Author: Anthony Butler
“It ain’t over till its over.”
One eyeball looked at the other eyeball.
“This is it, then.”
“Yes,” the other eyeball said. “I believe it is.”
“Then we’re settled. This is the end.”
“No,” the second eyeball said. “Not an end. Something…else.”
“Really?” The first eyeball blinked. “But we’re all set. I’ve brought puff pastries and everything…”
“We’re omnipotent. Be patient.”
“So we just wait?”
“You can still eat the puff pastries, if you want.”
“Everybody out!” Lt. Commander Megan Hartley fairly shouted, waving her crew out of the engine room.
“Commander,” Ensign Stuart said, as he stood by the entrance to the warp core.
“Spread the word. Give me twenty minutes. Then get the hell off this ship.”
“Do you need some help?”
Hartley pushed up her shirt sleeves and turned to the thrumming core. “No. This is between me and her.”
“My warp core. Now go.”
Stuart nodded and ducked out. Shortly after, he ducked his head back around the corner. “Just to clarify, do you want us to launch the escape pods in twenty minutes, or wait twenty minutes, and then get to the escape pods?”
“Just asking. The timing is sort of important.”
“OUT!” Hartley pointed.
As the last of her engineers retreated, Hartley jogged over to her office to get her set of tools. An injector job like this would need one hell of a coil spanner.
Surprisingly, the office doors slid open, to reveal Mirk, holding a coil spanner.
“Looking for this?” he asked.
STARFLEET COMMAND KIRK ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
The Vulcan had his hands on J’hana’s skull, bracing against her in the stairwell. His eyes were focused on her intently, with that lack of focus that could only belong to the seriously deranged. “You may utter your final words now, if you wish,” Shank said flatly.
“Fwark you?” J’hana offered.
“Good enough,” Shank said, and pressed on with his mind.
Until another mind clamped onto his like a vice.
Shank let J’hana go, hands trembling, and turned to see Ariel Tilleran march down the stairs toward him, from a level above, her black eyes burning.
“Watcha got there?” she asked.
“We will not stand idly by while you and your colleagues try to undermine Captain Ficker’s plan,” Shank said evenly, trying not to appear frightened. But Tilleran had him and she knew it. He knew it too.
“Step away from the Andorian,” Tilleran said, her eyes boring into Shank’s.
“Do nothing hasty, Betazoid,” Shank said, moving away from J’hana as Tilleran crept closer. “A reasonable accommodation can be made.”
“Accommodate this,” Tilleran said, and squeezed her eyes shut.
Shank stumbled back against the wall as he felt something wholly unfamiliar enter his mind like a kick to the crotch. It was something he’d never felt before. It was a feeling. Ennui. Depression. Darkness. Despair. Call it what you will. It was just…so very sad.
“What did you do to me?” Shank asked, as tears streamed down his face.
Tilleran shrugged as the Vulcan sank to the floor and curled into a ball, weeping openly.
J’hana stepped up next to Tilleran. “Well?”
“I made him cry,” Tilleran smiled. “How’s that feel, jerk?”
“AWFUL!” Shank bellowed, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “You’re a horrible, horrible woman!”
Tilleran sighed. “Safe to say he’s not going anywhere. Let’s go find Ficker.”
“I will follow you into the depths of hell, Imzadi,” J’hana said, and followed Tilleran as she dashed out the door. “About that. There are a few dozen Admirals down in the lobby who’d like to have a word with him, too.”
Tilleran grinned. “Let’s make it so.”
Meanwhile, a gasping Colby Mathers followed Piper, Sparks, and Plato out of the aft maintenance refuse hatch behind the Kirk Administration Building.
“Finally, solid ground…” Mathers moaned, collapsing to his knees.
“What do we do now?” Plato asked.
Sparks said nothing, just stared up at the Kirk Building’s roof.
Piper followed her gaze and from their vantage point they could barely see the nose of the USS Escort, which had seemingly landed on the roof.
“I’ll be damned,” Piper said.
“They came for us,” Sparks said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Plato said.
“So why did you come to rescue us too?” Mathers asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Piper said, glaring at Sparks.
“Whatever the reason, it was sweet,” Sparks said. “If terribly stupid.”
“So back to my original question,” Plato said. “What do we do now?”
“We go back in,” Sparks said. “Our people are still in there.”
“And their whole point of going in there was to get you guys out,” Plato said. “We’ve done that. So we should put as much distance between us and this place as we…”
“That wasn’t their whole point. The point is to stop Ficker,” Sparks said. “And we’re going to help them do that. Coming with?”
Piper and Plato exchanged glances, then bolted after Sparks up into the shaft, as she grabbed for the lowest ladder rung.
Mathers sighed long and hard as she watched them disappear back up into the hatch. “Thank you for the extra workouts, J’hana,” he breathed heavily, and made his way up into the hatch.
“Two minutes till the Idlewild goes blammo,” Keefler said, prompting Richards to turn and face him. “And shortly after that, we’ll go blammo, too.”
“Must you keep saying ‘blammo’?” Richards asked.
“That is what’s going to happen,” Keefler said. “Did you want me to spruce it up with technical jargon? Like ‘containment failure’? Or ‘massive antimatter explosion’?”
“Any word from Hartley?”
Keefler shook his head. “We might need a third ship to beam to.”
Richards frowned. “How are the beamouts from the Idlewild going?”
“We’ve got almost all of them,” Keefler said. “All stations reporting they are meeting no resistance from the Idlewild people so far.” He glanced down at his panel. “Nope. Wait. I’m wrong. There’s lots of resistance. Melee. Fracas. Knees bent, running around behavior.”
“That’s it,” Richards said, and moved towards the turbolift, which thankfully had just been restored to power (small comfort with the ship close to blowing up). “We’re going down there. Keefler, you’re with me. Divert anyone else we have left to the cargo bays and transporter rooms to try to contain the Idlewild people.”
Browning watched Richards move toward the lift. “Christopher?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I wasn’t asking about that. I wanted to know what you wanted us to do up here.”
“The bridge is in good hands,” Richards said, prompting Lt. Madera to grin a bit to herself and rise up to head over to the conn. “You have the bridge, Janice,” he finished, and Madera sank back down, grumbling something under her breath.
Browning watched Richards and Keefler disappear into the lift and shook her head. “Be careful, Christopher,” she said softly.
“Asshole,” Madera said.
“Fresh air!” Ficker exalted, climbing out of the hatch and onto the roof of the Kirk building. “Well, unless anyone happens to be standing behind you,” he added, pointing at Baxter with his phaser.
“I’ve been sweating a lot today,” Baxter snapped back, turning to face Ficker. “And stop pointing that thing at me!”
“You’ve no idea the self control that’s keeping me from firing on you.” Ficker shook his head. “Oh well, not for very much longer.” He glanced down into the hatch. “Come now, Maura!”
“This thing is heavy!” Drake called up.
“Put your shoulder into it, Doctor! Get Harlan to help you!”
Baxter stared at Ficker as he took in the vista of the Starfleet presidio that surrounded the Kirk Building. “How do you see this thing ending, Ficker? How long do you think you’ve got before all of Starfleet Command comes crashing down on top of you?”
“I won’t need long,” Ficker said, and called down into the hatch again. “Hurry up, Doctor!”
At long last, Drake heaved the 6-foot cylindrical tube up out of the hatch and onto the roof. She wiped her forehead off and climbed up after it, followed by Harlan Baxter. The tube bristled ominously with blinking lights. All things considered, though, it didn’t look all that threatening.
“You want me to believe that thing works?” Baxter prodded, pointing at the device.
“Oh, you bet it works!” Drake said proudly. “Isn’t that right, Bubby?”
“It’s delightful, whatever she said,” Harlan said blankly.
“You all are in SO much trouble!” Baxter exclaimed, stomping his foot impotently.
“You’re so cute when you’re mad!” Drake giggled. “Just like your Father used to be before we rewired his brain.”
“Enough chit-chat. Load that thing into the Escort now. Send Harlan to the bridge to begin the launch sequence.”
Drake sighed and pointed to Harlan, who lugged her device behind him and followed her up the Escort’s gangway.
“So what are you going to do? Drop this thing in the middle of San Francisco?” Baxter asked. “Or Paris?”
“Better,” Ficker said, steepling his fingers and touching them to his lips. “I’m going to drop that thing all right. Exactly where it will do the most good. Right in the middle of Starfleet Academy.”
“Son of a bitch,” Baxter seethed.
“I’m just sorry your cadets won’t be there to experience the dawning realization that I know best. That I am the utmost authority. On everything!”
“Have you lost what marbles you had left?”
“I’d need a counselor to make that determination. You don’t happen to know any good ones? About yay tall? Dark, flowing hair and beautiful blue eyes?”
“Why don’t you put that phaser down so we can settle this like adults?” Baxter said, unzipping his uniform jacket and throwing it to the ground.
“You’re funny,” Ficker said with a smile that quickly turned into a frown. “Now get up there.”
Suddenly a hatch right beneath the Escort flung open, and Sparks, Plato, Piper and an exhausted Mathers slunk out.
“We looked EVERYWHERE!” Piper panted.
“Not so…” Sparks gasped, crawling on hands and knees out of the hole. “Fast… you…jerk.”
“Sparks!” Baxter called out.
“Don’t you touch her!” Plato called out, stumbling over, followed by the other cadets.
“This is delicious,” Ficker said, turning to Sparks. “The cadets are here to join my bon voyage party. The only people missing are…”
“FICKER!” came the booming voice of Admiral Nechayev.
“What…” Ficker began, as a large, angry crowd came pouring out of the rooftop stairwell, led by a screaming J’hana, and followed up by Commander Tilleran.
“Time to go!” the erstwhile captain said quickly, and dashed up the Escort’s gangplank. “Forget about Baxter and his band of misfit cadets. Launch this thing, Harlan! NOW!”
The Escort’s engines began to hum as its systems came online, power surging throughout the small vessel.
“What’s the situation?” Tilleran asked, jogging up to join Baxter as J’hana followed with dozens of Starfleet commanders.
“Ficker is going to brainwash and kidnap as many cadets as he can get his hands on,” Baxter said. “You?”
“We’ve got a few Admirals here who’d like to speak with Captain Ficker,” Tilleran said.
“Well, their fists would like to speak with his face, that is,” J’hana amended.
“How many?” Baxter asked, glancing over his shoulder.
J’hana glanced back, doing a quick count, and looked up at Baxter. “All of them.”
Just then, the Escort began to lift off the ground and its gang plank slowly began to close.
“We’ve got to do something,” Baxter said. “J’hana!”
“I’m on it, sir!” J’hana called out, turning swiftly to take Tilleran’s face in her hands. She kissed the Betazoid deeply, devouring her mouth as if she’d never kiss again. “Goodbye, Imzadi. I love you.”
Baxter rubbed a hand over his face. “When I said do something, I didn’t mean…”
“Yes SIR!” J’hana smiled toothily, and vaulted up to the rising Escort’s gang plank, grabbing it by the edge as the ship rose up.
“So, um, do you have this under control or do you need…” Baxter began nervously.
“Oh no, you’re not getting away that easily,” J’hana said, and reached down with her free hand, grabbing Baxter by the arm and hurling him bodily up into the Escort as the gang plank closed. That left the Andorian, of course, clinging to the outside of a ship that was climbing and gaining speed.
Tilleran watched the Escort veer off toward the Academy and shook her head. “You know, even when you can read minds, some things still surprise you.”
Admiral Nechayev stepped up next to Tilleran, as the Escort sailed away. “Like what?”
Tilleran shrugged. “Nothing.”
A breathless Sparks clambered to her feet opposite Tilleran, as the other cadets and Plato looked up at the rising Escort. “But…we…came…to help…”
“Shouldn’t you be in class?” Nechayev asked pointedly.
“All due respect, Admiral, but I think class is probably cancelled,” Sparks muttered, and watched the Escort sail off.
“We’re all fixed for drinks down here, Mirk, but thanks anyway,” Hartley said as she bent over one of the Explorer’s injectors, attacking it with her coil spanner as the warp core thrummed noisly and angrily at her.
“I’m not here for that,” Mirk said calmly, stepping behind her.
“Well, that’s the only reason I can imagine our ship’s bartender would be down in Engineering.”
“I can think of one more reason,” Mirk said.
Hartley steeled herself, concentrating on the injector as she worked her spanner over it. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You know exactly what I mean, Megan.”
“NO!” Hartley shouted, whirling at Mirk and pointing her coil spanner at him. “You’re not doing this. Not now! You’re not leaving me, do you understand?”
“It’s time. The Directors told me so.”
“You haven’t spoken to the Directors in years.”
The details weren’t important. “I know what they need me to do. They need me to save you, and this ship, and everyone else.”
“Then grab a coil spanner and give me a hand!” Hartley pleaded.
“Don’t make this more difficult than it is. We don’t have much time…”
“We’ve got…” Hartley stared at the warp core, which was thrumming more loudly now. “At least nine minutes!”
“The least you could do is kiss me goodbye, Megan…”
“No,” Hartley said, and returned to the injector. “We’ve got more time. Just…just stand there and don’t become a god. Can you do that much?”
Mirk watched her work, giving her a small smile. “For just a bit longer.”
“To the bridge!” Ficker cried, aiming his phaser behind him and cutting a swath across the Escort’s tiny stowage bay, sending Baxter and Drake diving to the floor and nearly missing Drake’s device.
“Stop shooting at the mind control machine!” Drake demanded.
“Make your preparations,” Ficker ordered as he ducked into a foreward hatch. “I’m going to join Harlan and secure the bridge.”
“The hell you are…” Baxter ran after him. “Computer, lock out all command control systems. Authorization Baxter Alpha…”
“Command control systems already locked out,” the computer responded promptly.
Baxter clenched a fist. “Harlan!”
Ficker cackled. “YES! I will win this thing after all!”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Baxter sped off as Ficker ducked into the aft companionway.
“The mall!” Ensign Gordon Taft called out from the other end of the corridor as Richards and Keefler made their way around the bend and headed toward his position.
“This is not the time for shopping, Mister Taft!” Keefler scolded.
“I think he means there are Idlewild people in the mall,” Richards explained.
“Yeah,” Taft replied. “What he said.” Then he glanced down the adjacent corridor and his eyes widened. “Damn! They’ve gotten into the pottery room!” He dashed off leaving Richards and Keefler at the entrance to Ship’s Shoppes.
“Watch the doors,” Richards said, stepping carefully up to Ship’s Shoppes and wedging the door open. “I’m going to head in and try to flush them out.”
“Could you find me some corduroys while you’re in there? I’m a thirty-two.”
“And you wonder why you’re still an ensign after all these years,” Richards muttered, and sidled quietly into the darkened maw of the darkened mall.
“COME. BACK. HERE!” Baxter called after Ficker, ducking through the Escort’s narrow corridors.
“You’ll have to catch me first, you bloated sack of crap!” Ficker called over his shoulder.
“You can’t stop me,” Baxter growled as Ficker ducked into a Jefferies’ tube and slithered up a ladder. “I know this ship like the back of my…” He crouched down and squirmed into the same tube, stopping for a moment. “Jeeze, it seems like something should have happened to stop me in the middle of that…” Then he bumped his head on the ceiling of the Jefferies’ tube. “Sentence.”
“You’re running out of time,” Mirk said, chomping on an apple, perched atop the master systems display console in main engineering. “We all are.”
“You’re not helping matters!” Hartley said, dashing from station to station, rerouting power and bringing emergency warp core systems on and offline one by one. “I can stop the breach if I can just get the emergency antimatter shunt from the injectors to work!”
“Sounds simple enough,” Mirk said.
“Much simpler than transcending to a higher plain of existence,” Hartley said.
“There’s something to be said for simple solutions,” Mirk agreed.
“I’m a simple girl,” Hartley said. She looked up from her work, catching Mirk’s eyes. “Maybe…maybe I’m a simple girl who’s holding you back. Asking you to put off becoming something amazing just so she can spend a few more days with you.”
“There are far worse things to do with one’s time,” Mirk said with a kind smile.
Hartley paced to the warp core. “You’ve got your destiny, I’ve got mine. If they’re not intertwined, then so be it.” She took a deep breath. “Do it, if you want, Mirk. Become a god. Go do spectacular things. Without me.” She turned and angrily kicked at the port-side injector. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” she shrieked, kicking at the thing with all her might, taking out every bit of her frustrations…the warp core, her marriage, you name it.
And then something funny happened.
The warp core stopped its off-beat thrumming.
Lights around the Engineering compartment came online. Red indicators flashed green.
Mirk eased off the table and stared at the warp core, walking over to join Hartley there, both of them looking on in wide-eyed surprise. “I believe that’s what they call a ‘brogan adjustment,’” he whispered.
“I have no earthly idea what that means,” Hartley said softly, and turned to Mirk, falling in his arms, burying her face in his chest.
Baxter emerged on the Escort bridge, breathless, staring at the viewscreen, as Starfleet Academy circled into view.
“Thanks for joining us,” Ficker said, turning to face him in the command chair, sipping from a steaming teacup. “Have you ever had this Earl Grey stuff? It tastes like someone boiled a tweed sweater!”
“How’d…you…have time to…make tea…” Baxter sighed, leaning against the aft science panel.
“You’re really out of shape,” Ficker explained. “Have you met our helmsman?” He inclined his head toward the foreward station, as Harlan turned in the seat to face him. “He’s a capable pilot but he makes a really awful cup of tea.”
“I”m…going…to beat you…until I pass out…from exhaustion…” Baxter said, stalking toward Ficker.
“Uh-uh,” Ficker said, turning away from him. “Harlan…”
Baxter watched as Harlan spun out of his seat and crossed over to Baxter in two strides, grabbing him by the throat and shoving him against the aft station.
“Pretty spry for an old guy,” Ficker commented, transfixed on the viewscreen. “Now be quick about it, Harlan. We’re nearly at the Academy.”
“Dad,” Baxter whispered, as Harlan stared up at him with blank eyes. “Snap out of this. Please.”
“No use,” Ficker called over his shoulder. “Drake’s technology is foolproof. And trust me. We’ve tried it on a lot of fools. Now be a good boy and fight your father. I’m recording all of this so I can watch it later when I’m less distracted.”
“SHUT UP!” Baxter snapped. Harlan just looked back at him, dispassionately tightening his vicelike grip.
Ficker punched a control on the command chair. “Oh Doctor Drake. Are you there?”
“The device is set to overload and send out a blast of mind-altering energy as soon as it hits the ground,” Drake’s voice replied. “Everyone at Starfleet Academy will become loyal members of our army.”
“My army,” Ficker corrected. “We’re nearly over the main quad. Be ready to launch the device in six minutes. Bridge out.”
Meanwhile, Captain Baxter wriggled in Admiral Baxter’s grasp, looking down at him imploringly. “Dad. Please. I know deep down inside you there’s a guy that loves his son. You want to do right by me. You always have. I realize that!”
Harlan’s expression didn’t change, he just tightened his grip on Baxter’s throat.
“I know we’re different people, with different command styles. And I know sometimes that bothers you. But believe me, Dad, I only want what’s best for my ship and crew. And I want to make you proud.”
Harlan pushed on, shoving Baxter against the bank of consoles at the back of the Escort’s bridge and tightening his grip, as the captain began to find it hard to breathe.
“Okay,” Baxter choked out, deciding a different tack was in order. “I didn’t want to tell you this, Dad, but you should know…sometimes I don’t make it to the bridge until eleven hundred hours. Well, sometimes I don’t go to the bridge at all. I just sit in my cabin and watch holovision.”
Harlan’s visage didn’t change. At first. Then his left eye twitched.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, squirming in his father’s grasp, realizing he’d touched a nerve. “There’s more. Remember how I asked you to take us off-duty last year for that week-long leadership retreat? Yeah. Well actually we went to Risa and spent the week golfing. And we don’t even like golfing!”
Harlan grit his teeth, cocking his head as his face began to redden.
Baxter pressed on. “Gosh, the amount of time I’ve wasted as captain of that ship…it’s a wonder it hasn’t blown up yet…well, come to think of it, it has, a couple of times, but things always seem to have a way of work–”
“Have you gone mad, boy!” Harlan cried out, dropping Baxter to the deck. “You’ve got a reputation to uphold. You’re a Starfleet Captain, by God, and if I have anything to say about it you’ll start…acting…like…” He cut himself off and stared at Baxter, his brow furrowed. “Son?”
“That worked well,” Baxter said with a grin.
“Where am I?” Harlan demanded. “What the hell is happening?”
Ficker’s smile faded as he heard Harlan speak in lucid tones for the first time in days. He turned in the command chair, rising and lifting his phaser. “Oh no.”
Baxter ignored him and turned to his father. “Doctor Drake’s going to launch a brainwashing device at Starfleet Academy. Get down to the hold and stop her.”
“And what are you going to do?” Harlan asked, looking from Baxter to a still-shocked Ficker.
“Get my ship back,” Baxter said, and leapt across the bridge, tackling Ficker to the deck before he could fire his phaser.
“That’s my boy,” Harlan said, and charged off the bridge.
“We’re not going to blow up!” Madera announced excitedly from the conn.
“Great!” Janice Browning replied, standing between the foreward stations and staring at the pitching Idlewild, which listed precariously, just outside Earth’s orbit. “Anything else to report?”
“The Idlewild’s still going to blow up.”
“Drats,” Browning said. “Anything we can do to stop it?”
“Nope,” Madera said. “Also, about two hundred Idlewild crew are loose aboard the ship.”
“Any word yet from Christopher?”
Madera bristled at Browning’s familiar use of Richards’s name. “No, Commander Richards hasn’t reported back in.”
“Wonder if someone should check on him?”
“He can handle himself,” Madera said.
“You think?” Browning asked.
Madera fumbled with her fingers. “He’s…quite…” She searched for words.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
“I could…” Madera began.
“No,” Browning said. “You’re needed here.” She rested a hand on Madera’s shoulder. “You’ve got the bridge, Lieutenant.”
“Well, yeah,” Browning said. “Howie’s the only one left here and he’s licking his console.”
Madera whirled. “Howie! No!”
“You might want to try to steer us away from the exploding ship,” Browning suggested, and dashed for the nearest turbolift.
Harlan burst through the doors to the Escort’s cargo hold just as Drake was putting the finishing touches on her device, closing its access panel and moving the large missle-shaped object to the hangar’s docking console.
“Stop right there, Doctor,” Harlan said.
“Bubby?” Drake cooed, looking up, eyes brightening.
Harlan thought a moment. Still groggy after several days under the influence of a mind control device, and not knowing fully how he’d recovered his senses, he didn’t want to waste any time. Every cadet at Starfleet Academy was at stake. Quick action was needed. There was only one thing he could do, and he regretted it horribly.
“Yes,” Harlan said reluctantly. “I am your Bubby.”
“BUBBY!” Drake replied, throwing her arms around Harlan.
Richards yanked the emergency lever inside the bulkhead access panel and emergency lights flared up dim red throughout Ship’s Shoppes, throwing menacing shadows across the mall. Even the trendy “Build-a- Sehlat” store looked rather grim.
“Whoever’s in here, show yourself,” Richards said, raising his phaser to waist level and turning in half circles as he moved through the mall’s upper level. “If you surrender now, we’ll go easy on you. We don’t want to use excessive force. We know you’re under the influence of…an asshole’s technology.”
“Not all of us,” a voice said from behind Richards, as he felt an elbow drive into the small of his back, and a clasped pair of hands come crashing down on his solar plexus, driving him to his knees.
“Worthy,” Richards moaned, as he pitched forward.
“Yes I am,” the Idlewild’s first officer replied. “And you, sir, are in for a world of hurt.”
Richards felt Worthy’s foot connect with the back of his head, and after that, all was black.
“Starfleet Academy,” Alvin Ficker said, watching the sprawling green grounds roll by slowly on the Escort’s screen. “Finally. My destiny is here.”
That’s when he felt a fist grip a handful of his hair and drag him to the ground. Another fist went into his side. A knee into his stomach.
Ficker rolled Baxter over him and flung a foot into the captain’s face, knocking him back over the helm console.
“We will not be stopped,” Ficker said defiantly, lashing out and grabbing at Baxter’s throat.
“Yes. You. Will,” Baxter snapped and threw a punch hard across Ficker’s face, scrambling for the helm controls.
“They are locked out,” Ficker said. “Only I can change our course.”
“My Dad locked them out. He can unlock them.”
“He’ll have his hands full with Doctor Drake.”
“He’ll make short work of her.”
“That reminds me,” Ficker said, and crawled to the command chair, punching a control. “Ficker to Drake. You should know that Admiral Baxter is no longer himself. Actually, check that, he is himself again. Proceed with caution!”
“Get away from there!” Baxter bellowed. “I just had that thing reupholstered!”
Nechayev and Tilleran watched from their perch on the roof of the Kirk building as, far off, the Escort descended toward Starfleet Academy.
“A pair of binoculars would be great,” Nechayev mumbled.
“Or a transporter. Or control of any of the systems in Starfleet’s administrative headquarters,” the Betazoid responded.
“Or that,” Nechayev agreed.
“I can’t believe you came for me,” Sparks sighed, leaning against the edge of the roof and glaring sidelong at Plato. “That was incredibly stupid. And awfuly romantic.”
“Thanks,” Plato said. “And I’m sorry, I guess.”
“You’re not sorry,” Sparks laughed.
“No, I’m really not,” Plato admitted.
“You think you’ll get in trouble with your Mom?”
“I don’t think anyone knows I’m gone,” Plato said.
Just then, a runabout hovered into view, its docking lights twinkling in the encroaching dusk. Within, Counselor Peterman looked out the viewports, eyes narrowed.
“Plato! You are in SUCH trouble, Mister!” she called over the ship’s loudspeakers.
“Counselor?” Tilleran asked.
Nechayev looked up. “Great. Another Explorer person. Look, can you stop chiding this child for just a second and help us save Starfleet Academy?”
“And your husband, by the way,” Tilleran pointed out.
Locked in a clinging embrace, Drake stared back at Harlan as Ficker’s words came echoing from the comm.
Realization spread across her face, but too late, as Harlan slammed her against the docking console and pushed her aside, rerouting command controls to his station.
Dazed, Drake staggered back and turned to Harlan, launching herself bodily at him and smashing him against the bulkhead.
She took that opportunity to turn to the docking console and punch a button, opening the aft hangar.
Harlan lurched back at Drake, swinging a fist that she blocked as the hangar split open, and its forcefield sprung to life…the only thing between him and Drake and the landscape of Starfleet Academy spinning below.
“Stop this,” Harlan ordered, and reached for the panel just as Drake leapt at him raking her nails across his face.
“Your moves are predictable,” Drake said. “Trust me, I should know,” she smiled coyly and slammed her hand down on the docking console. The force field dropped and a powerful gust sucked her device right out of the hatch.
Harlan hooked an arm around the docking console to keep from flying out as Drake tumbled toward the door, grasping at a railing.
“Oops, didn’t think about explosive decompression!” she called above the din of swirling wind. “How silly of me!”
Harlan reached for the controls to shut the hatch, but couldn’t quite get there without losing his grip on the console.
“It’s too late. The device is launched!” Drake said. “And I’m the only one who knows how to reverse its effects. Even you are not immune to it. You’re fighting it right now, but something tells me, somewhere inside, you still want to do my bidding.”
“Never!” Harlan shouted back. “Well, okay. Maybe!”
“Give up, Bubby! Nobody can stop us now!” Drake shouted, clinging to her railing, just as J’hana came swinging inside the hatch from outside, driving both feet into her face and knocking her cold to the deck, then flipping end over end, smashing a hand down on the button to close the hatch.
Harlan sank to his knees as the hatch finally closed, and stared up blearily at J’hana. “Head hurts,” he said.
“Hold tight, old human,” the Andorian whispered. “J’hana’s here now.”
“The device…” Harlan said woozily and leaned up.
“Oh,” J’hana said. “That thing. I don’t know.” She turned and looked at the docking console. “I’ll see if I can find out where it landed and what it’s…wait…it’s not showing up on sensors.”
“There’s a reason for that,” a voice came over the comm. “I grabbed it in a tractor beam. Handy little thing, those tractor beams.”
“Counselor…Peterman?” Harlan asked.
“Yeah, I’m tailing you in a runabout,” Peterman’s voice responded. “Can I come aboard?”
“Oh hell yes,” J’hana said.
“The Idlewild’s gonna explode in fifteen bleepblorps,” Howie announced from ops as Madera moved back to the command chair.
“I think you mean ‘seconds,’” Madera said uneasily, sitting down and gripping the arms of the command chair.
“Maybe. I’m heavily sedated so…”
“Howie, I’m probably going to regret saying this but…go ahead and transfer helm control to your console.”
Sefelt turned back and looked at Madera. “Really?”
“Yes. It’s about time we all had a chance at doing something great.” Madera took a deep breath. “We need you, Howie.”
“They need me,” Sefelt said ecstatically, and plucked at his controls.
“Please, please don’t mess this up,” Madera said, as much to herself as to Sefelt. “Bridge to Engineering. We need everything you’ve got to the impulse engines, like now.”
“Who the heck is this? Madera?” Hartley’s voice came back.
“Yes. I’m…in command.”
“Whoa boy. Well, just transferred what power we have left to impulse engines. I’m giving it all she’s…” Hartley paused, catching herself. “Yeah, go ahead.”
“Full impulse, Mister Sefelt!” Madera exclaimed, as, on the viewscreen, explosions raked across the Idlewild’s primary hull. The Sabre-class starship pitched backward, end-over-end, spewing fire from its ruptured hull as suddenly, beautifully, a warp core breach tore through her, sending a massive, bright shock of light out in all directions.
“All hands, whoever is left, brace for impact!” Madera called out as the retreating Explorer was caught in the wave and pushed forward.
Sefelt pushed the great ship hard to port, evading the explosion as best as he could. The Explorer still caught the edge of the wave though, and was caught upon it, spun out of control like a top.
“MOMMY!” Sefelt shouted, gripping his panel as she ship spun.
“This thing really needs seatbelts!” Madera called out, watching on the viewscreen as black space suddenly gave way to something huge, and white. It looked like…
Howie pointed at the screen. “MOON!” he screamed, and ducked under his panel.
The Explorer shook hard from the shockwave and Richards was startled awake. He came to groggily, taking in his dim surroundings. Space Tastes.
“Nice restaurant,” Worthy said, circling Richards’s chair. “I’m thinking we’ll turn it into a pizza place when we take over.”
“Go to hell. Our crew hates pizza,” Richards lied.
“They’ll like whatever we want them to like,” Worthy said, as Richards tried to rise. He glanced around. “Did you feel that? That was our ship. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“You’re welcome,” Richards muttered, and moved to stand, but suddenly realized he was bound to his seat.
“Oh, don’t get up,” Worthy said. “You’re quiet well restrained. On my way to your lovely mall I found a room packed with all sorts of nasty leather implements and chains.”
J’hana’s office, Richards thought wryly. “I’ve got backup on the way.”
“You’re running with a skeleton crew. That much we’ve ascertained. Funny enough, we outnumber you.”
“We know this ship,” Richards replied, pulling at his leather and chain bindings as Worthy circled him. One thing was for sure, he wouldn’t be breaking these particular implements. J’hana had often tied him up in her office…over HR’s explicit objections.
Worthy crouched next to Richards. “We’re winners. That’s all that matters. You destroyed our ship but you didn’t destroy us. You saved us. That weak kind of thinking is killing Starfleet. It’s precisely what we’re setting out to rectify.”
“You’re delusional and crazy.”
“We’ll see just how delusional and crazy I am, once I’m done whipping you with this spiky metal thing!” Worthy cried out, rising to his feat and rearing back with one of J’hana’s whips. “And then we’re going to have lunch! There’s a hot pot of chili on!”
“Sorry!” a voice came from behind Worthy. Before he could turn, a massive watermelon came crashing down onto his head, sending him slumping to the deck.
“Kitchen’s closed,” Janice Browning said, dropping the giant melon and kneeling to undo Richards’s bindings.
“Doctor,” Worthy moaned woozily, rolling on his back. “I need a doctor…”
“Dammit,” Browning said, looking down at Worthy. “I’m a chef, not a doctor.”
Richards winced as he slipped free from the chair he was tied to and looked down at Worthy. “Nice work.”
“You ok?” Browning asked, turning Richards to face him.
“Yeah,” he said, staring back at Browning in the dim-lit room. “What are you doing here?”
“Seems to me you were kind of being crushed by a beam once, and I abandoned you.”
“You did,” Richards admitted.
“So I owed you one,” Browning explained.
“I see,” Richards said, inching closer to Browning, locking eyes with her in the dim light.
“So…” Browning said.
“All hands: Yeah, it’s me again, Lieutenant Madera. So, um, just wanted to tell you we’re about to sort of crash into a moon. Hold on!”
And that’s when Space Tastes turned upside down.
“Steer us away from the planet!” Madera called out to Sefelt, thinking that was a somewhat self-evident point.
Sefelt fought with Explorer’s controls. “Helm’s not responding!”
“Here, let me…” she began, and crossed the bridge.
Before she could reach Sefelt’s station, the Explorer touched down, slamming into the moon’s surface and skidding along it like a jack-knifing semi.
Madera slammed against Sefelt’s seat, but held on for dear life, reaching for the controls. “Intertial dampers! Maximum!”
The Explorer snow-boarded toward the suddenly inaccurately- named Sea of Tranquility, just missing one of the Moon’s many domed communities.
Madera and Sefelt gripped each other tightly, looking up at the viewscreen as the great sliding ship dove down into a deep crater and sailed along its curved surface, gathering speed, then hit the wall and climbed it, taking off and going spaceborn once again, spinning end over end and drifting into the ether.
Madera slapped a few buttons, activating station-keeping thrusters to slow the ship’s spin, then slid to the deck, leaning against ops. “Damn, Howie…”
Sefelt held his hands up to his face, looking up through his fingers. “Are we still in one piece?”
“Yeah. Somehow,” Madera said wryly, patting Sefelt on the back.
“What are we doing?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked, holding Mirk around the waist.
“Floating,” Mirk said. “Kind of like flying, but just staying in one place.”
“Where are we?”
“Still in Main Engineering. You nearly flew over the railing around the warp core when we crashed. I got you.”
“So you saved me after all.”
“I always will.”
Hartley looked up at Mirk as they floated over the several-storeys- tall core. “Wait…we crashed?”
“And we’re all right?”
“Seems to be.”
“So no Armageddon today?”
“Nope. But we will need some minor repairs.”
“That I can handle,” Hartley said, and squeezed Mirk tightly.
“Doctor Drake!” Ficker called out over the comm, squirming out of Baxter’s grasp. “Launch the device!”
Baxter climbed to his feet, squaring off against Ficker, the Escort’s helm console between them. “She’s not answering, Ficker.”
“Maybe she went to the bathroom,” Ficker suggested.
“Maybe she went bye-bye,” Baxter countered.
“You never liked her.”
“That’s because she’s a crazy scientist!”
“You never even gave her a chance!”
“Yes I did. And then she lied to me, turned omnipotent, and tried to destroy the universe!”
“You’re so freaking judgmental!”
“I am going to kill you! Then bring you back to life and kill you again!” Baxter growled and leapt over the helm console, grabbing Ficker around the throat.
Ficker kicked Baxter away and scrambled backwards across the bridge, remembering finally that he had a phaser. But where was it?
Baxter spun back against the helm and grabbed at it, noting that they’d reached Starfleet Academy’s quad, hovering some 200 meters above it. He turned back to Ficker, who dove under the command chair and rose up, phaser in hand, turning back to Baxter.
“Game, set, and match, my friend,” Ficker said, leveling the phaser on Baxter with shaking hand. “Step away from the helm.”
“Put your phaser down and maybe I will,” Baxter shot back.
“Empty threats,” Ficker said. “Harlan locked out the helm, and soon Doctor Drake will launch my weapon and then all those bright young cadets will be mine!”
“Baxter to Baxter,” Harlan’s voice came over the comm. “I unlocked the helm and J’hana took out Doctor Drake. And the device…well let’s just say it won’t be a problem anymore.”
Ficker’s eyes twitched in anger as he listened to this, gripping his phaser with both hands and stepping toward Baxter. “Well then. That changes things.” He glanced down at the phaser and pressed a control, upping the power level. He looked back at Baxter and glowered. “Set phasers to kill.”
“You can’t have Starfleet Academy,” Baxter said. “So you’ll take me instead.”
“Yup,” Ficker said. “Sounds about right.”
“You are in such serious need of counseling buddy,” a voice came from behind Ficker.
The unglued ship commander pivoted to find Kathy Peterman framed in the aft hatchway, poised with a phaser rifle aimed square between his eyes.
“Beautiful Kathy,” Ficker said, gripping his phaser tightly. “So good to see you again. Want to grab a bagel or something? Catch up?”
“Put the phaser down, then we’ll talk,” Peterman said, advancing toward Ficker.
“You first,” Ficker said.
“Kathy…” Baxter began. “Be careful. He’s unhinged…”
“I know,” Peterman said softly. “That’s why we’re gonna get you some help. Right, Mister Ficker?”
“Captain,” Ficker said slowly. “Call me Captain.”
“It’s okay, Captain,” Peterman said, stepping closer to Ficker. “Everything’s going to be o…”
“NO!” Ficker shouted, and whirled on Baxter, thumbing the firing control on his phaser.
The phaser sliced the air, barely missing Baxter and cutting a swath across the viewscreen, shorting it out and splitting it open like a ripe tomato.
Baxter dove, slamming a hand on the helm console, sending the Escort dipping toward the ground.
Ficker flew forward, crashing headlong into the viewscreen, which promptly overloaded and exploded. He dropped limply to the deck, dazed and scorched.
Peterman, meanwhile, pitched forward, arms pinwheeling, as the Escort spun out of control.
Baxter reached out and slung an arm around her as she fell, tugging her to him and dragging her to the deck as the Escort bucked, rose up, and plopped down in the middle of the Academy quad with a thud.
“Owwwwwwieeeeeeeeeeee…” Ficker whined, in a heap, on the Escort’s foreward deck.
Baxter wrapped his arms around Peterman and kissed her cheek. “You came for me.”
“Not exactly. But at this point, does it matter?” she asked with a sprightly grin.
“Not at all,” Baxter sighed and kissed Peterman deeply on the lips. “I love you, sweetheart.”
“Right back at ya, cowboy,” Peterman said, as Baxter rose and crossed the cluttered bridge, where Ficker lie writhing.
“I can’t see…” Ficker moaned, leaning up, groggy.
Baxter looked down to see the captain’s glasses lying next to him. “Oh! There they are…” He stepped on the glasses, crushing them under his foot. “Oops. Looks like they got busted in all the commotion.”
“But how will I read my wonderful books?” Ficker asked, dazed.
“Large print?” Peterman suggested, stepping next to Baxter and circling her arms around him.
“How did you do it?” Ficker asked, his voice far off. “How did you beat me? Do you have super powers?”
“Nope,” Baxter said. He turned and kissed Peterman again on the cheek. “Just a ship, a crew, and a wife.”
Really supplemental. Starfleet reinforcements have arrived just in the nick of time. Please note my sarcasm here. They got here about an hour after everything went down. Thanks for nothing!
Anyway, they’re here now, including my mother’s ship, the Pathfinder, which kindly towed the Explorer to McKinley station, where I’m told all sorts of things will be done to it. Note to self: Howie Sefelt from now on forbidden to take helm control.
On the upside, the chaos and confusion that ensued after the Explorer crashed into the moon seemed to help our remaining officers wrangle the Idlewild people. Good thing, too.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Tilleran was able to dissect Doctor Drake’s device (and her mind) and figure out what needed to be done to reverse all the brainwashing she’s been doing in the past few weeks.
Counselor Peterman, on the other hand, is not having as much luck undoing what Ficker has done to his own brain. Some people are beyond help, I guess.
The Judge Advocate General has begun a series of mind- numbingly boring hearings to determine who on Ficker’s crew is actually guilty of something and who was basically kidnaped. That should take a while.
Finally, my command crew has been summoned to an emergency meeting at Starfleet Command, where I imagine we’ll be given the bill for damages caused in saving everyone’s asses.
Baxter was reviewing the Explorer’s damage report as he made his way down the corridor to Starfleet Command’s executive conference room.
Suddenly, a door opened next to him and he was dragged inside.
“Oh, please, no more intrigue,” Baxter said, looking up from his padd at the black clad officer who’d grabbed him. “I’m exhausted.”
“Don’t mind him. He’s just the guy who grabs people for us,” a voice said from the other end of the conference room. Another black-clad man leaned forward, resting his hands atop the table. “Have a seat, Captain.”
“Roddick,” Baxter said. “You again? Really?” He shook his head. “Seriously. I’m wiped, man.”
“I think you’ll want to take this meeting,” Roddick said. “I wanted to let you know we have Doctor Drake.”
“No you don’t. I just spoke to Tilleran. She was sitting in on her interrogation and…”
“Tilleran to Baxter,” came a voice on Baxter’s combadge. “Funny thing. Doctor Drake just dematerialized! Starfleet Security can’t find a trace of her…”
“Stand by,” Baxter said. “Baxter out.”
“Do you want me to stand by, or do you want to close the channel?” Tilleran asked. “Cause you can’t do both…”
“Close channel,” Baxter said, shaking his head. “So you took Drake. Fine with me.”
“Don’t you see?” Roddick asked. “We’ve taken Drake so that we can find out the secret to her human omnipotence experiments.”
“Oh goody,” Baxter said. “Well you guys have fun with that.”
Roddick shook his head. “We only needed one of them, Captain Baxter. Drake or Anna Kimmel. Either one would do.”
Baxter shrugged. “I still don’t follow.”
Roddick sighed. “You really area dolt, sometimes. Look…” He shoved a padd across the table at Baxter. “Anna Kimmel and Ashley Donovan are safe. We’ve sent them a comm letting them know they can come out of hiding and return to the Federation.”
“What?” Baxter asked, leaning forward and looking at the padd. “They went off the grid over a year ago. You couldn’t possibly know…” He looked down.
“It’s all there. The Sentosian system. Sector seven zero seven nine nine. Long way off. It’ll take them about a month to get back, but better late than never, eh?”
“How did you find them?”
“We’ve been watching them for some time,” Roddick said. “And we’ve been watching you, too.”
“Figures,” Baxter muttered.
“We have what we want now. Maura Drake’s in our custody and the Idlewild’s been destroyed, so our technology is safe. You can have your sister back.”
“Why should I trust you?” Baxter asked.
“Because you have no choice but to trust me,” Roddick said, and walked around the table, moving to stand just behind Baxter. “And because I have a sister, too.”
Baxter turned. “Wait just one minute, Mister…”
And just like that, Roddick was gone.
Lt. Commander Hartley sat on the plush leather couch outside of Starfleet Command’s executive conference room, staring at the stylized painting of Jim Kirk that hung on the wall across from her. He looked awfully smug, that Kirk.
“Whew,” Lt. Commander Tilleran sighed, plopping down next to Hartley. “What a day.”
“You done with all the un-brainwashing?” Hartley asked idly.
“Nearly. Starfleet Sciences is really taking the lead. I was just watching.”
“And helped provide the blueprint for undoing the thing,” Hartley pointed out.
“I don’t like to brag.”
“Yeah,” Hartley said.
“Speaking of bragging, I hear the admirals are saying nice things about you.”
“Your solution for destroying the Idlewild. Saving the ship from a massive breach.”
“A breach is a breach. There are no degrees of getting your ass blown sky high.”
“Still,” Tilleran said. “I hear you’ll have your pick of engineering posts. Utopia Planetia. A top position in the Corps of Engineers…”
“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Hartley said. She looked down at her hand, studying her wedding ring thoughtfully. “I’ve got everything I want on the Explorer.”
“That’s nice,” Tilleran said. “But you can’t stay in one place forever.”
“Watch me,” Hartley said with half a laugh, as J’hana and Richards walked up.
“Have we missed the throttling?” J’hana asked.
“We haven’t been called in yet,” Tilleran said.
“Good.” The Andorian turned to Richards. “Think we have time to grab some sex? I found a closet down the hall that is currently unoccupied.”
“Maybe, uh, later,” Richards said. “Where’s the captain?”
“He should be here by now,” Hartley said. “This is his show after all.”
Peterman and Browning approached from the opposite end of the corridor. “Yeah,” Peterman told Browning. “Ficker has seriously flipped out. Just keeps moaning about his glasses. Cigars and champagne. Earl grey tea…he’s not even coherent anymore.”
“Maybe some time at Tantalus will be good for him,” Browning said.
“Since when are you part of the command crew again?” J’hana asked, with no trace of ire in her voice.
“She briefly rejoined the crew to help out with the recent crisis,” Richards said, turning to Browning. “And she was a big help.”
“Aw,” Browning said. “I’m just happy to stand with you guys. We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Whatever, let’s just get this overwith,” Hartley said. “I’ve got to get back to the ship before they do something stupid like stick one of those third nacelles on there.”
“Fwark the refit, I’m ready for some shore leave,” J’hana said.
“I think we all are,” Peterman said. “Say, Janice, speaking of leave, have you seen Plato?”
“He’s visiting Sparks at the Academy,” Browning said. “One last goodbye, I suppose.”
Just then, the doors to the conference room opened, and Lieutenant Beth Monroe emerged. “The Admirals are ready for you.”
“Where’s Andy?” Peterman asked.
Richards shrugged. “I thought he was with you.”
“I’m here, I’m here!” Baxter said, jogging up to join the group, a wide smile on his face. “Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re just in time,” Peterman said, hooking an arm around his. “And what’s with that big smile?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Baxter said, leading the group inside the large conference room.
“Remind me to tell you something after this, too,” Tilleran whispered to Hartley.
“Okay,” Hartley said, giving Tilleran an odd look as the group disappeared within the conference room.
“Quiet around here,” Lt. Madera said, taking a seat at the bar as Mirk slid a glass in front of her.
“You know me well,” Madera said, taking a long sip of the green, bubbly Kelvarkian Ale. “So where is everyone?” Madera asked as she sipped.
“The command crew is on Earth being debriefed, or something,” Mirk said. “They should be back soon, though, in time to turn the ship over to the refit crew.”
“So we can get a head start on drinking?”
“Absolutely,” Mirk said, and smiled as he caught Howie Sefelt approaching. “Mister Sefelt. I don’t see much of you in here.”
“I’m afraid of intoxication,” Sefelt said, and approached the bar gingerly. “Mind if I sit here?”
“How about some milk?” Mirk asked. “You afraid of that?”
Sefelt shook his head. “Nope.”
“Pull up a seat,” Madera said. “You sort of saved the ship today, after all.”
The operations chief then sidled up and inched his chair closer to the bar. “I crashed it into a moon.”
“Any landing you can walk away from,” Mirk pointed out, sliding a glass of milk over to Sefelt and grabbing an ale for himself out of the replicator. He usually didn’t drink on the job, but today seemed like a good exception.
“Isn’t that the truth,” Madera said.
Sefelt held up his drink. “To safe landings,” he grinned.
Mirk held his drink up too, glancing outside at the latticework that surrounded the windows of his lounge as the crews got to work on repairs. He thought a moment. “Yes. Safe landings.”
And they clinked glasses.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Admiral Alynna Nechayev said, standing at the lectern at the front of the room. “Thank you for joining us for this emergency meeting of Starfleet’s senior officers. We’re here today to discuss the events of the last week and what it means for us as we move forward.”
“Some nice, shiny medals would be great,” Baxter said.
“Captain, this will be much easier without your interruptions,” Nechayev said, catching a look from Admiral Jellico. “The reason we are here is to congratulate you and your senior staff for performing acts above and beyond the call of duty, in protecting Earth and Starfleet Command.”
“You’re not here to yell at us?” Baxter asked, genuinely surprised.
“You did nothing wrong,” Nechayev said. “In fact, your people singlehandedly stopped Ficker from abducting every cadet at Starfleet Academy, and doing who knows what else with Starfleet Command.”
Baxter straightened. “Well, then, that’s different.”
“Will there be a party?” Peterman asked, her eyebrows raising. “And if so, will there be a party planning committee? And does it need a chair?”
Nechayev pursed her lips and stared at Peterman. “There will be no party.”
This caused some murmurs among Baxter’s crew, and the Admirals.
“The events of the last week will be classified top secret,” Nechayev continued. “All related records will be purged and destroyed. You and your crew, as well as the others involved in this incident, will sign affidavits of confidentiality. To put it succinctly: None of this ever happened. Are we clear?”
“But why?” Baxter asked.
“Security,” Nechayev said simply. “If elements outside Starfleet were to find out how easily our defenses were compromised, they might try to do the same thing. Captain Ficker could provide the Romulans, or the Borg, or some other hostile force with a blueprint for bringing us to our knees. And we cannot allow that to happen.”
“There’s another reason,” a voice piped up from the back of the room.
All eyes watched as a figure strode toward the podium. The man stared at Nechayev long and hard until she backed away, a confused look on her face, then took the podium.
“Pride,” Harlan Baxter said, looking at the gathered officers around the table.
“Dad?” Baxter asked, leaning forwad.
“Shut up, boy,” Harlan said.
“Admiral, you are still recovering from your abduction,” Nechayev said smoothly. “Perhaps you should sit down…”
“I’ll stand.” Harlan looked at Nechayev and then surveyed the room. “You are all too proud to admit that one of them…” He pointed at the Explorer people, “…was good enough to defeat all of us.”
“Admiral Baxter, all due respect, but…” Nechayev began hotly.
“Shut up, Alynna,” Harlan rumbled, and looked back out on the crew. “There’s a chain of command in Starfleet. We have to accept the ruling of the Commander in Chief, keeping this incident secret. But all of us in this room know what happened.”
There was a momentary silence as the Admirals exchanged looks of consternation. A slow smile spread across Baxter’s face, though, as his father leaned forward, grabbing the podium.
“You listen here, and you listen good. After today, we may disavow all knowledge of what happened here. But for right now, in this moment, in this room, you will show your respect. You will stand up and clap for the crew of the USS Explorer. And you will be proud of what they’ve accomplished.” He fixed his gaze on Baxter. “I know I am.”
More silence ensued, until Admiral Jellico stood, and slowly began to clap.
Admirals around the room likewise stood, and clapped. All of them clapped, except for Nechayev, who, ultimately, gave in, and joined, albeit reluctantly, in the applause.
“Well,” Captain Baxter said, as the clapping died down. “You’re, um, welcome.”
Harlan stuffed a cigar into his mouth, lit it, and strode toward the conference room exit. He stopped next to Baxter and clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Mrfm yurf, berh,” he said.
“You too, Dad,” Baxter grinned, and watched his father walk out the door.
Cadet Sparks answered the door to her cabin, wearing a red academy jogging suit. “Plato,” she said, waving the half-changeling boy in. “We were just talking about the party tonight with a bunch of other cadets.”
Mathers and Piper were leaning against her desk, arms folded. “An affidavit-signing party for everyone who knows what happened,” Piper muttered.
“It’s still a party,” Mathers said. “Want to come?”
“I don’t think so,” Plato said, and looked up at Sparks. “I just came to say goodbye to Nat. Then I’ve got to get back to the Explorer. We’ve got a party of our own to attend.”
“Fair enough,” Sparks said.
“So, thanks for stopping by,” Piper said, earning a glare from Mathers.
Mathers took Piper’s hand and pulled him toward the door. “C’mon, Ethan. We’ve got to, um, study something.”
“No we don’t,” Piper protested.
“Yeah, we do,” Mathers said, and grinned back at Sparks as Piper reluctantly followed him out.
“He likes you,” Plato said, once he and Sparks were alone.
“He’s got a lot of growing up to do,” Sparks said.
“So do we,” Plato replied.
Sparks stepped toward Plato. “So you wanted to say goodbye?”
“Yeah. I mean, we didn’t get a chance to talk in all of the chaos following the um, nothing that happened these last few days, so I just wanted to, um, well, you know.” He looked at the floor.
“Yes,” Sparks said, taking Plato’s chin and lifting it so he could look her in the eye. “I know.” She took him by the back of the neck and kissed him deeply in the mouth, tugging him back toward her bunk and on top of her, grabbing at his tunic and lifting it over his head.
“I have no idea what we’re doing,” Plato said, looking into Sparks’ eyes.
“You’ll learn fast,” Sparks smiled, and rolled Plato over, kissing him deeply.
The Constellation Club was abuzz with activity, as seemingly half the Explorer crew were jammed in there, clinking glasses, laughing, and talking, as the jungle thrum of Maloxian music filled the room and Zordock the Bold had all four hands full serving drinks from one end of the club to another.
At the far table, by the windows, Captain Baxter and his senior staff were already on their second round of drinks.
“So Captain Kimmel should be here in a month,” Baxter said, scooting closer to Peterman.
“You mean Anna. Your sister,” Peterman corrected.
“Yeah, her,” Baxter said with a grin, staring at his rum and grapefruit.
“Ashley Donovan will be back also, I hear,” J’hana said. “Didn’t some things happen between you two?”
“Now J’hana, I’m a married man,” Baxter said.
“I don’t mind,” Peterman said. “There comes a time when you have to let go of stuff like that.”
“You’re growing,” Baxter said.
Peterman clutched at her stomach. “You think? I mean, you’ve noticed?”
“Sure. We’ve all grown a bit,” Baxter said. He looked around the table. “I’d like to think we’re better off now than we were when we first came together. Wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, you mean that,” Peterman said, and stared at her ginger ale. “Yeah. Definitely.”
“That reminds me, it’s time for a toast,” Baxter said, and stood, clearing his throat. “Hey everyone! Mirk, stop the music for a minute.”
Mirk leaned back over the bar and hit a control, cutting the music, and edged closer to Hartley, slinging an arm around her waist.
Baxter looked out at the Constellation Club, at his crew.
“As you know, by morning, we’ll be leaving for a well-deserved shore leave. I’m told, amazingly, it’ll only take a few weeks to patch up the Explorer, and then we’ll be back out there, raising havoc again.”
Baxter took a breath and looked down at Peterman, squeezing her shoulder. “After tonight, nobody will discuss what happened today. But we’ll all remember.” He looked around, exchanging glances with Hartley, Mirk, Tilleran, J’hana, Richards, Madera, Sefelt, Holly and Dean Wilcox, and Janice Browning. “Nobody can really take away what we did here today. What we’ve always done. We’ve shown that you don’t have to be Kirk or Picard to be successful.
“We’re not what we used to be. We’ve grown up so much in these last, great years. We’ve become friends. We’ve become family. We’ve meant more to each other than some will ever know.”
He reached down and took his glass and lifted it. “There’s one thing that unites us. Against all odds, and sometimes our better judgement, against the merciless logic of the Universe, this ship somehow keeps bringing us home. In time, I’m sure, we’ll move on, and find other ports of call. But you know what? We’ll always have this place. And in the end, that’s all that really matters. So raise your glass, and toast our ship. This ship that keeps us together. Here’s to the USS Explorer. Long may she sail.”
And everyone did raise their glass, and cheer.
J’hana leaned toward Counselor Peterman. “Say, Counselor…did he actually come up with that on his own?”
“Yeah,” Peterman whispered, and reached out to take Baxter’s hand, smiling up at him. “I think he did.”
Hours later, as ship’s morning dawned, crew poured out of the Constellation Club, which after much celebrating, was somewhat worse for wear.
“I hope they refit this place while they’re at it,” Mirk said, slinging an arm around Hartley and leading her out. “There’s stuff I’ll probably never get out of the carpet.”
“We can worry about that later,” Hartley said. “For now, I’m getting you into a bubble bath as soon as possible.”
“You don’t, um, want to talk about what happened?”
Hartley squeezed Mirk’s hands. “No, I really don’t. We’ll deal with the future as it comes. Sound good?”
“Sounds very good,” Mirk said, and leaned in, kissing Hartley softly on the cheek.
“I wonder where Plato got to,” Browning said. “Do you think he went out with Cadet Sparks?”
“Hard to say,” Peterman said. “He’s a big boy now. He’s got to make his own choices.”
“I suppose. Thanks, by the way, for watching over him while he was down on Earth.”
“Not a problem,” Peterman said.
“C’mon,” Baxter, said, jogging up between Browning and Peterman. “Let’s grab Steffie and get to my place on Earth. My parents want it cleaned up in time for Steffie’s third birthday.”
“Shouldn’t you stop calling it your place at some point?”
“I’m willing to share,” Baxter said, and squeezed Peterman closer.
Richards sighed as he watched Browning walk off with Baxter and Peterman.
“Hi there,” Tilleran said, picking up step next to Richards.
“Commander,” Richards said.
“She’s collecting some…things…before we leave the ship.”
“Ah yes,” Tilleran said. “Of course. The leather and the spikes.”
“And her V’haspant maker,” Richards said.
Tilleran took a big breath. “Look, Chris, I should tell you…”
“She still loves you,” Richards said. “I know.”
“You’re not a telepath.”
Richards smiled. “I don’t have to be.” He watched Browning duck into a turbolift with Baxter and Peterman. “I understand how she feels.”
“Can I ask what you’re going to do about it?” Tilleran asked gently.
“You could just read my mind,” Richards said.
Tilleran blanched. “I’ve done more than enough of that lately.”
“Then you may ask,” Richards said enigmatically, and moved past Tilleran down the corridor.
“Finally,” Dr. Maura Drake said, as a black-clad officer stepped into the small conference room. Drake wasn’t sure, but she felt fairly certain she was aboard a ship. If it was a ship, it wasn’t Starfleet. The man’s uniform told her everything she needed to know, though. “Section Thirty-One, I presume?” she asked.
“An astute observation,” the man said, sitting down opposite Drake. “You can call me Roddick.”
“Mister Roddick, pleased to be of service.”
“I assume you want me to build a device for you similar to the one I made for Captain Ficker?”
“Oh, no,” Roddick said. “I think you misunderstand. We don’t need your technical assistance.”
Drake stiffened a bit. “Then what do you need?”
“Your brain.” Roddick leaned forward. “We’d like to see how it works. To see if it’s possible to create an omnipotent…or even semi- potent…being…from a humanoid.”
“That research was inconclusive,” Drake said nervously.
“We’ll draw our own conclusions,” Roddick said, and stood. “And while we’re doing so, we’ll do our best to make you as comfortable as possible. But you should prepare yourself, Doctor Drake. You’ll be with us for quite some time.”
And with that, Roddick left the room.
Browning found Plato heading out of their shared cabin, weighed down with bags. “Hi Mom!” he said, wrestling with a large duffel. “I packed your mini pizza oven.”
“We’ll only be gone a couple weeks,” Browning said. “So…yeah, better bring it. Need some help?”
“I can handle it,” Plato said, sidling up next to Browning. “I can handle a lot of things, you know.”
Browning looked at Plato. Something in his eyes, or in his face. He seemed like a changed person, even for a changeling. “Son, is there anything you want to tell me?”
“Just that I love you,” Plato said brightly.
“You too,” Browning said, wrapping an arm around the slight changeling. “Let’s get out of here.”
The man in blue scrubs and badly fractured glasses stood at attention in the doorway. “You may call me Captain Ficker, ensign.”
“Actually, I’m an orderly. I’m here to lead you to the docking bay to meet up with the transport to Tantalus. The weeping Vulcan and the moody asshole are already on board.”
“Sounds like a very important briefing,” Ficker said. “Lead the way, ensign.”
“Uh, yeah,” the orderly said, and led Ficker down the hall. A pair of security guards followed, phasers at the ready.
“An armed escort,” Ficker said, nodding approvingly. “Appropriate, given my position.”
“As a deposed lunatic?”
“Oh, flatterer!” Ficker said. “Now then, ensign, on to the next mission! So much to do!”
“So I was thinking I’d stay through the Explorer’s refit, and stay on while they identify a replacement science officer. Another month, maybe two?”
Crellus had trouble hiding his grin on the viewscreen in Tilleran’s quarters. “Ariel, don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased about your decision. But I admit, I’m confused. Not so long ago, you didn’t want to leave the Explorer. I thought I’d have to pry you out of there. What’s changed?”
“Me,” Tilleran said plainly. “I’m starting to realize that I can’t do my job without using my powers. And I don’t want to have to use my powers any more. It…could lead me down a very bad road again. And there are just too many temptations here.”
“But you’ve helped so many people…”
“This group will find a way to get along without me. We’ve found a way to do a lot around here. Life will go on.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. And even more glad that you’re coming to join me.”
“I’m not just coming to join you,” Tilleran said. “I’m coming to marry you.”
Crellus’ eyes widened. “Ariel, do you mean it?”
“Nobody knows me like you do,” Tilleran said. “Nobody knows what I’ve been through, the struggles at reigning in my powers. You…comfort me. You’ve got me thinking about a simpler life. And that appeals to me somehow, a great deal. And…it’s just time.”
“This isn’t just the Phase talking, is it?”
Tilleran thought about that a moment, then shook her head. “My reproductive system isn’t going to tell me what to do. I make my own choices.”
Crellus beamed. “You won’t be disappointed, Ariel, I promise you. I cannot wait until you get here!”
“Me either,” Tilleran said softly. “I’ll call you again when I get to Earth.” With that, she closed the channel, and stared for a beat at the blank screen. Then she turned, grabbed her duffel, and headed for the door.
“So,” one eyeball said to another. “That’s how it ends. It’s over now.”
“Nope,” the other, more confident eyeball, said. “There is another chapter yet to be told.”
“Mirk hasn’t achieved his potential.”
“He has much to do. They all do.”
“Do you plan on telling them?”
“We could, I suppose, but where would be the fun in that? Let them find out for themselves.”
“And when will this happen?”
“Tomorrow,” the eye said. “And yesterday.”
“You going to be any more clear than that?”
“No, I’m really not.”
“You’ve been strangely quiet,” Baxter said, holding Steffie against his chest as he and Peterman made their way toward the airlock that led out to McKinley Station.
“Just thinking about everything we’ve been through,” Peterman said. “About the future.”
“Anything you want to share?” Baxter asked, laughing as Steffie tugged on his hair.
“Yep,” Peterman said, and smiled to herself. “In good time, sweetheart.”
“Okay…” Baxter said, turning Steffie and holding her up. “What about you, munchkin? You ready to head to Earth?”
“Down to Earth!” Steffie squealed. “Yeah! Earth! Earth!”
Peterman reached out and took Baxter’s hand, watching as they approached the airlock, where Tilleran, J’hana, Richards, Browning, Plato, Sefelt, Madera, Mirk, and Hartley were waiting, along with Holly and Dean Wilcox, who’d just arrived.
“What is this?” Baxter asked. “Is someone about to walk the plank?”
“I think we all are,” Hartley snorted derisively, and took Mirk’s arm. “C’mon fruitcake. Let’s get out of here.”
“We wanted to wait for you guys,” Browning said. “So we could all leave together.”
“Is that what we’re doing?” J’hana asked. “I had no idea.”
“All for one and one for all,” Richards said, taking J’hana by the arm and leading her into the airlock.
“Humma head to Earth?” Dean asked, as Holly led him into the airlock.
“Yes, Dean,” Holly said. “We’re both headed to Earth. Wave goodbye to the Explorer, for now!”
“Buh-bye, Explorer!” Dean waved, and slung his arms affectionately around Holly.
Tilleran took a last look around and shook her head, joining the departing group.
“You had something you wanted to tell me?” Hartley asked, walking up next to her.
“Soon enough,” Tilleran said.
Peterman took up step next to Plato. “Everything okay, buddy?”
Plato averted his eyes nervously. “Oh, yes, Counselor, very good. Nat and I, um, said our goodbyes.”
“Uh-huh,” Peterman nodded, giving the boy a curious glance.
“So we’re really not going to tell Janice about Plato, um….storming Starfleet Command?” Baxter whispered.
“We’re really not,” Peterman said with a grin, and watched Plato walk off with Browning. “We’re going to be the cool aunt and uncle.”
“If you say so,” Baxter said, as the pair approached the airlock, last to leave the now vacant Explorer.
Baxter looked around for a moment, then caught Peterman’s eye.
“After you, sir,” Peterman said, inclining her head for Baxter.
“No, after you,” Baxter grinned, and Peterman took his hand, leading him out and through the airlock.
A team of engineers was waiting at the other end, and filed in as the Explorer group headed out into McKinley’s docking hub.
“Look at her,” one engineer said, catching a side view of the Galaxy-class starship through a nearby viewport. He studied its battered hull, which was badly dented and pocked with scorch marks. “We’re really supposed to fix that wreck in a couple of weeks?”
“You will fix that beautiful ship better than new, if you know what’s good for you,” Hartley snapped, fixing the engineers with a glare. “I’ll be back later to check on your progress. Don’t disappoint me!”
Baxter looked around at his officers as crowds milled through the busy McKinley station. “Guess we split up now,” he said. “Permission to disembark, folks.’
“Yup,” Browning said, hugging Plato close.
“Won’t be long until we’re together again,” Richards said, and gave J’hana a long look. “One way or another.”
“Right,” Baxter said. “Well, then…”
“Hey there, mister…um mister Captain…” A hand tugged on his sleeve.
“Yeah?” Baxter looked down at the kid, no more than ten, who held a toy ship in his hands. He was thin, slight of build, with a mop of tousled brown hair. His ship was a Constitution-class, by the looks of it.
“You’re from that ship?” he asked, pointing at the docked vessel.
Baxter smiled, looking at Peterman and the others, then knelt to face the kid. “Yup.”
“What ship is it?”
“Explorer,” Baxter said, and noticed the kid’s blank expression. “Ever heard of her?”
The kid shrugged. “Nope.”
Baxter patted the child on the shoulder and rose up. “Give us time.”
And with that, Baxter took Peterman’s hand, and the group fanned out, going their separate ways. In time, they would be back, he knew.
These were the voyages of the Starship Explorer.
And they weren’t quite finished yet.