by E. L. Zimmerman
From where he sat on the galley’s floor – tucked between the ceiling-high crates of ripe Lellgenberries and tins of Yymnula Grain, situated among the sealed containers of fresh Xonarzas Bread and the half-empty bottles of Rintella Spice – Ensign Harry Kim tiredly glanced up into the widened, panicked eyes of the ship’s Tallaxian cook. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first time he had seen Neelix’s slight but famous terror. The look did, however, remind Harry of how much he truly loathed the incalculable monotony of ‘inventory week’ aboard the USS Voyager.
"Yes," Harry answered.
"Six?" Neelix repeated. "Can you check again?"
"It won’t change the answer."
Wincing, the cook tried, "Humor me?"
Begrudgingly, Harry visually studied the blue hourglass-shaped decanters, ‘eyeballing’ his count for accuracy.
"Well," he sighed, "unless I’m seeing double, there are six unopened bottles of Rawwen Oil in front of me."
"Six," he answered.
Bobbing his head nervously, Neelix brought his hand up to his face. With an expression of deep contemplation, he stroked his wiry Tallaxian sideburns.
"They’re turning gray, you know," Harry said, smiling.
"Your sideburns," the ensign explained. "I can see it from this angle. There’s a touch of gray in your sideburns."
"It’s quite distinguished."
Aghast, the cook dropped his hands to his waist. "They most certainly are not turning gray!"
"I’m teasing you," Harry admitted, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I’m the victim of most of the practical jokes on the Bridge, so I’m taking Tom’s advice. I’m sharing it with the ship’s complement."
Neelix huffed, "That Mr. Paris."
Closing his eyes, the Tallaxian suddenly perched an elbow on a stack of Xonarzas Bread containers. He couldn’t be certain, but Harry guessed that the chef was lost in a trance studying several hundred cooking options stored in his head. Finally, his eyes still firmly closed, he concluded, "It won’t do! Harry, I can’t make do with only … why, it limits my meal selections to only … oh … six bottles just won’t do!"
"Don’t get me wrong," he continued, keeping his eyes closed. "I won’t mince words with you, but I’ll be lucky if those six bottles lasts for another two weeks! Think of the crew’s nutritional needs! They’ll have to forfeit a virtual smorgasbord of choice entrees due to the simple lack of cooking oil!"
PADD in hand, Harry stood, switching off the galley’s manifest. Finished with cataloguing the ship’s provisions, he could now prepare his monthly Ops report for the senior staff … and he could start dreading next month’s inventory well in advance.
"What am I going to do?" the Tallaxian asked, his mind still irrepressibly wandering from recipe to recipe.
"I understand your concern," Harry assured the cook – his friend and the ship’s morale officer. "I’m afraid … well … there isn’t anything I can do about it right now." He trusted that statement would elicit a frenzied response from his shipmate, so he quickly added, "I give you my word that I’ll duly remind the captain of your need."
Neelix’s eyelids fluttered. The Tallaxian was carefully searching his thoughts for any possible solution to the crisis.
"I’m finished here," Harry continued, peaceably trying to slip away while the opportunity presented itself. "I’m already late for today’s round of emergency tactical drills."
As if on cue, the ensign’s comm badge chirped.
"Janeway to Ensign Kim."
"Uh-oh," he said.
"Uh-oh is right," Neelix muttered, still mentally tinkering with the cooking concoctions in his imagination. "Six bottles? Harry, please underscore the importance of securing more Rawwen Oil." Abruptly, the Tallaxian threw his head back and released a heavy, moaning sigh. "Please give Captain Janeway my word that I’ll do everything that I can to make those six bottles last us as long as possible. If I water it down, I might be able to, at best, stretch it from two to four weeks, but not a Stardate more!"
Ignoring Neelix’s intrusion, Harry tapped his badge. "Kim here."
"Harry, you’re late," he heard Captain Janeway over the comm system.
"Yes, ma’am," he replied. "I’m on my way."
"Commander Chakotay has asked me to remind you that you’re holding up this morning’s drill."
"My apologies, captain," he offered politely. "I was finishing inventory this morning, and I was delayed in the ship’s galley." Harry trusted the mention of Neelix was all that needed to be said. "I’ll be along in a moment."
"As you know, the commander isn’t a very patient man," she retorted, and Harry heard nothing but the grin behind her steadied voice. "Chakotay’s stewing mad in the chair beside me. He’s already threatened to note your tardiness as an infraction to your permanent service record."
Harry smiled. Sometimes, the camaraderie with this crew – lost so many thousands of light years from the home they called the Alpha Quadrant – softened the emotional heartache driven by the isolation from his real family. To his good fortune, Captain Janeway didn’t mind a little teasing herself. Inadvertently, his assignment to Voyager had granted him almost unlimited access to command experience, yet another welcome distraction from pain of missing those he loved most.
"Captain," Harry began, smirking, "will it please the commander if I offer to take his next duty watch at the conn?"
There was a brief pause.
"That appears unacceptable," she finally said.
Shaking his head, the ensign smiled. Trying to sound authoritative, he replied, "Sir, will it please the commander if I take his duty watch at the conn … for the next month?"
There was another pause.
"Ensign," Janeway finally broke the silence, "I’m pleased to report that the commander’s expression is not unlike the one that the cat wore after it ate the canary. I have the feeling that your ‘command thinking’ saved you a night’s stay in the brig, Harry. Hurry along, and we’ll see you shortly."
Despite the differences, Voyager felt like home, and its crew had become his family.
Fingernails drumming noisily on an empty aluminum shelf, Neelix exclaimed, "You didn’t remind her about the cooking oil!"
Shrugging, the ensign tapped the PADD against his leg. "Neelix, the captain is aware how low we’re running on all provisions. Can’t we agree that you’ve made your point abundantly clear during the last three staff meetings?"
Reaching out, he placed a hand on the Tallaxian’s shoulder. "Like she told you yesterday, there’s an M Class planet on our current flight path. We should be in range later this morning. We’ll scan the surface for any and all sources of food. Let’s hope that whatever race inhabits the planet has something they’re willing to trade that resembles Rawwen Oil. Agreed?"
To his surprise, Harry noticed that the chef’s eyes were still tightly closed.
"Harry," Neelix said, "have you ever eaten anything fried in … Synthoil?"
Grimacing at the thought, the ensign conceded, "I have, and I understand your position perfectly, Neelix."
"No disrespect intended, but I’m not sure that you do."
Finally, the Tallaxian opened his eyes, glaring at his shipmate. "Without the proper oil, what am I supposed to cook the Fleckwings in?"
Sighing, Harry replied, "Well, like you said, I guess you’ll have to use Synthoil."
One hand on his chest, the Tallaxian cook gasped. Speaking emphatically, Neelix tried, "Have you ever savored a flaky, delectable, crunchy, mouth-watering Fleckwing fried in … of all things … replicated Synthoil?"
Harry realized how challenging it was to sound interested in such potential culinary disasters. "Neelix, you heard the captain’s call. I’m needed on the Bridge. What with all of the Borg signatures we’ve picked up in this system, we’re risking assimilation as it is to slow down for even a cursory scan of that M Class planet! The captain has had the senior officers running combat simulations for the last three weeks! Trust me, this is the best solution we have!"
Quickly, the cook reached to his left. He yanked a silver canister from the shelf. Popping up the lid, he plucked a small yellow chunk from inside.
Defiantly, the cook plopped the bit into Harry Kim’s open mouth.
"There!" the Tallaxian challenged.
Cautiously, the ensign chewed. The Fleckwing cracked noisily under his teeth. Biting down, he broke it into many smaller pieces, and he chewed some more … tasting … tasting …
The morsels broke unevenly in his mouth, and a shard suddenly pricked his lower gums.
"Ow," he mumbled.
"See what I mean?" Neelix pleaded, slapping the canister’s lid closed and pitching the container back onto the shelf. "There’s no taste! Nothing whatsoever!" He leaned close. "And the consistency? Why, it’s like chewing rocks!" He raised a hand to his lips. "Lieutenant Torres tried to have some the other evening. She likened the experience to snacking on isolinear chips!"
Swallowing hard, Harry felt the mound of Fleckwing scrape down his esophagus. Pleased to have the food out of his mouth and in his stomach, he nodded. "B’Elanna won’t get any argument from me," he confessed. "The Fleckwing tasted like … air, and it was … painful to chew. I see your point, and I agree with you completely." Gesturing with his hands wide, he asked, "What do you want from me?"
Sounding conspiratorial, Neelix almost whispered, "We have to secure more Rawwen Oil. If I were you, I’d recommend that obtaining a fresh case – or a reasonable substitute – should be mission priority number one!" Turning up his noise, the Tallaxian muttered disgustedly, "Synthoil, indeed."
"I’ll tell the captain," Harry surrendered the argument.
"Thank you," Neelix said, smiling.
Smiling, the cooked nodded, patting the departing ensign on the back. "It’s like Captain Janeway said, Harry. That is some fine ‘command thinking’ you’ve been doing. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you might end up commanding Voyager all by yourself one day!"