Clarinets wailed. Drums pounded. Horns arched over the reeds, adding their color to the sultry, insistent rhythm that filled the room and thudded back from the walls. It was a sound resonant with heat and sweat and sex.
The human sounds that accompanied the music didn't quite fit.
"Ow. Dammit. Wait. WAIT, I said. You're stepping on me."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud. I don't think you're even trying to concentrate. Computer, end program."
As the music and the dim lighting faded, the glaring grid of the holodeck illuminated an interesting scene.
Starfleet Ensign Thomas Eugene Paris, clad in a flashy 1940s-era suit, stood in the middle of the room, his face red with exertion and irritation. On the floor in front him, wearing a flame-red dress and an expression of equal irritation, lay Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Federation Starship Voyager.
"It's one-two-THREE-dip. Three! You dipped on two," said Tom accusingly.
"Dip on this, mister. I quit."
"You can't quit! You promised. And besides, the whole crew saw you hand-pick me as your partner."
Kathryn, who had half-risen, sank back to the floor in disgust. Not for the
time, she wondered how she let herself get pushed into these things.
This particular thing had started, as so many of them did, with Neelix.
The little Talaxian had come to her ready room a week earlier and stood before her desk at muscle-straining attention. To her "at ease" he had relaxed not a whit.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Neelix?" Janeway had asked, her tone pleasant but wary. This level of formality from him usually meant that he was about to ask something he expected her to say no to. Something she ought to say no to. Something she would say no to if she listened to her better judgment.
So why was it that she so often found herself saying "yes" to Neelix?
"You see, Captain, it's like this," he began eagerly. "We're low on supplies. Replicator rations are all but gone. The next trading planet is several weeks away."
"I know all this, Mr. Neelix."
He beamed at her, as if she were a backward pupil who had finally answered correctly. "Of course you do. So I'm sure you'll understand why it is so important that we do something to boost morale. And why it would mean so much to the crew if you could be part of it."
"Part of what?" Janeway asked, certain now that she was not going to like what was coming.
"Part of the fourth annual Talent Night!"
Well, it wasn't going to be so hard to say no after all. She stood. "Thank you, Mr. Neelix, but. . ."
"Oh, you haven't heard the best part yet," he broke in. "You see, it won't be just any Talent Night. It's the fourth anniversary of Talent Night, and I'd like to do something special to commemorate it. You have to keep these things fresh, you know. Comforting ritual plus new twists -- that's the way to keep a tradition exciting."
"Neelix, I promise to be an attentive member of the audience. I'll even introduce the acts, if you like. But beyond that. . ."
"Oh, no, Captain, you did the introductions for the second Talent Night. It wouldn't be a good idea to copy ourselves. Remember -- freshness is key." He paused, smiling, clearly expecting her to say something.
"Freshness," she repeated.
"Exactly! I want to do a little advance advertising, build the anticipation. You know, anticipation is half the fun. Here's my idea. We'll gather everybody in the mess hall and announce the Talent Night. I'm thinking ten acts would be a good number. Don't leave people feeling cheated, but always leave them wanting more; that's my rule. I'll start by picking ten performers, a mixture of senior staff and crew -- people who are popular with everyone. Then each of those ten will pick the name of someone else out of a hat."
"It's an old Earth custom I read about in the database. You write people's names on slips of paper and put them into a hat. Well, really, any sort of receptacle will do. The main point is that the choices are perfectly random. And you do it in front of witnesses. It's suspenseful. It will be fun."
"Mr. Neelix, I'm sorry, but you've lost me. Just what is it that we're going to be doing in front of witnesses?"
"It's for Talent Night, Captain," he said slowly and brightly, in that special tone people reserve for chats with the mentally subnormal. "Each person who is going to perform will choose a partner at random, from the hat. It will make for very interesting pairings. Then the teams will have two weeks to prepare their acts. Everyone will be waiting to see what they come up with. I may even run a little replicator-ration pool. Oh. Forget I said that, Captain."
Janeway shook her head in amazement. "He may even run a little pool, he says. Neelix, I know I'm going to be sorry I asked, but. . .where do I come in?"
Neelix's beaming face became positively incandescent. "Why, Captain, you'll be
the performer who draws the first name!"
"No, I said," Janeway repeated for the fifth time, striding along the corridor. Neelix trotted to keep up, as he had been doing ever since he had followed her from the ready room.
"But, Captain. . ."
She stopped and faced him. "Neelix. No. You know how silly those talent skits can be. No one wants a happy crew more than I do, but I can't afford to make a fool of myself in front them. I'm not trying to be difficult or snobbish or inflexible. But the crew has to trust me with their lives. When we're in battle, they can't be thinking of me as the woman who got a pie in the face."
Neelix was baffled. "You think the crew wants to hit you with pies?"
Kathryn rubbed her temples. "No, no, it's. . .Never mind. The point is that I really do have to consider my position."
Neelix took her hands, suddenly serious and earnest. "I'd never suggest anything to undermine your position, Captain. But it's not beneath anyone's dignity to have fun. The crew already respects you. It will comfort them to see your human side. They'd be pleased and honored if you'd enter into their entertainments with them once in a while. It can't be good for them to know you only as a presence. They need to know you as a person, too."
"I'm not sure that's true," she said, but she knew he could see that she was wavering. Sure enough, he pressed his advantage.
"It doesn't have to be something silly, Captain. It wouldn't have to involve pies at all. It could be something from one of your great Terran works of art." He thought a moment, then brightened. "I know! Perhaps you and Mr. Chakotay could do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet."
Her rich, infectious laughter filled the corridor. Neelix hadn't seen her so genuinely amused in months. "Gods, Neelix, what an image," she gasped finally. "I think I'd rather have the pie."
She paused, staring at the floor. Then she raised her head and smiled. "I'm
sure I'm going to regret this. But you win. Bring on the hat."
Thus it was that Captain Kathryn Janeway found herself standing in the mess hall in front of her assembled crew, staring at an absurd bump that Neelix called a derby.
"Go ahead, Captain," the Talaxian urged, his smile as wide as the quadrant. She rummaged among the pieces of paper and chose, handing the slip to Neelix.
He made a show of unfolding it slowly. "And the lucky crew member is. . . . well, I know it's one of my favorite people. . ."
"Get on with it," Janeway hissed.
"Mr. Thomas Paris!!"
The mess hall erupted. People banged their cups on the tables and roared. Dalby yodeled. B'Elanna and Harry, grinning and leering, both elbowed Tom in the ribs. "Tom-MY! Tom-MY! Tom-MY" chanted the Delaney sisters.
Kathryn closed her eyes. Hell. It was a nightmare already.
It got worse.
"It's called swing dancing, Captain," Tom explained enthusiastically in her ready room the next day. "It was all the rage around the 1940s, and then there was this big revival about fifty years later. It's really fun to watch and even more fun to do. I bet we'll start a ship-wide craze. Look."
In his excitement he jumped up and came behind her desk, leaning over her shoulder to bring up a video on her computer screen. "See? Lots of spins and lifts, and the music is really hot. Um. . .I mean. . ." He suddenly seemed to realize that he was breathing in her ear, and he straightened up abruptly.
"I don't know, Tom," said Janeway. "I can manage a few turns around a dance floor, but this. . . .This looks pretty demanding."
"Oh, come on, Captain, give it a try. I'll have you spinning around in no time." He grinned at her, raising an eyebrow enticingly. "I'll design you a really foxy dress."
"Thank you, Mr. Paris, but I've had quite enough of your, shall we say, Parisian couture." Tom looked innocently perplexed, but Janeway wasn't fooled. "You know I'm talking about that unnecessarily-tight dress you designed for me when we had to deal with those holodeck aliens. So, no more fashion from you. In any case, we can't possibly justify using replicator rations to create costumes. We'll just have to make do."
"Captain? Are you saying you'll do it?"
Kathryn uttered the fatal words. "I suppose."
Since then, she'd had scarcely a minute's peace.
Tom was constantly handing her data strips containing dancing tutorials and thumping music played by people with names that sounded like something out of a Renaissance allegory: Goodman, Armstrong, Dizzy, Fats. He planned a practice schedule that took up virtually her every free moment. He even hummed and counted to her if they met in the turbolift.
And then today, an engineering problem had taken her attention after her duty shift, so that she had had to skip dinner in order to be on time for what Tom kept reminding her was "our first real rehearsal."
"I was lucky to get this hour, Captain," he had told her. "All the entertainment groups are trying to reserve time. I really had to promise a lot of favors."
Guilt. That was all she needed, she had thought as she entered the holodeck. And stopped.
A large, polished dance floor gleamed in subdued light. Standing in the middle of it was Tom Paris, grinning and wearing one of the most outlandish outfits she'd ever seen on a human. It was an old-fashioned man's suit. . .sort of. With baggy pants, huge lapels and tails, loud white stripes, and a clanking chain looped at the belt. An oddly-brimmed hat hung over his eye. Black-and-white shoes completed the ensemble.
"What in the hell?" she asked.
"It's a zoot suit, Captain. Like it? It's the perfect thing for swing dancing. And a fedora," he added, tipping the hat to her. He reached into a box behind him. "And here's yours." He shook out a cloud of red satin.
Kathryn stared. "I thought we agreed no replicated costumes. . ."
"That's the beauty of it. These aren't replicated. Or at least not recently. I've had the zoot for a while. And I got the dress from Jenny Delaney. You wouldn't believe some of the get-ups she. . .um, I mean. . .that is. . ."
Janeway sighed. "Don't worry, Ensign. I have a feeling I'm not going to want to remember any of this."
Tom took the "ensign" as a sign to get down to business. "Well, anyway, the dress should fit. Neelix worked on it. I still had your specs from Arachnia."
He quickly held the red mass out to her. "Aren't you going to try it on?"
"What, now? Here?"
"Sure. I've built a dressing room into the program. Right over there."
When Kathryn emerged five minutes later, she was thinking that "ensign" was altogether too high a rank for Thomas Eugene Paris.
The red satin hugged her. The skirt was both full and clinging, with a slit up the side. And the front. . .
"Hitting the synthehol when you chose this, were you?" she demanded.
"It's perfect!" Tom enthused, taking the skirt hem in his hand and apparently not noticing her forbidding expression. "See? It will flow. You want it to billow out around you."
"Tom, look at this neckline. I'm the one who's going to be billowing out."
Tom stared at the offending neckline. And stared some more. And didn't stop staring until the Captain cleared her throat ominously. Then he turned as red as the dress.
"Well, I can get Neelix to, uh, make a couple of modifications. And I'll find you some dance halves."
"Really short shorts that you wear underneath. The skirt is going to flip up when I turn you upside down."
For only the third or fourth time in her life, Kathryn Janeway was speechless.
The discussion had become a tad rancorous. Janeway pulled rank over being turned upside down. Tom retreated to artistic petulance, muttering that that "somersault flip" was the "point that the entire choreography builds up to."
"Well, rebuild it," she snapped.
"I will if you'll please wear red shoes," Tom offered.
Kathryn fell into the trap. "All right. Red shoes. If I can find some."
"I've got them right here, Captain," said Tom, unable to hide his air of triumph. "Put them on, and we can work on the first steps."
Janeway took one look at the height of the heels and fixed Tom with the sort of glare she usually saved for 8472s and the EMH. "You seem to have mistaken me for Seven of Nine. I am not wearing those!"
"Then you have to do the somersault flip! We had a deal."
Kathryn restrained herself from going for his throat. "I don't make deals with ensigns," she said through clenched teeth.
Tom jerked back. There was a pained silence, and Kathryn felt remorse. At the moment, she could think of only one way to atone.
"Give me the shoes," she said, holding out her hand.
"No, that's all right, Captain, I . . ."
"The shoes, Mr. Paris."
And now, at the end of a most painful hour, here she was, lying at Tom Paris's feet, her own feet aching from trying to dance in the ridiculous "platforms," as he called them. Were they ever. She was suspicious of his wide-eyed claims not have replicated them just for her, but she was too weary to push it now. When this was all over, she was going to shove the whole damn kit into the recycler anyway.
"Please don't quit, Captain," Tom was saying. "You're just tired. It'll go a lot better tomorrow, after you've had a chance to review the steps."
"Don't you know the schedule?" he demanded, starting to look red and annoyed again. "We meet here tomorrow, same time."
Suddenly it all seemed too ludicrous to be real. Kathryn got up slowly, glaring until she stood face to face with Tom. Then she patted his cheek lightly and smiled sunnily at him.
"Then Neelix had better have this dress fixed by 1900 hours. And you'd better
figure out how to stop stepping on my nice red shoes."
She and Tom arrived at the holodeck at the same time the next evening, two crisp, uniformed Star Fleet officers carrying official-looking equipment bags. Within a few minutes these professionals had been transformed into visions of red satin and baggy gabardine.
The recurring engineering problem, its attendant sleepless night, and far too much caffeine had combined to make Kathryn feel a bit light-headed. She watched Tom through a sort of comfortable haze as he talked.
"I've edited the music to just a little over four minutes. We won't lose our stamina. I'm telling you, Captain, we're gonna wow 'em. Ready? Computer, start program Paris-Goodman-Sing-Sing-Sing."
Drums began to beat, and Tom took Kathryn's hand. "Bounce, bounce, bounce- -now, one, two, three, dip; one, two, three, turn and spin and back in--that's it! You've got it. Out and back and under my arm--perfect! Now move back--really slinky. Great--that's swell, Captain."
They dipped and twirled, becoming looser and more heated as the music pounded on. Despite errors and restarts, they gradually lost their initial awkwardness and distance, each fitting into the other's arms and against the other's body with a fluid smoothness. To Kathryn's relief, the exertion forced Tom to give up his running commentary. They moved in silence, the music accompanied only by the rhythm of their breathing. As they neared the end of their fourth full run-through, they were flushed and panting and slick with sweat.
The sound of the last drum faded. Tom and Kathryn pulled apart slowly, gasping. "Uh. . .we better take a break," Tom said a trifle unsteadily. "And then we need to work on the slide."
"The slide. I've had a new idea for our big finish. It will start out just like we planned. I'll lift you and brace you against me. And you'll still look down at me and put your arms back. But instead of just staying like that, I'll put my leg out, and you can slide down until your knees hit the floor. Then I'll take your hand and stretch out and lean way back. The End. Great, huh?"
Janeway felt giddiness begin to bubble up inside her. "I slide down your leg?"
To her horror, Kathryn heard herself start to giggle. "Damn it, Tom, you're a pilot, not a banister!"
She could tell by his face that he didn't get it; he must not have read the McCoy files at the Academy. Somehow, his confusion made the joke even funnier to her. She collapsed in a heap on the floor, laughing helplessly, wiping tears from her eyes.
Tom assumed a martyred expression. "Whenever you're finished, Captain," he said. But her unrestrained mirth was contagious, and he found himself beginning to smile, then chuckle, then roar. He dropped down next to her, and they gave themselves over to the sheer joy of laughing at nothing.
When at last they quieted, it seemed entirely natural for Tom to take her in his arms and bring her to her feet and rest his forehead against hers as he asked, "Ready for the slide?"
She nodded, and he started the music. Against the background of drums and throbbing saxophones, he lifted her against him, leaning back until her face was just above his.
But she didn't slide. He didn't let her, and she didn't try. Instead, Kathryn brought her arms around him, and Tom brought his lips to hers. The kiss was light, then insistent. When their tongues touched, it was a physical shock to both of them. They broke apart, startled.
"It's the music," Tom whispered, panting. "I told you it was hot. It's just the music."
"Just the music," Kathryn agreed shakily as their mouths met again.
"Captain Janeway report to Engineering," came the interruption a second -- or an eternity -- later.
"On my way," she replied, struggling for control. She gently disengaged herself from Tom's embrace.
"Computer, end program," she ordered. Tom stood squinting in the silence and bright light.
"Mr. Paris," Kathryn said softly. She waited until he looked at her. "The
The Mess Hall was packed. Everyone not on the skeleton crew had gathered for Talent Night. People wanted a good time, and they had one. They cheered loudly for every act, however inane. Pair after laughing pair took its bows, until only one act remained.
It was the one everyone was waiting for -- Ensign Paris and Captain Janeway. Anticipation was high. Neelix had known better than to use his star attraction early. And despite Tom's attempts at secrecy, the news of Jenny Delaney's borrowed red satin dress had spread through the ship faster than a red alert.
The crew was ready. So were Kathryn and Tom.
The lights dimmed. The music throbbed. The dance began.
They were perfect. Each step, each turn, each dip was beyond smooth. The crew relished every thrust of Tom's hips, every swirl of the Captain's skirt. By the time she dropped down Tom's leg to the floor, the audience was shrieking its approval, drowning out the music.
They didn't take a curtain call. "Leave 'em hanging, Captain," Tom had advised, and she was only too happy to oblige. When the lights came back up, and the crew began to mill about looking for her, Captain Janeway was already halfway to the bridge. Commander Chakotay tracked her to her ready room ten minutes later, but by then the red satin dress and shoes were nowhere to be seen. In their place was an impeccable uniform, rank pips gleaming.
"Captain?" the Commander half-leered. "Let me just say. . . "
"No," she interrupted, smiling. "I won't let you say a thing. Spread the word, Chakotay. I don't want to hear about it from anyone. In a few days they won't even be sure they really saw it."
Chakotay shook his head in mock disgust. "You're the Captain," he said,
heading for the door. Just before it shut him from her view, he looked back.
crew is right--you were really hot!"
Whatever Chakotay said to the crew worked, because no one spoke to the Captain about Talent Night. Not even Neelix.
But she hadn't yet heard the final word. That came two weeks later. The supply planet had been visited; the storage compartments were full; replicator rations were restored. Kathryn came to her ready room one morning to find a package on her desk.
Inside was a brand-new pair of red satin platform shoes. And an unsigned, handwritten note that read,
"For when the music starts again."