Okay, so I'm procrastinating. (Antra: I do promise the next Big Story is on its way …) But sometimes you just gotta walk into a coffee shop, or sit down with a nice cab-merlot - just to relax and inhale the rich, heady fumes, right?
This one is meant to be pure, unadulterated (so to speak) fun. And taking my cues from the wonderful world that is Star Trek, logic has really very little to do with anything herein … Oh, and it will help a little - but really, only a very little - if you have seen "Prophecy" (the Klingons in the Delta Quadrant episode) and Bride of Chaotica (the most hysterical hour of Voyager ever). The latter would help you make sense of the title but if you don't really care about self-indulgent, geekish references, I'm perfectly good with that.
Paramount owns everything except the story, the slimy aliens we only get to meet off-screen, and the oblique references to events in an earlier story of mine ("Questions"). I write for fun, not profit.
By Alpha Flyer
Another grind of a day in the Delta Quadrant.
Kathryn Janeway wiped a tired hand across her brow and pulled her satin robe across her chest, drawing the belt in more tightly. Chakotay had looked at her funny when she left the bridge right after Alpha shift ended, but for once she felt she needed some downtime and had decided to take it.
The meetings with the P'larians had gone well, all things considered; first contact with any species was tricky at the best of times. But for Janeway, the need to maintain her Starfleet-engrained pride and dignity, when forced essentially to ask for free handouts, always turned the fine art of diplomacy into the psychological equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.
She sighed as her mind scrolled past all the compromises she had been forced to make this day.
Pious thoughts of first contact procedures had fallen by the wayside first, as soon as B'Elanna Torres had confirmed that the recent invasion of Voyager by several hundred Klingon exiles - all keen on communing with her unborn child - had resulted in a severe depletion of the ship's energy reserves. A critical shortage of both food stores and dilithium crystals made landfall on the nearest planet with a sustainable source a matter of survival, not choice.
Enter P'lar, class L and looking like a more humid version of Earth during the Jurassic period. Neelix practically drooled at the thought of the meals he would be able to inflict on the crew from the many and varied botanicals that covered its landmasses.
Next, therefore, came the rationalization that a race of sentient, benign mollusks of limited motility - whose intellectual interests were almost exclusively focused on a philosophical exegesis of their planet's stagnant atmospheric conditions - would never likely develop an interest in space travel. Interference by Voyager in their development, Janeway convinced herself, was highly unlikely. So how could the Prime Directive possibly be infringed?
She had not asked Tuvok, Voyager's resident expert in Starfleet Protocol, whether he had agreed with that assessment, and the Vulcan had wisely not volunteered an opinion. Even Tom Paris, who had his own readily-articulated views (usually embedded in a string of obscenities) on the Prime Directive, had kept his motor mouth in check for once and just cast her a knowing, ever-so-slightly-baleful blue-eyed look. She figured she'd have to make it up to him somehow; maybe she'd let him beat her at pool at Sandrine's some day, over a glass of Chakotay's not-so-secret Antarian cider and a free-wheeling discussion about hobgoblins and small minds.
But once Janeway had resolutely moved her officers beyond any considerations of precedent and protocol, unforeseen logistical problems had reared their head. As it turned out, the P'larians did not communicate verbally, telepathically or even by means of gestures or other visual stimuli. Their language consisted exclusively of glandular secretions, scents and pheromones, transmitted on the planet's ever-present currents of humid air. The challenge presented by this form of communication had stymied the universal translator.
Luckily, Voyager's at times surprisingly ingenuous Chief Pilot had dredged from his erratic memory banks a moderately successful science project from his Academy days – the very one, in fact, that had resulted in the biochemistry credit which had doomed him to his part-time position as the ship's medic. The project had involved the communication systems and behavioural patterns of Earth's many species of ants, and the dissection of their chemical messages into semantically and socio-linguistically decipherable elements.
Tom Paris had delivered his idea with the semi-apologetic shrug he always gave when weighing in on something beyond navigation or propulsion systems. But combined with his wife's unsurpassed engineering expertise, Harry Kim's knowledge of the ship's operating systems and the EMH's vast data bank of pheromones, it had resulted in a successful reprogramming of the universal translator.
Communication with the P'larians was now possible.
The next phase was a bust, regardless. The first away team, led by Tuvok and Neelix, had returned empty-handed, despite careful preparations. The P'larians they had encountered were polite, but unresponsive. They did indicate their willingness to discuss access to their planet's dilithium caves, but certain … protocols would have to be observed during the negotiations.
The detail of just what that protocol entailed caused Kathryn to swallow, Harry Kim to turn the colour of Chakotay's uniform, and Chakotay to shake his head in mute, open-mouthed protest. Tom Paris had erupted into a prolonged cough that sounded suspiciously like a suppressed guffaw. It was a good thing he was sitting at the helm; for once he refrained from turning around, afraid to meet his commanding officers' eyes.
The things a Captain did for her ship... Kathryn closed her eyes, and tried to think of her last Betazoid wedding. She could do this.
Then came the sonic showers, the top-to-bottom decontamination, the careful cleansing of teeth, under the Doctor's up-close-and-personal supervision. Anything to remove from her body any of the trace odours or bacterial emitters that could conceivably be considered as deadly insults – or worse, lascivious come-ons – by the delicate P'larian sensory organs, despite what the universal translator might have to say on the matter.
Janeway had resolutely resisted her First Officer's attempts to accompany her to the surface. While she was pretty confident that he had long since given up any hope of ever being more than her friend, he was, after all, a healthy male and to her knowledge had not been near a woman since that cleverly disguised representative of Species 8472 (if that even counted). The sight of her trim figure in the clothes-free state that was the norm for P'larian society, she figured, might easily result in … pheromonal miscommunication. Or worse.
And so Captain Kathryn Janeway transported down to P'lar alone - discreetly, site-to-site, from the privacy of her quarters straight to the planet's surface. The transport had been followed by two hours of painfully slow "discussions" – if it could be called that – in atmospherics best described as moist, slimy, and dank with spores and strange olfactory sensations.
Dressed only in her communicator - which, thank goodness, had no visual transmission mode – the Captain had thanked Pinocchio's lucky star that Tom Paris had long since become a Real Boy, a responsible adult whose impending fatherhood would surely discourage him from juvenile pranks like installing holocams in compromising locations.
Lord, what a day.
But she had been successful, and the P'larians most generous. In exchange for a holographic meteorological history of Earth (from the 20th to the mid-24th century) that would keep her hosts in a blissful stage of slithery contemplation for decades, the ship's dilithium chambers were full to the brim, and Neelix' pantry and stasis storage fields groaning with fresh produce.
With a heavy sigh and finally, deliciously, dry from the sonic shower – her bathtub had lost its usual appeal after an afternoon spent in a dripping, warm swamp - Kathryn walked up to her replicator. Rations had been reinstated; time for a little indulgence, Captain's privilege.
God, how she'd been craving this.
The machine made its familiar tingling sound and she reached for the cup, lifted it to her lips with half-closed eyes, slurped delicately, and froze. The tip of her tongue touched something that was … definitely not coffee. Nor was it hot. Or even liquid, for that matter.
She spat the offending substance back into the mug and wiped the back of her left hand across her lips and tongue, desperate to get rid of the unexpectedly salty, slightly putrid taste. The scientist in her successfully restrained her instincts, which screamed at her to throw the … whatever it was as far away as she possibly could, and she set the cup down carefully at arm's length on the counter beside the replicator. Leaning forward on her toes, she peered inside. And gagged.
Inside the cup was a wriggling, seething mass of what looked like … maggots? Worms? A word rose from her subconscious. Never was a substance more aptly named.
She hit her comm badge.
"Janeway to Torres. B'Elanna, can you come to my quarters please? I seem to be having a … little problem with my replicator."
"On my way, Captain," the Chief Engineer's voice came back sounding a little reluctant, and Janeway felt a brief pang of guilt at having commed her, rather than Vorik or Joe Carey. Halfway through her pregnancy now, the Chief was not as energetic as she used to be and frequently subject to awkward hormonal cross-checks.
Being summoned to the Captain's quarters might just put her into a seriously lousy mood - poor Tom would be the one to suffer the consequences. Oh well, served the pilot right, for going out with – let alone marrying - a half-Klingon.
Wait – where had that come from? And just why exactly did she seem to be thinking about Tom Paris every other minute, anyway? Kathryn frowned, and examined her possible motivations with scientific, almost clinical precision.
She and Tom … well, the "and" had been a one-off occurrence, rather a long time ago, following their rescue from the consequences of his ill-fated transwarp flight. Their brief encounter had been satisfying, pleasurable and emotionally healing for both of them at the time, but definitely not something either party had ever remotely considered repeating or dwelling on. Friendship with benefits, one time only.
So why this … sudden flash of possessiveness? A consequence of too many hours spent on a damp and dripping world? Had the sight of those aesthetically challenged, naked, sluglike creatures on swampy P'lar brought back deeply submerged memories of certain post-transwarp … encounters?
Get a grip, Janeway.
The door chimed, and the Captain quickly glanced down the length of her body to make sure she was, in fact, dressed - just in case it was someone other than the Chief. Like the Chief's handsome husband. Stop it, Janeway. The robe was securely in place. The things that spending the day naked in a tropical steam bath could do to a person's mind …
B'Elanna was still - almost - capable of her usual stride, but Janeway couldn't help but notice that her posture had changed subtly, as more of her weight was now located up front. She had started wearing that unfortunate smock again – at least this time around there was a reason for it - but her skin looked radiant, her hair had that healthy gloss, and Kathryn felt another brief pang of envy.
The half-Klingon did appear somewhat irritated at having been summoned, but her smile when she greeted the Captain was genuine. This was, after all, the woman who had provided her engines with the dilithium needed to keep the matter-antimatter reactors purring. She had been able to cancel the diversion that had directed energy from all non-essential systems towards the warp engines, and things were looking good for the first time in weeks.
"So what seems to be the problem, Captain?" she asked politely. Kathryn just pointed at the mug, and its writhing, wriggling contents.
"I asked the replicator for coffee," she managed to grind out. "And got this …"
B'Elanna took a step forward, and her eyebrows shot up. She scooped up the cup and sniffed, a look of bliss briefly crossing her face.
"I didn't know our replicators could do a proper gagh," she said. "That is unusual, especially the fact that it seems to be … alive, not like that pseudo-kinetic stuff Neelix has been trying to sell me on for years."
Janeway glared at her, the irritation caused by her long, difficult day peeking through her grey eyes. "I didn't exactly invite you here to marvel at what the replicator did produce, Lieutenant. My problem is what it did not produce, and that is coffee. Which is what I really needed after the day I just had."
"You're not the only one, Captain," B'Elanna informed her, with a barely suppressed evil grin. "Apparently Tuvok tried to get a cup of Vulcan tea from the replicator in his quarters, and … well, let's just say what came out was not what he expected."
In fact, Tuvok had returned to his quarters - which he had finally managed to restore to their pristine Vulcan order after the devastation wrought by Neelix and his Klingon paramour - intending to start an evening of quiet contemplation. Which was quickly shattered when his replicator produced something that looked suspiciously like a Talaxian … And no, he hadn't elaborated further.
Tuvok had already recycled the offending item when B'Elanna arrived on the scene, but the memory of the undisguised disgust on his face – followed by a deep green blush when asked, quite innocently, just how he had known what it was – sent the engineer in to a very un-Klingon giggle fit. She absently reached into the Captain's cup with two elegant fingers, extracted a couple of wriggling worms, held them aloft and sucked them into her mouth like spaghetti, giving a brief shiver of delight.
"Mmmh, this is good. Sure beats what Tuvok got out of his replicator. I've been having a craving for this stuff for weeks. Tom's actually been trying to program the replicator to make it for me, but …"
Belatedly recalling her professional obligations when Janeway glared at her, B'Elanna turned her attention to the replicator she had been summoned to fix.
"Coffee, black," she ordered.
Nothing happened, but seconds later her comm badge chirped and Tom Paris' voice came through, with a husky tone Janeway had never, ever heard him use before. Well, maybe she'd heard it once, but that had been a long time ago. To be precise, four years, six months and seventeen days …
"Hey Bee, what's up? Feeling that need again? Well, I'll certainly be ready when you are …"
"Tom!" his wife hissed in a sudden, embarrassed panic when his words sank in. "Audience!"
The Captain's eyebrows shot up. Was this the kind of exchange her officers used the comm system for when they thought no one was listening? Her mind raced through a number of times recently, when her chief helmsman had seemed somewhat distracted at the conn ... She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry.
There was a momentary silence, and Paris' voice came back, audibly chastened. "Well, why exactly did you call me?"
"I didn't call you. I ordered something from the Captain's replicator, and you answered. On our private line."
B'Elanna emphasized the last two words for the benefit of her Captain, whose thoughts were written across her face as clearly as if they had been etched there by the universal translator. Having first been chastised by Janeway for indiscreet behaviour in public and then finding their extracurricular activities catalogued by Seven of Nine, the two lieutenants had actually gone to considerable lengths to conceal certain private … communications under several layers of encryption. What had just happened was the comm sex equivalent of a hull breach.
"That's weird, I could have sworn …"
Whatever Tom Paris could have sworn to was never confirmed, as Janeway's own comm badge chirped to life.
"Tuvok to Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay." So much for a quiet evening with a nice cup of coffee in the privacy of her quarters. The security officer had clearly been scared out of his and had gone back on duty himself, suffering little compunction to make others do likewise.
"I believe you should be aware that there was a disturbance in the mess hall just now. Ensign Delaney – Meghan Delaney that is – physically assaulted Crewman Mulcahy. Apparently he made lewd remarks concerning certain of her … physical attributes, which were overheard by both her sister and Ensign Kim. Crewman Mulcahy maintains that he said nothing at all, a statement that has been corroborated by his own table companions."
Janeway sighed. What was Tuvok planning to do – throw Meghan Delaney in the brig? This didn't sound like her. "On my way." She gave her replicator a dirty look as she headed for the door. Whatever this evening was turning into, she was sure that this glorified toaster had something to do with it.
B'Elanna cleared her throat. The temptation to remain quiet after Janeway's assumption that she and Tom would misuse an open line for private endeavours had been considerable, but there was retaliation, and then there was … gratuitous meanness.
"Captain, you may wish to put your uniform on before you go."
The mess hall was a bit of a zoo, to borrow one of Tom Paris' quainter phrasings. It often was – especially halfway during Beta shift, when the Alpha rotation was setting down for dinner and a spot of relaxation, while Gamma was trying to wake up and get energized for another night in the Delta Quadrant - but this was different.
First, it appeared that the replicators had initially been very popular tonight, given that P'lar had apparently provided Neelix with vast quantities of a close relative of leola root. But what they had produced was a range of intriguing things no one recalled requesting, ranging from banana pancakes with a wriggling side of raHya', to Rokeg blood pie and zilm'kach. Even though the raktajino had been superior, people had soon tired of risking perfectly good rations on what amounted to Klingon roulette; the appreciation for Neelix' offerings had risen considerably, albeit with a concurrent decline in the general mood.
By the time the Captain and First Officer arrived, the previously reported hostilities had ceased but crewmembers were divided along two clear demarcation lines, with Neelix and Tuvok trying to hoist assorted white flags without much apparent success.
The pro-Mulcahy faction, led by Ken Dalby, maintained that while their principal may have been looking in the direction of the Delaney/Kim table – after all it wasn't entirely fair that the ensign should be sitting with two of the most eligible females on board - Sean had in fact been chewing on one of Neelix' blood sugar canes, which everyone knew was impossible to actually talk around.
The Delaney party, championed by a vociferous Harry Kim, was equally adamant in his defence of the older – by three minutes – of the Stellar Cartography twins. They may be playing the parts of Captain Proton's Mistresses of Intergalactic Evil with great abandon, but neither Jenny nor Meghan usually made a habit of slugging would-be suitors. But according to them, Mulcahy had been lasciviously tonguing the rather … suggestive object while staring at Meghan, and then muttered, quite clearly and audibly, just how much he would like to …
"That's enough," the Captain said resolutely, glaring at Tom Paris who had come into the mess hall, apparently on break from his half shift in Sickbay and in quest for caffeine, and had started to snicker uncontrollably. And no, she would not be distracted by just how … cute he looked with his blue eyes all crinkly, and those white teeth showing …
"That's enough, all of you." Janeway reiterated, tearing her eyes away from her handsome married helmsman and resisting the temptation to stamp her foot. She gave another quelling glare, in wide-dispersal mode this time in case she missed a deserving offender.
"There is something going on here, and the sooner we get to the bottom of it, the better. Until we do, Ensign Delaney and Crewman Mulcahy are confined to quarters." She tapped her comm badge.
"Attention all crew, this is the Captain speaking. Please refrain from using the replicators until further notice. That is an order. Janeway out."
She looked to B'Elanna, deliberately sliding her eyes past Tom Paris, who was standing beside his wife now and had been whispering something inaudible, and doubtless salacious, in her ear. B'Elanna snorted and whacked him in the arm before giving her undivided attention to the Captain.
"Yes, Captain, we'll prioritize the … replicator malfunctions, in case they are symptomatic of a wider problem." She nodded to Joe Carey, who had been sitting in the neutral couch zone of the mess hall, trying hard to stay unnoticed. "Come on, Joe, let's do some fixing."
When Tom Paris returned to Sickbay, coffee in hand, he found the EMH busy with some of the mosses the bio team had beamed off P'lar at his request, straight into a containment unit. Ever hopeful of discovering the Delta Quadrant equivalent of penicillin, the Doctor had collected dozens of lichen and moss specimen over the last few years, albeit so far without a major breakthrough.
Well, at least the crew had learned their lesson about airborne spores and fungi with Neelix' cheese, Tom thought to himself; certain protocols were being much more rigorously followed these days, and there was a forcefield separating the EMH and his prize specimen from Tom and the rest of Sickbay. The Doc was focused on his work, humming an old 20th century show tune about raindrops, roses, whiskers and kittens, and a refrain that referred to "…a few of my favourite things."
With no patients to look after – Mulcahy had declined medical attention - no obvious tasks to be done, and absolutely no motivation to divert the Doc from his usefully oblivious course, Tom decided to unilaterally extend his coffee break. He sat down at the console in the Doc's office to check his personal account, hoping for a line from his wife.
Whoa. Eleven messages? B'Elanna must be more desperate than she had let on, despite her earlier denial. Another notification pinged on as Tom logged in his access code.
His blue eyes widened as he scrolled down. Every one of the messages in his inbox was the electronic equivalent of lacy panties thrown at a holovid star during a public appearance. He swallowed, hard.
The collection of senders was as impressive as the subject lines: Sue Nicoletti, promising to play him like her clarinet. Amanda Lang, calling him the 'Chief Pilot of her heart', and inviting him to make her fly. Seven of Nine, offering to assimilate him – albeit only partially and temporarily - in Cargo Bay Two, at a time of his choosing. Jenny Delaney, extolling the Marvels of Magnificent Malicia that Awaited the Scourge of Intergalactic Evil Provided He Arrived in Black Leather (Jenny never did have an edit button when it came to message headers.)
Now, Tom Paris was three parts adrenaline junkie and two parts pool shark, and had spent his Academy days (largely unsuccessfully) fending off the advances of dozens of female cadets desirous of bagging the undisputed star of Nova Squadron. As a result, his only visible reaction to the unexpected onslaught was a slight blush that turned the tips of his ears pink.
The message that squicked him a little though, once he thought about it, was the one from Chakotay. Even if Tom's inbox was currently the subject of a juvenile prank, Harry Kim was far too deferential of authority to make that one up, even as a lark - it had to be real. Tom's brow furrowed in mild consternation. Chakotay? Really? Who knew?
A slight sweat now started to bead Tom's forehead, and he felt compelled to clear his throat. At the sound, the EMH stopped humming and his beady eyes zoomed in on his assistant like a laser.
"Ah, Mr. Paris, you have finally returned to the land of the working." He buzzed through the force field in his inimitable photonic fashion, blissfully free of possible contaminants, and walked over to Tom who remained rooted to his chair. "In a manner of speaking only, though, I see."
The pilot lunged forward to switch off the computer screen, which was in plain sight over his shoulder. Too late.
The Doc replayed and isolated the image from his visual subroutine, freeze-framed it and zoomed in - without mercy or compunction about privacy rights - on the source of his assistant's evident discomfort. His mouth opened slightly as his receptors took in exactly what he was seeing, and a few seconds passed before he could articulate his views with just the right blend of dripping sarcasm and smugness.
"I see. You appear to be quite the popular man tonight, Mr. Paris. Has your wife seen these … these missives? No? I didn't think so. My word. Even Seven of Nine seems to be a fan of yours suddenly."
His tone took on a slightly distracted note, which Tom figured was probably caused by futile attempts to read past the subject line and into the body of that last message.
"Don't you dare say anything to anyone, Doc," Tom hissed, having recovered enough of his equilibrium to feel a little protective - both of his own privacy and that of the people who had ostensibly commed him (or whose names had been attached to messages without their knowledge).
"I have no idea what's going on here, but it's either a prank of some kind…" Tom briefly considered that it was something he might have pulled at one time, although likely not using the names of real people; he'd never stooped that low. "… or some malfunction of the routing system. They're probably meant for other people, and for some reason all just happened to end up in my inbox."
"The routing system?" The Doc raised a supercilious eyebrow. Tom briefly filled him in on some of the odd goings-on that had been reported from the mess hall and the Captain's quarters. The EMH remained skeptical.
"Well, I can certainly see how few people on the ship would feel the urge to send you love notes, Mr. Paris, but lines like 'Chief Pilot of My Heart' are clearly not meant for anyone but you. I'm afraid you will have to come up with a better explanation than a routing malfunction. Before B'Elanna finds out."
The implication was clear: B'Elanna would find out, if the Doc had anything to do with it. And in her current state of hormonal imbalance, the very rational argument that her husband really had no control over what other people sent him would likely have about as much effect as a hug would against the Borg.
After six years in the Delta Quadrant, Tom knew a coincidence when he saw one, and this wasn't it - not with all those other little malfunctions around the ship. There was a link here, somewhere, and he had to find it before his inbox got forwarded to someone else.
His mind ran the gamut of possible suspects, from Q and his obnoxious girlfriend to telepathic pitcher plants, alien-induced waking dreams and run-of-the-mill mass hallucinations. But none of these things had, to his best recollection, ever resulted in the Chief Pilot being inundated by suggestive e-mails.
His thought processes were rudely interrupted.
"I suggest you get back to work, Mr. Paris. The Captain's physical yesterday was … less than complete, and we will need to find a reason to bring her back in here. Find one, and you can go home for the evening and peruse your fan mail at your leisure. Early release, as it were."
The EMH snickered at his own bad joke and went back to his force-field protected moss collection. Tom logged into the Captain's records, glanced at them briefly for inspiration and went back to chewing his lip, while the Doc went back to humming My Favourite Things with a fresh infusion of jaunty malice. He had gotten roughly to the part about "schnitzel with noodles," when Tom had his second big epiphany of the day.
Or rather, a string of little epiphanies, which he was almost certain would turn into something useful if could only sequence them properly, or shake them up just the right way:
- Banana pancakes with raHya, when people were asking for their own favourite comfort foods.
- The Captain getting gagh, rather than the black coffee she craved.
- B'Elanna's request to the replicator, coming out as a … well, summons to action on their private comm line, except it wasn't so private as it had turned out.
- Suggestive comm messages, directed at him.
- Mulcahy's impure thoughts about Meghan Delaney, given sudden and glorious voice, and resulting in a perfect right hook in return.
- Communicators. Replicators. Comm lines. All delivering something … other than expected, and all with Klingon overtones.
Computer interfaces, subject to the universal translator.
Tom hit his comm badge. "Paris to Kim."
Nothing happened. The silence was disconcertingly deafening actually, given that Tom was comming his best friend, and he knew it wasn't Harry's bedtime yet. Harry hadn't died in quite a while either, and had in fact seemed quite lively in the mess hall a little while ago. He had to be receiving this.
Tom tried again. If he was right with his suspicions, he'd have to be very careful how he expressed his need of Harry's services, or who knew what might come out at the other end.
"Paris to Kim. Put down that bloody clarinet of yours, Harry, and answer. This is your superior officer speaking."
Harry's voice came on. He did not sound happy. "Tom? I trust that was one of your jokes? One of your … less funny ones? And for the record, I am so not interested in what you just offered. Kim out."
Tom rolled his eyes, and didn't want to know. He turned to the EMH. "Doc, I need Harry, and I need him now. Can you tell him to come down here? Maybe he'll listen to you."
The Doc looked up from his moss, scandalized. "Mr. Paris. Your shift is not over for another two and a half hours, and you just came back from break. This is no time to summon your friends to come and distract you from your work …"
Tom gave an exasperated sigh. Why was everyone so obtuse today?
"Look, Doc, this is important. I think I have an idea who's been messing with my comm line, and what's been causing some of the other problems onboard the last few hours. I have a feeling – just a feeling – that it'll get worse before it gets better. I think I know how we can fix it, but we need to do it from here. And I need your help with Harry. I have a feeling he won't listen to me."
"I am not surprised, Mr. Paris."
Tom's eyes narrowed speculatively. A change of tactics was clearly required. "Actually, those comm messages were interesting. Maybe I should ask Seven what she meant when she mentioned 'the benefits of Borg regeneration capabilities' in her message to me. You wouldn't have any idea, would you, Doc?"
The EMH glared at Tom, who barely suppressed a grin. Even a hologram had certain buttons you could push, once you knew where they were …
"Fine, Mr. Paris, you win. Mr. Kim, please report to Sickbay at once."
As they waited for Harry to answer the summons, Tom contemplated whom Seven, or Chakotay for that matter, might have actually been thinking about comming. Time to start a new category in the betting pool…?
The doors hissed open, and Harry Kim walked in, a slightly belligerent expression written plainly on his face.
"You told me marriage and impending fatherhood were making you sober and responsible, Paris. And that wasn't even remotely funny…"
Tom walked up to Harry, and with his most reassuring smile, clapped him on the shoulder with one hand and snatched his communicator with the other. He disabled it with a quick snap.
"Calm down, Harry, and listen to me, ears only. Whatever you heard when I commed you in your quarters, was not what I said. Scout's honour – you can ask the Doc here. And I'll tell you why. You know that P'larian language capability you, B'Elanna and the Doc programmed into the computer this morning?"
"You mean the pheromone reader?"
"Exactly. I have a feeling that once that language was embedded in the universal translator, it started to, well, read all sorts of things. Human pheromones, glandular secretions, that sort of thing. The whole crew's chemical body language, basically. And it started to translate them automatically, like it does every time we say anything - we're so used to it, we don't notice it anymore. Like you really have no idea whether Neelix is speaking Standard or Talaxian, you just understand him."
Tom glanced over at the Doc, who was looking at him with barely concealed respect. The EMH nodded eagerly.
"And of course with pheromones, unless one is trained to use them – as I would be, if I had the necessary subroutines - the human body often says one thing, and the consciously directed mind another. Or it says nothing at all, because the hormone emissions may not be welcome."
Tom grinned. "That's right. Our body chemistry doesn't have an edit button. Yet."
Harry's eyes widened. "Mulcahy?"
Tom nodded his approval. His best friend did catch on quickly. "Yeah—whatever his gonads were thinking on his behalf, the translator dutifully transmitted to Jenny, Meghan and you, via your communicators. Poor guy never had a chance."
"Wow. Errr … Holy …. Oh." It was clear by Harry's far-off expression that he was internally rewinding his day, trying to determine what stories his pheromones might have been telling. He swallowed his apprehension.
"Don't worry about Seven," Tom reassured him. Harry was such an open book. "Her mind's been … otherwise occupied."
"But the real problem is B'Elanna. You see, she did the original programming … and since she's pregnant, she's, like, hormone city, probably shooting out Klingon vibes in every direction. Plus we haven't completely cleaned up after Kohler and his Kuvah'magh cult, and I suspect that for now, whenever people really want something and ask the computer system, it gets an overlay of Klingon-ness and essentially translated into … whatever Bee happens to be having a craving for."
The Doctor smirked suggestively at Tom, who gave him his best Janeway-grade glare, daring him to keep his holographic speaking routines shut. The pilot indulged a flash fantasy about decompilation, but just as quickly realized that this would probably result in his being stuck in Sickbay for the rest of the trip. He'd probably be better off just ignoring the EMH.
"Personally, I don't want to be the one to tell B'Elanna that she was the source of the replicator malfunctions, and neither do you, Harry, or you, Doc. So we need to fix this mess from here."
Harry nodded his understanding. Yes, B'Elanna Torres finding out that her Klingon physiology had wreaked havoc on the ship's computer interface would not be a good thing. Sometimes, discretion was definitely the better part of valour …
A mere forty-five minutes later – problems were easier to fix when you had helped cause them, and knew exactly where to look - Harry triumphantly handed Tom an isolinear chip.
"Here you go, Proton. The official Voyager pheromone collection, all in one tidy place."
Tom accepted the chip gingerly, and held it up for inspection, half expecting to see swirling clouds of … something … inside. It remained inert and crystal clear though, refracting the lights of Sickbay into a few pretty rainbows.
"The key to all the mysteries of the betting pool," he mused. "And to Chakotay's heart's desires. Tempting, tempting."
Harry snickered, but sobered up quickly. "Frankly, I think we should smash it," he said. "Too many potential problems in there. I suspect the Mulcahy vs Delaney bout was only a glimpse of what we'd be in for."
"Personally, I would have left it in the computer," the Doctor said. "It would have forced you organics to learn how to control yourselves a little."
Tom shook his head. "Absolutely not. Just think about it – B'Elanna at four months pregnant managed to throw the ship's systems out of whack within twelve hours. You really want to be around when the Captain hits menopause?"
The EMH opened his mouth, hesitated, and shut it again. "You have a point, Mr. Paris. So what do we do with it then?"
"Well, I think we should probably keep the chip, in case we run into another species like the P'larians," Tom said. "But given what's in it we should store it in the medical files, where it's inaccessible to people. Patient confidentiality, and all that."
Harry was not convinced. "Except you and the Doc can still get at it. Doc – could you really make sure that Tom keeps his hands off the thing?"
Tom grinned, a deliberately evil glint in his eyes. He had actually been serious, but he couldn't deny certain temptations …
"What – you don't trust your best friend, Har?"
"About as far as I can throw a Borg cube, Paris."
Tom became his professional self again. "On sober second thought, we should probably let the Captain in on this. Decisions like this is why they pay her the big bucks. Or will, when we get home."
His hand paused over his comm badge for a second, and he closed his eyes briefly wondering just what she might have heard if he had commed her an hour ago.
"Paris to Janeway. Captain, I'm in Sickbay. There's something here requiring your attention, but I can't discuss it on an open line. Could you come down?"
Kathryn had been in her ready room, sipping on a glass of water and reading the stack of daily reports, having given up on any thought of relaxation or replicated coffee until she heard back from the engineering team. She looked up at Tom's summons. Her helmsman didn't often comm her, given that he was usually seated only a few feet away from her. Surprise aside, she certainly appreciated that (a) he told her quite clearly where he was located and (b) why he couldn't tell her what he wanted from her.
For over six years she'd been trying to wean her crew off their habit to comm her with lines like, Captain, I think you should get down here right away, or, Captain, there's something here you need to see - only to leave her wondering just where the hell she was supposed to go and what hideous, swirling harbinger of doom she would be faced with when she figured it out and got there. At least someone had been listening to her complaints …
"I'll be right there, Tom," she said, putting down her PADD and heading for the turbolift.
Once she had arrived in Sickbay - and suppressed the usual shudder she always felt when surrounded by biobeds and a solicitous EMH - the explanations were quickly made. For a moment, Kathryn Janeway didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
But there was one thing she had to know right away.
"Those messages you mentioned, Tom …?"
She couldn't quite bring herself to complete the sentence, not in front of Harry Kim and the Doctor. Luckily, for the second time that night, Tom Paris was ready to demonstrate both his often undervalued cognitive abilities and the fact that the concept of discretion was not entirely alien to him. He just shook his head, and the Captain's shoulders relaxed visibly.
Her orders, when they came, were clipped and clear. The programme was too valuable to be destroyed, but also too prejudicial to be kept widely accessible. It would be locked in the biosafety vault, with the samples of Tyrellian flu and the Andorian small pox pathogens, accessible only to her and the EMH - on a double-lock system, requiring both their command codes.
The decision made, Tom handed the Doctor the chip – container of all the crew's secret desires. Luckily, he thought in an uncharacteristic moment of contemplation, some people didn't need artificial pheromones to tell them where their heart lay.
The lock-up procedure completed, Janeway turned to the EMH and her two officers.
"I don't need to tell you that this … little glitch will not find its way into any official reporting, gentlemen? As far as I am concerned, it was nothing more than a temporary computer hiccup which somehow rectified itself. Lord knows we get enough of that sort of thing on this ship."
She turned and headed for the exit, clearly keen to leave Sickbay.
"Goodnight, gentlemen. I think I will be signing off for the night now. It's been a long day."
After the doors had closed behind her, Tom schooled his handsome features into their most charming smile, which he directed at the EMH like a photon torpedo.
"Oh, Doctor? I believe that was Captain Janeway who was just in here?"
The Doc's holographic fingers opened and closed into a holographic fist, and he gave a holographic sigh. In all fairness, he had promised his Chief Medic early release from his shift if he came up with an idea to get the Captain back into Sickbay; Tom had delivered, if not exactly in the manner the EMH had envisioned. Next time he would have to be more specific.
"Very well, Mr. Paris, you may go."
Despite his resounding victory, Tom couldn't resist a parting shot. "You may want to get the environmental system to carry out a Level Five Medical central vac and air exchange, Doc. We should probably get all that eau de Klingon out of the air, now that we have our energy reserves back and can clean up. Enjoy, and good night."
Tom and Harry left Sickbay together. Harry, being the forgiving soul he was, had decided to write off his earlier … concerns … to miscommunication, and put them resolutely behind himself. Time for a drink before B'Elanna's shift was over, and boy, did they have things to talk about. Tom figured the message from Chakotay alone had to be worth a Romulan ale or two.
But first things first. There were people at work in the bowels of the ship who didn't need to be, trying to solve problems that no longer existed. As the two friends headed into the turbolift, Tom hit his comm badge.
"Paris to Torres. I think whatever you guys did down there, and however you did it, must have done the trick, Bee. I just asked for something, and got exactly what I wanted. Suggest you confirm, and get ready to down tools for the night."
A few hours later, Tom spooned his long body around his sleepy wife's much smaller form, relishing the softness of her skin against his. Their love-making had, if anything, become more frequent but also more affectionate since her pregnancy; he, for one, was having the time of his life and was not afraid to admit it.
B'Elanna, in turn, may not always be inclined to vocalize her own feelings, but as far as Tom was concerned, the universal translator's interpretation of the chemistry they shared had been clear enough.
He put his hand gently on her swelling stomach so as not to wake her. His smile briefly became incandescent, as he felt the flutter of his baby daughter's movements under his fingertips. Tom closed his eyes and sighed his contentment.
Another amazing day in the Delta Quadrant…