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By ship's morning, Picard woke to find Beverly gone and his mind clear, free of its nocturnal terror. He dressed, and by the time he mentally reviewed the tasks of the day, he had convinced himself that the Borg chatter had been no more than a vestige of the dream.
The first stop was engineering. Picard entered to find the android B-4 sitting, legs sprawled with unselfconscious gracelessness, clad in the mustard jumpsuit he routinely wore. His expression bland and benign, B-4 let his ingenuous gaze wander, without curiosity, over his surroundings. Picard could not determine whether the android had actually registered the captain's entry, or the presence of Geordi La Forge or Beverly Crusher.
"Captain Jean-Luc Picard," B-4 said at last, without inflection. From experience, Picard knew this was not a greeting; B-4 was merely parroting the name of an object he recognized. But for the sake of the others, the captain took it as such.
"Good morning, B-4," he said briskly, with false cheerfulness. Silently, he nodded a greeting to La Forge and Beverly.
Geordi stood next to the android. Beverly stood across from the two of them, her arms folded, her expression carefully professional, that of chief medical officer and nothing more. Technically, since B-4 was not human, what was about to occur could not be called a medical procedure. Nonetheless, Beverly had insisted on coming.
Geordi's features were composed as well, but there was a poignant undercurrent in his prosthetic crystalline eyes. Data had been his closest friend, and spending time with B-4 -- Data's double in physical form only, certainly not in personality, intelligence, or attitude -- had only served to underscore the loss of that friend. Geordi had worked the past few months with B-4 in hopes of summoning Data's memories -- to re-create, if possible, all that Data had been.
The effort had proved cruelly futile. B-4 had regurgitated names, snippets of events from Data's past, but had never put them into context, had never shown the slightest interest in their meaning.
But as he had wandered the Enterprise's corridors, Geordi so often in tow, B-4 had kept Data's ghost alive for them all. Picard still struggled with a sense of guilt: in the most human and loving of gestures, Data had sacrificed himself so that his captain and crewmates might live. Even months later, Picard was visited too often by the horrible instant of materializing on the bridge, of seeing the dazzling flash of the Scimitar's destruction, of knowing that Data was dead, incinerated into nonexistence...
There had not even been time enough to say good-bye. He missed Deanna Troi dreadfully; she was serving with her husband Will Riker aboard the Titan now, and only in her absence had Picard come to realize how much he had relied on her as a counselor not only in professional matters but in personal ones as well. He was limited now to remembering what she had told him shortly before she left the Enterprise with Will:
Data's final act was one that brought him the most happiness; it gave his entire existence the greatest meaning. Yes, he could have lived centuries longer...but what's the use of immortality if there's no meaning to it?
Case in point, Picard thought, looking at the android in front of him. As the captain took his place beside Beverly, B-4 sat staring vacuously, oblivious to the feelings of the humans surrounding him. Data, of course, would have been keenly aware. Picard tried, and was entirely unsuccessful, to suppress a memory: Data, standing in the scalded dust of the desert world Kolarus, lifting B-4's head from the sand and holding it before his eyes in unwitting imitation of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull. Brother, Data had called him. So like Data, to have yearned for the closest of human relationships.
"B-4," Geordi said, with the same gentle tone he had used so often with his old friend, "do you realize what we're about to do?" La Forge unconsciously fingered the laser wrench in his hand. Nearby sat open storage compartments: one the size of a torso, another that of a human cranium. A third was designed to house limbs. B-4 would soon return to the state in which they had first discovered him: disassembled.
The android looked in turn at each of them: Beverly, Picard, then back at Geordi.
"You are sending me away," B-4 said.
"Yes," Geordi answered, his tone infinitely patient. "You're going to the Daystrom Institute. They're going to study you and learn about your design, how you were made."
"How I was made," B-4 echoed tonelessly. He glanced at the storage compartments, then at the deck.
"We're going to deactivate you now," Geordi persisted. "Most likely permanently. We talked about all this, remember?"
"I remember," B-4 replied, distracted by the movement of another engineer passing by en route to her station.
Apparently more for himself than the android, Geordi added, "It's a good thing you're doing, B-4. You're helping science."
After a brief silence, B-4 looked up at La Forge and asked abruptly, "What is it like to be deactivated?"
Geordi was caught off guard; Beverly stepped in.
"It's like...nothing," she said. "Like being nowhere at all. It's not uncomfortable. Humans might compare it to a dreamless sleep."
"Nothing?" B-4 tilted his head in painful imitation of Data.
Geordi recovered and nodded. "You won't see or hear anything. You'll no longer receive any input."
B-4 blinked, considering this. "That sounds very boring. I do not think I want to be deactivated now."
Geordi shot an openly helpless glance at Picard. Beside him, Beverly shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable.
"B-4," Picard said sternly, "it's too late to change your mind. You already agreed to be deactivated. That was a good decision, one you must abide by." Now was not the time for dialogue. True, the situation might trigger memories of a lost friend, but swift action was required lest it turn maudlin. B-4 was not Data, and that was that.
There followed a slight pause. "All right," B-4 answered mildly.
Picard directed a curt nod at Geordi. "Please deactivate B-4, Mister La Forge."
Geordi hesitated no more than a heartbeat, then with his free hand, reached for a panel at the back of B-4's neck, opened it, and pressed a control.
B-4 froze: his eyes no longer blinked, his head no longer moved, his limbs no longer fidgeted in realistic representation of human motion. Even the blandly pleasant expression had resolved into one of soulless vacancy. In less than a millisecond, he was transformed from sentient being to inanimate object.
Picard had expected the moment after to be the easiest. To his surprise, it was the hardest -- for there, in front of them, sat Data, just as he had appeared all the times they had been forced to shut him down. There was no longer B-4's vacant expression and witless repetition to remind them that this was someone, something else. Picard's throat tightened; he recalled a time, many years ago, when Command had wanted to deactivate Data for study. He remembered how hard and eloquently he and Data had argued against it, and won.
Now it felt as though he had ultimately lost.
Standing beside Picard, Beverly gave a few rapid blinks, then regained her composure. Geordi, his tone soft, his words forced, said, "I'll finish up here, Captain. He'll be ready for shipment within the hour." He lifted the laser wrench in his hand and fingered a toggle.
"Very good," Picard said. He turned on his heel and tried to leave Data's memory behind, in engineering -- just as he had earlier dismissed the dream about the Borg.
It had been a strange night, followed by a strange morning; Picard could not entirely rid himself of the odd feeling the world had somehow gone awry. Nothing more than mental phantoms, he exhorted himself. Nothing real: just ghosts. Ghosts and whispers...
As he rode the turbolift up toward the bridge, Picard's mood gradually began to lighten. His next task would be a far happier one: he had been planning an announcement with great care. The previous night, after he had received some anticipated news from Starfleet Command, he and Beverly had each enjoyed a glass of wine and laughed over his nefarious plan for delivering said news. They had planned, too, a small celebration of the senior crew after hours.
Picard was nearly smiling when the turbolift slowed and arrived at the bridge, but by the time the doors opened, he had already forced a frown in order to produce a properly grim expression.
The Enterprise bridge was a study in silent efficiency: a recent transfer from Security, Lieutenant Sara Nave, straw-colored hair loosely coiled at her neck, sat at the conn, studying the stars on the main viewscreen. Nave's serious expression and consummate professionalism belied her off-duty behavior. At the academy, she'd had a reputation as a fun-loving hellion -- the captain recalled that several senior officers had used the same label for him. Unlike her captain, Nave had graduated at the top of her class and was one of the best in her field.
Born on Rigel to human parents -- both of them high-ranking officers in Starfleet -- Nave had been a prodigy, convinced from early childhood that she wanted to follow in her family's footsteps. Her academic record was stellar enough to convince Starfleet Academy to grant her early admission; after an accelerated program, she graduated at the age of eighteen. She was now twenty-five, with seven years of outstanding service under her belt -- though it was hard sometimes for Picard to believe it, given the fact that Nave looked even younger than she was. Her pixielike features would always give her the appearance of youth, even into old age.
She was not a tall woman, though her limbs were lithe and long -- yet her strength was formidable, in part because she had started in Security. She regularly practiced mock combat with Worf using the bat'leth -- the quarter-moon-shaped Klingon scimitar -- albeit with a slight handicap. Picard was glad to see the two had formed a friendship. Worf did not take easily to new people.
A faint crease appeared on Nave's brow as she manipulated a control, keeping the ship on course for the planet Repok. The Repoki had agreed to permit the Federation to help negotiate a truce with their neighbor, Trexat. Commander Worf had command of the bridge, his bony brow knitted in a perpetual slight scowl, his hair falling down his broad back in a long russet braid. Picard was still not quite used to the sight of Worf in the big chair.
Over the past months, the Klingon had behaved with uncharacteristic restraint, a degree of somberness that Picard attributed to grief over Data and the reassignment of so many crew members. The number of changes had required all of them to adapt. It had been hard enough, in the past, when the crew had lost the Enterprise herself; it was harder still to lose each other.
At the sound of the doors opening, Worf swiveled in the captain's chair to glimpse Picard; not quite simultaneously, the Klingon rose and moved for the first officer's position. Picard passed by him, turning his face just enough to order sternly, "In my ready room, Mister Worf." He glanced back at navigation. "Lieutenant Nave, you have the bridge."
The captain did not await an answer but headed directly for the ready room and his desk; he settled behind it, aware that the Klingon was following closely. The instant Worf entered, the doors snapped shut, and Picard gestured for him to take the hot seat.
The Klingon never looked comfortable sitting; Worf would far prefer to be standing at attention. Instead, he rested his great bronze hands awkwardly on his knees, looking like the essence of regretfully coiled power.
Picard forced away the smile that threatened, and with a calculatedly reluctant expression, launched into his performance. "Mister Worf," he began, his voice low, "for the past few months you have, in my opinion, fulfilled your role as temporary second-in-command most admirably."
"Thank you, Captain." Worf shifted uncomfortably beneath the words of praise, poised on the edge of his chair, eager to vacate it as swiftly as possible.
"However," Picard said, "I'm sure you can understand that the time has come to find a permanent replacement." He paused a full two seconds to increase the sense of drama, relishing his role. "I want you to know that I made the case quite forcefully for keeping you as first officer. But Starfleet Command had already made its decision long before my recommendation." The captain lifted his hand in a rehearsed I-did-all-that-I-could gesture, then sighed.
Worf was as motionless as stone.
"I'm afraid, Mister Worf, that I received the name of the new permanent first officer last night. He will be filling the position immediately."
If Worf felt disappointment, he did not show it; Picard would not have expected him to. "I understand, Captain. Shall I return to my old post?"
The question caught Picard off guard. He had been counting on the Klingon to ask the name of his so-called replacement -- especially since the officer was to take over immediately, which implied he was a member of the current crew. Wasn't Worf the least bit curious that someone of lesser rank had been promoted over him? This was not how Picard's little joke was supposed to play out.
Perhaps he had inadvertently offended.
"Mister Worf," he said finally, his tone lightening; at last, he permitted himself to smile. "Forgive me for teasing you. I am proud to report that Command has approved my recommendation and appointed you permanent first officer of the Enterprise."
A pause followed. Picard absolutely expected to hear the words, Thank you, Captain, but they never came.
"I am sorry, Captain," Worf responded. "I must refuse the commission."
At first Picard was certain he had misheard, but the longer the words hung in the air, the less he could deny them. His first instinct was to ask, Are you mad? His next was to consider that the Klingon had turned the joke on him. But there was no hint of merriment in Worf's eyes; he fidgeted a bit in his chair, obviously eager to be done with the encounter.
At last Picard said, "Worf...I'm afraid I don't understand."
"I must refuse the commission," the Klingon repeated.
"I understood what you said," Picard countered gently. "But I don't understand why you said it."
Worf lowered his gaze. An emotion flickered in his eyes, one that the captain could not precisely identify: reluctance? pain? "It is...a personal matter, sir. I would prefer not to discuss it."
For a moment, Picard was rendered speechless. Finally, he said, "Commander...I respect your decision and your right to privacy. But of all candidates, you are the most qualified -- and I would prefer you, above all others, as my Number One. Could I ask you to take some time to reconsider?"
Worf met the captain's gaze directly once more, and Picard detected a glimmer of misery. "I have made my decision, sir," the Klingon said.
There was nothing more to be said, the captain realized, with a sense of profound disappointment and disbelief. He straightened, his manner formal. "Very well, Mister Worf. You may return to your duties...as temporary first officer. I hope you are willing to continue in that role; it will take some time for me to find another qualified officer."
The Klingon gave a nod and left with obvious relief.
Picard did not follow immediately. He remained behind his desk, contemplating whether or not to inform Starfleet of Worf's decision. Worf seemed determined -- but Picard's instinct said to wait, to give him time.
The captain sighed. For the second time that morning, he found himself desperately missing Deanna Troi's counsel.
Worf returned to the bridge and carefully settled into the command chair, ignoring Sara Nave as she half turned her face away from the conn to give him a curious, sidewise glance. He had never felt comfortable taking the captain's seat; of all places on the Enterprise bridge, he deserved to be there least.
When Captain Picard had first asked him to take over Commander Riker's position, Worf had considered refusing. But at that moment, the captain had had no other senior officers to choose from, no one from the original crew who had served him so long, who knew the ship and the captain so well. Refusing then would have put the captain in an unacceptable position, since Starfleet had to conduct a search for a replacement. Given the captain's exceptional standards and the reality that most highly qualified officers were already content with their current assignments, time was needed.
Worf's loyalty would not permit him to leave his captain without a seasoned second-in-command. But he thought it understood that his assistance was only temporary; he thought it had been clear that he could never accept a permanent position as Picard's Number One.
Indeed, he had been perplexed by the fact that the captain had even considered him. Worf's sense of shame was still so great he regarded it as tangible, as visible to others as the Klingon sash he wore over his uniform each day.
He had sat in the ready room looking at Captain Picard after the announcement, but the face he had seen had been the dark visage of the commander of Deep Space 9, Benjamin Sisko. The words he had heard were Sisko's as well.
As your captain, it's my duty to tell you that you made the wrong decision...they'll probably never give you a command of your own after this.
Sisko's assessment had been humanly soft, even weak. Had Worf been serving aboard a Klingon vessel, he would have gladly accepted death as his rightful due.
Sitting now on the bridge, the Klingon stared out at the streaming stars and saw a different face -- this one pale and beautiful, framed by long hair the color of fertile soil. The features were young and delicate, but the spirit behind them was ancient and fierce.
Jadzia. The memory of his wife provoked no less pain than it had the day she had died.
For love of her, Worf had deserted his duty to Starfleet. For love of her, he had forsaken honor.
Only a few years ago, he had gone with Jadzia into the steaming jungles of an alien planet; their assignment was to meet with a Cardassian spy, Lasaran, who had critical information. Information, Worf reminded himself unhappily, that would have changed the course of the Dominion War...and could have spared millions of lives.
But Jadzia had been injured in a surprise attack and began to slowly bleed to death. Warrior that she was, she had struggled to fulfill her duty for as long as she had been able, hiking alongside her husband through treacherous terrain. At last, the loss of blood left her unable to take another step. If Worf continued on to the rendezvous point, there was no doubt that Jadzia would be dead before he could return to her.
Worf's choice had been clear: save his wife's life, or obey his duty and keep his meeting with Lasaran.
He had chosen duty at first, at Jadzia's urging. But each step that took him farther away from her caused his determination to falter; with each step, his love for Jadzia tugged at him until he could resist it no longer and went back to save her.
Afterward, when Jadzia was safe, Captain Sisko had confronted him with the news that, because Worf and Jadzia had not helped Lasaran escape, the Cardassian had been murdered --
and his information, which might have helped end the bloody war with the Dominion, was lost with him.
In the end, fate had its way: Jadzia and Worf had only a few more months together before she died -- a victim, in a misfortunate place at a misfortunate hour, murdered by a wraith-possessed Gul Dukat.
It was not a death befitting such a proud warrior.
Worf could have given her such a death -- performing her duty, in an alien jungle. He could have given her honor, then, and saved his own.
But Captain Sisko had been right: he, Worf, had made the wrong choice. And although Starfleet might be willing to forgive one of their officers such a terrible lapse in judgment, Worf could not. Being first officer of the Enterprise meant that he would at times be in command of the finest vessel in the fleet, a responsibility of which he was unworthy.
Picard remained in his ready room for several moments afterward. Worf assumed that he was already contacting Starfleet Command, informing them of the need for a new first officer.
When Picard at last emerged, Worf leaped to attention, ready to turn the bridge over. But the captain passed by without meeting anyone's gaze. "As you were," he said tersely, then moved swiftly for the turbolift.
Once he was gone, Worf resettled into the command chair and sighed. On the viewscreen before him were stars, but all he saw was Jadzia's face.
Picard hadn't contacted Starfleet at all; instead, he made up his mind to wait. There was no logic to his decision -- none at all -- only the nagging intuition that the way to convince Worf to accept the promotion would soon come to him. Perhaps it was foolish; the Enterprise needed a permanent first officer, and the sooner Starfleet was notified of Worf's refusal, the sooner someone could be found.
Locating an officer of Will Riker's caliber (or, for that matter, of Worf's) who happened to be available for reassignment would not be easy.
Just as it had not been easy finding a replacement for Deanna Troi.
Picard thought of Deanna and smiled. What would she say, knowing that he had just chosen to ignore Worf in hopes of changing the Klingon's mind?
In his mind, he heard her voice -- full of both consideration and candor -- tinged with that strange throaty Betazoid accent:
Captain, you know very well how stubborn Worf can be. There's about as much chance of him changing his mind as...
Silently, Picard finished the imaginary statement for her.
...as me changing mine?
He pictured her giving a stern, emphatic nod, with a glimmer of humor in her black eyes. Precisely.
Picard's smile faded; he sighed. It would never be possible to find another Deanna, or a friendship like the one he'd had with her. Certainly, the new counselor was nothing like her. In fact, it had taken Command some time to convince him, despite her impeccable qualifications, that she was a good match for the Enterprise and its captain.
Picard was focused on the position of ship's counselor for good reason. On his way to the bridge earlier, he had received notification that the shuttle bearing Deanna's successor would soon be in transporter range.
In the midst of his reverie, his communicator chirped. He pressed the badge. "Picard here."
"Ensign Luptowski, transporter room two, sir. The new counselor should be arriving in approximately two minutes."
"On my way."
Picard stood next to the transporter operator -- a recruit from the academy, twenty years old if he was a day -- and watched as the shimmering miasma on the pad slowly coalesced into humanoid shape.
The body formed first. It was short, very slender, decidedly feminine. The hair that appeared was blue-black, with a fringe of carefully trimmed bangs that partially covered a high forehead and upward-slanting eyebrows. The eyes were heavy lidded, large, and almost as dark as Deanna's; the nose was long, narrow, the lips classically rosebud. The ears were delicately formed, close to the skull, culminating in decided points. The effect of such Renaissance beauty in a Starfleet uniform seemed incongruous. If Leonardo da Vinci had ever sketched a saint or angel with Vulcan features, Picard decided, this would be the result.
Her expression was placid, beatific; Picard had never known a Vulcan to generate the peculiar quality humans termed "charisma," but that was indeed what this female possessed. She took in Picard, Ensign Luptowski, and the transporter room with a single, encompassing glance, one that shone with breathtaking intelligence and absorption of detail.
She stepped from the pad and gave Picard a low, respectful nod. "Captain Picard." Her voice was arresting, authoritative, larger than her physical form -- a match for the captain's most commanding, sonorous tone. "Greetings. I am Counselor T'Lana."
Picard did not smile -- he wished to be sensitive to her Vulcan distaste for displays of emotion -- but her relaxed, gracious demeanor made him feel comfortable in exhibiting warmth in his expression and tone. "Counselor. Welcome to the Enterprise."
His warmth was genuine...but there was a slight discomfort hidden beneath it. He had requested another Betazoid, of course, but there were only a handful of them in the fleet and their empathic abilities were in high demand. He had grown used to the incredible advantage of being able to know what opponents were feeling, even across the vastness of space.
But Command had been swift to underscore T'Lana's qualifications. Her counseling skills had been honed after two decades of service to the fleet. She had spent the bulk of her career specializing in diplomatic counseling, advising commanders who found themselves enmeshed in negotiations with warring groups. As such, she had been transferred often, to the place where she could do the most good. More recently, she had had a permanent assignment aboard the Starship Indefatigable. When the ship had been destroyed in battle, T'Lana had earned commendations for rescuing wounded comrades. Afterward, she had specifically asked to be assigned to the Enterprise as soon as a position was available.
Her record was sterling. She had the Vulcan coolness needed to calm overheated antagonists; at the same time, she possessed uncanny insight into the intentions and character of beings far more emotional than herself. She had garnered commendation after commendation with each simmering conflict she resolved, each war she helped avert, each battle she brought to a halt.
And while she could never compete with Troi's ability to "read" another being on another ship, a distant world, T'Lana's talent as a touch-telepath was exceptional. Most Vulcans worked for years to enhance their telepathic abilities; T'Lana had worked for years to contain hers.
Picard was honored to have her aboard. And though he was certain she would serve the Enterprise impeccably, he was privately concerned about her ability to provide him with personal guidance. Deanna had been warm, nurturing, nonjudgmental -- a friend with whom he could let down his guard, to whom he could express the most painful feelings. He could never have recovered emotionally from his experience as Locutus without Deanna's help.
How could he ever weep or confess his inadequacies to a Vulcan?
Picard brushed aside the question. Such a horrific incident was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Besides, it was no longer time for such concerns; he had made his decision to accept T'Lana as his new counselor. Now it was time to adapt to the change and make the best of what was rather than what had been.
"Would you like to be shown to your quarters to rest?" he asked politely.
"No," she replied.
Ah, the first sign of Vulcan bluntness.
"I am well rested, Captain. I would prefer to report for duty."
"Very well." Picard gestured toward the door. "Then let's proceed to the bridge."
As he led her through the corridors, he began a discussion of the most pressing matter at hand. "I understand you have experience in dealing with the Trexatians." He had studied her file more than a dozen times and knew her history well. The Trexatians were marauders with recently acquired warp capability and a complete disregard for the rights of other societies. Some years ago, they had begun pillaging two other planets, T'hirada and Xochin, in a neighboring solar system. Their victims were even more technologically advanced than the Trexatians and fought back with a vengeance: a three-way war broke out, with none of the parties interested in a diplomatic solution -- until the T'hiradans finally asked to join the Federation and requested Starfleet's assistance.
T'Lana had counseled Admiral Yamaguchi and his diplomatic team, and been present throughout the negotiations. The mission had met with resounding success, and the Trexatians, although they had refused to join the Federation, had signed a treaty agreeing not to prey on their neighbors. They had kept that promise...until now.
Now they were raiding a planet in their own system -- Repok -- for a rare ore, vadinite, recently discovered to cure a disease that had been ravaging the Trexatians. The raids had begun slyly, with Trexatians shielding their vessels and conducting secret mining operations, beaming the mineral directly into their cargo holds. But the Repoki soon discovered the losses, since they mined vadinite themselves, and they were resoundingly disinclined to be generous -- vadinite was their currency.
An all-out war soon erupted. The Repoki were at a serious disadvantage. They possessed only a first-generation warp drive that permitted them to put up a limited defense. The Trexatians were far more technologically advanced and became more brazen in their efforts to seize vadinite. They used phase weapons to slaughter Repoki workers at the mines, which they seized; they quickly destroyed most of the Repoki defenses. The natives began forming land armies to try to resist the impending Trexatian invasion.
But the Repoki realized they had little chance against their enemies, and so they contacted Starfleet for help. They had resisted earlier overtures from the Federation, but they were now willing to ally themselves in order to avoid the devastation of their people and their world.
"Approximately seven years ago, I worked for a short time with Trexatian representatives to resolve a conflict," T'Lana said. "During that same period, I was also part of a delegation who visited Repok, at the invitation of a faction interested in joining the Federation."
Picard lifted his eyebrows. "Indeed?" He had not seen any mention of the latter fact in her file but, then, the document was massive, referring to hundreds of missions over a twenty-year period. "How did you find Repoki culture? What drives them as a people?"
He was curious; he'd found only a smattering of information on them in the ship's computers. There had been far more about the Trexatians because of the earlier war. They were a competitive race that embraced technology; physical appearance and abilities were enhanced by prosthetic eyes, limbs, cybernetic implants. Eye and hair color, as well as facial structure, were constantly changed; skin was colored and etched to create interesting designs and textures. Precious metals and gems were embedded in eyes, ears, and skin, woven into hair. The culture valued its notion of beauty above all else -- except perhaps its ability to steal whatever it could from other planets.
The Repoki, on the other hand, were a gangly, orange-skinned people with opaque white eyes, blunted features, and little racial variation. Picard knew nothing more about them, except that their level of technology was behind that of the Trexatians and perhaps two centuries behind that of the Federation.
"They value social cooperation as well as financial independence so that the individual will not burden society; nonfunctional art is considered frivolous. They are isolationist but not xenophobic. They wish to exist undisturbed, with little interest in how their culture or technology could be enhanced by interaction with other worlds." She paused. "That was our greatest challenge seven years ago, when we met with their representatives. The only reason they have contacted us now is that they now desperately require our help. But there is a greater challenge to surmount now."
Conversation ceased for a moment as they arrived at the lift and entered. "Bridge," Picard ordered, then turned his face toward T'Lana, who stood beside him.
As the lift began to move, she answered his question. "Bigotry. Since the Repoki place a high value on social cooperation, they frown on thievery and self-aggrandizement. They find Trexatian culture morally repugnant, the people vain and corrupt. This, added to their outrage over the murders of their citizens and the invasion of their mines -- the very basis of their monetary system -- will prove a most difficult obstacle in bringing them to peace and acceptance of Trexatian culture."
"I suspect," Picard said, "that the Trexatians find the Repoki backward and naïve."
T'Lana gave an affirming nod. "As well as physically repugnant. And they do not comprehend their lack of aesthetic appreciation. Each side, therefore, feels it is morally superior to the other. This is the greatest challenge to a lasting peace. Apparently, our efforts seven years ago were unsuccessful in terms of assisting the Trexatians in becoming more open to other cultures' perspectives..."
As Picard listened, a comment formed in his mind about the need for a swift resolution, since without vadinite, the Trexatian population would soon be decimated by disease. But as T'Lana continued, her voice slowly faded and became unintelligible, like the far-off buzz of an insect.
Pressure mounted in his skull; soon even the buzzing was silenced by the pulse of his own heart.
Picard blinked and scowled, trying to shake off the sensation, to concentrate on the words T'Lana's cherubic lips were forming, but he could hear only the sound in his own head.
A virus, he decided. Or perhaps some abnormal residual effect left from his early experience with Shalaft's syndrome. After hours, he would make a point of consulting Beverly.
T'Lana's lips had stopped moving and she was studying him with intent curiosity.
A muscle in his cheek spasmed.
Fierce, abrupt, and inescapable, the dread of the previous night's dream descended on him. The thrumming heartbeat that filled his ears transformed -- or had it always been thus? -- into a chorus of distant whispers.
This is not happening, Picard told himself with infinite force, infinite fury. He would not permit a nightmare spawned by events long past to become reality. Whatever this was, it had nothing to do with the Borg. Could not have anything to do with the Borg. Any remnants of them were scattered, helpless, without a queen to direct their activity. He had had the pleasure of snapping her writhing, inhuman spine himself, with an impossible strength born of adrenaline and desperation. Admiral Janeway dealt them an even more crushing blow from the Delta Quadrant. Picard had read the reports following the triumphant return of the Starship Voyager. The Borg were scattered. Lost without access to a considerable portion of their network of transwarp conduits. They could not possibly have regrouped so quickly.
This was merely a symptom, the onset of a physical malady or neural malfunction. He would will it away, would escort T'Lana to the bridge, would notify Beverly at the first opportune moment.
T'Lana was speaking again -- a short phrase -- then she paused for a response. Fighting to ignore the chaos in his head, Picard watched carefully as she formed the words. He could not hear them, but he managed to read them.
Captain Picard. Are you unwell?
He opened his mouth to answer, to reassure, but no sound emerged, as if he were still prisoner in a dream, unable to find his voice.
With agonizing effort, he forced out the words. "I'm fine."
He could not hear himself utter the word "I'm." But with "fine," the sense of pressure evaporated as quickly as it had appeared; the whispers in his mind fled. His own voice emerged as startlingly loud. In a disconcerting instant, the world returned to normal. He let go a long breath of pure relief.
T'Lana was gazing at him with calm expectancy.
"Just a headache," Picard said, annoyed at himself for such a clearly crippled explanation. He could not imagine how he must have appeared to the Vulcan during the episode.
She appeared to accept his excuse but said no more. They rode in silence, while Picard mentally repeated the mantra:
This is not what it appears to be; there is a physical explanation. This is not what it appears to be.
This is not the Borg...
Copyright © 2007 by CBS Studios Inc.