The following presentation is rated G.
"That's it! I've had it!"
Heads turned from every corner of the mess hall toward the discouraged cry.
Neelix threw the ladle grasped in his hand with such force and carelessness as to upset the neatly arranged cooking utensils at the far end of the counter. The unexpected clatter startled several people waiting in line to be served the afternoon meal, including Tom Paris, who stood at the head. The conn officer watched, slack-jawed, as the typically cheerful Talaxian chef continued his rant. "I put my heart and soul into everything I do for you people every single day, all for the sake of providing you with a few new experiences, and how am I repaid for my efforts? With your endless complaining! Well, no more!" He pulled apart the knot in the tie-strings and removed his apron. "If you think you can do a better job, be my guest!" He emphasized the last three words by crumpling the cloth into a wad and hurling it into Tom's face. He then stomped his way out of the kitchen, to the astonishment of everyone observing the scene.
Tom stared blankly at the exit Neelix had just used, the wadded apron still in his hands. "What'd I say?"
The man behind him slowly lifted his arm and tapped his communicator pin. "Larson to Captain Janeway."
"Captain," he drawled, still dazed from the flap. "We...have a problem in the mess hall."
"You quit?" Janeway couldn't believe her ears.
"That's not entirely correct, Captain," Neelix indignantly replied. "I'm on strike."
She shook her head, unable to wrap her mind around Neelix's declaration. "This is highly irregular, Neelix. You are the only person on this ship with intimate knowledge of Delta Quadrant foodstuffs and their preparation."
"I realize that, Captain, but I don't have any choice. My situation is too intolerable now to continue my responsibilities as the ship's cook unless I get some concessions."
Janeway already knew what he meant by 'intolerable'. She had probed Ensign Larson for the cause of Neelix's walk-out, and confirmed the story with Lt. Paris. While waiting to be served, Tom had made one of his usual quips about the quality of the Talaxian's cooking. She rewarded Tom with a reprimand, despite the lieutenant's protest that he didn't mean offense by it. In fact, the captain was well aware of Lt. Paris' devil-may-care attitude and his inflammatory sense of humor. She had a hard time accepting the Talaxian's brusqueness, especially considering his close relationship with Tom. She inclined to think that Neelix was simply overreacting again; while he proved to be a sensitive and caring individual, he also wore his emotions on his sleeve. That particular tendency sometimes led to hyperbole of a situation's seriousness. "Neelix, why don't you just take the day off, go to your quarters or the holodeck, and take your mind off all this for a while," she placated. "I'm sure that once you've had some time to relax, you'll feel like your usual self again."
The Talaxian's whiskers bristled. "I see," he stated, affronted. "You don't think I'm serious about this. I'm sorry I wasted your time, Captain. I'll be going now." He stood and walked towards the exit. At the door he paused and turned around. "But, Captain, I'd find another cook if I were you; dinner is only four and a half hours away."
Janeway watched him leave and smiled wryly. She was sure this would blow over before dinner, if she knew Neelix. In the meantime, she probably should find someone to fill in for the afternoon.
The rest of the morning passed without much incident. Janeway set
about the apparently daunting task of finding Neelix's stand-in. Ensign
Pablo Baytart, the first on her list of candidates, surprised her by
accepting the task with an unbridled enthusiasm. Considering the many
troubling hardships encountered in their return to the Alpha Quadrant, she
would have thought finding someone with such high spirits on the ship to be
rare. His eagerness refreshed her, elevating her mood to a point where her
usual mundane activities seemed less bothersome. Janeway settled into a
comfortable work pace as she put her attention into her overdue paperwork.
The chirp of the door chime interrupted her steady train of thought. Momentarily startled, the captain took a moment to collect her thoughts before admitting the caller.
Chakotay stood in the door's frame, wary of entering. "Did I catch you at a bad time, Captain?" he inquired tentatively.
"No, Commander, just busy," she replied with a grin, straightening her posture as she did so. "Come on in. What can I do for you?"
He caught her infectious smile, just enough to pull a corner of his mouth upward. He stepped forward, allowing the door to close unobtrusively behind him. "Actually, Captain, I was wondering if you'd be interested in joining me for lunch today."
"Is it time for lunch already? I must have lost track of the time." She only now realized that she was hungry. "Well, I was wondering how Ensign Baytart was making out. I guess I'll take you up on your offer."
"Pablo Baytart?" Chakotay narrowed his eyes at the captain. "Would this have something to do with Neelix's visit to your office this morning?"
Janeway finished saving her reports and put the desk padd into sleep mode. "I'll explain on the way down," she answered as they made their way out.
The mess hall was noticeably subdued, Janeway noticed. With a quick
glance she could spot many more unoccupied tables than should have been at
this time of day. Intuition told her that the ensign was having
difficulties coping with his short-term position.
The first officer proved almost as perceptive. "Looks like a slow day. You think there's a problem with the menu?"
"There's only one way to find out." The captain led the way up to the serving counter. She found Ensign Baytart tucked away in one of the kitchen's recesses, looking as forlorn as he had been enthusiastic earlier. "Ensign?"
Pablo almost fell off the stool he'd appropriated from some place. He fumbled his way to attention. "Captain! I didn't hear you come in...."
Janeway held up a hand. "Calm down, Pablo. I think it's safe to say you were preoccupied with something."
The ensign's posture sagged. "I...yes, I guess I was. Lunch didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped." He smiled wanly as his eyes flitted briefly across the near-empty room behind the two ranking officers. "But I suppose you guessed that already. I don't know where I went wrong. I'm sure I followed Neelix's recipe exactly!"
"Don't beat yourself over it, Pablo. I'm sure Neelix had his share of problems when he first started this job," Chakotay reasoned, hoping to bolster the cook's confidence. "Now, how about some service? I don't know about the captain, but I sure could use something to eat."
Baytart's eyes grew in alarm. "Commander? I don't know if I'd recommend that. I -" He cast an unsure look at the captain.
"I think we've put up with a lot tougher situations than this, Ensign," she remarked, grinning. "I wouldn't waste time worrying about what the captain thinks about your first attempt at lunch."
Baytart served the captain and first officer, albeit hesitantly.
To her credit, Janeway saved face until they moved to a dining table. The food definitely looked familiar, but the aroma was slightly off. Fortunately, the "coffee" seemed in good order. She glanced up at Chakotay, who appeared about as willing to dig in as she. "Well, Commander, shall we eat?"
The first officer knew he had put on the spot. He arched an eyebrow at her as if to ask Are you sure you wouldn't rather try it first? All he got back was a crafty look that implied No way, buddy. I'm pulling rank. He picked up his fork and prepared a morsel. He lifted the utensil to his lips, but stopped and gave the captain another look. Janeway prepared a morsel of her own in response to the unspoken ultimatum.
Her hopes fell as she watched the food disappear into his palette. He chewed once and paused, perhaps stunned by what he was tasting. Janeway swore she could see him blanch for a brief moment. Then he resumed as quickly as he'd stopped. "It's...not terrible." She admired his strength of will, but his unconfident smile told the tale. Still, he managed to keep it down. Not to be outdone, Janeway committed herself to the mouthful in front of her.
Her respect for his discipline increased fourfold when she bit into the morsel. She fought with every fiber of her being to suppress her initial gag reflex, and eventually she succeeded. Neelix might have served up some stomach-turners in his time, but they were incomparable to this! Janeway forced herself to finish off the bite and swallow. She looked uneasily at Chakotay. "You're right; 'terrible' doesn't even begin to describe it." She allowed herself to chuckle at the absurdity of what they had. "Well, he did try to warn us. You can't fault him for that." She grasped her coffee cup and took as much as she could tolerate, hoping the bitter fluid could wash out the even more bitter taste of what she had just eaten.
"Nope, not at all." Chakotay shared the levity of the situation. "I only wish you could have seen the look on your face, Captain."
"Oh, my god, was I that transparent?" she bemoaned, choking back her laughter.
"You looked like you'd just bitten into something that was still alive," he regaled. "It was priceless!"
They sat there for several minutes, trying to spend their laughter. Pablo poked his head out from the galley, completely befuddled over the scene, wondering if somehow the food he had prepared was in some way responsible. Finally, Janeway and Chakotay settled down and left the mess hall, leaving their lunches largely untouched. Neither of them felt they had the stomach to tempt fate and illness.
"So, what are we going to do about Neelix's strike?" asked Chakotay. "I don't want to put down Ensign Baytart, but I'm not sure the crew could put up with that kind of fare for very long."
"I don't know, Commander. I'm not completely convinced that Neelix really means to do what he said. You know him about as well as I do. He often wears his heart on his sleeve; he's easily agitated. But Neelix is also a very forgiving and upbeat person. He's never down for long."
"That may be true, Captain, but I wouldn't take him too lightly. Neelix has demonstrated that he can carry a grudge for a very long time. Remember the time Dr. Jetrel visited the ship?"
The point he raised hit her like a splash of cold water. This was just the sort of situation that made a first officer so valuable: a different perspective, an opposing point of view. "I hadn't thought of that. You're right, Chakotay, we can't afford to underestimate Neelix's stake in all this." She thought the matter over for a moment. The turbolift conveniently arrived in that time. "I still think he just needs a chance to blow off some steam and come back on his own, but we'd better cover our bases just in case."
"So Pablo stays in the galley." Chakotay said.
"Exactly. We have to give him a chance to find his bearings, and hope it doesn't take him too long. The crew will also have to be informed of our present situation. If they're aware that Neelix is unhappy they might be a little more tolerant of his replacement. Frankly, I'm a little surprised no one said anything about lunch."
"Very well, Captain. Do you want me to notify the crew?"
"That's all right, Commander, I'll take care of it." The turbolift deposited them on the bridge. "But have Neelix report to my ready room. I think we need to talk. You have the bridge."
Several sets of eyes watched the captain retreat into her office, trained on her since the turbolift doors had opened. Each on-looker made silent prayers of thanks to the deities; from the conversation they had overheard, the Talaxian's absence had displeased the captain.
Janeway sat down at her desk and reactivated her console. She smiled with incredulity as the display informed her of 67 awaiting messages, each one politely inquiring into Neelix's unexplained lack of presence from the mess hall.
Tom entered the captain's ready room on the heels of Lt. Tuvok. Why
the captain had asked for him specifically, he didn't know. With the
Vulcan security officer in attendance, he hoped the captain hadn't decided
to give him more than a reprimand for the incident in the mess hall that
morning. He spotted Captain Janeway and the first officer sitting in the
far corner, the elevated section of her office. It looked like a positive
sign to Tom; such a comfortable environment didn't seem the right place to
hold a lecture about protocol and discipline.
"Gentlemen, please have a seat," she requested, indicating the chesterfield banked against the bulkhead. When everyone settled in she continued. "I asked you people in particular to this meeting because it concerns what happened in the mess hall this morning. Tuvok, I trust you've made yourself familiar with the details of that incident?"
Tom turned cloth-white at the course the conversation took. "I have, Captain," the Vulcan replied evenly.
Janeway paid no attention to the navigator's reaction. "Shortly after the incident occurred, Neelix paid me a visit. Our Talaxian chef has formally lodged a protest against what he perceives as unfair treatment by the crew and suspended his services until he's been satisfactorily compensated. In other words, Neelix is on strike until he gets what he wants."
"He's on strike?" Tom re-stated, astounded. The color returned to his face; with this unbelievable turn in conversation, all thoughts about impending punishment vanished.
"A logical course of action for a disgruntled laborer whose only hope of equitable payment is to deny the dispensation of services," Tuvok stated. "However, I fail to see how Mr. Neelix seeks to find profit in such a decision. We have no form of currency with which to pay him. I must also point out that his services were offered only in exchange for passage on the ship."
"Tuvok, Neelix isn't looking for fiduciary compensation," Chakotay argued. "What he wants is for the crew to acknowledge his worth as a cook. He's tired of people making jokes about his food; he doesn't feel like he's getting the respect he deserves as a member of this crew."
Tom knew to whom Chakotay was talking, albeit indirectly addressed. "With all due respect, sir, I resent what you're insinuating. I have a great deal of respect for Neelix for what he does for us. I know we got off to a rocky start, but now we're really good friends. We know a lot about each other. Neelix knows that when I joke about his food I'm not attacking him, I'm just playing around."
"Perhaps, Tom, but when you make cracks around other people, they think it's okay if they make cracks also," the captain cut in. "That's what upsets Neelix. You have to take a look a the bigger picture, Tom, and see that as a senior officer you're setting an example to the rest of the people on this ship."
Tom lost the spirit to argue and leaned back into the sofa. He refrained from saying a thing. Every response he could come up with would have demonstrated a complete and utter lack of respect for himself, the captain, the chain of command, and the reasons he wore the Starfleet uniform. The bottom line was, he had not considered that his wisecracking might negatively influence others; he believed they understood his teasing to be harmless.
Janeway looked around the room at the three men, looking for signs of continued bickering. Satisfied with the quiet, she moved on to the next issue at hand. She directly addressed the two lieutenants. "Now, since we've already touched on the subject, I want to discuss Neelix's demands. Commander Chakotay and I have already reviewed them, and we both agree that his requests are reasonable." She bent over and set her arms in her lap. "There aren't many, gentlemen, but since they involve the both of you, it's only fair that I let you have a say in the decision."
Tuvok's expression remained steady, but Tom sat forward, mimicking the captain's current position. "What does he want us to do?" A thread of expectancy laced the question.
The captain resumed a formal sitting posture. "First and foremost, Tom, Neelix has asked that you make a public apology during one of his broadcast programs. It's an opportunity to make everyone aware that jokes about Neelix's cooking is not tolerable behavior."
Tom closed his eyes. He tried not to let his resignation show, but the weight of it pushed his head down toward his chest. He drew in a deep breath and looked up at the captain. "Well, I guess I owe him that much. It won't be easy to give up, but if our friendship is at stake, I'll do it."
Janeway nodded approval, her faith in the young man's potential to become a great officer once again justified. Now she turned to her long-time confidante and braced herself for a more difficult exchange. "Neelix also wants the crew to tell him that he's a good cook and they don't hate his food. In addition, he stipulated that you speak on the crew's behalf."
The security officer didn't even blink. "As I am incapable of liking nor disliking Mr. Neelix's daily preparations, I fail to see the logic in his decision. I can not prepare a statement regarding the crew's attitude toward his cooking, since it involves an emotional context which I do not share."
"Oh, come on, Tuvok," Tom frustratingly implored. "You'll just be expressing the general opinion of the ship. It's not like you'll be expressing your own feelings - not that you have any, that is."
"On the contrary, Mr. Paris," Tuvok rebutted. "By making me the ship's representative, the opinions and attitudes of all members become reflections of my own. To make a statement such as the one Mr. Neelix would have me give would be equivalent to admitting that I have an emotional disposition towards him, which I do not."
Janeway had expected that kind of response. Vulcans could be unbelievably stubborn when they wanted. "Tuvok...I know it might seem that way to you now, but try to understand the situation we're facing. Neelix has played a huge role in our survival here in the Delta Quadrant. He's been our guide, morale officer and ambassador of trade as well as our cook. If we lose his services in any capacity, our trip home gets that much more difficult." She paused for dramatic effect, allowing her words to be absorbed. Her security officer made no attempt at a response - which was logical, of course, for nothing needed to be said.
"I'm sure Neelix did not intend to offend your principles; by now he should understand the Vulcan convention of suppressing emotions. He also knows you'll be forthright with him, which is the most likely reason he asked that you speak for the crew. He wants someone he can trust implicitly to tell him that he's doing a good job."
For a good long moment Janeway wondered if Tuvok had been listening to her; the Vulcan just sat there, his expression unwavering. He hardly even blinked as he turned her reasoning over in his mind. "That is a highly cogent and logical argument, Captain, but it still does not preclude the position which faces me, as inadvertent as Mr. Neelix's intention might be," Tuvok stubbornly counter-argued. "The truth, no matter how much one chooses to bend it, is still the same."
Clearly, rational discussion would not be enough. Janeway needed something more persuasive. Fortunately, something happened to be available. "Well, if that's you're position, Tuvok, I don't see any point in arguing further."
"Captain...." Alarm distinctly dominated Chakotay's response. Tom would have protested if he hadn't lost the power of speech.
"Commander, you and Lieutenant Paris may return to the bridge," she ordered.
The first officer warily eyed her for a moment, hoping to find the method to her actions. "Aye, captain," he replied hesitantly, rising. He had to tug Paris' sleeve to snap the lieutenant out of his stupor.
"Shall I return to station as well, Captain?" the security officer queried as the two exited the room.
"No, Tuvok, I want you to come with me. I have something I want you to do first."
"Captain, I fail to see the logic in this course of action."
Janeway kept herself one pace behind the Vulcan, almost prodding him toward the mess hall. She smirked at the slight hint of frustration in his timbre; if he were human, his complaint would have verged on a whine. "Oh, it'll all make sense once we get there, Tuvok. Trust me."
In the galley, Ensign Baytart scuttled from pot to pot, anxiously tending to the contents in each. In one he tossed some unidentifiable vegetables, the next he stirred to keep the creamy sauce from congealing, yet another he tested for flavor and seasoning. He grimaced as he smacked his lips, now almost regretting his decision to take this job. Despite all his experience, he couldn't figure out how Neelix made his recipes work. His admiration for the Talaxian's ability to mix these Delta Quadrant ingredients together into a palatable meal grew considerably. He desperately hoped Neelix's holdout would be short-lived so he could ask him for a few cooking lessons.
Pablo cast a glance at the counter. After the incident that afternoon, he thought the captain would have been the last person he should have expected to see. "Captain, what a...pleasantly unexpected surprise to see you."
"Thank you, Ensign," she greeted him amicably. "How is tonight's dinner coming along?"
Pablo wasn't sure what he could say. "Uh, I'd say it's going about as well as to be expected for someone whose experience with Delta Quadrant food goes back as far as lunch." To his confusion, the captain seemed pleased with the news.
"It's nice to hear you still looking at the positive, Ensign." Janeway looked over Pablo's shoulder. "I was wondering...is any of it ready yet?"
Baytart coughed nervously. "Um...well, actually, I'm still working out the kinks in them, Captain. I don't think I should give any of it to you just yet; I wouldn't want to make you sick."
"Oh, it's not for me, Ensign, it's for Lieutenant Tuvok." Janeway covered her mouth conspiratorially and coaxed the ensign to lean forward over the counter. "I need to convince him that it's in his best interests to get Neelix back in the kitchen," she whispered into his ear.
Pablo's eyes lit up like Christmas bulbs. "Ah, I get it. Good thinking, Captain." Within moments the captain had a dish of...something...in her hands. Spare moments later the tray rested in front the Vulcan.
"I must compliment you on your creativity, Captain," he remarked. "I would not have thought of settling a disagreement by force-feeding your opponent."
"You use whatever works, Tuvok," she agreed. "Now, start eating, mister."
If a Vulcan could have sighed with frustration, Tuvok would have done so as he picked up an eating utensil. "I should state that this will likely be a pointless exercise, Captain. I have learned to tolerate ill-prepared food since Mr. Neelix's early efforts to provide the crew with nutritional supplements."
The captain mentally crossed her fingers as he took his first bite. She watched carefully for any signs that might give him away. Tuvok chewed slowly but methodically, no different than usual. Her confidence slipped when he swallowed the bite and continued on, rationing portion after portion and eating them steadily. It looked as if her plan was crumbling to pieces around her. She tried to think of other ways to get Tuvok to alter his stance on Neelix's request, but had to admit to herself that this had probably been her best chance.
The security officer finished off the meal and graciously dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin. "I will consider Mr. Neelix's request, Captain. Now, with your permission, I would like to return to the bridge."
Flummoxed, Janeway nodded numbly. "Per...Permission granted." Janeway stared at him, mouth agape, as he left the mess hall without her.
Commander Chakotay walked into the mess hall for breakfast, lured in
by the warm, spicy smells wafting through the corridors on Deck 2. He
recognized the scent of Neelix's Allandran omelets and was so encouraged by
the possibility it invited that he had to investigate for himself. Nor was
he disappointed by his decision. Cheerfully toiling away behind the
cooking elements stood the Talaxian, looking for all the quadrant like a
busy little creature back in its natural environment.
"Commander! How delightfully wonderful it is to see you this morning!" the stocky alien bubbled. "How would you like an omelet with toast and coffee?"
"Sounds great," he replied. His mouth watered as he watched Neelix fill up a plate. "I have to admit, Neelix, it's good to see you back behind the counter again."
The Talaxian grinned from ear to ear. "It know what you mean, Commander. I didn't think I'd miss it as much as I did. Another couple of days and I might have asked the captain to forget all that strike business. But I'm happy with how it turned out. I think people will appreciate what I do for them from now on."
"I know I certainly do," Chakotay answered, smiling mischievously. "I'm sure Tom does, too. When will he be on your show?"
Neelix passed the breakfast plate to the first officer and reached for a coffee cup. "Mr. Paris agreed to make his apology live on camera later today, actually. Such a considerate person, he is. He said he couldn't wait to put straight this unfortunate situation with everyone."
"I'll bet. He must be getting tired of being a source of trouble around here." One more puzzle had to be answered, though. "And Tuvok, he really delivered a formal statement of repair?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, he did. He said 'Mr. Neelix, the crew does not devalue the contributions you make to serve the ship. Without your knowledge of the local flora and fauna, I am certain our crossing of the Delta Quadrant would have been far more arduous. If this labor dispute has accomplished anything, it has demonstrated the importance of your presence on Voyager'." He handed Chakotay a cup of hot java and chuckled. "Oh, I know Mr. Vulcan would never admit it, but he missed my cooking, too. Enjoy your meal, Commander."
"Thank you, Neelix, I will." Chakotay took his breakfast and sat down at a table. He was dying to ask the captain how she managed to convince Tuvok to change his mind - after he ate, of course.
Captain Janeway put the finishing touches on her last report for the
day with an air of triumph. She sunk back into the yielding support of her
chair with a satisfied sigh. Tuvok had seen fit to accommodate Neelix's
proviso, thereby putting an end to Neelix's holdout. Not to discredit
Ensign Baytart's courage for accepting work without suitable training, but
having Neelix resume his duties as the cook so quickly relieved her
immensely. This morning's breakfast tasted more like victory than his
Chakotay finally had time to stop by the captain's office. He noticed the lack of tension in her shoulders. It was fairly easy to guess why. "Good day, Captain?"
"It's been a great day, Commander, the best day I've had in a while," she remarked, getting up. She ushered Chakotay to her den. "How about you?"
"It ranks right up there," he said, taking a seat. He waited for the captain to sit as well before he asked the question gnawing at him all day. "So, how did you do it?"
"Do what?" she asked coyly, although she knew to what he referred.
"Get Tuvok to change his mind?"
She chuckled. "I had him eat Pablo's Truvian casserole."
Chakotay's brow furrowed. "The casserole? I thought Pablo did a decent job with it compared to the other entrees."
"Well, he must have done something to it after we left. When I told him what I was doing, he picked the casserole himself. However, there was a time when I thought it wouldn't have made a difference what he chose. Tuvok sat there and ate the whole serving as if nothing was wrong. I thought my plan was about to fall through, but when he finished he said he'd reconsider the matter." She laughed. "I'd never been so surprised in all my life."
"Did he say why he reversed his position?"
She laughed a little harder. "No. He hasn't spoken a word to me all day, though, so I suspect he's a little upset."
The first officer joined her in a good laugh over the joke. "I'm sure he'll forgive you sooner or later, Captain. For now, though, what would you say to grabbing some dinner in the mess hall?"
Janeway wiped her tearing eyes. "That's sounds like a good idea, Chakotay, but there's one thing I'd like to do first." She picked up a desk padd and activated it. She pressed a few buttons and placed the padd on a corner table as the display flared to life with an image of the Talaxian.
"Greetings, and welcome to this week's edition of 'A Briefing with Neelix'! This week I have a very special line-up for you. I've got an interview with Ensign Yarro about Bajoran culture...Crewman Henard will give yours truly a lesson in the self-defense technique of ju-jitsu...and, as always, the Doctor will provide us with some handy medical advice. But first, I have a very special guest with me today...."
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