(Some fancy restaurant)
(Sometime when not much is happening)
With the Portland docked at Starbase 68 for some routine maintenance, Captain Alenis Meru had ever so gracefully given the crew a couple days of shore leave on the planet Regulon. And Ellen and Maria had taken the opportunity to do a little matchmaking of their own...
So, here Nikki was, in a fancy revolving restaurant with a beautiful view of the setting of the trinary suns, on a blind date. Ellen and Maria didn't tell her much about who her date was, but they did guarantee her that he was carefully selected for shared interests and maximum compatibility. For a moment, she fantasized about who it could possibly be. Could it be Kahnr? Or Ensign Rathcliffe? Or perhaps it was one of the shuttle pilots from Starbase 68?
She just hoped she wasn't underdressed. She had a dress all picked out, a beautiful blue number which matched her eyes, but as she was putting it on, she had a slight wardrobe malfunction and tore one of the straps. So, at the last minute, she threw together an outfit based on the first two things she could find in her closet: some purple pants and a mismatched, wrinkled blouse that was missing a button. And gym shoes.
As she scanned the restaurant for her mystery man, she was distracted by a familiar face.
"Hey! Marcus!" she called out, amazed that Marcus of all people would be sitting in the same restaurant that Ellen and Maria had picked out for her date with her mystery suitor. With all the restaurants on Regulon and on the Starbase, the odds of such a coincidence had to be thousands to one. "What are you doing here? I don't think this place serves protein cubes."
Seeing the familiar face, Marcus inwardly sighed. "Oh no," he thought, an overwhelming sense of dread washing over him. Taking up his drink, looking like some kind of brown creamy dessert beverage, he walked over to where Nikki was standing. He was wearing his uniform, naturally, in a room full of snazzy and risque. "They happen to serve one of my favorite adult beverages," he said, lifting the glass. "A Denobulan Mudslide. One of the few alcoholic beverages that doesn't kill me. Oh, and Ensign Duvall set me up." That she did. Or perhaps it was Ellen and Maria's manipulations, and they "accidentally" threw Duvall under the bus. "On a blind date, I mean."
"Oh, what an amazing coincidence!" exclaimed Nikki. "I'm also here on a blind date!"
Smirking, Marcus just shook his head. "You're gonna need one of these, I think. Waiter..." Marcus tried to flag down one of the serving staff. "Another Denobulan Mudslide, please. Uh, and whatever she wants."
"Wait a minute, are you..." Nikki's voice cracked as she came to a sudden realization. "No, there has to be some kind of mistake. Maria said she was going to set me up with someone who I would get along with. Someone who has the same interests as me; computers, holo-novels, artificial intelligence..."
Slowly it dawned on Nikki that this ideal match that Maria was describing was none other than Protein Cube. Shaking, she sat down at the table across from him. "I... I... I..." she took a deep breath and tried without much success to control her hyperventilation. "Samarian... sunset," she managed to gasp between breaths.
Marcus' eyes widened a little. "Look, don't hyperventilate." Exactly the last thing you want to say to an anxiety sufferer. "The last thing we both want is a scene." Make it her fault, of course. "Your drink will be here in a second. Uh." He looked around. Then he looked at her. "You, uh, have a missing button, you know."
"I do?" Nikki glanced down at her chest then let out a panicked shriek. "Aaah!" Instinctively she dumped the contents of her purse on the table as she looked for a safety pin or some sort of device which, combined with her engineering talents, would enable her to MacGyver up a replacement for her missing button. "I guess that explains why the transport pilot was looking at me like that," she mused as she pinned her shirt closed. As she stuffed everything back into her purse, she looked back up at Marcus. "Better?" she asked.
As the server returned, looking puzzled at the re-stocking of said purse, Marcus just shook his head. "Thanks," he said to the server, handing her his mostly finished drink. He actually sat at the table across from Nikki. "So, what do we do?" Stirring his new drink with the little plastic pseudo-straw that came with drinks like this, he clarified: "So, they're probably having a laugh at our expense. I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly the most popular person aboard the ship. I can't imagine why they'd torture you like this, either."
With one long sip, Nikki finished half of her drink. Given what had just transpired, she needed it. "Is it possible that Ellen and Maria are serious," she asked, a shocked look on her face. "I mean, aside from the fact that you're a heartless, protein-cube eating dweeb, we do have a lot in common. We're both into computers, and, I know this may come as a surprise to you, but I know you've dedicated your life to the study of artificial intelligence, and..." Nikki bit her lip for a moment as she was about to let out one of her deepest secrets, one that she thought no one might suspect. "I am more comfortable around holograms than flesh and blood people."
Marcus studied her while she rambled, sipping on his own drink. He snorted wryly, "Maybe I could program you up a boyfriend. Or girlfriend, whichever. Although I'm certain Washington would execute me with one of those muskets of his if I did. 'Oh, nothing dangerous, Admiral, I just copied the Meru clone and kitbashed in a dozen romance holos.'"
"I suppose two Merus is enough to keep you busy full-time," joked Nikki, a little calmer now that she had a hint of alcohol running through her veins. "What about you?" she asked, more curious about what made Protein Cube tick than anything. "I get the feeling you're not a big fan of people either."
"No. I prefer studying artificial neural networks above natural ones. They're far more predictable, and you can turn them off when they annoy you," Marcus explained. "It was extremely distressing to have to put my research on hold to come attend Admiral Washington and assess the Meru hologram. And because her holo matrix remains only precariously stable, her memory module requires far more maintenance than I would like." He shook his head, although it seems he's graduated from "it" to "her", finally. "It's a marvel that her matrix stays together at all, considering how it was made." He started in on his new drink, sighing after a big sip. "I could drink these all day, but then I'd be a drunk."
"Fascinating," replied Nikki, only partially paying attention. Her eyes had wandered over to the appetizer menu, which she was studying intently. "Since I guess we're doing dinner together, would you care to share an appetizer? Calamari? Jalapeno poppers? Oooh, the spicy Risan bean hummus sounds delicious..."
He was already turning a shade of green. "No, I'm not about to be so adventurous again so soon," Marcus said. Although he did eye the menu, and then flipped it 180 degrees on the table despite Nikki poring over it. A quick assessment, and he pointed, "Guacamole. Plain. Quite possibly the only central American food that I can eat and not automatically get sick." He flipped the menu back again, and looked at Nikki. "Complex carbohydrates and fat. Everything the doctor ordered."
Nikki sighed. "I suppose it is more exciting that a protein cube," she mused before getting the waiter's attention and placing the order for the appetizers. Part of her couldn't believe she was going through with this, actually having dinner with Marcus, but she was curious more than anything. And, she was pretty sure someone once said something about keeping friends close and enemies closer. Even if this didn't turn out to be the most exciting date in the world, it could be an excellent source of intelligence. "What's with those protein cubes anyways? Is it a stomach issue, or are you just that boring?"
Marcus couldn't believe what was going on, himself, although it was in line with pranks performed on him at the Academy and even during his professional career. The life of a nerd. "I have a genetic disorder that prevents me from ingesting anything complicated," he explained with a sigh; this was a topic he was certainly tired of, and he made no bones about hiding it from Nikki, either. "The blander, the better. And since textured protein and carbohydrate cubes are effectively tasteless masses of perfectly balanced nutrition, they are my go-to staple. I only rarely color outside the lines, as it were." He lifted his drink as example. "I had Spanish food with Lieutenant Beauvior and his daughter a couple of weeks ago. Ended... very poorly."
"Awww, you poor thing. I don't know how I'd be able to live without good food. And coffee." Given his plight, Nikki almost sympathized with Marcus a little. Almost. "How is Jena doing anyways? I gave her a tour of engineering a few weeks ago. I hope she's finding a home for herself here; she said her mother was killed and she didn't even know Jason was her father until recently."
Marcus blinked at Nikki. "She seemed to be doing well. I didn't pry. It's none of my business." Fortunately the server returned with the appetizers and it prevented Marcus from launching into a diatribe. He picked up a knife and poked at the plain guacamole, as if inspecting for monsters or infestation or something benign like a kernel of corn.
"Looking for something?" asked Nikki, watching Marcus poke at the guacamole. "That's probably a good idea. You never know what might be in these something like this. Just a couple months ago, I ate some Gramallian sand peas at Quark's on DS9. Everyone said I was just being a paranoid hypochondriac, but I got a parasite from them. Kamazaarite silk spiders hatching in my stomach; it was fortunate that I went to see the doctor when I did, and..."
Nikki froze mid-sentence. "Wait, you don't think there's anything in the guacamole?" She abruptly stood up from the table and, panicked, began looking around. "Did you see a certificate from the health inspector? Do they even have health inspectors on Regulon II? I... I..." She reached into her purse again, buy this time came up empty-handed. "Oh, come on, don't tell me I left my tricorder on my nightstand..."
Mid-poke, Marcus slowly looked up at Nikki. His facial expression was a shade of incredulous. "Would you relax? I'm just making sure it's plain. It's called 'inspecting your food before you eat it'."
"No, I'm not going to get sick here!" exclaimed Nikki. "I'm going to-- aaaaah!" Startled by a hand on her shoulder, she spun around and came face to face with one of the waitresses.
"Excuse me, ma'am," she said, trying to calm down the panicked customer. "If you'll look over there..." he said, pointing towards a sign posted in the window.
"Certified by the Regulon Department of Public Heath, Grade One..." Nikki placed a finger on her chin and then a look of horror appeared on her face. "Grade One! That's horrible!" Nikki grabbed Marcus by the hand. "Come on, Marcus, let's get out of here!"
"Grade one is good, ma'am," explained the waiter, patiently, while rolling her eyes. "Very good."
"Oh." Blushing with embarrassment, Nikki sat back down at her table and looked across at Marcus. "Is it sufficiently plain for you?" she asked.
Marcus didn't jerk his hand away, although he didn't get up, either; from the look on the server's face, he knew Nikki was overreacting. "Yeah, it's fine," he said, rolling his eyes, and trying not to grin at her mishaps. "You can let go of my hand, now."
"Oh. Sorry, I didn't realize..." Nikki released Marcus' hand and then looked around the restaurant. She could see every eye in the place on her and, defeated, placed her head in her hands. "I'm... sorry I embarrassed you," she muttered, just loud enough for Marcus to hear.
Marcus briefly narrowed his eyes. The acerbic response of, "You should be!" briefly crossed his mind, but even in his most abrasive of moods he couldn't find it in himself to tear her down any further. Instead, he tentatively dug his spoon into the guacamole and tried it. "Hey, the guac's not bad," he said by way of trying to improve her mood.
"Really?" asked Nikki, still visibly distressed. She reached for one of the chips and tried the guacamole. It was... rather plain. But not terrible. "I'm really sorry. I worry a lot. And sometimes I get emotional and have trouble handling things." She sighed deeply. "I don't know, Sera seems to think I need to see a counselor..."
"You probably do. We all need it from time to time. It's only healthy." Marcus suggested, "Uh, if you want to get this stuff to go, we can get out of here."
"Are you sure?" asked Nikki. "I don't want to ruin your evening..."
Marcus grimaced slightly, and he shook his head. "You didn't. Others aren't so innocent." He flagged down a different server than the waitress Nikki had her brief meltdown in front of, and asked for the meals to go. He also asked for an expedited check-out, which he put his thumbprint on.
Once the two of them were safely away from the restaurant, walking along the artful pedestrian-only street, Marcus said, "So, uh, no one really knows this, but I suspect it's pretty apparent," he began. "I, uh, don't associate well with most folks. It's something i regularly work on with my therapists. On my best days I'm just sarcastic. On my worst days I'm abrasive and deprecative." He sighed, looking towards the suns. The two smaller had set, leaving the larger one, Alpha Regulon, fat and rosy red on the horizon. "I don't know why I'm telling you this."
"People are hard to deal with," said Nikki, for the first time feeling sympathetic towards Marcus. Perhaps, her and protein cube were much more alike than she cared to admit? "With computers, you put in an input and get an output. They're predictable. You know how they're going to react to things. People, on the other hand..."
"That's just it," Marcus countered. "The kind of math I do... quantum processing, fuzzy logic, machine learning... you put in an input and you get a million outputs with different probabilities. What you get is how your program is designed to act on those probabilities. But the human brain?" He sighed. "It's like... one output is the subject of a million parameters. The exact opposite. No matter how far we get with artificial intelligence, we are still grasping at straws when it comes to understanding consciousness." He glanced at Nikki. "Understanding why we do things. Why we feel things."
Nikki took Marcus' hand in hers. "We're just so complicated," she said, before standing on her tiptoes, leaning in and kissing Marcus on the cheek. But even before Marcus could even turn towards her, Nikki's heart rate shot up to a hundred and sixty beats per minute. "Omigod, I'm so sorry, I thought you were trying to be romantic... please don't tell Sera... or Commander Rouse, I can't have sexual harassment on my Starfleet record, omigod, omigod, omigod..."
Marcus' eyes went as wide as saucers. "What... No! That's not..." He took her other hand up, and gathered them together between his. "Relax a second. First of all, it's not harassment unless I tell you no and you keep pressing. Secondly, I'm not telling you no. And thirdly, romance is not exactly something high on my list that I know how to do." What the hell was he doing? He was caught up in the absurdity of the moment. "I... um. I don't know how to tell you this. But my only experience with women was with a Cardassian, so you can imagine all of my signals are mixed up right now." Releasing her hands slowly, he said, "Let's just... figure this out, a step at a time. Okay? Let's remember about gravity before we leap. Not after."
"Okay... okay... okay..." Nikki took a few deep breaths, trying to get her little panic attack under control. She tugged on her blouse straightening the fabric, as part of her efforts to regain her composure. "Gravity... gotcha."
"Gravity." Marcus tried to affect a reassuring smile, but it probably looked more like a grimace. "Come on. The suns are setting, and I think there's an observation deck down that way.