Author: Anthony Butler
“Tighten up on the aft thrusters a bit, there,” Commander David Conway said, swiveling in the chair beside Plato, at the controls of Conway-1, the huge spaceworthy blimp Dr. Janice Browning had built to advertise his candidacy for commander of the Explorer.
A number of things about this blimp that Browning built bothered Conway. Primarily, he couldn’t fathom who the blimp was advertising to, other than the crew of the Explorer. And there had to be a better way of doing that, other than circling the ship every time she was at station keeping with a giant blimp that flashed the bright words “vote Conway in ‘77.”
But far be it from Conway to look a gift blimp in the mouth. He felt beholden to Browning for being his campaign advisor during the difficult race for ship commander, even if Lt. Commander Larkin eventually won by write-in, in an extremely suspicious last-minute maneuver. To that end, he’d offered to take Plato for a test-flight aboard the blimp one day during his off-hours.
Plato, for his part, swung the joystick back and forth on the Conway-1, sending it looping and bucking up and down in concentric circles around the Explorer.
“This is spacetastic, Uncle Dave!” Plato said, as he looped the Conway-1 once more around the massive Galaxy-class starship Explorer.
“Don’t mention it,” said Conway. Spacetastic? He’d have to talk to Browning about the kind of language Conway was being exposed to. He thought Spacetastic might be one of those buzzwords used by the rowdy kids on Captain Krinok’s Fun Time Honor Hour. Plato should NOT be watching that.
“So, Plato,” said Conway, “how are you enjoying your classes?”
“I don’t like Miss Shar,” Plato said flatly.
“Really. Well, I’m close…er, friends with Miss Shar, and I happen to know she likes you very much.” That was a lie. Tyra often complained about Plato. For one thing, he had the body and mind of an 8-year-old boy now. Conway could only assume it was his changeling biology that was causing these spurts in mental and physical growth, but he wasn’t a doctor or a scientist so he decided not to question it. At any rate, Tyra didn’t feel like Plato should be in the kindergarten class anymore. But he liked it there, and he often tried to help her teach, which she hated even more. And in point of fact, with the exception of Lieutenant Commander Winchell’s illegitimate layabout son, who spent most of his days playing acoustical guitar in the gazebo area of Ship’s Shoppes, the children of the Explorer were all kindergarteners, so there really was no other class on board which Plato could belong to. And Browning wasn’t about to let him hang out with that Timmy Winchell.
“Browning to Conway,” chirped over Conway’s comm badge.
Conway slapped the badge. “Go ahead.”
“It’s Plato’s lunchtime. And mine too, incidentally. Are you about ready to come back aboard?”
“Sure,” Conway said, and Plato immediately grimaced.
“I want to keep flying!” he insisted.
“We’ll go out again. “Or, better yet, I’ll show you my NASCAR program. I’m sure you’ll like that. You can be Bobby Labonte.”
Plato grinned halfheartedly. “Okay, Uncle Dave. If you promise.”
“I promise,” Conway said, and tapped a button that switched control of the Conway-1 back to his station. “Now let’s head back to the ship and see what Mom has ready for lunch.” That made Conway extremely uneasy. He still was not totally comfortable around Browning since they entertained the idea of a romantic relationship. A professional relationship with her as his campaign manager was one thing, but taking her son out on the blimp, dropping him off, possibly a lunch date…that was terribly hard on his nerves. And having Tyra watching over him like a hawk didn’t help much either.
“Are you having lunch with us?” Plato asked Conway as he steered the Conway-1 back toward the Explorer’s shuttlebay.
“I…I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. I have to…colonize a planet this afternoon.” In actuality, Conway planned on reorganizing the furniture in his office and snuggling with Tyra Shar, but why did Plato need to know that?
Plato ran into Dr. Janice Browning’s arms as soon as he hopped out of the cockpit of the Conway-1. Commander Conway hung back, examining a panel on the underside of the cockpit module as if it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.
Lt. Hartley, meanwhile, strode up to Conway from the direction of the shuttlebay control station.
“Someone get me a phaser rifle so I can blow that thing to smithereens,” she grumbled, sizing up the massive blimp. “It’s unnatural floating around in vacuum with something inflatable. It makes no sense. We had to reinforce the whole structure to keep it inflated…not to mention that the cockpit module alone would fly fine without that cumbersome, phallic…”
“Okay, okay,” Conway said, watching from afar as Browning and Plato chatted about Plato’s excursion. “I get it, Lieutenant. But you really don’t get it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Conway smiled at Plato. “Look how much fun he had.”
“Are you all right, Commander?” Hartley asked, narrowing her eyes at Conway.
“Sure,” Conway muttered, and his comm badge chirped.
“Shar to Conway.”
Conway sighed. “Conway here, darling.”
“Report to our quarters on the double. I just finished an awful parent-teacher conference day.”
Dr. Browning approached Conway, holding Plato by the hand. “I enjoyed our conference, Miss Shar.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, what’s she doing with you?” Tyra’s voice demanded.
Conway mumbled something softly, then returned his attention to Tyra’s voice. “I just took Plato for a blimp ride. Remember, I told you all about it.”
“Whatever. Just get back here before I find someone else to rub the bunions on my feet.”
“Good luck with that!” Browning said brightly.
“Bite me.” And Tyra closed the channel.
“Her symbiont’s been bouncing against her liver,” Conway explained wearily. “She gets moody when that happens.”
Browning nodded. “That’s quite all right. At any rate, Plato and I have a lunch date.”
“Have fun,” Conway sighed, and trudged off toward the shuttlebay exit.
“There goes a beaten man,” Hartley muttered, folding her arms and watching Conway leave.
“Yeah,” Browning said softly. “Tyra tenderized him like a tough piece of meat. He’s all soft and juicy now.”
Hartley allowed a small smile. “That’s cute, Doctor. If you were talking about anyone else, I’d find that a great analogy. Unfortunately, when the meat’s rotten, there’s no amount of tenderizing that’ll do the trick.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” Browning said, then looked down at Plato. In the dull moments between leaving the blimp and going to lunch, Plato decided to take the shape of a blimp himself. His head was pointed and his arms and legs stuck out like little stubs. He could barely waddle, and his Osh Kosh jumpsuit was stretched to its very limits. “Oh, Plato. Stop that. You’ll tear your new clothes!”
“But I like to shapeshift, mommy,” Plato grumbled, and squinched his eyes shut. Slowly, he shrunk back to normal. “It’s so much fun! Why don’t you and the others ever do it?”
Browning smacked herself inwardly. She’d have to talk to him about that at some point.
Captain Baxter settled into his command chair, looking with great longing at the cup of orange pekoe tea that rested in the cupholder to his left. Shortly after the Explorer was launched, he’d had a couple engineers come up to the bridge and switch the cupholder from right to left. For members of a civilization that considered itself enlightened, Starfleet engineers were notorious for leaving left-handed individuals out of their schematics. Just once, Baxter would like to hop in a runabout and just go, without having to re-set all the controls, into “southpaw mode.”
Baxter spared a quick glance around the bridge. Everyone was quietly working at their stations, except for J’hana, who was arguing on the viewscreen at her station with a customer in Ship’s Shoppes who was caught smoking in one of the stores. She was moments away from going down there and stunning the violator. At least Baxter hoped it would be stun.
Other than J’hana, though, the bridge was quiet, except for the occassional trill or bleep of instrument panels.
The captain returned his gaze to the steaming cup, which Ensign Sefelt had delivered himself just moments ago, knowing full well that Baxter would be heading for his chair, per his usual routine, in just a few minutes. His fear of failure would soon rocket him to success. Baxter took the cup and lifted it to his lips, smelled the aroma, tilted the cup backward, blew on the hot liquid, and–
–spilled it all over his face and down the front of his uniform as the Red Alert klaxon blared in his ears.
J’hana switched the smoker off her viewscreen and spun around in her chair at tactical to see what the problem was. Hopefully not someone double parking a shuttle again. She switched on the forward viewer.
Baxter gasped, as much from the hot tea scalding his chest as from the small, bug-like Dominion warship on his viewscreen.
“Tell me something, someone!” he said quickly, setting his cup back in the cupholder.
J’hana studied her controls. “It is a Dominion warship, Captain.”
Baxter sighed. “I gathered that. What useful information can you give me?”
Tilleran chimed in at science: “Their weapons aren’t running hot, sir.”
“There, that’s a start,” Baxter said. “Hail them, J’hana.”
“Fine,” J’hana said curtly, not at all happy at the scolding Baxter had given her.
The screen flared to life, and Baxter gasped again, as much from the tea which had now made its way down to his crotch as from the sight of the changeling on his viewscreen.
“Captain,” said the changeling on the viewscreen. “We mean you no harm. We’re here strictly on a diplomatic, Starfleet- approved mission of peace.”
Baxter scrunched his nose, as much from the hot tea scalding his privates as from suprise at seeing Constable Odo from Deep Space Nine.
“Well, what…er, can we do for you?”
“Why aren’t we eating at your restaurant, Mommy?” Plato asked, as Browning surveyed the decor of “The Gilded Tribble” the new restaurant which had moved into the space vacated by Tyra Shar’s ex-lifemate, Jenna Fran.
“Because Mommy needs to check out the competition. Even if Mommy isn’t charging her customers real latinum, it’s still competition. Some nice Andorians taught me that.”
“Oh.” Plato looked around as well. “I hope this place doesn’t charge real latinum either. Or else we’ll be in big trouble. Especially the way–”
“Yes,” Browning said patiently. “Especially the way I eat, I know.”
The Gilded Tribble was indeed pricy-looking. The fixtures were all latinum. The floor had been re-done in sandstone brought in from Vulcan. The tables were all intricately carved from oak imported from Earth, and the waiters all wore ridiculous gold uniforms that reminded Browning of some of the racing outfits she’d seen in Commander Conway’s holoprograms.
Browning grinned as Dreyfus, the waiter that had been assigned to her and Plato, approached their table, carrying two plates.
“Your meals, sir and madam,” Dreyfus said, looking quite like he had a hypospray up his rear.
He set down the plates with quiet discretion, then looked from Browning to Plato, as if for approval. “Chef’s special, sir and madam.”
Browning peered down at her plate. “What is it? And where’s the rest of it?” The portions were tiny, as if they’d been portioned out with a melon-baller.
“Chef’s special is a roasted clove of garlic, garnished with a sprig of parsely and two black olives, and accompanied with a sampling of our fruited risotto, which is celebrated across the quadrant.”
“And the rest of it?” asked Plato eagerly. He winked at Browning.
“The ‘rest of it,’” the waiter said, “is in the back.” He turned and headed for the kitchen. Under his breath, he muttered, “if madam would like us to wheel out a trough, we shall be more than happy to accommodate her.”
“Well,” Browning said, staring down at her plate. “Let’s, uh, dig in.”
“Mine smells funny,” Plato said, poking at his little melon- ball of risotto.
“I’m sure it’s supposed to smell that way,” Browning said. “Just eat it and pretend to like it, then we’ll go back to my place for some real food.”
“Okay!” Plato grinned and dug in. He finished his meal in about four seconds. Halfway through, he noticed, Browning was already finished with her own meal.
“Well, I’m stuffed,” Browning said unconvincingly, and waved at the waiter, who’d sat glaring at her from the door to the kitchen for the entire five seconds of the meal. “Waiter, check please!” She said it to be quaint more than anything else. But wouldn’t you know, up walked Dreyfus with a padd. He set it down gently on the table. “Madam may pay in latinum or credits.”
Browning timidly turned he padd over and glanced at it, then grinned uneasily up at Dreyfus. “Hey, is this my tab, or my Starfleet identification number?”
Dreyfus smiled weakly. “I see madam possesses a cutting wit.”
Browning glanced quickly at Plato. She was about to give him the signal to bolt, when the door to The Gilded Tribble swung open, and sounds of commotion poured in from the mall outside.
Browning turned in her chair to see what the ruckus was, and immediately regretted it. In walked Captain Baxter, with J’hana and Gellar, and two–and Browning had to actually rub her eyes and looked again–two Jem’Hadar soldiers. And a Changeling, which Browning identified as Constable Odo, formerly of Starfleet outpost Deep Space Nine.
“Doctor,” Baxter said, approaching Browning’s table. “Apparently Mister Odo here wants to meet your son, and Starfleet approved. The message just got sent to Risa instead of to our ship.” Baxter frowned. “I knew that shipment of petroleum jelly could not have been meant for us.” He shook his head. “Anyway, Odo, I’d like you to meet Doctor Janice Browning, my Chief Medical Officer.”
Odo, dressed in a beige, floor-length gown, nodded a hello to Browning and turned his attention immediately to Plato. He knelt beside Plato to look the youngster in the eye. “Plato, is it?” he asked brightly.
“That’s me!” Plato said, thumbing his chest. “Who wants to know?”
“My name is Odo,” the changeling said. “Do you know who I am?”
Plato shrugged. “Nope.”
Odo glanced back at Browning. “Doctor, have you been educating Plato about his changeling heritage?”
It was Browning’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know much about changelings. I keep him away from jello, though.”
“I see.” Odo nodded. He turned to Plato. “Well, my friend, I am a changeling. Much like you, in many ways.”
“Changething?” Plato asked. He looked to Browning. “Changething?”
Browning sighed. “I was going to get around to explaining it to you.” Browning looked at Odo. “He’s only been talking for a couple weeks. He was a toddler just last month.”
“That is to be expected,” Odo said. “Your son is experiencing rapid surges in growth. His changeling abilities are probably getting better, too.”
“He made himself look quite like a blimp a bit earlier,” Browning said with a grin. Her grin disappeared. “So, Odo… can I ask what exactly brings you here?”
“He’s not here to take Plato, if that’s what you mean,” interjected Baxter. “I got that out of the way before Odo set foot on board. He just wants to spend time with Plato. Just see what makes the little guy tick.”
“I also want to take him to the Great Link,” Odo said, smiling at Plato. “Would you like that?”
“Is that like the Rigel Discovery Zone?” Plato asked, smiling at Browning.
“Not quite, honey,” Browning said.
Baxter turned to Odo. “Wait just a darn minute. You said nothing about the Great Link!”
“Starfleet has already approved,” Odo said, without diverting his gaze from Plato. “We will not harm him. But we must share the Great Link with him. Determine how much is Changeling and how much is human. Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of my people. It marks the possibility of a kind of peace and understanding even I could not bring to the Link.” Odo looked to Browning, his face not unsympathetic. “Doctor Browning, I can appreciate your apprehension. Let me assure you, we have no intention of taking your son away. But you surely can see the benefits of this, both to Plato and to both our quadrants.”
Browning nodded. “Sure, I guess so.”
“Excellent.” Odo turned to Plato. “Now, then. If I may spend the afternoon with the boy, get to know him. We’ll get underway for the wormhole immediately. Then my ship will escort us through Dominion space.”
Baxter looked from Browning, to Plato, to Odo, and then back at the Jem’Hadar guards. He caught a glance of J’hana, fingering her phaser, just looking for an excuse to start blasting. He felt a brief nervous twitch he’d developed in his right cheek ever since acquiring J’hana as Chief of Security, then turned to Odo. “Well, Mister Odo, if Starfleet has sanctioned this, I suppose I can’t refuse. But we’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
“A wise but needless precaution, Captain,” Odo said. “Now, where might Plato and I find a quiet place to talk?”
“He likes the arboretum,” said Browning. “Try there.”
“Very well.” Odo stood and grinned down at Plato. “Come along, Plato. Let’s have a talk.”
“Mommy?” Plato asked, looking to Browning.
“You’re in good hands, honey,” Browning said. “Give Mommy a kiss goodbye and go with the nice changeling man.”
Plato (literally) stretched across the table and (literally) wrapped himself around Browning’s head, suctioning on for dear life. “Love you mommy!” he said.
“Wonderous,” Odo said in a low voice.
Browning gently detached Plato, and ushered him down to the floor beside their table. “Okay, honey. Have a good time.”
Plato took Odo’s hand. “Your hand is clammy, Mister!”
“Indeed,” Odo harrumphed, and led the youngster off. He glanced back at Baxter. “Perhaps it would be best if our security people watched each other somewhere else?”
Baxter nodded. “I’ll take care of it.” He nodded in J’hana’s direction. “Commander…why don’t you and Mister Gellar show our Jem’Hadar friends a good time.”
J’hana grinned at the hulking Jem’Hadar. “Gladly.” And she led them out of the restaurant in the opposite direction.
Presently Dreyfus arrived at Browning’s table. He looked at Browning, then at Baxter. “Well, is sir going to order?”
Baxter glared at Dreyfus. “I’m ordering you to scamper back to the kitchen. How’s that?”
“Crude,” Dreyfus replied haughtily. “Then there’s just the matter of the check…”
Baxter tossed the padd to Dreyfus. “Put it on my tab.”
“Very good, sir.” Dreyfus bowed and backed toward the kitchen.
Baxter sat down opposite Browning, who’d taken up staring at the wall opposite her table. Was that an original D’vxxxnran they had hanging?
“Well,” Baxter said, in an attempt to stir up conversation. “That was certainly awkward.”
Browning nodded, still looking at the wall. “You’re telling me.”
“I wouldn’t worry, though. I think Odo is a decent guy. Not at all like that Bashir fellow he used to work with.”
“Guess you’re right.”
“Janice,” Baxter said. “They won’t take Plato. They just want to… borrow him.”
“And what if they want visitation rights?”
“I guess they sort of deserve it. They are, kind of, the father.”
“Yeah. How does that work, anyway? Is the whole race his father?”
“You’re asking me?”
“You’re the xeno-biologist.”
“With a specialty in nutrition. Unfortunately, changelings don’t eat, so I never studied them.”
Baxter chuckled. “And the alien you end up giving birth to just happens to be a changeling. What are the odds?”
“If he’d been a Gorn or a Tholian, at least I’d know what to feed him.”
“Speaking of feed, I’m starved. How’s the food here?”
Browning smiled thinly. “Let’s go up to my restaurant, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Odo led Plato by the hand into the USS Explorer’s massive arboretum. “Is this where you spend much of your time?” Odo asked by way of conversation.
Plato nodded vigorously. “I have a favorite spot.”
“Excellent,” Odo said. “Let’s go and have a look, shall we?”
Plato led Odo to an outcropping of trees. The former constable shoved aside branches as the shorter Plato pulled him through the trees and past them, to where a tiny reflecting pool sat, surrounded by stones.
“I like to go here and jump in the water,” Plato said, and gently slipped free of Odo’s grasp. He hopped into the reflecting pool.
“The Great Link is quite a bit like this,” Odo observed. The reflecting pool, though, was no larger in diameter than a shuttlecraft. The Link was planet-sized.
“The Great what?” Plato asked, poking his head up from out of the water.
Odo knelt by the reflecting pool to address Plato. “The Great Link. Home to all of our people.”
“OUR people?” Plato asked, wide-eyed.
“All the other Changelings, Plato.”
“What’s a changething?”
“Change…ling,” Odo said deliberately. “A being capable of changing into any number of wonderful things. But our natural state is a gelatinous goo.”
“And I’m a…Change…ling?” Plato asked.
“Half-way, anyway,” Odo said. “Your Mommy contributed human DNA to your genetic structure, so you’re part human.”
“I’m not goo,” Plato said, rolling around and splashing in the reflecting pool. “I’m a boy!”
“You’re not goo,” Odo said. “But you’ve noticed that you can change the shape of your body at will, haven’t you?”
Plato blinked innocently, immersed in the pool of water. “Can’t everybody?”
“Have you ever seen Captain Baxter do it? Or your mommy?”
“No. I just thought they were bored of it.”
“On the contrary. The others on this ship are called humanoids. We call them ‘solids.’”
“Salads? Mom loves salads. As long as they have lots of cheese, and meat, and bread…”
“Not salads,” Odo said, showing only the mildest of exasperation. “Solids. Everyone on this ship is a solid.”
“Why are there no other…Changelings…besides you and me?”
Odo sat back on his heels. “Because most Changelings stay on the other side of the wormhole, which leads to the other side of this galaxy.”
Odo took a breath, trying to decide how much to discuss about the Dominion War. Once Plato was in the Link, he’d learn all about the Dominion War. But there were subtle ways to explain it in the Link that Odo just couldn’t take advantage of with words. “Because they tend to stay on their own planet,” Odo said finally. “But don’t worry, we’ll be visiting that planet soon enough.”
Odo thought about that. “So you can meet some more of our people. So you can…link with them.”
“How do I do that?”
Odo tried to decide how best to explain it. Truth be told, he wasn’t even sure if the little guy could link. He might not have enough Changeling DNA. “Why don’t we just try it and see.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
Odo cocked his head. “Safe? Of course it is. We’ll just be sharing our thoughts and feelings…”
“You sound like Counselor Peterman.”
“Well, be that as it may, let’s give it a try. Put out your hand.” Odo held his hand out.
Plato shook his head. “No way!” he cried, and lept out of the reflecting pool. He shoved past Odo and ran for the door to the arboretum. Odo turned, watching blankly as Plato ran through the door and out into the corridor.
“What a strange reaction,” he finally said, and headed out of the arboretum.
“Doctor, Captain,” Commander Conway said, hovering over Baxter and Browning as they munched on some hot slices of Browning’s original peanut butter and jelly pizza, or, as she liked to call it, PB&JP.
“Commander,” Baxter said. “What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to make sure everything was okay with Plato. When I got to the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Larkin filled me in.”
“He’s fine,” Browning said. “He’s just with Mr. Odo right now, getting acquainted I guess.”
Conway sat down in the free chair between Browning and Baxter. “I don’t like the sound of this. What if he tries to lure Plato away?”
“He won’t,” Baxter said. “That’s not on his agenda, and if it was, I wouldn’t let him.”
“Sir, with all due respect,” Conway said, “you are one of the most wishy-washy people I know. Godson or not, all this Odo guy has to do is give you a harsh look in the eye and you’ll melt like butter.”
“Butter,” Browning said. “That’s what this pizza needs. Imhala!” And Browning rushed off toward the kitchen.
“Is that so.” Baxter folded his arms. “So, if your theory is correct, I guess it would be pretty unlikely that I take this scalding hot piece of pizza and smash it up against your face.”
“I’d love to stay and test that theory,” Conway said, standing. “But I have to get back to the bridge. Some of us work around here.”
“You’ve been a great help as always, Commander,” Baxter mumbled.
“That’s what I’m here for.” Conway turned on a heel and shuffled out of Space Tastes.
At the same time, Plato rushed in from the opposite direction and jumped into Baxter’s lap. “He tried to link with me, Uncle Andy!”
“Who did?” Baxter thought about that. “Oh. Odo.”
“Butter coming right up,” Browning said, returning from the kitchen with a large canister of low-fat galacty-milky-way-whip, a product of the Mars corporation.
“It was scary. He said we would share thoughts and feelings with me!”
Browning sat the butter down and hefted Plato off Baxter’s lap and into her own as she sat back down in her chair. “Tell us all about it, honey. Did the mean changeling try to link with you? Is that it?”
“Let’s not resort to name-calling, Janice,” Baxter said. “He is trying to better relations between the Dominion and the Federation. I’m sure it was just a big misunderstanding.”
“You don’t want to link with Mr. Odo, do you baby?” Browning asked, kissing Plato on the head.
“No no no,” replied Plato. “He’ll try and take me away.”
Baxter leaned across the table, at the same time smudging his elbow in a trail of tomato sauce from his PB&JP. “Plato, that’s what this trip is all about. You’re part-changeling. Odo just wants to show you a little of your heritage. Then you’ll come right back here. We promise.”
Browning nodded, looking Plato in the eye. “No one here will let them take you away, Plato. You can be sure of that.”
“Promise?” Plato asked, grinning.
“Promise,” Browning said, and glanced uneasily at Baxter.
“This is a holodeck,” J’hana explained, leading the pair of Jem’Hadar guards onto the black-on-yellow grid of the Explorer’s holodeck. Gellar brought up the rear.
“A waste of space and resources,” the Jem’Hadar First, Ramada’klon, said. He turned to his second. “Would you not agree, Abdul’jabar?”
Abdul’jabar nodded. “Most certainly, First.”
“Well,” J’hana said, “I can see why you might be skeptical about this facility.”
“They didn’t seem to have a problem with the weapons room or the morgue,” Gellar said.
“Both useful facilities,” Abdul’jabar said. “But this holodeck is simply so much superflouous technology.”
“Not so fast,” J’hana said. “Our holodecks are quite useful in many ways. First…”
“What?” asked Ramada’klon.
“FIRST!” J’hana said, reaching for her phaser. The two Jem’Hadar exchanged uneasy glances and grew silent. “First, they are excellent training facilities.”
“I can see that,” Ramada’klon said.
“Second,” J’hana said.
“What?” replied Abdul’jabar.
“SECOND!” screamed J’hana. “THEY HELP YOU RELAX!”
“And why is that important?” asked Ramada’klon.
“Observe,” J’hana replied, and addressed the holodeck computer: “Computer, load simulation J’hana 02-Beta.”
A dank cave suddenly materialized around the group. An ogerous, overweight Klingon lay slinkily on a rock in the middle of the room.
“Ah, J’hana,” said the Klingon. “I see you brought guests. Excellent. Tilleran, let’s get it on!”
“Coming!” came a voice from a chamber beyond the cave.
Damn. Wrong simulation! J’hana’s face grew deep blue. “Computer, load 02-GAMMA!”
The image melted away to be replaced with an open expanse of flat, ochre sand. Green sea spread beyond the sand as far as the eye could see. The horizon was orange, tinged by a soft, warm sun.
“I could spend all day showing you programs designed to train the body,” J’hana said. “No doubt you Jem’Hadar are quite experienced in that area.”
“On the contrary,” said Abdul’jabar. “We are born in perfect physical shape, and remain so until we die. We have no need for your primative …training.”
“Sure, right,” J’hana said. “Let’s see those abs.”
“Those…what?” Abdul-jabar looked confused.
J’hana walked over to Abdul’jabar and lifted the tunic of his layered battle-armor. It revealed a scaly, but extremely firm, stomach. “By the hive! Are your women as excellently- proportioned?”
“There are no Jem’Hadar women,” replied Ramada’klon.
J’hana’s face immediately fell and she turned away. “Pity. Anyway, this program is designed not only to relax, but to sharpen the mind and the reflexes. Observe. Computer, begin program.”
A long, tri-fold chair appeared at J’hana’s feet and she sat down on it. “The idea is to lay back and relax.”
“Why would we want to engage in an activity as useless as relaxation?” asked Abdul’jabar.
“There is more to this than meets the eye,” Ramada’klon said. “Andorians are wily. We shall see where this leads. Computer, replicate three more of these…chairs.”
Three more chaise-lounges appeared in front of the two Jem’Hadar and Lt. Gellar.
Abul’jabar and Ramada’klon both sat and leaned back in the chairs. They looked up at Gellar.
“Sit,” said Ramada’klon.
“That’s quite all–”
“SIT!” ordered Ramada’klon.
Gellar quickly sat.
Ramada’klon looked over at J’hana. “Now. How is this program useful?”
J’hana wasn’t listening. Instead, she softly counted down. “Three, two, one…”
The rockface behind the beach crumbled down as arrow- shaped green ships of an alien design flew overhead and dropped concussive charges.
J’hana grinned. “Music to my ears.”
“Do we get up and fight?” asked Abdul’jabar.
“Nonsense,” J’hana said. “The ground forces won’t arrive for another half hour. Would you like a tequila?”
“Very much,” replied Ramada’klon. He looked around with pleasure. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from the Federation.
As the attack continued, Gellar quickly and quietly slid off his chaise lounge and ran for the holodeck exit.
After lunch, Browning took Plato to the ship’s library to finish his project for Ms. Shar, a study of his family tree. Well, half of it anyway, Browning mused.
On her way to the library, she ran across Odo.
“Ah, there you are,” Odo said, kneeling down to look at Plato. “I was looking all over for you.”
“I was with my mommy,” Plato explained.
Browning nodded at Odo. “Hello, there. We were just going to work on Plato’s school project.”
“I’d love to go along,” Odo said, glancing up at Browning.
Browning searched her brain for an excuse not to bring Odo along but couldn’t think of one. “Um…okay.”
Odo picked up step with Browning and Plato as they continued on toward the ship’s library.
“This is a huge ship,” Odo said. “Bigger than most Starfleet vessels I’ve been on.”
“I guess you’re more used to the Defiant, huh?” Browning asked.
“I haven’t been on the Defiant in almost two years,” Odo said, with a trace of regret.
“You miss working on Deep Space Nine, don’t you, Odo?”
“Quite a bit,” Odo admitted. “But being one with the Great Link is far more important in the grand scheme of things. I can help my people learn from the Federation, instead of thinking of them as enemies. Plato can too.”
“Be that as it may, this is a one-time only thing, right?” Browning asked. She didn’t have a lawyer, unless she could employ one of the nine or ten Bradley Dillon had under retainer. She had no idea how in the galaxy she’d arrange custody visitation for an entire species of gelatinous shapeshifting blobs on the other side of the galaxy. She doubted there were any legal precedents to work from.
Odo nodded. “Of course. Unless Plato should enter the Great Link and find it so rewarding he doesn’t want to leave.”
Plato shook his head. “Wouldn’t worry about that, Mister Odo.”
“You might be surprised. The Link is an amazing place.” Odo made a wide gesture with his hands. “Imagine joining a pool of thousands upon thousands of minds, all intertwined, all thinking and feeling the same things.”
“Sounds like the Borg,” Browning said quietly.
“It’s nothing like the Borg,” Odo returned quickly. “It’s beautiful. And I only hope your son can experience it.”
“I want to try, I want to try!” Plato cried.
“Oh, look,” Browning said quickly. “We just arrived at the library. Come on, let’s see what kind of books we can find on the Brownings of Amsterdam and Cygnus 12.”
“Let me try linking!” insisted Plato, tugging Browning’s arm.
Browning looked from the door to the library, to Odo, then down at Plato. “But honey, you just told me you were afraid of it.”
“I want to try it!”
Browning looked up at Odo. “Kids.”
“Indeed.” Odo nodded. He knelt by Plato. “I assure you, Doctor, your son is in good care. You can watch the whole thing yourself, if you wish.”
Browning nodded. “I wish.” She led Odo and Plato to a reading room across the hall, where they found Ensign Howard Sefelt engrossed in a book called “What Color is Your Escape Pod?”
“That IS a comforting thought,” he said to himself, then looked up at the trio at the door to the reading room. “Oh. Hello.”
“We need the room for a moment, Howard,” Browning said. “Mind waiting outside?”
“I’m right in the middle of this self-help book, Doctor,” Sefelt said. “I need to help myself. Counselor Peterman told me so.”
Browning approached the viewport at the opposite end of the narrow room. “Boy, it’s cold in here. Do you think there’s a break in the window seal? This room might be slowly venting to vacuum. I certainly feel lighter.”
“What?” Sefelt’s eyes widened. “I do too…” He pulled at his collar. “The air’s getting thin.” He looked over at Odo. “Look into my eyes. Do you see burst capillaries?”
Odo looked uncomfortable. “Uh, I don’t really…uh…”
“I gotta go!” Sefelt screamed, and dashed for the door.
When he, Browning, and Plato were alone, Odo said, “You have an interesting crew, Doctor.”
Browning grinned. “Thanks. You just have to know how to motivate ‘em. Come have a seat on the couch.”
Serrupticiously, Browning had grabbed a tricorder out of the nearby supply closet. There in case you wanted to record a page out of a book or something, Browning figured.
“Oh, look at this!” she exclaimed. “I just happen to have a tricorder. Mind if I scan you while you…uh, link?”
“Not at all,” Odo replied without pause.
The changeling sat down on the couch beside Plato. “Hold out your hand, please.”
Plato put out his hand. “This won’t hurt, won’t it?”
“Certainly not,” replied Odo. He held Plato’s hand. “Just let your mind go.”
Browning watched Odo and Plato sit there a moment, and looked down at the tricorder readout. Nothing happened. Plato stared expectantly up at Browning.
“His hand is clammy like yours, Mommy.”
“That’s nice,” Browning said flatly. “Well, I guess…”
“Wait,” Odo said, and his eyes lit up. “It’s working!”
Browning frowned at her tricorder readings. “The morphogenic make-up of Plato’s hand just shifted way up on the spectrum.”
“That’s to be expected,” Odo said, and looked with satisfaction as Plato’s hand turned liquid, and entertwined with Odo’s.
Plato grinned. “Mommy, look at what I can do!”
Browning plastered on a smile. “That’s great hon. Just great.”
“This is Deep Space Nine. General Kira speaking. What do you want?”
“General,” Baxter said. He stood at the front of the bridge, between conn and ops. “Congratulations on the promotion.”
“Do I know you?” Kira narrowed her eyes at Baxter on the viewscreen. In the background, busy station personnel shuffled around Ops.
“Not directly,” Baxter said. “But your Chief Medical Officer tried to hit on my wife, a couple times. And your ex- Constable is currently trying to take my Chief Medical Officer’s baby.”
Kira looked non-plussed. “Ah. You must be from the Explorer.”
Lt. Ford put a finger to his nose. “Ding-ding-ding-ding! And what has she won?”
“Ford!” Baxter snapped, and glanced back at Kira, all smiles. “Don’t mind us. We’re just heading through the wormhole with a Jem’Hadar warship so the changelings can pass judgments on my godson or some such thing. You should have all the paperwork.”
“Commander Nog just checked it through,” Kira said. “You’re clear. Just try not to take your sweet time over there. This is cutting into my vacation time with Odo.”
“Oh, so sorry,” Baxter muttered. “We’ll get him back to you as soon as possible.”
“Good. Ever since losing him, I’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time in counseling with Commander Dax…”
Baxter opened his mouth to speak. “I’m–”
“You have no idea what it’s like to have a man who can literally turn to liquid inside you…who can fill up every nook and cranny, then expand and–”
“Cut channel!” Baxter barked, thankful it was Saral and not J’hana at tactical. Who knows how the Andorian would have reacted. The Vulcan tactical officer quickly switched Kira off the screen. “Ford, take us through the wormhole. When we get to the Delta Quadrant, set course for the changeling homeworld. The sooner we get this overwith, the better.”
Stardate 54814.4. We’ve been escorted by Mr. Odo’s Jem’Hadar warship right to the Changeling homeworld. Frankly, I’m not impressed. It’s just so much…goo. Anyway, Odo is ready to take Plato down to the surface to commune with the Founders, and I’ve convened a meeting to bring everyone up to speed on the situation.
The Changeling homeworld spun idly outside the conference room’s windows, as Baxter paced the room. Occasionally, he glanced out at the large, orange-ish orb. “So that’s where things stand. Plato has been with Odo for the last several hours. All I can seem to get from Dr. Browning is that they’re…linking.”
“Is Janice still with them?” Richards asked.
“Yep,” Baxter said. “She’s stood vigil over Plato and Odo for the last eight hours, total. Apparently, she says they haven’t said a word to her the entire time.”
“Poor Janice,” Counselor Peterman said. “She must be feeling so lonely right now.”
Baxter nodded. “I can only imagine.”
“I’m just wondering why I haven’t been brought in on this.”
Baxter turned to face Peterman. “Come again?”
“Well, this is a counseling matter, isn’t it?”
Conway swiveled back and forth in his chair. “How do you figure?”
“Janice needs me!” Peterman said. “That poor woman is in danger of losing her baby, all because of the politics between the Federation and the Dominion. It’s just not fair!”
“It sounds like you need a counselor,” snapped Conway.
“I’m not the one who keeps rubbing hand creme on his–”
“Hey, that’s confedential!”
“HEY!” Baxter snapped, looking between Peterman and Conway. “Why don’t both of you pull your heads out of your asses and take a look around. Janice needs our help. She doesn’t need us arguing about our petty little problems.” He grinned gratuitously at Conway. “We’ll have plenty of time for that later.”
Conway folded his arms. “Goody.”
“Well, I want to see Janice.” Peterman stood. “Coming with?”
“We’re not supposed to disturb them until they’re ready to transport down to the surface,” Baxter replied. After a few seconds, he said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
Peterman and Baxter found Ensign Sefelt curled in a ball outside the doors to the ship’s reading room, rocking back and forth and muttering,
“Space coming in, space coming in, space coming in–keep it out, keep it out!”
Peterman knelt by Sefelt. “Howie, what’s the matter?”
“SPACE! It’s coming in!”
“Space has been in for a long time, Ensign,” Baxter said from behind Peterman. “There’s no better hangout around.”
“That’s not what he means,” snapped Peterman. “This is why you need me. You know nothing about the crew’s feelings and needs.”
After a pause, Baxter said, “I do so!”
“Howard, space isn’t coming in. We have forcefields and a thick hull. You’re totally safe. Humans have been in space for four hundred years. We’ve perfected interstellar travel. How about you go to your quarters, make some warm cocoa, and curl up with Jelly-Belly. I’ll be in to check on you in an hour.”
“Promise?” Sefelt grinned.
Peterman nodded. “Promise.”
“Allrighty!” And Sefelt was off down the corridor.
Baxter glanced at Peterman askance. “It appears he’s gotten worse, not better, Kelly.”
“That’s just your dim perspective, honeybear.”
“Right.” Baxter tapped the access code to the reading room and stepped through the door. “Well, then. See what you make of this…”
Browning lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
“How ironic,” Browning said, not looking at Baxter or Peterman. “I’m in a reading room. But there’s nothing to read in here. Not a damn thing.”
Over on the couch, Odo and Plato were joined at the hands. Actually, their hands weren’t hands anymore, they were just one big orange blob of orange goo that ebbed and flowed, from Changeling to half-Changeling.
“I’ve lost track of time,” she said quietly. Baxter and Peterman approached her, exchanged worried glances.
“Eight hours or so,” Baxter said. “And they haven’t said anything?”
“Nope.” Browning glanced at Odo and Plato, who stared serenely out into space. “I tried to tell them both we arrived at the homeworld, but they didn’t seem to register that I’d talked to them.”
Peterman crouched down by Browning. “Janice, how are you feeling?”
“How do you think?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked. I’m trying to get a feel for your emotional state. I want to help you.”
“Can you make sure the Changelings don’t take Plato?” Browning asked hopefully.
Peterman reluctantly looked to Baxter. “That’s more Andy’s department, I’m afraid. But, if you lose Plato, I can give you all kinds of self-help tips.”
Browning rolled her eyes.
“What’s that?” Baxter asked, grinning down at Peterman. “Do I hear that I’m needed? I’m sorry, I thought I was useless, because I don’t understand the feelings of my crew!”
“I never called you useless, Andy,” Peterman said with great exasperation. “And didn’t you say we were supposed to put aside our petty arguements for now?”
“I don’t recall, exactly,” Baxter said. “Anyway,” he glanced down at Browning. “I won’t let the Changelings take Plato. That’s not even their intention. And just in case, we’re beaming down with Odo and Plato.”
Browning’s expression brightened. “You mean they’ll let us do that?”
Baxter smiled uneasily. “Sure. I guess.”
“It’s quite impossible,” Odo said, as Baxter, Browning, and Peterman led he and Plato down to the transporter room. After Odo and Plato had separated from their link, they’d stopped at the Captain’s Mess for a quick bite to eat. “This may take quite some time. Hours, days. It’s hard to tell. We can’t just let a few humans camp out down there.” Odo sighed. “The last time that happened, someone nearly threw a rock in there.”
“Who could have been so stupid as to do that?” asked Baxter, who shivered inwardly. That was the first thing he’d planned on doing.
“It’s not important,” said Odo. “I have a working communicator which seems to form on my chest and dissolve whenever I change shape, ever since I worked on the station. I will contact you as soon as Plato and I are finished with the Link.”
“I guess we have no recourse but to let you go down there alone with Plato,” Baxter said. Browning glared at him, and Baxter simply grinned and winked, the “I’ll take care of it” gesture.
“I’m going to link some more!” Plato cheered. “Linking rules!”
“Is it as great as peanut butter ‘n jelly pizza?” Browning asked.
“Ten billion times better!” cheered Plato, and Browning’s shoulders sunk. Peterman put a protective arm around the doctor.
“But you love your mom more than the pizza or the… linking, right?” Peterman said quickly.
“Um…yeah!” Plato said, and lept up to latch onto Browning’s hip. “I’m going to miss you lots, Mommy!”
Browning blushed. “I’m going to miss you too, sweet-cake, but I’ll see you really soon, okay?”
“Okay, mommy. I’ll bring you back a couple Changelings.”
Browning shot Odo a questioning look. He shook his head. Plato wouldn’t be bringing back Changelings.
“Are there Changeling dogs?” Plato asked with a grin, climbing off Browning and jogging up to catch up with Odo.
“No,” replied Odo.
“No.” Odo shook his head, exasperated. “Plato, who put all these silly notions in your head?”
Peterman coughed. “With the humanoid learning process, one can just never tell.”
Baxter steered the group into the transporter room, where Lt. Megan Hartley waited yawning at the controls.
“What’s up?” she muttered, staring disinterestedly at Odo and the others.
“Transport Odo and Plato down to the Changeling homeworld,” Baxter said, as Odo and Plato mounted the pad.
“Where?” Hartley asked, checking her console. “It’s nothing but miles and miles of glop.” Odo frowned at her. “Interesting, intelligent, wonderful glop.”
“You’ll find a small island with a rock formation twenty degrees below the planet’s equator,” Odo said tiredly.
Hartley tapped a few panels. “There we go.”
“Transport us directly in front of the rock formation, please,” Odo said curtly, and looked to Baxter and Browning. “I will contact you when we have finished.”
“Good luck,” Browning said blandly. She knelt to kiss Plato on the cheek and hug him tight. “Have lots of fun. Dress warmly. That…glop…might be cold.”
Odo sighed. “He will be fine.”
Baxter patted Plato on the head. “Take care down there, little guy.”
“I will, Uncle Andy!” Plato said, and Baxter cued Hartley to energize.
As soon as Odo and Plato had dematerialized, Baxter stepped onto the pad, followed by Browning and Peterman.
“Beam us directly BEHIND the rock formation, Lieutenant,” Baxter ordered.
“And mask the transporter signal as a delta radiation dump,” said Peterman. “That way the Jem’Hadar ship on our port wing won’t be suspicious.” She glanced at Baxter. “So there!”
“Energize!” grumbled Baxter, and Hartley obediently did.
J’hana entered the bridge, feeling refreshed. After eight hours of intensive training with a pair of Jem’Hadar in her “Risa Gets Wrecked” simulation, then a hot shower, still with that pair of Jem’Hadar, then a quick round of drinks at Mirk’s…well, a round of drinks and a round of white…after all that J”hana certainly did feel refreshed. Ramada’klon and Abdul’jabar followed close after her as she took her post at tactical from Ensign Saral. Gellar had disappeared at some point. He always seemed to do that when J’hana dragged him into one of her holo-scenarios. Apparently, Gellar, for some reason, preferred working out at the ship’s gymnasium. His loss.
“Well well well,” Conway said, turning in the command chair. “So good of you all to join us.”
“Where’s the captain?” J’hana asked as she checked the tactical situation. They were orbitting the Changeling homeworld, and the same Jem’Hadar warship that had been with them all along was keeping close formation with them.
“Where indeed,” asked Ramada’klon.
“The captain is away…on business,” returned Conway, curtly. “Important Starfleet business, as if that’s any of your concern.”
“Am I to take it that you are in command until he returns to the bridge?” asked Ramada’klon.
Conway nodded dumbly and returned his attention to the viewscreen, for no other reason than to look busy. “You are to take it, yes.”
“Very well.” Ramada’klon surveyed the bridge. “But if we find that your captain has pulled some sort of ingenious Starfleet trick, we will kill him and destroy this ship.”
Conway shook his head. “Captain Baxter has never been blamed for anything ingenious, Mister. You have nothing to worry about, except for, perhaps, dating J’hana.”
“That would be a daunting task indeed,” Ramada’klon intoned, and J’hana grunted satisfaction.
Conway wished like hell they would get back to the Alpha Quadrant already.
“Hope this is okay! It’s been less than an hour since I last ate!” Plato’s voice called out from the other side of the rock face.
“What are they doing?” Browning whispered as Baxter peered between two jutting outcroppings of rock, to watch Odo and Plato wade into the vast, rippling Changeling ocean that seemed to encompass the entire planet.
“They’re going in,” Baxter whispered back.
Peterman, meanwhile, studied the rockface intently. “Look at this carving…‘Julian was here.’ How cute.”
“Yeah. Cute,” Baxter moaned. “Julian Bashir is probably the one that nearly threw a rock into the sea of Changelings. Little imbecile.”
“He had a certain…genetically engineered charm,” Peterman said cattily.
“You’re just cranky because you didn’t get to counsel Janice or Plato.”
“That’s preposterous. All I want is for them to be happy!”
“And to take some of the credit!”
“GUYS!” Browning bellowed. “They’re in!”
Baxter glanced back between the outcroppings, where Browning too had poked her head up. Indeed, Odo and Plato were no longer visible. A few ripples in the flowing glop stretched out from where they’d stepped in.
“So what do we do now?” Peterman asked.
“Wait,” Browning said, moving around to the front of the rockface. She watched the disturbed gloppy area where Plato and Odo had waded in. “Hope my little guy’s okay in there.”
Baxter and Peterman circled around to join Browning. Peterman wrapped a supportive arm around the doctor.
“It’ll be just fine, Janice. Come sit down over here and we’ll talk about your feelings.”
“Not now,” Browning said. “Not only am I worrried, but I’m also hungry. That looks like a big ocean of tangerine jello out there.”
“Don’t you even THINK of eating any more!” Baxter fairly shouted. “That’s how we got into this in the first place!”
“You sound like it was a mistake,” Browning chided.
“You know I don’t think it was a mistake. All I’m saying is one Changeling baby is quite enough.”
Peterman nodded. “He’s got you there, Janice.”
“Well,” Browning muttered. “Can one of you go back up to the ship and get me some toast or something? I’m in the mood for marmalade.”
“Fraid not,” replied Baxter. “We can’t risk being detected beaming back up until Odo and Plato are out. So until then…” He glanced around at the outcropping of rocks…“I guess we sit and talk about…ugh…our feelings.”
Conway glanced periodically over from the padd he was reading, at Ramada’klon, who’d staked out the right-side command chair, where Conway usually sat.
“What are you looking at?” Ramada’klon finally asked.
“That little tube running into your neck.” Conway grinned. “White, right?”
“You are correct,” Ramada’klon replied. “What of it?”
“Nothing.” Conway went back to his reading.
“You were not staring for no reason. Tell me now.”
“It’s really not important.”
Suddenly a blade slid up against Conway’s throat. He made a raspy, gutteral sound to get J’hana’s attention, but he glanced back to see that she was at her tactical station, squeezing Abul’jabar’s butt cheeks to feel for imperfections.
“TELL ME,” growled Ramada’klon.
“Okay, okay,” gasped Conway, and the Jem’Hadar dropped his blade. “I sort of got…addicted to that stuff for a while.”
“I never understood Alpha Quadrant humor,” muttered Ramada’klon.
“It’s not a joke. I found a crate of that stuff the same time Doctor Browning ate the Changeling that became Plato. I ended up hooked on it. Bad stuff, I tell you.”
“How did you get…off…the white?” Ramada’klon asked with interest.
“It wasn’t easy. Doctor Browning helped me a lot. But mostly, it was a lot of screaming and crying, curled in a fetal ball in the brig, with only coffee to sustain me.”
“Coffee?” asked Ramada’klon. “I have heard of this substance, but never tried it.”
“Ooh,” Conway said giddily. “You don’t know what you’re missing. Allow me.” He clapped his hands. “Mister Ford…a double caf java for my Jem’Hadar friend.”
Ford turned in his seat at helm. “What do I look like, your waiter?”
“You look like someone in line for promotion to full lieutenant.”
“Would you like cream and sugar with that?” Ford asked, and dashed for the replicator.
Two hours later, Plato’s head emerged from the sea of Changelings and he dog-paddled toward the shore.
“Mommy!” he cried, and dog-paddled faster.
Shortly thereafter, Odo himself poked his head out of the goo, but appeared to be nothing more than that…a head. The head floated through the goo right after Plato.
“Come back!” Odo’s head cried.
Plato heaved himself up out of the orange slime and padded over to Browning. “I lost my shoes in there, Mommy!”
Browning knelt down beside Plato on the rocky shoal bordering the Great Link. “That’s okay, sweetie, we’ll get you some new ones.”
Browning wiped some goo off Plato. “I had lots of fun in there. We all talked in our minds. And I learned about the war with the Dominion…and did you know a lot of our ships blew up? But the Explorer never fought in the war?”
“Odd, isn’t it,” Browning said flatly.
“And Odo and the other changelings all talked in my mind about the Federation, and how they want to be friends, but don’t know how, and I gave them some ideas!”
Browning nodded. “That’s great, hon.”
“But I got bored in there, Mommy. I thought about you the whole time…and it felt like a LONG time. It was a nice place to visit, but I…”
Browning sniffled back tears. “But you wouldn’t want to live there?”
Baxter stepped up to regard the reunited pair. “Is he okay, Janice?”
“He’s shape-shifter-shape,” Browning said, giving Plato a quick once-over with a tri-corder and slopping more glop off his coveralls, fighting the urge to taste some.
Odo’s head looked up pleadingly at Browning from the lake of changelings. “Doctor, I implore you. Plato had some very enlightened ideas about how to go forward with the peace process with the Federation. We also discovered a genetic factor in his blood which prevented him from contracting the virus that nearly killed off all of the other Founders.”
“The Admiral Neilson Changeling didn’t seem affected either,” Baxter said. “How do you explain that?”
“I can’t,” admitted Odo. “And since you blew her up last year, we’ll never know. But Plato is here, and he can help us prevent a disease like that one ever ocurring again in the Link. And he can make peace between our two governments. Surely, that’s reason enough to leave him with us for a short time!”
Baxter tried not to crack a smile. It was funny to see a head floating down there, looking up at him from the sea-level, or changeling-level, or whatever. The head would look really funny on the body of a chihuahuah.
“You yourself said there’s no concept of time in the Great Link,” said Peterman. “Plato, on the other hand, seems totally aware of the passage of time. Who’s to say you won’t keep him in there for twenty years?”
“That is a possibility,” Odo admitted. “But it would be for the good of Plato’s people…both of his peoples. Surely you can see that!”
Browning wrapped a protective arm around Plato. “We’re taking him home now, Mister Odo. He visited you, you learned from him. Enough’s enough. I’m his mother and I’m taking him back up to the ship.”
“I cannot let you do that,” Odo said flatly.
“You’d risk starting another war?” Baxter asked, amazed.
“That’s not my intention at all,” said Odo. “We just need more time with him!”
“No can do.” Baxter tapped his comm badge. “Explorer…”
“You’re making a grave mistake!” said Odo.
“You’re welcomed to contact him over the Federnet,” said Browning. “His address is Plato@Starfleet.Explorer.”
“WE DON’T HAVE FEDERNET!” cried Odo.
“Then it looks like it’s time you got a system upgrade,” replied Baxter.
“You opened a damned channel, Captain,” replied the curt voice of Lt. Hartley, over the comm. “Do you have any intention of asking for beamout in the near future or should I sit here with my thumb up my ass for eternity?”
“Thanks for your concern,” Baxter mumbled. “Go ahead and energize.”
Odo frowned as Baxter, Browning, Peterman, and Plato disappeared. He would have reached out a preventative hand, but he didn’t have a hand at the moment, and it would have done no good anyway.
Plato, for his part, waved happily goodbye as he dematerialized. With a sigh, Odo sunk back down to rejoin the Link and try to explain what exactly happened. He had a feeling he’d never get that vacation with Kira. It was probably just as well. He’d met another glob of protoplasm that was floating a few meters below him right at that moment, and that protoplasm didn’t complain about his snoring.
Baxter and Peterman emptied out of the aft turbolift and onto the bridge. Baxter immediately walked to the center of the bridge. “Lieutenant Commander Larkin…signal the Jem’Hadar warship. They’re to pick up their security detachment right away and escort us back to the wormhole.”
He turned to find Commander Conway in the command chair, and a Jem’Hadar sitting next to him. Conway was drinking coffee and chuckling; the Jem’Hadar was tapping his feet and rapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair at an alarming rate.
“Get off my ship,” Baxter muttered, and headed back toward his readyroom.
“What what what?” Ramada’klon asked, hopping to his feet. “WhatoftheFoundersandtheirwishes?”
“The Founders can kiss my ass,” Baxter said, approaching the door to his readyroom. “J’hana, show these two to the turbolift.”
Baxter glanced at the tactical station. No J’hana. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t find the other Jem’Hadar that had come aboard with Odo.
He shrugged, keyed open the door to his readyroom.
Peterman, meanwhile, went down to the front of the bridge to quiz Ramada’klon on what he thought of shared parenting rights.
The doors to Baxter’s readyroom slid open. He let out a small squeak of alarm. That solved the missing J’hana problem. And the missing Jem’Hadar problem. He took two steps backward and let the doors close once more.
“Clean-up crew to the bridge,” he said, and turned for the aft turbolift.
“Whathastranspired?” Ramada’klon asked with machine-gun speed. He quick-stepped up to the quarterdeck to join Baxter. Peterman followed soon after, looking on with intense interest.
“It appears Plato isn’t the only one attempting to help relations with the Dominion,” Baxter said, and gestured for Peterman to follow him back into the aft turbolift.
Supplemental. We finally made it back to the Alpha Quadrant, which I’m sure is a relief to all aboard. The Dominion aren’t bad people, really, but they’re pretty demanding for an empire whose ass we handily kicked. When I say ‘we,’ I mean pretty much all of Starfleet except for those of us on the Explorer. Anyway, we’re headed to do a mineral survey of the Ogeolis system and Doctor Browning is happily reunited with Plato. I guess the only loose end to tie up is a certain little malleable child’s homework…and by malleable I of course mean Plato.
“As you’ll see on this side of the chart,” Plato said, pointing to the viewscreen where his presentation on his family tree had been uploaded. “My mom is Janice Browning, Chief Doctor of the Explorer. Her mom and dad supervize a food replicator plant on Altair Six. Mom says that’s why she grew up eating so much. The chart also shows her mom’s mom and dad and her dad’s mom and dad too.” He hit a control. “On this side of the chart, you’ll see a huge planet filled with orange goo. That’s my Dad.”
“Ooooohh!” gasped the audience.
“He’s made up of over five trillion gallons of protoplasm, and can split up into millions of different entities, like my friend Odo,” Plato said, and keyed a glamor portrait of Odo on the viewscreen. “Those entities, called changelings, are represented here by this jar of marmalade my mom made for me.” Plato held the jar out for the first child in the front row of kindergarteners to taste and pass around. “And, in all fairness to my human side, this is some of what humans are made up of. I got this from my mom’s work.” Plato produced a jar of red liquid from the bag at his feet. “Pass this around, but don’t drink it. It’s real blood.”
At the rear of the room, Tyra Shar, kindergarten teacher, shuddered. Janice Browning was a complete and total psychopath.
Meanwhile, Doctor Browning stood with Lt. Commander Chris Richards outside the oblong window that looked in on the kindergarten classroom. The pair peered through the slatted blinds.
Browning smiled. “The class is getting a real kick out of that blood.”
Richards grinned weakly. “It was a…creative idea.”
“I’m so glad he’s not feeling strange about his Changeling heritage,” Browning said. “Even though I don’t want the Founders to take Plato away, I do want him to realize that he does have their heritage as well as mine. It’s just a little harder to explain that part.”
“He’ll learn,” Richards said. “People find ways to adapt to such things.”
“How do you know?”
“I adapted to having an android for a daughter, didn’t I?”
Speaking of which, I have to go give her circuits a cleaning. See you at lunch?”
“Sure.” Browning watched Richards leave. Shortly thereafter, Commander Conway walked by.
“Doctor,” Conway said. “Checking up on the old bundle of joy…and protoplasm?”
“Sure am,” Browning grinned. “And where are you headed?”
“My office,” Conway said quickly. “To, uh, get something.”
“Your eyes are dilated.” Browning grabbed one of Conway’s hands. “Your palms are sweaty, too. Are you back on white again?”
Conway’s cheek twitched. “What makes you say that?”
“Ramada’klon gave me just a little bit!”
Browning grinded her teeth. “That’s not fair, David. If I beamed down to a planet full of marmalade and didn’t eat it, then you can’t go back on white. We had a deal!”
“No, it’s just the principal of the thing!” Browning grabbed Conway by the ear and dragged him after her down the corridor. “We’re going to Sickbay and getting you clean…once and for all!”
Conway sighed as he stumbled along after Browning. “You know, you remind me a lot of my mom.”
“Oh, grow up!”
When the Federation economy goes belly-up, they start looking for expendable items to get rid of. First on their list, planet Earth! Baxter’s not wild about that idea, and has to enlist the help of the Explorer and her crew to retake his planet. Will he stop the group of big-eared, short, foreign investors from squatting on the planet where he and many of the others grew up, or will he have to start looking for a new planet to call home? And what on Earth ever happened to former-Federation president Jaresh-Inyo? Find out in the next instalment of Star Traks: TVG, “This Item Earth!”