Author: Anthony Butler
They ran, but still it came.
The captain poured on more speed, but still it came.
Broad and black like onyx stone, it glistened as it plodded after them.
It was alive with many voices, and one.
The captain turned, ducked in a nebula, slung around a sun, but still it came.
The voices cried out in unison.
The cruise ship captain was a hired hand, not particularly skilled in spaceflight. He called as much as he could from the deluxe Dillon- lithium commercial-class warp engine, the pride of its class, Dillon Enterprise’s top model.
Still, it came.
Cutting beams lanced out, carved those priceless engines apart.
And so the cruise ship Boca Raton foundered in orbit of a far-flung world.
It pitched down as the landscape of Flanner Three opened wide below it, hull metal scarring and burning, flames licking it.
More than two hundred well-to-do Federations climbed into escape pods (You were expecting a shortage, weren’t you? Well, it just so happens that there were just the right number of life boats for those aboard…c’mon, cruise ships have come a long way since Titanic!)
The Boca Raton, hulking platoon boat of a cruise ship, freed of her human cargo, free fell to the surface of Flanner Three.
Her autopilot did its level best to set her down right, clipping a mountain range in the process, then dipping low, grazing lush tropical greenery, and finally setting down heavily in a dry lake bed.
Flanner Three was uninhabited. At least it was until the Boca Raton crashed there.
To be sure, the Boca Raton was freed of its human cargo. They who spun helplessly above the planet in deluxe Dillon Domiciles, the gold standard in escape pods. The only escape pods on the market with a full bathroom and a little alcove that could be used either as a sitting room or a breakfast nook.
And then it came.
The large black obelisk hung impassively above the floating life pods, scanning them briefly. Unsatisfied with the scan results, it drew them each inside its massive superstructure for further examination.
It hung in orbit a few moments, then shot off into warp, for points unknown.
Back on Flanner Three, the Boca Raton’s lone occupant stared out a small porthole, cocking its head quizzically.
In the morning sky, high above the planet, it spied a familiar shape.
From the small creature’s viewpoint, the massive, threatening object hanging in space above Flanner Three was not threatening at all. It was inviting, comforting.
That massive ship, which held every other occupant of the Boca Raton, looked very much like a great, big bone.
So, the little being did what any good dog would do. She barked at that bone until it shot into warp.
If the dog was smart enough to ask a question, it would probably ask – Was that really a giant space bone?
“Maybe, maybe not,” Counselor Peterman said reassuringly, leaning forward and patting Jean Abernathy on the arm. “In this case, I believe the question is more important than the answer.”
“Hmmm?” Abernathy asked distractedly, glancing back at Peterman.
“The question,” Peterman said patiently. “It’s more important than the answer.”
“And what’s the question?”
“You just asked it. Do you want to kill your students?”
Abernathy straightened the folds on her skirt thoughtfully. Her matronly shape and kind, round face hid a surprisingly smart but unstable mind that Peterman found fascinating… from a counseling standpoint, anyway.
“No. Nope, definitely not,” Abernathy said after some consideration. “I don’t want to kill them.”
“Good,” Petersen said, smoothing her slacks. “Then I can say we’re making prog…”
“Maybe maim. Yes, I’d like to maim them.”
“No, no no,” Peterman said. “Time out. You can’t maim them either.”
Beside Peterman, Cadet Ethan Piper gaped at the counselor, then looked at Abernathy. “You realize they’re just little kids, right?”
“Have you spent much time with them, Cadet?” Abernathy asked. “Would you like to speak with them tomorrow? They love the smell of fresh meat…I, uh, mean…new teachers.”
“No!” Peterman called out, slinging a protective arm in front of Piper. She had taught Abernathy’s class for a couple days and she wouldn’t wish that on anyone. She took a breath and composed herself.
“Impulses are natural. We all have them. But what’s important is that we recognize the wrong impulses and realize that we can’t act on them.”
Abernathy blinked. “Well of course. I’d never hurt my children. Not…actually.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Although I’d like to hear you say it a little more convincingly next time.” Peterman looked at her padd thoughtfully. “We’re almost out of time for today. Would you like me to write you an order with Sickbay for more sedative?”
“Yes, please,” Abernathy said. “It helps with the nerves, and such.”
“How can you live with yourself?” Piper asked blankly.
“Hmm?” Abernathy said, peering over at Peterman’s padd as she tapped in the order. “No, Counselor…double it.” She grinned. “Just for good measure, you know.”
“Right,” Peterman said, laughing nervously. “Sure thing. Just go easy on these. Remember when you ended up in the tree in the arboretum? It took three hours to get you down.”
“Of course,” Abernathy said taking the padd from Peterman and holding it protectively. “Can’t go overboard.”
“And don’t hurt the fourth graders. Be nice.”
“Yes. Use positive reinforcement and reasonable discipline. Like putting them in ‘time out,’ or withholding snacks and toys, or pushing them off a cliff into a shadowy abyss…” Abernathy trailed off.
“Right, except for that last one,” Peterman said, standing. “Same time next week?”
“Could we make it a little later? I’m starting yoga.”
“Good idea!” Peterman said encouragingly patting Abernathy on the shoulder and leading her toward the door to her office. “What a great way to relax and ease that tension. Just remember, when you get one of those impulses….who’s your first call going to be?”
“You!” Abernathy said.
“That’s right. And I’ll be right there to take the axe out of your hand, or whatever.” Peterman ushered Abernathy out the door. “Just remember…count to ten…or twenty if you need to!”
She sighed deeply as the doors shut, then turned to Cadet Piper. “Cadet, what did I say about passing judgment on our patients!”
“Isn’t it pretty clear cut?” Piper asked as Peterman sat down beside him. “She’s going to beat up her fourth graders!”
“Nonsense. Jean Abernathy is just one of those colorful folks on Explorer. She means no harm. She’s just a tad…askew. It’s our job to protect her, empower her to beat back her fears and resist irrational behavior, just like any other member of this crew.”
“But aren’t some people beyond help?”
Peterman reached over and took her mug of hot chocolate off the coffee table and sipped thoughtfully, thinking about Tilleran. She wanted more than anything to comm the Passaic and find out how she and Hartley were doing at the Betazoid rehab center, but she resisted. It was best to leave them alone, and let the specialists do their job.
“I don’t believe so,” Peterman finally said. “Within us all, there’s a chance for us to be better than we are. To slay our inner demons.”
“That’s a nice thought.”
“Plus, we’ve gone through way too many teachers on this ship. You know, because they were either evil, or accidentally caught on fire, or resigned, or whatnot.” Peterman shook her head and stood up. “Anyway, Jean Abernathy is no more a danger to her fourth graders than my llama is to my leather pants. In both cases, we’re just talking about the instinct to do something wrong. Lou wants more than anything to eat my pants, but I’ve taught him not to. Intelligent creatures can decide between right and wrong. That’s what makes us human.”
“But llamas aren’t human…”
“I have so much to teach you.” Peterman shook her head. “But unfortunately I have another appointment.”
“A counseling appointment?” Piper asked with raised eyebrows. “Can I come?”
“It’s actually not counseling-related,” Peterman said. “Besides, we meet with Lieutenant Sefelt after lunch, and you have to finish reading his dossier.”
“I have like four hundred pages to go.”
“Better get going then!” Peterman said with a smile, and ducked out of her office, calling over her shoulder. “Feel free to use the replicator. I’ll be back in an hour.”
As Peterman approached the set of doors in the quiet corridor, she looked left, then right. The corridor was, as usual, empty, save for her. She input a special code, and the doors slid open obediently.
Within the abandoned inventory office, atop the long unused desk, lay a slim, flat tube.
Peterman approached the tube reverently and laid her hands on it. She looked through the window and saw the tube’s motionless occupant.
“Afternoon, Charlie. Sorry I’m a little late. I’m training a new counselor. At least I think he wants to be a counselor, ultimately. You can never quite tell with cadets.”
Peterman had come to this place, at least once a week, for the last two years, except for extraordinary circumstances such as attacks by godlike beings or being thrown backward in time.
She knew that while J’hana was unconscious, Chris Richards spoke to her, feeling it was therapeutic for both of them.
She also knew, that in this case, she was the only one to get something from this daily encounter. Her golden retriever was in deep biostasis, and for good reason.
When the Explorer passed through an anomalous radiation field two years ago, Charlie fell ill, apparently the only being on the Explorer to be adversely affected by the radiation. It seemed nothing could be done to save him.
So Peterman did the only thing she could – she preserved him here. Only Baxter, and perhaps Lt. Commander Hartley (though she never spoke of it) knew where Charlie was.
But still, she came.
The beeping comm system stirred Peterman out of her reverie.
“Baxter to all senior staff. Report to the bridge. We’ve got a…thing.”
“Don’t we always,” Peterman said, and headed for the door, giving Charlie’s tube one last, affectionate tap.
When Peterman stepped out onto the bridge, the crew was already abuzz with activity.
Madera and Sefelt were chatting quietly at the foreward stations, something about heading and speed.
J’hana was scratching her nails ruefully on the tactical panel, something Peterman noticed she did quite a bit, if the scratches on the panel’s surface were any indication.
Cadet Sparks, filling in for Tilleran, rocked back and forth in her chair at sciences, flinging her long, brown strands of non-regulation hair in front of her face and playing nervously with them.
And Baxter was standing in the middle of the bridge, looking over a padd with Commander Richards.
“What’s going on?” Peterman asked, stepping down to the front of the bridge.
“A civilian transport, the Boca Raton, was attacked and crash- landed on Flannery Three,” Baxter said.
“We can’t detect any survivors,” Richards replied.
“You mean everyone died on impact?”
“From what we can tell on long-range, nobody was around during the impact. The ship is deserted.”
“That’s odd,” Peterman said. “Any idea who attacked them?”
Baxter nodded. “Oh yeah.” He glanced at Sparks, giving her a nod. She quickly leaned forward, pushing hair out of her face, and tapped on her panel.
A small, blurry, boxy image appeared on the viewscreen.
“We’ll know more when we get there and analyze the Boca Raton’s sensor information,” Baxter said. “But it looks a hell of a lot like…”
“Yes, I know. The Borg,” Peterman said, staring at the screen.
“Why does everyone have to do that?” Baxter snapped. “Just once, I want to be able to say ‘it’s the Borg!’ But NO, everyone always has to KNOW it’s the Borg already. You totally ruined the moment, honey.”
“Yes, and that’s our biggest worry right now,” Peterman muttered, heading over to her chair.
“Flannery Three’s off the beaten path, but luckily we were in the neighborhood,” Richards said, moving to his own chair opposite Peterman’s and sitting down. “We’ll be there in less than an hour.”
“Lucky us,” Peterman said as Baxter sat down.
“Not to worry,” Baxter said. “We’re professionals. We can handle this.”
“Where’s the Enterprise when you need it?” Peterman asked.
“We don’t need the Enterprise. Need I remind you we fought the Borg and won seven years ago?”
“Actually, our braindead crewman Dean Wilcox fought the Borg and won,” Richards pointed out.
“Well, we…supervised,” Baxter floundered. “We also blew up a Borg ship that was commandeered by a crazed former inventory officer.”
“Actually, it blew itself up when it flew into a sun,” Richards said.
“We sped the process along.”
“Inventory this, inventory that!” Peterman muttered. “That was your job like eight years ago. Why are you still obsessing over it?”
“You okay?” Baxter asked, glancing at Peterman.
“Rough morning,” Peterman said, rubbing her temples. She lowered her voice, glancing cautiously at Cadet Sparks then back at Baxter. “I’m not sure Cadet Piper’s getting it.”
“Getting what?” Baxter asked.
“What we do here. He seems to have this idea that everyone should just be…sane.”
“Wierdo,” Richards said, leaning into the conversation.
“You know what I mean,” Peterman said. “Some people are just…square pegs.” She looked over at Sefelt. “Isn’t that right, little Lieutenant?”
Sefelt turned around and winked at Peterman. “Yeah, Mom. Sorry, gotta get back to work!”
He turned back around and Baxter stared at him. “What the…?”
“It’s a little infantilism thing we’re working on. Really, it’s nothing.” Peterman sighed and clapped her thighs. “Well, unless you need me for the away team, I’m heading back to the office. I’ve got to get ready for…” She inclined her head toward Sefelt. “Junior.”
“That’s fine,” Baxter said. “Just…be on guard in case something odd should happen.”
“Always,” Peterman said, stepping back to the turbolift.
Richards knelt behind one of the main control consoles in the Boca Raton’s operations center, waving his palm beacon at one of the access panels. “I’ve almost got it.”
“Good. I don’t like the dark,” Sparks said, focusing on the readouts on her tricorder to keep her mind off the shadow she saw creeping up by the foreward viewscreen.
“I like the dark,” J’hana said, glancing at her own tricorder. “Easier to sneak up on people and kill them.”
“Got it!” Richards said, as a beep sounded from the access panel and lights came on full in the Boca Raton’s control room.
J’hana snuck up behind Cadet Sparks and grabbed her shoulder. “Gotcha!”
“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!” she screamed, driving an elbow back into J’hana’s stomach, then grabbing her arm and flipping her over her shoulder, splaying the Andorian on the deck at her feet.
“Cadet!” Richards said sharply, rushing over.
“I was just…messing with you, Cadet,” J’hana muttered, hoisting herself up from the floor.
“I’m sorry. I guess I overreacted.”
“It is all right,” J’hana said, rubbing her arm. “Clearly I am not in peak condition if someone of your minute build was able to overpower me so cleanly. Still, you are strong for your size.” She stared long and hard at Sparks. “Strong. And well-built.”
“All right, let’s split up,” Richards said, moving in between Sparks and J’hana, his face reddening. “We’ll cover more ground that way, and it’s a pretty big ship, so…”
“Let me guess. You want me to dig through the computer and sensor records by myself,” Sparks said.
“While you and J’hana go sifting through the ship.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“I don’t suppose abject fear is a good enough reason to object, is it?”
“Afraid not. Don’t worry, we’re just a comm away,” Richards said, patting Sparks on the shoulder and heading toward the hatch that led to the rest of the ship.
“Yes. Call anytime,” J’hana said with a toothy grin, twisting a sharp fingernail through one of Sparks’ long, brown locks.
“Ick. On second thought, I’m just fine on my own, thanks!”
“Just remember, don’t show fear or confusion,” Peterman said, sitting on the edge of her desk as Cadet Piper reviewed his notes. “If he thinks he’s knocked you off-balance, he’ll go in for the kill. Invent a new personality or phobia or something. The key is just listening, offering words of encouragement…but don’t commit to anything! No direct eye contact. But don’t look away from him either. Smile, but not too wide. What else? Oh, are you wearing cologne?”
“A little squirt of ‘Wormhole’ by Quark.”
“Better wash that off before he gets here. He’s deathly afraid of musks. Oddly, he enjoys the flower fragrances. And the fruity smells. But if he gets a hint of musk, he’ll go berserk.”
“Are you sure I’m ready for this?” Piper asked. “I mean I’ve only been on the ship a couple weeks, but Nat and Lieutenant Sefelt dated briefly. She told me some…odd things.”
“Believe them,” Peterman said. “Just remember that as long as we work together and don’t panic, we’ll get through this. And afterwards I always treat myself to ice cream. And a brandy. So there’s that to look forward to.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Piper asked, staring at his padd.
“Sure,” Peterman said, moving around behind her desk.
“How have you done it?”
“Survived as counselor on this ship for so long? I mean, don’t you just want to flip out sometimes?”
“Sure,” Peterman said. “It helps to have someone to talk to.”
“Yeah, it must be nice having a husband to talk everything over with.”
“Sure,” Peterman said quickly. “Or whoever.”
“Who else do you talk to?”
“It’s really not important,” Peterman said. “Don’t let yourself get distracted. We’ve got a big afternoon ahead of us. Have you gotten plenty of fluids in you?”
“Well, get cracking. He’ll be here in twenty minutes. Got to…”
“Richards to Peterman.”
Peterman sighed. “Yes, Commander?”
“I’m back from the Boca Raton. We found something, and I need you in Science Lab Two as soon as possible.”
“Why me? I’m not a scientist.”
“Believe me. I know. But this one falls in your area of expertise.”
“I’ve…got an appointment.”
“It can wait.”
There was a pause. “Have Cadet Piper handle it. That’s why you have a staff, right?”
Peterman looked askance at Piper. “I…suppose.”
“Good. Get up here. Quickly.”
“Very well. Peterman out.” She stood and headed for the door. “Sorry about this. I’ll be back as soon as I can. In the meantime…get to know him. Just relax and see where the conversation takes you…”
Piper watched Peterman go, his eyes widening in horror. “But…”
“Don’t worry about it. Everything’ll be fine,” Peterman said, and ducked out of her office. It was so nice to finally have a staff!
Peterman stepped into the science lab, fully expecting some kind of tentacled alien thing to be staring back at her from within an isolation field.
She was in no way prepared for what she found instead.
“Counselor,” Richards said, inclining his head at the isolation field. Baxter had walked in a few minutes before Peterman, and was already hovering in the back of the room.
As soon as Peterman saw the field’s lone occupant, she dropped to one knee and stared at it. “Is that…?”
“Yes,” Richards said.
“How’d you know she’s a she?”
“A parent knows,” Peterman said softly, staring into the chamber.
“She’s fine,” Richards said. “Just a little disoriented, I think. But that’s to be expected. No injuries or anything.”
“Let her out.”
“That’s not such a good idea. Cadet Sparks believes we should quarantine her for a few hours while she runs…”
“Let. Her. Out,” Peterman said, and glanced up at Richards to underline her comment.
“Right. Cadet Sparks, remove the field.”
Peterman looked on as Sparks tapped a control, and the circular field around the isolation chamber dropped.
And a fluffy, bear-cub-like, marmalade-colored golden retriever puppy hopped up into her lap and clung to her chest, burrowing her head in.
“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhh aren’t you the cutest!” Peterman giggled, rubbing the scruff of her neck and looking in her deep brown eyes. “Look at you! Look at you! Ooooooooooooooh you sweet little snuggly wuggly!”
Sparks glanced back at the bio readouts on the science lab’s control panel. “Is it possible she…infected Counselor Peterman with something?”
Baxter stepped forward, watching the scene with building curiosity. “No. Counselor Peterman is acting perfectly normal. She just hasn’t acted like this in a long while.”
“Yes, you are my little baby girl! Yes you are!” Peterman cooed as she coddled the squirming pup.
“Permission to vomit, sir,” Richards asked, sidling up to Baxter.
“Denied. Swallow it down, Commander. My wife needs this.”
“What about the Borg?” Richards asked in a hushed voice.
“They can get their own puppy.”
“Fair enough,” Richards muttered, watching Peterman with growing incredulity.
Baxter turned to go. “Well, give them some time to get to know one another. Meanwhile, keep looking over the wreckage of the Boca Raton. See if you can find out what exactly the Borg wanted with…”
“J’hana to Baxter.”
“You may want to report to the bridge. We’ve got a…”
Richards and Baxter exchanged a worried glance. “Is it the Borg?” Baxter asked.
“Sort of,” J’hana said slowly.
“For Pete’s sake, J’hana,” Baxter muttered. “Throw me a bone here.”
“Already on it, sir. Just please get up here.”
“She sound rattled to you?” Baxter asked as he rode the turbolift to the bridge with Richards.
“J’hana? Maybe a little.”
“That’s a bit strange for her, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s the Borg, so…”
“So it’s a great chance for honorable death. She should be thrilled.”
“I’m sure she’s just…adjusting.”
“Think she resumed her duties too fast?”
“She threatened to cut my throat in my sleep if I didn’t put her back on the active roster.”
“Guess that settles that,” Baxter muttered as the turbolift doors swung open. He stepped out onto the bridge. “Well, folks, what have we…” He stopped in his tracks, causing Richards to nearly slam into him.
J’hana rose from the command chair and strolled back to her station. “Now you know why I wanted you guys to come up here.”
“That bone comment I made seems like a terrible pun now, doesn’t it?” Baxter said, staring down the looming, massive bone-shaped, gunmetal-colored, Borg-esque warship on the screen.
“Just another one to throw on the pile,” J’hana said and looked at her panel. “They’re going to be in weapons range in seven minutes.”
“And you couldn’t call any sooner?” Richards demanded, following Baxter to the center of the bridge.
“Didn’t want to disrupt puppy play time,” J’hana said, the last three words dripping out of her mouth like poison.
“From now on, disrupt puppy play time as often as you like,” Baxter said.
“We haven’t heard from the Dawg in years,” Richards said. “What could they want?”
“I’m guessing it’s down in the science lab,” Baxter said, rubbing his goatee thoughtfully.
“Perhaps they’re not the Dawg,” J’hana said. “Maybe there are other bone-shaped super cyberships out there.”
“Nasty sarcasm gets us nowhere, Commander!” Richards snapped back.
“Sex with you is becoming routine,” J’hana fired back.
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“People, people,” Baxter said. “Six minutes till that big bone starts firing animal pellets of death at us!”
“Sir, can I…” Lt. Howard Sefelt said, turning slowly in his chair and raising a questioning finger.
“Let me guess, you’re afraid of cybernetic animals,” Baxter said. “Well, Howie, I’ve got news for you. For once, we’re all in agree…”
“No, sir,” Sefelt replied. “I was going to say I’m actually excited about getting to meet up with the Dawg. Cybernetic animals intrigue me.”
“And you’re not scared of them?
“Not in the least,” Howie shrugged. “In fact, I was about to suggest you let me speak with them. You know, person to dog.”
“We’ll see how it goes, Lieutenant. For now, turn around and…don’t talk for a while.” Baxter sighed. “Just when you think you’ve got a guy figured out…”
“He makes a good point,” Richards said. “We should hail them. See if we can reason with them.”
“Cause that’s worked so well in the past?”
“Just a thought.”
Baxter sighed. “Let’s do it. J’hana, hail the…bone.”
“Opening the doggy door, sir,” J’hana said with a laugh.
Baxter scrubbed a hand over his face and stared at the viewscreen, which quite suddenly became filled with an image of a dozen decks within the Dawg ship. He could see within each deck, a row of half-dog, half- human, half-machine…wait, that’s not right. Make it one-third each…with blinky lights. Yes. Blinky lights.
“We are Dawg,” a chorus of growly voices announced. In the background, Baxter could hear the occasional bark and whine reverberate within the massive vessel.
“Yes, well, we are the Explorer.”
“Explorer. Captain Andy Baxter. Species: Human. Favorite food: Pizza. Sever spinal cord at the third cervical vertebrae. Death is immediate.”
Baxter winced. “Well, you got the pizza part right, so I’ll take your word for it on the other thing. But let’s hope it doesn’t get to that. We want to discuss terms.”
“Terms are irrelevant. The Dawg will assimilate your pets and add their distinctive fluffiness to our own.”
“Yeah, here’s the thing. We can’t let you take our pets,” Baxter said. “We have a counselor aboard who’s quite fond of them.”
“Peterman. Counselor. Katherine. Favorite food: Sushi.”
“Sever spinal cord at third cervical vertebrae. Death is immediate.”
“Yes, well, let’s rewind for a moment here,” Baxter said. “If you recall, you once tried to assimilate our pets, along with our counselor. It didn’t work too well. Matter of fact, we blew up your ship last time.”
A pause. “We will add your pets’ distinctive fluffiness to our own.”
“You can’t have them!” Baxter said. “We’ve been through this whole thing before. Don’t make me show you footage.”
“Retrospectives are irrelevant. Negotiation is at hand. You may keep all of your pets but one.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Richards said.
Baxter held up his hand. “Which one?” Please be the cat. Please be the cat. Please be the cat.
“We want the puppy.”
Baxter felt the high-pitched cry reverberate inside his skull. He turned around to find Counselor Peterman at the back of the bridge, holding the puppy she’d brought up from the lab. Nat Sparks stood behind her, staring at the screen, slack-jawed. “Kelly, maybe you and Cadet Sparks should go back down…”
“Peterman. Counselor. Katherine. Once the spokesperson for the Dawg.”
“Yeah, so what?” Peterman asked defiantly.
“You will give the golden being to us.”
Peterman stared down at the squirming ball of fur in her hands. “Charlotte? No way!”
“You named her already,” J’hana said, dripping disdain.
“Look,” Baxter said, stepping toward the viewscreen. “I can tell we’re at what we humans call a bit of an impasse here. Maybe the best thing for us to do is take a night to sleep on it. Maybe things will look better in the morning…”
“Unlikely,” the unified Dawg voice responded. “We will have the golden being. She embodies the perfection which the Dawg seek.”
“All the more reason you can’t have her!” Peterman retorted.
“They are activating their cutting beam!” J’hana called out.
The Explorer shook suddenly as the Dawg vessel fired a powerful, focused yellow beam at its shields.
“Are you guys okay with this?” Sparks asked, looking around. “Cybernetic dogs? Really?”
“Not now, Cadet,” Baxter snapped.
Richards turned to the console beside his chair and looked at the screen. “Shields buckling!”
Baxter recoiled. “Five years since we’ve seen these guys, and our shields haven’t improved any?”
“Take it up with Hartley!” Richards said.
“Well, I guess they could have improved their cutting beams over the years. That would make sense.”
Peterman grabbed Baxter with her arm that wasn’t currently cradling Charlotte and started shaking him. “Andy, you have to do something!”
“Sleep on it?” Richards muttered. “Are you kidding?”
“I didn’t see you offering any helpful suggestions,” Baxter said as the deck rattled beneath his feet.
Suddenly, two humanoid, bionic dogs materialized at the center of the bridge with a green shimmer. One a tall, proud, dalmatian, the other a squat, furry Pekingese.
Sparks saw the animals and instinctively ran to the science console. “I’ll try to catch them in an isolation field.”
“Bridge to security. Intruder alert!” Baxter called, walking toward the Dawgs. The dalmatian batted Baxter aside as if he weighed nothing, sending him crashing to the deck.
The Dawgs walked up to Peterman and each placed a paw on her shoulder. She gaped as she and Charlotte shimmered and disappeared along with the Dawg intruders.
“Trace that transporter beam!” Richards called out, helping Baxter to his feet.
“They’re aboard the Dawg ship,” Sparks said, looking up from her panel. “Did that really happen? I mean really?”
“The Dawg vessel is turning away and heading into warp,” J’hana announced, glancing sidelong at Sparks. “Oh, and it appears the passengers of the Boca Raton are aboard as well. One wonders how this impacts their frequent travel miles…”
“This is no time for jokes, J’hana!” Baxter barked.
Sparks held on to her panel, staring at it in disbelief as Baxter turned to Madera.
“Well, don’t just sit there. Chase them!” he snapped.
“Look at my face, Susan.”
“Right. Warp nine it is.”
The doorway to Chaka’kan’s cabin swung open to reveal Captain Baxter. Steffie was standing beside him, looking up at Baxter trustingly, gripping his han. In the other hand, she held Troxo, her stuffed Tellarite.
“Is there something I can do for you?” Chaka said, cross-legged on his meditation mat in the center of his spartan quarters. The sound of crashing waves played in the background.
“Yes, Chaka,” Baxter said, hurriedly glancing left and right. “You see, I’ve got a problem.”
“Need me to kill more people?” Chaka asked serenely, with no hint of sarcasm or irony.
“No, so very not,” Baxter said, tapping his foot nervously. “Look, I…need you…”
“I need ya Chaka!” Steffie cried out and shook free from Baxter, leaping into Chaka’s lap.
“Thanks for the subtlety, Stef,” Baxter muttered, slapping a hand over his face . “Look, this is very hard to ask. I need you to be a babysitter once again.”
“But…my murderous tendencies…”
“Well, I won’t kid you, Chaka. That scares the hell out of me. But Kelly and I have been talking. We’ve been watching you the last couple months. She’s confident you’re sociopathic stage is at an end. That you’ve found balance…a sense of peace.”
“She has not seen my coloring book, then,” Chaka said thoughtfully.
“Well, be that as it may…Steffie needs you. And so do we.”
“The Richard Simmons hologram is adequate…”
“Steffie can’t stand him.” Baxter sighed. “She doesn’t really like working out that much. And she has this strange fear of spandex.” He shook his head. “She keeps asking for you. I believe you’re ready for this. You helped us out in a huge way on board the Idlewild. You could have launched into a killing spree at any time over there and you didn’t. You acted in the best interest of your crew and…you saved us.”
“You are ready to trust me again, then,” Chaka said, looking down at Steffie.
“If you’ll agree…yes.”
“I shall not let you down. Babysitting, once again, is life.”
“That’s all I needed to hear, Chaka,” Baxter said, leaning down to kiss Steffie on the head. “I’ll be up on the bridge dealing with a…situation…that’s come up. Comm me if you need anything.”
Baxter left Chaka’s quarters, and as he walked away, nodded at Ensign Gordon Taft, who stood casually leaning against the bulkhead a few meters down the corridor. “Ensign.”
Taft nodded back at Baxter, patting the phaser on his hip. “I’m not going anywhere, Captain.”
“Thanks,” Baxter said, and walked off.
Sparks was still feeling numb, and a little nauseated, as she sat in the science lab, reviewing the sensor footage from the Dawg attack.
“Hey Cadet, you busy?” a voice asked from the dor.
She started, then turned slowly to face the door, seeing Plato standing there with a floral bouquet. “Look what I’ve got. Gardenias!”
Sparks smiled at the flowers, then caught herself. “Plato, I don’t have time for gardenias right now. There’s…a lot of stuff happening right now.”
Plato stepped into the lab, and approached the console where Sparks was perched contemplatively. He laid the flowers down on the console and looked at her. “What’s going on?”
Sparks took a deep breath. “Something tells me that you figure out everything that’s going on aboard this ship eventually, so I might as well tell you. The Dawg are back, and they took Counselor Peterman and her new golden retriever, Charlotte.”
“The Dawg are BACK!?” Plato exclaimed. “Wow. I’ve heard a lot about them. Don’t worry. If there’s one thing Counselor Peterman knows, it’s pets. She’ll make it through this.”
“Not if we don’t go get her off that ship,” Sparks said. She stared down at her panel. “I’m trying to help the captain find a way to get aboard and rescue Counselor Peterman and the puppy.”
“Any luck yet?”
She shook her head, tangling her fingers in her long hair and turning it obsessively. “Nothing. I’ve stared at the sensor data for hours. Not a single, solitary idea.”
Plato nodded, and stepped closer to Sparks. “Is there a way I can help?”
“I wish you could,” Sparks said softly, reaching out and taking Plato’s hand. “But this is a bit beyond your area of expertise.”
“Too bad I can’t shapeshift all the way into a Dawg,” Plato said. “I could sneak aboard…”
Sparks nodded. “Yeah, too bad…” She looked up suddenly. “That’s it!” She turned and grabbed Plato in a tight hug. “That’s it, Plato! You did it! You figured out how we can get aboard!”
“I did?” Plato asked, savoring the hug, yet confused nonetheless.
“Yes,” Sparks said, and returned to her console. “Now leave me alone so I can work.”
“Sure, um…yeah, so I’ll see you later, huh…” Plato said, and turned on a heel, heading for the door, unable to wipe the smile from his face.
Counselor Peterman found herself standing on a catwalk (no pun intended), overlooking a huge, football field-like expanse within the interior of the Dawg vessel. Within the expanse she could see a row of decks, each milling with cybernetic Dawgs, all, it seemed, capable of sentience and speech. She wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a nightmare. Okay, definitely nightmare.
“You will adapt to service us,” a chorus of Dawg voices howled suddenly in her ears.
“Hey, you startled me!” Peterman snapped, covering her ears. “Why do you people have to be so melodramatic?”
“Melodrama is irrelevant. You will serve the Dawg.” She could hear a high-pitched, insistent whine from within the collective as strobes of red and green light passed over her body.
“What’s wrong, boys?” she asked, shifting gears. A confrontational attitude was going to get her nowhere. “C’mon, fellas…tell Kelly what’s wrong!”
“The Dawg require a spokesperson to ease the assimilation process.”
“Look, if this is about taking over all humankind…” Peterman said with a bored sigh
“Negative. We wish to assimilate all puppykind.”
Peterman’s eyes widened. “No. NO! You can’t just take all our puppies!”
“We will add their fluffy perfection to our own. It is the will of the collective.”
“Well, that’s a bad collective. No no no!” She reached over and smacked the nearest Dawg, the dalmation who’d kidnapped her, hard across the snout. “Don’t you dare assimilate those innocent little puppies!”
The dalmation stared at her, its infrared eye beam passing over her face.
“You are belligerent, uncooperative,” the collective said with a low growl.
“Darned right I am. Puppies bring joy into our lives. They’re innocent and pure… they love unconditionally. They are an integral part of humanoid life!”
“Just give us the golden retrievers.”
“NO! Those are the best ones!”
“This is not a negotiation. You will give us your golden retrievers.”
Peterman screwed her eyes shut. “NO NO NO! BAD DAWGS!”
“This discussion is over. Begin the implantation.”
Ewww, Peterman thought. That didn’t sound good.
“What’ve you got, Sparks?” Baxter asked, jogging into the science lab, Richards on his heels.
“It’s either a stupid idea, or total genius,” Sparks said, perched on the edge of her stool, pushing hair out of her face.
“For our sake, let’s hope it’s the latter,” Richards said.
“Plato and I were talking, and he mentioned something about shapeshifting…”
“You and Plato are talking?” Richards asked. “Really? So something really is brewing between you two…”
“We’re just friends!” Sparks snapped.
“People!” Baxter snapped. “My wife is being probed by furry cyborgs as we speak. Somebody give me something I can use here!”
Sparks nodded. “Sorry, Captain. At any rate, I believe I can fool the Dawg sensors into believing our away team is a group of fluffy, precious golden retrievers.”
“Sure. All I have to do is take the DNA reading from Carlotta.”
“Charlotte,” Baxter muttered.
“Right, whatever. I just need to take her DNA readings and feed them through the holographic imaging system. Then I’ll send it to the transporter buffer. We engage the transporter, beam the away team into the buffer, and integrate the two signals.”
Richards gulped. “Does that mean we’ll rematerialize with, um…dog parts?”
“Nope. With any luck, the Dawg vessel will pick up the puppy readings within the transporter buffer and lock onto them.”
“And redirect the matter stream to their ship,” Baxter said, his smile widening. “I don’t understand half of what you said, but it’s genius!”
“Begin reprogramming the holoemitters. Then join me in Transporter Room Two.”
Sparks scooted off her stool. “Hold on a sec! I’m going on the away team?”
“You’re the Acting Chief Science Officer, aren’t you?”
“I kind of figured I would just sort of…hang back and monitor.”
Baxter put a reassuring hand on Sparks’ shoulder. “I know this isn’t quite like beaming onto the listening post. This is much more dangerous. And bizarre. So nobody will think less of you if you ask to be reassigned.”
“I don’t want to be reassigned,” Sparks said, though she could barely believe she was saying it. “I want to go!”
Baxter nodded. “Great. Be in Transporter Room Two as soon as possible.” He turned to Richards. “Chris, have J’hana meet me in the transporter room. Then go back to the bridge and take the conn.”
“Can I talk to you outside, Captain?” Richards asked.
“Sure,” Baxter said, leading Richards out into the corridor.
“You’re going to try to talk me out of going, aren’t you? Gee, Chris, that’s awful nice of you. But I need to…”
“No way. You’re welcomed to go. Knock yourself out. I was referring to Cadet Sparks.”
“What, don’t think she’s ready for something like this?”
“Combined with the fact that J’hana still isn’t one hundred percent, yes.”
“J’hana will be fine as soon as she gets into a live ammo situation. But what exactly is your problem with Sparks?”
“She’s young, inexperienced. Seeing the Dawg beam onto the bridge and beaming into the middle of their ship are two different things.”
“They sure are. Don’t you think that’s something our young Cadet should experience?”
“Well, yeah, if you want to disturb the hell out of her.”
“Never hurt us, did it?”
<Peterman, Counselor Katherine. Welcome to the Collective.>
Peterman felt her knees weaken as she stood on the Dawg catwalk and felt the cortical probe jolt into her brain, firmly attached on the base of her skull. It felt rather like she was wearing a scrunchie really really tight. Except, of course, that this scrunchie actually had tendrils that poked through her skull and dug into her brain, flooding it with electrical impulses.
<Thanks, I guess…> Peterman said as a familiar rush of images and symbols raced across her field of vision, which now was colored red. Her mouth felt dry and she couldn’t help but crave a saucer of milk.
<You are remembering your time as a feline.>
<Something like that,> Peterman broadcasted to the collective, unwittingly licking the back of her hand and smoothing it through her hair. <Look, can we get this overwith. Either assimilate me, or brainwash me, or whatever, but let’s get on with it…>
<The Dawg are experiencing a revolution in thinking.>
<Any way we can do this conversation without the cattleprod stuck in my brain?>
<Spectacular. Well, go on then.>
<Where we once sought to diversify our species, collecting all manner of other animals, we now seek a singular perfection.>
<Yes, yes, golden retrievers.>
<They are the perfect being.>
<No argument with you there.>
<Then tell us the location of every surviving golden retriever animal in your Federation’s space.>
Peterman gritted her teeth, her tongue feeling somewhat scratchy. <What makes you think I know that?> she lied. Admittedly, she read more pet enthusiast magazines than psychological journals.
<Divulge the information and we will release you to your people.>
<Release the crew of the Boca Raton and we’ll talk!>
<Oh, you didn’t think I’d notice, did you? You forget I can read your crew manifest now.>
<The humans are irrelevant. We will release their escape pods and leave them to drift. Just give us the whereabouts of the retrievers.> The implant seemed to dig deeper into Peterman’s mind. <We know you love those dogs. We know you want them to be safe, aboard our ship. Nurtured, cared for…certain to never die, or become extinct…>
<What do you know about the care and feeding of golden retrievers!>
<WE ARE DOGS!>
<Fair point.> Peterman sighed. <But simply living isn’t enough. You’re depriving these dogs of the lives they’re meant to have.>
<As you have with your dog. Charlie.>
<Stop right there!> Peterman said, resisting a catlike screech. She’d better get disconnected from this probe and quick, before she started growing fur or something.
<You understand the stakes.>
<So tell me what the stakes are.>
The Dawg paused, then spoke authoritatively into Peterman’s brain. <The survival of all dogkind, particularly that of the perfect golden beings.>
<You want Charlie too?>
<He is old and infirm. He is not part of the new order.>
<That’s a relief.>
<Give us the location of the puppies. All of them. Then you will be released.>
<We can cure your dog.>
Peterman froze. <Cure…Charlie?>
“Nat! Wait up!”
Sparks made a purposeful stride toward Transporter Room Two as Plato picked up step next to her.
“Where are you going?” he asked, reaching out to touch her arm.
“I’m beaming over to the Dawg ship to get Counselor Peterman and the survivors of a cruiseliner. I’m finally getting a chance to make a real difference on this ship, and it’s all thanks to you and your crazy idea!”
Plato stared at the deck, at his feet as he walked. “You make a difference to me already, Nat.”
“I know,” Sparks said, and grinned, reaching out to take Plato’s hand. “But this is my chance to do something that…scares me.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“You should do something that scares you every day.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“It’s just something people say.” Sparks sighed and stopped walking, turning to face Plato. “Look, I know that some of the things Starfleet officers do probably makes no sense to you…”
“My mom keeps baklava in her night stand and eats soup in the shower. I can turn my hand into a hammer. I had a Jem’Hadar babysitter growing up. So I’m pretty good at adjusting…”
“Good point,” Sparks said. “So maybe you can understand why I have to do this–why I’m even looking forward to it.”
“Yeah,” Plato said. “I didn’t come to stop you.”
“Then why are you here, Plato?” Sparks said, exasperated.
“To do something that scares me…” Plato took both sides of Sparks’ face in his hands and turned her against the bulkhead, kissing her deep. After several long moments, he broke the kiss and stared in her eyes, smoothing hair out of her face. “Come back safe, Nat.”
Sparks felt herself blush. She opened her mouth to speak, but found herself without words. She watched Plato walk away, then turned on a heel and dashed to the transporter room.
“Richards to Transporter Room Two. You guys ready?” Richards asked, standing in the middle of the bridge, watching the Dawg vessel blaze ahead of them at warp speed on the viewscreen.
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Baxter said. “Cadet Sparks assures us this holographic buffer thing will work.”
“Well…just rely on her…months of experience.”
“Don’t worry, Commander. Your girlfriend will come back safe,” Sparks chimed in over the channel.
“Great, she’s making fun of me,” Richards muttered.
“Yep. She’s one of us,” Baxter replied. “Be ready to drop shields, Chris. We’re ready down here.”
Richards nodded, then glanced back at Keefler at Tactical. “On my mark, and not a second sooner, Ensign.”
Keefler nodded. “Yes, Commander.”
“Commander! The Dawg ship is dropping out of warp!” Cadet Mathers said, looking up from the science console.
“Susan, take us out of warp and intercept the Dawg ship,” Richards said. “Find out what the hell they’re doing, someone.”
“A compartment’s opening up on her underbelly,” Mathers said. “Some sort of hangar…”
“Please tell me some kind of massive rubber chewtoy isn’t about to fly out at us,” Richards said, balling his fists apprehensively.
“Negative,” Mathers said. “Nope–actually, it’s the escape pods from the Boca Raton! Dozens of them!”
“Lock on with our transporters and bring them in now!” Richards said.
“Baxter to bridge - what’s going on?”
“Captain - we’ve got the survivors of the Boca Raton.”
“Super, are any of them my wife?”
Richards looked up at Keefler, who shook his head.
“No, she must still be aboard.”
“Then we’re still going over. Make sure you get all the Boca Raton people aboard. Once that’s done, let us know and Sparks will trigger her holo-thingie.”
“You’re still going through with this?”
Counselor Peterman felt the depths of the Dawg hivemind. They were telling the truth. One of their ships had visited the same nebula the Explorer had. The retrievers aboard their ship had suffered the same fate as Charlie. But they pooled the resources of the Dawg hivemind, all barking as one, all determined to fetch a solution to cure the radiation poisoning.
And, sure enough, they did. Peterman could almost see it…could almost feel the information on the other side of an imaginary wall, hidden from her by the Dawg.
<Will you give us the location of the other Goldens?> the hivemind resonated in her brain.
Peterman thought about it. <No…no, I can’t.>
<Then Charlie will never awaken.>
<Our scientists are pretty smart too, you know. Except for the crazy ones. Ah, who am I kidding…the crazy ones are some of the smartest.>
<You will never find a cure. Give us the whereabouts of the Golden Beings.>
Peterman screwed her eyes shut. <NEVER!>
The Dawgs whined in her mind. She could feel her resistance buckling. Charlie…
She pictured her beloved companion of so many years bounding toward her, ball in mouth.
So simple, all she had to do was…
Suddenly four blue lights illuminated in front of her, swirling and coalescing into three figures: Baxter, Sparks, and J’hana.
They all stood there, stripped to their Starfleet-issue vests, rifles in hand.
“Great job, Sparks!” Baxter said, looking around. “I never doubted you for a second!” He raced up to Peterman throwing his arms around you. “Honey! Are you okay?”
“I have a fourteen-gauge cortical cable stuck in my cerebral cortex, but other than that, I’m great,” Peterman sighed, falling into Baxter’s arms and wrapping her arms around his neck. “It’s so good to…” She scratched behind Baxter’s neck. “Um….Andy…”
J’hana stood behind Baxter, chortling. “Captain…your ears!”
Sparks looked at the floor sheepishly. “Sir, it’s possible my calculations in the transporter buffer were off slightly…”
“HE HAS THE EARS OF THE GOLDEN BEING!” The Dawg hivemind cried out throughout the alcove.
Baxter sighed, and as he did so, his large, triangular, fluffy golden retriever ears drooped just slightly. He turned to J’hana. “Uh, Commander…”
A long, bluish-pink tongue lolled out of J’hana’s mouth as she panted. “What? What the fwark is everyone looking at?”
Sparks turned. “Nothing, just…uh…” She looked over her shoulder to see a fluffy golden tail swishing behind her. “HOLY JEEZE!”
Baxter glared at Sparks. “Cadet, get my wife unhooked from this leash before we start craving kibble or chasing the mailman!”
“On it, Captain!” Sparks said, her tail swishing nervously as she sidled up to Peterman, running her tricorder over the cortical cable. “Yeah, it’s a simple enough connection. I just need a few minutes…”
“Work faster,” Peterman said through clenched teeth. “They’re sending about a hundred Dawgs to this location…”
“Are you okay?” Baxter said, cupping Peterman’s face.
“So totally not,” Peterman said softly.
“This’ll all be over soon. Work faster, Cadet…”
“J’hana, there’s something I need you to do,” Peterman said. “Two decks down, about a hundred meters to your left, there’s a holding compartment guarded by a dozen Dawg soldiers.”
“Your precious puppy,” J’hana snarled.
“Yes,” Peterman said. “Now fetch her, girl!”
“You will not leave this place,” the Dawg hivemind announced as J’hana bounded off after Charlotte. “Your knowledge of the Golden Ones is too valuable.”
“Well, if you can believe it, she’s even more valuable to me,” Baxter said. “So you can suck on a milkbone, fellas.”
“Resistance is futile.”
“Ahh, that old chestnut,” Baxter muttered.
“Our shields are raised; there is no possible way for you to escape.”
“Oh yeah?” Peterman asked. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought long and hard. <BALL! BALL! BALL! GO GET IT, GO GET IT BOYS!!!!>
“What are you trying to…don’t be silly. We aren’t some mindless…wait. Did you say ‘ball’?”
Peterman forced her way into the suddenly distracted hivemend. She pushed and pushed until she felt something give. With a blink, she knew she had done what she had to do. She turned to Baxter. “I was able to get their shields down, Andy…we don’t have much time before they get them back up again.”
Suddenly, Peterman heard a snap at the back of her head.
“Got it!” Sparks called out, lifting the cortical cable free and helping Peterman step down from her alcove. “You might want to have that looked at…you know, if it starts to itch or anything.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said dully, rubbing the back of her head.
Sparks looked at Baxter. “Sir, we’d better go…”
“Not without J’hana. We leave no crewman behind…” He locked eyes with Peterman. “Or crew…pet.”
“Thank you, Andy…” Peterman said, taking Baxter’s hand. They both heard a sudden chorus of howls to their left and turned to see J’hana running full speed toward them.
“YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE! I HAVE THE PUPPY!” the Andorian called out, holding the squirming Charlotte out in front of her, dozens of Dawgs loping after her down the cramped corridor.
Baxter slapped his combadge. “Baxter to Explorer: beam us out now!”
Everyone looked at each other. The Dawgs neared, closing now from all sides.
Baxter’s ears perked nervously. “Explorer…any time now!”
As the Dawgs drew closer, the welcome hum of the transporter filled the alcove and the away team, puppy in tow, began to dematerialize.
“You must give us the golden one!” the Dawg hivemind cried out as the group beamed away.
Once the team was gone, silence followed. The hivemind watched as the Explorer turned tail (pardon the pun) and ran.
Stardate 58386.4. It’s been six hours since we left the Dawg vessel empty-handed, er, empty-pawed. So far, so good. For what it’s worth, we’ve posted warnings about large bone-shaped vessels on all the local information nets. Unfortunately, we got a bunch of laughs and ridicule from the nearby colonies for our trouble. Guess we’ll see who’s laughing when the Dawg show up and force them to grow fur and lick their…
ANYWAY…we are making our way to the nearest Federation outpost so we can drop off the Boca Raton’s passengers who are apparently none the worse for wear, and also not in the least…doglike.
Wish I could say the same for myself.
“I like your tongue like that,” Commander Richards said, staring at J’hana over a frothy Senalsian Seersucker in the Constellation Club.
J’hana glowered. “You would. My tongue was fine the way it was.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Richards said. “You have an appointment with Doctor Wilcox to get the dog DNA removed tomorrow, so why not enjoy it while it lasts?”
“Yes, it would be easy for us to go back to one of our cabins…or the Captain’s ready room, or the arboretum, and enjoy my long, snakelike dog tongue.” J’hana licked her lips thoughtfully, which Richards found odd and eerily arousing. “Except I don’t see where the fun would be for me.”
“Oh, I’d make it fun.”
“No. I think that in this situation, withholding sex from you is far more entertaining.” She got up, making a big show of stretching and yawning. “Matter of fact, I think I’ll turn in a bit early tonight.”
Richards stared at J’hana. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
J’hana growled low as she walked by Richards, then turned and leaned into his ear. “Jefferies tubes. Twenty minutes. I won’t tell you which deck. Find me.”
Then she licked the side of his face…a lot.
Richards stared dumbly after J’hana as she walked out of the Constellation Club.
“You all right, Commander?” Mirk asked, walking up with a fresh Seersucker.
“No,” Richards said. “But I think that’s the idea.”
Mirk shrugged. “Well, every dog has his…” He frowned. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. Have a nice night, Commander.”
“Please! Let me play with it!” Plato insisted, rolling Sparks in the grass on the far side of the arboretum, behind the zostera noltii and just in front of a bed of acaena nova-zelandiae.
“No, no no no!” Sparks giggled, slapping his hand away. “We can kiss, but you don’t get to touch the tail. I don’t let boys touch my tail until at least the third date…”
“Awww, man,” Plato said. “You mean all we get to do is make out?”
“And you’re complaining?” Sparks asked, curling up next to him.
Plato laid on his back and looked up at the stars, soaring past the viewport far overhead. “No, not at all.”
“Didn’t think so.”
“Did you ever think you would, um, maybe not come back from the away mission?”
Sparks bit her lip thoughtfully. Her golden tail curled a bit. “Crossed my mind.”
“Did you think about me?”
She laid a hand on his chest and laughed. “Not especially.”
“Even a little bit?”
“Maybe just a bit.”
“Good enough,” Plato smiled and leaned in for another kiss.
Sparks’ tail wagged gently, then wagged a little faster.
“Will wonders never cease,” Peterman said as she stepped into her quarters, sighing and unzipping her tunic, revealing the grey tanktop beneath.
Baxter was sitting on the couch, Charlotte in his lap, rubbing the scruff on her neck. “What wonders do you speak of? The fact that you merged with a hivemind of fluffy pets, rescued a golden retriever puppy from certain doom, or have a husband with furry ears?”
Peterman flopped onto the couch, leaning over and tugging Charlotte toward her, burying her face in the puppy’s scruffy fur. “No, none of those things. I was talking about Cadet Piper. I just spoke to him. He and Lieutenant Sefelt are off on a guy’s night out tonight.”
“Ah…the old…guy’s night out therapy. Sigmund Freud would be proud.”
“No, no, it’s a good thing,” Peterman said, scooching closer to Baxter. “It means I have the night off.”
“You certainly deserve it,” Baxter said. “You’ve had a rough day.”
“I’ve had worse,” Peterman said, staring thoughtfully at Charlotte.
After a few moments’ silence, Baxter broke in. “So when you were in there, with the hive mind…”
“They had a cure for Charlie’s condition,” Peterman said distantly. “They’d experienced the radiation before; it nearly wiped out a whole Dawg vessel. They created a sequence of antigens that reversed the cellular damage and eliminated the radiation poisoning.” She sighed. “I almost saw it. I was so close. Another second and I would have…”
“Another second and we’d all be drinking out of a bowl right about now.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, nuzzling Charlotte.
“Besides,” Baxter said, squeezing Peterman’s shoulder. “At least you know now there is a cure. We’re not keeping Charlie in stasis for nothing.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Peterman said. “And at least they didn’t turn me into a cat again.”
“That actually wasn’t all bad, if I remember correctly,” Baxter said, his fluffy ears wiggling.
“Andy!” Peterman laughed. “That was a traumatic moment for me.”
“Yeah, uh, me too.”
“You know…I do have the night off…”
Baxter’s furred ears perked up. “Oh yeah?”
She nodded. “Mmhmm. And you put Steffie to bed a few minutes ago, right?”
“Yep. She played with Chaka all day. She’s tuckered out.”
“And it looks like Charlotte’s getting along well with Fritz and the pomeranians…”
Baxter nodded. “And I don’t go on duty for eight hours….or really, whenever the bridge grew notices I’m missing and calls me up there.”
Baxter cocked his head quizzically. “The ears are turning you on, eh?”
Peterman nodded, edging closer. “The phrase ‘the best of both worlds’ comes to mind.”
“Yeah, wonder why that is?”
When the going gets tough, the tough make pizza.