A/N: My Muse works in strange ways – she is supposed to help me produce a 10,000 word piece for marvel-bang, finish the next chapter of "Proof of Life," do a VAMB Secret Summer exchange and help me craft a fifth chapter for the supposedly finished "Skies Over Manhattan" before Agents of SHIELD hits TV screens in the Fall. So what does Muse do? Instead of hitting me with smart bombs of inspiration, she throws cluster munitions in the form of random prompts (see "AfterMath" here on FFN and the limited-distribution crack piece "1812 Quincy," only available on my LJ).

This latest prompt came from Ronda via VAMB - she challenged people to produce drabbles, stories or ficlets starting with the line "Well, that's something you don't see every day." I hope this one will cheer you up a little, my friend, while reassuring my Voyager readers that I haven't forgotten about you. Thanks are due, as always, to the wonderful Runawaymetaphor for the taste test. This has changed a bit since you saw it; any further deviations from the dictates of poetry and good taste are entirely my fault.

Disclaimer: I own no Star Trek stuff (except all 7 seasons of TNG and VOY, plus two Tom Paris action figures). The original things in this tale I may own, but wouldn't want to be near.

Bon appétit.

Free Lunch

By Alpha Flyer

"Well, that's something you don't see every day."

Tom Paris stares at the feathery, purple blob on his plate with a mixture of admiration (at its sheer aesthetic audacity) and revulsion (at the thought of being expected to actually eat it). Kerkalian tripe, Neelix had called it, and Tom hopes really, really hard that tripe means something different to a Talaxian than it had to those of his ancestors unfortunate enough to have had it as part of their diet. He suspects it doesn't.

"And a good thing that is, too. I've seen enough."

B'Elanna is clearly not inclined to spend any more time contemplating the dish than she has to. Chronically short of time, the engineer gets up and dumps her plate on the shelf beside the recycler, too impatient to scrape the (presumably) organic matter into the different sections of the bio compartment. Chell will do the honours later.

She heads over to the replicator like a woman on a mission. The only reason there isn't a queue is that they're early; Alpha shift lunch break doesn't officially start for another fifteen minutes.

"What gets to me is the sauce," Harry observes thoughtfully, back at the table. "It … moves. Look. There it goes again."

Sure enough, a vague ripple is visible on the Ensign's plate, straight across the gelatinous plum-coloured liquid that pools around the main attraction.

"It's not just the sauce that moves," Tom says in that tone of voice he gets when … well, whenever he is presented with one of Neelix' more exotic concoctions. "I mean, look at this!"

He pokes the ball with his fork, and watches in mute horror as it rolls away.

"There. Did you see that?"

He does it again, with the same result. Harry snorts in a transparent effort to find a humorous silver lining, or at the very least a rational explanation.

"Maybe Neelix is trying to develop kinetic food again? Chell says he's still trying to create the perfect gagh for B'Elanna, in case she gets more of those Klingon cravings."

"Shh," Tom waves his fork at his best friend in an effort to get him to shut up. The last thing he needs right now is a public declaration from his wife about how moronic it is to assume that she mightcrave some obscene, jiggly Klingon thing that would have made her throw up even before she ever got pregnant, and just where does Neelix get off thinking ...

Harry's timing sucks, as usual, since B'Elanna comes back to their table at just that moment. Luckily, she is too preoccupied to have listened, gloating as she is over a stack of banana pancakes.

"Look what I got, boys. Lunch. Watch me eat. This is where spending all your rations on holodeck hockey equipment is going to really, really hurt you."

"Ours may be gross and purple, but at least it's free," Harry counters heroically.

"I still think that double-rations-in-case of pregnancy should apply to the sire, too," Tom complains, missing Harry's point entirely. "The only reason your account is still flush, oh love of my life, is a straightforward case of gender discrimination."

The plum-coloured sauce on Harry's plate chooses this moment to start oscillating in a particular pattern.

"Fuck," Tom spits, and shoves his untouched plate back towards the middle of the table, causing the feathery ball in the middle to bounce a little.

"Culhane's messing with my helm again. A man can't even get a decent lunch break on this barge." He adds judiciously, "Not that this is lunch, exactly."

Tom is already in the turbolift when the ship-wide announcement comes - Senior Officers to the bridge, all hands battle stations! - followed by the familiar red alert klaxon. Harry is right behind him, having learned years ago to respect the pilot's instincts when it comes to the ship's vibrations. B'Elanna in turn heads for Engineering, pancakes forgotten.

The bridge is in the kind of state that makes Tom wonder when and why transport designs stopped featuring seat belts. Tying yourself to the ship with a couple of pieces of ribbon and a metal clasp may look awkward, but has to beat the bloody nose Chakotay is currently sporting (likely from an involuntary encounter with the console beside his chair).

"Welcome back to your stations, gentlemen. It's about time. Mr. Paris, kindly take the helm," the Captain grates out, barely hanging on to her seat as the ship starts to lurch under Culhane's less-than-subtle ministrations. Harry and Tom exchange quick glances. Trust Janeway to have forgotten that she'd been the one to insist that they take their break, Now.

On the large forward screen, an armada of what looks like giant feathered octopi is hurling itself at Voyager in waves, emitting tiny electrical charges as they make contact. There is no discernible pattern to their attack, but they do have speed and numbers on their side; the screen looks a bit as if the ship were flying through a blizzard made up of large, purple flakes.

"Our attackers appear to be carbon-based life forms, not dependent on oxygenation or other known elements of metabolic conversion," Seven announces from the science station. "Species 18,652, not considered worthy of assimilation by the Borg due to their limited intellectual capacity. All they do is eat, digest, procreate and float in space."

"Sounds like at least one Admiral I know," Janeway whispers to Chakotay, who wipes the blood off his sleeve and suppresses a knowing smile.

Tuvok has additional information.

"Their armaments are ineffective against our shields. I recommend not launching counter-attacks, but simply seeking to evade the creatures and making our escape before they put too much strain on Voyager's engines."

"Multi-phasic octopuses that try to paralyze their prey by annoying them to death," Tom mutters from the helm. "Now I've seen everything."

"Evasive maneuvers, Mr. Paris," the Captain commands. "And it's octopi."

Tom rolls his eyes. What does she think he has been doing? Unfortunately, evading their attackers is not as easy as it sounds given their numbers, and one gets plastered across the front viewport for a split second. Purple feathers fly, but it manages to detach itself from the transparent aluminum and rejoins its comrades for a new wave of attacks.

"Wait a minute. Hey, Harry. Do these things look familiar to you?" Tom manages to toss over his shoulder instead of his customary "Aye, Captain," which, strictly speaking, he still owes her.

"Ensign Kim is a little busy for idle conversation, Mr. Paris," Tuvok admonishes in that supercilious tone he gets, the one that always makes Tom want to program things into the Vulcan's sonic shower on perpetual loop. Maybe that piece from Les Misérables, the one about the 'music of a people who will not be slaves again'?

"Not exactly idle, Tuvok," he shoots back, as he tilts the ship fifty degrees to slide her through two of the octopus things that are trying to grab at her nacelles. Not for the first time Tom gives quiet thanks for the inertial dampener, the next best thing to seat belts.

"Tom is right," Harry frowns and turns to the Captain, who, based on nearly seven years' worth of hard evidence, is rather more willing than Tuvok to listen to far-fetched theories, even (or especially) when hanging on to her seat while her ship is under attack. "These things look vaguely like whatever it is that Neelix is serving in the mess hall today. Same colour, same feathers. More arms."

Janeway pauses, lifts her eyebrows, takes a deep breath and hits her comm badge. Her voice carries the tone of a woman who has seen far, far too much in her time.

"Mr. Neelix, would you bring me a plate of today's lunch special? On the double, please."

Neelix' response over the comm sounds both breathless and excited. He doesn't often get requests to deliver food to the bridge – usually only during Gamma shift, and never to the Captain.

"Of course, Captain. I'd be de-lighted. With everyone at battle stations, I presently have no customers."

True to his word, two minutes later the doors to the turbolift open and Neelix staggers in (the inertial dampeners aren't that good), carrying a plate covered with one of those traditional lids that looks like it's from a holodeck re-enactment of a dinner at the Ritz.

"Ta-da," he announces, removing the lid with as much flair as he can muster while surreptitiously bracing his short legs against the Captain's chair. She grabs the plate from him and holds it on her lap, trying hard not to recoil.

The visual resemblance between the main course and the angry hordes beyond the view screen is … undeniable.

"Chakotay?" she waves her hand imperiously. "Do the honours, please?"

The First Officer waves his tricorder over the thing, which twitches ominously, despite a momentary lull in the battle. Tom takes Voyager into a deep dive to get underneath a small school of the aliens. The ball on Janeway's lap starts to bounce excitedly, and a tiny tentacle starts to unfurl from underneath the feathers.

"It's the same composition as the alien attackers," Chakotay states flatly. His voice is a bit nasal, due to the blood that is still trickling out, but rings clear across the bridge. "Except with an additional calcium component."

"Calcium component," the Captain mulls over the latest pronouncement. "Like … a shell?"

It's not a question as much as it is an expression of disbelief.

"A shell?" Harry picks up the thread. "You mean, like … an egg?"

"An egg of the creatures outside, it would appear," Seven continues. "That is consistent with the Borg's knowledge of these creatures."

Janeway's eyes resemble search lights as they focus on Neelix.

"And just where did you find these … these eggs, Neelix?"

The cook looks a little defensive, his yellow eyes darting from one officer to the other, but studiously avoiding the purple ball on the plate in Janeway's hands.

"In a cave, on that asteroid where Lieutenant Torres made us stop for gallicite," he stammers. "They bore a stunning resemblance to the signature dish of Plax, one of Talax' greatest chefs."

Tom turns to Neelix, his voice an accusation.

"You called it Kerkalian tripe. Those were eggs, not innards."

Neelix hastens to explain. "The lizards of the Kerkalian plains leave eggs in the shrubbery by turning their insides out. It's the last thing they do. Plax' original dish was called Sacrifice Supreme."

Janeway emits a slight choking sound, but the scientist in her will not be suppressed.

"And what did you do to prepare this surprise?"

Neelix' voice is draining of confidence with every word.

"I baked them, nice and slow, overnight. Just like the recipe said."

"I see," Chakotay drawls and looks at the view screen, where the purple octopi are gathering for a renewed assault.

Tuvok, as usual, excels at stating the obvious.

"It would appear that Mr. Neelix inadvertently created a hatch of the same aliens who are now attacking Voyager. The movement you observe in this specimen is its occupant's attempt to escape its confinement, and the attacks …."

"I'd be pissed off too," Tom cuts him off from the helm, even as he puts Voyager through a barrel roll, "if someone tried to serve our baby for lunch."

He reflects for a second, and shivers.

"I'm sure glad that thing evaded my fork. And that B'Elanna never has time to recycle. Captain, if no one has had lunch since you gave the alert, they should all still be intact."

"And hatching," Harry cannot resist.

Beaming the main ingredient of Neelix' luncheon special into space is impeded somewhat by the increasing number of arms emerging from the pods – some of them have to be wrestled onto the platform - but once transport is complete, hostilities cease almost immediately.

"Warp Six, Mr. Paris," Janeway instructs as the purple armada outside greets its offspring.

"Yes, ma'am." Of course, Tom can't resist adding, "The classic 'dine and dash'."

He still isn't particularly hungry by the time Alpha Shift ends, but B'Elanna has to eat (Chell, well-trained in such matters, has offered to reheat her pancakes) so he really has no choice. Once in the mess hall, he makes a show of running his tricorder over the multi-coloured offerings before snapping the instrument shut with a resigned gesture.

"I guess I'll have the leola root casserole. I'm fairly confident that the only war that stuff will start is in my gut."

Harry wanders by a few minutes later, on his way to dine with one of the Delaneys, and raises his eyebrow at the lumpy, greyish mass on Tom's plate and the relative eagerness with which he is digging into it. He elbows his companion to get her attention.

"Hey Jenn, look. Now that's something you don't see every day."