This story first appeared in King of Infinite Space 4 February 1994, Oberon Press.

The Cat Who Came to Dinner

"You're new in this part of the Galaxy."

"When you get a message like that," said Geordi LaForge, "It makes up for all the Ferengi and Romulans and Borg the Galaxy can throw at you," he read the message again, out loud, and he laughed, "You're new in this part of the Galaxy."

"I'm waiting for the follow up," said Wil Riker, accepting a foaming green drink from Guinan, "If we knew you were coming we'd have baked a cake."

That set Geordi off again, laughing, and Guinan, too, who heard the comment as she returned to her position at the bar. Data, sitting beside Geordi, was taking it all in...and understanding none of it.

"The comment from the Belysians is entirely accurate," said the android, "As a humorous remark, I am unable to match it to farce, slapstick, irony or even sarcasm, and it is not a pun. I do not understand what exactly it is about the remark that makes it funny."

"It's not so much what they said, as the way they said it," explained Geordi, trying to keep a straight face.

"It's the timing that really matters," added Riker.

"Yeah," said Geordi, "If they'd said it a hundred years ago, it wouldn't have been funny at all," and then he started laughing again.

"Don't pay any attention to them, Data, they are just being silly," said Deanna Troi, "They are teasing you."

"Another form of humour," said Data, not in the least perturbed, of course, at being the object of ridicule. "Perhaps, Counsellor, you could explain what it is about the Belysians' greeting that makes it so amusing. At the time we encountered it, the entire Bridge crew seemed to find it funny. Captain Picard laughed loudly. Even Worf seemed to find it amusing, and the message has been constantly talked about ever since. In fact, since entering the Ten Forward lounge some twenty seven point three minutes ago, I have noticed that the message has been the topic of conversation at ninety seven percent of the tables here."

"Data, Eavesdropping is considered bad manners," admonished Troi.

"Yeah, but it's lots of fun," said Guinan with a wink, placing a bowl in front of Troi.

"Categorising humour is not easy, Data, well, not for me, anyway," said Troi taking a delicate spoonful of the foaming white and brown concoction Guinan had placed before her, "But off hand, I think I'd opt for bathos. A mundane comment in a fantastic setting. My personal feelings about the message, what makes it funny for me is the total unexpectedness of the phrasing. It's what we'd call "down home". It's friendly, and in a place where so often when we meet a race for the first time, even with the use of utmost caution, we may still encounter a hostile response, it is a great relief, particularly to humans, to come across what looks like a friendly alien."

"And that is funny," said Data, with a dubious inflection that almost turned his statement into a question.

"Oh, Data, I don't know. All I can say is that for some reason, yes. It is funny to me."

"You jus' had to be there at the time," drawled Riker.

"Smells like chocolate," said Geordi, who had scooped a great fingerfull out of Troi's bowl.

"Hey!" she said, and rapped him across the knuckles with her spoon.

"Tastes like chocolate, too," grinned Riker, who, while Troi was busy with Geordi, poached a fingerfull himself. A little smear of it still hung in his beard.

The Belysians did not want to bake a cake for anyone, but as the hours of contact with them increased and the messages and exchanges of societal information continued, it became evident that they wished to exchange gifts.

"Something from our home planet. A gift from Earth that will tell them something about us," Picard leaned back in his chair and absent mindedly tugged at his uniform, "Any suggestions?"

"Perhaps a piece of artwork," suggested Beverley Crusher, "A painting or sculpture."

"Possible," nodded the Captain.

Troi shook her head, "Just a caution, Captain, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," taste in art is a very personal thing."

"Hm," said Picard, who could never see much merit in the cubist piece hanging in Data's quarters, "I was thinking along the lines of literature."

"Not...Shakespeare, by any chance?" said Riker, grinning slightly.

"Well...yes. Shakespeare's use and understanding of the language is a part of what made English so popular and enduring. And by having a greater understanding of the language, the Belysians must only increase their understanding of ourselves...how we think. Language shapes thought."

"Indeed it does," agreed Riker, "Though I'm not sure I want myself compared to Macbeth."

"Point taken, Number One. Do you have a suggestion?"

"Yes, actually. Something I saw in Chief O'Brien's quarters. A tree."

"A tree?"

"A little tree. Keiko is a student of the art of Bonsai, the miniaturisation of trees. She has several specimens that she has grown herself, from seed, and some that have lived in her family for generations, and she has also bought some. I believe one of her trees is over three hundred years old."

"A Bonsai tree," said Picard, the expression on his face did not alter, not a muscle moved, and yet there was some change in the depths of his eyes, "The seed taken from a plant of old Earth, an art and a discipline so ancient that its beginnings have been all but lost..." for a moment he was lost in his own thoughts, and then he smiled, "That's a grand idea, Number One. Do you think you can talk Keiko into parting with one of her plants?"

"I'm sure I can," grinned Riker.

"Make it so."

Keiko O'Brien had thought long over which of her plants she could most afford to live without. It was difficult though, they were like family to her. A lot of them had belonged to members of her family, and she kept the people in mind by caring for the little trees. Still, she felt honoured that her humble hobby and family had been chosen in this way, to represent all of Earth in this first exchange of gifts with a previously unknown and apparently friendly race.

"I have reduced it to between these two," she told Riker, indicating the plants. One, a jade, cascaded over the side of the intricately carved dragon pot that housed it. Its tiny branches hung in a twisting, flowing shape that made him think of a waterfall. The other was a rugged japonica which, in its simple, plain stone bowl, looked as though it was standing on a windswept hillside. It had a slight lean, and its branches all trailed off in the same direction. Several branches ended in stumps, and there was a knob of dead, white wood in the centre.

"Oh, not the jade," said Miles O'Brien, "Your grandfather grew that from a cutting that stood by the door of his grandmother's house."

"And I have a cutting of this one, which stands beside the door of our house," said Keiko, indicating a tiny jade plant on the other side of the room. "I do lean towards giving them the jade," she admitted, "It is hardier than the japonica."

"But the japonica is deciduous, changing from one season to the next, sometimes covered in flowers, sometimes nothing but thorns, occasionally, a fruit. It embodies, surely the nature of humanity, sometimes fierce, sometimes beautiful, but always dynamic, full of change."

"Some things do not change," said Keiko, "The love of a good man..." from another room came the snort and grunt which preceded the small but angry wail of a baby, "...the duties of a mother..." Keiko got up to attend the baby, "The jade, Mr Riker," she said, "I will make ready a set of instructions for its care. And thank you for this honour."

Picard sat on the desk in his ready room. In front of him, in its small stable environment, swam Livingston the lion fish. The fish ignored him and went about its business. Picard mused that the Enterprise was his own small stable environment, outside the window the stars blurred past, ignoring him as the fish did. His door twittered and he said: "Come," sliding off the desk as he did so, and leaning on it.

Data entered, "You sent for me, sir?"

"Yes, Data..." Picard moved over to the couch and sat, indicating that Data should do likewise. "We are about to exchange presents with the Belysians."

"Yes sir. The exchange is to take place in approximately nineteen minutes and twenty four seconds."

Picard did not bother to argue with Data's approximation, "...And I have just found out the gift we are to receive."

"What is it, sir?"

"A cat."

"I am familiar with cats," said Data, lighting up his face with a small smug smile.

"Yes. That's why I'm putting you in charge of this one. You are versed in the care and keeping of cats. It will be a companion for...for..."

"Spot. Sir."

"Good. You don't mind, do you? Only I'm not really a cat person. I grew up with them on the farm, of course, and we got on all right because by and large we ignored each other. They went about their business and didn't mind me, I went about my business and didn't mind them. They were very civilised about the whole thing, and that's how I'd like to keep my relationship with cats. Civilised and at a distance."

"I feel quite honoured, Captain, to be taking charge of the Belysians' gift. It does seem odd that they should want to give us something as familiar as a domestic animal."

"In the cultural exchange notes we sent them, there was some detail about the early seafaring traders of old Earth. Cats were usually carried on board the ship both to hunt the rodents that would ruin the crew's food, or just about anything ruinable that was carried, for that matter...and as a diversion for the crew. Apparently the Belysians posses a similar animal, and the custom of the ship's cat continued on into space."

"That is most interesting, and thank you, Captain, for thinking of me as the cat's companion. I will do my very best, sir. I will organise a reception in the cat's honour, so that it may meet the crew of its new ship."

"I don't think that will be necessary, Data."

"You do not?"

"No. I usually found that the bits of my dinner I didn't care to eat, and snuck from my plate to the cats' was enough to keep me in good with them."

Data merely looked surprised.

The Bridge was fully crewed, except for Data, who was in the transporter room, greeting the cat. Beverley Crusher leaned back in her bridge position. She didn't often get to be there, but she made a point of using it whenever she could. It was an established custom on board the Enterprise, having the CMO on the Bridge. Transporter Chief O'Brien's voice came over the communicator, "Beam up completed, Captain. Your...cat is on board." It didn't take Deanna Troi's Betazoid sixth sense to know that something was amusing O'Brien, he almost laughed as he delivered the message.

"Acknowledge," said Picard, ignoring O'Brien's laughter, "Helm, set a course for Sheniko Outstation. Warp four...engage."

"Sheniko Outstation?" said Riker.

Picard stared fixedly at the screen in front of him, "Yes."

"We've...uh, you've got the job of negotiating the new treaty?" said Riker.

The Captain's eyes didn't move from the screen, "Yes."

"Not with the Bolgins?" said Crusher, her eyes wide, but her face spilt into a huge grin.

Picard still did not move, "Yes."

"Well, I'd better go and get things ready for you," said Crusher, leaving her place and heading for the turbolift. With some difficulty she had managed to not laugh out loud.

Picard said nothing. He looked neither right nor left, he simply stared at the screen, and Troi read the strange little exchange with as much comprehension as Data had of a subtle joke. Whatever it was about this treaty that so amused Crusher, also amused Riker, but had Picard feeling an ephemeral mixture of anger, embarrassment and humiliation, overlying a certain pride. She supposed the reason for all this would be explained to her, eventually, but at the moment it was an abstract soup of emotions.

After a few moments, Riker's grin wore away, and the amusement he had been feeling dried up and turned to concern for Picard, who had still not moved, though Troi had felt the tension in the Captain drain away earlier, only his appearance had not changed. He was waiting Riker out.

"I...guess I'm just relieved that it's not me going," said Riker finally, by way of apology.

"I don't blame you," Picard admitted, "I'd find it funny, too, if it was anyone but me going." He thought for a moment, "Number One, how many Captain's commissions have you turned down in the last couple of years?"

Riker thought for a moment, a little taken aback by the sudden change in topic, "I'm not sure, two or three, I think."

"This is the reason, isn't it?" said Picard.

"Reason?" Riker was a little behind him, here.

"You knew this treaty with the Bolgins was going to come up sooner or later and if you had a Captain's commission, there was a risk that it would be you doing the negotiating. You turned down promotion in order to avoid the Bolgins."

This time Riker laughed out loud, "That's right," he agreed, "Exactly! The Bolgins would never listen to a first officer, so I decided to stay this way and hide from them. Do you blame me?"

"No," said Picard, and he was laughing, too.

"It wasn't that much of a risk though," said Riker, taking on a serious tone, only the raised eyebrows giving away the fact that this was more teasing, "You did such a fine job of negotiating their last treaty, I'm sure the Bolgins asked for you by name."

There was an exasperated look on Picard's face that said Riker nailed the truth.

Data's anticipation of the cat's arrival had him running through all the facts on Feline, Earth, Domestic, at his not inconsiderable disposal. He expected a small shipment container holding a mammalian quadruped weighing not more than 5kg, assuming, of course the Belysians had taken the ship's cat idea literally. Data was prepared, however, for anything in size, up to and including something of the order of a Bengal tiger, though he doubted that the cat would be that big. He went through his file of cats, there were all shapes and sizes, colours and temperaments, though he expected a cat of small size and tractable temperament, it had, after all, to live its life in a confined place with a lot of people. Data really expected a good companion for Spot.

"All set for the beam up," said O'Brien.

Data stood by the transporter platform. He held a sturdy leash in his hand, just in case what arrived was something of the order of a tiger, unrestrained.

What arrived was not what he had expected at all, and O'Brien could hardly disguise the laughter in his voice at the surprise he got when the cat arrived, "Beam up completed, Captain. Your...cat is on board."

The cat's resemblance to an earth feline was nothing short of slight. To begin with, she was a biped and stood nearly as tall as Data. Her face was perhaps the most catlike thing about her, she had wide amber eyes with vertical pupils and a powerful jaw with a cat's prominent pointed teeth and thin, dark lips that formed a small pink pout in the fur of her face. She was furry all over, from the tips of her pointed, tufted ears, to the tops of her bare, padded feet, and the end of her long, luxuriously fluffy tail. She wore no clothing but a wide belt from which hung a small bag.

Her colouring was what Data would have described as "Classic A spectrum domestic shorthair tabby," which is to say she was patterned with alternating bands of dark grey and agouti, broken with white patches. One white patch divided her face, covering both cheeks and running up her long nose, fading into the tabby on her forehead. She had a collar of white that went almost the whole way round her neck and extending most of the way down her belly, and her fingers and toes were white as well, the white covered most of her right paw, ending at the wrist, and went up the left arm as far as the elbow, making her look as though she was wearing one very long glove. Her fingers were short and stumpy and she lacked thumbs. She had no fingernails, but retractable claws.

It took something less than a second for Data to observe and store all this information, and to decide that the restraint he had brought would probably not be necessary.

"Greetings, Cat," said Data. Miles O'Brien leaned back against the bulkhead behind him and bit down on his lower lip in order to stop himself from laughing.

The cat stepped down from the transporter pad and peered at Data. She had very long whiskers which brushed the side of his face as she sniffed at his ear.

"I do not deal with computers, except where they may provide me with what I need. I am not hungry just now," said the cat finally, and she turned her back on Data and headed for the door.

"I am an android," said Data, following her, "And you have been put in my charge."

"I am the ship's cat. I will go to the Captain," she said, and she walked out the door, her tail held high with only the very tip of it twitching from side to side as she stalked along.

O'Brien watched the two of them leave. He thought about the jade plant that had been sent as the exchange gift for the cat, and wondered who, exactly, had got the better of this deal.

The turbolift doors opened to the sound of Data saying, "I assure you, the Captain will not like this."

"The Captain will not like what?" asked Picard, turning his slow, suspicious gaze to where Data was standing, trying to restrain the cat, who slipped from his grip and came down the ramp.

"It was merely an assumption on my part, Captain," began Data, "It seemed apparent to me that your rule about not allowing strangers on the bridge without your express permission would extend to cats."

Picard did not reply, he was observing the arrival of the stranger on the bridge. She seemed unaware of the fact that Worf had been right behind her since she came onto the bridge, as she swept past Troi, taking no notice at all of her, and approached Picard, peering at him and making a small purring sound in her throat and then she looked at Riker, she pointed to Picard, "This one is the Captain," she informed no one in particular, "Ship's cat, reporting for duty, Captain," she said, and then turned her gaze to Riker, "And I will sit in this place," she indicated Riker's seat.

Worf grabbed the handful of loose skin at the scruff of the cat's neck and lifted her into the air, the pupils of her eyes widened and her tail began to lash, a rumbling growl grew in her throat. "I will remove this from the bridge," said Worf with the disdain he usually reserved for Ferengi.

Picard made a small movement with his hand, "No, Worf. Put her down. There has obviously been some sort of misunderstanding. Cat," he said, standing to address her, "Do you have a name?"

"I am the Ship's cat that was the cat that mostly lived on the quartenary decks and was sometimes called upon for duty in the shuttlecraft."

"But do you have a name? How were you called?"

"I am a cat. I am not called. I come and go as I please and sometimes at the Captain's discretion."

"Well how did the Captain make it clear that you were the cat he wanted?"

"He would point."

"On this ship we all have names. I am called Picard, our first officer is..."

"You are the Captain. That is all that matters. I am the ship's cat. I am the chief cat on this ship. I will hear the Captain."

"Then the Captain bids this....put her down, please Worf," the cat ignored Worf, she made a small squirming, washing motion, then returned her gaze to Picard, she wasn't much shorter than him, "The Captain bids firstly that you shall have a name and it will be..." he looked about for some inspiration, behind the cat the starfield on the big viewer opened slowly towards them as the ship dove through space, headed for Sheniko Outstation Four, "...it will be Stella. When I or anyone else addresses you, they will call you Stella and you will listen. The Captain bids your obedience in this matter."

"I am the ship's cat. I am the Chief Ship's Cat of the Starship Enterprise. I am Stella of the Enterprise. I will follow the Captain's bidding. Now," she returned her gaze to Riker and indicated his seat, "I will sit there."

"No, Stella," said Picard, "That is where Number One sits, not the cat. You will learn to address my officers by name and not by pointing. You may remain on my bridge until such time as Mr Data plots for you a territory and finds you a place of your own to sleep. After that you may only come onto the captain's bridge when the captain invites you."

"I must do also as the computer bids?"

"Data is not a computer, he is an android, and he is the second officer of this ship, and yes, you must do as he or any other officer bids you. That is the captain's order."

Picard turned to sit down, but in that instant the cat slid past him and curled into his chair, she began combing her tail with a small brush taken from the pouch she had been wearing. She was purring quite loudly as she combed, "I like this chair," she informed Picard, who was totally at a loss and unable to contain his expression of amazement.

"I like it too," he finally said, reaching down and grabbing the cat by the scruff of the neck, thereby raising her out of his chair, "This chair is the Captain's chair, Stella. This is where I sit." He removed the cat, who flicked her tail once, in irritation, and then controlled her anger, it was, after all, only what the captain had bidden. She searched about for somewhere else to sit. Before resuming his seat, Picard picked off the cat hairs that had remained clinging there when he removed Stella.

Stella moved to where Crusher had been sitting a little while earlier, and, in a gesture that seemed to parody Picard's, she delicately gathered several of the doctor's hairs from the seat and, after studying them closely for a moment, flicked them disdainfully onto the floor. She settled herself again and began combing her tail and purring loudly.

"Mr Data, how long before you finish mapping out a territory for the...for Stella?" said Picard.

"I will finish in eight minutes and fourteen seconds, Captain. That is, of course, unless I am called upon to perform some other duty in the meantime. It is impossible, really, to make an accurate estimate of..."

"Just get on with it, Data," said Picard, "And nobody interrupt him."

The Enterprise was in a standard orbit around Sheniko Outstation, the Bridge Crew were in the Observation Lounge.

"Number One, you'll be taking command of the Enterprise at zero hour. I will be beamed directly from my cabin to the conference room on Sheniko," said Picard.

"Understood, sir. You will be totally out of bounds."

"As will my Cabin," said Picard, "Nobody is to enter it under any but the most dire emergencies."

"We've set up life support to give your cabin a slightly lower air pressure than the rest of the ship," said Geordi, "You may notice it's a little cooler in there than usual. Shouldn't happen, but if it does become a problem, let me know and I'll do something about it."

"I still think you'd be better off in an isolation unit in sickbay," said Crusher, "That way I'd have a better chance of keeping an eye on your diet while the talks are on."

The look on Picard's face spoke volumes, he greatly preferred not to have any eyes being kept on his diet, nevertheless, he agreed with the doctor, "I thought of that myself, but I found last time it was essential to be close to the resource material in my own quarters."

"Didn't that cause a problem with fumigating?" said Riker.

Picard nodded, "Took weeks to get the smell out."

Data had been taking in proceedings with the avidity of a cat at a ping pong game, his eyes following the course of the conversation, and not one iota of understanding crossed his features. "May I ask a question?" he said, finally.

"Of course, Data," said Picard. All eyes were on the android.

"Captain, these seem to me to be very strange preparations for a treaty conference. They would appear to be the sort of arrangements sick bay would make for containment of a passenger with a highly contagious disease, yet nothing I have read indicates any such risk from the Bolgins."

"Data," said Riker, "Do you know what a skunk is?"

Data spent a brief moment accessing memory, "Yes, sir, it is a..."

"No, that's ok," Riker held up his hand, "And do you know what a hRaxid is?"

"Yes sir..."

"A Phythian Polecat? An Iknat Sewer Bladder? A cronch? A Gornian spicebum?"

"Yes, sir, I have information on all of those life forms."

"What is the one thing they have in common?"

"According to my information, sir, all these life forms are regarded by humans as bad smelling. Causing anything from discomfort, in the case of the skunk, to vomiting and hallucinations, in the case of the cronch."

"I'm afraid Bolgins fall into the same category," said Riker, "Their smell has been compared to being shut in an airlock with four scared skunks and a rutting hRaxid."

A small grunt escaped Picard.

"...uh, so I'm told," added Riker.

"And it lingers," said Picard.

"It must be very difficult for you to discuss the treaty with the Bolgins if you are under this...olfactory distress, Captain," commented Data.

"Doctor Crusher will temporarily block my sense of smell. I'll be mostly unaffected by the Bolgins'...atmosphere. But it will cling to me, which is why I'll be out of bounds."

"You'll be mostly unaffected by the smell," commented Crusher, "I noticed on your medical record that the last time you negotiated a treaty with the Bolgins you lost six and a half kilos. This will not happen again."

Picard looked at the doctor as though daring her to stand by her promise, "Last time," he said, "I found that my sense of smell was almost completely gone. Almost. I couldn't taste my food, nothing had any flavour at all, except for this very faint taint of Bolgin."

"You mean everything you ate tasted of Bolgin?" said Crusher, horrified.

Picard nodded, "Everything. It somewhat took my appetite away."

"That won't happen again," said Crusher, making a note on the Padd in front of her, "I promise."

Stella the cat had been forbidden to kill things. She looked longingly at the rats and rabbits and tribbles and tuftis in the children's zoo. Data had showed them to her and expressly forbidden her to harm them in any way. The cat understood. She was not pleased, but she was not about to disobey the Captain by disobeying the computer...android...second officer. It wasn't easy for her, her claws flexed, seemingly of their own accord, and her tail twitched as she watched the little creatures dashing about. When the children came in, she left, unwilling to put up with their stroking fingers and shrill voices. She passed enclosures of puppies and kittens and ignored them. They were beneath her dignity.

It made no sense to Stella that Data had given her such a small territory, especially when she was the only cat on the ship. As chief Ship's Cat she would have been allowed to select her own territory on a Belysian ship. Still, she was under a new set of rules now. Nevertheless, just because Data had outlined a territory for her, it didn't mean she was forbidden other areas of the ship. She might even find something that wasn't a rat or rabbit or tribble or tufti, but something similar that she could kill. It was worth checking out.

Sickbay was full of the most fascinating smells and sounds. Stella sat beside a tranquillised patient, the woman was lightly anaesthetised to lessen her distress while the os-augmenter regrew a break in her femur. The woman reached out and began to stroke the cat's fur, and from her office Dr Crusher could hear the change in stress levels indicated by her patient's telemetry. She stood quietly by the door, watching her patient stroking the cat's fur, Stella was purring. Crusher smiled to herself, she knew the value in use of companion animals as therapy in long term and chronic illness, but this had never occurred to her. This broken bone was going to mend a lot quicker than she had anticipated.

"Emma likes you sitting there, Stella."

"Yes, it is very pleasant for me, also."

"Do you like being with people, Stella? Do you like being on this ship?"

"People..." said Stella, and she made a small sighing sound, "This is a clean ship. No good for hunting but lots of nice smells. People are good when they are gentle. Like this one. I do not like to be near the small ones."

"The children?"

"Young ones. Small ones. Too loud. Too rough. A cat cannot think with all that noise."

"Well, you won't find it too noisy in here. Not today, anyway, I only have one other patient scheduled."

At that moment the door opened and the Captain came in. Stella left her seat, "Have you orders for me, Captain? Have you instructions? I will protect you. I will do as you say."

Picard hadn't expected to find the cat here, and he certainly didn't want her hanging around while Crusher performed this minor surgery on him. He didn't want anybody around when he was vulnerable. If he could do it himself, he wouldn't even have Crusher around.

"Stella, you must go to Ten Forward and find Guinan. If she isn't there, then you are to wait. When she comes you must ask her for....what is it that you like best to eat?"

"Proxils," replied Stella promptly.

"Oh. Well, ask Guinan for some proxils, and if she hasn't got any, then you ask her for a bowl of lactose modified cream and a plate of chicken giblets. Those are the Captain's orders, Stella."

"I always obey the Captain," purred the cat, and she left.

"That was a mean trick, Jean-Luc," chided Crusher.

"Why Beverley, whatever do you mean?"

"You know full well Guinan won't be on duty for at least another four hours. What's poor Stella going to do?"

"Cats are patient animals, Beverley. I've known them to sit beside a mouse hole all afternoon."

"Despite the fact that the mouse crept out the back way after the first five minutes."

"It was a sunny spot. The cat fell asleep after four minutes. Now, can we get this over with?"

Crusher smiled, ushering Picard into the surgery. By the time Stella got her request from Guinan the treaty talks would be well under way.

The Bolgins, for all their extraordinary and offensive smell, were tame looking creatures that owed their genetic inheritance to creatures that might, if they had come from Earth, have been lemurs. Thick tufts of fur stood out from their shoulders and the tops of their round heads and the very tips of their long, lightly furred, prehensile tails. They carried their tails quite vertically, arched over at the very top so that they looked like they were lugging hockey sticks with them. Their tails continued to grow throughout the Bolgins' lives, and for each year after maturity, the tail gained a band of colour. The oldest Bolgins had tails so long that they had to carry them draped over their shoulders, bands of grey and black and ginger almost reaching the floor again. Their concept of clothing seemed haphazard by human standards, and apparently had more to do with family standing and social position than modesty or decoration or even protection. Scent, not surprisingly, had a great deal to do with their way of life.

Jean-Luc Picard wore his formal dress uniform. It was all he would be allowed to wear for the duration of the talks. There would be no changes of clothing, and no washing, Bolgins were offended by what they called artificial smells, soap and deodorants especially. The Bolgins had been impressed by Picard since the first time they met him, purely by accident. Back in the days when Picard had been an Ensign, his shuttlecraft had been damaged and he was stranded on a planet the Bolgins were exploring. Unaware of the presence of the aliens, Ensign Picard had been living off the land for days, eating whatever he could find, and making most of the small amount of surface water available. He had tended to a large gash on his leg by tearing up his uniform, to use it as a bandage. The unwashed, dishevelled human who limped into their camp had made a good impression on the Bolgins; he smelt right, and was dressed in an entirely acceptable set of rags. Since those days the Bolgins had asked for him by name whenever treaty negotiations were to be made.

The planet presently in question was arable and rich in minerals necessary for the well being of the Bolgins. They had been years mapping and exploring the planet before putting in their claim. Unfortunately, during that time, a warlike race from a nearby sector sought to establish a foothold on the planet. The Didra were not allied to the Federation and the Bolgins sought Federation protection for what they now claimed was their territory.

Upon arriving at the conference room, the Bolgins began to arrange it to their liking. First they backed up to every wall and sprayed it with their pungent, scent-laden urine. Picard arrived, smiling, because as long as you couldn't smell the Bolgins they were easy to get along with. Vorlex, Domray and Rabshish welcomed him in their traditional way, each taking turns to wrap their arms around him and rub the scent glands on the underside of their chins across his shoulders and the top of his head. Picard responded in kind, grateful that at least he wasn't expected to squirt the walls.

While Picard was busy with the negotiations, the crew of the Enterprise was kept busy with a score of other things to do. Being parked at the base was a little like being in dry dock. Geordi LaForge made the most of the time tracking down all those irritating little glitches that turned up in the engines from time to time, and always when it was most inconvenient to deal with them. He liked his engines to run smoothly, and he had at least a dozen things he needed to iron out.

Beverley Crusher was not, as a rule, interested in animals and natural history, but she did know a little, and was aware that there were a great many creatures who captured their food by laying in wait by their front doors and leaping out and pouncing upon passing prey. She felt a little like one of these creatures as she stepped out of Sickbay and pounced upon Ensign Szubanski.

"Ah...Ensign," said Crusher, taking the surprised looking woman by the elbow and guiding her back through the doors of sickbay, "I've been looking for you."

"For me? But I'm not sick," protested Szubanski.

"No, but you have been avoiding your physical assessment for weeks now."

"Avoiding? No! Captain Picard...just kept finding these other little jobs for me to do."

Crusher smiled, and she felt very predatory, "Well, isn't it lucky that Captain Picard isn't here at the moment to interrupt us now...?"

Deanna Troi had taken the opportunity to organise shore leave for those most in need. It may have been of some comfort to Ensign Szubanski to know that she wasn't the only one on a list, Deanna was headed for sickbay, determined to get some time off for Crusher.

It never ceased to amaze Picard, just how tiring it could be, simply talking to people. Even those such as the Bolgins, who were really very easy to get along with, had their own hierarchies and bureaucracies whose webs of red tape made the head reel. The Federation, for all its humanitarian ideals, could not always do everything that its various contingents wished of it. Even trying to make Rabshish, the most dignified and accepting of the three Bolgins, understand this, was not a simple task.

The day's talks ended when Vorlex actually fell asleep at the table. She made an apologetic face at Picard as the Bolgins prepared to be beamed to their ship, "There are more rings upon my tail than I care to count, my friend. I lack the stamina of youth."

"It's the price of wisdom," said Picard who was secretly relieved that it was Vorlex and not himself who had nodded off.

He beamed up directly to his quarters, keen to sleep, but somewhat put off by the thought of having to remain unwashed. He stripped off his clothing and laid it carefully to one side, trying not to dwell upon the fact that he would be wearing it all again in the morning...unwashed, ready to collect more of the sticky secretions from the Bolgins' wrist glands. He wanted to at least wipe the smears from the top of his head, but even that would offend them.

When he awoke, he was aware of the density of the atmosphere around him. Bolgin fug hung almost visibly in the air. He really didn't want to eat anything, but bearing in mind Dr Crusher's dire warnings about weight loss, and the fact that by doing this he could at least put off for a little while resuming those same horrible clothes he had worn the previous day, Picard decided he could at least make the effort, and ordered a round of sandwiches from his food synthesiser.

"The things I do to keep you happy, Beverley," he muttered, taking a bite of the sandwich, which, despite the Doctor's promise, tasted faintly of Bolgin.

The door beeped, and without waiting for an invitation, it opened to allow someone in.

"Will you do things to keep me happy, my Captain?"

Picard jumped and swung around, it was pure reflex that made him crouch in a defensive position, no one in their right mind would come into his cabin with this smell about.

Stella the cat came through into his bedroom.

"Stella! What are you doing here?" for a moment he was too relieved to be angry, the Didra were not above murder in order to further their means. Then he became aware that there was something peculiar about the cat, the way she moved, almost as though she was stalking him.

"I am here for you, my lovely Captain," purred Stella, her soft walk, Picard then realised, was not so much a stalk as an exaggerated sway.

"Well, Data will give you your orders, Stella, you have a territory, you know where it is..." he was aware now of her eyes, pupils enlarged so that almost no iris was visible, and gazing at him. Fixated upon him. Her pink tongue kept licking her lips, almost as though she was tasting the air.

"Some things are more important than hunting and territories, my beautiful Captain," she sighed, slowly approaching, and Picard could see the pink tips of her nipples, engorged and poking through the white fur of her belly, marking the lines of her six breasts from armpits to pelvis.

"Stella, I am the Captain. This is not how a cat behaves with her Captain. Stay where you are!" he ordered, hoping he didn't sound too horribly desperate.

"But my darling, darling Captain, how can we make kittens if we do not come together?"

Picard had been afraid she was going to say something like that, and he managed to call for Security, just before Stella pounced.

Of the three security guards that arrived, only stoic Worf made it further than the door. The other two collapsed, gagging at the smell, and backed out of the room. Worf was confused for a moment by the tangle of bodies on Picard's bed, it was impossible to tell exactly what was going on until Picard caught sight of the Klingon and yelled: "Get her off me!"

Worf reached down into the flailing mass of limbs and grasped the cat by the scruff of the neck. He was not sure who looked the more ridiculous, the Captain, in his nightshirt which was smeared with blood and hanging in rags, or himself. Armed with phaser set on heavy stun, a Klingon bearing hundreds of generations of Warrior blood, with Starfleet training, head of Security on the finest ship in Starfleet, and he had been called upon to remove a cat. Stella squirmed in mid air, still held firmly and at arm's length by Worf, ignoring Worf as he ignored her, excepting for the fact that he had obstructed her assault on Picard.

Dignity unsullied, Worf spoke to his commanding officer with the respect the man deserved, even if the situation didn't warrant it; "Shall I take her to the brig, Sir?"

"Just put her somewhere safe, Worf, while I think of what to do about this."

"Yes, Captain. And shall I fetch Dr Crusher?"

"No..." Picard thought for a moment, aware, now, of the sight he presented; his shredded nightshirt, the scratches on his upper body, and deep puncture wounds where the amorous cat had bitten him. His body, his clothing, and his bed, were all smeared with blood. It sort of brought back memories of his first encounter with the Bolgins.

"...oh, I suppose you'd better. And get Data in here too.

When Data arrived, Picard was sitting on his bed, draped in a sheet. Crusher was wearing a full environmental suit and carrying her own air with her. The two of them were arguing.

"Disinfect it, but don't wash it," said Picard.

"I can't disinfect something and leave it dirty, Jean-Luc, it's a contradiction in terms," her voice had a flat, toneless inflection as it came through the suit's microphone, but Beverley still sounded slightly exasperated.

"You can't wash off the Bolgins' scent markers, Beverley, it will offend them."

"Would you rather be offensive or sick?"

"Just try not to wash too much. Data, was there anything of this nature mentioned in the Belysians' notes that came with the cat?"

"No, sir..."

"Roll over, Jean-Luc."

"What?"

"Lie down on your side."

"Doctor, I'm trying to..."

"Captain, I'm giving you an order. That bite on your thigh is the deepest of the lot and I shall treat it. You are the only one embarrassed by this, but if you like I'll have Data leave," Beverley would never have admitted that she enjoyed treating Picard like a naughty child, it was her secret.

Picard resigned himself to the doctor's ministrations, trying to ignore his undignified position. He suffered Crusher's painful treatment without comment and continued with Data, "Nothing like this is mentioned in the notes?"

For a moment, Data seemed distracted, sniffing the air as if he had only just noticed the eye-wateringly powerful stink of the Bolgins.

"No, Captain. These cats are very faithful animals, and quite rational as you have seen. A cat would not attack the captain of its ship unless it was deranged, and Stella was in perfect health when she arrived here."

"So something has deranged her since. Can you suggest what?"

"It would appear, from the nature of your wounds, and from what Stella has told me, that in her eyes, what she did was not so much an attack as a courtship performance. And that you, not her, were the instigator."

"Sexual assault," interrupted Crusher, "Hardly what I'd call courtship. I'll send for Counsellor Troi."

"You will do no such thing," snapped Picard, gathering the sheet and his dignity about him and getting up from the bed, "And the fact that I was...leapt upon by a deranged cat is nobody's business but my own. Data, do you have any idea why Stella would suddenly decide to make these amorous advances on me?"

"Yes."

The android and the man stood staring at each other for some moments before Picard finally said, "Well?"

"Well what, sir?"

"Well what made Stella do that?"

"Oh. You want me to tell you?"

"Yes, Data."

"I apologise, sir. It simply seemed to me that you were under some duress and I did not wish to aggravate your emotional state by babbling."

"Data..." Picard's voice quavered on a warning note.

"Ah. The cat?"

"The cat. Please."

"Well, according to the notes supplied by the Belysians, during their time of rut, the male cats produce a strongly scented pheromone. The composition of the protein compound is NH3..."

"Data..."

"You do not wish to know the composition of the cat pheromone?"

"No, Data, I do not."

"It is relevant to Stella's behaviour."

"Why?"

"Because the composition of cat pheromone and Bolgin scent mark is almost identical."

"You mean I smell like a male Belysian cat in rut?"

"Glad I'm not a cat," muttered Crusher.

"Apparently so," replied Data.

Picard closed his eyes for a moment, "Beverley, how are you at Vetinary surgery?"

"At what?"

"Perhaps you could get Data to assist. I want you to do for Stella what you did for me," he tapped the side of his nose, "Just until I get these talks over with and the Bolgin smell washed off."

"An operation on a cat," muttered Crusher, she shook her head, but there was a small smile on her face, "The things I do to keep you happy, Jean-Luc."

Worf was determined that Stella the cat would not leave his sight, at least until this business with the Bolgins was finished and the captain had been disinfected and thoroughly fumigated. He stood in the sickbay, feet planted firmly apart, arms crossed on his chest, in true Klingon fashion, he had several weapons stashed about him. He hadn't told Dr Crusher about these when she had insisted he couldn't wear his phaser in sickbay.

"You will keep the animal confined," Worf told Data.

"Commander Riker has given me permission to take Stella onto the Outstation with me on my shore leave tomorrow."

Worf simply glared for a moment, making a small rumbling sound of displeasure in his throat, "Then I will accompany you."

Sheniko Outstation was like a metropolis in space. Outlying stations and deep space explorers used it as their capital, and it was on all the regular trade routes. Data had been going to visit their virtual natural history collection, and he brought the cat with him, keen to teach her all he could. Worf followed at a distance that was close enough to stop the cat getting into any strife, but far enough so that the casual observer would have thought he was alone.

"Where is the Captain?" said Stella.

"His meeting with the Bolgins is being held in one of the medical isolation units. We will pass there on our way to the museum collection."

"I wish to speak with the captain."

"That is not possible while he is in the meeting."

"I understand that I did a very bad thing to my captain, Data. I did something very wrong. I must tell my captain how deeply I regret my threat to his dignity."

"I am sure he would appreciate that, Stella, but it would be a breach of security to enter the meeting room. You will have time to apologise to Captain Picard when he returns to the Enterprise."

Stella accepted what she had been told, with a small, resigned purring sound and she walked with Data through the crowded corridors of Sheniko. She enjoyed the many and varied scents of the throng about her.

Worf was unaware, at first, of the stranger who seemed to be keeping pace with them. The corridors were well populated, and it was hardly surprising that others should be going in the same direction as Data and himself. Still, it was not long before he began to grow suspicious of the man.

He looked humanoid, in fact, as far as Worf could tell, he was human, and was dressed as a civilian. There was nothing ostensibly odd about the man, still, Worf felt that there was something, some mannerism, perhaps, or just the way he was moving, that aroused the Klingon's instincts.

Gradually, as they passed from the business and entertainment centre of Sheniko, and into the outer hub, the population density lessened. The man who had been keeping pace with them gradually overtook them, and vanished down the long curve of the station corridor.

"There," said Data, indicating a turnoff identified by a sign that read Medical Isolation Unit. Authorised Personnel only. "Captain Picard is down there."

"I will go and see him," announced Stella.

"You will leave Captain Picard alone," insisted Worf.

"Yes," agreed the cat, "I will leave him alone. I will only look. I like to know that he is safe," and she slipped under Worf's grasp and down the corridor.

"The captain's biggest threat is her," growled Worf, as he took off after her. After a moment's deliberation, Data followed, easily keeping pace with the bulky Klingon. The cat moved like greased lightning, and she was out of view in no time.

Worf stopped when he came to an intersection, a door stood half closed, there was a pair of feet sticking through that had stopped the door in its tracks. Data bent over the prone man, checking him for pulse.

"He has no life signs," said Data.

"Security," said Worf, meaning that the man was a security guard.

They both hit their combadges at the same instant, Data calling for medical assistance for the fallen man, Worf, for security back up. Then Worf took off down the passage, his phaser drawn.

Stella the cat had barely paused at the fallen security guard, she was hot on the track of Interesting males of her own kind. The smell was not as strong as it had been in the captain's cabin, but it was still there, just faintly, and she had to follow it. Beverley Crusher had been unaware of the multi faceted nature of the cat's olfactory organ. Despite her surgery, Stella could still smell as well as ever, she was simply not as sexually driven by the scent as she had been. The strange man who had been keeping pace with them knew something about the smell, too. She could tell by his smell, though, that he did not wish to make any kittens. He was not a rival, he was a threat.

Stella's pace was fast and silent, as much driven now by the scent of danger from the man in the corridor as by the mating smell. Her need for speed had turned her back into a quadruped, her sinuous shape dashed down the corridor. She could smell fear from him now, and there was something else; a chemical smell for which she had no name, but knew too well. This was the smell that only security people should have, the burnt air smell of phasers, the ugly stink of blasters, the air-gone-wrong smell of disruptors. These olfactory signatures helped her build a mind picture of the man, and now she was aware that he was a Danger. Something she could hunt. A sudden blast of air brought the smell of a phaser set on kill, and she didn't need to hear the sound of a body falling to know that just around the next curve of the corridor she would find another security guard down, and the strange man would be there with him.

She launched herself at where she thought the fallen man would be as she rounded the bend of the corridor, and was overwhelmed by the delicious scent of rutting males that made her head reel for a moment and made her forget what it was that she was supposed to be doing. She crouched low over the body of the second security guard, he at least gave her a little cover, not that she seemed to need it. The strange man stood by the now open door, he had put the phaser away, in their conference room Picard and the three Bolgins had only had enough time to look surprised.

The stranger was reaching inside himself. Stella peered closely, yes, he really was reaching inside himself, putting his hand into his chest cavity. His clothes dropped from his shoulders revealing a section of what looked like real skin but was probably something more like medical dermaplas. It hung in shreds and beneath it something writhed like bundles of centipedes. Now both his arms had fallen away and in their place waved dozens of prehensile tentacles covered in tiny hairlike appendages. In what had once been his left hand he held something that stunk of danger, and in what was left of his right hand was what the cat knew security would call a detonator.

From behind, Stella could hear the lumbering progress of Worf and Data, coming now, far too slowly to be of any use to captain Picard, who was slowly approaching the being with the dangerous device, trying to reason with him.

"You die that the Didra may progress," the creature spoke with a voice that sounded like the sibilance of scales on sand, and he certainly would have made good his threat, except that Stella launched herself at him, hitting him in the centre of his back and knocking him to the floor. He squirmed from under her, his body seeming to break into a thousand writhing parts that locked themselves about Stella's neck and ribs and waist, and began to crush and crush.

It took Worf only a split second to aim his phaser at the Didra and blast it, charring its tendrils and tentacles. He was only a moment too late.

Data and Picard both bent over the cat and a final flicker of recognition fled her face. Her body was mashed, her ribs a mess of compound fractures that pierced her heart and lungs, her internal organs pulped.

With her final atom of breath she managed to utter; "Smell good, Picard."

By the end of the day, the new treaty with the Bolgins had been completed, Rabshish had been more than impressed by Stella's sacrifice. To her it was proof positive of the Federation's goodwill, and she made a lot of the concessions that the Federation had wanted.

By the time the ship left Sheniko Outstation, decontamination on the Enterprise was complete and Jean-Luc Picard's quarters were livable again. It hadn't taken long this time, Dr Crusher had been working on an organic method of neutralising the Bolgin smell, and it had worked remarkably quickly.

Picard went to Data's quarters, where the ship's computer had told him he could find the android. Data was sitting in his usual awkward, upright fashion, with his cat, Spot, perched upon his knee.

Picard stood by the door, looking uncomfortable, "Data, I have come to you for some advice."

Data almost looked surprised, "Please sit down, Captain, I will help you as best I can, although it does seem unusual to me to be answering your questions. Your life experience is so much greater than mine."

Picard sat beside Data, and Spot surveyed the two laps he was now offered. He lay full length across Data's legs and reached a paw out so that it rested on the palm of Picard's hand.

"How does one..." Picard looked down, surprised, and caught himself gazing into Spot's green eyes for a moment, "How does one...dispose of the remains of a pet, Data?"

Data thought for a moment, "There are many ways that a pet may be put to rest," he paused and looked at the captain, "But I will not mention them all. It would not be appropriate at this time," Picard let himself smile, Data had learned such a lot over the years, "I think for Stella it would be most appropriate to have her beamed."

"Scatter her atoms," mused Picard.

"To the stars," said Data.

"Stella. To the stars. I think you're right, Data. She was as much a space traveller as I am. More, in fact, she'd never even set foot on a planet, from what I can gather...and it's the way I'd like to have my mortal remains dealt with."

"I will keep that in mind," said Data.

They sat in silence for a little while, and Picard was aware that Spot had crept across from Data's lap to his. He stroked the cat, thinking, and then he finally said; "She did so much more for me than I did for her. She asked so little of me."

Data nodded, "That is the way, with pets, Sir."

the end

*:)

amanda