Author: Anthony Butler
“She wants what?” Captain Alvin Ficker asked derisively as he paced his ready room, staring at the stars streaking by the USS Idlewild.
“Refined dilithium, sir, and lots of it,” Commander Roland Worthy said, cradling a padd opposite Ficker’s desk. “She said it’s necessary to power her experiments.”
“Has she told us any more about what those experiments are?”
“No. Only that it involves a rather large scale…” Worthy consulted his padd. “Project.”
“Well, we’ve known that would be required from the start,” Ficker said thoughtfully. He glanced up at Worthy. “What do you think of Doctor Drake?”
Worthy shrugged. “She’s an accomplished scientist, although I’m not given to trusting people smarter than me.”
Ficker chuckled. “Smarter than you, is that even possible?”
“One wonders,” Worthy said dryly. “Still, I am monitoring her movements closely. Obviously she has limited our sensor access to her lab, but I’m confident I’ll know if she tries to betray us.”
“Okay. I guess it’s possible. She is…evil and crazy…after all.”
“That hasn’t stopped anyone from joining our crew yet, sir.”
“True,” Ficker said. “I like that about us.”
“Me too,” Worthy said with a capricious grin. “Besides, if she betrays us, you can be assured that my next move will be to vaporize her. Or do something a bit more…messy.”
“Right, well….um, good. Carry on,” Ficker said, waving Worthy away.
Now where to find a large supply of refined dilithium?
Captain’s Log, USS Idlewild,
Stardate 58397.4. We have entered orbit around Etracia, a far- flung world apparently rich in dilithium. I’m told they have a trade relationship with the Federation which is about to expire, so I am eager to…step in…to renew those negotiations. They don’t need to know the whole sordid story between myself and the Federation. Okay, so it wasn’t all great. Come to think of it, why am I even bothering with a log? It’s not like I’m reporting back to anyone. This is just for fun!
Captain Ficker straightened his tunic as he rematerialized in the main hall of the House of Governance of Etracia.
A thin man in blousy cotton, complete with the trademark Etracian horns and puffy tail, skitttered up on hooved feet and nodded a greeting.
“All hail, all hail, welcome thee from the Federation!”
“Yes, well, thank you,” Ficker said dully
“Federationer, we are glad you are with us!” the Etracian continued, stroking his beard. “Are you prepared for the Test of Loyalty?”
Ficker looked at Shank, the Vulcan philosopher, who rose an eyebrow. He guessed that was a shrug. Vulcans raise their eyebrows at everything, so it was usually very hard to figure out what they meant by the gesture.
“I’m glad I brought you along. You’ve already been so useful,” Ficker quipped. He turned to the Etracian. “If that’s what we need to do to get the dilithium, then by all means. Test our loyalty!”
“Fantastic!” the Etracian said, grinning. “Right this way! I am Porphon, by the way, at your service.”
“Alvin Ficker, U.S.S. Idlewild,” Ficker said, narrowing his eyes skeptically. “This…Test of Loyalty…doesn’t involve torture or anything does it?”
“Certainly you’ve studied the Test of Loyalty before approaching Etracia,” Porphon said as they walked toward the chamber at the end of the great hall.
Ficker exchanged confused looks with Lt. Prouse, his tactical officer, and Lt. Snodgrass, one of the first people he recruited to the Idlewild. Crewmembers were still trying to figure out what it was exactly that Snodgrass did, but his loyalty to Ficker was unquestioned.
“I’ve got the gist,” Ficker said. “Of course, I’d love to hear what your…exalted…leader has to say about it. You know, just to get his take on the whole….test… thing.”
“I’m sure our leader has much to say about the Test of Loyalty. He’s been anticipating this moment for the last seventy zalnaks. All of Etracia is looking to you, to find out the results of the test. Scores of my people have flocked to the capital city to watch you undergo the test first- hand.”
“Great,” Ficker said. “Then by all means, let’s have at it.”
Porphon led Ficker, Snodgrass, Shank and Prouse through the large double doors into the main chamber of the Etracian capital city. “Great Autarch, I present Captain Alvin Ficker, of the Federation Starship Idlewild. The Captain and his team wish to undergo the Test of Loyalty.”
Because the great hall was essentially one large, acoustically perfect chamber after another, all who entered the main hall could hear the sounds within the Autarch’s chamber.
And although nobody heard the Autarch describe Ficker’s assignment, everyone within fifty meters of the main hall heard his reaction.
“WHAT THE HELL??????”
Commander Worthy stood at the center of the Idlewild’s bridge and watched the pinkish Etracia Five spin lazily on the viewscreen. “Anything yet?” he asked, glancing back at Ensign Molly Prince at tactical.
“Negative,” Prince said, glancing up from her scans, her eyes narrowed to slits. “But then again, you know how hard it is for me to read these panels, so nearsighted and all.”
Worthy shuddered. For a young woman, Prince was terribly cross- eyed, and near-sighted. “Yes, you’ve told me many times, which is why we usually have you on security detail. But, as you know, Lieutenant Prouse is planetside, so you are the next available officer.”
“Honored to serve!” Prince said, blinking and squinting at Worthy.
“Great. Contact the Etracian headquarters again and demand that I speak with Captain Ficker. Tell them we will fire on their capital if they don’t reveal the captain’s whereabouts.”
Prince leaned down, her eyes nearly touching her panel. “I think I’m spelling this right. Hold on….no, that’s not right. There we go! Sending message!”
“You can imagine my relief,” Worthy muttered.
“We’re getting a reply! They’re critiquing my spelling.”
“Yes. Do you want it on screen?”
“You don’t have to get snippy.” Prince punched a control. Music came to life on the bridge, a rousing polka. “Darn. Wrong button. That’s my polka mix.”
“We’ll discuss that later,” Worthy said between gritted teeth as Prince punched more buttons and the Etracian foreign minister appeared on the viewscreen.
“Porphon here,” the goateed Etracian said, smiling placidly.
“We want to know what you’ve done with our away team.”
“Done? Don’t you know? They’re undergoing the Test of Loyalty!”
“And how long is that supposed to take?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”
“And what,” Worthy said testily, “is the Test of Loyalty?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”
“Is Captain Ficker in danger?”
“…you can’t tell me that either,” Ficker finished for him.
“Oh, fergatz, no,” Porphon said. “Your away team is in no danger whatsoever.” He leaned in toward the viewscreen. “That is, of course, as long as you do nothing to interfere with the Test of Loyalty. Are we clear?”
“Very,” Worthy said slowly. “Idlewild out.”
“Well, what now?” Prince asked from behind Worthy.
“We wait. And we hope the Federation doesn’t plan to come calling on this particular protectorate any time soon.”
THREE DAYS LATER U.S.S. EXPLORER
Captain Baxter walked into Space Tastes and found Counselor Peterman and Doctor Browning already eating lunch.
“Hello all,” he said, pulling up a chair beside Peterman. “Chicken salad today?”
“Extra creamy, just like you like it,” Browning said with a smile, and waved at Imhala, her Yynsian waitress. “Imhala, go ahead and get the Captain’s blue plate special!”
“I still don’t get that,” Baxter said. “The plate’s not blue.” He sighed as he watched Imhala glare at him and duck back into the kitchen. “Oh, looks like she’s the irritable personality today.”
“No, she’s the nice one, she’s just having a bad day,” Browning said.
“Hard to tell the difference,” Baxter said.
“Yynsians are complicated beings, Andy,” Peterman said, studying her own sandwich.
“Speaking of complicated beings, any word from Tilleran or Hartley yet?” Baxter asked, looking to Peterman.
She shook her head. “They haven’t checked in since they left Betazed and took off on vacation, which I guess could be taken as a good sign, even though I don’t recommend vacation as an alternative to therapy. We have to trust Hartley knows what she’s doing.”
“Tilleran too,” Browning said. “In the end, she’s the one in charge of her rehabilitation.”
“Yes,” Peterman said. “Perhaps. I’d like to think that they’re making progress.”
Browning nodded. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like…relying on abilities like that all your life, then suddenly losing control of them.”
“It could have happen to any of us,” Baxter said. Then he looked at both women. “Well, if we were telepathic, that is.”
“Here you go,” Imhala said with a sigh, shoving the plate in front of Baxter and walking off.
“Thanks!” Baxter called out.
“THAT’S the irritable personality,” Browning said.
“Well, here’s hoping Tilleran comes back to us acting more like her old self,” Baxter said, taking a big bite of his sandwich.
“I highly doubt that,” Peterman said. “This is going to be a long, somewhat painful process for Ariel. She’ll need all our full support to get through it.”
“I’m not going to have to watch her cry, am I?”
“Possibly, but I doubt it,” Peterman said with a sigh.
“Because you know how uncomfortable I get watching other people cry.”
“Yes, and oddly enough, you cry all the time,” Peterman quipped.
“Do not!” Baxter protested.
“Shh!” Browning commanded, and watched as J’hana and Richards walked silently down the corridor outside the restaurant.
“What, you don’t want them to know we’re in here?” Peterman asked.
“You work here,” Baxter pointed out.
“No need to force an encounter if we can avoid it,” Browning said. “I like things the way they are. Friendly, but not very communicative.”
Baxter watched Richards and J’hana stop, glance at one of the stores on the other side of the upper level of the mall, and walk off.
“J’hana’s got a lot on her mind too,” Peterman said. “I’m sure she needs comforting now with Tilleran away, and all that’s happened between them.”
“Maybe,” Baxter said. “But it’s tough to picture J’hana needing comforting.”
“I’m sure it’s not comforting as you and I know it,” Browning said, munching on her sandwich. “But the less we think about it, the better. Especially while we’re eating.”
“Here, here,” Baxter said.
Meanwhile, a few meters away, heading into Shelliac Image, Chris Richards glanced around quizzically. “What are we here for again?”
“An electronic axe.”
“Do they even make such thing?”
“Oh, yes they do.”
“And you’re sure this will help with the…comforting?”
“My Imzadi aches. We will ache too.”
“Aching is fine. Axing is quite another,” Richards said, steeling himself against what would likely be another night of awkward moments and flaring pain receptors.
Baxter returned to the bridge feeling full but not necessarily pleased with the fact his science officer and chief engineer were still away. He liked his crew exactly the way it was, and when key members of the crew were gone, it ate at him. More than three years after Conway, Ford, Larkin and others set off on the Aerostar-A, he finally felt like he was getting back into a comfort zone. Of course, considering all that had happened in the last three and a half years, it was a miracle he’d entered a comfort zone at all.
Speaking of comfort, Baxter lowered himself in the command chair at the center of the bridge and called out to his acting science officer. “Report, Cadet Sparks.”
“We’re on course to observe a supernova in the Sawnd System, and then off to pick up cargo in the Pekan Cluster. All systems are functioning normally and we’re right on schedule.”
“Great,” Baxter said. “Wait a sec. Did you say ‘right on schedule?’”
“Yes,” Sparks faltered. “Why?”
“Nothing. I just can’t remember the last time we were right on schedule for anything. We’re usually like an hour or ten late…”
“I guess things are just going remarkably smoothly,” Sparks said. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“You’d think, Cadet,” Baxter said, rubbing his chin. “But usually it means…”
“Incoming communication,” Ensign Keefler said from the tactical console.
“Bad things,” Baxter shuddered, and turned toward Keefler. “What is it?”
“The Pathfinder. Admiral Baxter.”
Baxter nodded at the viewscreen. “Put him on. For the love of Pete, don’t keep him waiting.”
“Boy!” Harlan Baxter chortled, a smouldering cigar in his hand as he stood at the front of the Pathfinder’s bridge.
“They really let you smoke that thing on the bridge?” Baxter asked.
“I’m a goddamn Admiral, boy.”
“Right,” Baxter said. “Well, now that the pleasantries are out of the way…”
“That’s my boy. To the point. As I’m sure you know, it’s yer Mother and I’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in a few days…”
“It…is?” Baxter asked, his eyes glazing a bit. He cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Well, boy, we’re older than dirt, or didn’t you know that? Fuck’s sake, boy, we’re dying right before your eyes!”
“You are?” Lt. Howie Sefelt asked from Ops. “Is that…contagious?”
“They’re several parsecs away, Howie,” Baxter said. “And nobody’s dying anytime soon. You’re both barely middle aged!”
“Well, we’re still older than you, so respect your elders, and your senior officers.”
“Technically, Mom and I are the same rank…”
“The Pathfinder outguns you two to one,” Lucille Baxter said, rising from her seat and stepping behind Harlan.
“Just since you upgraded your lateral phaser emitters!” Baxter shot back. “And we’ll be getting the same upgrade when we put in for maintenance later this year!”
“Till then,” Lucille said in a sing-song voice. “Anyway, Booty-Butt, we need you to do us a favor.”
“I can’t get enough of that nickname,” Lt. Madera said with a smirk.
“What,” Baxter muttered.
“We’ve been assigned to negotiate a touchy little bit of business on a planet called Etracia Five,” Harlan said. “They’ve got one of the largest dilithium deposits in the Federation. We’ve got a trade agreement with them that’s just about up. There’s a little song and dance ya gotta do to get them to renew it. Happens every seventeen years. Time’s up and it’s time we go in there and do the thing.”
Baxter chewed his bottom lip. “And what exactly is ‘the thing’?”
“Nobody knows except the representatives who renew the thing, and they’re always sworn to secrecy by the Etracians…suspicious bunch,” Harlan said. “But it can’t be that hard. We’ve been doing the thing for two hundred years. I’m transmitting all the logs we have on the negotiations. Just get ‘er done and don’t wuss out on me, got it?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad,” Baxter said, looking askance at the officers on his bridge, who all tried to busy themselves looking at other panels.
“No problem. Good luck.” He shoved his cigar back in his mouth. “Prfdndrrr orrrt.”
Baxter slapped a hand over his face as Harlan disappeared from the viewscreen. “Just what I need. Now we’ve got to go be diplomatic.”
“Maybe it’ll be fun,” Madera offered.
“No. It won’t be. It never is,” Baxter said. “Did he send along coordinates?”
Madera nodded. “Yup.”
“Well, don’t just sit there. Lay in a course and let’s go.”
Just then, the aft doors to the bridge opened, and Baxter was startled by a shrill series of barks.
It had been years since that sound had been heard on the bridge. It was a disturbing, yet welcoming sound.
He pivoted to face a bounding Charlotte, former captive of the Dawg, current puppy of Kelly Peterman, who lagged a few paces behind.
Charlotte leapt into Baxter’s lap, licking all over his face.
“Good girl!” he said, patting the retriever gently. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it actually feels good having a dog on the bridge again.”
“It just feels right,” Peterman said, lowering herself into the seat next to Baxter. “Although I do feel a bit guilty, what with Charlie still in stasis.”
“Hunh,” Baxter said while Charlotte licked him. “Well, think of it this way - by the time Charlie gets out of stasis, maybe Charlotte will be his age and he’ll want to mount her and have little baby golden retrievers.”
“Yes,” Peterman said. “That’s one way of thinking about it.”
“Lots of little baby golden retrievers,” Baxter repeated. “Running around, pooping and peeing everywhere and…” He sighed, lifting Charlotte and setting her squirming in Peterman’s lap. “Okay, that’s enough fun for today. I’ve got to focus.”
Baxter looked down at the screen on his armrest, watching as information about Etracia came flooding in. “I’ve got no idea. But it involves diplomacy and dilithium.”
“Are you sure this is supposed to be our mission?”
“Stop it. We’ll be fine.”
“Not again,” Peterman harrumphed.
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked, looking up.
“Charlotte peed on the rug.”
Baxter thought about that. “You know, as long as she doesn’t pee on the Etracians, I’m fine with it. I’ll be in the ready room.”
“So Chaka, I’m just checking in,” Peterman said, holding a squirming Charlotte in her lap as Chaka’kan sat ramrod straight on the couch opposite her, in her office.
“Checking in with what?” Chaka asked.
“Oh. Well, with you, I guess,” she said. “How are you doing with Steffie and Plato?”
“We are once again spending copious time together,” Chaka said. “Your trust, and that of Doctor Browning, is heartening and well-founded.”
“And no more urges to kill anyone?” Peterman said, glancing at a padd.
“No. Except perhaps those kids who keep running through my petunias in the arboretum.”
Peterman looked up at him.
“A joke,” Chaka said, with a knowing nod.
“Hehe. Yes. Well, that’s nice. As you know, the Captain will be away for an extended period on a diplomatic away mission. So anything you can do…”
“I have worked with Ensign Stuart to replicate an Earth amusement park on the holodeck. With your permission, I would like to take Steffie and Plato there today.”
“Fine by me,” Peterman said. “Obviously, just follow the height limit on the rides.”
“It shall be the teacups only for young Steffie,” Chaka said with a nod. “Plus, perhaps, the water park.”
“Sounds great,” Peterman said. “Steffie’s in toddlercise if you’d like to go pick her up.”
“With honor,” Chaka said, rising.
Peterman watched Chaka leave, tapping her padd thoughtfully. It was nice to have him babysitting again. It had been a busy few weeks. Tilleran’s telepathy addiction, the Dawg, the addition of Cadet Piper, her new assistant. Life was moving fast, and she only had so much time to dedicate to Steffie.
Not enough, she thought wryly and turned to her packed schedule.
Moments later, Cadet Piper appeared in her doorway. “Are we ready to start counseling today?”
Peterman stared blankly at the door, right through the young cadet. “Hmmm?”
“Are we ready to start counseling?”
“You know, actually…I’m not. Want to take over for me?”
“Yeah. Take my cases for the day. They’re not that hard. Just an obsessive compulsive, a few manics. Howie’s on day shift today, so you won’t be seeing him…and he’s really half my caseload.”
“But am I ready for something like this?”
“Sure you are. No time like the present,” Peterman said, stepping out from behind her desk, plopping Charlotte on the floor so she could walk alongside. “And if any of them gives you trouble, just have them reschedule. I…need to take a day.”
“A day for what, if you don’t mind me asking?” Piper asked as Peterman headed for the door.
“To be a mom,” Peterman said with a smile, and ducked out.
“My mind’s made up, Chris. You can’t talk me out of this,” Baxter said, walking down the hallway toward the transporter room.
“I wasn’t going to,” Richards said. “I hate this diplomatic crap.”
“Yeah, but you’re my first officer. Damn it, Chris, First Officers are supposed to object when captains want to lead away teams.”
“Yeah. I must not have read that in the manual.”
“Pity,” Baxter muttered, seeing J’hana approach from the other end of the corridor. “Are you ready?”
“I am still not sure why you want me to come with you,” J’hana said, giving Richards a sultry look. “I have much work to do aboard ship.”
“That’s exactly why you’re coming,” Baxter said. “You and Chris have been spending altogether too much time…enmeshed. You need to give your genitals time to cool off.”
“Due respect, sir, but that’s our judgment call,” J’hana said, narrowing her eyes at Baxter, her antennae perking.
“Have a nice trip,” Richards said quickly, turning on a heel and quickly heading the other way.
“Rest while you can, human!” J’hana bellowed after him as Baxter gestured for the opening transporter room doors.
“Shall we?” he said amicably.
The doors opened to reveal Cadets Natheena Sparks and Colby Mathers.
“Sir, may I ask why we’re here?” Sparks asked.
Baxter gave J’hana a wry look. “Isn’t a captain supposed to be able to choose his own away team?” The Andorian just shrugged. “Look, you two are interns. Kelly’s got Piper meeting with crazy people day in and day out. You guys need some field experience.”
“I’m all for it,” Sparks said. “I’ve got my tricorder and everything!”
Mathers shifted from foot to foot. “But…I’m assigned to operations right now. I don’t usually go on away teams. Matter of fact, I never go on away teams…”
“That’s something we’re here to remedy, Cadet. You’ve flown under the sensor dish for way too long. Besides, this mission involves diplomacy. It’ll be fun. Nobody will be shooting at us!”
“Nice place,” Cadet Mathers said idly as the group walked into the main hall of the Etracian House of Governance.
“It is adequate,” J’hana observed.
“Lots of gold and venemite fixtures,” Sparks chimed in, checking her tricorder.
“Cut the analysis,” Baxter said. “Our hosts may think we’re being rude. Anyway, who cares about gold. I can get that crap anywhere. We need dilithium.”
“Yes, sir,” Sparks said, closing her tricorder.
A lanky man with horns and a tail tittered up to them, a confused look on his face. “It is true. Another Starfleet crew visits us!”
“That’s right,” Baxter said. “Seventeen years later, and we’re here once more to…” he glanced down at a padd. “Face the tests as you see fit, to prove our worth to you and your peoples. People.” He looked at the padd again. “No, I had it right the first time. Peoples.”
“Yes, well…except it isn’t seventeen years later, is it?” Porphon said, cocking his head quizzicaly.
“It isn’t?” Baxter said, paging through his padd. “I’m almost sure we have the date right. I can call my ship and check…”
“No. You misunderstand me. A Starfleet ship has already visited here. Three days ago.”
“Three days. Do you know the name of the ship?”
An attendant clacked up to Porphon and whispered in his floppy ear. “Yes. The ship is called the…Idlewild.”
Baxter and J’hana looked at each other, eyes going wide.
“Baxter to Explorer!” Baxter said.
There was no response.
Sparks pulled out her tricorder. “Sir, there seems to be a huge dampening field encasing the entire capital city. It appeared almost as soon as we beamed in.”
“And you somehow thought the gold fixtures were more important?”
“Well, they were pretty.”
“Should I have a tricorder too?” Mathers asked.
Baxter ignored him and looked at Porphon. “Why are you cutting me off from my ship?”
“It’s the way of our people, during the test. There has been much discussion among us since you contacted us, about how to proceed.”
“You don’t understand,” Baxter said. “The man who came here first…he’s a bad man. An imposter. He’s not to be trusted.”
“That remains to be seen. We shall see, in four more days, after he completes the test. You’re welcome to compete against him of course. The Federation has never sent two landing parties before, but our historical records indicate that other cultures have sent competing teams in years past. Technically, the dilithium would be awarded to whoever scores the best results on the test.”
“I’ve got to speak with my ship,” Baxter said. “They could be in danger.”
“Then you forfeit the test, and the dilithium will revert to Captain Ficker, providing he passes our minimum requirements.”
“You can’t give our dilithium shipment to him!”
“He is a qualified representative of the Federation.”
“He’s scamming you!”
“Sir. Diplomacy,” J’hana said. “As much as it pains me to admit it, violence will get you nowhere in this instance.”
“He’s right, Captain,” Sparks chimed in.
Baxter stared askance at Porphon. “So I can take this test, same as Ficker?”
“Our elders have discussed it at length. You will be permitted to take the test. If your score is higher than Ficker’s, the dilithium is yours. If not…”
“It’s his,” Baxter said.
“Indeed. Do you wish to proceed?”
“Do I have any choice?”
“You can return to your ship, without the dilithium. You may take the test again in seventeen years.”
“SEVENTEEN YEARS!” Baxter exclaimed.
“Seventeen years minus three days, but I guess that’s a bit of a moot point.”
“Guess so,” Baxter said, looking at Sparks, Mathers, and J’hana. “In that case, I guess we’d better get started. Ficker has a three day head start on us.”
“Excellent,” said Porphon. “Right this way, then. We’ll get you some appropriate attire.”
“Attire?” Mathers said, as a pair of attendants trotted up, gesturing toward an adjacent room.
“You can’t be expected to take the test in those clothes,” Porphon said, shaking his head. “No, no, no. We’ll get you changed, and then off you will go to the test destination. I’ll send some of my people to begin setting it up.”
Baxter sighed. “I can’t wait to see what this test is. Whatever it is, I’m going to cream Ficker.”
“If by ‘cream,’ you mean that you will order me to hurt him, I have no doubt of it, sir,” J’hana remarked as the away team headed off.
“Quiet up here,” Richards said, steepling his fingers as he sat in the command chair.
“Very,” Madera said, pursing her lips as she sat at helm.
“You still hate me, don’t you?”
“Always,” Madera said. “You left me at the altar, after all.”
“That was like a year and a half ago. Besides, I was kind of thrown back in time, right?”
“Just man your post.”
“Yes, it’s so challenging, being in orbit and all. It’s not like someone’s going to pop up any minute and…”
“Contact bearing three two five mark one three four!” Ensign Keefler piped up from tactical. “Sir, it’s the Idlewild!”
Richards was out of his chair in a second. “Red Alert. Raise shields and arm weapons. Try to raise the away team.”
“I’m not getting through,” Keefler said. “They’re approaching at full impulse. They were hiding behind the system’s main sequence star.”
“Fat lot of good it did us, destroying their cloak,” Richards muttered.
“Their sensor-reflective shields are still in great shape, apparently,” Keefler said wryly. “Weapons range in forty seconds.”
“Hail them,” Richards said, watching the Idlewild bear down on them, on the main screen.
“All hands to general quarters. Secure the ship.”
“That’s what happens when you call for Red Alert, sir,” Keefler said.
“Oh. Right. Then keep doing that.”
“Right on top of it, Commander.”
“Then make yourself useful and open a channel.”
“Idlewild, this is Commander Christopher Richards of the U.S.S. Explorer. Stand down immediately or we will fire on you.”
Instantly, Commander Roland Worthy appeared on the viewscreen. “Oh, will you now?” he asked, stroking his goatee.
“Don’t be smug with me, asshole. I said I would fire on you and I mean it.” He glanced back at Keefler. “I really do mean it,” he said.
“I had no doubt,” Keefler replied.
“You can stop the grandstanding,” Worthy said, sounding a little bored. “We all know that the Idlewild would rotisserie the Explorer in a firefight.”
“You’ve got more advanced weaponry, but we’re bigger, and more heavily armed.”
“Pish tosh,” Worthy said. “We’ll find out soon enough whose ship can crush whose, but for now, that is hardly a priority.”
“And what IS a priority?”
“Getting our away team back.”
“No. Getting OUR away team back is a priority. What have you done with them?”
“Haven’t you figured it out?” Worthy asked. “They’re both down there, taking some kind of test…”
“Ficker is down there?”
“You catch on quickly, Commander.”
“So I hear. So let me get this straight: Ficker and Captain Baxter are competing in some kind of…test?”
Worthy yawned. “Apparently.”
Richards smiled. “My captain’s going to kick your captain’s ass.”
“Please,” Worthy said. “I’m closing this channel until you have something interesting to say.”
“Make a move and I’ll start shooting.”
“BOR-RING!” Worthy snapped. “And if you make a move…I’LL start shooting!”
“Not if I start shooting first!”
“This is childish.”
“Then close the channel.”
“KEEFLER CLOSE THE CHANNEL!” Richards snapped, screwing his eyes shut.
“Advantage, Richards,” Keefler said with a chuckle.
“Are you ready for the test?” Porphon asked, leading Baxter, Sparks, Mathers, and J’hana down the somewhat crowded, sunny Etracian street.
“I suppose,” Baxter said, looking down at his white smock, cradling the odd puffy hat in his hands. “Where are you taking us?”
“The test site, of course. But we have one stop to make first. The Autarch felt it was only fair, if you and Captain Ficker indeed wish to compete for the dilithium, that you meet up with him, see how his test is coming along, and act accordingly. That will put you on a level playing field.”
“Actually, it will give us a significant strategic advant…” J’hana began.
“It’s quite generous of you!” Baxter said, elbowing J’hana. “Show us the way.”
“Right here,” Porphon said, opening the door at a nearby storefront. It jingled slightly as Porphon led Baxter and the others inside.
The first thing Baxter noticed was the smell. Delicious, aromatic…
Marble floors. Square tables all about with red and white checkered tablecloths.
A long, polished counter, and a perfectly-shined display case, filled with steaming, hot…
“Ficker?” Baxter said, staring at the grinning man behind the cash register. The puffy hat looked even more stupid on Ficker than it would on Baxter.
Ficker grinned wide. “Captain Baxter. I heard you were in the neighborhood. Fancy seeing you here.”
“Welcome to ‘Pizzaz by Ficker.’ Get it? Pizzas? Pizzaz?”
“Want a slice?” Ficker smiled coyly. “It’s very good. Have some, Baxter. Trust me, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. If only I were so lucky…”
“PIZZA?” Baxter gaped, turning to Porphon. “This test is all about PIZZA?”
“Is there any more important measuring stick to use when judging one’s accomplishments and mettle?” Porphon said seriously.
Ficker nodded. “Finally, being a fatass will pay off for you.”
“Hey…” Mathers said defensively.
“I think he was talking about Captain Baxter,” Sparks whispered.
“Oh, I’m going to destroy you, Ficker,” Baxter said, pointing. “You wait and see. My people and I will run the best goddamn pizza place you’ve ever seen!”
“Bring it on, Baxter! See who blinks first!”
As Ficker said this, Shank walked by, indignantly carrying a deep- dish pizza out to a family of five Etracians sitting at a nearby table. As he walked by, a bit of tomato sauce flew off the pie and hit Ficker in the eye. He pulled his glasses off, blinking, rubbing his eyes.
“That time doesn’t count!”
“Make this unendurable trial end,” Shank growled as he moved over to the table.
“He’s the one who put me in that fwarking coma!” J’hana said, balling up her fists.
“Obviously, assaulting your competitor will render your test null and void,” Porphon said placidly.
“Save it for the pizza place, J’hana!” Baxter said, glaring at Ficker.
“Right,” J’hana said, and whirled, heading for the door.
“This kind of competition can only be good for the quality of pizza on this planet!” Porphon said giddily, following the Explorer group out of the restaurant.
“This better be good, Commander. You got me and Steffie off the wet banana,” Peterman said, stepping onto the bridge in a damp teal two- piece swimsuit, leading Steffie, in a frilly pink one-piece, by the hand.
“Good thing J’hana’s not here to comment on the wet banana thing,” Richards said, glancing at Peterman. “Put some clothes on. Or at least get a towel. You’re dripping on ops.”
“We were at the water park on the holodeck! And as Chaka informed me, the water is replicated, not holographic, so…I’m still drippy. And STOP looking at my butt, Keefler! God, you’d think you people had never seen someone in a bikini.”
“There’s a reason they revoked the ‘counselors can wear whatever they want on the bridge’ rule,” Richards muttered as Peterman stepped over to her seat in the command area and sat down, pulling Steffie into her lap.
“Can you just fill me in before my thighs start sticking to the seat?” Peterman demanded.
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Your husband and his away team are stuck down on the planet, along with Ficker and a couple people from the Idlewild.
Peterman’s eyes went wide. “WHAT? What are you doing about it?”
“Nothing I can do at the moment. Apparently the Etracians don’t allow people participating in this ‘test’ to communicate with their ships in orbit. Believe me, I’ve tried every diplomatic channel, but Starfleet doesn’t want to do anything to screw up this deal. There’s a massive amount of dilithium down there and they want it.”
“What about the Idlewild?”
“Well that’s tricky.” Richards shifted in his seat. “Starfleet Command would love for us to recapture the Idlewild, but not at the risk of messing up the deal for the dilithium.”
“Which means what?”
“Some ships are on their way to intercept the Idlewild outside this star system. We just have to steer the Idlewild toward them.”
“Fine, I guess,” Peterman sighed. “As long as we get to fire the final shot.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“And I’ll go get some clothes on.”
“Thank the Great Bird,” Richards muttered.
“This is the oddest away mission of my short Starfleet career,” Colby Mathers said, leaning on the counter in the pizza place across the street from Ficker’s, resting his elbows on the counter top.
“It’s about par for the course for us,” Baxter replied. “Is J’hana almost done cleaning the oven?”
“Another few minutes,” Sparks said, stepping up from the kitchen and wiping her hands together. “This restaurant apparently hasn’t been used in fifty-one years. Not since the Klingons tried to compete with the Federation for the rights to this planet.”
“I bet they made some weird pizza with worms or something on it,” Mathers said.
“I’m sure,” Sparks said.
“Anything in the tricorder’s database about this planet’s relationship with pizza?” Baxter asked, looking over Sparks’ shoulder at her tricorder.
“Only that they were visited by a Federation exploratory party a little over two hundred years ago. Apparently the Federation group presented the Etracians with several Earth delicacies, including pizza.”
“I guess we’re lucky we don’t have to learn how to make something complicated like barbecue ribs or quiche,” Mathers observed.
“You read my mind,” Baxter said with a small smile. “Except I was imagining having to make chicken pot pie or cous-cous.”
“I love chicken pot pie!” Mathers exclaimed.
“Me too,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “I knew I liked you, Cadet.”
“At any rate, making pizza is pretty easy,” Sparks acknowledged. “Of course, it can’t just be any pizza. It has to be really good pizza…according to the instructions the Etracians gave to us.”
“And it has to be better than Ficker’s,” Baxter said ruefully.
“Right,” Sparks said. “Any ideas on that?”
Baxter nodded, thumping the padd in front of him. “I’ve been going over these ingredients. I have a few strategies.”
“That’s a relief,” Mathers said. “I’ve never even used real cooking implements.”
“Not many people do. But a…good friend of mine…she’s a whiz with a pizza oven. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever said it…but we could REALLY use Janice Browning on this away mission.”
“It’s hard to explain,” Plato said, sipping a sluggo cola as Browning wiped off the tables in Space Tastes, getting ready for the afternoon rush. “Whenever Nat goes on duty, especially if she beams off the ship…I get this real…kind of empty feeling.”
“You miss her. That’s sweet,” Browning said, and immediately thought of Pogo. She wished more than anything that she could talk to Plato about her increasingly frequent subspace chats with Pogo, but a number of things made that impossible, given his history of speaking out against the Dominion and, notably, taking her and Plato hostage months earlier. Still, she wanted to share in Plato’s excitement, and tell him she was developing similar feelings for Pogo. She’d tell Plato…eventually. Only Peterman and Baxter knew about Pogo so far, and she preferred it stayed that way for the moment.
“I wish I could be with her down there,” Plato said, breaking Browning out of her reverie. “Instead of cooped up in this restaurant.”
“You could’ve gone with Chaka to the amusement park,” Browning suggested.
“Nah. I’m too old for rides,” Plato said. He grinned idly. “That kind of ride anyway.”
“I really don’t want to hear any more!” Browning said, covering her ears.
“What? I just mean I like the shuttle-crash simulator on the holodeck better than any old amusement park ride.”
“Oh,” Browning said.
“What were you thinking I meant?”
“Oh, nothing,” Browning said, and began wiping the tables a little faster. Suddenly she cocked her head, as if listening to something. Her eyes fluttered a bit.
“You okay, Mom?” Plato asked, stepping up to Browning.
“Yeah. Just got a little dizzy. And the strangest feeling…like something tugging at me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Browning shook her head. “I don’t know, but I have the oddest sense that…somewhere…out there…somebody really needs a chef.”
“Weird. So…what’s for lunch?”
Browning looked up, smiling at Plato. “Pizza!”
“That’s too much sauce,” J’hana said, peering down at the pan as Baxter spread sauce over the firmly pressed pizza crust.
“It’s just enough sauce. You want it to drip down your chin a little.”
“No I don’t.”
“Well, other people do.”
“You eat the intestines of violent, horned predators.”
“And your point is?”
“Nothing. Grab the cheese.”
“I think I’ve got the hang of this!” Sparks said, tossing another newly-rolled circle of dough in the air. “You just fling it up like this?”
“Yeah. Get it nice and round,” Baxter said, as J’hana handed him the cheese and he spread it liberally on the pizza.
“Flour is messy,” Mathers said as he kneaded dough at the station next to Sparks. “I keep getting it stuck to my fingers!”
“Put some dry flour on your fingers,” Baxter suggested.
“When do you add the eyeballs?” J’hana asked.
“Never,” Baxter said.
“And you actually expect people to eat this?”
“Trust me. I’ve done a lot of eating in my time. This’ll be good. Now I need some oregano…stat. And keep the pepperoni coming.”
J’hana shoved a container of oregano in Baxter’s hand, then slid over a plate piled high with sliced pepperoni. “Mushrooms?”
Baxter nodded. “Damn straight.”
The first pizza took what seemed like hours (but was only twenty minutes in an ultra-hot, restaurant grade oven complete with conveyor belt, that would have made Janice Browning drool).
“Well?” Baxter asked, after neatly slicing the pizza into eight perfect triangles.
“Well what?” J’hana said, looking at Baxter askance. “I’m not eating that shart.”
“I’ll have a piece,” Sparks said tentatively.
“Me too,” Mathers said with a grin. “It’s got to be better than Mirk’s meatloaf.”
“Good cadets,” Baxter said, taking a piece for himself.
Sparks, Mathers, and Baxter each took a bite, then looked at each other as they chewed for a second. At the same moment, their eyes went wide, molten cheese dripping down their chins.
“HOTTTTTTTTTTT!” they screamed, rushing for the sink, spooning water in their mouths.
J’hana glanced down at the remaining pizza. “Hmm. This food appears to be quite painful to eat. Perhaps I misjudged it.”
Captain’s Personal Log,
Stardate 58402.6. We worked on our pizza recipe long into the night, and our restaurant has now been open to the public for five or six hours. So far, not a single Etracian has stepped in, while we’ve watched more than a hundred pass in and out of “Pizzaz by Ficker” in the same amount of time. I’m beginning to get worried that even our catchy restaurant name won’t save us. I’ve never run a pizza place before, and let’s face it, I’m not even good at the things I’m good at a hundred percent of the time.
“‘A Pizza the Action’?” an Etracian asked, poking her head in the front door of the newly-opened establishment.
Baxter smiled proudly from behind his cash register, tying his apron on in the back. “Yep. That’s us. Catchy, isn’t it?”
“What’s the ‘action’?
“It’s an Earth saying. It means….that…our pizza is very good.”
The Etracian took a few cautious steps inside. “Ficker’s pizza is very good.”
“Ours is better. Try a slice, and if you don’t like it, the whole rest of the pizza is free.
“But if we don’t like it, would we really want the rest of the pizza?”
“You’ll like it so much, I’m sure you will.”
The Etracian blinked. “Oh…kay…”
“Order up!” Baxter called out. “What would you like? Pepperoni, mushroom…ham and pineapple?”
“Ham and pineapple?”
“It’s a Hawaiian-themed pizza.”
“What’s a Hawaiian?”
“You know, you strike me as a pepperoni person anyway. One moment.”
“I told you nobody would want the ham and pineapple!” Baxter said, ducking into the kitchen in the rear of the restaurant and glaring hard at Mathers. “Why’d I let you talk me into that?”
“Just give it a chance, sir.”
“Anchovies,” J’hana said as she kneaded dough. “We need anchovies, damn you.”
“NO anchovies,” Baxter said. “One pepperoni pie for our first customer!”
“We have a first customer!?” Sparks said, shooting out of her chair eagerly. “I guess I’d better wipe off the tables then.”
“Well of course you should!” Baxter said, ushering her out of the kitchen. “Quick, before she leaves!”
“Sir?” the Etracian asked.
“Yes. With you in a moment!” Baxter said.
“Pizza will be out soon,” J’hana said, poking her head out from the kitchen. “I suggest you scald your mouth, woman. The feeling is like nothing else.”
“Th…thanks,” the woman replied.
“This isn’t good,” Prouse said, studying her security tricorder as she and Snodgrass stood at the window in front of Ficker’s pizza place. “Fifty percent more people are going into Baxter’s restaurant this afternoon than in the morning.”
“Most people don’t eat pizza in the morning,” Snodgrass said.
“Good point; however, I bribed a Etracian merchant for this little tidbit: The Explorer people are serving breakfast pizza. It hasn’t caught on fully yet, but I’m told it’s very good. Scrambled eggs, sausage, mushrooms…five kinds of cheese.”
“Diabolical,” Snodgrass said. “They even have a catchier name for their restaurant. What do we do?”
“Simple,” Alvin Ficker said, walking up behind the pair. “We innovate. We create. We conquer.”
“This IS still a pizza place, right?” Snodgrass asked, blinking. “I mean, it’s not part of Doctor Drake’s master plan, or the brain research she’s been doing, or anything?”
“No. It’s just a pizza place. But it’s a pizza place that will help us realize our wildest dreams. We must go forward. Shank!” he called over his shoulder. “Ready the pizza oven. Turn it up to maximum. We’re going to add something new to our menu. A white pizza.”
“The white pizza hasn’t been made from scratch in decades. It’s almost unheard of in Federation dining circles,” Prouse said, panic spreading across her face.
“I’ve heard the white pizza has no sauce,” Snodgrass said, running his fingers through his hair. “No sauce! How do you make pizza without sauce?”
Ficker grabbed Snodgrass by the shoulders and shook him. “Keep it together, Lieutenant! This is no time for my best man to be coming apart at the seams!”
“I’m your best man?” Snodgrass sniffled.
“No. Prouse is. So comfort her, see if you can get through to her.”
“No sauce…” Prouse said softly, leaning her head against the window. “How’s it possible?”
“Stop asking questions and get me some spinach and fresh tomatoes,” Ficker snapped, heading for the kitchen.
The next morning, Baxter hurled a pizza pan against the kitchen wall. “DAMN IT!”
“White pizza,” Sparks said, sitting on the floor in the corner, looking exhausted, knees drawn up to her chest. “Who’d have thought.”
“If my tricorder is any indicator, then their overnight sales tripled ours,” J’hana said, pacing like a jungle cat. “We must act.”
“It’s useless. The test is over in less than three days. Ficker had too big of a head start on us.” Baxter looked at J’hana. “How much do we have to sell to beat Ficker?”
“I have no idea,” J’hana said. “None of us understand the Etracian currency system.”
“It’s some kind of colored pebble thing,” Mathers offered helpfully.
“Well, we’re not going to let that get in our way. We’re going to keep selling pizza until we’re blue in the face.” Baxter glanced at J’hana. “Sorry. Anyway, we’re going to sell our asses off. We toss, we sauce, we top, and we bake, and we don’t stop till we’re home. Got it?”
He looked around at his officers. “Am I understood?”
Sparks, Mathers, and J’hana nodded.
“We shall join you forever in hell, Captain,” the Andorian intoned.
“That’s the spirit, people. Now let’s go make some fwarking pizza.”
The next workday at A Pizza the Action unfurled much as the first two had. Pizza in the oven, pizza out of the oven. Sauce stains on the floor, sauce stains on the wall, sauce stains on the counter, sauce stains on their hands.
Baxter, J’hana, and Sparks were covered in red. Their hands were singed from reaching into the hot oven so many times. They hadn’t slept in days. Just kept cooking, kept inventing new kinds of pizza, new toppings.
Hours blended into hours. Customers came and went in one long string…like so much melted mozzarella.
“Put…cheese…in the crust…” Baxter said, sagging against the counter, breathless.
“What’s he saying?” J’hana said, carrying a pizza out to table six. The crowd had become noticeably thicker
“He’s delirious,” Mathers said as he lugged a dishpan full of dirty dishes back to the kitchen.
“Cheese…inside…the crust…” Baxter mumbled, staggering back to the kitchen. “Quickly…mozzarella…someone cheese me!”
“Captain,” Sparks said, walking up behind him. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’re not making sense.”
“Trust me,” Baxter said. “This will be fantastic.”
“Am I running the cash register?” J’hana asked, her antennae raising in alarm as she stood behind the counter, realizing that she was the only one left out front. Would she have to deal with…people?
Just then, the door jingled as two spirited, well-dressed Etracians walked in. “Ahhhhhh….hello there, denizen of delicious, cheesy pie! Four of your best slices of pepperoni pizza for me and my lovely female companion, and make it fast!”
“It’ll be done when it gets done,” J’hana said, turning to fill the order.
“Do you want a drink or what?”
The Etracian and his female friend looked at each other, then back at J’hana. “You’re quite rude, you know that?”
“I must serve you pizza,” J’hana said. “However, that is where this relationship ends. You will adapt to the service I provide or you will go to another restaurant. Do we understand each other?”
“That’s no way to talk to a customer,” the Etracian said. “Have you not heard the famous Etracian saying…‘the customer is always right?’”
J’hana nodded thoughtfully, her shoulders rising and falling. “Yes. Well, Andorians have a similar saying. It goes like this…” She leapt across the counter, wrapping her hands around the Etracian man’s neck. “DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”
“Obviously, it was a stupid move on the part of my tactical officer,” Baxter said, sitting opposite Porphon at a quiet corner table in back of Baxter’s pizza place. Frankly, all the tables were fairly quiet, as J’hana’s outburst had scared away most of the customers who were dining at the time.
“It was an embarrassment,” Porphon said flatly. “You realize that Fernand will need extensive throat treatments to repair the damage done by your…security guard.”
“That’s, uh, too bad,” Baxter said noncomitally. “I’m very sorry about all this. Did I mention that?”
“Yes, you’ve apologized profusely. However, in light of recent events, I believe you’ll agree it’s best you and your team forfeit the competition. You are lagging considerably in pizza sales, and in the time remaining are unlikely to emerge victorious. So why don’t you just save us all some time and…”
“NO!” Baxter said, pounding his fists on the table and standing up. “No way. I am not going to let Alvin Ficker beat me…especially at something as LUDICROUS as PIZZA!”
Porphon blinked. “I’ll forgive you those glib comments, because I believe you are speaking emotionally and not in your right mind. Still, I’m sure you’ll agree that pizza, on my world, is of supreme importance.”
“You’re definitely pizza lovers,” Baxter acknowledged, catching his breath.
Porphon sighed. “You’re obviously quite adamant about remaining in the contest, despite the odds. I’ll admit that I admire that. You can continue to compete, for what good it will do.”
“Thank you,” Baxter said, bowing slightly. “I really mean it.”
“Indeed.” Porphon stood and glanced around. “Well, I’m off to lunch.”
“Want some pizza?”
Porphon backed toward the door. “Actually, I’m meeting a colleague…”
“At another restaurant?”
Porphon nodded. “Perhaps.”
“At another restaurant across the street?”
“At another restaurant across the street run by a lunatic former starship captain bent on taking over Starfleet?”
“Um…have a nice day!” Porphon called out, turned, and jogged out of the restaurant.
“Fine! Don’t support us! We’ll show you who’s the best pizza retaurant…eur!”
Sparks and Mathers walked up to Baxter as Porphon left.
“That could have gone better,” Sparks said.
“You don’t say,” Baxter said. “Where’s J’hana?”
“Cooling down in the back,” Mathers said. “She’s punching the dough.”
“Well at least she’s being productive.” Baxter turned to the cadets. “Well, don’t just sit there. We have pizza to make, damn it!”
“Anything to report?” Richards asked, looking to his left, as Peterman busied herself reading a padd.
“Counselor Troi’s coming out with another frigging book…‘Till Red Alert Do We Part: Living and Serving With a Husband-Captain.’ Does she ever even bother taking appointments anymore? She must have a ghost writer. Maybe it’s that android. That Data replica. The prose does have a lyrical quality…”
“I actually meant something like an officer’s report…I don’t know, mental status of the crew or something.”
“They’re fine,” Peterman said, still looking at the padd. “I mean, I should be the one writing this book! I’ve lived and served under a husband-captain, whatever that is, for something like six years. I should know a thing or two about it.”
“Then why aren’t you writing about it?”
“I did, kind of…but that book is no good. I wrote it under the influence of my cat, remember?”
“How could I forget,” Richards said, shaking his head. He turned to his right. “What about you, anything to report?”
“Unca Chris, Unca Chris!” Steffie said giddily, clapping and hopping up and down in the chair usually occupied by Richards.
“Great then. As you were.” Richards sighed. “Mister Keefler, anything new from Etracia?”
“Quiet as a tomb,” Keefler said. “Not to suggest the away team is dead or anything…”
“Daddy dead?” Steffie squawked, bursting into tears. “Daddy dead!”
“Now see what you did!” Peterman said, moving over to Steffie and clutching her in a tight embrace. “Just relax, sweetie. Daddy’s not dead. He’s just on a mission. He’ll be back soon.” She glared at Richards. “RIGHT, Christopher?”
“You know, I really enjoyed that brief period when we weren’t talking to one another.”
“Well, that’s over. I’ll be in the ready room calming my daughter down.”
Richards shook his head. “Well, you could at least bring your…OOF!” he winced as the golden retriever puppy, Charlotte, jumped into his lap, wagging her golden tail.
In some respects, life on the Explorer was just as painful without J’hana around.
J’hana, meanwhile, was in a different kind of pain as she walked past the mildly busy lunch counter of A Pizza the Action.
“I’m taking my break,” she growled at Baxter who was working the front counter.
“Where are you going?”
“To stretch my legs. I am growing weary of this place.”
“Well, hurry back. We need you to start getting pizzas ready for the dinner rush.”
“I don’t enjoy baking,” J’hana growled.
“Well, you sure as hell can’t work the counter after this afternoon’s incident!”
“Leave me be,” J’hana muttered as she stalked out of the restaurant and headed across the street. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure that no one was following her.
She gritted her teeth resolutely as she withdrew her security tricorder and approached the alley beside Pizzaz by Ficker.
What little J’hana knew of Ficker and his people, they weren’t exactly gifted in the arts of social discourse. They were downright awkward, more so maybe even than the Explorer crew. And J’hana had to assume that they didn’t know all that much about making pizza, not to mention running a pizza business. So why were they doing so fwarking well?
The security chief within J’hana could not stand idly by while her team got its collective ass kicked in this competition, not without solving the mystery of Ficker’s success–and possibly conducting a little corporate espionage at the same time.
She tuned the tricorder’s sensors to reveal the interior of Ficker’s restaurant. Sure enough, there were Ficker’s crew, working feverishly, moving from kitchen to dining area, hefting pizza, which showed up glowing hot on the infrared. Time to go in for a closer look.
She silently eased the side door to the restaurant open, and slinked in. She pressed herself against the wall of the side-access hallway, where garbage crates were stacked along with cleaning supplies and excess foodstuffs.
She heard the clatter of a pizza pan and ducked behind a garbage crate just as Lt. Prouse walked by.
“Table six is acting strangely. They don’t seem to like the pizza,” J’hana heard her say. Who was she talking to?
“I will take care of it,” a somber voice replied. She’d know that voice anywhere. It belonged to the man that put her in a coma for a week. Shank! What did ‘take care of it’ mean?
She had to know.
J’hana crept out from behind the garbage crate and turned the gain up on her tricorder. At this distance, it gave her a perfect view of Shank moving through the restaurant, approaching a table she could only assume was the one Prouse mentioned.
The tricorder picked up the audio; but even if it hadn’t, her antennae would have.
“How is your meal, ladies?” Shank asked.
“Truthfully, it’s a bit dry. Why is there no sauce on this?”
“It is a white pizza.”
“It’s not very good.”
“Really.” Shank rose an eyebrow. Was that all Vulcans new how to do?
What Shank did next caused J’hana’s blood to boil.
He reached down, gently pressing one hand to each woman’s temple. To a casual observer, it could have been a gesture of affection or comfort. But it was not.
“My mind to your mind,” Shank said softly. “My thoughts to your thoughts. Our thoughts are one.”
J’hana gritted her teeth to stop from crying out.
“Ficker’s pizza is the best,” Shank said, and the women’s lips moved in concert with his as he spoke. “It is far superior to the pizza across the street. One cannot get enough of this delicious concoction.”
He took his hands off their temples and smiled politely. “Tell your friends,” he said casually and walked away.
“Fwark yes I’ll tell my friends,” J’hana seethed, and snuck out of the restaurant. She had it! Ficker was doomed.
“The Vulcan has mind control capabilities,” Porphon said, reviewing the playback on J’hana’s tricorder as she and Baxter sat opposite his expansive desk in the Autarch’s building.
“Yes,” Baxter said. “Ficker is using him to influence all his customers, to brainwash them into thinking his pizza is the best!”
“We were too,” Baxter nodded.
“Yes, that’s what I…huh?”
“If we had this capability, commerce on Etracia would be second to none!” Porphon exclaimed. “Your Captain Ficker is an even more gifted entrepreneur than we thought he was. If only we were so good at manipulating the weak, addleminded consumers of our world. We would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice!”
“WHAT?” Baxter exclaimed, shooting out of his seat.
“Temper temper,” J’hana murmured.
“No, no!” Baxter said, shaking his head. “This isn’t right. This can’t be how Ficker wins.”
“He hasn’t won yet.”
“But he will, if he keeps cheating like this. Damn right he will!”
“Then he should be commended for such an unusual solution.”
“No, no…no…” Baxter breathed in disbelief.
“Yes, you’ve said that,” Porphon said. “And if I’m not mistaken, you’re understaffed at your pizza place right now. You should get back…”
“What does it matter,” Baxter said. “We’re done here. Your people can choke on their pizza…and their dilithium.”
“That’s an unfortunate stance, Captain…” Porphon began.
“You don’t know anything about diplomacy, or salesmanship, or competition, Porphon. And you sure as hell don’t know anything about what it takes to make a good pizza. C’mon, J’hana.” He ripped his apron off and threw it on the ground. “We’re getting out of here.”
“About fwarking time.”
“Bridge. Now,” Baxter said, stepping out of the transporter room. J’hana, Mathers, and Sparks took up step behind him. Sparks and Mathers were still wrestling with their aprons trying to get them off.
“Ficker will no doubt move to load the dilithium onto his ship as soon as he finds out he won the contest by default,” J’hana said as the group boarded the turbolift.
“Which is no problem,” Baxter said. “Bridge.” As the turbolift began to thrum, he added, “Because we’re going to capture his ship and everything aboard as soon as he tries to leave orbit.”
“Don’t they outgun us?” Sparks asked.
“We’ll find out in a minute,” Baxter muttered.
“Captain, it’s times like these when I remember why I’ve sworn to give my life for you,” J’hana intoned. “You obviously have a death wish.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Baxter said wryly as the turbolift opened out onto the bridge and the group filed out.
Richards stood up from the command chair. “Captain, what the hell’s going on?”
“No time,” Baxter said. “Contest. Pizza place. Diltihium.” He looked back at J’hana, who was taking over for Keefler at tactical as Sparks relieved the ensign at sciences.
“Should I take ops?” Mathers asked, exchanging a nervous glance with Sefelt.
“No. Just…stand somewhere…” Baxter said, pacing to the center of the bridge.
Richards stood next to him. “Did you say pizza?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Baxter snapped as Peterman stepped out of the ready room. “Andy! You’re back!”
“Daddy!” Steffie called, rushing up to Baxter’s side.
“Hi sweetie. Hold on a sec. Daddy’s got to kill someone right now.”
Peterman swept Steffie into her arms as Charlotte nipped at Baxter’s heels. “What’s all this about, Andy?”
“Ficker has gone too far. He’s stolen a starship…twice…put J’hana into a coma, kidnaped people…and it’s time someone put a stop to it.”
“This is because he sold more pizza than the Captain did,” J’hana commented.
“You shut up and ready our weapons.”
“The Idlewild is bringing up the dilithium now. Hurriedly,” J’hana said. “We could shoot them while their shields are down.”
“Yes, and blow up all that dilithium, not to mention killing everyone on the ship. Brilliant idea,” Baxter said. “No. We’ll have to wait till they finish the transport. Get ready.”
“They’re moving to break orbit as the last couple transports are finishing,” J’hana said.
“Pursuit course. Closing speed, Lieutenant Madera,” Baxter said crisply, folding his arms.
“Honey, is it safe to say you’re becoming a tad unglued?” Peterman asked.
“If wanting to beat the snot out of somebody is a sign of coming unglued, then hell yeah,” Baxter said. “Feel free to counsel me after this is over. J’hana, target the Idlewild’s engines. Open a channel.”
“Open,” J’hana said.
“U.S.S. Idlewild. This is the Explorer. Power down your engines and lower your shields and prepare to be boarded. This is the only warning you’ll get.”
Ficker appeared on the screen, looking smug. “Sour grapes, Captain? That’s unbecoming, even for you.”
“Fire, J’hana. All torpedo tubes. Multiple yield, full spread.” Baxter looked at Ficker. “I told you this would be your only warning.”
The Explorer let loose a torrent of rapid-fire torpedoes at the Idlewild. It bucked and weaved, but several of the torpedoes impacted.
“Their shields are down to seventy percent,” J’hana reported.
“That’s all?” Baxter said.
“According to sensors, they’re equipped with some kind of plasmodic shielding,” Sparks said, looking over her scans. “It rotates automatically to compensate for weaknesses in certain areas and has extraordinary regenerative capabilities.”
“That’s a great book report, Sparks,” Baxter said. “Keep shooting.”
“Just think how great Starfleet would be if the Section Thirty-One people that designed this stuff actually worked FOR us,” Richards muttered.
Ficker appeared on the screen again, looking a bit disheveled, alert klaxons in the background. “Shoot first, ask questions later, huh, Baxter? They teach you that in the Starfleet handbook?”
“Mind control, lies and stealing…do they teach THAT?” Baxter shot back.
“You don’t get it, do you, Baxter? You’re fighting the wrong fight. The Idlewild crew is everything good about the Federation. Uniqueness, creativity, ideas, and energy. We’re not bound by petty rules and protocol. And we don’t always get it right, but at the end of the day, we get the job done, as you’ve seen here. We’re more like you than you realize…”
“Are you still talking? J’hana, keep firing.”
“Idlewild is taking evasive action. Returning fire,” J’hana said, as Peterman held Steffie tighter and Richards gave a panicked look to Baxter.
Baxter steeled himself as the Explorer shook.
“Their shields are down to fifty percent. Ours are down to forty- two,” J’hana reported.
“I don’t think they even unleashed a full salvo,” Richards said softly. He turned to Baxter. “Look, Andy, your father’s mobilizing a…”
“SHUSH!” Baxter seethed, and turned back to the viewscreen. “Ficker, I’m not letting you out of this star system with that dilithium. Come quietly, or come in a thousand pieces in my hangar deck, it’s all up to you!”
“As usual, you’re outpaced in every possible category, Baxter,” Ficker said, shaking his head. “Sad, really. Clinging to this idea that you and your pathetic crew can somehow assimilate with the rest of the Federation. Didn’t we learn anything from the Borg? Assimilation sucks! We are the answer…sure, it may bring a little anarchy with it, but we will free Starfleet from this stupid notion that there’s only one way to get things done. Rules, rules, rules…who cares, when good people are marginalized every day to make way for pencil pushing, arrogant, nancy twits like Jean-Luc Picard!”
Another blast rocked the Explorer, and Baxter stumbled, throwing an arm protectively around Peterman.
“Go to hell, Ficker…” Baxter said.
“Captain,” J’hana called out. “We’re getting an urgent hail from a small fleet outside this system.”
“Um, about that,” Richards said.
“No! No way!” Baxter said. “I’m sure he’ll give me the standard Starfleet line about not going overboard. Well, I’m not buying it. I have a chance to take this son of a bitch out here and now, and I’m going to do it!” He glanced down at Steffie. “Sorry, sweetie. Daddy didn’t mean to curse.”
“But, Andy…” Richards said, gripping Baxter’s arm. “You need to…”
“The Idlewild’s going into warp,” J’hana said.
“Match course and speed and engage, Madera.”
“I’m going as fast as I can, but their acceleration curve is double ours,” Madera said. “They’re putting distance between us fast.”
“They’re nearing the edge of sensor range,” J’hana called out.
“More speed,” Baxter said, stepping forward, gripping Madera’s chair. “Divert emergency power to the engines. Take it from life support and shields if you have to.”
“Our shields are already unstable,” Sparks said.
“What, everyone’s backing out of this now?” Baxter demanded.
“Andy,” Peterman said softly, taking Baxter’s hand.
Baxter pulled it away. “I’m not just going to let him…”
“Captain, the Idlewild just disappeared from sensors,” J’hana said.
“They’re out of range now,” Sparks said. “And they appeared to activate sensor-reflective shielding just as they left sensor range. There’s no way to extrapolate their course. They’re gone.”
“Gone,” Baxter said dumbly, staring at the streaking stars on the viewscreen.
“We’re pushing the engines as hard as we can,” Madera said. “We can’t keep this up for long.”
“All stop,” Baxter said with a deep sigh. “Dispatch damage control, whatever you have to do.” He walked back to the command chair, feeling the eyes of everyone on him. He looked up. “Well? What are you all looking at?”
“Andy,” Peterman said, stepping up to Baxter.
“Daddy is hailing again,” J’hana said.
Baxter sighed, deflated, his back to the viewscreen. “On screen.”
“Son, this is your father,” Harlan Baxter said as he appeared on the viewscreen. “We’ve got a fleet ready to intercept Ficker. If you can stall him, and we can coordinate this thing right, we can pin him in and stop him once and for…” He glanced at someone off-screen. Somebody whispered something in his ear. “He what? They did? Son of a…”
“Baxter,” Baxter said, and headed for his ready room. “I’m a son of a Baxter. Chris, you’ve got the bridge…”
“Well done people, well done,” Captain Ficker said, circling the Idlewild’s bridge and shaking hands…all but the hand of his helmsman, Ensign Seth Crane, who feared human contact.
“Yes, it was a thorough pantsing,” Roland Worthy said dully from his position behind Ficker. “I don’t see why we didn’t just dive in and finish off the Explorer, and the other ships that pursued us.”
Ficker glanced back at Worthy. “Commander, we do not ‘finish off’ Federation vessels. We don’t murder on a large scale. That’s not what we do. We may be rogues, operating outside of Starfleet, the Federation, any jurisdiction–but we’re still part of Starfleet!”
“So you’d be all right with murder on a small scale?” Worthy asked casually.
“You’re not getting my point!”
“We’re not part of Starfleet, but we’re still part of Starfleet.”
“Exactly,” Ficker nodded.
Worthy gave a genteel bow. “Crystal clear, Captain, as always.”
Just then, the aft doors at the back of the bridge opened and Maura Drake stepped out. “Can someone tell me what’s been going on?”
“You’ve got your dilithium, Doctor, you should be pleased,” Ficker said, smiling at Worthy.
“Yes, but the firefight we just got into nearly destabilized the brainwave amplifiers in my lab.”
“Brainwave amplifiers,” Ficker said, rubbing his hands together. “Sounds interesting.”
“I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” Drake said. “But, we’ll, uh, need a few more volunteers.”
“Choose any of our crewmembers you need. This project is our top prioritiy.”
Drake thought about it for a moment and smiled. “Good. I’m glad we’re all on the same page. I’ll be belowdecks.”
“Let us know if we can be of any help, any help at all,” Ficker said, with a pleasant wave.
“She’s quite an asset,” Worthy said flatly.
“Indeed,” Ficker replied. He turned to Worthy. “Now then, we’ve got some extra dilithium, right? What’s say we find a strategic way to get rid of it and make Baxter look like even more of an ass.”
“I doubt that’s possible,” Worthy quipped.
“Exhilarating. If all away teams are like that, I’m in for a real treat!” Cadet Colby Mathers exclaimed as he sat at one of the side booths in Space Tastes, with Sparks and Piper.
“None of them are like that,” Sparks said tiredly, leaning her head on the table. “And I don’t think there’ll ever be one quite like that again.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Mathers said. “I really kinda got into it. The teamwork, the pressure to win. I could really get used to stuff like that!”
“We lost,” Sparks moaned. “Horribly!”
“But we did it with gusto!”
Just then, Janice Browning arrived with a wide tray. “Are you sure this is all you want?”
“Just salads, and keep them coming,” Sparks said. “I ate so much cheese in the last three days, I’ll be lucky if I ever…”
Piper and Mathers looked at her.
“…get over it,” she finished her thought and grabbed a bowl of salad from Browning’s tray as the others took their bowls.
“Plato’s been asking about you,” Browning said. “I had to put him on potato peeling detail just to keep him from running off the ship to join you.”
“That’s sweet,” Sparks said.
Browning grinned. “He likes you.”
Sparks smiled to herself as she nibbled at her salad. “I like him too. But I’m not sure he gets it though, you know, the Starfleet thing…”
“If you ask me, I’d say that’s a plus,” Browning said with a chuckle. “Enjoy your salads guys. Let me know if you want some real food…”
“I would have actually enjoyed some pizza,” Piper said thoughtfully as he stabbed at his mixed greens.
“I hope I never see a pizza again,” Sparks said as Browning walked off.
“I hope I get to go on an away team again,” Mathers said cheerily.
Piper shrugged. “I spent the day talking to crazy people. Guess I got off easy.”
Baxter’s door chime rang, and he let it ring a few times before finally saying, “Come.”
Peterman appeared in the doorway, stepping in with Steffie at her side, as Baxter looked out his readyroom viewport.
“Make it fast. I’m busy putting off an incredibly uncomfortable conversation with my Father. Think he’ll shoot me out an airlock, or just court martial me?”
“Steffie’s scared,” Peterman said, lifting Steffie and sitting her on Baxter’s desk. “She’s never seen you like that, not to mention being on the bridge you know, on the verge of being blasted to pieces.”
“She shouldn’t be on the bridge,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“Well,” Peterman said, sitting opposite Baxter’s desk. “Guess you had a bit of a nutty today.”
“He won,” Baxter said with a dry laugh.
“This round, yes.”
Baxter turned toward her. “He beat me in a pizza-selling contest, which resulted in him being given an obscene amount of dilithium. At the same time, I ruined a relationship with a vital trade partner and single- handedly initiated a Federation-wide dilithium shortage. Meanwhile, Ficker comes out a hero to his people.”
“It could be worse…” Peterman sighed.
“I don’t see how.”
“Richards to Baxter.”
“You might want to have a look at the news.”
Baxter shook his head. “Okay, to my terminal.” He punched up his terminal and turned it so Peterman could see too.
It was Joan Redding, broadcasting from the Associated Worlds Network news desk. “…just in…Federation President Bradley Dillon announced moments ago that he reached an agreement with the Starship Idlewild, a non-aligned vessel which once belonged to Starfleet and has since been taken over by rogues, to acquire a substantial amount of dilithium ore. We are still confirming the details; however, it appears that Ficker negotiated a trade agreement with the people of Etracia to get the ore, and in a sign of good faith and goodwill, gave a substantial portion of it to the Federation. Pundits have suggested that Ficker and his people seek to destabilize Starfleet, and by extension, the Federation; however, this development brings all of that into question. Also unusual is the fact that the U.S.S. Explorer, also assigned to negotiate for the dilithium, has apparently fractured the cordial relationship the Federation has shared with Etracia for more than two centuries. It remains to be seen whether diplomats will be able to repair that relationship. Perhaps Captain Ficker should be called in to consult…”
Baxter slammed his hand down on the terminal, shutting the screen off.
Peterman looked to him sincerely. “Andy, it’s okay if you want to go somewhere and vent. I’m sure you’re feeling a lot of emotions right now. It’s not healthy to bottle them up.”
“I’m not going to bottle them up,” Baxter said, as a smile started to spread across his face. “As a matter of fact, I know exactly how I’m going to vent them.”
“The Vulcan has mind control capabilities.”
Those words echoed throughout the homes of the Etracians.
“Yes. Ficker is using him to influence all his customers, to brainwash them into thinking his pizza is the best!”
Those words echoed throughout the restaurants and marketplaces all over the planet.
“We were too.”
Those words echoed throughout the halls of the grand House of Governance.
“Yes, that’s what I…huh?”
The Autarch loomed over the kneeling Porphon and sneered as the playback continued:
“If we had this capability, commerce on Etracia would be second to none! Your Captain Ficker is an even more gifted entrepreneur than we thought he was. If only we were so good at manipulating the weak, addle minded consumers of our world. We would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice!”
“It just keeps repeating. We can’t stop it,” Porphon stammered. “I don’t understand. That starship…the Explorer…just came along and….somehow downloaded it into our communications nets! The Andorian must have recorded our conversation with her tricorder…I never meant…my liege, I never meant for others to hear it!”
“Porphon…” the Autarch said in a low, threatening voice.
“Yes, Great Autarch?” Porphon squeaked, looking up fearfully.
“Grab a smock. You’re going to be making pizza for a long, long time…”
What better way to take a break from all your worries then to travel back to your old starship for a reunion? Well, there are probably better ways when your former crewmates don’t like you very much, as Captain Baxter and Commander Richards soon discover, as they visit the Aquarius to celebrate Captain Hatton’s retirement. But when a crisis emerges to disrupt the celebration, will it be Baxter and Richards who find themselves…retired?