Author: Anthony Butler
Space is weird.
I mean, space is WEIRD, and it scares you sometimes. You get out of bed every day, thinking that you’ll be ready to face it. And then you realize that you’re just not ready.
So you try to go back to bed.
But try as you might, you cannot fall asleep.
So what do you do? What do you do when the very place you’ve set your sights on all your life opens up in an expanse so great that you can’t comprehend it all? What do you do when your dream seems neither deferred nor denied, it just seems…
Don’t even think about walking around here with that dumbfounded look on your face, either. Nope, they can see you coming. Even on a ship like this one, they can figure you out. Some more than others.
Lay low. Don’t get recognized. Don’t screw up.
These things have a way of coming back to bite you.
You’re good, right? You know you are. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t good. But you have to be better than good to survive this. You have to be the best. That’s why you’re in Starfleet.
Okay, well, maybe not everyone’s the best. Some people seem to survive on sheer luck. And that’s where I fit in.
When I walk around this ship, I realize I’m with people just like me. And I realize things aren’t so bad. That maybe, just maybe, guys like me have a chance.
We do, right?
“MATHERS!” a voice fairly shouted, causing Cadet Colby Mathers to nearly leap from his seat in the cadets’ briefing room, where he was busy staring at a padd.
Lt. Commander J’hana glowered down at the padd and stared long and hard at Mathers. “You are due for your final physical training exercise before you disembark.”
“Yeah,” Mathers said, staring at the padd.
“What are you doing?” J’hana asked.
The husky cadet rapped the padd lightly on the conference table. “The final reflection paper for my internship. Just putting on the finishing touches.”
“Ahhh, yes. I remember it well,” J’hana chortled. “I had to complete one of those after my tour on the Ithaca.”
“Did you have a hard time with it?”
“Not particularly. Then again, I spent most of it tearing the captain and the senior staff a new shargatz. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near the weapons.”
J’hana gave a vicious grin, glancing off nostalgically. “I had an impulse control problem back then.”
“Oh,” Mathers said.
“Cadet, if you spent less time staring at that padd, and more time in the rec room…”
Mathers sighed. “Fair point.” He put the padd down. “I should be making the most of the time we have left on the ship.”
“Indeed,” J’hana said. “Your tour on the Explorer is nearly finished.”
“Then let’s make the best of it.” Mathers took a deep breath. “Can we hit the rock climbing program on the holodeck instead of the gym?”
“You’ve been afraid of that program since you came aboard.”
Mathers smiled. “I’d like to give it a shot.”
Captain Andy Baxter sat in his readyroom, staring straight ahead.
To his right, an oblong window displayed a magnificent vista of sparkling stars. But he wasn’t interested.
He just stared straight ahead as the doors opened and Commander Richards strode in, tossing a padd on his desk.
“Commander Tilleran and Doctor Wilcox agree with Kelly’s analysis of the Tellarite crew,” Richards said. “The effects of Doctor Drake’s weapon are, for the moment, permanent. It’s a good thing we came back to get them, too. They’re not going anywhere under their own power in that state.”
Baxter continued to stare straight ahead.
“The U.S.S. Ramses is en route to tow the Frepak to port and transport the crew to a Federation medical facility. We’ve assured the Tellarites that the Frepak’s crew will get the best possible treatment. In time, I imagine, they’ll find a way to snap the Tellarites out of whatever Ficker did to them.”
Baxter’s gaze didn’t waver.
Richards eased into the chair in front of Baxter and leaned forward on the desk. “No sign of the Idlewild on longrange sensors. All indications are they left the area not long after we did. We put feelers out with every listening post in the sector, and Starfleet Security. Nobody’s heard anything. Then again, if Starfleet Security knew something, I’m not sure they’d tell us.”
Still, Baxter did not move.
Richards shifted in his chair. “And I’m thinking of slipping out of my uniform and prancing naked around the bridge. Susan thinks it’ll earn me more respect among the crew.” The first officer sighed, and leaned forward. “There’s a shipment of grapefruits arriving from Deneb Four. Hundreds. Right down in the cargo bay, fresh, and ripe for the taking. Ripe. Get it? Ripe?”
Baxter slowly turned to face Richards, and blinked. “You say there’s no sign of the Idlewild.”
“It’s one of the many, many things I said,” Richards admitted.
Baxter nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay? Okay what?”
“Okay.” Baxter shrugged. “That’s all.”
Richards leaned back, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Captain, you’ve been like this for two days now. You’re freaking all of us out. You don’t look much better than those Tellarites over there, and your goatee is out-of-control bushy.”
“I’ve been thinking.”
Baxter took Richards’s padd and stared at it blankly. “What I’m going to do when I find Ficker.”
“You mean transfer him to the appropriate penal colony?”
“I’m going to go J’hana on his ass,” Baxter said in a low voice, and shoved the padd back across the desk at Richards.
“Let’s not get carried away…”
Baxter swung his chair away from Richards and looked out the viewport. “We need to head to Earth soon.”
“Yes. The cadets are due back tonight. And then there’s your father’s…thing…”
“Exactly what I need right now. To see my Dad.”
“Maybe he’ll cheer you up.”
Baxter eased back toward Richards. “You think?’
“Maybe not, but we can still get there in time if we leave now.”
Baxter sighed. “Tell Susan to set a course for Earth and engage at maximum warp as soon as the Ramses arrives to pick up the Tellarite ship.”
Richards nodded and turned for the door, and then turned back to face Baxter. “And what about the Idlewild?”
“Ficker will show up when he wants to.” Baxter cracked his knuckles. “And then we’ll deal with it.”
The warp core thrummed, and thrummed, and thrummed, alert klaxons building by the second.
“Thirty seconds to warp core breach!” Lt. Commander Hartley called out.
“Injectors frozen! We can’t get them open!” Ensign Ryan Stuart reported.
“We’re gonna lose containment!” Hartley responded, turning to the master systems display. She looked up from her readouts and glanced at the crewman standing on the other side. “Well? What are you going to do, Plato?”
The half-changeling boy stared at the stream of information coming across the screen. “Abandon ship?”
“You can’t get over eight hundred people to escape pods in thirty seconds. We need another answer.”
“Drop the core?”
Hartley nodded. “Go.”
Plato dashed over to the warp core ejection console and began tapping in the sequence. The computer buzzed annoyingly.
“Ejection sequence failed. Ejection systems offline.”
Plato turned, panic-stricken, to Hartley. “What now?”
“What now is we explode,” Hartley said calmly, as the engine room was filled with a wash of white light.
The pair was left alone on Holodeck Three, surrounded by comforting, intersecting orange lines.
“Computer, reset program,” Plato ordered. “Time index thirty- three.”
“Belay that, computer,” Hartley said, holding a hand up. “That’s enough for today, Plato. We’ve been at this for three hours.”
“But I’ve almost got it!” Plato insisted. “I’ve just got to route ejection control to my console! Save some time!”
“Yes, that’s how you could have solved the last problem,” Hartley said. “But each time you reset the program, it’s a different program. You just have to think on your feet. Sorta like real life.”
Plato pursed his lips. “That hardly seems fair.”
“Getting blown up isn’t fair,” Hartley said. “But it happens. You’ll have to be ready for it. But right now, your mother is expecting you for lunch. Now if you want to see an explosion…”
“Yeah,” Plato said with a smile. “Guess you’re right.”
“We can pick up again later this afternoon.”
“We can?” Plato asked, his smile spreading. “You’re not too busy?”
“Nah, most of the senior staff will be at Admiral Baxter’s reception, and we’ll be docked,” Hartley said, and clapped Plato on the back, leading him out of the holodeck. “You’re beginning to make some headway, kid. Don’t get discouraged.”
“I won’t. Matter of fact, I’m gonna…” Plato trailed off as Cadet Sparks walked by, engrossed in a padd. “Nat…” he breathed.
The cadet breezed by him, not even looking up from her padd.
“Nat,” Plato called out a little louder as she walked by.
Hartley watched her go. “She heard you, Plato.”
Plato turned to Hartley. “Why didn’t she…”
“Didn’t you completely blow her off the last time you two talked?”
“Well, yeah, but…that’s different.”
Hartley shook her head. “It’s really not.”
“She wronged ME! She’s the one leaving!”
Hartley chuckled. “She wronged you by deciding to continue her studies at Starfleet Academy?”
“She wouldn’t even consider bringing me with her.”
“Your Mom nearly set the bridge on fire just because you were doing shifts in engineering. You really think she’d let you go to Starfleet Academy by yourself?”
“I wouldn’t be by myself. I’d be with Nat.”
Hartley shook her head and led Plato back in the other direction, toward the lift. “I come from a family of fishermen, Plato. Did you know that?”
“And fisherwomen too, I suppose.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Hartley shrugged. “It’s important to know when to let one get away.” She tapped a control on the lift. “And believe me, like it or not, Nat Sparks is going to get away.”
“So what are you saying I should do? Just cast my line out again?”
“No,” Hartley said, as the lift doors open and she stepped in. “I’m saying you should say goodbye before you drive out to deeper water.”
I haven’t been here long.
I haven’t been around long enough to figure out the way things are supposed to work on a Starship.
Obviously, certain customs have to be observed. There’s a particular way of doing things. You’ve got to be sharp. Observant.
Stuff happens fast in space.
You’ve got to be ready.
Someone once said that in space, no one can hear you scream. I can attest to that, having nearly lost my lunch during a couple of space walks led by the merciless Commander J’hana.
No one can hear you scream in space, true. But no one can hear you love, either.
No one in space realizes how you feel about them.
Sometimes these things are best left alone.
It’s good to focus on work. Things happen fast. You’ve got to keep moving on a starship or you’ll lose your way.
There’s a particular way things have to be done. You’ve got to be sharp.
Some say there’s no room for relationships on a starship, but I’ve seen plenty of couples on this crew. People find a way to make it work.
I haven’t been here that long. There’s a particular way of doing things, and I don’t have it all figured out yet.
But I get this feeling, maybe sooner than later, I will…
“Mister Piper?” Counselor Peterman stood in the doorway to her office and chuckled. “Comfy?”
Cadet Ethan Piper took his feet off Peterman’s desk and leaned forward, pushing the padd he’d been writing on aside. “Counselor! I didn’t think you’d be here till later this morning.”
“I wasn’t feeling well this morning,” Peterman said. “But I’m feeling much better now.”
“Are you sure? I’m fine here if you want to take the day…”
“No, we have a lot to do today,” Peterman said.
“We do? I thought I’d just wrap up my reflection paper, and we’d meet for my cadet review…”
“Yes, about the review,” Peterman said, and moved to sit on the fainting couch adjacent to her desk.
“You have questions about it? It’s a pretty standard format, from what it looks like…”
“I’ll fill it out in due time,” Peterman said. “But I have a final review of my own for you.”
“Would you like to become a full-time counselor after the Academy?”
Piper rolled that thought around a bit, then nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been enjoying the challenges of such a…troubled crew.”
“And they’ve been enjoying you,” Peterman said. “So, if you want to be a counselor, you have to take my final exam. Think you’re up for it?’
“S-sure,” Piper said, and grabbed his padd, moving out from behind the desk and taking a seat in the chair next to Peterman. “So what do I need to do?”
Peterman leaned back on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. “Counsel me.”
“And this is a Patagonia Wallop-Bud,” Mirk said, pointing to the orange, flappy appendages on the twenty-seventh plant on his and Steffie’s tour of the Chaka’kan Arboretum.
“Wallop!” Steffie announced, slapping at the orange flaps on the plant.
“Yes, very good!” Mirk said encouragingly, sitting cross-legged in the dirt. “And what about that one?”
“Bird-eater of Andor!”
“Yes,” Mirk said, shifting back a little. “Don’t get too close to that one. It might mistake you for a bird.”
Steffie wrinkled her nose. “Really?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Mirk turned when the doors to the arboretum sighed open. He watched Commander Hartley step inside and look around, catching sight of him.
“Oh, Steffie…could you do something to make me look very busy right now?”
“I just pooped!” Steffie announced.
“That’ll do,” Mirk said with a sigh, gently lifting Steffie to her feet and standing as Hartley approached.
“Mirk,” she said. “Got a moment?”
“Not exactly.” He inclined his head toward Steffie. “Brown Alert.”
“Cute,” Hartley said. “When are you…off-duty?”
“Tonight, after Captain Baxter and Counselor Peterman get back from Admiral Baxter’s reception.”
“Good. Then we can resume our talk.”
“Talk?” Mirk asked innocently.
“Yes,” Hartley said, folding her arms. “The talk that you’ve been avoiding for weeks.”
Mirk lifted Steffie and walked with her toward the door. “This isn’t a very good time.”
“What would be a good time?” Hartley demanded.
“Just, uh…” He walked toward the door. “Not now.”
“Mirk,” Hartley said, in a soft tone that belied her anger. “Why are you acting like this? If you’ve changed your mind about having kids, why don’t you just be a man and tell me that?”
“I haven’t,” Mirk said.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Right now? A poopie diaper.”
Hartley watched Mirk head to the door. “Mirk…I’ve known you a long time, and I know when you’re hiding something. I’m smarter than your average human. And I guarantee you I’ll figure it out soon enough.”
“Okay, uh, talk to you later!” Mirk said, and carried Steffie quickly out of the arboretum.
“I mean it!” Hartley called after him.
But the Maloxian was gone.
“Lunch,” J’hana breathed heavily, wiping the sweat from her brow and shrugging off her uniform jacket, stepping up to the door to her quarters. The rock climb with Mathers had been refreshing. True, she had to slow herself down quite a bit to enable the lad to keep up with her, but the synthetic fresh air of the holodeck was peaceful. Contemplative, even. It allowed her some time to think, and to center herself.
The Andorian reached out to tap an entry code into her door. When had she come to think of this place she shared with Richards as hers?
Suddenly she felt, more than saw, a presence behind her.
“Imzadi,” Commander Tilleran said, and put a hand on her shoulder.
J’hana pivoted, arching an antenna. “You should not sneak up on me. My reflexes are honed. I could have pounced on you.”
“Fun as that sounds, I was more hoping we could have a conversation.”
“Could we go inside?”
J’hana gave a small nod, and entered the entry code. “We can.”
“It’s just that he’s acting distant. Weird,” Richards said, as the turbolift thrummed down through the bowels of the Explorer.
“The distant thing is a bit of a concern, but Andy’s always been weird,” Dr. Janice Browning said.
“He’s taking this Ficker thing very personal.’
“I’m sure you’d understand if you had a nemesis.”
“Krinok is my nemesis,” Richards said defensively. “Everyone knows that. Anyway, you don’t have a nemesis, either.”
“Jelo,” Browning said.
“Oh, if you can have Jelo as a nemesis, then I can definitely have Krinok.”
“What are we talking about, anyway?” Browning asked.
“Andy. He needs someone to talk some sense into him. Snap him out of this trance he’s been in since Ficker nearly obliterated us.”
“And you want me to do it?”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Kelly’s been a bit preoccupied herself lately, so…”
“All right,” Browning said, as she and Richards approached the door to his quarters. “I’ll talk to him. But you’ve got to talk to Plato about this whole Nat Sparks thing. He’s been inconsolable.”
“Sure. I’ll chat with the boy.”
Browning raised a warning finger as Richards entered the entry code. “No Orion dance clubs, this time!”
“Certainly not. We’ll do it over drinks at Mirks.”
Browning glared at Richards.
“Kidding. Kidding!” the first officer said, and ducked into his quarters….
…where Commanders Tilleran and J’hana were sitting on the bed, talking.
“Is it time for sex already?” J’hana asked, matter-of-factly, looking up at Richards.
“Well, I was thinking…” Richards said.
“Is that why you were eating all those carbs at lunch?” Browning asked, wrinkling up her nose.
“I’ll just be going…” Tilleran said, easing off the bed.
“But you haven’t told me what you wanted to tell me,” J’hana called after her.
“This is probably not the best time,” Tilleran said, and ducked past Richards. “Uh, hello Commander…”
“Commander,” Richards nodded.
“I’ll, just, uh, follow her whichever way she’s going…” Browning said, backing out behind Tilleran.
J’hana stood and fixed a gaze on Richards. “Well. Sex now?”
“What was that about? With Commander Tilleran?”
“She wanted to speak with me about a matter of personal import, but she did not say anything else.”
Richards nodded. “Does she, um…how should I say this?”
“Still yearn to gobble my gorplatz?”
A shiver traveled down Richards’s spine. “That is DEFINITELY not how I would say that.” He shook his head.
J’hana smirked. “How feminine of you to be concerned about Commander Tilleran’s intentions.”
“It’s not her intentions I’m worried about.”
J’hana’s amused expression quickly became a glare. “Speak plainly, human.”
“Well,” Richarsdon said, sitting down on the bed. “You two obviously share a bond. If you want to explore that more fully…”
“I thought you weren’t into that kind of…”
“Not with her AND me!” Richards blurted. “I mean, if you want to be with her…instead…of me.”
“Your insecurities are wholly unappealing,” J’hana growled. “Besides, you just came from lunch with Doctor Browning. Should I not suppose it’s you who wishes to end this relationship in favor of a renewed interest in the chubby one?”
“Janice is NOT chubby!” Richards snapped, then softened. “Anyway, I said nothing of the sort.” He pivoted on the bed and eased off it. “Look, I didn’t mean to, um…it just took me by surprise seeing her here.”
“You worry to much, human,” J’hana said, and took Richards’s hand, yanking him down onto the bed. “Enjoy what we have. Who knows when it will end?”
That’s what worries me, Richards thought. I am enjoying what we have…and I don’t know when it will end.
I’m not the same person I was before. I’ve changed.
Let’s not go crazy, here. The Explorer didn’t transform me into another being (although that would have been cool). I’m still the same person more, or less.
But I’m also quite a bit different, in ways that are harder to measure.
When I came on board the Explorer seven months ago, I was a naive, shy waifish little mouse who jumped whenever she was given an order.
Now I’m a naive, shy, waifish little mouse who gives orders. I’ve been Acting Chief Science Officer. I’ve led away teams. I’ve taken the starship Escort into battle. I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes more than a few times.
I’ve met people who’ve changed the way I look at the world. I’ve seen unparalleled horrors and joys. I’ve seen alien landscapes, karmic retribution, impossible stellar phenomena, and cyborg dogs.
And I’ve done it all on a so-called ship of fools.
Explorer isn’t what everyone says it is. It’s a ship of talented, passionate people who care about what they do. Do they get it right every time? Well, no. Not hardly. But they seize every moment with gusto. They sail into the black every day, without fearing the dangers that may come.
Well, maybe they do fear it, but for some reason they keep coming back for more.
“Cadet Sparks?” a voice called from the door to Science Lab Two.
Sparks swivelled on her stool. “Commander Hartley. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were engrossed in what you were writing,” Hartley observed, stepping in.
“Commander Tilleran’s been in Neruosciences most of the afternoon studying the data we collected on the Tellarites.”
“I wasn’t looking for her,” Hartley said. “I’m here to talk to you.”
“I’m technically off-duty.”
Hartley stepped closer, pushing her shirtsleeves up and folding her arms. “It’s not about work.”
“Then what…” Sparks looked at Hartley’s face. “No.”
“You should talk to Plato.”
“Listen, I appreciate that you care about Plato, Commander,” Sparks said, turning back to her desktop terminal and looking at her final paper. “But this is really none of your…”
“Hartley to Engineering. Cut all computer power and sensor access to Science Lab Two.”
Sparks’ screen suddenly shut off.
“There. Much better,” Hartley said, pulling up a stool. “People are pissing me off today, so I’m not really in the mood to mess around.”
“Commander!” Sparks said, pushing off her stool.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Your work is automatically backed up.”
“That’s not the point. You can’t just come in here and…”
“Sit down. That’s an order,” Hartley said.
Sparks sighed heavily and eased onto her stool. “This is an abuse of power.”
“You’re not going to be assigned to the Explorer for much longer, so I’m taking this opportunity to abuse my power while I can,” Hartley said. “You should take your opportunity while you can, too.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Crap. You know exactly what I mean.” Hartley leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees. “Look, I love that kid like a son. I looked after him for some time last year. He’s on my crew now. I don’t want to see him hurt.”
“That’s not up to me, Commander.”
“Oh, I think it is.”
Sparks stared at the ceiling. “Commander Hartley…”
“Call me Megan. We’re being casual.”
Sparks laughed uneasily. “Megan…I’m not the one who broke it off. Plato went nuts when I told him I was leaving. He knew…”
“He wanted you to stay here. Can you blame him? He loves you.”
“He’s a kid. He doesn’t…”
“He’s virtually your age, mentally. But he’s lived a sheltered life here. People have looked after him.” Hartley narrowed her eyes at Sparks. “And people are going to continue to look after him.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re driving at…”
“I’m not saying you need to quit Starfleet and stay here with Plato. I’m not saying you should try a long-distance relationship. And I’m sure as hell not saying you should take him with you.”
“End this right. Leave the kid feeling good about himself and you. You owe it to him.”
“What about me?” Sparks said in a small voice.
“You owe it to yourself, too,” Hartley said, and slid off her stool, heading out of the room.
“Are you going to turn the computers back on?’
“Maybe later,” Hartley said as she walked out.
“So let me get this straight,” Cadet Ethan Piper said, after what seemed like hours of sitting, hunched forward, in a stiff and awkward position.
But the way he was sitting was nowhere near as awkward as what he was listening to.
“Yes?” Peterman asked.
“What?” Piper asked, blinking.
“You said ‘let me get this straight,” she said, turning to face him, still prone on the couch. “And then you just sort of trailed off.”
“Oh,” Piper said. “Right.” He took a deep breath. “Let me get this straight. You have this friend who is a counselor on another Starship.”
“The Expedition,” Piper repeated. “And your counselor friend….”
“Yes. Kathy is married to the captain.”
Peterman nodded. “They’re very happy together.”
“And she’s pregnant.”
“Most definitely. She checked a few times just to be sure.”
Piper felt like the air was being sucked out of the room. Would it be too much if he asked for a glass of water?
“But she hasn’t told her husband,” Piper continued.
“Her captain husband.”
“Captain husband, right. She hasn’t told him that she’s pregnant.”
“Nope. And the clock keeps ticking. Eventually, she’s going to grow a sizable, well, roundish…you know what happens when women get pregnant, right?’
“I’ve got a general idea, yes,” Piper said dryly. “So you want me to tell you, what?”
“Whether she should tell her husband, you know, about…”
“He’s going to find out sooner or later.”
“But couldn’t it be later?”
Piper scrubbed a hand over his face. “Why don’t you want to tell Captain Baxter you’re pregnant?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Peterman said, leaning up and holding up her hands. “Where do you get off assuming I’m talking about myself and not my friend?”
“Because it’s the oldest patient trick in the books,” Piper said. “Deflecting responsibility by assigning your problems to someone else…usually a metaphorical ‘friend.’”
“I really do have a friend name Kathy,” Peterman said. “But you did an excellent job seeing through my subterfuge. You get extra credit.”
“I’m really getting credit for this?”
Piper leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “I’ve gotta say that this is about the oddest conversation I’ve ever had on the Explorer. And that’s saying something.”
“Every day’s a new challenge,” Peterman admitted. “So can you help your patient? I mean…me?”
“What do you want me to tell you? Tell the Captain. Now! He’s the father, after…” Piper’s eyes went wide. “He IS the father, right?”
Peterman blushed. “Well, of course he is, silly.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“That’s what you’re here to help me figure out. Why can’t I seem to tell him?”
“Do you think he’ll be unhappy about the news?
Peterman shook her head. “Andy loves every minute he spends with Steffie. We tried so hard to get pregnant the first time. He’ll be shocked, of course, but once the reality sets in, I imagine he’ll be thrilled.”
“So tell him.”
Peterman fell back against the couch, throwing an arm over her face. “Not right now.”
Piper shook his head. “Counselor, I’m not sure I’m qualified….”
“You’re the only one that’s qualified!” Peterman fairly shouted. “There are no other counselors on this ship. I’ve long since given up on getting a staff. I had an assistant counselor for a while but that didn’t last long. You’re my only hope!”
Piper rubbed his chin. “Well. If you think the captain will be happy to hear the news, then I can’t imagine why on Earth you wouldn’t want to tell him.” He shrugged. “He’s been in a rotten mood ever since the Idlewild attack. I’m sure he could use some good news.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, and turned to stare at the ceiling. “Yeah. He could.”
“Earth,” Captain Baxter said.
“Yup,” Plato said, leaning against the tall, oblong window in the Constellation Club, which offered a beautiful view of the rapidly approaching Class-M green sphere.
“We made good time.”
Plato nodded. “Uh-huh.”
Baxter stared at Spacedock, the surrounding starships, McKinley station, and the planet Earth as it gracefully turned in front of them.
“Bridge to the Captain,” came Madera’s voice over the comm.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“Spacedock has cleared us for mooring.”
“Put her in. Try not to hit anything this time.”
“I barely dinged the Tiananmen. Why will nobody let me live that down?”
“Could have been worse,” Baxter said with a chuckle.
“The collision, or the ribbing I received afterward?”
“Whatever. Bridge out.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and stared at the rapidly approaching planet. In a few moments, the Explorer would turn gracefully and enter Spacedock. And then it would be a short trip down to Earth to join half the flag officers in the fleet in congratulating Harlan Baxter on his promotion.
“Nice planet, huh?” Plato asked.
“It has its moments,” Baxter said. He shrugged. “You know, I keep forgetting that you’re not from here.”
Plato shook his head. “Nope. I’m from here.” He pointed to the deck of the Explorer.
Baxter smiled at that. “Yeah, I guess you are.”
“Well, technically I was born on a runabout, but…”
“But the Explorer’s your home.”
“Sure feels that way.”
“Yeah. She’s mine too,” Baxter said. He turned and looked at Plato, arching an eyebrow. “You know, it strikes me that I shouldn’t be hanging out with you in a bar.”
“I come here all the time,” Plato said dismissively, then blanched when Baxter turned a glare on him. “I mean, I talk to people about coming here all the time.”
“Sometimes I wonder why your mother doesn’t just lock you in your cabin. It would simplify things greatly.”
“Yeah, but then I couldn’t get into madcap adventures,” Plato said with a small smile.
“That would be a shame.”
The two shared a few more silent minutes, staring out the windows. Then Baxter gave Plato a sideways glance. “You want to talk about…”
“Not really.” Plato took a few moments, then turned to Baxter. “How about you? Want to talk about…”
“Nope,” Baxter said.
Just then, the doors to the Constellation Club sighed open and Janice Browning and Chris Richards walked in.
“Uh-oh,” Baxter said, glancing casually over his shoulder. “Don’t look now. We’ve been picked up on longrange sensors.”
“Just be still,” Plato said. “Maybe they won’t…”
“Plato! What are you doing here?” Browning said, stepping up to the foreward deck.
“I just came to look out the windows,” Plato protested.
“You can see nearly the same view from the conference lounge next door.”
“There’s a bar mitzvah in there,” Plato muttered.
Browning sighed. “Excuses excuses.”
“So what do you want me to do? Need me down at the restaurant? Did J’hana’s dinner get out of its cage?”
“No,” Browning said. “Actually I came to see the Captain.”
Baxter turned. “You did.”
“And I’m here for you,” Richards told Plato. “C’mon.”
“Where are we going?”
“For a walk,” Richards said, and caught a glance from Browning. “Definitely not to an Orion dance club.”
Browning shook her head as Plato and Richards walked off. “Those two…”
“It’s nice that Chris’s spending time with the boy,” Baxter muttered, turning back to the windows.
Browning stepped up beside Baxter. “I was going to say the same thing about you. The kid loves you, you know.”
“What’s not to love?” Baxter asked with a smirk.
“Two rum’n grapefruits?” Zordock the Bold appeared as if from out of thin air and extended two of his four arms to the pair, handing them each a frosty tumbler, while one of his free arms reached behind him so he could wipe off a nearby table.
“I took the liberty,” Browning said.
“Thanks,” Baxter said, taking a long swig and continuing to look out the windows.
“So,” Browning said, as the bartender moved off. “You’re pissed.”
“Me?” Baxter said, and finished the drink, staring at the empty glass. “I’m great.”
“I get that you want to beat Ficker. I really do,” Browning said, watching the Explorer gently bank into the large doors of Spacedock, ducking into the cavernous bay within. “But did you ever stop to think that you’re so busy being pissed at the guy that you’re going to miss other things. Important things?”
Browning glanced out the window and saw a shuttlepod veering dangerously close to the window. “LIKE THAT! AHHHHH!”
Baxter’s eyes widened. “Baxter to Madera!”
“I’m on it. Sheesh!” came Madera’s response as the Explorer rolled to port, narrowly avoiding the tiny zinging pod.
“Did you know that was going to happen?” Baxter asked.
“So totally not,” Browning said, clutching her stomach and gasping. “What was I saying?”
“Yeah, but now I am too.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Baxter said. He glanced at the chronometer up on the wall. “I’d better get down there. My Dad’s expecting me at his reception.”
“Maybe it’ll do you good to get away?”
“Yeah. Think so,” Baxter said. He stepped toward the Constellation Club exit, then looked back at Browning and smiled. “Thanks, though.”
“For what?” Browning asked.
“For the drink.” Baxter gave a small smile then turned and left his glass on the bar, heading out of the club.
“Why are we here?” Plato asked, as Richards led the way off the turbolift and out onto the bridge.
“Because I grew up thinking I’d be an artist, and put in two years of art school, before I realized it wasn’t for me, and decided I’d do this. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was confused, uncertain, and completely disorganized. And now I get to do this…”
Plato watched as Richards walked down to the center of the bridge and nodded toward the helm.
“Helm, take us in. Dock the Explorer.”
“We just did,” Madera said, turning in her seat. “I didn’t know about the art school thing. Hmmph. Explains a lot.”
“She nearly slammed us into a shuttlepod,” Sefelt pointed out.
“Oh, stop complaining, Howie,” Madera said. “It would have just bounced off our shields.”
Plato stepped down to the center of the bridge to join Plato. “I’m sorry, Chris, I just don’t get it. What’s your point?”
“I know right now you can’t stop thinking about Nat Sparks. You can’t imagine your future unfolding any other way than with her. And I’m to here to tell you that there’s no way of knowing how your future will unfold. So just sit back and enjoy the ride.” Richards folded his arms and stared at the viewscreen with a satisfied smile.
“We’re in spacedock,” Madera pointed out.
“I was saying that for effect,” Richards muttered. “Just go back to your post.”
“Trying to!” Madera snapped.
“Thanks, Chris, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better,” Plato said, looking around the bridge. “Although I wish we hadn’t had this talk, you know, in the middle of the bridge.”
“Hang in there, kid,” Keefler said. “I’ve got a sister on Pacifica who’d be perfect for you, you know, if this thing doesn’t work out….”
“Gee, thanks,” Plato said.
“See!” Richards said, spreading his arms. “The possibilities are endless.”
“So it’s kind of like how things didn’t work out with my Mom, and then you ended up getting together with J’hana?” Plato asked, prompting some heads to turn among the bridge crew.
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“You think you finally found your soul mate, then?” Plato asked earnestly.
Richards felt his collar tightening. “You know what? We just put in to spacedock and I have some paperwork to get to…”
“Already did it,” Madera said.
“I’m sure there’s more,” Richards said. “Anyway, uh, you’d better get back belowdecks, Plato.”
“Thanks,” Plato said, and headed to the turbolift, taking a last look at the bridge as he stepped in.
“Baxter to Peterman.”
“Shit,” Peterman said, leaning up from the couch. “I mean…Peterman here!”
“I’m heading back to our cabin to change into my dress whites. Are you ready yet?”
“Mirk’s got Steffie for the night. They’re going spelunking on the holodeck and then they’re going to watch a movie.”
“Not over the comm,” Piper said, putting his head in his hands. “Not with me here.”
“Yeah?” Baxter replied.
“I’m stuck in the office finishing up Piper’s review. I’m not going to make it.”
“Oh. Darn. Well, sorry to hear that.”
“Have fun though,” Peterman said. “Tell your parents I said hi. Well, tell your Dad. You don’t have to tell your Mom I said anything.”
“Right. Ok, well…Baxter out.”
“Whew,” Peterman said, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead.
“Didn’t you want to go to the reception?”
“When we’re so close to a breakthrough?” Peterman asked. “I don’t think so. We have to see this thing though. Your grade depends on it!”
“I didn’t think I was getting graded.”
“I’m capricious. And I’m pregnant. So I’m also emotional. Now are you ready to plumb the emotional depths?”
“Would it matter if I wasn’t?”
“Not in the least.”
“This is definitely not Neurosciences,” Lt. Commander Hartley said, causing Tilleran to half-jump and drop the five-inch stiletto-heeled Vlavo Fendebulan pump she’d been holding.
The Betazoid turned and cocked her head. “Why would you think this was Neurosciences?”
“Because Sparks told me you were there all day studying the medical data on the Tellarites.”
“I spent a good part of the day doing that,” Tilleran said, leaning over to pick the shoe back up and study it. “Now I’m doing this.”
Hartley shook her head. “You despise the mall. So what unthinkable think could have happened to send you scurrying to ‘Shoes Your Adventure’?”
“I did NOT scurry here,” Tilleran said, returning to the endless rack of heels. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Hartley stepped up to the rack and grabbed a pair of Jatz Jerringtons. “There’s a lot of that going around lately.”
“Those are nice.”
“I don’t remember the last time I wore heels. Maybe my wedding day.”
“A girl’s got to get dressed up every now and then,” Tilleran said. “Never know when a special occasion might crop up.”
“Huh,” Hartley chuckled. “Chances are the next time I wear heels will be to go to someone else’s wedding.”
“Hmmm,” Tilleran said, and busied herself looking at shoes.
Hartley stared at the science officer. “Ariel? Is there something you want to tell me?”
Tilleran shook her head.
“About a wedding?”
“Nope.” Tilleran sighed. “It’s not time yet.”
“To get married, or to tell me about it?” Hartley asked with some consternation.
“Can we not talk about this right now?” Tilleran pleaded, leaning her head on the shoe rack.
“Sure. Fine. Whatever. You can just join the rest of the list of people pissing me off today.”
“I’m sorry, Megan. I just…” Tilleran shook her head. “I’ve got a lot on my mind today.”
“Lots of that going around, too.” Hartley shook her head. “My job would be so much easier if I could just fire people out the torpedo tube when they I didn’t like them. Just eject their asses like a faulty warp core.”
Tilleran wrinkled her brow and gasped with false shock. “Are you saying you’d eject ME?”
“I’m strongly considering saving myself the trouble and just launching myself out in the nearest escape pod instead.”
“And yet you came to a shoe store instead,” Tilleran laughed.
Hartley nodded and examined a Borgelia Bombattu pump. “So…I had a nice chat with Cadet Sparks earlier.”
Tilleran raised an eyebrow. “Really? About what?”
“Astronavigation. Warp core physics. You know. Whatever.”
“Uh-huh,” Tilleran said, and held up a Sharn Orflux flat, trying to figure out if it was the right size. That was the problem with regulation Starfleet boots. They made it hard to try on shoes.
“Can you believe the cadets are leaving tonight?” Hartley asked.
“Nobody sticks around here forever,” Tilleran said distantly.
“You spent a lot of time with Cadet Sparks. You gonna miss her?”
“She’s a sharp crewman for her age. She’ll do well in Starfleet, I think. Organized, prepared. Rational. You’d almost think she wasn’t human.”
“Gee, thanks,” Hartley deadpanned.
“Where’s all this talk about the cadets coming from suddenly?”
Hartley turned and leaned against the shoe rack. “I guess I didn’t them very well.”
“Aw. You wanted a cadet of your own, huh?’
“Nah. I have Plato.”
Tilleran chuckled. “And I’m sure he’s pleased about that.”
“Stop. He’s over that.”
“Sure he is. Boys never give up on their crushes.”
Hartley took a deep breath and leaned her head back as she rested against the shoe rack. “Man, I sure hope you’re wrong.”
“Honor. Duty. Dignity. Valor. Service.” Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Starfleet Commander-in-Chief, looked out over the audience of nearly one hundred Flag Officers, captains and high-ranking Federation officials assembled in the Pavel Chekov Multipurpose Ewent Space at Starfleet Command. “These qualities represent the highest ideals of Starfleet Command, and are exemplified in the man we honor here today. Admiral Harlan Baxter.”
The assembled dignitaries clapped heartily as Admiral Baxter mounted the stage and shook Nechayev’s hand.
“Admiral Baxter,” Nechayev continued, looking out at the audience. “It gives me great pleasure to promote you to the position of Fleet Admiral, in charge of the Fifth Fleet, in addition to other, smaller, more obscure, uh, projects…”
Suddenly a huge, metallic crash sounded in the rear of the ballroom.
Captain Andy Baxter emerged from the kitchen, covered in white glop. Behind him, a Ferengi chef and two Bolian assistants scrambled to clean up a pile of upturned platters, more white glop, and assorted canapes and delicious stuffed pastries.
“Sorry!” Baxter called out to the crowd. “Just a little mixup. I was running late, and tried to take a shortcut, and got lost in the corridors and ended up coming in through the kitchen, and I, uh, guess I knocked some stuff down.”
Nechayev’s eyes remained cool. But the trained observer would have noticed that she now gripped the podium with white knuckles. Insider her boots, her toes curled with barely restrained anger.
Harlan stared at the ceiling, as if to gather strength from it.
“As I was saying,” she said, keeping her voice even. “With the power vested in me by Starfleet Command and the United Federation of Planets, I hearby promote you, Harlan Baxter, to the rank of Fleet Admiral, with all of the rights and privileges appertaining thereto.”
“Appertaining,” Captain Baxter said to the officer standing next to him, as he brushed the white glop off his uniform. “I’m not even sure that’s a word.”
“Shhh. The ceremony’s still going on,” the captain standing next to Baxter said, pointing to the front of the room.
“Hey. You’re Charlie Reynolds, aren’t you?” Baxter said. “Captain of the Centaur. You fought in the Dominion War.”
“Most of us did, son,” the dark-skinned man with salt-and-pepper hair said.
“Oh. So it’s going to be like that,” Baxter muttered, and looked down at his uniform. He slid his finger through the glop on his tunic and tasted it. “Oooh. Good crab dip. Is it okay if I eat this? Even though my ship didn’t fight in the Dominion War?”
“I’m going to stand over there now,” Captain Reynolds said, and walked away.
“Suit yourself,” Baxter said. “More crab dip for me.”
“Now then,” Nechayev said, looking out over the audience. “We want to wish Fleet Admiral Baxter luck in his new role. I know he will do a splendid job marshaling our forces and advancing both our exploration and security goals. We couldn’t be more proud of Admiral Baxter.”
Baxter glanced up. Did she just emphasize the “admiral” part?
“Would you like to say a few words, Harlan?” Nechayev asked, standing back to yield the podium.
Harlan nodded as Lt. Beth Monroe, his adjutant, handed him a padd, and he took the podium.
He set the padd in front of him and looked out over the audience, his brow deeply furrowed, as it usually was. He cleared his throat.
Baxter braced himself for another one of his dad’s mumbled tirades.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harlan began. “The great scholar Aristotle once said that dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them. That truism sums up my wholehearted belief that I can and will carry out the duties bestowed upon me with great respect for those who came before me–the great officers of Starfleet’s past who fought and died so that we might have a brighter future. This I swear to each of you, here and now. I will not disappoint you. Thank you very much.”
The crowd erupted into applause. Captain Baxter clapped too, a bit dazed. “Wow. He sounds like a completely different guy when he takes the cigar out of his mouth and gets behind a podium.”
Nechayev stepped up beside Harlan at the podium. “Thank you, Admiral. Now, please join me in congratulating Fleet Admiral Baxter. We hope you’ll stay for a brief reception.”
Just then, an ensign leaned in and whispered something in Nechayev’s ear as the crowd cheered Admiral Baxter. Once the clapping died down, Nechayev leaned toward the microphone and added. “Unfortunately I’ve just been informed that there will be no crab dip, as previously advertised. Everything else will be served next door in the Scott Dining Room.”
“Sorry,” Baxter said to no one in particular as he made his way through the crowd, half of which headed to the reception. The other half was headed up to the stage to congratulate Admiral Baxter as he stepped down, followed by Nechayev and her staff.
“Dad!” Baxter called out as he shouldered past a throng of other officers. “Hey Dad!” he waved.
Harlan was about ten meters away, speaking with Admirals Nechayev and Jellico, and Fleet Admiral Ra’al.
“Dad, over here!” Baxter called out, as the trio of Admirals flanked Harlan and moved swiftly to the dining room next door.
“Fleet Admiral Ra’al is your Dad?” a slim woman in commander’s pips asked, picking up step next to Baxter.
“No. The other one.” Baxter watched Harlan disappear with the others into the next room.
“Jellico? Man, that must’ve been tough.”
“No. The OTHER one. Baxter!”
“Oh,” the commander said. “Well, if you’re going to be an ass about it…”
She walked off and Baxter scratched his head. Oh well. It was loud. His Dad must not’ve seen him.
Why couldn’t I have gone on more away teams?
Cadet Sparks was Acting Chief Science Officer for a while. Piper was an assistant counselor. I found my niche in security.
Would have been nice if J’hana had brought me along on a few more security missions.
Then again, from what I’ve heard, when J’hana does go on security missions they tend to get…messy.
Still, I learned a lot while I was here. I learned that my tolerance for depravity and disorder is far greater than I thought it was. I learned that I can be a functioning part of a team, proving wrong so many instructors at the Academy. Boy will I have stories to tell my classmates in Plasma Dynamics!
I’m excited about what’s coming. In a couple years, I’ll have graduated Starfleet Academy, and will be assigned a ship of my own.
Heck, who knows, maybe I’ll even get assigned to the Explorer.
That would be cool.
“And…done!” Cadet Mathers said, putting his padd down and stretching. “Wow that paper took forever. It felt like I’ve been writing for fifteen years.”
“It’s only a figment of your imagination,” Sparks said, looking up from her own padd.
“Are you almost done?” Mathers asked, leaning over to look at the padd.
“Getting there,” Sparks said, turning her padd away and covering it with her arm. “Hey, do you mind?”
“What? You can read mine if you want.”
“This is not for public consumption. Other than Professor Blot.”
“Got Starfleet secrets in there?”
“It’s not like that. Look, just…don’t worry about it.”
Mathers cocked his head. “Wow, you seem testy.”
“I just…” Sparks looked up. “Nevermind.” She shook her head and kept writing.
“We’re nowhere,” Piper said, pushing off the chair in Peterman’s office and pacing toward the far wall. “We’ve been going in circles for an hour.”
“To tell Andy, or not to tell him,” Peterman said, throwing an arm over her forehead as she lay on the fainting couch.
“No,” Piper said, turning to face Peterman. “No, that’s not the question. Of course you’re going to tell him. It’s just a matter of when…”
“And how,” Peterman pointed out.
“Yes,” Piper said. “But you’ve got to tell him. So why delay the inevitable? You said yourself. Captain Baxter’s in a terrible mood. He could use some good news.”
Peterman shook her head. “That’s just it. I…”
Piper stared at her. “What?”
Peterman leaned up. “That’s just it. He’s in a terrible mood.”
“Don’t you get it?” Peterman’s eyebrows shot up. “He’s not just in a terrible mood. He’s full of murderous rage.” A slow smile spread across Peterman’s face. “Don’t you see, Ethan? He’s full of murderous rage!”
Piper blinked. “And that’s a good thing?”
“Well, no. It’s horrible. But don’t you see, I don’t want to tell him because in his mind, he’ll always connect this news with Alvin Ficker. I don’t want the thought of our child anywhere near his thoughts of strangling that asshole.”
“So what does that mean? Wait until the Idlewild is captured and Ficker is brought to justice to tell Captain Baxter?”
Peterman looked up. “I hadn’t thought of that. I was going to suggest going off and killing him myself.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it in your condition.”
“You’re right.” Peterman nodded and stood up, breathing a sigh of relief. “We’ll do it your way.”
“That’s…” Piper began, but was cut off as Peterman lept forward and threw her arms around him, squeezing him tight. “Oof!”
“THANK YOU, Cadet! You’ve done it! You’ve proven I’m not a terrible mother and wife after all! I just care about my child! And my family!”
“Yes, you do,” Piper said weakly as he was squeezed. “Is hugging really appropriate? You know, for counselors?”
“Depends on who you ask,” Peterman said, breaking the embrace and turning away. She grabbed a padd off her desk and punched a few notations on it. “There you go, Cadet. You’ve passed your internship with flying colors.”
Pipers eyes widened. “Really?”
Peterman smiled. “Really. Now go pack up. You’ll be shoving off soon.”
“Thanks Counselor,” Piper said, backing to the door. “I’d hug you, I really would, but we already did that.”
“Get out of here, Cadet,” Peterman chuckled.
The Montgomery Scott dining room was packed with laughing admirals and other chatting Federation dignitaries. In the corner of the room, a jazz trio played an upbeat tune.
Weighed down with a plate of appetizers, Captain Baxter made his way over to the other side of the room, where Baxter was flanked by Admirals Ra’al and Nechayev and speaking with several other high-ranked Starfleet officers.
“Anybody want my olives?” Baxter asked, walking up. “I don’t know why I got them. I don’t like olives that much…”
“Son,” Harlan said, nodding. He returned to his conversation with Nechayev.
“Captain,” Lt. Beth Monroe said, stepping up beside Baxter. “Nice to see you here. Your mother sends her regrets that she couldn’t make it today. But she has been working day and night with the decorators.”
“What decorators?” Baxter asked, glancing distractedly over at his father, who continued to speak amiably, though in low tones, with the other admirals.
“Well, I thought you knew, but…” Monroe bit her lip. “Wow, this is awkward. Your mother didn’t tell you that she and your father had moved back into your family house in Maryland?”
“MY house?” Baxter asked.
“Well, according to your mother, it was originally their house. But yes, I suppose there was a lot of your stuff in there.”
“She had to move some things into storage, to make way for her collection of eighth century Bolian antiques.”
Baxter felt heat rising to his cheeks. “My parents moved in to MY house?”
“Again, I don’t want to get into ownership issues. Your mom did want me to give you a message. She said she loves and misses her…” Monroe sighed. “Booty butt. She did order me to say that last part, though, honestly, I’d prefer not…”
“Hey, Dad!” Baxter said, pushing past Monroe. “What’s this about you and Mom moving into my house?”
“We can talk about it later, son,” Harlan said, turning from Baxter to say something to Admiral Ra’al.
“Don’t you think it’s…”
“Captain,” Nechayev said, taking up step next to Baxter, gently turning him away from Harlan. “This is your Father’s day. Can you please, for the love of the Great Bird, not do… well, what you always do?”
Baxter pursed his lips. “Which is what?”
“Bluntly…screw things up,” Nechayev said. She sighed, shaking her head. “You’re an embarrassment, Captain, to your father, to me, to all of us.”
“What are you, my Mom?”
“Thankfully not.” Nechayev put a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “The time travel escapades. Alternate universes. Dinosaur creatures. Dog things. The mess this year with your public image, and your failure to track down and capture Alvin Ficker. Frankly, Captain, you need to get it together.”
“Get it…together?” Baxter said, feeling the plate full of cheese crackers and veggie bites begin to shake in his hands.
“Grow up,” Nechayev affirmed. “Be the kind of Captain your father can be proud of. Instead of…” She nodded at him and his crab dip stain. “This pathetic embarrassment.”
“PAR-don me,” Baxter said, shoving past Nechayev and jogging after his father, who’d set off toward another crowd of dignitaries. He reached out with a free hand and grabbed Harlan’s shoulder, spinning him around. “Talk to me, Dad! Seriously, are you just avoiding me because I embarrass you?”
“Not now, son,” Harlan said, gesturing over to Monroe, who was already making a bee-line toward Baxter.
“Just tell me…are you proud of me, or not?” Baxter asked, as a crowd drew around the two of them.
Harlan shook his head. “Son, this is neither the time nor the…”
“Guess that’s my answer, then,” Baxter said, and turned around, shoving his plate of appetizers in Lt. Monroe’s hands as he walked off. “You and Starfleet can go straight to hell, Dad. Congratulations on the promotion.”
Everything ends sometime. Why should this be any different?
We came aboard the Explorer with a lofty goal. To learn more about Starfleet, and learn more about ourselves.
It wasn’t easy.
It was even harder, given I had to play catch-up, coming aboard after being rescued from the Idlewild.
Maybe that gives me an even better perspective on what I’ve experienced on the Explorer.
Ficker hated Starfleet. He wanted to prove he had a better way. He didn’t.
His way was insanity, anarchy, and delusions of grandeur.
We have a better way on the Explorer. We learn from each other. We trust each other.
We make mistakes together.
What I’ve learned here can’t possibly be packed into a textbook or a holodeck program. You have to live through it to believe it. And even then, you still might not believe it.
I wouldn’t trade these strange months on the Explorer for anything. What I’ve learned, who I’ve met, how I’ve grown.
I thank everyone for what they gave me. The good, the bad, and the stupid.
It’s surprising who you meet on a Starship, and how they’ll change your lives.
You never know when those important people will show up….
Or when they’ll leave.
Cadet Piper stuffed the padd into his duffel and threw it over his shoulder, grinning a bit to himself.
“Is that everything?” Mathers asked.
“Yeah. I didn’t come aboard with much,” Piper said. “You know, since I was kidnaped by Ficker.”
“Oh. Right.” Mathers hefted his much-larger duffel with a grunt and thee pair took one last look around their bunk room.
“So…” Piper said. “Shall we?”
“Yeah,” Mathers said. “I’m ready.”
The pair ducked out and headed down the corridor.
“Where’s Nat?” Piper asked.
“She said she had something she had to do before she left, but she’d meet us at the transporter room.”
“It’s nice everyone’s coming to see us off,” Piper said, ducking into the nearest turbolift.
“Yeah,” Mathers replied. “Feels like we’ve been aboard a lot longer than seven months, eh?”
“Yeah,” Piper said, as the lift sighed to a halt and opened up near transporter room two. They joined Lt. Commanders Hartley and Tilleran, who approached from an adjoining corridor.
“Where is everyone else?” Hartley asked, walking up to the door leading into transporter room two, joining Janice Browning, who stood there weighed down with an enormous fruit basket.
“Don’t know,” Browning said. “I was told nineteen hundred. What have you guys been up to?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Hartley said flatly.
“Shoes,” Tilleran said.
Lt. Commander Richards emerged from the turbolift at the end of the corridor, and walked up to join the group. “Where is everyone?”
“We’re here,” Piper offered, glancing at Browning’s fruit basket. “Wow! You got us a going away gift!”
Browning shrugged. “Least we could do.”
“Thanks for the late nights sharing recipes,” Mathers said, blushing slightly at Browning, catching a look from Piper. “What? We both like to eat.”
Richards looked at Browning with raised eyebrow. “That right?”
Just then, Mirk walked up from the other end of the corridor,
Steffie on his shoulders. “Ah, there’s Mirk!” Browning said.
“Mirk Mirk Mirk!” Steffie giggled as Mirk held on to him.
“Sorry. We had a fight over broccoli,” Mirk said. “Where’s the captain? Counselor Peterman?”
“They’re not here yet,” Hartley said flatly, turning away from Mirk.
“Let’s not talk about it right now,” Hartley said, looking down the corridor as J’hana emerged from the far turbolift.
“I have arrived, so we can now proceed with this silly human display of emotion,” the Andorian said, stepping up to the group and giving Mathers a hard glare. “Your uniform is not zipped all the way, Cadet.”
“I know. I’m just beaming down…”
“You’re aboard a Federation starship,” J’hana snapped, prompting Mathers to quickly fumble with his uniform jacket. “Act like it!”
“J’hana,” Richards began, edging toward her.
“I do not want to talk about it.”
Tilleran approached from the other direction. “Look, when you have time, I need to…”
“I don’t want to talk about that either,” J’hana said. “Let’s go. I’ve got security drills to see to.”
“I’m here, I’m here!” Counselor Peterman said, jogging down the corridor, pulling her hair back into a ponytail. “I was just…nothing. I’ve got no excuses. I’m just…late…” She looked around. “We all here?”
“Mostly,” Hartley said. “Just missing the Captain and Nat Sparks.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “So, how is every–”
“Nobody wants to talk about it,” Piper said, and leaned forward. “I think you’ve got your work cut out for you here,” he said in a low whisper.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Peterman replied.
“Thought I’d find you here,” Nat Sparks said softly, walking up to the bed of azaleas on a small hill in the back of the Chaka’kan arboretum.
The room was dim and blue, lights turned down low, with the azure illumination coming from the massive ceiling windows that looked out on the massive hangar of a busy spacedock.
“Yeah, well, I guess I’ve been nostalgic lately,” Plato said, laying among the azaleas and staring up at the windows and the buzzing activity outside.
“Nostalgic for what?” Sparks asked, looking around.
“This is where we met.”
“I think we met in the gym, actually, during one of Chaka’s…”
“But this is where I first realized you were…” Plato looked back up at the windows. “When you stopped here and talked to me…”
“You were drunk.”
“I still remember,” Plato said defiantly.
“Can I join you for a minute?”
“It’s a free quadrant.”
Sparks sat beside Plato and laid back, staring up at the windows. “Busy day in spacedock, huh?”
“You think I’m a kid,” Plato blurted, leaning up.
“You don’t think I can handle a real relationship. You’ve always thought of me like a kid.”
“Plato, that’s not…” Sparks began. “Okay, maybe that’s a little true. But it’s just because I don’t want to hurt you…”
“Well, you did…” Plato muttered.
“It hurts me too,” Sparks said. “Leaving, I mean.”
Sparks sighed. “Plato, this is what happens. People get together, have an amazing time together, and then go their separate ways. It’s perfectly normal.”
“Then why does it make me want to turn myself inside out?” Plato asked in a small voice.
“That’s perfectly normal too,” Sparks said. She stood up, dusting off her uniform pants. “Look, I can understand if you don’t want to see me off. I just…I didn’t want to leave, the way things were, I….”
In a smooth motion, Plato got to his feet, took Sparks’ face in his hands, and kissed her deep and long. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, leaning into the kiss, for several long seconds.
They broke the kiss slowly, and stood there for what seemed like hours, holding each other.
“Goodbye,” Plato said, looking long and hard into Sparks’ eyes.
“Goodbye, Plato,” Sparks said, stepping back, slowly letting go. “Promise me you’ll write?”
“Yup,” Plato said, and his eyes told Sparks everything she needed to know. Just go now, while I can still hold it together.
So she did.
I’m not sure what else there is to say. I can’t believe it took the boys so long to write their papers. There’s only so much you can say in these things.
I mean, really, are we going to honestly say these seven months were the be-all and end-all of our lives?
My sights are set higher than that. I want to get out there and experience the universe. I want to captain my own ship one day.
I’m just so lucky to have that chance, to prove myself, to learn, to live, to experience everything this galaxy has to offer. And everyone you meet along the way, I guess they just remind you how sweet this deal really is.
But there’s so much more I want to do.
So much I want to explore.
Sparks flipped through the text on her padd, checking it one last time before tucking it under her arm and approaching the small crowd that gathered by the transporter room doors.
“At last!” Mathers piped up. “I thought we’d never get out of here.”
“This wait does seem interminable,” J’hana muttered.
“We’re still missing a captain,” Tilleran pointed out.
“The cadets were due back at Starfleet Academy ten minutes ago,” Peterman said.
“All right then,” Richards said. “I guess we’ll just have to…”
Suddenly the doors to the transporter room opened up. Baxter stood there, with a wry grin that seemed oddly forced. “Sorry about that. Just beamed in from Starfleet Command. Well, folks, what are you waiting for?” He gestured grandly for the cadets to enter. “Let’s get you back to school.”
Sparks, Mathers, and Piper filed in, followed by the others.
Peterman noticed that Baxter’s white Starfleet dress uniform seemed caked with some beige-colored glop that no one could identify, except for…
“Andy, did you fall into a bowl of crab dip?” Browning asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Baxter said between gritted teeth, as Sparks, Mathers, and Piper mounted the transporter padd. “Ensign Yang, you have the coordinates…”
Peterman stepped up next to Baxter as Yang punched the controls on the transporter console. She could see something in Baxter’s eyes that worried her, but she knew better than to bring it up then and there.
“Wait,” J’hana said, walking up to the transporter padd. She turned to Mathers. “Cadet, in the great Andorian tradition, I’d like to…” She reached behind her back and in a smooth motion whipped out a long, serrated blade, well worn and inscribed with an array of Andorian characters.
Mathers sunk to his knees. “GAH! Don’t stab me. Please!”
J’hana chuckled. “Please. The tradition is that an Andorian trainer gives her pupil a ceremonial blade, to remember her by.” She handed it, handle-first, to Mathers. “Now don’t take that thing into battle until you’ve learned how to use it.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Mathers asked, hefting the impressive and shiny blade.
“Practice,” J’hana said with a toothy grin, and walked out of the room.
Tilleran smiled. J’hana always did have a flair for the dramatic. She looked at Sparks, and awkwardly wished she’d done something along those same lines. “Hey Nat, thanks for filling in for me, you know, while I was crazy,” the Betazoid said quickly.
“No problem,” Sparks said with a small grin.
“Well, then, I guess this is it,” Baxter said. He smiled up at the cadets. “Piper, Sparks, Mathers…you three have been an important part of the Explorer crew for seven months now. I can’t say enough how much we’ve appreciated your presence. I hope we’ve…learned a lot together. Getting to watch you each grow, I guess in a way we feel like…”
Peterman interlaced her fingers with Baxter’s and squeezed them. “Parents.”
“So I won’t drag this out,” Baxter said, taking a deep breath. “I’ll just say, good luck, and Godspeed. We’ll see you out there.” He nodded at Yang. “Ensign. Energize.”
“Thank you,” Sparks said softly as the transporter began to glow.
Baxter gently removed Peterman’s hand from his and headed for the door as Sparks, Mathers, and Piper dematerialized.
“Andy?” Peterman asked, following Baxter out of the room.
“Guess that’s it,” Richards said, looking around at the other senior officers. “You’re all dismiss…” But he didn’t have to say it. They were all already walking out, seemingly going separate ways.
Except for Browning.
“Hey!” Browning exclaimed, suddenly realizing what was in her hands. “They forgot their fruit basket!”
“This just came down from the Explorer,” Mathers said, sitting a hefty fruit basket on the table in the recently-constructed Data Library, where Sparks and Piper were already bent over padds, scouring them for information.
“We missed SO many reading assignments,” Sparks said, paging through the padd.
“I know,” Piper said. “It’s almost as if we were supposed to be reading the texts the whole time we were on the Explorer.”
“Whoops,” Mathers said. “Well, at least we have fruit to eat while we catch up.”
“Indeed,” Piper said, staring at his padd.
“Well, I for one am going out to get some fresh air. That’s the one good thing about being planetside again,” Sparks said, as Mathers collapsed into a chair next to her and dug in…to the fruit basket, not the reading. “Save me an apple, okay, Colby?’
“Aye, sir!” Mathers smiled.
“Want some company?” Piper asked as she turned toward the door.
“Not particularly,” Sparks said with a gentle smile. “I won’t be long, anyway.”
Once Sparks was gone, Mathers pointed at him with a banana. “You still like her!”
“Shut up and pass me an orange,” Piper muttered.
Outside the library, which was on a high hill that overlooked the distant presidio of Starfleet Command, Sparks took a deep breath and looked up.
It was a beautiful, cloudless night.
Stars, satellites, and the usual pinpricks of space traffic twinkled in the sky above.
One of those pinpricks, Sparks guessed, was the Explorer leaving Earth and shooting into warp.
Sparks couldn’t help but wonder when and if she’d ever see the crew of the USS Explorer again.
Harlan Baxter, a bit dizzy from three glasses of champagne, sighed as the turbolift rose through the guts of the Kirk Administration Building at Starfleet Command. It had been a long evening of political conversations and the machinations of dozens of flag officers, many of whom annoyed the hell out of him.
The lift dropped Harlan off into an empty hallway. It was nearly twenty-hundred and most of the officers on this level had gone home hours ago. The admiralty, for many, was an oh-nine hundred-to-seventeen hundred type job. Not for Harlan Baxter.
The newly-named Fleet Admiral made his way to the door to his suite and keyed in the access code.
They’d offered him a bigger office, of course, but he insisted he was just fine right where he was. A bigger office would only mean a larger staff, and a larger staff would only mean more people bothering him. He had gotten along fine with Yvonne and Lt. Monroe for years now, and didn’t see any reason to change.
The doors to his office suite slid open and he stepped in, looking around. “Yvonne?” he asked, probing to see if his assistant was still there. The office was dim and quiet, so she must have retired for the evening as well.
Harlan leaned over a terminal at Yvonne’s desk and punched a button. “Computer. Open a secure channel, please. USS Explorer.”
“Working,” the computer said.
Harlan leaned against the desk, folding his arms. He needed to speak to his son. There was so much to tell Andy, and he was never good at expressing himself, for some reason.
“Subspace transceiver unavailable,” the computer stated. “Please contact your network administrator or try again later.”
“Huh,” Harlan said, and stepped back to his office door. “We’ll see what Starfleet Communications has to say about that.” Being a Fleet Admiral had its privileges. He keyed the door to his office open and stepped inside.
And froze dead in his tracks.
Alvin Ficker sat there, feet propped up on Baxter’s desk, a cigar smouldering between his fingers. Flanking him were Shank, the Vulcan philosopher, and, to Harlan’s utter dismay, Doctor Maura Drake.
“Fleet Admiral Baxter,” Ficker exclaimed. “Congratulations on your promotion! Have a cigar and sit for a bit. There’s something I need you to do for me…”
TO BE CONTINUED…
NEXT: What does Captain Ficker have in store for Harlan Baxter, and will the Explorer be able to intervene in time?
Find out in the next-to-last Star Traks: The Vexed Generation story!