DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Kelthammer and is copyright (c) 2002 by Kelthammer. This story is Rated G.



Homecooking

Kelthammer



There was no hint of trouble, but of course that was how it usually started. Trouble wouldn't hit quite so often if it was less subtle.

As it was, those aboard ship who had an unabashedly paranoid slant of outlook (and for some reason, made that business their career in the form of healing), could admit to being a little jumpy that day for no particular reason.

"Well, that's the last of it." Christine gusted a huge sigh as she plunked down an assortment of trays at the microscopic table in the seemingly even-smaller room that was the lounge of the medical staff on their rare slow moments. She'd gotten the task of running the service thanks to an unlucky draw of tongue depressors.

"Praise God," M'Benga prayed with a fervor he usually reserved for a juicy slice of roasted lamb.

Dr. McCoy only grunted into his hands. It made an odd echo effect.

"Spaghetti Kerkennaise, Loubia B'Dersa, and ... custard for dessert."

"That's not full of cumin, is it?" McCoy asked suspiciously.

M'Benga sniffed the Loubia. "Seems safe," he advised. "How come you hate cumin so much?"

"Gets in the way of the chili peppers." McCoy leaned over and began spooning the potent stew of beans, garlic, tomato and onion into his bowl. Christine plunked the vinegar bottle down so everyone could dash to their own individual tastes.

"Ahh, reconstituted military food. Designed to be edible for twenty-five representative species ... and palatable to none."

"Which is why we pay extra credits to the galley slaves in charge of prep," Christine reminded M'Benga.

"We do?"

"Yep." McCoy began eating like a starving man. "Don't worry, you contributed."

"Nice to know."

The rattle of dishes replaced conversation for a few minutes. The various palates around the table all agreed on zest and heat, which was not something they commonly got on the ship ... unless a highly unlikely alliance among the Romulans happened.

"Are you going to drink all the mint tea?"

"Only if you don't want some."

"I do, I do, damn it."

"Pass the salt."

"Oh, no ... did anybody re-file the updated specs on the Junior Officers?"

"I did."

"Whew."

"I hate this."

"I'll eat it if you don't want it."

"You get your hand too close and I'm stabbing you with my fork. I was talking about all those vaccinations. Such a blasted amount of trouble to make sure there won't be a tradeoff of interspecies germ warfare betwixt the ship and the diplomats."

"Would somebody tell me why we have to call them diplomats?" M'Benga demanded.

"That's their job description."

"It's sure not their personality! Can there possibly be anything more insufferable than our putting up with humans who severed all ties with Terra 150 years ago??"

"Why don't you ask Spock how he feels when we have to be nice to the Romulans? I'm sure the reaction is similar," Chapel cut in.

"Eeep."

"I dunno ... maybe they think we've got an attitude towards them. After all, it was intolerance that shoved them off into space in the first place." McCoy examined a tomato before biting down.

He had a point. The Diplomats of Ker (a tiny but tightly-run solar system off to the edge of the Rim) were descended from a band of 25,000 Terrans (give or take a few thousand). Said Terrans had been resistant to the society norms of the time, so much so that they had found it prudent to pack up and leave before the next Hitler or Superman found reason to exterminate them off the planet.

Things had been tense back then. The world had struggled hard to recover from the ravages of war -- war that was still brewing. War that had left unique marks on the people -- genetic trademarks that could be as innocuous as four breasts, and as startling as a swirled pattern of melanin on the skin.

"The Ker system was named after the letter K in the Romany-Patran alphabet," McCoy explained. "The founder who also discovered the system with his homemade 'scope, was part Gypsy. K also symbolizes the tents of the nomads. And that's how the people of Ker see themselves; travelers, not exiles -- but if you dig a little, you can sense a little defensive hostility on that topic."

"I get the feeling things are going to be a little sensitive anyway," Chapel commented.

"Probably," McCoy agreed.

"No doubt in my mind." M'Benga poured more tea. "You might have it easier than us, Christine. Women tend to dominate the medical field over there."

"Really. How'd you know?"

"Ker was one of my options for xenoscience. The Federation Station was fine with me, but they told me there might be some reluctance on the part of the 'locals' to accept me."

"Hmn."

"Then I find out much later that they probably wouldn't come to me for help anyway. Their medical tradition is wholly against synthetics and derivatives. If its not in a natural form, they don't take it."

"Which, of course, is why we get all loaded up with shots designed to kill everything known to man or Gorn," Christine grumbled. "So we don't contaminate or carry-over anything to them."

"Lucky us," McCoy decided. "I'm still a little light-headed from the Sigman-range booster shots."

"If you're just light-headed, I'll trade you. Stiles had another seizure when I gave him his."

"Okay, that's it. I'm filing the most obnoxious report our language is capable of to High Command. Even the Sigmans don't use that old formula anymore!" McCoy gaveled the table with his fist. "Kwelli, you're about to research the correlation between the old-style Sigman boosters and male infertility."

"I am?"

"No, but if anyone asks, that's what you can tell them. It's not your fault I keep you too busy for your private research."

M'Benga continued to chew his pasta. One got used to working around Leonard pretty quick. It was hard to believe he had once had a reverence for rank before coming aboard the Enterprise. "What else do I tell 'them?'"

"That without further information you wouldn't want to dispense any more of those toxic hypos."

"Sounds good to me."

"So, what are we going to do when the diplomats actually get here?" Christine rubbed her eyes.

"Pray," M'Benga offered. It wasn't a bad idea, not by a long shot.

"Resign ourselves to a life of vegetarianism?" McCoy sighed. Also not a bad idea. The Ker notion of diet was somewhat rigid.

"Be nice," Chapel said firmly. She thought that was the best idea of all. Common courtesy hardly ever got people killed.

M'Benga gloomed and drank more tea. "Once in a while, I actually think of becoming a CMO. But the pay raise can't possibly be worth it to put up with stuff like this."

McCoy only looked tired at this. Chapel hoped M'Benga would drop this particular thread, soon. If you wanted to depress Leonard, the best way was to remind him of some way just how political his duties could be. Sometimes, she thought he made a point of getting citations against his record so he wouldn't feel so compromised on his principles.

But, sorry ... CMO'ing was political a great deal of the time. No doubt when Leonard was still of a barefoot age and finding deep emotional satisfaction in paper airplanes, he'd thought being a doctor was no more complicated than making a house call in the middle of a raging blizzard on a lame horse.

And, Dear Lord, she was glad she wasn't in his boots right now. As soon as those diplomats beamed aboard, the Senior Crew would be treated to the nonstop wining, dining and coddling of a group of human beings who didn't want to be thought of as human.

Such depressing thoughts led to the inevitable. "Anybody else ready for dessert?"

"Sure ... what kind of custard?"

"Orange flower-water with slivered almonds."

"I'll take two."

"Calm down, Doctor M'Benga." Chapel passed around tall glass servers. She saw Leonard poking around the top with that suspicious look again. "Good heavens, what is your problem?"

"Sorry ... just practicing ahead on my paranoia. Starfleet's talkin' about putting those crazy replicators on the latest ships now, and replacing the food storage dispensers."

"Oh, I guess that'll make some people happy." M'Benga attempted to be diplomatic. He only managed to sound cynical, which was how he really felt.

"Won't make me happy. Can you imagine the possibilities for mayhem? What if I bite down on a tomato instead of a peanut butter and husk-cherry jelly sandwich? Most of the people in charge of this grand notion don't even know what food is! They get violently ill at the thought of you or me eating something that grew in bacteria-laden, living dirt!"

"What gets me is the strongest selling point is storage space," Chapel reminded them with a shudder. "They point out it's a lot less space to keep bulk molecular stores, than individually processed and packaged foodstuffs."

"They have cousins all in the tourism industry," M'Benga chuckled grimly. "Selling traveling soldiers such as ourselves home-grown cookin' at 300% markup."

"Should make the Ker happy, at any rate."

McCoy smiled faintly at the exchange. "Eat up, people. Things are bound to take up our attention before long."

"Are you going to be with the captain all day?" Chapel wondered as she dug into her custard. Years of trial and error had taught her that phrase was the least violent way of asking Leonard if he was going to go do something that would keep him out of his home territory. Leonard took the duty of protecting James T. Kirk from himself very seriously.

"Yeah," McCoy sighed. "So it's going to be the two of you in charge. Kwelli, did you finish up the hemodata charts for Decks A-C?"

M'Benga made sure he had a good taste of dessert before answering. "Working on D and E today. You need anything special done?"

"Not exactly. I want to be prepared just in case ... most of the Ker are Old-fashioned Type ABs and I want a bank of potential donors for the worst-case scenarios."

Chapel groaned. "Old-fashioned Type ABs ... somebody shoot me."

M'Benga shook his head as well. "In hindsight, I wish the Ker hadn't left Terra before their blood chemistry stabilized."

"Well, AB was trying to stabilize itself for centuries. Can't blame them for not thinking about that while dodging Colonel Green's hyperbole." McCoy lifted his shoulders in a whaddayado? shrug. "I wouldn't be surprised, people thought it would be like the adaptation of Type A from Type O."

"That mutation was insanely fast," Chapel protested. "Type A's popped up on Earth with a mutation factor faster than the life cycle of the mayfly!"

"And some people thought that would happen again, only between the A's and B's." M'Benga pointed out. "But it only happened in the Agricultural areas because there was no need for a Type A Inuit. The blessings of our civilization was that people didn't need to change their blood types so badly, what with blood from all over the world being instantly available."

"I wonder what the Ker think about that?" Leonard wondered softly. He stood, pushing his empty dishes to the side. "I'm running on late, and I'd better go. The two of you take care and keep your eyes peeled about these diplomats."

* * *

Christine didn't enter Sickbay so much as blunder into it. Kwelli was already there; the smells of European blend Arabica bean (Italian roast, high altitude altura), marked his presence.

"Got any of that to spare?" Chapel grumbled. She cleared the doorway of the lounge just as the AMO was lifting his cup to his lips.

"Ever and always. Caffeine protocol, you know." Kwelli gestured wildly and without aim. "You know the rules, though. Not one word of robusta coffee or American-grade beans."

"American-grade beans are solely for the import to small, impoverished and bitter little Terran colonies in hostile sections of space," Chapel informed him loftily. Kwelli thought she was focusing on her pouring with one eye more than the other.

"Spoken like a true lover of nervous stimuli."

Chapel fumbled for the dehydrated sugarcane juice, and put about half the container in her cup. Kwelli cringed. Then she dumped most of the cream pitcher in.

"This isn't milk." Chapel's first sip sent her eyes flipping wide open.

"Yes, it is. Just from happy coconuts, not cows."

"Never had a Caribe Coffee before."

"Well, now you can die complete." M'Benga leaned back in his chair and put his boots up on the table. "Ahhh."

"I think it's just you and me in charge today." Chapel sipped a few more times before clearing her throat. "Last I saw of Leonard was late in the night, the captain was talking him into staying up for another snacking-social with the Ker."

"Great. A werewolf is a better morning person than Leonard."

"Ohmygod." Leonard stumbled into the lounge. "Make it strong, make it mean, and make a lot of it."

"On it." Kwelli began slapping ingredients together. Doctors were not just bartenders by night; they were also dispensers of caffeinated comfort in the AM.

"I thought you'd be off today," Chapel commented.

"Me too. That was the deal. But, oh, no ... "

"Oh, Lord," Chapel muttered.

"Here y'go. Worthy of the Turks." M'Benga pushed a steaming mug forward. "Black as death, strong as hate, sweet as love."

"Love is blind, Kwelli. Love is pathetic, love is pointless, love is an aberration of nature!" McCoy began gulping like a fish out of water.

"Uh, oh. Now, that is not a good sign." Chapel stirred her own drink. "Is this a private disaster, or can we pick sides?"

"There's no sides to pick." McCoy paused for breath. "Two of the Ker diplomats are fighting tooth and claw thanks to a bad breakup. S'every kind of ugly you can think of. Jim was asked privately to make sure things went smooth between 'em, but so far all he can do is keep arranging these insane dinner parties, social teas, kaffeklatch -- what have you -- in hopes that they'll revert to a nominally functional, brittle civility!"

"Eeyoi," was M'Benga's opinion. "That bad, huh?"

"It is generally not a good indication of any relationship to publicly refer to an ex-wife's mammary glands as 'udders'."

"I would say," Chapel grumbled.

"Making matters worse, she's one of the 5% of the Ker population with multiple breasts..."

"I think I've heard enough, Leonard."

"You think you've heard enough? I've had to put up with this for twelve hours. But in all fairness, d'you want to hear what she called him?"

Chapel thought about it. "No, I think I'm going to be morally superior today. Leave me out of it."

"You're no fun." Leonard looked at Kwelli. "She should really listen to what I had to go through. A woman never knows when she might have to use a really crushing retort."

"Do you think this woman needs it?"

"Chris? Surely not. But you'd think she'd be interested in the informational aspect of name-calling collection."

"I'm your Head Nurse and surgical assistant, Leonard. What could possibly impress me?"

M'Benga sniggered into his cup, sending waves of coffee almost up his nose. It was one of the more amazing things aboard ship to the laymen that someone so determindedly merry could exist under McCoy without the erosion of his basic personality.

"Well, at least we're ready for inspection," Chapel offered a ray of light. "When are the Ker coming down?"

McCoy frowned. "I don't know if they are, actually. That conceit about 'natural remedies' for everything, it's worse than I thought!"

"How much worse?" M'Benga wondered between yawns.

McCoy opened his mouth to speak, then clearly thought better of elucidating. "Let's just say they're a bit hidebound." He cleared his throat. "Look, I'm pulling a half-shift. Gonna go clear my desk now, you two are in charge."

M'Benga and Chapel blinked at his abrupt departure. "Wonder what that was all about?"

"One way to find out. I'll ask Nyota. She usually gets seated next to Leonard at the diplomatic functions."

"Yeah, lucky, lucky man. That's one good thing about making CMO." M'Benga glowered into his mug.

"Before you start crying into your breakfast drink, Nyota isn't always sugar and sunshine, Kwelli. Take it from me. I'm her best friend."

A deep sigh was his only acknowledgment.

* * *

The day dragged in fits and starts. Nothing violent had happened to the ship in almost three weeks so the ever-overprepared Sickbay was in a slump. Sure, somebody was always getting a physical -- you couldn't handle over 430 beings without some rotation -- but contrary to what the non-medicos thought, Sickbay did not live just to make people miserable with bioscans and dietary changes.

One would think the Security department would be filling up with boredom-inspired injuries, but Leslie ran a tighter gestalt than that. In peacetime, Sickbay tended to get a lot of Scotty's crew. He held there was no time like the present when it came to inspection, and personally tested each and every one of his people on yet another emergency repair form.

The first junior engineer showed up just before noon with electronic burns on his hands.

"Bingo," M'Benga muttered to Chapel.

"I'll take it." Chapel was already on her way over.

M'Benga toyed with his stylus. Hemodata charts were all done for every living person on the ship. If there had been a reason, he would have charted out the lab mice.

Chapel stomped back, snorting. "Cross-wiring in Jeffries Tubes, my left eye. Does Scotty think we'll be fighting off a Klingon warfleet while getting sucked into a spatial pinhole three thousand parsecs between a failed brown star and a heavily populated planet?"

"I wouldn't give him any ideas," M'Benga warned. "You're talking about the man who ran two Academy instructors to exhaustion."

"Still, I wish he'd get off the backs of his crew. One of these days, they'll mutiny."

"Not if he keeps them too busy."

"What a vicious cycle," Chapel marveled.

Both turned as the main entrance doors swished open. With the trademark unnerving speed he carried for a man looking upon the beginning of his mid-forties, Dr. McCoy turned a sharp edge and vanished into his office. Were it possible for the doors to slam, they would have done so.

"He must have been hell in college track," M'Benga remarked.

"Actually, he never was in it." Chapel absently sorted senior WorkPadds.

"Why not?"

"Too much like a team sport."

"Silly me. I might have guessed." M'Benga picked up a fresh cup of coffee. "Tomorrow's breakfast says he's hiding from somebody."

"Deal."

"You don't think he is?" M'Benga was perturbed at her quick agreement.

"Well, it can't be the captain. He never hides from the captain. If anything, the reverse is true. And why would he hide from Spock?"

M'Benga silently got up, went to the outer door, and poked his head out. Chapel waited while he looked right and left.

"Mr. Spock is outside," he reported.

Chapel frowned. "That doesn't prove anything."

"You don't sound very convincing."

"Come on, he wouldn't hide from Mr. Spock!"

"That's who be out there."

"That doesn't mean he's hiding from Spock."

M'Benga sighed. With great dignity he returned to the door and poked his head out. A moment later he was treading backwards to make room for the captain.

Kirk, of course, barely acknowledged the presence of others. He was too busy moving forward. Swish went the office door.

"Go away," they heard McCoy snap just before the doors shut. "I'm busy making sure there's an average of 1,000 spatulae on the end of every lab gecko's setae, no larger than 100 micrometers apiece!"

"Never heard that one before," M'Benga said.

"Hmmn," Chapel said. "It would keep you busy, though."

Silence. Both made a point of looking busy. Various lab technicians, nurses, and interns were sent on small, seemingly important tasks.

Almost as soon as the chrono tapped out a solar hour, the doors opened. McCoy followed Kirk out, the doctor composed but mildly annoyed. Kirk was ... still Kirk.

"Kwelli, Christine, pack your bags. We're going to beam down to the Ker station to visit some of the medical reps as a gesture of good will."

Ordinarily, that would have been a good thing. Not, however, the way it was said.

* * *

M'Benga got his first view of the Ker station on the third planet. It made him think of a wrecked lifeship, widely dispersed over the battered crust of the planetoid, and the denizens had simply made do by creating bioshells underneath the wreckage.

"This is really quite amazing," Scotty confided to him. "Ye see, when th' Ker first came here, their guidance was out o' whack, and they crashed vurra hard, and--"

"I don't think I want to hear any more," M'Benga said weakly.

Chapel snickered heartlessly as she straightened out her tricorder. "Wonder what's keeping Leonard?"

"Probably Mr. Spock," Scott told her.

Chapel lifted her eyebrow. "Why?" she asked darkly.

"Oh, something to do with last night." With sudden overdone casualness, the engineer began polishing the transporter controls.

"Why?" Chapel's voice, if anything, grew more dangerous. "What happened last night?"

"Well, th' Ker, they can be a wee bit hidebound," Scott told her, as if she could find every answer she ever wanted in that brief sentence structure.

M'Benga cocked an eyebrow at Chapel. She lowered hers at him.

"What happened last night, Scotty?"

"Nae much." Scott shrugged so casually, he had to be covering. "Twas just that th' Ker were doon and aboot on Dr. McCoy because his medical form was nae ... pure, they said. Mr. Spock wound up defendin' him."

"Mr. Spock defended Leonard," Chapel repeated, deadpan.

"I'd run, too," M'Benga told her. "By the way, I prefer buckwheat pancakes with my passionfruit juice."

Chapel opened her mouth for a retort that would have sheared the tempered molecular veneer on the walls.

McCoy zipped in. "All right, are we all ready?" he snarled.

His two-man team hopped to the platform.

* * *

"What the--?"

"I have no idea."

"WHERE the--?"

M'Benga stared around the explosive growth of a wildflower meadow, pushing aggressively against the shell of a biodome the size of three stadiums. Yellow pollen dusted his face and he sneezed.

"This is where we meet the medical reps?"

"Uh, I assume. I didn't see the coordinates they gave Jim ... " McCoy scowled and flipped open his communicator. "You two go check inside, I'm gonna call the ship."

M'Benga led the way. "Anybody home?" he asked hopefully into the solar-powered lumen laboratory.

Chapel slid past him. "I don't think so."

"Why, did you scan for life forms?"

Chapel pointed to a note pinned up to the nearest computer. It said in very clear language: ON WALKABOUT. SEE YOU A FEW DAYS AFTER ENLIGHTENMENT. SIGNED, JAHANNA. A row of smiley faces decorated the bottom of the note.

"Good Lord."

"Different customs, that's for sure."

"Spock would not approve," M'Benga said with finality.

"No, he would not," Chapel agreed.

"Do you want to be the one to tell Leonard, or me?"

M'Benga stopped. Christine wasn't listening to a word. She was staring outside. Reluctantly, the AMO followed her gaze. The windows were too thick to permit sound to leak through, but it was fairly obvious McCoy was screaming into his communicator.

"Uh, oh," M'Benga said.

They waited apprehensively, as unable to tear their gaze away from the scene as they could an oncoming shuttlewreck.

McCoy stamped back to the building. "We're not going nowhere for a while," he snarled. "We've been contaminated on this floating biosphere!"

"What? When?" Chapel gasped.

"When we beamed down." McCoy slapped his comm back on his hip. "'So sorry,' they said, 'Too bad.' 'Standard Procedure.' 'We didn't think.' HAH!"

"And we're now vulnerable to every floating--" Chapel couldn't finish the sentence. She sank down on the nearest counter. "I was going to have dinner with Nyota tonight," she moaned. "And she was actually going to cook this time."

"Rub it in," M'Benga said sourly. "I've been trying to put her boots on her feet for a year now."

"Is that all you can think of? A theoretical perfect date?"

"I'm so glad I closed comms before I heard that," McCoy muttered under his breath. "Kwelli, take it from me. Nyota is not all sweetness and light. She can actually be, dare I say, mean, sneaky, and dangerous to know."

M'Benga sighed like a wilting balloon.

Chapel cleared her throat. "Er," she stammered slowly, "But ... Leonard, I'm a little out of practice with Terran space archaeology. What does that look like to you?"

Both men looked. A pale green-spectrum lumen was burning softly away at the top of the ceiling.

"Oh, kpwetchtineel," McCoy said. Or, it sounded something like that.

"I think I've seen that in museums," M'Benga muttered.

"S'where it belongs." McCoy sat down at the vacated desk, his face in his hands. "It's a nullifier. And we've all taken a nice bath in the rays."

"A nullifier?"

Chapel cleared her throat again. "During the biochemical wars of the late 21st century, one side would expose the other to it prior to flooding the environment with the biological germ of choice. All the vaccines in the galaxy can't protect you from them."

M'Benga absorbed this in dawning horror.

"So those sarcopterygiian rejects deliberately exposed us to a nullifyer just for the joy-giggles." McCoy paused for breath. Calling someone the distant failed descendant of the ceolacanth was verbally exhausting. "After we got sick from exposure to those blasted shots anyway, it was all for nothing."

"I'm going to kill something," Chapel announced in sepulchral tones.

Amazingly, that brought her boss down at record speed. "Hold on, Nurse. There's got to be some way around this."

"Way? What way? Our shots are ineffective. If we don't find some way to combat whatever bug they've given us, they'll have to beam us up into a quarantined lab! And you know what Starfleet will do!"

M'Benga had much less interplanetary experience than the other two. "What will Starfleet do?"

"They won't be happy with us for failing," McCoy said absently.

"But it's not our fault!"

"Yes, it is. We should have been born telepathic, but refused the talent." Chapel slammed herself into the nearest chair. "At least, that's the impression I've often gotten from them."

M'Benga looked from one to the other. They were serious. "Okay, what bug or bugs did they give us?"

"Just a moment." McCoy flipped the top of his tric and began scanning while they waited nervously.

"Huh. Nothing major. Just a strain of Colonel Green's Influenza."

"Nothing major!" Chapel barked. "Leonard, you call Green's Gorefest 'nothing major?'"

"Hey, we take care of ourselves and get plenty of rest and fluids ... we should be fine."

"Influenza," Chapel growled. "So what's the incubation period?"

"PDQ ... about ninety minutes. Obviously an example of some of the tailor-made bugs that followed them to space."

"I'll be sure to take some pictures of myself while I'm drowning in my own lungs!"

"Calm down, Christine."

"Calm down! Kwelli, he can be blase about the flu! He doesn't get sick! His antigglutin-free chemistry could let him drink a glass of cholera germs without harm!"

"But I wouldn't drink cholera," McCoy protested. "Who would want to? And if we're talking blood chemistry, you can walk unscathed in a tuberculosis clinic."

"I don't want to come down with the flu! It's nothing but aches and pains for me!"

McCoy was still reading the tricorder crypta. "Not this particular strain," he said without thinking. His mouth abruptly slapped shut.

Chapel's eyes slitted. "What can we look forward to with this strain?"

"All symptoms but physical fatigue, looks like it was designed to infect people without their knowing it, so they'd run themselves to death."

Kwelli sat down. "Suddenly, I'm very tired."

"Good idea," his boss approved. "Put your feet up."

* * *

The next hour passed without spirit. Dr. McCoy went outside and found pieces of deadwood to throw around. When Chapel told him it was non-constructive, he testily responded that he was simply tossing the caber, Irish style, after the English cut down all the oaks in a vain attempt to domesticate his people.

"I don't see why you bother," M'Benga told her.

Chapel snorted. "Force of habit. My family comes from a long line of co-dependency."

Not fifteen minutes later, M'Benga, to no one's surprise, began feeling a nasty cough in his chest.

"It's always me," he complained.

"Yeah, how's your throat?" Chapel tapped his jaw with a scope to make him open up.

"Sort of sore."

"Well, it will probably get worse," she told him.

McCoy poked his head back in. "What's gonna get worse?"

Chapel told him while M'Benga actively wished for a deep hole to bury himself in.

"Hoo-boy. Keep us updated, will you?"

"He will. It's called grumbling," Chapel shot back.

M'Benga glowered.

"Don't look at me like that. It's true. You're worse than Leonard when you're sick."

"He is?" McCoy looked surprised.

"At least Leonard has an excuse to run himself ragged on stims and vitamin shots. You don't."

"What's my excuse?"

"You're trying to keep up with the captain so he'll remain moderately safe. Don't give me that look. Scotty told me about how you nearly passed out when that overbloated amoeba passed by us."

"For a Highlander, he sure does talk a lot," McCoy muttered.

Kwelli paused to cough. Big, hacking, sticky spasms that sent his colleagues cringing.

"That must hurt," McCoy commented, rather needlessly, Chapel thought.

"Well, it did at first." M'Benga wiped his eyes. "But then a pleasant ... numbness ... set in."

"Ohh, boy. Kwelli, put your feet back up. Right now. Christine, you know what butterfly weed looks like?"

"That bright, Halloween-neon orange stuff blooming outside?"

"Excellent. Bring me back a root." McCoy began digging around the drawers for compression pads.

"What are you doing?"

"Improvising. Chances are the Ker are such snobs about tampering with nature, they've left it alone as much as possible. Let's gamble on that."

Nurse and AMO looked at each other above McCoy's shoulders, and shrugged. They were both in the dark as to his plans, but his confidence was reassuring.

Chapel returned fifteen minutes later, covered with dirt and looking really mad.

"Next time, you go excavate a hostile plant!" she barked.

McCoy paused to grin at her as he tossed the object in the sink to clean. "Your first experience with Asclepius tuberosa. Perfectly safe so long as you're not prone to heart disease or pregnancy. Rehydrates dry patches in lungs, wards off bronchial and pneumonic conditions ... its just a pain to obtain."

"A pain? It was growing out of solid shale!"

"Yeah, they do that. Doctrine of Signatures says its proof it has the power to dig deep into an internal condition."

"Doctrine of Signatures?" M'Benga practically lunged out of his chair, or tried to, but Leonard had anticipated and barred him with a skilled elbow against the collarbone. "You're using Medieval superstition to toy with my fate??"

"Simmer down. Let me tell you about the squirming root, a mugato, and a witch woman with sympathetic magic abilities sometime."

"Does it make good listening with marshmallows and a campfire?" Chapel wondered.

"Absolutely. Come to think of it, we could use some marshmallows on him. It would soothe his irritated mucus-linings."

M'Benga coughed again. McCoy ground up a small portion of the root and popped it into the boiling water. "I gotta warn you, this stuff tastes really bad."

"It does, huh? How bad is bad?"

"I've never had worse. And I've eaten in Rigellian bars."

"Lovely."

"But it will fix you up."

"Promise?"

"Would I lie?"

"How many times have I heard you say, 'This won't hurt a bit' to your patients?"

"As many times as I've heard you," McCoy snarled. "Make the werewolf happy, Kwelli. DRINK."

* * *

Another hour passed. McCoy sent Chapel out for another plant when Kwelli's temperature began to rise. This one was called Eupatorium, commonly called boneset, and M'benga claimed the weak tea made from the tops was like stuffing an evergreen tree up his nose. He got very little sympathy. His compatriots were feeling the front line of the first symptoms and gagging down the butterflyweed, which Chapel compared to a Japanese chestnut crossed with Kentucky bourbon and left to spoil in a hot summer sun.

M'Benga administered a sleeping pill onto himself and promptly rolled his back on the world.

Another hour. Chapel forced Leonard to play a game of chess with her.

"How long before the Enterprise passes back in beamup range?"

"'Nother six hours." McCoy glanced at the tricorder chrono.

"If I wasn't so worried about Kwelli, I'd be bored."

"I'm bored and hungry. Maybe we can scare up something."

"You scare up something. I'm vegetarian, remember?"

McCoy sighed. "Okay, something light and easy to take in." He lifted his voice to where M'Benga was stirring. "Kwelli, we're gonna throw a batch of soup or something together. Anything you want?"

"Something with potatoes," M'Benga told him. "I am in dire need of potassium."

"Potassium." McCoy opened up the cabinets that was on the "homeowners" side of the facility. "Bingo. Hope you like Blue-Eyed Russians." He held up a yellow tuber with blue eyespots.

"Some Astragalus sticks to boost immunity?" Chapel had noticed the spice rack.

"Sure. Toss in."

"Carrots. They're rehydrating." McCoy tossed a handful of long orange roots at M'Benga, who was suddenly in charge of the stockpot.

"I like purple carrots better."

"Too bad. You want the orange ones."

"Garlic and onions for a two-punch attack on viral and bacterial invaders." Chapel dug into the bin with both hands.

"Thyme and oregano for some broad-spectrum antibiotics."

"Hey, there's some watercress in here."

"Throw it in. We could use the megavitamins."

"Mushrooms. Holy God," M'Benga said in reverent tones. "A little bit of everything. What should we use?"

"Shitake and Maitake to kick the immune system, and reishi to boost the T-cell count," McCoy offered. "I dunno about you, but the more phagocytes I have to gobble up the invaders in my bloodstream, the better."

"You got it."

"Here's some cabbage. We should take full advantage of its salutary effects."

"Great idea. I could use something that's known to prevent ulcers." McCoy growled under his breath. "'Scans indicate no unforseen difficulties, doctor,' IN-deed."

"Anybody know how to work one of these Early Archaic electric-coil cooking heaters?" M'Benga wondered.

Chapel produced her hand phaser. "I'm going to show you a trick of Janice's."

"This isn't like the time she used a stale pancake to plug a leak in the Officer's Lounge Head, is it?" Kwelli was suddenly nervous.

"Kwelli, you're going to have to develop some bone-structure density if you're going to harbor delusions about Nyota Uhura."

McCoy's communicator chirped. He almost threw his back out lunging for it.

"Landing party!"

"Bones, how are you doing?" Kirk's voice filled the room.

"Oh, not too badly. M'Benga has a type of flu that hasn't been seen on Earth since the Latter Technological Revolution. Chapel is improving our lifestyles with dangerous methods, and my leukocytes have hit the ceiling. How are you?"

"Well, I finally got some straight answers out of the Ker. Do you remember the diplomat that tried to strangle you the other night?"

McCoy paused. He glanced at the others. They were staring at him.

"Bones?" Jim pressed. "Don't tell me you forgot how Spock had to yank that madman off you. You weren't even doing anything!"

"Uh ... " McCoy stammered.

"He arranged the beamdown coordinates down there hoping the three of you would show your incompetent dependency on artificial forms of medicine. None of the drugs at that place work."

"Yeah, well, we kinda figured that."

"And M'Benga is sick? How are you handling that?"

"Improvising." McCoy waved wildly at the cookpot. "Nurse, would you kindly raise the temperature on this batch?"

"On it, Doctor," Chapel said crisply. She gave the stainless steel vessel a quick burst on Low Stun.

"What are you doing? That sounded like a phaser!"

"It does, doesn't it?" McCoy agreed. "Jim, I think we'll be fine. We've mixed up a palliative of sorts. Six hours, we should be pretty ready to get back aboard."

"Well, at least we're back on communications. Expect an update call every hour on the hour; but call us if anything new develops."

"No quarrel there, Jim." McCoy told him blandly. "So, did you stick Diplomat Typhoid Murray into the brig?"

"No, I'm afraid the Ker have a legal loophole. It seems they reserve the right to test the mettle of all visitors without their knowledge."

"And nobody warned us about that?"

"That's the beauty of legal loopholes, Bones. They would have told us if we had asked ... but we hadn't asked."

McCoy groaned.

"But I did put him on cleaning detail in the Mess Hall. He should enjoy scrubbing the food replicating prototypes. Especially when he finds out he's been eating their chicken soup for lunch."

"Jim, that's why you're the best captain in the fleet."

Chapel was setting the table as McCoy joined them. "You look calm," she observed.

"I am. I sent our recipe up to the ship in case another Ker-acter decided to flood the ship with green nullfying bulbs or something. Dr. Cole is going to program it into the Day's Special."

"So we can go back home as soon as the ship's in range?"

"Yup."

"So we only have a few hours left to kill." M'Benga sighed peacefully and dug into his bowl.

"Yup." McCoy leaned back and coughed lightly. "And let's take some plants with us. Just in case."

THE END ...

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