Author: Anthony Butler
“Five, four, three, two…” Lt. Tilleran counted down from the science station as the whole senior staff looked on, grouped in front of the bridge, with Baxter, Peterman, and Conway standing at the center.
“One,” Baxter said with a grin, and the brilliant ball of light on the viewscreen shrank in, then exploded in a beautiful bright white blast that sent a blue shockwave racing toward the Explorer.
“Pull us back to a safe distance, Mr. Ford,” Conway said dully, folding his arms.
“Well, there you have it.” Baxter pointed at the viewscreen. “Another beautiful light show from our own mother nature.”
“From the Directors,” Mirk said, leaning over the railing behind the command chairs, dapper in his kneelength navy blue reverend’s jacket.
Baxter nodded. “Yeah, well. Whoever. Anyway, it was pretty.”
“Beautiful.” Peterman sank into her chair and turned the adjacent terminal screen toward her. “Now, back to the crew reports.”
Conway shook his head, headed for the turbolift. “You know, I actually enjoyed astral anomalies things the first few hundred times, but it’s getting kind of old lately.”
“No kidding,” said Richards, following Conway up to the turbolift entrance. “I’m about sick of it. What happened to new worlds, new civilizations?”
“We catalogued them all in the last two years, I guess,” Browning said, waddling up to join them.
Richards and Conway stepped into the turbolift. Conway held his hand up as Browning tried to step in. “Sorry, Doctor. We’re full up.”
“But it’s just you and Christopher…”
Conway smiled. “Like I said, no more room.”
Richards glared at Conway. “Come on in, Janice. The commander is just upset because he can’t get the nerve up to talk to his Trill friend.”
“I can talk to her anytime I want,” Conway replied defensively as Browning squeezed in and the doors closed. “Deck 12.”
“Deck 36,” Richards said, looking to Browning.
“Oh,” Browning said. “Deck 18.” She turned to Conway. “So if you can talk to her anytime you want, then why are you always skulking around the front of the Book and Beanery every evening? Every time I look out there, you’re hanging by the windows with this lost puppy dog look. It’s almost adorable.”
“First of all,” Conway counted on his fingers, “I do not skulk. Second, I never look like a puppy dog, and third, I’m NOT adorable!”
“But you don’t deny you’ve been hanging out by the Book and Beanery for the past three months!” Richards said.
Conway shook his head. “No, no. Of course not. ‘Hanging out’ is a great way to put it. The bench right in front has a great view out the starboard dorsal viewport.”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Likely story. Admit it, Commander. You’re still lovestruck.”
“I’m no such thing.” Then the doors opened as the turbolift reached Deck 12 and Commander Conway step out. “The Trill I was in love with is gone for- ever. Tyra is just a bitter reminder of all I had with Lana, and you can both quote me on that,”he snapped, and marched off.
When the lift doors closed and the lift resumed its descent, Richards and Browning were quiet for a few moments.
“Well,” Browning finally said. “Seems we really touched a nerve.”
“Sure did,” Richards nodded. “So, what are you doing on Deck 18?”
“Lt. Elton has been working on an artificial grapefruit substitute for Captain Baxter. He’s nearly perfected it.”
“Is that wise, Janice? The last time Elton whipped something up for you, you bounced your way all the way down to engineering.”
Browning shrugged. “I’m sure Andy can handle anything Elton throws at him. The man has the constitution of a Klingon. He once ate raw gagh over dirty rice and asked for fried ice cream as a dessert.”
“Whew,” Richards said. “Well, that’s certainly a tall order.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “So…haven’t seen you much lately.”
“I’ve been busy with the warp core overhaul. We’ve been renovating the systems ever since the ship almost blew up a few months back.”
“That’ll hurt an engine,” Browning agreed.
Browning patted her tummy. “Settling down. He’s been kicking a lot less lately. I just had a scan last week. He’s huge.”
Richards looked Browning over. “No kidding.”
“Uh, nice kid, I said,” Richards said. “Go on.”
“Well, we can’t zero in on a birth time. Probably somewhere between three weeks and a month.”
“Wow. He’ll come out okay, though, right?”
“He should. He’s got legs like a Tarkalian razorbeast. Well, sometimes it’s just the one leg. Oh well.” Suddenly the turbolift sighed again to a stop and the doors opened. “Well, here’s my stop,” Browning said, and waddled out. “Drop by the restaurant sometime. We can catch up.”
Richards stepped into the doorway, stopping the door from closing. “I’ve got a better idea. Come with me to the positronics conference on Rigel Nine next week. I have to leave tomorrow and I could use a traveling companion.”
“What about Larkin?”
“She’s taking the Escort out today for a three week survey of Romulan space along the neutral zone.”
“Well,” Browning thought it over. “I haven’t got off-ship in a while. Sounds like fun.”
“You know,” Richards said with a grin. “Rigel Nine is the site of the Federation’s largest salad bar.”
“Really?” Browning’s eyes widened. “Well, when you put it that way, how can I resist? As long as we get back before my due date.”
“We’ll get you back in plenty of time,” Richards said. “Starfleet Scout’s honor.”
That night, a considerably thinner Tyra Shar swept crumbs off one of the small tables in front of Shar’s Book and Beanery’s corner stage. “Great set, Jenna,” she said, as she picked up a scatter of plates and mugs.
Jenna Fran, Tyra’s wife of nearly one year, unslung her guitar and sat it down on the stage. “Yeah, I really felt a good vibe in here tonight.”
“I think the crew’s warming up to you,” Tyra agreed. She turned toward the back table. “Ladies, I’m closing up now.”
Ramrod straight at the back table, Lt. J’hana nodded. “Understood. Ariel?”
“I’m ready. Great job, Ms. Fran,” Tilleran said, standing. “And I loved the new mocha, Tyra.”
“Nightcap?” J’hana asked.
Tilleran nodded. “Sounds great.”
J’hana and Tilleran nearly bumped into Commander Conway on the way out of Books and Beans.
“Commander!” J’hana announced, standing at attention. “What can I do for you?”
“At ease,” Conway said wearily. He looked from J’hana to Tilleran, raised his finger as if he were about to say something, then put it down. “Dismissed, you two.”
“Aye, sir,” Tilleran said, and she and J’hana ducked out of the old- fashioned wooden door to Books and Beans, giggling about something.
“Commander, what a pleasant surprise,” Tyra said. “I haven’t seen you since the day Jenna and I came aboard.” She sat her tray down and folded her arms. “Makes one think she’s being avoided.”
“Ha. Don’t be silly,” Conway said, smiling weakly.
Jenna looked from Conway to Tyra. “Well, I’ll just be on my way. See you back at our quarters, Tyra?”
“Yep, I’ll be along in a minute.”
“Mr. Conway,” Jenna mumbled as she passed Conway.
“Guess she loves me,” Conway said, once she was gone.
Tyra shook her head. “Oh, no. She’s quite jealous. She knows you and her were in competition for my affections.”
“Well, she should be happy. She won.”
Tyra ran a hand through her short-cropped blonde hair. “It’s not that simple, David.”
Conway turned a chair around and sat down. “I think it is.”
“You know,” Tyra said, taking her tray over to the bar counter and tossing the plates into the replicator slot. “I expected you to spend a lot more time here. Hell, I thought you’d be our biggest customer. This stuff is right up your alley. We have one coffee blend that’s so sludgy you need to eat it with a spoon.”
“Well, that sounds nice, but I guess I just haven’t had time.”
“You’ve been uncomfortable. It’s understandable.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Me, not understand? You don’t think it’s awkward making the transition from one life to the next? For starters, Lana would have hated the idea of starting a coffee beanery. She despised coffee.”
“And there’s any number of things in addition to that. Lana was athletic and intelligent. Tyra’s more of a…working girl, I guess. The only thing we have in common is our love of teaching children.” Tyra thought a moment. “But becoming Tyra Shar has done me a lot of good. For example, Shar gave me the strength to shed my unwanted pounds.”
“I’ve been meaning to congratulate you on the weight loss. You’re really looking great.”
“Ah, it’s nothing. I spent a couple months at Richard Simmmons’ fat camp on Bolemius Four.”
“I see. Well, I just wanted to stop in and say ‘hi.’ I know we can’t be friends like we were, but at least we don’t have to be awkward around one another, right?”
“I don’t see why we can’t still be friends.” Tyra sat down next to Conway. “Sure, Jenna would hate the idea.” Tyra crinkled her nose. “Which makes it worthwhile in and of itself. You might find Tyra a bigger NASCAR fan than Lana was, too.”
Conway’s eyebrows raised. “Really?”
“Stranger things have happened.” Tyra smiled and she and Conway locked eyes for a long moment.
Conway stood. “Well, I don’t want to take any more of your time.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” Tyra said softly as Conway headed through the exit door.
“Christopher?” Dr. Browning asked, ducking into the runabout cockpit.
“Down here.” Richards stuck his head out of the opening in the floor right in front of Browning. “Just shoring up the phase transducers. I want it to be an especially smooth ride with you and little…”
“Haven’t thought of a name yet,” Browning said. She waved the padd she had in her left hand. “But, I brought Koskar’s Book of One Million Baby Names. Kelly gave it to me.”
“Well, then. You should have plenty to occupy you during the trip.” Richards pulled himself up out of the engine compartment.
“Not really. The trip is like four days, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s true.” Richards wiped his hands on a rag and stepped toward the front of the cockpit. “Everything loaded on board?” he asked as he typed in the pre-flight check.
“Yep. I put my stuff in the hold.”
“Good. Then let’s get going. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Dr. Browning slowly lowered herself into the right front seat and let out a long breath. “Don’t I know it.”
Richards sat down behind her. “You’re sure you want to go? You’re feeling okay?”
Browning smiled, put a hand on Richards’s. “Absolutely, Christopher.”
“Good,” Richards smiled back, then faced forward. He tapped a control on his console. “Bridge, this is the Susquehanna. Requesting clearance to launch.”
“Susquehanna,” came Baxter’s voice. “You’re clear to launch. You guys have fun.”
“Yes, sir,” said Richards.
“And Janice, don’t you go giving birth on us. Remember, the godfather must be present!” Baxter was annoyingly proud of being the godfather, Richards thought. Of course, he wasn’t jealous.
“Well…” Browning said.
“I’ll be behind the operating table of course!” Baxter said quickly. “Well out of sight of the uh, that is, your, um…so anyway you guys have a great time. Baxter out!”
Browning shook her head. “Sometimes I wonder about him.”
Richards laughed nervously. “I always wonder about him.” He stared at Browning’s eyes.
“Are we going or what?” she asked.
“Oh, right,” Richards said, tapping the impulse engine start sequence. With a thrum the engines started up and he pressed a control.
With a soft push forward, the Susquehanna sailed out of Shuttle Bay One’s open hangar door.
Richards grinned as he set in the autopilot. This was going to be a great trip.
When Counselor Peterman walked with Charlie into her office at 0900 hours, she was very surprised to find Commander Conway lying on her couch, fiddling with her Betty Boop statue.
“Commander!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Conway placed the statue on the coffee table in front of the couch. “I needed to see you, Counselor. I used my command override to get in.”
“How industrious,” Peterman muttered, taking off Charlie’s leash. The golden retriever immediately hopped onto the couch with Conway. “So what brings you here? A problem with one of my patients, perhaps? No, let me guess, complaints about the latest crew evaluation? Or has my husband done something new to upset you?”
“I need counseling.”
Peterman gulped. “Woah. I need to sit down.”
“Please don’t make a big deal about this. You counselors have some sort of rule about confidentiality, don’t you?”
“Of course. Whatever you say here is totally confidential.” Peterman stumbled into the chair next to the couch. “I just can’t believe you’re here. After three years, this is a first.”
“What, you think I’m just some sort of unfeeling bastard? That I haven’t ever come in for counseling because I don’t have emotions! No wonder I have no chance with Shar. People think I’m an emotionless jerk.”
“Why did I have a feeling that’s what this was about?” Peterman asked.
Conway shrugged. “I don’t know. So what do I do?”
“What do you mean what do you do? About what?”
“How do I get Tyra away from her wife?”
Peterman rubbed her eyes. It was too early for this. “You know, Commander, I usually require appointments.”
“Answer my question, Counselor!” Conway sat up on the couch. “That’s an order!”
Peterman took a deep breath. “This isn’t how counseling works, Commander. It’s a long process. You can’t expect to get help in one quick session. And you can’t order your counselor to give you an instant cure.”
“I don’t go on duty for another forty-five minutes. That’s plenty of time. Just tell me how to win Tyra back.”
“I’m a counselor, not a matchmaker, Commander!”
“Oh, Counselor, come on!” Conway protested, leaning forward and resting his hands on Peterman’s shoulders. She tried not to flinch. “You’re so mushy, so corny! You should love a challenge like this!”
“Commander!” Peterman said haughtily, pushing Conway’s hands off. “I am NOT corny!”
“I mean really, Counselor. What better challenge could you possibly find than getting a woman to leave another woman for a man, and a crummy one at that!”
“Commander, you need help.”
“Which is exactly why I’m here. Haven’t you been listening?”
Peterman sighed. “I need time to prepare for this. Can you come back later this afternoon? Or tomorrow?”
“Forget about it,” Conway muttered, and slumped off the couch. “I’ll do this on my own.”
Once Conway was gone, Peterman looked over at Charlie, who sat serenely on the couch playing with a ball.
“Well, Charlie, this counselor is not about to let one slip through her fingers. No siree!”
Lt. Commander Richards awoke to the sound of a cry and a thud on the deck by his bunk. He rolled over and stared down at Dr. Browning, who lay on the deck, looking up at him, rubbing her eyes.
“Janice, are you okay?” He slid his legs around and hopped out and over her, kneeled beside her. “Should I get the medkit?”
“No, it’s okay,” Browning said, wincing. “Luckily, I landed on my back.”
“Let me get you some pain suppressant.”
Browning gripped the edge of the bottom bunk and yanked herself to standing. “That’s okay, I’ll get it. You can go back to bed.”
Richards shook his head. “That’s okay, I’m awake now anyway. I just knew I should have made you sleep on the bottom bunk.”
“Christopher, I insisted on being up there. I swear the height differential makes my sinuses feel better.”
“Are you sure that’s not just in your mind…you know, psycho…”
Richards shrugged. “Sure, that too.”
“Very funny. No, it’s not psychosomatic. The air density on the top bunk is slightly different. I measured it with a tricorder and everything.”
“You’re certainly not taking any chances.”
“Only the ones that involve me falling a meter and a half in the middle of a dream about candy corn and communism.”
Richards sat down at the conference table beside the beds. He leaned his head into his hands. “Must’ve been some kind of dream.”
Browning leaned over one of the storage compartments, pulled out a hypospray, tapped in a code sequence and pressed the device into her upper arm. “Well, let’s just say I’ll never look at communism the same again. Or candy corn for that matter. Oh yeah, you were in it, too.”
“Really?” asked Richards, as Browning sat down beside him.
“Yeah, but you had a goatee.”
“No kidding.” Richards rubbed the bare area around his mouth. “Just so happens I was thinking about growing one. I must be psychic.”
“Or just a psycho,” Browning grinned. “Trust me, don’t do it. It looks terrible.”
“I’ll have to remember that.”
Browning and Richards sat there a few moments in silence as the Susquehanna’s warp engines thrummed around them.
“Janice,” Richards began slowly. “Why did we stop seeing one another?”
Browning thought a long few moments. “Because it wasn’t practical for us to stay together. I was going to Waystation, you were off to the Klingon homeworld. The long distance thing was not a viable option.”
“But then we came back to the ship, Janice,” Richards said, taking Browning’s hands and pulling them close to his chest.
“And then it just…felt wrong, Christopher. I can’t exactly explain why.”
“Does it still feel wrong?”
“Christopher, I just…” Browning took a deep breath. “Listen, you and Kris have only been apart for a few months. You need time to deal with that. Rushing in and getting back together with me isn’t the answer.”
“What, are you the ship’s counselor now?”
“No, Christopher, I’ve just got a lot going on right now. If you haven’t noticed, I’m going to be giving birth to a half-changeling baby soon.”
“What better timing could there be?” Richards asked. “Right now, you need someone supportive right at your side. Someone that can see you through the rough times ahead, someone to be with you when–”
Browning held up her hand. “Enough, Christopher. You’re talking like you’re selling me spacefaring insurance. Your reasons are all very noble. It’s just that they’re totally wrong.” She got up and heaved herself up the ladder to the top bunk.
Richards sat there looking at her. “I still love you, you know.”
“I know,” Browning said, and pulled her blanket up, rolled away from Richards, and closed her eyes.
Nurse Holly Wilcox rushed into Sickbay, tying the belt on her robe hurriedly. “Captain, I came as soon as I could.”
Counselor Peterman was there by the center biobed, patting Baxter’s back, as he barfed into a red plastic Dillon’s Pioneer Supply Depot shopping bag.
Baxter looked up from the barfbag and smiled wanly. “Oh, Holly. Thank God…I mean…ugh…the Directors…you’re here.”
Holly grabbed a medical tricorder off the shelf by the door and ran over to scan Baxter. “What’s the problem?”
“Lt. Elton’s…” Baxter gagged, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his white and blue starry Dallas Cowboys pajamas, “‘GreatFruit.’”
Holly shook her head. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes,” Peterman said. “The stuff is ripping through his digestive system like a pooridge made of ground up razorblades!”
“Well, that’s a colorful way of describing it, Counselor, but pretty accurate. Your husband is going to have to have the contents beamed out of his stomach.”
“Too bad Lt. Hartley’s on the…ugh…Escort,” Baxter gagged, then grabbed the bag and vomited again.
“Yeah, it’s a shame,” Holly said, tapping in a sequence on the panel above the biobed. “This’ll just take a moment.”
“I wish Dr. Browning were here,” Baxter moaned.
“Hey, I’m halfway through with my M.D.,” Holly said defensively, poising her loaded hypospray right over Baxter’s nose as the Sickbay medical transporter hummed to life inside Baxter’s stomach. “I’m not exactly chopped Flarvian liver, you know.”
“He’s not talking about Dr. Browning’s medical skills,” Peterman explained. “He misses her food preparation skills.”
Baxter nodded, handing the full bag to Peterman. “Janice would’ve known better than to serve something as hideous as that…‘GreatFruit.’”
“No doubt,” Holly nodded. She walked over to the container she’d beamed Baxter’s stomach contents into. It sat on the shelf with the containers of blue and red liquid. Its clear walls were beginning to steam up. “So, do you want this for anything?”
“I don’t think so.” Peterman held up the barf bag. “We have plenty.”
Holly nodded as she disdainfully walked the container of vile fluid over to the replicator slot and had it dematerialized. “Well, I’ll have a little talk with Mr. Elton tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Peterman grinned evilly. “He’s taken care of. Me and Charlie and ten or twelve of Charlie’s buddies are going down to see him in the morning.”
“Poor guy,” Holly giggled. She grabbed her hypospray and pressed it gently into Baxter’s arm. “That should settle down your stomach pains.” Baxter nodded and shuffled off to the door, Peterman behind. “Just give me a call if the pains return, or if your blood begins to turn into acid.”
Baxter stared at Holly. “Huh?”
“Not that that would happen, or anything,” Holly said, plastering on her best fake grin. “Acid blood, yeah, right. Come on, sir. Get real.”
“Sure. Long shot,” Baxter laughed weakly as Peterman dragged him down the hallway back to their cabin.
The next morning, Dr. Browning entered the cockpit of the Susquehanna, still in her bathrobe, eyes bloodshot. The skin underneath her eyes was puffy and she walked like each step was painful.
Lt. Commander Richards spun toward Browning, nursing a cup of raktageeno. “Morning sickness?”
Browning slowly sat in the seat beside Richards. “Hardcore morning sickness, yes. I wouldn’t go back there quite yet. Let the self-cleaning mechanisms do their job.”
“Whatever you say,” Richards said, all business, and returned to face the front viewport.
Browning looked at him, head cocked. “You’re upset.”
“Yes, you are, Christopher. I know that look.”
“What look?” Richards asked, tapping at the navigation panel, pretending like he was doing something important.
“When you squint your eyes and purse your lips. When you tilt your head down excessively. Don’t think you can fool me.”
“Okay, so I’m a bit ticked that I confessed my continuing love for you last night and all you had to say was ‘I know.’”
“You know how I feel.”
Richards turned toward her. “No, I don’t. Please, enlighten me.”
“Christopher, I just don’t think we work as a couple anymore.”
“Janice…it’s been over a year since we were together last. Don’t you think I may have changed in that time?”
“I’m sure you have.” Browning turned to look at the stars rushing toward them on the viewport. “I think I’ve changed too. That’s part of the problem.”
“You never will know unless you try.”
“You know, Christopher,” Browning said, with a bit of edge on her voice, “I’m beginning to think coming along on this trip was a bad idea. You’re obviously not capable of dealing with us as friends.”
“Exactly. That’s why we should get back together.”
Browning rubbed her eyes. “Sometimes your logic escapes me.” She stood up and shuffled wearily into the aft compartment.
Richards stood. “Janice, I…”
And then a wave of bright white light filled the Susquehanna’s cockpit and the runabout jerked to the side so violently Richards had to grab the pilot’s chair to stay on his feet. The lights around the cockpit flickered, then the helm panel exploded with a shower of sparks and Richards watched the stars on the front viewport turn from streaks to dots.
“What the hell?” Richards asked, then heard a panicked yelp from the aft compartment. He ran as fast as he could around the partition between the cockpit and aft section to find Browning sprawled on her back.
“What happened?” she asked, wincing.
Richards grabbed a medical tricorder out of the overhead storage compartment and began scanning Browning. “I don’t know. Computer, what do the sensors show for the time index beginning one minute ago?”
“At exactly 0904 hours, the Susquehanna encountered a wave of subspace turbulence and was knocked out of warp. The resultant damage includes total loss of propulsion, communications, and ancillary navigational systems.”
“Oh, s***,” said Richards.
“Yeah, that’s certainly a bit of a bump in the road,” Browning said. “No problem, though, we’ll just use the emergency communicator to–”
“No,” Richards said, turning the tricorder to face Browning. “I didn’t say ‘oh s***’ because of that. I said, ‘oh s***’ because of THIS!”
Browning stared at the tricorder. “Ohmigosh. I’m having a baby!” She suddenly doubled over and rolled on her side. “So THAT’S what it feels like!”
Commander Conway poked his head in the door to Counselor Peterman’s office. “You wanted to see me?”
Peterman nodded. “Come on in, Commander.”
Conway stepped in. “I hope this won’t take too long.”
“Commander, I’ll have you know I put a lot of thought into what you said about Tyra Shar. And I want to help you.”
“I thought we went over this already. I said I don’t need your help.”
Peterman got up from behind her desk and walked over to Conway, pulled him into an awkward hug. “Commander, I don’t want to help you steal Tyra Shar away from her…uh, wife. I want to help you reconcile your feelings for her. Once and for all.”
“Yeah, right. What’ll you do? Get me a date with Hartley?”
“Let’s get real, David. You wouldn’t have a prayer on Malox with her.”
“I’m sorry,” Conway shook his head, looked down. Then he looked back up at Peterman. “I must have misunderstood. I thought you wanted to HELP me.”
“Well insulting me doesn’t help!”
“Don’t raise your voice with me, Commander!”
“What do you think YOU’RE doing?”
“I’ll say it again, Mister, I am trying to HELP you!” The two were nose to nose, like a baseball coach and umpire.
“Could’ve fooled me!”
Peterman backed away. “Commander, let’s sit down and talk rationally. I’m sure there are ways to get over your crush on Shar. Remember, that’s a totally different person out there.”
“Not in all the ways that count, Counselor.”
“You will be helped, Commander, so help me…Directors!” Peterman shouted at Conway’s back as he turned to leave.
Captain Baxter stepped into the bridge conference lounge, looking at a padd as he walked. He stopped when he saw Conway at the head of the table, reading a padd of his own. “Oh, Commander. Sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I just came in to eat my lunch and read the latest Gorn mystery novel.”
Conway put aside his padd and stood. “That’s okay. I was just leaving.”
Baxter watched Conway walk past him. “Do you want to talk, Commander?”
Conway stopped, turned and looked at Baxter. He raised an eyebrow. “And just what would make you think I would want to talk?”
Baxter shrugged. “Freak intuition?”
Conway stepped up close to Baxter, narrowing his eyes in disgust. “What do you know?”
A few moments of silence. Baxter backed up against the bulkhead by the door to the conference room. “I’m concerned about you, Commander. And so’s Kelly. She said you were having some…girl trouble.”
“What makes you think I have girl trouble? What did that bitch tell you?” Conway stepped in closer, stabbed a finger at Baxter’s chest.
“Careful, Commander. How about you avoid insulting my wife and talk to me about this, man to man. Things are never as bad as they seem, trust me.”
“You’re right, sir. I’m a single guy. I should just go to the Constellation Club tonight and dance up a storm, right?”
Baxter shivered. “Please, Commander. Don’t make me even think about that awful place. I’m trying to help, here.” Baxter still couldn’t stand the thought of a raging techno dance club on his ship. What’s worse, he couldn’t bear to think of Conway dancing there.
“Don’t bother.” Conway turned for the door.
“What’s that you’re reading, Commander?” Baxter asked. Before Conway could stop him, Baxter swiped the padd. He grinned as he read it. “Four Hundred Simple Ways Into a Woman’s Heart, by Martha Stewart?”
“It’s her latest,” Conway grumbled, grabbing the padd back. “And she has a lot of good suggestions. Listen to this…” he cleared his throat as he read from the padd. “‘Try a hollowing out a cedar log and filling it with homemade peppermint candy. Then leave it on her doorstep with a meaningful card or letter attached.’”
Baxter shook his head, suppressing a giggle. “That’s beautiful, Commander. I can really see you doing that.”
“You’re patronizing me.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Just forget about it. You and your nosey wife just steer clear of my love life. I can deal with it.” Conway clutched his padd close to his side and marched out of the conference room.
Baxter was still shaking his head as he walked over to the replicator to order lunch. “Sure. And I’m a Bolian barber.”
“Well?” Browning said breathlessly, leaning back on the lower runabout bunk.
Richards looked down at the tricorder reading. “One hour apart.”
“Okay, so that means the birth is still a little while off. Can we get somewhere with a half-decent sickbay in a reasonable amount of time?”
Richards laughed weakly. “Janice, are you kidding me? I couldn’t even land us on one of the planets in this system. The propulsion system’s totally shot. That subspace instability was a doozie.”
“Then call somebody!” Browning winced, gripping Richardon’s shoulder with unbecoming force. “Call someone NOW!” she added, her voice dropping several octaves.
“The comm system’s shot too. Didn’t you hear the computer explaining what was wrong?”
“Sorry. I was busy having my first contraction!”
“You don’t have to get snippy.”
“You try having a baby and see how snippy you get!”
“I did have a baby!”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Ugh. Listen, Christopher, you are not qualified to deliver a child.”
“The hell I’m not. Let’s refer to that Q pregnancy thing again, Janice. I’m greatly qualified.”
“But this is a CHANGELING baby! It has special needs.”
Richards shrugged. “Then you’ll just have to coach me through it, right?”
Browning shook her head. “I don’t believe it. You’re actually enjoying this!”
“Janice, I’m hurt that you’d think that.”
“I don’t care if you’re hurt!” Browning sudddenly shouted. “I need to give birth to this child one way or another!”
“Well, it’s either me or the ship’s computer. You choose.”
A soft Led Zeppelin ballad hummed throughout Commander Conway’s romantically dimmed office as he stared at the data streaming down his terminal screen.
“Well, whoever could that be?” he asked himself. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out an aerosol spray bottle. He quickly gave himself three squirts than shoved the bottle back into his drawer and slammed it. Lt. Ford’s special. Guaranteed to turn a woman to mush. It was strong enough, thought Conway.
He ran a hand through his hair and unzipped his uniform tunic to reveal just a tad of chest hair. Then he leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. As a final touch, he steepled his fingers. “Come,” he said softly.
The doors slid open and Tyra Shar stepped in. “David,” she said, crossing to his desk and sitting down. “Thank you so much for that hollowed-out cedar log. Those mints were delicious!”
Conway put his feet down and leaned forward. He plastered on a s***-eating grin. “I’m so glad you liked them. Just a little something sweet for a sweetheart.”
“I knew you were a romantic, deep down.”
“Hmm,” Conway said, leaning his chin down on his fist. “What was your first indication? Was it when I had your symbiont temporarily put inside my body at the risk of my own life?”
“You really like bringing that up, don’t you?”
“What can I say? It was fun.”
Tyra smiled. “You are one of a kind, Commander.” She sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? Are you having problems training that dog of yours?”
Conway sat up straight. He ripped off his outer tunic jacket and shoved it under his desk. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“So…are you free this afternoon?” Conway asked whimsically.
Tyra squinted her eyes at Conway. “What do you mean ‘free’?”
“I’m not talking about dating, Tyra,” Conway said. He stood up and walked around his desk. He sat on it, so he faced Tyra less than a meter away. “Just a little trip to the holodeck. You said you like NASCAR. Well, I’ve got the afternoon off. Let’s race. I’ll even let you drive Dale Earnhardt’s car.”
“Wow,” Tyra said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Conway reached out to touch Tyra’s shoulder. “Say you’ll go with me, Tyra.”
Tyra mulled it over. Conway could tell she was eating this up. “Sure, David. Just a trip to the holodeck. No harm there.”
“No harm at all.” Conway smiled. He was the good guy. It was a relatively new role for him, but he was fitting into it perfectly.
Now all he had to do was destroy a marraige.
“Push, Janice, PUSH!” Richards commanded from underneath the blanket. The darkened runabout was silent except for his voice and Dr. Browning’s occasional yelps as the contractions got closer.
“I feel so silly,” Browning muttered, shifting herself around on the bunk. “I shouldn’t feel silly. I mean, you’re not seeing anything you haven’t seen before. But on the other hand….YOW!”
“Woah, that was a big one,” Richards said, bracing himself against the edge of the runabout bunk. “So, have you given some thought to us going out again?”
Browning gritted her teeth. She grabbed handfuls of Richards’s hair and dug her fingernails into his skull. “I…HAVE…BEEN… PREOCCUPIED!”
“Sorry,” Richards said sheepishly. “I was just wondering. Say, would you mind terribly taking your fingernails out of my skull so I can deliver your baby?”
“I need something to grip!”
“Well grip something else! You’re hurting me!”
“So! Call it sympathy pains!”
“I’m having a little bit of trouble being sympathetic with you right now, hon!”
“For the love of the…ugh…ow…Directors! Do SOMETHING to distract me…PLEASE!” Browning shrieked.
“Okay.” Richards jumped out from under the blanket and walked back toward the runabout hold. “Be right back.”
“Where the heck do you think you’re going!” Browning shouted. “You can’t just LEAVE in the middle of a LABOR!”
“Hold your changelings,” Richards muttered from somewhere at the back of the runabout.
“Yeah, easy for you to say!”
Richards returned holding a padd. “Here we go. Now calm down and try to visualize each one of these. He knelt beside Browning, took her hand and squeezed, and read: “Aaron, Aarvik, Abobou, Absinth, Adam, Alan…”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Keep going…”
Tyra Shar unslung her safetybelt and slid out of the window of her NASCAR, breaking into a run for the infield of the Daytona 500 track. Crowds of field personnel, pit crews, and emergency personnel followed her. In the distance, ambulances and fire trucks wailed their sirens.
“David!” Tyra cried, rushing over to the burning, overturned NASCAR. She knelt beside it. “David! Can you hear me?”
Conway dragged himself out of the smoke, coughing, on hands and knees. “I’m fine, Lana…uh, I mean Tyra. Uh, this happens to me all the time.”
Tyra shook her head. “Really?”
“Well…usually the car doesn’t burst into flames, but other than that, this is pretty standard, actually.” Conway craned his neck around to see his smouldering car. “I really should have been more careful taking that curve.”
“I was ahead,” Tyra said. “You had to take that curve steep to catch up with me.”
Conway looked at the chaos down at the other end of the infield. More bashed up cars littered the track and the edge of the field. “Yeah, but as it turns out, I managed to take out Kyle Petty, Dale Jarret, and…hahah, the Dark Prince himself, Jeff Gordon. Makes those few bumps and bruises well worth it.”
“Well,” Tyra said, helping Conway to his feet. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. Just promise me you’ll be a little more careful in the future.”
“Hey, what are you worried about? The holodeck safeties are engaged.”
“I guess. But…” Tyra sighed. “Oh, well you never know.”
Tyra and Conway locked eyes for a long moment.
“Well,” Tyra said finally. “I guess I’d better get back to the coffee shop. Thanks for a great time.”
“Do you have to leave?” Conway said, grabbing her hand.
“Yeah, I think so.” Tyra turned to leave. “Computer…exit.”
“Okay,” Conway said. “I can take a hint. No more attempts at changing our relationship. I promise.”
Tyra turned around. “Is that what this was about? Getting in my pants? You just wanted a quickie?”
Conway shrugged. “Yeah. Why, is that a problem?”
“I should have known.” She balled up her fists and lept at Conway.
“I can explain!” he shrieked, holding up his hands in defense.
“Don’t bother!” she cried, and pulled Conway toward her.
All Conway could say as she jammed her tongue in his mouth was “MMMPH!”
“Paul, Paxxin, Pele, Pesto, Peter, P’fal, Pharo, Plato…”
“That’s it!” Browning screamed, grabbing Richards by the shoulders and shaking him so hard he dropped the padd. “That’s…freaking…it!”
“The name? Plato?”
“The…baby!” she cried.
“Janice, I know you don’t know a lot about twentieth century Earth, but even though Plato was an excellent ancient philosopher, there’s also this children’s toy…”
“I don’t care what you want to name him!” Browning seethed, sweat pouring down her face. “HE’S COMING!”
“Oh, right.” Richards pulled the blanket up over his head. “Oh, wow! Janice, I think I see a…a…”
“What? A foot? A head?”
“Oh, for the love of Pete,” Browning muttered.
“So it’s Pete now?”
“Listen!” Browning said. “Tentacle, claw, hook, whatever. Just gently grab onto something and slide him out. Quick!”
“Right, right. Hold on a sec.”
Browning sat there biting her lip against the pain for a few moments as Richards worked.
“Christopher…” she grunted. “The padd…”
“You want me to read you more names NOW?”
“No,” Browning said. “I need something to bite down on!”
“Oh, right.” Richards reached his hand out, grabbed the padd, and tossed it up to Browning. “Bon appetit!”
Browning bit down hard on the duranium surface of the padd. She could feel the screen crunching down in her mouth, but she didn’t care. Because right then she heard the most beautiful thing in her life…
And it wasn’t Richards.
Richards emerged from under the blue blanket, holding a shiny, naked, flailing baby boy…with four swinging tentacles. Just as suddenly, those tentacles morphed into hands and feet.
“Oh, he’s beautiful,” Browning said with relief. Then she looked down at the child’s midsection. “Christopher,” she said quietly, staring into the child’s glistening beautiful blue eyes. “Get a phaser. You need to cut the cord.”
“Right,” Richards said, gently handing Browning the baby. He turned toward the supply closet.
Then, suddenly, the umbilical cord detached of its own accord and disappeared into the baby’s stomach.
“Wait,” Browning said. “Nevermind. He did it himself!”
Richards returned to kneel beside Browning and the baby. “Oh. That’s amazing.”
Browning cleared little wisps of hair out of the baby’s eyes. “Little Plato. What an adorable name.”
“Yeah, Janice. Just adorable.” Richards smiled weakly.
Browning wrapped Plato up in the blanket and hugged him close to her chest. “Go get the medkit, Christopher. We need to do some scans. Make sure everything is where it should be. We’re still not prepared to deal with changeling/human physiology.”
“Well, this tiny medkit in the storage hamper should do the trick,” Richards said sarcastically. He grabbed the medkit and crossed back over to the bunk where Browning sat holding the baby. He knelt beside her. “Janice, you’ve never been more beautiful than you are right now.”
“Is that a line?” Browning asked, wrinkling her nose in a smile.
“It’s the truth.”
Browning leaned over and kissed Richards on the cheek. “Me too, Christopher.”
“I love you too.”
Then the computer beeped. “Proximity alert. A vessel just came out of warp forty thousand kilometers off our starboard bow.”
“Identify, computer,” Richards said, his voice trembling. He stared at Browning. His smile faltered.
“Federation starship. Oberth-class.”
“Thank the Directors,” Richards muttered.
“We are being hailed.”
“Channel open,” Richards said.
“Runabout Susquehanna,” said a soft female voice. “This is the Starfleet Medical Envoy Nightengale. Are you in need of assistance?”
“You could say that.”
“Wait…Medical Envoy?” Browning asked.
“That’s right. We’re a hospital ship. We specialize in maternity. Specifically, interspecies maternity.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Richards cried.
“No, I’m not,” replied the impatient voice over the comm.
“Doesn’t that beat all,” said Browning.
“Yeah,” Richards mumbled. “Great timing, Nightengale.”
“Why? What is your condition?”
“Fantastic, just fantastic,” Browning muttered, clutched little Plato close, and passed out.
Counselor Peterman walked down the corridor, her arms loaded down with stacks of padds. She’d been in the ship’s library all day, researching case study upon case study on Trill/Human love between hosts, interspecies adultery, intragender relationships, and Symbiont Obsession/Compulsion Syndrome. Needless to say, by the time she left, the librarian was giving her a very strange look.
She arrived at Conway’s office, and with one free finger, tapped the door chime.
No answer. He must have gone off-duty already.
“Computer,” Peterman sighed. “Locate Commander Conway.”
“Commander Conway is in Holodeck Three.”
“Holodeck Three? He should still be on-duty.”
“Commander Conway went off-duty at 1500 hours.”
“That little…” Peterman muttered. She took off down the corridor for the turbolift.
During the ride down to Deck 14, Peterman continued to prepare herself to counsel Conway. She didn’t know where to begin. For sure, however, she would have to dissuade him from braking up Jenna and Tyra’s marraige. It was her job as Counselor to make sure her crew was acting conscientiously, and that meant stopping them from committing adultery. She felt like a den mother sometimes. Especially when it came to the Explorer crew.
The turbolift sighed to a halt and Peterman hurried out. “Computer, what program is running on Holodeck Three?” She didn’t want to make the mistake she’d made when she’d burst in on Lt. Ford during the Humping Harpy of Phobos Four program.
“Program Conway Sigma-Five, NASCAR simulation 1999, is running in Holodeck Three.”
“Okay. Good. No problem.” Peterman approached the holodeck doors, tapped in her access code. The doors rattled open and Peterman stepped through, to find the NASCAR track empty of crowds. Conway must just be doing a practice lap.
But there were no cars on the track.
Further, there was only one car anywhere in sight. It was overturned and smouldering, right at the center of the infield.
Clutching her pile of precisely ordered and indexed padds close to her chest, Peterman jogged out to the infield. “Commander! Are you hurt?”
“Don’t come back here!” Conway’s voice called from behind the wreckage. “Go away!”
“Commander, if you’re hurt, you need medical assistance. I took medical seminars before. I’m sure it’s nothing I haven’t–” She stopped as she rounded the car wreckage to find Commander Conway and Tyra Shar spread out on the grass, bear-ass naked. A pile of crumpled NASCAR uniforms lay heaped beside them. “Uh…uh…” All twenty of Peterman’s padds fell to the ground. Her mouth opened and closed like she was a fish out of water.
Conway scrambled for the NASCAR uniforms and draped them over he and Tyra. “Can I DO something for you, Counselor!” he snapped.
Peterman stumbled backward. “Uh…uh, no, no, that’s all right. That’s all right.” She squinted her eyes shut and bolted at top speed for the holodeck entrance. “COMPUTER…EXIT!” she shouted.
She ran down the corridor, never slowing down, rubbing her eyes as the image burned itself into her memory, probably permanently.
“Counselor…are you okay?” asked a crewmember, but she didn’t answer. She just ran and ran and ran until she smashed into a bulkhead and reeled back onto the deck.
Rainbow colors tinged the edge of her vision. Tentatively, she worked her eyes open. She saw the corridor ceiling, bright lights, and the shadows of a few crewmembers leaning over her.
Then Commander Conway loomed into her field of vision. He was still shrugging on the jacket of his NASCAR uniform.
“Counselor?” he asked sweetly, bending down. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Peterman shook her head. “No, never.”
“Let’s talk privately, Counselor,” Conway said. He looked up at the gathered crew. “Get back to your posts! Now! That’s an order!”
The crowd mumbled and finally dispersed.
“We need to talk,” Conway said, helping Peterman to her feet.
“Oh, no…nonononono,” Peterman said quietly, as Conway ushered her into a vacant lounge.
She collapsed onto the couch facing the viewport, stared out at the streaking stars.
“Two coffees, hot,” Conway said to the replicator. He walked over and handed Peterman one. “How’s your head?”
“Not as bad as my eyes, I’m afraid,” Peterman said, tentatively taking the cup. “Please tell me I was hallucinating back there.”
“Nope,” Conway said. “I scored with two Shars in a row.”
Peterman shivered. “Uggg…I’m going to need counseling of my own.”
“All in good time,” Conway said. “But first, you have to promise me you won’t breathe a WORD of this to anyone. This is a very delicate situation.”
“Delicate?” asked Peterman rubbing her head. “You’re sleeping with a married woman!”
“Married in the sense of Trill society, sure,” Conway said. “But what’s a document, anyway? Listen, we keep this between you, me, and Tyra, okay?”
“Or what?” Peterman muttered.
Conway rolled his eyes thoughtfully. He looked back at Peterman with a contemptuous sneer. “Or I have all of your pets deported to the wildlife reserve on Tangor Six!”
“You wouldn’t…” Petersern said coldly.
Conway grinned. “Try me.”
Peterman stood to face Conway, eye to eye. “You can keep me quiet, Commander, but you can’t keep your conscience down. How long do you think this can go on?”
“Leave that to me.” Conway folded his arms. “So, are we square, Counselor?”
Peterman rubbed her head, put down her coffee cup. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay, then. You’d better go to Sickbay and have Holly take a look at that.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Peterman said distantly, and walked unsteadily out. She hovered in the doorway a moment before walking out of the lounge, then her whole body shivered, and she stepped out.
“Well,” Conway said, brushing his hands together. “That takes care of that.”
Supplemental. We’ve just recieved news that our Chief Medical Officer has given birth to an eight-pound, bouncing, shape-shifting baby boy. We’re headed at high warp to meet with the USS Nightengale, where I’m told mother and child, and Chief Engineer, are resting comfortably. As godfather, I’m a little disappointed that I wasn’t there for the blessed event, but I’m just glad that the baby is okay, and I can’t wait to meet my little bundle of…ugh…uch…ow… oh, oh DEAR LORD! My insides are burning! It’s like my damn blood is acid! Oh, GOD SAKES IT BURNS! IT BURNS!
Holly Wilcox hovered over Captain Baxter. “Okay, so acid blood is not as far-fetched an idea as I first thought.”
On the opposite side of the biobed, Counselor Peterman reached out a hand to stroke Baxter’s hair. “Are you okay, Andy? Can you hear me, sweetheart?”
Baxter glanced down to see he was encased in a large, metallic coffin-like device. Only his head stuck out. “Holly, what’s happening?”
“We’re just replacing your blood and grafting on some new skin. Not to worry.”
“It was the…great…fruit, wasn’t it,” Baxter stammered.
“Afraid so,” Peterman said, staring down at Baxter. Her face was puckered with concern. “Good news though. Mr. Elton thinks he’s finally got the right combination of DNA for your GreatFruit.”
Baxter’s eyes went wide. “You want me to try that again?”
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Peterman said softly. “Right now, just rest.”
“Yeah,” Holly said. “You’ll be out of here in a few hours. We’re almost done reshaping your insides.”
“Good,” Baxter muttered. “Good to know.” It was then he heard a baby wailing beside him. Dr. Browning was sitting up in bed, gently rocking a pinkish-red little baby, wrapped up in a Starfleet-issue blue recieving blanket. “Oh, look at him!” Baxter said, tears watering in his eyes. “He’s gorgeous.”
Browning turned the baby, toward him. “Lookie, Plato, it’s your Godfather! And there’s Godmomma Holly!”
Holly waved. “Hey, buddy!”
“Playdough…” Baxter said. “Isn’t that…”
Peterman bopped him on the forehead. “A great name!”
“So,” Baxter said, wincing, wishing he could rub the spot on his forehead where Peterman had hit him. Unfortunately his arms were bound up in that silly device. “So, Janice, does little…Plato…check out okay?”
“He’s a perfectly healthy baby half-changeling,” Browning replied.
“Any idea about what type of metamporphic abilities he has?” Peterman asked.
Browning nodded. “Lt. Tilleran had a look at him. Apparently, he can shift color and the basic shape of his body at will. And as he gets more experienced, he will be able to take the shape of just about anything, though he obviously won’t be able to hold those shapes as long as a full changeling.”
“Well, that’s just great.” Baxter stared at the baby, who drooled and cooed and rolled his eyes. “Look at that, honey. He has my nose. No, no, wait a minute, now he has your nose.”
“Ha,” Browning laughed. “Little Plato has been imitating a lot of things he’s seen. His hand partially turned into a medical tricorder a few minutes ago.”
“He’s going to be a handful,” Peterman said distantly.
“Certainly will be,” Browning grinned, cuddling little Plato close. “And I’m going to love every bit of it.”
Lt. Commander Richards stepped into Sickbay. “You guys ready for that walk in the holopark?”
“Yep,” Browning said. She looked to Holly. “Am I all checked out, Doc?”
Holly nodded. “Sure are. Just try not to let him slither into any Jeffries tubes.”
“Will do,” Browning said. She slid off the bed, went to take Richards’s arm, held Plato close in her other arm. “See you guys later.”
Baxter’s brow furrowed as he watched them leave. “Kelly! Are they back together?”
Peterman shrugged. “You’ve got me.”
“Don’t you know?”
“To tell you the truth, Andy, I have other things on my mind.”
“Care to fill me in while I sit here having my insides reconstructed?”
The next day, after returning from a long visit to Dr. Browning’s quarters to see how his very own Godchild was doing, and happy Mirk hadn’t made him call himself the Directorfather, Captain Baxter went to his readyroom to catch up on some paperwork.
He had just sat down with a steaming cup of orange pekoe when his door chime rang.
“Come,” he said, staring at the report on his terminal, Lt. Commander Richards’s account of the Susquehanna’s adventure.
Lt. Dan Elton walked in, carrying a bowl. The bowl had what looked like half a grapefruit in it, sprinkled with baker’s sugar, just like he liked, and garnished with fresh parsley.
“Sir,” Elton said meekly, setting the half-grapefruit down on his desk. “This is the GreatFruit, mark II.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes down at the fruit, sniffed, wrinkled his nose. He picked the bowl up, held it close to his face and turned it slowly. “You sure this won’t make me vomit or turn my blood to acid?”
Elton nodded. “I feel really bad about that, sir. I’d hate for those couple of mistakes to taint your whole view of me.”
“Nonsense, Lieutenant. There are plenty of reasons for that, like the time you became godlike and took over the Aerostar…”
“Well, anyway, I made this GreatFruit…especially great, you know, to make up for how bad the first one was.” Elton shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“So you’re sure it’s safe?” Baxter put the bowl down and stared at it.
“Positive, sir. Just take a bite. I promise you won’t be sorry.” And Elton turned around and left the readyroom. Baxter was about to say something else, but Elton was already gone. And Baxter could have sworn he heard giggling.
“Well,” Baxter said. “It’s just you and me, GreatFruit. Do or die. What the hell.” He grabbed the spoon Elton had left by the bowl. “We only live once, right?”
He dug in with the spoon and came up with a huge chunk of greatfruit, stuck it in his mouth and savored the delicate, bittersweet taste. The outpour of juice, the crunch of sugar.
“Man!” he exclaimed. “That’s great!” And he hurriedly devoured the rest of the fruit.
When the doorchime rang again, Baxter had bits of pulp dripping down his chin. “Come!” he said, sucking the last bit of juice from the now-empty skin.
Commander Conway stepped in. “A moment of your time, Captain?”
“Of course,” Baxter said, pushing his empty bowl aside. He gestured regally for Conway to sit down. “Anything you want, buuuuudy.” His eyes narrowed. He leaned back comfortably in his chair, feeling extreme relaxation.
“Well,” Conway said nervously, declining the invitation to sit. “I’d like to take the next…few afternoons off. Indefinitely. I can pick up the extra hours in the morning, or the night shift if you prefer.”
Baxter spun around toward the viewport, stared at the flashing starlight, then spun back toward Conway. “Yes indeed, duuuude! You do whatever you want to, Conman!”
“Conman?” Conway scratched his head.
“What will you be doing during that time, anyway, Constantine?”
“Uh, a little of this, and a little of that. I’ll be using my NASCAR program a lot.”
Baxter stood and walked around his desk. He put his hands on Conway’s shoulders. “I trust you to do what is right, Condor. You know best, man!”
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Right on, my brother!” Baxter shook Conway vigorously. As he did so, he realized Conway’s head was beginning to melt off his shoulders. “Better get that checked, dude!”
“Your freakin’ head, Concubine! It’s all melty!”
Conway stood. “If you say so, sir.” And he headed out of the readyroom at top speed.
Baxter followed him out to the bridge, stared over the railing at the stars rushing at him. “Oh, what a beautiful, sunny day!”
“What the hell has gotten into you?” J’hana asked curtly from the tactical station, to his right. Her antennae had turned to daisies, and they were wilting.
“Somebody water J’hana’s head!” Baxter cried.
“Do it and die!” he heard J’hana say.
Birds chirped all over the bridge. What a beautiful English garden day, Baxter thought. Conway’s head had reformed and everything.
Baxter pranced about the quarterdeck, then jeteed down to the front of the bridge, twirling in between conn and ops.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Captain?” he heard Conway call out.
Then the bees came. Buzzing, loud, millions of them, swirling out of Lt. Ford’s laughing mouth, buzzing around his head till he was covered. Luckily, there was a horizontal black sea of stars right in front of him. If he jumped in, he’d be safe.
He jumped into the black sea of stars, then everything turned black.
J’hana and Conway loomed over Baxter’s unconcious body. “What was that all about?” Conway asked. “What in the hell possessed him to ram himself against the viewscreen like that?”
“I don’t know,” J’hana said.
“Well, something had to bring that on. It wasn’t normal. Not even for him.”
“Mr. Elton brought him a new GreatFruit a few minutes ago. Maybe that is what caused it.”
Lt. Tilleran rushed over and ran a tricorder over Baxter. “Yep, that’s confirmed. He’s hopped up on something. Damn Elton.”
“Should we get him to Sickbay?” J’hana asked, looking to Conway.
“Wait a while,” he replied. “Let’s see if he wakes up again. Could be good for a laugh or two.”
J’hana stared down at Baxter, who stared blankly up at the ceiling. Drool dripped out of the corner of his mouth and pooled on the carpet beside him. “Agreed,” she said, and went back to her station.
Later that day, once it was obvious Baxter wouldn’t wake up, and Conway had him carted down to Sickbay, he popped his head into the teacher’s office down in the school section, where Tyra Shar was grading some padds.
She looked up from the stack of padds. “Hey, David.”
“Well, it’s all set,” Conway said. “Holodeck reservations, time off, everything.”
He stood there for a moment, fumbling with his fingers. “So, what are you going to do about Jenna?”
“What about her?”
“I mean, you’re divorcing her, right?”
“Why would I do that? We have a great marraige.”
Conway shrugged. “I just thought you and I…”
“David,” Tyra said, standing up and moving to join Conway at the doorway to her office. “You said you wanted a quickie, and that’s what it was. You may not know this, but Shar was a very promiscuous symbiont. Lana was the only host out of twelve that didn’t have non-commital sex on a regular basis.”
“You’re kidding. Lana didn’t have ANY sex that I could see.”
Tyra nodded ruefully. “It certainly felt like that at times.”
“So, why on Earth would you get married?”
“Because Shar and Fran really love each other. Shar just has a bit of a…wild streak.”
“So Fran knows about this?”
Tyra waved her hand dismissively. “Nah. I’ve managed to keep my ways hidden from Fran for almost five hundred years of on-and-off relationships. It hasn’t hurt anything yet.”
“Oh. Well good.”
Tyra studied Conway’s face. “Do you have a problem with this, David?”
“Nah. Of course not. That was what I was hoping you’d say, actually.”
“Good. Glad we understand each other. And I hope we can continue with those…‘quickies.’ Holodeck Three, sixteen hundred, right?”
Conway nodded. “Yes sirree.” And he whistled a happy tune and walked out of the classroom section. A little girl waiting outside the doorway suddenly tossed him a ball.
“Hey, mister, throw it back!”
“Sure.” Conway took off his communicator and pressed the point hard into the ball until it deflated. He tossed the limp rubber shape back at the girl and put his communicator back on. “Have fun with that.”
“You are the meanest man I’ve ever seen!” the girl screamed after him.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Conway mumbled.
Lt. Commander Richards tenatively pressed the door chime.
“Come in,” Browning’s voice said cheerfully from within.
Richards stepped through the door and found Browning tossing her “Candles of the Quadrant” into a cargo container. “Hey, I was just packing a few things.”
“They’re moving you to bigger quarters?”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “On the family deck. It’ll be nice for Plato to have lots of friends to play with.”
“It will definitely be interesting.”
“So, what can I do for you?” Browning sealed the container and leaned against it.
“Uh, I was just thinking about what we talked about yesterday.”
“Mm hmm,” Browning said, stepping into the back room. Moments later, she carried out a bassinet. Inside, little Plato had one of his tentacles wrapped around a rattle (from Captain Baxter) that he shook vigorously.
“Well, we talked for like two hours, didn’t we?”
“Sure did.” She set the bassinet down and knelt beside it. When she tickled Plato’s nose, it bent inward. “Whoops! Come on, Plato, push it back out! There you go!”
“And we didn’t really talk about us…you know, you and me…”
“Oh, isn’t he cute! His nose is like a little button now! The cutest little thing!”
“And, I know your life is pretty full right now, but if there’s room…”
“Whoops! He did a little ectoplasmic poopie in his diapies! Whoopsie!”
“So, what I’m trying to ask, Janice, is…”
She looked at him. “Sorry, Christopher. What were you saying?”
Richards suddenly saw in Browning and Plato a picture he couldn’t be a part of. And he smelled poop. That had to be a sign.
“Oh, I was just saying, that’s a beautiful baby you have there. If you need anything, just call me.”
Browning undid Plato’s diaper and pinched it together, rushing it over to the reclamator slot. “Christopher, that’s really thoughtful of you. I’m sure we’ll be okay. But you’re welcome to come by anytime.” The reclamator buzzed to life and the diaper disappeared in a swirl of blue. She turned around. “Now, are you sure there isn’t anything–”
Richards was gone. She turned to look down at the naked Plato, wriggling around and giggling in the bassinet.
“I guess it’s just you and me, kiddo.”
“Waah?” asked Plato, wriggling a tentacle that gradually reformed into a tiny little hand, which reached up and grabbed Browning’s finger as she knelt beside him.
“You said it,” she grinned, and kissed him on the forehead.
Mystery abounds as Larkin and the Escort visit a casino world, whose secrets may include a familiar friend, or foe, even, and more in the cards than a few rounds at the old slot machine. Will she be able to keep her and her friends from being sucked into someone’s high-stakes scheme, and will Richards be able to save her from becoming yet another dancing girl? Find out, in a special story co-written by me and Alan Decker…“Double or Nothing!”