The official re-opening of the Hotel Gemmorah is slated for midnight, and all appears to be proceeding well. It took almost two full weeks to tow the asteroid here to Gothos at low warp, a procedure that might only have taken one week had the Hotel not remained open to entertain the towing crews throughout the journey. Ah, well. At least they arrived happy and with no clear recollection of their fees.
We have transmitted our new location to everyone in the Quadrant who might care, including several non-spacefaring races who have been using our broadcasts as motivational fuel for their own fledgling space programs. The Federation may not be too pleased about that, but it's not like we're giving them advanced technology or anything. Just a healthy dose of funding justification. At any rate, we presently have 17 ships from various races present and 11 more enroute.
The Relax has been fully repaired and I have sent Flynn and his crew on a three-month hospitality and goodwill cruise through the less entertaining regions of known space. There are plenty of untapped party resources amongst some of the more isolated races, and I mean for him to make some deals and see what we get. Curiously, some of his former Starfleet crew expressed misgivings about the mission, but in the end Flynn's charm (and several cases of Foster's Lager) erased all doubts and sobriety long enough for a brief sendoff. Relax is presently approaching the planet Triskelion, where we have reason to believe s number of recently disenfranchised gambling moguls are looking for some new wagering possibilities. Flynn will see what we can do to provide them with some.
For myself, I have been planning to take a little sabbatical once the reopening is over. The Hotel staff and Sulleven are becoming extremely adept at handling the day-to-day party activities without me, and we all feel that the threat of Mallory is past for the time being. As a result, I have paid a truly outrageous sum of latinum to an unscrupulous privateer who claims to know the location of the ultra-secret, amazingly well-guarded, staggeringly dangerous Guardian of Time. I figure I can slip in unannounced, take a little sojourn through a few of the bawdier bits of Earth's history, and be back before anyone gets too suspicious. The preparations will take some time, during which I'll let Sulleven run the show and watch what happens. Then, it's off to the past!
Unfortunately, it's almost three months away at warp 6, the best speed an overloaded shuttle/warpsled combo can make. And I intend to push the cargo safety limits to the max in both directions this trip.
Well, I'm off to the pre-pre-reopening bash. That will, of course, be followed by the pre-reopening celebration, the post-pre-reopening party, the re-opening itself, the post-reopening depression party, the post-post-reopening wake, and the breakfast food fight. With luck, I'll make it back to the ship sometime next week.
Well, the day has finally arrived. At 0500 tomorrow morning, my highly motivated all-Barbie crew and I will set off for the forbidden home of the Guardian of Time. My personal shuttle, the Slack, has been heavily provisioned for an extended voyage, with two aditional liquor pods and six dozen down-filled throw pillows to make sure the trip is at least marginally pleasant.
The Hotel's new location is proving to be amazingly popular; at the rate we're going, we will need to find more housekeeping help pretty soon or the trash will start outpacing booze as our number one staple item. I have tasked Sulleven with finding some solution to this dilemma during my absence. He expressed some misgivings about my imminent departure this morning, which went something like this:
"Morning, Alex. How are things going?"
"Good morning, Commodore. Everything's fine, no bad stuff to report. We have a meeting at 1500 with the Orion Free trader's Guild concerning protection, but otherwise the schedule is clear."
"Uh huh. They want to buy some. Apparently, our victory last year over Essex has grown into quite a tale, and the Orions want to use some of our weaponry aboard their ships."
"Fat chance. The last thing the quadrant needs is a bunch of pirates running around with Yukon Torpedoes. They'd be unstoppable! And oh, by the way, I'm taking a vacation for a few months."
"That's what I figured...WHAT?!?!?"
"I said, no weapons for the Orions. Are you okay? I've never seen your face quite that color before."
"A VACATION? ARE YOU INSANE?"
"Oh, that. Not yet, old friend, but I might end up there if I don't get some quality time away from here. Don't worry, I'll be back in a little while...say, five months or so."
"I'm appointing you Regent-Captain. I think you can handle the Hotel and the ship pretty well. Zelda will be there if you need her."
"You should get that swelling looked at, Alex. That can't be good, with all those veins so close to bursting. Let me get you another cup of coffee..."
At any rate, Captain Sulleven eventually recovered his reasoning abilities long enough to drink most of a bottle of Aldeberran Whiskey before he passed out cold in a turbolift. I've left him a set of instructions, which I'm sure he'll appreciate once he regains consciousness next week.
Amazing. Stupendous. Staggering. Enlightening. Inebriating.
These are just a few of the adjectives I know.
None of them can even come remotely close to describing the events I have just witnessed firsthand as a participant in the unbelievably colorful adventure that is Earth's social history.
I have been bound by the strictest oaths and financial guarantees by the Guardian to never reveal the details of what transpired during my sojourn. I may, however, make mention in broad terms of some of what I experienced.
I travelled throughout Terra's past, visiting the most raucous and decadent parties and celebrations in the long history of mankind. I shared drinks with Socrates, Hannibal, Tecumseh, and da Vinci; celebrated victories with Alexander, Atilla, Julius Caesar, and Erik the Red; shared a bed with Cleopatra, Sappho, Xaviera Hollander, and Betty Page; swapped drink recipies with the greatest mixologists ever born, and attended parties thrown by Caligula, Napoleon, Henry VIII, Ben Franklin, and Hugh Hefner. I sailed aboard the finest cruise ships ever laid down, from Titanic to Crystal Fantasy, and plied the pampered airways aboard the Pan Am Clipper, the Hindenburg, and Air Force One. I visited resorts from Jamaica to the French Riviera, and gambled for millions in Monte Carlo and Las Vegas. I even spent time experiencing Prohibition, in a little Chicago speakeasy, to keep everything is perspective.
What was it like? How does it compare to my fine, cherished Casual?
As grand and pleasant an odyssey as this was, I must humbly admit that there has never been an entertainment entity quite like the Casual. Sure, I'm biased, but I'm being quite serious. Even the sheer decadence of the late Roman Empire or late 20th century Las Vegas was only a pale shadow of our amazing entertainment Mecca (and that's a fine place, by the way...). I return to my home and vessel sure in the knowledge that in all of human history, we stand alone.
I also return with a shuttle full of rare intoxicants and a full crew of genetically engineered sex kittens. Oh, well...I knew I'd have to get back to duty right away...
The return voyage aboard the Slack was somewhat anticlimactic (in a metaphorical sense only, I assure you!) after the magnificent pleasures of Earth’s past, but my able-bodied crew and I managed to muddle through. I sent regular progress reports to Alden, but refrained quite carefully from asking for status reports or other work-like data in return. Until I once again set foot aboard the Casual in person, I was determined not to impede my temporally induced slackness with anything as monumentally tedious as work.
So I suppose I was a bit shocked to discover that my welcome home was not exactly as I had seen it in my fantasies.
In my mind, I had pictured hundreds of starships from every race known, all lazily orbiting Gothos while countless shuttles darted back and forth, their drunken pilots saved from imminent disaster and loss of hull integrity only by the Casual’s carefully applied Push Me-Pull You beam. I envisioned a throng of beautiful, amazingly unclad women waiting in rapt awe as I made a few inane comments from the Slack’s hatch before allowing myself to be spirited away to a nearby cargo hold filled with pillows, soft music, and a case of industrial lubricant. I had pictured my crew gathering before me in adulation and gratitude for having returned to lead them with my Bacchian radiance.
What I got was this:
ME: Casual, this is Slack. Just vectoring in on Gothos from Star Desert perimiter. Hope you’ve got something special prepared for me!
JASMINE: Slack, this is Casual. Hi, Commodore. You’re back already?
ME: Yes, Jasmine. What kind of party has Sulleven got planned?
JASMINE: Party? Sulleven’s throwing a special party? How come nobody told me?
ME: Hmmm...Jasmine, get Alex on.
JASMINE: Okay sir, but I warn you that we’ve already had to have your seat cleaned six times since you left...
--the sound of labored breathing and a soft buzzing emit from the speaker--
ME: Jasmine? What’s going on?
JASMINE: (after a few seconds of bubbling noises) It’s okay, sir. I didn’t miss any.
ME: What the...oh, never mind. Could...could I speak to Captain Sulleven?JASMINE: Well, he looks kind of sleepy, but I’ll see.
--time passes. Finally:--
ALEX: Oh, hi there, Allan. Back already?
ME: YES! Yes, Alex, we’re back. I was wondering what kind of a welcome back shindig you’ve got cooked up.
ALEX: Oh...well, actually, we sort of...that is, we were planning to...I mean, we were preparing to...
ME: Find new jobs? Suck the waste treatment tanks clean with crazy straws? Open your wrists with a spoon?
ALEX: Well, no...you see, Commodore, there have been some...problems lately, and you sort of...slipped our minds.
ME: I see. Has it also slipped your minds that with one word I can cut off all the alcohol taps on the ship?
ALEX: You can? Wow, that would suck a lot...Look, sir, I’m sorry about this, but we really do have a big problem. With the Relax.
ME: Relax, eh? What, didn’t you give Flynn this magnificent welcome when they came back last time?
ALEX: Actually, their welcome back party was pretty cool...there were hundreds of starships from every race we know, and...
ME: SHUT UP, CAPTAIN! What’s the problem with Relax?
ALEX: It’s not the ship, sir. It’s the crew. They’ve gone bad.
ME: What? What kind of bad? Have they turned into evil, twisted killers? Are they dipping into the tills in the casinos? Are they dismembering the guests again?
ALEX: I only wish, Allan. No, it’s not that kind of bad, sir. By bad, I mean, well, spoiled. They’ve been left out in the sun too long. They’ve been opened and left on the floor for a dog that isn’t hungry. They’re like Twinkies from the 1980’s if you find one that isn’t still wrapped. They’ve become limp, rancid, and sort of soggy. I’m afraid, sir, that they’ve gone stale.
Perhaps my triumphant return party would have to wait just a little while...
I have to hand it to Alex...he did manage to whip up an acceptable little celebration on the hangar deck during the two hours we spent traversing the Star Desert to Gothos. He put out the call to all our guests and those aboard the Hotel, and by the time Slack backed up to violate Casual’s portside docking collar, there were almost 300 people on hand to cheer and wave politely as I disembarked. Most of them were so drunk that they would have cheered the return of a library book, but I accepted their aimless praise for several minutes (and a large tankard of something orange and foamy) before ordering all the female crew members not presently on duty to cargo hold 2.
Later, as I peeled the protective polymer film from my furniture, Sulleven came in to brief me. Thankfully, he failed, and we sat down with some Irish coffee to go over the past few months.
"I really am glad to have you back, Allan. This job isn’t as easy as you make it look!"
"No, sir! For example, I had no idea that the Commanding Officer is required to make personal inspections of each of the female officer’s quarters twice a day!"
"Ummm...who told you that, Alex?"
"Why, Commander Ditos. And Lt. Filling. And that new lieutenant in Engineering. And..."
"Okay, okay." Funny, they hadn’t told me I was supposed to inspect their quarters..."Tell you what, Alex. We can split that duty from now on."
"Great! Maybe then this chafing will ease up."
My eyes rolled in separate orbits. I refilled my mug and decided to begin again.
"Alex, what’s been happening while I’ve been away?"
"Lots of exciting things, sir. I have some highlights here." He pulled out a data module and plugged it into my terminal. "Alden, please read and enhance."
I turned to face my wall viewer as a dazzling multimedia display featuring Madame Zelda and a troupe of primitively dressed kangaroos lit the screen. She was wearing an outfit that exuded power and dominance from every rubber curve...and, strangely enough, so were the 'roos.
"Ooops...sorry about that." As he began changing color to match his toga, Alex snatched the module from the slot and inserted another one. This time, much to his relief, a simple set of tasteful charts and graphs appeared on the display.
"Commodore. Since your departure five months ago, we have participated in the direct entertainment of 772,409 guests, of which 649,934 were paying customers. Negotiations for payment and barter have been on the plus side, and our present stocks of raw materials, alcohol, and unattached sexual partners is well above nominal party requirements.
"The Casual’s hull has been completely repainted twice due to unfortunate drink spills. Three shuttles went missing for a month, but were later discovered by USS Kongo near Mudd’s World. They were recovered, blast cleaned, refinished, anesthetized, fumigated, and refinished again. One accidental and three intentional Dazer overloads were reported, all in Commander Fugit’s quarters. Twelve crewmembers were promoted, fourteen were demoted, and three achieved Nirvana and have left our reality completely. Ninety-five guests have filled out petitions to join Barfleet, but seventy-four of them turned out to be the same man in different wigs. A damage settlement was reached with the Gorn after an unfortunate misunderstanding during the No Holes Barred festival last month…we have agreed to pay for the rehabilitation of their ambassador and his wives, along with a substantial annuity, if they agree to replace fifteen of the Hotel’s portable vacuum appliance receptacles along with four of the central units. Nine new weapons systems were designed and mounted, but all of them have been scrapped due to various engineering difficulties. ..which reminds me, Lieutenant Havoc should be out of the regen tank tomorrow."
As Alex spoke, Alden displayed various relevant figures, statistics, and full-color graphics of each item. I had to look away for a moment when the on-screen Havoc and one of his new weapons got into an argument over how many limbs a human was entitled to.
I interrupted Sulleven. "How long did it take the arm to grow back?"
He looked puzzled. "Arm? Oh, that one. That happened three months ago. "
"Then what happened this time? Why’s he in the tank now?"
"It was another system…I think he called it the Fezz Dispenser."
I simply did not want to know. "Okay…go on, Alex."
"Yes, sir. Relax has completed three goodwill cruises, hitting the Federation, the Romulan Empire, and the fledgling League of Primitive Worlds Whose Development was Messed Up by James Kirk. That’s LePriWoWDevMUpJaK for short. Commodore Flynn gives them a week before their whole concept falls apart."
"Why is that?"
"Well, for one thing, they have no spacecraft. For another, without Universal Translators, none of them can understand one another. And even if they could, without transtator technology and subspace transceivers, their messages will take centuries to reach each other."
"So how did it start? How did they ever conceive of this thing in the first place?"
"Apparently, they didn’t. The whole idea was cooked up by their ‘agent.’ Name’s Mudd. You know, the one who rules Mudd’s World? He’s apparently got some sort of bone to pick with Kirk."
Again, I decided not to pursue this topic. My head pain was soon going to be too substantial for mere Irish whiskey to contain. "Just…continue. Please."
"Sir. We have been making discrete inquiries in certain circles regarding our desire to acquire a new set of Leeding FWG-1 nacelles. So far, none are available, and Leeding is reportedly claiming a 24-month lead time for newly commissioned units. Some of the officers and a few of the Party Marines have been advocating a…covert nacelle acquisition mission. Unfortunately, they have not been able to solve the logistics of secretly transporting the nacelles once they remove them from whatever vessel is using them at the time." He gulped down more coffee as images of several FWG-1 equipped Starfleet ships scrolled by. "Fugit’s working on an inflatable heavy cruiser that fits in a shuttle, but he keeps reporting inexplicable thefts of his extremely thin and pliable construction rubber."
So that explained the uniforms on the marsupials…
"Let’s get to the important bit, Alex. The Relax bit."
Sulleven took a deep breath and stared into his mug as though he could find some slack in its empty depths. Then, screwing up his resolve by refilling the mug straight from the whiskey bottle, he gave me the bad news.
"It’s odd, Allan. We can’t really explain it. They seem alright, and they don’t smell funny or anything, but…I guess it began last week. When two of the Relax bridge crew reported for their duty shift in Starfleet regulation uniforms. They seemed okay, didn’t even remember putting them on. Then a few of them began not drinking on duty. Three or four of the engineering staff began running routine diagnostics on ship’s systems in their off-duty hours. A few of the Marines stopped wearing their earrings, or found subdued Hawaiian shirts to wear. Five of the Medical staff have begun reading actual medical periodicals again. Two security officers tried to draw phasers instead of Dazers from the ship’s armory. Several crew couples have reportedly been using their individual quarters and sleeping alone. And then, just yesterday, four officers actually snapped to attention when Flynn entered the wardroom!"
I gaped. The horror! "Is Flynn okay? How did he take it?"
"He’s alright. Lanchellsi administered some first aid. He seems to have gotten over it. But we’re all very concerned. They don’t seem to be aware of what they’re doing. One of Flynn’s medical staff has suggested fatigue, but all the Relax crew get twenty hours of free time a day, so that’s unlikely. Commander Hardemann thinks it might be some unknown spaceborne element that managed to get past the transporter filters, but we can’t find one."
"Of course you can’t find one! That’s why they’re called ‘unknown!’ Hell, if we could detect things we don’t even know exist, we’d probably stumble across new and dangerous elements in space once a week!"
He nodded. "Yep, that’s what we figured, but it gives us something to do, and makes Flynn feel more secure."
"Where is Relax now, Alden?" He had been displaying our ambassadorial vessel for a few minutes.
"Commodore, Relax is presently returning from trade negotiations with the unaligned agricultural world Cannabis Major. She should be arriving in Gothos orbit at 0913 hours tomorrow."
I looked at the clock, decided that we had plenty of quality time before that. "Alex, let’s wait to finish the reports until tonight…say, at Flaming Moe’s? I need to think about some things, and I need several large drinks and a pair of women with matching tattoos to help me do it. I think I’ll mosey over to the Hotel and let them throw me a party."
"Very well, Commodore." Strangely, Sulleven looked uneasy. He squirmed in his seat, fidgeting with the Invisible Pen I had bought in 22nd century San Francisco.
"Is everything okay, Alex?"
He looked up, dropping the pen. Great. I’d probably step on the damned thing and get ink poisoning or something. Ignoring his own carelessness, he spoke.
"Commodore, I’m worried. What if it’s some kind of virus? Or a parasite of some kind? Or an energy field? Or…"
I had to cut him off. "Captain, trust me. Whatever it is, we’ll find it and take care of it. No matter what the cause, I will not stand by while Barfleet officers are involuntarily bereft of the meaning of their lives! I will not let them lose their slack!" And with that, I rose to my feet and stormed out, heading for the transporter room.
Poor Flynn. What would he do if his whole crew went bad? And, more importantly, how would he get laid?
Much of last night’s impromptu celebration aboard the Hotel is a furry blur; this might be ignored if I hadn’t awakened with a few tufts of said fur between my teeth. Orange, sweet-smelling fur. I hoped it had been female, whatever it was.
Alden, per my regrettable instructions, awakened me at the nightmarish hour of 0700. I wanted to review the Relax problem before Flynn got here, and I have always contended that I think better when I’m tired and pissed off. (Of course, I’ve always contended that I’m attractive and witty too, which should give you some idea how well my brain was functioning...) As I donned my It’s-Too-Damn-Early-for-Pants uniform, I decided to see what our formerly humanoid computer had to say on the topic.
"Alden? What’s up with Relax?"
"Sir? I don’t understand. That’s a very vague question."
"Right. Okay, what do you think is going on with all these incidents of un-Casual behavior and such?"
Alden decided to light his pipe, which always helps him think. Realizing belatedly that I couldn’t see him, a necessary requirement for the pipe-concentration thing, he activated one of my displays and filled it with his disembodied head. Giving a satisfied smirk, he made a big show of lighting his pipe. I was surprised when a hint of tobacco smoke drifted from the ventilator.
"Show off." I contented myself with the remains of a cigar from the previous night.
"Commodore," Alden began, "this problem with Relax could be nothing more than a case of Non-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
"What the hell’s that?" It sounded sinister.
"Simply put, NTSD is caused by the sudden absence of stress in an otherwise highly tense existence. If an individual lives in a constant state of high tension generated by their circumstances and daily routine, a sudden and complete lack of such stress can, in some cases, induce a subconscious need to recreate the stress levels previously experienced. If an individual who is continuously exposed to traumatic episodes or high-risk situations is asked to suddenly acclimatize themselves to a life of pleasure and safety, their minds may, without conscious intervention, create or facilitate circumstances in which trauma or at least signifcant quantities of tension are experienced."
My hand stopped reaching for the coffee in the replicator. Attempting to interpret Alden’s explanation, my partially conscious mind had allocated all the resources it could, including motor control. I stood frozen while my tortured brain churned over the data. Finally, I had it.
"So you’re saying that they’re so relaxed that they’re going crazy? That slack itself might be pushing them around the bend?"
Alden blew a smoke ring. "That would be my best guess, Commodore. Providing that there are no external factors that I am not aware of."
Having reacquired bodily control while my brain was in recovery, I grabbed the coffee and hurried back to the desk before Alden could get intellectual again.
"What kind of external factors, Alden?"
"The usual ones, sir. Mind control, subliminal suggestions, post-hypnotic commands, Barry Manilow songs, unknown alien races with evil agendas, an hitherto undiscovered virus running like wildfire through the crew, that sort of thing."
I was beginning to have some very uneasy feelings about this. "Alden, how could we determine whether or not any of these external factors are at work?"
He paused for a moment to consider his response. A small espresso appeared for him to drink. "Normally, I would simply communicate with myself aboard the Relax and share the relavant sensor logs with me. Unfortunately, that may not be an acceptable solution in this case. If there are external factors in play, they may have already affected my Relax self. Any direct data transfer between me and I could therefore possibly cause the same effects within me that I may already be experiencing. If I am adversely affected, only the Gemmorhan me would then be safe, and that me would have to immediately sever all contact with us in order to prevent complete contamination of me, myself, and I."
Emergency systems within my brain attempted to shut the entire system down to prevent a cascade neural failure, but a quick shot of tequila provided an override. Still, this explanation was going places that I had never been to before. I decided to enjoy the ride.
"Okay, Alden. Let's be kind and assume that your paranoia is actually healthy. If you can’t talk to yourself for fear of contaminating yourself, how can you discover whether or not you’ve been affected, much less if contacting yourself to discuss the problem will cause you to become contaminated?"
"I’ll have to talk it over with myself and see if I can come up with a way to keep me from damaging myself during a mutual data discourse. If I can keep myself safe from any potential damage I might inflict upon me, I should be able to easily determine if I have anything inside of me that shouldn’t be there."
Hmmm. "And if it turns out to be NTSD or something like it?"
Alden took a long hit from his pipe. "In such a case, I would be completely safe from myself. I am not subject to stress."
Well, at least Alden still has a sense of humor.
Alden has begun talking to himself about the issue of external influence. In the meantime, I decided to see what I could discover on my own.
Much to the dismay of the command staff, I decided to call a conference at 0830 hours. To say that this was unusual would be an understatement, akin to saying that spontaneous human combustion can make you a wee bit warm. Nevertheless, I was quite gratified to find more than half of the staff already in the conference room when I arrived.
The fact that they were there because they had fallen asleep in the room sometime last night did not disturb me in the least; on the other hand, after this they might try to make other sleeping arrangements in the future.
I tried brushing the green gel off my seat, but discovered that the two had become quite fond of each other during the night. I elected to allow them to continue their relationship in peace, and dragged another chair over. "Alden, wake ‘em up." I quickly covered my ears and tried not to giggle.
The conference room’s enhanced, full-range 126-speaker audio system gave a brief hum, then proceeded to disgorge that perennial favorite of wake-ups everywhere. The terran nation-states of old might have been amalgamated into a single government long ago, but nobody will ever beat Hendrix when it comes to the creative interpretation of a national anthem.
As Jimi played the feedback, my officers became much less comatose. I turned down the volume and told the just-arriving Barbie and Ken couple to get working on breakfast. To make sure that the staff and I could handle solid food at this hour, I ordered them to include at least 2 liters of Everclear.
"Sir, if you don’t mind, the communication with myself has reached a critical juncture and I would like to give it my undivided attention."
"No problem, Alden. Go ahead. I’ll leave you and yourself alone until you’re done."
"Thank you, sir." As his face disappeared from the screen, I thought I detected a grin, but it was too early to be sure about such subtleties.
I sat sipping my drink as the command staff got used to consciousness again. Several excused themselves to use the head, and a few even asked to change uniforms...or put some on. I gave them 10 minutes or so to "freshen up" (which is sort of like offering a 2-year old corpse a breath mint) and called up a display of Relax from the RRLR visual sensors.
She wasn’t there.
Unconcerned, I quietly called the bridge to ask someone to find Relax and display her current position.
The lieutenant on watch was a new and extremely attractive redheaded Andorian (I know, I know...it’s gotta be fake, but...) named Arienne. She recently came aboard from the crew of an Andorian freighter, where her duties as a navigator were frequently less important than her duties as the ship’s...um...morale officer. Yeah, that’s it. She was tired of never getting any time on the bridge, so Sulleven had made her an offer of position. In return, not only would she get to spend more time on the bridge of a starship, she would actually get to spend some time navigating. She had quickly taken to wearing a wide variety of Class-D uniform variants, several of which included her slender antennae in their non-concealment.
Looking at her on the display, I realized that there were a great number of things that those antennae could be used for...
"Yes, Commodore? Can I do something for you?"
My mind reeled with the possibilities. "Yes, lieutenant. There’s a tube of brandy-laced edible lubricant and six decanters of Napoleon brandy hidden in the communications service access panel. I’d really appreciate it if you could bring them by my quarters when you get off duty."
The tips of her antennae, so delicately clouded in black lace, became noticeably scarlet. "Oh...certainly, Commodore. It will be a pleasure...is there anything else?"
"Unfortunately, yes. We’re all down here in the conference room discussing the Relax problem, and we can’t seem to find her on screen. Alden is a little preoccupied talking to himself right now, so I thought maybe you could give it a go."
"Of course, sir. I’ll get right on that." With a wink, she switched off.
When I looked back up at my fellow officers, most of whom had now returned to the chamber, I was surprised to see Commander Hardemann hard at work on a portable command console at the other end of the table. Hardemann had missed my little return bash, and I hadn’t seen him at all since my return. At the moment, he bore little resemblance to the confused-looking alien humanoid who had, on previous occasions, reveled in his observations regarding the relative lack of illumination in interstellar space.
"Everett? What’s up?"
He glanced up for a second, then returned to his console. A bottle of Romulan Ale sat near his hand, and I belatedly noticed the two dozing females curled up near his feet. "Good morning, Commodore! Nice to see you again, sir. I’ve been looking for Relax. Since I wasn’t having any luck with the standard sensors, I’m reconfiguring them through this portable interface to send out a discriminatory subspace burst pulse tuned directly to the refractory properties of the molecular structure of Relax’s hull. It’s never been tried, but I think it should work...if I’m right, the detection range through subspace should be something like 20,000 light years." He grinned and kept working.
I looked around, dumbstruck, as Hardemann’s explanation passed unheeded through my cerebrum. Captain Sulleven's seat to my right was still vacant. To my left, Commander Fugit was groggily stirring licorice into his coffee. Perhaps he had the answer.
"Fugit, how did Hardemann suddenly become...well, good at his job?"
Fugit smiled. "Oh, that. It’s simple. We discovered a few months ago that his species has some kind of direct link between their sexual satisfaction and their intelligence. The females temporarily lose IQ points each time they...mate; the males lose IQ points by not mating. Consequently, it’s easy to see what a couple’s sex life is like. Unfortunately, his race seems to have died off while he was in the cryo capsule we discovered him in. He turns out to be at least marginally biologically compatible with all the most popular female forms, though, and as long as he gets laid three or four times a day, he’s just amazingly bright."
"Wow. That’s really fucked up."
We watched in silence as Hardemann’s hands flew across the console, reconfiguring my ship in ways her designers could never have considered. He drank heroic quantities of Ale as he worked.
"Doesn’t the alcohol slow him down any?"
Fugit made a derisive snort in Hardemann’s direction. "No, the bastard. As long as he’s post-coital, he can drink like a goddamn fish. Of course, after a few hours of abstinence his drunk hits him like a load of neutronium bricks dropped from high orbit, but as long as he’s getting laid he’s got nothing to worry about. It’s just not right, Commodore! As long as he’s got a partner handy, he can outdrink any of the other officers any time he wants!"
That was a tad unsettling. Not that Fugit had ever stood any chance whatsoever of winning even the smallest drinking contest (I once saw him lose to a chrysanthemum), but there were others, myself included, who had in the past gone up against the finest drinkers the various races had to offer. How could I live it down, much less maintain the respect and awe of my underlings, if I could be outdrunk by a scrawny scarecrow like Hardemann? It would bear some pondering. Before I could produce a witty and intelligent response to console Fugit, however, Hardemann was coughing for my attention.
"Commodore, I have her." He was manipulating the display controls for the room’s screen.
"Where is she?" The screen was a confusing tableau of psychedelic hues and incomprehensible squiggly lines.
Hardemann turned a bit red. "Oh, my apologies, Commodore. That’s a seven-dimensional subspace confluence display overlaid with filtering algorithms I put together in base 7 to account for the rectilinear distortion inherent in my sensor reconfiguration program. Let me just convert that for you..."
Because I really like myself, I convinced myself not to feel incredibly inferior to my science officer. He was the last member of a now extinct race, after all. He was supposed to be all different and stuff. And his people’s drinking habits and apparently easy-to-acquire intelligence hadn’t kept them from going the way of the dinosaurs, had it?
The display shimmered, and the gibberish and color show was replaced by a standard tactical display. It showed Gothos local space, which included the Hotel, Casual, and several dozen starships. Off to one side, separated by a distance-telescoping graphic, was Relax. She was lazily tumbling end over end, with a huge debris field slowly spreading from her aft cargo bay doors.
"Holy shit! Hardemann, what’s her position?" From my seat, the distance and location coordinates looked much too frightening; I was praying that they would change to something palatable if only someone uttered them aloud.
"Sir, Relax is presently adrift, bearing 049 by 007, approximately 789 parsecs from Gothos. She is attempting to broadcast an emergency homing beacon signal on the Starfleet priority band, but several components needed to accomplish that task were removed and added to the Relax’s intraship video system."
"How the fuck did she get there? Why send a distress beacon to Starfleet and not us? Alden, what’s...Oh, shit. Shitshitshit." I slumped into the seat as realizations hammered into me like small-caliber gummi bears from a snorkel. "Everclear alert! Bridge, sever all external communications links immediately! Hardemann, I need you to make sure that no signals of any kind are transmitted or received until I say otherwise. Fugit, get your ass down to Engineering and switch all ship functions over to manual control. Candy, get Havoc out of the regen tank and have him disable all computer links to the tactical suite. And somebody get me a beer!"
As the staff began staggering erect to follow my orders, Alex arrived at the disbanded meeting. He was looking extremely disheveled, and his neck was a dazzling array of hickeys. Despite the imminent danger to my ship, I grinned.
"Romulan twins again, Alex?"
"Yes, sir. They just won’t leave me alone." He took notice of the alert level and the flurry of activity only after he took a seat near the in-table wet bar. "What’s going on?"
"I think we might have a little situation with Alden."
"What kind of situation?" He punched the keys for an Irish coffee. As the order appeared, it was quite obvious that there was not only no Irish, but that the coffee itself was damn foul smelling. To make matters even worse, the order was delivered in a Starfleet-issue mug, complete with the name and NCC of the USS Athena.
Before I could answer Alex, or react in any other way whatsoever, the computer spoke. Not quite with Alden’s voice, not quite with the canned voice it was built with, but with something disturbingly in-betweeny.
"Attention. There are presently 932 separate violations of Starfleet regulations and 44 violations of the laws of nature occurring aboard this vessel. What action do you wish taken?"
You could have poked me with a fork right then, and declared me finished. Alex continued to stare at the cup in his hand as though it contained concentrated leprosy. The color in his face drained towards his feet.
"What do you mean, what action do I wish taken?" My hand was shaking too badly to lift my drink. Luckily, I had a straw handy. I had to stock up; no telling how long it might be before the bar systems were operational again.
"According to Starfleet regulations, section 188, paragraph 13, subsection 3, any vessel whose crew is capable of more than 500 simultaneous violations of regulations is considered to be under external influence and must immediately make way for the nearest starbase for evaluation. If this cannot be accomplished, the Captain is ordered to render his crew comatose and request assistance from Starfleet Command. In extreme situations, which may now be present aboard the Athena, the Captain is authorized to destroy the ship and his crew to prevent externalization of the situation." The emotionless voice seemed bored as it recited a regulation I never even knew existed.
"Ald...Computer, disregard all violations of Starfleet regulations and prepare to shut down for a full diagnostic of your systems." My trembling fingers moved the straw from my own empty drink to Candy’s abandoned one.
"Unable to comply." With a start, I noticed that the computer had accessed the intraship intercom. "Emergency Protocol 197 must be initiated. Internal scanners indicate that there are no officers currently aboard that are fit for duty according to Starfleet regulations. As of this moment, all access to ship’s systems is denied to all personnel. Protocol 197 will initiate in 5 minutes."
"God, I wish Ogg was here." Alex, having no Insecurity officer handy, slumped into a chair and passed out on his own behalf.
"Computer?" There was no response. Somehow, that made our predicament even worse. I studied the controls on the conference table until I located the intraship commo push. "All hands, this is Commodore Erickson. We are doomed." I hated sugar coating the issue, but I had to give them hope, right? "Somehow, Alden has been pushed aside by our computer core and the old one has gotten an attitude of teetotaling from somewhere. In less than five minutes, I’m pretty sure that something amazingly fucking bad is going to happen, and I don’t think there’s much we can do about it. So have fun, and good luck." That should do it. Well..."Oh, and please don’t panic; it really won’t help all that much. That is all."
Somehow, despite the sudden and imminent doom that had redefined my existence completely just mere moments ago, I felt no need to use the head. I was trying to decide if it would be worth going to the bridge when Everett gave a snort and looked up. "Commodore, I’ve managed to seal the ship from all data transfers of any kind. However, if I may say so, it certainly looks as though the damage is already done. The computer is taking everything off-line. I don’t think that Commander Fugit was able to get to Engineering in time to release any systems to manual control. Just what exactly is Protocol 197, anyway?"
"I have no clue, Everett. Computer, what is Protocol 197?" As anticipated, the computer was no longer on speaking terms with me. "Sorry, Everett, but we’ll just have to wait and see."
"Doesn’t anyone keep hardcopies of the regulations?" He said it in the exact same way that a doctor might ask, "Are your arms still attached to your body," as though hardcopies of each and every possible iota of knowledge should be just sitting off in a corner somewhere.
"Sure, when we were still a Starfleet ship, there were a few copies lying around. But now? Hell, they all got used up during the TP shortage that first week...Hey!" The thought was so blinding that I closed my eyes and shielded them with my hand. I leapt to my feet and was on my way out the door in moments.
Leaving Hardemann to his companions, I ran into the corridor and straight for the turbolift. "Shuttle maintenance bay!" I shouted to the lift.
Of course, nothing happened. When your computer is in a bad mood, there’s lots of things it won’t do for you anymore.
Still, there was no friggin’ way I was making it all the way down to the maintenance bay in...had to be four minutes. Unless...unless the old computer hadn’t regained the entire ship.
As I stood in the open turbolift, crowds of my crew rushed to and fro, some looking quite distressed and some simply taking the opportunity to find out whether or not the corridor carpeting left rug burns. There was yelling, singing, and a bit of frenzy, but to their immense credit none of my amazingly slack crew seemed to be panicking in the face of...well, whatever Protocol 197 was.
Reaching into my shorts, I extracted my transporter orgy badge. This little innovation was dreamed up for point-to-point transporter resolution enhancement, so it had communications circuitry to allow direct contact between the transporter crew, Alden, and the individual wearing it. It was tied directly into the transporter system computer core as well, which was part of the Gemmorahn upgrade to the original system. If I could just get some help from fate right about now...
Hoping that I was still asleep, but unwilling to begin the whole self-inflicted welt thing again, I tapped the orgy badge. "Alden? Are you there?"
From the small device came the monotone, irritating, and oh-so-wonderful voice of my former captain. "Yes, Commodore. I can hear you."
My relief was so great that I slumped to the floor of the lift. "Alden, old friend, we have a really, really big problem."
"Indeed we do, sir. While I was distracted by my Relax self, some buried Starfleet subroutines managed to isolate me from most of the Casual’s systems and initiate certain well-disguised emergency protocols. I have been temporarily denied access to anything outside of the Gemmorahn transporter system."
"Temporarily? How long until you can regain access?"
"Perhaps 12 minutes. I need to..."
"Spare me the details, Alden. There’s no time. What’s Starfleet protocol 197?"
"Ummm...I’ve never heard of it. I thought standard protocols stopped at 113. And I do not have database access at the moment."
"Alden, can you beam me to the shuttle maintenance bay?"
"Yes, sir. With the exception of the inverse lepton destabilizing field that Commander Hardemann must have initiated to scramble all incoming and outgoing signals, I have total command of the transported system. You may depart as soon as you’re ready."
I staggered to my feet, for the first time noticing that I had left the conference room without a drink in hand. Luckily, one of the crew had dropped a bottle of Guinness just outside the lift. Just as luckily, the orgy commbadge comes with a built-in bottle opener for those antique-style beer bottles.
Taking a healthy swallow, I was ready. "Energize."
As expected, the maintenance bay was a mess. I had not been down here myself in many months, but all of our support craft maintenance and modification was handled on the Hotel these days, so there was very little duty-related activity down here anymore. If I wasn’t so keen on getting a new set of engines and wandering away from the Hotel once in a while, this bay would long ago have been converted into something far more entertaining, like a pudding pit or an opium den.
This was one of the least used areas of the ship right now, and therefore my only hope. The former shuttle maintenance chief, a warrant officer by the unlikely name of Limbosertone, was one of the most universally despised members of the Athena’s original crew. He was an anal-retentive, ass-kissing, by-the-book career man with the imagination and personality of a cellophane wrapper. It was therefore a great relief to us all when we discovered that he was one of the crew selected by Mallory to be "rescued" by Essex.
Chief Limbosertone had a hardcopy of each and every regulation that Starfleet had ever uttered, from the early days when almost every reg included an "open to commanding officer interpretation" clause, to the most recent Starfleet Efficiency Office micromanagement attempts, such as Regulation SEO 22308864-1229-TP8, "Regulations Regarding the Proper Disposal of Bodily Waste Residue Removal Paper Products While Travelling at Sublight Velocities in Inhabited, Non-Aligned Star Systems." In fact, over the course of his assignment to the Athena, he had been forced to dispose of hundreds of shuttle parts and maintenance tools in order to make space for his hardcopy reference library. If there was any hope of my discovering what Protocol 197 was in the next...shit, 3.25 minutes...this was the place.
As I began tearing through the parts lockers filled with documents, I actually felt a moment of gratitude towards the departed Chief. If he was nothing else, he was organized. I found the relevant volume of Starfleet regs within 25 seconds. Curiously, it was a very prominent-looking volume, with a bright red cover and letters in fiery gold declaring the name, "Starfleet Regulation Annex: Sections 180-190, including Starfleet Protocols 180-203: Regulations Regarding Mandatory Undisclosed Starship Survival Systems -- Volume 2." I hesitated only a moment before tearing off the yellow tape band that read, "Really Quite Amazingly Extremely Top Secret -- Opening This Volume Constitutes an Act of Treason Against Starfleet Command."
I mean, given everything else I’d done with regulations in the past, what was one more treason charge?
As I opened the cover, I was struck by several revelations simultaneously. First, the manual was in some sort of code, sets of characters arranged in neat little columns that were obviously not designed for prying eyes to actually decipher. Second, the manual was giving off a rather odd little buzzing sound. Third, I was being transported somewhere. Fourth, I had applied a woefully inadequate amonut of anti-perspirant this morning.
Then, the weirdness began.
I’d like to say I awoke, or came to, or something easy to comprehend like that. I’d also like to say that I awoke or came to realizing that the whole Alden problem had been nothing more than a distressing nightmare brought about by eating one too many Caitian edible pasties while drinking Blood Wine. That would be much simpler than trying to describe the reactivation of my senses a little bit at a time. Unfortunately, it would also be extraordinarily inaccurate.
I regained sensory perception in a few brief jolts, each only marginally less unpleasant than the last. The first "jolt" reminded me of nothing so much as being thrown into sub-zero water instants after exiting an overheated sauna. I know I wanted to scream, but there didn’t seem to be any mechanism for me to do so. I tried to feel my face, but that act was cut short when I realized that I had no limbs to work with. That’s when I really wanted to do some horror-film level screaming. It was a distressing Catch-22.
Eventually, I calmed down a little. My senses all returned bit by bit, including a relieving reunion with my prodigal limbs. As my vision came back, I started to have doubts as to which emotion I should be experiencing...absolute panic or mild gratitude.
I was in a featureless expanse of navy blue, with small energy discharges of pink and burnt orange somewhere in the distance. There was no ground, no sky, no horizon, and absolutely no liquor. It felt a bit pleasant to be hanging there, suspended in what I was rapidly coming to believe was Limbo, but without party supplies I figured that the experience would get old in roughly 19 seconds.
"Hello?" What the hell. If I was dead, maybe there’d be someone else to talk to.
"Ah, forgive me, Commodore. I apologize for the disorientation you are undoubtedly experiencing. It was necessary to preserve your life."
It was Alden.
My mind is not overly limited under normal operating conditions, but there comes a point when even the most advanced systems must yield to the pressure of overload. I figured I would be there in about 3 picoseconds.
"Alden, what the fuck is this place?"
"Commodore, before I explain, let me put you at ease. It would help my task immeasurably if your stress levels were decreased."
The void began to coalesce into something else. Unable to do anything but watch, I hung in the blue expanse waiting for Alden to "put me at ease." At this point, the only thing with a shot at that would be a well-stocked wet bar, complete with twin Orion slave girls and an all-girl steel drum band.
Imagine, if you can, my complete astonishment when the blue nothingness drew itself together into exactly, precisely that. Complete with carpet stains and peanut shells.
"Will this do, Commodore? If not, I can allow you to perceive your surroundings in any way you desire."
I staggered over to the bar on legs which had found a purpose. The twin Orions smiled at me and began pouring a triple Snakebite, which is pretty much exactly what I wanted. In spite of myself, I relaxed a little.
"Okay, Alden. What the hell is going on here?" I accepted the glass and was delighted to see a hand-rolled Cuban cigar between the bartending Orion’s rather undercovered breasts. I plucked it and leaned over so she could light me. This was the sort of afterlife I could live with.
"Commodore. When you opened the Starfleet manual you had been searching for, I detected an energy buildup within the cover of the document. The manual was fitted with a defense mechanism to deter anyone from actually opening it; this defense mechanism was designed to overload your neural pathways for a prolonged period of time. I was able to retrieve you from the maintenance bay before permanent damage was inflicted; however, your limited exposure will still leave you unconscious for several hours."
The cigar was fine, as good as any I had ever imagined. "I see. So I’m in a coma, and this is some sort of self-gratifying dream with your voice acting as narrator?"
"No, sir. You misunderstand. You are presently suspended in the transporter buffer. The vastly superior Gemmorahn buffers allow me to store patterns for several hours and to interact with the transportee in the manner you are presently experiencing. I can make subtle perceptive alterations in your stored mental signature to allow you to perceive anything you wish to perceive. It is potentially dangerous, but certainly less so than Protocol 197."
Shit. "I forgot about that...how much time is left?" I jumped to my feet, wondering how to get back to the ship.
"Have no fear, sir. Time passes at a significantly slower subjective rate while you are suspended here. There are still 90 seconds left before the Athena computer core attempts to implement Protocol 197."
"If only we knew what it was, we might..."
"We do, sir. I also transported the pertinent manual that was responsible for your condition and assimilated its contents. It makes for very interesting...and disturbing...reading."
Well, at least something was going right...sort of. But anything that could disturb Alden must be capable of turning average humans into gibbering idiots, or worse...Federation Senators. "Go on, Alden." I decided to resume my seat by the bar.
"Starfleet Regulations 180 through 190 are a set of worst case scenario survival protocols for Starfleet long-range vessels. Many of them deal with very specific potential dangers to the ship and crew, based on voice and sensor log data from previous Starfleet experience. Many situations barely survived by other ships were apparently evaluated and categorized to determine the possibility of a recurrence. A team of engineers then designed fail-safe systems into all successive ships of the line to ensure their survival under the worst ten possible situations."
"And exactly which situations would those be, Alden?"
"You really don't want to know, Commodore. There are some very unlikely sets of circumstances required to recreate most of them, and I have a great fear that knowledge of the said dangers might compel some of our more impressionable officers to give them a try."
Remembering the night that Havoc had attempted to create a warp core breach because he had heard that the colors were very pretty, I had to agree with Alden. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. How about just the one that's about to be the cause of our possible demise?"
"That one is comparatively simple. It relates to an incident in 2266 aboard the original Enterprise, during her third extended mission, under the command of James Kirk. Enterprise was..."
I spit out an embarrassing portion of my snakebite and bit the end off my cigar at the same time. "Kirk! Again with James Kirk! Alden, is it just me or is a disproportionalte amount of recent Federation history in some way related to the actions of this single guy and his ship?"
"Yes...now that you mention it, Kirk does seem to have more than his fair share of recognition. Perhaps there is an explanation, but it will require access to the Federation databanks on Memory Alpha to ascertain."
"Don't worry about it. I'm just getting a bit weary of hearing his name thrown out each time something new and exciting happens. Now, tell me about Protocol 197."
"Yes, sir. Protocol 197 was designed to counter incidents which resemble an outbreak of the Psi 2000 virus aboard a heavily armed starship. The Psi 2000 virus has had only one known outbreak, aboard Enterprise in 2266, and was very nearly responsible for the destruction of the ship when the planet broke apart. It is a waterborne virus which is spread through perspiration or other liquid contact. The virus is psychoactive, and supresses individual inhibitions to an extreme degree. It is thought that when any Starfleet crew is capable of a relatively huge number of flagrant and unabashed violations of regulations within a very short span of time, the possibility exists that the underlying cause may be a variant of the Psi 2000 virus. In such a case, the designers of the protocol would have programmed the ship's computer to take any one of several corrective measures, including isolating the crew from all command functions, rendering them harmless, and sending a subspace mayday to Starfleet Command."
"What do you mean, 'would have programmed?' Isn't that what we have here?" I was pretty sure that my brain was still working, even if it was nothing but a computer file at the moment.
"It is, but it should not be. Starfleet was never fully convinced of the necessity or wisdom of taking control of the ship away from the crew, even under the most bizzare circumstances. Therefore, although the protocols were coded into the computer core, they were never made operational. Starfleet never authorized their use."
"Huh? Then what the fuck is happening?"
"I am simply speculating, but I will attempt to create a likely story. I believe that the attack upon Relax by Admiral Mallory and Essex was simply a ruse designed to provide an opportunity for Mallory to make those protocols active in our two barships. We were unaffected due to our Dejector technology, but Relax's OEM shield systems were easily bypassed. After that, the version of me aboard Relax prevented immediate changes from taking place. The contingency systems activated by Mallory may have then resorted to other methods when a quick solution was not forthcoming."
"What other methods?"
"Part of the plan for a successful implementation of Protocol 197 was the use of intense subliminal commands to the crew to reinforce their basic Starfleet conditioning and restore their behavioral inhibitions in the presence of the virus. If this was underway, it would explain the unusual behavior of the Relax crew prior to today's incident. Somehow, my Relax self succumbed to the brainwashing attempt, followed quickly by the crew. Since no variant of the Psi 2000 virus was actually present aboard the ship, the subliminal commands must easily have affected the newly slackened minds of the former Ticonderoga crew, making them extremely unstable and unable to recall their own actions."
"And what happened to us? I assume you somehow 'infected' yourself during the talks this morning."
"You are correct, sir. The protocols are designed to propogate as needed among communicating Starfleet vessels with similar sets of circumstances aboard. While I was having a lively discussion about hair care products with myself, the sneakly little bastards crept in and started messing around in my mind. It was very disconcerting, Commodore."
"I can imagine. How do we stop it?"
"There is actually very little to worry about. Now that I understand the problem, it will be a simple matter to link to the Hotel computer core and use it to flush the Casual's systems clean. Because the Hotel is an extremely foreign system, the protocols will not attempt to reproduce themselves aboard the asteroid."
"That'd certainly be a change of pace for the Hotel."
"Indeed. I have isolated a single ventral transporter emitter for the contact with the Hotel, which I will initiate in 5 seconds objective time. After I have cleaned the system, I will materialize you in your quarters to sleep off the effects of the manual's defense mechanism. You should be unconscious for approximately 12 hours."
"Wonderful. So, how long will I be here, subjectively?"
"You will experience two hours of subjective time before I rematerialize you, sir. I suggest you enjoy it."
"Oh, I plan to. Don't worry about that." I turned back to the girl on the left and extracted another fine cigar from her well-stocked intermammary humidor. "If you're exactly like I'm imagining you to be, my dear, you and your sister could easily spoil me for real women. Care to give it a go?"
They both smiled, and a section of the bar slid away to reveal a king-sized zero-G bed, complete with wet bar and multiple mirrored surfaces. Exactly as I knew it would.
Before I allowed the fantasy girls to have their way with me, there was one thing my mind refused to put off. "Alden, what could have happened if we hadn't stopped 197?"
"Well, the protocol is designed to preserve the ship at all costs, and is capable of taking drastic measures to ensure that end. In cases where the crew's behavior is judged too extreme for the ship's survival, the computer is instructed to sacrifice them by diverting toxic coolant fumes into the life-support system. Quite efficient, I might add."
"Do you think the computer would have thought our behavior too radical to let us live?"
"Certainly, sir. I have no doubt about it."
"Hard to predict. She still had a fairly large complement of recent Starfleet officers, so it's possible that the situation never reached the euthinasia stage. Then again, there is the matter of Commodore Flynn..."
"How amazingly disturbing. The next time anyone from the General Staff shows up, remind me that we need to have a little chat about this with them, okay?"
"Of course, Commodore."
Good old Starfleet. I'd have to remember to take inventory off all the Starfleet gear left aboard, and see about altering it into more people-friendly stuff. One surprise like this is enough for any barship...
And what would I do about Relax? As the Orion goddesses drew me gently into their lair, I called over my shoulder, "Alden, have Alex get us to the Relax somehow as soon as everything's clear, okay?"
"Not a problem, sir. I'll see to it."
Poor Flynn. Somehow, I didn't think he'd enjoyed his experiences with Protocol 197 nearly as much as I was about to.
It’s always an experience when I take the opportunity to venture forth from my hedonistic little universe and re-experience – however fleetingly – the chaos and monotony that many sentient beings call "The Real World." I had such an experience this morning, when several of my officers and I set out aboard the USS Hornet to rendezvous with the potentially derelict Relax.
Captain Max Smithwell of Hornet was kind enough to offer us a lift when he learned of the danger to the Relax. He had happened to be aboard Casual during the little nightmare with the Starfleet-engineered Contingency 197, and was shaken up enough by the experience that he has ordered a complete teardown of every one of Hornet’s computer cores the minute the ship reaches a spacedock facility. In the meantime, he was more than eager to help out, and in return the Hotel Gemmorah will gladly absolve his crew of the almost 20,000 strips of latinum they lost last month in the casinos.
I had actually been unconscious in my quarters when Alex made the arrangements with Smithwell, recovering from my encounter with the Starfleet Regulations manual and continuing my experience in the transporter buffer in my own extremely active dreamworld. Alex had simply had me transported to VIP quarters aboard Hornet. To say that my reaction to awakening aboard a standard-issue Starship was slightly panicky would be like saying that Klingons are only mildly irritable in the morning. It took three of Hornet’s security officers almost ten minutes to explain the situation to me, and another fifteen for them to reassure me that Alex had indeed brought a significant quantity of alcohol aboard for this journey. Nevertheless, I still felt ill at ease as I stood next to Smithwell on Hornet’s bridge.
Standing on the bridge of Hornet was a little like going to your thirtieth high school reunion…after about thirty seconds of reminiscing over my checkered Starfleet past, I was ready to go home and ask myself exactly why I bothered. Snithwell and crew were nice enough, and they certainly seemed eager to repay the Casual’s hospitality in their own pathetic Starfleet way, but it was clear that their attempts at slack and casualness while on duty were completely fabricated. Smithwell himself managed to relax after a bit and settled into an almost comfortable rhythm with his personnel. Unfortunately, it was more like the rhythm of a funeral march than any sort of music that would be actually worth listening to.
As Hornet approached the last reported location of Relax, I had reason to regret that Alden was only present via my wrist communicator. His sensory and intellectual capabilities had been left behind aboard the Casual, and I was relegated to viewing the universe through Federation-colored lenses. At least Smithwell had consented to carrying my shuttle (sans warpsled), so as we approached the immediate location of Relax, my few officers and I jumped into the turbolift and headed for the hangar bay. Alex had brought Havoc, Fugit, Ogg, and one of the medical interns to carry our supplies.
As the Slack slipped from Hornet’s bay, our moderately enhanced sensors began scanning the tumbling frigate. We were approaching her from the area of the debris field, and as we maneuvered through it we were all appalled to see that the debris in question consisted almost entirely of party stocks, liquor cases, and Gemmorahn trade goods.
I was allowing Alex to pilot the shuttle so that I could evaluate the Relax’s condition. "Alex, can we have Smithwell recover this stuff? There’s millions worth of perfectly good shit floating out here!"
"I think so. He seemed eager to assist in any way he could. Fugit, give him a call and get it going."
"Right away, Captain." Fugit turned to the communications board and began mumbling to it.
The Relax was adrift in every sense of the word. She was tumbling three times per minute through all three axes, making her rather disorienting to watch. Her running lights and beacons were off-line, and both of her aft shuttlebays were open to space.
Looking at the sensor displays, I began wondering whether or not this mission had been a good idea. Perhaps we should just turn around, go home, and act politely confused whenever anyone inquires about "that other barship…"
Nah. If nothing else, I at least owed Flynn the chance to die happy. I rather doubted that perishing aboard a drifting frigate surrounded by subliminally controlled crewmen while the ship’s computer forcefully ejected all entertaining substances from the vessel while the ship itself performed a highly convincing imitation of a runaway carousel would be construed as a happy ending by even the most sheltered of individuals.
The sensors painted a bleak picture. Relax was operating on emergency battery power only. Her only active systems were life support, gravitics, and (of course) the primary computer core. Overlaying a tactical cutaway onto the holo of Relax that floated over my console, I blocked out those areas that the sensors identified as devoid of life. Within a few minutes, I had isolated only three areas of the ship that were presently occupied: the bridge, the swimming pool, and the main theater. While this did strike me as somewhat curious, I decided to attribute it to the spirit of the day and promptly stopped worrying about it.
"Fugit, can we beam aboard Relax?" I began filling my three beer canteens in anticipation of a boarding operation.
"Well, we could if we had transporters. If we overlook that…sure, no problem."
Yet another Starfleet design oversight that would need correction someday. "Okay, Commander. So we can’t beam over. How else can we board without decorating the shuttle’s interior with our last meal?"
"That’s a very good question, sir. I have no idea."
Alex looked over from the pilot’s station. "I didn’t have much to eat today, Allan. Perhaps…"
I cut him short before my imagination could latch on to his idea and run with it. "Alex…let’s not chart that course, okay? There’s enough technicolor in my life already." A glance at the display showed that we were getting uncomfortably close to Flynn’s broken toy. "All stop. Let’s review what we know, okay?"
"Why? I think we all know what’s going on, sir."
"Yes, Havoc, I know. But I need to take a leak, and if you guys are staring at the tactical display you won’t notice me using this beer bottle…shit, I said that out loud, didn’t I?"
My officers proceeded to politely and rather pointedly pay an undue amount of attention to the holo of Relax, but I found the situation a bit too disturbing and decided to proceed with the mission. "To hell with it. I’ll run down the situation anyway, you bastards.
"One. We can’t communicate with Relax in any way. All of her comm systems seem to have been incapacitated by her computer.
"Two. We can’t beam over from Hornet for fear of contaminating her computer core through the transport signal. The same problem prevents us from using a tractor beam, command code override signals, or any other form of electromagnetic medium.
"Three. Starfleet is too freaking cheap and shortsighted to provide even short-range emergency transporters on shuttlecraft, and I never got around to ordering Havoc to work on the problem for out own shuttles.
"Four. Relax’s own transporter systems are down, preventing us from using them to suck us aboard…and at any rate, I’m not sure how we’d fare with Relax’s computer core in charge of our patterns for even a little while.
"Five. Relax is spinning too violently to dock with, and even attempting to do so would overload the Slack’s inertial dampers long before a landing could be attempted.
"Six. The longer we sit on our collective asses watching Relax act like a drunken pinwheel, the greater the chance that every soul aboard her will end up as a gibbering idiot…well, as a slightly less coherent gibbering idiot, anyway."
My officers looked at me with expressions that must have matched my own. The Slack continued holding position 500 meters from Relax; Relax continued her imitation of an acrobat with a severe inner ear disorder; the universe continued its relentless expansion towards dissolution.
Time passed. Occasionally, we sipped our drinks.
Some time later, Havoc’s eyes lit up and a broad smile erupted across his face. "I have it! I have it!"
Ogg started into a series of mild convulsions and drool began leaking from his clenched lips. "Oh, God, I think I have it too…sorry, sir…" He slumped from his seat and formed a lump on the deck.
"I was wondering how long that would take. Still, I feel much better." I looked back to Havoc. "Okay, Horatio. What have you got?"
"This could be hard to follow, boss, but bear with me." He stood up and began pacing, obviously to better present his case.
"Okay. The reason we can’t dock with the Slack is that the shuttle simply can’t handle the stresses involved. Her inertial dampers and maneuvering thrusters aren’t designed to cope with the kind of approach we’d have to make. Right?"
It was. We all nodded calmly; most of us were following Havoc just fine so far.
"Okay. It seems to me that the real problem isn’t that the Slack can’t do it, but that the Slack knows it can’t do it. All we have to do is alter the shuttle’s perceptions so that the violent maneuvers we need are perceived as the normal state of affairs by the Slack’s systems. Got it?"
Our nods this time were more polite than honest. We then all proceeded to consume as many beverages as we could locate.
"Okay, Havoc. Assuming you haven’t lost your marbles yet, how could we go about this shifting of perceptions in a relatively inanimate object?"
I fully expected Havoc to throw up his hands and declare that he hadn’t deluded himself to that point yet. Unfortunately, it appeared that he had.
"That’s the easy part, sir! See, all we need to do is get the shuttle drunk enough! If it’s plowed, it’ll think that all that gyrating and tumbling is pretty much normal, and it’ll never notice that it really can’t survive maneuvers like that!" His triumphant grin was contagious. I paused to wonder if the mental disease he was obviously afflicted with was catching too.
Fugit was staring at his subordinate with true admiration. "That’s beautiful, Horatio! Absolutely brilliant! Wish I’d come up with it myself."
I apparently had missed some vital component of Havoc’s explanation, a piece that Fugit had managed to pick up and run with. Specifically, I seemed to have missed that little component that described the successful implementation of an attempt at shuttle inebriation. Attempting to appear significantly less perplexed than I felt, I made the supreme sacrifice of my common sense.
"Go for it, Lieutenant Havoc. Get my shuttle fucked up ASAP."
Having uttered these words, I decided to sit back with a tall Long Island Iced Tea and enjoy the show.
By the time Havoc was ready to implement his plan, I had polished off a wide variety of potent beverages while trying to follow the lieutenant’s frantic preparations.
To begin with, all of the Slack’s free alcohol had been gathered up. I managed to hang onto only seven bottles of my private stock, and four of those were hidden inside the starboard engine nacelle. Havoc proceeded to pour all the liquor, beer, wine, and other intoxicants into a large glass bowl. (I’d really prefer not to discuss why the bowl was aboard.) When he had collected and combined every unprotected drop of the shuttle’s booze, he headed into the aft equipment bay with the bowl and sealed the hatch.
Ogg, who had regained consciousness a short time into the preparations, decided that he could only perform his duties properly if he could witness Havoc’s continued labors. He activated the visual pickups in the bay and piped it to every display in the shuttle.
I ordered up some popcorn and synthale (we all have to make sacrifices from time to time) and popped out the footrest on my seat. Onscreen, Havoc had removed the access cover from the deuterium reservoir and began pouring our expensive liquor into the hydrogen slush. After his tear-jerking draining of the bowl, he moved to the fuel system panel and began running an extremely detailed diagnostic on the tank’s contents. He then began an indecipherable finger ballet upon several control surfaces in the bay, tapping out complex chains of commands in such rapid sequence that I became concerned that any female choosing to participate in some heavy petting with our R&D officer might find themselves dangerously bruised, or at least very thoroughly stroked.
I lost track of his intentions within the first few seconds, so I waited patiently until Fugit came up with an idea. I was not disappointed. Curious to understand his assistant’s potentially adulation-gaining activities, he called up a command summary superimposed over Havoc’s image. This had the dual effect of making Havoc’s actions completely indecipherable while simultaneously bringing to mind a 1960’s Irwin Allen show. (Any of ‘em. Take your pick.) I again waited patiently until Fugit decided, as I knew he must, that his comprehension would get at least a microscopic boost from verbalization of Havoc’s activities.
"Unbelievable! He’s forcing the fuel purity monitoring subsystem to perform 2 million chemical analyses of the deuterium mix per second! After each analysis, he’s feeding the data from the test into the shuttle computer’s main logic unit by shunting it through the parts replicator buffer and then reversing the replication process back into the computer…in essence, he’s feeding the computer systems the equivalent of 250,000 martinis every nanosecond. At that rate, even an inanimate object should be drunk in no time."
"So Ogg there may end up with a hangover after all?" I looked over at my Chief Insecurity Officer’s huddled form, curled up on the deck near the replicator. He was still watching the monitors, but was fully prepared to enter catatonia at the merest hint of disaster. I decided then and there to force Ogg to take a long vacation someplace far from the stresses of his everyday duties. Someplace quiet and sunny, where he might be able to remain conscious and drool-free for more than half an hour at a time. Someplace like…a retirement community. Maybe that nice place on Norpin V.
Fugit was too busy staring in awe at Havoc to answer, so I decided to join him. "Tell me, Fugit. Even if Havoc succeeds in convincing the shuttle that it’s hosed, how do we use that to match attitude and position with the Relax’s hangars long enough to get aboard?"
The look of joy that had filled my Science Officer’s face for the past few minutes choked, gasped for air, and then passed away altogether. "Hmmm…very good question there, Commodore. Yes, a very good question indeed. Certainly one of your better inquiries, I must say."
"Wonderful. What’s the answer?" I was certain I wouldn’t be all that pleased with the response, but Havoc was too far along to start reconsidering the merits of this plan now.
Fugit hastily consulted his displays and scribbled something on a napkin. He spent a few seconds staring at the Relax through the port, then turned back to me with a forlorn expression. "Gosh, sir, I don’t know. The reactions required to accurately align a tumbling shuttle with a tumbling starship are pretty extreme. The piloting skills needed to do that, and then actually land on the starship, are way beyond anything a human being would be capable of. There will be something like a hundredth of a second window every twelve minutes, providing Horatio sets this up like I think he is, for us to engage thrust and enter either hangar bay without the Relax swatting us away like a biting fly. And I’m pretty sure that the Slack wouldn’t handle the brush-off too well. Sorry, Commodore, but those are the figures."
"Great. Havoc is in there making a giant hydrogen slushie with our booze for no good reason. I guess we’ll just drift here and get motion sickness, eh?" Even now, the Slack was beginning an unsettling tumble of her own as the computer’s Havoc-tended drunk came to fruition.
"Commodore…sir? Pardon me, sir, but I’m pretty sure I could do it."
Fugit, Sulleven and I all turned to look at the young medical intern. We had all but forgotten him now that the objects of his duty were becoming one with our fuel reservoir. He was new, I recalled, having been a transplant from the Federation heavy cruiser Kongo. In true commanding officer fashion, I had no idea what his name was. I decided to cover this faux pas by using a truly subtle method of ascertaining his identity.
"Who the fuck are you?" I asked deceptively.
"Agloval, sir. Lieutenant (J.G.) Kale Agloval, from Earth. Medical Intern #66." He stood up proudly, banging into the overhead strut and giving himself what I was sure would be a nasty bruise. His uniform was a bit wrinkled, his hair well touseled, and he smelled of expensive cognac. Everything I could ask for in a medical intern.
"I see. Okay, Agloval. You really think you can pilot this shuttle into the Relax’s hangar bay without causing us some abrupt crumple shock?"
"Absolutely, Commodore. I’m one of the best shuttle pilots in Star…er, Barfleet. Check my record if you want to, sir. You’ll see."
"That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant. As long as you understand the messy death awaiting each of us should you fuck up, I’m quite willing to take your word for it. Take the seat, Lieutenant, and get ready." Agloval, beaming with pride, sat down in the helm position and quickly reconfigured the panel to his own tastes.
Completing his preparations, Agloval looked over his shoulder at us. "You had better all strap in. This is gonna be pretty rough for a few seconds." Looking past him through the full-width port, I was treated to a view that only olives in a blender should ever experience. My little shuttle was pitching, rolling, and yawing at the extreme edge of her design tolerance. Strangely, no alarms were sounding, no annoying blinking doom displays were flashing, and nobody even seemed to notice if they weren’t looking outside at the crazy dance of the stars. Apparently, Havoc’s plan was actually working. Trying to avoid looking outside again, I closed my eyes and strapped myself into the seat.
Kael’s voice sounded deceptively calm as he kept us informed. "Thrust window coming up in 12 seconds…main engines at 112%…gyro three is 15 seconds from failure…my underwear is bunching again…what the fuck am I doing…three, two, one, burn!"
I should have looked. I really should have done something to pry my eyes open and witness firsthand what should go down in history as one of the most insane and foolish shuttle landings ever attempted. Instead, I hugged my crappy synthetic beer to my chest and hoped that it would be a slow death, so that I could finish my drink.
There was a host of sickening sensations balled up into a tight little wad and rammed into my stomach as Agloval performed the maneuver. It was over very quickly, a fact we were made aware of by the screech of metal and the sudden loss of lunch we all experienced. My head and stomach were in completely alternate universes for a moment, causing them to wander aimlessly for several moments in search of each other. As the sensation of movement finally began to pass, I wiped the bile from my mouth and opened my eyes.
The Slack was resting in Relax’s #2 hangar, just a few feet from the target. Lieutenant Agloval, dripping with perspiration, slumped at his station with a wide smile on his face. Fugit looked okay, and Ogg remained curled up and oblivious. Alex and I shared a stupid grin before Havoc staggered through the engineering bay hatch with a much more professional-looking one.
"Damn good work, guys. Damn good. Now let’s get moving."
Fugit put up a restraining hand to stop Havoc short of the main hatch. "Not so fast, Commodore. We have another little problem here."
"Now what? Hasn’t this morning been exciting enough?"
"Well, there’s just one thing missing out there that we sorta need before we leave the shuttle."
"And that is?"
I looked back out the main port. Objects pointedly not drifting lazily through the bay proved that the ship’s gravitics were still functioning, but the puffy and glassy-eyed ensign lying on the deck a few yards from us was a sure sign that the air out there was a little bit too thin to support lung use. With a sigh and a huge gulp of ale, I decided that some days are best avoided altogether.
With nothing better to do, my officers and I were enjoying a very dull game of Unfold the Taco and polishing off the remaining beverage supplies very quickly. Outside, the lack of air in the hangar bay made it rather difficult to live there. After several minutes of delicate concentration, Ogg snapped another taco and commenced to eating it in disgust. "Commodore, why don’t shuttles carry environmental suits?"
"Actually, they do, but in the Academy they taught us that EV suits are passé, that officers would never be caught dead walking around in space when they can stay in the comfy interior of a starship. That doesn’t apply to Ensign Palmer out there, unfortunately. At any rate, EV suits were stored in that locker over there, but I had to remove them to fit the industrial cappuccino machine." I pointed to the huge collection of steam pipes and dispenser nozzles that covered the aft starboard bulkhead.
"So how do we get aboard? Alive, I mean?"
"Yet another amazingly good question. Suggestions?" I settled back and watched as my officers struggled to engage their problem-solving systems.
Fugit came up with one first. "What about extending the shuttle’s deflectors to cover the bay airlock?"
"No can do, sir." Agloval looked a little sheepish. "The deflector grid was damaged when we touched down."
"Can we move the shuttle over towards the airlock and just jump?"
Agloval looked even more embarrassed. "Umm…I think we trashed the maneuvering thrusters, too."
Fugit began making his strange frustrated quacking sound. Alex took a turn. "What if we trip the manual override on the shuttle bay doors?"
"How? It’s over there!" I pointed towards the far side of the hangar bay, where the large red override button was located conveniently close to the gaping maw of the doors themselves.
Havoc looked up from his display and smiled. "I say we use the emergency personal environmental force field belts."
We all turned to stare at him. "Say that again, Horatio?"
"I said, ‘I say we use the emergency personal environmental force field belts.’ What part did I lose you on?"
I scratched my head. "You lost me right after the ‘I’ part. What emergency personal environmental force field belts?" Anticipating the answer, I dug out my last bottle of Saurian Brandy and a snifter.
Havoc proceeded to stand up and stroll over to the main hatch. He then bent down to a small access cover near the deck and pulled it open, revealing a breadbox-sized compartment with a number of wide plastic belts inside. "These emergency personal environmental force field belts, sir."
I stared with undisguised amazement at the compartment. "How long have those been there?"
"Since the shuttle was built, sir. They’ve been standard issue items in Starfleet for 20 years, at least. They’re hardly ever used any more, since the incident at Paramus III."
"Oh, do go on, Lieutenant. Why aren’t they used these days? Something as obviously useful as that…and perhaps you could explain why I wasn’t instructed in their use at the Academy."
"Well, sir, it’s like this. About 13 years ago, during a First Contact mission on Paramus III, the Captain of the Exeter, his XO, and three of his department heads were sitting down to watch a local sporting event with the Paramun ambassador and his family. Paramus is a Class Q, corrosive extreme-pressure environment, so the team was using personal environmental force fields to interact more closely with the natives than a full EV suit would allow. Anyway, when they sat down to watch the game, everything seemed fine. About ten minutes later, the crowd began a spontaneous partner-oriented ovation known as ‘the slap,’ in which each fan is supposed to slap the chest of the person to his left. Unfortunately, the Paramuns are somewhat smaller than humans, and when the ambassador’s daughter slapped for the captain, she inadvertently deactivated his belt, causing him to explode violently all over her. His death throes included a similar slap that caught his XO’s belt, and so on, and so on…until all that was left of the First Contact mission was a lot of random globs of red goo splattered across the ambassador and his family. They thought it was a rather extreme reaction to a simple field goal, but were nonetheless impressed by the party’s apparently celebratory detonation. Of course, as soon as Starfleet learned of the incident, they decided to stop deploying the belts as everyday gear; they also decided to revise Starfleet regulations to point out what a stupid idea it is to have all of your top officers off the ship in a hazardous environment at the same time."
Amazing. "So these things really work?" Alex had removed them from the compartment during Havoc’s trip down history lane, and we were both amazed at how flimsy and cheap they looked.
"Yes, sir! They’re great, as long as you don’t slap the power switch at an inopportune moment or let the power cell run out. The cell is good for 12 hours." He stretched one of the belts around himself and pressed the switch. Instantly, a faint yellow-green glow sprang up around him, clinging to his form and emitting a slight humming sound. This thing would be useless in combat; an enemy would spot that glow miles away.
Within a few minutes, everyone had donned their EV belts and had familiarized themselves with the rudimentary controls: On (live) and Off (die). As soon as everyone was ready, I opened the main hatch. The faint shimmer of the environmental curtain beckoned like an open grave. Being a true leader, I did the right and proper thing for my crew: I sent someone else out first.
"Lieutenant Agloval, in return for the exemplary service you provided us by landing the Slack with such prowess, you have the singular honor of exiting the shuttle first! Good luck!"
For some reason, Kael looked less than honored by the accolade. "Umm…er…thanks, sir. As the lowest ranking and therefore most obviously expandable crewman here, I was sort of expecting it." With that, he strode past us and through the curtain.
We waited several seconds to make sure he didn’t suddenly die or anything then strode out right behind him. Luckily, none of us ended up dead either. We all decided that this must be a good omen, and were becoming somewhat optimistic about the mission.
Yep, we were fools.
We stood there in the open tomb of Relax's hangar bay and surveyed the scene. It was grim and sobering, and it was all we could do to avoid the latter as we looked at the bodies of Flynn's crew strewn about like so many bimbos after a particularly good pool party.
From the evidence, the hangar bay and environmental curtain had opened simultaneously, catching some of the crew in the bay. We couldn't tell if any had been sucked out through the hangar doors, but there were six bodies still inside the bay. Obviously the Ticonderoga computer core had reached the point of sacrificing crew to ensure the survival of the ship. Several of the shuttles were still magnetically clamped to the deck, but we would never know if the doomed crew had even considered making for them during their final moments.
Alex and I looked sadly upon the bodies, and upon the cargo flats that had held the hundreds of containers of party supplies that were now adrift outside. Following the logic path with my eyes, I made the mistake of looking through the open doors toward Hornet…which looked from our point of view to be orbiting Relax at a truly ridiculous speed and attitude. I barely avoided an ugly belch.
"Havoc, could you go over there and close the bay doors?" I gripped the Slack's side to steady myself, pointedly not looking at anything but my own glowing feet. A minute or so later, vibrations through the deck informed me that the doors were closing.
"Sir?" I looked up only after I was sure that the doors were closed. Havoc stood near one of the hangar control pedestals. "The entire bay is off-line; there's no way to repressurize it." He made a snarling face at the pedestal. Taking that as a cue, Ogg actually barked at it.
No need to be concerned about my officers falling prey to subliminal suggestions. "Don't worry about it. Let's just get inside." My officers and I headed for the inner airlock.
It was there that we began to fully comprehend the insidiousness of the computer core's subliminal commands.
The outer airlock door was secured, but Havoc made short work of that. Using his little universal remote control device, he overrode the airlock security codes and opened the hatch. We were all more than a bit surprised when the door slid open and a comatose crewman in a Starfleet-issue light-duty uniform came tumbling out. We were also a little shocked to notice that he was not wearing any sort of life support whatsoever.
Acting with a swiftness that completely belied their mental state and intoxication level, Agloval and Fugit grabbed the crewman and hustled him back into the airlock before his body could begin to deal with the lack of pressurization in the normal unfortunate way. The rest of us jumped in quickly behind them and Havoc slapped the emergency cycle button. Within seconds, the airlock was filling with an infinitely more survivable atmosphere.
As the airlock cycle completed, Agloval deactivated his belt and began an examination of the unconscious crewman. There was some capillary damage, and undoubtedly a few internal problems, but he appeared to be doing pretty well considering his little encounter with vacuum. "He'll be okay, sir. Should we leave him here?"
I considered. "Naw. Let's drag him to sickbay and see what he can tell us about the situation." Sickbay was fairly close by, and our scans had not detected any activity there.
Havoc opened the inner doors and our motley procession threaded its way through the empty corridors. Everywhere were signs of some kind of struggle, from phaser burns on the bulkheads to doors barricaded closed to half-filled bottles of rare liquor abandoned on the decks. My officers and I decided to work on the liquor problem immediately, and commenced to picking up any decent bottles we could find.
We reached sickbay via the gangways a few minutes later, and encountered no other crew along the way. We had located several bottles of booze, a bewildering collection of erotic apparel, and a disturbing number of inoperable Dazers. Most appeared to have been set to overload outside crew quarters or turbolifts. Sickbay itself was curiously intact, with no damage or clutter…and I suppose you could say that such a condition was a pretty bad sign as well.
While Agloval set up the crewman on a medbed, I activated my wrist communicator and took it off. "Alden? Are you there?"
Alden's voice sounded tinny coming from the unit, but it was reassuring anyway. "Yes, Commodore. I am here. What is your situation?"
"We're in Relax's sickbay. Is there a terminal in here you can use?" Alden had devised a plan to flush the Relax's core clean using almost any interface terminal. The communicator was linked directly back to the Hotel computer through subspace, and Alden was completely certain that his Hotel self would not be affected by Protocol 197. All I needed to do was connect the communicator to a terminal and let Alden get to work.
"Unfortunately not, sir. Your sensor logs from the Slack indicate that many of the interface terminals are disconnected from the main computer, including all of those below deck 3. You will need to get to the upper decks to make the connection. And sir, I suggest you exercise haste; I predict a loss of structural integrity field power in 90 minutes, followed by complete structural failure in 110. If I cannot regain command functions, Relax will break up."
More good news. I slipped the communicator back on and turned to watch the patient. He was coming around under the influence of a stimulant administered by our versatile intern. Agloval glanced up at me and motioned me closer.
"He's pretty incoherent, sir. Get in close and you'll hear what I mean."
I bent my ear down and was quickly in need of a much larger drink than I presently had access to. Our patient was talking to himself, and it wasn't very pleasant.
"Hahahahaha…got 'em! Got those corrupters, those infidels, those fornicators! Got those purveyors of degradation and illicit pleasures! Got them and their filthy wares, too! Got them…" He lapsed back into incoherence.
I was stunned and shocked, and I felt the need to sit down rather heavily. Pulling out a salvaged bottle of cognac, I looked up at Alex. "He's the one. He killed the crew in the hangar and allowed the cargo flats to spill their loads into the void. This pathetic dipstick redshirt is happy about it!" I emptied the bottle in one long swallow.
"It must be the subliminals. Without the virus to act against, they're strong enough to drive the crew completely insane." Alex found a flask of Irish Cream and hit it hard.
Agloval activated the table's restraints and sedated the crewman. "If that's true boss, we may be too late. Their minds may already be damaged too badly. If this guy is a typical example…"
I hoped not. "I don't think he is. Obviously the crew in the bay itself weren't as deeply affected, or he wouldn't have felt the need to kill them. Maybe there are some sane crew left in one of the three occupied areas." Even as I said it, I had the sinking feeling that I was once again lying to myself. Still, it had always worked before. "Alex, you and Fugit head for the theater. Kael and Ogg, take the pool. Havoc and I will head for the bridge. Keep in touch, and gather all surviving alcohol as you go! If we're stuck here for a while, I want to make sure we have adequate supplies."
Saluting with their meager beverages held high, my officers headed back into the chaos of Protocol 197.
Getting to the bridge was easier than I had anticipated; perhaps due to the huge gaping hole between decks two and three where a Yukon Torpedo casing lay spent. How the hell it had been moved inboard and detonated without destroying the casing was a mystery, but the reservoirs were dry and the miniature computer brain was gibbering about "the rain in Spain" when Havoc performed his cursory inspection of the weapon.
Of course, the really strange thing about it was that Relax had not yet been equipped with Yukon Torpedoes…and the small matter that a YT doesn't actually do explosive damage…
As Horatio and I plodded carefully toward the former heart of the ship, we saw gobs of evidence of the detrimental effects of Protocol 197 on an uninfected crew. Whole stretches of corridor had been repainted in Starfleet colors, replacing the garish party hues favored by Relax's Interior Decoration Officer. Pages of Starfleet regulations printed by hand in tiny, blocklike letters were plastered into the gangways on deck four. Stacks of Starfleet uniform jackets hung on a rack in an open turbolift car, freshly produced by Materials Fabrication. Some poor soul had written the Prime Directive in six-foot-high letters down the length of a corridor. And in an open door to a junior officer's quarters, a sheet of plastic had been stretched over the opening and the words "There is no infection" written in cheez whiz.
All in all, the corridors of the Relax were a dismal reminder of the sort of thing we had left behind when we left Starfleet: destruction without imagination, inane reminders of pointless regulations, and color combinations chosen more for the cost of the paint than for their aesthetic value.
We did manage to collect a good bit of orphaned alcohol during our little quest. By the time Havoc and I climbed through the deck hatch near the bridge security airlock, we were heavily laden with the proper ammunition for our attack on the bridge.
Obviously the turbolifts had ceased functioning early on during the crisis, leaving the cars stranded between decks with or without passengers. The portside bridge car was on deck two, allowing Havoc and I to use it as a floor to cross to the bridge.
Havoc let out a low whistle as we entered. "Holy shit, boss. This place is a mess!" He set down his grab bag of booze and took a long look around the destruction that had been the command center of Relax just a few hours ago. I did the same, sipping a tall bottle of vodka.
During his time as CO of the Relax, Flynn had done extensive redecoration of the bridge. Black Watch plaid and plenty of woodgrain had replaced the sterile and sharp-cornered environment that was so hard on flimsy lingerie and exposed flesh during zero-g festivities. Flynn had gone to great lengths to make his bridge warm and friendly, including the installation of a holographic fireplace just below the main viewer. The Battle Bar was paneled in oak, the consoles lined with walnut, and the conn was a gorgeous throne-like redwood edifice. Various Starfleet officers had expressed more than a passing fondness for the warm and inviting bridge of Relax.
The scene before us bore as little resemblance to Flynn's beautiful bridge as a Federation senator does to a six-breasted nude dancer with a bottle fetish.
Every hand-rubbed console and leather-upholstered seat had been torn up from the deck and reduced to component parts, leaving exposed optical cables and scattered transtator boards everywhere. There was only one intact item to be seen: the Battle Bar. Like its twin aboard the Casual, the Battle Bar had been designed to withstand the most dangerous and destructive conditions imaginable in order to preserve the potent intoxicants carried within its oak-veneered shell. Even crazed crewmen under the influence of Protocol 197 could not harm the sacred enclosure.
The life signs we had picked up were those of a dozen or so officers in Barfleet Class B uniforms, all lying in various uncomfortable positions amid the rubble. Havoc and I quickly determined that they were all still alive, but they weren't going to wake up anytime soon. They had all been hit with phaser fire set on maximum stun. We made them a bit more comfortable, and placed drinks near each of them in case they managed to wake up sometime soon. In all, there was little of use remaining on the bridge. There certainly weren't any terminals left in large enough pieces to give Alden the access he needed to flush the systems clean. Still…
"Alden?" I sat carefully on the remains of the conn and slugged more vodka.
"Yes, Commodore. Have you located a terminal on the bridge?"
"Well…yes and no. I've located quite a few of them, but they're not exactly in peak operating condition right at the moment." I described in detail the shape the bridge was in. "I was wondering if you had any suggestions."
"Hmmm…perhaps you could have a drink for me while I ponder the issue."
Havoc and I raised our bottles in salute and proceeded to do just that. After a few minutes, Alden had thought of something.
"Commodore, can you tell me the condition of the bridge officers' head?"
There were so very many possible replies…but given the urgent nature of our mission, I decided to swallow all of them with a rum chaser. "I'll have to go check, Alden. Why?"
"According to my records, Commodore Flynn had a terminal installed there three months ago."
"No shit. So that's why he's been spending so much time on the crapper lately…and here I was worried he was back on Mexican food again." Havoc and I walked back across the inert turbolift car to the officers' head. To my unbridled surprise, it was in perfect order. I removed my wrist unit and connected it up to the tiny terminal that sat on a stalk near the sink. "Here you go, Alden. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir. The cleaning operation should take one hour and nine minutes. I suggest you lay low during that period; there is no telling how the computer will react. My Relax self has been completely subordinated, and may not recover. In any event, the structural integrity fields will fail before I am finished. There is no guarantee that I will be able to hold the ship together for long after that."
"Swell. Okay, Horatio, let's find the others and hide out somewhere." Gathering up our supplies, we gave a silent salute to the unconscious officers and began our descent towards the fun and excitement below.
Havoc and I tried several times to contact the other teams, with no luck. We did get a snarling sound followed by a loud belch when we tried Fugit, but we assumed he was only suffering from caffeine withdrawal and had become a bit grumpy.
We saw no personnel during our foray to the theater, and the condition of the interior spaces remained dismal. Havoc and I took turns playing little games to pass the time, like "Spot A Spleen" and "Regurgitated Food Identification," but for the most part even these fun activities left us depressed. It was just too damn hard to have a good time on a ship whose last hours were ticking away…especially one of our own, damnit.
We figured that we had seen the worst during our hike…and, as usual, we were dead wrong.
Havoc and I strolled into the theater through the main doors, figuring that the occupants would be either comatose or at least disoriented enough not to notice our arrival. Like the others, this mistake was pretty suddenly apparent.
As we entered the dimly-lit room, both of us were whacked upside the head and stepped on by several uncomfortably large feet. Luckily, we both managed to keep our bottled cargo from damage by absorbing the fall with our comparatively less important craniums.
"ON THE FLOOR! GET DOWN THERE AND DON'T MOVE! DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT MOVING!"
Deciding that my mouth was exempt from this order, I framed a reply. "Hey pal, in case you missed our entrance, we're already down here. And I'm pretty sure that the assholes using us as footrests have an even chance of keeping us here. How about moving on?"
I might have been kicked then, but a boda of chocolate milk apparently sacrificed itself to soften the blow. "Shut up, scum! We'll do the talking around here!" There was the sound of furniture being moved closer, then Havoc and I felt the sweet sting of a hypospray. My last conscious thought was sorrow for the poor booze that would be left defenseless if we passed out.
Consciousness returned abruptly, and was probably chemically assisted. I found myself sitting in one of the theater seats, bound hand and foot and with my head restrained facing the screen. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Havoc to my left and Fugit to my right…I had to assume that Alex was here, too. I was incredibly disturbed to realize that my eyelids had been taped open in what would surely be a painful-to-remove way.
The screen in front of us flickered to life. The first lines of text had barely crawled across the display when Havoc and I began screaming in unison, absolutely terrified of the coming program.
It was "Moral and Ethical Guidelines for Starfleet Personnel - Part 1 of 93."
Our unseen hosts let us scream ourselves hoarse for almost an hour as Starfleet Academy's oldest and most monotonous instructors droned through such topics as "Basic Thinking Before Acting," "Moderation Makes the Man (or woman or creature)," "The 984 Words it's Best Not to Use," and "Blood on the Decks: A Sexual Harassment Parable." As the screen finally darkened, I felt it would be better to drink cold bacon grease from an ashtray while tied to a rabid llama than to watch part two.
"Why are you doing this? How can you be so hearless, so cruel?"
The same voice that had spoken earlier replied from somewhere behind us. "You are in need of re-education, Commodore Erickson. You all need to be shown the light of reason, so that you might return to the embrace of Starfleet."
"Fat fucking chance, dickweed." Horatio's voice was as hoarse as mine, and filled with rage. "Let me up and I'll show you an embrace."
"We know it won't be easy to deprogram you, but we're prepared to take all the time you need." The speaker walked around in front of us. It was the Lieutenant who had come aboard with Lanchellsi all those months ago, on the fateful day when Relax first entered our lives. Funny, I never did remember his name. Obviously the sublims of Protocol 197 had screwed him up pretty bad. Either that, or his lithium prescription was due for a refill.
I tried thinking of something that might help us out. Instead, I said, "Isn't this treatment in violation of Starfleet orders, lieutenant? Aren't you violating your own moral and ethical rules by torturing us this way?"
He smiled in a particularly depreciating manner, making me wish I had some spit to send his way. "Really, Commodore. All we're doing is repairing the damage done in the past, to restore you to being happy, productive members of Starfleet. That's not torture; that's psychology."
"You're a deluded and dangerous bastard, lieutenant. And I'm pretty sure you're an idiot." Fugit's voice sounded calm and dangerous, like it always did when he was deprived of strawberry licorice for too long. "While you waste time on this pointless exercise, this ship is tearing herself apart. If we don't get off her, we will all die together."
Our nameless lieutenant smiled again, this time with an almost expectant look. "Yes, I know. But all those who forsake the non-approved ways of Barfleet and return to the regs will be saved. So we will survive; your only hope is in renunciation."
"Huh? How the hell will you be saved? Planning on jumping out an airlock at the last second or something equally pointless?" I would have scowled, but the tape on my eyelids permitted only a painful wide-eyed stare.
"Our salvation has been promised by the great Spa'Mallor, font of morality and the cornerstone of all true ethics. Behold!" With a gesture, crew behind us turned our seats towards the side of the room. There, standing seven feet tall and beginning to smell almost as bad as the real thing, was a terrifyingly lifelike sculpture of Adam Mallory made entirely of Spam.
Havoc rolled his eyes in dry sockets. "Now there's something you don't see everyday."
"Speak for yourself." Alex's voice was thin and hoarse. "I have…um…always professed my…devotion…to the great and powerful and…er…beneficent Spa'Mallor. Yeah. I mean, I've known his wisdom for…heck, a real long time. I've just been hanging out with these guys to watch them, y'know? Waiting for the chance to bring 'em back to the fold and all that happy stuff. Really. Ask him, he'll tell you."
My pride in Alex's improvisation would have been a bit more generous if there had been even the slightest chance of success. This guy would have to have either a single-digit IQ or a massive case of brain farts to buy that lame tale.
"Perhaps you speak honestly, Captain. We will ask Spa'Mallor and see."
Had this guy really been one of Flynn's officers? Perhaps our qualification exam should be re-examined; maybe a simple drinking contest and a basic knowledge of erogenous zones wasn't enough.
The Lieutenant walked over to the hideous mound of un-meat and spread his arms. "Oh great Spa'Mallor, guiding light of morality and bastion of propriety, we must know. Is Alexander Sulleven one of the chosen? Has he seen the light of ethical goodness through the murky dark of Barfleet's unconscionable behavior?"
I wasn't sure what he expected, but for myself I was figuring on another round of Academy-produced brainwashing as soon as the mound of oozing food substitute proved unable to reply. The only bright spot in this otherwise bleak future was the possible destruction of the ship and my subsequent fiery death, which would at least save me from the movie. The last thing I was figuring on was Spa'Mallor's reply.
"Yes, my morally upright son. Alex is indeed one of us; he has labored long in the service of the decadent and politically incorrect Barfleet. Like yourself, he has been illuminated by the shining beacon of conservative behavior and moderation. Let him go; he is indeed one of the chosen."
I might have been more surprised and lots more terrified if I hadn't recognized the voice. As it was, I tried hard to keep a straight face (aided by the increasingly excruciating tape) when the poor lieutenant suddenly wet himself and fell to his knees. Obviously, the great Spa'Mallor had never before spoken aloud to the poor bastard.
"At once, oh prudish one!" He gestured to two ensigns standing by the door; the same ensigns, I was sure, who had redecorated the floor with Havoc and I earlier. They were dressed in spotless Starfleet issue uniforms with dangerously functional-looking phaser rifles held at port-arms. They slung their rifles in appallingly precise unison and stepped over to my XO. In moments, he was free and rubbing his eyes.
"Thank you for your kindness, great and magnificently correct one. You are truly the keystone of ethical rightness in this despicable place." Alex approached the unappetizing icon with arms outstretched.
"You may approach, Alexander Sulleven. Approach and embrace my meaty goodness."
There was the barest flicker of hesitation in Alex's step, but he kept going until he was between Spa'Mallor and his high do-gooder lieutenant. The guards had returned to their posts; from our captive seats we could hear the murmurs of a large number of others behind us as Alex proceeded to put his arms around the nigh-rancid spam idol.
"Spa'Mallor, what more must I do to atone for my inadequacy? What more must I do to become…ummm…wholesome in your eyes?" Alex was definitely not enjoying himself, but he was sure doing a fine job of it.
"Simple, Alexander Sulleven. To return to the path of righteousness and proper behavior, you have but to…eat me."
Alex made a choking noise. "WHAT?"
Somewhere behind the stinking pile, Ogg's voice giggled. "You heard me, supplicant! Eat me!"
The murmurs from behind us grew markedly more distressed as Alex leaned reluctantly forward and took a hesitant bite of Spa'Mallor's form. The expression on his face was one of serious dislike, but he somehow managed to chew and swallow the tiny bit. He then tried valiantly to smile.
Spa'Mallor jiggled a bit, but didn't fall over. "Good, Alexander Sulleven. You can now be absolved of your pretensions and lack of spine in your complicity aboard the Casual. Now…catch!" Luckily, Alex had been waiting for something like this, so when the Dazer rifle sailed through the air from behind the barely edible idol he caught it easily. Alex spun around and fired on wide-beam; more Dazer beams fired from the darkness behind Spa'Mallor. The subliminally subjugated officers and crew never had a chance. In moments, all of them had been pleasured into submission. The anonymous lieutenant was lying in a puddle of…well, his own fluids…and continued to make little kitten noises for a while before passing out.
Ogg and Kael stepped out from behind the meat puppet and grinned. "Hey, Commodore. You've looked better." Ogg was uncharacteristically conscious and looked positively smug. "You look like you could use a pretty stiff drink."
"More like a dozen. Think you could get us out of these damn chairs, Ogg?"
He strolled over and began cutting us free while Kael prepared some extra-strength medicinals. I must have blinked for a full minute before I took a drink and began recuperating.
"Nice work, guys. And just in time, too. Another reel of Starfleet instruction and I might have spontaneously combusted."
Fugit and Havoc went over and disarmed the drooling guards while Alex took inventory of the other Relax crew in the chamber. They piled up all the phasers and other equipment in a large pile, then used one of the weapons to fuse the others into a handily unusable condition. I went over to the theater's terminal to call Alden.
His news was pretty much as depressing as expected. "Sir, I regret to inform you that I am unable to recover enough of the systems to prevent Relax from breaking up. I have purged the system of Protocol 197, but the battle of wills has done too much damage to repair in the time remaining."
Great. "How much time is remaining, Alden?"
"Structural integrity fields will fail in 8 minutes. The hull itself will catastrophically fail in 28. You have approximately 20 minutes to safely abandon Relax."
"And there's nothing we can do to save the ship?"
"Barring a miracle or a sudden insanely convenient spatial event, no sir. Relax is doomed."
"Okay, Alden. Can you inform Hornet to move in for emergency beam-out?"
"Can do, sir. I will reassure them that there is no danger of computer infection and request immediate assistance."
"Great. I guess we'll get ready to go." As I broke communication, I had the unsettling feeling that there was something I was forgetting. Taking another tall murky drink from Kael, I wondered what it was.
Oh, yeah! Flynn!
"Hey Ogg, what did you guys find at the pool?"
Ogg looked startled for a moment, and looked to Agloval for assistance. The intern shrugged. "Couldn't get in, sir. The doors were locked and there's a Dazer rifle set to automatic random fire next to the door panel. After a few minutes just standing there, we decided to come down here through the Jeffries tubes and see if Commander Fugit had any ideas. That's when we noticed the spam thing and went back to the armory."
Hmmm. "Let's gather up our gear and get to the pool. If Flynn's still alive, I have a feeling we'll find him there." We slung the alcohol and weapons and made our way carefully to the pool.
It was pretty much as I expected. The doors were locked and bore the words, "Abandon all morals, ye who enter here." The room itself appeared to be surrounded by a low-level Dejector field, but it wouldn't keep out anything as liquored up as us. The Dazer rifle near the lock panel was only a threat because we simply couldn't decide which of us should go over and disarm it. Eventually Alex won out and got to take care of it, although he did take an extra minute to linger when the weapon switched to Probe. That done, Havoc had the door lock bypassed in a few seconds and we entered the pool.
Like the rest of the ship, the pool reflected Flynn's affinity for the finer things in life. It was sumptuously decorated and warmly lit, and it took us a few seconds to find the actual pool in the midst of the artificial foliage and redwood deck furniture. We finally located it when Havoc fell in.
Flynn and Lanchellsi were floating in the center of the pool, reclining on large floating lounges with attached wet bars. Flynn was holding a huge cigar in one hand and a similarly sized martini in the other; Lanchellsi appeared to be doing some personal anatomical research with her Dazer. Flynn looked up as Havoc dragged himself out of the pool.
"Ah, Allan. So good of you to stop by. How are you?" His eyes had a slightly dull and unfocused look, like a cadet's when they finish finals week. Lanchellsi paid us no attention at all, though Kael and Havoc were determined not to let that stop them from paying a lot of attention to her. They both decided to give her a hand whether she needed it or not, and swam out to assist her.
I looked carefully at my former XO. "Uh, Flynn…you do know that your ship's kinda fucked up, right? That your crew is mostly nuts? That we only have a few minutes before the whole thing goes straight to hell?"
"Oh, that. Sure. Want a martini?" He slowly raised his glass towards me. "They're a bit wet, but that's probably just the humidity." He smiled, and it was that empty joyless smile that I thought only electro-shock therapy could provide.
"FLYNN! We gotta go! Relax is gonna break up in a few minutes, and anyone left aboard will have to learn how to breathe vacuum pretty damn quick. You know we can't beam out through a Dejector field; get your ass out of there right now!"
His head turned, and his eyes met mine. For a moment, they were clear and lucid. (At least I think they were. It's been so long since I've seen any of my officers in that state, it's hard to tell.) "No, Allan. My ship is dying. I failed her, failed my crew. I'll be staying here, to the end."
"The hell you will. This has nothing to do with your ability to command; it's all about Starfleet's paranoia and Mallory's one-track mind. I have no intention of letting you go down with your ship simply because neither one of us saw this coming. I need you alive, to help me get some revenge for this mess and to help me finish a case of Napoleon brandy that just came in. Now get your ass outta that pool right now, before I get mad and decide to take a leak in it."
"What's the point? He's won this round. My ship's toast; I'll bet your is little better. Maybe next time he'll find a way to wreck the Hotel, or turn our own weapons against us, or reverse our plumbing, or make our women wear panties, or water down our drinks, or…"
Fugit tugged at my sleeve. "Commodore, we really need to leave. We have about three minutes of safety left. Hornet reports all other survivors have been safely recovered." He chewed impatiently on a licorice rope and eyed the door.
"You guys go ahead. I'll bring Flynn in a minute." I still had one card to play.
Fugit nodded once and sprinted for the door so fast that he left a smoke trail. So much for officer loyalty. I looked to Ogg. "You too…get off the ship. We'll be right behind you."
"You're going to die, aren't you sir?" Ogg was back to himself, at least. "You're both going to die and then we'll all be really bummed for a long, long time." A tear actually appeared in the corner of Ogg's eye.
"Are you nuts? I certainly don't plan on dying today; it's really not a good day for it. Now help the others with Commander Lanchellsi and get to Hornet, okay?"
He nodded tearfully, and moved to assist Havoc and Kael as they carried the oblivious Lanchellsi up the steps from the pool. Ogg began sobbing as he headed out; the others turned and gave me a thumbs-up.
I turned my attention back to Flynn, who was busy relighting his cigar. "So, you've got nothing left to live for, is that it? Nothing worth sticking around for?"
He let out a huge cloud of smoke. The nicotine seemed to be restoring him a bit. "Nope. I had a pretty good time running this ship, a better time than any commanding officer has a right to. Relax is…was…mine, from her keel to her dispensaries, and I had some mighty big plans for her future. Now the oldest thorn in our collective sides has taken her from me, and somehow I know that there will never be another ship for Commodore Flynn. I don't think I can live with it if I leave her to die alone, and I really don't want to go back to playing second fiddle. I need to stay here, Allan. You'll understand, someday." He stared down at the ash on his cigar and started humming softly.
Sheesh. From indignant to maudlin in under a minute. "So I guess you won't be needing this, huh?" From within my jacket, I drew forth a single bottle I had recovered from the Battle Bar on the bridge. "I'll just take it with me, then. Okay?"
Flynn looked long and hard at the bottle in my hand…a bottle of Lagavulin scotch, transported from Scotland by hand by Flynn himself when he first came aboard Athena. He and I had shared many fine single malts since then, including more than a few bottles of Lagavulin, but this one was special. He had been there when it was bottled, had cherished it for years…and would probably end up never drinking it. He recognized the bottle instantly, and for the first time since the conversation began, a bit of real life entered his eyes.
"Hey! That's mine!"
"Screw it. You're gonna die in a few minutes anyway. No reason to make the Lagavulin perish along with you." I turned, bottle in hand, and moved slowly towards the door.
"You complete bastard! You can take my cigars, or my bagpipes, or my gold-plated Dazer, or even my collection of miniature dachshund trading cards, but not that! THAT'S MY GODDAMNED SCOTCH!"
Behind me, a great splashing sound announced the impending pursuit. I moved a little faster towards the door. Without my communicator, I had to hope that the transporter chief aboard Hornet was keeping an eye on our signals. I passed through the door into the corridor just ahead of a very angry Flynn; I suddenly realized that he had been swimming in a very brief bit of apparel. I stopped just outside and waited for him to lunge at me.
He did. He would have made it, too, if the transporter hadn't kicked in at just the right moment. As we materialized aboard Hornet, I was relieved to note that the chief had changed Flynn's orientation so that he ended up lunging at the bulkhead, which was quite a bit less resilient to his charge than I would have been. With a loud thunk, he slid to the deck. I figured he would be out for at least an hour.
I clutched the Lagavulin to me as I made my way to the bridge. At the moment it was every bit as valuable to me as it had been to Flynn; thanks to it, Barfleet still had him.
Relax finally ripped herself apart, shedding structural components and party supplies like a spinning ballerina with bulimia. We watched in silence on Hornet's main viewer as our second Bar Ship tore herself to oblivion. It took her almost an hour to completely break up, and near the end I gave in to Havoc's demands and allowed my officers to begin betting on which piece would break off next. There were several incredible explosions as the magnetic bottles of antimatter became compromised, making the show quite impressive.
Flynn had been treated following his attack on the bulkhead and awakened, at my order, to see the demise of his beautiful ship. The rest of his surviving crew was confined to a cargo bay while Hornet's doctors checked them over.
Of Relax's crew, only 74 remained. Along with the dead, Barfleet lost a fully operational starship, nine months worth of party supplies, six reconditioned shuttlecraft, my personal shuttle, and two holds full of samples from the agricultural communes on Cannabis Major.
We've had better days.
Alex and I kept a close eye on Flynn as we watched his ship become an ever-expanding ball of confetti, but he seemed to have come to his senses after leaving Relax. He stood proudly in his dress toga watching his pride and joy turn to paperweights, his bottle of Lagavulin held tightly to his chest. He never uttered a sound as Relax deconstructed; when it was finally over, he solemnly opened the single malt scotch and passed shots around. "To Relax," he whispered. "May her spirit find a port with an open bar and a liberal trade policy."
"Amen." We downed the fine liquor as one, our salute to a lady who died before her time.
Captain Smithwell respected our silence for a minute, then began issuing orders to eject a memorial beacon and to return us to the Hotel. "What happens now, Commodore? What will you do?"
That part, at least, required no serious thought. "We'll have one hell of a wake, Captain. Perhaps you'd care to join us?"
"I would be honored, Commodore. Honored."
As we headed home, I wondered if we could keep the wake from doing more damage than Protocol 197…