Author: Anthony Butler
For Ricardo Montalban–a fine actor, and the ultimate nemesis
The bridge was silent.
Nobody moved. Everyone stared at the viewscreen, waiting for Captain Andy Baxter to do something.
“Andy,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, stepping up behind him.
Baxter stared at the viewscreen. “It’s no use, Kelly. We’re beat.”
“The hell we are!” Commander Richards piped up, coming up on Baxter’s other side. “Andy, after all we’ve been through, how can you just…”
“We are. We’re beat,” Baxter said, and looked to the viewscreen. “You’ve got us, Ficker. We surrender. What are your terms?”
On the viewscreen, Alvin Ficker smiled broadly. “No terms. Brace yourselves, Explorer. This will all be over in a minute.” He looked off-screen. “Lieutenant Prouse: fire.”
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AGO
Stardate 58694.7. We are making the five day trek back to Earth to return Cadets Piper, Sparks, and Mathers to Starfleet Academy, as they’ve now officially completed their internships. Several of us will also be attending a party in my father’s honor, to celebrate his promotion to Fleet Admiral. In the meantime, we’re enjoying some much needed downtime, if for no other reason than that we’re not currently being chased by malevolent aliens.
“To good times ahead,” Captain Baxter said, raising his drink and clinking glasses with Commander Chris Richards, Counselor Kelly Peterman and (former) Doctor Janice Browning. “I’m glad we could get together like this.”
Counselor Peterman sipped at her pink grapefruit martini and looked around the thriving Constellation Club, as music thrummed on. Just another Saturday night at Mirk’s. Except…
“Has anyone seen Mirk?” Peterman asked. “I’m gonna need a refill soon.”
“We gave him the night off,” Baxter said. “So he’s not running the club or babysitting Steffie.”
“So she’s just alone in your quarters?” asked Browning.
“Nah,” Baxter said, holding up a padd. “We brought the monitor.”
“We could ask Zordok the Bold,” Richards suggested, pointing back at the bar, where the six-armed Therrian busily schlepped drinks.
“Uh, nahh…let’s not bother him,” Baxter said.
“Are you scared of the assistant bartender?” Browning asked, laughing as she sipped from her chocolate toddy.
“He’s…big…” Baxter said. “And he glowers a lot.”
“And he doesn’t put enough olives in the martinis,” Peterman said.
“He’s a great deejay,” said Richards.
“Yes, well,” Baxter said. “I’m content to leave well enough alone.”
“And I’m content to get schlargged,” Peterman said. “It’s been a rough week.”
“Oh, I meant to ask…were you ever able to get Howie out from under his bed?” Baxter inquired.
“That,” Peterman said, “is a sore subject.”
“Well, honey, if it’s what you must do, drink to your heart’s content.”
“I’m the one who should be drinking,” Browning said. “My son is hellbent on joining Starfleet and he’s not listening to reason.”
“Maybe it won’t be such a bad thing,” Richards said. “We all joined Starfleet, and look how we turned out.”
There was a long silence, during which Baxter tossed back his drink and burped loudly. “Yeah, we are the model of perfection.”
“Maybe you could talk to him, Andy,” Browning said. “Explain to him that he has plenty of time to figure out what to do with his life and that he doesn’t need to make hasty decisions.”
“I could talk to him,” Baxter said.
“Maybe you can succeed where Christopher failed,” Browning said, glowering at Richards.
“I said I was sorry! Who would have thought that my bringing Plato to a strip club would have resulted in him wanting to join Starfleet!”
Peterman covered his face. “Where’s a counselor to begin?”
“Just keep drinking, sweetie,” Baxter said, reaching a hand over and comfortingly putting it on hers. “We’re in a noisy bar, surrounded by thudding music and grinding bodies.” A smile slowly spread across his face. “Let’s get ripped, like during the old Aerostar days.”
“We got ripped then?” Browning asked.
“Let’s tear this club up!” Baxter shouted, leaping from his chair and jumping up on top of the table. “C’mon, Kelly.” He took Peterman by the hand and lifted her up onto the table. “I wanna do so many bad things to you…”
“Uh,” Richards said.
Baxter blanched, and turned slowly to the source of the voice. “Steffie?” he asked, staring at his three year old daughter.
“You an’ Mommy are silly,” Steffie laughed, holding her Blue Andoorie doll, replete in her polka-dot footy pajamas.
Baxter looked around self-consciously and stepped down from the table, followed by Peterman.
“Sweetie, what are you doing out of bed?” Peterman asked, kneeling by Steffie.
“But, the monitor…” Baxter stammered, pointing at the padd, which Browning picked up and showed to him.
“It’s off,” Browning noted.
“Oh,” Baxter said, and snatched it. “Well, must be sensor interference. Maybe we’re traveling through a nebula.”
Richards glanced out the large, rectangular windows in the back of the club. “Nope.”
“Well,” Peterman said. “Let’s get you back to bed so you can sleep baby.”
“But I wanna tear dis club up with you and Daddy!” Steffie insisted.
Peterman glared at Baxter. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Don’t blame me,” Baxter said. “You’re the one who said it would be okay to leave her sleeping in our quarters.”
“It’s only one deck away,” Peterman said. “And what could be safer?”
“Incoming!” a voice cried out.
Browning ducked as a frothy mug sailed over her head and smashed into the opposite wall.
“Yeah, they’re playing beerball again,” Baxter announced, looming protectively over Steffie and calling over his shoulder. “Stuart, Keefler! Time out!”
“Let’s go, sweetie,” Peterman said, standing and taking Steffie’s hand.
“Thanks, honey,” Baxter said, and turned back toward his table. “G’night, Stef. Daddy will see you…”
“In two minutes back at our quarters where he and Mommy will be putting you to sleep and then spending another quiet night at home!” Peterman fairly shouted.
“Kelly, c’mon, I haven’t even finished my…” Baxter said, pointing to his rum and grapefruit.
“ANDREW JACKSON BAXTER: GET OVER HERE NOW AND HELP ME PUT YOUR DAUGHTER TO BED!” Peterman shrieked.
The music stopped and all eyes were on the counselor.
Peterman pushed stray hairs behind her ear and glanced around. “And what on Kronos are you all looking at? Huh?”
“I’d better, uh, go…” Baxter said, and made a hasty retreat to the Constellation Club’s entrance.
“Wow,” Richards said, watching Baxter and Peterman duck out with Steffie. “What was that all about?”
“Marriages can be tough,” Browning said. “At least, so I’ve heard.”
Richards sat back. “Guess we’ll never know.”
Browning shrugged. “Hey, at least you’ve got J’hana.”
“Not sure she’s the marrying type.”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, and immediately reached for his drink and drained it in one gulp. “Anyway…”
“Is it just me or did it get awkward?” Browning asked.
“It’s the music. They never started it back up.” Richards glanced over his shoulder. “Someone start the music. NOW!”
TWENTY-THREE HOURS AGO
“This had better be good,” Captain Alvin Ficker said, fitfully tying off his robe and stepping into the lab, where Doctor Drake looked up from her terminal.
“It’s better than good,” Drake said. “It’s absolutely scrumptious.” She glanced up at a 2D image of Admiral Harlan Baxter that hung on the wall of her lab. “Just like a certain flag officer I know.”
Ficker scrubbed a hand over his face. “It’s past my bedtime.”
“It’s not even twenty-three hundred,” Drake said.
“Plotting the destruction of Starfleet requires a good nights’ sleep.”
“Well, you should rest easy after you see this,” Drake said, turning her terminal to face Ficker.
He looked at the readouts. “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?”
“Do you think you’re seeing a brilliant, ship-mounted brainwashing device fully completed and awaiting testing?”
“No. I really don’t know what I’m seeing. I left my glasses in my cabin.”
Drake frowned. “Well, if you’d brought your glasses, you’d be seeing a status report from your engineers, detailing the implementation of our beautiful weapon.”
“So it’s ready for testing.”
“That’s what I just said.”
A smile spread across Ficker’s face. “Good work, Doctor Drake. Good work. We’ll head toward the Explorer’s last known coordinates and test the weapon first thing tomorrow morning. Take the rest of the night off. You’ve earned it.”
Ficker turned and headed out of Drake’s lab, an extra skip in his step. Everything he’d been through, stealing the Idlewild, recruiting followers, rescuing Maura Drake from Tantalus, had been worth it. He was in sniffing distance of the greatest victory of his career. And Captain Andy Baxter of the Starship Explorer was in for a rude awakening indeed.
FOURTEEN HOURS AGO
Baxter rolled over, pulling his pillow over his head. “Kelly, could you at least close the door when you do that?”
A greenish-pale Peterman appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, chest heaving. “You could be a LITTLE more sensitive, Andy. I’m turning myself inside-out here. Did you even think of tossing me a warm towel?”
“The warm towels are in there,” Baxter pointed out, gesturing at the bathroom.
“Oh, you are no help, Andy Baxter,” Peterman sighed and returned to the bathroom.
“You should stop by and see Doctor Wilcox,” Baxter said. “You’ve been having these little episodes for two weeks now.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it. Just putting it off,” Peterman said from within the bathroom. “It’s probably just the new chili recipe Janice’s been trying out. I don’t have the heart to tell her I hate it.”
“Well, for all our sakes, why don’t you switch to something a little less…vomit-inducing.”
“I can’t be sick right now,” Peterman said, clinging to the door frame, hoisting a warm towel in her free hand and holding it to her face. “I’m booked solid with appointments today.”
“At least it seems to clear up as the day goes on, right?”
Peterman raised an eyebrow. “Yes. It does.”
“Well, then, no problem,” Baxter said, sliding out of bed. “Guess it’s time to get dressed.”
“Honey, your pajamas are…wide open…”
Baxter glanced down. “Oh. Right.” He looked up. “What…is this making you even more nauseated?”
“No comment,” Peterman said distantly and turned back to the bathroom. “What about you? Busy day?”
“Not particularly,” Baxter said, stretching and ambling into the bathroom to get his shower. “Just have to see a man about a…boy.”
Baxter nodded. “Yep.”
TWELVE HOURS AGO
“Waffles,” Ficker said, thumbing through a padd containing FWN’s morning news update.
On the other side of the captain’s cabin, Ensign Snodgrass, Ficker’s aide, obediently marched to the replicator and punched its controls.
Since being among the first to endure Dr. Drake’s brainwashing beam, Ficker had decided to keep Snodgrass in his cabin, for personal chores, the occasional cleaning assignment, and of course, to polish his boots. Ficker’s father taught him that no self-respecting man went through the day without a freshly-shined pair of boots. That important lesson stayed with Ficker all his life.
Occasionally, Ficker felt a pang of guilt about what he’d done to Snodgrass. The young Ensign had, after all, been the first one he’d recruited to the Idlewild. That made him special.
Unfortunately, Drake had shared that the effects of her ray were irreversible. Not that he necessarily wanted to reverse them. After all, the whole point was that he was going to use the beam to convince others in Starfleet to join him in his cause of obliterating Starfleet. Drake’s beam, while rendering its victims fairly dull, did in fact make them incredibly prone to suggestion, which, in this case, was exactly what Ficker needed to carry out his plans.
“Waffles,” Snodgrass announced, setting the plate in front of Ficker.
“Good boy, Snodgrass. Good, good. Brown on the edges, just like I like them!” Ficker said, cheerfully stabbing a fork into the waffles. “Why don’t you go ahead and read the news headlines to me while I eat my breakfast?”
“News,” Snodgrass said, sitting stiffly opposite Ficker at the table.
Ficker slid his padd across the table and Snodgrass picked it up.
“Starfleet Academy prepares for graduation. Federation president calls for reform of Cardassian peace treaties. Second Outlander-class deep-space vessel commissioned to search for first…”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Ficker said as he nibbled a waffle.
ELEVEN HOURS AGO
Months ago, Mirk had requisitioned the Deck 18 conference room as a Maloxitarian meditation room, as a place for all those who (still) followed the Maloxitarian faith to pray to the Directors and reflect on their faith.
There was no push-back from the command staff, as the Deck 18 conference room wasn’t located near any major ship’s departments, and wasn’t really used for anything but the occasional fourth-grade birthday party (when the Deck 14 conference room was otherwise reserved).
Mirk had hoped that the room would be used by those last remaining Maloxitarians aboard, and might even spark a renewal of the faith on the Explorer. He was pretty sure, though, that he was the only Maloxitarian left on the ship after his faith’s brief surge in popularity four years prior.
So the room was pretty much all his. Festooned with a mural of lush, green orchards and piles of gourds, pineapples and kumquats, and scented with only the fruitiest of scented candles, the room had become a sanctuary for Mirk. Since he’d moved in with Lt. Commander Hartley, it had also proved a nice escape when she was in a particularly dark mood (which was known to happen with some regularity).
Today, however, he was in his conference room of solitude for a different reason. He was searching for answers.
“Directors, in all your fruity wisdom, please, speak to me,” Mirk said earnestly, crosslegged on a pile of pillows on the floor and staring at the circle of candles, holding a hollowed-out canteloupe in his lap to help him focus his thoughts.
He looked up at the small, knee-high altar he’d fashioned, complete with a large, bulbous ceramic eyeball that was likewise encircled with plenty of fresh fruit, a daily offering to his gods.
As had been true for the previous eleven days, the Directors didn’t speak. They didn’t elaborate on the cryptic message they’d given him when he’d emerged from the shower, after the difficult business on Retzin, destroying a rock that two of his fellow Maloxians had used to flaunt their powers over a planet filled with unsuspecting resort-goers.
The eyeball just stared back at him. Silent, knowing.
It didn’t seem like the Directors wanted to elaborate on their ominous message, that he’d soon face a critical decision, and that he’d soon be joining the Directors, presumably as one of them.
A Director, Mirk thought. Me.
Mirk felt like he’d done a pretty good job adapting to his powers as they’d grown, slowly but steadily, over the years. But this was different. Becoming a Director…ascending to a sort of godhood…was a lot to swallow. And it came at a steep price.
Mirk barely noticed when the door chime rang. So it rang again.
Finally Mirk set down his canteloupe and sighed. “Come.”
Captain Baxter ducked in. “This a bad time?”
“You could say that. I’m praying to the Directors.”
“Cool,” Baxter said, stepping in and letting the doors close behind him. “This’ll only take a minute.”
Mirk shook his head and turned, easing to his feet. “What can I do for you, Captain?”
“For starters, can I have one of those kiwis? I’m famished.”
“Those are offerings for the Directors,” Mirk said tightly.
“Yeah, it’s just that I didn’t have any breakfast…”
“There are replicators in like every room on the ship,” Mirk said.
“True, true,” Baxter said. “I’ll grab something later. Look, like I said, this’ll just take a second. You’re pretty close with Plato, right?”
“We don’t speak as often as we once did,” Mirk said, taken off- guard by the question.
“You mean as often as you did last year when you and Hartley baby-sat him for a few months?”
“Yes,” Mirk said. “We obviously spent a lot of time together when you, Doctor Browning, and the others were, er, away…”
“Yeah, good,” Baxter said. “So, in that time…did you get any idea of what Plato wanted to do with his life?”
Mirk thought about that. “Not really. We mostly talked about his studies, and his exercise program with Chaka…and the fact that he missed his Mom. He never really talked about a career.”
“Well, now he wants to join Starfleet, and Janice wants me to talk him out of it.”
“Oh,” Mirk said. “That could be a challenge. Young boys tend to want what they want, you know?’
“Oh, I know. I was a young boy too, once,” Baxter said. “Not as recently as you, mind you.”
“To think you were only sixteen when you joined our crew.”
Mirk smiled. “That was a long time ago, Captain.”
“Lots of good times together, eh?” Baxter said, gently nudging Mirk.
“You could say I grew up here,” Mirk said with a nostalgic grin.
“Good, good. So you’ll talk to Plato then? Great! You have no idea how much this helps. This way I’m not the bad guy with him or Janice, and I can focus on the Explorer’s mission.”
“We’re flying back to Earth to drop off the cadets and celebrate your father’s promotion.”
“Yes, and there are many preparations to make. Reports to file!” Baxter exclaimed and stepped toward the door.
“Hold on a sec,” Mirk said.
Baxter stopped at the door. “What?”
“Janice asked you to talk to Plato, and I’d just as soon not get involved.”
Slowly, Baxter turned to face Mirk. “But…I don’t want to talk to him out of joining Starfleet.”
“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, Captain. It’s the way of things.” Mirk idly wondered if Plato might have better luck talking Baxter out of being in Starfleet than the reverse.
“So there’s no way I can talk you into doing this for me?”
Mirk shook his head. “Afraid not, sir.”
Baxter’s shoulders slumped. “Can I at least have the kiwi?”
TEN HOURS AGO
“Great day in the morning!” Captain Ficker announced, stepping out onto the bridge. “Do you feel it? The energy in the air, palpable, like freshly-mined dilithium!”
“Perhaps the air-recyclers are malfunctioning,” Commander Roland Worthy said helpfully as Ficker made his way to the command chair.
“Leave it to you to take the romance out of my day,” Ficker said, settling into his seat beside Worthy.
“As I understand it, adding ‘romance’ to your day is not part of my job.” Worthy stroked his beard. “However, announcing our progress on adjusting the Idlewild’s systems to accommodate Doctor Drake’s weapon, is.”
“She told me about it last night,” Ficker said. “Why do you think I’m in such a good mood?”
Worthy slammed a fist into the arm of his chair. “Damn it! I told her I wanted to tell you.”
“Oh please,” Ficker said. “Does it really matter who told me? All that matters is what we do with the weapon. In particular, what we do to Captain Baxter.”
“Yes…and the rest of Starfleet, right?” Worthy asked.
“Of course, Commander.” Ficker leaned back in his chair and watched the stars rush toward him on the Idlewild’s viewscreen. “But first things first. Are we ready to launch our test?”
“Astrometrics has just completed its diagnostics on the subspace array. We’re ready.”
“Very good. Any starships in the vicinity?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Worthy said. “A Tellarite freighter will pass very close to us on a trade route. We can intercept in less than two hours.”
“Then change course to intercept the freighter,” Ficker said. “And summon Doctor Drake to the bridge.”
NINE HOURS AGO
Lt. Commander Hartley sat at her desk and stared long and hard at the engine output reports. Something wasn’t right with the warp core’s intermix ratio and she was determined to find out what. Warp core mechanics weren’t her specialty, but she was the chief engineer, and if she wanted to have a baby, she’d have to…
There was that “B” word again. It had a way of creeping into her thoughts lately, certainly without her wanting it to. She was trying to think of anything but that, at the moment, as long as Mirk continued to stubbornly evade her questions on the subject, as he had done for the last week and a half now.
Hartley’s thoughts were stirred when there was a beep at her door. Doubtless it was Ensign Stuart again wanting to know if she was ready to run an analysis on the injectors yet. Not that she was in the mood to deal with that at the moment.
“Come,” she mumbled, staring at her screen.
Plato appeared in the doorway and poked his head in. “Megan? Uh, I mean, Commander Hartley?”
Hartley looked up, surprised. “Plato? What are you doing down here?”
“Oh, you know, walking around the ship, checking things out…”
The engineer resisted the urge to ask Plato why he didn’t have anything better to do and instead just smiled thinly. “That’s nice. What can I do for you?”
Plato stepped in and sat down opposite Hartley’s desk. “Actually, it’s more about what I can do for you.”
“Plato,” Hartley sighed. “We’ve been over this a thousand times. I’m married, and it’s not appropriate for us to…”
“No, no, no,” Plato said, waving his hands. “Not that. I’m long since over my crush on you. I see you more now as a…mentor.”
Hartley narrowed her eyes. “Really?”
Plato nodded. “Yeah, and I kinda want to take that relationship to the next level.”
“And you’re not talking about the romantic sense?”
“Totally not,” Plato said. “I want to be your apprentice.”
Hartley cocked her head quizzically. “Apprentice?”
“I want to learn what it takes to be a good engineer.” He set a padd in front of Hartley. “I’ve been doing some research and I’ve found out that Starfleet department heads can request civilian help from the ship’s population if they see a need. A few shifts in engineering…” He smiled. “And your watchful guidance…would really enhance my application to Starfleet Academy.”
Hartley squinched up her nose at that. “You’re applying to Starfleet Academy?”
“You don’t have to make a face at the idea,” said Plato. “It’s what I want to do. Is it really so hard to believe? All my friends, all my role models, are in Starfleet. Everyone I care about…” He drifted a bit. “It’s just what I want to do. So will you help me or do I need to speak to someone in another department?”
Hartley gave Plato a long, hard look. “You’re serious.”
“Oh yeah,” Plato said, inching forward.
“Does your mother know about this?”
“She’s on board,” Plato said. Well, that wasn’t really a lie. She was on board the Explorer, at the moment.
“All right,” Hartley said, easing back from her desk. “Let me see what I can do.”
EIGHT HOURS AGO
“Power up the transmitter,” Captain Ficker said, leaning forward in his command chair.
“Transmitter powering up,” Dr. Drake said, leaning against the science console at the rear of the Idlewild’s bridge. “Ten seconds to full capacity.”
“Route control to Lieutenant Prouse’s station,” Commander Worthy said, perched right beside Drake, determined to watch her every move as she monitored the subspace device.
“MUST you stand so close?” Drake asked, glancing at Worthy.
“Yes, I must,” Worthy said flatly.
“Tellarite vessel coming into range,” Lt. Angelina Prouse said from the tactical station on the other side of the quarterdeck.
“Hail them,” Ficker said with a smirk, rising to his feet and nodding back at Prouse.
“You’re on,” Prouse announced.
A bushy-bearded Tellarite appeared on the viewscreen, squinting his deep-set black eyes at Ficker.
“Freighter Frepak. This is Captain Lutz. What do you want, Earther? Why have you summoned us?”
“Is that any way to talk to your new master?” Captain Ficker asked, stepping foward on the bridge.
“Master?” the Tellarite snorted. “I am in no mood for jokes, and I’m of a good mind to report you to Starfleet Command.”
“Oh, no!” Ficker said, clapping his hands to his face and looking back at Commander Worthy. “Did you hear that, Roland? He’s going to REPORT us!”
“Saints preserve us,” Worthy deadpanned.
“Yes, well, I mean it,” the Tellarite said, looking at Ficker oddly. “Are you…all right? You seem…giddy for a Starfleet captain.”
“That’s because I’m not just any Starfleet captain. I’m the commander of a new order. And you’ll soon be joining us, to ring that new order in!”
“That’s it. Helm, hard about. Get us out of here. Warp…”
“NOW, PROUSE!” Ficker said, pumping his fist.
A screeching, almost musical sound filled the Tellarite’s bridge (one that Drake promised was filtered by the Idlewild’s bridge speakers, ensuring that none of Ficker’s crew would be affected by the strange sound).
Moments later, the sound stopped, and the Tellarite captain blinked at Ficker.
“Well, Captain Lutz,” Ficker said, stepping forward, eagerly rubbing his hands together. “Have you reconsidered your…stance?”
“Stance?” Lutz parroted back. “Would you like me to reconsider my stance, sir? I’d be happy to.”
Ficker spun around and threw his hands up in the air. “Rapture! Glee! It’s done!”
His gesticulations earned some odd looks from Crane at helm and Stambling at ops.
“Yes,” Worthy said, narrowing his eyes at Ficker. “Rapture indeed.”
Doctor Drake smiled coyly. “Did you doubt me, Captain?”
“Not at all,” Ficker said.
“Sir,” Lt. Prouse said. “What are we going to do with the Tellarite ship now?”
“First we’ll send an away team over to verify our findings,” Ficker said, pacing the bridge, hands folded behind his back. He glanced over at the viewscreen, where Captain Lutz still stared at him, glassy-eyed.
“And then?” Worthy asked.
“Then we use our Tellarite friends to attract a much larger fish.”
SEVEN HOURS AGO
“Ahh, Plato. Good.” Captain Baxter popped the last slice of kiwi into his mouth and gestured for Plato to step into the readyroom and sit in the chair across from his desk. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“I’d prefer you call me Crewman Plato, Uncle Andy,” Plato said, sitting opposite Baxter.
“Well, okay.” Baxter eased forward and rested his arms on the desk. “Then you can call me Captain Baxter.”
Plato pulled a bit at the collar of his grey jumpsuit. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, then. What’s all this about becoming part of Starfleet?”
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. I want to help out around here. I’m tired of hanging around belowdecks while the rest of you risk your lives to save mankind!”
Before Baxter could answer, the comm bleeped.
“J’hana to Baxter.”
“Yes, J’hana,” Baxter sighed.
“Sir, we have a situation down in the mall. Ensign Ravins punched Lieutenant Bledsoe during the fire sale in the Dillon Supply Depot, over a phaser-powered beard trimmer.”
“Neither of them have beards. And isn’t Ravins a woman?”
“As I discovered during their interrogation. Orders?”
“Twenty-four hours in the brig,” Baxter said, then added. “Uh, separate cells.”
“Good choice, sir. May I rough them up on the way?”
Baxter shook his head. “No!”
“Fine. J’hana out.”
Baxter shook his head. “What was I talking about?’
“How I can best serve on the Explorer,” Plato said earnestly.
Baxter got up from his seat and walked over to Plato, resting his hand on his shoulder. “Plato, would you mind telling me what this is really about?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’ve never expressed even a passing interest in what we do in Starfleet. Then Cadet Sparks comes along, and gets you all gooey inside, and then just before she leaves the ship, you break up and…”
“How’d you know we broke up?”
“Um, last week’s briefing,” Baxter said. “Anyway, you just want to join Starfleet because Sparks is in Starfleet. And that’s no reason to…”
“Why can’t it be a reason?” Plato asked. “Why can’t I do it for love?”
Baxter stared at Plato a moment. “Because it needs to be about more than that.”
“Why did you join Starfleet?”
“Because my dad told me to,” Baxter said, sinking onto his couch.
Plato pivoted in his chair. “And Commander Richards?”
“Failed out of art school.”
“To get rid of her Australian accent.”
Baxter slumped a bit. “The free food.”
“See! We all have our reasons.”
“Yes, but your Mom…she’s worried sick about this. She doesn’t want you risking your life the way she did…”
“She risked her life?”
“One or two times.”
“And wasn’t it for something she believed in?”
“I guess. Although sometimes it wasn’t really on purpose.”
“Don’t I have that right, Captain? To risk my life for something I believe in?”
Baxter leaned back on the couch. “Your mom is going to kill me.”
“It’ll just start with engineering shifts. Commander Hartley’s already said it’s okay.”
“All right, Plato,” Baxter said with a small smile. He leaned forward. “If it’s that important to you. But you’ve got to promise me you’ll be careful. And tell your Mom I put up a much bigger fight.”
“Okay, Uncle Andy…I mean, aye, Captain Baxter!”
“That’s a boy,” Baxter said, standing up and pulling Plato into a hug. “All right, you’re dismissed. Report to Commander Hartley in engineering and see if she can’t find a few projects for you.”
“Thanks again, Uncl…Captain!”
“Don’t mention it,” Baxter said, turning to the window at the back of his ready-room. “I am in such deep shit,” he said to no one in particular, staring out the window. “Such totally deep shit.”
FIVE HOURS AGO
“That’s it, Captain. Clear your thoughts. Center yourself.”
Captain Alvin Ficker opened his eyes. “It’s not working. Damn it, Shank. I’m just too giddy!”
The Vulcan philosopher raised an eyebrow. “Giddyness is an emotion I’m afraid I’m not familiar with.”
Ficker leapt to his feet and strode about Shank’s quarters, spreading his arms wide. “I just can’t believe the time is finally here. Captain Baxter and the Explorer are facing certain oblivion and I’ll be the cause! Isn’t that spectacular?”
“I can understand why you would view it as a favorable result,” Shank said. “However I am more interested in your plans to destabilize and revolutionize Starfleet.”
“One thing at a time,” Ficker said. “First we have to eliminate the Explorer.”
“As you’ve said,” Shank said. “However, I am confused. If you really want to destroy Starfleet, shouldn’t you begin by eliminating its flagship? Surely the Enterprise is a better target.”
“Bah, the Enterprise is overrated,” Ficker said with a wave of his hand. “I’ll deal with that twit Picard in time. My quarrel is with Andy Baxter.”
“Indeed,” Shank said, steepling his fingers. “If I may say so, Captain, I believe you are letting your emotions guide you.”
Ficker slapped Shank on the back merrily. “I’m human, Mister Shank. That just comes naturally.”
TWO HOURS AGO
“Alrighty,” Doctor Holly Wilcox said, sidling up to biobed three, as Peterman sat on the edge, fitfully kicking her legs. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Should Dean be eating that?” Peterman asked, pointing to the former Aerostar crewman who Wilcox had married some time after he had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Holly clicked her tongue as she glanced over her shoulder at Dean, who had a medical tricorder in his mouth. “Dean, sweetie, I told you we’ll be having lunch soon. Just relax while I finish with this one last patient!”
“Dean hungry!” Dean protested.
“And I told you we’ll go down to Janice’s later!” Holly said testily, and turned to Peterman.
“Everything okay?” Peterman asked.
“Yeah. He’s just been a little fussy lately.”
“Lover’s quarrel?” Peterman grinned.
“Sort of. But with a lot more…drooling…” Holly said. “Still, he’s fantastic in bed…”
Peterman shifted uncomfortably. “So…about that nausea.”
“Yes,” Holly said. “Well, there are a number of things I can test, but I’ll start with the obvious.” She took a breath, hugging her padd to her chest. “Have you had your…regularly scheduled…plasma discharge?”
“My…” Peterman began. “Oh. You mean my…oh my…”
“Well, yes,” Holly said. “It’s med school one-oh-one, really…when a woman is sick, you know, in the morning…” She gave that time to sink in and Peterman turned a notable shade of green.
“Oh…oh, wow…” Peterman said, blinking.
“So the first thing I’d like to do is give you a pregnancy test,” Holly said, and took a medical tricorder (thankfully not the one that had been in Dean’s mouth). “It’ll only take a sec…”
“No!” Peterman said, sliding off the biobed. “I mean, no thanks, Holly. That won’t be necessary.”
“Really? I’d think you’d want to know, especially if it turns out you’re, you know…”
“No, I’m sure I’m not. Just a bit of a flu bug. I’ll be going. You and Dean have a wonderful lunch!”
With that, Peterman dashed out of Sickbay leaving a bewildered Holly Wilcox behind.
ONE HOUR, FIFTY MINUTES AGO
“Damn hang nail,” Ficker said, looking at his fingernail and poking at it with a plasma-clipper. “It’s always that last one that just…sits…there…and…arghhhh! I can’t get it!”
The door to the readyroom chimed.
“What!” Ficker exclaimed.
“Sir,” Commander Worthy said, ducking his head in. “I heard a scream. Are you all right?”
“I am fine,” Ficker said. “I am just…deep into planning the destruction of Starfleet!”
“Oh,” Worthy said. “Want some help?”
“That will not be necessary,” Ficker said. “I can handle this part on my own. Just see that the Tellarite ship does what it’s told.”
“Aye, Captain,” Worthy said, and left the ready room.
ONE HOUR, FORTY MINUTES AGO
“Ahh, Bradley Dillon!” Counselor Peterman said with a forced smile as she walked up to the counter at Dillon’s Supply Depot. “How are you?”
“I am fine. I have made seventy-two bars of latinum, eight strips, today,” said the holographic store manager, a near-perfect replica of Federation President and Dillon Enterprises CEO Bradley Dillon.
“That’s great,” Peterman said, as she casually slid a small box across the counter. “Just one of these. And some gum. Definitely need some gum!”
“I see,” the Dillon hologram said, and studied the box. “The Daddy Dillon Instant Pregnancy Test.”
Peterman glanced around the empty store, then leaned over the counter. “SHUSH!”
The hologram cocked his head quizzically. “I’m sorry. I do not understand.”
“Look, I need to make this purchase, for a special friend of mine, and it’s of the utmost importance I do so with…” She leaned even closer. “All due discretion.”
“I see,” Dillon said. “You got someone pregnant?”
Peterman blew hair out of her face exasperatedly. “Just sell the damn thing to me and keep your holographic mouth shut!”
“Oh. You suspect that you are pregnant. Of course.” The Dillon hologram nodded and tapped a few controls on his padd. “That will be nine slips of latinum.”
“Okay,” Peterman said, taking the padd. She was about to put her thumb on the payment indicator when the hologram reached out a hand to stop her.
“I must inform you at this time that I am programmed to accept bribes.”
Peterman narrowed her eyes. “Oh, of course you are.”
“Perhaps you would prefer to pay one bar of latinum for the test. I will give you the gum for free.”
Peterman rolled her eyes. “If I knew even the first thing about programming holograms…”
“I assure you, this is a fair deal, at least it is as of three months ago, when President Dillon pushed through several pieces of pro-business legislation in the Federation Council.”
“Oh, naturally!” Peterman exclaimed and angrily stabbed the padd with her thumb.
“Good luck with your magical discovery!” the holographic Dillon waved as Peterman grabbed up her supplies and stormed out of the Depot.
“Go to hell, Dillon!” she called back over her shoulder.
ONE HOUR, THIRTY MINUTES AGO
The door chime to Ficker’s readyroom bleeped again and Ficker sighed, throwing his padd down. He’d almost finished reading the days comics.
“WHAT!” he asked exasperatedly.
The doors parted to reveal Roland Worthy and a slight, cocoa- skinned cadet with big, baleful blue eyes.
“Hello, uh, Captain,” she said sheepishly.
“Cadet Jessamyn Bloxom, sir,” Worthy said dully. “She requested an audience.”
“This is not a good time,” Ficker said with a wave of his hand.
“It’s important, sir,” Bloxom said, stepping forward and folding her hands behind her back. “Permission to speak freely.”
“If you must,” Ficker said, as Worthy stood behind the cadet and let the doors to the readyroom close behind him.
“Well, sir, it’s just that I’ve been having my doubts,” Bloxom said, stepping closer to Ficker’s desk. “I mean, I liked what you said about a brighter, better Starfleet. I liked the idea that your new Starfleet embraces cadets like us who struggle for acceptance.”
“Yes. All good stuff so far,” Ficker said with a small yawn.
Bloxom half-turned away and looked out the window in the ready- room. “But I just…I heard what we are doing with these experiments…and with the Tellarite ship, and what you’re planning to do to the Explorer…and I don’t know. It just seems so…mean.” She turned to face Ficker. “I really don’t think you should do this, sir. There has to be a way to get what we want without hurting people. Don’t you think?”
Ficker took a long hard look at Bloxom. He stood up and walked around his desk, kneeling to face the petite cadet. “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.”
“Yeah, I did,” Bloxom said with a sniff. “I was really scared to come talk to you.”
“Well, there’s no need to be scared, Cadet,” Ficker said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You did the right thing. You came to me with very important information.”
“So you’ll think about calling all this off?” Bloxom asked, looking at Ficker with her big eyes.
“Oh, heck no,” Ficker said. “But thanks to you, I know there’s an information leak aboard, and that’ll have to be dealt with.” He straightened up and walked back behind his desk. “Commander Worthy, relieve Miss Bloxom of duty and send her to Doctor Drake for experimentation. Also have Shank mind-meld with her and find out who told her about my plans. Whoever that might be, have them sent to Drake for experimentation, too. Can’t have dissension in the ranks!”
“B-b-b-but…” Bloxom cried out as Worthy took her by the arm and led her out of the readyroom.
“You did a great thing today, Cadet,” Ficker said. “The first step to fixing a problem is to admit you have one. The second step is to get your brain refurbished. The next time we talk, you’ll be a new person. Literally!” Ficker blinked. “Hey, did I use the word ‘literally’ right?”
“I think so,” Worthy said.
“Very good. Dismissed!”
“Nooooooooooo!” Bloxom screamed as Worthy dragged her away. Thankfully, the doors to the readyroom closed, leaving Ficker to work in peace. There wasn’t much time left, and he still hadn’t clipped his toenails.
ONE HOUR, TWENTY MINUTES AGO
Lt. Commander Tilleran smoothed her uniform as she waited for J’hana to answer her door-call.
“Come,” the Andorian finally said.
Tilleran ducked into J’hana’s security office and looked around. “Wow, haven’t been in here for a while.”
“No reason for you to come in here,” J’hana said. “Unless you’ve been committing some crimes I don’t know about?” Her antennae twitched as she looked up at the Betazoid science officer. Funny thing was, she wasn’t even kidding.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Tilleran said. “I just…I’ve been thinking about things, and you know, how quickly time goes by.” She glanced at J’hana, who stared back blankly. “You know, life changes…and before you know it…you’re stuck doing something you never thought you’d spend your life doing, and you, well you, you analyze things and…”
J’hana leaned back and folded her arms. “You want to get back together.”
Wow, considering they shared an Imzadi bond, J’hana wasn’t getting it at all. Tilleran found that odd, but attributed it to the fact that she was going through “the phase,” a Betazoid version of menopause that imposed a near-irresistible urge for one to mate and reproduce. It was odd, in fact, that J’hana had not pounced her yet. Perhaps it had the opposite effect on one’s Imzadi?
“No, that’s not it at all.” Tilleran shook her head and chuckled. “This is so hard, J’hana. I…”
Suddenly the comm system beeped.
“Richards to all senior staff: Yellow alert. Report to the bridge ASAP. Please. Thanks!”
“You heard him,” J’hana said. “You can give me your sniveling emotional news after we solve the crisis of the week, if you like.” She stood and walked past Tilleran, giving her a hearty punch in the shoulder. “Come on, Betazoid. Let’s find out what’s going on up there.”
“Sure,” Tilleran said, and followed J’hana out of the room.
So much for that.
ONE HOUR, TEN MINUTES AGO
“Andy Baxter,” Doctor Browning said, stepping out of the turbolift and onto the bridge.
Baxter turned from where he was chatting with Richards at the front of the bridge. “Janice. We’re at Yellow Alert. You should be below…”
“You know, I was ticked enough that Chris would plant the Starfleet idea in Plato’s brain. But then you go an encourage him. Andy, you know I rely on you to pick up the pieces when Christopher does something stupid.”
“Hey!” Richards protested.
“She’s right, you know,” Baxter said.
“Hey!” Richards said again.
“Seriously, Janice, we can talk about this later,” Baxter said, and pointed at the viewscreen. “We just got a distress call from a Tellarite freighter with engine trouble. We need to send a team over there to make sure they avoid a warp core breach.”
Browning stared at Baxter. “Will you be sending Plato?’
“Well, I was,” Baxter said. “But now I guess…not?”
“You’re damn right about that.”
“Can he monitor from the bridge?”
Browning continued to fix her gaze at Baxter. “I guess.”
“It’s not like he’ll be in Starfleet,” Richards said. “He’s just picking up some engineering shifts and learning from Lt. Commander Hartley.”
“Oh, I’m sure he has all sorts of things to learn from Commander Hartley,” Browning said, and headed toward the turbolift. “Anyway, I’ll be down in my restaurant. Try to keep my son out of harm’s way, okay?
“Sure, Janice,” Baxter said, and watched Browning go.
“You know, you are the Captain,” Richards said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, nothing,” Richards laughed as J’hana and Tilleran stepped out of the turbolift and took their respective stations, relieving Sparks and Mathers.
“Should we stay, Captain?” Sparks said as she crossed the quarterdeck.
Baxter nodded. “Might as well cram in some learning in the last few days.”
“Since you haven’t done much in the last seven months,” Richards said in a low voice.
“Shush,” Baxter said. “Sparks, take the mission ops console. Mathers, you can take the auxiliary/environmental console.”
“Sir, I was really craving a hamburger…”
Baxter glared at him.
“Which I can surely eat later,” Mathers said, and quickly jogged over to the small aux/environment console on the other side of the bridge.
“Senior staff is in place,” Richards said. “J’hana, Tilleran: We’re on our way to intercept a Tellarite freighter in distress. I want full scans and tactical analysis by the time we get there.”
“We’ll be in transporter range of the freighter in ten minutes,” J’hana said, looking up from her panel.
“Any other communication besides the distress call?” Baxter asked, and looked back at J’hana.
She shook her head. “They are radio silent. Could be a technical malfunction.”
“Full scans, Tilleran,” Richards ordered. “We don’t want any surprises.”
“Their engines are definitely heading toward an overload,” Tilleran said. “Estimate warp core breach in thirty minutes.”
Baxter nodded. “Bridge to Engineering.”
“Commander, form your team and be ready to beam over to the Tellarite ship with Richards and J’hana in ten minutes.”
“We’re on our way.”
“Oh, and send Plato up here.”
“Really? Doctor Browning talk you out of sending him on the away team?”
Richards stifled a laugh.
“No. Captain’s prerogative,” Baxter said, and stuck his tongue out at Richards.
ONE HOUR AGO
Ficker stepped out of his ready room and looked over the bridge, which was operating at perfect efficiency. Yes, even this ragtag bunch of misfit officers fell into line under Ficker’s superb leadership.
And the ones who didn’t were sent down to Doctor Drake.
“Status,” Ficker said, leaning on the railing that surrounded the command chairs.
“The Explorer is beaming a team over to the Tellarite ship now,” Worthy said, standing at the front of the bridge, hands on his hips.
“Any sign they have detected us?”
“Indeed not. The Dentz Nebula is masking our sensor readings perfectly.”
“Good,” Ficker said. “Be ready to execute our plan on my order.”
“We’re ready,” Worthy said, and smiled broadly.
“Get Doctor Drake back up here,” Ficker said. “I’m sure she’ll want to see her handiwork.”
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO
“Can I get you a drink?” Mirk called from the other room as Peterman stood in her bathroom and stared at the little box she’d been staring at for nearly an hour.
“Nope,” Peterman said.
“Sorry, it’s a reflex. The bartender in me…”
“Really, I’m fine. Do you need anything?”
“Nope. Steffie and I are watching her recording of Blue Andoorie and the Andorites.”
“She never gets tired of that, huh?” Peterman asked, gripping the counter and staring at herself in the mirror.
“She loves the color blue. Could explain why she doesn’t recoil from J’hana like most small children do…”
“Thanks again for watching Stef,” Peterman said. “You’re a big help.”
“No problem. It takes a lot of work to raise a child, I’m sure. Much less more than one!”
“What do you mean?” Peterman asked, panicked.
“Oh, nothing. I just come from a big family.”
“Right, right,” Peterman said, and finally reached down, ripping open the small box. “Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh. Pee, don’t fail me now!”
“Should you close the door or something?” Mirk called from the other room.
“Oh. Right. Computer: seal door!”
THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO
Hartley looked up from the slag that once was the freighter Frepak’s engines. “Someone made twisted metal out of this thing pretty easily. I haven’t gotten the metallurgical analysis back yet, but I’d swear it was a phaser rifle that did it.”
“A Starfleet phaser rifle?” J’hana asked, looming behind Hartley with Richards at her side.
“Can’t be sure at this point, but it’s possible,” Hartley said, leaning down and running her tricorder over the engines. “Anyway, we’ve managed to siphon off all the anti-deuterium residue from the cooling compartment and we were able to shut down the injectors.”
“So a massive explosion isn’t in our future?” Richards asked.
“Nope,” Hartley said, and stood, wiping off her uniform pants. “Any luck with the captain or crew?”
“They were…aloof,” J’hana said.
“That’s saying a lot, coming from you,” Hartley said.
“Is it ever,” Richards said.
THIRTY MINUTES AGO
Drake stood at the back of the Idlewild bridge and folded her arms, smiling in triumph. “It’s finally here. Everything I’ve worked for…”
“Everything WE’VE worked for,” Worthy corrected her. “And do not count your defeated starships before they hatch.”
“Well said, Commander,” Ficker said, patting Worthy on the back. “But Doctor Drake is right. Now is the time to celebrate. It’s time to show the Explorer crew the error of their ways!”
The emotions had been building in Ficker all day. He hated Baxter with the heat of a thousand suns. And now he finally had him where he wanted him.
The feeling was palpable.
After a lifetime of losing, Alvin Ficker was finally going to win one.
He could barely contain his glee.
FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO
“Hey,” Cadet Sparks said, glancing from the secondary science panel at Plato, who sat behind the aft engineering console. “So…bridge duty, huh?”
“I’m sorry, Cadet, but I’m here to do a job,” Plato said coldly and plunked at the controls on his panel.
Sparks sidled over to Plato. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Commander Hartley trained me on this panel this morning,” Plato said. “I’m quite comfortable with its functions.”
“Why are you talking like that?” Sparks asked, pushing hair out of her face and looking into Plato’s eyes.
“Thank you for the compliment, Cadet. Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to analyze the aft power coupling. I believe I can increase its efficiency by point seven percent.”
“Ooh, Plato. Why are you doing this now? Just before I leave!”
“Doing what?” Plato asked placidly.
“Treating me like I’m…” She struggled to keep her voice low. “Other people!”
“I’m just doing my job, Cadet,” Plato said, and returned his attention to his panel.
“Cadet,” Tilleran called to Sparks, who sighed and looked up.
“Come over here and look at these readings.”
Sparks walked over. “Yeah. It’s the Dentz Nebula. Pretty standard, Class Two.”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. “That’s what I thought.”
“So why did you call me over?”
“Because…” Tilleran shook her head. “I…feel something.”
“Is it your hormones again?” Sparks asked, remembering back to her mission with Tilleran on the Escort.
“Shhhh!” Tilleran leaned down into Sparks’ face. “Nobody here is to know about that. Got it?”
Sparks shrugged. “Sure. So is that all? Can I go back to my panel and…”
Tilleran had stopped listening to Sparks. Her eyes widened as she turned her attention to the viewscreen. She shut out the other noises on the bridge. The constant mental chatter of the bridge crew, and others on the Explorer.
And she focused on something else.
An unmistakable feeling.
Tilleran’s eyes went wide as the realization hit her.
“Captain! Get our team back now and go to Red Alert!” the Betazoid fairly shouted, pounding her panel.
Baxter turned, raising an eyebrow. “What?”
“DO IT!” Tilleran pleaded.
Baxter nodded. “Red Alert. Baxter to away team. Prepare for immediate departure.”
“May I ask why?” Richards’s voice replied over the comm.
Baxter turned to Tilleran. “An…impression from our science officer…”
“Captain!” Tilleran insisted.
“Yes. Mister Keefler…”
“Sensor contact, bearing two one six point zero one five!” Keefler called out. “It’s the Idlewild!”
“Holy shit,” Baxter said, his eyes widening. “Keefler, get our people back now and get the shields up. Arm all weapons. Lieutenant Madera: Evasive action!”
“What’s happening?” Plato asked, looking to Sparks.
“Just sit tight, Plato,” Sparks said, and watched on the viewscreen as the stingray-shaped Sabre-class starship came flying out of the Dentz Nebula, phasers blasting.
The blasts slammed into the Explorer, sending it pitching hard to port, and sending Baxter crashing to the deck.
Sparks fell backwards too, but Plato stretched his arm out, a good two meters, and slung it around her, keeping her on her feet.
“Thanks…” she gasped.
Baxter crawled to his feet as panels exploded around the bridge and smoke spewed out. “SHIELDS!”
“We got our team back, but the Idlewild got the first blast in before I could get the shields back up,” Keefler said, looking at the viewscreen.
“Return fire,” Baxter said, staggering back to his command chair.
“Primary power conduit offline,” Keefler said, looking over his panel. “That’s engines and weapons. We’ve still got life support and most secondary functions. And shields are back up at half strength.”
“They knew just where to hit us,” Tilleran said, steadying herself and looking over her panel.
“Plato,” Baxter said, and couldn’t believe he was giving his surrogate nephew an order.
“Y..yeah, Uncle…I mean Captain…”
“Go down to engineering and help Commander Hartley with the primary power conduit. She’s going to need every spare hand she can get.”
And truth be known, engineering was a safer place right now.
“But, Captain, I want to stay with…”
“Go!” Baxter said, and Plato dashed into the turbolift. “Sparks, Mathers: You, too.”
The trio ran into the turbolift, pushing past Richards and J’hana as they stepped out. “What the hell happened?” Richards asked, as J’hana relieved Keefler.
“That,” Baxter said, pointing at the screen.
The Idlewild sat on the viewscreen, facing the Explorer, completely still.
“Open a channel,” Baxter said.
J’hana tapped her console. “No response. Could I please have my weapons back?”
“They’re working on it,” Baxter said. “Baxter to Hartley. How’s that power conduit coming?”
“It’s slagged!” Hartley said plainly. “I need you to buy me some time, Captain!”
Baxter nodded. “If you can possibly work faster, Commander…”
“Well, not wasting my time with idle chatter would be a good start!”
“Touche,” Baxter said. “Still no response from the Idlewild?”
“Nothing,” J’hana said.
Baxter looked around his bridge, dimly lit and a bit smoky from the recent hits his ship had taken, and he took stock. Suddenly he realized someone wasn’t there.
“Kelly,” he said, and looked to Richards. “Baxter to Peterman.”
“You have the bridge, Chris,” Baxter said, and ran up to the aft turbolift.
“NOW?” Richards asked incredulously.
“Yes, now,” Baxter said. “I’ve got to…”
“Peterman here,” the voice came back, distant and small.
“Kelly,” Baxter said. “Where are you?”
“I’m…in our quarters.”
“She’s fine. Mirk’s here with us. We told her we just hit some turbulence.”
Baxter looked around the bridge. “You could say that. Honey, I need you up here. Ask Mirk to stay with Steffie a while longer.”
“She’ll be fine. Mirk’s omnipotent, remember?”
There was a pause. “He prefers ‘megapotent.’”
“Whatever. Please, Kelly, get up here.”
There was a long pause. “On my way.”
Baxter looked at J’hana. “Post an armed guard at my cabin, Commander.”
“By the hive mother, I swear, your child will not be harmed,” J’hana said with a toothy grin.
“That’s comforting,” Baxter said, and for once, meant it. He looked back at the viewscreen.
“So what do you think they’re doing over there?” Richards asked.
FIVE MINUTES AGO
“HOOORAY!” Ficker said, popping a champagne cork and drenching himself in bubbly. “We’ve got them!”
“Sir,” Worthy said calmly from behind Ficker, who poured a glass for himself and for Doctor Drake. “The Explorer crew is no doubt working feverishly to repair their power conduit. If we allow them time to restore power, they may escape…”
“Nonsense. Lieutenant Prouse made a surgical strike,” Ficker said, and raised his glass to the stern tactical officer standing aft. “To you, Lieutenant Prouse!”
“Still, Captain,” Worthy said. “We should proceed.”
“Quite right, Commander, quite right,” Ficker said, and clinked glasses with Doctor Drake. “By all means, Lieutenant Prouse. On screen.”
FOUR MINUTES AGO
“Ficker,” Baxter said flatly, staring at the cheerful, bespectacled captain on the viewscreen.
“Ah, Captain Baxter. It’s been too long.”
“Not long enough,” Baxter said, looking to Richards, then back to the screen. “What do you want?”
“What do I ever want?” Ficker asked. “To reach an understanding between us, Andy. Two men. Two captains of fine ships, both determined in our quest to do right by ship and crew.”
“Yes, except one of us is a blathering idiot.”
“And also crazy,” Richards pointed out.
“Your words hurt,” Ficker said. “They really sting.”
“Not nearly as bad as my weapons are going to sting as soon as we get them back online,” Baxter said, praying Hartley was hurrying.
THREE MINUTES AGO
“Stuart, Tarpley, Finnegan, Plato, Mathers, Sparks!” Hartley called out, slinging an engineering kit over her shoulder and running along the massive expanse of conduit in the Explorer’s primary power access tube, which ran the spine of the ship.
“Coming!” Sparks said, juggling lengths of duranium and polyduride, along with the others. Bringing up the rear, Mathers dragged an antigrav loaded down with conduit patching supplies.
“Double time,” Hartley ordered, unslinging her bag and pulling out a phase coupler. “Find a stretch of conduit and start patching. Now!”
“Where do we start?” Mathers asked, surveying the endless stretch of conduit, which was pocked in several places by black holes.
“Just pick a spot. And hurry!”
“Is there…” Plato asked, looking around, feeling more than a little overwhelmed. “Are these live conduits?”
“No,” Hartley snapped. “And that’s part of the problem. C’mon, Plato. You wanted to help, didn’t you? Now’s your chance!”
Plato grabbed length of metal and ran down along the conduit piping. “Yes, sir!”
TWO MINUTES AGO
Ficker stood on his bridge, unable to wipe the smile from his face. “I hate to put such a fine point on it, Captain. But you’re finished. It’s over.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Baxter asked, standing on the viewscreen, with bridge crew shuttling about behind him and Richards at his side, arms folded.
“You’re stalling,” Ficker said. “How cute. Look, I know we knocked out your primary power coupling. And I know you’ll get it back up, probably in fifteen minutes or so.”
Baxter stared daggers at Ficker. “So what are you waiting for?”
“Just savoring the moment,” Ficker admitted. “C’mon, admit it. You didn’t see us coming. You thought you’d seen the last of us.”
“Starfleet Security knows about you,” Baxter said, feigning disinterest. “You’re somebody else’s problem now.”
“No,” Ficker said darkly, looking over his glasses at Baxter. “I’m your problem right now.”
ONE MINUTE AGO
Counselor Peterman leaned against the back of the turbolift, staring at the ceiling as it rode up through the bowels of the Explorer, and silently thanking the Great Bird that synthehol had no ill effects on pregnancies.
She’d reset the test and taken it three times. That was one of the nice features of the Daddy Dillon Instant Pregnancy Test. You could try it again and again.
Again and again, the readout flashed the same. A grinning Bradley Dillon with two thumbs up. If you weren’t pregnant, it would be two thumbs down. If you were negative for osteoporosis, he gave you the O.K. sign. And somehow, it knew just by analyzing your urine if you planned to vote for him in the upcoming election. And the gesture for that was quite predictable.
Peterman heaved a deep breath as the turbolift doors opened up. “Andy, I know this is a bad time, but we’ve got to…”
“Counselor!” Ficker said from the viewscreen. “What a pleasant surprise. I’m glad you could be here for this moment.”
“Me too,” Baxter said in a quiet voice as Peterman jogged down to join him at the front of the bridge.
“Hartley to bridge,” came the engineer’s breathless voice. “I’ve almost got it. Give me ten more minutes.”
“He doesn’t have that much time, I’m afraid,” Ficker said over the viewscreen.
“Oh, and tell Captain Ficker I said that he can go fuck himself!” Hartley shouted over the comm.
“And I don’t have that much time either,” Ficker said over the comm. “Well, now it’s your move, isn’t it, Captain?”
Baxter balled his fists, staring at the viewscreen and working his jaw, feeling Peterman’s presence as she stepped up behind him.
The bridge was silent.
Nobody moved. Everyone stared at the viewscreen, waiting for Baxter to do something.
“Andy,” Peterman said.
Baxter stared at the viewscreen. “It’s no use, Kelly. We’re beat.”
“The hell we are!” Commander Richards said, standing next to Baxter. “Andy, after all we’ve been through, how can you just…”
“We are. We’re beat,” Baxter said. “You’ve got us, Ficker. We surrender. What are your terms?”
On the viewscreen, Alvin Ficker smiled broadly. “No terms. Brace yourselves, Explorer. This will all be over in a minute.” He looked off-screen. “Lieutenant Prouse: fire.”
“All power to forward shields,” Richards said, looking to Baxter. “And if somebody wants to come up with a genius idea, now’s the…”
“Something’s happening,” Tilleran said, gazing over her screens.
“That’s an understatement,” Peterman said, reaching out and taking Baxter’s hand, squeezing it hard.
“Energy spike on the Idlewild,” J’hana said, looking up. “She’s channeling a lot of energy through her subspace array.”
Baxter stared at the screen, eyes locked on Ficker.
A beat went by, and Ficker turned back to his tactical officer. “Prouse! What’s taking so long? It didn’t take this long before….”
Suddenly a shower of sparks rained on the Idlewild bridge. Her lights dimmed, throwing Ficker into shadow. Then he disappeared from the screen, replaced by a scene of the Idlewild sitting in space.
“Report!” Baxter called out.
“Overload in her communications array,” J’hana said. “Whatever they were shooting at us…backfired.”
Tilleran looked up from her screens. “They’ve suffered ship-wide power failures. Some sort of chain reaction…”
“Now we destroy them,” J’hana said.
“With what?” asked Richards.
“Baxter to Hartley!”
“We’ve got to get engines and weapons back online now. What can you give us?”
“We’re almost done,” Hartley said, looking up from her engineering tricorder as Plato, the cadets, and a handful of engineers worked on the main power conduit. “Just one more microfracture to patch.” She glanced at the tricorder. “Damn.”
“What?” Plato asked, walking up next to her.
“The last microfracture is in section eighty-nine alpha….” She walked a few meters to the spot where the conduit branched off and shot upwards through the neck of the Explorer’s stardrive section. “About thirty meters along that tube. It’ll take another twenty minutes to climb up there and…”
“No it won’t,” Plato said. “Hand me that protoplaser, Commander.”
“Plato…” Hartley began.
“NOW!” Plato fairly shouted, prompting Sparks to turn and look.
Hartley handed Plato the protoplaser, and his arm suddenly stretched up though the narrow access tube that tunneled through the guts of the Explorer.
“Well?” Baxter asked over the still-open channel. “What’s happening?”
“Stand by…” Hartley said, her gaze shifting up, watching as Plato’s lengthening arm stretched impossibly high through the tube, disappearing from sight.
“WELL?” Ficker demanded, pounding a console on the bridge bulkhead as the lights aboard the Idlewild continued to flicker.
“We are trying to trace the power failure,” came the voice of Chief Engineer Donald Maher. “But no doubt it came as a result of Doctor Drake’s weapon.”
“More champagne, Doctor?” Commander Worthy asked, folding his arms.
“You’re not helping, Commander,” Ficker said, turning his gaze on the Explorer, which sat, invitingly ready to be destroyed on the viewscreen.
“I don’t understand,” Drake said, pushing Ensign Choy away from sciences and running her hands over the console. “It worked perfectly on the Tellarites.”
“Well I guess your device is not quite ready for prime time, Doctor,” Ficker sneered, staring at the Explorer. “Mister Maher, get weapons back online as soon as you can. We’ll have to settle for destroying the Explorer the old fashioned way.”
“Captain, in our current condition, that might not be a foregone conclusion,” Worthy warned.
“Want to make a bet?” Ficker seethed.
“What are they doing over there?” Richards asked, stepping toward the viewscreen and staring at the Idlewild.
“Likely scrambling to get back up and running, just like us,” Baxter said, bracing a foot on the helm console. “Lieutenant Madera, I want you to plot a strafing course, and execute as soon as we get power up.”
“Andy?” Peterman asked.
“J’hana,” Baxter said, and turned to face his chief tactical officer. “Well, you know what to do.”
“Oh, yes sir,” J’hana said, cracking her knuckles. “I cannot wait to…”
“Hartley to bridge. I can’t believe it, but we actually have main power back!”
Baxter could feel the power thrum back to life beneath his feet. Red lights on consoles throughout the bridge turned green.
“That’s it. Madera, J’hana…”
Peterman reached out and grabbed Baxter’s arm. “Andy. No.”
Baxter turned to look at Peterman. “Not now, Kelly.”
“She’s right,” Richards said. “Our priority needs to be the safety of our crew. We’re hardly in any shape to go into combat…”
“Engineering crews on the Idlewild moving rapidly,” J’hana reported. “They could be back up in less than ten minutes.”
Peterman looked at Baxter. “We need to get out of here, Andy.”
“This may be our best chance to stop Ficker,” Baxter responded. “I’m not prepared…”
Peterman looked down, and thought about the events of her day. About what she’d learned. “Andy, I’m telling you, it’s important that we get out of here. Now.” She squeezed his arm hard. “Please. Trust me. Some things are more important than defeating Alvin Ficker.”
Baxter looked from Peterman to the viewscreen, clenching his free fist. “Susan…”
Peterman kept her eyes trained on Baxter.
“Bring us about. Lay in an escape course.” Baxter glanced at J’hana. “Aft torpedoes. Do as much damage as you can do.”
J’hana tapped at her console. “Torpedoes away.” On the viewscreen, torpedoes crashed against the flickering shields of the Idlewild, and the Sabre-class starship pitched hard aft. “Shields nearly breached. Minimal hull damage. Another few salvos will…”
Baxter took a deep breath. “Susan, take us out of here. Maximum warp.” With that, Baxter freed himself of Peterman’s grip and walked back to the command chair.
“Sir!” J’hana pleaded, leaning over her console.
“Engage, Lieutenant,” Baxter said tiredly.
“We live to fight another day,” Richards said with a deep sigh as the Explorer pivoted and shot into warp.
“A coward’s way out, to be sure,” J’hana said.
“I’ll take it,” said Tilleran.
Richards glanced at Peterman. “Counselor?”
Peterman looked back at Richards, then at the streaking stars on the viewscreen. “I’m fine.” She looked at Baxter. Baxter sat in the command chair and stared forward as Richards sat down beside him. “I’ll be, uh, belowdecks.”
Baxter didn’t respond, he just stared blankly at the viewscreen.
“Anyone want a drink?” Richards asked.
“That was amazing!” Cadet Mathers cheered, as he and Ensign Stuart hoisted Plato on their shoulders, walking back into Engineering.
“It was nothing!” Plato said.
Hartley brought up the rear as the others returned to their stations and Stuart and Mathers sat Plato down. “My office, Crewman Plato,” she said, casually walking by the changeling boy.
“Cool, huh?” Mathers asked .
Sparks watched Plato duck into Hartley’s office. “Yeah. Cool.”
“Good work, kid,” Hartley said, as Plato stepped into her office. “But back-talk me like that again, and I’ll turn you into a clay mug.”
“Yes, uh, Commander,” Plato said, his face reddening.
“C’mere,” she said, easing back onto her desk as Plato reluctantly approached her. She put a hand on his shoulder. “You kept your head in a crisis. You stretched…yourself….literally… on behalf of this ship and crew. That means a lot to me.”
“Well, I, uh…”
“Your mom’s lucky to have a kid like you.” Hartley looked up at Plato and smiled. “And one day, some woman’s going to be lucky to have a guy like you.” She leaned forward and kissed Plato on the cheek. “Tell anyone, and I mean anyone, that I was nice to you…”
Plato swallowed hard. “Clay mug?”
“A beautiful clay mug. Yes,” Hartley said, stepping back behind her desk. “Dismissed.”
“Cheers, to once again almost nearly getting killed,” Commander Richards said, raising his drink and clinking glasses with the officers that circled his table.
He was joined by Tilleran, J’hana, and Hartley. Elsewhere in the Constellation Club, other officers similarly cheered the Explorer’s victory.
J’hana, who was seated beside Richards, did not raise her glass. “One more moment and we’d have destroyed that fwarker.”
“Or we might not be here at all,” Tilleran countered.
Hartley stared into her drink, deep in thought, then looked up at the others. “Hey, guys…where’s Captain Baxter? Or Counselor Peterman for that matter?”
Richards shrugged. “Guess they turned in early.”
“Guess so,” Hartley said, as Mirk arrived with another round of full glasses.
“Refills?” he asked brightly.
“Absolutely,” Tilleran said.
“Not me. I’ve got to get back to engineering soon.” Hartley watched Mirk set the drinks down, drawing a glance from Tilleran.
“No probing,” she said, pointing her glass warningly at the Betazoid.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Tilleran said innocently. “But we can talk, if you want, later…”
Hartley nodded. “I do.”
“This party is boring,” J’hana announced, and turned to Richards. “We should mate.”
“Well,” Richards said, leaping to his feet. “Guess we’ll call it a night!”
“Steffie’s down,” Counselor Peterman said, running a brush through her hair and sitting at the edge of the bed she shared with Baxter, who lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.
“Good,” he said softly.
“Look, Andy, on the bridge today…”
“You were right,” Baxter said.
“I know,” she said. “I just didn’t know if you knew.”
Baxter leaned up, and scooted behind Peterman, putting his hands on her shoulders and gently rubbing. “That’s why I asked you to come to the bridge, Kelly. You’re my compass. No matter how much I want to destroy that bastard, I have faith that you’ll keep me pointed in the right direction.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Andy,” Peterman said, drawing a deep breath. “We have a lot to protect here, you know.”
“I know,” Baxter said.
“More than you can imagine.”
Baxter swung his legs around and moved next to Peterman on the edge of the bed. “What do you mean?”
“Well…you see, today I found out that…”
“Mommy?” Steffie appeared in the doorway, clutching her blanket.
“Sweetie?” Peterman asked, moving down to kneel in front of Steffie. “I just put you down. Are you still having trouble sleeping?”
“Yeah,” she said. “That man outside won’t stop talking.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “She’s almost as nonsensical as you are when she’s sleepy.” He looked down at Steffie. “There’s no man out there, short stuff.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, reaching to take Steffie’s hand. “Let’s go, babe…”
“I’ll take her,” Baxter said, moving to take Steffie and hoist her up on his shoulder.
“Okay,” Peterman said. “Be back soon, sweetie.”
Baxter glanced back at Peterman, wondering what she meant, as he ducked out of his bedroom and into the darkness of his cabin. “Now, Stef, sweetie, what kind of things are you conjuring up in that imagination of your…”
“Well if it isn’t daddy dearest,” a mocking voice said, on the other side of the cabin.
Baxter stopped in his tracks. He sat Steffie down and pushed her behind him. “Go to Mommy. Now.”
Ficker stepped into the dim swath of light in the cabin as Steffie dashed back to the bedroom. “Stop freaking out, Baxter. I wouldn’t dream of hurting your little brat.”
Baxter’s face was blank as he stared at Ficker. “Baxter to bridge. Intruder alert. Security to my quarters.”
“Tsk tsk,” Ficker said, leaning against Baxter’s couch. “I was hoping we’d have a few minutes to talk first.”
Ficker shook his head. “This petty enmity between us has to end.”
Baxter looked hard and cold at Ficker. “It. Will. Never. End.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Ficker said lightly, waving a finger at Baxter. “It will end when I destroy you, and remake Starfleet in my image.”
Baxter worked his hands in and out of fists.
“Come on, Baxter. Here’s your chance. Stop me. If you can.”
That was all the enticement he needed. Baxter launched himself at Ficker…
…and flew right through him, slamming hard into the wall behind him.
Ficker pivoted to face Baxter, who shook his head dizzily from the impact.
“The Idlewild’s holographic transmitters are impressive, aren’t they?’
“Andy?” Peterman asked, appearing in the doorway to the bedroom.
“Your husband’s not getting any smarter with age, Counselor,” Ficker said, shaking his head. “But it’s nice to know you’re getting more beautiful with every passing year.”
“Andy…” Peterman said again.
Baxter turned slowly to face Ficker. “They’re running out of words for the ways in which I am going to kick your ass, Ficker.”
“Taunt if you must, Captain, but know this. I’ll be back. And I’m not going to stop.”
Baxter breathed deeply. “Neither am I.”
“Then it’s settled,” Ficker said, stepping toward Baxter. “Game on. May the best man win.”
And with that, he disappeared.
And the doors to the Baxter cabin exploded open to reveal J’hana, naked, cradling a phaser rifle.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
Peterman stared at Baxter, who was as filled with anger as she’d ever seen him. “It’s all over, J’hana.”
“No it isn’t,” Baxter said. “But it will be soon.”
After recent events, the crew could use a good party. But when the Explorer visits Earth for Harlan Baxter’s promotion to Fleet Admiral, and to drop off the cadets at Starfleet Academy, not everyone’s in the mood to celebrate. Join us in saying goodbye to our fearless cadets, and find out why the confrontation with Alvin Ficker is just beginning.