Author: Anthony Butler
Commander Richards stepped into Sickbay and, as usual, looked left and right, to see if anyone else was on duty.
Nurse Chadway smiled politely at him from one of the aft biobeds as he stepped in. “Lab Two is all yours, Commander,” she said softly.
Richards hooked to the right and headed into the lab where they’d moved J’hana. Having the comatose Andorian in the main area of Sickbay had proved challenging, especially as she had not awoken after several days. Officers around her found it hard to focus on their own duties. Howie Sefelt, in particular, found it difficult to remember which imagined malady he’d come to complain about upon seeing the insensate Andorian.
Seeing the unconscious Andorian, whose presence on the ship towered far above her physical stature, was difficult for many.
Not for Richards.
Seeing her brought him some sense of relief, of hope. She was alive, just not awake. She was just “taking a break” as Steffie had mentioned during a particularly awkward “so how ya doing?” dinner with the Baxters.
He did all he could do. What Janice had recommended, which turned out to be good advice. He talked to her. Hours each day, about what he’d been doing aboard ship, about duty rotations, personnel reviews, away teams, status reports. Whatever came to him, whatever he saw and did during the day, he told J’hana.
He did it all in the privacy of Medical Lab Two, where J’hana lay atop the room’s lone biobed, now in a blue gown that nearly matched her skin, as yet unmoving.
Richards stepped into the lab and pulled up his usual stool, pausing as the doors behind him whooshed shut, and the sounds of Sickbay were muffled down to only the soft beeps of J’hana’s biobed.
He took the Andorian’s hand in his, and squeezed, hoping for a squeeze back. “It was a good day today,” he said. “We delivered supplies to a backwater colony and we didn’t even lose any of them. And nobody tried to kill us, or kidnap us, or whatnot. Which was a good thing, as we happen to be without our best security officer right now.”
Hard to believe, but Richards maybe talked to J’hana more since that Vulcan from Ficker’s ship robbed her of consciousness. Strange as it was, he felt he loved her more than ever, too.
Idly, he wondered if J’hana once felt like he felt now, back when Dwanok had fallen into a coma after he’d been injured during a conflict betwen rival changeling factions. She didn’t just silently loom over Dwanok, as Richards did for her now. She’d fought so hard to keep him alive, even as other Klingons tried to kill him, to ensure him honorable death. She was a fighter, for certain. Would she fight now?
As he told J’hana about his day, Richards smiled to himself. Because there was a reason to hold out hope. An end to this situation was fast approaching. Someone on the Explorer would be able to help her. Soon.
Lt. Commander Tilleran turned and put her head down on the wall in her temporary quarters, no, jail cell, on Deck 34. “This has gone on long enough, Counselor. I’ve done everything you’ve asked. I’ve cooperated. I’m asking–I’m begging you. Let me out of here.”
Counselor Peterman sighed in the chair opposite where Tilleran was standing and crossed her legs, hugging her padd to her chest. “I wish it were that simple. You realize that I’ve got your well-being, and the whole crew’s, to consider.”
“My well-being?” Tilleran turned, her eyebrows raising. “You’ve been thinking about me this whole time? I’m speechless.”
“Believe it or not, it’s true,” Peterman said. “I want what’s in your best interest. And if you are addicted to telepathy, I wouldn’t be helping you by exposing you to opportunities to read people’s minds. Not right now.”
“Think I’m tempted to read your mind?”
“As you know, that’s impossible,” Peterman said. “The Sornapan…”
“Oh, I know what the Sornapan’s doing. It’s keeping me from doing what I should have done days ago. From going up there and trying to help J”hana!”
“Yes,” Peterman admitted. “The timing of that was…unfortunate.”
“You’ve no idea.” Tilleran squeezed her fists. “What would you do, Kelly, if your husband was in trouble, and I was holding YOU back from helping him?”
“This is not about me,” Peterman said, holding her ground.
“Isn’t it?” Tilleran said. “Because from my perspective, you’re taking this a whole lot worse than everyone else.”
“Maybe because I’m thinking about the repercussions to you and us.”
“You’re starting to sound like a broken audio playback.”
“Whatever the case, the Sornapan should wear off by tomorrow, at which time we’ll…” She looked at her padd. “Reevaluate.”
“Comforting,” Tilleran muttered.
“In the meantime,” Peterman said, reaching next to her on the sofa and producing a second padd, “I thought you’d like to read this. It’s by Tam Elbrun.”
Tilleran snatched the padd and stared at it. “‘Mind Over Mind’? Thanks, Counselor. I’m glad you’re suddenly an expert on telepathy addiction.”
“I’ve read it. Elbrun draws some interesting conclusions…”
“He’s a fruitcake. The man ran away to live inside an ancient, spacefaring cashew. Do you really think he was operating on all thrusters?”
Peterman waffled. “Flargus and Noble recommended it…”
“Flargus and Noble can kiss my…” Tilleran set the padd down and rubbed her temples, closing her eyes. Sometimes she begged for a reprieve from the many minds that surrounded her and now were mute. Now she wanted nothing more than to have them back. “I’m sorry. I’ll read it.”
“Good,” Peterman said, standing and moving to the door. “I’ll see you same time tomorrow.”
“I’m counting the hours,” Tilleran said, watching the doors close. And she meant it.
“It’s quiet,” Janice Browning said, leaning forward on the desk in her darkened cabin, bathed in the glow of her desktop terminal. “We haven’t heard from Ficker since the…confrontation. It’s been almost a week now, and still nothing.”
On the viewscreen, Pogo nodded patiently, as he always did. The Dominion insurgent spoke to Browning from his undisclosed location. From the scene behind Pogo on the viewer, this appeared to be some sort of tropical planet. Part of her longed to be there, enjoying the weather with Pogo, fixing him meals while he plotted ways to get the Dominion to listen to his pleas for peace and inclusion.
“Do you think Ficker will turn up again?” Pogo asked.
“I’m sure of it,” Browning said. “Just a matter of when.”
“And what of the Andorian…J’hana?”
“Still comatose,” Browning said. “Poor Christopher. Nothing we can do for her, until…”
Pogo looked at her. “Until?”
“Nothing,” Browning said. “Just some…ship’s business. Some things I can’t talk about, you know.”
Pogo gave her an easy smile. “After all this time, I’m surprised there’s anything we can’t talk about, Janice.”
“Well,” Browning said, feeling a flush in her cheeks. “There aren’t many things we can’t talk about, but some are, you know…classified. You’d be surprised the secrets I know.”
“You surprise me each time we speak, Janice. For a solid, you’re a remarkably…textured… person.”
“I think I like the sound of that,” Browning said, running her fingers along the desktop terminal. She’d allowed her mind to wander, and not for the first time. She blinked. “And so…what about you, Pogo? What’s new on your end?”
“My end is a planet desperately in need of guidance, let loose by the Dominion at a crucial time in its development. They were at first not willing to trust me because I am a Founder. But soon, after doing many a good deed, I earned their trust…and their respect.”
“That’s beautiful, Pogo.”
“Now if I can only find a sympathetic planet that actually has ships, or supplies, or, well, resources of any kind.” Pogo shook his head. “But it’s frustrating. I expect Odo and the Founders are doing what they can to rebuild their relationships with those outer worlds, but…”
Browning nodded. “But it’s a big job, I’m sure.”
“Yes, and it’s not happening fast enough. They must take measures to…” A chime rang outside Pogo’s room and he smiled. “Ah, it is dinner time, and the people of Zygot Four like to eat communally. Excuse me…”
“You’ll call again tomorrow?”
Browning smiled to herself. “I think I can find the time.”
“Excellent. Until then, good Doctor…” And Pogo leapt from his chair, rippling gold then morphing into a broad-winged bird and taking off into the dusk sky.
Browning always felt a little tingle when she watched Pogo change shape.
Captain Baxter sat on the bridge, steepling his fingers and staring at the viewscreen.
“Anything from the listening post yet?” he asked, breaking the silence that had settled in among the bridge crew. Without Peterman or Richards there, the bridge seemed so much quieter. Not to mention…
He glanced back at the aft stations, where Keefler stood watchfully at tactical and Cadet Sparks leaned against the science console, perched on her chair.
“Negative, Captain,” Keefler said. “Want me to hail them again?”
“No. A fourth time seems…excessive. How much longer till we get there?”
“Ninety minutes,” Madera said, not looking up from her helm console. “Want me to increase to Warp Nine?”
“No,” Baxter said. “It’s probably nothing. Listening posts go silent all the time. After all, they’re just supposed to listen. Talking isn’t necessarily their specialty.”
“Captain, isn’t it a tad unusual to just suddenly lose contact with a listening post?” Sparks asked, leaning forward at the science station.
Baxter turned to her smiling gently. “Sure, a little. But we’ll be there soon and have it sorted out. Could just be a glitch in their subspace transceiver.”
“Is it weird that the only planet in listening range for them is Bolarus? A Federation planet?”
Baxter shifted in his seat. “Well, the Bolians are part of the Federation, sure. But there were some…skirmishes…around that planet during the Dominion War.”
“So why are we still listening?” Sparks asked.
Baxter shrugged. “You’ve got me. Not everything that Starfleet does make sense.”
“Gotcha,” Sparks said, and returned to her panel, just as the doors to the aft turbolift wooshed open and Lt. Commander Megan Hartley stormed out.
“Readyroom. Now,” she said, heading through the aft doors to Baxter’s office.
Baxter glanced back. “Think she was talking to me?”
“No question, sir,” Keefler said. “Want me to restrain her?”
“Don’t even try,” Baxter said with a chuckle. “She’d mop up the floor with you.” With what seemed like great effort, Baxter pushed out of his chair and headed up to the aft deck. “Besides, I know exactly why she’s here. Mister Keefler, you have the bridge.”
“Sure. Don’t give me the bridge, even though I have seniority…and the red collar!” Madera snapped.
“Oh, don’t be that way,” Baxter said, and ducked into his office.
Hartley was there, pacing in front of his desk. She turned to face him. “WELL?”
Baxter blinked. “Well what?”
“What are you going to do about your wife?”
“I wasn’t planning on doing anything with her. But if you’ve got suggestions…I bet she’d make a great juggler…”
“Don’t joke. One of your crew is trapped belowdecks, and it’s your wife keeping her there. You’ve got to talk sense into her.”
“This is Kelly’s jurisdiction, Commander,” Baxter said, stepping around behind his desk. He didn’t want to sit down for this chat, but he needed to put a sizable piece of furniture between himself and the engineer. “It’s…delicate.”
“Delicate my ass. Tilleran needs our help, not to be ostracized and separated from the rest of the ship.”
“She lied to all of us. Manipulated us. Messed with our memories. Don’t you wonder exactly how far she went? Don’t you resent her for that?”
“Sure. I’m pissed. But not nearly as pissed as I am at your wife!”
“She knows what she’s doing,” Baxter said. “She’s going to treat Tilleran’s…condition… to the best of her ability, before we turn it over to the Judge Advocate.”
Hartley narrowed her eyes at Baxter. “You’re still thinking of doing that?”
“There are a number of options. I’m waiting on Kelly’s recommendation.”
“Want my two credits?”
“I’m pretty sure I know where you stand.”
“Then let her go. Let her go, and let her help J’hana. Get us back on the right track, Captain, before it’s too late.” Hartley turned and headed for the door.
“Wait, Comman…Megan…” Baxter held out his hand. “What do you mean by too late?”
“Want to find out?” Hartley asked in an acid tone, then ducked out.
“Not really,” Baxter said to himself.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen it like this before,” Plato said, sipping a cranberry juice in Space Tastes as Natheena Sparks quickly downed her bowl of Gorn gumbo.
“Really?” Sparks said, setting the bowl down and wiping her mouth with the back of her uniform sleeve. “All tense and…anticipate-y?”
“Yeah. It usually seems to happen toward the end of the stardate year, though.” Plato thought about that. “Hmm. That’s actually strange, now that you mention it…”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sparks said. “So what do you do when it gets like this?”
“You can’t do anything. You just have to ride it out.”
“I’m sure that’s easier to do when you’re not on the bridge.”
“Yeah,” Plato said, looking down at their corner table and staring at his empty plate. “I guess.”
“No offense, Plato, but you have no idea what it’s like to be an officer on that bridge. To be waiting for all hell to break loose at any moment. It’s stressful!”
“I’d like to understand…I mean…” He reached out a hand tentatively. “I’d like to know more about what you do…”
Sparks sighed. “I’m not sure where to even begin.”
“Hey, Sparks,” Cadet Piper called from the doors to Space Tastes. He was standing beside Cadet Mathers. “You coming? Captain Baxter called me and Colby up to the bridge to relieve the officers heading out on the away team to the Bolarus Listening Post. We’re getting bridge time!”
To Sparks, who’d already served extensively on Explorer’s bridge for a week now, that actually wasn’t quite as big a deal. Still, she smiled. “S-sure, I’ll be right there…” She stood, then looked back at Plato. “Thanks for lunch, Plato.” She slid a hand down his face. “You’re a sweetie.”
“Thanks,” Plato said, watching Sparks walk out and join Piper and Mathers.
“She’s nice,” Browning said, munching on a carrot stick behind Plato.
Plato whirled. “Mom? How long have you been standing there?”
“Like half an hour. You never noticed?”
Plato shook his head.
Browning shrugged. “So much for the Founders’ powers of observation. I’m heading back to my office to…catch up on some paperwork.”
“You mean back to your kitchen to hollow out some gourds?” Plato asked.
“They’re very important gourds,” Browning retorted. “So what about you, sweetie? What’s your day look like?”
“Oh, stuff…” Plato said, gently backing toward the door.
Baxter was staring at the listening post on the viewscreen as Sparks, Mathers, and Piper emerged from the turbolift.
“Glad you guys could make it,” Baxter said. On the viewscreen, the spindly, satellite-like listening station twisted innocently, hanging in front of the black backdrop of space.
“We still can’t get any response from the listening post,” he informed them. “We are, however, picking up six life forms, which is the number of crew they’re supposed to have. Their shields are down, so we’re going over there. Piper, take tactical. Mathers, you’re at sciences.”
“But…I thought I was the backup science officer,” Sparks said.
“At the moment, you’re THE science officer. You’ll be coming with me on the away team. Got a tricorder?”
“With…you?” Sparks asked.
Baxter nodded. “Richards is indisposed. Our chief science officer is…also indisposed. Our chief security officer’s in a coma. And our chief engineer’s….really angry. I’m heading the away team. Let’s go. Mister Keefler…”
Keefler led the way into the turbolift and Baxter gestured for Sparks to walk in front of him.
“I’m not sure I…”
“You’ll do fine, Cadet,” Baxter said, patting Sparks on the back. “And yes, Lieutenant Madera, you have the bridge.”
“About time!” Madera snapped and moved to the center seat.
“Keep it together up here. We’ll be back in a jif,” Baxter said as the doors closed.
Three transporter beams coalesced in the control room of the small listening post. It was a circular room, framed with panels, readouts, screens spitting out information.
Baxter circled the room as Sparks pulled out her tricorder and began taking readings as Keefler withdrew his phaser.
“Over here, Captain,” Keefler said.
Baxter doubled back to Keefler’s position, to find him standing behind a Starfleet ensign staring blankly at one of the screens.
“Wow,” he said dumbly.
Baxter tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me.”
“In a second,” he muttered.
Baxter glanced at Keefler, who just shrugged. Sparks hurried over.
“Tricorder readings are normal,” she said.
Baxter tapped the ensign on the shoulder, harder this time. “Excuse me. Ensign.”
“Hummph,” the spiky-haired Ensign said, leaning on his fists.
“Crew roster says he’s Ensign Lionel Johannsen,” Sparks said. “He’s been here four years.”
“He looks comatose,” Keefler said.
“He’s not,” Sparks said. “Vital signs normal.”
Baxter leaned down in the ensigns face and shouted. “ENSIGN! CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION!”
The ensign slowly turned. “What.”
“Captain Andy Baxter. USS Explorer. Maybe you’ve heard of us?”
“I haven’t.” He turned back to the viewer.
“Son of a…” Baxter said, and forcefully turned the man’s chair. “I am from a Starfleet vessel sent here to investigate exactly why your listening post hasn’t communicated with us in six weeks. I am your superior officer…sort of…and you will tell me exactly what’s going on here!”
The man kept his eyes glued to the screen even as Baxter turned his chair. His eyes didn’t leave the screen as he spoke. “Lieutenant Commander Frakas is in quarters on Deck Three. Go talk to him.”
“That would be the commanding officer,” Sparks added helpfully.
“Oh, I’m going to talk to Commander Frakas. You can bet on that. And you can bet the first thing I tell him is that you’re the most unhelpful…”
“Sir…there’s another person over here…” Keefler called.
Baxter turned his attention to the next person, also seated at one of the computer consoles, intent on the screen.
“Lieutenant Mindy Schuler,” Sparks said. “She’s the operations officer.”
“She’s a piece of broccoli,” Baxter said, waving a hand in front of her face.
Quite suddenly, Schuler spun around. “Hey! Watch it! You’re ruining the best part.”
“The best part of what?”
“Gert is just about to confess his love for Merta.”
“What? You guys are glazed out on holovision?” Baxter said exasperatedly. “Are you really telling me that that’s why you’re not reporting back?”
“This isn’t holovision,” Sparks said, glancing at Johannsen’s screen. “This looks like sensor feeds directly from Bolarus.”
“Really into their jobs,” Keefler said.
“Could you guys keep it down,” Schuler muttered. “Gert is doing the Primal Bolian Love Dance!”
“All right, let’s talk to the C.O. before I do something rash…” Baxter said, walking by Schuler and heading for the ladderway that led to the lower decks.
Plato glanced around idly when the doors to the bridge swung open. “Nat?”
Lt. Madera turned around in the command chair. “Plato? Is there something we can do for you?”
“I was looking for Cadet Sparks.”
“Oh. She’s not here,” Madera said. “She went down to the listening post with the away team.”
“You’re not even supposed to be up here, Plato,” Madera said, as gently as she could muster. “You’ve got to get back belowdecks before your mom finds out…”
“I’m not technically on the bridge,” Plato said. “I’m in the turbolift.”
Madera sighed. “Well, you shouldn’t be on the turbolift when it’s on the bridge, technically. Not without an escort.”
“Oh. Ok,” Plato said, staring at the deck. “Thanks anyway. Deck Nine please…”
“What’s his problem?” Piper asked from sciences once Plato was gone.
Madera turned back to face the viewscreen. “Beats me. Luckily, it’s not my problem.”
Baxter pushed a button next to the door and waited. “There better be a good explanation for this.”
“Captain, if I may say so, you seem a little testy,” Keefler observed.
“Damned right I’m testy!” Baxter snapped. “I have a lot of crap happening on my ship, and I have to take a break from that to deal with people who are dumbly glued to their viewscreens. Something’s got to give, Ensign!”
“Noted, sir,” Keefler said quietly.
Meanwhile, nobody was answering the door chime.
“There is somebody in there, sir,” Sparks said. “And schematics confirm that this is the C.O.’s quarters.”
“Well, he’d damned well better come out, if he knows what’s good for him,” Baxter said, pushing the button again. “I know you’re in there, Frakas! You can’t hide from us!”
Baxter sighed, then started banging on the door. “C’mon, Frakas!”
After a beat, Baxter looked at Keefler. “Do that cool override thing you security guys do.”
“Right,” Keefler said, and popped the door panel open, tapping in a sequence on the panel beneath it. Another panel popped open, revealing a manual door crank, which Keefler pumped, forcing the door open. “You mean that thing?”
“That’s the one,” Baxter said, and headed in. “Mister Frakas?” He looked around.
There, curled in a ball, on his couch, was the man Baxter presumed was the listening post’s C.O. Late-middle-aged, with a growth of dark beard, he just sat there, knees drawn up, rocking.
“Hey.” Baxter waved in front of the man’s eyes. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you guys for weeks. What gives?”
“They won’t listen to me,” Frakas mumbled. “I’m useless.”
“Don’t say that,” Baxter said. “You’re useful to us. You probably know why the listening post isn’t responding. That’s good info. I’m not sure for what, but trust me, it’s useful.”
“All they do is watch,” Frakas slurred. “They just watch, over and over again.”
“What…that stuff on the screen? The secret lives of Bolians?” Baxter laughed. “C’mon, it’s not like they’re Klingons. What do Bolians do, anyway? Make salads and sculpt hairdos? What could possibly be so addicting about that?”
“They just keep watching,” Frakas muttered.
“All right,” Baxter sighed, turning to Keefler. “I’m going to take this guy back to the ship and put him up in Sickbay. Sparks, you and Keefler stay here and try to figure out what exactly these guys find so fascinating about life on Bolarus.”
“All due respect, Captain, but how are we supposed to do that?” Sparks asked.
Baxter shrugged. “Just watch.”
Tilleran shot up in bed, kicking at her knotted covers. “J’hana!”
“Is that you?” Tilleran called out. “Are you really calling to me?”
<I’m certainly not calling in an order of fharbus root.>
Tilleran smiled broad, wiping tears from her cheek. “J’hana, it’s so good to hear your voice…in my mind again. It means we’re…”
“No, I was going to say…” Tilleran trailed off. “Oh.”
<Better luck next time, Ariel.>
Tilleran shot up again in bed, but this time for real. She shoved her covers off (not her covers, though, being this wasn’t her cabin; rather, just a half-step up from a prison cell). She marched toward the door, which, as usual, did not open for her. “Tilleran to Peterman.”
“I need to talk to you right now.”
“I’m in the middle of some reading…can I call you back?”
“No. I need you down here. Now.”
“I’ll…be right there.”
Tilleran sensed trepidation in Peterman’s voice. Or maybe her telepathic senses were coming back. She wasn’t sure.
Minutes later, Peterman arrived at Tilleran’s door, clutching a padd to her chest. “You know, Commander, rudeness is not going to get us anywhere.”
“I’ve tried being nice,” Tilleran said, marching to and fro in the small, lower deck guest quarters. “It hasn’t gotten me anywhere.”
“Was it ‘nice’ to change my memory? And that of so many others on the ship?”
Tilleran whirled. “Why do I get the sense that you’re taking this personally?”
Peterman cocked her head. “Maybe your telepathy is coming back.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s painfully obvious. You’re angry at me, more than you’re willing to let on. You don’t want to help me. You want to punish me.”
“Nonsense. That would be very…unprofessional.”
Tilleran folded her arms. “No kidding.”
“I think you really need to spend some more time thinking about what you’ve done. Obviously, you’re redirecting your anger at yourself at others, at your friends…”
“A friend wouldn’t do this,” Tilleran said, walking toward Peterman. “You can’t subdue my powers forever. At some point, we’re going to have to deal with this. And in order to do that, you’re going to have to set aside your anger.”
Peterman took a step back. “I’ll decide how we’re going to deal with this.”
“GET OVER IT!” Tilleran fairly shouted.
“I can see you’re not ready to talk about this. I’ll come back when you’ve cooled off. Once your powers return, if you’ve shown you’ve got this thing under control, perhaps…perhaps you’ll be allowed to see Lieutenant Commander J’hana.”
“We’ll see about that!” Tilleran called out as Peterman retreated behind the closing door. The door had barely closed when Tilleran hurled a vase at it.
“I thought an early dinner would be good,” Counselor Peterman said, pushing a plate of spareribs toward Baxter as Steffie sat mashing her fingers in a bowl of oatmeal.
Baxter grabbed a few spareribs and put them on his plate, then picked one up and turned it thoughtfully in his hand. “Strange situation over on the listening post.”
“Oh,” Peterman said, raising a forkful of baked beans.
“Yeah. Sparks and Keefler have been there for a couple hours, and can’t seem to figure out what’s engrossed their people so much. Apparently, they just like watching these Bolians’ lives go by. I’ve read up on a few other observation posts, and nothing like this has ever quite happened before. Sure, people become overly interested in what’s happening on a planet, but not at the exclusion of everything else. It’s really odd.”
“Hmm,” Peterman said, turning to look at a padd on the table beside her.
“And Doctor Wilcox has no answers,” Baxter said, chewing on the rib. “Commander Frakas seems like a healthy man. He’s got all his proverbial marbles intact. He’s just…beaten. He’s given up.”
“Yes. Well, he’s an older man. The rest of his crew are quite a bit younger. Maybe that has something to do with it. There are also a few….disappointments…he’s dealt with in his past.”
“Well, we’re all disappointed at one point or another,” Peterman said, engrossed in the padd.
“I was hoping maybe you could talk with him in the morning. You know, feel him out… not literally of course.” Baxter chuckled. “But get inside his head. Again, not literally. But…”
“I get it,” Peterman said, looking up from her padd. “And I’d love to help. But I’ve got my hands full with Tilleran right now, Andy. I’m sure you understand.”
“Actually, I don’t,” Baxter admitted. “I was hoping we could talk about that…”
“I have it under control.”
“Lieutenant Commander Hartley feels like…”
“Like she could do my job better than I can? Huh. I don’t think so. Tell her that she’s welcome to talk to Tilleran if I can have a hand at realigning the warp core.”
“Doubt she’d make that trade,” Baxter said.
“That’s what I thought,” Peterman said, and returned to her padd.
“Glad we could have this chat,” Baxter muttered, and returned to his ribs.
“Anything?” Keefler asked, walking up behind Sparks as she sat beside Ensign Johannsen, who continued to stare intently at his monitor. During their time on the listening post, they’d watched the other three crewmembers, O’Claire, Purnell, and Daffed, march into the control room and take their seats at stations similar to that of Johannsen and Schuler. They were all likewise enamored with Bolarus, and had no time to speak with Sparks or Keefler.
“I think Virb and Nown are going to prison for trying to break into the House of Blues,” Sparks said. “Which apparently is the Bolian political headquarters.”
“Any idea what’s so compelling about…” Keefler began.
“SHUSH!” Johannsen snapped, holding up a hand. “They’re about to be sentenced!”
“Can I shoot one of these people yet?” Keefler asked.
“Why are you asking me? I’m just a cadet,” Sparks replied.
Keefler nodded. “Fair point. But I guess it isn’t very Starfleetish.”
“Neither is what these people are doing, frankly,” Sparks said, shifting in her seat. “But it’s interesting that they’re so…interested…in the minutiae of these Bolians’ existence.
“YES! YES YES YES!” Lt. Schuler cried out, leaping from her seat.
Keefler ran over to her. “What? What is it?”
“Brint just proposed to Trib!”
“Is that good?” Keefler asked.
“They’re just made for each other, that’s all,” Schuler said blankly, still looking at the screen.
“Are you married?” Keefler asked, by way of conversation.
Schuler waved her hand at Keefler. “That’s not important. Shush! I want to see if she says yes. If she does, he gets to bathe her in a mixture of algae paste and shrimp juice.”
“That actually sounds kind of cool…” Keefler admitted and turned his attention to the screen.
“You okay, Ensign?” Sparks asked, glancing over at Keefler.
“Would you PLEASE be quiet,” Johannsen snapped. “At least wait till they go to sleep.”
“And then you’ll talk to me?”
“For the three seconds it’ll take me to switch to another household.”
“Oh,” Sparks said, as her combadge bleeped.
“Cadet Sparks, this is Explorer calling.”
“Sparks here,” she said absently slapping her combadge.
“Oh. Hi Nat!” Plato said. “How are you doing over there?”
“Plato? You aren’t supposed to be on this channel.”
“And yet it’s so easy to use.”
“This channel is reserved for official Starfleet use.”
“Well I just wanted to tell you that I miss you.”
“That’s sweet, Plato, but I’m working…”
Johannsen pressed a button on his panel. “There, you’ve got three seconds.”
“Oh, good, Ensign, could you tell me…”
“What’s going on over there?” Plato called over the comm.
“Plato, not now! Ensign, I just wanted to ask…”
Johannsen put up a hand. “Too late. I’m watching the Blurt residence now. Be quiet.”
“ARGHHHHHHHH!” Sparks snapped. “Channel closed!”
“But…” Plato began, and the channel closed with a crackle.
The next morning, Captain Baxter was pacing in Sickbay as Commander Richards walked in.
“Captain,” Richards said. “What are you doing here?”
“Checking in on Commander Frakas. He’s still somewhat…spaced.”
“There seems to be a lot of that going around,” Richards said.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I, uh, looked in on J’hana. She seems to be doing well…”
“She’s catatonic. Just like yesterday. And the day before.”
Baxter stepped toward Richards. “I know it must be frustrating, Chris…”
“Yeah, well, it’s all going to be over soon. Lt. Commander Tilleran should have her powers back today. She’s going to be able to come up here and…mind meld, or whatever, with J’hana. And it’ll all be okay. Just like when Tilleran was in a coma and J’hana helped her…” Richards rubbed his chin. “Wow, have there been an inordinate number of comas around here?”
Baxter didn’t answer the question. “I’m not sure what Kelly is going to do with Tilleran.”
“Well, Tilleran’s going to help J’hana, right? She’s got to…I mean, won’t it go a long way towards making up for the damage she’s done?”
“It would, but…”
Richards stared at Baxter blankly. “But what?”
Baxter thought a moment. “Nothing. Go and be with J’hana.”
“Thanks, Andy,” Richards said, and stepped into the aft room where J’hana was being kept.
Baxter turned on a heel and walked resolutely back toward his quarters.
Cadet Piper picked up step next to him as he walked.
“Captain! I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’m in a bit of a hurry, Cadet.”
“I know. I’ll keep it short. I want to help.”
“You’ve been very helpful since you came aboard. Lieutenant Sefelt said you’re doing a fine job at ops. You’re not even scared of blinking lights like he is, which is a big plus.”
“I want to do more.”
“Well, there are only so many spots to go around…”
“It seems like there’s one area where you need a lot of help around here, Captain, if I may say so.”
“You don’t want to be aerobics instructor,” Baxter said. “Trust me, it’s nothing but misery.”
“No. I mean counseling.”
Baxter stopped. “What did you say?”
“I want to do my internship in the counselor’s office. I’ve taken Psychology and Xenopsychology at Starfleet Academy. It was my minor before I switched to astrophysics.”
Baxter raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Piper nodded. “It seems to me like people on this ship need someone to talk to, badly. And I’m sure Counselor Peterman has her hands full. Do you know if she could use another staff member?”
Baxter suppressed a smile. “Well, I’m sure we could find you a spot…on her, um, staff.” He nodded, patting Piper on the back. “Consider it done, Cadet. As a matter of fact, follow me.”
“You want me to what?”
“Go visit with Commander Frakas,” Baxter said, standing in the doorway of his quarters as Peterman watched Steffie dip her hands into mashed potatoes.
“Andy,” Peterman said, closing her eyes patiently, pushing the padd she’d been reading across the dinner table. “I think I’ve made myself quite clear. I don’t have the time.”
“Sure you do,” Baxter said. “I’ll handle the Tilleran thing.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and patted Piper’s shoulder. “And good news! You have a staff now! Cadet Piper just became your intern.”
“Mister Piper, could you excuse us?” Peterman asked as she stepped toward Baxter.
“S-sure,” Piper said, backing quickly away. Baxter could feel the fear radiating off the boy.
“What?” Baxter asked innocently as he stepped into his quarters and the door closed.
“How dare you undermine me in front of a cadet! Or anyone else for that matter!” Peterman said, shaking a spoon covered in mashed potatoes at Baxter. A little splattered on his uniform.
He tasted it with his finger. Mmm. Buttery.
“Look, Kelly,” Baxter said, stepping toward Peterman. “I think you need to get some perspective on this Tilleran thing. She’s….part of our family, and we need to treat her like that. She has a problem. From what I can tell, this thing is more common among Betazoids than is widely known. There are places she can go for help. She doesn’t need to be locked away.”
“Frankly, Captain, I believe that’s up to me to decide,” Peterman said.
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Peterman. “All right, let me rephrase this, Counselor. You are hereby relieved of your duties as far as Ariel Tilleran is concerned. I am reassigning you to deal with the listening post situation. You are to report to Sickbay immediately…WITH Cadet Piper, to speak with Lieutenant Commander Frakas. Find out what’s wrong with him, then beam over to the listening post and speak to the crew there, and figure out what’s wrong with THEM. This is not an option. It’s an order.”
Peterman’s shoulders rose and fell. “Andy…”
“From your commanding officer.”
Peterman pushed past Baxter and headed for the door. “Fine. Finish feeding your child.” She glared at Piper. “Let’s go, Cadet.”
“I want a report within the hour,” Baxter called over his shoulder as a shaken-looking Piper and Peterman left.
“You’ll get it when you get it,” Peterman called over her shoulder as the doors closed.
Steffie looked up at Baxter. “Is Mommy mad?”
“Something like that,” Baxter said, pulling up a seat beside Steffie. “Now eat up, sweetie. Daddy’s got a busy day ahead.”
Tilleran was up and pacing again when the door chime rang.
“Come,” she said, glaring at the door.
It opened, rather surprisingly, to reveal Captain Baxter.
“Commander,” Baxter said. “How are you feeling? Or maybe a better question is…how am I feeling?”
Tilleran stared at Baxter. “You just….had a fight with Kelly over…you…I mean…really? Oh my gosh, I can read minds again!”
“Good,” he said, and gestured for the doorway. “Then the sornapan’s worn off. That’s enough mind reading for now. Follow me. There’s someone you need to see.”
“Captain, may I ask…”
“Kelly’s handling another assignment right now,” Baxter said briskly.
“Well, it’s about time…”
“That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook,” Baxter said, walking a pace ahead of Tilleran, not looking back. “I’m pissed as hell at you, Commander. A lot of people are. But you’re part of this crew. You…” He stared at the ceiling. “You belong to us. And for better or worse, that means that we’re there for you.”
“We’re here for you too.” Baxter stepped back to walk alongside Tilleran, throwing an arm over her shoulder. “We’re going to get you some help, Commander. We’ll talk about disciplinary actions later. But…suffice it so say, some things are in the works…”
“I’m so sorry, Captain,” Tilleran said, as tears suddenly welled in her eyes. Baxter led her into the turbolift.
“Sickbay,” Baxter said, and looked at Tilleran. His expression softened as he looked at Tilleran. “Apology accepted. That’s a start.”
Tilleran stared at the floor. “I…I lost control. I just lost control. I’m supposed to be better than that, I know. But they say…” She cursed inwardly. “Tam Elbrun once said that high-end Betazoids are particularly vulnerable to…overuse.”
“Makes sense,” Baxter said. “You could have come to one of us earlier, you know.”
“I know,” Tilleran said, shaking her head. “I know.”
“But we can talk about that later.” He led the way out of the turbolift. “For now, if you’re able, we need your telepathy…”
They walked into Sickbay, where Doctor Holly Wilcox, Dean Wilcox, and the pair of patients she and Nurse Chadway were treating all stopped talking and stared.
“She listen?” Dean asked Holly.
“She’s going to, yeah,” Holly said, smiling gently.
Tilleran and Baxter walked up to the door to the medical lab, and then ducked inside.
Richards looked up from J’hana’s bedside, his eyes widening.
“Ariel…” he said.
“We…need to be alone,” Tilleran said, staring down at J’hana.
Baxter looked at Richards.
Tilleran locked eyes with Baxter. “Trust me. We’ve been through this before.”
Baxter nodded, taking Richards by the arm.
“Take as much time as you need, Commander,” Baxter said.
Richards touched Tilleran’s shoulder as he walked past. “Thank you…”
Tilleran gave a silent wave, then sat down beside J’hana, looking her over.
“Well, Imzadi, you’ve seen better days,” she said softly, then closed her eyes.
“…and I just can’t seem to get it right,” Commander Jerry Frakas said, seated at the end of the conference table in the meeting room on the opposite side of Sickbay from J’hana’s room.
It turned out he opened up rather eagerly, and was quick to talk to Peterman about what was bothering him. Once he realized a professional was there to listen to him.
“In Starfleet, we’re often forced to face our failures,” Peterman said, sitting at the other end of the table, with Piper beside her, busily taking notes on his padd.
“…the glowing orbs of Poplar Three destroyed my first assignment, the Sayossett.”
“Well, we all have the occasional bump in the road…”
“I steered us into the orbs…”
“Then there was the intergalactic incident between me and the King of Veraal Three when I was first officer on the Punta Gorda.”
“I’m starting to see why you were sent to a remote post.” Peterman looked at her notes, then back up at Frakas. “Could you tell me what exactly you guys are supposed to be…listening for? Or is it classified?”
“It’s stupid, really,” Frakas said, shaking his head. “It would have to be security-related to be classified. And it’s not. It’s recipe related.”
Frakas sighed, staring at the ceiling. “Back when Starfleet was pondering becoming a for-profit industry, Starfleet Command was ordered to investigate the Bolians’ recipe for boysenberry tort.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“It’s quite good. Known around the galaxy. But the laws of commercial trading are quite specific about these recipes…”
Peterman nodded. “I’ll take your word for it. I haven’t studied tort law in a while…”
“We’re spying on an ally just so we can acquire a mysterious recipe that as yet remains unknown to us!”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “But the whole profit thing was like four years ago, and only lasted a couple months. Why are you still out here?”
“Nobody told us to do otherwise,” Frakas said with a shrug. “And I’ve gotten in enough trouble in my career. I didn’t want to question Starfleet Command…who knows where they’d send me next.”
“What about your officers?” Piper interjected.
“Officers? Some officers. They’re glued to their viewscreens. Can’t get enough of the Bolians. Who’s dating who, what are they eating today, who just got beat up in a riot at the sports complex. They’re obsessed.”
Peterman blinked. “And you’ve just let this go on?”
“Oh, it’s gotten worse the last few months. But it was inevitable. After I stopped requiring staff meetings, they really had nothing else to do all day.”
“So you just retreated to your quarters?” Piper asked.
Frakas shrugged. “Seemed the best thing to do. After all, there’s no way they’re gonna listen to me, right?”
“Seems to me a defeatist attitude,” Peterman said. “Just because your officers let you down, you can’t just give up on them! You’re their commander. You have to help them!”
“No use fighting a losing battle, Counselor,” Frakas said. “I just want it to be over.”
“Well, no need to worry about that,” Peterman said. “You’ll have to be taken off-duty so that you can have some serious counseling.”
“Oh, really?” Frakas brightened. “That sounds lovely.”
“In the meantime, somebody’s got to talk some sense into your crew.”
“Got anyone in mind?”
Peterman gave a small smile. “Yeah.”
Tilleran walked a long corridor. She recognized it as a Starfleet corridor, but not the Explorer. A little newer, more advanced.
She heard a low growl, but couldn’t place its location.
Red alert lighting bathed the passageway, but the ship was silent.
As the growling grew louder, Tilleran picked up her pace, breaking into a run.
“J’hana, I know that’s you! Reveal yourself to me!” she called out, and nearly tripped on a fallen crewmember. He was Vulcan.
Tilleran sneered. “Shank. You did this…”
Green blood dripped from his mouth. Shank was dead.
“Nice work, J’hana,” she said wryly, and continued on.
As she jogged the corridor, the bodies mounted, and Tilleran realized they were all Idlewild crew.
And then she reached a pair of shuttlebay doors.
She slammed her hand on the access panel, and it buzzed, forbidding her entrance.
“J’hana!” she called. “I know you’re in there!”
The growling continued.
“J’hana!” She pounded the door. “Let me in!”
After knocking till her knuckles were raw, Tilleran decided on another tack. She pushed her fingers between the doors, hard, digging her fingers into the small crack.
She pushed herself up against the door, pushing with all her might, until finally the massive doors began to give.
Until the door sighed open just wide enough for her to cram herself through.
And then she ran, her footsteps echoing in the massive, empty, shuttlebay, where a lone figure sat huddled in front of the door.
“Imzadi,” the figure said, its back to her. “Is it you?”
Tilleran nodded, and threw her arms around J’hana, turning her around. “Yes, J’hana…it’s me…”
J’hana looked into Tilleran’s eyes and chortled. “It’s about fwarking time!”
J’hana’s first sensation as she woke up was slamming into the deck.
“Imzadi, are you all right?” Tilleran asked, kneeling beside her. “You just kind of flopped off the bed when you woke up…”
“My antenna is bent. But do not worry, it’s not the one that…nevermind, it’s fine,” J”hana said, pushing herself to her feet. She then looked down at herself. “Why am I in this fwarking gown?”
“You’ve been out for nearly a week, J’hana…”
“Is that why I have that funny taste in my mouth?” J’hana asked. “Like day-old shorgat liver?”
Tilleran threw her arms around J’hana, squeezing her tightly. “You can wash your mouth out as soon as long as you want. Promise.”
“What’s gotten into you? Why are you being weird?” J’hana asked, stepping back.
“It’s been weird around here lately,” Tilleran said.
“Evidently.” J’hana brushed herself off. “I feel a breeze beneath this garment that is not altogether unpleasant. Thank the doctor for not requiring underwear.”
“Sit up here for a minute,” Tilleran said, patting the biobed. “Let’s get a look at you.”
“Shall I prepare for a full examination?” J’hana asked, scooting uneasily on the bed, realizing her footing wasn’t exactly solid yet.
“Not the kind you’re thinking of,” Tilleran said.
“Shouldn’t Doctor Wilcox do this?” J’hana asked as Tilleran withdrew a medical tricorder and waved it in front of her, staring at the readings.
“She can look at you later. But I’m more than competent with one of these things.” She looked at the screen. “You’re…completely fine.”
“You had doubts?”
“Well, other than a little muscle atrophy…”
“My first stop will be the gym,” J’hana said.
“Your first stop will be a full checkup with Doctor Wilcox to make sure you’re all right, then some rest…”
“I’ve had quite enough rest, thank you,” J’hana said curtly. “I would much rather get back to…” She stared at Tilleran. “Ariel…what’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?” Tilleran asked, laughing nervously.
J’hana grabbed her wrist. “Tell me.”
“Boy, they wasted no time getting to the bridal shower,” Sparks muttered, watching over Johannsen’s shoulder as the Bolian bride to be opened up her sixtieth gift.
“Oooh! Macrobiotic ointment! That’s a valuable commodity on Bolarus!” Johannsen said, clapping giddily at the latest unwrapped gift.
Suddenly the viewscreen shut off, along with all the other viewscreens on the listening post. All the control panels darkened.
Sparks stood up, and looked across the control room at Keefler, who also stood, reaching for his phaser.
“Who stopped the sensor feed? Mister Zot was just about to wash his shuttle-car!” Keefler protested.
Suddenly the control room hatch cranked open and Cadet Ethan Piper led the way through, Counselor Peterman following.
“Attention, crew!” Peterman called out. “The cable girl has arrived, and I’m sorry to announce that your subscription is over. You’re all to report to the U.S.S. Explorer where you’ll be briskly counseled and reassigned. Likewise, this listening post will be shipped to a sector where it may actually do some good.”
Six deep moans were heard all around the circular control room.
“Counselor, we may have a riot on our hands…” Sparks said, backing away slowly.
“Nonsense,” Peterman said. “They haven’t been eating well or exercising for months. I’d be surprised if they could run from one end of the room to the other.”
“We’ll see about that…” Mindy Schuler said, rising from her seat. She ran at Peterman, and immediately fell over. “Ahhhh! My legs are asleep!”
Johannsen got up and dashed toward Peterman, then stopped to catch his breath. “Achhhh…why bother…”
“You are also to report to the ship’s gym, where you will be put through a rigorous workout prescribed by yours truly.”
“Who…are you…evil…one…” Crewman Daffed, a Bajoran, said, struggling to catch his breath as he walked toward Peterman.
“I’m your counselor. And I will be all the way until we get to a starbase where we can get some good solid treatment for you guys. Sound good? Good!”
Then they collapsed to the deck, asleep.
“Well,” Peterman said, walking up to Keefler and Sparks. “That was satisfying.”
“How’d you know they wouldn’t go crazy when you took away their stimulus so suddenly?” Sparks asked.
“Sometimes you make an educated guess. Although I’m sure Piper and I will be busy in the days to come.”
“Piper and…” Sparks said, and looked at Piper, who shrugged.
“I’m switching to a blue-collar field,” he smiled. “Wanna talk to me about your feelings?”
“Not at the moment,” Sparks said. “Can we get back to the ship?”
“Yes indeed,” Peterman said. “Suffice it to say, our work here is done.”
Stardate 58381.4. We’re on our way to Starbase 280, where we’ll deposit the crew of the Bolarus listening post. Their commander, Mr. Frakas, will also be dropped off, with a prescription for rest, rejuvenation, and I’m sure a good deal of time in some sort of support group.
Speaking of which, we’ve finally decided on a course of action as far as Commander Tilleran’s concerned, and I think it will work out to most everyone’s satisfaction. Mostly.
Counselor Peterman stood in her quarters, staring out the window at space.
Baxter walked up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Morning.”
“Morning,” Peterman said.
“For what it’s worth, about yesterday, I…”
“You don’t have to apologize. I was wrong.”
“I wasn’t going to apologize. I was going to say that I was doing my job.”
“Yeah. Like it or not, at the end of the day, you’re not just my husband. You’re my captain, too.”
“In more than just a ‘what you call out during sex’ sense, yes.”
“Don’t try to be funny. Sex won’t be coming for a while.”
“That’s fair enough,” Baxter sighed. “But believe me when I say Tilleran is going to get the help she needs.”
Peterman nodded. “I just wish I could have been the one to give it to her.”
“Sometimes you just get, I don’t know, too close to something, and you lose perspective.”
“Luckily there are people around to help steer you back in the right direction.”
“That’s what captains are for, huh?”
Baxter nodded, and kissed Peterman on the top of her head. “Husbands, too.”
Exhausted, Cadet Natheena Sparks walked up to her cabin and punched the entry control. She almost didn’t see the note attached to the keypad.
She peeled the slip off the keypad and read it aloud. “Meet me in the arboretum. “
She looked left, then right, and shrugged, heading to the arboretum. Her first real away mission was mentally draining, and a walk through the Grizzelian gardenias could be just what she needed.
When she arrived at the arboretum, she found Plato standing outside, leaning against the door.
“Hi,” he said.
She smiled at him. “Plato…”
“I know…I know…” Plato said, holding up his hands. “You’re a Starfleet cadet, and I’m a half-changeling boy…and you just can’t picture us being anything but friends.”
Sparks cocked his head. “You figured all that out, and yet you invited me for a romantic walk in our favorite spot on the ship?”
“Not a romantic walk,” Plato said, extending his arm (it actually extended about a meter, and then waited patiently for Sparks to take it). “A friendly stroll.”
Sparks looked at Plato’s arm with skepticism. “So you’re trying to tell me you’ve given up on trying to win my affection?”
“Nope, never said that,” Plato said, and grinned as Sparks took his arm.
“Well, then by all means, let’s go see some plants.” She smiled and followed Plato into the arboretum. “It’ll be nice to watch something other than Bolian drama for a change.”
“Bolians have drama?”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
“I should go with you,” J’hana growled low, arms folded, wearing her casual off-duty clothes as she stood in the shuttle bay watching Tilleran check the contents of her duffle for the third time.
“I assure you, that wouldn’t make this any easier,” Tilleran said. She looked up at J’hana, her expression softening. “As a matter of fact, it would make it a lot harder.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t hate you for what you did.”
“Yeah, well, sure it does.”
“I don’t understand it, altogether, but…”
“It’s not for you to understand,” Tilleran said.
“I suppose it’s like how I want to kill people all the time, but sometimes I have to hold back that urge and…not kill them. Like members of this crew, for instance.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of like that.” Tilleran smiled, and squeezed J’hana’s shoulder. “I don’t think I can do this with you along, anyway. I have to give this support group everything I’ve got…I have to listen, talk about what I’m going through, all that boring stuff. You’d hate it. And moreover, you’d…distract me.”
“I’m sure,” J’hana said with a toothy grin.
“Besides, what would Commander Richards do?””
“Very funny. He’s been at your bedside constantly for a week. You owe him.”
“I intend to repay that debt, to be sure.”
“And the people from the listening post…”
“Yes. I will be working them out in the gym in twenty minutes. I doubt they’ll live to see another day.”
“That’s reassuring.” Tilleran glanced back at the hatch to the runabout Passaic, where Lt. Commander Hartley was leaning against the doorway, arms folded.
“You about ready, Ariel?”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said, hoisting her duffel. “I think so.”
“Be well, Imzadi,” J’hana said.
“You too,” Tilleran said, and headed over to the runabout, ducking inside its hatch.
J’hana watched the hatch close, and watched the runabout lift off the shuttle deck, angling toward the parting shuttlebay doors.
The Passaic sailed out of the bay just as Richards jogged up, grabbing J’hana in an embrace.
“Hey there,” he said, kissing her neck. “Did I miss anything?”
“No,” she said with a low growl, nibbling at his ear. “But I sure did. Maintenance closet. NOW. We have nineteen minutes, and counting…”
Join Lt. Commanders Tilleran and Hartley as they land on Betazed, in search of a cure to Tilleran’s telepathic addiction. All’s not as it seems on Betazed, however (would you really expect otherwise?) and soon Hartley and Tilleran find themselves hunted by a telepathic stalker. Will they discover the mysterious telepath’s identity in time, or will they be out-thought…out-thinked?