Author: Anthony Butler
“You’ve done an excellent job screwing this up, Captain Baxter,” Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev said over the viewscreen at Starbase 201, where the Explorer was receiving minor repairs after a brief but thorough pounding, compliments of the USS Idlewild.
“I made a damn fine pizza, though,” Baxter said.
“Watch yer backtalk, boy!” Harlan Baxter roared, facing the viewport at the back of the small conference room, not even looking at Baxter.
“We had constructed an ornate plan to capture Baxter, bringing together a small task force of capable starships to converge on the target and strategically eliminate her shields and weapons,” Nechayev continued.
“I have a capable starship,” Baxter muttered under his breath.
“You chased him away,” Nechayev said. “And with his ship, you also chased away the majority of our dilithium supply for the next seventeen years.”
“We managed to get it back,” Baxter offered meekly.
“FICKER gave it to us, thanks to a deal he worked out with President Dillon. That we would even negotiate with this malcontent at this point…” Nechayev looked off in the distance, shaking her head. “But we would not have even been in this position had it not been for you and your crew.”
“So what you’re saying is, I screwed up.”
“No, I said that last year. This year, I am saying you screwed up for the last time. If you screw up again, we will rescind your commission and give the Explorer to a captain who knows what the hell he’s doing.”
Baxter glanced over at Harlan. “Dad? A little chime in from the old man would really help about now.”
“You singlehandely unraveled our whole plan to stop Ficker and capture the Idlewild,” Harlan said, a cigar smouldering in his hand. He set it on the ashtray on the small conference table. “Who knows when we’ll have a chance to get our hands on him again.”
“You can be sure of one thing,” Baxter said, looking resolutely at Nechayev. “I will use every resource at my disposal to find and capture Ficker. I promise you, I will find him, and when I find him…”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Nechayev said tightly. “You are to report any further interaction with Alvin Ficker directly to Starfleet Intelligence and then go about your business. Are we clear?”
Baxter folded and unfolded his hands on top of the table. “Yeah, but he’s my, you know…nemesis.”
Nechayev rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly. “This is Starfleet. The United Federation of Planets. We don’t deal in…nemeses…”
“This conversation is over,” Nechayev said and reached for a button. With that, she disappeared from the viewscreen.
“Well she didn’t have to say it like that,” Baxter muttered, turning to Harlan. “And a fat lot of help you were, Dad. Thanks for just leaving me out to dry…what happened to solidarity? It wasn’t long ago we were both sitting in this chair, facing Nechayev, defending on…”
“We aren’t sitting in the same chair anymore,” Harlan said, turning to Baxter. He grabbed his cigar and pointed at Baxter with it. “You compromised a vital operation here, boy. You don’t seem to understand the gravity of what you did. Captains have been reassigned to desk jobs for less!”
“I already have a desk,” Baxter said.
“Sometimes I wonder if you were adopted, boy,” Harlan muttered and headed for the door.
“I might be, depending on how many other evil geneticists you were working with in the 2340’s!”
“Straighten up and fly right, son, or I’ll blow yer ship up myself,” Harlan mumbled, pushing the cigar into his mouth.
“Tell Mom I said ‘hi,’” Baxter called after him.
“It’s not so bad,” Commander Chris Richards said, sipping an ale at one of the tables in the Constellation Club, which currently had a blissful view of the gray interior of Starbase 201.
“How do you figure?” Baxter asked, staring into his drink.
“Nechayev could have come all the way from Earth to yell at you.”
“Dad did plenty of that on his own.”
“Did he really threaten to blow us up?”
“I think he was partially kidding.”
“I hope so.”
Baxter stared at his drink some more. “Am I losing it, Chris?”
Richards let out a long breath. “Boy, I thought you’d hold off on the existential crisis at least until you were forty.”
“I mean it. Am I losing my grip?”
“I’ve always thought you were in a slow and steady process of losing your grip ever since I met you back on the Aquarius. But then again, I’m not the one to ask. This is more your wife’s area.”
“Because she’s a counselor or because she’s my wife?”
Richards sipped from his drink and shrugged. “Either, really.”
“By the way…speaking of the Aquarius,” Baxter said, sliding a padd across the table at Richards. “I got this yesterday. We’ve been invited to Captain Hatton’s retirement party.”
“Feldora Hatton. Haven’t thought about her in a long time.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“That old battleaxe is finally retiring?” Richards asked. “What is she, ninety-eight, ninety-nine?”
“Something like that. She was curmudgeonly even back when we were on the ship.”
“But she enjoyed a good prank,” Richards remembered fondly.
“Especially when it was played on me.”
“She did seem to enjoy…rattling you.” Richards arched an eyebrow. “I’m kind of surprised they remembered to invite us.”
“I’m sure it was a computerized thing. She probably never even looked at the list.” Baxter sighed. “It’s just as well that we don’t go. Nobody liked us on that ship, and I’ve been talked down to quite enough for one week.”
“Speak for yourself! I was well-liked in engineering.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Being in inventory hurt my chances of winning friends and influencing people, I guess.”
“But look at you now,” Richards said encouragingly. “You’re captain of a starship. Well-liked by your crew. Well…at least…somewhat liked by your crew. You’ve had adventures most captains dare not dream of. You saved the universe, prevented the Earth from being taken over by the Ferengi, fought the Borg, the Furachi, the Leeramar, the Romulans…”
Baxter stroked his beard thoughtfully. “And still had time to get married and have a kid, which is really the only gauge of success that matters when it comes to these reunion-type deals.”
“Yeah, you did that too,” Richards said. “You’ve built up a nice life for yourself here. Save the last day or two, what with Nechayev threatening to take away your commission and your dad threatening to blow us all up.”
“You know, I think I forgot Father’s Day this year…maybe that’s why he was so mad,” Baxter mused.
“Somehow I doubt it. At any rate, you could use a getaway to get your mind off things. Heck, we both could.”
“You might just be on to something, Chris,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “Hell, let’s do it!”
Mirk walked up to the table, wearing his glittering gold dinner jacket and a broad smile. “Anything else for you guys?”
“Nope, I think we’re all set,” Richards said. “We’re going to the Aquarius!”
Baxter nodded. “We’ll show those bastards who’s successful!”
“Are you talking about Nechayev and your father or the Aquarius people?” Richards asked.
Baxter shrugged. “All of the above.”
“What do you mean you can’t go with me?” Baxter asked, following Peterman down the corridor, on the way to pick up Steffie from toddlercise.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate,” Peterman said. “You know Tilleran’s going to be back tomorrow. She’s going to need a lot of my attention.”
“Didn’t your attention exacerbate her telepathy problem last time?”
Peterman faltered. “That was never proven. Besides, I’m still her counselor, and she needs my help.”
“Well, I suppose you’ve got noble reasons for staying behind.”
“Besides, why do you need me to come along? It’s a retirement party.”
“Because I thought it could be that romantic getaway that we’ve been planning on,” Baxter said, leaning in and kissing Peterman’s ear.
Just then Richards walked up. “Hey buddy, I’m all packed. Is Kelly coming with us? I can’t wait to get on the runabout and start drinking!”
Baxter glared at Richards. “Shields up, back off nice and slow…”
“I’ll just be…over here somewhere…” Richards said, pointing down the corridor.
“A romantic getaway?” Peterman asked. “With you, me, and Chris Richards?”
“There are separate bunks on the runabout,” Baxter floundered.
“Nice,” Peterman said. “Well, you go on and have a nice time with Chris. I’ve got things I have to take care of here on the ship.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “I was really hoping you could come with me. I bet everyone else will have spouses.”
“You want me to come with you so you can show me off?” Peterman snapped, as the doors to the holodeck opened up, revealing a dance studio within.
“Here she is! We did ballet today!” Holographic Richard Simmons announced, proudly holding Steffie’s hand. “Your daughter’s so adept at…”
“Computer, end program,” Baxter snapped, dissolving Simmons and the dance studio. “So I don’t suppose I can get any of that ‘I almost got us blown up and kicked out of Starfleet, but not necessarily in that order’ sympathy from you?”
“No, safe to say we’re fresh out of that particular kind of sympathy,” Peterman said, shifting Steffie up on her hip as they headed back down the corridor. “However, as your counselor, I think this trip will be therapeutic. You need to get away.”
“So I can get perspective, and remember what it means to be a true leader?”
“Sure, that too. But also because your obsession about destroying Ficker is becoming a big turnoff among the crew.”
“Great. Well, try to put in a good word for me in your therapy sessions.”
“Don’t you know I always do?” Peterman said with a smile.
“See, it’s times like these I can’t figure out if you’re lying.”
“She is,” Steffie said with a giggle, reaching out and batting Baxter on the nose.
Early the next morning, Baxter and Richards walked into the shuttle bay and headed toward the parked runabout Irawadi, just as the massive hangar doors opened, and the runabout Passaic glided in through the transparent forcefield.
“Damn,” Baxter said. “I was hoping to leave before they got here. Now this is going to be awkward…”
“This isn’t going to be awkward,” Richards said. “It’s going to be awkward when J’hana jumps out of a custodial closet and pounces Tilleran out in the corridor.” He giggled. “Wish I could be here to see that.”
Baxter gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “Yeah, me too, kinda. It’s nice you guys have that…kind…of relationship.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, trailing off into thought as the Passaic set down.
The hatch opened and a weary looking Hartley and Tilleran ambled out, carrying their duffles.
“Captain…Commander?” Hartley asked.
“Oh, Commander Hartley…Commander Tilleran,” Baxter said, looking between the two, standing halfway between the Passaic and the Irawadi. “How was the trip?”
“Enlightening,” Tilleran said flatly. “The vacation part was fun.”
“Well, as long as you learned something…” Baxter said.
“I’m not sure I did,” Tilleran said thoughtfully.
“I learned I miss my husband something fierce. You never know how much you miss a guy with the ability to fly and move things with his mind. Not to mention the backrubs…” She sighed.
“Well, nice chatting with you guys,” Baxter said. “Good luck rejoining the crew. It’s been a busy few weeks. I’m sure Kelly will…”
“YEARGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” came a shrill scream from outside the shuttlebay.
“J’hana! Back! Back! What are you doing?” came another voice, which was unmistakably Counselor Peterman’s.
“I think J’hana just pounced on your wife by accident,” Richards said.
“I’m not sure it was an accident,” Baxter said.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“And we’re off!” Baxter said, giving a quick nod to Hartley and Tilleran. “Important trip. Command trip. Special operations…ship’s…management…training…for managers. Bye!”
And with that the pair hurried into the waiting Irawadi. Moments later, its engines warmed up and it lifted off the shuttlebay floor.
Then the doors to the shuttlebay opened and Peterman stumbled in, hair mussed, looking confused. “J’hana…what the…”
“My apologies,” J’hana said with a knowing grin, following behind her. “I must’ve mistaken you for Commander Tilleran.”
“Right,” Peterman said as she approached Tilleran. “Commander! Glad to have you back on the ship. We have so much to talk about.”
“Let her at least get a shower and a breakfast,” Hartley muttered, shouldering past Peterman. “It’s been a long three weeks.”
“Yes, I understand that you spent much of it vacationing…”
“Yeah, it was…” Tilleran looked at Hartley.
“Fun,” Hartley said.
“Yes,” Tilleran affirmed.
“She met a man!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Well, I didn’t meet him…I sort of already knew him,” Tilleran said. “Besides, it’s not like there’s anything happening between us. Crellus and I are just going to…support each other in recovery.”
Peterman looked at J’hana, whose antennae twitched slightly at the last comment. “Well, glad to hear things are going so well,” she said. “Support can be crucial in the recovery process.’
“Yes. Crucial,” J’hana rumbled.
“This is the life, isn’t it?” Baxter said as he and Richards sat at the controls of the Irawadi.
“Flying through space in a runabout?” Richards asked. “Yes, it’s breathtaking.”
“No, I mean the two of us, just us guys. It’s a vacation for men. A…a…” Baxter’s eyebrows shot up. “Mancation!”
Richards shook his head. “If you made up that term, you’re probably better off if you don’t take credit for it.”
“Afraid to get in touch with your inner man?” Baxter asked, punching Richards in the arm.
Richards shook his head. “I don’t want to see any inner men on this trip.”
“Whatever. You need to loosen up.”
“I’m loose,” Richards said. “It’s just that I, well…I miss J’hana.”
“We’ve been gone four hours.”
“Yeah, I know. But I’m kinda getting used to her…touch…”
Baxter turned back to a control panel, shifting awkwardly in his seat. “That’s called a callous.”
“I’m serious. I think this is really going somewhere.”
“Well, I suppose I’m glad…”
“I figured you’d be ecstatic. Lord knows you didn’t want me with Janice.”
“I wanted whatever’s best for both of you,” Baxter shot back. “However, I’m also of the belief that intracrew romance is not a great idea.”
“You’re married to our counselor, and you nearly officiated my marriage to Janice…twice.”
“Plus, you plan the crew mixer every month just so you can watch to see if anyone hooks up.”
“Nonsense! It’s just good for morale.”
“Sure, sure,” Richards said, folding his arms and leaning back.
“Different captains manage different ways. What, you want me to be more like Hatton?”
“Hey, she got results.”
“The Aquarius was an interstellar errand ship. The best result she could hope for was getting cargo from Ceti Alpha to Orpheus Ornari.”
“Deride if you must, Andy, but you know she was respected.”
“And I’m not?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah. You’re quiet at all the wrong times,” Baxter muttered, swiveling around and easing out of his seat, headed toward the aft compartment.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO U.S.S. AQUARIUS
Ensign Andy Baxter, wide-eyed, fresh out of the academy, and eagerly awaiting his first foray into the world of Inventory Control, stepped out of the airlock, and into the narrow corridor of U.S.S. Aquarius, duffle on his shoulder and assignment padd in hand.
“Wow…I’m actually here,” he said, looking around the Aquarius corridor.
“Yeah, it’s a miracle of technology that the shuttle was able to bring you over from drydock,” a slim, dark-haired lieutenant commander said, approaching Baxter with narrowed eyes. “You Baxter?”
“Yes, sir,” Baxter said, handing the man his padd. “Ensign Andy Baxter reporting for duty. You must be Commander Faulkner?”
“Yeah,” Faulkner said, looking at the padd and turning to head down the corridor. “Your bunk’s this way, Ensign.”
Baxter jogged to keep up with Faulkner. “This is exciting. I’ve been so looking forward to going on a real mission.”
“Yeah,” Faulkner said, then turned to Baxter. “Are you going to be this annoying for the whole assignment?”
Baxter blinked. “I didn’t realize I was being annoying. I’m just, you know, excited and all…”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“Starfleet Academy was…challenging. I’m just looking forward to getting out, you know, and doing the space…thing.”
“You do know what Aquarius’ mission is, don’t you?”
“Well, I have to admit, I haven’t read all the stuff they gave me during the assignment debrief, but…”
“We’re an Oberth-class ship, so obviously you’re not going to be in any big firefights. Two phaser blasts and this thing will ignite like a Roman candle.”
“Diplomatic missions, then, eh?” Baxter asked.
“Please,” Faulkner said. “I’ll give you a hint: Our first mission involves a disabled garbage scow…a vessel only slightly uglier and less capable than this one.”
“No job is too small for Starfleet, huh?” Baxter asked, nudging Faulkner.
“And how about you DON’T nudge me,” Faulkner muttered, pointing to the door. “Here you go. Bunk in, then report to engineering in an hour for morning briefing.”
“Yes, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“You’re the inventory office on a completely irrelevant starship. There’s no possible way you could fall below my expectations.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” Baxter said with a small grin and headed into his room.
Faulkner laughed as the door closed.
Baxter found himself in a darkened room. “Computer…lights.”
The lights came on and Baxter found himself in another corridor. “That’s odd,” he said as he headed down the corridor. “I could have sworn Mister Faulkner said these were my quarters. Maybe they’re through here…” He found another doorway and headed in…
Into another corridor.
Perplexed, Baxter forged on. Down each corridor he went, and through each door he found another corridor.
This was getting exhausting!
Baxter slapped his combadge. “Baxter to bridge.”
“Bridge. Morse here.”
“Hi, Commander Morse. Ensign Andy Baxter, new inventory guy. I, uh, seem to be having a problem finding my quarters.”
“Yeah, new officers tend to get lost when they first come aboard Aquarius. Just head all the way to the end of the hallway and go through the doors marked ‘Do Not Enter.’”
“Yeah, but if they’re marked…”
“It’s fine, trust me.”
Baxter shrugged. “Well, okay…” He headed to the end of the corridor, and sure enough, there was the door: DO NOT ENTER.
He slapped the panel beside the door and it slid open, revealing a small, concave room.
Within, there was a hatch in the floor marked clearly “Junior Officers.”
“This must be it!” Baxter announced, and reached down, pumping the hatch open.
The air was sucked suddenly out of the room as decompression sirens blared.
Baxter suddenly found himself sucked into cold, dark space, right out the bottom of the Aquarius’ saucer section, headed toward the lower engine section, where, sure enough, as his inertia brought him slamming into the hull, had another hatch labeled “Junior Officers.”
With ebbing strength, Baxter pumped the lever on that hatch, and it opened, mercifully, dropping him into a spartan set of quarters.
He reached up numbly and shoved the hatch closed as more decompression sirens blared.
“Morse to new inventory officer,” came a comm into the room. “Did you find the place all right? I know it’s a bit out of the way…”
Baxter gasped for air. “I always wondered how one got from one part of an Oberth class ship to another…”
“Computer, end program,” a grizzled voice said from behind Baxter. The room fizzled and reshaped into an orange on black holodeck grid.
Baxter turned to look at a short, hourglass-shaped woman with a bun of salt and pepper gray hair. “Captain Hatton?”
“Sure enough is,” Hatton said dryly, stepping forward. “Welcome aboard.”
“That was all an elaborate hologram?”
“Consider it an initiation,” Hatton said.
Baxter grinned. “So after all that, I’m one of you now?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Bannister. Your cabin’s down this hall and to the left. You’ve got an hour before your briefing in engineering and I suggest you get settled in.”
“It’s Baxter actually.”
Well, thanks for…”
“There will be more pranks to come,” Hatton said, and ducked out of the holodeck with a chortle.
Baxter awoke with a start. How long had he been asleep?
“You’ve been asleep for four hours, if you were wondering,” Commander Richards said, not looking up from his padd as he sat at the conference table in the aft cabin eating his soup. “What did you mean by that, by the way?”
“Mean by what?” Baxter asked, rubbing his eyes and swinging his legs over the back-breaking runabout bunk.
“That I’m quiet at all the wrong times?”
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to start anything, I was just…”
“Well, you did start something. You always do that, Andy. Just drop a little comment and expect it to go un-addressed.”
“I’m not sure that’s a word.”
Richards turned to Baxter. “Are you trying to say something or what?”
“Not at all.”
“Are you still ticked after being yelled at by Starfleet Command?”
“Is this about Janice?”
Baxter put his face in his hands. “Dear God, not everything is about Janice.”
“Because I’m over that. The whole thing with you and her.”
“Oh for Pete’s…there was no thing between us, and Kelly, Janice and I were over this thing a year ago.”
“Okay, well…now that’s settled,” Richards said. “So what were you trying to say?”
“It was about nothing,” Baxter said, and sighed. “Okay, if you must know, it was about me and you.”
“What about you and me?”
“I think you know.”
“I really don’t. Indulge me.”
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
“So the engines are running at peak capacity,” Faulkner said disinterestedly, looking up from his engineering schematics at the main console in the Aquarius’ cramped engine room, surrounded by his officers. “Well, as close to peak as they can be considering what we have to work with.”
“Jeeze, have some pride in your work,” a voice called from behind Faulkner.
“Oooh, is that guy going to get in trouble,” Baxter said under his breath as he sat to the rear of the handful of officers tasked to engineering.
“Who’s that?” Faulkner asked, turning toward the sound of the voice.
“Ensign Chris Richards, warp field specialist,” the young officer with a tuft of brown hair replied. “And I’m just suggesting you have some pride in your work. We’re all lucky to be here. We could be wasting away on some godforsaken freighter, or even worse, we could be on a ship like the Enterprise, which gets into danger all the time. Think about how easy we have it!”
“You’re way out of line, mister,” Faulkner said, then softened. “But I have to admire your bravado. It takes guts to speak up to a senior officer like that.”
“I speak my mind,” Richards said and stepped forward to shake Faulkner’s hand. “That’s something you can guarantee I’ll do as long as I serve under you.”
“Learn from this guy, fellas,” Faulkner said. “He’s got a distinguished future in Starfleet ahead of him.”
“Huh,” Baxter said, folding his arms. “So much for flying under the sensor beam.”
“Baxter, this meeting’s going to be running a little long today,” Faulkner said, patting Richards on the back. “Why don’t you go to the kitchen and inventory the coffee supplies, then requisition a few lattes for me and the other guys.”
“I’m not your personal errand-boy!” Baxter said, trying to stir up the gumption Richards had shown.
“Uh, yeah you are,” Faulkner replied. “Get along now…”
Richards looked from Faulkner to Baxter. “Do you really have to demean the guy, just to make a point?”
“I like your style, Ensign. You’re right. My mistake. Ensign Baxter…will you please, pretty please, with Talosian sugar on top, go get us some coffee.”
“Well, when you ask it that way…” Baxter muttered.
“So what? I was liked by the guys in engineering. Is there anything wrong with that?” Richards asked as Baxter joined him at the table in the Irawadi’s aft cabin.
“No,” Baxter said. “But you could have stood up for me a little more.”
“We were both ensigns. It was every man for himself, and you knew what you’d signed on for as much as I did,” Richards said. “I couldn’t help it I was a little more well-liked than you were at the beginning.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Baxter said. “So let’s just drop it. We’ll be at the Aquarius soon enough and then we’ll have all the time in the world to dredge up old memories.”
“I’m enjoying this mancation already,” Richards mumbled, heading off to the foreward cabin.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
Ensign Baxter shuffled back to his cabin after a long day of supply inventory in the aft cargo bay. It wasn’t bad enough he had to shimmy up the narrow corridor of tubes that lead from the drive section to the saucer section, but once he got up there he faced a giant room full of used driver coils that looked exactly alike, and weren’t numbered sequentially. It wasn’t a rousing start for an inventory officer’s day.
“Richards to Baxter,” chirped Baxter’s combadge as he approached his door.
“Baxter here. Is there something you need, Ensign?”
“No, not particularly. I just…I felt bad about how you were treated at that meeting, and thought you might like to get a drink or something…compare notes about the academy?”
“That’s nice, man. I actually could use a drink…just give me a few minutes to freshen up and…” He punched the code for his cabin door and it slid open.
And a wall of water gushed out, knocking him to the deck.
“Come to think of it,” Baxter said, leaning up on his elbows, spitting water out as he stared into his soaked cabin. “I think I’m already refreshed as it is.”
“Hatton to Inventory officer…I’m up on the bridge and sensors indicate a slight replicator problem in your quarters. Are you all right?”
“That was another prank, wasn’t it?”
“It sure was, Inventory officer. Enjoy your day.”
“My name’s Andy.”
“Uh-huh. Hatton out.”
“You can’t let it get to you,” Ensign Richards said, sitting with Baxter in a back corner of Star Hustler, the Aquarius’ crew lounge. “Everyone goes through a little hazing when they’re just starting out in Starfleet.”
“Well, I’ve had my share of friendly ribbing,” Richards said. “Just yesterday, when we were out white water rafting on the holodeck, the guys pushed my raft over. We all had a great laugh.”
“I think that’s a bit different from what’s happening to me.”
“Well, maybe I’ll talk to Faulkner. See if I can’t get the captain and the others to lay off you.”
Baxter beamed. “You’d do that?”
“Sure,” Richards said. “It’s the only humane thing to do.”
“You’re a decent guy, Chris. If I ever get a command, I promise I’ll bring you aboard.”
“Gee, thanks…” Richards said. “I guess…anything’s possible.”
“And will you do the same, you know, if you get a command before I do?”
Richards smiled uncomfortably. “Uh, sure…hey, you want another drink?”
“There she is,” Richards said, as he and Baxter stepped into the Irawadi’s cockpit and saw the Oberth-class ship hanging in planetary orbit through the viewport. “U.S.S. Aquarius. Looks the same as she did two decades ago.”
“Needs a new paintjob,” Baxter said idly, leaning on one of the pilot’s chairs.
“She’s a thirty year old ship. Of course she’ll look a little the worse for wear,” Richards said. “The Explorer’s looked worse.”
“We had an excuse. Our ship was stepped on by a giant alien.”
“Every ship has a story,” Richards said idly. “Hmmm…” He glanced over his panel. “I’m not picking up other Starfleet vessels in orbit. I guess the other guys took runabouts or shuttles like we did. But…that’s interesting.”
“I see two other signals in orbit on the other side of the planet from the Aquarius. Nonaligned vessels. No registry.”
“Captain Hatton must have friends visiting for her retirement,” Baxter said. “Guests from all over the quadrant coming to honor that old…”
“Now now, Captain,” Richards said. “Remember, you’re going to be the bigger man.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “The bigger man.”
“This will be good for you,” Peterman said, standing next to Tilleran in the turbolift. “An hour or two on the bridge, getting acclimated to your surroundings again.” She tugged back on Charlotte’s leash as the little golden retriever tugged on it playfully.
“I can work a full shift if you want,” Tilleran said. “I feel fine.”
“No lingering guilt? Depression? Pangs of loneliness or regret?”
“No, though I did have a bit of a stomach thing when I woke up this morning.”
“Hmm. Duly noted.” Peterman shook her head. “Nope, I want you to get back into the swing of things slowly. You’ve been gone a few weeks, and there’s been a lot of hurt feelings between you and the other crew members. It’s best to take things one step at a time.”
“I guess,” Tilleran said. “Hey, by the way, with Captain Baxter and Commander Richards gone, who’s in command?”
“That’s one of the reasons I want you to take this slow,” Peterman said in a low voice, as the turbolift doors slid open and they stepped onto the bridge.
J’hana sat in the command chair. She pivoted to face Peterman and Tilleran. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. Or should I say puppy.”
“I’m just bringing Commander Tilleran by to work an hour or two on the bridge to get settled back in,” Peterman said, making her way down to the front of the bridge with Charlotte.
“Very well,” J’hana said drily. “Sparks, you are relieved. Go below decks and run four kilometers in the gym.”
“A firm body is the hallmark of a good Starfleet officer.” Her gaze shifted to the young cadet. “Put all that youthful exuberance to good use. Get along now.” She gave a wink and nodded toward the turbolift.
“Um…okay…” she said, casting a worried look at Peterman as she headed for the turbolift.
“And bring this fat slob with you,” J’hana said, pointing at Mathers at ops. “He’s a metric tonne if he’s a gram, and looking at his fat hindquarters is beginning to make me ill.”
“Hey, I’ve been working on dieting!” Mathers protested, as he shoved off to follow Sparks.
“WORK HARDER!” J’hana snapped, and turned back to the viewscreen. “Ridley, please move from the environmental control console to ops.”
“Yes, Commander,” Ridley said crisply, head down as she moved to the operations console.
Peterman stepped down to join J’hana in the command area as Tilleran took sciences. “So, what’s it like to be in charge?”
“This crew is lazy and undisciplined, although that should come as a surprise to no one. Look at the captain.”
Peterman turned to her console and brought up a list of shipwide updates. “You’ve got everyone…working out?”
“Yes. It’s about time this crew learned a thing or two about discipline.”
“You converted cargo bays five and six into auxiliary athletic clubs?”
“Yes. They do not have full nautilus capabilities, but the free weights are excellent.” J’hana’s antennae flexed. “This crew will get into shape.”
“And…cargo bay seven is now the women’s shower room?”
“That’s correct. There are a lot of women on this ship, and a lot of them are now sweating. Profusely.” J’hana turned away to monitor the console on the command chair’s arm.
At that, Tilleran laughed. “As always, J’hana, your intentions are pure. Or puerile, as the case may be.”
J’hana scoffed and continued to look at her console.
Peterman nodded. “You know, you’re only in command for like forty-eight hours.”
“A lot can happen in that time,” J’hana said, and turned to Peterman. “By the way, Counselor, you’re looking a bit husky yourself.”
“J’hana!” Peterman snapped.
“Yes, I believe you’re developing some extra…paunch…around your jowls and hips.”
“Jowls?” Tilleran asked, stifling a laugh.
“Please report to Rec Room Seven and execute calisthenics program J’hana Fourteen.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Peterman protested.
“I assure you, Counselor, I am not.”
“I’ve got a full day of appointments!”
“Give them to Cadet Piper. That’s why you have a staff. Besides, Piper has outstanding pectorals as it is; he does not need to put in any additional time in the gym.”
“Go. That is an order.”
Peterman huffed. “We’ll just see about this!”
“Do not make me discipline you,” J’hana said sharply. “I would enjoy nothing more than that. And, by the way, your puppy has a fat hind end as well.”
“Oooooh now you’ve gone too far!” Peterman snapped, pulling Charlotte into the turbolift. “Wait until Andy hears about this!”
“I am shaking in my proverbial boots, Counselor.”
Tilleran leaned against her console. “Glad to see things are about the same around here.”
“Good to have you back, Imzadi,” J’hana said, and returned her attention to the console next to her. It was shower time belowdecks, and she had security footage to review.
Baxter and Richards ducked out of the Irawadi, glancing around the Aquarius shuttlebay.
“No welcoming committee?” Baxter asked, shouldering his duffle. “I’d have figured Faulkner would have come down to escort me to some ornate holodeck gag again.”
“He may not be here yet,” Richards said. “I think he’s captain of the Solstice now,” Richards said. “Deep stellar observer.”
“Good for him,” Baxter muttered.
“And I was reading that Captain Morse is commander of the Intrigue.”
“Ooh, Starfleet Intelligence, I’m impressed,” Baxter said, heading through the doors from the shuttlebay into the corridor. “I guarantee they haven’t had half the adventures we’ve had.”
“This isn’t a contest,” Richards reminded him. “And it’s not a way to puff yourself up after getting smacked down by your Father.”
“Sure it’s not,” Baxter said with a wry grin. “We’ll just see about that. Hey…do you want to head up to the Star Hustler for a drink? Old time’s sake?”
“Don’t see why not. Maybe we’ll see some familiar faces there…”
“That’s the last of the arrivals.”
Captain Feldora Hatton turned to the source of the voice behind her. “Well, it appears that nobody brought their starships with them.”
“Indeed,” the six-armed intruder at the aft of her bridge said, folding two sets of his arms and pointing at Hatton with one of the free arms. “Which means our plans have changed. You must get the command codes of the other ships and get them to come here!”
“Are you crazy, Gondarr?” Hatton protested. “I’m not going to endanger any other vessels.”
The Therrian grimaced. “Then I will destroy this one. And my name is Gondarr the Reckless with Authority.”
“Do I really have to call you that every time I address you?”
“Therrians are quite serious about their nomenclature.”
“Well, whatever your name is, you’re barking up the wrong damn tree if you think I’m doing anything to endanger those other starships!”
“Then we’ll have to make things very, very uncomfortable for you and your crew,” Gondarr the Reckless with Authority said, surveying the smallish bridge and the half-dozen officers at their stations, who all stood stiff and nervous. “Then maybe you’ll be in a more cooperative mood.”
“Threats will get you nowhere, Gondarr the Reckless with Authority.”
“These aren’t threats. These are promises.” He glanced at his colleague. “Borag the Trivia Champion, go down to the lower decks and begin quietly gathering all of the starship captains here and put them in the brig. Their vessels will fetch a good price, or at the very least a hefty ransom from Starfleet Command!”
“You know what? I’m needed belowdecks,” Hatton said, turning for the turbolift.
“You’re being watched,” Gondarr the Reckless with Authority said. “Try any subterfuge, and I will rip one of your bridge officers limb from limb. You ever see a guy with six arms rip someone limb from limb? It’s quite entertaining.”
“Nope,” Hatton said. “I’ll…be right back.”
“Seems quiet around here,” Richards said, sipping his fwarz- sharsher and looking around. “You’d expect more people to be in the crew lounge during off-duty hours, and it’s empty except for Snoutch over there.”
“Ah yes,” Baxter said. “Our charming alien companion who found his way onto the ship by a funny circumstance and gave us advice and an outsider’s perspective…”
Richards glanced over at the short, stout, furry being from Ruxpin Three, who was currently passed out at the corner table, a little bit of drool dripping from his pudgy snout. “I forgot he was also a total drunk. Still is, I guess..”
“Guess the years haven’t been kind,” Baxter said with a shrug. He glanced at the door to the lounge as an officer walked in. “Hey! There’s Captain Morse!” He waved. “Hey, Morse! Over here!”
The balding, paunchy former X.O. of the Aquarius turned toward Baxter. “Oh. Yes, Captain Baxter…good to see…”
Suddenly a pair of arms grabbed him from behind, and another pair of arms covered his mouth. In seconds, he was dragged out of the Star Hustler with barely a sound.
“Huh,” Richards said. “That was odd.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Odd. I think Captain Hatton is up to her old tricks again!”
“That was a Therrian,” Richards said.
“He only LOOKED like a Therrian,” Baxter countered, as Feldora Hatton came running in.
“You! Inventory officer! I’m glad you’re here.”
Baxter stood up. “First of all, let’s get things straight, Hatton. The name’s Baxter. Captain Baxter, of the U.S.S. Explorer, which, by the way, could blow your ship up in like six seconds…not that we ever would, you know, but still…”
“Right, right, well whoever you are, I need your help,” Hatton said, grabbing Baxter’s arm. “I don’t have much time to talk. My chief engineer’s got a dampening field set up in this room but it’ll only hold for five or six minutes.”
Richards’s eyes widened. “What’s up?”
“Therrians have captured my ship. They’re in orbit on the other side of Havara Three. We think they were drawn here by my retirement announcement and are trying to capture the starships of everyone coming here.”
“Of course, because our ships are worth more than this hunk of junk,” Baxter said dismissively.
Hatton ignored him and pressed on. “They thought you would all arrive in your starships, and when you didn’t, it infuriated their commander. Now he’s going to capture all the other captains and torture them until they call their ships here and give up their command codes.”
“Oh, that sounds bad,” Baxter said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “And how do you want me to help?”
“You came in a runabout, right? Well get to your runabout, and send a coded distress call to Starfleet Command. They can dispatch a rescue operation, or negotiate for our release.”
“Uh-huh,” Baxter said. “Well, this certainly sounds serious.”
“It is, so get off your duff and go send that distress call. And don’t get caught doing it!”
“Well, sure,” Baxter said. “I should do that right away, you know, so we don’t get captured like Captain Morse just did…”
“They got Morse already? Damn!”
Baxter slowly walked toward the door, taking small, deliberate steps. “Yes, I will have to make my way to my runabout and call for help. It’s a desperate situation, so I must move fast.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Hatton demanded, as Richards looked on, unsure of what to say.
“Walking as slow as I can.” Baxter turned on her. “You have some nerve trying to pull this shit on me again, Hatton! I’m on to you this time. You may be old, but you’re wily, and I’m all grown up now. I’m a captain, and god damn it I’m going to get the respect I deserve…no matter how much I screw up from time to time!”
Hatton grabbed Baxter’s uniform and shook him. “I could care less about your respect! All of us, and our ships, are in grave danger!”
“Yes, yes, that’s a fine acting job you’re doing. Nope,” Baxter said, gently clapping his hands together. “I can appreciate that you want to end your career with a master stoke like this, but you’ll have to find another sucker. I’m not falling for it.”
Just then, the doors to the lounge opened to reveal a big, broad- chested Therrian. “Ah, there you are, Captain Hatton.”
Hatton blanched. “Uh, hello, Gondarr the Reckless with Authority. I was just speaking with Captain Baxter here about your…diplomatic visit.”
Gondarr the Reckless with Authority looked from Hatton to Baxter. “Yes. Diplomatic.”
“And how you hope the Therrians will find peace with the Federation, and not commit… senseless acts of violence.”
“Yes, that’s one thing I can promise,” Gondarr the Reckless with Authority said, peering at Baxter. “All of our acts of violence will be utterly sensible. Speaking of which, Borag the Trivia Champion is working on that…project we spoke about. He’s making great progress.” He turned to Baxter. “He’s conducting interviews to produce a fitting…scrapbook of Captain Hatton’s accomplishments. He’ll be getting to you soon enough.”
“I look forward to it,” Baxter said with a grin, then glared at Hatton. “I’ve got PLENTY to tell him.”
Hatton sighed as Gondarr the Reckless with Authority took her by the arm and led her away.
“Wow, they are really laying it on thick,” Baxter said. “A scrapbook? That’s genius. It’s the little touches….”
Richards rubbed his chin. “They sure looked like Therrians.”
“Costumes,” Baxter said. “They’re probably from New Jersey.”
“This sure feels strange. Why would Captain Hatton go to such links just to pull a prank on you?”
“Because she’s a mean-spirited, twisted old bat, and it’s just the way she’d want to hobble into retirement. Laughing at me!”
“I suppose,” Richards said thoughtfully, as they walked off to find their quarters.
“Well, we’ll just see about that. We can play right along with her game and have a big laugh at HER expense. See how she likes it. You with me?”
“Just the kind of support I’ve always come to expect,” Baxter muttered.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
“So who’s with me?” Hatton asked, looking around the engine room.
“I think I speak for all my men when I say we stand by your decision, Captain,” Chief Faulkner said. “It’s an outstanding plan.”
“Glad you see things my way,” Hatton said, turning to the master systems console. “Does anyone have any questions before I go back to the bridge?”
Richards put his hand up. “Yes, Captain.”
“What is it, Ensign?”
“Isn’t this a little extreme? Sounding the order to abandon ship just so Andy climbs into an escape pod and launches it, then leaving him stranded in an asteroid belt for two days?”
“He’ll have rations,” Faulkner said.
“Who’s this Andy person?” Hatton asked.
“Inventory officer,” Faulkner interjected.
“Oh,” Hatton said. “Well, it’ll build character.”
“Is that really why you’re doing this?” Richards asked. “It seems a little meanspirited.”
“Starfleet’s not about being nice. You should learn that right now, while you’re still young.” Hatton gazed off in the distance. “You have certain ambitions, and Starfleet comes along and crushes them. It’s just the way it is. Now everyone to duty stations. And don’t breathe a word of this to the Inventory officer. Got it?”
“Got it,” Richards said softly.
“Hey buddy,” Ensign Richards said, walking up to join Baxter as he emerged from a Jefferies tube.
“Wow. Dusty in there.”
“Did you get all the phaser emitters counted up?”
“Yeah, there were a lot of them, considering I don’t think this ship has ever been in battle. They’re really antiquated, though. I bet they would make that old fashioned phaser sound if they were fired.”
“Neat,” Richards said by way of conversation. “So where are you off to now?”
“Probably just my quarters. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow morning to count all the tricorders on the ship.”
“Why, did you want to hang out?”
“Sure, I thought we might…”
Suddenly the Red Alert klaxon sounded.
“All hands, this is Captain Hatton. We are in the middle of a warp core breach. Abandon ship immediately!”
Baxter’s eyes went wide. “My God! Chris, did you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Richards said hesitantly.
“Let’s go!” Baxter said. “I think there’s an escape pod this way. I just inventoried it yesterday.”
“Well, guess being an inventory officer pays off sometimes,” Richards said, following him. “Look, Andy…”
Baxter dashed to the nearby pod hatch and began tapping in his access code. “Man, you sure don’t seem very worried. You act like this happens all the time…the ship is about to explode!”
“It’s really not,” Richards said.
“You have way too much confidence in our engineering crew,” Baxter said.
“No, you don’t get it,” Richards said as Baxter popped the hatch open and ducked into the pod. “You see, this is all just a big…”
“All strapped in, buddy?” Lieutenant Sandy March, the Aquarius tactical officer said as she walked by. “Be careful, it’ll be a great big explosion!”
“Why does she look so relaxed?” Baxter asked, ducking out of the escape pod, glaring as he saw March double over with laughter.
“Andy, don’t you see…” Richards pressed on.
“Wait a minute,” Baxter said. “This is another one of those…”
“You knew about this! And you didn’t tell me!” Baxter railed. “Some friend!”
“Andy I’m…” Suddenly the hatch door slid shut, leaving Richards in the corridor. Richards watched through the little window as the escape pod powered up, then shot out into space. On the viewscreen next to the hatch, he watched the pod tumble out into the black abyss, carrying what was sure to be a very pissed off Andy Baxter. “…sorry.”
“Crew bunks,” Captain Baxter muttered. “We might as well be sleeping on the runabout.”
“They don’t have a lot of cabins on the Aquarius,” Richards said. “You should know that - you inventoried them for years.”
“Don’t remind me,” Baxter said. “Top or bottom?”
“Top, most definitely,” Richards said.
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No, I just happen to know what you do…in your sleep…and I want to be on higher ground.”
“You are making fun of me!”
“Really, Andy, you’ve got to be a little less sensitive, and learn to let things go. If you’re still pissed at me about the escape pod thing, just say so.”
“Well, I am,” Baxter said, folding his arms. “I spent two hours tumbling out of control through an asteroid belt because of you.”
“Because of Captain Hatton,” Richards said. “And it could have been worse, believe me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Baxter glared at Richards. “You’re hiding something from me.”
“I’m really not.”
Just then, they heard a loud thud and a scream outside in the corridor.
“What the hell was that?” Baxter asked, and he and Richards ducked out into the corridor.
A big Therrian, even bigger than the one called Gondarr the Reckless with Authority (if that was even possible) was dragging Sandy March down the corridor by her hair as she kicked and screamed. She was older, and wore her red hair back now, instead of close-cropped, but it was definitely her.
“Are you okay?” Richards called after her.
“Oh, don’t you side with them,” Baxter snapped. “Hi Sandy!” he waved as the big Therrian dragged her away. “Did you finally make Captain, or what?”
“Two…years…ago…” March called out. “Now HELP ME!”
“Yeah, I thought I read that in the newsletter,” Richards said. “The Ulysses?”
“No…” March grunted as she struggled against the Therrian’s tight grip. “The Veracruz. It’s a science….ow!…vessel…”
“Oh, right. Nova-class?” Baxter asked. “One of those shiny new ones?”
“Oh, too bad,” Baxter taunted. “The Explorer’s an upgraded Galaxy-class. That’s right, I said upgraded.”
“SHUT UP and…OW! HELP ME!” March shrieked.
“Stunt work. I’m impressed, March!” Baxter called after her.
“What are you…STOPPIT!…talking about?’
“That just looks painful. I must say, you’re going through a lot of trouble just to pull something over on me.”
“This…isn’t…a prank…you idiot!” she screamed as the big Therrian dragged her around the corner and out of sight. “Therrians….in control of the ship! HELP!”
Baxter laughed at himself as March’s cries disappeared down the corridor. “Wow, I’ve got to give it to her. That was really well acted.”
Richards stared down the corridor. “Are you sure it was acting?”
“Positive,” said Baxter. “Want to prove it? Let’s go to the bridge. If the ‘Therrian’ actors are really supposed to be in control, the leader guy will be there. We can have some fun with him. Like we did when we tried to get the characters to break character at Federation Funpark!”
“Yeah…fun,” Richards muttered and followed Baxter.
“Well, I suppose you all know why I’ve called you here,” Counselor Peterman said, wincing as she adjusted the compression cold pack on her knee and looked around at Tilleran, Doctor Wilcox and Lt. Commander Hartley, along with Piper, Sparks, Mathers, and Janice Browning.
“For…workout tips…” Mathers said breathlessly, gasping as he braced himself on the arm of the couch.
“No, Colby, but good job trying to get into a workout regimen,” Peterman said consolingly. “No, I’ve called you all here to do something about J’hana.”
“Kill her?” Hartley said, wringing the sweat out of her Starfleet- issue t-shirt. “I was supposed to recalibrate the injectors today, but instead I’ve spent two hours working the speed bag in the gym. I’ve got to admit though, it helps pretending that it’s J’hana’s head.”
“No, we can’t kill her,” Peterman said with a sigh. “Set aside the fact that none of us is even close to a physical match for her, it simply isn’t the right thing to do.”
“Well, something has to be done,” Browning said, snacking on a sparerib. “She sent security officers into my restaurant this morning and cleaned it out. Now all I have are organic veggies and some kind of meat with…lots of gristle.” She shivered. “And she took ALL my cheese!”
“Yes, and casualty reports are pouring in from every deck,” Holly Wilcox said, looking at a padd. “Twisted ankles. Cramps. Sprains. Contusions. Exhaustion. You can’t just take a sedentary, out-of-shape group like our crew and throw them into J’hana’s insane workout routine. Somebody’s going to get seriously injured if this keeps up.”
“I find it kinda invigorating,” Sparks said, pulling her hair back into a ponytail. “I’m kind of getting the idea that this is what Starfleet is really supposed to be.”
“Those are just the commercials, sweetie,” Peterman said. “This is the twenty-fourth century. We don’t need to be in shape. We have fancy equipment for all the grunt work.”
“There’s something to be said for the mind-body connection,” Tilleran pitched in.
“Don’t think what I think you’re thinking,” Hartley intoned.
“Which is?” Tilleran asked.
“Trying to connect with J’hana mentally to talk her out of this,” Hartley replied.
“I was thinking of no such thing,” Tilleran said. “Really.”
“Good,” Peterman said. “At any rate, I believe there’s a practical solution to this problem.”
“Which is?” Holly asked.
Peterman pounded her fist on the coffee table resolutely. “Mutiny!”
“I’ll go back to the restaurant and get dinner ready,” Browning said, heading for the door. “One way or another, you guys will be exhausted when you’re finished,”
Richards and Baxter stepped out onto the bridge, to find Gondarr the Reckless with Authority staring at the viewscreen, his back to them.
Hatton was behind him. Upon seeing Baxter and Richards, she mouthed the words: “JUMP HIM! NOW! IDIOTS!”
Baxter smiled. “What’s that, Feldora? Did you say ‘jump him now’?”
Hatton slapped her hand against her forehead as Gondarr the Reckless with Authority whirled around.
“Oh, visitors!” he cooed, steepling his three sets of fingers. “So nice of you to save me the trouble of having Bandrok the Loosely Associated with Sendrak the Murdering Malfeasant go fetch you!”
“Glad to help,” Baxter said, walking toward Gondarr the Reckless with Authority. “I’ve got to give it to you, your costume is flawless. You really look like a Therrian.”
“Come again?” Gondarr the Reckless with Authority asked, puzzled.
“I mean, look at this scary, pointy nose,” Baxter said, reaching up and tugging on Gondarr the Reckless with Authority’s nose. “It’s…well, it’s really fastened on pretty good.”
The Therrian’s bumpy red skin flushed. “What on Braznatz Prime are you doing?”
“Who did this for you? This is a professional job.”
“I beg your…”
“And which arms are fakes and which are the real ones?” Baxter started tugging at Gondarr the Reckless with Authority’s wrists, trying to dislodge any fake arms. “You really can’t tell the difference with prosthetics nowadays. This must have taken some trouble…” He glanced over at Hatton. “I give you credit, Captain. This is a flawless job of…”
SMACK SMACK SMACK!
Three of Gondarr’s left hands slammed Baxter upside the head, knocking him to the deck.
“ENOUGH! I don’t know what you’re playing at, human, but I am bored of you already. Vareedo the Assessor of Tax Information and Battle Readiness, take them to the brig!”
The nearby Therrian stepped up and nodded assent, grabbing Baxter by the neck and lifting him off the deck.
“This isn’t a prank, huh?” Richards said, looking at Hatton.
“No, it really isn’t,” Hatton said with a long sigh as Vareedo wrapped an arm around Richards’s neck and dragged the pair into the turbolift.
“You weren’t very discriminating when you picked out your crew, were you, Captain?” Gondarr said, smoothing his uniform indigantly.
“I didn’t exactly have the pick of the litter, no…” Hatton admitted.
“My neck hurts,” Baxter said, sitting on a bench in one of the brig cells, rubbing his neck and wincing.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have taunted the dangerous renegade alien smuggler warlord,” Richards suggested.
“I thought he was an actor!”
“You dumbass!” Sandy March called from the cell on the other side of the room. “You could have actually tried to save us! Now we’re all screwed!”
“No, he couldn’t have,” Morse muttered from beside her. “This is Baxter we’re talking about.”
Baxter stood up. “And what the HELL is that supposed to mean?”
“We heard about Ficker and the dilithium,” Sandy March called out. “You really made us proud that day.”
“Oh don’t YOU start,” Baxter said. “I’ve taken more than enough crap for that. I said I’m sorry already!”
“You did?” Richards asked, earning him a glare from Baxter.
“Shut up and sit down, both of you” Morse said. “I have reconfigured the control panel of this forcefield to send a coded energy-wave message to my ship. The Intrigue should be here in an hour or so, and will negotiate for our release. Unlike you, I actually know how to stage a rescue.”
Baxter worked his jaw, trying to come up with a reply.
“He’s staged plenty of rescues,” Richards chimed in. “He’s been a great captain. Not always completely on the ball, but a hell of a guy. We’re lucky to have him!”
“Oh don’t you start,” Faulkner said from another nearby cell. “You’re just as bad as he is!”
“Bad at what?” Richards shot back. “All our jobs sucked when we were on this ship! This is an irrelevant ship with an irrelevant mission. What did you expect? Starfleet’s finest? We were lucky to get other assignments.”
“Captain Hatton was a good commander,” Morse said defensively.
“No, she really wasn’t,” Richards said, as Baxter looked on. “She hated this assignment more than anyone. And how great of a leader could she have been? She’s been here all this time with no promotion, not even a better assignment. Is it any wonder she plays nasty pranks on people? It’s probably the only way she can get through the day without phasering herserlf!”
“Wow, Chris, I never thought of it that way,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“You shouldn’t hate her,” Richards said, turning to Baxter. “You should feel sorry for her.”
“And yet I don’t,” Baxter said. “Hmm.”
“Okay, all together now,” Peterman said as she stood in the turbolift with Hartley, Wilcox, and Tilleran. “Don’t fear her. She can’t hurt us. Starfleet wouldn’t allow it.”
“You think that will actually stop her?” Tilleran laughed.
“I’ve got a phaser, just in case,” Hartley piped in.
“You think THAT will actually stop her?” Holly said. “I’m pretty sure she’s indestructible.”
“It’s all part of her mystique, and completely exaggerated,” Peterman said. “She’s a humanoid. She bleeds just like any of the rest of us do.”
“Actually, her blood has an acidic base,” Tilleran said. “It’s mildly corrosive.”
“Whatever. We’re on,” Peterman said, as the doors to the bridge opened. The group stepped out of the lift as one.
“Oh, good, you’re all here,” J’hana said. “Look…”
They walked down to the front of the bridge.
“Commander J’hana, I’m sorry that it’s come to this,” Peterman began. “But we’ve all spoken together, and we’re all in agreement. We need to…”
“Red Alert,” J’hana said, ignoring her and heading to the command chair. “Madera, set a course for Havara Three, maximum warp. Mister Keefler, make sure all of our weapons are at the ready.”
“Havara Three? Isn’t that where the Aquarius is?” Peterman asked. “Why are we going there?”
“I just got word from one of my colleagues on the U.S.S. Intrigue. Therrians have captured the Aquarius,” J’hana said. “Your husband and my sexual plaything, along with the other retirement party guests, are being held captive so that the Therrians can steal our ships or extort a ransom for them. We are therefore going to go rescue them.”
“Um…” Peterman stammered.
J’hana’s eyes narrowed. “Did you have something to add?”
“I’ll get down to engineering and batton down the hatches, see if I can divert some more power to engines and shields,” Hartley said, heading for the turbolift.
“I’ll get Sickbay ready just in case we have to receive casualties,” Holly said, joining Hartley in the turbolift.
“I’ll take sciences,” Tilleran said, heading for her console.
J’hana looked at Peterman askance. “Well, woman? You had something you wanted to say?”
“Nope,” Peterman said, her expression changing from one of shock to one of resolve. “I just wanted to say I’m really glad you’re in command right now.”
J’hana sat down in the command chair and looked toward the viewscreen. “I thought so. By the way…you appear rather sweaty.”
“Yeah, I came from working out. Should I go shower?”
“Not right now, but perhaps later, when I have more time.”
“You. It’s your turn,” Borag the Trivia Champion said, pointing at Baxter and lowering the brig forcefield.
“He doesn’t know anything,” Richards said.
“Nice,” Baxter muttered, looking at Richards. “Kick a guy when he’s down.”
“No, I mean it,” Richards said, turning to Borag. “I’m the Explorer’s X.O. and I used to be Chief Engineer. I know her schematics inside and out. Defensive weaknesses, access codes. Captain Baxter is mostly a nimrod. He doesn’t really know anything.”
“Is this so?”
“No!” Baxter snapped, standing up. “I know everything! Chris, what are you doing?”
“Leave him,” Richards said dismissively. “He’s really just for show.”
“Thank you for the information. We’ll take you both, then,” Borag said, grabbing Richards and Baxter each by the neck and dragging them toward the door.
“Urk! Real nice Chris!” Baxter gasped as he struggled. “Even at a low point like this, you still won’t support me!”
“I was trying to save you, dumb ass! I wanted to take the hit for you like a good first officer!”
“Yes. I’m your X.O. and your best friend…that’s what X.O.’s and best friends do!”
“Chris…” Baxter said, his lower lip trembling.
“Now we’re both going to get tortured,” Richards said. “Happy now?”
“Yeah, I actually am,” Baxter said. “So, the escape pod thing…”
“You’re still obsessing about that! God, Andy, you don’t even know the half of it!” Richards choked out as Borag dragged the pair out of the brig.
“Well,” Captain Morse said, once they were alone. “Poor bastards.”
“Yeah,” March said. “Too bad.”
“Anybody have a pack of fizzbin cards?” Faulkner asked.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
“Come,” Hatton said, looking up from the desk in her ready room.
“Mister Richards to see you,” Commander Morse said, standing by Richards in the door way.
“Yes, well, come in then,” Hatton said, pushing her padds aside. “What is it, Ensign?”
“You crossed the line, Captain. You launched my friend into space for no good reason and I want to know why!”
“Because it was fun?” Hatton said, exchanging glances with Morse, who shrugged.
“It shouldn’t have been fun. You guys are Starfleet officers. Start acting like it!”
“Some nerve on him, huh Paul?” Hatton asked.
“We’ve seen this before,” Morse said. “Fresh out of the Academy, head full of rules and protocol. But what you don’t seem to get is that you’re out in deep space on a ship that couldn’t matter worth a crap to Starfleet. We’ve got to live a little differently out here. We’ve got to find ways to amuse ourselves, and build morale.”
“By busting another crewperson down? Starfleet’s rules…and basic human kindness… should never matter more than out here!”
“You presume to talk to us about what matters?” Hatton scoffed. “Boy, I made captain while you were still studying algebra.”
“I’ve said my piece,” Richards said. “But if either of you had half a heart, you’d lay off Ensign Baxter and bring that pod back.” He walked toward the door.
“All right, we’ll bring the pod back,” Hatton said. “You’re right, I suppose. There are other, less extreme pranks we can pull that will be equally satisfying.”
“That wasn’t my point at all!”
“But in return for this favor, we’ll have to do something.” Hatton glanced at Morse. “Help me out here, Paul…”
“Well, Ensign Richards is in line to head up the warp field control team…” Morse said thoughtfully.
“That sounds like a fun assignment. And right up your alley too…”
“I’m…honored…” Richards began.
“Move him to waste reclamation instead,” Hatton sighed, returning to one of her padds.
“Right away, Captain.”
“Thanks for listening,” Richards muttered, leaving the ready room.
“Assholes,” Baxter muttered, seated at the interrogation table in the deck five rec room, which he was pretty sure was a poker table when the Aquarius wasn’t being controlled by Therrian smugglers. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
“I don’t know, it didn’t matter, ultimately. In the grand scheme of things, it was petty. Besides, we were ensigns. What could we have done? The best thing to do was bide our time until a better assignment came along.”
“Or, in my case, the Secondprize,” Baxter muttered.
“Hey, at least their captain didn’t launch you out of the ship on an escape pod.”
“Their science officer gassed me into unconsciousness.”
“Well, I’m sure you deserved it,” Richards laughed.
“Yes, actually,” Baxter said, smiling. “Ah, memories…”
Richards sat in silence for a few moments. “You’ve been ticked this whole trip, and I’m just figuring out why.”
“Do tell,” Baxter said conversationally.
“You blame me for what happened with Ficker getting away.”
Baxter shook his head. “No way. That was all my fault. I can take my punishment standing up.”
“I was trying to tell you that your father had a fleet standing by, and that all we had to do was stall Ficker…”
“I wasn’t listening. I was just pissed.”
“I know, but I could have tried harder.”
Baxter sighed. “I don’t blame you, Chris. Matter of fact, you’re a great friend. And a supportive X.O.”
“You think so?”
Baxter nodded. “Yep.”
They sat in silence for a few moments. “Ready to get tortured?” Richards asked.
“I wouldn’t rather be tortured with anyone else, Chris,” Baxter said.
“Thanks, I guess,” Richards said, as the doors to the rec room opened up and Borag the Trivia Champion stepped in.
“Give us the Explorer’s command codes,” Borag said, “and be spared a ridiculously cruel fate.”
“Um,” Baxter said, looking at Richards. “How about we don’t, and say we did?”
“So you want to make this interesting, eh?” Borag asked. “Okay, I’m game.” He cracked his three sets of knuckles.
Suddenly, the Aquarius rattled violently. The deck shook and the lights flickered.
“Gondarr the Reckless with Authority to Borag the Trivia Champion,” came a chirp over the comm system.
“Borag the Trivia Champion here, what can I do for you, Gondarr the Reckless with Authority?”
“The Explorer and the Intrigue are bearing down on us. The commander of the Intrigue wants to negotiate, but it seems that the Explorer people have other plans.”
“Ah, J’hana,” Richards said wistfully as the Aquarius shook again.
“What do we do, Gondarr the Reckless with Authority?”
“Bring the two Explorer people up to the bridge. Let’s see how the commander of the Explorer feels about two senior officers sacrificing themselves for the good of the ship!”
“Can I just save you some time and tell you that she’ll love it?” Baxter asked.
“We’re being hailed by the Intrigue,” Keefler called out. “Funny thing, they’re asking us to stop shooting at the ship with hostages on it. Meanwhile, the Therrian ships are approaching from the other side of the planet.”
“Call the Intrigue and tell them they are cowards and they deserve to die, then ask them to flank us and fend off the Therrian vessels,” J’hana said. “Then return your attention to the Aquarius. Dismantle her shields and prepare to send an away team.”
“J’hana, isn’t this, I don’t know, dangerous?” asked Peterman.
“Are you scared?”
“Good. I enjoy fear,” J’hana said, licking her lips.
“You’re sending an away team over?”
“And who’s going to be on the team?”
“Me,” J’hana said, standing up and stretching her back out. A cascade of pops sounded down her spine. “I do so love fighting Therrians.”
“J’hana!” Peterman called after her as she headed for the turbolift.
“Imzadi, you’re in command,” the Andorian said, as she disappeared within the lift.
“But…” Peterman stammered.
“Just calm down and let her work,” Tilleran said, moving down to the command chair. “She knows what she’s doing.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this, Commander?” Peterman asked.
“Yep,” Tilleran said, and glanced at Peterman. “Did I hear the last time you were in command, you traded a bunch of dangerous scientific supplies to Ficker for Baxter and Richards’s release?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Peterman said. “They’ve got to stop getting captured, huh?”
“A beautiful ship,” Gondarr the Reckless with Authority said looking at the Explorer as it sailed into view, weapons firing. “I cannot wait to transfer my flag there.”
“Yes, beautiful,” Baxter said, looking to Hatton. “And packed with firepower, too.”
“What was your name again?” Hatton asked, glancing at Baxter.
“Shields failing,” the Therrian at tactical said.
“Not important,” Baxter said. “Suffice to say, we’ll be rescued shortly.”
“Too bad we’re going to kill you before your people can do that,” Gondarr said. “Shavrok the Overconfident and Athletic, hail the Explorer and tell them we’ll kill their X.O. if they fire one more shot at us!”
“No. Kill their captain!” Baxter snapped. “I’m more important!”
“Important,” Hatton laughed.
“Don’t you start in, you old bag,” Baxter said. “You can’t scare us anymore. We’re all grown up now.”
Richards gasped as Borag came at him, withdrawing a massive sword from its sheath and putting it up against his neck. “She can’t scare us, but I’m pretty sure this guy can.”
“The Explorer has stopped shooting at us,” Shavrok reported. “They’re hailing us.”
“On screen,” Gondarr said, giving Baxter a triumphant smile.
Tilleran appeared on the viewscreen, a concerned-looking Peterman in the background. “This is Commander Ariel Tilleran of the U.S.S. Explorer. You are currently in violation of about a dozen Federation statutes. You and your ships will stand down immediately or face dire repercussions.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Gondarr the Reckless with Authority, I’m detecting transporter activity!” Shavrok called out.
“You dare try to sneak someone aboard to face us in battle! Laughable.” He shook his head. “Borag, kill the good-looking one…the X.O.”
“Oh, you’ve really pissed me off now,” Baxter muttered.
Suddenly the Jefferies tube hatch in the middle of the bridge exploded open and J’hana sprung from it, flinging herself into the air, firing off phaser blasts at the two Therrians manning bridge consoles, felling them instantly, then leaping on Gondarr’s back, wrapping her body around him like a snake.
“You filthy Therrian!” she snapped, jerking Gondarr around so she could face Borag and Richards. “Tell your man to let my mate go or I will rip off four of your six arms, starting with the one you use to…”
“RELEASE HIM!” Gondarr ordered quickly.
J’hana climbed down, smoothing her uniform, then turned to Richards and Baxter. “Captain, Commander…are you all right?”
Richards and Baxter looked at each other. “Yeah,” Baxter said. “A great mancation.” They looked at Captain Hatton, who stood, shaken, by the aft stations. “Well, Captain, it’s been…memorable…but I believe the party’s now over.”
“I suppose I owe you my thanks,” Hatton said out of the side of her mouth.
“Consider it a retirement present,” Baxter said, patting her on the back. “Enjoy your golden years. And feel free to stop by the Explorer whenever you’re in the mood for a prank or two. J’hana, Richards… let’s get out of here.”
“Mancation?” J’hana asked.
Stardate 58411.5. After lingering for a couple hours to help the Intrigue secure the Aquarius and disarm the two Therrian ships in orbit of Havara Three, we’ve departed, leaving the Intrigue to haul the prisoners back to Federation space. There’s something to be said for not overstaying one’s welcome.
The visit back to the Aquarius was okay, all things considered. We didn’t die, which is a plus, and we got to see some old, familiar faces, who I’m pretty sure don’t give a crap about us. Safe to say, the feeling’s mutual.
“More ale?” Mirk asked, walking up to Richards and Baxter’s table in the back of the Constellation Club.
“Lots more,” Baxter said. “I’m getting as drunk as a Ruxpin tonight.”
“I’m not sure what that means, but okay,” Mirk said.
“Steffie’s down for the night, and Chaka is staying with her so we can have the evening off,” Peterman said, limping up to Baxter and sitting beside him.
“What a guy,” Baxter said, sipping his drink. “Your knee still bothering you?”
“Yeah, Holly gave me something for the pain, but I think I re- aggravated it chasing Steffie around the arboretum.”
“J’hana really worked you, huh?” Richards asked.
“Let’s not discuss it,” Peterman sighed.
“Guess we’re all getting older,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“Speak for yourself,” Peterman said. “I chalk my problems up to being tortured by J’hana.”
“Better than being tortured by a Therrian,” Richards said, sipping his drink.
“Not by much,” Baxter muttered.
“So did you get anything out of this visit?” Peterman asked.
“Not sure,” Baxter said. “I guess it’s just as well we all went our separate ways. First jobs aren’t supposed to be great. That’s why they’re first jobs, right?”
“And whether you’re being pranked by Hatton and Morse or dressed down by Nechayev and your father, you’ve just got to pick yourself up off the mat, and wait it out till something better comes along,” Richards said.
“Ambitious. Motivational, even,” Peterman said with a smirk.
“Still, we have to consider ourselves fortunate,” Baxter said. “Some unlucky souls like Hatton are destined to spend their whole careers on ships like the Aquarius, which makes you wonder I guess, how we were so lucky to avoid her fate?”
Peterman thought about it a few moments and then smiled softly to herself. “Because someone once said that luck protects fools, little children, and ship’s named Enterprise.” She squeezed Baxter’s shoulder and leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek.
“Great,” Baxter said. “So what does that make us?”
Everyone is on their toes when a Klingon talk show host comes to interview the Explorer crew. They realize this is a chance they sorely need to redeem themselves. But there may be more to this than just a primetime special. What dark secret lies in wait for Lt. Commander J’hana? And how many times can Baxter stand to be called a coward?