Author: Anthony Butler
“What am I doing here?” Dr. Browning said over the commotion that blared around her.
Counselor Kelly Peterman adjusted herself in her seat next to Browning. “Supposedly, this is an exercise to get out more,” Peterman said, “since your Ship’s Counselor thought you were spending too much time in Sickbay lately and not enough time having fun.”
“Far be it from me to disagree with her, but of all the places for you to suggest–”
“Hey, I’m here with you. This is a learning experience. We’re getting inside someone’s mind here.”
“But this is a mind I thought you’d never want to get into.”
“It’s my responsibility to get into everyone’s mind, whether I like them personally or not.”
“Speaking of which, he’s coming around now.”
Browning craned her neck. “I can barely see him. The cars look so small from up here.”
Suddenly the loudspeaker boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen, Conway is pulling around. It looks like he’s in a position to take the lead away from Dale Earnhardt.”
Commander Conway’s yellow-and-green Mellow Yellow car zipped around the racetrack, narrowly nudging Dale Earnhardt’s GM Goodwrinch car.
Fans booed. No question who had the biggest backing here at the Brickyard.
“Where’s Larkin?” asked Browning.
Peterman handed her the electronic binoculars. “To your left, there. Three cars back.”
“Oh, yes. The Daystrom Institute car.”
“Austere grey with Federation-style writing doesn’t really make it a stand-out kind of car, does it?”
“It stands out because it’s so bland.”
“Poor Larkin. You’d think she’d use that positronic brain to calculate the perfect way to beat the Commander.”
Browning shrugged, tossing back a bag of fries and sucking on her soda. “I thought that was what this whole event was about. Proving that you need that –how did Dave put it?–special human instinct to destroy your competition.”
“Having an ego to satisfy probably helps to,” quipped Peterman.
“Look!” Browning exclaimed. “There he goes!”
Conway’s car surged ahead, overtaking Dale Earnhardt’s by a substantial margin, heading around the bend to the opposite side of the track.
“He’s actually doing it!” remarked Peterman.
Browning frowned. “Uh-oh. Earnhardt’s pulling ahead. This race isn’t over!”
“Where’s Larkin now?”
“Still several cars back.”
Peterman watched Conway’s car come into view again, and by this time he was nose-to-nose with Earnhardt.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the announcer, “we’re coming up on our last lap here at the Brickyard 500!”
“This is it, Janice,” Peterman said. “It’s now or never.”
Earnhardt’s car edged forward, with the finish line relative moments away. It looked like he was a shoe-in.
Then Conway’s car slammed against Earnhardt’s, and the Goodwrinch car skidded off the track, bursting into flames and tumbling end-over-end.
The Mellow-Yellow car zipped across the finish line.
Browning and Peterman squeezed through the substantial crowd toward the Winner’s Circle.
Larkin was there witnessing the events of Conway’s trophy award with detached curiousity.
“Congratulations, Dave!” Browning called out.
Conway pushed past the throng of NASCAR fans, shouldering a huge trophy and soaked in champagne. “Ah, that was an easy one. The computer just can’t recreate the real Dale Earnhardt.”
“There is something I do not understand,” said Larkin. “Is it not against the rules, or at least unethical, to win by wrecking your opponent’s vehicle?”
“Heck no,” Conway grinned. “This is NASCAR, Commander. Anything goes. This is a sport where you win by any means necessary. Everyone knows that, including God, I mean Dale Earnhardt.”
“So he won’t be angry that you ruined his chances at winning and destroyed his car?” asked Browning.
Just then, a badly bruised and burned Dale Earnhardt stumbled through the throng of fans.
“Speak of the devil,” said Peterman.
“Dale,” Conway said warmly. “Good race. You almost had it there, big guy.”
“My damn moustache is burnt off,” Earnhardt muttered angrily.
“Uh, sorry, there, I guess I–”
“Go to hell.” Earnhardt decked Conway, took his trophy, and stormed away.
Peterman leaned over and examined Conway. “Are you okay?”
Larkin watched Earnhardt walk off. “It appears he does not share your winning philosophy, sir.”
“Well,” Browning said, kneeling next to Conway. “I held up my part of the bargain. I sat through yet another NASCAR match. Now it’s your turn. You’re due in Sickbay in half an hour for your annual physical, like it or not.”
“I’d probably be going there anyway,” Conway choked. “I think Dale broke something.”
Conway rocked impatiently on the biobed, sipping coffee and awaiting Browning’s return from her office.
“Would you like something to read, Commander?” Nurse Carter asked. “I’m sure I can find a coloring book around here somewhere.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Sorry it took me so long. I wanted to double-check some things,” Browning said, emerging from her office with a padd in hand.
Conway sniffed the air. “I smelled something cooking in there, Doctor. Are you sure you weren’t double-checking a pizza?”
“Haha,” Browning grinned. “That’s funny.”
“Isn’t that tomato sauce on your uniform?”
“Look,” Browning said, wiping the dollop of sauce off her collar, “I’m done with your tests. Do you want to hear the results or not?”
“Okay.” Browning looked at her padd. “The good news is that Dale didn’t fracture anything. The bad news is, your blood pressure is twice Starfleet’s reccommended norms. I warned you about this last year, and the year before. You need to go off coffee.”
Conway laughed long and hard, his laughter echoing in the mostly-empty sickbay. “Now THAT’s funny.”
“I’m not joking, Commander. This is no laughing matter. I’ve tried to be nice about it, but you just won’t listen. You ingest an inhuman amount of caffiene. Enough to put your heart in serious danger.”
“So? I’ll just get a new one.”
Browning shook her head. “Not good enough.” She grabbed Conway’s mug. “It’s my opinion that the best way to save you is to stop you cold turkey.”
Browning yanked. Conway held fast. “No way. You’re not taking away my coffee.”
“I’m ordering you to stop drinking coffee, Commander!” Browning said, planting one foot on the biobed and jerking the mug out of Conway’s hands.
“Now let’s not get so hasty about this!” Conway said. “I’m sure if we just talk it over we can come to a reasonable–”
“This is not up for debate! As of now, you are cut off, Commander. You hear me? Cut off!”
“This isn’t fair! I’ll appeal to Starfleet Medical.”
“Good luck,” Browning said, placing the coffee in a reclamator.
Conway’s face fell as the mug swirled away. “No…”
“Bridge to Conway,” came Captain Baxter’s voice over the comm.
“What.” Conway glared at Browning.
“We’ve detected a crashed ship on one of the planets in this system. Its warp core is still partially operational.”
“I’m not finished. According to Chris, the signature is Dominion.”
“Way out here? Impossible.”
“You’ll get the chance to verify it for yourself, Commander. I’m sending you down to investigate. Larkin and J’hana will meet you in Transporter Room Two.”
“Fine.” Conway slid off the biobed. “I’m on my way.” He grinned at Browning. “I just have to stop by a replicator first.”
“Do as you please. Bridge out.”
“No way,” Browning said, removing her labcoat. “I’m going with you. CMO’s prerogative.”
Browning grabbed her medical kit. “Watch me. Holly, I want you to program all replicators to deny the commander here his coffee, understood?”
Holly smiled. “Perfectly.”
“All righty,” Browning said, smiling. “Let’s go.”
Smouldering, Conway led the way to the transporter room.
Conway, Larkin, J’hana, and Browning materialized in the ruined command center of the crashed ship.
“Lights?” Conway suggested, activating his palm beacon.
J’hana and Larkin did likewise.
“Well?” Conway asked.
“Confirmed, sir.” J’hana’s palm beacon played across the command center’s bulkheads. “This is a Jem’Hadar warship.”
“So how did it get all the way out here?” Conway asked.
Larkin studied one of the upright control consoles. “By virtue of their engines, I would think.”
“Was that sarcasm?”
Conway studied the room. “Well, if we were still at war with the Dominion, then this would be just peachy.”
“As it is, at least we have a specimen of Dominion technology. We could learn a lot from it,” J’hana said.
“We already had a Jem’Hadar warship. So what good does this one do us?” Conway felt more irritable than usual. By now, he’d usually be halfway through his away team mug of coffee.
Browning walked across the bridge, and tripped over something stiff.
Hitting the deck with a thud, she twisted around with her palm beacon to see that it was a dead Jem’Hadar. “Body!” she said enthusiastically.
Conway and J’hana joined her, hovering over the dead Jem’Hadar.
“What can you tell me about it?” Conway demanded.
Browning studied it with her medical tricorder. “He died as a result of the collision. Apparently his head slammed right into this console here.”
“You will no doubt find the other bodies in a similar state,” Larkin said, joining the group. “It appears this ship was destroyed by natural causes.”
“Natural causes?” Browning squinted up at Larkin.
“I.E. it just crashed into the planet.”
“Ships don’t JUST crash, Commander,” Conway said. “Someone had to crash it.”
Suddenly, from somewhere in the ship, a soft thudding, almost like footsteps, rumbled.
Conway glanced at his security chief, pointing in the direction of the sound. “J’hana! Check it out.”
“Gladly.” J’hana checked the setting on her phaser and charged out of the command center.
“I’m going to take a look at some of the other sections,” Browning said, standing up and wiping off her hands on her uniform trousers.
“Take Larkin with you, just in case,” Conway said.
Browning narrowed her eyes at Conway. “I don’t feel safe leaving you here. Who’s to say you won’t sneak a coffee?”
“I’m on a crashed Jem’Hadar warship, Doctor, where the HELL do you think I’m going to get COFFEE from?”
Conway huffed as Larkin and Browning disappeared through the exit hatch.
He bent down next to the fallen Jem’Hadar and studied him. “What happened, here, buddy? What’s your story?”
It was then that Conway felt a dissying wave of nausea. He gripped a nearby railing to steady himself and fell forward onto his knees.
“Damn withdrawl,” Conway grunted. He was only about twenty minutes into being caffiene-free and already he could feel that familiar pain that came with the loss of that magical substance.
Conway rubbed his eyes. When he re-opened them, his gaze fell on the plastic tube running from a contraption on the Jem’Hadar’s chest all the way up to a puncture in his neck.
“Oh, white,” Conway said to himself. “You guys are lucky. You’re trained to be addicted to substances. It’s a way of life.” What a life, too. To have simple, basic directives like “kill” and “conquer.” And a constant supply of bubbly liquid flowing into your neck at all times just to keep you in line. The simple pleasures.
Conway ripped the vial of white off the Jem’Hadar’s chest and studied it. “Hmmm. I wonder.”
“Where are we, Larkin?” Browning asked, bathing the corridor with her palm beacon. The room was cramped, and filled with pulsating conduits and blinking panels that gave off what appeared to be the only light on the whole ship.
“It appears we are in the engine room, Doctor.” Larkin studied her tricorder readings. “The warp core does appear partially functional, and by all accounts, there does not seem to be an apparent cause for this ship’s crash.”
“Other than that it hit a planet?”
“An astute observation, Doctor.”
Browning continued through a chamber off the main engine room. Looked like a cargo bay to her. She ran her palm beacon over some of the round containers. “White,” she said to herself. “Of course.”
Then she came across another, smaller container. It was clear, and filled with a thick, orange-yellow substance.
“Hmmm. I wonder what this is?” Browning asked. She cranked the top of the container open and sniffed. Hmm. Fruity.
She glanced around the cargo bay. “Hey, Larkin?”
“Yes,” Larkin said from the adjacent compartment.
“Do you think this was some sort of transport ship?”
“It is possible, but more than likely this class of ship was used for combat only, or perhaps troop transport.”
Browning didn’t know much about the Dominion, or their eating habits, but she knew the whole thing about the Jem’Hadar being addicted to white. She felt a little remiss in her duties as Xenonutritionist for not knowing exactly what it was other members of the Dominion, like the Vorta, or the Carimar, for instance, ate. They had to eat something, didn’t they?
And there must be a Vorta supervisor somewhere on this ship, Browning figured, so what would he eat? Not white, for certain.
“Have you found anything of interest?” asked Larkin’s voice.
“I don’t think so.” Browning sniffed the container again. She ran her tricorder over it but got no readings.
Her tummy rumbled. That pizza she had earlier was delicious, but what was now called for was a sweet dessert.
That’s what it was, Browning reasoned. Pudding. Even Vorta had to eat desserts. Browning decided she should perform some sort of emprical study.
This had to be done scientifically, according to the stringent Xenonutrional guidelines.
Browning tilted back the warmish container and downed it in several gulps.
The liquid trickled down her throat and seemed to settle in her stomach pleasantly. The taste could only be described as…slick. Slightly sweet. But a little bitter at the same time.
Browning decided Earth pudding was infinitely superior. She wiped her the circle of sticky liquid from her mouth and put the container away. She’d have to write a report to Starfleet Xenonutrition Headquarters about this one.
On her way out to the engine room, Browning felt another rumbling in her tummy, but this one felt different. It felt almost as if her tummy was slowly emptying.
Then she heard the umistakable blare of phaser fire.
Larkin drew her phaser. “Doctor, behind me, if you please.”
They found J’hana facing a rippling wall of orange.
“Changeling,” J’hana said, firing again. A hole formed exactly where she fired, and sealed up as soon as she cut off her beam.
How odd for Vorta to eat pudding of the same color as their supposed gods, thought Browning.
“Larkin to Conway,” Larkin said, holding her phaser out to the Changeling. “We have a situation here.”
“What kind of situation?”
“We’ve found a founder!” J’hana shouted.
Suddenly a head formed in the midst of the mass. Its face was human–a woman, with deep-set, unforgiving eyes.
“Oh, damn,” the head said. “Why, of all the ships–”
“Admiral Neilson,” Larkin said.
J’hana looked over to Larkin. “You mean the changeling that impersonated an Admiral and got us shipped off to the Delta Quadrant?”
“Fharquar!” J’hana screamed, turning to the Changeling to blast again, but before she could, the changeling took that opportunity to slam into J’hana, Larkin, and Browning, surging past like a tidal wave down the corridor.
“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?” asked Conway over the comm channel.
“It would take too long to explain,” J’hana sighed.
Stardate 53828.5. We have determined that the crashed Jem’Hadar warship was transporting the changeling that was responsible for the Aerostar’s trip to the Delta Quadrant. Starfleet has ordered us to guard the ship until a detachment of Federation scientists can come to study it, and they’ve also asked that we try to find the changeling. To that end, we’ve sent a fleet of security officers down to find that changeling and capture it, with the help of Mr. Richards’s nifty changeling- capturing field device.
“Let’s see,” Counselor Peterman said, glancing at her menu. “I think I’ll have the turkey sandwhich, on wheat toast, no mayo, a side-salad and an iced tea.”
Amara nodded, scribbling the order down on her padd. She turned to Browning. “Doctor?”
Browning frowned at the menu. “Water.”
Peterman’s eyes went wide with shock. “What?”
“I’m not really hungry,” Browning shrugged.
“And I’m a Cardassian,” Amara said. “All right, joke’s over. What do you really want?”
“I don’t want anything. I had a nice pizza this morning and it filled me up.”
“A pizza? That’s just a snack! No rack of ribs? No triple cheeseburger? No giant bowl of spaghetti?”
“No THANK YOU!” Browning said, a little too forcefully.
“Okay, then,” Amara said, taking Browning and Peterman’s menus and hurrying back to the bar.
“Well, Janice, I’m proud of you,” Peterman said. “It’s admirable that you’re cutting back on your eating.”
“I can’t explain it, Kelly. I just don’t have my normal appetite. I feel really…full.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing.”
“Hardly. I don’t really feel like me when I’m not eating.”
Peterman shook her head. “That’s a common case. Richard Simmons always used to say the most sorrowful overeaters were those that did it because they felt like it was part of their identity.”
“Still, I think something may be wrong with me. That pudding I ate earlier today just didn’t sit well.”
“You’re just paranoid. The more you know about the body’s afflictions, the more you think you have them.”
“You’re probably right.” Browning took her glass of water from Amara and sipped it. “I’m probably just having a little indigestion from my mid-morning pizza.”
“I’m sure that’s all it is.”
“Hold on a second!”
Captain Baxter tapped his foot with irritation outside Commander Conway’s office. “I’ve given you weeks to replicate my new Cowboys Stadium, Commander, and it’s about time I collected.”
“I know, just give me a second. I’ve got it right here.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. Getting Conway to do anything was like pulling teeth. A constant battle.
The doors suddenly slid open, and Conway ducked back inside his office, motioning for Baxter to follow.
“Sorry it took so long,” Conway said, sliding behind his desk and pushing the stadium replica forward. “I had to use subspace to connect with an Earth database to get the specs.” Conway’s words sounded rushed, like staccato machine-gun fire. “There was no replicator file in our computer so I had to have the computer replicate an original.”
Baxter looked down at the stadium, then looked up at Conway askance. “You okay, Commander?”
A line of sweat trickled down Conway’s forehead. One eye looked slightly bigger than the other. “What makes you say that?”
“Um, well, nothing.” Baxter shifed uncomfortably in his chair. He studied the stadium. “Well, look, this one lights up and everything.”
“Uh-huh,” Conway said eagerly, leaning over the desk. “And would you look, would you look, would you look, there’s even a little Jerry Jones giving orders from the sidelines!”
“Look at that,” Baxter said, looking at Conway warily. He narrowed his eyes. “What’s that dripping out of your mouth?”
“Huh?” Conway rubbed an arm rapidly over his face. “Nothing.”
“It looked like paste or something.”
“Yeah, right, like I’m eating paste.”
“Well, anyway, it looks like you put a lot of thought into this.”
“Sure did, sure did, uh-huh!”
“Then I’ll get going, Commander,” Baxter said, scooping up the stadium and turning around. He stopped by the door. “And, Commander?”
“Hmm hmm hmm?”
“Next time a woman refuses to date you, kindly refrain from bashing apart one of my most prized possessions.”
“You have my word, Captain.”
“Very good.” Baxter backed out of Conway’s office and walked as fast as he could back to his quarters.
The two-story viewscreen in the ampitheatre shone on the audience that made up the majority of the Explorer’s crew.
Speakers all around the room boomed:
“Hi, I’m Federation President Jaresh-Inyo. What you’re about to see is real flight recorder footage from some of Starfleet’s most glorious battles. Enhanced with VirtuTech technology, it will, I’m told, make you feel like you’re in the midst of the actual battle. And, thanks to our contract with Krinokom comunications, we’ll be bringing you footage of the Federation’s most bloody conflicts in history each week. Now, without further…what’s that word…” Inyo squinted at something off-screen, “…ado…we bring you ‘The Federation’s Greatest Ship Battles III.”
“This week,” said another voice, “Wolf 359.”
An image of Captain Ben Sisko sitting at his desk appeared on the screen. “There we were, in the middle of the battle. Other ships were being blown apart left and right, but we held our ground anyway. On the Saratoga, the bridge crew were keeping cool heads in what could have been a REALLY messy situation…”
The VirtuTech speakers boomed around the room, causing deafness in some of the species with more acute hearing, as starships zigged and zagged around the Borg cube on the screen.
Dr. Browning maneuvered into the row where Peterman, Baxter, and Richards were seated. “Hey, guys, sorry I’m late.”
“Sit and be quiet or I shall wound you!” screamed J’hana from one of the back rows.
“Sorry,” Browning called over her shoulder and sat down.
“Problems?” asked Chris Richards from next to her.
“Just feeling a little nauseous. I hoped getting out might make me feel better.”
“Well, don’t expect to feel any better watching this crap,” Peterman muttered, shoving a handful of fat-free popcorn in her mouth. “The very idea that the Federation would sell battle footage to Krinok! What are they, going bankrupt?”
“Don’t be silly,” Baxter snapped.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Richards. “Why are we even watching this? We’ve been in battles just as impressive as Wolf 359. The battle to save the Delta Quadrant, for instance!”
“Yes,” Baxter said, grabbing popcorn, “but we didn’t get to hear it in VirtuTech SuperSurrealSound.”
“I give up,” muttered Peterman, turning to Browning. “So you’re still feeling ill?”
Browning shrugged. “Just a little…queasy.”
“Maybe it was your run-in with that changeling,” Baxter suggested.
“Would you all be quiet!” Conway called from somewhere in back. “The Tolstoy’s warp core is about to breach!”
“I’ll breach your core if you don’t stay out of our business!” Baxter called over his shoulder.
“How did the changeling hunt go, by the way?” asked Browning.
Richards shrugged. “We searched that ship, and the surrounding countryside, for a good four hours. Nothing.”
“It IS a changeling,” said Peterman. “They aren’t exactly easy to spot.”
“We should just nuke the planet,” said Baxter. “Save ourselves some trouble.”
“Now Andy,” said Peterman. “You know Starfleet wants the Jem’Hadar ship intact so they can study it.”
“Yeah, they probably want it so they can do a ‘Jem’Hadar autopsy’ for Krinokom,” Richards laughed.
“Well, I think it’s all a collasal waste of time,” Baxter muttered.
“As is sitting here and watching this foolishness,” Peterman asserted.
“I’m just trying to have a good time!” said Baxter. “I work all day, and at night, I’d like the chance to relax and watch some ships OTHER than MINE explode. Is that all right?”
“Shut up!” called out a chorus of crew voices.
Baxter turned around. “You shut up!”
The room got deathly quiet. Then, with a shake that rattled the entire room, the Tolstoy exploded.
“You will adapt to service us,” said the Borg on screen.
“And they weren’t kidding,” said Commander Liz Shelby on the viewscreen. She was sitting on a park bench in San Francisco. “They were serious about assimilating us. But we took a team over to their ship to rescue Captain Picard anyway.”
Half that last bit was cut out, however, when a loud sound echoed throughout the amphitheatre.
“What the hell was that?” asked Baxter.
“It sure wasn’t SurrealSound,” Richards replied.
Browning looked down at her stomach. “I think it was me.”
Peterman grabbed Browning’s arm. “Come on, Janice. We’ll get you something to eat. You’re obviously starving.”
“I’ll say,” said Baxter, perplexed.
“We’ll let the guys sit here and rot their brains on tabloid vidclips.” And Peterman marched with Browning purposefully out of the amphitheatre. Both were pegged with a hail of popcorn.
Most of the tables and chairs in Mirk’s were already turned over and placed on tables, but Amara was good enough to let in Browning and Peterman and give them a booth.
“Glad you finally have an appetite, Doctor,” said Amara with a grin. “I was beginning to get worried.”
“Me too,” Browning said, as Amara delivered her a plate of Bolian Jambalaya. Blue hunks in a white creamy sauce.
“Yummm…” Browning said unenthusastically, grabbing her spoon.
“Where’s Mirk, Amara?” Peterman asked, as Browning nibbled tentatively at her jambalaya.
Amara wiped down the bar. “In the amphitheatre, watching that silly show.”
“Him too?” Peterman shook her head. “What’s this ship coming to?”
“You’d think people would have heard of reading a book.”
“Yeah,” Browning agreed, slurping jambalya. It wasn’t half bad, actually. Her stomach rumbled a bit, but seemed to accept the addition.
Then something funny happened.
Browning felt her stomach brush up against the table. Since when had that happened? There was always more than enough room in Mirk’s booth for her.
She looked down. Odd. Some sort of lump had emerged from her stomach. She reached down and poked it. It obediently receeded back into her stomach.
“That shouldn’t happen,” Browning said quietly. She glanced up. Peterman was still chatting with Amara.
She looked back down. The lump had emerged again. She poked it again, and it receeded, then popped back out.
Hallucination, that was the only explanation. She glanced at the ancient analog clock hanging over the bar. 1050 hours. She’d been up since 0700. What she needed was a good night’s rest.
Browning pushed her bowl away and slid out of the booth, casually holding her hand against her stomach to keep the lump from protruding. “Well, guys, thanks for the snack. I’m full. Off to bed.”
“That’s all you’re going to eat?” Amara said, examining Browning’s bowl. “Usually you lick the bowl!”
“Oh, it was more than enough!” Browning said, and hurried out of the Constellation Cafe.
“I was just doing my duty,” said Ben Sisko over the viewer. “Sure, my wife died and my ship blew up, but those are just how the cards fall.”
Commander Conway’s feet rapped the floor incessantly. He’d been sitting still for an hour and forty-five minutes, watching this, and it was about to drive him insane. He had to get out.
He sidled out of his row, apologizing frantically, and tiptoed out of the amphitheatre. Once he reached the corridor, he broke into a run for his office. He’d studied anthologies on addiction. He knew what was happening. He was jonesing for some white!
Conway dumped the container down his throat with a trembling hand. He swallowed. Mmmmm.
Eyes darting around his office, he tapped staccato rhythms on his desk. There had to be something to do to pass the time. He’d never go to sleep. Never.
Clean! He had to clean his office. It was a mess.
He bolted for the door so he could find the nearest closet of cleaning supplies. This would be fun!
The next morning, Browning woke reluctantly, after much tossingand turning.
She crawled off her bed and crept into the bathroom. No jogging today, that was certain.
The walk to the bathroom, in and of itself, brought more nausea.
Thankfully, the toilet was nearby. Browning quickly divulged her stomach contents. That would certainly correct the problem.
Then she moved to the mirror. The next task was a quick tooth-brushing.
In the middle of brushing her teeth, her eyes wandered down to her middle. And she dropped her toothbrush.
Browning did jog after all that morning. Well, ran was more like it. She ran down the corridor to Sickbay, enlisting curious looks from passersby. They had good reason to have curious looks. She was in her nightgown, after all, among…other. . . things.
She rushed into Sickbay. “Holly!” she called out. “You’re NOT going to believe this!”
Browning scooted onto the main biobed and swung the medscanner arm over her midsection. She activated it and stared at the results on the screen opposite the biobed.
Holly walked out of the adjacent lab with a cup of hot chocolate and a tray of sweetrolls. “Hey, Doc, do you want one of these sweet…JUMPIN’ JEHOSEPHAT!”
Holly quickly set aside the tray and the coffee and rushed over to the medscanner viewscreen. “What IS that?”
“It’s alive,” Browning said, gulping.
“Come on, come on, get past me!” Peterman cried, guarding the goal furiously.
Baxter rushed at her, lacrosse net held at waistlevel, ball poised to go in the goal. “Come and get it, hon!”
He swung the stick back and hurled the ball toward the net. Peterman dove to block it, batting it out of the way with her own stick.
Baxter stuck his stick out to grab the ball and tried again, but Peterman entertwined her stick with his and jabbed him backward.
“Foul!” cried Baxter, as Peterman swung her stick, knocking his legs out from under him. He reeled back to the ground. He responded by kicking HER legs out from under her.
They laid there on the grass for several moments catching their breath.
Baxter yanked his mesh mask off. He rubbed his busted lip. “Honey,” he said breathlessly, “what ever possessed us to do this?”
“Timeline change,” Peterman said, equally breathless.
“But is it something we really like doing?”
“I suppose. I can’t remember not liking it.”
Baxter pushed himself up on his elbows. “Well, maybe we should consider something a little less…violent?”
“The violence is good for us, Andy. We’ve got to take out our aggression toward each other in a healthy way.”
“You call busting my lip healthy?”
“Browning to Holodeck Two,” boomed the comm system.
“Yeah,” Baxter sighed.
“Sorry to interrupt lacrosse practice, guys, but I need you both to come up to Sickbay ASAP.”
“What is it?” probed Peterman.
“I’d rather talk to you in person.”
“Wonder what this is about?” Baxter sighed, helping Peterman to her feet and calling for the holodeck arch.
“I think she’s going on a diet,” Peterman said, as the two stepped out into the corridor. “And I want you to be totally supportive, got it?”
“Or what? You’ll poke my eye in?”
Peterman and Baxter strolled into Sickbay still in their lacrosse jerseys and shorts.
“What’s up?” asked Baxter. Browning, nightgowned, had her back to them, studying some readings on the shiny main diagnostic screen that dominated the recently-renovated Sickbay.
Browning turned. Peterman gasped.
Baxter’s eyes grew wide. “That’s…new.”
“Janice…what…” Peterman stammered, staring at the bulge in Browning’s tummy.
“I’m preggers,” Browning said simply. She indicated a graphic on the diagnostic screen. “There’s the sensor image.”
Peterman squinted at the graphic. “Ummm…”
The image was a lima-bean shaped entity that one would expect to see in any sensor reading of someone that was three months pregnant or so, but it…rippled.
“What’s it doing?” Baxter asked.
“Shapeshifting,” Browning said.
Peterman blinked. “SHAPESHIFTING?”
Baxter scrubbed a hand down his face. “Janice, I’m not an expert in human biology, but I’m guessing this didn’t happen in the…traditonal way.”
Peterman leaned back against a biobed. “How DID it happen?”
“I’ve got a working theory,” Browning said. “It boils down to this: Down on the planet, on the Jem’Hadar ship, I ate a changeling.”
“And what would possess you to do that, may I ask?” Baxter asked, eyes wide.
Browning shrugged. “I thought it was a pudding.”
“So it just…migrated…” Peterman said, pointing to Browning’s stomach.
“More or less. It worked itself into one of my egg cells and somehow the DNA intertwined.”
“This is amazing,” Baxter said. He grinned. “Congratulations.”
“It was the last thing I expected to happen,” Browning admitted.
“Well!” Peterman said excitedly. “Is it a girl or boy? How long until you’re due? What are you going to name it? Will you need counseling?”
“I don’t know, about four months, I don’t know, and no,” Browning quickly said.
“Four months,” Baxter said in disbelief, “and we’ll have a little Browningling scampering around the ship. I can’t believe it.”
“I’m a bit surprised myself,” said Browning.
“Well,” Peterman said warmly, “you have our full support in this. If you need anything, just let us know.”
Browning rubbed her chin. “A bigger uniform would probably be in order.”
“And bigger quarters,” Baxter said. “We’ve got the room, since there aren’t any other families around.”
“Wow,” Peterman said, tears welling up in her eyes, “the first child of the Explorer.” She reached out and hugged Browning tightly.
“Okay, okay!” Browning gasped. “I love you too. But I think you’re squishing me.”
Peterman backed away to see that Browning’s stomach had somewhat… flattened. Presently, it shifted back to its original shape.
“That’s interesting,” Peterman said. “Can you feel it…sloshing around?”
“Without a common frame of reference, I’m not sure how I can describe it. I’m not sure how this differs from a normal pregnancy.”
Baxter smiled. “If you need any advice on pregnancy, you’ve got a ship full of guys who’ve all been through it.”
“Yeah, the Q thing,” Browning said. “Well, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“We’d better go, Andy,” Peterman said, jerking Baxter’s arm. “Janice needs her rest.”
“Feel free to take some time off, Janice,” Baxter said, as Peterman dragged him out of Sickbay.
“And feel free to drop by my office to talk about how this is making you feel!” called Peterman.
Holly emerged from the lab again after cataloguing all the samples Browning had given her the day before. “So, how’d they take the news?”
Browning shrugged. “About like I expected them to.”
Lt. Commander Richards made his way down to Browning’s quarters that afternoon, as soon as he’d heard.
Word of Browning’s new status spread throughout the Explorer like wildfire. It wasn’t long before she was inundated with messages congratulating her and inquiring about the “little blob in the oven.”
But Richards wanted to see her personally. He knew she didn’t want to talk to just any crewperson. She’d want to discuss this with someone with whom she’d shared a meaningful relationship.
Richards arrived at Browning’s door just in time to see Captain Baxter come from the opposite direction.
“Andy? What are you doing here?”
Baxter shrugged. He had a teddy bear tucked in the crook of his arm. “I figured she’d really want to talk to her commanding officer at a time like this.”
“Commanding officer? That’s a load of crap. She’ll want to talk to me.”
Just then, the doors to the turbolift nearby split open and Commander Conway shuffled out.
“Hey hey hey!” Conway said, a bouquet of flowers in hand. “What’re–what’re you guys doing here?”
“We’re here to comfort Janice,” Richards said. He eyed the bouquet suspiciously. “What are you here for?”
“Likely story, Commander,” Baxter said. “I’m not going to stand by and let you take advantage of one of my crew, and one of my friends, when she’s at her most vulnerable.”
Richards folded his arms. “I’m not either.” The two blocked the door to Browning’s quarters protectively. “You’ll have to get through both of us.”
Conway rocked on his feet. “Now, guys guys guys!”
“Why are you twitching?” Richards asked.
Suddenly, the doors to Browning’s quarters slid open and she nearly bumped into Baxter and Richards. She was decked out in a spanking new grey Starfleet maternity jacket, complete with blue shoulders and roomy pouch-pockets.
“What are all of you doing here?” she asked.
Baxter and Richards turned. All three men said, “We’re here to comfort you,” in semi-unison.
“Why? I’m actually pretty excited about this. I’m not depressed at all.”
Baxter frowned, reluctantly handing Browning the teddy bear. “Not just a little?”
“Nope. I think this is just what’s been missing in my life,” Browning said, studying the bear. “Think about it. I’ve actually created another human being. And just by eating something!”
“That is pretty outstanding,” Richards admitted.
“So I’m just going to go back to work. I’d appreciate it if you guys didn’t walk on eggshells around me. I’m the same old Janice…” Browning pondered that. “Mmmm. Eggs. Wonder if Mirk’s still serving breakfast?”
With that, Browning marched off to the turbolift to head to Mirk’s, bear in tow.
“Yep, she’s the same old Janice,” Richards said with a grin.
“Seems that way,” Baxter said. “Well, better get back to the bridge. Coming, Commander?” He looked at Conway.
Conway backed away. “N-no. No, I’ve got to go back down to the planet.”
“Whatever for?” asked Richards.
“I think I left something down there.”
“Want a security team to go with you?” Baxter offered.
“Nopenopenope. I’ll just go alone. Yes-indeedy. Byebye guys!”
Conway turned on a heel and took off down the corridor.
Baxter and Richards headed the other way.
“Isn’t the Commander acting a little odd lately?” Baxter asked Richards.
“I’m sure it’s just a phase he’s going through.”
Conway materialized on the Jem’Hadar warship and scrambled about, searching frantically for another dead Jem’Hadar. Last time he was down here, he’d collected every vial of white off every dead Jem’Hadar he could find.
Now, two days later, the vials were all gone. Conway needed more.
With twice his normal strength, he tossed aside large hunks of duranium, pushed past tipped consoles, tore open broken doors.
“Need…white…” Conway gasped, stumbling throughout the Jem’Hadar ship.
Then he found it. In what he imagined was the Vorta’s quarters, he found a large, squarish box. It looked like a treasure chest to Conway. He pried it out of the hands of the dead Vorta and tapped his comm badge. “Conway to Explorer. One to beam up.”
“Afternoon, Ensign,” Lt. Gellar said, looking up from his desk at Ensign Patty Milligan. “Did you enjoy the raquetball game?”
“It was great,” Patty said distantly. “I beat Mr. Ford.” She sat down at a nearby console and began studying the ship’s security schematics. “How was your afternoon?”
“Uneventful,” Gellar said. “Nothing like the adventure we had yesterday hunting that changeling, huh?”
“Yes,” Patty agreed. “That was an adventure.”
“One interesting thing, though,” Gellar mentioned.
“And that is?”
“Turns out Dr. Browning ate a baby changeling yesterday.”
“Yeah, apparently it somehow found its way into her, and it, uh, impregnated her.” Gellar shifted in his chair uncomfortably and went back to reading security reports.
“It inserted itself into a fertile ova?” asked Patty.
“Yeah. Something like that, I guess.”
“Fascinating.” Patty rose from her chair and walked out the door.
“Patty?” Gellar asked, glancing up.
“I will be back. I must…check something.”
Lt. Tilleran shook her head. “I can’t decode it. You’d need a Vorta voice signature and thumbprint to get it open.”
The box sat there on her workbench, mocking Conway.
Conway ran hands through his hair. “There must be some way we can simulate that.”
“Nope, we don’t have any Vorta voice patterns on file. Why are you so desparate to get in there, anyway?”
“We want to…study…the way they, they, they, make white. The way they make white.”
“Commander,” Tilleran cocked her head. “Are you all right?”
“Right as rain, right as rain,” Conway said, nodding vigorously.
Her black eyes bored into his mind. “Commander! You’re addicted to white!”
Conway scooped up the box and bolted for the door. “Get outta my brain!”
Browning stared down at her plate. “What is this?”
“Yorkshire pudding,” Mirk said proudly. “With orange sauce. Thought it would be, you know, appropriate.”
“Uh-huh,” Browning said, poking at the dish. “Well, that’s very thoughtful. I’m sure I’ll love it.”
Mirk waited patiently for Browning to take a first bite. “Well?”
“Mmm, yummy,” Browning grinned. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Mirk said. “Hey, I was wondering…”
Browning sighed. “Yes, you can feel my tummy.”
Mirk placed his hand over the round protrusion. “Wow! I can feel it sloshing around!”
“Yes, it’s sloshing around.” Mirk was about the fiftieth person to do this. “It’s not exactly solid, not exactly liquid.”
“That’s amazing.” Mirk stood there awkwardly for a moment.
“Nice talking to you, Mirk.” Browning went back to eating.
After a few minutes of silent eating, someone said, “Ahem.”
Browning looked up. “Oh. Ensign Milligan. Sure you can feel my tummy.”
“That wasn’t what I was here about,” Patty said, looking around nervously. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Browning pushed her plate away. “What?”
“Your quarters were broken into this afternoon.”
“Broken into? By who?”
“We’re not sure. Just come with me and you can see for yourself, Doctor.”
“Okay, whatever you say,” Browning said, wiping her mouth and squeezing out of the booth.
Conway bashed the hammer he’d replicated against the little treasure chest. “Come on, damn it, open!”
That chest was laughing at him. He could hear laughing. Cackling, cold and mean. “Stop laughing and give me white!” he screamed, picking up the box and slamming it repeatedly on his desk. “Come on, just a little more! Just a little more! For the love of God, just a little more!”
“GO AWAY!” Conway screamed at his door. “You can’t have it! It’s mine!” He threw the box against the bulkhead opposite his desk. “Damn you box, damn you!”
“Commander, this is Captain Baxter,” Baxter’s voice boomed over the comm. The voice of God. All around him. Conway shrank away.
“Go away, Dale Earnhardt! I don’t want to race with you today!”
Hushed whispers over the comm, then, “Commander, come out of there. We want to help you.”
“Yes, Commander,” J’hana’s voice said. “Come out now and surrender the box of white and we will not kill you.”
“Shut up, J’hana. You’re not helping,” said Baxter’s voice.
“Commander! David, it’s Kelly Peterman. Listen, David, I know you’re going through a hard time right now. You feel like you need the white just to feel complete. You crave it, like it fills a hollow, cored-out area deep inside you, like nothing will ever be okay again until you taste that sweet–”
“Kelly?” asked Baxter’s voice.
“I used to have the same problem with malted milkballs.”
“I see.” A pause. “J’hana, override the door.”
The door slid open. Baxter, Peterman, J’hana, and a squadron of security officers sped in.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” cried Conway, scooping up the box and scrambling under his desk with it. He dove out the other side and between the legs of J’hana.
The Andorian drew her phaser and whirled, baring her needly teeth. “This shall be fun.”
“Stun, J’hana, put it on stun!” Baxter called, following J’hana as the Andorian darted out of the room.
Browning unlocked her quarters and stepped in. She scanned the room. “It doesn’t look like anyone broke in.”
Patty shoved her inside and stepped in.
“Computer, lock door, security override gamma red!”
“Huh?” Browning scratched her head.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” Patty said, as suddenly her skin rippled and her body shifted and contorted into Admiral Mora Neilson.
“Oh my gosh!” Browning cried. “The Changeling!”
Neilson crept forward. “You have something I want, Doctor. That’s one of us you have in there. I must save it.”
“That-that’s not possible,” Browning stammered, backing away. “It’s fully integrated now…if you try to take it out, you’ll kill it. And probably me too!”
“We’ll see–” Mora said, and dove after Browning, her arm becoming a flip-flopping tentacle.
Browning tapped her comm badge. “Browning to Security. HEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP!”
Baxter glanced up at the corridor ceiling as the call echoed over the comm system. “That’s Janice!”
“Gotcha!” J’hana cried, springing forward onto Conway, binding him with a blue-glowing electronic shackle like she was hogtying a rutting pig.
“Nonono!” Conway cried. “You’re crushing my spleen!”
“Good!” J’hana retorted, pulling Conway to his feet.
“Computer, locate Dr. Browning,” Baxter quickly said.
“Dr. Browning is in her quarters.”
“Come on,” Baxter tapped Gellar and Saral’s shoulders.
J’hana and Peterman followed. “What do we do with Conway, sir?” J’hana demanded.
“Drag him along!” Baxter called, rushing into the nearest turbolift.
Peterman grabbed the box of white, lest it fall into another crewperson’s hand and this experience be repeated, and followed everyone into the turbolift.
Browning heaved a chair at the changeling and dove into her bathroom. “If this changeling is one of your own, why would you want to harm it?”
“I merely want to link with it!” Mora cried, banging a dent into the door. “That may be done by a simple tracheotamy. You know how one of those goes, don’t you?”
“Unfortunately,” Browning sighed, rubbing her tummy. “Baby, you’re a handful already and you haven’t even been born yet.”
“Baxter to Browning!” came the comm voice.
“We’re on our way down to your quarters. What’s happening?”
“I’ve located the Admiral Neilson changeling, Captain,” Browning said breathlessly.
“Yeah, she’s in my quarters right now trying to get her cousin back.”
“Oh. Okay, we’re coming. Hold on, Janice!”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Suddenly the changeling rammed the door and it split open.
“Here’s Mora!” the changeling cried, poking her head through the door. Her tentacle extended from the doorway to the opposite side of the bathroom, where Browning was curled on the counter. “Now, let’s link!”
Browning squirmed away, avoiding the probing tentacle.
She shoved past Mora and dove across her quarters, landing gently on the couch.
Mora snapped her neck around and charged toward the couch, just as the doors split open and J’hana ran in, phaser blasting.
The blast tore a hole in Mora’s torso. Serpentlike, she whipped around and the torso re-formed. “Ah, it’s the bold crew of the Explorer to the rescue. How quaint!”
“Give up, Mora!” Baxter snapped. “You’re cornered!”
“That’s what I thought when the Romulans took me aboard their ship two years ago, but I managed to get back to Dominion territory, using my ingenuity. The same ingenuity that doomed you all to a year in the Delta Quadrant, and the same ingenuity that will allow me to get off your ship with Dr. Browning here and our little rugrat!”
“You’re nothing better than a glorified kidnapper!” shouted Peterman.
“It’s my kid!” retorted Mora. “Sort of!”
“Hey,” Commander Conway said, straining to get away from Gellar and Saral. He inclined his head toward the box in Peterman’s arms. “Would you mind opening that thing for me? I’d love a dose of white about now!”
“Humans eating changelings and drinking white,” Mora sighed, shaking her head. “It’s about what I’d expect from this crew.”
“Oh, that does it,” Baxter huffed. “J’hana, blast her to jello bits.”
“Gladly.” J’hana opened fire, ripping into the changeling.
Mora stumbled toward Browning as the phasers tore into her. Saral and Gellar joined in, and with a sickening spray of orange goo, she exploded.
Browning blinked, wiping off orange slime. “Thanks, J’hana.”
“Don’t mention it,” J’hana responded, turning her attention back to Conway. “Just do me a favor and don’t eat that stuff, will you.”
“You’ve got a deal.”
Supplemental. The USS Bonne-Chance has arrived to recover the wreckage of the Jem’Hadar ship and search for any trace of poor Ensign Milligan on the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, we’re on our way to explore more of the black starry wilderness we call outer space. Dr. Browning is slowly adjusting to her new condition, and Commander Conway is recieving the best possible treatment for his white addiction.
“Rats! Rats! Rats on my face!”
J’hana leaned back in her chair behind the security console in the brig and folded her arms. “For the Hive Mother’s sake, shut up!”
Curled in a fetal ball, Conway shivered, clutching an electrothermal blanket around him. “J’hana?”
“Can I have some white? Just a little drop?”
J’hana rolled her eyes. “I have no white, Commander. Just lay there and be quiet.”
Just then, the doors to the brig opened and Dr. Browning sidled in. “Hey, J’hana.”
“Are you here to put the Commander out of his misery?”
“No,” Browning giggled. “Silly. I’m here to help him.”
“By killing him.” J’hana ambled over to deactivate the security field.
“Nope. Not exactly.” Browning crossed into the cell and kneeled next to Conway. “Commander? Hello?”
Conway’s eyes fluttered. “Oh, hello.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Of course. You’re Kyle Petty.”
“Sure, that’ll do.” Browning pulled a hypospray out of her maternity smock and pressed it into Conway’s arm. His shivering stopped and his eyes became glassy. He looked past Browning, off into the distance.
“Bless you, Kyle Petty, and your wavy hair of brown,” Conway cooed, as he rolled over on the bed and fell blissfully asleep.
“What on Andor did you give him?” J’hana demanded.
Browning shrugged. “Double caf cap with extra cream and sugar.”
Browning smiled as she squeezed out of the brig, glancing at Conway’s snoring form as she left. A smile spread slowly across his face. “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll know what it is.”
When the Federation Social Service arrives to claim Dean Wilcox and put him in a home, the whole crew bands together to keep him. Will they be successful, or will Nurse Holly Carter have to resort to leaving the ship so she and her braindead boyfriend can live a happy life together?
Find out next time in “Not Without My Dean!”