Author: Anthony Butler
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
“Poker night. Who came up with this idea, anyway?” Ensign Adam Keefler asked as he looked around the table at the other Starfleet security officers.
“Someone who couldn’t wait to part with his latinum, my guess,” said Ensign Len Albright, tossing his cards down. “I fold, again.”
“You’re just a poor loser,” Ensign Gordon Taft said.
“You’re both losers,” Keefler said, tossing down his cards. “Flush.” His confident smile faded as the hulking purple mass of tentacles sitting across from him slapped down a clump of cards, stuck together by purplish goo.
Albright looked over uneasily. “Straight flush. Nice job, Unlathi.”
The massive Velvattian ruffled their tentacles, then reached out with four of them to slide stacks of chips over to their side of the table. They slapped their tentacles down on the table to indicate someone should deal the next round.
“You know, it’s getting awfully late…” Keefler said, shifting out of his chair.
Suddenly the comm chirped. “Peterman to Unlathi. I need you in my office immediately.”
“Counselor,” Keefler broke in. “Lieutenant Unlathi is off duty right now. Ensign Feckman is the officer on duty up on the bridge.”
“I need Unlathi, Ensign. Now that was an order, and right now I’m the senior officer aboard. So how about you tell your tentacled friend to get down to my office right away.”
The gooey security officer rumbled and shoved out of its seat. It didn’t so much turn around, as its neck turned and its body stayed facing the same direction. It then slithered to the door, ducking out.
The rest of the group sat staring at each other around the table.
“Well, I’m not cleaning up the slime trail again. I did it last time,” Keefler said. “Anybody want another drink while I’m up?”
“Is this really necessary?” Tilleran asked, sitting straight, hands folded on her lap on the fainting couch in Peterman’s office as the counselor stood on the other side of the room, pacing.
“I don’t know if it is or not, but I’m not taking any more chances.” She narrowed her eyes at Tilleran, trying desperately to rain in her emotions. “Not anymore, anyway. If I’m going to help you, I’ve got to first make sure that you won’t mess with my mind anymore. We’ll never make any progress if you just keep making me forget what we did.”
“As I said before, like five times, I’m sorry I did that.”
“You changed my memory. And the memory and behavior of countless other crewmembers, for weeks,” Peterman said. “How did you see this ending?”
“Like any criminal, I guess I knew I would get caught eventually.” Tilleran sighed. “I think part of me was hoping it would be sooner than later.”
“Well, that’s a good sign at least.” Peterman stared at the floor. “This is a hell of a time for the three ranking officers aboard to be gone.”
“Technically, I’m second officer,” Tilleran said.
“For the moment,” Peterman said icily.
Tilleran looked up in Peterman’s eyes, and could feel the mix of confusion, betrayal, and yes, there it was, outright loathing, that was wafting off the counselor. “What are you going to do with me?” she asked in a voice that sounded small, even though she didn’t want it to.
“I don’t know,” Peterman said, shaking her head. “I need time to collect my thoughts. Or I suppose you could just do it for me.”
“As I said, I’m sorry. I know what I’ve done is wrong.”
Peterman sank into the chair behind her desk, rapping her fingers on it. “We’re so far beyond sorry…” She steepled her fingers and put them to her lips. “Look, Ariel…I’m not insensitive to your problem. I realize you must be going through…a lot. It’s my job to help you. But I’ve got to figure out how to…”
“How to fix this?”
“No,” Peterman said. “That’s up to you. I was going to say ‘how to trust you.’”
“It’s not like I’ve stolen any secrets out of your mind…I mean when I scan people I only go so deep…”
“And I should choose now to begin believing you?” Peterman said as the door chime to her office bleeped. “Come.”
The doors slid open and Lt. Unlathi gushed in. Their telescopic eye surveyed the room and they burbled slightly.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Peterman said. “Commander Tilleran is relieved of duty. I’m taking command. Please take her to Deck Thirty- Four. Lock her in one of the unused cabins. Secure the deck. Nobody on or off without my clearance. Establish transporter and communication blackout. Do you understand?”
The Velvattian burbled again and slid a tentacle around Tilleran’s wrist, tugging her toward the door.
“Okay, okay, I’m going,” Tilleran said, and looked back at Peterman. “What’s this ab… well, of course. My abilities don’t work on Velvattians.”
“That’s right,” Peterman said. “And nobody’s stationed on Deck Thirty-Four.”
“Counselor,” Tilleran said, as Unlathi pulled her out the door. “I really am sorry.”
“I know,” Peterman said, letting out a deep breath as the doors closed.
Captain Andy Baxter stared at the security field in front of him. If he could have stared a hole through it, he would have.
He’d been in the brig for what seemed like hours. And the skinny, pointy-looking Ensign he’d come to know as Snodgrass was not much help. He just sat there, leaning against the desk opposite Baxter’s cell, staring back at him.
“You realize you’re on the wrong side of this thing, right?” Baxter said, breaking a long silence.
“The forcefield? Well, from your position I guess you’d say that, yeah,” Snodgrass replied.
“No. I mean the conflict between us and Ficker. You’re on the wrong side of it.”
“I’m going to be respected in the new order, Captain. That’s all I want. Can you give me that?”
“The people on my ship are respected,” Baxter said. “Well, sort of.”
“Your ship is a laughingstock. Along with those other pathetic ships of lost souls. Captain Ficker is setting out to make all those injustices right. I wish you could see it that way. This would all be so much easier then.”
“He’s really got you believing in him, doesn’t he?”
“We all want to be better people. What’s not to like about his plan?”
“Other than the fact it’s being carried out by a crazy scientist?”
“Doctor Drake is not crazy. Captain Ficker told us what happened with her and your ship. She was misunderstood for trying to create a more perfect human being.”
“She nearly got us killed by the Orions and Section Thirty One.” Baxter rose, striding toward the forcefield, his fists balling. “She..she ruined the life of someone very close to me.”
The doors to the brig slid open and Captain Ficker strolled in, hands behind his back. “Ahh, you’re speaking of the good Captain Kimmel, of course.”
“Don’t bring up her name,” Baxter said. “Or if you’re going to start telling stories, why not tell Mister Snodgrass how you kidnaped Anna for the Orions so they could experiment on her.”
“I was trying to get her the help she so desperately needed,” Ficker said. “You just got in the way of that. How is she doing now, anyway?”
“I’m sure you know she went away,” Baxter said, his voice cracking. “And nobody knows where she is.”
“Pity. You two were always so close.”
“Shut up, Ficker.”
“Maura told me all about it. It’s sweet, actually, that you think of her like a sister.”
“She IS my sister.”
“I guess if you call a genetically engineered science experiment a person…one might consider something like that a sister.”
Baxter turned around, trying to reign in his anger. He couldn’t let Ficker see that he was getting to him.
“Where’s Drake?” he barked.
“Belowdecks, getting ready to begin her experiments.”
“I don’t suppose it matters how you and Drake got together,” Baxter said, mostly to himself.
“Not particularly,” Ficker said. “But suffice it to say, I liberated that misunderstood soul from Tantalus.”
“Boy, someone needs to have a talk with them about their security measures.”
“You’re telling me. At any rate, they really didn’t appreciate her genius.”
“Was it genius to turn godlike and try to destroy the Universe?”
Ficker waved his hand dismissively. “We all make mistakes.” He took a breath. “At any rate, Doctor Drake is belowdecks preparing her experiments now. I must say, she’s got a real sense of renewed vigor.”
“It’s called being crazy.”
“Some thought Anna Kimmel was crazy. Turns out she was just misunderstood, so like us all.”
“Stop talking about her.”
“It must hurt you so, Captain, for her to be gone. The sister you never had. How sad.” Ficker stroked his chin.
“Ficker, I’m telling you, get out of here, or so help me I’ll walk right through this field and strangle the life right out of you.” So much for reigning in his anger.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Ficker said, waving a hand. “You’ll do no such thing. You’ll do exactly as instructed if you ever want to get off this ship and get back aboard your precious Explorer. And to think, you’d never be in this situation if you hadn’t hatched such a stupid plan. What did you think you’d accomplish coming aboard anyway? You’d figure out my dastardly scheme and then…just overpower me? What was the endgame here?”
“I’m not giving you anything. Bring that Vulcan in if you want, but better be careful when you let that field down. I’m feeling saucy today.”
“That’s a shame. Because I’ve got your security chief and first officer in Sickbay. One of them has a nasty phaser wound, the other is in a Vulcan-induced fugue state. The holographic physician is doing his best for them, but you know computers…they’re unpredictable.”
Baxter turned around, stepped toward the field. “You’ve gone off the deep end, Ficker. You were always crazy, always greedy for attention, for success, acceptance, corrective vision surgery, whatever else…but you were never murderous. You didn’t hurt people, not knowingly. What changed?”
“I got close to my goal, Baxter,” Ficker said. “You’ll find that focuses you - if you ever get close to a goal, that is.” He chuckled. “Don’t fear, nothing unpleasant will happen to your people, other than what’s already transpired, if you do exactly as I say.”
“What,” Baxter spat.
“Just a few items I need. The Idlewild wasn’t built as a science ship. And components from other vessels won’t work. Maura needs certain items to finish her laboratory, and the only place we can get them from is a Starfleet vessel. Exploratory or science class will do. Know any ships that match that description?”
“You’re not getting anywhere near the Explorer.”
“Now, that’s where you’re wrong.” Ficker walked toward the door. “Stew on it a bit, anyway. We’ve got some time.”
Baxter grinded his teeth as he watched Ficker walk out. “No you don’t.”
“Anything of worth?” Lt. Prouse asked, leaning against the hatch of the AWN-12 as Mercer and Smoot, two of her officers who at least knew how to fire weapons, dug through the small news vessel’s contents.
Prouse had her doubts about some of the Idlewild crew, and tended not to trust many of them for security detail. Many were insecure, jumpy. The ones who were trained for tactical duty usually had to be reassigned, as they had become somewhat…trigger-happy. Or else afraid of violence altogether.
Mercer and Smoot, though, were two of her best.
Prouse yawned and stretched, popping her back as she leaned backwards. “We’ll need to wrap this up shortly and get a report to Captain Ficker, so…”
That’s when a slight shimmering sound could be heard within the craft, and then the high-pitched screams of Mercer and Smoot.
Prouse slung her phaser rifle up on its strap over her shoulder and aimed, stepping toward the AWN-12 as it rocked, and Mercer and Smoot’s catcalls quite suddenly stopped.
A grey being in a black suit emerged, leaping at her and knocking her off her feet before she knew what hit her. Her phaser rifle clattered across the shuttlebay floor.
She leaned up just as she saw the grey, spiny humanoid hustle toward the door, then turn around, facing her. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Are you injured?”
She stared back at the Jem’Hadar blankly. “I…guess I’m all right.”
“Glad to hear it. Sorry about the two in the shuttle…they left me no choice. I really hope they’re okay. Have a great day!” Then he turned to the door and shrouded himself again.
Prouse sprung to her feet, slapping her combadge. “Prouse to all hands: Security Alert! Jem’Hadar soldier on board. Armed and extremely dangerous.”
She ran over, grabbed her rifle, and dashed for the door. Where the hell did he come from? And more importantly…
Have a great day?
“Come in, AWN-12. I repeat, this is U.S.S. Explorer, calling AWN-12 on secure channel Bravo Discovery Sundance Two Six Seven. Come in.”
Counselor Peterman rocked on her feet in the center of the bridge, arms folded, as Keefler tried for the third time to contact the transport.
“Well?” she asked, glancing back at tactical.
Keefler shook his head. “Nothing, Counselor.”
“Aren’t they going to let us know when they’re done?” Lt. Madera asked, turning in her chair at the helm.
Peterman walked back to the command chair. “They won’t be able to tell us anything if they got captured.”
“You think they’re…d…dead?” Lt. Sefelt asked, trembling in his chair.
“Let’s not speculate,” Peterman said in even tones. “We need to just sit tight and wait until Andy contacts us.”
“Where’s Lt. Commander Tilleran?” Keefler asked. “Isn’t she supposed to be in command?”
“She’s otherwise occupied, Ensign. Just keep on that secure channel, please.”
The turbolift doors in the back of the bridge hissed open, and Lt. Commander Hartley sprung out, wearing just her tanktop and slacks, having obviously been up late working on the engines. “Could somebody tell me what the hell is going on? Ensign Stuart just told me he saw Lieutenant Unlathi dragging Tilleran into a room on Deck Thirty-Four. I can’t get through to her or Unlathi, and I can’t even get on the deck. My clearance isn’t working.”
“Let’s go to the ready room,” Peterman said, stepping up to the quarterdeck.
“I tried to take a fifteen minute nap in my office, and in that time, has this whole place turned upside down?” Hartley asked, following Peterman into the ready room.
“Calm down,” Peterman said, as the doors closed. She sat down on Baxter’s couch. Something just felt…wrong…about getting behind his desk. “Sit down.”
Hartley paced. “I’d rather not. What the hell is going on? And have we heard from the captain yet?”
“We haven’t heard from the captain and…” Peterman took a deep breath. “And this may surprise you, but Lieutenant Commander Tilleran has become…addicted…to her powers. She’s been using them on people against their will for weeks now. She blanked my memory. She made Howie confident, then took his confidence away, then made him forget how he got his confidence to begin with. And don’t get me started on what she’s done to the wait staff in Ship’s Shoppes…”
Hartley’s mouth opened and closed. “I…I don’t know…I don’t believe it. Tilleran’s always been so….steady. I mean, I’ve heard about this happening to Betazoids. But not her. You’ve got to let me talk to her.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Peterman said. “I need to figure out a treatment plan, then get her the help she needs.”
Hartley stared at her. “She…blanked your memory?”
“Certain parts of it. Only after a period of time did it start coming back. A few things jogged it, and it all came together. But once I confronted her, she admitted to it. She needs help.”
“Yes. Help,” Hartley said, turning to face the window. “Not being locked up like a prisoner.”
“She is a prisoner for the moment. She’s under arrest for insubordination, assaulting a fellow officer…these are serious charges.”
“But you said so yourself - she needs help!”
“And she’ll get it, whether she’s part of the Explorer crew or not.”
“Don’t tell a counselor that,” Peterman said, not unkindly. “I know you two are friends. Believe me. And I’m sure J’hana won’t be too happy with me either. But you have to trust I know what’s best for Commander Tilleran.”
“Funny enough, I don’t,” Hartley said. “This is bull shit. This is not the way you treat a member of your family. And that’s what she is. We all are, like it or not.”
“Commander Hartley, if you try to interfere with Commander Tilleran’s treatment in any way, I’ll relieve you of duty as well.”
“Nah. I won’t interfere,” Hartley said. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” She turned and walked out of the ready room.
“Great.” Peterman stood up and walked over to Baxter’s desk, leaning against it. “Just great.”
Baxter looked up from his pacing as he watched the lights in the brig go from bright white to flashing red.
Moments later, Ficker burst in, phaser in hand. “Okay, Captain. Time to call off your Jem’Hadar.”
“My what?” Baxter asked blankly.
“We know you’ve unleashed your pet Jem’Hadar on my ship, and I want you to stand him down immediately.”
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” Baxter said. “Is a Jem’Hadar one of those species from the Gamma Quadrant? Are they the ones who change shape?”
Ficker stepped toward the security field. “I’ve got two officers in Sickbay thanks to your scaly friend. What’s his next stop? Is he coming here?”
Baxter considered the question. “Well, the funny thing about invisible people is, you’re never quite sure where they’ll go.”
“You’re jeopardizing everything, Andrew,” Ficker said, running a hand through his hair, lifting the phaser and pointing it at Baxter. “I can’t let you do that. Call him off.”
“Or you’ll shoot me? Will that stop him from doing a multitude of nasty things to your ship?”
Ficker’s finger trembled on the phaser’s firing control. “Better yet, call your Jem’Hadar off, or I’ll make sure your security officer never wakes up. I’ll let Richards live, though, so he can always blame you for her death.”
“You’re awfully familiar with the ongoing soap opera on my ship,” Baxter said.
“This ship used to belong to Section Thirty-One. It has above- average information gathering capabilities.”
“Can we discuss that over coffee? I’d be fascinated to hear more,” Baxter said.
“Call off the Jem’Hadar,” Ficker said in a low voice. “Or I’ll take drastic steps.”
“You won’t have time,” Baxter said. “Not by my count.”
Ficker looked at Baxter, and something clicked. “Damn it! Ficker to Engineering. Seal the engine room! Seal off all access to the warp core!”
Just then all the lights died, and Baxter watched with barely- restrained glee as the security field fell.
He took that moment to leap out of his cell, tackling Ficker to the ground.
“Please state the nature of the medical…”
“SHUT UP already,” Commander Richards moaned, twisting left and right on the biobed in Sickbay, looking past the thin, needle-nosed EMH Mark II and staring at the insensate Lt. Commander J’hana. “The medical emergency is her! You need to go find out what’s wrong with her!”
“Oh, that again,” the Doctor said, rolling his eyes. “She’s in a catatonic state caused by a Vulcan mind meld. She’s not going to wake up until the Vulcan who did that to her decides to reawaken her. Any attempt to use stimulants to wake her could have disastrous results. Still, if you’d like me to try…”
“God, even the hologram’s an asshole,” Richards muttered.
“Well, if that’s how you feel,” the Doctor said haughtily. “Then I’ll just deactivate and…”
Suddenly the hologram flickered and vanished, and the Sickbay lights went out. Moments later, the emergency lighting strips along the floorboards lit, and Richards found he was free of his biobed field.
Richards slid off the bed, wincing and grabbing his ribcage, which still hurt from the close-proximity phaser blast he took. He ambled over to J’hana’s biobed and shook her. “J’hana! Wake up! Everything’s working like it’s supposed to. Chaka got into Engineering. This is our chance to get out of here!”
She didn’t move. Richards sighed, and grabbed her, slinging the compactly-built Andorian over his shoulder and bolting for the door. J’hana was surprisingly light, for such a formidable fighter. He had to bust the wall panel and pump the hand crank, but he got the door open. Then he bolted out into the corridor.
“I’m not going to do it,” Doctor Holly Wilcox said, folding her arms as she stood outside her office in Sickbay. “It goes against every ethical guideline I’ve ever read. You just don’t do that to a Betazoid.”
“You do when she poses a danger to herself and her crew.”
“Are you sure that’s the case?”
Peterman rolled her eyes. “I wish for once someone would believe me!”
“It sounds like you’re the one in need of counseling,” Holly said. “Maybe you need to sit down…take a sedative…”
“No,” Peterman said. “If you won’t do it, I will. I’m authorized to distribute medications when necessary.”
“Do you really think this is necessary?”
Peterman reached for a hypospray. “Absolutely.”
“I’m lodging a formal complaint with Starfleet Medical,” Holly said, turning to her office.
“Well, get busy,” Peterman called over her shoulder as she headed out of Sickbay. “And remember - good sentence structure is the essence of persuasion.”
The emergency lights came on, and Baxter was on Ficker, crashing to the deck, rolling, grabbing a fistful of his hair and slamming his head to the deck.
“Get off him!” Snodgrass called out, leaping on Baxter, who quickly found himself in a two-man fight.
“Grab my phaser, you idiot!” Ficker cried out as Baxter slapped his glasses off his face, crawling after him toward the door.
Snodgrass scrabbled on the floor for the fallen phaser, lifting it and firing a shot that soared over Baxter’s head. Baxter turned, grabbed Ficker under his arms in a full nelson, lifting him off his feet in front of him, powered by pure adrenaline and rage. “Shoot, Snodgrass!” Baxter barked. “I’d love you too!”
“SHOOT HIM!” Ficker cried, screwing his eyes shut.
“I’ll hit you!”
“Yes. SHOOT!” Baxter called, and dragged Ficker toward the door.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ficker asked, kicking with his feet.
“Bringing you along as insurance,” Baxter said, pulling Ficker down the corridor. “Now tell me where I’ll find my people!”
“You’ll find them dead if you keep this up!”
“Commander,” Peterman said from the doorway of the unoccupied quarters where Unlathi had deposited Tilleran.
Tilleran looked up from her place on the sofa. “Counselor. I’ve been trying to contact you - among others. I can’t get a channel out.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Look, I know you’re upset…but let’s be reasonable.”
Peterman held up her hypo. “This is reasonable.”
“Sornapan,” Peterman said.
Tilleran’s mouth opened. “Sornapan…are you planning on…”
“Do you want me to help you?”
Peterman sat down next to Tilleran. “I used to love ice cream. I mean, I was crazy about it. I ate three bowls a day for like, six months, when I was thirteen. Well, wouldn’t you know, I started to plump up. Now mind you, this was when daddy had me riding horses. So a chubby girl just wouldn’t do.”
Tilleran cocked her head. “I can read your mind, and even I can’t follow…”
“Know how I quit? We put all the ice cream out of the house. Cold turkey, as the old earth saying went.”
“I thought you were addicted to ice cream, not turkey…”
“It’s just a saying.” Peterman chewed her bottom lip. “Look, it’s a small dose. The effects will wear off in about a week, during which time we can talk about your problem, and help you to control these urges.”
“I…I don’t know.”
Peterman took Tilleran’s hand. “You’re going to have to trust me.”
“But you don’t trust me.”
“Yes. But you can read my mind. Am I lying? Am I planning on hurting you?”
Tilleran stared at her. “No…”
“I won’t give this to you without your consent,” Peterman said. “Say the word, and I’ll walk away, and you can go on using your powers. And I’ll recommend the captain put you off the ship at our next stop and bring you up on charges.”
Tilleran snatched the hypo out of Peterman’s hand. “Allow me.” She stared at it a moment, then plunged it into her arm.
“Good.” Peterman took a deep breath. “Now let’s talk.”
“Keefler to Peterman: We just got a blip on longrange. It’s definitely the Idlewild. Looks like her cloak failed….and there are some…things exploding aboard. Do you want me to…?”
“Intercept. Maximum warp. Go to Red Alert - and find out if there are any other Starfleet ships in the area.” Peterman stood up. “I’ll be right up.”
“You need me up there…” Tilleran said.
“You need to be down here,” Peterman said softly, and patted Tilleran on the shoulder. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Tilleran watched Peterman walk out, and a numbness set in. Already, she had no idea what the counselor was thinking. She just had to trust.
On her way up to the bridge, Peterman ran into Plato, who was holding hands with Steffie, walking with her down the corridor.
She stopped in her tracks, momentarily taken aback. “Plato? Where are you and Steffie going?”
“We heard the call for General Quarters,” Plato said. “We were on the holodeck playing beach volleyball.”
“That’s sweet of you, playing with Steffie,” Peterman said.
“She was getting a little bored with Richard Simmons’ song and dance routine…literally,” Plato said. Simmons had taken lately to singing and dancing for Steffie rather than the usual toddlercise class. “She seems to like volleyball. She was having a ball. Also literally.” He laughed nervously.
“Well you’re doing the right thing. Get back to your quarters and lock the door. I’ll let you know when it’s okay to come out.”
Plato nodded. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing to worry about,” Peterman said. “Just a little…conflict negotiation. I really appreciate you taking care of Steffie.”
“She’s like a little sister to me. Of course I’ll look out for her,” Plato said with a grin.
“That’s my boy,” Peterman said, and leaned over, kissing Plato, then Steffie, on the forehead.
“Plato!” Janice Browning called from down the corridor. “Didn’t you hear the call for General Quarters?”
“Yeah. I was talking to Aunt Kelly…”
“Well get in the cabin. I’ve got brownies baking!”
“Okay, Mom,” Plato said, and walked with Steffie down toward Browning’s cabin.
Browning walked up to Peterman as Plato and Steffie ducked inside. “How deep are we this time, Kelly?”
Peterman held her hand well over her forehead. “About yay high.”
“Sheesh,” Browning said. “Anything I can do?”
“Watch our kids,” Peterman said breathlessly.
“Of course,” Browning said. “What about the away team?”
“We’re going to get them now.”
Browning nodded. “Good. Then…go…”
“Yeah.” Peterman said, and smiled weakly, turning to jog to the nearest turbolift.
Baxter and Ficker slammed each other from one side of the corridor to the other, until Baxter drop-kicked Ficker into the waiting turbolift, and shouldered inside. “Engine room!” he called out.
“Halt lift, override code Ficker Omega…OOMPH!” Ficker swallowed his words as Baxter’s fist collided with his face. He landed a foot in Baxter’s midsection, tossing him against the turbolift wall as it descended.
“You know what we’re doing, don’t you?” Baxter asked.
“I do now,” Ficker said, backing toward the other side of the lift, rubbing his jaw. “Your Jem’Hadar is taking out my engines.”
“Close, but not quite. It’s something in your engine room, though.”
Ficker’s eyes squinted, then widened. He really needed to get his glasses back. “The cloak.”
“You’ve been impossible to track all this time. If nothing else, that ends today.” He glanced at the ceiling, as if searching for something. “And if I’m not mistaken, Chaka’s mechanics job drew the Explorer’s attention, which means she’s on her way. And it’s finally a fair fight.”
Ficker ran at Baxter, grabbing him by the front of his uniform and shoving him to the ground, putting a foot on his chest. “We still outgun you.”
“Chaka’s not done with your engine room,” Baxter grunted, turning Ficker’s ankle and toppling him, pushing to his feet.
“You’re crazy, Baxter. Crazier than I am if you think you can stop us. You cannot stop progress. Can’t keep us from bettering ourselves!”
“THIS IS IN NO WAY BETTER!” Baxter shouted, and dragged Ficker up, forcing him against the turbolift wall as the door opened up, then hurled him bodily out into the engine room. Ficker slammed headfirst into the master systems display, then fell over, unconscious.
Baxter marched out into the dim room, watching the warp core thrum in front of him. “Chaka? You in here!”
Frighteningly, the Jem’Hadar materialized behind him. “Sir?”
“AHHHH!” Baxter shrieked, turning and putting his fists up.
“You’re a tad riled today, aren’t you, sir?” Chaka asked.
“Just a bit.”
“J’hana and Richards are here,” Chaka said. “They are in the engineer’s office. We tried to sabotage the engines and the shields, however they were protected behind subsystems even Commander Richards and I cannot penetrate. The cloak, however, was smashed nicely.”
“Small miracles.” Baxter took a moment to catch his breath. “Did you happen to see a Vulcan aboard? About my height? Wearing robes?”
Chaka nodded. “Ah, yes. We crossed paths in the corridor on my way down to engineering. I knocked him unconscious with a swivel kick to the forehead.”
“Damn,” Baxter said, and looked around. “We could really use him right now to help J’hana.”
“My apologies. If I’d realized…”
“Don’t worry about it. Are we secure?”
“Only for the moment. This ship’s security chief is skillful. She will break through the barriers I established on the upper decks soon.”
“Then we have to hurry. Have we sent out a message to the Explorer?”
“I smashed the cloaking device, then remotely exploded spare antimatter pods in the aft section. If they are anywhere nearby, they noticed. Otherwise, it appears the Idlewild crew has established a communications blackout, and I cannot get past the computer safeguards.”
“Don’t worry about it. You did good work, Chaka.” Baxter put a hand on the Jem’Hadar’s shoulder. “How are you holding up?”
“Surprisingly placid,” Chaka said, looking around. “I had first thought all this bloodshed would bring back unpleasant memories of my…misbehavior.”
“It felt quite natural…but restrained. I did not kill anyone.”
“See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad,” Baxter said, heading for the engineer’s office.
“Still, all things considered, I would rather be gardening.”
“You’ll get back to your garden soon enough, buddy. Just keep an eye out. Let me know the first sign someone tries to get in, or if Ficker stirs…”
Peterman walked out onto the bridge. “How much time?”
“Thirty minutes, give or take,” Keefler said. “They actually weren’t that far away.”
“Madera, we’re going as fast as we can go?”
“Yeah. Hartley just realigned the engines so…”
“It’s about time we misaligned them again. Push them as hard as you can, Lieutenant.” Peterman walked toward the middle of the bridge.
“Counselor, some of the crew have asked about Lieutenant Commander Tilleran,” Keefler said.
“She’ll be fine. I’m working with her on…something. Meantime, call Cadet Sparks up here. Her services will be needed.”
“Is this the best time for a cadet to be on the bridge?” Keefler asked.
“She’s a damn good science officer. So do it, Ensign.”
Peterman stared at the viewscreen. “I’m coming, Andy.”
Richards stood there, arms folded, as J’hana lay immobile on the engineer’s desk. Baxter stood in front of the door as it closed.
“She’s breathing.” He held up a tricorder, then put it back on the desk. “All I could get my hands on is an engineering tricorder, but it was sensitive enough to tell me she’s breathing, heart functions are normal. She’s just not…thinking.”
“It’s a Vulcan thing. We can reverse it.”
“Only Shank can reverse it.”
“Well, we’ve got Ficker unconscious outside. And apparently Shank is likewise unconscious somewhere else on the ship. I could try to work out a prisoner trade…”
Richards didn’t look back at Baxter. “No way. He’s much more valuable than Shank. If we can get him back to the Explorer, we can force the Idlewild to stand down and get her crew the counseling they so badly need.”
“Kelly would have a field day,” Baxter mused. “But what about J’hana?”
“She’s tough. She’ll fight her way out of this. Besides, she’d never forgive me if we fragged the mission just to save her.”
“Chris, I’m sorry…I had no idea this would…”
“Andy, all due respect, but stop talking. She wouldn’t have had this any other way. Actually, she’s probably disappointed she didn’t get killed.”
Baxter nodded and looked at J’hana. “When you’re right, you’re right.”
“Well, this is annoying,” Cadet Colby Mathers said, pacing the classroom on Deck Fourteen, which was typically used for cadet briefings and so they could uplink to Starfleet Academy and transmit written updates on their progress aboard the Explorer. This was supposed to be “reflection time,” or as Sparks had come to call it, “confessional.” Whatever it was, it was usually tough to quantify exactly what they were getting done aboard the U.S.S. Explorer. That was never more true than today.
“What part’s annoying?” Sparks said, stooped on a desk and looking at her padd, trying to come up with a creative way to say she’d spent the last day on her heels waiting for news about the Idlewild. “The waiting, or the not doing anything?”
“Aren’t they part and parcel?” Cadet Ethan Piper said, laying with his head on the desk. “Is it always like this around here? Just waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop?”
“Nah,” Mathers said. “Usually we get to do things. Sound the allcall, arm phasers, clean out Peterman’s pet room…”
“Funny,” Piper said. “I escaped from the Idlewild, but I still feel trapped.”
“I bet the food here’s better though, eh?” Mathers asked.
“Oh totally,” Piper said. He sighed. “Still, I can’t help but think about the other cadets on the Idlewild. The ones that didn’t get out. Morant. Bloxon. Hetherington. And a dozen others.”
“They made their choice to join Ficker. Now they have to deal with the consequences.”
“Are they…happy over there?” Mathers asked. “The other cadets?”
“I don’t think happy’s the right word for it. They feel like…they fit in.”
Piper looked to Mathers and Sparks. “I fit in here. With you guys.”
Sparks smiled. “That’s sweet, Ethan. I…” Suddenly her combadge chirped.
“Keefler to Cadet Sparks. Report to the bridge immediately. You’re needed at sciences.”
Sparks furrowed her brow. “Isn’t Lieutenant Commander Tilleran…”
“That’s none of your concern. You’ve been called to the bridge. You should have gotten here by now.”
“Right.” Sparks leaned off the desk and headed for the door. “That’s my cue…”
Piper and Mathers stood up. “What should we do, Nat?”
“Wish me luck,” she said, and bolted down the hallway.
Sparks had no sooner taken her station when she saw the sensor contact come alive on her console. “There she is, dead ahead!”
“Come out of warp and bring us to bear on her, weapons range,” Peterman said, leaning against the railing that surrounded the command chairs. She watched the aerodynamic, angular, Sabre-class Idlewild come into view on the screen. “Arm phasers and photon torpedoes. Shields up. Red Alert. And anything else I may have forgotten…”
“Done, done, and done,” Keefler said, and the bridge was bathed in dark, alternating red light.
“We’re getting a comm,” Sparks said.
“Put it on,” Peterman said, folding her arms.
The goateed man Peterman had come to know as Commander Worthy appeared on the viewscreen, his forehead beading sweat and his moustache twitching. “Explorer.”
“That’s us,” Peterman said simply. “You have some crewmembers we want back.”
“Tell them that,” he muttered. “They’re down in our engine room. They have our captain.”
Peterman fought back a smile. “Way to go, Andy,” she said softly.
“I’m not sure I see the humor in this. Your captain has assaulted another commander, invaded the sanctity of a Starfleet vessel, and committed grave acts of sabotage!”
Peterman threw back her head and laughed. “Are you delusional? The Idlewild’s no more a Starfleet ship than the H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Worthy’s gaze darkened. “Don’t you dare invoke Gilbert and Sullivan. They were fine men. They understood seafaring tradition….”
Yep, that sealed it. Some of Ficker’s folk were too incompetent for Starfleet. Others were plenty competent, they were just off the charts crazy. Worthy was definitely the latter.
“Stand down your weapons and shields. Give us our people, and surrender your ship to us,” Peterman said. “You’ve got two minutes to agree to terms, or so help me Great Bird I’m gonna start shooting.”
“And risk blowing up your husband?” Worthy asked.
Peterman gritted her teeth. “I’ll shoot carefully.”
Worthy glanced at an off-screen readout. “Ah. Excellent. We’ve penetrated engineering. Just a moment.” Worthy disappeared from the screen and Peterman found herself staring at the Idlewild again.
“Orders, Counselor?” Keefler asked.
“Nat, what’s their shield status?”
“Power readouts unstable, but shields and weapons both operational,” Sparks said, looking up from her readout. “The cloak is definitely off-line, though.”
“So either we start shooting or they do,” Peterman said.
“I vote for option one,” Keefler spoke up.
“Thanks,” Peterman said. “Scan the ship. See if you can find human or Andorian life signs. Or Jem’Hadar, apparently.” Peterman shook her head. That was Andy’s big backup plan. She had to give him credit for thinking up something that clever. Her husband was many things, but clever wasn’t usually one of them.
“We’re having trouble penetrating their hull with scanners,” Sparks said.
“Great. That doesn’t exactly bode well for the firefight, does it?”
Baxter turned as he heard a bleep at the engineer’s office door. He walked over and keyed it open, to reveal Chaka’kan standing in the corridor outside.
“Chaka. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to remind you that you asked me to let you know if the Idlewild people succeeded in getting through my barriers.”
Chaka took a step back, to reveal Lt. Prouse holding a phaser against his head.
“Well, they did.”
Baxter slapped a hand over his face. “You could have told me a little sooner.”
“Yes, Captain. Orders?”
“Don’t do anything,” Baxter said. “Sit tight.”
Richards walked up behind Baxter. “Where’s the Vulcan?”
“You’re not in a position to demand anything,” Roland Worthy said, marching into the engine room and surveying it with detached distaste. “Fourteen engineers knocked unconscious. And…” He looked down. “The captain.” He glanced back up at Baxter and the others. “Who did this? Was it you, Baxter?”
Baxter stepped forward. “Chaka knocked out the people in engineering, but Ficker was mine. And I so enjoyed it…” He stopped moving when Prouse swiveled her phaser to him.
“Oh, Captain Baxter,” Worthy said, clicking his tongue. “I will have fun with you.” He helped Ficker up, as he was stirring groggily.
“Somebody get to the engine room…” Ficker mumbled.
“We’re in the engine room now, sir,” Worthy said. “Good news. We’ve captured the intruders.”
Ficker blinked. “Where? Get me my glasses!”
Worthy sighed. “Prouse. Have someone find the captain’s glasses.”
“Try the brig,” Ficker muttered, then walked up to Baxter on unsteady feet. “You fight well for an insignificant pissant.”
“I was going to say the same thing about you,” Baxter said, staring at Ficker. “It’s something my people like to call ‘geek rage.’”
“Care to try it again, now that I have a few people with phasers standing around me?” Ficker asked.
“Not so much, no,” Baxter replied.
“Get them to the brig,” Ficker muttered. “Put eleven people on them. Separate the Jem’Hadar from them. And don’t let anyone talk to anyone about anything!”
“Sir, we have another problem,” Worthy said as Prouse gestured Richards and Baxter out of engineering, and a pair of security guards hoisted J’hana between them, following the others.
Ficker rubbed his temples. “What?”
“The Explorer is sitting two thousand kilometers off our port bow, and the captain’s wife is in command. She seems…most displeased.”
“I bet,” Ficker said. “Did she look…you know, did she look good?”
Ficker slapped Worthy on the shoulder. “Phenomenal. I’ll be up to the bridge in a minute. We’ll have a nice, calm, professional conversation with Counselor Peterman.”
“To what end?”
“To strike a deal, Commander.”
“This is not good,” Peterman said, circling to the front of the bridge. “They’ve been sitting over there silent for the last twenty minutes.”
“Maybe they’re trying to find their car keys,” Madera suggested.
“Cute,” Peterman said. “I need suggestions.”
“Strike team,” Keefler said.
“How do you suppose we get through the shields?” Peterman asked tiredly.
“We shoot them until the shields come down,” Keefler said.
“An elegant solution. But are you so sure that we can overpower the Idlewild in one-on-one combat?”
“Not particularly, but I’d love to find out.”
“Me too,” Peterman said. “But let’s try to get out of this the diplomatic way first, what do you say?”
“Well, I think you know where I stand on that, but if you say so,” Keefler muttered.
“Just in case it becomes necessary, Cadet Sparks, why don’t you call down to your friend Piper and ask if he knows any secret to blowing holes in his former ship.”
“Sure thing, Counselor,” Sparks said, then glanced up. “Hold on. We’re getting a hail. It’s Ficker.”
Peterman narrowed her eyes at the screen. “Put him on.”
Ficker appeared on the viewscreen, adjusting his glasses and looking quite…disheveled. He ran a hand through his hair. “Counselor, your husband is quite a handful.”
“You don’t say.”
“You want him back?”
“Quite a bit,” Peterman said.
Ficker nodded at the tactical officer behind him. “Lieutenant Prouse, send over the list.”
“What list?” asked Peterman.
“Scientific equipment we need. Give it to us, and you can have your husband, the Andorian, and her boyfriend, as well as the sneaky little Jem’Hadar who gave us fits.”
“And it’s that easy?” Peterman mused.
“That’s right,” Ficker said. “Just scientific equipment.”
“To be used for what?”
“Whatever we want,” Ficker said, as Worthy stepped down behind him.
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Captain,” Worthy said, sneering at Peterman. “We have Baxter…we have his ship right out there. We could overpower them, take the ship…have everything, right in our hands!”
“I can hear everything you boys are saying,” Peterman sighed.
“Oh, we’ll get what we want,” Ficker said. “No need to force it right now. Not when the supplies we need are right here. Patience, Worthy.” He glanced up at Peterman and smiled sweetly. “We have a deal, Kelly?”
Peterman’s stomach bunched in knots. “I…”
“Commander Worthy, go down to the brig and shoot one of them. I don’t care which one.”
Peterman watched Worthy walk toward the turbolift door. He turned a glare on Peterman. “Just so you know, it’ll be Baxter. Sorry if I ruined the suspense.”
“STOP!” Peterman said. “Put them on a transporter pad. We’ll send the supplies over simultaneously. Anything goes wrong with this, Ficker, and I promise you…”
“No need for empty promises,” Ficker said, waving a hand at Peterman. “Just knowing I have your gratitude is more than enough for me. Be ready to make the exchange in ten minutes.”
“Do you have the list, Sparks?” Peterman asked, turning to the science console.
Sparks nodded as she looked over her panel. “I do, but it doesn’t look good. Harmonic inducers, biomemetic gels, neuro implants…”
Peterman headed to the turbolift. “Send the list down to the science lab and have it sitting on the pad in transporter room one in nine minutes, Sparks.”
Sparks sunk a little behind her panel. “Yes, Counselor.”
Hartley picked up step next to Peterman as she fast-walked to the transporter room. “Are we getting them back?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said.
“I got around your security lockouts and spoke to Tilleran. I can’t believe you did that.”
“Tilleran did it,” Peterman said.
“After you forced her to.”
“Is that what she said?”
“She didn’t have to. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Leave the counseling up to me. You handle the engines, Commander.” Peterman strode toward the transporter room and held a breath as she watched three science technicians walk by, arms loaded down with supplies, taking them into the transporter room.
“What is all that?”
“That’s a trade, Commander,” Peterman said. “Now please, let me do this. If you want to talk later, we can…”
“I’ll be talking to the captain, later,” Hartley said. “I’m gonna get Tilleran out of there. Somebody’s got to put things right here.”
“You just said a mouthful,” Peterman said, and stepped into the transporter room. “Ensign Yang, let’s go…”
“This is a real shame,” Commander Worthy said, his phaser shoved in Baxter’s back as he guided him and Richards down the corridor to the transporter room. “I had so much in store for you. We’d have had a lovely time, you and I.”
“I’ll take a rain check,” Baxter mumbled, and glanced over at the two security officers who pushed J’hana, who’d since been loaded on a hover stretcher. He recognized the security officers as two of the cadets who’d been with him on the Republic. The ones Ficker snagged that day, along with Cadet Ethan Piper.
“Your name is Bloxom, isn’t it?” he asked. “And you…you’re Villarial?”
“We’re not supposed to talk to you,” the one called Bloxom said. “The Captain said you would try to dissuade us from our goal. All due respect, sir, but…don’t.”
“I see,” Baxter said. “So you think destabilizing Starfleet and wreaking bloody havoc and vengeance on the quadrant is a good goal to have?”
“See, Ficker was right,” Villarial whispered.
Worthy clicked his tongue disapprovingly and slammed his phaser across the back of Baxter’s head. “Enough talk. Don’t plant your pathetic little ideas in our officers’ heads.”
“You’re the one planting pathetic ideas, Mister Worthy,” Baxter said. “And believe me, once I get my hands on…”
“You called?” Ficker asked, jogging up from the other end of the corridor as they turned and ducked into the transporter room.
“Ficker,” Baxter said, and turned to look at his insensate security officer. “What about J’hana?”
“What about her?”
“I want that guy Shank to undo whatever he did to her.”
“You know, I must have forgotten to mention that when your wife and I made our deal.”
“There shouldn’t be a deal,” Richards said. “She should blow this ship out of the stars while she has the chance.”
“She has no chance,” Worthy muttered, jabbing his phaser in Richards’s back.
“Now now,” Ficker said. “Don’t get surly. This is a solution that works for all of us.”
“You really trust Drake to mess with your mind?” Baxter asked, stepping into the transporter room and mounting the pad. “You believe that strongly that she can make you - and all your poor misguided crew - better Starfleet officers?”
“Why, Captain, I thought you figured that out. That’s why I have a poor misguided crew. To experiment on!” He glanced at the girl behind the transporter console, who suddenly looked a little nervous. “Not you, sweetheart, of course…just certain select candidates.” The two cadets pushing the stretcher also exchanged a quick, nervous glance.
“You’re out of your frigging mind,” Baxter muttered.
“Time will tell which one of us is out of his mind,” Ficker said, as Bloxom and Villarial pushed J’hana’s hover stretcher onto the pad, and Richards took his place, standing next to Chaka. “In the meantime, you all get to go home for now. But you should enjoy it while you can.”
“Ficker…this is so far from over,” Baxter said. “When I’m finished with you…”
Ficker put a hand to his face, stifling a yawn. “Oh, please. Energize.”
Stardate 58376.9. Against my better judgment, we’ve left the Renada system, having parted ways for the moment with the Idlewild, Ficker’s ship, which for what it’s worth is no longer able to cloak itself.
Meanwhile, my wife gave him, and Doctor Drake, the tools they need to possibly turn Starfleet upside down, and make Ficker and his idiot followers into walking gods, all so we could get back to the Explorer in one piece.
J’hana’s down in Sickbay, victim of a Vulcan mind meld, and unresponsive to every form of stimulation Doctor Wilcox has tried.
Lt. Commander Tilleran is at this moment under arrest on Deck 34 because she spent the last few weeks trying to manipulate the minds of dozens of crewmembers.
My wife is in the midst of an historic bout of paranoia and anxiety.
And I’m not a single step closer to stopping Ficker from doing whatever the hell he’s planning to do.
And that was all just today.
“Come,” Baxter said, as the doors to his office opened, and Peterman stepped in.
“Captain,” she said softly. “The ship is yours.”
Baxter stood and crossed the room, wrapping his arms around her. “Hi, honey.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Don’t ever leave me in command again, okay?”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t leave you in command this time,” Baxter said.
“I know,” Peterman said. “I’m not sure how everything got so screwed up.”
“You did what you had to. I would have done the same in your place.”
“What now?” she asked.
“What now is we stop Ficker. Nothing else matters.”
Peterman looked up at him. “Agreed. And…Andy…”
“Leave me again and I’ll kill you.”
Baxter chuckled and squeezed her harder.
Richards stood beside the biobed, as it beeped softly, in the dimmed Sickbay. Janice Browning stood behind him.
“It might help if you talk to her, Christopher.”
“She’d think it was foolish,” Richards said.
“I was thinking it would help you…”
“They’re doing what they can for her, you know. Starfleet medicine hasn’t yet found something it can’t fix.”
“Normally, I’d suggest Commander Tilleran might be able to help, but I guess you’ve heard…”
Janice stepped up next to Richards. She reached out a hand to touch his, then thought better of it and pulled it back before he noticed it was there. She decided instead just to stand beside him, close to him. “Is there anything I can do?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“If you need anything…” Browning said, and slowly backed away. “To chat, a bite to eat…whatever. Just call, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Richards nodded absently as Browning walked away, then pulled a stool up and sat for a few long moments.
He looked around the empty Sickbay. Holly White was long since gone. The only nurse on duty was in a lab on the other side of the complex. He and J’hana were alone.
“So, J’hana…” he began, though he felt foolish doing it.
He steadied himself, focused, and placed his hand on top of hers. “So, J’hana. Here goes nothing…” He took a deep breath. “Tomorrow I have a staff meeting with Astrometrics. You know them, always playing pranks on each other. I’m determined to put a stop to it. Oh, and it’s Ensign Cathcart’s birthday, so we’re going to get some cake, or something…”
“Is this everything?” Dr. Drake said, glancing around at the cargo containers that now occupied her lab.
“We’ve had someone inventory the contents,” Ficker said. “Oddly, we don’t have a medical officer in our ranks, but we have six inventory officers aboard. Anyway, it’s all there.”
“Doctor, I noticed you were conspicuously absent during the ruckus that recently transpired aboard ship.”
“I’ve no interest in your little squabbles,” Drake said distantly. “I was working on my research.”
“I’m glad you’ve got your priorities in place.”
Drake beamed. “I’ve been waiting for thirty years for a chance like this.”
Ficker smiled. “I was hoping you’d say something like that. It got me all excited just now! See the goosebumps?”
Drake’s smile grew wider, as she opened the first cargo container and studied its contents. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
When the Explorer comes calling on an incommunicado communications station, will they find there’s more there than meets the eye? Or would it be ear? And speaking of communication, will Tilleran be able to wake J’hana from her catatonic state? Will Peterman figure out what to do with Tilleran? Will Baxter figure out what to do with his crew? Find out as the crew searches for “Conversation Starters.”