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William Riker, first officer of the Starship Enterprise, bolted out of his seat, his eyes wide. Across the table sat Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor. Her deep brown eyes normally showed great empathy for the plight of others, but now they just looked tired.
Riker's hand rubbed his chin, stroking the freshly grown beard that had been the subject of much debate between them. A few short years ago, he agreed to shave it as he and Troi renewed their romance. However, after the last few months, he felt the need to change something, and growing the beard back was the easiest solution. She had playfully refused to kiss him since then, and had held out a surprisingly long time. But at the moment neither one of them felt particularly playful about anything.
With a shake of his head, he looked at the padd she had pushed his way. He already knew what it said, but still, to see three more requests for transfer rankled. Crain from engineering, Nybakken from environmental sciences, and Kawasaki from the technology group -- all solid career officers, and certainly not the type Riker ever expected to see request a transfer off the Enterprise.
"They want to be on the best starship in the fleet..." Troi began, her voice soft and understanding.
"Which we are," he said emphatically.
"Which we are, yes," she echoed. "But the Enterprise's prestige has been damaged, its crew's reputation tarnished. These three want to avoid having their own careers derailed."
"Kawasaki was up for promotion, too," Riker said, sounding deflated. He was past being angry, but the hurt was still there, and heallowed it to creep into his voice. Around Troi he could be himself, slipping off the professional mask he wore among the crew.
"How many is that now?"
Troi shook her head sadly. "Seventeen in the last three months." The transfer requests had begun trickling in right after the encounter with the "demon ship."
The entire crew of the Enterprise was aware that the ship Picard had ordered to be destroyed was not a Federation vessel, but a "demon ship" masquerading as one.
What galled Riker the most was the notion that despite everything Picard had done for Starfleet, Command tallied up only the black marks, never bothering to weigh them against the successful missions.
To the admirals, Picard was increasingly a liability -- an inconvenient reminder of the ideals they too had sworn to uphold. When the Borg invaded Sector 001, the admirals sent the Enterprise to the Romulan Neutral Zone rather than let the flagship defend the Federation's birthplace. But Riker saw the expression on Picard's face when the audio reports came through, of how a single Borg cube was decimating the fleet. The Enterprise, in violation of orders, arrived on the scene, took command of the remaining ships, and destroyed the Borg cube.
Picard continued to embarrass the admirals by cherishing their principles while another one of their own -- Admiral Dougherty -- seemed to lose sight of them, almost causing the annihilation of the Bak'u.
And now this. Banishment to the hinterlands was Picard's only reward for steadfast courage and integrity. No wonder people wanted off the ship. Riker had privately hoped that the crew would remain intact, thumbing their collective noses at the faulty reasoning of their superiors, but with hundreds of people aboard the starship, unanimity was virtually impossible. He had to take comfort in the knowledge that those closest to Picard remained unfailing in their loyalty.
"How quickly do they want off? Is it worth my time talking to them?" Riker asked.
"You might have a chance with Kawasaki, since this will delay her chances at promotion. You just need to assess which is more important to her: advancement on a tainted ship or a fresh start."
"We're not tainted," he said with some heat.
"To us that's true," she agreed. "But not to everyone."
Riker held the padd, his thumb rubbing against the smooth metallic side. He pondered the choice, trying to imagine the thoughts in the younger woman's head. It occurred to him he didn't know Kawasaki all that well, just that she was petite and had an outsized laugh. Of course, he couldn't possibly know each crewman equally well, but he was having trouble coming up with details on this crewman, only that she was due for promotion within the year.
He quickly accessed her service record. Scanning her accomplishments, he was reminded why she had been placed on the recommendation list. She had helped write new programming for enhanced long-range sensors in addition to coming up with new safety systems to protect the core during red alert situations. Her initiative and wide-ranging talents had caught everyone's eye. The reviews were quite good, which Riker had come to expect from the entire crew under his watch.
"She's worth a shot," he mused.
"Oh?" Riker immediately detected the playful tone in Troi's voice. He grinned at her, stroking his beard once more.
"Well, she is single and kind of cute," he continued, rising to her challenge.
"And that's enough for you?" Troi teased. "That laugh of hers is a bit much, isn't it?"
"Well, it might get annoying in a closed space," Riker admitted, leaning closer to her. She leaned back against him, and her touch warmed him a bit.
"Annoying? Deafening is more like it," she said.
"You could sway me away from her," he offered, his hand reaching out for hers. She took it, and their fingers intertwined.
"I thought we were past the beginning," she said, the flirtatious tone suddenly gone. Her eyes glittered bright.
"Oh we are, Imzadi," he said softly. "We haven't been at the beginning since I first met you on Betazed."
"And where are we now?"
"Day twelve," he said, the twinkle back in his eye. "I think you're holding out just to vex me. You're determined and ready to make a point." Riker sat down and added, "I will speak with Kawasaki and try to convince her to stay. But for the sake of my ears, I'll talk to her in Ten-Forward."
Troi gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze. Riker returned his attention to the padd and frowned as he scrolled down to the next set of names. He studied them intently, his eyes narrowing.
Finally, Troi asked what else was wrong.
"We've been assigned more crew," he said in a flat, disapproving tone.
"They do that, you know," she said.
"When has Starfleet ever had to assign us crew? In all these years, people used to compete for assignments. And now we're getting castoffs. Look at the first officer's note on Nafir's file."
He pushed the padd toward her, and she quickly thumbed to the transporter technician's file. She read a few lines, and her frown began to match Riker's. The padd fell to the tabletop with a loud clatter, and she looked across to her friend. "Two disciplinary reports in a year, and all they can say is he has a difficult time following protocol. There's more to it than that."
"And we get him."
"I'd like to say they sent him here because they knew we could turn him around, and maybe a year ago that would have been true."
"But today," Riker continued, annoyed, "we get him because Captain Chen'farth doesn't want the headache."
"We can still work to make him better than he is. We can still do good work," Troi said emphatically.
"Sure, we can work with him. Geordi and Chief T'Bonz won't put up with Nafir's attitude, so he'll either do it our way or he won't be on any starship in the future. The point is, we can't afford to become the prime dumping ground for Starfleet's entire population of malcontents."
"And we haven't," Troi insisted. "Most of them will still go to the Excalibur." She rose and moved to the replicator for a fresh cup of tea. After all her years on the Enterprise, she had finally developed a taste for certain blends. "Anyway, not everyone coming to us is a troublemaker. Some have genuine problems. The Dominion War's effects have been deeper than first suspected, Will. People no longer seem as interested in facing the unknown or being out near the borders. Some planets have turned positively xenophobic."
"Fighting a vicious army led by shape changers will do that to some people," Riker noted, concerned but unsurprised by the summation.
She returned to her seat, blowing across the top of the steaming mug.
"We're all stretched so thin in terms of personnel, materiel...well, everything."
"Someone in particular you're concerned about?" he asked, hearing genuine curiosity in his own voice.
"There is one new member of Geordi's team that seems to have some issues. I don't think you've met her yet. Anh Hoang, a plasma specialist. She transferred here about two months ago, right before we went to Dokaal. She lost her husband and daughter when the Breen attacked San Francisco."
He thought about the attack almost four years earlier and how many lives it altered. Earth had been struck by enemy forces in the past, the first being the Borg in the early twenty-first century, although the Enterprise thwarted that effort. Hoang's story was just one of millions, he knew, and immediately he felt sympathy for the woman.
"What's the issue?" he asked softly.
"We met only once," Troi admitted. "But my impression is that she took this posting to run away from the memories. She does her job well, from all indications, but she isn't making connections with the rest of the crew."
"And you're worried."
"And I'm worried. I intend to spend some time with her while we're not going anywhere." Immediately she regretted the words, he could see from the expression that flitted across her face. He hadn't become a successful cardplayer without learning how to read others. Still, he winced at the notion that he was serving aboard a technological marvel that was merely updating stellar cartography charts.
"We'll finish this tomorrow," he said shortly.
He strode out of Troi's office and immediately quickened his pace to keep up with the hustle caused by the approaching shift change. The first officer never ceased to marvel at how busy the Enterprise could be even when there was no meaningful mission to perform. The starship was truly a small town filled with every type
of inhabitant. Its people might be caught up in their own lives and careers, but they still served their captain. They were never less than professional, and even though there were grumblings about the galactic politics in play, they were in this together.
Well, mostly, he considered, remembering he had just approved the departure of two crew members from this town. And he was still uncertain if he could convince the third to remain.
Geordi La Forge finished scanning codes for a supply requisition, looked over the figures on the screen, and hit the submit button. Despite the size of the universe, he noted, there was some comfort in knowing the starbases and supply depots all worked from a common framework of parts and corresponding numbers. Normally, the starship could count on receiving the supplies from a nearby runabout along its patrol route since they were not critically required. At least, not yet.
He surveyed the staff arriving and handing off assignments. Like the engines that thrummed beneath his feet, La Forge took pride in how well his staff operated as a team. When he took over engineering well over a decade earlier, he had seen to it that his people learned how to perform several functions and could work together both when things were calm and during a crisis. Being the son of a captain will teach you a few tricks. As a result, whenever the Enterprise, either the current ship or its predecessor, had trouble, his crew knew what to do without panic. In fact, after the Enterprise-D crashed on Veridian III, he was asked to lecture at a symposium on crisis management. While he expected the room to be filled with fellow engineers, there were as many captains and first officers in attendance.
The Enterprise-E had been in operation for seven years, and it had been through some tough battles, so it didn't surprise La Forge that certain critical systems had worn out ahead of specs and needed early replacement. As the flagship of the fleet, the Enterprise covered more space and suffered more wear and tear than the average ship. Its missions were more important, more dangerous...until recently.
These last few months had weighed on the veteran officers, the ones used to running from assignment to assignment, coming to live as much on coffee and adrenaline as on well-balanced meals. The stultifying routine was harder still on the newer crew. They had graduated from the Academy with their heads filled with stories of glory and action, and then they arrive and...patrol. La Forge had been in space long enough to understand why things were the way they were, but no one expected him -- or the others -- to like it.
"Here are the inventory reports you requested." Taurik answered. Now a lieutenant, the Vulcan had served in Starfleet for nearly a decade, including an earlier stint aboard Enterprise, and Geordi was glad to have him back. He was gifted in propulsion theory and seemed always to find ways to coax more power from the impulse engines.
La Forge took the padd and frowned at seeing how low replacement inventory had fallen. He had a feeling there was a growing problem, and these figures confirmed it. Nodding thanks to his assistant chief, La Forge returned to his station, ready to call the regional quartermaster rather than send another request.
On the bridge, watching his officers leave and arrive, Jean-Luc Picard sat in the command chair and fought the impulse to fidget. Normally he walked freely about on the bridge, but recently he had started forcing himself to spend longer periods of time in the chair as a visible symbol that he was not cowed by the indignities heaped on his crew -- and himself -- by Command. Instead, he would be seen by all who had business on the bridge and wouldn't let his frustration show.
But he was frustrated, and he disliked the gnawing feeling. Starfleet Command had as much as admitted that the Enterprise would not take on high-profile assignments until tensions throughout the Federation cooled and the incident with the Ontailians faded from memory. Never before had his career been so affected by public opinion, but during the strenuous rebuilding efforts in the wake of the Dominion War, Command needed to make sure support remained strong while the Federation struggled to stay united.
And right now, support was lacking for both him and the Enterprise. A student of history, Picard knew full well how quickly a cheering crowd could turn into riotous rabble. Before that could happen, Starfleet Command had effectively banished the Enterprise, sending it off on errands that smaller and less prestigious vessels usually handled. He was afraid their next assignment would be to provide escort for an S.C.E. ship on a routine repair mission.
Gripping the armrests of his chair a bit more tightly, Picard mentally replayed the incidents with the demon ship once more. He went through each command decision and projected what would have happened had he done things differently. As always, the imagined results were disastrous, even more disastrous than they turned out to be in reality. At least he had saved his crew and prevented a situation from turning into a new war. But there were still prices to pay, more tangible ones beyond the bruises on Picard's ego.
Data had to surrender his emotion chip to Command.
Ever since his android friend first inserted the chip some years before, Picard had watched him struggle and then finally master the myriad emotions that had flooded his positronic brain. Data was no longer an outsider to the close relationships that had formed among the ship's senior staff. At last he could return in full measure the caring of friends who had become family.
Then the chip had been removed, and Data was once again orienting himself to an emotionless existence. Picard wondered how well the adjustment was going. He made a note to invite the android to his quarters for a frank talk in the next day or so. If nothing else, Data would see that his captain was concerned for his well-being and know he could count on his help. Even if receiving emotional support no longer mattered to Data, offering that support mattered to Picard.
He had watched Data's early adjustments as the weeks passed on the Enterprise's trip to the Dokaalan colony.
If anyone could still touch Data's heart, it was the Dokaalan. Picard himself was impressed by how a society managed to flourish living only on asteroids, after their planet no longer could harbor life. What started out as a minor errand turned into an opportunity to do some significant good, and briefly Picard's hopes rose. Perhaps their success with the Dokaalan would end Enterprise's exile....
Those hopes were dashed by the missions that followed, which proved to be short and unmemorable. He realized his log entries were brief, bordering on terse, and they clearly reflected his mood. While he would rather not have to be called to defend the Federation against some galactic threat, Picard still wanted a challenge worthy of the ship and its crew. The captain longed to be released once more to explore, but such missions had to wait until the fleet was rebuilt. He also recognized that on a personal level, he needed something to make himself feel he was still making a difference. He had seen to it that the majority of their assignments were important ones. It was why he defied Admiral Dougherty's orders and went into the Briar Patch, the region of space where Data had been assigned and subsequently damaged. That decision worked out for the best since it prevented the Son'a from subjugating their homeworld out of a twisted desire for vengeance.
Picard's dark thoughts were abruptly banished by a chime coming from the right arm of his chair. A flashing light indicated a communication from Starfleet Command, so by the time Christine Vale announced a message was coming in, Picard was already out of his chair. He crossed the bridge and headed for his ready room, his pace increasing with every step.
Once at his desk, he adjusted the angle of the desktop viewer and activated the screen. The blue field with the UFP symbol was quickly replaced by the visage of Admiral Upton, a balding, gruff officer Picard could barely remember. Quickly, he mentally sifted through the organizational chart and remembered that Upton was with cultural affairs.
"Picard," Upton said by way of greeting.
"Admiral Upton, good to see you," Picard said, a professional smile playing on his face.
"Are you familiar with Delta Sigma IV?"
"Yes, sir," Picard responded, unfazed by the lack of pleasantries. "It's a few parsecs from our position. I believe they're celebrating their centennial as a successful colony world." That was all he recalled, and that only because it was mentioned on one of the newsfeeds he had read during recent downtime between missions.
"Well, they've just experienced their first murder in a century, and it's our fault," Upton said, his expression grim. His bushy, gray-streaked eyebrows looked like storm clouds over his blue eyes.
Picard frowned as the admiral elaborated on the nature of the mission. It was important, to be sure, but it would be personally trying as well, for one member of his crew in particular.
"You do realize the position this puts Commander Riker in," Picard said, when he finally could get a word in.
"I'm not worried about Riker. His issues have been considered," was all Upton would say.
Knowing it would be unwise to press the point, Picard changed the subject. "This is a higher profile mission than the last few," he noted. "Are we being unleashed?"
Upton paused before replying. "Actually, this is a lousy mission. We're going to look bad regardless of how it turns out. Just how bad we look is in your hands."
"Very well, Admiral," Picard replied neutrally. "We'll lay in a course immediately."
"Starfleet out," was the only reply, and the screen shifted back to its standby image. Picard sat back for a moment and let everything sink in. He reached for his viewer, entered a few quick commands, and then rose.
Moving to the replicator for a cup of Earl Grey tea, Picard tapped his combadge. "Picard to Data."
Instantly, the android responded.
"Mr. Data, I've just routed our latest mission packet to you. Please prepare to give senior staff a presentation in thirty minutes."
That accomplished, the captain once again tapped his badge and summoned Riker to the ready room. This was not a conversation he was looking forward to, but one that he wanted to handle in private, before the rest of the crew learned of the new mission. Seating himself on the couch near a tome of his beloved Shakespeare, Picard sipped the hot liquid and tried to figure how much time had elapsed since he last longed for a new mission. Certainly less than thirty minutes, and he was reminded once more that one needed to be careful about what one wished for.
Upton left his office and took the turbolift to the floor housing a private room. Only admirals were given access to the space, filled with antique furniture salvaged from around the globe. The gleaming wood and brass always had a faint smell of polish, and voices were muted by the plush carpet found nowhere else in the headquarters building. It was a refuge away from staff, from cadets, even from captains light-years away.
The room was capable of holding only two dozen people at most, and usually had less than half that at any one time. However, it was a much desired refuge, and during the worst of times, it was where admirals could be found collecting their thoughts or just grabbing a quick nap when time permitted. The tradition began over a hundred years earlier when the building was repaired after an alien probe nearly destroyed the planet.
He entered the sanctuary and moved with practiced ease past three other admirals seated in a semicircle. He went straight to a sideboard, where he poured a generous amount of amber liquid into a cut crystal glass and then swirled it around three times. Traditional Scotch, there was nothing like it, as his father always used to say.
He took one small sip, let it rest in his mouth for a full ten seconds, and then swallowed. The ritual complete, he turned to face the others, who were debating some point of legislation that had just been passed by the Federation Council. Upton lowered himself into a comfortable wing chair and sipped in silence. The others -- Admirals Janeway, Nechayev, and Stek -- continued their discussion, with mere nods of their heads in acknowledgment of Upton's presence.
Finally, Stek, a senior Vulcan responsible for technological development, asked Upton, "How was the mission received?"
"Picard's a career man. He knows better than to complain."
"It's a pretty bad assignment. I wouldn't want it," Janeway admitted.
Upton smiled coldly at her. "That's about what he deserves right now."
"So, if he didn't complain, what did he say?" asked Nechayev, the smallest of the four, but the one with perhaps the most forceful personality.
"What do you think? He brought up Riker's issues."
"I'm sorry, I don't follow," said Janeway, recently promoted after successfully returning the U.S.S. Voyager, which had been lost in the Delta Quadrant for seven years. She was by far the youngest admiral in attendance.
"With Kyle Riker missing, there are questions we need answered, and Will Riker is his son."
Janeway's look of surprise amused the older admiral. He took another small sip of the aged Scotch and enjoyed feeling it travel down to his stomach.
"Do you know Riker?"
"Actually, Alynna, we had one date at the Academy," Janeway admitted, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. "Nothing came of it, and we never stayed in touch."
"Well," Alynna Nechayev added, "there's little love lost between those two. They've barely spoken over the years, from what I understand."
"But I do know Will helped his dad once years ago," Janeway added. "When the father was suspected of some crime."
"The reunion was brief and of little consequence, it seems," the Vulcan noted. "However, personal conflicts aside, Riker has proven to be a capable man. I do not fully understand why he has refused command."
"Never felt ready, or didn't want something less prestigious than the Enterprise," Nechayev guessed.
"Well, now Picard's holding him back. Maybe we need to force his hand," Upton said. He ignored Nechayev's look and admired the light reflecting off the crystal glass in his hand.
"If you feel that strongly, Jack, should the Enterprise be the one for this mission?"
"Kathryn, I know you've taken Picard's side in this," Upton said, "but trust me, any officer who has been through what he has, needs to be watched. But yes, he's closest, and he's come through for us repeatedly on these diplomatic fiascos. He just needs to know we're watching closely to make sure he doesn't get himself into trouble. Again."
Upton stifled the urge to roll his eyes at the disapproving glares that greeted his comments. Was he the only one there who could face the truth?
"All command officers get thoroughly evaluated," Stek said. "Those found underperforming get reassigned."
Et tu, Stek? Upton thought with disgust. "Oh for pity's sake, the man is reckless. Look how he lost Stargazer and crashed the Enterprise."
"Actually," Nechayev interrupted, "he's always put the Federation first. We might disagree with how he has handled his assignments -- I certainly have -- but in the end, he and his crew uphold our ideals. Better than most."
"Good as Picard has been in the past," Upton said unhappily, "right now we have to face the fact that he's a liability. Member worlds have raised concerns with the Council, and it's damaged our ability to function. At the first sign of trouble, we need to act decisively. I already have Braddock readying a squadron, just in case."
"With or without all the facts," Janeway noted archly.
"We let the facts speak for themselves," Upton replied.
"Yet, you let him keep the Enterprise," Janeway said, her voice deepening. "You kept his senior crew intact, and you've given him this diplomatic assignment. If the Council has concerns, why give him this? Especially with Kyle Riker in the mix?"
"Ever meet Riker the elder?"
"Yes, briefly, when I was an ensign," she said.
"Stubborn and pigheaded," Upton said. "A man of such virtue as Picard should be the one to rein him in. It's also a chance to see if Picard's learned anything these last few months."
He purposely ignored the frown that marred Janeway's features.
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