Author: Anthony Butler
“The jailhouse special,” Dr. Janice Browning grinned, setting the plate before Counselor Kelly Peterman and grinning devilishly. “Two eggs, over medium, with a criss-cross of hashbrowns caging them in, and a side of bread and water. Well, bagels and water.”
Counselor Peterman grimaced up at Browning as steam rose from the plate in front of her. “You really know how to cheer a girl up, don’t you?”
Browning sat down opposite Peterman at her table in Space Tastes as the counselor looked at a padd. She studied Peterman’s eyes as she read. “What’s wrong, Kelly?”
Peterman sighed and spun the padd across the table to Browning. “Read it for yourself.” She leaned back, poking at the food on her plate.
“Vansen sent you a memo?” Browning said, wrinkling her nose. “I’ve never gotten a memo before.”
“READ the memo, Janice.”
“Oh. Right.” Browning scanned the padd. “You’re suspended?”
“For two weeks!” Peterman exploded, causing some heads in the small Space Tastes cafe to turn.
“Didn’t you already do your ‘time’ in the brig?” Browning asked.
“Well, not really. Andy sort of…commuted my sentence.”
“Oh, that’s right. He broke you out the day after, didn’t he.” Browning rubbed her chin. “Guess Vansen didn’t like that.”
“She hated that, and she cited some obscure rule in the personnel manual saying that any Starfleet officer who assaults another is required to serve a minimum two-week suspension.”
Browning giggled. “Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t have shot Keefler, huh?”
“He recovered nicely, thanks to you,” Peterman muttered.
“Can’t Andy get you out of this?”
“He already tried. The best he could do was reduce the length of the suspension. Vansen originally wanted it to be a month.”
“Well,” Browning said. “Two weeks isn’t that bad.” She watched Peterman slowly nibble her food. “But what are all the….um…crazy people on the ship going to do until you get un-suspended?”
“I’m not sure. You’ll have to talk to our Interim Counselor.” Peterman pointed at the doorway to the cafe, and Browning turned to see what she was pointing at.
There, standing in the doorway, tall and lean, broad-shouldered, with a strong, pointed nose and chin, bulging, calculating eyes, and a pate of thinning black hair, stood Peterman’s replacement.
Doctor Doug Leonardo, galactically celebrated pet therapist.
Browning watched the doctor drift to a table in the corner, then sit down with a padd and look around the restaurant, tapping information into the padd and looking up at times as he worked.
“I’ve seen him on the ship a few times, but I’ve never spoken to him,” Browning said. “He’s never come into my restaurant.”
“I guess we should be relieved they didn’t haul Dr. Ranowat out of the Sicko Ward on Deck Twenty-Nine.”
“You know, you really shouldn’t be calling it the ‘Sicko Ward,’” Browning said. “Of all people, you should be sensitive to the…sanity challenged.”
“Not anymore. I’m not the counselor right now. Replaced twice in two years. Isn’t that awful?”
“Well, you did have a baby the first time. That’s understandable,” Browning said, still looking at Leonardo. “Have you ever spoken to him?”
“Not intentionally,” Peterman said. “But we did share a turbolift once, and he stepped on my foot by accident, and I said ‘ouch.’”
“Why have you never talked to him? Isn’t it nice to have someone else on the ship who works in your field?”
“He doesn’t work in my field!” Peterman snapped, accidentally flinging some egg yolk onto Browning’s apron.
Browning nonchalantly fingered the blob of yolk and put her finger in her mouth, savoring the taste. Yes, she did know how to do over-medium. So the yellow doesn’t run out, it merely crawls. “Close enough,” was her response.
“He’s a pop psychologist of the worst kind,” Peterman said. “He got his doctorate from Federation University, then squandered away his private practice with insane theories about pets and their similarities to human beings.”
“That’ll kill a guy’s career,” Browning said knowingly.
“So then he travels the galaxy, doing special holovision spots with celebrities and their pets. For Pete’s sake, his week-long series on that cat Spot was ridiculously overwrought with pedestrian theories and overblown assumptions!”
“I can see where you’re coming from,” Browning said, although she didn’t really. “I read his book on Captain Archer’s beagle. That was pretty informative.”
“It was drivel!” Peterman said. “You might as well read Counselor Troi’s books!”
Browning decided not to point out that she thought the three-volume set about her mother was incredibly touching. “Do you think you could do better?”
“Are you kidding?” Peterman snapped. “Of course I could do better!”
Browning folded her arms. “Then why don’t you try?”
“I just might,” Peterman said, shoving her plate away and standing up. “Whether you want me to succeed or not!”
“Don’t try to stop me,” Peterman said, marching out of Space Tastes.
“I won’t. Good luck!” Browning said, waving at Peterman as she left. As she got up and took Peterman’s plate, she decided to walk over and talk to Leonardo. It wouldn’t hurt to get his thoughts on Plato’s sudden refusal to eat solid food.
“Doctor Leonardo,” she began as she approached his table.
“One moment,” Leonardo said, holding up a hand to silence Browning as he worked on his padd. A minute or so later, just as Browning’s feet were beginning to cramp up, Leonardo looked up from his work. “What can I do for you, Doctor Browning?”
“I see no introductions are in order,” Browning said with a smile. “I guess you’ve done your homework on this crew.”
“Captain Baxter’s deflated ego should have gotten us all killed by now,” Leonardo said flatly, then giggled. “Except that his overcompensating optimism keeps him plugging along in spite of himself.”
“That’s…a nice way of thinking about it.”
“And I have no clue why Lieutenant Sefelt hasn’t been committed yet.”
“We kind of think of him as entertainment,” Browning said, gesturing to the seat across from Leonardo. “May I?”
Leonardo nodded. “Please. I was just finishing some paperwork.”
“May I ask what you’re working on?” Browning asked, leaning over the padd.
“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo said, swiping his padd off the table and putting it in his lap. “My next book. The publishers don’t like me sharing it with the…general public.”
“Uh-huh,” Browning said. “Well, you can’t get any more general than me.”
“Indeed,” Leonardo said, looking at Browning with narrowed eyes. “You are still in love with Commander Richards.”
“I…what?” Browning felt blind-sided.
“What a complex, endlessly puzzling relationship,” Leonardo said, clasping his hands in front of him.
“You don’t say,” Browning said, sinking a bit in her chair.
“Fraught with twists and turns, emotional peaks and valleys. And never a dull moment.”
“Oh, there are dull moments.” Like the current moments, in which Browning and Richards hardly talked. This was much like the period after their last break-up–the one in which they left the ship to pursue other careers, four years earlier. They really didn’t know how to act around each other yet. They were friends, surely, but it was so hard to make the discrimination between friends and…more.
“But Commander Richards is making strides,” Leonardo continued. “Talking to him this morning, I got the distinct impression he was ready to show a real commitment to Lieutenant Madera.”
“Commit? Christopher!” Browning laughed. “That’s a laugh.”
“Oh, I’m quite serious,” Leonardo said. “Apparently he was buoyed by the recent marriage of Mister Mirk and Commander Hartley, who is a piece of work herself.”
“Marriage?” Browning’s eyebrows went halfway up her forehead.
“Indeed,” said Leonardo. “I dare say they’ll be married before this year’s over.”
Browning swallowed hard. “And why do you dare say that?”
“Because I can see the resolve in his eyes. It’s…” Leonardo stared at the ceiling. “Like watching a tarkalian razorbeast circle its prey. You just see a certain…gleam in the creature’s eye. Have you ever seen a tarkalian razorbeast circle its prey?”
“Not…really…” Browning drifted off. “It was nice talking to you…Doctor. I’ll send Imhala to take your order.”
“No need,” Leonardo said, watching Browning as she stood up. “I don’t plan on eating.”
“Then why did you come here?” Browning asked, her vexation mounting second by second.
“To observe you in your natural habitat. Learn what kind of person you are.”
Browning stared at Leonardo long and hard. “Why…why me?”
“Because I find you…fascinating.”
Leonardo nodded. “Perhaps we can talk more in the future?”
“Uhm,” Browning stumbled, “sure, I…guess.”
“It was really strange,” Browning said, as she walked with Captain Andy Baxter along the residential deck that evening. “I just felt his eyes boring into me. Like he was studying me.”
“Studying? Really?” Baxter said. “Well, the guy is supposed to know his stuff. His resume on human behavior is well…it’s better than Kelly’s.”
“And yet he’d rather study animals than people,” Browning said.
“Yeah, it’s a wonder he and Kelly don’t get along better.”
“Maybe she feels threatened by him,” Browning suggested.
“Ya think?” Baxter said. “I don’t see why, though. He’s obviously chosen his milieu. Is that a word?”
“Beats me,” Browning said, as Baxter keyed entry into his quarters. Smoke billowed out of the door.
“Kelly?” Baxter asked, ducking into the cabin, followed by Browning, waving the smoke away with his hand. “Are you in here?”
“Mom, Aunt Kelly’s making fire!” Plato, Browning’s half-changeling son, said, running up to Browning and wrapping his arms around her legs. “Can we go home now?”
“S-sure, hon,” Browning said, looking around as Baxter scrambled over to his kitchenette, where Peterman was fumbling with a pan on a hotplate.
“What are you doing?” Baxter demanded.
“I was trying to make crepes for me and Plato. But then I went back into the bedroom to finish working on my book, and I guess I forgot about them.”
“You’re writing a book?” Baxter asked, cocking his head. “You?”
“Yes, me!” Peterman said. “And it’s going to pummel Counselor Troi’s book once it gets out on the market.”
“I didn’t realize you could write.”
“What, you think I’m illiterate?” Peterman asked, as suddenly the sound of a wailing baby came from the other room.
“Now look what we’ve done. We’ve gone and woken Steffie up,” Baxter said, and headed back to the bedroom, looking back at Peterman. “I’ll take care of it. Then we can take a look at that best seller you’ve been working on.”
“Was he being sarcastic?” Peterman asked Browning as Baxter left.
“I don’t think it’s in his nature,” Browning said softly.
“Well,” Peterman said, hands on hips. “You want me to replicate some dinner for you guys? After I put out that burning tablecloth over there?”
“No,” Browning said, backing toward the door with her son. “That’s okay. You guys have obviously got your hands full.”
“Can’t argue there,” Peterman said, smiling weakly. “See you at breakfast tomorrow?”
“It’s a…date,” Browning said, taking Plato by the hand and leading the adolescent changeling down the corridor.
“Mom, what’s a date?”
Plato had broken the silence that had fallen over the dinner table in the Browning quarters, as Plato dipped some of his prime rib into au jus sauce, then into a bowl of ketchup.
“Hmm?” Browning said distractedly, running her fork along her clean plate. It was customary that she finished eating a good twenty minutes before Plato…or anyone else for that matter.
“A date. What you mentioned to Aunt Kelly. I’ve never heard you use that word before.”
“Plato…you’re almost three years old. I’m sure you know what a date is. It’s… a small, shriveled up fruit, commonly found in the Mediterranean regions of Earth.”
“And you’re going to have that with Aunt Kelly tomorrow?”
Browning sighed, wiping her mouth with her napkin and pushing away from the table. “No. No, that’s not the kind of date I was talking about. A…date is when two people decide to get together.”
“Like you and Chris?”
“Sort…of,” Browning said.
“You and Chris don’t get together anymore.”
“Nope, we don’t,” Browning said, taking her plate and glass and sticking it into the replicator. She looked back at him. “Are you finished with dinner, sweetie?”
“Yep, all full,” Plato said, taking his plate and stacking his fork, knife, glass, and the bowl of ketchup on it. “Here you go!” His arm stretched and extended toward Browning, crossing the two meter distance to her very quickly.
She smiled as she took the stack and put it into the replicator. “Thank you, honey. You did a good job helping mommy. Now how about you go get ready for bed and I’ll be in there in a second to kiss you good night.”
“We’re not eating three desserts tonight?” Plato asked.
“Nah, I’m…not hungry,” Browning said, and was shocked as soon as she said that.
“WHAT?” Plato asked.
“Head on to bed, sweetie,” Browning said, leaning over and kissing him on the forehead.
As Plato trotted off to his bedroom, Browning turned to hit the “reclaim” button on the replicator and then headed over to the couch, where she sat down, leaning her elbows on her knees.
She stared at the object on the coffee table in front of her. A silver frame holding an image taken of her and Richards over five years ago, on the Aerostar. Her hair was longer, his hair was less…scruffy. They looked so much younger. They were sitting at a table in the Starlight Lounge, her in his lap, arms wrapped around each other, totally in bliss.
“Silly Janice,” Browning said to herself. “You can’t just turn back time.” She giggled softly and took the frame in her hands, and walked over to the bookcase in the far corner of her cabin. “There. That’s a much better place for that.” She stood back and looked at the photo again. She quickly turned it around, facing the wall. “There. Even better.”
“Mommy! I haven’t gotten my kiss yet!”
“Oh, right,” Browning said, and headed into Plato’s room to kiss him goodnight.
A half a melon and cup of yogurt sat across from Janice Browning in the restaurant the next morning, waiting patiently for their intended customer to walk in the door.
Browning was waiting for Peterman, who was a good ten minutes late. Not like her. Especially considering she didn’t really have a job right now. Browning made time for Peterman, and she had two jobs. Two!
Nurse Chadway, as she usually did in the morning, was covering sickbay so Browning could get Space Tastes through the breakfast crowd. And, Browning admitted, so the doctor could eat breakfast herself.
But that schedule was getting totally thrown out of whack, because Peterman was late.
Browning sighed and slapped her combadge. “Browning to Peterman.”
“Peterman here. Oh. Janice! I forgot all about you.”
“Your breakfast is getting cold,” Browning said. Not really a lie, but it was already cold to begin with.
“Well, I’m going to have to pass this morning, Janice. I’m sure you understand. I woke up this morning at oh-six hundred and got on a hot streak with this writing thing. I really think I’ve hit on something here.”
Browning wrinkled her nose. “What are you writing about?”
“I can’t really talk about it right now. I’ll fill you in later. Peterman out!”
“Damn it!” Browning said under her breath, as a tall shadow passed over her.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No. Help yours–” Browning began, then looked up at the owner of that rich, deep voice. “Doctor Leonardo.”
Leonardo sat opposite Browning, looked down at the melon and yogurt. “You know, Doctor, it is usually easier to eat your breakfast when it’s on the same side of the table as you.”
“No kidding,” Browning said. “Well, it wasn’t for me. And its intended recipient is not going to be here. So you’re welcomed to it.”
“Excellent. I do so love melons,” Leonardo said, taking his spoon starting on the yogurt. After a few bites, he looked up at Browning, who was just sitting there, looking thoughtful. “Aren’t you going to join me?”
“I’ve already eaten,” Browning said. Twice, but no need to share that.
“Well, I certainly don’t want to hold you up, if you have work…”
“I really don’t,” Browning said, watching Leonardo eat, as about four or five new customers walked in and sat down. “Nothing better to do at the moment.’
“Excellent,” Leonardo said. “Then we can get a chance to get to know each other better.”
“Yes,” Browning said. “I think I’d like that.”
Stardate 56574.4. After several months traveling into deep space at high warp, we are finally about to make some progress toward finding this mysterious race called the Bast.
That’s what I would be saying, in a perfect world, if we’d actually made any progress toward finding the Bast, which we haven’t. Instead, we’ve only managed to locate the run of the mill, unfriendly, wants to kill us kind of species.
“Shields up,” Baxter said, rising from his chair as three ships swarmed the Explorer on the viewscreen. “Go to red alert. Arm all weapons. If they lay so much as a scorch mark on our hull, I want you to open fire with everything you’ve got, J’hana.”
“Ready as always,” J’hana said with an eager grin as her hands sat poised over the tactical controls.
“They’re coming around,” Lt. Commander Nell Vansen said, looking at the readout next to her chair. “Their weapons are reaching optimum power.”
“All I said was that I didn’t see a nametag on this solar system,” Baxter said. “No need to get all defensive!”
“You also called them ‘snarky,’” Tilleran said pointedly from sciences.
“That was a term of endearment,” Baxter said, as suddenly beams pounded the Explorer from all sides as all three ships opened fire. The ship rumbled and Baxter fell back into his seat. “Return fire! All weapons!”
Suddenly, the aft turbolift opened up, and Browning stepped out, looking around the bridge. “Andy…can we talk?”
Baxter gripped the command chair. “Can this wait a second, Janice? Fire again! Disable their engines!”
“Captain, they’ve called in backup,” Tilleran said, looking at her sensors as Browning strolled up to the railing behind the command chairs. “Reading nine more ships entering the system, weapons hot.”
“I guess we won’t be surveying the class-M worlds in this system for signs of the Bast after all,” Baxter grumbled, pushing out of his chair. “Susan, get us the hell out of here, maximum warp. Let me know if we’re being followed.”
“And where exactly are you going?” Vansen said, turning in her chair as Baxter walked up to the quarterdeck to join Browning.
“Janice said she needed to talk.”
“And your pedantic female friend’s problem is more important than the fact that we just took on major damage?”
“Oh, it was just minor shield damage,” Tilleran snapped.
“No one was talking to you!” Vansen snapped back.
“You have the bridge…Tilleran,” Baxter said, and smirked at Vansen as he lead the way into his readyroom, gesturing for Browning to follow. “Doctor, if you please….”
Browning followed Baxter into the readyroom. “What’s her problem?” she asked, as Baxter sat down on his couch. She sat down on the other end.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Baxter said, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “Something about protocol or whatnot. She’s always bitching about something.” He looked over at Browning. “What can I do for you?”
Browning sat with her hands in her lap, staring at them. “Andy…am I wasting my time waiting for Christopher?”
Baxter sat up straight and looked at Browning. “I hadn’t realized you were waiting for him.”
“I hadn’t either. Until I realized I haven’t been on a date in almost a year.”
“That’s not true!” Baxter said. “You, me, and Kelly went to the pleasure caves on Gondol Six not four months ago!”
“A date, Andy!” Browning said, turning to face Baxter and grabbing his hands. “An actual date in which two people go out alone somewhere romantic, where there is the possibility of romantic…things happening.”
“Oh, that kind of date,” Baxter said dumbly, looking down at Browning’s hands. “So me and Kelly aren’t good enough for you anymore, huh?”
“You and me and Kelly are not a couple. You and Kelly are a couple. I need… someone else to…couple with.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “I think I’m finally getting it. You need…some…um…loving.”
“Oh, jeeze…that’s not even the point. I need…I don’t know. I just need to be cared for.”
“Mmrm careya,” Baxter said under his breath, looking away.
“What?” Browning squinted. “You sound like your father.”
“I said I care for you,” Baxter said.
“Andy…that’s sweet,” Browning said, and squeezed Baxter’s hands. “But not that kind of caring. I need…the whole package.”
“And you obviously can’t get that with Chris.”
Browning raised her hands toward the ceiling. “Thank you! Finally! Someone understands!”
“So who then?” Baxter asked.
“Well, I have a…you know…date, tonight, with that pet therapist. Doctor Leonardo.”
“Leonardo?” Baxter fairly exploded. “Oh, no. We’ll never be able to double date.”
“So? You and Kelly have fun all by yourselves, right?”
“I…guess,” Baxter said. “Hmm. I wonder what Mirk and Hartley are doing tonight.”
Browning sighed. “I was just looking for an outside point of view on this, but I think I just realized I don’t need anyone else’s point of view. I think I can do this all on my own.”
Browning nodded. “Yeah. Thanks, Andy. You’ve been a big help.” She leaned forward and kissed Baxter on the cheek, then dashed out of the readyroom.
Baxter rubbed his cheek, looking confused. “Don’t mention it.”
“I’ve finally found you,” Doctor Doug Leonardo said in a giddy whisper as he watched the monitor console on his desk. Leonardo’s office was located in the bowels of the saucer section, near the child photographer and the antique dealer. If Ship’s Shoppes was the Explorer’s mall, then Leonardo was stuck in its fleamarket. He watched the image on his screen, compared it with others he’d compiled. Looked at the readings, the data flowing in on his screens, when suddenly his doorchime rang. He switched the console off. “Come in!”
The door slid open and Janice Browning walked in. “Doctor Leonardo…” she began, taking a long breath.;
“Please, call me Doctor Doug.”
“Doug,” she said again. “Can I sit down?”
“Doctor Doug,” Leonardo said with a smile. “And, of course. I have nothing to hide. But I should warn you I have an appointment with Lieutenant Fowler’s sheep in thirty minutes.”
Browning looked at him quizzically and sat down across from his desk. She looked around. The room smelled slightly of animal dung, and his walls were adorned with animal photos, inscribed with funny quotes. For instance, he had one painting of a cat hanging from a tree, with the delightful inscription of “Hang in there.”
“I like the way you’ve decorated your office, Doctor Doug,” Browning said.
“Please,” Leonardo said. “Call me Doug.”
Browning blinked. “Doug…I was just wondering if you were busy tonight.”
Leonardo leaned forward, leaning his head on his hands. “Busy? Me? Why, no. I keep to myself, mostly.”
“Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“Why, Doctor Browning…could this be construed as a date?”
Browning shifted in her seat. “Um, sure. And you can call me Janice.”
“Janice, I’d be delighted. I’ve been looking forward to tasting some of your cuisine.”
“I do have that restaurant in the mall…”
“Yes, I remember being there this morning. Nice melon.”
“Um…thanks,” Browning said with a smile. “Well, then, it’s settled. I’m going to cook you something fantastic tonight, after the restaurant closes. How’s twenty-one hundred hours?”
Leonardo switched on his console and reviewed some information that scrolled across the screen. “Yes, I believe I can work that out. I will meet you there.”
“Good,” Browning said with an uneasy smile. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Me too!” Leonardo grinned as Browning walked out of his office. He then went back to his terminal and set to work. His goal was in reach. It was now time to set things into motion.
Janice Browning was wiping off one of the tables in her restaurant that day, during the lunch rush, when Bradley Dillon and his entourage of security officers strolled in.
“Mister President!” Browning exclaimed. “Have a seat. I just cleaned up a table for you.”
Bradley looked around the crowded restaurant, as his Special Secret Section agents infiltrated the dining room and took secure positions at all the exits and key vantage points. “Um, Janice…that table is in the middle of the restaurant.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Tactically, it presents an assassin with an easy target.”
Browning almost made a crack about the President’s weight, but decided against it. Besides, he wasn’t really fat. Just husky. She kind of liked that shape on a guy. She shook those thoughts from her head as she quickly shepherded Bradley to a corner booth, where Lieutenant Sefelt had just gotten up from his bowl of farina (one of the few foods that didn’t scare him) so he could go on duty on the bridge.
“Here we go!” Browning said, as Bradley sat down. “What can I get you?”
“The special will do nicely,” Bradley said with a confident grin. “Whatever it is, I know you’ve prepared it well.”
Browning blushed. “Oh. Well now I guess I have to go back there and figure out what today’s special is.”
Bradley nodded to her as she went back to the kitchen.
As Browning scrambled with pots and pans to prepare a special Frenalian meatloaf for the President, she considered that she was a little bit attracted to Bradley Dillon. It would never go anywhere, probably. He was the President of the Federation. He had more important things to deal with than dating. Besides, she had a date with Doctor Leonardo, and she had to at least give that a chance to work out. Leonardo deserved that much. He seemed like a pretty good guy.
“There you are, you little scamp,” Dr. Leonardo hissed as he sat behind huge palm leaves in the Explorer’s arboretum. “Thought you could elude me didn’t you? Thought you could be slippery, living aboard a Federation starship that spends so much time in deep space. Well, despite all your best efforts, I’ve found you.’
Meanwhile, ten meters away, Counselor Kelly Peterman was taking her two pomeranians, Boomer and Starbuck, for their afternoon walk, while her cat Fritz loped behind, sniffing their rear ends and occasionally taking aim at them with his paws.
Peterman had a padd in her hand and was flipping through it, looking consternated. Apparently, she was trying to compose SOMETHING, but Leonardo had no idea what it could be. All he knew was that his long years of searching were finally over. He got on board the Explorer for one reason only. He’d found the target of his search, and all he had to do now was sit back, wait for the right moment, and reel it in.
“More casserole?” Dr. Browning asked merrily as she leaned over the steaming dish, spooning what must have been her third helping onto her plate.
Leonardo sipped delicately from his glass of wine, looking over the rim of the glass at Browning as she offered him the spoon. “No thanks. I’m quite full.”
“More for me then!” Browning said, sitting back in her chair and resuming her meal as gentle strains of harp music played in the background, filling the air in the dimly lit and vacant Space Tastes. “Isn’t it amazing how many things can be made into a casserole?”
“Yes it is. This music is lovely, by the way,” Leonardo said, looking around, as if to take in the ambience of the harp music. “The performer is quite adept. Is it T’sora? Or Salzedo?”
“Oh. I’m not familiar with that musician.”
“She’s our helmsman.”
“Oh. Is this a song of her own composing?”
Browning giggled. “Oh no. This is a compilation of popular Earth songs she did for the captain. This particular one, I believe, is called the ‘Seinfeld Theme Song.’”
“This ‘Seinfeld’ must have been a particularly influential person in Earth history, though I’ve never heard of him.”
“I think he was a general in World War Three,” Browning said as she continued to eat. “Now remember to save room for dessert, Doug. I’ve got an excellent pumpkin cheesecake in the back, just for such an occasion such as this.”
Leonardo nodded, tipping the wine bottle beside him gently toward Browning’s glass and filling it. “Oh. And what occasion is this?”
Browning smiled as she put her fork down and took the filled glass, sipping. “A first date.”
“Yes,” Leonardo said. “A splendid occasion indeed.”
Browning giggled as she put her glass down, a little wine trailing down her chin. “You talk kind of funny.”
“Oh, I do? My, I haven’t noticed,” Leonardo said, leaning over and wiping Browning’s chin with his napkin. She looked into his eyes. “I just try to speak in measured, dulcet tones. I’ve found it calms others. And that helps in my line of work.”
“Which…is…” Browning said as Leonardo leaned closer.
“Oh, I have many trades,” Leonardo said softly as he kissed her.
“Okeydoke…” Browning sighed in between kisses.
Browning whistled merrily as she worked, her hands moving delicately left to right, zig-zagging, up and down, as she tapped her foot to the tune in her head. Another of Madera’s “old standards.” This time, it was her rendition of “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love.” An ancient lovesong, apparently.
“Doctor,” Nurse Christina Chadway said in her polite-as-usual British accent. “I know you are happy about something, but you just dissected Ensign Reader’s colon.”
Browning looked down at the open field she was working in and turned off her scalpelaser. “Oh. Whoops! Better stitch that thing back together, huh!”
“Perhaps you should take a holiday?”
“Is today Federation Day?” Browning scratched her head, which itched, due to the red surgical cap. “I thought that was last month.”
“No, I mean a day off.”
“Oh,” Browning said, looking down into Ensign Reader’s chest. “I don’t think so. I’m just a little…zoned today. That’s all.”
“But when doctor’s get ‘zoned,’ they risk killing patients.”
“Well, I’ve never killed a patient yet,” Browning said defensively, then went back to work putting Reader’s colon back together. “On purpose,” she added under her breath.
“Tidal volume is dropping. There’s too much blood in the field.”
“Metric suction,” Browning ordered, then smiled up at Chadway as she worked. “I had the most wonderful time last night with Doctor Doug!”
“The pet therapist?” Chadway looked at a monitor. “Heart rhythms are a little erratic.”
“Clean up the field with the protoplaser,” Browning said, changing instruments. “Yes. He has his own show on the AWN. Did you know that?”
“I’ve seen one or two episodes. He delves into pets’ past lives?”
“No, that’s Doctor Tom!”
“Oh. He psychoanalyzes pets, then?”
“Yes. That’s what pet therapists do!”
“I’m sorry, Doctor. All I know about is nursing. And kickboxing.”
“Really? You’ll have to teach me sometime. Anyway, he was the perfect gentleman. All we did was kiss. But we did that a lot…and then he left in quite a rush. I think I embarrassed him!”
“Doctor, he’s gone flatline!”
Browning looked down at her patient, then up at the readouts. “Damn! Aortic charges at point five millijules!”
“Clear!” And Browning shocked Reader’s heart.
“Sinus rhythm. Good job, Doctor!”
“So anyway, I really like the guy. It’s way too early to be talking about love at this point, but let’s face it, I may well be falling for him. It’s been so long, it’s hard to tell…”
“Doctor, didn’t this fellow originally come in with tendonitis in his elbow?”
Browning looked down at Reader. “You know, I can’t remember now.”
Chadway sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “My friends told me not to take this assignment. But no, I just HAD to go to the ship that had the mall. The Enterprise doesn’t have a mall, I told them. I’d rather have a mall on my ship, I told them. Now look at what I have to deal with. Crikey!”
“There, all done. He’s all closed up and his tendonitis seems to have gone away by itself.” Browning looked up at Chadway. “Were you saying something?”
“Okeydoke. Mind cleaning up?”
Chadway sighed. “By all means.”
“Goodie! I’ve got to plan tonight’s date. Let me know if anybody dies!” And Browning strolled out of Sickbay, still whistling a tune.
“Prefect, I assure you, I didn’t do anything to provoke that swarm of ships into firing at me. I keep trying to tell people. We come in peace!” Captain Baxter pleaded his case to the Head of Secruity for the Fenomulan Delegacy, Prefect Grelvor, who sat angrily, arms folded, on the viewscreen.
“So why did you call the captain of the lead ship ‘snarky’?”
“It was meant as a riff…you know, a friendly jab among captains!” Baxter insisted.
“Then your tactical officer blew up the engineering section of one of our ships…”
“They were firing on US first. It was self defense.”
“I see,” the prefect, a rather bloated-looking brownish fellow with compound eyes and a long, rolled-up tongue that would flip out at times, said, looking at his screens. “Well, according to our customs, you must be tried on our planet and put to death. Please beam over within twenty minutes or we’ll open fire on your ship.”
Baxter looked over at Vansen, who just shrugged.
“Oh well, Captain. You win some, you lose some. Nice knowing you!”
Baxter looked back at Grelvor. “Surely we can work out some kind of…”
Suddenly Grelvor burst out laughing. “Just kidding! We just wanted to see you squirm. You know, a friendly jab. Riffing!”
“Riffing,” Baxter said dully. “Of course. Well done, Prefect. Can we go now?”
“Certainly. And good journeys to you. I hope you find these ‘Bast’ you speak of.”
“And you’re sure you’ve never heard of them?” Vansen inquired.
“Only children’s stories of a race of nomads without a planet who roam the galaxy pillaging worlds. But nothing specific. My apologies!” And with that, Grelvor disappeared from the screen.
“He didn’t seem too excited about talking about the Bast,” Baxter said to himself, then turned to Vansen. “Did he?”
“Don’t look at me. I’m not the Betazoid.”
Baxter looked at Tilleran. “Well?”
“It’s hard to say, Captain,” Tilleran said, narrowing her eyes as she concentrated. “He was definitely nervous about something. What, I can’t tell.”
“Aren’t you supposed to, you know, be able to tell those things?” Baxter asked.
“Not always, and not with all races.” Tilleran rubbed her temples. “Being Betazoid isn’t an exact science, you know!”
“Right,” Baxter said. “Well, I guess we’ve done all we can do here. Ensign Hildebrand, take us out of here.”
Suddenly Doctor Browning emerged from the forward turbolift, and ran toward Baxter. “Andy! I’ve got a super big favor to ask of you.”
“Name it,” Baxter said, standing. “You actually missed the shipwide emergency this time.”
“Great,” Browning said. “Could you and Kelly double date with me and Doctor Leonardo tonight?”
Baxter blinked at Browning. “You’re kidding.”
“No, I’m not,” Browning said. “A double-date is the perfect follow up to a perfect date, which is what I had last night.”
“Really?” Baxter asked, scratching his head. “You had a good time?”
“Oh, Andy, I had better than a good time,” Browning said, grabbing Baxter’s arm and leading him up to his readyroom. “Wait till I tell you everything!”
“Captain, one of the Prefect’s ships just broke formation and is coming toward us on a suicide run!” J’hana said from tactical as Baxter walked by.
“Vansen, you can handle it,” Baxter said distantly, ducking with Browning into the readyroom.
As the ship shook violently, Baxter walked over to his desk and sat on it as Browning flopped onto his couch.
“So. Your date went well, huh?”
“Oh, Andy, it was the best. Doctor Doug knew all the right things to say.”
“Doctor Doug,” Baxter muttered to himself. “Who calls themselves that? I don’t go around calling myself Captain Andy.”
Browning folded her arms. “You make Kelly call you that in bed and you know it.”
Baxter gulped. “She told you that?” Browning nodded.
“Anyway, Doctor Doug is just…fun,” Browning said. “He makes me laugh. It’s hard to pinpoint, but he just has this probing…squirrely way about himself I just can’t get enough of. It’s…addictive.”
Baxter leaned back against his desk. “Whoa. I didn’t realize you were serious here.”
“Well, it’s a little early to say that. But, you could say this is the closest thing I have right now to introducing a guy to my parents.”
Baxter sighed. “Great. Now Kelly and I have become like your parents.”
“No!” Browning said, leaning up. “That’s not what I meant at all. It’s just…I really care about what you two think. And this is your chance to really get to know him. Who knows, at the end of things, maybe Kelly will get to like Doctor Doug. They do both share an interest in psychology and pets!”
“You’ve got a point,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “Yeah, it’s worth a shot.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Sure. Captain’s Mess?”
“That would be perfect, Andy. Thanks for supporting me in this!”
“What else would I do?” Baxter asked as Browning walked out the door.
“Hey,” Browning said, stopping in the doorway and turning to face Baxter. “Why haven’t I seen Christopher on the bridge today?”
“He took today and tomorrow off.”
“Any idea what for?”
Baxter sat on his hands. “Not a one!”
“Hmm. Weird,” Browning said, and ducked out of the readyroom.
“So. Doctor Doug,” Captain Baxter said, peering over his steepled fingers as a crewman sat a steaming bowl of jambalaya down in front of him.
“Captain Baxter,” Leonardo returned from the opposite end of the table as Browning sat beside him. “Where is your lovely wife?”
“She said to start without us,” Baxter said, pulling a napkin into his lap. “She’s finishing up some work.”
“I thought she was on leave,” Leonardo said, studying Baxter carefully as he swirled his spoon in his bowl.
“This is more recreational-type work, actually,” Baxter said. “She can tell you all about it when she gets here.” His eyes shifted from Leonardo to Browning. “But let’s talk about you some more. What brings you to the Explorer?”
“Beside my trans-galactic fame?”
“Trans-galactic?” Baxter said between spoonfuls of jambalaya.
“Well, I don’t mean to brag, but they are beaming transmissions of my pet therapy show into the Andromeda galaxy and all indications are that intelligent life is watching.”
Browning leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands. “What sort of indications?”
“Well, we haven’t received any hate mail from Andromeda so there must be beings there who can enjoy a solid holovision program revolving around emotionally troubled pets.”
“Or else nobody’s watching,” Baxter said under his breath as the door slid open and Counselor Peterman strolled in, carrying her cat, Fritz.
“Conjugating verbs…ick! Who needs it?” Peterman said easily as she sat Fritz down on a beanbag cushion next to the viewport. She then walked over and sat down beside Baxter as a crewman put a bowl of jambalaya in front of her. “Everyone having a good time?”
Baxter nodded. “All sorts of fun. Right, doc?”
Browning and Leonardo looked at each other.
“Docs,” Baxter corrected.
“Doctor Doug was just telling us all about his show,” Browning said, touching Leonardo’s arm. “It’s quite good. Have you ever seen it, Kelly?”
“I really only have time to catch Days of Honor,” Peterman said absently as she dipped her spoon into her bowl.
“Please tell me you don’t actually watch that drivel!” Leonardo fairly shouted, his spoon clanging into his bowl.
“On the contrary, Doctor, I find I quite enjoy drivel,” Peterman said, affecting a snooty tone of voice. “Don’t you, darling?” she asked, looking at Baxter.
“Yes,” Baxter said. “Um…drivel is good.”
“Well,” Browning said diplomatically. “As the old saying goes: different strokes for different folks! Ooh…that reminds me, I need to go check on a patient.” Browning got up and kissed Leonardo on the cheek, then dashed out of the room.
The room was quiet for several minutes, except for the sound of Baxter smacking his lips as he ate his soup.
“Isn’t this nice,” Peterman said.
“You still didn’t tell us why you came to the Explorer,” Baxter said, his mouth half-full. “I mean, if you’re so famous, why live aboard a starship? Especially one going into deep space?”
“Because, dear captain, I have a higher calling than fame,” Leonardo said, standing, gracefully. “I am a man on a quest.”
“We’ve been getting a lot of that lately,” Peterman muttered.
“What are you looking for?” Baxter asked.
Leonardo gracefully stood, strolled toward the other end of the room and knelt by the beanbag where Fritz was laying. He reached out and tickled the kitten under the chin. Fritz then reared back and chomped down on Leonardo’s hand. The doctor emotionlessly pulled his hand free of Fritz’s mouth and stood up, heading for the door. “It’s been a lovely meal,” Leonardo said. “I’m sure I’ll see you all again soon.”
“Don’t mention it,” Baxter called out as the doctor slipped out of the Captain’s Mess. He stared down into his bowl as Peterman leaned down and pulled Fritz into her lap. “Did that guy strike you as a bit odd, honey?”
Peterman gently patted Fritz’s fur, idly wondering why the cat seemed so worked up. Usually Fritz enjoyed attacking people, but this time his hackles were up and his ears perked, and he was breathing rather heavily. “He’s trouble. That’s what I was trying to tell you. Only you didn’t believe me. You wanted me to try and be friends with him.”
“Well, we do owe Janice at least that much, if she plans on being in a relationship with Leonardo.”
“We won’t have to worry about that much longer,” Peterman said. “I’m going to go have a talk with her.” And she stood up and headed for the door.
“Honey, do you think that’s a good–” Baxter began, but Peterman was already gone. The captain shrugged and returned to his soup. No reason to let a perfectly good meal go to waste.
After dinner, Baxter returned to his quarters, where he found Peterman sitting on the couch, staring out the window as the stars streaked by.
“Did you have your talk with Janice?” he asked, sitting down by Peterman.
“Yes, if you could call it that,” Peterman said, rubbing her eyes and leaning her head back. “She kicked me out of Sickbay. Said I was overreacting, and jealous of Doctor Doug’s success, and that I should mind my own business. Can you believe that? She psychoanalyzed ME! Of all people!”
“Oh,” Baxter said. His husband senses told him to lie fragrantly in this instance. “Well that’s absurd. I don’t see how she’d come to that conclusion.”
“He’s controlling her mind somehow,” Peterman said. “I’m going to have Tilleran shadow him tomorrow and see if she can’t pick up on anything.”
“Honey, don’t you think you’ve done enough skulking around the ship, carrying out covert operations against seemingly innocent people?”
“Seems to me my last covert operation was dead on target. Or need I remind you that the last ‘seemingly innocent’ guy kidnapped you and stole the Escort?”
“No, you’ve already reminded me enough,” Baxter sighed. “Just promise me this time that you’ll be careful not to do anything that might land you in any more legal trouble.”
“Of course,” Peterman said, resting one of her hands on Baxter’s. “I’ll cover my tracks better this time.”
The next morning Captain Baxter arrived at Janice Browning’s cabin promptly at 0800, the normal time she left to go jogging. He pressed the door chime. It was time to head this thing off at the pass before somebody did something that really damaged the friendship they all shared. He’d make Kelly’s apologies, and try to explain to Browning that the two of them were just concerned about her. That would make things right.
“Janice,” Baxter said, as the door slid open. “I just want you to know…that you’re…Doctor Doug?”
Leonardo gave a small grin as he edged past Baxter, zipping up his plaid oxford sweater vest and stepping out into the corridor. “Good morning, Captain. You slept well, I trust?”
“Very good,” he grinned. “So did I.”
“Um…” Baxter said, holding a finger up as Leonardo walked off. “Hold on one…”
But he was already gone around the corner.
“Morning, Andy,” Browning said, wrapped up in a housecoat, gesturing Baxter into her cabin.
“Janice, it’s none of my business, but…”
“But you’ll ask anyway,” Browning said with a small giggle as Baxter walked in. “No, we didn’t sleep together. Well. Yes, we slept together. But no, we didn’t sleep together together. Know what I mean?”
Baxter shook his head. “Honestly, no.”
“We didn’t have sex,” she said flatly, and then headed to the replicator. “Breakfast?”
“Um….sure. I’ll have a bagel.”
“Good idea,” Browning said, punching a control. “Computer, four whole wheat bagels please.” She looked back at Baxter. “Hummus, salmon spread…?”
“With cream cheese,” she said.
“In case we decide after the first bagels that we want…more bagels,” Browning said, then brought the tray of bagels over to her kitchen table, where Baxter sat opposite her. “Well. Let me have it.”
“Have what?” Baxter asked as he munched.
“Tell me how bad this relationship is for me.”
“I wasn’t going to say any such thing.”
“You were too,” Browning said. “You just don’t have the guts to do it.” She sighed. “You heard how I reacted to Kelly last night and you don’t want to be the next to be yelled at.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever yelled at me,” Baxter said, staring down at his bagel.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Browning said softly, then grinned. “But I’m too happy to yell. Andy…you’ve got to understand, I haven’t felt like this around a guy for a long time. Not even the second time around with Christopher. I feel…giddy.”
“Oh so giddy?”
“Yes. I feel absolutely…I don’t know. I can’t explain it. There’s just something…”
“Mind control?” Baxter blurted.
“It’s not mind control!” Browning snapped. “It’s the very early stages of a….”
Baxter looked down again. “Oh. I see.”
“And I want to see where it leads.”
Baxter nodded. “And…where do you think it will lead?”
“I don’t need to think about that right now. And neither do you. And neither does Kelly. Look, I appreciate that you guys are concerned for me, but you have to realize that after all the time I’ve spent alone, I need this.”
“I guess it’s only now dawning on me that you’ve been lonely lately.”
“That’s okay,” Browning said. “It just dawned on me too.”
“So what now?” Baxter asked.
Browning smiled. “What now is we eat our bagels.”
“Counselor, I’m flattered, but you realize I’m not your own personal divining rod,” Tilleran said, as she and Peterman walked down a corridor on one of the residence decks.
“Of course you’re not,” Peterman said, waving her hand dismissively. “But you are the Chief Science Officer. And if someone on the ship is crazy, or just plain evil, you should know about it…you know, for scientific reasons.”
“If this is an investigation, shouldn’t J’hana be handling it?”
“It’s not an investigation until we find something, and that’s what I need you for. We’ll bring J’hana in on this when the time is right. We don’t want her hauling off and killing the guy. You know how she’s prone to do that.”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said wistfully.
“So. Any readings yet?”
The Betazoid shook her head. “No. It’s a little cloudy. “
“Ah, I’m sure it’s just stress,” Peterman said, slapping Tilleran on the back. “Now find me that psychotic pet therapist! Prove to me he’s using mind control!”
“I don’t know how I’m going to make my log entry today,” Tilleran sighed, and concentrated. “He’s in this section,” she said suddenly, then looked at the floor. “But one deck down.”
“One deck down?” Peterman said. “But that’s near…”
“J’hana to Peterman. I’ve just recorded an unauthorized entry in your office. Shall I flood the compartment with deadly nerve gas?”
“No, no!” Peterman said. “Just meet me down there. ASAP!”
“Very well. I will bring weapons.”
“Good idea!” Peterman said, as she and Tilleran raced for the nearest turbolift.
“Maybe we should wait for J’hana,” Tilleran suggested as she and Peterman skidded to a halt in front of Peterman’s office.
“Are you kidding?” Peterman said. “My cat’s in there.”
“You think he’s after your CAT?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. The guy could be capable of anything. I saw the evil in his eyes. When are people on this ship going to realize that when I say someone’s a sociopath, I’m usually right. It’s my job!”
“Hey, you’ve made a believer out of me,” Tilleran said as Peterman keyed open the door to her office.
Peterman and Tilleran both watched, mouths gaping, as the door open and a most peculiar scene unfolded in front of them.
Doctor Doug was on his knees, on the floor, lifting Fritz the cat up off the ground, hands around the orange striped feline’s neck, shaking it violently.
“Tell me everything you know, you vicious little animal! Where is he? Where is George Saint Fluffsnuggles? Talk to me!”
“Let go of him!” Counselor Peterman shrieked, diving at Leonardo and knocking him down, sending Fritz tumbling backwards to the deck.
“Fluffersnuggles?” Tilleran asked absently as the two therapists rolled around on the deck.
J’hana arrived seconds later, breathless, phaser drawn, looking over Tilleran’s shoulder. “What is happening here?”
“Cat fight,” Tilleran said simply.
“What do you mean you shot BOTH of them?” Captain Baxter railed as he and Browning marched down the corridor toward the brig.
J’hana walked beside Baxter, an unusual spring in her step. She always enjoyed phaser fire before lunch. “It seemed the prudent thing to do.”
“Well, the next time you get the ‘prudent’ urge to shoot my wife with a phaser, how about you shoot yourself instead?”
“Oh, how many times I’ve tried,” J’hana sighed.
“I can’t believe you shot her!”
“In my defense, sir, she does have a history of violent, anti-social behavior.”
“She kidnapped two poodles!”
“She also shot me. Now we’re even.”
“Oh, well now it comes out!” Baxter said, throwing his hands up. “This was all about getting your revenge.”
“Actually, according to Andorian custom, I should have shot you, her husband, as well.”
“Oh, well thank goodness you ignored THAT little tradition,” Baxter snapped.
“The day is young, Captain.”
Baxter waved a warning finger at J’hana. “Now, you listen here, Lieutenant…”
“Andy,” Browning said. “Shut up.”
Baxter’s shoulders fell a little bit. “Right.”
“I like this Leonardo fellow, Doctor Browning. He’s quite insane,” J’hana said. “May I say, I think he’s a better fit for you than Commander Richards.”
“You shut up too.”
“Of course,” J’hana said, as the group came to the doors to the brig.
“I can’t wait to gloat at this guy,” Baxter said with a giddy giggle.
“Go to the bridge,” Browning tossed over her shoulder as she walked in.
“I’m handling this,” she said.
“You heard the lady,” J’hana said, following Browning in.
“You too!” Browning said, and J’hana obediently backed toward Baxter, allowing the doors to the brig to swing shut again, leaving the captain and tactical officer alone in the corridor.
“She’s being a little touchy, don’t you think, sir?”
“She’s just heartbroken, J’hana,” Baxter said with a sigh. “It isn’t every day you meet someone you really feel like you can stand.”
J’hana nodded. “On this ship, it’s a near impossibility.”
“Doctor! So glad to see you!” Doctor Jarvay Ranowat said from his brig cell, smiling broadly as Browning walked into the brig. “Are you here to ask me to come join your staff?”
“No,” Browning said, not really looking at Ranowat. “I’m here to see someone else.”
“I miss you, Doctor,” Ranowat said, stepping close to the forcefield of his cell. “It’s so lonely in here. The only one who comes to see me is Counselor Peterman. And sometimes the guards talk to me. Gosh, I’m lonely. Don’t you see, I just need someone who loves me? Then I’ll be all better!”
“That and about forty-four ccs of stabilizine,” Browning muttered.
“Eat me and die screaming you fetid bitch!” Ranowat suddenly shouted, throwing himself at the forcefield. Browning just shrugged and proceeded to the next cell.
Ensign Adam Keefler looked up from a padd he was reading at a desk in the back of the brig. “Ranowat! Calm down or you won’t get din- dins!”
“I don’t care about din-dins! I just want out, so I can bash Browning’s head in! I mean… kiss her passionately!”
“Doctor Browning, you may want to keep your visit brief,” Keefler said as Browning walked up to Dr. Doug’s cell.
“It will be, Ensign,” Browning said, then looked over her shoulder at Keefler. “Could you give us a few minutes.”
Keefler looked from one cell to the other. “Um…just a few minutes. I’ll be right outside if you need me.”
“She’ll let out a blood curtling scream if she needs anything,” Ranowat said as Keefler walked out of the brig. Then the doctor collapsed into a fetal ball and wept openly.
Browning stared across the crackling energy field at Doug Leonardo, who laid down on the bunk in his cell, staring up at the ceiling.
“My God, will that man ever stop ranting?” Leonardo muttered. “He seems to only shut up when he cries.”
“At least he cries a lot,” Browning said helpfully.
“Indeed,” said Leonardo.
“Doug…why did you do that?”
The therapist leaned up on his elebows. “You mean use your toothbrush this morning? You said it would be okay…”
“No. I mean why did you break into Kelly’s office and try to kill her cat?”
“You might want to start working on some reasons,” Browning said. “When we get back to Federation space, you’re going to have to see a therapist.”
“Counselor Peterman refuses to speak to me, then?” Leonardo said.
“For obvious reasons. I mean, she’s already lost one pet this year…”
“I wasn’t trying to kill Fritz, Janice. I was trying to get information out of him.”
Browning scratched her head. “Information? He’s a cat!”
“That’s what he’d have you believe.” Leonardo smiled wryly. “No, no. Suffice it to say, Fritz is far more than he lets on.”
“And how do you know?” Browning demanded.
“Because the genetic test is confirmed, dear Doctor Browning. Fritz is a direct descendant of George Saint Fluffersnuggles. My ex-wife’s cat.”
“Well, then,” Browning muttered. “That just explains everything now, doesn’t it?”
Leonardo let out a low moan and turned to face the brig wall. “Why am I even bothering to try to explain this to you? You won’t understand. None of you fools on this ship will. You’re all doomed and you don’t even know it.”
“Because of some information Kelly’s cat holds?”
Leonardo turned on his side and stared at Browning. “My dear, that cat is just the beginning of your troubles.”
“You know, I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, Doug, but everyone else is right. You’re nuts,” Browning snapped, then turned around and headed for the brig door.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” Leonardo called after her. “You’ll all see!”
Janice Browning sat in a chair on the patio in front of Space Tastes, twirling a toothpick in her mouth, feet propped on a table, staring out at the other shops and the few evening shoppers that made their way up and down the corridors of Ship’s Shoppes.
She’d just polished off an entire pizza, and was slowly working her way through a pitcher of birch beer. She wasn’t sure if it was one of the more intoxicating varieties of beer, but it sure did taste good.
“Doctor Browning, good evening,” Federation President Bradley Dillon said, approaching the patio, his security officers surrounding him. “May I ask what your special is tonight?”
“You obviously didn’t get the message on the shipwide information net,” Browning said. “We closed early tonight.”
“Oh,” Bradley said. “No, I wasn’t aware of that.” He glanced at one of his guards, who shrank back a little bit. “I will have to improve my communications system.”
“Good luck with that,” Browning said distantly.
“I do have a dilemma now,” Bradley said. “I have nowhere to have dinner.”
“The Gilded Tribble is down on the lower level. The special is flaming duck.”
“Hmm,” Bradley said. “I generally prefer my meals not flaming. I suppose I’ll adjourn to the Executive Dining Room.”
Bradley nodded. “I will. Good evening, Doctor.” And the President turned around to head out of Ship’s Shoppes. He got three steps away when he turned on a heel and faced Browning again. “Doctor…would you care to join me for dinner?”
Browning looked at him. “I wouldn’t be very good company tonight.”
“That doesn’t matter. As I recall, I owe you a meal, and tonight my social calendar happens to be clear.”
“I’m sure that’s a rarity,” Browning sighed.
“That is an understatement,” Bradley said, walking up to Browning and extending an arm. “Shall we?”
Browning looked at Bradley a moment, then shrugged. “Why not?”
“Perhaps on our way up to the dining room, you can explain to me exactly why you’re in such poor spirits this evening.”
“It might take a while.
“I have a while.”
They’d barely reached the turbolift, and already Bradley Dillon was appalled.
“Strangled? That poor cat.” He thought about it a moment. “I happen to like that particular animal. It was…nice to me once. Is he okay? The cat, that is?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Browning said, then studied Bradley thoughtfully. “You know what, Mister President? You have a good heart.”
“You’re entitled to your opinion, Doctor, but I wouldn’t spread that rumor around if I were you. Business reasons, of course.” Bradley rubbed his chin as one of his attendants reached out and touched the control to call the turbolift. “Now that you mention it, I do seem to recall that cat acting rather strangely.”
“Oh, don’t you start,” Browning mumbled.
“Just an observation,” Bradley said with a weak smile as the turbolift doors opened.
Commander Chris Richards stepped out, arm in arm with Lt. Susan Madera.
“Janice!” he exclaimed. “I’m so glad we ran into you. I wanted to tell you the news in person.”
“And what could that be,” Browning said dully. “That you two are getting married?” She let out a small chortle.
“Yeah!” Madera exclaimed, thrusting her hand in Browning’s face. “Look at the size of this ring!”
Bradley Dillon leaned forward and examined the ring. “Zincromium,” he said. “Yes, we sell this ring in my store. It’s quite popular with freighter captains and terraformers.”
“And it’s the nicest one you have!” Richards said, winking at Bradley. “Right, Mister President?”
“My stores sell only high-quality merchandise,” he said simply.
“Christopher, I…” Browning said, a little taken aback, and about sick of staring at Madera’s ring. She gently pushed Madera’s hand away and affected her best fake smile. “I’m very happy for you two.”
“We’ve been in the holodeck the last two days celebrating at a ski resort in the Alps,” Richards said, wrapping an arm around Madera’s waist. “I know it seems a little impulsive. It just seemed like the right thing to do. You know, after I saw Mirk do it, I thought to myself, why not?”
“Isn’t he romantic?” Madera swooned. “I just knew he’d come around eventually.”
“Yeah,” Browning said in a low voice. “He’s good at that.”
“So,” Richards said. “I heard you were seeing that therapist guy. How’d that work out?”
“Ask someone else,” Browning said, and stalked into the turbolift, grabbing Bradley by the hand and pulling him in with her.
“My entourage!” Bradley exclaimed, reaching out a hand for the four bulky men in black suits left behind in the corridor.
“You won’t be needing them,” Browning said, and grabbed Bradley’s cheeks, pulling him into a kiss as the doors closed.
Madera looked at Richards. “What’s gotten into her?”
Bradley’s guards looked at each other, exchanging confused glances.
“I don’t think she’s going to hurt him,” Richards said with an uneasy smile, his arm draped around Madera. “No, suffice it to say, I think Janice’s going to be just fi….”
The deck suddenly rattled as the turbolift doors blew open. A fireball shot up through the turbolift shaft, sending smoke and flames billowing out into the corridor, knocking everyone to the deck, as alarm klaxons rang out and the air became thick and black.
The all-call sounded with a “bleep,” as Captain Baxter’s voice came over the shipwide comm channel:
“All hands, this is your captain. We’ve had a little explosion down on Deck Twenty. Please remain clear of that area until the fires are put out and the damage control teams are fully dispatched. Any casualties should be reported to the bridge immediately, if there are any. That is all.”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
It now seems obvious that someone’s out to kill President Bradley Dillon. Yes, of course you’ve heard that before, but this time, the whole Explorer may just be the target. Can J’hana figure out how to stop this insane person from carrying out his/her evil plan(s) before it’s too late, or is everyone basically screwed? And what the hell happened to that turbolift?