Author: Anthony Butler
for Majel Barrett-Roddenberry
Captain Baxter lay awake on his bed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.
“Stupid swing marshmallows,” Counselor Peterman moaned, rolling over and draping an arm over his chest.
“We’ve got to get this day going,” Baxter said. “You awake yet?”
“Yeah, right. I speak in gibberish when I’m awake,” Peterman said, eyes closed. “Of course I’m still asleep, silly. Countdown computer fox.”
“Well, wake up.”
“Don’t wanna. Surprise belt.”
“We have to go to work,” Baxter said, and reached down, gently tickling Peterman’s hip until her eyes opened and she shot up.
“Hey! Stop doing that! I’m nauseous!” Peterman cried out, and pulled away, rolling up and swinging her legs to the floor.
“Oyster night at Mirk’s didn’t agree with you?”
“Ugh. It feels like my stomach is in zero-G.”
“Want some pancakes?”
“No! Why would I want to eat? I just told you. I’m nauseous.”
“Actually, you’re nauseated,” Baxter said. “If you were nauseous, that would mean you were making me nauseated.”
Peterman shook her head. “Okay, then I correct myself. YOU are nauseous.”
“I hardly think I’m at fault,” Baxter said. “I told you to quit after the eighth oyster!”
“I didn’t have any oysters,” Peterman said, leaning slowly to her feet. “That was you. And it was me telling you to quit.”
Peterman ambled into the bathroom and turned on the light, sliding an arm across her face to shield herself from the light. “What are you doing just lying awake there, anyway?”
“Thinking about Plato. Janice wants me to talk him out of joining Starfleet.”
“Are you going to?”
“It’s very important to Janice.”
Peterman leaned against the door frame to the bathroom. “Do you think Plato shouldn’t join Starfleet?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ve got to get ready, I guess. I’ve got an appointment with Commander Hartley at oh-nine hundred.”
“Hartley? Does she ever meet with you?”
“What’s her problem?”
“I don’t know. And if I did, I couldn’t tell you,” Peterman said, and retreated into the bathroom, just as the comm system bleeped.
“What,” Captain Baxter said dully, leaning over and tapping a control on his night stand. “Starfleet Command for you, Captain,” Ensign Keefler said over the audio channel.
“It’s my dad, isn’t it.”
“Afraid so, sir.”
“Did you tell him I was asleep?”
“Yes. And he said you should be a man and wake up at a decent hour and answer the damn comm.”
“His words, not yours, I take it.”
“Shit,” Baxter muttered, and leaned out of bed, facing the screen in his bedroom. “Put it through.”
Admiral Harlan Baxter appeared on the viewscreen. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”
“I had a late night last night, Dad. Star charts. Something.”
“Huh,” Harlan mumbled and leaned forward, pointing at Baxter with his cigar. “Well, I have a few updates for you from th’home front.”
“Can you make it quick? Janice’s omelette station is only open for another half hour.”
Harlan looked at the ceiling as if to gather strength from it, then glared back at Baxter. “The Idlewild has made another appearance. They rescued a Breen trader from nearly sinking into a black hole.”
“The nerve,” Baxter said. “What’ll they do next? Save a planet from an environmental disaster?”
“Actually, Starfleet Intelligence has it that they’re on their way to Vordon Four to stop a massive tectonic shift, so…”
“Good for them. What’s this have to do with us, Dad?” Baxter asked testily.
“You need to raise your profile. Do something to put your ship on the map!”
“Okay,” Baxter said with a sigh. “I’ll look at my schedule. I might be able to move some things around in the afternoon…”
“And something else. I just got word from Starfleet Academy. They’ve reviewed your recent progress reports on the cadets…”
“Great! Did they like Cadet Mathers’ poetry?”
“The feeling is, your training of these cadets lacks a certain…”
“Substance.” Harlan shook his head. “Carrying your luggage and watering your plants is not in any way ‘tactical training.’”
“Sparks has spent some time on the bridge,” Baxter said. “And they all…play chess together. And pizza…Mathers helped us make pizza on the Etracia mission. And Cadet Piper…”
Harlan glanced at the report on his screen. “Cadet Piper has been giving Lieutenant Sefelt backrubs while he is on bridge detail.”
“It seemed to ease his tension. Piper is an assistant counselor after all…”
Harlan worked his jaw thoughtfully. “Son, give those kids something constructive to do before their tour on the Explorer is up, or you will join them on their trip back to the academy in two weeks!”
Baxter blinked. “Ok, dad.”
“Oh. And ‘nother thing,” Harlan said, stuffing the cigar back into his mouth. “Mmrpmttd flmdlrl.”
“Fleet Admiral? Really?” Baxter smiled. “That’s great! Dad, it’s about time they promoted you.”
“Drlll bparty cmn up, rnd rnt you jrnme.”
“Kelly and I would be delighted to join you at the reception,” Baxter said. “Name the time and place.”
“Grttwrk. Bxrr out.”
Baxter watched his dad disappear from the screen. “How about that? Way to go, Dad.” He got up and walked over to the bathroom door. “Hey hon, did you hear? Dad got promoted to Fleet Admiral!”
“Really?” Peterman asked, leaning out of the door to face Baxter, looking green and peaked. “That’s…ugh…that’s uh, really…” She turned and ran back into the bathroom. “BLUAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
Baxter shook his head. “Stupid oysters.”
“I didn’t have the oysters!”
“Hey…there…Commander,” Baxter called to Commander Tilleran as she headed up to her station on the bridge.
He walked up to her station, leaning against it as she plucked at its controls. “How ya doing?”
“Fine,” she said, still looking at her panel.
“Getting along fine, with all that, you know, telepathic addiction stuff?”
Tilleran chuckled. “Sir, you really should have been a counselor.”
“You’re making jokes.” Baxter smiled. “That’s a good sign.”
“I’m fine.” She looked up at him and gave a small smile. “Really.”
“Well, I just wanted you to know you’re doing a great job. Commander Richards and I have noticed a renewed dedication to your duties. You seem to be your old self again.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Tilleran said, which was mostly true. There was just this one nagging thing…
“Good, good,” Baxter said, glancing about idly, shifting from foot to foot. He looked at her panel. “So. Scans, huh?”
Tilleran sighed. “Do you need something, Captain?”
Baxter took a big breath. “Well, now that you mention it…apparently, our cadets have not logged enough bridge duty, or completed any of a dozen activities they’re supposed to be doing as part of their field internship.”
“Didn’t you and Richards use Piper and Mathers as caddies on the holodeck golf course?”
“It was mini golf,” Baxter said. “But that’s beside the point. The cadets are only on board another two weeks, and in that time they’re expected to go on four away missions, chart a star cluster, and investigate a mysterious stellar phenomenon that may or may not be voiced by actor Richard Mulligan.”
“That’s a tall order.”
“Are you up to it?” Baxter asked eagerly.
Tilleran blinked. “Up to what?”
“It’s slow around here.” Baxter looked around the bridge and then back to Tilleran. “I’d like you to take the Escort out on a little test run. Wherever you want to go; the mission parameters are up to you. Just put the cadets through their paces. Give them a good shakedown. What do you say?”
Tilleran thought about it a moment. This was the kind of assignment she wouldn’t have gotten a month ago, or even a week ago, for that matter. The crew had been keeping her rather at arm’s length since she’d returned from her “time away,” coming to terms with her telepathic addiction. This was big. And, if she planned the trip right, she could make a slight detour and resolve the thing that had been keeping her awake nights. “You can count on me, Captain!” she said brightly.
“I knew I could,” Baxter said, patting her on the arm. “The Escort’s already prepped and ready to go. And by that, I mean the air recyclers are on everywhere …including the…” He blanched. “Captain’s Reading Room.”
“Thank Providence,” Tilleran said, and stood. “In that case, I’d better get busy.”
“Go get ‘em, Commander!” Baxter said, and strolled back to the command chair.
“So we’re agreed,” Tilleran said. “A meeting is in order.”
On the monitor in Tilleran’s quarters, Crellus shook his head incredulously. “Are you buying properties from me or what?”
“No. You know very well I’d be grinding up against you right now if I were interested in properties. Such is our custom.”
“Fair point,” Crellus said. “Still, I have to admit, your approach here isn’t exactly giving me frentil bugs in my stomach.”
“This is a businesslike arrangement,” Tilleran said. “You are nearing the age of consummation, as am I. We were promised to each other at age three. So this relationship must, at the very least, be…explored.”
Crellus grinned. “And how, my dear Ariel, do you plan on exploring it?”
Tilleran sunk into the chair opposite her panel and stretched her arms out. She felt a little hum deep in her belly, warm and inviting. “I’m open to all ideas.”
“Yes, I know all about your…openness.”
It was Tilleran’s turn to smile. “Is that a problem?”
“Not at all.”
“Well, let’s not get our hopes up. Like I said, this is all just…exploratory…at this point.”
Crellus nodded patiently. “Well, I just so happen to be closing a deal in the Kalibasas system. What’s say we meet there in four days?”
“You’re on,” Tilleran said, watching the coordinates feed into a window on her desktop screen. “It just so happens I’m running a detached mission and the location is up to me. I’ve got to put our cadets through their paces. Kalibasas is as good a place as any.”
“If it will bring you to me, I wholeheartedly agree.”
“Just don’t keep me waiting. I’m a woman in her prime, after all.”
“You don’t have to remind me,” Crellus said, and blew a kiss at Tilleran. “Until then, Ariel.”
“Yep,” Tilleran said, watching Crellus disappear from her screen. She leaned forward and switched the screen off, and felt a chill of fear. What the hells was she doing?
Cadet Piper staggered out of the airlock, following Mathers and Sparks.
“I’ll never get used to that,” he moaned, clutching his stomach. “How can we be such a technologically advanced species, and yet we still haven’t figured out how to board an upside down ship without nearly vomiting?”
“There’s no ‘nearly’ about it,” Mathers muttered.
“I’m sure someone’s figured out a way,” Sparks said, staring back at the airlock thoughtfully. “It’s just that none of them serve aboard the Explorer.”
“Plus, it’s fun,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, standing at the end of the corridor, hands draped behind her back. “I’m glad to see the three of you are punctual.”
“Do we really have to do this?” Piper asked. “I’ve got a lot of appointments. Well, Counselor Peterman has a lot of appointments, and I’ve been seeing them for her.”
“Yes, we have to do this,” Tilleran said. “You cadets might as well do a little more than shlep luggage around while you’re here. That is what your internship is all about, isn’t it?”
“Hey! I was acting science officer for two weeks!” Sparks protested.
“And we’re all really impressed, Cadet,” Tilleran said.
Well, this is getting off to a good start, Sparks thought, thinking of Plato. She hadn’t spoken to him since he stormed out of the holodeck more than a week ago.
“Have no fear, Cadet,” Tilleran said, clapping Sparks on the back. “Something tells me you’ll enjoy yourself on this trip.”
“You might want to get your telepathy checked,” she muttered to herself.
Tilleran shook her head, and turned to head back to the bridge. “Get settled in, people. We’ll be meeting in an hour to discuss the mission.”
“A week is a long time to be away,” Piper said, as the group headed the other way, toward what were laughingly called the ship’s guest cabins.
“Yes, it is,” affirmed Sparks.
“A long time to leave unfinished business back there.” He pointed back at the airlock.
“Maybe some time away is what I need,” Sparks said, mostly to herself.
“The Kalibasas System,” Tilleran said, pacing the small bridge of the Escort. Considering the thing was little more than a hollowed out cockpit, with three tiny bridge stations, a wall of panels along the back and a command chair in the middle, she considered herself fortunate to be able to pace around at all. “Can anybody tell me what’s so special about this system?”
“Nothing,” Sparks said, plucking at the science station. “Except a few rocky worlds with no tangible value.”
“No discernable value,” Tilleran said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s no value at all. We’re going to enter into geosynchonous orbit around Kailibasas Three and take a look around. Correction…” she pointed at the cadets. “You’re going to take a look around, set up camp, and complete a survey of the planet.”
“So we just beam down and look around?” Sparks asked. “We’ve done that before.”
“I’m so sorry you feel the mission is redundant, Cadet,” said Tilleran. “But part of being in Starfleet is not questioning your orders. You carry them out. For now, just maintain our course. You have the bridge.”
“We’ll arrive at the Kalibasas system in less than three days. I suggest you prepare yourselves by practicing tactical scenarios.”
“Which tactical scenarios?”
“That you can figure out for yourself,” Tilleran said with a coy smile, and retreated out the aft bridge door.
“Lot of help she is,” Piper said.
“Well,” Sparks sighed, shifting to the command chair. “This is what we’re here for. Let’s start practicing.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be back on the ship dating a half-changeling?” Piper suggested.
“Shut up, Piper. You’re not a counselor on this trip.”
Piper smiled. “But I just can’t help myself.”
Sparks gritted her teeth. “Try.”
“Guys, don’t fight!” Mathers protested.
“We’re not fighting, Colby,” Piper said, turning to his panel. “Just friendly sparring.”
Sparks looked at him sidelong. “Yeah. Right.”
“What is she thinking?” Sparks asked, drawing her knees up and leaning her chin between them as she stared across the Escort’s puny mess hall, watching Tilleran, who seemed intent on her padd and only occasionally sipped from her cup of tea.
“She’s thinking of ways she can humiliate and embarrass us, I’d imagine,” Piper suggested.
“She’s just doing her job,” Mathers said. “Somebody’s got to whip us into shape. It might as well have been her.”
“I figured it would have been J’hana,” Piper said.
“She gives me the creeps,” Sparks mused, staring at Tilleran, running two fingers through her hair and twirling it.
“J’hana, or Tilleran?” asked Mathers.
“Both of them,” Sparks said.
“It must have been tough when she broke it off with J’hana,” Piper mused. “I hear she did it because she couldn’t maintain her professionalism anymore.”
Sparks turned a wary eye on Piper. “Are you trying to tell me something, Ethan?”
“Nope,” Piper said innocently.
“J’hana and Tilleran were…together?” Mathers asked. “Wow. Now I’m starting to feel weird…”
Sparks sighed. “I’m going back to the bridge to run some tactical simulations. If either of you care to join me, c’mon up.”
Piper and Mathers sat there a couple minutes looking at Tilleran after Sparks left.
“You wanna go up there?” Piper asked.
Mathers stared at Tilleran. “In a minute.”
After a quiet dinner, Tilleran returned to the captain’s quarters, which was really just the Captain’s ready room, with the sofa opened up into a bed. Life on the Escort was all about economy of space.
Tilleran busied herself at unfolding the bed and straightening its childish star and moon sheets, her last act before slipping into her silk pajamas and calling Crellus for a status update.
It was a tad off-putting for Tilleran to sleep in this particular couch-bed. Forgetting for a moment that a large bar tended to poke into your back from underneath the mattress, this bed was also the site of much…
Tilleran shook her head, trying to rid herself of impressions of Baxter and Peterman in full coitus mode on the same couch bed. How could they do anything with that damn bar sticking in their backs?
Well, it was either this or a standard crew cabin, which was about one fourth the size with a bed that would generously be referred to as a shelf.
Just then, the door to the captain’s quarters chimed.
Relieved at the diversion, Tilleran looked up and called out, “Come.”
The door slid open to reveal Cadet Mathers.
“Hiya, Commander,” Mathers said, stepping in. “Is this a bad time?”
“I was just about to go to sleep. As should you. I’ve got a lot of simulations planned for you tomorrow.”
“Uh huh,” Mathers said, and stepped further into the room. “Well, I was just stopping by to see what you were up to.”
“I’m just getting ready for bed,” Tilleran said. “That’s what I’m…up to…” She trailed off as her face went hot and she felt a chill ride down her spine. “Cadet?”
“Yes,” Mathers said, sauntering over, leaning up against a wall.
“Are you all right?”
Mathers smiled. “I’m better than all right. I can’t get you out of my mind.”
Tilleran winced, as a strong telepathic impression sailed from Mathers right at her. “Cadet! I am your superior officer! You shouldn’t be thinking these kinds of things!”
“I can’t help it,” Mathers said, stepping closer to Tilleran and looking in her eyes. “‘Every time I look at you I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue. It’s no problem I mind, but it’s a problem I find, living a life I can’t leave behind.’”
“Are you reciting poetry to me, Cadet?”
“Classic Earth poem. ‘Every time I see you falling, I get down on my knees and pray. Waiting for that final moment…’” He took Tilleran’s chin in his hands. “‘You say the words that I can’t say…’”
Tilleran looked into Cadet Mathers’ eyes and felt his stare. She thought long and hard. Licked her lips.
“NO!” she finally shouted, pushing Mathers away. “Get back to your quarters now, Cadet!”
Mathers blinked, stumbling back. “Uh, Commander…what am I doing here?”
“Nothing. Nothing, Cadet,” Tilleran said, ushering Mathers to the door. “Just, uh, get back to your quarters and prepare for tomorrow’s exercises.”
“I’m feeling a little nauseous.”
“That makes two of us. Sleep next to a bucket,” Tilleran said, pushing Mathers out the door.
“I don’t understand it,” Tilleran said, as Crellus listened intently on the viewscreen in her cabin. “I’m not sending out telepathic impressions anymore, and even if I did, the last thing I would want is for Cadet Mathers to come on to me.”
“Has this ever happened before?” Crellus asked.
“Not this particular thing, no,” Tilleran said. “I would remember something like this.”
“I’m afraid I have no explanation. Unless of course…”
“NO!” Tilleran fairly shouted. “It’s not that. It can’t be that.”’
Crellus blanched. “What if it is?”
Tilleran backed away from the screen and sighed deeply. “Then we are in a lot of trouble.”
“Have you heard anything from Tilleran today?” Cadet Piper asked as Sparks sat rigid in the command chair, staring intently at the viewscreen.
“No, and I’m fine with that,” Sparks said. “I’ve already catalogued four nearby star systems and cross-referenced them with our records at memory alpha.”
“I had a tuna sub for lunch,” Mathers offered helpfully from the tactical station.
Piper leaned on the command chair and stared at the screen. “What’s so interesting on the viewscreen?”
“Space,” Sparks said. “The final frontier.”
“Hmm,” Piper said. “So what am I supposed to do? Counsel you guys?”
“You could make yourself useful and check on the engines. We’ve been riding at high warp for the better part of two days. I’d love it if we didn’t blow up.”
“You’re cheerful,” Piper observed.
“No, I’m not. There. We’ve discussed my feelings, so you can say you successfully counseled me.”
“You don’t have to be snippy.”
“Did any of you feel the need to make out with anyone last night?” Mathers asked.
“No,” said Piper and Sparks in unison.
Tilleran stared blankly at her desktop terminal. Nearly three days had passed, and the Betazoid had been keeping her crew at arms length, until she could find a solution to her odd feelings and the reactions she was eliciting in her men.
“Are you sure you can’t find her?” Tilleran asked.
The man on the terminal shook his head. “She’s probably in a board meeting, or out to lunch, perhaps. I could try to raise her on planet comm…”
The door to her cabin chirped.
“No, don’t bother,” Tilleran said. “I’ll call her later.” She looked up. “Come.”
The door slid open to reveal Cadet Piper.
“Greetings, Commander,” Piper said. “I just wanted to let you know that…” He trailed off and sniffed at the air, then looked at Tilleran, his eyes glazing a bit.
“Cadet, please tell me…”
“Are you wearing a new perfume?” Piper asked, giving Tilleran a long, hard look. “Or doing something different with your hair?”
“Cadet, keep your distance. That’s an order,” Tilleran said. “What did you want?”
“We’ve arrived in the Kalibasas system.”
“Good. Take us into orbit of Kalibasas Three and then tell Cadet Sparks to assemble her away team and beam down.”
“You’re not going to…” Piper glanced at Tilleran. “You know, supervise? Provide…discipline if necessary?”
Tilleran sighed. “You all know what to do. Sparks has been on several away teams. Even you and Mathers have had the occasional…experience.”
“I got eaten by a giant puppy.”
“So there’s nowhere to go but up,” Tilleran said, standing and moving behind the couch, establishing a barrier between herself and Piper. “Just report to the bridge and then beam down when ready. Tell Sparks that she’s in charge and that you are all to thoroughly explore the planet. I don’t want to be disturbed unless there is a major crisis. Got that?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Tilleran nodded. “Then go!”
“One more thing, Commander,” Piper said, moving toward the door.
“You have the deepest, darkest eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re like two wormholes, twinkling…”
Three figures materialized on the stark, white, icy surface of Kalibasas Three. One of them put her hands on her hips and glared at the barren landscape.
“This sucks,” Sparks said, as Mathers pulled out his tricorder. “There could at least be trees.”
“Nope. No trees,” Mathers said. “There is a concentration of xenon gas however, that’s just low enough not to kill us.”
“That’s nice,” Piper said, turning to Sparks. “See? Things are looking up.”
“Plus we get to wear the environmental jackets,” Mathers said, snug in his thick, well-padded jacket. “Toasty!”
“Shut up and pull out your tricorder. Let’s get this overwith.”
“Commander Tilleran said to be thorough,” Piper said.
“She also said I’m in charge. So…” She waved around at the dusty landscape as the wind picked up and swirled ice chips around. “Get busy.”
The trio walked along a valley of snow and ice, ringed by more, well, snow and ice. Mathers and Piper scanned with their tricorders, waving them around and recording their data, while Sparks waved her palm beacon along the contours of the valley wall.
“Say,” Sparks said, after they’d walked in silence for several minutes. “Has Commander Tilleran been acting a little…odd on this mission?”
“Nope,” Mathers and Piper said in unison.
Sparks glanced at them sidelong. “Are you sure about that?”
“I would have been the first to notice,” Piper said. “I’m a counselor.”
“Assistant counselor,” Sparks smirked.
“I think she’s been nice. A little firm, but I sort of like that about her,” Mathers said.
“Yes. She is firm,” Piper said. “Really, really firm.”
Sparks turned on Piper and Mathers. “Are you two…no, nevermind. I don’t want to know!”
“What?” Piper asked, looking at Mathers, who shrugged.
“I came aboard as soon as I could,” Crellus said, appearing in the doorway to Tilleran’s temporary quarters in the Captain’s ready room. “I’ve just put the finishing touches on a blockbuster deal and I feel like celeb…” He stared long and hard at Tilleran as she sat on the couch with her head in her hands. “Ariel, you’re…positively radiant!”
Crellus was handsome than ever, in a finely crafted suit from the Men’s SuitStation, his smile white and dashing. And he was talking about a deal. For Crellus, it was about material things, money, land, sales. Tilleran shrunk inwardly at that. This was why she had a hard time picturing them married. He just didn’t want the things she wanted.
“My…‘radiance’ is the problem,” Tilleran said. “For the last week or so, something’s been building in me, and I think it’s reaching its peak right now.”
Crellus worked his jaw thoughtfully. “Do you think it’s…”
“I don’t know. I never paid attention in health class…”
“Well, then…” Crellus said, and stepped into the cabin, allowing the door to close. “I have a couple of days before I have to get back to Betazed. I’ve…parked my shuttle in your bay.”
“That so?” Tilleran asked, looking up at him as he walked over. Every fiber of her being said that she was rushing into this, that she and Crellus didn’t have enough in common, that they could never be happy together. No, that wasn’t right. Not every fiber. There was one fiber that was telling her something very different. And that fiber was screaming at the top of its fibery little lungs.
“It’s a small bay,” Crellus said, stepping closer, and unbuttoning his shirt.
“The smallest,” Tilleran gasped, feeling her cheeks flush.
“And my ship…”
“Don’t say it…”
“Well, it’s quite a ship,” Crellus said, pulling his shirt off as Tilleran sprung to her feet and devoured him in a deep, long kiss, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him down onto the couch.
“Does this couch fold out?” Crellus asked, stopping briefly to catch his breath.
Cadet Sparks sighed and slapped her combadge again as her long hair swirled in the wind, whipping into her face. “Sparks to Tilleran.”
“Still nothing?” Piper asked, stepping up next to Sparks as Mathers unloaded his backpack and began setting up a small campsite, with pots, pans and an instant flame kit.
“Nope,” Sparks said. “And I’ve been able to interface with the Escort’s computer, so I know it’s not a matter of sensor interference.”
“Well, I’m looking forward to camping out!” Mathers said. “It’s so…adventurous!”
“It’s freezing,” Sparks said. “And Tilleran doesn’t seem interested in our progress reports.”
“Maybe she’s testing our independence,” Piper said. “We are supposed to be learning how to take care of ourselves on this trip.”
“Well, I for one am tired of being tested,” Sparks said, taking off her backpack and sitting on it as Mathers started the fire. “That, coupled with the fact that there is NOTHING of any value or interest on this planet, leads me to wonder why we’re still here.”
“We still haven’t explored the western continent.”
“We’ll beam over in the morning,” Sparks said. “Meantime, let’s…ugh…rough it.”
Something rumbled in the ground and Cadet Mathers awoke with a start. “Mommy?” he asked, darting up from his sleeping bag and looking around the small thermo-sealed tent he shared with Cadet Piper.
“You really need to stop asking for your mommy in your sleep,” Piper moaned, rolling over in his sleeping bag and pulling the flap up over his head for extra warmth. And quiet.
“I’m not sleeping.”
“Well you should be. We’ve got to be up at oh-five hundred to continue the survey. So sleep.”
“I heard something,” Mathers said. “I’m gonna go check it out.”
“You really didn’t. And you really shouldn’t,” Piper muttered.
“Thanks for the counseling session. I’ll call you if I need backup,” Mathers said, shrugging his environmental jacket on over his thermal pjs and grabbing his combadge, tricorder, and a phaser. Piper was already asleep as Mathers slipped on his boots and stepped out of the warmth of his tent and into the blustery cold outside. If the planet was frigid during the day, then it was downright arctic at night.
Mathers fumbled for his palm beacon and trudged out into the icy night, searching for the source of what had awaken him.
It was a sound. Tectonic, like a gentle shifting of plates. Gentle? Who was he kidding. If the planet was undergoing some sort of geological upheaval, that wasn’t a small thing. Then again, the tricorder was picking up nothing.
Suddenly the ground under Mathers’ feet trembled again. It was stronger now, so obviously he was heading in the right direction. Ahead, a mountain slope loomed, craggy and covered in ice and snow.
The tricorder detected an opening hidden under lots of ice and rock, but Mathers’ phaser made quick work of that.
In minutes, he had melted the ice around the entrance and stepped inside.
His palm beacon cut a swath along the frosty tunnel, that seemed to lead deep down into the mountain, beneath ground level.
After a few minutes of walking, Mathers emerged into an inner chamber, ringed with stalagmites. And the rumbling sound was much stronger now. Mathers could feel it beneath his feet.
The tricorder still showed nothing. The mineral composition of the mountain was doubtless screwing with his sensor readings.
But something was definitely happening.
The rumbling increased in pitch and duration, and now the ground was actually shaking.
Mathers stared at the ground beneath his feet and for the first time realized he probably shouldn’t have gone out alone.
With an ear-splitting crack, the ground opened up, splitting right beneath his legs.
“WAUGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Mathers yelped and ran for the door, just as the floor within the chamber ripped open, and gleaming silver liquid oozed up from the cracks.
The liquid oozed along the already slippery cave floor, right under Mathers feet.
The cadet lost his footing as he neared the tunnel and flipped backwards, landing hard on his back.
Dazed, he watched the silver liquid ooze around him. It looked familiar. Mathers rolled over, wincing as his back ached, and pulling out his tricorder. At this range his tricorder sensors were working fine. And as the information rolled across the screen, a smile spread across Mathers’ near-frozen face.
“A lake of latinum!” Sparks asked, hoisting a backpack that was almost as big as her as Mathers lead the way back to the mountain the next morning. “Are you sure?”
“I studied latinum composition during my first-year forensic accounting course. It’s definitely latinum,” Mathers said.
“Does this mean we’re famous?” Piper asked. “Are we going to get a parade or something when we bring all this latinum back to the Federation?”
“I don’t know,” Sparks said. “I don’t know what we’re dealing with here yet.”
“We’re dealing with a discovery of monumental proportions!” Mathers said, turning around and walking backwards as he neared the cave entrance. “We may have singlehandedly balanced the Federation’s budget!”
“The Federation doesn’t use currency,” Piper said.
“Then why do they use gold-pressed latinum?” Mathers asked.
“Sometimes the Federation uses currency,” Sparks said. “It’s complicated, I’m sure. Anyway, we’re not even sure how much latinum there is, or if it’s pure.”
“Oh, it’s pure all right,” Mathers said. “We should contact Commander Tilleran and let her know…”
“Commander Tilleran has made it quite clear she wants us to handle this mission on our own,” Sparks said. “So that, friends, is what we’re gonna do.” She pulled out her palm beacon. “Then we’re going to tell Starfleet what we’ve found. They’ll be giddy.”
“Yer commandin’ off’cer there?” Harlan Baxter asked, chewing on his cigar.
“Uh, she’s in a…briefing right now, Admiral,” Sparks said, still in her environmental jacket, resting her elbows on the armrests of the Escort’s tiny command chair.
“I’m sorry, Admiral. I can’t understand you.” Sparks resisted the urge to pull her hair down in front of her face, as she usually did in tense situations. Probably not a good thing to do when addressing a flag officer.
Harlan pulled out the cigar. His eyes pierced Cadet Sparks from the bridge viewscreen. “You’re. Sure. It’s. Pure.”
“Yes. It’s the purest natural deposit of latinum I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen much latinum. But yeah, it’s pure.”
Harlan leaned back in his chair and considered the statement. “Really.”
“Oh, yes, Admiral. What are our orders?”
“Secure it,” Harlan said. “And transport it to your ship.”
“Sir, we’ve got the Escort. There’s easily ten thousand metric tonnes of latinum down there. Our hold will not fit half that amount.”
Harlan nodded, stuffing the cigar back into his mouth. “Bttr brngn th’Explr.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll contact the Explorer.” Wow. Sparks was actually starting to understand Captain Baxter’s dad. She really was learning something from this internship.
“Wow,” Crellus said, rolling over, mopping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m impressed. Have you always been…that good?”
Tilleran smirked, rolling over, putting her back to Crellus and tugging a sheet over her shoulder. “I’d like to think so. Then again, when you have sex with an Andorian, your whole world changes. I probably picked up a few tricks…”
“That would explain the thing you did to my back,” Crellus said, wincing.
“No, that was probably the bar in the couch bed,” Tilleran said.
“So…have you figured out…you know, what’s going on?”
Tilleran rolled back to face him. “I have my suspicions.”
“And if your suspicions are correct?”
“Then we have some decisions to make.”
“Want my vote now?” Crellus asked, leaning in and taking Tilleran’s chin in his hand.
“I think I know your vote.”
“So what’s your vote?”
Tilleran thought about it a moment. “I’m still mulling,” she said, and climbed back on top of Crellus.
“Whatever is happening, I’m not complaining,” Crellus said with a smile as Tilleran pulled the sheet over them both.
Cadet Mathers sat at the entrance to what he’d dubbed the “Cave of Cash,” shifting from foot to foot as he monitored his fuzzy tricorder readings. So far, the planet’s geological activity had settled down.
“Sparks to Mathers,” his combadge chirped.
“Go ahead,” Mathers said.
“The Explorer will be here in three days. Captain Baxter’s asked us to hold tight until they can get here.”
Mathers swallowed. “Can’t they get here any sooner?”
“We’re a bit off the beaten path, and they were headed the opposite way when we left them.”
“Oh,” Mathers said.
“What are you worried about, anyway?” Sparks asked. “We’re all alone out here.”
“What if somebody was listening in on your subspace messages?”
“Cadet, this is real life, not a Section Thirty-one adventure novel. Evil people aren’t listening to every…hold on a sec.”
Mathers swallowed hard, wishing Piper hadn’t followed Sparks back up to the ship.
After what seemed an interminable silence, Sparks’ voice returned. “Cadet, we’ve got company. Why don’t you go into the tunnel and hang out in there until I give you the all-clear?”
“C-company? But who…”
“Therrians. I’m sure they’re just curious. Stay put. The mineral composition of the mountain will hide your presence and we need you to guard that…stuff…until the Explorer gets here.”
“Understood,” Mathers said, and dashed into the tunnel. “Um, so my orders are to what?”
“Just hold your position, Colby. Don’t let anyone get past you.”
Mathers nodded at that as he retreated into the cavern. “Yeah. Easy for you to say!”
“I should go down there,” Piper said, looking up from the helm as the Therrian cruiser approached on the screen, squat, brown and turtle- shaped, with daggerlike weapons bristling along its bow.
“I need you at the helm,” Sparks said, shifting in the command chair.
“Well, you should call Commander Tilleran.”
“We can handle this,” Sparks said.
“Shouldn’t she decide that?”
“She’s testing us, and I for one don’t plan to fail,” Sparks said.
Piper looked down at his screen. “Well, the Therrians are hailing us. Maybe they’re testing us, too.”
Sparks shook her head. “On screen.”
The view of the Therrian ship, which was roughly three times the size of the Escort, changed to reveal its bridge, which wasn’t much bigger, it seemed, than the Escort’s bridge. A thick, curvaceous female Therrian sat in the command chair, all six arms folded across her expansive, leather-clad red torso. She glowered at Sparks as if inspecting an ant.
Sparks took the opportunity to speak first. “Therrian vessel. This is Cad…this is Natheena Sparks, in command of the Federation Starship Escort. We are on a survey mission here in the Kalibasas system. Please state your business.”
The Therrian narrowed her eyes and inched forward. “Blurta the Incontrovertible, of the Therrian Supremacy, cruiser Clabeth. And, wouldn’t you know it, I too am here on a survey mission.”
“I hear the fourth planet in this system is lovely this time of year,” Sparks said, hoping the pounding of her heart wasn’t audible on Arblut’s speakers.
“Not interested,” Blurta the Incontrovertible said flatly. “I am, however, quite interested in the third planet. So, being that this is an unclaimed, unpopulated world, I’m going to send a party on down there to investigate. Just to see…what’s what.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Sparks blurted. Piper looked back at her, mouthing “What the hell are you doing?” Sparks gave him a quick, warning glare, and turned her attention back to the Therrian, resolved.
“PARdon?” Blurta the Incontrovertible asked with a chuckle, glancing around at her other officers, who likewise laughed.
“You heard me. I hearby lay claim to this world on behalf of Starfleet Command and the United Federation of Planets. On their authority, I declare Kalibasas Three to be closed to all other survey parties pending a scientific report.”
“Is that so? Well, here’s the problem: I don’t recognize your authority. And even if I did, I wouldn’t respect it. Are we clear?”
“Yeah,” Sparks said.
“So unless you’d like to quote any more regulations to me, I’m going to beam down and have a look for myself.”
Sparks took a breath and stared at the screen. “Fine.”
“Glad we’re in agreement. Blurta the Incontrovertible out.”
“I don’t know how they can stand having to say their entire name every time they talk to somebody,” Piper observed, as the viewscreen returned to a shot of the Clabeth, menacingly pointed at the Escort.
“Get to the transporter room. Now. Grab phaser rifles, ordinance kits, rations and shield generators. Get down to the cavern site and help Mathers hold his position.”
“Are you kidding me?”
Sparks stared at Piper. “I have no intention of letting the Therrians walk away with all that latinum. We discovered it first, and we’re taking it. You understand me?”
“Wow, Nat. I like this side of you.”
Sparks narrowed her eyes at Piper. “GO!”
Tilleran reached up and grabbed hold of the edge of the bed for support and pulled herself up from the floor. “We have got…to stop.”
“Flurg,” Crellus sighed, and rolled over onto his back on the floor. “That was…that was…I think I saw the holy rings for a moment!”
“You’ve got to do something to stop me, Crellus,” Tilleran said. “Tie me to the bed, tie me up and…”
From the floor, Crellus grinned.
“No. On second thought, definitely don’t do that.” She shook her head, trying to clear it, as she shakily rose to her feet.
Just then, the terminal next to Tilleran beeped. As instructed, the computer made a priority subspace link with Betazed as soon as her mother had become available.
Lia Tilleran appeared on the viewscreen, her black eyes impassive and her brow only slightly creased. “Ariel, why oh why have you paged me in the middle of my veraddaball tournament? And why are you naked?”
Tilleran shifted around and sat on the edge of the couch bed, pulling sheets around her. “Mother, something’s happening to me, and I need your help. I need you to tell me if I’m…”
“Dear, is that Crellus Risello laying on the floor beside you?”
“Hello, Mrs. Tilleran,” Crellus said, leaning up, with a sheepish wave.
“Hello, Crellus,” Lia said, and narrowed her eyes, glancing down. “And hello, genitals of Crellus.”
“Mom, let me just get to the point,” Tilleran said, shoving a pillow at Crellus, which he quickly used to cover himself.
“Let me guess,” she interrupted. “You’re overcome with feelings of a sexual nature. And what’s worse, so is anyone who comes near you. It’s as if they’re drawn to you by some sort of empathic pheromone.”
“Well, yes,” Tilleran said. “And I’m not old enough to be going through The Phase yet, so I’ve already ruled that out. So how do you explain…”
“It’s The Phase.”
Tilleran blinked. “Pardon?”
“You’re going through The Phase, dear. Plain and simple. I’m surprised your advanced Starfleet science training didn’t help you figure that out.”
“No. No. Not possible,” Tilleran said. “I’m only thirty-six.”
“These things don’t always happen in an orderly fashion.”
“Can I just say that I’m on board with whatever…” Crellus broke in.
“Go stand in the corner,” Tilleran said with a dark look, then pivoted back to the screen. She leaned in close. “Mom, I’ve let you get away with not being there, pretty much all my life. I’ve accepted that you can’t stand that I’m in Starfleet, and that you love my sister far more than you’ll ever love me. That’s all copacetic with me, really. But I need you right now, more than I’ve ever needed you in my life. Help me understand this. Tell me what to do!”
Tilleran’s mother shook her head slowly and sighed. “Ariel, dear, there’s only one thing you can do. Find a good man, marry him, and reproduce. Preferably the man you were promised too back at the time of joining.” She glanced over Tilleran’s shoulder. “Ah, there he is now. How convenient. See? You didn’t need my help after all. Hopefully, you’re already pregnant. Don’t contact me again until you’ve had a baby! I’ll tell Nekohl you said hello. Goodbye, dear.”
“Lovely woman,” Crellus muttered as the screen went dim and Tilleran sat there, her face slackened.
“That’s my Mom,” Tilleran said softly.
“Well, maybe I should leave so you can mull…”
“No, I know what I’m going to do.” Tilleran turned to Crellus. “This won’t work. It can’t. I’m happy on the Explorer and you’re happy selling properties on Betazed. We’re leading two different lives.”
“That’s it?” Crellus asked, his eyes wide.
“You need some time,” Crellus said, and grabbed his pants, sliding them on one leg at a time, then slipping his shirt on. “I’m going to go to one of the other cabins. Give you some space. Then let’s see where we are in a few hours.”
“Nothing’s going to change my mind,” Tilleran said.
“Humor me,” Crellus said, and leaned over, kissing her forehead.
Tilleran watched Crellus go, and flopped over on the couchbed, staring at the ceiling. Once the doors closed and he was gone, she let out a long, low groan and rolled over.
Crellus was in a daze as he walked down the companionway. He nearly missed Cadet Piper, bolting by him, several bags slung over his shoulders.
“Ah, hello, uh, Crewman,” Crellus said with a nod of his head.
Piper nodded politely back at him, then stopped in his tracks. “Uh, hi. Um…who are you?”
“Crellus Risello. An associate of Commander Tilleran’s.”
“Are you part of the test?”
Crellus thought about that. “You know, I’m not sure. But I am beginning to wonder.”
“You and me both,” Piper said, and resumed his run down the corridor.
Wonder what he was on about?
Cadet Sparks clasped her hands together and leaned forward on her knees, staring at the viewscreen on the Escort’s cramped bridge.
“Piper to Sparks. We’re all set up here. No sign of the Therrians yet, but they’ll need a hell of a lot of explosives to get in here.”
“No indication they’ve picked up on your location either, at least for the moment,” Sparks replied. “Just hang tight. The Explorer will be here before you know it.”
“Hey, Nat?” Mathers spoke up.
“Are you sure this channel is secure?”
“I encrypted it myself,” Sparks said.
“Don’t worry,” Sparks said. “I have everything under…” She glanced at the helm/ops station up front, which now had a blinking red light. She moved up to the station and tapped a few controls, bringing up a readout on screen. “Guys, hang tight. I’m reading another vessel on fast approach. Looks like Orions.”
“Orions?” Mathers gulped.
“Don’t worry, Colby. I’ve got this well in hand,” Sparks said, and hoped like hell she was telling the truth. The comm beeped and she gulped, leaning forward and tapping a control. “Federation Starship Escort, this is…her commander, Nat Sparks here. What can I do for you?”
A broad green man in spiked leather appeared on the viewscreen, peering inquisitively at Sparks. “Do you dance?”
Sparks wrinkled her nose. “Only in social situations.”
“Then you can do nothing for me. I am Grodar, of the pirate vessel Shonara.”
“Do you really have to call it a pirate ship?” Sparks asked.
“I find it’s best to let my intentions known early,” Grodar said. “In this case, my intentions are to take this pesky, worthless rock of a planet off your hands and bring any…scientific samples…back to the Orion Syndicate.”
“The Orion Syndicate has scientists?”
“You are funny,” Grodar growled.
“Is that good?”
“Not particularly. I will deal with you later,” he said, and shut the channel.
Sparks swallowed hard. “Sparks to Piper. You’re…uh, probably going to have more company.”
“Does Cadet Sparks seem to be acting strangely to you?” Cadet Piper asked, his back pressed against that of Mathers, in the dimly lit cave. Each held a phaser rifle across their chest. Each was bundled in a heavy- duty survival jacket.
“She just broke up with Plato. She’s probably having a hard time dealing with all of that. Plus it seems like she wants to prove herself to Commander Tilleran, and by extension, the other senior officers.”
“So you don’t think it’s possible it’s because she…ya know, likes me?” Piper asked.
“No, I’m sure it’s not that,” Mathers said. “You are studying counseling, right?”
“Would you like to dabble with Nat?”
Mathers shrugged. “I think of her more like a sister.”
Piper shook his head. “Not me.”
“Why haven’t you said anything?”
“Because I haven’t found the right moment to talk to her about it. Besides, she’s had a somewhat surprisingly busy social life since we came aboard the Explorer.”
“I know what you mean. First Lieutenant Sefelt, then Plato.”
“Yeah.” Piper sat there a few more moments in silence. “You think I should say something now?”
Mathers turned slightly. “While she’s facing down a Therrian attack ship and an Orion pirate? No, I’d say she probably has her hands full about now.”
“Yeah, but life and death situations have a way of focusing a person.”
“I’m finding that to be true right about now,” Mathers said.
“Yeah. I have a confession to make.”
“I cheated in our game of tongo last week.”
“This isn’t helping me.”
Mathers sighed. “Look, I’m just trying not to completely freak out at our present situation. And being that I’ve never had an actual relationship with a woman, I’m probably not the best person to give you advice.”
“Well who else can I turn to? I can’t very well ask Cadet Sparks.”
“Ask Counselor Peterman when we get back. She’s a professional. And she’s been with Captain Baxter a long time. Anyone who can keep that relationship afloat…”
Suddenly a loud thunderclap sounded throughout the cavern.
“Crap,” Piper said.
“Sounds like either the Therrians or the Orions have found us,” Mathers said.
“Or a third party has discovered that we are sitting on a massive latinum deposit, and THEY have found us,” Piper said.
“I find that highly unlikely,” said Mathers.
Cadet Sparks had just gotten a hot cup of greenleaf tea out of the replicator when she turned toward the bridge viewscreen and watched space ripple.
“It’s not supposed to do that,” she said, walking down to the helm console and setting her teacup down on the panel. She did some calculations, then looked up, and all the color drained from her face. “Holy shit,” she gasped.
In front of her, a massive, dark green, eagle-shaped Romulan warbird uncloaked. She didn’t need to look at her sensors to know that the vessel was easily 20 times the size of the Escort.
Sparks was smart enough to know when she’d gotten in over her head. She combed every bit of hair down in front of her face and sunk into the helm seat, belting out in a voice that ill befit her size: “SPARKS TO TILLERAN! I NEED YOU ON THE BRIDGE ASAP! WE’VE GOT ROMULANS!”
Another thunderclap brought Piper and Mathers to their feet.
“It’s getting closer,” Piper said.
“Great scientific analysis,” Mathers said, looking around, panicked, as chunks of rock began to fall around them. “Got anything else?”
“We need to get out of here.”
“You kidding me?” Mathers asked. “Therrians are outside. Or Orions. Or both!”
“You’d rather this place collapse on top of us?” Piper asked, then looked behind him. The crack in the ground, beneath which a pool of latinum swirled, was suddenly getting bigger. “Or rather we take a permanent dive in a lakeof latinum?”
“Oh, I’m never good with decisions,” Mathers muttered, slapping his combadge. “Mathers to Sparks. Nat, we’re done here. Let them have the latinum. We’re gonna die in here if you don’t get us out!”
Moments passed, and Mathers and Piper turned to stare at each other, eyes going wide. “She’s not answering,” Piper said. He turned and knelt by one of the small shield generators he’d set up and frowned at its readout. “The tectonic shifts in the cavern structure are overloading she shields. They’ll collapse any minute!”
“We’re dead men,” Mathers said. “Let’s do it. Let’s say the things we’ve been afraid for so long to say!”
Piper screwed his eyes shut. “I love Nat Sparks!”
Mathers likewise shut his eyes, wrapping his arms around Piper in a bear hug. “And I still wet my bed!”
“Ew, man…” Piper moaned. Suddenly, the air around him crackled as she shields collapsed and rocks began to fall all around him. “I LOVE NAT SPARKS!”
Mathers smiled, for the moment not caring that the roof was about to collapse on him and he was about to either be crushed or drowned. “I HATE ASPARAGUS!”
“I DON’T LIKE SPORTS!”
“I ACCIDENTALLY KILLED MY CAT WHEN I WAS FIVE!”
“Gentlemen. Please. Open your eyes.”
The cadets opened their eyes slowly, glancing around. The rumbling had stopped. And in the midst of their panicked exclamations, they must not have heard the transporter beams.
Which would explain why they were suddenly encircled by five Romulans with disruptors raised.
They turned back to each other, screaming.
Mathers buried his head in Piper’s shoulder, moaning. “MOMMMMMMY!”
Before they could panic for much longer, however, they were beamed away, along with the Romulans.
“What the hell’s going on?” Tilleran asked, pulling her hair back into a ponytail and zipping up her uniform jacket as she stepped out onto the bridge and stared at the screen.
Sparks was sitting at the helm, transfixed on the screen. She didn’t turn around. “Pool full of latinum. Therrians. Orions. Romulans. Piper and Mathers. We’re all gonna die!”
“I could just say, ‘spit it out, Sparks, I’m not a mind-reader,’ except I am, so…” Tilleran stared at Sparks for a few moments. “Oh, for Providence sake. Why didn’t you contact me sooner?”
“I gave up after like the ninth time trying,” Sparks shrugged.
Tilleran shook her head. “I deserved that. It’s been a…weird day.”
“No kidding,” Sparks said, and pointed at the viewscreen. “So, about the warbird…”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said, moving in front of the command chair. “Open a channel.” As Sparks worked at her panel, the aft hatch opened and Crellus Risello ducked in.
“Ariel?” he asked. “Is this a bad time?”
“Awful,” Tilleran said. “Could you go away while I…”
“Romulan trade vessel Nasonex,” the grey-haired, unexpressive Romulan said dully as he stood on his bridge. “What is your purpose here?”
“Commander Ariel Tilleran, Federation Starship Escort,” Tilleran said. “Where do you get off laying claim to a planet that’s nowhere near your space? Not to mention endangering Starfleet cadets that are on an exploratory mission under MY command? And how dare you even CONSIDER…”
“Pretok?” Crellus asked, incredulously, stepping down next to Tilleran.
“Crellus?” the Romulan asked, raising an eyebrow. “Is that you?”
“Sure is,” Crellus said. “And this is not the golf course on Ceti Alpha Six, and this is not next week, so what are we doing here?”
“Zoning work, clearing debris. Setting up for construction.”
Tilleran looked from Crellus to the Romulan on the viewscreen, eyes darting back and forth, while Sparks continued to play with her hair.
“Could both of you stop talking for one damn minute?”
Crellus and Pretok looked at each other and shrugged.
“You two are business associates?”
“Newfound allies, yes,” Crellus said. “Century Twenty-Five is becoming a leader in the Federation in helping rebuild Romulus after the Shinzon affair. Part of that effort is the sale of a relatively unimportant property here in the Kalibasas system.”
“Indeed,” said Pretok. “Yet would you believe we found something very strange when we were clearing debris?”
“Do tell,” Crellus said, ignoring an exasperated Tilleran.
“We found two search parties, Orion and Therrian, surveying the planet. Did you forget to file the establishment of rights paperwork?”
“I didn’t forget to file anything,” Crellus said with a knowing nod. “You know it takes four to six weeks to process. You shouldn’t be here yet. You don’t even have the right permits.”
“Got them this morning. Romulans are nothing if not punctual. And I do believe we signed paperwork awarding us rights to this property just yesterday.”
“Indeed you did,” Crellus admitted. “Fair enough. Anything else interesting?”
“Yes,” Pretok said, and stepped aside to reveal a panicked and confused-looking Mathers and Piper. “We found these two guarding a rather sizable deposit of natural latinum.”
“Hi, Commander!” Mathers said, waving meekly.
“Hi, Nat!” said Piper.
“They’ve made…strange confessions without provocation,” Pretok said, his brow knitting with confusion.
“Get them back here immediately!” Tilleran called out.
“She is quite high-strung,” Pretok said. “We’ll beam them over as soon as you lower your shields.”
“Do it, Cadet,” Tilleran told Sparks. “Then get them right back up as soon as Piper and Mathers are aboard.” She turned back to the viewscreen. “What about the Orions and the Therrians?”
“We’ve spoken with them. They will be leaving shortly,” Pretok said blandly. “As, I expect, will you.”
Crellus turned to Tilleran. “This planet is now officially a Romulan holding, Ariel.”
“But I didn’t think anyone owned it…”
“No wonder your mother didn’t want you running her properties conglomerate,” Crellus said, shaking his head. “You probably didn’t even do a deed search.”
“Guilty as charged,” Tilleran said with a nervous chuckle. She looked at Pretok. “So, you won’t be blowing us out of the stars?”
“Correct,” Pretok said. “But I will destroy your boyfriend on the golf course next week.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Tilleran said, a little too quickly.
“Could have fooled me,” Pretok said. “Jolan’tru, Mister Risello.” And with that, he disappeared from the screen.
Sparks took that opportunity to turn in her chair to face Tilleran and Crellus. “So you’re telling me we went through all that trouble to guard a latinum deposit that wasn’t even ours!”
“It was nice of you,” Crellus said. “I’m sure the Romulans appreciated it.”
“So we don’t get any latinum,” Sparks muttered.
“On the other hand, a minute ago you were scared to death that you were going to die, so consider this a draw,” Tilleran said. She sighed, and turned to Crellus. “Our guest will be leaving shortly. Mister Crellus, would you wait for me in the landing bay?”
Crellus nodded, and backed toward the door. “I can always wait a bit longer for you, Ariel.”
Tilleran stepped forward and faced Sparks at the helm. “Cadet, I owe you an apology.”
“For what?” Sparks asked.
“For being unavailable. For putting myself before the mission. For jeopardizing this ship and everyone on it just so I could…” She glanced back at the aft hatch. “Explore a possibility.”
“Possibilities are what this work’s all about, seem’s to me,” Sparks said.
“You’re a wise girl,” Tilleran said. “For a cadet.” She shook her head. “But that still doesn’t make up for what I did. You are welcome to write everything up and share it with Captain Baxter when we return to the Explorer.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sparks said. “I had the time of my life! Sure, I was scared. But I got to command a starship and an away team. I got to lead a survey. I got to face off with Therrians, Orions, and Romulans all in one day.” She stood up. “Commander, you gave me the best experience of my internship, by far.”
“Yeah,” Sparks said. “Of course, it helps that we survived. I might have thought differently, you know, had we not.”
“With you in charge, I had no doubts,” Tilleran said, and put a hand on Sparks’ shoulder. “You’ve done well, Cadet. Now would you mind watching the bridge a while longer while I go speak with Mister Risello?”
A slow smile spread across Sparks’ face. “You know what? Not at all…”
“Good. Make sure Mathers and Piper get a hot meal and any medical treatment they need. I’ll be back shortly.”
Sparks walked around to the command chair and eased into it, stretching out her arms and pulling her hair back behind her ears. “Take your time, Commander!”
“It is an…impressive ship,” Tilleran said, standing behind Crellus as he did a preflight check on the launch panel in the Escort’s microscopic bay. It was just large enough to hold a standard Federation shuttle and not much else.
“It fits two,” Crellus said, turning and slinging an arm around Tilleran’s waist. “Care to sail away with me?”
Tilleran looked at Crellus, feeling the heat rush to her face again. “I…can’t.”
“Because you don’t believe a relationship with us will work.”
Tilleran cocked her head. “No. Just because it will take some time to figure out how to…close this deal.”
Crellus stepped closer, raising an eyebrow. “Ariel, you want to close the deal?”
“Call me crazy. Call it The Phase. But yeah, I do.”
“Can you tell me what changed your mind?”
“Your company is helping to rebuild Romulus. One of the Federation’s longstanding enemies.”
Crellus cocked his head. “So if I join the Orion Syndicate you’ll marry me?”
“It’s your compassion. You couldn’t have profited much from the sale of Kalibasas Three.”
“Point of fact, I lost a few noctars on it…”
“Even moreso now that the Romulans have lucked into a huge stash of latinum. Yet still you call it a blockbuster deal, because you know it will help the Romulans.”
“Should work out well for them. They’ve been hurting pretty badly since the Shinzon incident. Chaos, rebuilding…enemy or not, they needed help. And it doesn’t hurt to make an ally on the other side of the Neutral Zone.”
“I like the way you think,” Tilleran said, stepping closer to Crellus. “I didn’t think I would.”
“You can read my every thought. And I yours.”
“Funny how it still takes some time to get to know a person,” Tilleran said, stepping nearer to Crellus and kissing him deeply on the mouth, one hand clasped behind his neck.
“But you’re still going back to the Explorer.”
“For now,” Tilleran whispered.
“I won’t wait forever for you, Ariel. I’ll wait a long time, but…”
“You won’t have to wait forever,” Tilleran said. “Not even a long time.” She smiled. “Soon enough, we will begin our life together.”
“You sure about this?”
“Yeah. I’ve…just got a lot of ties back on the Explorer.”
“And you’d give all that up for me?”
“Nah,” Tilleran shook her head. “But I’d give it up for us.”
Baxter and company have been chasing after Alvin Ficker for the better part of a year. But when they finally come face to face with the Idlewild, will they be able to defeat Ficker and his crew? One thing’s for sure. The timing couldn’t be worse. The crew of the Explorer have a lot on their minds at the moment.