Author: Anthony Butler
“Captain! Three Leeramar vessels have locked on to us,” Lt. Ariel Tilleran reported from the science panel.
“They are modulating their shields to a frequency our phasers cannot penetrate!” J’hana called out.
“Leeramar antiproton beams have damaged decks thirteen, eighteen, and twenty-nine,” Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin reported from ops. “And our shields are nearly depleted.”
“We have to get out of here!” Lt. Ford said urgently from the helm.
All eyes turned toward the command chair.
“Hold on just a sec,” Dr. Browning said, flipping several controls on the arm of the command chair. “Whew! That tickles!” she said, as the chair began to vibrate.
J’hana bristled. “Captain, you may want to turn your attention to the battle.”
“What was that?” Browning asked. “My buns feel so warm. This is awesome!”
“More Leeramar ships entering the system,” announced Tilleran. “Doctor…we have to go!”
“Jeeze, fine, we’ll go already,” Browning said, hitting a button that caused her chair to whip around toward Tilleran. “Warp nine!” she cried, stabbing her finger toward Tilleran.
“Doctor Browning…I’m not–”
“I think she means you,” Larkin said a low voice, leaning toward Ford.
Browning pressed another button and the chair spun around like a top as Ford engaged the engines, sending the Explorer into warp.
“Leeramar vessels pursuing,” J’hana announced curtly. “Now what?”
Browning wasn’t listening. Instead, she was leaning over and pulling on a lever underneath the command chair. “What the heck does this do…”
Larkin turned to face Browning. “Doctor, I would strongly reccomend against–”
Suddenly Browning flipped backwards as the chair dislodged itself, sending Browning across the deck behind the command area.
J’hana looked down at Browning with a pouty face. “Did we hurt ourselves, ‘Captain’?”
Browning sat up. “What happened to my chair?”
“You hit the eject lever,” Larkin said.
“Doctor!” Tilleran called out. “The Leeramar vessels are firing again! This time at our engineering section!”
“Hmm,” Browning said, standing up and strolling over to the science station. “Isn’t that where the warp core is?
“As a matter of fact…” Tilleran said, when suddenly she was interrupted by the computer.
“Warp core has been compromised. Breach in two minutes.”
“Darn it,” Browning said, pounding the science panel. “Does that mean the replicator will be out of order? I could sure go for a taco right now!”
“It means you’ve killed us all, you incompetent fool!” J’hana bellowed, as panels all over the bridge exploded.
Browning folded her arms. “How do you like that.”
Suddenly the lights flickered on throughout the bridge and a set of holodeck doors appeared where the auxillary science station was.
Commander Conway tucked his padd underneath his arm and clapped sarcastically as he approached Browning. “Great job, Doctor. It appears you’ve mastered the operation of the command chair.”
“Really?” Browning said. “Great. I tried really hard. How about the rest of the test?”
Conway looked away for a moment, suppressing a laugh, then he regained his composure. “Not good.”
“Not good as in ‘needs improvement’?” Browning asked hopefully.
Conway shook his head. “Not good as in ‘needs a labotomy.’”
“Aw, man,” Browning said, kicking the tactical console. “Does that mean I have to do that all over again?”
“No,” Conway said. “It means you have to get a perfect on the written portion tomorrow or you can kiss that commander’s pip goodbye.”
“So how hard is that?” Browning asked, scratching her head.
“Let me put it this way: Start studying now,” Conway muttered, turning around and heading for the doors. “Okay everyone, let’s get back to the real bridge.”
Tilleran patted Browning on the shoulder. “It was a good try.”
J’hana scowled at Browning as she stepped out from behind the tactical console. “You realize that a ritual suicide is your only recourse.”
Personal Log, Dr. Browning,
Stardate 53608.6. Studying for the promotion test sure is a lot of hard work. I didn’t realize there was so much to know about command. Maybe I should have just stayed a chef. At least chefs don’t have to know about advanced stellar dynamics.
“Doctor, this man is bleeding all over the place!” Nurse Holly Carter called out as she dragged Ensign Sefelt onto a biobed.
“Mmm hmm,” Browning said, engrossed in her padd full of command protocols.
“I could use your help!” Holly cried.
“In a minute,” Browning said disinterestedly. “Start mopping it up or something!”
“But this ensign is bleeding from four different places!”
Browning sighed and pushed out of her chair, heading out toward the main portion of sickbay. “Fine, fine. I’m coming.”
Once there, she took one look at Ensign Sefelt and shuddered. “What the heck happened to you?”
“Mirk’s experimental ‘cook at your table’ night didn’t work out so well,” Sefelt muttered.
“No kidding,” Browning said, grabbing a sealer to stop the bleeding. “What did you have?”
Sefelt looked up incredulously. “Shrimp.”
“Mmm…shrimp,” Browning said thoughtfully as she ran the sealer over Sefelt’s seeping wounds. “What happened to it?”
“I don’t know!” Sefelt cried. “Just make the pain go away!”
“Right, right,” Browning said. “Holly, ten CCs of phenothailene.”
“Right, Doctor,” Holly said, prepping the hypospray and injecting Sefelt. “I guess you can go back to your studying now.”
Browning ducked back into her office. “Thank goodness. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get this promotion!”
“Stop practicing medicine!” Sefelt pleaded.
“Just be glad that’s not jell-o I injected you with, smart guy!” Browning said, waving a warning finger at Sefelt from the door to her office.
Browning was about to sit back down when the communicator chirp rang in her ears.
“Baxter to Doctor Browning: Janice, we have incoming wounded.”
“How many?” Browning asked woefully.
“Just one. We found him unconcious in a small scout ship. There’s no sign of what caused the ship to lose power or what hurt him.”
“Gee, that makes my job a lot harder,” Browning muttered.
“Sorry. Hartley’s transporting him over to you right now.”
“Goodie,” Browning said unenthusiastically. “Holly, start prepping the scanning array. Looks like we have a mystery illness to deal with.”
“Okay, Doctor,” Holly said, patting Sefelt on the shoulder. “You’re all taken care of, Ensign, you can go.”
“Thanks for helping me out, Nurse Carter,” Sefelt said with a grin. “What are you doing later tonight?”
“Sorry, Ensign, I’m already involved with a braindead guy.”
Sefelt shrugged and headed out of Sickbay. “That’s always the way.”
Holly and Dr. Browning stood ready as the body materialized on the biobed.
“Start scanning the brain for possible anomolies. I’ll check his motor response,” Browning said, leaning over the unconcious alien. “Wow. He has cool bumps on his forehead. How exotic!”
Suddenly, the alien’s eyes snapped open. “Greetings!”
Browning instincively hopped back a bit. “Are you okay? A moment ago your readings were almost flatline!”
“They have a way of doing that from time to time,” the alien replied. “I need you to hold something for me.”
The alien shoved both thumbs against Browning’s temples and suddenly both of them began to shake spasmically.
“Doctor?” Holly asked worriedly.
“There, all done!” the alien said, pulling his hands away and pressing a button on his cufflink. “One to transport.”
“So what did you want to give me?” Browning asked, rubbing her head, as the alien dematerialized.
“Baxter to Sickbay. The alien just transported back onto his vessel. He’s leaving the system! What did you do to him, Janice?”
“Nothing,” Browning said. “He just gave me wierdest handshake I ever saw and left.”
“Hmm,” Baxter said. “If you do as well on the exam tomorrow, you might actually get that promotion.”
“I don’t know. I was just being nice. Me and Kelly will see you at dinner tonight. Bye.”
Dr. Browning stared down at her bowl of gulash, twirling chunks around with her spoon.
“So, Janice, really, why are you doing this?” Kelly Peterman asked, digging around in her chicken caesar salad.
“The gulash? Well, it looked good, I guess.”
“No, the promotion. I thought you didn’t care about rank.”
“Mirk, come here!” Baxter called to Mirk, from his place beside Browning. Mirk scuttled over, calling for Amara to see to some customers that had just entered the café.
“What can I do you for, Captain?” Mirk asked pleasantly.
“This broccoli tastes weird.”
Mirk picked a piece of broccoli off Baxter’s plate and tasted it. “Tastes fine to me.”
“Well, it tastes rancid to me. Something must be wrong with the replicator.”
“Oh, that’s not replicated,” Mirk said proudly. “Amara raised that broccoli herself in the hydroponics bay. She’s got a regular Garden of Eaten growing in there.”
“Uh…good for her.”
“She’s very happy with her garden. She plants the seeds, fertilizes the plants, then sprays them to make sure they stay healthy.”
“Well, it taste’s like she’s spraying her garden with manure.”
“I’ll go check,” Mirk said, rushing back to the bar.
“Anyway…” Peterman said, glaring at Baxter. “What about this promotion, Janice?”
Browning dipped her spoon into her gulash. “I don’t know. I’ve felt weird ever since I got back from Waystation. I figure if I’m going to be in Starfleet after all, I may as well reach for the well, stars.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Baxter said, warily chewing on his broccoli. “And I know Janice can do it.”
“But you’ll outrank me,” Peterman said softly.
Peterman shrugged. “Well, I figured we were always such good friends because we never had to worry about rank.”
Browning indicated Baxter with her dripping spoon. “You married him, and he outranks us both.”
“That’s different!” Peterman said, exasperated.
Just then, Mirk hurried up to the booth. “Pardon the interruption, Captain, but I just spoke with Amara. She assures me that the spray she used on her broccoli is completely nontoxic.”
Baxter stared at the broccoli. “I don’t care what she says, I know there’s something wrong with it.”
Browning grabbed a twig of broccoli off Baxter’s plate and sniffed it, rolling her eyes contemplatively. “Deuterium.”
“Huh?” Baxter and Mirk both asked.
“There are trace amounts of deuterium on this broccoli,” Browning said, matter of factly. “Obviously, Amara used an old deuterium canister to water the plants. Case solved.”
Baxter scratched his head as he regarded the broccoli. “Deuterium? How could you tell?”
Browning shrugged. “I smelled it. Couldn’t you?”
“Uh, no “ Baxter’s face suddenly grew worried. “Janice, should I be worried? I’ve just ingested some of the ship’s fuel!”
“Oh, you’ll need your stomach pumped. And probably some blood filtering therapy.”
“Just great, Mirk!” Baxter said angrily. “What’s for dessert? Anti-matter?”
“Don’t worry. Drop by Sickbay. I’m sure Holly can help you.” Browning wiped her mouth and stood up. “Well, I have that promotion test early in the morning. I’d better get some sleep so I can be prepared.”
Baxter, Peterman, and Mirk looked at Browning askance as she strolled away. Before she reached the doors to the café, she turned around. “Oh, and Captain, if I were you, I’d call up to the bridge and have the duty officer increase strength to the navigational shields.”
Baxter rubbed his beard, watching Browning duck between the opening doors. “What an odd thing to say.”
“Navigational shields?” Peterman asked.
Just then, a large, oblong chunk of rock slammed up against the lounge’s transparent aluminum windows, causing the room to vibrate from the impact.
“Bridge to the Captain,” came the voice of Lt. Commander Larkin.
“Uh Baxter here?” Baxter asked warily.
“Sir, we were just hit by a small meteor. It appears we have entered an entire field of them.”
“And you just noticed this?”
“Apparently they were masked in a field of radiation, so the sensors could not detect them. Should I increase power to the navigational shields so we can pass through without incurring any more damage?”
Baxter looked to Peterman, shrugged. “I guess so.”
When Conway reached the examination room the next morning, he found Browning already there, tapping excitedly on a padd.
“Computer, time,” Conway said incredulously.
“The time is oh-seven hundred hours, fifty-six minutes.”
“So, can I take the test now or what?” Browning asked, rapping her padd with her thumb. “I’m working on a medical paper on the effect of Dominion biogenics here.”
“S-sure,” Conway said, tossing the padd with the exam to Browning. “There it is. You have three hours.” He chuckled as he swung around behind the desk at the front of the room, taking a long sip from his coffee mug. “You’ll need it.”
“I doubt that,” Browning replied, picking up the new padd and tapping it rigorously.
Conway punched up the Federation News on the desktop terminal and began reading.
THIRTY MINUTES LATER
“I don’t believe it, the Pike City Pioneers lost again! What the hell’s wrong with them,” Conway muttered, flipping to the next page of news on the screen.
His concentration was interrupted when a padd clacked down in front of him..
“Done,” Browning said, and headed for the door.
Conway stared at the padd, then looked to Browning. “You’re kidding.”
“Grade the test, Commander. I assure you, it’s all in order. I did a lot of studying last night. It pays to be prepared.”
And Browning ducked out of the examination room.
“A hundred percent!” Baxter said with amazement, glancing at the padd Conway had thrown down on his desk. “That’s amazing.”
“Yes, suspiciously so.”
Baxter paged through the results of Browning’s examination. “Heck, I didn’t even do this well.”
“You were just given the rank of Captain, sir, you didn’t have to take a test.”
Baxter shrank back a bit. “Well,” he said defensively, “if I’d had to take the command test, I wouldn’t have done this good.”
“I’m sure,” Conway said, folding his arms. “Look, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I don’t believe Dr. Browning truly got that score.”
“You think there was an error in the grading process?”
“I think she cheated.”
“Commander!” Baxter scolded. “We’ve known Janice for almost three years. How could you even insinuate that she’d try something like that!”
“Don’t let your friendship with her cloud your judgment, sir,” Conway demanded, pacing the readyroom. “Think hard. Can the Janice you know produce even half the correct answers to a test like that?”
Baxter rubbed his beard as he studied the test. “Well, I don’t even know the answer to some of these. What exactly does a Bussard ramscoop do anyway?”
Conway stopped pacing. “Exactly my point!”
“I still don’t believe Dr. Browning is capable of cheating.”
“Well, let’s prove that she isn’t,” Conway said. “That’ll put both our minds at ease.”
Baxter leaned forward on his desk. “What do you have in mind?”
“A field operation?” Browning asked, looking up from the bubbling material in the genetic bath she was working on.
Conway nodded. “Aboard the Escort. We’d put you in command, take you through some real combat drills. Put you to the test in a genuine environment–no holodecks.”
Browning shrugged, pushing the safety goggles up on her forehead and swinging around in her swivel chair. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
“Good. I thought you’d enjoy that.” Conway stared down at the roiling liquid in the bath. “What are you doing there, anyway?”
“Creating a new type of shellfish for Mirk’s café. It’s as meaty as a lobster, but with the more juicy consistency of crab.”
Conway bent down, sniffing at the boiling white foam. “Wow. You’re creating your own lifeform?”
“More or less.”
Suddenly, a huge red claw emerged from the bath, snapping at Conway’s nose. The First Officer pulled back, startled.
“Watch it, Commander. They’re extremely mean.”
“I noticed,” Conway muttered, rubbing his nose.
“Hey, Janice, I…” Richards said, as he stepped into Sickbay. “Janice?”
Holly ducked out of the doctor’s office. “She’s on a field operation aboard the Escort.”
“Field operation?” Richards asked.
“Yeah, part of her command training, I guess. Can I help you with something?”
Richards showed Holly his hand. “Burnt it on a coil spanner.”
“I’ll go get the dermal regenerator.”
Holly returned from the back room shortly with the dermal regenerator.
“Have you noticed anything peculiar about Dr. Browning lately, Commander Richards?” Holly asked, as she ran the regenerator over Richards’s hand, clearing up the reddened area.
“Not particularly,” Richards said thoughtfully. “Then again, I haven’t seen much of her in the past few weeks.”
“I thought you two were pretty close,” Holly said, rubbing Richards’s hand. “There, all better.”
“We are, I guess,” Richards replied. “Things have just been a little weird since I got together with Kris Larkin.”
Holly wrinkled her nose. “Commander Larkin?”
“No, no, no! The other one!”
“Oh.” Holly considered that. “Well, you two were a big item for quite a while. I’m sure she’s just having trouble adjusting to the new situation.”
“You don’t think that’s what’s got her acting weird, do you?”
“I doubt it,” Holly said. “She’s probably just stressed out about getting the promotion.”
“What exactly is she doing?”
“Creating life in the science lab, reorganizing her skin samples. Cleaning out the transporter biofilters. Writing a medical book. Rebuilding the medical diagnostic array. Stuff like that.”
“Uh-huh,” Richards said. “Well, maybe her and I will have dinner or something when she gets back.”
“She’d probably like that,” Holly said, smiling at Richards as he left.
Holly turned quickly toward the direction of the sounds. The science lab. “Oh, damn,” she said, hurrying over to the doors, and peeking through. The ‘crabsters,’ as Browning called them, had escaped their tank again. She backed away from the lab and slapped her comm badge.
“Carter to Security. I need a team down in Sickbay “ she sighed, “again.”
Escort Log, Commander Conway reporting,
Stardate 53610.4. Day two of Dr. Browning’s field training operation. So far, she’s performed well above my expectations. And still, I can’t find any indication that she’s cheating. But I haven’t given up hope yet.
“Breen raider, this is Lt. Commander Janice Browning of the Starship Escort. You’re hearby ordered to come out of warp and eject your phaser core immediately, under Starfleet order 76559 stroke J.”
“I don’t recognize your Starfleet protocols, Commander,”came the muffled voice of the Breen ship commander. “I recommend you mind your own business and cease your useless threats.”
Browning sneered at the masked Breen on the viewscreen. “Oh, I assure you, Mr. Zgarba, my threats aren’t useless.”
“Then prove it.”
“Ensign Saral,” Browning ordered, “lock quantum torpedoes onto the Breen ship and open fire.”
“Might I remind you, Doctor,” Saral stated calmly from the station beside Browning, “that this ship is one-third the size of the Breen raider. They also outgun us by a substantial margin.”
“You heard me, Ensign,” Browning said, turning in the command chair to face Saral, and inclining her head toward the Breen on the viewscreen. “Fire!”
Saral glanced back at Commander Conway, who was waiting patiently, arms folded, behind Browning. “Commander?”
“Browning’s in command, Ensign,” Conway said. “You’ll follow her orders.”
Conway was almost sure he heard the Vulcan sigh. “Aye, Commander.”
White twinkling quantum torpedoes sailed out of their launch bays on the underbelly of the Escort and smashed into the Breen ship.
“Their shields are holding,” Saral noted, as the Breen disappeared from the viewscreen. “And the Breen captain cut the channel.”
“Fire again, and promise more of the same until they follow our orders,” Browning said.
“Aye, sir.” After a few moments, the Escort rattled. “They are firing back,” Saral noted.
“As well they should. They’re hiding a ton of Ferengi booty over there.”
“What do you recommend we do?” Saral asked. “They will dismantle our shields in a matter of minutes if they continue to fire on us.”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Move aside, Saral.”
Saral raised an eyebrow. “Sir?”
Browning slid out of the command chair and swung behind tactical. “Let me show you something. You have to figure out a dispersal pattern of phasers and quantums that will resonate against their shields long enough to create an interference pattern, then you shoot through it.”
Saral looked back at Conway. “Indeed, but that is far more difficult than you make it out to be.”
“Not really. Just watch.” Browning manipulated the tactical controls with the ease of a seasoned tacital officer, firing repeated volleys at the Breen ship with precision accuracy. Suddenly, an indicator blinked on the tactical panel.
Saral glanced over Browning’s shoulder. “They are hailing us.”
“No kidding.” Browning slid out from behind the tactical console and moved toward the front of the bridge. “On screen.”
“You’ve crippled us,” Zgarba said angrily. “We can’t hope to make it back to our space in the shape we’re in now!”
“That’s the point,” Browning muttered. “Saral, beam the Ferengi cargo into our hold and alert the nearest Starbase to send a tug out to retrieve our friends.”
“Aye, sir,” Saral said, going to work at her panel.
“Hope you enjoy the wait,” Browning said with a grin. “It may be a while.”
“Commander, certainly we can work out some sort of…”
“Cut the channel.”
Conway stepped up behind Browning, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “Janice, that was magnificent!”
“Yeah,” Ford said, turning in his chair at helm/navigation. “You’re beautiful when you’re mean.”
“I’ll forget I heard that, Lieutenant. How about you shut up and lay in a course for the Darinda sytem, Warp Seven.”
Ford turned reluctantly. “Okay, beautiful.”
Browning then delicately removed Conway’s hand. “If you’ll excuse me, Commander, I’m going to go below and see if I can recalibrate the engines. They sound a bit off.”
Conway collapsed into the command chair. “Go right ahead.”
“Commander,” Saral said, once Browning was gone. “Dr. Browning’s behavior of late has been extremely a-typical.”
Conway sighed, still looking at the door. “I noticed.”
“Dr. Browning, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Browning turned around in the Jeffries’ tube to find Lt. Hartley’s head dangling from the nearby access hatch.
“Oh, hi, Michelle. I’m just recalibrating our warp field.”
“Because it’s a little out of sync.”
Hartley’s head disappeared, then reappeared moments later. “Not according to my instruments.”
“Your instruments aren’t calibrated well enough.”
“You’re telling me you’re picking up something my sensors aren’t…with just your ears?”
Browning finished her recalibrations and closed up the panel. “Sure am. But don’t worry, it’s all better now.”
Hartley pulled out of the hatch to allow Browning to shimmy out. “I’m, uh, glad to hear that.”
Browning bent down, then clasped the access hatch and crossed engineering, grabbing a rag to wipe off her hands. “Sorry I treaded on your territory, Lieutenant. If it makes you feel better, there’s still the matter of the dilithium matrix.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just check it.”
Browning ducked into the turbolift, trying to decide what to do next. There were so many options open, so many different–
Then the comm system chirped.
“Conway to Dr. Browning.”
“We just got word from the Explorer. Starfleet sent them new orders. We’re supposed to chart a sector on the other side of the quadrant. We have to rendez-vous with them so they can get moving.”
Browning narrowed her eyes. “Darn it,” she muttered softly, then said in the brightest voice possible, “Okay. I’ll be right up, Commander.”
When Browning reached the bridge, she immediately pulled Conway aside. “Commander, can we talk in private?”
Conway raised an eyebrow. Maybe Browning finally realized how charming an attractive he was. Or maybe she just REALLY wanted the promotion. Either way, she had that flicker of mischief in her eyes that told him she wanted more than a bridge report. And Conway was more than happy to oblige.
“After you, Doctor,” he said, gesturing regally toward the exit door.
Browning led Conway down the narrow corridor toward the readyroom/Captain’s quarters.
“I’ll just unfold the bed,” Conway said, heading over to the sleeper sofa.
“Let me just get something,” Browning said, turning around.
As Conway unfurled the double mattress, he heard the bleep of something electronic. Well, she was kinky, wasn’t she?
Conway turned to Browning. “Ready when you are, Doc–”
And a phaser beam struck Conway dead in the chest, knocking him onto the couch bed with a soft thud.
He let out a confused gasp and lost conciousness.
“You’re dismissed, Commander,” Browning said cooly, holstering the phaser and heading back to the bridge.
When she assumed the command chair, Saral looked at her quizzically. “Where is Commander Conway?”
“Resting,” Browning replied. “I think he’s suffering from exaustion.”
“How odd. He seemed fine mere moments ago.”
“He’s had a lot of stress lately, Ensign. And caffeine has given him a bit of a rapid heartbeat. But I put him under sedation. He’ll be fine.”
“I am gratified to hear that, Doctor.”
“Course to rendez-vous with the Explorer is laid in, if anyone’s interested,” Ford said from the helm, turning to look at Saral and Browning.
“Belay that,” Browning said tersely. “I just got new orders from Starfleet. Top secret.”
“I did not detect an incoming communication,” Saral noted.
“That’s how secret it is,” Browning explained. “We’re to go to the Carissi system immediately. Make that your course, Mr. Ford. Warp Nine.”
“Warp nine, Aye,” Ford said, turning back to face the front screen.
“Engage.” Browning sat back comfortably in the command chair, relishing the calm that set upon her as the stars streaked by on the viewscreen. She was going home.
Stardate 53610.7. On our way to meet the Escort, we ran into an interceptor ship from a species called the Carissi, a non- aligned race whose home system is nearby. They have some very interesting information about the visitor we received the other day.
Bumpy foreheads. How original, Baxter thought, as the Carissi official briefed him and his senior staff in the observation lounge.
“We share our planet with a race of beings that are made up of pure thought,” the official, a man by the name of Horilak, said, indicating the flurry of information about the Carissi people on the front screen. “These beings live in the upper stratosphere of our planet. Hundreds of years ago, we learned to use our telepathic powers to join with these minds and use them to our advantage.”
“Like a symbiotic relationship,” Tilleran said, with growing interest.
“Similar, except that the pure-thought race gets no real benefit from our people, other than the brief experience of being corporeal. Normally, only the most intelligent Carissi are granted the joy of joining with a pure-thought creature. However,” Horilak sighed, “in recent years, a black market has developed for the trade of such minds.”
“A brain trust, if you will,” Baxter said, looking to his officers for some response to the joke. No one laughed.
Horilak grimaced. “I do not see the humor in the robbery of a sentient species for material gain!”
“You’ll have to forgive him, sir,” Peterman said consolingly. “He’s not very sensitive.”
“At any rate, one such smuggler escaped the Pure Thought Institute four days ago with one of our greatest minds,” Horilak continued. “He stole a ship and attempted to leave our system, but soon ran out of fuel. We caught him just yesterday and discovered that the mind was not with him. We deduced that he came aboard your ship to imprint the mind on one of your crew so he would not be discovered with it.”
“Ingenious,” Larkin said.
“I already checked Nurse Carter,” Tilleran said. “She’s clean. That leaves one other person.”
Richards sunk low in his chair. “Janice.”
“We must find your shipmate quickly. Pure-thought creatures were not meant to dwell in minds as primitive as your own.”
“Especially in someone as clueless as the doctor,” J’hana muttered.
“Watch it, J’hana,” Baxter said sternly.
“What effect will prolonged exposure to this mind have on Dr. Browning?” Peterman asked with concern.
“The longer she hosts the mind, the deeper she will descend into madness, Counselor,” Horilak said hauntingly. “In a matter of hours, her insanity will be totally irreversible.”
“Well, we sure as hell can’t have an insane doctor on our staff,” Baxter murmurred.
Richards shot out of his chair. “We have to find her!”
“That will be difficult,” J’hana grumbled. “We have tried repeatedly to contact the Escort with no success.”
“Well, we can’t just sit here!”
Baxter held up a hand. “Hold on, Chris.” He looked to Horilak. “Where should we start looking?”
“The mind will most likely have the urge to return to its home planet,” Horilak replied. “We should begin there.”
“Okay,” Baxter sighed, tapping his comm badge. “Ensign Madera, lay in a course for the Carissi system, maximum warp.”
“Let’s catch us a brain!” J’hana said excitedly, hopping out of her chair.
“Entering Carissi system,” Ford said from the helm. “Should we just sit here scratching our butts, or do we have a mission to complete?”
“You can scratch your butt if you want to,” Browning replied. “While you’re at it, raise the sensor-reflective shields.”
“Aye, sir,” Ford replied. “So this is a covert type thing?”
“You could say that.” Browning grinned, her smile stretching wide. “You could CERTAINLY say that!”
“Doctor, are you well?” Saral asked from beside her.
“Never better!” Browning chanted. “Take us to the fourth planet in this sysetm, Ford, full impulse!”
Saral examined her panel. “Doctor, five interceptor-class ships have just been launched from the fourth planet. They are broadcasting a message on all communication bands.”
“Starfleet vessel: We are in search of a fugitive from our planet. Please reveal yourself and respond to this hail so we may question you.”
“Ignore that,” Browning replied. “Ford, get ready to take us down into the Carissi atmosphere. Blue alert.”
“And why the hell, may I ask, are we doing that?”
“Do and die, Mr. Ford, do and die,” Browning said mystically, and Ford just turned around and sighed as he layed in the course.
Blue lights flared to life around the bridge as the landing alert sounded. “Venting plasma from the warp nacelles and rigging for atmospheric entry,” Ford noted. “For no damn good reason that I can see.”
“Sir,” Saral said, as new bleeps sounded from her panel. “Another ship has entered the system. It is the Explorer. They are broadcasting their own wide-band hail.”
“Ignore them too.”
“Ignore the Explorer, sir?”
“You heard me.”
Baxter shifted in his command chair, watching Carissi Four grow large on the viewscreen. “Where are they?”
“More than likely, they are running in silent mode, with the SR shields up,” J’hana replied.
“It could be worse, I guess,” Baxter said, leaning over to address Horilak. “They could be cloaked.” He turned to Ensign Sefelt, who was manning the Enviroment/Mission Ops station to his left. “Mr. Sefelt: Go into the conference lounge with a pair of binoculars and look for the Escort.”
Sefelt shrank behind his station. “You want me to search the entire area of space in front of the ship with just a pair of binoculars?”
“You have a better way to find a ship with SR shields?” Baxter asked pointedly.
“I guess not. But why me?”
“Because I’m the damn Captain and I gave you a damn order, now go!” Baxter insisted, jabbing a finger at the door to the conference lounge.
Browning giggled pleasantly to herself as the atmosphere of Carissi Four whipped by on the viewscreen. “All stop. Find a thermal layer and stay inside it.”
Ford maneuvered the Escort about, catching it on a thermal wave that sent a shiver down the length of the tiny ship. “We’re jammed in, sir. What next?”
Browning turned to Saral. “I want you to modulate the sensor- reflective shields to a bandwidth of 447.5.”
“May I ask for what purpose?”
“You may ask,” Browning said. “But I won’t tell you. Just do it. That’s an order.”
“Very well. Modulating shields.”
“Explorer to Escort,” Captain Baxter’s voice suddenly chimed over the comm system. “Someone over there respond to me. You have an alien mind aboard!”
“An alien mind?” Ford asked. “The Captain’s gone over the deep end this time.”
“Yes, the deep end,” Browning cackled. “Open the plasma shunts!”
“If you say so,” Ford replied, tapping the helm console.
Crackles of energy suddenly rippled across Escort’s hull. Bolts of electricity surged out of the ops console, knocking the ensign that was manning it to the deck.
Browning hopped to the ensign’s side, pressing fingers to his temples. “My, my, that’s good mind juice!”
“What is happening?” Saral asked mildly, as surges continued to rack the Escort.
“I’m picking up huge plasma bursts near the southern hemisphere,” Tilleran suddenly announced.
“On screen,” Baxter said, standing. “Maximum magnification.”
An opaque sensor shadow wobbled on the screen.
“That would appear to be the Escort,” Lt. Commander Larkin observed.
“I’m willing to bet. Keep trying to raise her.”
“Your doctor is getting power from the energy fields in our atmosphere. That is where the pure-thought creatures live. If she absorbs enough power, she’ll be unstoppble,” said Horilak.
“I can imagine,” Baxter said uneasily.
“What is happening,” Saral repeated, trying to hold on to her station as the Escort rattled.
Fire surged in Dr. Browning’s eyes as she turned on Saral. “I want some mind-energy, Miss Pointy-ears!” Browning reached over to Ford and palmed his head with one hand, sending surges of power through him.
“That comment was unnecessary, Doctor.”
“I’m not having fun!” Ford cried, dropping to his knees as a glowing field wrapped around him, presumably sucking his mind energy out for Browning’s use.
“Tra la la, tra la la!” Browning shrieked as her eyes rolled back into her head. “It’s so fun to eat minds!”
“You are delusional, Doctor,” Saral said, climbing over her station in an attempt to apprehend Browning.
“No ya don’t!” Browning cried, releasing Ford and pressing her fingers into Saral’s forehead.
“To quote a human aphorism, two can play at that game,” Saral replied, momentarily stunned by Browning’s assault. She pressed her hands against Browning’s cheeks and chanted, “my thoughts to your thoughts, my mind to your mind…our minds are one!”
“Your mind is a whopper, Saral! Good stuff!”
As the Vulcan and the doctor grappled, the comm system chirped to life again: “Janice, it’s Christopher! You’re probably very confused right now, but you have to believe me. That mind is not good for you. It’s getting all scambled up in there. If you love it, Janice, you have to set it free!”
Browning released Saral’s temples. “Christopher?”
“Yes, it’s Christopher. You remember me, don’t you?”
“Of course, silly. What do you want?”
“You need to leave that planet’s atmosphere and return to the Explorer. You’ve got an alien mind in you.”
“You don’t say.”
“Janice, this is not the time to argue.”
Browning shoved Saral to her knees. “Then let’s not argue, Christopher. This is what’s best for me, and it’s definitely what’s best for my mind.”
“That’s just it,” Richards’s voice called back. “It’s not your mind! You have to give it up!”
“Is that really how you feel?” Browning faltered. This was confusing. Her mind was telling her one thing, Chris another. Who was telling the truth?
“Janice, you have to get out of there!”
“Can I have a minute to think about it?”
“We lost the channel,” Richards said, pounding the engineering station. “Too much interference from the plasma bursts.”
“Options?” Baxter asked curtly.
“Tractor beam,” J’hana replied.
“Not possible,” Horilak said sharply. “The mind-being’s energy is wrapped around your ship. If you try to pull it out, it will be destroyed.”
“Well, in that case, I think this crew’s fresh out of ideas,” Baxter replied.
“Maybe she listened to me,” Richards proposed.
“That’s a laugh,” Baxter huffed. “Really, what do we do now?”
Suddenly, the Escort appeared in full on the viewscreen, and the wisps of energy that had surrounded it slowly drifted away. It turned hard on a wing and sailed out of the atmosphere.
“Escort to Explorer,” came Browning’s breathless voice.
“Explorer here,” Baxter replied warily. “What’s your condition, Doctor?”
“Dazed, and a bit hungry, sir. The good news is, I’m thinking a lot more clearly again.”
“Ready to retake that promotion test?”
“Not on your life.”
“J’hana, tractor the Escort back to its hold.” Baxter took his seat. “Well, Chris, it seems your words of wisdom did the trick.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Richards said thoughtfully. “Wait a minute, what do you mean?”
“It just seemed like she was all-to-willing to choose your recommendation over that of the alien mind.”
“Of course, she was. Wouldn’t you?”
Baxter shrugged. “Only if I was in love with you. Which I, by the way, am not.”
“What are you saying?”
“Nothing,” Baxter giggled.
Supplemental. Turns out those pure-thought creatures are excellent for test-taking situations. Horilak, who apparently is part of the Carissi Proctoring Commission, explained that the biggest customers of the black market ring are university students. When will they learn that real knowledge is gained through studying and hard work, not allowing mind creatures to inhabit your body?
Horilak also told me that when the minds take over an incompatible host, they tend to take on the qualities of that host. Hence, the mind creature inhabiting Dr. Browning was overcome by the incredible need to eat the minds of others. Thankfully, we were able to stop her before she finished the appetizers.
Dr. Browning sighed as she ran the brainwave inducer over Lt. Ford a second time as he sat motionless on the biobed.
“Zack, can you hear me?” Peterman asked, holding the helmsman’s hands. “Do you remember me? It’s Counselor Peterman!”
Ford’s eyes snapped open. “Who?”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Peterman muttered. “You’ve got amnesia.”
“Yep, that’s right. Maybe if you sleep with me it’ll bring back some of those memories.”
Peterman released Ford’s hands. “Hmmm. Appears he’s back to his old self.”
“Yes, it certainly does,” Browning agreed. “Sorry I tried to suck out your mind, Mr. Ford. It was nothing personal.”
“Don’t give it a second thought,” Ford said, hopping off the biobed. “I don’t suppose you’d…”
“Not a chance.”
“Just thought I’d ask,” Ford replied sullenly, shuffling out of Sickbay.
“Well,” Peterman said, sliding up onto the biobed. “What about your promotion?”
“I didn’t get it, obviously,” Browning sighed, placing the brainwave inducer back into its case. “Extenuating circumstances and all.”
“Figures. Are you going to try again?”
Browning shook her head. “I don’t think so. After having a 500 IQ, I kind of realized that there are more important things in life than rank.” She walked over to the replicator.
“Like what?” Peterman asked.
The replicator hummed to life and Browning reached in, then turned around, plate in hand. “Like Jell-O! Want some?”
Peterman and Browning slurped up the Jell-O quietly for several minutes.
“So you really don’t want to be a Commander?” Peterman finally asked.
Browning shook her head, swallowing a Jell-O chunk. “I think it’s best I stay away from the bridge as much as possible for the next few days. What with shooting Commander Conway, and all.”
“Yeah, he did get pretty ticked about that.”
“Well, I said I’d make it up to him.”
Peterman shot Browning a wary look. “Janice…”
“I told him I’d watch him drive his silly NASCAR.”
“Like a date?”
Browning shrugged. “He probably thinks it is.”
“That doesn’t sound wise.”
“Hey,” Browning said, shoving her empty plate into the reclamator. “I handled a vast alien intelligence. I think I can handle the Commander’s primitive advances.”
“I hope so. Commander Conway’s a sly one.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Underneath that dry, coffee-drinking exterior lies a cold, calculating mind, not unlike the one that inhabited you.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Browning said with a chuckle.
Just then, the doors to Sickbay parted, and Commander Conway strode through, decked out in a gleaming silver and gold jumpsuit. The jumpsuit was covered with patches inscribed with words such as “Valvoline” and “McDonalds” and “DuPont.” He had a gold helmet tucked under his arm.
“You ready to go?” he asked, slipping on a large pair of silver-reflective sunglasses.
Browning burst into laughter.
“Mm mm,” Peterman said, smiling. “I stand corrected, Janice.” Then she too fell off the biobed in hysterics.
“What? What in the hell is so damn funny?”
Browning looked up from her place on the floor, wiping tears from her eyes. “Pay no mind, Commander. Pay no mind.”
NEXT: So where has the mysterious Irma Wilson been all this time? Turns out she’s been getting ready for the showdown of the century, and when she tracks down Mirk, it may just be time for the show…to, uh…go down. Is our little Maloxian buddy ready? Find out next week!