Author: Anthony Butler
“Fleet Admiral Baxter. Congratulations on your promotion! Have a cigar and sit for a bit. There’s something I need you to do for me…”
Harlan Baxter wasn’t a betting man, but if there was one thing he would’ve taken odds on, it was that Alvin Ficker would be appearing in his office with a rogue Vulcan philosopher and a sadistic scientist from his past on the night of his promotion to Fleet Admiral, just as he was trying to reconcile a massive falling out with his son.
He would have put the odds at a million to one. Maybe even a billion.
But maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised that it had come to this. Ficker was going to exhaust every available option to destabilize Starfleet, as he had already proven by stealing a Starship and kidnaping scores of cadets and wayward officers. Obviously, he would stop at nothing to accomplish his goals.
No, Harlan shouldn’t have been surprised that it had come to this.
For a long, proud career, he’d prided himself on anticipation, preparation, and intellect. That had, in large part, propelled him to the upper echelon of Starfleet Command.
And in spite of all of that, here he was.
“You seem surprised to see me,” Ficker said, standing up and leaning forward across Harlan’s desk, facing the irascible admiral. “I figured we had the kind of relationship where I could just pop by and…”
Harlan didn’t waste any time. Wit wasn’t going to get him out of this. He leapt across the desk and grabbed Ficker by the throat, dragging him across the desk and driving him head first into the ground.
“Urk! Help!” Ficker cried, squirming and kicking in Harlan’s steel grasp.
Fury burned in Harlan’s eyes. His face was red. The veins in his forehead bulged. “Ficker, you spectacled son of a bitch, you have no Earthly idea who you are dealing with.” Harlan flipped Ficker on his back and drove an elbow down into his windpipe. He looked up at a shocked Maura Drake. “Stand down now and surrender the Idlewild. This is over. You’re not dealing with my son. You’re dealing with Admiral Harlan Baxter, and by the Great Bird I won’t take this shit for a min–”
Wait. Where was Shank?
That’s when Harlan felt a sudden pinch on the nerve bundle above his collarbone.
After that, all was black.
THREE DAYS LATER USS PATHFINDER
The middle-aged blonde admiral appeared on the viewscreen and pursed her lips. “My apologies. When I heard I had a comm from Captain Baxter I…became a bit apprehensive. I didn’t realize it was the other Captain Baxter.”
Lucille Baxter stood up and crossed the bridge toward the viewscreen. “Maybe if you promoted me, you wouldn’t be so confused.”
“I can live with a small amount of confusion in my life.”
Lucille narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure you can.”
“Was there something you wanted?” Nechayev asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“Yes. I was trying to get a call through to my husband, and he hasn’t been available all morning.”
“He’s very busy. As you might be aware, he was recently promoted…”
“‘Might’ be?” Lucille responded. “All due respect, Admiral, he’s my husband.”
“As I’m aware,” Nechayev said. “And all due respect to you, Captain, but what do you want?”
“I want to find out why I was sent on a last-minute mission to Gestophales Four, on the other side of the quadrant!”
“I’m sure your husband had a good reason.”
“Have you looked at the latest ship movements?” Lucille asked.
“I’m the Commander in Chief of Starfleet, Captain Baxter, so yes, I have.”
“You don’t have to get snippy about it. Can you tell me why my husband is redirecting starship traffic away from Sector Zero Zero One?”
Nechayev rolled her eyes. “I’m sure the Admiral is just putting the ships under his command through a little shake-down. It’s not unusual when a flag officer takes on new responsibilities. He wants to see what the officers under his command are capable of.”
“Are you aware you just ended a sentence in a preposition, Admiral?’
“Forgive me,” Nechayev said tightly. “Of what the officers under his command are capable. Is that better?”
“No, because Earth is vulnerable, and that generally precedes something very bad happening.”
“You’re overreacting, Captain,” Nechayev said. “Earth has a starbase and substantial perimeter defenses to protect it. And I, like your husband, am a very busy woman.”
“My husband is not a woman,” Lucille corrected. “I hope you are better at managing Starfleet than you are at managing syntax.”
“Goodbye, Captain,” Nechayev said, and reached forward to shut off the comm.
“Wait!” Lucille exclaimed, but it was too late, Nechayev was gone, replaced on the screen by a streaking starfield.
“Channel closed,” Lt. Commander DiSalvo reported from tactical. “Orders, Captain?”
“Keep trying to reach my husband,” Lucille said, returning to the command chair and straightening her uniform top with a huff. “And if that doesn’t work…” She sighed. “We’ll call my son.”
It was morning.
Daybreak on the Explorer, and those who chose to eat breakfast in a bar were doing so in Mirk’s Constellation Club.
The Maloxian smiled warmly as the first few crewmembers filed in and took their seats.
Zordok the Bold moved from table to table, taking orders, filling coffee cups, and distributing warm muffins, his four arms loaded down with breakfast goodies.
Mirk leaned against his bar, took a deep breath, and smiled as he watched the few crew who actually got up at a decent hour mill about and begin their day.
It was daybreak on the Explorer, and Mirk was happy.
This morning was not unlike any other morning on the Explorer, but for some reason, the Maloxian felt he should appreciate the moment.
Something was happening, Mirk thought. Something entirely beyond his control.
So the Lostraxian bartender did the only thing he could do.
He made breakfast.
Captain Andy Baxter yawned and rolled over in bed as a bright light lit up his darkened bedroom. He reached out for Kelly but there were only tangled sheets and pillows in her place.
“Captain,” Lt. Commander J’hana said from the viewscreen, perched in the command chair. “Please adjust your pajamas.”
Baxter looked down and gasped, pulling up on his Starfleet-issue pajama bottoms. “I’m not on the bridge viewer, am I?”
“You should get that mole looked at, sir,” the voice of Lt. Madera said from off-screen.
“Fantastic,” Baxter said. “What can I do for you, J’hana?”
“I have a priority one communication from Captain Baxter.”
Baxter shook his head, trying to force the sleep out of his head. He looked back at J’hana. “Come again?”
“The other one. Your mother.”
“Oh what the hell does she want?”
“I tried to ward her off sir, valiantly, I assure you. She kept going on about unusual ship movements and not being able to reach your father on subspace.”
“I could give a damn whether she can get through to my father. She’s just concocting this little problem to try to patch things up between us. Well I can tell you, it’s not going to work.”
“Sir, I assure you, I couldn’t possibly care less. Can I put her through?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, rolling to the front of his bed and swinging his legs over. “Go ahead.”
Lucille Baxter suddenly appeared on the viewscreen, standing at the front of her bridge, hands on hips. “Get up, booty butt. It’s time to get to work.”
“It’s oh-six thirty by our clock, Mom,” Baxter muttered.
“So why are you wasting time sleeping? You need to be on the bridge.”
“I’ve started work around oh-nine thirty for eight years and I’ve done just fine, Mom. What, are you going to start giving me grief about being a better Starfleet officer too?”
“Of course not,” Lucille said. “You’re perfect just the way you are, no matter how perfect you’re not.”
“I really need a good cup of orange pekoe for this conversation,” Baxter said, ambling over to his replicator and punching in the order. “Was there something you needed, Mom?”
“Well, as I told that absolutely caustic Andorian, your father’s been making some strange moves with the fleets around Earth, and…” Something suddenly grabbed Lucille’s attention and she looked to the side. “What’s that DiSalvo? Yes. Put him on. Conference him in with me and Booty Butt.”
“Please, Mom, not in front of your bridge crew,” Baxter said, covering his face. He then looked up. “And don’t conference me in! I don’t want to speak to my Father! It’ll be so awkward!”
But it was too late. A smiling Harlan Baxter appeared in split screen next to the image of Lucille.
“Now then, what’s the problem, you two?” he asked amiably.
“What is going on with these ship movements, dear?” Lucille asked. “You’re leaving Earth completely vulnerable to attack! With the uneasiness along the Gorn border, Romulan splinter groups, the Tholians and the Tzenkethi…”
“Just some combat readiness exercises. Putting the troops through their paces. Standard operating procedure, you understand,” Harlan said, shifting forward at his desk.
Baxter just sat there, smouldering at the edge of his bed as he sipped his cup of tea, feeling underdressed in his pajamas while his parents spoke to him in full uniform.
“It’s just damned irregular, Harlan, and I’ve heard all about our ‘perimeter’ defenses. Am I not the only one who remembers that they were totally decimated, twice by the Borg, then again by the Breen?”
“I’m aware of your concerns, dear, I really am. And they’re important to me,” Harlan said. “But we have to act in the best interest of Starfleet. I’m sure you understand.”
“I don’t,” Lucille said. “Andy, help me out here!”
“I’m not speaking to him,” Baxter said. “So just leave me out of this.”
“Son, that’s no way to talk to your Father,” Harlan said.
“Well I’m still pissed about what happened at your reception. You looked absolutely embarrassed to be around me. I’m your son, damn it!”
Harlan broke in, putting up his hands. “You know I love you, boy. You know I think the world of you, and all you’ve done for Starfleet.”
At that, Baxter glanced up at the screen. “You…you do?”
“Always have,” Harlan said.
Baxter stared at the screen. “Really?”
“Yep. Now then, I’ve got lots to do,” Harlan said. “So I must go. I love you both, very much. Baxter out.”
With that, Harlan disappeared from the screen.
Lucille looked ghostly pale. “What the hell was that?” she asked.
“My Dad…thinks the world of me,” Baxter said, his face brightening. “He approves of me! He loves us both…very much!”
“And doesn’t that sound wrong to you?” Lucille asked.
“No,” Baxter said. “It sounds great. It makes me feel…” He took a deep breath. “Like a new man. I’m going to do like you said. I’m gonna get dressed, go out there, and command my ship. I’ll make you both proud.”
“Andy!” Lucille snapped. “You’re not making any sense either.”
“Mom, you’re overreacting,” Baxter said. “Enjoy your combat drill. Love ya. Baxter out.”
Baxter smiled wide as he headed to the bathroom to shower. He had a good feeling about this day.
Cadet Natheena Sparks paced her room. Outside, cadets were immersed in an informal rugby game out on the Starfleet Academy Quad.
Piper and Mathers were even out there, which surprised Nat greatly. Before they’d joined the Explorer, they were rarely spoken to among the other cadets. Not so anymore. Now, for those who hadn’t had their field study yet, they had tales of shipboard adventures to tell. Even for those who had completed internships, they now had a common frame of reference.
In short, somehow, they were fitting in, in a way that surprised Sparks. The fact that a stay aboard the Explorer actually helped them fit in surprised her even more.
Outside, someone yelled “Ball!” and Sparks looked up from her pacing to see Colby Mathers chasing a stray rugby ball right toward her window, then trip and fly forward, smashing himself up against the transparent alumnium.
Sparks laughed as Colby stepped back, dazed, and waved at her to come join them.
“One minute!” she mouthed, holding up a finger. She turned to her desktop terminal, which held, among other things, what felt like a hundred years of homework. She’d get to that soon enough. After the game. But there was one thing that couldn’t wait.
She took a deep breath and sat down at her desk.
“Plato!” she said to her blank terminal. “How good to see you! I was just calling to ask, how are things on the Explorer?” She shook her head. “No. Not good enough. Sounds fake. Maybe…‘Plato, how are things on the Explorer? I miss you, and everyone, and was just…’” Sparks shook her head again. “No, too honest.”
The cadet grabbed a handful of the hair hanging over her shoulder and began to twist it. “Look, Plato, I just thought we could talk. It’s been a few days, and I miss…”
She began to chew idly on her hair. “No. Don’t say ‘miss.’ Say ‘Plato, I was just checking in. How are you?’” She nodded. “Yes. Informal, pleasant. But it needs…oh hell, why don’t I just do it already.”
Sparks purposefully pivoted her terminal so it faced her and punched the activation button. “Computer. Please locate the Federation Starship Explorer and open a channel on longrange.”
“Please confirm. You have three subspace communication credits for this period.”
“Yes. Do it, computer,” Sparks said, rapping the desk impatiently.
Sparks waited for the computer to set up the channel and glanced out the window, watching Piper dive face-first into a scrum. Wow, it did look like fun…
“Unable to comply,” the computer suddenly stated. “Subspace networks in this sector are temporarily inoperable due to routine maintenance.”
“What?” Sparks asked. Maintenance was usually done during the wee hours of the night or on weekends. “When will the network be operable again?’
“That’s weird. Usually it’s just a couple of hours.”
“Unknown,” the computer replied.
“Well, you’ve been super helpful,” Sparks said, and pushed away from her desk. “Thanks for everything, computer.”
“And the pottery class expo is in the Deck Twelve multipurpose room tonight,” Counselor Peterman said, her voice toneless. “There’ll be some brief remarks, then a chance to walk around and look at the exhibits, and of course, punch and cake. Miss Sprinkles hopes everyone from the senior staff can make it.”
“The woman who teaches pottery is really named Miss Sprinkles?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked.
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “I’ve told her many times it’s more appropriate to go by ‘Ms. Sprinkles.’”
Baxter looked up tiredly from his padd and rubbed his eyes again. These oh-nine thirty meetings were hell when you’ve already been at work for three hours.
“Anything else to report, Counselor?”
“No, Captain,” Peterman said formally, with a small grin. “Other than that, nothing, um, unusual, to report.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes. “Would the Counselor care to share why she wasn’t in bed when I woke up this morning?”
Peterman straightened, feeling the looks of the senior staff around the table. “The Counselor was taking a stroll in the arboretum because it was a beautiful evening.”
“Could we, um, not do this now?” Richards asked from the other end of the table.
“The Counselor was out of bed at oh-four hundred. Evening had long since passed,” Baxter corrected.
“The Counselor oftentimes enjoys late night strolls.”
“The Captain does not recall many late night strolls before, except when the Counselor was under the influence of her cat.”
“The Counselor reminds the captain that her cat was being controlled by a vastly superior alien presence at the time.”
Baxter stared at Peterman. “So noted.”
“Is that all?” Tilleran asked, looking from Baxter down to Richards. “Or can I get out of here? I’ve got a lot to do…”
“I think we’ve pretty much wrapped up,” Richards said.
“As always, your human foibles are scintillating,” J’hana muttered, and headed for the door.
“Well,” Richards said, as everyone filed out. “I’ll just, uh, take the conn…”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, as Richards walked out. Peterman was still sitting at the conference room table, fumbling with her fingers. “Kelly, is there something you want to tell me?”
She looked up at Baxter. “Yes.” She opened her mouth, briefly, then closed it. She smiled. “I….love you, Andy.”
Baxter smiled back. “I love you too, sweetie. Which is why I worry…”
“Just a sleepless night,” Peterman said. “It’s nothing.”
Peterman nodded. “Yep.”
“Okay. I’ve got some reports to write. See you and Steffie at lunch?”
“Yep!” Peterman said quickly.
“Sounds good. Wait till I tell you about the conversation I had with my Dad…”
“Can’t wait!” Peterman exclaimed, as Baxter headed out onto the bridge.
As soon as he was gone, Peterman bolted toward the opposite door, charging into the small lavatory on the other side. Morning sickness waits for no one, Peterman thought, as she heaved into the small duranium oval in the head adjacent to the conference room. Oh well. The day could only get better.
The lift ride through the Kirk Administration Building in Starfleet Command felt interminable.
Sparks felt a little uncomfortable taking this little issue over the head of the Academy administration, but she didn’t like the answers she got from the Commandant’s office, or Starfleet Communications, and she’d already missed the rugby game to run down this problem, so she figured she’d better see it through.
Anyway, Harlan Baxter was Captain Baxter’s father. He knew she’d served aboard the Explorer. She might even be able to get in to speak with him, and at least find out what the problem with the subspace network was. They don’t normally just take down the network in the middle of the day like that, not to mention the fact there was no timetable for completion.
Was she being completely stupid? Going all the way to a Fleet Admiral about a communications problem just so she could get a message through to her ex-boyfriend to let him know she missed him and was still thinking about him?
Sparks thought that through as she stood there, facing the door to Harlan’s office.
“Nah. It’s silly,” she said aloud. “I’ll just go back to the Academy.” But she still stood there. “Oh, hell with it,” she suddenly said, impulsively stabbing at the call button.
At first, nothing happened. She pushed it again.
She was just about to turn and walk away when the doors opened.
“Hi, I’m sorry to…” she began, then looked up. Her eyes went wide. “I…you’re…what are you…”
She fumbled for words, before the urge to flee kicked in full force and she turned to bolt away.
“Not so fast, young one,” Shank said, grabbing Sparks by the arm and dragging her into the office. “You got here just in time.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sparks demanded, squirming in the Vulcan’s grasp, as Shank brought her into the recesses of Harlan’s suite, and into his grand office, with a broad window that overlooked the Starfleet presidio and Golden Gate Bridge.
The chair behind Harlan’s desk was turned toward the windows. When she entered, it turned slowly to reveal Captain Ficker, comfortably reclined in it.
“Ah, Cadet Sparks!” Ficker said. “How nice to see you again. Your timing is perfect. There’s about to be a bit of a disaster on Earth that will lock down most of our key facilities. Right now, this is the safest possible place for you.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” Sparks asked defiantly.
“Because you just don’t understand what I’m all about,” Ficker said.
“Where’s Admiral Baxter?”
“He’s busy,” Ficker said, and chuckled. “Very, very busy!”
“You’re crazy,” Mathers said, breathlessly chasing down Cadet Ethan Piper, both cadets still in their rugby gear.
“Because I didn’t shower after rugby?”
“No, because you’re following Nat Sparks like a dog. You have got to snap out of this and realize it’s never going to happen with her!”
“You don’t know that,” Piper said, striding toward the nearest lift, nodding at the security officer standing nearby. “Cadets Piper and Mathers, just here on a bit of business, to see Admiral Baxter. Friends of his son, and all. From the Explorer.”
The guard frowned at them, but did nothing to stop them, just sat back on his stool, returning to the padd he was reading.
“Guess the security scan when we walked in didn’t trip any alarms,” Mathers said, stepping into the lift.
“It will once my gpa for this term is uploaded,” Piper muttered. “Admiral Baxter’s office, please,” he ordered, and the lift began to rise.
“What are you planning to say to Sparks when you see her?” Mathers asked.
“I’m going to tell her to stop living in the past and trying to contact Plato on the Explorer when she could be spending time here and now with me.”
“Yeesh,” Mathers said. “And you really think that’ll work?”
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?” Piper said.
“Guess that’s up to you,” Mathers replied, as suddenly the lift jarred to a stop, alert klaxons sounded and the lights inside went dim, and then the lift quickly plunged downward.
“Attention all Starfleet Personnel,” a voice eerily similar to that of Captain Baxter’s father said, coming across the speakers in the lift. “Earth is under attack. The Tertiary Directive is now in effect. Please report to assigned safe locations.”
“Tertiary Directive?” Piper asked blankly.
Mathers scratched his head. “Was that the one about black holes? Or is it a super nova?”
“Safe locations,” Piper repeated. “Safe locations! It’s an environmental disaster protocol. We’re supposed to report to underground shelters.”
“But they said Earth was under attack,” Mathers said, turning to the lift panel and punching several controls.
“So whoever it is, they’re using a biogenic or atmospheric weapon,” Piper said.
“Well, whatever the case, the turbolift is still going down and the panel’s not responding to my override,” Mathers replied. “Is there any chance this is a drill?’
“This is not a drill,” Harlan’s voice suddenly added over the comm.
“Guess not,” said Piper.
Just as suddenly as it started moving, the lift came to a halt and opened up on a wide underground passageway, lit only by red lights. A group of Starfleet officers was moving quickly down the corridor, like rats in a flood toward what Piper assumed was the aforementioned “safe location.”
In among the moving officers was Admiral Alynna Nechayev.
“Damn it,” she said to one of the officers walking with her. “It looks like for once Lucille Baxter was right. Try not to let that get around.”
“Cadets! Move!” a man with commander’s pips said, gesturing for Piper and Mathers to move along with everyone else. “This is everyone, Admiral!” he called out, jogging ahead to catch up with Nechayev.
Piper grabbed Mathers by the back of his uniform, holding him back as the group plowed past them.
“What are you doing?” Mathers asked, pulling back in the direction of the fleeing officers. “Those guys have way more pips than we do…heck, we don’t have any pips. I’m going in the same direction they are.”
“I didn’t see Nat anywhere in that crowd, and they said everyone was here. She must still be up there. She might be trapped!”
“And you want to risk life and limb to save her?”
“I kind of like the sound of ‘safe location,’” Mathers said. “Besides, those were our orders!”
“Did your time on the Explorer prove nothing?”
“It proved I’m lucky to be alive, and I for one don’t want to push my luck,” Mathers gulped.
“Come on, Colby. Don’t be scared.” Piper said, pulling Mathers in the opposite direction, to the nearest access hatch. Turbolifts would be of no use. “We’ll make a hero out of you yet!”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Mathers protested.
“I cleaned out every injector,” Plato said, breathlessly leaning against the door to Hartley’s office. “They’re spotless.”
The engineer looked up from her desktop terminal and grinned at the boy’s grimy uniform. “You got dirty!”
“Yeah. I thought that was virtually impossible in this day and age.”
“Did you follow my directions?”
“At first. Then I realized it was easier if I shrunk my hand and formed it into the shape of a crude spear. I was able to slide it down right into the injector assembly.”
“Glad you’re making use of your…special talents,” Hartley said, and continued to stare at her monitor.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Nah. Call it a day.”
Plato moved over to the chair in front of Hartley’s desk and sat down. “It’s not even lunch.”
Hartley glanced at him. “You’re a young guy. Go out and…I dunno, frolic…have fun!”
“I don’t need fun. I need work to distract me from thinking about Nat.”
“I know what you mean,” Hartley said idly.
Plato brightened. “You do?”
“Yeah, generally speaking, I mean…”
“Is everything okay with you and Mirk?”
Hartley narrowed her eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious!” Plato said. “I don’t want to get into your pants anymore, I promise.”
Hartley shook her head. “Mirk and I are fine.”
“You sure? Cause if you want to talk about it…you know, you were such a good listener when I was whining about Nat.”
“Go home, Plato,” Hartley said with a sigh.
“Okay. But can I do one warp core breach simulation before I leave?”
Hartley laughed. “But just the one.” Then she called after him, “…and try not to cause a real one, please!”
“V’haspant,” J’hana said, easing up to the bar. “Extra chunks.”
“Chunks this early?” Mirk turned to the replicator and punched in the order.
“It is shaping up to be a difficult day.”
“Seems like a pretty typical day to me,” Mirk said, and handed J’hana the scalding, bubbling cauldron that held the Andorian coffee- analog.
“Lieutenant Commander Tilleran is hiding something from me,” J”hana said. “I am no telepath, but I can sense when my Imzadi is not being entirely forthright.”
Mirk nodded. “Is she really your Imzadi anymore? Aren’t you with Chris?”
“Imzadi is forever,” J’hana said, sipping from her drink.
“How does Chris feel about that?”
J’hana shrugged. “He seems fine with it.”
“If you say so. I’d find it somewhat disturbing.”
“You have no frame of reference. Your marriage to Lieutenant Commander Hartley is annoyingly perfect.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Mirk said. “I…nevermind, it’s not important. I’m the bartender. I’m here to help you with your problems.”
“Andorians don’t have problems,” J’hana said, taking another sip. “We have targets.”
“We’re so going to get suspended!” Mathers whispered, sounding terribly winded, as he jogged after Piper along the upper-level hallway in the Kirk Admin Building.
“Someone is trying to kill every living thing on the planet,” Piper snapped. “Starfleet has bigger problems than us running around the Kirk Building unsupervised!”
“Slow down! We just climbed up a million stories on that ladder!”
Piper rolled his eyes. “Stop exaggerating. I can’t believe you survived J’hana’s training regimen.”
Mathers chuckled to himself. “J’hana would just start the program, and go to the bridge. She usually left Unlathi behind to supervize. That old Velvattian is a total softie. We would go watch movies instead…”
“That explains so much,” Piper said, reaching a bend in the corridor. He stopped suddenly, causing Mathers to nearly bump into him. He turned to Mathers, who was about to open his mouth, and put a finger to his lips.
“…not what we agreed to,” a shrill voice said. “Captain Ficker was only supposed to threaten to kill half the brass in Starlfeet…not actually do it!”
“This is Starfleet Command,” a deeper, more even voice replied. “Not an Orias Modular Habitat Park. A credible threat is necessary to force them to action.”
“Well, I for one…”
Piper shrunk back from the connecting corridor. Those voices were approaching fast.
He motioned for Mathers to run the other way, waving with his hands. Mathers heard the voices get close, and found a surprising amount of stamina in his reserves. He bolted the other way.
Moments later, Dr. Maura Drake and the Vulcan Shank rounded the corner.
“Did you hear something?” Drake asked.
“I am half-deaf,” Shank replied.
“That’s odd, for a Vulcan.”
“It is a statistical improbability, nothing more,” Shank said. “I would suggest you do not fixate on it.”
“Is your poor hearing why you decided to secede from Vulcan and become an anarchist?”
“It is not,” Shank said.
Drake glanced around. “Are you sure you didn’t hear anyone?”
“We can run a sensor sweep when we get back to Admiral Baxter’s office, but I assure you that we were quite efficient in creating a false alarm sufficient to evacuate this facility fully. No one would be stupid enough to remain behind and face certain annihilation from an alien weapon.”
“I suppose,” Drake said. “Now where did you say that replicator was? I’m craving a baked potato in the worst way!”
“You are an unusual and unstable woman,” Shank said. “At any rate, the replicator should be right down this corridor…”
For his part, Cadet Piper hunched in the crawlspace as Shank and Drake passed by the vent. “That was close…” he whispered back to Mathers, who was crammed in behind him.
“You are squishing me,” Mathers muttered softly from behind him.
“We have to get to a comm station and contact someone!” Piper said.
“That’ll be pretty much impossible, as all of Starfleet Command is locked down and the subspace net isn’t working.”
Piper thought about what Shank and Drake had said. “I bet it’s working in one place…”
“You seem chipper,” Richards said, as Baxter sat beside him in the command chair.
“I am,” Baxter said. “I feel at peace with the world. My Dad’s proud of me.”
“Aw,” Madera said, turning in her chair.
“There will be no ‘aw’-ing on the bridge,” Richards snapped.
“When did we start that ridiculous policy?” Madera replied.
“That seems rather arbitrary,” Sefelt mildly pointed out.
“Don’t you start,” Richards said, shaking his head.
“A little odd, though,” Baxter said, mostly to himself. “My Dad said something strange…”
“Like what?” Richards asked.
“He said he loved me. And thought the world of me.”
“Yeah, that’s a bit strange,” Richards said.
“I know!” Baxter said. “Think I should be worried?”
“I’d really rather you worry about our warp core intermix or the mission to Circassia to map gaseous anomalies,” Richards sighed.
Baxter pivoted to face his first officer. “Testy?”
“I think we all need a vacation,” Richards said, taking a deep breath. “It’s been a long…whatever this is.”
“You can say that again,” Baxter said, wheeling toward the aft turbolift, which opened to reveal Lt. Commanders J’hana and Tilleran.
“Reporting for duty, fully refueled on v’haspant,” J”hana said, stepping up to tactical.
“Thanks, I didn’t want any anyway,” Tilleran said with a wink as she crossed over to sciences.
“I didn’t know you still drank v’haspant,” J’hana replied offhand as she plunked her panel.
“Some habits die hard,” Tilleran said with a smile.
“Aherm!” Richards cleared his throat, standing. “Sit rep, Commander Tilleran. What’s the latest on your efforts to reverse Ficker’s mind control on the Tellarites?”
“A few leads, but nothing concrete yet,” Tilleran said. “I’m going to take another stab at it when I get off-shift. Whatever Doctor Drake concocted, it’s terribly efficient at rooting out the self-determination areas of the brain and blocking them completely.”
“Keep working,” Richards said. “Those Tellarites aren’t going to get better by themselves.”
“Yes, sir,” Tilleran said, with a sideways glance. “Anything else, sir?”
“No,” Richards said, and returned to his chair. He folded his arms. “But I would have liked a v’haspant too.”
“Oh for the love of the Hivemother,” J’hana groused.
“You guys,” Baxter said, shaking his head, just as the tactical console beeped.
“Sir,” J’hana said, glancing at the panel. “We’re getting a communication from Earth.”
“I thought the subspace nets were just taken down for maintenance,” Richards said.
“Uncertain,” J’hana said. “The signal is clumsily encoded. I am attempting to decipher it…”
“Help her out, Tilleran,” Baxter said, and stood, moving back to the tactical console as the Betazoid crossed the bridge to join them there.
“Well?” Richards asked, from the command area.
J’hana looked up. “I’m putting it on screen.”
All eyes turned to the bridge view screen, which was suddenly filled with what appeared to be a small, spartan, Starfleet-decorated…
“Tilleran, am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?”
Tilleran checked the data stream coming across J’hana’s screen. “Well, it’s too far away for longrange sensors. But yes. I think that’s a toilet.”
Richards stared at the screen. “What the…?”
Suddenly the screen was filled with the roundish face of Cadet Colby Mathers. “Ethan! I got it working!”
“Move!” Piper said, pushing Mathers aside. “Thank God! Captain Baxter! Look, I don’t have much time. We’re in your dad’s office and…”
“Cadet?” Baxter asked, not sure whether to be annoyed or amused. “Why are you in my father’s bathroom? This the new Red Squad initiation?”
“No,” Piper said, glancing worriedly to his left. “No, sir. I couldn’t get through to Spacedock or Mars Defense. Starfleet Command’s locked down. They think we’re under attack but they have no idea what’s really going on. Nat’s been captured. They’re holding her in your Dad’s office. Colby and I slipped in through the maintenance duct and…”
Baxter held up his hands, crossing to the front of the bridge. “Hold on, Piper, just hold on. Who’s captured Nat?”
“Ficker, sir,” Piper blurted. “It’s Alvin Ficker. He’s trying to…”
“Chris…” Baxter said, motioning to Richards as he stared at the screen.
Richards nodded. “Lieutenant Madera, change course for Earth, and increase our speed to maximum warp. Richards to engineering…”
“We just changed course,” Baxter said earnestly, as Richards implored Hartley for more power to the engines. “You better not be kidding me.” He stepped toward the screen. “Ethan, you’ve got to breathe. Tell me exactly what is happening there.”
“I think Alvin Ficker is going to do something horrible to Starfleet Command…or at least blackmail them to do who-knows-what. He’s holed up her in your father’s office, and I think they’re somehow using his access codes to…”
Suddenly Piper’s head whipped around as the sound of a door opening could be heard from behind him and the screen suddenly returned to streaking stars.
Everyone stared at the streaking stars for a moment.
“Red alert!” Baxter snapped, still staring at the screen. “All hands to battle stations!”
“Hartley gave us nine point nine five, but it won’t last long,” Richards said, stepping up next to Baxter as Tilleran jogged back to sciences and J’hana went to work at tactical, securing the ship for combat.
“We won’t need it long,” Baxter said, and turned to face the aft stations. “J’hana, I need all available power diverted to weapons and shields. Bring up everything we have on the Idlewild. Every weakness, every tactical advantage. All of it!” J’hana didn’t bother to acknowledge the order, she just quickened her pace at her panel. “Commander Tilleran, I need a way to reverse the effects of Drake’s device. Now.”
“I’m on it, Captain,” Tilleran said, and bolted for the aft turbolift.
Madera turned away from her panel. “Captain, even at this speed it’s nineteen hours back to Earth.”
“If there’s anything left in those engines, use it now, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, and headed back to the readyroom.
“Captain?” Richards asked.
“You’ve got the conn, Chris,” Baxter said, and without another word, disappeared into his office.
After three ignored chimes, Counselor Peterman tried another tack and knocked on Baxter’s ready room door.
When that didn’t work, she turned to look at Richards, who stood at the center of the bridge, arms folded. He glanced at her and shrugged.
Finally, Baxter’s voice sounded over the comm. “What.”
“Can I come in?” Peterman demanded.
The doors obediently swished open, and Peterman strode into Baxter’s office. “Care to tell me what the hell you’re doing in here?”
Baxter was seated behind his desk, head resting on the desk, arms dangling at his sides. “Thinking.”
Peterman moved over to the desk and sat down opposite Baxter. “You’re going to have a mark on your forehead.”
He didn’t look up. “Well then, now we really do have an emergency on our hands.”
“You going to tell me what’s wrong?” Peterman asked gently.
“Haven’t you been briefed by…” Baxter waved a hand at the door, but didn’t look up. “One of those people out there?”
“Yes,” Peterman said. “I understand Alvin Ficker has somehow gotten control of Starfleet Command and has your father and our cadets held hostage.”
“You better check. He might have my Great Aunt Ruth too.”
“She’d beat him up with her purse,” Peterman said with a small smirk.
“This is no time for jokes,” Baxter muttered.
“You started it,” Peterman said. She leaned closer, and ran a hand gently through Baxter’s hair. “Why are you laying there like a deactivated android?”
“Looking for cracks in my desk.”
Baxter tilted his head upward. “I can’t go out there, Kelly.”
Peterman folded her arms in front of her and leaned her chin down on them. “And why is that?”
“Admiral Nechayev was right. I’m not up to this. I can’t save Starfleet.”
“Andy, we don’t have time for this…”
“Who am I kidding? I’m a punchline. The guy who was promoted from Inventory to Captain in one day and shuttled off to the Delta Quadrant like space garbage.”
“And we made it back from the Delta Quadrant. Years before what’s-her-name and the Villager did.”
“Where does Nechayev get off, anyway, telling you that you’re not good enough?”
“She was very haughty with me.”
“She’s an admiral. What do you expect?”
“Respect!” Baxter snapped. “I expect at least a shred of frigging respect!”
Peterman shook her head. “You’ve been talked down to by your superiors, your peers, and your subordinates for the better part of your career, and you choose now to actually listen to one of them?!”
“Maybe it’s starting to sink in. It’s time I came to my senses.” He pushed to his feet. “We’ve got to turn this ship around. Find someone else to go stop Ficker. Picard, Beesey, Markman…somebody!
Peterman stepped to the side and blocked Baxter, putting a hand on his chest. “And what the hell are you going to use to call them? A tin can and a string? Ficker took down the subspace network!”
“Well I sure as hell can’t do it.”
“You’re right,” Peterman said, stepping aside to let Baxter past. “You can’t.”
Baxter stared at her. “Wait. You’re tricking me. Otherwise you wouldn’t have agreed with me that easily.”
Peterman nodded. “You can’t stop Alvin Ficker, but WE can.”
Baxter looked Peterman up and down. “You got a phaser rifle tucked in there somewhere?”
“I mean all of us. Your crew. We can stop Ficker.”
“And what makes you say that?” Baxter asked, crossing his ready room and collapsing onto the couch next to his desk.
“Because a frightened cadet who’s in way over his head believes in us. He believes in you. Piper could have called Captain Mannix, or Schuster, or Bradigan. But he didn’t. He called us.”
“He just reached out to the first ship he could think of.”
“And you’re going to let him down? Not to mention Sparks, Mathers, your father, the whole of Starfleet Command…including that bitch Nechayev?”
Baxter looked up at Peterman, chewing on his bottom lip. “She was right. Piper isn’t the only one in over his head.”
Peterman knelt in front of Baxter, putting her hands on his knees. “Andy, we all take risks in this business. If we try to save Starfleet and fail, I can accept that. But damn it, Andy, if we don’t at least try, so help me, I’ll never forgive you for that.”
Baxter looked up at Peterman and stared at her for a moment.
Peterman stared back, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she blinked. “Andy?”
“Speed,” Baxter said, leaping off the couch, nearly pushing Peterman aside. “We need more speed.”
Peterman stood up. “So you’re going to…”
“Kick Alvin Ficker from here to Andromeda,” Baxter called over his shoulder, walking out onto the bridge and ducking into the nearest turbolift. “Engineering!”
“Great plan, Captain!” Lt. Commander Hartley exclaimed, with a broad smile.
Baxter cocked his head. “You mean it? I was expecting some resistance, at least at fir…”
“NO I DON’T MEAN IT!” Hartley snapped back. “Do you really want us to blow up?!”
Baxter eased back against the master systems console, doing his best not to punch any wrong buttons. “Not particularly…”
“Well, that’s what’ll happen. I can’t open up the injectors that much. It’ll cripple us. We’ll arrive at Earth in half the time but we’ll be a four point five million ton paper weight when we get there! And that’s assuming we can even stop once we get going that fast!”
Baxter put a hand on Hartley’s shoulder. “Commander, I know you can make this happen.”
“You’re talking about sustained travel at speeds this ship wasn’t designed for. You have no idea what’s involved in this.”
“You’re right,” Baxter said. “But you do. You’re my Chief Engineer. You know the Explorer’s strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. And you can get us there faster. I know you can.” He patted Hartley on the back. “Now hop to it, Commander.”
“I’ll be on the bridge. Let me know when we can increase our speed.” And with that, Baxter walked out of engineering, leaving Hartley standing there, agape.
She didn’t stand still for long.
Stardate 58734.5. The Explorer is now less than two hours from Earth. We were able to cut ten hours off our trip. I’m told we’ll need a complete engine overhaul once this crisis is over, but Commander Hartley came through for us. At least, we haven’t blown up yet.
Then again, the day is young.
“Anybody else feel like we’re hurtling toward a stationary object at extremely unsafe velocities?” Lt. Commander Tilleran asked as she sat down at the conference table.
“Isn’t that what we always do?” J’hana asked. “If it isn’t, then I’m in the wrong line of work.”
“You always know how to cheer me up,” Tilleran said with a chuckle.
“Hey, let’s get this meeting going,” Richards said quickly, glancing at Tilleran and J’hana as he took a seat next to Baxter at the head of the table.
“Thanks for coming,” Baxter said, looking at the faces of his senior staff, including Peterman, Sefelt, Madera, Holly Wilcox, and even Janice Browning.
“I have one question,” Hartley said. “If we’re all in here, then who the hell is steering?”
“We’re on auto-pilot,” Madera said.
“And you’re comfortable turning on the auto pilot at Warp Nine point nine nine nine nine eight?”
“Hey, it’s the same thing we always do, just a little faster.”
“A little,” Hartley said dryly.
“Don’t feel bad, Lieutenant,” Browning said, leaning toward Madera. “I left a pot of chili on the stove.”
“I promise it’ll be a short meeting,” Baxter said, resting his hands on the table. “So. By now you’ve all been briefed.”
“About how Alvin Ficker is literally taking over the planet Earth?” Tilleran said, shaking her head. “Yeah. We got the memo.”
“So you know what we need to do.” He looked around the table.
“The words ‘overwhelming force’ come to mind,” J’hana said.
“I knew they would,” Baxter said with a small smile. “And thanks to Hartley’s handiwork with the engines, we’ll be able to unleash that force a lot sooner.”
“Did I mention we still might blow up before we ever get to Earth?” Hartley spoke up.
“You might have brushed on it,” Baxter said. “Now then, we need a plan. The Idlewild will certainly be in orbit of Earth. And for all we know, Ficker has gotten control of the Mars Defenses.”
“We can’t just fly up and start shooting,” Richards said.
“We’ll need to do something a little more subtle than that,” J’hana said. “Though I like the way you think.”
“Ficker knows that Piper contacted us,” Peterman said. “So he’ll be expecting us.”
“He’s probably elated,” Baxter said. “Now he’ll get to gloat.”
“Can we use that to our advantage?” J’hana said. “Throw the captain at them and sneak in to rescue everyone while Ficker gloats about his wonderful plan?”
“If only it were that simple,” Baxter said.
“We’ve also got a lot of civilians aboard,” Holly said. “We might want to think of a way to get them to safety.”
“We’ve never done that before,” Tilleran said. “Why start now?”
“We sometimes do it,” Peterman said.
“Holly’s right,” Richards said. “Ficker may not want to gloat. He’s probably left Worthy in command of the Idlewild, and that guy would just as soon blow us out of the stars than engage us in clever repartee.”
“Good point,” Baxter said.
“So where does that leave us?” Peterman asked, looking around.
Janice Browning leaned forward. “And why am I here, Andy?”
Baxter took a long breath. “Because somebody will need to talk to Plato, and I’m going to have my hands full…”
Browning sat across the table from Plato in her restaurant, leaning forward on her elbows. “Okay?”
Plato nodded gently. “Okay, I understand.”
Browning blinked. “And that’s all you’ve got to say?”
“The captain, and the others…they’re going to go get her, I mean…them?”
“Yes. We’re headed to Earth.” Browning took a deep breath. “Very, very quickly.”
“They’ll do everything they can,” Plato said. “I know they will.”
“Plato,” Browning said, reaching out and taking Plato’s hands. “I know how you feel about Nat Sparks. And she’s in danger. And you must be angry, and scared, and all sorts of other things. It’s okay to talk about it.”
“I’m really fine,” Plato said. “I know the Explorer crew is going to do what needs to be done.”
“Wow. You really have grown up. Time was you would have stolen the Escort or jumped into an escape pod or something and gone off on your own.”
“I was a kid then,” Plato said dismissively. “But I do wish there was something I could do. I hate to think of my friends being down on Earth, in trouble, and there’s nothing I can do.”
“Yeah,” Browning said, and gazed off thoughtfully.
“It’s not like I can do anything about it. I’m just a trainee, right?”
“Right,” Browning said distantly.
“Do you think Commander Hartley will need me in Engineering?”
“No,” Browning said, and turned to look at Plato, blinking. “I’m, um, to take you back to our quarters, until we decide, I mean, until they decide…” She trailed off.
“Mom?” Plato asked. “You okay?”
Browning smiled at Plato, squeezing his hands. “Yeah. Yeah I am, sweetie.” She leaned forward and kissed him hard on the forehead. “Get on to our quarters. I’ll meet you there.”
As Plato headed out, he passed crewmen Plarnax and McDougle, from Astrophysics, who strode into the restaurant.
“Two for lunch?” Plarnax asked casually.
“We’re hurtling toward oblivion at the moment, folks, so I’m afraid we’re closing early,” Browning said, and headed back to the kitchen.
There were a few things she needed to do.
“Admiral!” Captain Ficker said, easing back against Admiral Baxter’s desk as he stared at the wall monitor in the Admiral’s well- appointed office. “What can I do for you?”
Admiral Alynna Nechayev stared back at Ficker, her eyes boring into him like a dolemide phaser drill. “What can you DO for me?” she demanded. “You contacted ME!”
“Oh, right,” Ficker said. “Since I’ve blacked out sensors and communications throughout Starfleet Command and trapped you all in your little panic room, you could have gone on hiding down there in blissful ignorance indefinitely. So I guess it’s a good thing I called you, huh?”
“What have you done to Admiral Baxter?” Nechayev asked.
“Nothing! He’s right here.” Ficker scooted aside to reveal Harlan seated behind his desk.
“Hiya,” Harlan waved, staring a head blankly.
“Admiral…” Nechayev said. “Harlan. What is the situation?”
Harlan stared at Nechayev long and hard. He cocked his head quizzically, then turned to Ficker. “What should I tell her?”
“Tell her you love Feluvian Opera and that you’d like to make passionate love to her in the middle of a senior staff briefing.”
“I love Felubian Opera and I…”
“Enough!” Nechayev shouted. “Reverse whatever it is you’ve done to him and return control of our facilities to us immediately.”
“I’d like nothing more,” Ficker said. He turned to Harlan, smiling patiently. “Hey, buddy. Could you do me a favor and go in the other room while Alynna and I talk business? Doctor Drake is there and I’m sure she’d love to play with you.”
“Sure thing,” Harlan said, sliding out of his chair and heading out of the office. “Nice talking to you, Admiral.”
Nechayev gritted her teeth. “What do you want, Ficker?”
“My…disagreements…with the way Starfleet handles its business are well-advertised. You know we never did see eye-to-eye, Alynna.”
“Get on with it,” Nechayev fumed.
“But rather than take out my frustrations on your and your colleagues, I’d rather attack the problem at the source.”
“Starfleet Command? The Federation Council?”
“No, the very place our people learn there’s only one right way to do things, and that it’s wrong to be different. Starfleet Academy.”
“If you lay one hand on our cadets…”
“Now, now,” Ficker said, holding up his hands. “Let’s do away with the silly threats. I have no intention of hurting the cadets.”
“Then what is it you want from us?”
“I want nothing from you. You’ll get your precious Starfleet Command back once I’m done…renovating the Academy.”
Nechayev pursed her lips. “And that means?”
Ficker gave a magnanimous smile. “I will take all of your cadets. Every single one of them will come aboard the Idlewild. And they will follow me. I can be quite convicning.”
Nechayev stared fire at Ficker. “So help me, if I ever get my hands on you…”
“Yawn!” Ficker snapped, and punched a control on Harlan’s desk, shutting off the channel. “Mister Shank, tell the Idlewild that Doctor Drake will be proceeding to the Academy within the hour to launch her weapon, and then he can expect to beam up a bunch of new recruits. And then we’ll turn our attention to Admiral Nechayev and friends.”
“Captain, did you not just tell Admiral Nechayev that all you wanted was the cadets?”
“Silly Vulcan, what do you think Starfleet will do once we leave? They’ll hunt us from here to Alpha Centauri. But, if I brainwash every flag officer in the building to follow my orders, they will cover this whole thing up, and allow me to go about my business in peace. At least until I can take over ALL of Starfleet Command.”
“You are wise,” Shank said, though he had his doubts. Then again, who was Shank to ask questions? By Vulcan standards, he was certifiable in his own right.
And anarchy was, after all, a very good thing.
“Forty minutes to Terran System,” Lt. Madera said, looking up at the viewscreen from the helm.
Baxter and Richards stood together on the bridge watching the stars streak toward them, a little faster than usual.
“Second thoughts?” Richards asked.
“Nope,” Baxter said. “It’s a good plan.”
“You realize it has the potential to, well, literally blow up in our faces?”
“Don’t our plans always have that potential?” Baxter asked.
“Fair point,” Richards said. “I just wanted to give you one last chance to back out and try something else.”
“No,” Baxter said. “This is the kind of dumbass thing Jean-Luc Picard would do. So I must be on the right track.”
Just then, the aft turbolift opened up to reveal Counselor Peterman.
“Andy,” she said. “Can we talk about this?”
“Nope, I’m afraid we can’t,” Baxter said, walking around to the back of the bridge, giving one long glance around. “I’m on a bit of a timetable.”
“You say tomato,” Baxter said, and strode to the aft turbolift, pressing the call button.
“You always say that and you don’t even know what it means!”
“It sounds right,” Baxter said, as the lift doors opened to reveal Janice Browning, in full uniform.
“There must be a hell of a line for this thing,” Baxter said, glancing at Browning’s uniform. “Janice, there something you want to tell me?”
“Lieutenant Commander Janice Browning, reporting for duty,” Browning said.
“Janice?” Richards asked, stepping up behind Baxter and Peterman. “What is this?”
“Commander Browning,” Browning said. “Please.”
Baxter looked at Browning and shook his head. “This is not the time for…whatever it is you think you’re trying to do.”
“I’m trying to stand with my crewmates at a time when you need all hands on deck, Captain. You have the authority to reinstate my commission in times of crisis. And this would certainly count as that. So do it already.”
“No!” Richards said, stepping up next to Baxter. “You need to be with Plato.”
“We’ve talked about it,” Browning said. “He understands.” She smiled at Richards. “You should, too.”
Baxter took a deep breath, and sighed it out, clapping a hand on Browning’s shoulder. “Request granted, Commander. Hang out here. You’ll be needed.”
“Andy,” Richards said.
“When she’s right, she’s right. We need all essential crew to man their stations. And she’s essential crew.” With that, he ducked into the turbolift, and Peterman joined him. “Escort,” he ordered.
“So no way I can talk you out of this?” Peterman asked as the lift descended.
“Nope.” Baxter glanced at his wife. “Matter of fact, I believe you talked me into it.”
“But not this way! I mean, I figured we’d come up with, you know, a better plan.”
“This is what we’ve got,” Baxter said, as the lift doors opened. He walked down the corridor toward the Escort airlock, where Tilleran and J’hana stood, looking impatient.
“Besides,” Baxter added. “Are you going to doubt J’hana and Tilleran for a moment?”
J’hana stared at Peterman. “Well?”
Peterman shook her head. “No. Of course not.”
“Go in and start the departure sequence,” Baxter said, nodding at Tilleran and J’hana. “I’ll be just a minute.” He turned to Peterman. “Well? You have anything to say to me?”
Peterman grasped at her stomach. “Well…”
Baxter pulled her into a tight hug. “I mean, a few words of encouragement wouldn’t hurt.”
“Oh. That. Of course…I mean sure…”
Baxter clutched Peterman’s cheeks and looked into her eyes. “What is going on with you, honey?”
“Nothing. I’m just…there’s a lot going on right now, so…”
“You were acting weird before all this happened.”
Baxter looked a little deeper into Peterman’s eyes. “I swear, sometimes, I think I can hear your thoughts.”
“We should talk about that sometime. Sounds like mild schizophrenia,” Peterman offered.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, staring at his wife. “Guess so.”
“J’hana to Captain Baxter: You are about to miss your only shot at honorable death.”
“That’s your cue,” Peterman said with a small chuckle.
“Give Steffie the biggest kiss in the world for me,” Baxter said. “And sit tight. Okay?”
Peterman nodded. “I’ll tell her you’ll be home soon.” She took his hands. “Cause you will.”
Baxter nodded. “Cause I will.” He kissed Peterman on the forehead and turned, ducking into the airlock, which as usual would have to close up and turn upside-down in order for him to board the Escort. “Here’s hoping I don’t throw up this time!”
Peterman watched him go. “Here’s hoping.”
“You look busy,” a voice said from behind Lt. Commander Hartley as she tapped intently at the master systems display in engineering, as her officers worked feverishly around her.
Hartley glanced over her shoulder. “I am, so unless this is terribly frigging important…” Her face softened as she saw who had spoken to her. “Mirk.”
The Maloxian looked around Engineering. “I was coming to see if there was something I could do to help.”
“Can you boost the efficiency of the warp core?”
Mirk thought about that for a moment. If he was a Director, the Explorer wouldn’t even need a warp core. It would appear instantly at Earth. But he decided that was the last thing Hartley needed to hear. “No,” he finally said.
“Then nope, you can’t help.”
Mirk moved closer to Hartley and put his hands on her shoulders, squeezing them as she worked. “Then I’ll just tell you I love you. I always have, and always will.”
Hartley glanced back at him. “You shouldn’t be here, you know.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Mirk said, and kissed her cheek.
She turned back to her panel and kept working. Then she turned again to say something to Mirk, but he was gone.
Browning stood next to Richards as he watched the Escort head out into space on the forward viewer.
“Did you have a chance to talk to J’hana before she left?” she asked.
“We don’t really do that,” Richards said. “She’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” Richards turned around and headed to the command chair. “We have our own job to do. Take sciences. And make sure Counselor Peterman is all set.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” Browning said with a grin and bolted back to sciences.
“Coffee?” Ensign Megan Aprile asked, stepping up to Commander Roland Worthy with a steaming cup in hand as he stood on the Idlewild bridge staring at the viewscreen.
“Why yes, thank you,” Worthy said, taking the cup and sipping from it. “Delicious. If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s a good cup of coffee.”
“Yeah, pretty much everyone does,” Aprile said. “So what?”
“Wow, you have a lot of sass for someone who had her brain reprogrammed,” Worthy observed.
“You asked me to be sassy,” Aprile reminded him.
“Oh, that’s right,” Worthy said. “Say, I almost forgot, how many Idlewild crew do we have left to reprogram?”
“Hold on, let me look at the crew manifest,” Aprile said, crossing the bridge and grabbing the padd off a nearby console, as the Idlewild’s bridge crew obediently tapped away at their controls. “Yes, that’s right, um, no one.”
“We’ve done everyone?” Worthy asked.
“Finished up early this afternoon,” Aprile said. “Well, except for you.”
“Then let’s just call that a job done,” Worthy said. “Go ahead and beam Doctor Drake’s device down to Admiral Baxter’s office.”
“Should I give Captain Ficker an update on the brainwashing?”
“No reason to bother him with minutae. He’ll just be gratified to know that we won’t suffer any further…insurgence…by confused crew.”
“Aye, sir,” Aprile said, as she obediently beamed the device down to the Kirk Building. “I don’t know why anyone would want to disagree with you, sir. You’re so handsome! And you’re a great speller…”
“Yes, I love it when women compliment my spelling,” Worthy said idly, as Lt. Prouse looked up from tactical.
“What did I say about calling me Captain when Ficker isn’t on board?”
Prouse stared at him blankly. “Of course. Captain, we have a contact entering the Terran system, bearing oh-four-four mark zero-zero- two.”
“We disabled Mars Defense,” Worthy said. “Who could it be? Starship? Private vessel?”
“It’s a starship all right,” Prouse said. “But it’s tiny.”
“No. Smaller. And less imposing. And older. And crappier.”
Worthy turned to the viewscreen as the image of a modified Peregrine-class fighter appeared, and he stepped forward. “Confirm identity.”
“Yes. U.S.S. Escort, attached to the Starship Explorer.”
“It’s not attached right now,” Worthy said. “Aprile, get back to sciences and scan long range. Check for any sign of the Explorer.” He glanced at the helm. “Mister Crane, intercept course.”
“Captain, aren’t we supposed to be executing Captain Ficker’s plan soon?” Prouse asked.
“Not until we deal with this little problem,” Worthy said, cracking his knuckles.
“No sign of the Explorer on longrange,” Aprile reported. “Orders, sir?”
“Yes indeed,” Worthy said, pointing at the Escort on the screen. “Let’s blow that hunk of junk out of the stars.”
“She looks big,” Tilleran observed from the foreward helm station, as the Escort headed toward the Idlewild.
“Sabre-class starships are relatively small,” J’hana said. “She’s barely a third the size of the Explorer.”
“Which still makes her much bigger than we are,” Baxter said.
“True,” said J’hana, from Baxter’s right, at tactical/operations. “But I am not concerned.”
“Of course you’re not,” Baxter muttered. “Raise shields and arm all weapons. Open a channel to the Idlewild.”
“The subspace nets are still down,” Tilleran replied.
“Something tells me the Idlewild will still be capable of communicating,” Baxter said.
“Indeed,” J’hana said. “They are returning our hail.”
“On screen,” Baxter said, standing and straightening his uniform, as Commander Roland Worthy appeared on the viewscreen.
“Captain!” Worthy exclaimed. “What brings you here?”
“The irresistible urge to blow you to fucking pieces,” Baxter said.
“What should we try if diplomacy doesn’t work?” Tilleran quipped.
“Destroy us? With that wind-up toy of a ship? I think not,” Worthy laughed. “I know this trick. You’re trying to create a diversion so the Explorer can head to Earth and sabotage Captain Ficker’s plans.”
“Not at all. I’m on my own here. I won’t risk the Explorer.”
“If that’s true, it’s incredibly stupid.”
“What can I say,” Baxter said, narrowing his eyes at Worthy. “I’m incredibly stupid. Close channel.” He glanced at J’hana. “As soon as we’re in range, fire all weapons. Tilleran…head out toward Jupiter. Keep the Idlewild as far from Earth as possible.”
“Not sure how long we can manage that,” Tilleran replied.
“We won’t need long,” Baxter said.
“Well?” Richards asked as Hartley jogged out of the turbolift and swung around behind the aft engineering station.
“Did you notice us exploding?”
“Not yet,” Richards admitted.
“Then I’d say we were able to come out of warp in one piece,” Hartley said, bringing up engine status on the panel and looking it over. “But the engines are slagged. Hope we don’t need to go to warp again anytime soon.”
“Nope,” Richards said. “Mister Keefler, how are the sensor- reflective shields holding up?”
“We’re on the dark side of the moon and there’s no indication the Idlewild has spotted us yet.”
“Let’s hope nobody on the Idlewild decides to do any stargazing out their windows,” Browning piped up from sciences.
Hartley’s brow furrowed as she looked over her console, then she looked up. “Commander, why is Janice Browning here?”
“She’s here to help. You have a problem with that?”
“Seems perfectly sensible,” Hartley said. “We might need lunch later. Or serious medical attention.” She glanced up from her panel. “Well, transporters are fired up and interlinked. We’re ready on our end.”
Richards nodded. “Bridge to Peterman. You ready?”
“Locked and loaded, Commander,” Peterman replied. “I’ve got pillows, blankets, medical supplies, and enough snacks for a couple of days…”
“And how many of your animals have you loaded up?”
“All of them,” Peterman said. “I actually beamed them down already.”
“Mind if we start beaming the people down, too?” Richards asked wryly.
“Sure,” Peterman said. “Just one request. Tell people to keep their muddy shoes off the carpet!”
Richards shook his head. “Anybody else think this idea is stupid?”
Harold Raines looked up from his crossword puzzle. “Did you hear something?”
“What?” Maude Raines asked, staring across the kitchen table at her husband.
“I said, did you hear something?”
“You know I can’t hear so well since they replaced my eardrums!”
“It was like a high-pitched whine.”
“I hear those all the time,” Maude harrumphed.
“And voices,” Harold said, easing out of his chair and crossing over to the kitchen window. “Lots of voices…”
“Stop worrying. Things have been great since the Admiral and that lovely woman moved in next door…”
Harold stood at the kitchen window and looked outside at the house next door, which was quite suddenly filled with all manner of Starfleet officers and civilians. Some were out circling the house, setting up artificial shelters and command posts. Others seemed to be studying Harold’s house with tricorders.
And…yes…those were runabouts landing in the yard in between the houses. One of them crushed his tomato bed!
“Well, now they’ve done it,” Harold fumed. “I’m going to give those Starfleet bastards what…”
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
Harold ambled over and opened the door, to reveal Counselor Peterman.
“Hey, neighbor!” she waved. “Would you mind if about fifty people come over for a bit to hang out? We’ve filled up our house, and have even more beaming down, and it’s getting a little crowded. See, there’s just this Starfleet thing we have to deal with and we have to get our nonessentials to safe ground, and for now, this is it!”
“Now wait just one…” Harold began.
“Thanks!” Peterman said, pulling Harold into a big hug. “Oh, and don’t go in your back yard for a while.”
“Why n…” Harold began, as suddenly he heard his wife scream from the back of the house.
“HAROLD! Did you put a zoo in our back yard and not tell me?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “Tell your wife not to feed the lion or the gazelle. They’ve already eaten. The others could probably use some kibble. Thanks so much for your help!”
“Hard to port!” Baxter called, hanging on to the command chair of the Escort as the Idlewild bore down, firing. “Keep on the evasive. Don’t let them score any direct hits!”
“Easier said than done,” Tilleran said. “I have no idea what maneuvers the Idlewild is planning. I may be telepathic, but I’m no mind-read…wait, scratch that, actually I am.”
“It’s not doing us much good!” J’hana snapped.
“Hold on,” Baxter said. “Hold us together just a little longer.”
“We will not let you down,” J’hana said, her hands working furiously at the tactical controls, sending phasers and torpedoes slamming into the Idlewild.
“Speak for yourself!” Tilleran called out as a direct hit landed on the Escort, shaking the bridge and bathing it in darkness. Sparks shot out of numerous panels, briefly illuminating the darkened bridge.
“Major power conduit hit,” J’hana said. “I’m not sure I can hold the shields together, and need I remind you that we didn’t bring along an engineer!”
“You don’t need to remind me,” Baxter said, stepping toward the crackling viewscreen and watching the Idlewild turn slowly, coming around for another pass. “Divert all you can to shields and engines. Bank hard and put as much distance between us and the Idlewild as you can.”
Tilleran gripped her panel, tapping in the instructions. Her response was a ship-wide groan that didn’t sound at all good.
“What was that?” Baxter asked.
“Momentary engine failure.” The Betazoid pursed her lips and tapped at her panel. “They’ll be back up in a bit.”
“They’re coming at us,” J’hana said. “And I just launched our last torpedo. Phasers are fwarked. I’ve got nothing to shoot with, and the Betazoid can’t even program a decent collision course.”
“Well now,” Baxter said, watching the Idlewild approach on the viewscreen. “This should get interesting.”
“We scored a direct hit, Captain,” Prouse said from tactical as Worthy gave her an appreciative nod.
“Good work,” he said. “Lock quantum torpedoes. Finish her off.”
“Sir?” Prouse asked. “Don’t you think Captain Ficker would like to keep Captain Baxter and the others alive? So he can gloat?”
“Captain Ficker isn’t in command here,” Worthy said. “Destroy the Escort. That’s an order.”
Prouse looked from Worthy to her panel and, having had any existing free will removed, obediently locked in the firing solution. “Weapons ready,” she said.
Worthy clenched his fist. “Excellent. Now fi…”
That’s when the Idlewild rocked hard, sending Worthy tumbling face-forward to the deck.
“New contact bearing zero-zero-eight mark zero-one-zero,” Prouse announced, as officers scrambled at their stations.
“Don’t tell me,” Worthy muttered, looking up at the viewscreen and dragging himself to his feet as he watched a Galaxy-class starship come soaring at them, phasers and torpedoes blazing.
“It’s the Explorer,” Prouse said, as the Idlewild rocked again. “They must have been using some kind of sensor-reflective fields!”
“No kidding!” Worthy snapped. “Well, don’t just sit there. Fire back!”
Baxter gaped as the Explorer sailed into view on the screen in front of him, blasting the Idlewild, and taking a protective position in front of the Escort.
Richards appeared on the viewscreen, bathed in Red Alert lighting. “We’ve got this, Captain. You can head to Earth.”
“Chris…” Baxter began.
“Go!” Richards said, as the Explorer shook and sparks erupted behind him.
“Die with dignity, my human lover,” J’hana said, nodding at Richards. He just gave her a confused look and nodded off-screen. His image disappeared, replaced by a view of the Explorer and Idlewild circling each other, firing all weapons.
“Engines back online,” Tilleran said. “For the moment.”
“Take us to Earth, full impulse,” Baxter said, resting his hands on the back of Tilleran’s chair. “J’hana: Reverse angle.”
The Andorian complied and Baxter watched as the Explorer and the smaller Idlewild danced on the screen, filling it with fire and light. The battling vessels shrunk in the distance as the Escort approached Earth.
“They’ll be fine, Captain,” Tilleran said.
“Truth to tell, the Idlewild is a smaller but far superior craft. The chances of the Explorer surviving a sustained firefight are minimal.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I wish I was there, too.” He took a breath. “All right. Let’s get on with this. Best speed to Starfleet Command. If we can get there without getting noticed by Ficker, that’d be a plus.”
“Won’t Worthy tell Ficker what’s going on?’ asked Tilleran.
“You’d think,” Baxter said.
“What the hell is going on?” Ficker asked, leaning forward in Harlan’s chair and staring at the monitor in his office at a frazzled-looking Worthy.
“A minor obstacle,” Worthy said. “Apparently, the Explorer is here.”
Ficker took the information in. “Really.”
“Yes. And a smaller ship, the Escort, seems to be heading to Earth now.”
“Captain Baxter is aboard.”
Ficker stood up and clapped. “Oh, this is perfect!”
“Return fire!” Worthy barked off-screen, then returned his attention to Ficker. “It is?”
“Yes. I was hoping Captain Baxter would heed the Cadets’ distress call.”
“What if he makes it to Starfleet Command?”
“There are twenty totally brainwashed Idlewild security officers between him and me,” Ficker said with a confident smile. “So once they disarm him and bring him to me, he’ll have a front-row seat for my victory party!”
“You’re throwing a victory party? And I wasn’t invited?”
“Not literally, you idiot, but he’ll witness the abduction of every Starfleet cadet, the brainwashing of every Starfleet Admiral, and the crushing defeat of everything he holds dear. And then I’ll wipe his feeble mind and make him my…” Ficker gazed upward thoughtfully. “Butler!”
“Well, it sounds like you’ve thought all this out very carefully,” Worthy said, bracing as the Idlewild shook again.
“I have. And all you have to do is destroy the Explorer, then return to Earth to resume our mission. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Then be quick about it!”
“Everyone’s secure,” Plato said, stepping up behind Peterman as she stared out the window of the enclosed back porch on what was, until recently, her and Baxter’s home.
“Thanks, Plato,” Peterman said.
“It’s a little bit cramped, but the neighbors have all been quite accommodating. Most of them, anyway. And Steffie is having a great time playing with Yeoman Briggs and Mister Crot from the barber shop.”
“You did a good job.”
“Is there anything else you need, Aunt Kelly?”
“Nope,” Peterman said.
“You all right?”
Peterman turned to Plato and smiled. “Of course I am. I’m just…worried about everyone. I’m sure you are, too.”
“Yeah,” Plato said. “But you’ve got to have faith, right?”
“Yep,” Peterman nodded.
“I’ll be in the living room, making myself as small as possible so I can fit in between the twins from Xenobiology.”
Peterman chuckled. “Okay, Plato. See you later.”
Plato squeezed Peterman’s shoulder affectionately, then turned around and headed back through the house, sliding between the various nonessential Explorer crew who had been crammed fitfully into Baxter’s house.
Everyone was so distracted and confused by recent events that they barely noticed Plato slip out the front door and board the nearest runabout.
From there, it was just a matter of plugging in the right coordinates, which Plato had to admit was a bit of guesswork.
The half-changeling boy gave a quick look out of the front windows of the runabout Passaic, then punched a control, engaging the transporter.
The Escort emerged from the cloud cover over San Francisco and plunged toward the towering James T. Kirk Administration Building.
“San Francisco,” Baxter said. “Not a decent restaurant to be found in the whole place.”
“Captain?” Tilleran asked.
Baxter shook his head. “Nothing. Look, we need a plan.”
J’hana turned from her station. “You mean you don’t have one already?”
Baxter glared at her. “It’s been busy!”
“Well, no sign we’ve been detected so far,” Tilleran said, as the Kirk Building grew larger on the screen. “Sensor-reflective shields are holding up.”
“Scanning the building,” J’hana said, intent on her panel. “I can’t get a fix on Ficker, your father, the cadets, or anybody else. They’ve got sensor scramblers up.”
“Transporter scramblers too,” Tilleran said.
“Then we go in the old fashioned way,” Baxter said.
“Fly into the lobby?” J’hana shrugged. “We did that once before.”
“And fight our way up through a dozen floors, likely filled with Ficker’s mindless helpers?” Baxter shook his head. “No thanks. Land us on top, Tilleran.”
“So we can fight our way down?” she asked.
“There’s no telling how many people he has in there,” Baxter said.
J’hana nodded. “And no telling how many are suffering the effects of mind control.”
“If only we had some way to…” Baxter’s voice caught. “Never mind.”
Tilleran turned in her chair. “What?”
“Nothing,” Baxter said. “We’ll think of something else.”
J’hana’s eyes darted to Baxter. “If you are thinking what I think you are, do not.”
“I’m not thinking of anything,” Baxter said.
“For fwark’s sake, how many times do I have to explain it, I’m a frigging Betazoid!” Tilleran erupted. “I know what you both are thinking.”
“Well, we’re not doing it,” Baxter said, shaking his head. “No way.”
“The hell we’re not.” Tilleran looked over at J’hana. “It’s the only way.” She gave a confident smile. “And you know it.”
Lt. Commander Hartley braced herself against the engineering console as the Explorer shook at the beams. “Shields taking a beating, Commander,” she said.
“Transfer power,” Richards said, bracing his hands on the back of Howie Sefelt’s chair as he watched the Idlewild buck and weave on the viewscreen, matching them move for move.
“From where? The engines are scrap, and I’m diverting everything from science, life support, ceramics class, the dance studio…”
The Explorer bucked.
“Madera, evasive!” Richards commanded. “I don’t care how you do it, Hartley, just find a way to buy us more time!”
“I’m not a miracle worker, Commander,” Hartley said, shaking her head. “They out gun us two to one. They’re faster, and their shields regenerate more quickly. We may be a lot bigger, but that’s hardly an advantage here!”
“Find a way to make it an advantage!” Richards gritted his teeth as the Explorer shook again and he nearly fell to the deck. He steadied himself and patted Howie on the shoulder. “Way to hold together, there, Howie. You’ve barely said a word since this mess started.”
Sefelt turned toward Richards and grinned unevenly. “Lieutenant Madera administered a massive quantity of sedatives and psychotropic drugs just before we came out of warp. My brain’s a marshmellow floating in tapioca, Commander.”
“And you’re doing a great job,” Richards said, shooting a glare at Madera, who shrugged. “Just keep up the good work.”
Suddenly the comm system bleeped and Commander Worthy appeared on the viewscreen, which crackled with static as Hartley struggled to get the damaged comm system working.
“Commander Richards,” Worthy said blandly. “Is it safe to say I’ve bested you in combat?”
“It’s not safe to do anything as long as I’ve got phasers and photons, Mister Worthy,” Richards muttered. “So why don’t you stand down now before this gets any more out of hand.”
Worthy marched toward the viewscreen, eyes wide. “It’s not I who will stand down, sir. No, no, no. It will be you!”
“Is he all right?” Browning asked.
“He’s shiny and nice,” Sefelt said in a daze.
“I said STAND DOWN!” Richards ordered.
The Explorer shook again.
“Hull breach on deck’s twenty and twenty-two!” Browning called out, looking up from sciences.
“Structural integrity fields failing all over the ship!” Hartley called out. “Commander, I don’t know how much longer I can…”
Another blast hit the Explorer, sending it spiraling away from the Idlewild, atmospheric gasses spewing from several hull breaches.
Worthy pursed his lips and glared at Richards. “Aw, I sunk your battleship!”
Richards just stared back at Worthy on the smoke-filled bridge, jaw set with grim determination.
Worthy glanced off-screen. “Your primary conduit is fragged. I knocked out most of your tactical systems, decimated your primary impulse engines, and shredded your shields. You are literally no threat. I could finish you off, but I’d rather leave you here to sit for a bit and think about what you’ve done.” He turned toward the command chair. “But truly, this was fun. Helm, back to Earth. We have work to do!”
Ensign Snodgrass rounded the last flight of stairs up to the roof, with ten Idlewild officers filing in behind him and burst through the door, leveling his phaser on the trio that emerged from the belly of the recently- landed U.S.S. Escort.
“On authority of Captain Alvin Ficker, I hearby order you to stand down,” Snodgrass said tonelessly, waving his phaser from Baxter, to Tilleran, then J’hana.
“How about ‘no’?” Baxter said, stepping forward.
Snodgrass shook his head, and slapped his combadge, glancing to the side. “Excellency, we have Captain Baxter and his away team.”
“Is the Betazoid there?” Ficker’s voice asked.
Snodgrass looked over at Tilleran. “Well, yeah…and the Andorian.”
There was a short pause as J’hana and Tilleran exchanged glances with Baxter.
“Be careful, damn it!” Ficker snapped. “Hold on. I’m sending reinforcements!”
“Are the histrionics really necessary?” J’hana asked.
Tilleran put up a quieting hand and stepped out from around Baxter, moving toward Snodgrass. “Hello, Ensign.”
“Uh, hi!” Snodgrass said. He lifted his phaser and leveled it up at Tilleran. J’hana growled low. “Look, I’m sorry, but you’re to be detained here until further notice. My captain is sending help, and then we’ll sort all this out.”
The Betazoid shook her head gently, and put a hand on Snodgrass’ shoulder. “That’s not very nice, pointing a phaser at me like that.”
“I know,” Snodgrass said sheepishly.
“You don’t want to do that.”
Tilleran shook her head gently. “Uh-uh.”
“Can I still point my gun at you?” one of the officers behind Snodgrass asked.
“No,” Tilleran said dismissively. She waved a hand. “Matter of fact, all of you can go ahead and drop your weapons.”
Baxter looked on as the crowd of Idlewild officers set their weapons on the ground.
“What now?” Snodgrass asked.
“Now you stand up here and wait like good boys and girls while we go down there and sort this thing out. Can you do that for me?”
“Uh, yeah,” Snodgrass said.
“Good,” Tilleran said, and shouldered past the other officers toward the door leading into the stairwell. “Excuse me, folks. Stand aside, please. Thanks!”
J’hana and Baxter withdrew their phasers and flanked Tilleran as she descended the stairs.
“That was almost too easy,” Baxter said.
“After what Doctor Drake and Ficker have done to them, they’re prone to suggestion. They would have eaten their shorts if I told them to.”
“Glad you didn’t,” Baxter said, moving ahead of Tilleran and hurrying down the staircase. “We’ve got to get to my Dad’s office, and hope that you can reverse whatever they’ve done to him. And if we have a chance, let’s also make sure to kick Alvin Ficker square in the crotch.”
“My knee stands ready, Captain,” J’hana muttered.
“We are missing so much studying time,” Cadet Mathers said idly, staring at the ceiling of the office adjacent to Harlan’s, where Ficker had stowed him, along with Cadets Piper and Sparks.
“We’re going to be missing a lot more than that if the Explorer doesn’t come help us,” Piper said.
“You really think they’ll be able to get past the Idlewild and Ficker and rescue us?” Sparks asked.
Piper nodded. “I do. Don’t ask me why, but I do.”
“Yeah, I kind of do too,” Sparks said.
“So all we need to do is sit back, relax, and wait to be rescued?” Mathers asked.
“It’s better than sitting out in the front room and watching Doctor Drake make out with Captain Baxter’s dad,” Piper pointed out.
“That was kind of gross,” Sparks admitted.
“There’s got to be something else we can do besides sit here,” Mathers said.
“I’m open to suggestions,” Piper said.
“There’s nothing to do,” Sparks replied, standing and stretching. “We’ve got to hope that eventually, someone will charge in through that door and rescue us.” She pointed at the door to the office for emphasis, just as a hatch in the ceiling above her cranked open, and Plato swung down, as if his arms were long ropes.
“Hey, guys,” the Changeling boy said. “No time to talk. The Explorer’s coming. Captain Baxter’s coming. And I’m coming too. I mean, I already came. I’m here to save you guys and…” He looked over at Mathers and Piper. “Why are you guys dressed in rugby outfits?”
“I thought there was no time to talk,” Piper said, as Sparks stepped toward Plato, staring at him incredulously.
“Plato,” she said, and laid a hand on his chest.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Plato said. “Let’s get out of here, eh?”
“How soon can we get engines back?” Richards said, not taking his eyes off the crackling viewscreen as the Idlewild swung back toward Earth.
“The mains are off-line,” Hartley said. “But we still have the impulse engines on the saucer. It’s a moot point, though, as we’ve barely any weapons to speak of.”
“We’re not going to need weapons,” Richards said. “Get the impulse engines back on and then intercept the Idlewild. Collision course.”
Browning stepped down from the science station and crossed over to Richards. “Christopher, you can’t be serious!”
“They’re heading to Earth to do who-knows-what to it. You got a better idea?”
“For once I have to agree with him,” Hartley said, and tapped at her panel. “There, engines are up.”
“Ahead full impulse, Susan,” Richards said, and moved to the command chair.
“Christopher…” Browning said.
“Take your station,” Richards said, intent on the viewscreen. “I’m not letting the captain down. Are you?”
“No,” Browning said, and stepped back to her station.
Hartley stared at her panel, a mess of yellow lights and computerized warnings proclaiming the damage that had been done to her ship. She shook her head, and leaned it on the console a moment. “Damn…we should know how to beat them. That ship out there was once one of ours. We should be able to use that to our advantage.”
“Good luck with that,” Browning said. “When all we have left is shields, right?”
She thought a moment, raising her head. “Doctor Browning, you just gave me a great idea. And it’s only slightly less crazy than Richards’s solution!”
Richards gave a small grin. “Let’s hear it.”
“So the replicator’s down, and there’s nothing in the cupboard that will feed five hundred and sixty people,” Holly Wilcox said, collapsing into a chair next to Peterman on her very crowded back porch. In the back yard, nonessential crew milled about.
“Maybe we could order in?” Yeoman Briggs suggested from behind Peterman, gently braiding her hair.
“The communications net is down and Earth is in a state of total anarchy,” Peterman said. “So, probably not.”
“Dean want lunch!” Dean cried out, swinging madly from Steffie’s tire swing in the back yard.
“Well at least some of us are having fun with this,” Holly said, shaking her head.
“Maybe Harold and Maude have something,” Peterman said, rising to her feet. “They seem like the type to spurn the use of replicators.”
“Want me to help?” Holly asked.
“Nah. I’ll bring Plato,” Peterman said, ducking back into the house. “As soon as I figure out where he went…”
“Captain Worthy,” Lt. Prouse announced from tactical, as the Idlewild approached Earth orbit, near its moon. “Explorer’s back on our tail and closing at full impulse.”
Worthy shook his head and sighed. “Will they never learn? Arm aft torpedoes and destroy that ship.”
Prouse looked down at her panel. “No good, Commander. Aft torpedo bays were heavily damaged in the firefight with the Explorer.”
“Phasers, then,” Worthy said.
“We drained them during the attack. They’ll be back up in a few minutes.”
Worthy wiggled his fingers anxiously. “Well, be quick about it.”
“Maybe we should take evasive action,” Seth Crane said from the helm.
“Pointless,” Worthy said. “Even if they reach us, we knocked out all their weapons. The Explorer’s mostly harmless…”
J’hana kicked the door open and shouldered her way out into the corridor, and was met by a squad of Idlewild officers, phasers blasting.
The Andorian lept into the fray, knocking heads together, sweeping legs out from under people, and rolling to the ground, emerging in the middle of the knot of crewmen with fiery abandon, taking on a dozen officers as if it were just for sport. “Get to your father’s office, Captain! We will dispense of these brainwashed freaks!”
Baxter swung his phaser rifle at an oncoming Idlewild officer, knocking him off his feet, and dashed down the hallway. “Try not to enjoy yourself too much, Commander!” he called over his shoulder. “Remember most of these guys don’t know what the hell they’re doing!”
“Details!” J’hana called back, punching and kicking as Tilleran worked her eyes shut, focusing on the throng of battling crewmen.
<STOP!> she called out in her mind.
And stop they did.
J’hana looked around at all the sedate officers, who now just sat cross-legged and stared up at her. She gazed back at the Betazoid and shook her head. “A bit anticlimactic, isn’t it?”
“And mentally exhausting,” Tilleran said, shaking her head as she withdrew her tricorder. “Let’s fan out and try to figure out where they’re holding all the Starfleet personnel.”
“You’re breathtaking when you’re giving orders, Ariel,” J’hana smiled toothily, and launched down the corridor.
“Phasers online in sixty seconds,” Lieutenant Prouse announced.
“It’s about time,” Worthy said, watching the Explorer grow closer on the screen.
“Commander, they’re getting awfully close,” Crane said, looking up at the viewscreen as the Galaxy-class vessel filled it.
“Well don’t just sit there, Prouse!” Worthy shouted.
“You know, I really wanted to be a ballet dancer,” Admiral Alynna Nechayev said, sitting in a corner of the Kirk Building’s lower bunker, her knees drawn up, head leaned back against the wall. “I should have done that instead of…” She looked around at the captive admiralty and senior officers in the bunker. “This.”
“I wanted to learn an instrument,” Jellico said, laying on his back next to Nechayev. “Piccolo. Maybe oboe.”
“You’d be awful at that.”
“You started this conversation,” Jellico muttered.
Nechayev sighed. “How about we just don’t talk.”
Suddenly an explosion rocked the room, and the door that led outside blasted inward, knocking several nearby officers down
Nechayev shot to her feet and strode over as the smoke cleared.
The smoke cleared to reveal a slim and well-built Andorian woman, who unzipped her tunic and threw it to the ground, flexing her muscles with satisfaction as she stepped into the room. “I’ll have you know I had to overload my phaser to bust in here, so it’s hand to hand combat from here on out. Not that I’m worried. Just thought you people would like to know.”
“What…is this?” Nechayev asked, looking at the Andorian, gaping.
The woman’s antennae twitched. “It’s a rescue, Admiral. Don’t look so fwarking surprised.”
Nechayev thought this woman looked familiar. She could almost imagine seeing her in the background on the bridge of some Starship she’d spoken with, but which? “Commander, may I ask what ship…”
“We can sit and trade life histories, or we can go upstairs and let slip the dogs of war. Which would you prefer?”
“Explorer,” Nechayev said, her shoulders falling. It just had to be the Explorer.
“Are you sure Plato’s gone?” Holly asked, jogging after Peterman as she made her way up the stairs into the Runabout Passaic.
“I looked everywhere,” Peterman said. “He’s gone.”
“Where would he have gone?”
“Face-first, boneheadedly into danger, is my guess,” Peterman muttered, stepping up to the aft transporter console and punching up its activity log. “Just like his Uncle. Just like all of us.”
“You really think he went after Ficker?”
“He went to rescue Nat Sparks,” Peterman said. The transporter logs were blank, but she knew Plato had just wiped them. Smart kid. She glanced at the transporter controls and took a guess, punching up coordinates for the Kirk Administration Building. “Holly, watch Stef for a bit. I’ll be right back.”
“Now wait just a damn minute!” Holly exclaimed, moving around the transporter console to face Peterman. “You’re pregnant! You can’t just go charging in there. What if you get hurt?”
“It’s Plato,” Peterman said simply. “I’m going after him.” She punched a control on the transporter and winced as sparks shot out of the console and the entire unit shorted out. “Clever, clever boy,” she said. “So much for the transporter. Computer: Ready engines for immediate departure.”
“Engines coming online,” the computer responded.
“Well, at least he didn’t sabotage everything,” Peterman said. “Small miracles.” She turned to Holly. “Okay, Doctor. I really don’t have time to argue with you. Go back to the house. You’re in command.”
“Of your house?”
Petersen narrowed her eyes. “Holly. Go.”
“Counselor Peterman,” Holly said stiffly. “I can and will declare you unfit for duty, if you force me to.”
“And I can declare you mentally unfit to serve, so I guess we’re even,” Peterman replied, and gently pushed Holly toward the door. “I’m your superior officer and I’m telling you to get off this ship. Keep everyone safe and sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
“Counselor!” Holly said, stumbling back down the few stairs that led off the Passaic.
“I’ll be careful, sheesh,” Peterman said, waving a hand dismissively as the doors to the Passaic slid shut and the runabout lifted off the ground.
“I’m serving on a ship of fools,” Holly said, shaking her head and watching as the runabout sailed away. “I really am.”
“This way, people, don’t make a fuss about it,” J’hana said, leading the mass of Starfleet personnel out of a stairwell and out into the lobby of the Kirk Administration Building.
“Where is Captain Baxter?” Nechayev demanded, taking hold of J’hana’s arm.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” J’hana smirked.
“Yes I would.” Nechayev put her hands on her hips.
“He’s up there,” J’hana said, inclining her head. “Saving your precious office building.” She narrowed her eyes at the Admiral. “I heard you spoke ill of my Captain.”
Nechayev’s mouth opened and closed. “I may have said some things. But that is neither here nor there. We have a job to do.”
“You should evacuate this building and get to safe ground while we take care of your little problem,” J’hana said. “Try not to get in the way.”
“Now listen here,” Nechayev protested, as the last of the admiralty filed out into the lobby.
J’hana ignored the admiral and headed back into the stairwell, letting the door close behind her even as she continued her protestations.
She ran right into Shank.
“Ah. We meet again,” the Vulcan said.
J’hana stared at Shank, pursing her lips. “Just fwarking great.”
Before J’hana could even move, the Vulcan philosopher spread his hand into a “V” and placed them against her cheek, instantly forcing their minds to merge. “Turn around and lock the door,” he ordered.
J’hana reached behind her and punched a control, locking the stairwell door.
“Good,” Shank said, and pressed harder against J’hana’s cheek. “You remember me?”
The Andorian nodded, sneering.
“You have me at a disadvantage, Vulcan, so fwarking kill me already, if you think you can.”
“Vulcans do not kill,” Shank said calmly. “But they do incapacitate. And I do believe that this time, you won’t wake up.”
He pressed his hand even harder against J’hana’s cheek, and in his eyes, J’hana saw that he was savoring this. So much for Vulcan lack of emotion. As Shank’s thoughts mingled with hers, J’hana took in the full extent of his dementia. Shank obviously hadn’t been well liked as a student, and like most Vulcan rejects (and their human counterparts) he’d thusly gone swiftly off the deep end. Which for Vulcans meant a life of anarchy and railing against logic.
Still, the Andorian had to appreciate Shank’s violent nature and hatred of order. Unfortunately for her, he seemed to hate her too.
“You may utter your final words now, if you wish.”
“Fwark you?” J’hana offered.
“Good enough,” Shank said, and pressed on with his mind.
“Target in twenty seconds,” Keefler said, bracing against the tactical console. “Plenty of time for second thoughts.”
“I thought you liked blowing things up,” Richards said, holding on to the arms of the command chair.
“OTHER things!” Keefler replied.
Browning held on tight to the science console. “Are you sure this is going to work, Megan?”
“It was your idea,” Hartley said.
“I prefer to think of it as a team effort…”
“It’ll work,” Hartley said, and glanced at Richards. “We may still blow up, though.”
“Great,” Richards said.
“Five seconds,” Keefler said.
“Collision alert,” Richards called out. “Everybody brace yourselves!”
“…three…two…one!” Keefler called out, and the Explorer dipped to the side, slamming sideways against the Idlewild.
The massive vessel shook hard from bow to stern. The hull groaned.
Hartley clung to her panel. “We have hull contact!”
“Lock shield frequencies and transfer emergency power to the emitters!”
Hartley moved her hands across the engineering panel, watching numbers race across the screen as the shield frequencies of the Explorer and Idlewild lined up, until finally they went into perfect sync, blinking in unison. “We’ve got it! Shield modulation is synched!”
“Overload them, Hartley. Do it now!” Richards called out.
“Forgive me, babe,” Hartley said so softly no one could hear, and she slapped her hand on a control.
Tiny explosions traveled along the Explorer’s saucer, like a zipper being drawn down a sleeping bag, as shield emitters all over the ship overloaded and blew.
And all that energy was released directly into the Idlewild’s shield grid, overloading her shield generators and exploding nearly every power conduit on the vessel, forcing the two massive ships apart and sending them sailing in opposite directions.
Richards lurched to his feet, gripping a railing for dear life, and looked up, staring at the Idlewild as it listed away, lights flickering and sparking all over, as smoke settled over the bridge and the viewscreen itself shorted out.
“Touche,” he grinned, wiping a hand over his forehead.
“All right!” Ficker said, storming into the anteroom outside Harlan’s office. “Hostage time!”
“What happened?” Doctor Drake asked, reclined on the couch in Harlan’s lap.
“We just lost contact with the Idlewild. She’s dead in space.” He glanced about. “Where’s Shank?”
Drake shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe he went to get a snack?”
“Fantastic,” Ficker mutteerd. “Well, the good news is the Explorer is dead in space too. So all we have to deal with is Baxter, Tilleran, and J’hana, who are making their way here as we speak. So, like I said, hostage time!”
Drake slung an arm around Harlan’s neck and tickled him under his arms. “I’d never hurt my bubby! Except if he told me he didn’t love me. Maybe then I might!”
“You don’t have to hurt him. Just pretend like you will.” Ficker shook his head. “Great Bird, do I have to do everything around here!” He walked over to the other office, that of Harlan’s adjutant, Lieutenant Monroe, which was currently occupied by three very annoying Starfleet cadets. He punched the call button.
The door swung open. Ficker looked around. “WHAT. THE. HELL!”
The cadets were gone.
Just then, something slammed into the office suite’s front door. Ficker turned, drawing his phaser and pointing it at the door.
The door shook again, harder this time. Finally, on the third impact, it gave way, and Captain Baxter came tumbling through, falling onto his face.
He rubbed his head. “Ow. That always looks so easy when J’hana does it.”
“Glad you could join us, Captain,” Ficker said, and walked toward Baxter, phaser trained on him. “Thanks to your friends on the Explorer, I’m going to have to alter my plans slightly.”
“Slightly?” Drake asked, tousling her fingers through Harlan’s hair. “They wrecked our ship!”
Baxter smiled. “Well, then, that settles…”
“NO!” Ficker shouted, and his hand shook as he held his phaser trained on Baxter. “That settles nothing! I will have my revenge on Starfleet and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Drake intoned.
Baxter turned to her. “Could you stop touching my father!”
“Shhhh…you’re disturbing him. He’s napping!”
“Harlan Baxter doesn’t nap!” Baxter exclaimed.
“He does now!”
“SHUT UP! Both of you!” Ficker exclaimed, holding his phaser trained on Baxter as he ran his free hand through his hair. “You came here on the Escort, right? Take me to it.”
“I don’t think you want to do that,” Baxter said.
“It’s not my first choice, but it’ll have to do,” Ficker said, and gestured with his phaser at Baxter, who reluctantly turned around.
“What about me?” Drake asked.
“Get your device. We still have some minds that need changing, even if we have to somewhat alter the delivery method,” Ficker smirked, and pointed Baxter toward the door. “Now move.”
“That device is heavy!” Drake called out.
“Get Harlan to help you. That’s what he’s there for!”
“Oh. Right! He’s so big and strong…”
Baxter groaned. “Is there any chance you can just shoot me now and be done with it?”
“If only!” Ficker sneered, shoving Baxter toward the door. “Now GO!”
Richards was standing next to the engineering station talking to Hartley. He glanced over. “What is it, Keefler?”
“The Idlewild’s warp core was heavily damaged in the collision,” the backup tactical officer said, frowning at his readings. “They’ve got five, six minutes at most before….” He shrugged. “Kablooey.”
Richards turned to Hartley. “We need those engines back.”
“Did you miss the part where we just fragged half the power transfer nodes on the ship?”
“Do it,” Richards said, and Hartley growled, blowing hair out of her face, bending over her panel, hands racing madly as she opened a channel to engineering.
“Hartley to engine room. You’ve got new orders. Forget about damage control. We need engines now. Thrusters. Anything you’ve got.”
“And transporters,” Browning said, leaning against the science console.
“Beg your pardon?” Richards asked.
“Those are Starfleet officers over there, many of whom are there against their will. We can’t just leave them there, Christopher.”
“She’s annoying, but she’s right,” Hartley muttered as she worked.
Richards nodded. “Keefler, tie in the cargo transporters, shuttle transporters, whatever you can do. Get everyone off the Idlewild.”
“Shield generators have failed all over the ship,” Keefler said. “That includes the ones that power our brig and cargo bay forcefields.”
Richards shared a look with Browning. “You’ve got your orders, Mister Keefler.” He tapped his combadge. “Richards to security. I want teams at all cargo bays and transporter rooms. Prepare to receive prisoners.”
Keefler nodded and went to work on his panel. For several minutes, all was quiet.
Then Hartley looked up from the engineer’s console. “Damn. Damn damn damn.”
Richards crossed over to her panel. “What?”
“NOTHING!” she shouted. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it.” She dashed for the hatch in the middle of the bridge and heaved it open.
“What’s wrong?” Browning asked.
Richards looked over to the listing Idlewild, then down to Hartley. “Yeah. What can be worse than a warp core breach?”
Hartley glared up at Richards as she clambered down the ladder. “Two warp core breaches!”
In the vacant Constellation Club, Mirk stood in front of the massive oblong windows that looked out onto a vast field of stars. Ahead, Mirk could see the angular, hammer-head shape of the Idlewild list away, sparks spewing from it.
The Explorer wasn’t much better off, Mirk thought, as he looked around at the upturned and tables and strewn chairs throughout the Club. Mirk himself would have been thrown into the foreward windows if he hadn’t took to the air moments before Explorer collided with Idlewild.
But now all was quiet. At least for the moment.
Mirk stared out the windows and sipped his drink.
“You know,” he said, looking around his club. “If this is how it all ends, for me, for Megan, for the Explorer, for everyone…” He took another sip. “The least you all could do is tell me.”
Mirk’s voice echoed off the walls of the quiet room. Although no one else was there, Mirk knew that They heard him.
And he knew what he had to do.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
NEXT: Ficker. Baxter. Explorer. Idlewild. And a massive watermelon…coming up in the very last Star Traks: The Vexed Generation story.