’s addiction revealed… And the Explorer on her way to a final confrontation.
All of this and more, including the meaning of the word “cahoot,” in the final go-round of Star Traks: The Vexed Generation.
COMING IN 2007!