Author: Anthony Butler
“Hey, is that what I think it is?”
Browning squinted at the sensor image as it vascillated on Sickbay’s main screen. “I…think…so.”
Peterman grinned. “You know what one looks like, don’t you?”
Captain Baxter turned his head around to view the image upside-down. “I’m still trying to find the head.”
Browning sighed. “The head is right THERE, Andy.”
“Oh. Right. Then,” Baxter pointed, “wouldn’t that be the–”
“Bingo!” exclaimed Browning. “I think you can make the announcement now, Captain.”
Baxter walked over to a nearby console and thumbed the communications access control. He was about to say something when the image on the screen next to him rippled.
“Hold on, where’d it go?”
Peterman scrunched her nose. “It’s kind of hammer-shaped now.”
“Wow,” said Baxter. “This’ll be one popular guy.” He winced as Peterman punched him in the shoulder. “Just thinking of the boy’s welfare.”
“Right, well, make the announcement already,” Browning said. “I’ve got a busy day ahead.”
“Right.” Baxter stuck out his tongue at Peterman. “You’re just mad because you lost in the pool.” He stabbed the comm button again. “All hands, this is the Captain. IT’S A BOY!!”
He punched the channel closed and whirled toward Peterman, padd already in hand. “Pay up, honey. One slip of latinum.”
“And I had the cutest pink outfit already picked out in the replicator logs,” Peterman frowned as she thumbed the padd.
“You can always increase the size and make Andy wear it,” Browning suggested with a grin, disappearing into her office.
“Don’t even think about it,” Baxter said sternly, turning for the door. “Come on, Kelly. You have a string of appointments today.”
“I guess,” Peterman said glumly. “I was all ready to teach her needlepoint.”
“You can teach HIM needlepoint,” Baxter offered. “I’m grateful my mom taught me. Look at all the good I’ve done because of it.”
“We’ll see…” Peterman said reluctantly. When the pair reached the door, they nearly bumped into Lt. Commander Chris Richards.
“Chris, hey,” Baxter said.
“Hey, Chris,” echoed Peterman. The pair exchanged uncomfortable looks and sidled past Richards. They knew why he was here.
“Nice seeing you guys too!” Richards called after them. He crossed to Browning’s office, nodding at Dean, who was playing with several disease samples on the floor in the adjacent waiting room.
“Vrooom!” Dean cried happily, pushing one petri dish ahead of the next. Conway had stopped in one day for a vaccination and had taught him about NASCAR.
He punched the button on Browning’s clear door. She looked up from her paperwork and motioned him in.
Richards stepped through the opening door and waited for it to close. “Do you have a few minutes, Janice?”
“Sure.” Browning put down her padd. She’d been anticipating this. She was actually surprised the crew didn’t have a betting pool going concerning it, as a matter of fact.
“Well.” Richards lowered himself into the chair opposite Browning. “How are you feeling?”
“A little nauseous in the morning, but that’s normal.”
“That’s good. Has the shapeshifting been a problem?”
“He sometimes likes to wrap around my liver, but it’s not too bad. It only gets really bad when he’s just getting out of his regeneration cycle.”
“So he regenerates in there?”
“Sort of. Near as I can tell, he’s half sleeping and half regenerating. Which only makes sense, since he’s half human and half changeling.”
“Good point.” Richards fidgeted with his fingers for several moments. “Listen, Janice. I want to help you in whatever way I can with this baby.”
Browning blinked. “Oh? Really. I had no idea you had that sort of…interest.”
“I just don’t want you thinking you’re alone in this.”
“Alone? Hardly. More than three-quarters of the crew pitched into the betting pool.”
Richards placed his hand overtop Browning’s. “Not alone in that sense, Janice.”
“Christopher…this doesn’t change anything between us.”
“Are you sure?”
“If this is some misguided attempt at coming to my rescue…”
“I just want you to know I’m here. For whatever you need. Not only have I been pregnant before, but there’s also Larkin…”
Browning rubbed her the small bulge in her tummy. “This is a slightly different situation, Christopher.”
“Hey, the offer stands. If you need anything…”
Browning smiled. “I’ll let you know. I really do appreciate this, Christopher.”
“You’ve done the same for me countless times with Larkin. Remember the time she wanted to give herself webbed hands? You helped me talk her out of it!”
“Yeah, that’s right. I did, didn’t I?”
“And remember when a computer virus made her think she was a shuttlecraft? You helped me coax her out of that maintenance hangar.”
“That WAS wild.”
“Janice…” Richards squeezed her hand. “Just know I’m here. Okay?”
Before Browning could say anything, her comm badge chirped: “Baxter to Browning. We just rendez-voused with a Federation courier carrying some people from the Federation Social Services. They demanded to be escorted to Sickbay immediately.”
“Any idea why?” asked Browning. She sudddenly became a bit worried about that bulge in her tummy.
“None at all. But they have an order from the Federation Council to talk to you and your staff.”
“Oh boy. Where are they now?”
“I’m walking with them. We’re almost there.” Now he tells her!
Browning fought the zipper on her maternity jacket. Less than two weeks after her…insemination, and already she’d need to go up a size. She ran her fingers through her hair and stepped around her desk. “I’ve been worried about something like this.”
“What?” asked Richards. “You think they’ll try to take…” he inclined his head toward Browning’s tummy, “him. . . away?”
“Could be.” Browning hurried out into Sickbay just as the doors opened.
“Now I think we can settle this amicably,” Baxter said, leading a pair of slate-suited individuals into Sickbay. “I don’t think there’s any need to bring my security officer into it.”
J’hana, bringing up the rear, bared her sharp teeth. “And if there is, I’ll be sure to give you guys a service that is anything but social.”
The suited individuals, one a balding, angular man in his forties, and the other a prim red-haired woman of about thirty, ignored Baxter and J’hana. They glanced at Browning.
Richards stepped in front of Browning protectively but she just as quickly stepped out from behind him.
“What can I do you folks for?”
The man showed her a small padd bearing his picture. The woman did likewise. “I’m Mr. Dunlap, and this is Lolita Foxglove,” Dunlap said. “We’re with Federation Social Services.”
Browning nodded. “So I’m told.”
“Where is…” Dunlap looked down at his padd. “Nurse Holly Carter?”
“Holly?” Browning asked, blinking. “You mean you’re not here about–” she looked down at her midsection.
“One thing at a time,” snapped Ms. Foxglove. “We’re here here about one Crewman Dean F. Wilcox.”
“Oh,” Browning said. “Dean?”
“He is a crewmember of this ship, is he not?”
“In the loosest sense of the word,” quipped J’hana.
Baxter glared at her. “What do you want with Dean?”
“It is our intention to take him back with us to a facility where he can be properly cared for,” said Dunlap.
Foxglove broke away from her partner to search Sickbay. It wasn’t long before she found Dean. “Here he is, Marty.” The group moved to the waiting room, where Dean had smashed open several disease canisters.
Foxglove shook one of the containers in Browning’s face. “These are biohazards!”
“Oh, they’re fine. We neutralized the disease-causing agents in all of them first. Dean’s a science officer, so we give him stuff to study.”
“NASCARS got wrecked,” Dean pouted, tugging at Browning’s maternity jacket.
“Yes, well, we’ll get you more.”
“He’s a science officer, you say,” said Dunlap. “Then how about you tell me a little bit about his duties.”
“Oh, he does all sorts of things,” Baxter stammered. “He monitors various–that is, he studies–well, his research on, uh–”
“Marty, this is incredible,” said Foxglove, studying a tricorder held up to Dean’s head. “I’m not getting anything. It’s like he’s totally braindead.”
Dunlap bent down to face Dean. “Mr. Wilcox, can you understand me?”
“Bald!” Dean laughed, then sneezed in Dunlap’s face.
The FSS agent rubbed his eyes. “Could someone get me a napkin?”
“Sure.” Browning disappeared into the supply closet. “Can I soak that in anesthezine for you too?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“We have orders from the Federation Council to bring Mr. Wilcox to the Daystrom Institute immediately so he may be studied and given the attention he deserves.”
“Oh, we give him all sorts of attention,” Browning said. “He’s well taken care of.”
“And that’s where Holly Carter comes in, correct?” asked Foxglove.
“Well, she’s his…”
“His what?” demanded Dunlap.
Browning looked around the room. To Baxter, Richards, and J’hana.
“Well, she’s sort of…not his girlfriend, but…”
“Not really his mom,” added Baxter.
“Sort of a legal guardian,” Richards offered.
“A consort,” J’hana said. “They have sexual relations.”
“They do not!” snapped Baxter.
“That is the rumor!” returned J’hana.
“It’s none of our business!” shouted Browning, trying to gain control of the situation.
“It IS our business,” said Foxglove. “This…association…between Ms. Carter and Mr. Wilcox is not at all normal.”
“Which makes it all the better,” argued Browning.
“That’s not for us to decide,” Dunlap said. “We have our orders. Nurse Carter has no legal rights over Mr. Wilcox.”
“That may be, but I do,” Baxter said, thumbing his chest. “He’s part of my crew.”
“Our orders are confirmed, Captain. You can’t override the Federation Council.” Foxglove smiled.
“But I can appeal, can’t I?”
Foxglove’s smile vanished. “Only if you want to drag this out and make it a terrible ordeal for everyone.”
“You obviously don’t know how we operate around here, Ms. Foxglove, or else you’d know the answer to that question.”
Stardate 53840.5. I’ve submitted my appeal to the Federation Council via subspace and Nurse Carter has been notified about this whole mess. Meanwhile, our visitors from the Social Services Division must wait to hear what the final verdict on Crewman Wilcox is. Hopefully, this can all be cleared up with a minimum of fuss.
Mirk rolled around apprehensively on the fainting couch. “It drives me crazy sometimes, Counselor! Just knowing I can’t do simple things like levitate a drink from one side of the lounge to the other. Knowing I can’t freeze time, transport matter from one place to another, or fly. It’s very…unsettling.”
“I understand,” Peterman said, fighting a chewtoy out of Charlie’s mouth. She tossed it across her office and returned her attention to Mirk. “You’ve grown accustomed to these powers over the last few years. To have them simply…stripped away…is a big change. Hard to adjust to.”
“That’s it. That’s it exactly.”
“You feel trapped now in a powerless body; powerless, that is, to do anything but shlep drinks and give advice.”
“Okay, now you’re pushing it.”
“I’m just telling you how I see it, Mirk. We can work through this, just like we worked through your surge in powers earlier this year.”
“I don’t know. This is going to be a lot harder, Counselor. Not having any powers…being just like the average, boring–” He grinned at Peterman weakly. “You know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do, but at any rate, time’s up,” Peterman said. Mirk stood. “Should an omnipotent being visit you, I want to be the first to know, okay?”
“Sure.” Mirk headed for the door.
Peterman gathered her notes and headed for her desk, just as her comm badge tittered: “Browning to Peterman.”
“This is Peterman.”
“We’ve got a situation here with Nurse Carter. Your services would come in handy about now.”
“Do we have crying?”
“Some. She’s worried she’s going to lose Dean.”
“Just as I feared. Don’t panic, Doctor, I’m on the case. I want you and Holly to meet me in the Constellation Cafe in ten minutes. And bring some large spoons.”
Peterman tapped the channel closed and hurried out into the corridor to catch up to Mirk. “Hey, Mirk. What can you do for me in the way of ice cream?”
Holly wiped her eyes with a napkin. “I guess I’m just afraid they’ll succeed in taking Dean away.”
“Not going to happen.” Dr. Browning dug at the bottom of the ice cream bucket, artfully scooping out the meager remains of the once-full tub of Andorian Sharpel and Praline Delight. She had no idea what the heck a ‘sharpel’ was, but it sure was good.
“Janice’s right,” Peterman affirmed. “We’re all working to make sure these social workers won’t take Dean from you. There’s no way they’re getting off this ship with him.”
“I hope you’re right,” Holly said. “Over the years he’s become so important to me. I know you guys probably don’t understand it–”
“Sure we understand,” Peterman and Browning lied.
”–but Dean and I are very close. He may not be able to read, or spell, or go to the bathroom by himself, but he’s my soulmate. He’s makes me complete.”
Peterman’s eyes teared up. She grabbed the napkin from Holly. “That’s so beautiful, Holly. How could the Federation reject a plea like that?”
“I don’t know, but I’m scared they will,” Holly said. She glanced over Peterman’s shoulder. Foxglove and Dunlap were weaving through the lunch crowd in the Cafe, talking to crewpersons. “Man, speak of the devil.”
Peterman turned. “Oh, the nerve of those two. Snooping around in here and asking questions like they own the place.”
“It is a free quadrant,” Browning said. “There isn’t much we can do about them being here.”
“We’ll see about that.” Peterman slid out of her booth and slid in between the pair of social workers and Ensign Sefelt. “Howard–go eat your lunch.”
“But they wanted to ask me some questions–”
“I’ll take care of this.”
Sefelt leaned forward. “But Counselor–I’m afraid of bureaucrats!”
“Then get back to your lunch or I’ll summons you!” Peterman said between gritted teeth.
“Can you do that?”
“Want to find out?”
Sefelt gulped. “No.”
“Who are you?” demanded Ms. Foxglove.
Peterman whirled to face the two agents. “Your worst nightmare.”
Dunlap regarded his padd. “Kelly Peterman, Lt. Commander. Ship’s Counselor. Wife of Captain Baxter.”
“That’s right,” Peterman said. “Now listen up: If you two are here to cause more trouble, forget it. We’re not giving up Crewman Wilcox, so you might as well go back to your little ship now and get the hell out of here.”
“You might be right,” Foxglove said, her face suddenly becoming the picture of compassion. “But before we do that, let me ask you something. How many pets do you have aboard ship?”
“I don’t see what his has to–”
“I can’t say.” Peterman folded her arms.
“Well, what if we contact our associates at the Federation ASPCA? Don’t you think they’d be interested to know you’re keeping all these animals pent up on a starship, when they should be running free?”
“They get daily arboretum and holodeck walks!” Peterman protested. “Anyway, I am member of the FASPCA, so don’t try to bring them into this.”
“What if I bring in the Starship Safety Commission? Is your little zoo in keeping with their rules?”
“Well, not as such, but–”
Dunlap stepped in front of Foxglove. “If you don’t step aside and let us continue our work, the SSC will descend upon you like a pack of Tellarite wildebeasts, and I assure you it won’t be pretty.”
Foxglove smiled. “That, Counselor, may well be YOUR worst nightmare.”
“Oh…oh…ooooooh!” Peterman stomped her feet. “You two are horrible!”
“Like Mr. Sefelt said,” Dunlap smiled. “We’re bureaucrats. Now step aside.”
Peterman hurried back to the booth. “Sorry, Holly. I did everything I could.”
Holly shrugged. “That’s okay. You tried your best.” Presently, Foxglove and Dunlap arrived at the booth.
“Ms. Carter, how good to finally meet you,” Foxglove smiled. “We’d like you to step outside and answer a few questions. About the nature of your relationship with Mr. Wilcox.”
“I’d like to go with her. She needs some kind of representation,” Browning said.
“Doctor, that’s so thoughtful,” Holly said.
“You are allowed an advocate of your own choosing,” Dunlap said tiredly.
“Anyone I choose, huh?” asked Holly.
Browning smiled. “I’d be glad to help, Holly.”
“Forgive me if I am wrong, sir and madam,” said Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin, pacing in front of the conference table in the Bridge conference room, “but I am not familiar with any statute that does not allow a relationship of the type enjoyed by Mr. Wilcox and Ms. Carter.”
“Their relationship is not our primary concern,” said Dunlap. “The health and wellbeing of Mr. Wilcox are at issue here.”
“Dean’s perfectly happy here!” persisted Holly. “We love each other. I take perfect care of him. I’m a nurse, for goodness sake!”
“Not good enough!” said Foxglove. “The Daystrom Institute has the technologies and resources to not only care for Dean, but work toward curing his condition.”
“Impossible,” Holly said. “Over forty percent of his cerebral cortex has been damaged. There’s no hope of fully restoring his mental condition. We’ve already checked into that.”
“So you say,” Foxglove said. She inserted a chip into the desktop viewer. A human brain, presumably Dean’s, with many red highlighted areas appeared. “But what if we told you there are scientists at the Institute working right this minute on a method of restoring the pathways in Mr. Wilcox’s brain.”
Larkin studied the graphic of Dean’s brain. “Intruiging. I suppose such regenerative therapy is possible.”
“Thanks for the support.” Holly folded her arms.
“Nurse Carter,” said Dunlap sternly. “You’re not actually suggesting that we allow Dean to continue suffering so he will stay with you.”
“He’s NOT suffering!” retorted Holly. “He’s happy with me.”
“We took the liberty of looking into Mr. Wilcox’s personnel file,” said Foxglove.
Holly rolled her eyes. “I should have guessed.”
“Do you know that he was the Valedictorian of his class at Starfleet Science Academy? He taught for two years at the Science Department at Federation University. And, apparently, he was working on several interesting subspace experiments before his unfortunate…accident.”
“In short, Nurse Carter,” said Dunlap, “Mr. Wilcox had the potential of being one of the Federation’s greatest minds, and instead he is a virtual vegetable who at this very moment is down in your quarters playing with blocks!”
“Actually,” said Holly, glancing at the wall chronometer. “It’s bathtime about now.” She idly wondered how Dean was doing at the moment.
“Come here, you silly thing!” Peterman exclaimed as Dean’s wet soapy body slid through her arms and he trailed suds out of the bathroom and into Holly’s quarters.
She reeled back into the tub, water splashing all over her.
“Grab him, Janice!” Peterman exclaimed.
“Come on, Dean, play nice!” Browning said as Dean barreled for the couch.
“No bath, no bath!” he cried, piledriving into the couch.
Browning grabbed Dean by the arms and lugged him back toward the bathroom. “Dean, Dean, Dean, what would mommy–I mean your girlfriend–er, Holly say about this? You’ve never been this difficult!”
Browning deposited Dean into the bathtub while Peterman stood in front of the Dry-O-Matic, letting the heat bake her soaked uniform. “Would you look at my hair, Janice?”
Dean splashed about in defiance, causing suds to fly up into Browning’s face.
“Why is he acting this way?” asked Browning, wringing a soapy sponge over Dean’s head.
Peterman wrapped her hair back into a ponytail. “That’s obvious. He’s upset about those social workers coming to try to take him away.” She knelt by the tub. “You don’t want to go to the Daystrom Institute, do you, Dean?”
“No go, no go!” Dean exclaimed.
“Are you sure he even knows what’s going on?” asked Browning.
“Most definitely,” said Peterman. “Just because he’s mentally challenged doesn’t mean he can’t understand things.”
“Actually, that’s pretty much the definition of ‘mentally challenged,’ isn’t it?”
“Don’t be difficult, Janice. Trust me, he understands what’s happening and doesn’t like it one bit.”
“Maybe,” Browning admitted. She held Dean down and scrubbed inside his ears with a washrag. “You know, taking care of someone is hard work.”
Browning probed the inner workings of Dean’s ear thoughtfully. Excited, Dean flopped about some more, splashing Browning again. “This is what I’ll be doing in a few months.”
“Sure, I guess,” said Peterman. “But your…child will be a bit smaller. Hopefully.”
Browning sat back a moment. “This will really change my life.”
Peterman lowered herself to the floor, leaning back against the lower supply cabinet opposite Browning. “You just figured this out?”
“It’s been in the back of my mind a lot lately.”
“Swollen feet, actually, but that’s beside the point.” Browning continued to scrub Dean as he splashed. “I’m just worried I’m not going to be a good mother.”
“You not a good mother?” Peterman asked in suprise. “Janice, you’re the one that takes care of me when I need counseling. You’re the one that helped Andy when he was trying to figure out how to go about courting me. You made a failing restaurant a hit. And I don’t even have to say a thing about Chris.”
“No, you don’t,” said Browning firmly. “I guess you’re right. I do have some sort of natural maternal instinct, don’t I?”
“Undoubtedly. Janice, there’s no one on this ship as fit to have a child as you.”
“Boobers, I’m home!” called Holly from the outer room.
“Well, maybe one.”
Stardate 53842.3. It’s been an awkward couple of days sharing our ship with the two stiffs from the FSS, but we’ve finally recieved a reply from the Federation Council. I have a gut instinct that the news is good.
Lt. Commander Larkin read the comm transmission. “Captain Andy Baxter, you are hearby ordered by the Federation Council to turn over Crewman Wilcox to the representatives from Federation Social Services. Mr. Wilcox shall then be immediately transported to the Daystrom Institute’s headquarters in the Sol System.”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Baxter said, shaking his head. Larkin sat down at the conference table.
“We can’t turn Dean over to them, Captain,” Holly said. “Who knows what kind of experiments they’ll do on him.”
“I understand your dilemma, Nurse Carter,” Baxter said, “but I honestly don’t know if there’s anything we can do. This is a DIRECT order from the Federation Council.”
“We can protest again,” suggested Browning. “Tie this up in the JAG office forever.”
“That would get us nowhere,” Larkin said. “According to Federation law, this decree from the council is not subject to any type of appeal.”
“There’s got to be some way out of this, Andy,” Peterman said. “We can’t let them take Dean.”
“Honey, if I could think of a way to keep Dean, I would do it in an instant. But they’re simply playing with a stacked deck here.”
“Send him to this Institute,” said J’hana. “Perhaps he can actually become a productive member of society instead of a drag on our resources, as he is now.”
“You take that back!” Holly cried. “Dean IS a productive member of this crew!”
“That depends on how one defines ‘productive,’” Larkin said reasonably.
“Need I remind you that Dean saved us, and the whole Delta Quadrant, from the Borg two years ago,” said Dr. Browning. “If it weren’t for him, we’d still be there, and more than likely we’d be Borgified at that.”
“Janice’s right,” said Peterman. “We owe Dean everything. We can’t just throw him to the wolves.”
“It’s okay, guys,” Holly said finally. “This is mine and Dean’s problem. You guys can’t put your careers on the line for us.”
“I said nothing about putting my career on the line for anyone,” said J’hana firmly.
“At ANY rate,” said Holly, “we’re going to give in to their demands.”
“You’re just giving up?” Browning asked, turning to Holly. “Just like that?”
“Just…like…that,” Holly said between clinched teeth. “Get it?”
“Um, I guess.”
“I think we should get back to my quarters. Get Dean’s things together,” Holly said, indicating the door to the observation lounge. “Don’t you?”
“Sure,” Browning said. “Whatever you want to do.”
“Thanks for everything, guys,” Holly said, and quickly backed out of the room, Browning following.
“Poor thing,” said Peterman, turning and sliding out of her chair. “Wish we could do more to help her.”
“It’s a shame,” agreed Baxter.
“This display sickens me,” J’hana muttered. “Let us return to the bridge before we all become crying, blathering idiots.”
“What kept you from the greeting card industry I’ll never know,” Baxter muttered, and followed Larkin, J’hana, and Peterman out onto the bridge.
“Holly, I don’t know how you can give up so easily. Not after all you and Dean have been through together,” Browning said, struggling to keep up with Holly as she marched down the corridor.
“I’m not giving up.”
“I mean, the senior staff is behind you. All except J’hana, I guess. Nope, she’s probably not behind you.”
“I said, I’m not giving up.”
Browning stopped. “What?”
“I’m not giving up. Me and Dean are getting away from here while we still can. I’ve got everything planned out, but I’ll need your help.”
Browning shrugged. “What were you thinking?”
“What were you thinking!” Browning exclaimed, dragging luggage behind her as she and Holly led Dean into Shuttlebay Two.
“It’s the only way to assure that we won’t be bothered by the Federation Social Services. We have to leave the Federation.”
“I don’t know about this,” Browning said uneasily, helping Holly load the luggage into the rear cargo port of the runabout Algonquin. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Holly hurried around to the cockpit hatch. “Believe me, Doctor, if there was, I’d have figured it out by now. I’ve spent the last two days thinking about nothing else.”
“Are you SURE my Emergency Medical Clearance will release the runabout?”
“It should,” a voice said.
Browning looked down. Chris Richards slid out from underneath the Algonquin, toolkit in hand. “And if it doesn’t, it won’t really matter, because we won’t notice the Algonquin is missing until Holly’s long gone, thanks to some minor adjustments I made to the sensors.”
“How’d you get dragged into this?” Browning asked.
“Because I feel sort of responsible for what happened to Dean. He did have his tragic accident in Engineering, you know,” Richards said. “Besides, I like the guy. What can I say.”
Browning shook her head. “I can’t believe you, Christopher.”
“Believe it, hon,” Richards said, sliding behind the shuttlebay control console. “You two get aboard the Algonquin. I’m initiating a test of the launch systems. The bay door will open for about forty seconds, then close automatically. That should give you plenty of time to get out.”
“What about the Explorer’s sensors?” asked Holly.
“Undergoing some…routine maintenance,” Richards said with a smile.
Holly crossed the shuttlebay and wrapped her arms around Richards. “Mr. Richards, I can’t begin to thank you for this.”
“How about sending me a postcard from the Novaran Compendium, huh?”
“Sure thing,” Holly said, grabbing Dean by the hand and dragging him into the runabout.
“Trip?” Dean asked eagerly.
“Yep, you could say that,” Holly said.
“Trippy trip! Trippy trip!”
The runabout door swung shut.
Richards tapped his comm badge. “Richards to Algonquin.”
“Here,” said Holly.
“Your flight plan and navigation controls are all programmed in. The computer’s set to pilot the ship automatically. It’ll get you to an independent trade center somewhere in Novaran territory, and you’ll have to get the rest of the way from there.”
“That’ll be fine, Mr. Richards. I’ll make sure you get the runabout back in prime condition.”
“See that you do.” Richards hit a control and the launch door slowly rose with a gasp of released particles. “Richards out.”
Browning watched the Algonquin glide out of the shuttlebay and touched Richards’s shoulder. “Thanks, Christopher.”
“Don’t mention it. What’s a little grand larceny among friends?”
Peterman paced Baxter’s readyroom. “I know we’re overlooking something here, Andy.”
“Hmmph,” Baxter said, leaning back in the chair behind his desk. “I wish we were. But we’ve looked this thing over inside and out. Larkin’s been processing the data for days. If she can’t come up with anything, do us mortal humans have any hope?”
“You might be right, but I can’t help but feeling there’s a huge loophole staring us right in the face.”
“Don’t be silly.” Baxter glanced at his terminal. “Oh, look, honey. Our Fedecare joint forms are in. We’re filing together again this year, right?” That reminded Baxter. The time for his yearly physical was almost at hand. Another awkward hour of Janice seeing his unmentionable areas.
“Filing together?” Peterman stopped in her tracks. “Andy. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Baxter shivered. “Probably not.”
Baxter and Peterman raced onto the bridge. “Commander Conway,” Baxter said, “get me the Federation Captain’s Manual. And contact Nurse Carter.”
Commander Conway was standing in the command center with Foxglove and Dunlap.
“Easier said than done, sir,” Conway said. “It appears Miss Smiley and Mr. Fun here can’t find her or Dean Wilcox.”
“Those are NOT our names,” protested Foxglove.
“Computer,” Baxter said quickly. “Locate Nurse Holly Carter.”
“Holly Carter is not aboard the Explorer,” replied the computer.
“Locate Dean Wilcox.”
“Dean Wilcox is not aboard the Explorer.”
“Where on Earth could they be?” asked Peterman.
“Federation runabout: this is the Orion Pirate Vessel Skortal. We command you to drop out of warp and surrender yourselves to us now.”
Holly punched the comm button on the Algonquin. “Skortal, we have nothing of value here. I’m sure there’s a more tempting target out there for you.”
“That runabout is of supreme value. Surrender it now or be destroyed.”
“What good will it do if the runabout is destroyed? Then you won’t get anything, and you’ll have expended valuable weapons energy!”
Some silence, then, “Surrender your ship or we’ll destroy it.”
“Okay, I choose ‘none of the above,” Holly said, and pulled the runabout into a roll. “Hold on, Dean!”
Dean gripped the seat next to Holly. “Gonna puke, Humma, gonna puuuuuuuuuuuuauh!”
“Federation runabout, coating your forward viewport with an opaque material will not deter us from capturing you. What is that, anyway?”
Holly fumbled with the controls on the runabout helm, bringing the tiny ship out of warp and zipping toward a nearby planet at full impulse. At least at impulse speed she roughly matched the Orion pirateship for speed and had a lot more maneuverability. There was even a chance she could elude it if she concentrated all her piloting skills. Unfortunately, ‘all’ her piloting skills consisted of a brief training course during her sophomore year at Starfleet Academy and some excursions on the holodeck. Not exactly a promising combination.
The Orion ship dove after them, in hot pursuit.
“You did what!” Baxter demanded, as Browning and Richards stood on the quarterdeck of the Explorer’s bridge, looking guilty.
“It was for the greater good, sir,” said Richards valiantly.
“I don’t believe this!” Baxter cried. “My two best friends went behind my back and pilfered a runabout.”
“It was so Holly could escape,” explained Browning.
“I see that,” said Baxter. “But I kind of wish you would have consulted with me about it.”
“You would have said no,” Richards said simply.
“In any event,” Peterman interjected, “we have a much less drastic solution to this problem.”
“This I’d love to hear,” Foxglove muttered from the position she and Dunlap had staked out behind the L-shaped Aux Control and Environmental console.
“There’s a way for Holly to make whatever decisions she feels necessary for Dean’s wellbeing,” Peterman said. “All she needs is one of these.” Peterman held up her right hand and pointed.
Richards squinted. “A wart?”
She glared at Richards. “Not the wart! The wedding ring!”
Browning blinked. “Holly’s marrying the Captain?”
Foxglove and Dunlap exchanged worried looks. What kind of ship of fools had they wandered onto?
Another blast rocked the Algonquin. Holly diverted power to weapons and unleashed the runabout’s phasers and photon torpedoes.
“Damage to the Orions, computer?” Holly asked as a shower of sparks descended from the ceiling.
“Ten percent reduction in shields.”
“Do I have enough firepower left to totally disable their shields?”
Holly bit her lip thoughtfully. What in the heck would she do?
Dean cowered in his chair. “I scared, Humma! Scared!”
“I know you’re scared, Dean!” Holly replied. “Just hold on and Humma will take care of things. There’s not a thing to worry ab–”
Then the console before Holly exploded, throwing her backward across the cockpit. She slammed to the deck, unconcious.
“Humma!” cried Dean, rushing to Holly’s side and shaking her with all his might. “Humma?!?”
Dean looked around frantically. Lights blinked. Alarms blared. Sparks flew. It was a light show, but it was scary. Like the fireworks Humma had taken him too just the other day. Or was it five months ago?
Dean concentrated hard. Someone was shooting their ship. Someone hurt Humma. He had to retaliate. He jumped to the forward console he’d seen Humma use and went to work.
After about five minutes of playing the remaining controls like a barroom piano, Dean gave up. He’d succeeded in ejecting the warp core, inflating the lumbar support in the pilot’s chair, and replicating four bowls of beef stew, but none of that seemed to stop the ship outside from shooting.
He rushed back to Humma’s side and curled up on the deck with her, shoving his thumb into his mouth. “Hlllp!” he cried, sucking vigorously.
Then, magically, the explosions stopped.
He craned his neck to look out the viewport. A graceful silver shape arced into view, blasting the Orion pirate vessel with a multitude of colorful beams.
What was that?
“Explorer to Algonquin. Holly, come in!” It was Cappy! Cappy Baxter!
“Cappy Baxter!” Dean called. “Hi hi hi!”
“Cappy?” asked J’hana.
Baxter grimaced. “Shut up and finish disabling that Orion ship. He turned to Tilleran. “Are they okay over there?”
Tilleran squinted at her readings. “I’m reading one severely damaged brain.”
Browning nodded. “That would be Dean.”
Tilleran frowned. “And another only slightly damaged brain.”
“Holly…” said Browning.
“This complicates matters,” Baxter mused.
“Captain Baxter,” said Foxglove. “By the authority of the United Federation of Planets, we hearby order you to–”
“La la la la la!” Baxter covered his ears. “I can’t hear you!”
Conway looked at Baxter, perplexed. “Captain, your command style evolves to new levels every day.”
Keeping his ears covered, and ignoring Conway, Baxter turned to J’hana. “Lieutenant! See if you can shut those two up.”
“Gladly.” J’hana chased Foxglove and Dunlap into the nearby turbolift, phaser drawn. “You two have just lost your bridge priveleges!”
“Baxter to Transporter Room Two,” Baxter said, thumbing a control on the command chair.
“Hola. Hartley here.”
“Lieutenant, lock on to the two life signs on the Algonquin and beam them directly to Sickbay.”
“Did it ever occur to you that site-to-site transports are a lot harder than normal ones?”
“Just do it, Hartley!’
Baxter, Browning, and Peterman hurried into Sickbay. Nurse Luntley was already working on Holly.
“How is she, Joan?” Browning said, hurrying to Holly’s side.
“Mild hemmorhaging in the third quadrant. A little internal bleeding.”
“Let’s get ready to get her into stasis and operate on that brain,” Browning said, as Nurse Davis draped a red operating smock over Browning. She noticed it was snug around her belly, but there was obviously no time to have it let out.
“Do whatever you can for her, Doctor,” Baxter said worriedly. “I’d hate to think she went through all this trouble just to become a veritable vegetable.”
“J’hana to Baxter,” came the chirp of the comm.
“I have been ordered by the illustrious Foxglove and Dunlap to come to Sickbay and arrest Nurse Carter and Dean Wilcox.”
“And you’re going along with this?”
“They threatened to take away my retirement benefits, Captain. I could not resist.”
“You’re disappointing me, J’hana.”
“I will schedule a ritual suicide at your convenience.”
“How far away are you guys?”
“In a turbolift. Two decks from your location.”
“How about you walk very slowly? Can you accomplish that?”
“I shall try, sir.”
Peterman watched Browning work on Holly worriedly. “Andy, we have to marry Holly and Dean before Foxglove and Dunlap get here!”
“I’m getting that idea,” Baxter said. “Doctor, can you bring Holly around for just a few minutes?”
“I don’t see that we have any other choice,” Browning said, injecting a hypospray into Holly’s neck and hitting a control on the biobed. “She’ll be lucid, but not extremely communicative.”
“Like Conway before his morning coffee.”
Baxter nodded. “Fine. Book.”
Peterman shoved the Captain’s manual into Baxter’s hand. He turned to the proper page. “Witness?”
Peterman hurried to the other side of the biobed. “Ready!”
Baxter glanced around. “Groom?”
Nurse Luntley dragged Dean out from under an adjacent biobed. “He was down there trying to eat a medical tricorder.”
“Wedding day jitters,” Baxter said with a grin. “I remember them well.” Luntley pushed Dean up on the biobed, next to Holly.
Holly’s eyes fluttered open. “Wha?”
Peterman patted Holly’s forehead. “Don’t struggle, Holly. You’re all right. Your brain is just hemmorhaging.”
Baxter grasped Holly’s cheeks. “Lieutenant…listen closely…I’m marrying you.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “It’s the only way to ensure that Dean stays on the Explorer and you don’t go to a penal colony. Nod if you understand.”
Baxter straightened. “Good.” He buried his nose in the book. “Since the days of the early sailing vessels, it’s been the great pleasure of a captain to–”
“Skip all that!” Browning said. “Just get to the marraige part!”
“Then it loses all the signif–”
“Just do it!” cried Peterman.
“Right, right. Do you Holly Justine Carter take Dean Francis Wilcox to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“Hrrrmmmm…” Holly’s head fell back.
“Is that a yes?”
“It’ll have to do!” said Browning. “Keep going.”
The doors to Sickbay swished open. Foxglove and Dunlap raced past J’hana.
Baxter glanced worriedly over his shoulder. “DoyouDeantakeHolly Cartertobeyourlawfullyweddedwife?”
Dean swung underneath the biobed. “Wheeeeeeeee!”
“Good enough!” Baxter slammed the book shut. “I now pronounce you man and wife!”
“WHAT?” demanded Foxglove.
“You heard me,” Baxter said, folding his arms. “Under article six, subparagraph J of the Federation Managed Health Care plan, a married couple who files jointly for health coverage may decide the terms of their health care, even if that means no care whatsoever!”
“Here’s the paperwork,” Peterman said with a grin, shoving a padd into Foxglove’s hand. “In triplicate.”
“But they stole a Starfleet runabout!” exclaimed Dunlap.
“Nope, that was an official mission,” Baxter said.
“But–” said Foxglove.
“That’s that,” Baxter said. He turned to Holly. “Mrs. Wilcox, do you want your husband to receive care for his brain damage at the Daystrom Institute?”
Holly’s eyes fluttered. Her head moved from side to side.
“There you have it,” Baxter said. “If you two want to protest this, I suggest you take the matter up with your Federation Council representative. Otherwise, we have a mission to get to. We’ll rendez-vous with your ship shortly.”
“This is all wrong,” Dunlap said wearily.
“This ship is all wrong,” Foxglove muttered.
“We love you too,” J’hana said. “Now, if I may escort you to your brig…er, I mean cabin?”
Supplemental. We have returned Foxglove and Dunlap to their courier ship, and might I say they weren’t happy about the current state of affairs at all. I only hope they don’t hold a grudge against us for too long. When will they learn that Explorer folk have a way of looking after their own? Nurse Carter, I mean Wilcox, is recovering nicely, and Dean seems to be adjusting well to his new role as husband.
“Get that tricorder out of your mouth, silly,” Browning said, grabbing the medical tricorder from Dean and pocketing it.
Holly sat up in bed. “Janice, I don’t know how to thank you and the others.”
“Aw, it’s nothing,” Browning said. “How’s your head?”
“A little better now. You know, for a few moments there, I think I really got the idea of how Dean must feel on a daily basis.”
“And how is that?” asked Browning.
“Disoriented, for the most part. I really hope we can get him some help, someday.”
“We’ll come up with something,” Browning smiled. “But for now, at least, the two of you can be together without worrying about the social service people coming to separate you.”
“That’s for sure.” Holly watched Dean climb the biobed next to her and jump up and down on it. “Do you think he realizes he’s a married man, now?”
“Honestly, I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to him,” said Browning.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“But I do think he loves you more than anyone else in this universe. And that kind of love is hard to find.”
“No kidding. I’m lucky to have him, no matter what his mental state is.”
“You sure are,” Browning said, and her voice trailed off.
The doors to Sickbay parted and Richards strolled in, brushing his hands together. “Well, repairs to the Algonquin are almost done. I think I finally got all the beef stew out of the carpet.”
Browning’s stomach rumbled. “Whoa, down boy,” she grinned, patting her midsection.
“Dinner?” asked Richards. “I hear they’re serving your favorite. Manicotti rolls stuffed with pizza topped with spaghetti and meatballs.”
“Wow,” Browning said. “I’d love to, but I’m kind of keeping an eye on Nurse Wilcox here.”
“Nah, go on,” Holly said. “Nurse Luntley is here. And Dean’s keeping me company. Go have dinner.”
“Well, okay,” Browning said reluctantly. “But you call me if you need anything.”
Holly smiled as Richards and Browning exited Sickbay. Dean hopped from his biobed to hers and buried his head against her shoulder. “No,” she grinned. “I think I’ll be perfectly fine.”
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST:
The Explorer returns to Earth for maintenance, Peterman and Baxter’s marraige hits some rocks, someone turns up evidence that Baxter’s not a competent Captain, Larkin starts to exhibit some…difficulties with Kris and Richards’s relationship, Commander Conway becomes a monk, Dr. Browning gets baby-showered, and someone milks a cow! Could you ask for anything more in a season finale? I think NOT! (If so, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).