(For disclaimers, please see vol. I)

 

MACHINES vol. II

by Eliann SleepingCat

 

I'll say this for Garth, he did give me fair warning this time. Most of his ill conceived ideas have been carried out behind my scanners as it were, but this time he did tell me what he had planned. And it was not really his fault that it backfired either..

When I suddenly lost all feeling in my warp engines, it was the third malfunction that week. The Hwyfar - the mechanical part of me - was getting old and worn; she had not been brand new the first time my human part had been built into her, and then there was the period she was drifting rudderless as it were, before the second time we were joined. In addition to that, Garth and I had been travelling for many years - I had lost track sometime early on and never bothered to pick it up again. Garth lived for his music these days; I lived to sail through space. Why count the days? Or the years, for that matter.

"Let's face it", Garth had said, "you're a wreck. Or soon to be one, if we try to keep this up."

His bone structure precluded his changing much over the years, but lately his blond hair had begun to fade somewhat, getting mingled with silver. Not to the extent that Alan's had been the last time we saw him - where was Alan now, was he even alive? He could have been dead these many years and us never hearing of it. Still, even in Garth's hair the glints of silver were becoming notable. And wasn't there a slight thinning in the temple areas that had not quite been there before? His blue eyes were as intense as ever though, and he was expecting a reaction.

"Any suggestions?" I asked.

"Yes, and you're not going to like them. But consider this; while we might have the Hwyfar repaired yet again, it won't be long now before she finally gives out once and for all, perhaps stranding us somewhere far out, somewhere between galaxies where we could float around for years with none the wiser."

"If communications are down, we could always plant a distress buoy", I said for the sake of the argument.

"We have no way of knowing what systems would break down first", he said quietly.

"I hardly think our ability to launch a buoy would be affected."

"You're missing the point. I was thinking of life support. Not to mention running out of provisions."

"Ah", I said, "the hazards of being human. Sorry I had forgotten." Somehow I could not quite keep the slight touch of derision out of my voice, and I knew he noticed; he's always been sensitive to pitch.

He sighed. "No need to gloat. The fact is you're breaking down, and we don't really need a ship of our own. It's time to separate the Llinhwyfar again."

Oddly, I was not really worried this time. I knew well that the Llin part of me had withered fairly completely in her capsule - except for my brain and nervous system which were artificially preserved so as to be able to run the ship they were connected to - he could hardly hope to make me human again, the way he had last time. It had felt like being cut in half.

"What's left of my body will probably turn to dust if you open the capsule", I said. "But you know that. So how do you propose to get rid of the Hwyfar without replacing her with a newer vessel, also prepared for integration? Or were you planning to ditch both parts? In that case, why separate me?"

"Integration has been illegal for five years, and the Kirigh have turned to other trades in order for Midgard to join the Federation. You're not keeping up these days, Llin. I couldn't get another integration-enabled ship if I wanted to. And I don't. What I'm proposing is something else entirely. Last week on Arianrhod 4 - a planet called Lobelia for some reason, I assume the first human settlement was agricultural - I gave a concert for a cyberneticist convention."

I could see where this was heading. "Oh no, you don't", I said. "I refuse to be stuffed into a humanoid body again, mechanical or not. I'd still be halved, I would lose space travel, I would.."

His fist hit the armrest of his chair. A minute ago he had told me he anticipated my resistance. Just like him to lose his temper all the same. "You'll travel through space the same as everybody else!" he spat. "By ship. I'm a travelling Bard, I'll still need to travel. I'm just saying we don't need a ship of our own."

"Oh, we don't?" I said. "The way you've been filling up the holds and your quarters with musical instruments from all corners of.."

"Most of them are in as poor repair as you are", he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "All I need to take is my new harp and the Rigellian lute. I can travel light, you know that. I'll sell off the rest to some collector with time on his hands to make repairs, no problem."

I tried to make some sighing sound with a couple of vents but did not quite succeed. "I'll hear you out", I said noncommittally.

"Good. And just remember I could have arranged it all behind your back - uh, without your knowledge. But I didn't want the same kind of depressive tantrum you threw last time. I brought it up with the cyberneticists though; it's quite possible to build a human form and transfer your consciousness, neuroses and all, into it. But - it won't be integration. That's illegal in all its applications, the Borg are the only ones who still practice a form of it, and they are not Federation. Once you're transferred, you won't have any biological parts at all; your new body will be entirely synthetic."

He looked slightly worried, but I shrugged mentally. "Probably the only advantage to this hare-brained scheme. I wouldn't have to watch out for biological decay, only corrosion. Can they really transfer all of my mind without losing any of the software, as it were? Or - nothing that I would miss anyway?"

"It's their trade. They're good at it, believe me."

"Trade? I thought the Daystrom Institute was a research facility."

"This is not the Institute - it's local. That's why the convention was held on Lobelia. And before you say anything - there were representatives of the Institute present as well, I spoke to them also, and they confirmed the Lobelians' claims - those people can do it. Apparently, they base their work on a different line of research from that of the Institute, but equally viable. And they do it commercially. Have done for years. Besides, Llin - what choice have you got?"

"That of you jumping ship, leaving me in peace to drift powerless among the stars", I said dreamily. "Why separate me at all? Why bring me into it? Why not just cut me adrift and leave me?"

He glared at me. "You know why."

"Still? After all these years? I thought you had given up on me when you decided to come aboard."

"I had. But now that there's a chance we might be together again.." He held up a hand; not that I was about to say anything, but he couldn't know that, seeing no face to read. "I'm not naïve enough to naturally assume that you'll stay with me when you're humanoid, but I can't help hoping you will. I'll sing to you. I'll fight for you. And - I'm willing to take the risk. Are you?"

I supposed he meant the risk of separation and transfer. I thought about it. Last time had been very traumatic. But I had been given the opportunity to soar through space for many years now; as long as I kept my memories, I would always have that. And Garth had a point; I did not really have much choice, another ship part was not to be had.

"Can I design my own appearance?" I asked.

*  *  *  *

As it turned out, I could not - or not quite. I had wanted a body ugly enough by most human standards that Garth would lose interest, but I might have known that that would not help; he had spent more time with me as a ship than with me as human. Never knew what he saw in me, come to think of it.

Garth quickly pointed out that for compatibility reasons we should not deviate too far from the kind of body I had had as a human. I believe he was capitalizing on the Lobelians' refusal to give me a male body; they said that since I had a female mind, the result might not be viable. They could be right, but apart from that I could not see what any further compatibility had to do with it. Still, Garth insisted, although I suppose his memory of what I had looked like was no more reliable than mine by then. And the Lobelians reserved the right to make minor adjustments, should such be needed to simplify their work.

The Lobelians were not human themselves, which I found interesting. If, as Garth assumed, the first settlement had been human, there was not much evidence of it now. There were all kinds of species in the large city where the labs were situated - this was also Lobelia's main space port - and there was some variety in the labs themselves, but most of the inhabitants were a delicately mauve-skinned lot with mournful red eyes and a kind of short proboscis which somehow looked rather cute. Only the males had head hair. I was reminded of tapes I'd seen of Terran lions, especially as the hair in question was not wholly unlike a bristly mane. Both sexes - or the two I saw at any rate, I don't know if there were more - were of roughly equal height, neither of them ever exceeding 1.60 metres.

I had sat down in the port - something I had not done in years though I was small enough to be capable of it - and a group of Lobelians came to interview me and have a few words with Garth. The next day one of them came aboard and disconnected me. Just like that. A single Lobelian who was probably a cyberneticist like the rest I had met - no surgeon/engineer team as I was used to, no hazardous, drawn-out process of gradual shutdown, only a very neat disconnection and then I knew nothing for a while.

I woke up on a lab table, wildly disoriented by the perspective and the feeling of being suddenly, very concretely, on my back. Someone did something, and my memory started to flow - or whatever it did, but that was what it felt like. I moved what should normally have been a stabilizer and realized that I now had toes. It felt strange, but I supposed it was to be expected. Humanoids tend to have toes.

At least I was fully aware of where I was and why. I made some sound that came quicker than I had anticipated, then my movement as if banking in atmosphere tipped me over on my side.

A female Lobelian was standing beside the table. "Ssshh", she said, "don't worry. Most of your motoric controls should work just as before, only the parts controlled are of course different. You might need some training all the same; getting used to the feel of a less than shipsize body. We'll see to that."

Then my lights went out again.

The next time I woke up in a reasonably normal room from where I was taken to training almost immediately. It worked quite well; by the end of that first session I had a fair grasp of what it was like having nothing but a mere humanoid body again. My memory of my last humanoid form was helpfully coming back, clearer than ever. And in connection with other memories I was not quite sure whether I welcomed or not.

I looked in a mirror and smiled, with amusement rather than appreciation - good thing none of the Lobelians were around right then.

I was about the same shape and exactly the same height as I had been as a human - both passable, none outstanding - even my face had the same structure. My hair was a little longer and some varying shades of light brown this time, but my skin was definitely a bit outside the human range - on the mauve side. Pale violet, you might say. Not quite Lobelian, but either they were too influenced by what they saw around them, or they were colourblind in that range. My green eyes made for a somewhat startling effect. As I recalled, they had been sort of greenish last time around as well, but never this deep seaweed colour. Perhaps the Lobelians had overcompensated for their own red eyes. While I doubted I could really pass for an Earth type human, I supposed there should be plenty of variation on the theme throughout the galaxy, for me to look normal somewhere.

To Garth's credit, he neither laughed nor complained when he came to visit me.

"You look beautiful", he said with a quick grin, "how's your training coming along?"

"Quite well", I said. "I remember everything since last time; it's not that difficult."

"Have they briefed you on what you are? I mean, model, functions, and limitations, that sort of thing?"

I nodded, taking some pride in the precise execution of the gesture. "I'm a duotronic gynoid type F-3130 which means I'm quite independent and almost as sophisticated as the positronic variety the Institute is researching, though initially based on a more primitive line. All models of this design have been thoroughly tested in practical application."

"Will you live forever?" he asked. I don't know why he wanted to know; he hadn't expressed much interest in that aspect when I was a ship.

"Barring accidents", I said, "my lifespan is on the order of a Constellation Class starship - which is considerably better than the Hwyfar.. what happened to her by the way?"

"Still in port." He changed the subject quickly. "So you're quite content then?"

"Given the circumstances", I said, "I suppose I'm adapting. Why is she still in port? I thought you'd have scrapped her by now."

"If you must know", he said, "I haven't yet found a buyer for her - or my collection of musical instruments either."

"Ah. But you are selling her for the scrap metal value?"

"Of course. Who would pay for anything else about her? But that's not my point. The thing is.. I can't get you out of here quite yet."

"Were you? Well, I suppose I'm ready to leave. But I could also wait a few days, doesn't matter to me. The Lobelians are quite nice people."

"I certainly hope so.. but it doesn't change the fact that I can't pay for your body - or your transfer to it."

I didn't like the sound of that. "Won't your singing be enough?"

"There are things even the songs of a trained Bard cannot pay for. I was so certain I could get the Hwyfar and the instruments sold in time - I ought to get more than enough for them, especially the instruments. Only, I can't seem to find a buyer locally, so I shall have to do some travelling. I've spoken to the Lobelians, they are willing to keep you around for another week - for an additional fee per day, but that shouldn't be a problem once I have sold those things.."

I should've known. How could I have been dumb enough ever to trust Garth? "And what will they do to me if you don't show?" I asked caustically. "Scrap me again?"

He shook his head. "They can't - I've checked. They're not allowed to destroy any personality they've agreed to handle. The entire Arianrhod system has been part of the Federation for ages. To put it bluntly, murder is illegal. What they can do is transfer you into something else for the time being - though I doubt they would, since they would only have to do the transfer all over again when I turn up with the payment - and I shall turn up, that much I swear. Other than that - well, they can always sell you to someone else.. But it won't come to that.."

"..you swear. I know. Just how many things have you sworn to that never happened? Besides, how can they sell me at all? I thought artificial lifeforms were ruled non-property in the Federation."

"They are. Sorry, sloppy terminology. What I mean is, they can modify you to meet someone else's requirements and let that client pay. At least that's what they tell me." He stood abruptly, kissed me before I had the time to duck, and said, "I won't let it come to that. The sooner I'm gone, the sooner I'll be back. See you in a week - or less."

With that he was gone, and one of the Lobelians came in. I took the opportunity to question her on the rules - local as well as Federation.

"Did he upset you? Sorry about that, but he felt you ought to know how things stand. There's no need to worry though, we'll keep you around for as long as it takes. What we meant to warn him of, was that if a client should turn up with an order we can fill using you, and your - treatment is not yet paid for, then after the stipulated time, we are free to act on the opportunity. Those are the rules, as we informed the Bard before he signed the agreement."

I nodded. "I understand. And no, he did not upset me, not really. It's been many many years since he was capable of that.."

*  *  *  *

I hung around for nearly a month, and Garth did not show. Neither did anyone else with an interest in me, so, relishing my improved memory, I spent my time studying anything that might prove useful while I was running up the bill for Garth. I considered trying to find a buyer for the Hwyfar and his collection by myself, but I knew his was the better talent when it came to such matters. I had little hope of succeeding where he had not. Of course, he might be dead. I decided to give him another two weeks and then see if the lab would release me long enough to conduct business, or else if they might let me do it from where I was. Those were quiet days; I had no sense of urgency.

Then, just before the first month was up, they came for me. They were very polite about it, but they said they could wait no longer now because Garth had not shown up, and a suitable order had come in. Only very slight modifications were called for, because the order was not very specific as to type of machine, only that it be humanoid and preferably though not necessarily female. They could use me with very little effort and the result ought to be satisfactory all around. The fact that they would be able to make a speedy delivery was a great advantage, this was something of a rush order, I gathered.

"I take it you need my permission?" I asked them.

"It would be faster if you'd be so kind as to agree", said an elderly male Lobelian. "Less of a legal hassle. But since your treatment has not been paid for, we could probably make a case for our interests, since the modifications are only a small deviation from the Bard's and your own initial specifications. A deviation that, needless to say, will not harm you in any way."

"What kind of modifications?" I asked suspiciously.

"I'm afraid that's classified. We are not allowed to discuss any client's requirements with another client - and you and the Bard are both clients for your order, according to the agreement. But what we will do is put in a clause in this new contract that says the new client must enlighten you as to the nature of the changes. You will then be able to come back to us and have them revoked free of charge - if you so choose, within a year of the client's disclosure."

Well, it sounded reasonable enough, and it would save me a lot of trouble. There was still no sign of Garth. I agreed.

*  *  *  *

I awoke three days later in an icecold surge of panic. I knew perfectly well where I was and why, yet I panicked. Left alone in the dark lab I used up half an hour on endless POSTs, trying to determine if I was still functioning as before, but I could not be certain they had installed diagnostics for all systems yet. It bothered me that I should worry so, yet I could not help it. My worry was a cause for anxiety in itself, as my emotional life had been burning with a very low flame for many years. That effect had started as soon as I was mechanized as the Kirigh had the term, and it was only halted, not reversed, during my brief revisit to the human state. My memory was as sharp as Garth's vibroblade, yet I had forgotten all about what it had been like to be frantic with apprehension. Something must have gone wrong..

Just as I had arrived at that decision, one of the Lobelian doctors entered, turning on some mild lights, presumably not to startle me. "Thought you would be awake about now", she said. "We initialized the sequence nearly two hours ago. Power-up is a bit slow the first time; cold start you know.. How are you feeling?"

"Awful. I'm worried sick - I think something's wrong. I've been running several tests, but I'm not sure I have them all yet."

She ran three types of tricorders over me, then compared the output to some screenfuls of specs on the wall behind the table I was lying on. Finally she shook her head. "You're just fine. Exactly according to specs. Everything went smoothly. If you're worried about the time lapse, don't be. The procedure was planned to take three days, and it did. You have nothing at all to worry about."

"Yes", I said, "the fact that I am worried."

"Oh, that's to be expected."

"No, it's not. As you know, I was initially a victim of the Kirigh process known as mechanization - or ship integration, if that term is more familiar. I've been incapable of traumatic experiences for many years. I did not expect to have one now. It did not happen last time, at transfer."

She wouldn't budge. "I assure you it's normal. It's a - a side effect, you might say. One we did calculate with."

"Why wasn't I informed? It's very uncomfortable."

"I'm sorry, we forgot. We did not know you would attach such importance to it." She thought for a moment. "Do you wish to have this latest treatment revoked right away? You can, you know, only it would of course put you back in debt with us."

My turn to think. Then I said, "You're sure the side effect isn't harmful? Well then.. I must confess I'm curious as to the nature of this latest treatment. And if I wait till your new client tells me what it was all about, everything will be paid for.. All right, I'll take my chances. I'll decide after I find out."

*  *  *  *

The very next day, I was told that everything was paid for and that someone was waiting for me. After all my years as a ship, I had no personal belongings, so I went as I was. Technically, the clothes I was wearing were not mine either, but they seemed to be part of the parcel, at least no one asked to have them back.

I admit I staggered briefly as I saw him. He must have wondered if I were malfunctioning, for he looked at me sharply for a moment before greeting me and concluding his dealings with the Lobelians. He was not in uniform - no, Riker had said that he had left the Enterprise - yet I would have known him anywhere, and not only because of his golden eyes and skin. It was Data all right. So one android could commission another? Well, why not?

I did not think he had recognized me - not with my new finish. I might be built on much the same lines as when he saw me last, but he had no reason to expect it to be me under that delicately violet tone. So I decided to say nothing until we were on board whatever he had come to Lobelia in.

It proved to be a small craft, not much bigger than a shuttle but capable of the same limited warp facility as the Hwyfar had been. In fact, as we entered orbit I saw the Hwyfar still in port. Grounded. Forever. To my own immense surprise, I shed a few tears. I must have made some sound too, for he turned around briefly from his console, and touched my arm. I looked at him wonderingly. While the gesture would not have been impossible for him back when I had known him, there was something decidedly different about him now. Something I could not pinpoint, but it was almost as if he'd known what he was doing, not just learnt the behaviour by rote.

"You have ties with Lobelia?" he asked, his eyes back on his console.

"Not really", I said. "I just left part of me behind, that's all. But it's a part that belongs to the past. I - could not take it with me."

He seemed to accept that, at least for the moment. "What is your name?" he asked, without looking up.

I took a deep breath, somewhat surprised that I suddenly could - I had not paid attention to that particular feature after my transfer. "Llin", I said deliberately. "And it was the Hwyfar I left behind. For the last time. I'm halved again, Data - I only hope it works out better this time, for I have no other option now."

He spun his chair around, looking genuinely surprised - which shocked me badly. I had never seen him like that. Then, to make things worse, he smiled - sweetly but unmistakably. In the old days, his smiles had always left some doubt as to what you had really seen. And he had never shown teeth.

"I thought I recognized your voice", he said. "But the mapping was difficult, probably because of a slight change in timbre caused by the change of hardware. It used to be a little higher, even filtered through the Hwyfar. How come I got you? I suppose an android - excuse me, a gynoid - body was the logical choice; I take it your ship part finally - packed in, as the saying goes. And you are right about having no option, now that ship integration is banned everywhere. But - why would the Lobelians choose you for this?"

I told him about my financial situation. "So it seems that whenever Garth fails to turn up, I'm picked up by you", I concluded, with an oblique reference to the time he had carried me to Sickbay after the accident Garth caused.

He chuckled at that, and I nearly jumped.

"Data, it *is* you, isn't it?" I asked, feeling silly.

"Yes, it is me", he said, sounding somewhat puzzled. "Oh - I should have told you, I had an emotions chip installed that my fa- that Dr Soong made for me. I have had it for three years now; I am no longer acutely conscious of it. Though I admit I was very much so at first."

That yet - on top of my own turmoil. Somehow it only seemed to make things worse. Without any reason whatsoever, I was suddenly reminded of what I had - not quite - answered Riker when I had spoken to him that day, perhaps two years ago, perhaps more..

"Did you commission me?" I asked, in a desperate attempt to dismiss that day from my only too clear memory.

"No", he said, "my brother did. He only sent me to pick you up. I am glad I did though", he added, and I half wished he hadn't. But only half..

"That's right, Commander Riker told me you had joined your brother. Yes, I saw the commander - who was just about to become captain of the Hawkwind, by the way - once, perhaps two years ago. I had lost track of time by then, but my memory is coming back. It was a chance meeting. He brought some news of the rest of you."

"I have not seen him for three years. What did he say?"

"Troi and Worf were joining him for his new command. Wesley Crusher was still at the Academy - or again. And you were believed to have joined your brother. There was evidence to support that theory, he said. I wondered why he put it so carefully. Almost as if he suspected you of treason and didn't want to believe it."

Data sighed. I would have to get used to that.. "He said nothing of Geordi?"

"No. But he spoke mainly of those who had left the Enterprise; not those who had stayed. For all I know, Geordi is still stationed there. Why did you leave?"

"We all did. I am surprised he did not tell you what happened to the Enterprise you were on - the 1701-D. In truth, we lost her. A planetside crash on Veridian III. The separated saucer section went into the atmosphere when the stardrive section exploded closely behind. We were fortunate in suffering very few casualties."

"I see. Were you by any chance the one who brought her down smoothly?"

"Commander Troi was at the helm. I merely stabilized to even out our descent."

"Merely? Well, I assume you were both decorated for bringing it off."

He did not answer that, and for a moment he was as inscrutable as ever. I had no way of telling whether modesty or disappointment kept him from talking about it.

"We were granted shoreleave for a month", he said. "Then we were told that the 1701-E was already being built, and that she would be ready within a year. We were advised to go into service while we were waiting of course, but Starfleet wanted their flagship back the way she had been, crew and all, so they arranged for us to be able to serve elsewhere on a temporary basis; whatever position we took, we would be free to leave it when the new Enterprise was ready, unless we chose otherwise."

"A very generous arrangement", I said, and he nodded.

"Starfleet must have considered that they were to benefit also", he remarked. "But time wore on, there were unexpected delays - due to delivery problems of some recently upgraded equipment, I gather. I had served for eight months as First Officer of the Spacegull - a minor trade and passenger vessel, but the captain is an old friend of mine." He suddenly laughed, startling me again. "The passengers called her the Spacegoose, she wobbled so. Difficult to keep on a straight course. However, the assignment was only for those eight months, and when it was over, I learnt that the Enterprise was now expected to take a year and a half in all. Perhaps I could have waited for four months but not ten. I was built to be useful; having nothing to do hit me harder now that I had the chip."

"You had it already then?"

"I had it during the crash. I think now that it was a good thing that I did, or I might have doubted my ability to function with it in a crisis. But it was then, as I had just left the Spacegull assignment that Lore sent a message for me, saying he needed my help."

"And you were desperate enough to go? I've heard a few things about your brother over the years - Garth used to tell me all the portside gossip wherever he went. Most of it said Lore was the scourge of the universe - though some said it was not entirely his fault. I remember you told me once of his alliance with the Crystalline Entity that wrecked your home world. Persistent rumours had it he made another with the Borg."

"I know, I know", Data said impatiently, and this time I found it hard not to laugh. He never sounded like that in the old days. "Our father - I am of course referring to Dr Soong - once said that Lore was far from the maniacal android I made him out to be; those were his exact words. He also said that if I got the chip installed, I might learn to be more trusting. I am not convinced that that is what happened, but I was willing to concede the possiblity that Lore might have changed since I last saw him. I had good reason to believe so - his excesses when aspiring to Borg rule were largely due to incompatibility with this same chip. It was designed for me, but Lore stole it from our father - mainly out of spite, I assume. Dr Soong did say my brother had good reason to be bitter."

I whistled - and apologized hastily as it came out more like a steam whistle than any human sound. "So that's how it was - on two occasions I heard that you had deactivated your brother, and I did not know which one of you had to be the malfunctioning one for that. But you actually did, and that's how you got the chip back?"

"Essentially correct", he admitted. "Though I did not have it installed until much later, not even when Geordi had repaired it - it was not functioning when I took it back. You might be correct in saying that I was wary of it."

"How could you be wary before - never mind, I know", I said. "I've been there. Ever since my first mechanization - feelings on the low burner, just no passions. What happened to your brother?"

"He already had emotions - integrated into his system from the start. The resulting overload was disastrous, with the feelings of inadequacy he was already trying to compensate for by any means he could, foul more often than fair. At least that was Counsellor Troi's theory, the only time I asked her opinion on what had happened."

"Interesting - though that's not quite what I meant. How did he happen to be reactivated?"

"I did that too - aided by Geordi and Dr Crusher. It was soon afterwards - we were ordered by Starfleet to take Lore to the Daystrom Institute. Dr Maddox wanted to have a look at him. Technically, my brother was a prisoner of war - the Borg war he had himself instigated - and it could be argued that he had less rights than I did, especially as long as he was deactivated and dismantled. I felt he should at least have his say in the matter."

"I can imagine", I said softly. "You always could feel things like that.."

He ignored that for some reason.

"And then he escaped", he concluded, "and I did not hear from him again until after the crash and the Spacegull assignment."

"Did you help him escape?" I asked.

He was pointedly silent, and I knew he could remain so forever if I persisted.

"All right", I said, "At least Picard did not throw you in the brig. Then what? What did Lore want your help with, and why did he commission me?"

"As for your first question, the answer is quite simple", Data said. "Our father had noticed that Lore did not develop in any foreseen direction, and he wanted to try and - mend my brother's ways, if you pardon the expression."

"Repair his neural paths, you mean", I said. "though I can almost swear the pun was intended."

He smiled, briefly but sweetly, obviously pleased that I had noticed. "Not quite correct", he said, "Lore was in no way damaged in the sense of being broken and needing repair. His personality was quite viable. But before and after the chip, he was not content, he actually had wanted Dr Soong to fix him - I had heard him say so. But there was not sufficient time - our father died before he could make any changes to Lore.

"During the Borg incident, my brother was convinced that he had himself learnt cybernetics to a sufficient degree to alter the Borg, and I assume he hoped subsequently to effect changes to his own system. He proved wrong. His experiments on the Borg all ended in disaster - as did the whole venture. But after his last escape from the Enterprise, he heard that I had conducted some - moderately successful cybernetic experiments.

"Our father had told me he would have preferred me to follow in his footsteps as a cyberneticist rather than choose a career in Starfleet; that was what got me started. I thought, why not do both? After all, my time is not limited by mortality. Or the need to sleep, if you take the shorter perspective. The same is naturally true of Lore, but quite needlessly, he was always impatient. So when he heard that I was free, he sent for me to make the changes our father never had the time for. He may have had a more practical reason as well; it is quite difficult to do work on one's own brain."

I stared at him. "He trusted you enough for that?"

Data's goldleaf face was genuinely beautiful in that moment. I could not have begun to describe his expression, but I shall remember it always - or for as long as I might have, which now seems to be less than I ever expected..

"He did", he said, "and that may well be why I agreed to try."

"Did it work?" I could not refrain from asking.

"I think so. We are still markedly different, he is still very independent and quite often rebellious against any form of authority, but I think I managed to add something - he is easier to reason with, and he does not appear to be as ruthless as he was. But you can form your own opinion - of him as he is now, I mean, since you never met him as he was then. As for your second question, why he commissioned the construction of you - or someone like you - I do not know. He would not tell me."

That did not sound too good to me. "Well", I said, "he'll have to tell me. The contract says he must tell me what was done to me, and if I don't like it, I can have the treatment reversed, free of charge."

Data said nothing, and I had a distinct feeling that he did not yet trust his brother any further than he had to. I could tell he wanted to, though. I found it to be a good time to add: "There has already been a distinct side effect. I may not have an emotion chip, but after these modifications were made, I suddenly have strong feelings again, as I haven't since before I first left Midgard as a space-going vessel."

"And you want them removed?" he asked sort of tensely. "I can understand that, the experience is very uncomfortable - at first."

"But you would advise me to wait - and to keep them if I can?" I guessed.

"I opted not to have my chip removed", he said quietly.

I decided it was time to change the subject. "How long will it take us to arrive? I've noticed that we can't go beyond warp 4."

"Two days at that speed", he said apologetically. "I can understand that you are eager to know your purpose, but that is the best we can do under the circumstances."

I moved over to the co-pilot's seat beside him. "I didn't mean I was in a hurry", I said. "Quite the contrary."

He gave me a surprised look, so I made an abortive attempt to clarify. "It's been a long time."

"You have missed me?" he asked, hope so blatantly evident in his face that it was almost comical.

Yet I did not laugh. "More than I ever thought I would", I admitted. "I think Riker of all people must have known. Just before he left that time that I met him, he asked me if I still loved you. Still. And to think that the first time I saw him I took him for the most imperceptive, unimaginative man I had ever met."

"I would say he is neither", Data said with a slight catch in his voice. "What did you answer him?"

"I didn't. Not quite. But once he had disembarked, I seem to remember whispering the answer to myself."

"And what was that answer?"

"Let me count the ways..", I said, almost as softly as I had then.

And then we were suddenly in each other's arms, clinging as tightly as if we could feel every one of those empty years since we were last this close. As perhaps we could; our memories had certainly mitigated nothing.

"I never thought I would see you again", he said after a while.

"Strictly speaking, you did not", I mumbled. "I'm mauveskinned now, and I no longer have blond hair.."

He smiled a little, obviously thinking back on his initial faux pas regarding that hair. But he was perfectly serious when he said, "Would I care? I would know you anywhere. And I still cannot fathom the importance humans so often attach to surfaces."

"Well, I'm still rather attracted to yours", I admitted teasingly. "Though I'd probably love you just as much whatever they put you in, as long as you were still you.."

"Or as long as I retained my hands?" he joked. I laughed and hugged him again, delighted that he remembered those silly remarks of mine - as if he could ever forget anything. Then he asked me something I found strange at first. Or at least strange that he should seem apprehensive about my answer. "Would you really say that I am still myself? With the chip, I mean?"

"It - felt odd at first", I admitted. "But yes, I'd almost say you're even more you. There was always something.. something I knew was there, yet could not reach in those days."

For a moment, he stood as still as no human could. Then he said, "I think that in our own way we both felt the same thing in those days." He fell briefly silent again before adding, "And I hope that that is still true.."

He turned and took me again in his arms. I leant my head on his shoulder and we stood like that until we were both close to tears. I felt his embrace tighten and stood relishing the pressure until it gradually became too much.

"Ow", I said, "be careful you don't dent me." Not that my surface was unyielding enough to dent, but I was actually getting worried about internal breakage.

He released me at once, stepping back in shock. "I am sorry - I did not think."

That must have been a first, but I did not comment.

"In the old days, I never would have used more than human strength; I hope you know that. But now that you are a machine too, I simply assumed I would not have to be so careful about holding back. You were not built as sturdily as myself?"

"Sorry to disappoint you", I said, "but I'm a humble F-3130. Duotronic even. I suppose that doesn't exactly put me in your league.."

He pulled me to him again, very gently this time. "I am not disappointed. I am used to holding back with biological beings and I do not mind. I simply did not know that I would have to, with you." He kissed me - of his own accord which I had not thought possible, but also very gently. "And I already knew you had to be duotronic. The Lobelians have done some outstanding work in that field. Moreover, the Daystrom Institute is the only place with any research in positronics. Please do not see that difference as some kind of - class distinction. That would indeed be ludicrous."

"I was only joking", I said. "At least I think I was."

He stood there, looking into my eyes for a moment. Then we both reached out for the switch activating the autopilot. This set both of us chuckling until I started kissing his throat.

"You still have to ask me explicitly", he told me. "I have considered finding a way to work around that, using the chip, but so far I have not had much opportunity for experiments."

"Well", I said, "I'm not sure I really have a sexuality programme myself - but I would very much want to find out.."

Apparently, that was explicit enough. And apparently, I had.

*  *  *  *

The two days it took us to reach our destination were run mostly on autopilot. After all, it was not as if we could tire. And we did have quite a few years to catch up on.

Only as we were about to enter orbit around a planet with a beautifully multicoloured atmosphere - it actually had clouds of different colours, which I attributed to various trace elements - did Data disconnect the auto and take the controls himself. The descent seemed tricky and unpredictable; perhaps those clouds were as treacherous as they were beautiful.

We swept down towards a small, sandy landing field in the middle of a dark green forest.

"Artificial lifeform waiting in the field", Data reported, and as soon as we were close enough for me to identify the forest as consisting of mainly a sort of pine with occasional fir type trees blended in, I could actually see a dark, humanoid figure. It was alone.

Data turned briefly from his controls. "Perhaps I should warn you", he said. "My brother and I are basically the same model. Even our father found it difficult to tell us apart. And he made us."

"Don't worry", I said. "There's no way I could mistake anyone else for you."

"All the same", he insisted, "I could tell you what few hardware differences to look for, just in case.. in case you should need to make certain fast. Are you familiar with different types of temporal phase discriminators?"

"Data, there's no need, I assure you. Whether you believe it or not, you really are truly unique. If your father could not see that, I can only assume that he did not see you the way I do - which seems extremely reasonable. In fact, it would have been distinctly odd if he had. Even if my accurate gynoid senses were fooled, my wayward, blundering emotions would tell me which one was you. And that you can believe."

I was not quite sure I had managed to convince him, but he said nothing more, as he had to take care of our landing.

In a way, he had been right to warn me. Though perhaps he had warned me of the wrong thing. I was not really prepared for the shock as we got out of our vessel and I first laid eyes on the slim android crossing the sand to meet us, his hand outstretched in greeting.

He was just as finely wrought, the same elegant grace, the same gold finish, the same amber eyes - and as I took that hand, I noticed that it was every bit as longfingered and slender as the one I had so audibly admired once, on a starship long ago. And as the one I could now feel on my arm, with almost a hint of possessiveness.

At first I thought that only the clothes were different; Data seemed to habitually pick colours reminiscent of his old Starfleet uniform, but this other one wore black - strictly and simply. Well, with that complexion I supposed all shades of blue were out, for instance. As well as most greens, come to think of it.

Then, as he smiled, I saw the difference at once. In fact he almost chuckled, in a condescending sort of way I could not imagine Data ever use. It did something to his face, something not really unpleasant so much as - concealing some of its natural radiance? I had the impression I had just met an android with an attitude.

"Lore", he introduced himself, "But I suppose my dear brother has already told you that."

"A long time ago", I said. "On a starship far away.." I dropped it. "My name is Llin. Data and I go way back - as synchronicity would have it, it was me you happened to commission. Before this I was a ship, but once I was human."

"You'll have to tell me more about this", he said, and I noticed with what natural ease his speech flowed, though I could not pinpoint the reason. Somehow his accent was slightly different from Data's, and perhaps his voice was pitched a fraction lower.

He glanced up at the golden, perhaps slightly coppery sun. "..when we reach the Keep", he continued. "I'd rather get there before dark, if you don't mind. We might all be impervious to the freezing nights, but I'm afraid my ground vehicle is not."

I wondered a little about that; not about the little terrain-roving groundcar once I saw it parked under the pines, but about the expected nightfall. Either the sun dropped hastily here, or we had a long way to go.

The latter turned out to be true. And although the scenery was remarkable and seemingly forever changing as we drove along, it was not altogether a pleasant ride. Lore was driving, now and then dropping a snide remark apparently designed to rile his brother. There was no overt animosity between them, but I had a strong impression neither of them really trusted the other farther than he could throw him.

Once, after enough jibes to get my temper up too, although none of them was aimed at me, Lore said, "So you used to be a ship, Llin? Interesting. Tell me, was my brother ever on board?"

"What's it to you?" I snapped, catching his drift even before Data did, I'm sure, and realizing too late that I had actually answered Lore's question - the underlying one. He laughed; indeed he laughed so hard he had to stop the car and get out. Then he moved over to Data's place beside me, saying,

"Brother, you'd better take the controls. I'll switch places with you for a while."

Data did not look as if he approved of the idea, but having no real reason to refuse, he complied, moving over to the front seat. Lore got in beside me, and I tried not to squirm. I would not give him the satisfaction of seeming bothered by his presence.

But he just sat quiet for two hours, looking out at the gradually darkening landscape. As if he had prodded us enough and was content for a while. The forest went on and on at first, the conifers blackening with twilight while the varicoloured sky was still bright overhead.

Then the trees ended abruptly, like a tall gate being flung wide, and the wind hit us squarely in the face, as the top of the rover had been left down. In front of us was a breach of open sea, the wind raising white, parallel tracks of foam on its surface. I relished the wind, and it did not bother my companions, so nobody made a move to raise the rover's top. I had always liked the sea, ever since my childhood back on Midgard. Any sea, all colours. This one seemed to be purple, but it was darkening in the long shadows from the forest side, and I could not be certain. I wondered briefly how well I could trust my colour vision these days, given the Lobelian irregularities in that area.

I would have asked the others by way of comparison, but I did not want to be the one to break the silence. At least not as long as I would have to shout over the wind. But I wondered what they thought of this stormy seascape. Somehow I had a distinct impression that Lore appreciated it; as for Data, I could not tell. Perhaps it was only a matter of the wind stirring Lore's hair, making him seem more relaxed. I could guess the reason for that; he did not keep his hair quite as disciplined as Data still did. Close, but not quite. A part of Starfleet was probably forever ingrained in Data's BIOS by now, whereas Lore had had only quick brushes with that organization, never belonging to it, and never liking it.

Data edged the vehicle around the bay, and the ground began to rise. Within minutes, it was steep enough for the rover to start climbing. Data lowered its middle wheels, and it got a better grip, moving forward much like a larva on a limb. The trees were back briefly, obscuring the view until we turned a soft bend and suddenly saw how high we had already come. To our right the trees continued, down on the precipice below. If I had still been human, this would have been about the right moment for my ears to pop.

Opposite, across a ravine which I believed to carry water somewhere on its unseen bottom, mountains were reaching for the clouds whose colours were now dimming one by one as the sun had finally sunk behind the high horizon. Among the highest peaks of the ridge I could see a castle-like structure, perhaps an old fortress.

Lore pointed to it. "Almost home", he said cheerfully. "As the sable raptor flies", he amended. Could you fly like a sable raptor, Data?"

"That is as the crow flies", Data pointed out. "The expression originated on Earth."

Lore shrugged - an incongruous gesture if only because I had never seen Data practice it. "Crow, raptor, what's the difference? One scavenger is as good as another; I for one have never seen a crow."

"Actually, the sable raptor is misnamed", Data went on. "It is, as you say, a scavenger, not a bird of prey."

"Someone must have thought is was a predator just because it's so big", his brother surmised. "Trust humans to make exactly that type of mistake. They always were cowards.."

"There used to be humans here?" I asked. For no particular reason, I had simply assumed these raptors to be indigenous to the world we were on.

Lore nodded. "I suppose they built the Keep. Or else it was built to keep them out. Or they built it to keep each other out, more likely." He shot me a teasing glance. "And just how did you come to conclude they were not around any more?"

"Perhaps because you are, dear brother", Data said, and I stared at his back in astonishment. I don't know why I had ruled out sarcasm from his newfound abilities.

Lore spotted my reaction immediately. "Oh, do drop the baby fuzzball act; I thought you said you'd been around him before." He paused only briefly to smirk at me, to make sure I caught his tasteless pun this time also, then he added, "That's the android who once told me I made him wish he were an only child. And in precisely the same tone of voice. That, I would like to remind you, was before he had any sort of emotions installed - I would've said he didn't even have all his marbles."

"He's not supposed to have any marbles", I said, "They are not part of his original design." I said it mainly because I knew Data would have, in the old days. Now I doubted he would, and somehow I missed that kind of remark. Lore actually seemed to wonder for a moment if I really was as literal-minded as all that, and I knew I should have left it there, but I just could not resist embroidering while the going was good. "Though I did seem to notice something rattling in you.. could it be that you have a loose marble?"

The glare he gave me actually frightened me, because it was so contradictory. A wildly schizoid composite of resentment and appreciation. Then he forced himself to chuckle. "The expression is screw", he said primly, imitating Data's voice perfectly, up to the last formant. "I believe the concept originated on Earth."

Data ignored him, possibly only because he was intent on coaxing the rover across a very narrow and unsteady bridge over the ravine, but I wondered. I had never found anything wrong with his capabilities for multitasking. Whatever, I did feel guilty about talking about him behind his back - literally, which didn't make it any better. I decided to change the subject - before Lore's puns got any wilder.

"Wouldn't this be a good time to tell me about my commission?" I asked. "What exactly did you specify to the Lobelians? In short, what have they done to me?"

"So they haven't told you?" Lore asked, quite amused. "I never thought they'd abide by those silly competition rules - especially as those rules were their own. Lobelians can be almost as bad as humans. Well, I'll be nicer. I'll tell you - for a mere kiss.."

With a swift movement, he put his arm around my shoulders. I had expected something like that when he first switched places with Data, but now it actually caught me off my guard. He pulled me closer, and I did not quite want to fight him, as that would give away the fact that I was not as strong as these Soong models. I was not prepared to reveal a weakness like that just yet. On the other hand, if I did not fight, would he not suspect? Or would he be arrogant enough to simply think that I approved?

"Oh no", I said, stalling for time, "you have to tell me regardless. It's in the contract. The Lobelians said you would have to."

At least that annoyed him enough for him to push me away again. "For all their skills, the Lobelians are biological lifeforms", he said disdainfully. "And their contracts are full of their muddled thinking. I have no reason to abide by such."

"Well, then I can just leave", I said, "and have them reverse whatever they did to me at your request. Free of charge", I added, trying my best to gloat.

But resistance seemed to work more against me than him. Suddenly his arm was back around me, his lips close to my ear as he said, "You don't leave me until I tell you to. And I have quite a few things I need to do to you first.."

The rover came to a shuddering halt, its engines shut off.

Lore straightened slightly, still keeping his arm around me. "And just what do you think you're doing - brother?"

"Listening to the wind..", Data said, dreamily but somehow with steel beneath the dreams. "It's so quiet here without the engines.. just the rhythm of the wind against the bridge.. I merely wanted to savour the moment while we were still on it.."

We were perhaps twenty metres from the end of the thin bridge, just short of reaching the steep mountainside ahead. It was almost dark now, and the wind was whistling through the abyss beneath us. No stronger now than that I knew Data had heard his brother's words perfectly. There wasn't much that would interfere with his hearing anyhow.

"Oh, stop behaving like a child, Data", Lore said, feigning weariness. "It's only too easy to see which one of us is the baby."

"And who is merely the prototype", Data countered - but he did start the engines, probably knowing that he could never convince Lore he was serious about a threat involving all three of us.

"The prototype is quite often the more flexible one", Lore said lightly.

"And the finished model the more sophisticated one", Data retaliated.

"Not the least socially", I interjected, trying to move Lore's arm but he had locked it. "It sounds as if you two have been through this argument before?" I said, pretending to be distracted by this thought and forgetting about breaking free. Had I been able to, my escape would have broken his arm, but somehow I had the impression that he was more or less expecting that - or calculating with the risk at any rate.

"62 times", Data said. "We are just now running it for your benefit also."

"Wouldn't want you to miss anything", Lore smirked.

I glared at him, trying to hide my worry about what he would attempt next.

But he did nothing for the rest of the journey, which meant he did not let go of me either. I found myself in an increasingly awkward position, feeling that if I simply stayed put with his arm around me for the remainder of our way to the Keep, he would naturally take this as consent. But if I tried to break free, he would at once realize what an inferior model I was, fragile and all. And I had no doubts that if he knew, he would find a way to take advantage of it. Probably smash me up when I had filled my purpose - whatever that was - if nothing else.

Had I been still human, I would have pretended to fall asleep, even to faint, but that escape route was forever out of my reach. My only consolation was that Data knew my secret and must have realized my dilemma. Not that there was anything he could do while driving, but for some atavistic reason it was important to me that he knew. I know that nobody is another's property - and yet I had this strong feeling of - loyalty? that seemed to grow stronger with each attempt Lore made at deriding it.

In the meantime I made a breakout effort hoping to make up in speed and surprise effect for what I lacked in strength. I failed the first time, and of course I never got another chance. If you don't succeed in your first attempt, you can never surprise an android. I also found out what I had not previously known, that the Soong models are not only stronger but also a good deal faster than the Lobelian ones. I was beginning to truly feel like a bucket of bolts and not much else. To add to my shame, I had to cover my failure by pretending the attempt was not seriously meant, that I was just keeping myself occupied.

Finally, the ride was over. The rover pulled up in front of the giant Keep which looked even more impressive up close, even though it was more like a fortress than a castle from this angle. It was all in dark grey stone, probably extracted from the mountain ridge on which it stood, and with only two towers, both of them nine storeys high, and both at the far end which may have accounted for its less castle-like look on this side. The main building seemed to have five floors, though I supposed it would also have some deep cellars - probably even dungeons - just to stay put on its perch during all assaults from the planet's generally fierce weather.

We all got out, Lore gracefully unlocking his arm - as though it had never been rigid except in my imagination - the minute Data opened his door to jump down. I saw a few faint glints on what evergreen trees had climbed the mountain this far, and realized that behind the deep and narrow windows, the Keep was fully lit, at least as high up as I could see before the angle of the deep sills shut off my view.

I wondered about that, so I decided to ask. "Do you always keep the place lit in your absence? Why?"

"Oh, it's for the damn cat", Lore said, glaring at his brother.

"Spot was fortunate in surviving the crash of the Enterprise", Data explained. "I could not leave without her."

"And you don't mind?" I asked Lore. I would not have figured him for a friend of cats.

He shrugged. "There's room enough for her. We don't allow her outside though, she'd likely get eaten by something, if the climate didn't get her first." Then, with a swift glare at me, he added, "And in case you were wondering, I have no reason to harm those who don't stand in my way. Data's feline doesn't get in my way except literally. I can live with that. She does bother my dog, however.."

As if on cue, a sort of whistling howl broke out somewhere on the towered side.

"It was not a wise move to have Coryn indoors in the first place", Data said. "He is more akin to the Terran wolf than to any other type of canine. In fact I would assume him to be descended from Earth wolves - the early colonies usually tried to bring most of Earth's ecosphere with them - were it not for the fact that he does not seem to be a pack animal."

He threw open the heavy door with a practised - or in his case more likely once learnt - gesture. I could see traces of ropes on the side of the hinges, even a broken chain. Apparently, whoever used to live here had needed block and pulley and a few other things to get the thing open. The condition of these tools spoke of long disuse. I wondered if maybe I could have had better use for them.

Spot came skidding along the vast, polished floor. She had not yet been around at the time of my stay on the Enterprise, but I recognized her from a description Data had given me on our way here. Besides, who else could it be?

At first I thought she came running to meet her master, then I saw she was fleeing from a chittering being who kept chasing her, trying to get hold of her tail. The thing did not seem to run on the floor, at least not often, yet its detours up walls and over furniture did not seem to slow it in any way. Its little red face was framed by a fluffy, white mane, the rest of it was an uneven, tawny colour.

"An Angamaran marmoset!" I cried out in delighted surprise.

Spot did not share my delight. Having had enough, she turned abruptly and spat at her assailant, lashing out with a paw for good measure.

The little monkey dropped as if clubbed and lay rigid on the floor, staring upwards. Confused rather than enticed by its sudden stillness, Spot moved cautiously forward, edging her inquisitive nose gradually closer.

Lore frowned. "What's wrong with Toops? I programmed her to shut down only on the command Toops, quit. Why would she suddenly shut down now?"

"She is forever bothering Spot", Data said innocently. "I made a slight modification. Toops now also shuts down in the event that Spot hisses or spits at her."

"Spot will take to playing with her, once she's got used to this new facet of Toops' behaviour", Lore said testily, quickly retrieving his marmoset before the cat would get any ideas. "Why did you do it? I told you not to meddle in my experiments."

"I was merely trying to protect Spot's nerves. Incidentally, Toops now also responds to the command, Toops, stop. Sorry - I could not refrain from that.."

"The humour circuits on your emotion chip have to be the worst part of it", Lore muttered, examining the monkey.

I stroked the white mane. "So this little marmoset is an artificial lifeform? She actually fooled me. On my travels, I have seen quite a few Angamaran marmosets, and she is very true to her biological original."

Beaming, Lore reactivated the monkey, though this time he prudently sent her off in another direction. The animal vanished into the other rooms. Spot seemed to consider chasing her, then decided against it and sat down to wash the recent anxiety out of her system.

"How could you see marmosets from orbit?" Data asked me.

"I wasn't exactly marooned. Garth often brought people aboard, to trade with, or to chat with because they had started out drinking together planetside; some simply wanted a lift within their system, and many, many came up to hear Garth sing once more before we were on our way. Some of them brought their pets, others brought their whole family. Most of the time we travelled alone, because we valued our privacy, but over the years, there were many enough of the - more crowded occasions."

"And of course, you could land", Data remembered. "But you said you had not done so in years, so I assumed you had stayed in space since you left the Enterprise."

"Not quite", I said. "There were a few times I had to go down for repairs. All refuelling was done in orbit though."

He nodded. "Standard safety precautions."

"Are you two going to stand around all night?" Lore asked with perfectly human impatience. "I thought you had done all your catching-up on your way here. Llin, let me show you your room. It's on the fourth floor, and I did quite a lot of excellent work on it, if I do say so myself. We all have rooms of our own, like civilized beings. Yours is right above Data's."

"Which puts it right across the hall from yours", Data pointed out. "When did you do all your design work? While we were in transit?"

"Only the final touches. I've been planning for - a long time", Lore said evasively.

Data looked sharply at him. "You are scheming again, brother."

"Perhaps even you might learn to appreciate my schemes in time", Lore said a little too innocently. "For now, I have staged a little celebration on the second floor. Complete with dinner and all - as soon as we are all dressed for it.."

"Dinner?" I said, totally bewildered. "I'm not even sure I can eat."

"Call up your blueprints", Data said. "They ought to be stored at -"

"I have, at least what was not locked away under some event-triggered access code. That's not what I meant. I know I'm physically capable of eating - but I may have mislaid the habit while being a ship. I'm not sure I know how to go about it any longer."

Lore slapped my back - I managed not to stagger. "It'll come back to you", he said confidently. "Now let me just show you your room.."

"Just one thing", I said, "Are there any more pets that might get underfoot on the way?"

"Not underfoot..", Data began, and Lore continued,

"There's only the Rokharian eagle in the attic."

"An eagle in the attic? How can you keep.."

"In an old aviary which came with the Keep", Data explained. "He is the only occupant these days. There were no others left. I would have let him out too, but someone had clipped his wings."

"Don't look at me", Lore protested, and I realized that we both had. "He's been here a long time. It happened before I came."

*  *  *  *

My room was spacious, quite in proportion to the few parts I had seen of this Keep. The sparse furniture - cupboards and a desk - was dark, the walls whitewashed. I liked it. Lore said I could decorate it further if I wanted to, but I felt no need to clutter it. I wondered briefly what his design work had consisted of, as most of what was there must have been so from the start, then I saw the computer console. It was not big, nothing like Data's full ramp on the Enterprise, but drawing all the connections, possibly through several floors of solid stone, could not have been easy. And for the same reason - the solid stone - it would have had to be physical connections, not radio. Perhaps he had even used copper - it would certainly fit in with the romantically archaic flavour of the place.

Android strength and endurance would have helped, but the place was built of barely broken bedrock, not exactly a supple material. No matter what you did with it, it would crack and chip. Yet all traces of damage to the walls and floor were neatly disguised. I commented on that, wondering if that was the extent of Lore's 'design' efforts. They were certainly adequate, but I did not feel like paying him a compliment.

"Not quite", he said. "I took the trouble of stripping the room itself down a bit. It used to have taffeta wall 'paper' - gold garlands on grey - hung quite full with ornaments; not just pictures, but things like porcelain figurines, junk like that."

"Well, thanks for getting rid of that", I said.

Thanking him felt like some sort of concession, but I had to admit he had shown both insight and thoughtfulness. While the purely rational thing would have been to merely install the console and leave the rest as it was. But from what I had heard, Lore had never been purely rational. I wondered if there were some fundamental difference between the brothers in that; Data had been strictly rational all his life up until the moment the emotions chip had been added on as an extra feature.

But his rational design had also caused him to seek irrationality as the elusive graal of his life. And now that he had attained it, what would drive him now? Or was there still something missing, still something worth seeking with the same zeal?

And Lore for his part - had he ever sought to get rid of his irrational aspects? Somehow it seemed plausible, for it was fairly obvious that both brothers had been designed to grow beyond their initial limitations. I decided to ask Lore about this sometime. Right now did not seem to be the proper moment to ask him personal questions.

"There were even curtains at the windows", he added. "Can you imagine that?"

I could - and I burst out laughing. The windows of the Keep were everywhere the traditional, deep, fortress style, designed for defence. "Well, whoever lived here must have enjoyed a long time of peace", I said. "I take it those windows were designed to fire projectile weapons through - though I should think long-range phasers would work just as well. Somehow I doubt they had curtains to begin with."

He seemed pleased by my laughter - and even more so by my comment. "You're interested in military strategy?" he asked.

That brought me up short. Was I? I never had been. I could have argued that such an interest was part of any spacegoing vessel's defence systems - but I would be lying, and he would know it. Defence systems for the Llinhwyfar? I almost laughed again. Like mounting state of the art photon torpedoes on a freighter..

"I - I seem to have an interest in weaponry", I mused. "With an emphasis on the somewhat archaic types - like blades and crossbows. And yes, strategy too - the understanding of it, not the actual planning. I would like to be able to, well, read a recently deployed battlefield - not necessarily set it up. But - I can't remember having had these interests before. Would they be part of the design you commissioned for me? What are you up to? And when will you tell me?"

He flashed me a grin - so patently pleased that it was actually quite attractive. "Care to play chess with me sometime?", he asked lightly.

I crossreferenced that with my newfound interests. "Only if I can play black", I said. "I ought to be better at defence."

He smiled again. "Oh, I'm sure you can learn.." Abruptly, he changed the subject. "You'd better get dressed for dinner. The cupboard in the corner is a wardrobe - though you might not like my taste. I'm afraid I did not calculate with your, somewhat Lobelian-influenced complexion. If you want to visit our replicator, it's down in the cellar, right next to the computer hall. You follow the stairs straight down from the hall, then left, and you'll find it easily.

"Don't go right and wander off among the wineracks; at least not until I've provided you with a map. Needless to say, the wine collection also came with the Keep. I'm not saying I wouldn't have thought of it myself, but I doubt I would have stocked such an extensive one. On the other hand, given our lifespan, it might be an investment.. Some of the wines down there are so old they even have a naturally grown cork."

"Then you can probably throw them all out and make room for something else", I said. "The odds are at least fifty percent they are ruined after all this time. You want my advice, keep only the ones with synthetic corks."

He was genuinely surprised. "I didn't know that", he said, almost wonderingly.

"I used to be human, remember?" I said, knowing full well that he did remember. "One learns to watch out for a thing or two.." I opened the wardrobe.

"Hmm..", I said. "Quite pretty, but I'm not sure I really fit into the romantic style.."

"Our replicator *is* a bit limited", he said apologetically. "It's an old model. I did what I could, as soon as the Lobelians had confirmed my order and I knew you would be female."

"Which you had stated as a preference but not a necessity", I remembered. "May I ask why?"

"I said I'll tell you. In time."

"So it has something to do with my purpose? I was wondering if that was it, or if it was merely a personal preference."

"The main idea is that you might in some instances serve your purpose better as a female", he confirmed. "In more instances than you would be better as a male, statistically speaking. That's all I can tell you right now."

"I know", I said. "There are things you need to do to me first. You said so in the car."

He grinned. "Just needling my brother. He still seems to beg for it. But yes, there are some tests I'll need to run, before I can tell you - before I know enough to tell you."

I glared at the dresses. The yellow one was out, of course. The pink one too, not quite as strange with mauve skin as the yellow one, but I had always hated pink. Orange, for wildly complementory colours? Great..

"I'd recommend the deep blue one", he said.

"So would I - except that I never liked blue", I told him. "I think I'd better go see that replicator."

Although he had suggested it himself, he seemed slightly miffed that I should take that particular piece of advice. "I'd better warn you", he said. "The style will be pretty much the same."

"I'm not that particular", I said before I thought. Then I realized on what level of quality that would put his efforts, so I amended quickly, "Sorry - it's not your fault. As you said, you couldn't know what colour I'd be, and making me female was not your personal preference - I know."

"Not then", he said with an icy smile. "I didn't know you. Things can change though.. there used to be a bed against that wall, maybe I should've left it in.."

With that, he was gone. I didn't know what to make of his words. I had heard enough to know he was prone to sudden, vicious threats - but for this to be one, he would have to know my structural limitations, and I did not think he did. Perhaps he was merely thinking he might be able to sway me through his accomplishments. Yet I wondered, for whatever else he might be, he did not strike me as a chauvinist. Or if he was, it was in regard to the entire human race, perhaps to all sentient, biological lifeforms, but not to any particular gender aspect thereof.

Shaking my head, I got out into the hall. His room was right across it, Data's on the floor below, just as he had said. As if he had found yet another way to spite his brother - no, wait, that did not compute. I was Lore's project, not Data's, so it was only natural that he would have placed me in the vicinity. Besides, I was apparently a project he had been planning for a long time, as he had started work on the room even before Data had joined him; or at least that was the impression I had got.

Dismissing the whole matter for now, I went down to find the replicator.

*  *  *  *

The dinner was an eerie and beautiful affair. There was a long table set up in the ballroom of the second floor, and despite the size of that table, it was completely dwarfed by the dimensions of the room itself which ran from end to end of the building. The gigantic hall did not however quite fill the whole floor, as there was a kitchen area with food processors and a lot of maintenance equipment along one side, running parallel to the ballroom. In addition to the supportive wall between kitchen ballroom, both rooms also had an abundance of sturdy pillars - real square ones, not columns. I supposed they were strong enough to help the supportive wall in keeping the rest of the floors from caving in.

I had half expected either or both of the brothers to accompany me to the hall, but I was left in peace to get ready in my own time. There was no need for anything else; I had passed the ballroom on my way up - and down to the cellar as well - and it was not exactly hard to find in the first place. But I also had the impression when I saw the two goldfaced figures standing by the table, that they had a lot to discuss, that they might even have come early for that purpose, and that even so, my arrival interrupted something.

Lore was still in black - this time with a faintly medieval touch, or perhaps early Renaissance Earth, for he was wearing a short cape that was nevertheless probably intended as part of his indoors garb.

Data's appearance jolted me; I felt I had not really seen him wearing civilian clothing before. Oh, he had been, when he picked me up on Lobelia and ever since, but those had been much the same colours as his old uniform, and the style had not been all that different either. Now he was wearing a dark terracotta-coloured suit, waistcoat and all, of a style that I would have placed somewhere around the end of Earth's 19th century. Probably quite true to the original - I remembered he had made some reference to having been accidentally marooned in that time and place once. I must have had some romantic flair in me after all; the sight of him went straight to my heart - or whatever might be filling its more esoteric functions these days. I tried not to think of the loose style of shirt that used to go with that kind of outfit. Right now his shirt was tightly confined by waistcoat, coat, and a slender bowtie, but if I could get the chance to peel those things off him later..

Me, I was in plain red, neither scarlet not crimson but that soft yet bright red that actually goes quite well with pale mauve. The thing was closest to the loose-fitting, flowing gowns that suddenly replaced all the straitlacing somewhere around the mid-nineteenth century on Earth - except that there were some distinct Aurigan touches to it as well; Auriga IV, southern continent, 21st century, to be precise.

They both gave me appreciating looks - I knew that Data had been perfectly capable of that before the chip, so I tried to see, to feel if there were more to it now that he knew what he was about, so to speak. I could not be sure.

Lore kissed my hand.

The table seemed bare since everything on it was gathered in the middle, and the ends stretched far to either side. We sat down on the sides of it, I had Data on my right and Lore opposite. This placement gathered the three of us in the middle as well. It was the only practical one; there were no servants or automatic serving machines, just the three of us - and Spot, dozing in front of a lonely fireplace that was not enough to heat the enormous room but enough to keep the cat comfortable. The temperature of the room was a mere 15 degrees; I could feel it but it did not bother me. Nor would it trouble the two Soong models. Spot however was another matter.

"She is not young any more", Data said sadly, noticing that I was watching her. "She needs her fireplace now."

I smiled. "She seemed quite sprightly while being chased by the monkey", I pointed out, "but then, of course cats are usually quite sprightly all their lives. Where is the monkey, by the way?"

"I shut her up in the attic", Lore said. "The eagle could do with some entertainment, and Data won't have her around to bother Spot any more today. I think she's good for Spot though. Keeps her young.."

"Keeping her running is not the same thing as keeping her young", Data objected.

His brother shrugged. "How do you like the food?"

I found that I did indeed remember how to eat, but I was hardly enthusiastic about the courses. Perhaps the foodslot machine of the Keep was as old and limited as the replicator, perhaps it was just me. No matter, I did not need the food but I was at least capable of getting it down without paying much attention to it.

"Well, at least it doesn't seem to be poisoned", I said.

Lore looked up, and I think the hurt in his topaze eyes was genuine.

"You did poison me once", Data reminded him. Then he turned to me. "I never told you that", he said with a puzzled look.

"I'm sorry", I said, "My comment wasn't meant as a slur on the host so much as on the quality of his outdated kitchen equipment. I haven't been human for a long time, but I still don't seem to have learnt to think before I open my big mouth."

I glanced at Data. "And let's not bring up all your old quarrels right now. I have no doubts you'll soon find new ones - so let's leave all your fraternal hostilities aside tonight. Please?"

"Let's drink to that", Lore said, raising a glass of pale green, Anjulizan wine - good choice; there had never been any cork groves on Anjuliz. "It's not corrosive", he added with a wink at the two of us.

*  *  *  *

The nights seemed to be long on this part of the world in this season. It was still dark outside the narrow windows when we had finished eating. As long as we had been at table, playing at being human, I had not been able to pinpoint the subtle strangeness I somehow could sense about the whole situation. Lore's wolf was occasionally heard howling outside on his watch, and there was Spot by the fire. The presence of the animals seemed somehow to lend everything a fairytale air, but that was not quite what I was feeling.

Throughout dinner there had been some unobtrusive but surprisingly tasteful music pouring through a sound system connected to the cellar computer. As we rose, it suddenly changed in style, and the volume increased somewhat though not enough to drown out human-style talk. Lore invited me to dance, taking me quite by surprise, so I accepted more or less by reflex. He was quite a good dancer, and I did not know what surprised me the more, that he should be, or that I was. I could not remember ever having been as a human. I wondered if that programme had been part of my basic gynoid design, or if it had been added as part of the modifications he had requested. I did not ask. I was curious, but not that curious.

They took turns dancing with me, and their styles were subtly different. I tried to figure out in what way, but Lore was the first one to spot it. Watching his brother critically, he said, "You don't lead properly, Data. You're backing off all the time."

"That is what constitutes a good lead", Data retorted, "Dr Crusher told me you are not supposed to push the lady backwards throughout the dance."

"I don't see why pulling her along after you would be preferable", Lore said, "But what's your opinion, Llin? How should it be done?"

I pondered the question, while keeping up the dance. "Hmm.. this is some sort of Terran waltz, isn't it? Or Terran colonial, at any rate. When that style was first invented, it could be that the ladies still sported very inconvenient footwear with heels that could easily upset their balance. If so, it would naturally not be considered good form to push them backwards while dancing; it would make the matter worse."

"I did some research on the history of social dancing as opposed to ritual when Dr Crusher had taught me", Data said. "The records had nothing on heels, but the waltz was a sort of rebellion against the formal group dances of earlier generations. Not only did the gentleman and lady dance alone together, but his knee was supposed to be between hers throughout, which was considered very daring. It would be reasonable to assume that backing off while in that position was considered more polite than pushing forward."

"So I'm still the uncouth rebel and my brother's so polished he doesn't have any edges left", Lore said derisively. "But I was asking which style you prefer, Llin. I'd really like to know."

"I'd say a little of both", I told him. "Not all places are as big as this one; in a traditional Orion alehouse you would have to pay a lot of attention to navigation to avoid stepping on somebody."

After that, they both changed, their styles becoming more flexible. After a couple of hours, we stopped consciously studying the matter and got to talking of other things. That must have been about when I realized what sort of strange eerieness I had sensed.

The wolf outside must have gone to sleep, he had not been heard for over an hour. The fire was burning lower, and Spot had disappeared to somewhere; Data supposed she was on her electrical cushion in his room, fast asleep.

That left the three of us. Three machines, tirelessly dancing to soft music in the brightly lit hall of an empty castle. Without any biological lifeforms around, it was beginning to seem more like a dance macabre than the sort of social occasion we were trying so pathetically hard to imitate. I was about to say so, but this time I thought first and decided against it. Having found the source of my uneasiness, I filed it away and dismissed it.

I loved watching Data talk to me. To see the tip of his tongue moving between the little pointed, almost catlike canines of his lower jaw, surprising because his upper teeth were almost disturbingly even. The only thing that bothered me about it was that Lore was designed exactly the same way, pointed lower canines and all. Had Soong had only that one teeth mold? Copied from himself, no doubt. I wondered if the man had been an incurable narcissist, or just practical-minded, picking whatever materials were the closest to hand.

The similarity between the two brothers was not the only thing that was annoying me, however. At some point, at the break of a grey dawn, as the fire had turned to a mere glow and the lighting automatically dimmed to make way for whatever feeble rays might make it through the window nooks, I had realized that I found Lore fascinating.

As first I had simply endured every dance with him, waiting for Data to take over as the tune changed. It was not my feelings for Data that had changed, but the ones I had had about Lore were beginning to. I tried to search backwards for when that had happened. Perhaps one of the times he had taken over and I remarked that I was glad I was no longer human, or I would never have been able to dance for hours without pause.

"I take it you two never sleep either?" I said.

"Data shuts down once a day to explore his dream life", Lore said, and I remembered how Data had once told me he suspected he might be able to dream. I also remembered the pun I had made at the time. Apparently, he had actually learnt since then. "Sort of a standby mode, I suppose", Lore went on. "Not an actual deactivation of course. I've never practiced it myself."

"You have no dreams?" I asked.

"My dreams are ever with me."

There was a certain grandeur about the way he said it, no mere pathos, rather the wings of the epic beating in the distance. For once, he did not seem small and scheming. I had thought of him as an android with an attitude - and perhaps that was what all his trickery really was - an attitude.

Still, he had done some large scale damage in his day. I thought about Riker's words that Data had finally become human enough to go looking for his Shadow. I was not so sure he had found it yet. But his brother had borne his all his life and was well acquainted with it. It should have made him a more complete individual, but somehow I was not sure of that either. Occasionally, his sallies against Data were downright childish. Perhaps they both had something the other was missing.

Lore was holding me tighter now, but I was no longer concerned, because in that grey, pre-dawn light I suddenly felt I could talk to him. "You must excuse me for not trusting you", I said, pushing off a little. "You don't exactly have a record for honesty."

"My brother's been talking again?" But he smiled when he said it, and without drawing his upper lip into a thin line either, the way I had noticed he did when angry.

"Can you deny any of it? The alliance with the Crystalline Entity who killed all the colonists on your home planet, the alliance with the Borg that killed even more, the times you threatened your brother's life.."

"I deny nothing I ever did. My only regrets are the failure of my experiments on the Borg in order to help them to better functionality after the Enterprise lot had destroyed their old one, and my decision to abandon those same Borg - I had no choice by then, and I meant to come back. However, they chose one of their own for a new leader before I had the time to return, and decided to stay half biologically grown. I respected their decision. It may have been for the best; my project to make them wholly artificial had proven more difficult to carry out that I ever thought."

After a brief pause, he added, "Perhaps you should ask Data what I did not do. Ask him if I ever intentionally killed or punished a Borg. As for threatening his life, I admit I did - but ask him then if I ever took it. If I ever truly deactivated him, even when I could have done so easily. And while you're at it, you might also ask him if he ever did that to me.. But perhaps he's told you. If he hasn't, I daresay you might be surprised."

"He did tell me", I said. "There can't be much he didn't tell me on our way over here."

The music switched, and Data came back for me. But for a brief moment in the grey of that dawn, I had seen the same vulnerability on his brother's face as I had winessed so often on his own. The vulnerability of defenceless honesty. I can't say I ever saw it about Lore again - until recently.

*  *  *  *

Days passed, and I came no closer to knowing my purpose. When confronted, Lore would say he needed to study a few things further before he could know what tests to run on me. I did not know whether he was just being evasive for some reason or if it was the truth. He actually kept much to himself those days, usually in his room or down in the computer hall. For all I knew, he was studying.

Meanwhile, Data and I roamed the mountain in all weathers and all hours of the day or night, went on various expeditions farther afield, took care of the pets, and made love. Thinking of our efforts to match our schedules on the Enterprise, I was extremely happy that we should have all this time together, and I tried to savour it, for somehow I suspected that it could not last. Neither of us was that complacent by nature. I hoped I would be able to remember this time with the same perfect clarity that I knew he would.

He had shown me all the rooms of the Keep, making sure I could find my way about the place. There was even a small secret passage, but it led nowhere now, having been filled up at the other end - or perhaps somewhere in the middle, tricorder readings were for some reason inconclusive. My theory was that it had been built as an emergency exit and then been closed off when somebody realized it might serve almost as well as an emergency entrance.

Lore was not wholly invisible. Occasionally he would turn up when least expected - or wanted. I think he sensed it and deflected his feelings of rejection by indulging in his bad timing. He went very easily into defence, and the form it usually took was attack, in one way or another. There was only one room he never went near, and that was Data's studio, high up in the only tower room with a northern light. Lore said he could not stand the smell, but he did not really fool anyone. We both knew he was jealous for not having been built with the same capacity for creativity as his brother.

Or perhaps he had, but had not yet learnt to develop it. Evenings, we would often gather in the music room, all three of us, and Data would play various instruments for us. I had a feeling that Lore understood music better than he would ever let on, that he was deliberately refraining from artistic exercises just because Data had got there first. Lore played no instruments but I had heard him sing, and he did it quite well. Never in the music room, never to us, but sometimes when he was working in his room he would sing, and unknown to him, I would listen. I would have expected drinking songs or worse, but his repertoire would have been entirely acceptable in polite company - as long as that company were none too peaceful, for his favourites seemed to be old ballads with a martial slant. Klingons might have loved them.

Occasionally, on hearing him, I missed Garth. Lore was certainly no Bard - I cannot imagine he ever wrote a song himself - and his clear android tenor would never attain the thoroughly human huskiness of Garth's. Lore's singing would be forever beautiful - but never sexy.

*  *  *  *

Then one morning as I had climbed all the stairs to Data's studio, he was not there. I remember how I had been thinking that my loveliest memories, my strongest emotions, the idea of not just overwhelming but quite inextricable passion - would all be forever bound up with the sharp scents of various solvents. And then all that met me was a minor forest of wonderful paintings - breathtaking to be sure, but not so breathtaking as I always found the artist himself.

As I turned to leave, I noticed the little sign on the door. A piece of sketching paper, saying, 'Llin, meet me by the main computer. D.' in vermilion brush strokes far too pastuous for the neat handwriting.

He was there, standing by the main console in the cellar, watching the screen thoughtfully. I went over to stand beside him, placing my hand gently on his wide, straight shoulder, brushing gently against his neck just to feel the warmth of his synthetic skin. His breathing kept him air-cooled but not over-efficiently so. He radiated almost the same amount of heat as any human male of his slender build.

I spoke his name, and he answered by putting his arm around me, but he did not look at me, only pointed to the screen. I read the message:

Data, I want you back. No dammit, I need you back. This ship hasn't been the same without you, and now I'm sitting here without a First Officer. As you may have heard, Will Riker left two years ago to assume command of the starship Hawkwind, Galaxy Class, same as the Enterprise. He was replaced by Commander T'Pool, but now she too has left for her own command, and I'm sitting here in my Ready Room, feeling the flight of time. Data, what does it take to bring you back? To have you stand at my side on the bridge of the Enterprise again? I know you never resented seeing your comrades promoted past you; it isn't that. So what does it take? Your old captain saying that he misses you? Well, I do, and I admit it quite bluntly. This ship is brimming over with fresh green talent - allow me the relief of at least one old friend by my side, even if he look as young as the rest of them.

If you get this in time, if you accept, be at that dreadful 22nd century fountain south of the main port on Starbase 367 Sunday, three weeks from now. Please. There, now I've even begged you. Perhaps that will do it..

Signed: J-L Picard. And then the little PS as if he suddenly came to fear having been too pushy:

Even if you don't accept, please answer so that I'll know that you're all right. I may respect a refusal, but I shall never take silence for an answer.

"How did he know where to find you?" I asked softly, recognizing a beginning of the end when I saw one.

"He did not. As you see, the message is in writing only and dated 17 days ago. He must have sent it by way of Starfleet Command, then various starbases and other stations have managed to relay it out here."

He turned to me, took me by the shoulders and looked straight into my eyes the way he never quite had in the old days, before the chip. "Llin, I must go. He needs me. But I want you with me. Will you come?"

"I don't think your brother would appreciate that", I said.

"He cannot hold you if you wish to leave. You are not property, and you are not his prisoner. I will talk to him. Please come back to the Enterprise with me."

"As what?" I asked. "I have the same need to be useful as you do. True, I haven't seen much use here as yet, but Lore did commission my modifications for a purpose, and I believe he is working on it. If you feel that you'll be put to better use on the Enterprise than here, then that's how it must be, I would not see you unhappy - but.."

"You used to be an engineer. I know it has been a long time, but your database will be easier to update now than when you were human. If Geordi is still on board, he will be glad to have you. You were friends, you still are, even if you have not met for years."

I remembered vividly how Geordi and I had saved Data's life after the Enyddth attack - which I inadvertently caused - standing on either side of his lifeless body, me working on his broken throat and promising myself never to have to go through this again.. And yet, if anything like that did happen again, and I was not around? And maybe not Geordi either?

He kissed me, with more desperation than I had ever known him to show, even since the chip. "I cannot leave you."

I was beginning to agree, but.. "I have to know my intended purpose. And I've got to know that I have one on the Enterprise. Tell you what - Captain Picard wouldn't snatch you right off your feet, now would he? Why don't you go to Starbase 367, meet him there, and explain the situation. If he has a place for me, I'll come. Tell him you have to pack a few things or whatever, then come back for me - just in case your brother would withhold transport.."

His golden eyes shone so brightly I found reason to warn him: "This Enterprise will in all likelihood also have families on board - but I won't go merely as your companion, even though the good captain would probably let me. As I said, I must find my usefulness too."

I knew he would understand me. No one ever did, like him. So, on that note we parted, but his farewell kiss burnt right into my circuits, to stay with me forever.

*  *  *  *

As soon as Data was gone, I tried to question Lore as to my purpose, for I was suddenly in a hurry to know. But he simply asked me to bear with him for another day or two, then stayed out of sight. I spent my time studying, and seeing to the pets; I fed Spot, Lore's wolf, and the poor eagle in the attic, and I did my best to keep the marmoset out of mischief. My studies worried me somewhat; they seemed to be centering more and more around military strategy as approached by different cultures. The Keep's computer gave me all the information I could want on the topic, but it made me very uneasy that I should seek it to the extent that I did. At times, I felt almost singleminded about it.

After two days of this, I went out to try and clear my head. My mind was full of battlefield angles on assorted planets as well as in space, and lately even some history of politics later leading to wars had crept into it. I could certainly do with some fresh evening air to flush a bit of all this dusty knowledge - not that I was likely to forget anything, so it must have been a purely emotional reaction. I wanted to watch the twilight; I had not seen it for some time.

It was not there. The seasonal mists had come down. I remembered Lore mentioning them, but in the midst of my studies, I had failed to notice their arrival. The world was now silence and soft, moist silver light. Very little else, only the occasional glimpse of black, wet rock underfoot.

It did not bother me. While I missed the twilight colours I had sought, I found the air even more refreshing with all this moisture in it, and I was running no risk of losing my way. I had no infrared vision - Lobelian duotron models rarely have, it's an extra feature that would have to be explicitly ordered - but I had no problem navigating by instruments, as it were. I enjoyed the damp cool; naturally there was no wind, not in the season of Mist, the fifth in the normal year, or so I had been told.

I never heard him. Which later led me to believe that he had been waiting motionless for a long time, because my hearing is as exceptional as theirs - it has to be the only one of my features that actually comes up to Soong standard. But I never knew a thing till I was already on the ground, struck down in an instant, easily.

I was too stunned to respond - or at least to find the correct procedure to do so. I felt there was something I should do - but I could not access it, and while I was looking for it, all other defence reactions seemed to have been disconnected. And I had only an instant to search - then he was suddenly on top of me.

He hit me twice more, then, getting no results, he crashed into me - literally. I do not know how he managed to tear our clothes out of the way in appropriate places - he was that fast - but I did try to fight him then, though I still felt that I was not doing it right. I wondered briefly if it was because he was so like Data - granted that his face was somewhat more mobile because of his lifelong acquaintance with passion, and granted that Data would never, ever do anything this brutal, but despite it all, Lore's slender body felt very familiar - down to the last detail you might say, so perhaps I simply found it impossible to hurt him. Or at least to make a wholehearted effort. Objectively speaking, I suppose I couldn't have done much. I was not built like a battleship, the way these Soong models were.

Being artificial has its advantages; the experience was not traumatic - except physically. Seemingly frustrated at getting only what he must have deemed a very feeble response - although I was doing all I could to at least shove him off me - he finished off by ramming into me with such force that it seemed he was trying to skewer me full length. I heard something break, just before the blinding pain started rising all through me, or at least in all places that he had been. It was the first time after my transfer that I felt such pain; I had not known that I could. It was enough to shut me down.

*  *  *  *

I woke up, wondering if I was seeing double. They were both there, at my bedside, or rather my tableside in the basement lab of the Keep. Data was back in uniform. I did not have a stitch on myself, but I quickly surmised that this was not a social occasion. I had been out for three days - unless my internal chronometer had been reset in the meantime, in which case it might well be longer.

Data was looking into my eyes as they opened. "How do you feel?" His voice was trembling a little - in the early days I would have thought I had misheard. I was pretty sure I had not now.

"My diagnostics are still screaming at me, if that's what you mean", I said. "But I think I'll live. If only to spite someone", I added, glaring at Lore.

Lore tossed a gleaming instrument on to a tray and stood. "Right, she's awake. You wanted to be alone with her then. I'll be in my room, call me when you're through - and please be quick about it."

He made to leave but paused in the doorway, and some of his arrogance seemed to drop off. "Oh, and thanks brother", he said. "For helping out." Then he was gone.

"What did he do to you?" Data asked, as soon as his brother was out of android earshot.

"I would have thought that was pretty obvious from the type of damage", I said. "He raped me, what else?"

Data nodded. "He refused to tell me the cause of your injuries. Not that I had any doubts - it could really only be him. I suppose he knew that once he admitted it, I would kill him."

"You're going to deactivate him again?"

Data's eyes grew hard. More like topazes than I had ever seen Lore's. "No. This time I am going to finish the job. I shall kill him."

"How?" I could not help asking. It seemed to me it would not be easy to finish off a top model android - even for another one of the same make.

"I will shut him off - then I will rewire his heart, set it to explode. It is a relatively simple procedure."

For some reason, it felt as if my mouth went dry. "I wasn't sure you two had any hearts. Geordi once said something to indicate at least you might have, but then as I heard others knowingly insist that you had not, I concluded he must have been speaking figuratively only."

At my mention of his best friend, Data smiled. "What did he say?"

"That it was only too easy to accidentally walk roughshod over your heart."

Data was silent, thinking back. His smile gradually vanished. "He may have been right", he said finally. His voice was a mere whisper as he added, "But how could he have known..?"

He shrugged, as if forcing himself back to cold, dependable facts. "We do have hearts - or at least that is the closest human analogy. But there was a widespread misunderstanding that after a while I found no immediate reason to correct. Counsellor Troi once surmised I might have gone through a 'disheartening' experience, and I was about to answer her that I did not have a set of emotions or a state of mind that could be dejected in such manner as she was probably referring to. But she interrupted me, presumably getting the impression I was about to say I had no heart. Somehow she must have let it slip to the rest of the crew - though if she had ever conferred with the captain or Commander Riker on the matter, they could have corrected her misconception. So could Dr Crusher and Geordi. The four of them were the only ones outside of myself who had access to my schematics. Since nobody else asked, and I concluded they did not really have a need to know, I never told them they were wrong."

He kept working on me as he spoke, and I could feel the pain lessening. However, I did not know whether that was due to efficient repairs or if he had merely shut down some of my diagnostics routines.

"I see", I said. "But what's its function? You heart, I mean. Circulate nutrients and coolant, or what?"

"I am air-cooled", he said. "That is what my breathing is for. But yes, my heart has a periferal function of dispersing the liquid nutrients throughout my body, though that is not its main purpose. Essentially, it is a power generator." He smiled a little. "Have you never wondered what drives me?"

"Often", I admitted. "I must've felt it would be rude to ask.."

He actually laughed at that, so I assumed he did not believe me. Frankly, I did not know why I never got around to asking. I had wondered. As I had also wondered how he could have a distinct, regular heartbeat if he had no heart. I had felt it often enough to know that he had. And so, for that matter, had his brother.. I did not want to think about that, and yet I said,

"Data - don't kill Lore. What you proposed - it's not a good method anyway. His head might well survive intact, and then he could still be rebuilt."

I thought I sounded quite reasonable, but he knew me too well. "Is it that you want to kill him yourself - or that you just do not want him dead?"

"The latter", I admitted. "Because I can't help but think what sorrow it would have caused your father to have either of his sons kill the other."

"I think he would have preferred me to kill Lore to the other way around", Data said with cold frankness.

"When did Lore ever try to kill you?" I asked, feeling more the devil's advocate than I really liked.

"He has threatened me often enough."

"But did he ever attack you?"

"Only once", Data freely admitted. Then he sighed. "The phaser was set on heavy stun. All right, I will let him live, since for some unfathomable reason you seem to want me to. After all, you are the one he attacked this time. But for the same reason I do want you out of here, as soon as you can walk."

"He didn't kill me either", I pointed out, still wondering what in my programming made me defend Lore - or was it in myself? In whom I was before my transfer, before the Llinhwyfar even?

"That is as may be, but I am taking you away before he gets a second chance. Captain Picard tells me he has use for you in Engineering; he has not been able to find a full complement there since a third of the section followed Commander Riker - now Captain Riker - to the Hawkwind. And Geordi is still on board. The captain sent him a subspace message to tell him he can expect you aboard shortly. Geordi's answer was not easily decipherable, but I have good reason to believe it would transcribe as a hoot of joy."

I grinned. My pain was almost entirely gone by now. "I'll come. After what your brother did, I can't see what legal or moral hold he could ever have over me. But I must speak to him first, and I think I'd better do it alone. Would you call him back here and then move out of earshot? I don't think he would tell me all I want to know otherwise."

Data gave me a long, golden look. "All right", he said finally. "But I will be no farther away than that I can hear you if you call out sharply. If he tries anything, call for me at once, and I will be there."

I reassured him on that count, and he called Lore back down. He did however give his brother a sharp stare as he left. If topazes could generate laser beams..

*  *  *  *

"All right", I said. "Why did you do it?"

Lore did not answer, he simply sat checking my vital signs.

"I think I just talked your brother out of killing you", I informed him. "So, considering that I may have just saved your life, I should think you owe me some information. Information that is already mine by legal right, I might add."

He looked up with a quick smile. "Why won't you believe I just couldn't help myself?"

"If that's your idea of a compliment, your bedside manner leaves much to be desired", I said. "But then we both knew that. I want the truth."

"Well, how's this - I couldn't pass up the chance to spite my brother." His smile vanished. "There might be some truth to both explanations, you know", he said with uncharacteristic candour.

"But not the whole truth", I insisted mercilessly. "You seemed to be expecting something - a reaction perhaps, something that never came."

"Was it that obvious?" he muttered. "Well, why didn't you react?" he hedged. "Why didn't you defend yourself?"

I decided it was time to let him know the facts of life.

"Not for lack of trying", I said acidly. "Though I can't say you paid much attention. I fought for all I was worth - not that it seems to amount to much more than scrap value, compared with the glorious, top-of-the-line Soong design.."

He swallowed in a disturbingly human fashion. "You mean - that was the best you could do?" For a moment, he seemed as vulnerable as Data ever had, even in the days before the chip. Then he quickly fell back on his usual pattern, resorting to anger. "Why didn't you tell me?" he erupted, his arm lashing out in a gesture of sudden impatience. "You or that damn brother of mine - I assume he knows?"

"There didn't seem to be any reason to tell you", I said icily.

"No reason?" he shouted. "Dammit, girl, I could've.."

"Exactly", I said, steeling myself to ignore the unexpected epithet that for some reason I found emotionally unsettling. "And what was the reason for that?"

Back to the question I started out with.

He sighed. "All right, I suppose the time has come. I'll tell you. Virtually, you're an assassin. Except that you don't blindly follow orders; you're capable of strategic overview and of modifying your plans according to political changes. Thus, you may not always carry out your orders to the letter, but there is no way you can avoid carrying out their spirit. Not as long as your special programme is running, and it will be running subconsciously at all times - if I've managed to activate it. That's why I - attacked you. I was certain that would trigger it; I can't see how I could've interpreted your online manual any other way. Oh yes, I accessed it one morning while Data was in his dream state - you never noticed you had been turned off briefly, did you?"

I began a furtive search, but he recognized the signs at once. "Just a moment - you can't access the manual yourself yet; I'm the only one who has the code. Move your head a bit closer, please. I'll see if I can clear the block.."

He did something to my head, and the information started flowing into my conscious mind. Finally, I got to know lots of things about my insidious purpose - and about my alterations. It would seem I had vibroblades and phasers built into all limbs. The blades were naturally for close combat only, but the phasers had the same range as a normal, handheld weapon. However, they could not be set to any level of stun - I wondered about the strategic usefulness of that.

Also, my canines could extend into fangs, and the strength of my jaws was formidable - certainly comparable to that of the Soong models, perhaps even exceeding it. Now, if I had known that..

Quickly, my foot lashed out, a blade extented from my toes, catching him on the side of the neck, drawing enough of the clear, pale green nutrient solution to stain his clothes. All the while I had been absorbing my online manual, I had felt a cold rage mount in me. It seemed only natural to let it loose.

He jumped out of reach quickly, but he was beaming at me. "Good!" he said. "It is activated. I was beginning to fear I had hurt you to no avail. There must have been a safety delay of some kind; I was not aware of that. So when my initial attack didn't seem to trigger your weapons systems, I'm afraid I - escalated. You should have told me you couldn't take my full force; I swear I had no way of knowing."

Reasonable enough. But then, wasn't he always, when you listened to him? I knew Data never trusted him after witnessing his betrayal of the Enterprise. I not only distrusted Lore, I hated him for what he had done to me. Not the rape - the refit. On the other hand, I had signed my side of the contract. Blindly, to get out of debt with the Lobelians. Well, that contract could be revoked, and would be as soon as I could find passage to Lobelia. Passage.. the Enterprise?

"You don't believe me, do you?" Lore said, trying to seal his leak and not succeeding very well.

"No, I think you enjoyed it", I told him. "Be that as it may, I intend to have your commission nullified as soon as I can. The Lobelians will reverse any changes done to me without my knowledge if I so choose. And I'll see to it that they do. You just try to stop me, and I'll leave you as a heap of cogs and screws on this very floor."

He smiled. "I don't have any cogs - and precious few screws, if it comes to that. Besides, don't overestimate your newfound strength. Your situation might be a little better than you thought, but I doubt you'd be a match for me - except for your weapons of course."

"I'm quite prepared to use them."

"I'm glad. I wouldn't have it any other way. Beats me why you should think I'd want to hold you back."

"Good. Then you don't mind my going to Lobelia."

He spread his exquisite hands. "Why should I? But you have to get there first."

"That won't take me long - on the Enterprise."

"Perhaps not. But the time it takes will still be measurable." His clear voice suddenly hardened. "And during that time, your orders are to oppose the Federation at every turn. The more damage you can do to them the better. Simply that - the means I leave to your enhanced knack of improvisation. Now that you have your orders", he went on blandly, "I can't say I'll regret having you stationed on the Federation flagship. An excellent choice - couldn't have found a better one myself.."

"If you think for one minute.." I began, then I considered what he had said earlier.

He must have seen it dawn on me. He positively smirked. "Right. Nothing you can do about it, as long as your warrior programme is running." His golden eyes grew suddenly fearful. "Don't try to shut it down before you reach Lobelia - promise me that. You can't do it on your own, so don't attempt it - please."

I could not imagine what he should be so worried about, unless it be the thwarting of his plans, but would his voice become unsteady because of that? I knew he took himself pretty seriously at times, megalomaniac that he was, but in this case his anxiety seemed clearly out of proportion. However, I could always try to add to it.

"The day I promise you anything at all", I said, "will be the day the frozen halls of hell melt into a puddle."

*  *  *  *

Until we actually saw the planet turning under us, I never would have thought that Lore would actually let me go. I kept expecting him to pull some trick at the last moment to prevent my departure - and more than half of my imagined scenarios involved sudden violence. Yet I was not really afraid of him; I suppose I must have simply refused to be.

As I must have refused to realize that his easy acknowledgment of my wish to leave should by rights have given me greater cause for worry than if he had tried to hold me. Obviously, he was very confident his orders would stick.

I did not tell Data about those orders. All right, it was probably my biggest mistake, and it could well be the one I'm now about to pay for with my life, but he seemed so relieved that we were finally leaving, so downright happy with only me and Spot - even the cat seemed quite cheerful to have her spacelegs back, it was as if she had dropped several years off her age at one go - that I could not bring myself to mention his brother's dark influence on me. If indeed there was one; I was inclined to doubt it, and even if there were, I felt I could deal with it.

So, I did not tell Data, but I did not lie to him either. The brothers had not parted on the best of terms - when had they ever? - and Data did nothing to hide his suspicions. When he asked me if I had found out what my purpose was, I only said I believed that Lore had had some plans for me, but that I did not rightly know what they were; I had no impression they were very well defined. Which was no less than the truth - even if it wasn't all that much more either.

We stopped at Starbase 367, where Data hired a commercial pilot to take his vessel back to the Keep. He wanted no loose ends that could tie him to his brother, he said. Though I suspect he would fain have marooned Lore at the Keep, had that been possible. On the other hand, I likewise suspected Lore of having more than one means of getting offplanet, just as so many other predators build their nests with more than one exit.

Plans had been for Captain Picard to remain at the Starbase - on improvised shoreleave - until we showed up. But all that met us was a message that told us he had been called away and to stay put until he came for us, bringing the entire ship this time. Something had come up; something with important diplomatic implications.

While we were both eager to join the descendant of a ship where we had been happier than had really been electronically or physically possible at the time, we were not sorry to have a few days to ourselves.

"Should we look for accommodation?" I asked. "We don't really need quarters, do we?"

Data hoisted his cat to his shoulder where she sat surly, clearly miffed at having to wear a harness - and a bright red one at that. It did not exactly clash with her coat, but it did nothing for her either.

"Spot needs them", he said. "Or at least, I need my hands free from time to time."

I stroked her, eliciting a condescending purr. Somehow my hand encountered Data's on each downstroke. Well, with those long fingers they would get in the way.. "Oh to be a queen cat in those hands.." I said dreamily.

"I do not think that would be a good idea", he pointed out - as primly as ever in the old days, only this time he was smiling mischievously. "If you were a cat, there would be plenty of things I could not do to you."

I leant against him, absorbing the heat of his body in much the same manner as I was certain Spot was trying to. He put his arm around me, and we walked like that for a while, tightly together.

"How long do we have?" I asked after a while. "Before the captain comes to pick us up, I mean."

"Anything from mere minutes to a week. Hardly more than that. The Enterprise is a fast ship, as well you know. Any delay will depend entirely upon the nature of her mission."

I nodded. "I just realized we won't be seeing much of each other, once we're on board."

"Oh, I will come down to Engineering quite often. Just as in the old days."

"I don't mean that. I suppose I meant - I don't want to lose you. It could be a refined torture, to see you every now and then, yet rarely alone, mostly with others around, formal occasions, unable to touch you but taking comfort in working together on the same ship. Then one day you go on a routine away mission - and you don't come back.. I'm not sure I could bear that.."

"I will be likelier to return than any of my crewmates", he said soberly. I did not answer.

"There are certain risks we accept as we join Starfleet", he said. "You know that also."

"I'm not Starfleet", I said. "I got in on the side, remember?"

With perfect clarity of course. I noted that he no longer stated the obvious. "But I am", he said instead. I half expected him to elaborate, and perhaps that was what he did, but if so he veered off on a tangent rather than singlemindedly pursuing the subject as once he would have. "I could not stay. Perhaps I once thought I could; perhaps I tried, but - Llin, do not blame Captain Picard for this; it was only a matter of time."

I nodded again. Somehow I had always known. Of these two brothers, one would always fly on - and only the unstable one would settle. Or try to. But I did not say that.

He stroked my cheek. "I will be around to pester you more often than you know. We will match our offshifts again, and do a better job of it than we did last time. In fact - I did not want to suggest it before, but now that you know you have a place on the Enterprise - would you share my quarters? Or will you absolutely insist on having your own?"

Truth to tell, I had not even considered it - sharing or otherwise. But now that he brought it up, it sounded fine. I stopped walking, to lean my head against his shoulder. "Sharing yours will be just perfect", I murmured. "Us machines don't take up much room.."

"I must warn you that I took to keeping a bed around after I discovered my dreaming programme", he said. "But I could ask for more spaceous accommodations this time, if you wish. A Galaxy class starship is never cramped."

Somehow he had managed to assuage my uneasiness. I smiled up at him. Through tears, I noticed to my own surprise. Spot was getting restless on his shoulder, but we both ignored her. "And we still have Starbase 367", I said. "Let's make the most of it."

He did not respond at once, but put his slender hands on my shoulders, holding me at a distance for a moment, his yellow eyes searching mine. "Llin", he said, "Are you having a premonition?"

"Who told you about that?" I asked, astonished, for despite my greatly improved memory, I had come close to forgetting all about my old talent.

"Alan, as a matter of fact", he said. "All those years ago. It never occurred to me that you might have sworn Garth to secrecy, but.."

"I don't think Garth ever knew", I said. "I told you, Alan and I go back a long time. The longest." I smiled sadly. "One almost forgets what it's like to be human, and perhaps that's just as well. You needn't fear; I've had no premonitions since I became the Llinhwyfar. I don't expect to have any as a gynoid."

Then, finally, I reached up and kissed those thin but sensuous lips. I had waited long enough. And I had always loved that little synthetic tongue.

*  *  *  *

We got three days. Then there was suddenly this sleek bird in orbit, as reported by all general information screens in the main port. The Enterprise-E was of a more delicate design than the D I had known, and somehow I saw that as a good sign. If anything, she was probably even more endurable than her predecessor, so I did not necessarily see it as a sign of more peaceful times. But I did see her elegance as the symbol of a people with time to play, with time and interest to work long and diligently at something of no practical importance. And that I appreciated, more than I could find an immediate reason for.

I tried to talk to Data about it, assuming that his emotions chip in combination with his philosophical database would enable him to see it also. But to my surprise, he did not, though I knew he tried. Still too practical-minded, perhaps. No big deal, many humans would also naturally see practicality as a virtue in itself. Perhaps even the majority. Garth for one never did. I don't suppose you become a Bard with the mundane outlook. While never a dreamer either, he would always pursue true quality to the bitter end, whether it were attached to anything useful or not.

I found myself wondering what Lore might have had to say in the matter. Despite being the elder brother, he often seemed more childish, more immediate in his desires, than Data. The prototype.. more unstable but perhaps more flexible, as he had said. Or was he only playing? At all times? I could well believe he had started out that way, just grabbing whatever interesting item came in his way, like a child would - but somehow I doubted that that was his approach now. It might have been a more gradual process than with Data, but I had no doubts that both brothers had grown. After all, they were both learning systems.

We were told to settle our bills and then report to a convenient beam-up point the coordinates of which were given with great precision. The transporter beam felt unexpectedly cool. I realized I had never been subjected to it during my stay on the Enterprise-D. Not to my knowledge anyway, though I could not say how I got to her sickbay after my detachment from the Hwyfar.

The lady currently operating the transporter was a full commander. That reminded me of something that had been briefly mentioned in Picard's message. I resolved to ask Data about it later. Right now, there was Picard himself, come to welcome his First Officer aboard, generously beaming at us both. He looked as if he wanted to give Data a fatherly hug - and Data seemed for a moment almost to expect it - but then Picard adhered strictly to protocol as he greeted him. His smile froze somewhat perplexedly at the sight of me, then he seemed to remember I would not look like I had the last time.

His scrutiny of me was tinged with renewed interest, of curiosity even. "And welcome, Llin", he said. "It's been - a long time. We must talk later."

It could have been a dismissal, but I suspected he was really eager to find out what sort of a machine I was, especially as compared to Data. Still, he would rather die than ask personal questions in the presence of his transporter chief.

He wanted Data back on the bridge immediately, but he showed us the courtesy of allowing us a look at our quarters first. I thought he seemed a little taken aback when Data announced that we wanted to share, but he recovered quickly, saying it would be no problem, we could always install an extra doorway or knock out half a wall or something, if we wanted to. I realized that he had had the foresight to place our quarters next to each other, which might have added to his confusion since he had probably thought that would be close enough. And perhaps it would be.

Alone in the turbolift with Data, I finally got the chance to bring up the subject I had been wondering about. "Data, I can't say I know much about Starfleet hierarchic concerns, but I remember the hassle when it was discovered that Alan formally outranked you. Isn't it unusual for a ship to have a lt. commander for its First Officer when it's practically swarming with full commanders?"

"There are exactly six full commanders on the Enterprise at present. I would not say they constitute a 'swarm'."

"You didn't answer my question."

"It is very unusual. However, the choice of First as well as Second Officer is captain's prerogative nowadays. It was not always so, but today Captain Picard has the right to choose every member of his bridge crew, and it would appear he has exercised that right."

"Data, don't be like that."

"Like what? Did I not answer your question?"

"You're blocking your emotions chip - and you're getting disturbingly good at it. Is there anything wrong with your service record? Something you did during a spell of malfunction, or something?"

"My service record is outstanding. Better than human average, naturally. In fact, it is better than most human excellent ones. For the most part, I have served with very understanding commanding officers. Officers who were willing to disregard malfunctions much in the same manner as they would disregard human physical failings, and who insisted on attributing to courage actions which might perhaps have been more accurately ascribed to skillful programming."

"Not the actions themselves, or you wouldn't be a learning system. Besides, the premises for courage as well as any other behaviour is programmed into humans too, and modified by themselves along the way, based on new input - exactly the same as with you, so that won't wash. I suppose what I want to know is, do I smell discrimination against androids here, or why were you never promoted to full commander?"

He did look disturbed at that. Finally. "I do not think it is discrimination", he said. "There might be a practical reason why an android cannot easily be promoted to full commander. Yes, my being a machine has something to do with it, I was told as much, and knowing human behaviour, I do not think I would have been told, had the basis been discrimination.

"Being fully content where I was, I never asked, but shortly after Counsellor Troi was promoted, Commander Riker told me there was one test he did not think an android could pass, as it was designed explicitly for biological beings. Originally set up for human candidates, it had been successfully modified for most species in Starfleet - with the exclusion of silicon-based lifeforms, and he strongly suspected it would not be easily applicable to an artificial lifeform such as myself. He was of course not at liberty to disclose the nature of the test."

"It seems they will just have to think again", I said firmly. "The test must be revised to suit everyone - Hortas included - and the system updated. They can't let these things depend on the system, not if it excludes some species from the natural ascension to rank."

"Agreed", he said calmly. "But so far Starfleet have apparently failed to come up with a suitable version of the test."

"Maybe I could ask the captain about it", I said. "Though I doubt he'd tell me."

"There is a theoretical possibility that you might one day join Starfleet", he said, just as the lift doors opened. We started walking down the corridor. "In which case you yourself might be subject to the test eventually, providing it has been successfully modified by then. I fail to see how he could tell you."

"Fat chance", I said. "I don't like hierarchies - ostensibly peaceful or not."

Suddenly, like a sharp pang, I felt with absolute certainty that Lore might have said that. In fact I had to search my memory to be sure I had never heard him say it so that I was now merely repeating it. It was not simply that he would not accept a hierarchy that did not have himself at its top. From what I had heard about his sojourn with the Borg, he had not kept a command structure of ever lesser generals then either - he had been everywhere, taken part of everything, done as much as was humanly.. uh, mechanically possible, himself.

He had had aides, but they were all ungraded and he had not taken their word for granted unless he had to. He had wanted to instate his brother as his equal - I knew Data did not believe that, but I felt I had seen enough of Lore to know that it might well have been the truth. At first.

Well, even Lore would have his qualities. There is no genuinely evil in the universe. Evil is a human invention, an effort to understand existence by simplifying it - and hence make sure that all one gets will be misconceptions.. I wondered if he might not have said that too.

And then I was reminded of something Alan had once let slip, in an ethical discussion with me and Garth. He had said, 'You don't make commander without the stamina it takes to sacrifice people. And the judgment of the right moment to do so.'

I started laughing, ignoring Data's astonished look at me. Well, if that was what the test was about, I could see Starfleet's dilemma. A two-edged one at that. Data would never order another lifeform to its death, as long as his ethical programme were functioning, and if it were not, he would be unfit to command. And looking at it from a purely practical standpoint, in what type of situation would it be reasonable for a Soong-type android to order a biological lifeform to do something dangerous because he could not do it faster and better himself? A test like that might indeed require some planning.

Still, I could be wrong. "Nothing", I said. "Just something Alan said once." But I could see by his face that my explanation was not sufficient. So in the end I told him. Not about my guess, but that I had had it, and why I felt I ought not to tell him either.

Which made me wonder - if I despised the hierarchy of Starfleet, why did I abide by its rules? Perhaps it was merely a case of 'When on Romulus..'

*  *  *  *

Our quarters were mirrored on either side of a non-supportive wall. Picard had been right; it would be quite easy to open an access between the two suites. Data's looked much as it had on the Enterprise-D, with the addition of a bedroom, and apparently everything was sufficiently familiar to meet with Spot's approval.

The cat had been beamed up first, directly to her new abode, presumably to avoid confusion - though whether hers or that of the transporter beam was the main concern, I could not have said. She greeted us as if she were in charge of the place, and I suppose she was. Mewling loudly, she seemed almost to point to the replicator, so Data went over to it to list what new feline supplements had been added since he and his cat were last on board a Galaxy Class vessel. I was certain there would be a much wider selection than there ever had been at the Keep. Still, being spoilt is a cat's natural condition. She only puts up with less in case of emergency. I could see that Spot was now back in her natural habitat.

We left her at her bowl to have a look at my quarters. For some reason, I had been given a bedroom too, possibly from lack of imagination; someone had taken the easy way out and simply mirrored everything. "I have no use for a bed except with you", I said. "Yours will do, if we breach the wall. Do you suppose there would be a way to get rid of this room; contract the space? Maybe someone else would have better need of it."

"Perhaps if they had mirrored the complex the other way", he said. "As it is, I doubt you could eliminate a room in the middle. I suggest you leave it; as I said, the Galaxy Class is hardly cramped."

He smiled a little. "And who knows, perhaps you will discover you can dream too. After all, you must have been able to once, when you were human."

"The only dreams I can remember all had you in them", I said. "If I had any before I met you, they must have been wiped.." I knew perfectly well how that sounded, but - the truth is often trite. His emotions chip enabled him to take it for the cue it was; he held me close and kissed me. Long and deep. After all, we had no need to come up for air.

That would be the moment for both our commbadges to chirp. A lousy sense of timing must be a requirement for all commanding officers. "Commander Data to the bridge", said Picard's clipped tones over Data's badge, and over mine another voice demanded, "Assistant Engineer Llin to Engineering. On the double - IF you please.."

I chuckled. I couldn't help it. I only now realized how much I had missed that voice which I had never thought to hear again. LaForge had been the only person I actually enjoyed to have pushing me around. "Acknowledged, Lieut.. Commander", I amended quickly, reading Data's lips. Of course. Time had passed; why should it have passed by such a capable officer as the Chief Engineer of the Federation flagship? I should have thought of it myself.

"Data - are you there?" Picard asked, not quite irritably - not yet, but..

"Yes sir - on my way, sir", Data acknowledged and spun about to leave. "See you tonight, Llin", he said almost wistfully over his shoulder.

"You certainly have learnt to dream", I said. "You're back in the Fleet now, Data. He'll probably give you the night shift as well."

He gave me a stricken look - though I could not quite determine if it was seriously meant. "He would not, not on our first day back. Would he? On the other hand, the night shift used to be mine - most of the time.."

He dived out quickly before there could be another summons.

I was not so lucky. "Llin?" said my commbadge, "You there? You're only ten decks away, what's the problem?"

He must have been running a locate to see if I had moved, damn him. Well, at least he had not come barging in to welcome us back with a couple of bear hugs, which would have been quite like the other side of him I had seen. The fact that he had not, spoke volumes for his sense of tact. Or perhaps he had simply been too busy. On a slow warp out of a standard orbit?

*  *  *  *

Things went smoothly on the surface - even through a couple of minor crises, just enough to win me some peer confidence I was not myself certain I really merited.

But I adjusted smoothly, better than I ever had last time. Perhaps the Lobelians had something to do with that; I certainly found it much easier to be back in humanoid form than I had ever thought possible. I adapted screamlessly, you might say - even to ship's routines. I saw a lot of Data, a lot of LaForge, a lot of them both together; I was happy.

I was not normally allowed on the bridge, though it happened that the occasional opportunity would surface that had not come my way in the old days. But I had my lover, I had my friends - and as far as I could tell, I did not have many enemies. Not one that I could call by so harsh a name, though to my dismay I had noticed Guinan's eyes resting steadily on me, whenever I hit the Twelve-Fore. One of the few subtle differences from the Enterprise-D; on this one, the ship's bar was on Deck 12. I wondered what it would be the next time - the Nine-Aft?

Guinan was still around, but she seemed to have withdrawn the support I had known from her in the old days - or had I ever really had it? The problem with Listeners is that you don't realize until maybe too late, that they say very little - allowing you to form your own image of them. A deadly art, for there is nothing more devastating than the images you yourself custom-make to suit your own psychological makeup. Well, who was I to blame her - we all have our weapons.

Actually, I had been about to enter the very same 12-Fore, when that thought stopped me in my tracks. Because it was such a clear example of what I personally felt was wrong, yet did not feel anyone else had any business guessing at as yet. I had not thought about my actual built-in weapons systems in a long time - for so long that I had not even been in a hurry to have them removed; they seemed to do no harm.

I knew that Data had told Captain Picard everything, and he had agreed to go to Lobelia so I could have my treatment reversed. But since I did not seem to suffer, and the captain was on a high-priority mission of vast diplomatic importance, it would have to wait. I suspected he had given more details of this mission to his First Officer, but I never asked Data about things I could clearly identify as part of his professional life. What he could speak of, I would listen to. Questions he would not answer, I dropped without resentment. I knew he had been given the blunt end of command, along with the honour. I would not make it harder on him.

In fact, I think I often talked about more things with my immediate commanding officer than with anyone else. If Counsellor Troi had still been aboard, I would probably have talked to her. I might not always have taken her advice, but I would have talked to her. But the last time I heard, she was with Captain Riker on the Hawkwind, and as far as I knew, we had no other empaths aboard. We did have another ship's counsellor, but I did not know her and for some reason I was not eager to. Reportedly, she was a Vulcan. While I have always had great respect for their culture, I failed to see how a Vulcan would succeed in a profession dealing largely with emotions and their effects. Then again, I might be missing the point.

That day, once I was through freezing in my tracks and opened the door to the 12-Fore, I caught Guinan's look square in the head as soon as I entered. I did my best to stare her down, but that battle was lost from the start. I would have to talk to her. Could it be possible that she sensed something? Heard something that only I knew? Or was it simply a general antipathy? Somehow I could not believe that. She would have antipathies, that I doubted not, but they would usually be well-founded. Had to be, after several centuries of honing..

Boldly, I stepped over to the bar. I hated the milkwhite light always getting in my eyes and giving everybody a ghostly hue - if not exactly the nosferatu appearance one could have expected - but I would always be back. Everybody was.

Her hat was as huge as ever, her gown as sweeping - and I think they were black this time. It was hard to tell in that strange light. I had seen - or thought I had seen - her in every colour except that one: black. It was as if she had no right to it, though I could not explain the notion. She never wore bright colours, always a sort of baroque tint to them - or perhaps that was the lighting too. I knew that if she ever wore white, I would know it. All other hues were mere guesses, in that light.

She looked at me, quietly attentive. "Can I get you something?"

"Something based on synthehol with a lot og eggs and sugar in it", I said, taken completely by surprise at this sudden craving of which I would not have believed myself capable. I thought of the others' childlike delight in her chocolate sundaes - a taste I found pretty disgusting myself - and wondered if the need for sugar was perhaps programmed into the walls of the place, to make most biological lifeforms boost their energy level here. A sort of refuelling station? "I'm not particular", I 'specified'. "Most cultures would have thought of something along those lines. Pick any one, the colour of the eggs won't matter - not in this light", I added with a critical edge I could not quite keep out of my voice.

She simply nodded and went to mix my drink. Herself. Somehow that told me she was ready for a confrontation. Or at least she knew I was not through talking to her.

Sipping the purple Allurian eggs I knew I had practically asked for, I said, "Now would you mind telling me why you have taken to staring suspiciously at me, each time I walk in here? You never used to be like this. Or perhaps you were, and the joke's on me for never spotting it then. Fact is, you didn't stare so much. I know I don't look the way I did, I know I'm a machine now, but you've been told all about that. So what is it?"

She smiled, but her eyes were not in it, nor had she meant them to be. "Let's say I have acquired a bad feeling about you. One I did not have before. It has nothing to do with you being a machine - or rather", she amended, "it has everything to do with you being a machine. Nothing more specific that that. But every time you walk in that door, I get the distinct feeling you're bad luck. And bad luck can be disastrous to any ship - it has been that way since the Terran clippers, indeed since the first landbeing ventured out upon open liquid of any kind."

Some of my annoyance actually streamed off me. "You think I bring bad luck to the Enterprise? In what way? If you're right, I'd do anything to prevent it."

"Anything? Would you leave Data to prevent it?"

"If that's what it takes." I tried to ignore the serrated vibroblade I felt twisting in my heart. I would not give her the satisfaction. "But it might not be, am I right? You're simply guessing, aren't you? You have nothing to go on, nothing to point to. For all you know, this might be simply your own resentment of gynoids, that you didn't even know you had."

She grinned, almost appreciatively this time. "I can hear you used to be an intuitive yourself. You know all the counter-arguments." Then she turned serious, so serious that for some idiotic reason I felt that it was an honour. "But what if I'm right? Can you afford to ignore the possibility? How do you know you might not in some way present a danger even to Data?"

To say I went ashen might have been a good way to express it, had I been human. As it was, I could not change the exquisite mauve the Lobelians had given me. The old gods of Midgard might know I had tried often enough. "That", I said a little too steadily, "I cannot believe. If I were to harm him, I would short out. I would break down, shut off, go into a permanent loop, whatever - but I could not do anything to hurt him."

She was all ear, dammit. I did not know why I was telling her this; a part of me perceived it as a weakness I would rather she did not know about. The one, blazingly important question was, what part of me, and what did it want from the rest? "As for bringing bad luck to the Enterprise", I resumed, trying to regain some of my assurance, "I shall have to consider that part carefully. For it is a fact that if it came to such extremes, I would sacrifice anything and anyone to save Data's life. In that respect you may well be right. I could be very bad luck.."

I turned on my heel with the intent of leaving her to mull over that. But my sortie was rather ruined by LaForge who had been standing right behind me and was now - intentionally or otherwise - blocking my path. Damn. I wondered how much he had heard. That I was desperately, helplessly in love with his best friend was common knowledge, I knew that, but the hostility I had been feeling while talking to Guinan was mounting, and I had not wanted him to catch that.

I thought he would tease me at the very least, but he did not. Instead he simply said, "I can see something is bothering you, Llin. I've seen it coming for some time now. Care to talk about it over another one of those?" He indicated my all but finished egg drink.

I looked at him for a moment, then gave in. He always was the best one to talk to. Perhaps because unlike Guinan and all the counsellors in the universe, he would answer once in a while, even let himself be provoked. I nodded. "But see if you can find some green eggs this time, for a change", I asked Guinan acidly.

"Green?" LaForge said, arching an eyebrow over his gleaming VISOR.

"Tell me", I said with a toss of my head in the El-Aurian's direction, "What colour is she wearing tonight?"

"Well..", he said, "I couldn't be sure, but based on cross-references between my colour vision and what appears to be the human norm, I'd call it a deep russet."

"Thanks", I said. "It looks black to me, and I just knew that that did not become her."

*  *  *  *

We sat down at a side table, in a niche close by a viewport. Outside, the stars were streaking by. Most people like to view them at sublight speeds, but these slashes of light reminded me of what it was like to soar silently through space at warp four - my maximum speed back then. I had been well programmed, I missed it less than I had thought, but occasionally.. Occasions like this..

"So, what's the problem?" LaForge asked, sitting down with what might and might not have been a sigh.

"I think I must go to Lobelia soon", I said. "To have my treatment reversed." Then it all poured out. I told him all about my weapons systems, about Lore's effort to trigger them - I could see LaForge's jaws clench at that, and I remembered that he had met Lore, more than once, and in the worst way.. I told him about the vague orders I had been given, orders I was supposedly unable to avoid carrying out.

"I don't believe that last", I hastened to assure him, "I'm certain I can counteract them, if the time ever comes for them to surface. But I want to get rid of this programme and all these built-in contraptions, because I've noticed they're affecting me in ways I'm not comfortable with."

"What ways?" he immediately asked.

"Whatever I start out thinking about, I wind up associating it to military strategic layouts, or to weaponry - every social relation becomes a sizing up of armaments, an inventory of my arsenal as compared with that of the other individual, a.."

"Whew", he said, "So what's your opinion of me?"

"On the conscious level, you're my friend and my commanding officer. On this level that I'm talking about, you would make a formidable adversary because of your resourcefulness. I would have to be careful. Physically, in one-on-one combat I could probably take you, but I would always have to watch out for your imagination."

"On - that level - you see me as your enemy?"

"No, that's what's so odd about it. I see everyone as a potential adversary, but there are no feelings involved, and no facts, no probability even. I simply gather the information, store it against the future. Perhaps I'll never use it, but what disturbs me is the kind of information I seem to value."

"Hm", he said, then sat silent for a while. His next question was unexpected. "What have you gathered on Data?"

"Nothing", I said. "There's no need. The Soong models are stronger and more endurable than I am, but that's not the point. Any severe damage to Data would kill me - or the effective equivalent. In that respect, he will of course always be the stronger."

LaForge muttered something even I could not quite hear. I thought it sounded like 'I wouldn't be so sure about that', but if those were his words I could make no sense of them, so I had to assume I had misheard him.

"Do you think this - insight was programmed into you along with your interest in strategy and the like?" he asked then.

I had to ponder that for a moment. I could not quite discount the possibility that Lore might want to protect his brother from my warfare programme. It would be very like him - even if I were the only one left around to think so. On the other hand.. "No", I decided. "That much is me. Or at least it's me too."

"Hm. And what're your thoughts about Lore?"

That one was even more unexpected. It caught me right between the eyes, you might say. "How did you know I had them?" I asked before I thought. Then I realized he must have meant what kind of strategic information, if any, had I gathered about Lore. Too late. In front of his raised eyebrow, there wasn't much I could say.

"I would have preferred to talk to a woman about that", I sighed. "Counsellor Troi, or even Counsellor T'Peil - though perhaps not Guinan. Still, I suppose I might as well go on.. I can't stop thinking about him. No, that's not it either, I don't mean I think about him all the time, but he keeps popping up, as it were. Whenever I seem to run into an injustice, a too rigid way of looking at things, too much yang, if you're familiar with the philosophy of the Tao - then I suddenly know how Lore would look at it, and it appears to be exactly the way I do; it's as if he would use the very words I'm saying when voicing an objection."

"Well, that figures. His view of Federation authority would be part of your subversive programme. While I can see how difficult it must be never to be sure that your views are your own - why did you want to talk to another woman about it?"

I had moved too fast again. Why did he have to pay attention to what I said? At times, he was almost as bad as a Listener. "That's not the worst part", I had to admit. "My particular hell is that they are almost identically built. I don't suppose Data has ever mentioned my fascination with his hands to you.. well, Lore's are exactly like them, and I can't help remembering. Their bodies - even their body heat.."

LaForge nodded. "I get the picture. But listen, Lore raped you. Couldn't this be simply some sort of victim reaction? I'm no counsellor, but doesn't it seem reasonable that you might go into some sort of defence reaction that made you concentrate on the memory instead of burying it - especially as you're not really capable of forgetting anything?"

I shook my head sadly. "It isn't like that. It's more like - pure comparison. As if I had to make certain each time I touch Data that they really are perfectly alike, that nothing has changed. But that is still not the worst part. The worst is looking at his face. Because there they are different. When I see Data's smile, I remember Lore's, and I know how very different they are. I never liked Lore's tightlipped smile, his condescending chuckle, his misguided enthusiasms. But the worst of it, the question I would have wanted to put to another woman and not to Data's best friend, is - why do I sometimes miss those traits? It happens every time Data is too much Starfleet, if you get my meaning. Then I remember his brother's face when indulging in some new scheme, as harebrained as it was insidious - and I miss that face."

"Seems reasonable to me. Part of your programme, pasting an emotional taint on to the ideological structure. Clever. In fact, too clever, because the way you love Data, such a routine is more than likely to backfire."

I shook my head. "I wish that were so. That it were part of my 'subversive programme' as you called it. But I'm not sure it is. The pure fact might be that for all his efforts to find his Shadow, Data is still too saintly for an ex-human like me. I love him to distraction, you know I do, but - what I keep remembering is that undiluted joy in mischief, almost for its own sake, that I so often saw in Lore."

To that he finally had no answer, as I had half suspected he might not.

"My love of Data may well turn out to be the end of me", I resumed, "but he casts no Shadow. He can live without one. Many years ago, I used to be human. It might well be.. that I cannot."

I stood and left quickly. I had said too much as it was.

*  *  *  *

For the first three days after our talk, I fully expected Geordi to tell Data everything about it; after all I had not asked him not to.

But the Chief Engineer held his peace, though I could see that something was bothering him concerning what I had said. Each time I turned up in Engineering, he would greet me absently, a preoccupied look on his face. I knew it was because of me, for it was only as he saw me first time of the shift that he would look so troubled. I was seriously considering a session with the Vulcan counsellor - but I was afraid she might find me unreliable and report it to the captain. At least Geordi knew me from before; if he decided I could not be trusted now, his conclusion would be based on experience, coupled with careful consideration.

I did not talk to Data. I knew I should have, but I could not bear to hurt him - and I felt he might well be hurt if I told him of my memories of his brother. In the old days, I could have told him anything, I realized. He would have reacted but faintly, and he would have brought his diamond-sharp analysis to the problem, in all likelihood dissolving it as if turning ice to water. He was no less the intellectual now, but if that emotions chip worked anything like human feelings, it might cloud his thought processes when he most needed them.

From what I had gathered, it was supposed to work that way. I wished I could have met Dr Soong - talked him out of a few of his wilder experiments..

*  *  *  *

One day, out of the blue - or rather the black, for we were in deep space if also very close to the neutral zone - Picard decided to disclose the secret of his important mission. He could not very well do otherwise, for the upcoming events would involve most everyone on board.

It was really more significant and more hopeful than I could have imagined; he was negotiating for peace with the Romulans. Not alone of course; he had seven skilled ambassadors from five Federation planets, and he was remotely guided by Starfleet admirals every step of the way - but he was actually in the talks, not just hosting them. The Romulans had requested it, because they wanted the opinions of someone well established in the Federation yet still active, no desk-squatter, as they put it, and above all someone who was not a professional ambassador.

For their own part, they had included their most honoured commander - Iunilla Aemilia Parca, of one of their very oldest families - and only one ambassador, a fellow named Lucius something or other. I never got any valid information on who was 'the wooing side', but I had the impression it was the Federation. Whatever, it certainly sounded promising.

The reason Picard felt he had to tell us all, was that the two Romulan negotiators had requested a tour of the Enterprise and were to be given it as a gesture of good faith, which meant that not much would be off limits to them.

I was looking forward to the tour. My preference would have been to actually talk to the Romulans, discuss the science of strategy with them, but I knew that that would probably be out of the question. Still, I wanted to see our guests - I knew Romulans had a certain refined - or perhaps merely decadent - elegance to their warrior culture; nothing burly or uncouth the way I usually thought of Klingons. It was probably just as well that Worf had followed Riker to the Hawkwind. As far as I knew, we had no Klingons on board at present. Still, I supposed they had to be in on this; after all, they were Federation too.

*  *  *  *

My first attempt caught me by surprise - and yet nothing whatsoever came of it. It was during the negotiators' tour of Engineering; LaForge was showing them all he deemed safe for them to know - a delicate balance act, for he was supposed to show them everything, and he must not appear to underestimate them. I could see they were not stupid. The ambassador's mind seemed to wander a couple of times, but that was all. The commander's questions spoke of a keen intellect as well as vast experience, and she never let up.

They were both handsome people, neither in first youth, but they were hardly close to retirement. Given that Romulans practise retirement by other means than ritual suicide - I do not know if that's the case, and space is full of stories.

I was impressed by the ambassador's appearance; I had only seen the ugly, quilted-looking uniform that always looked as if the wearer had forgotten to remove the clothes-hanger when he put it on. The ambassador probably had some military rank as well, but he was not using it for diplomatic pull. He was wearing a simple toga with a sort of golden hemline that probably signified something. Compared to the few Romulans I had seen, he was very tastefully attired.

Commander Iunilla was not in uniform either, probably to seem more peacefully inclined. She was dressed as if for the ballroom - I supposed it was at least for a formal dinner - in a pale green gown that well matched her steely turquoise eyes and flattered her masses of only lightly faded copper hair. Her dress and coiffure both were exquisitely adorned with flowers - live ones as far as I could see.

Engineering had to be their last stop before dinner; I could not imagine them wandering about all over the ship in those outfits, and I had heard that their tour of the ship was divided over a couple of days.

While I listened to Geordi, I was absently putting something together of various odds and ends lying about - some copper wire, a cannibalized battery, several things I was not consciously thinking of while handling. I was quite certain afterwards that I had only been playing aimlessly with them. That they eventually developed into a perfectly functional grenade-type bomb never occurred to me until I had nearly thrown it. I saw the two negotiators off to the turbolift, and I was about to throw the thing after them when they had entered, fling it in between the closing doors.

But the lift was not empty. The doors opened to reveal Data - in dress uniform yet - come to escort them to dinner. My thumb never left the ignition; I withdrew hastily and dismantled the disgusting little weapon. I felt as if my hands were shaking, although I could see that they were not. I did not think Data had seen the bomb - I wondered if LaForge had. But he could not have, could he? For that matter, had he talked to Picard? Or why should the captain send Data for the Romulans - was that really just a coincidence? Just protocol? After all, Data was the First Officer.

I was getting decidedly paranoid and trying my best to stop it; that way madness lurked. Could a machine go insane? I supposed so - could not all thinking beings? I would have to watch myself carefully; apparently my warfare programme would act of its own accord.

As soon as this was over, I would have to get to Lobelia. But there was no way I could persuade Picard to put the Romulans on hold and take me there in the middle of these historic negotiations. I would simply have to restrain myself. To begin with, I had better avoid the Romulans while they were on board.

*  *  *  *

It was as if that decision triggered my next effort. I later had no memory of having left mine and Data's quarters that night - and since I can't really forget anything, that memory must have been wiped by my special programme - but I must have sneaked out at the exact moment the formal dinner was over - how I ever knew that it was, I have no idea. But I do remember sneaking up behind the Romulan negotiators as they were headed for the transporter, both a little tipsy with their own blue ale as well as the Federation's best brandy. And I remember waiting until the captain had turned the corner immediately ahead of them, and the rest of the company was not yet in sight behind them.

I must have done something to release my hand-blades, for I saw them snap out soundlessly, gleaming blue in the night-lit corridor, electric blue, as they say of elven blades on Midgard. I think I was as soundless as my own arming mechanism when I made my attack.

I am sure I would have got the ambassador, but the commander was to his rear right, and she turned. I have never heard that Romulans should have any extraordinary senses apart from the odd occurrence of degenerated touch telepathy, but I can imagine you do not get to be a Romulan commander of such renown by sleepwalking.

I had seen no weapon about her, but her ceremonial dagger whipped out from its thigh-sheath under her skirt faster than I had ever thought a biological being could move, and she plunged it unerringly into my throat - by throwing it and jumping backwards out of my reach. I think I saw Captain Picard reappear around the corner ahead, then I shut down.

It was not a voluntary act, nor should I have needed to go offline, so I could only assume it was a function of my subversive programme. Perhaps to fool others into thinking me a biological humanoid for as long as possible - though the blades must have made them wonder. Or perhaps it was just a way for my clandestine programme to turn control back over to my conscious self - a sort of dual boot with a blackout in-between. I had not read all of my manual.

*  *  *  *

As it turned out, the answer was simpler than that. Somebody had stunned me. Heavy setting too - the overzealous idiot had remembered I was a machine. I concluded it must have been the first Security officer to reach us, as I did not believe those participating in the dinner had come armed to the occasion. Except the commander of course.. well, Romulans had a reputation for treachery, did they not?

I awoke in the brig. Of course. My blades were folded back into my arms; I wondered if that had been an automatic response as I was stunned - I could feel the effects now and knew what had truly taken place - or if somebody had taken the trouble later.

"Readings say she's awake", said LaForge's voice.

I opened my eyes. And stared straight up into a golden face I did not really wish to see right now.

"How are you?" Data asked.

I tried to answer and found that I could not. Tables turned. This time he might have to work on my throat. Unless LaForge could fix it by himself, which seemed likely.

"Data, she can't talk, you know that", LaForge said gently.

Data nodded, then took my hand. "Squeeze my hand if you are all right", he said. So I did, wishing I would never have to let go, and at the same time remembering the same slender beauty of Lore's hands.

Data actually sighed with relief. It should not surprise me; he had most likely been able to imitate the gesture long before he knew what it meant. "I was worried", he said. "I did not know whether your system could take the same stun setting that would be required for me. That is what was used."

I stroked his hand, trying to tell him there were no ill effects.

"Data, she attacked the Romulan peace negotiators", LaForge said. "Had you been armed, you would have had to stun her yourself."

I realized that Data must have been part of the dinner company too. For a moment I froze, then I understood that I could not have subjected him to any danger this time.

"I would not have used the second highest setting", Data said, his voice as clear as ever but not quite steady.

"Then you might have failed." LaForge was silent for a while as if not quite knowing how to put this, then he said, "You realize the captain - or the Romulans - might demand she be deactivated?"

"You mean permanently? In that case, let me remind you that the Federation abolished the death penalty in 2172", Data said evenly, but with an undertone of challenge that had never been there in the old days.

"I guess I meant temporarily - until she can be fixed. But listen, Data - we don't know how the Romulans will react to this. Not only could she have wrecked the negotiations for peace - she might even have overthrown the armistice after all these years."

Data did something I had never seen him do before. He turned his back on his friend and just stood there like that for a long time. I had a distinct feeling he was fighting back tears.

That chip was better than it had any business to be.

*  *  *  *

Data did not ask me why I had attempted to assassinate the Romulan negotiators, and that surprised me, knowing his all-pervading sense of duty and loyalty to the Enterprise, to Starfleet, and by extension to the Federation.

Then I realized he must have seen the weapons built into me, and his powers of deduction were certainly adequate - he would have known right away I had not really been to blame. Also, I supposed LaForge would have told him a thing or two. Nervously, I wondered how much.

But if Data had no questions, his captain had all the more of them. As soon as LaForge declared me fully recovered from the phaser stun and my throat had been patched up, Picard came bounding down to the brig to question me. I said I would answer anything, but I wanted LaForge and Data present. I did not request, I pleaded nicely.

He considered it briefly before voicing his objections. "This is not a formal hearing", he said. "I only want information, so that I may help you if I can. Knowing you from before, I am willing to attribute your recent behavoiur to a malfunction of some kind - which I hope will be sufficient explanation to somehow appease the Romulans, provided the problem can be remedied at once. Data's presence would add formality to my questioning, as we would then have a complete record of anything you say, which Starfleet could use as a basis for demanding a trial. It would be submissible as evidence."

"And mine would not?" I asked. Perhaps he needed reminding that I also was a machine, these days.

He seemed to find some difficulty with my question. I could see he did not enjoy answering it. "You would not be considered objective."

I nodded. "But of course Data would. Emotions chip and all.. our relationship taken into account.."

"I could vouch for his objectivity", he barked. "I have had no reason to doubt the loyalty of Lt Commander Data with or without that chip; I trust him implicitly, just as I do any other feeling member of my crew."

"Granted", I said, emphasizing my ready acknowledgment with a slight wave of one hand. "I agree that he would probably kill me if that's what it took to save the Enterprise.. I was merely suggesting that Starfleet might not see it that way. They would have to go by the letter. And perhaps, by their letters, nothing he said now would be valid evidence. In which case he might be present with no risk of subsequent complications."

Picard glared at me. I had not meant to cast any shadows over his faith in his mechanical First Officer, but - everything has its price. That thought did not quite feel like mine. I wondered slightly how well integrated into my system my 'subversive programme' was by now, and if it would grow less extricable with each time I happened to access it. Not that I meant to access it again - ever.

"I suppose I could always order him not to record", Picard said.

I laughed at that. "Sorry sir - but you can't. He has total recall. You may be able to order many things from him, but amnesia isn't one of them."

The bold captain looked as if he had got a bad taste in his mouth. But he slapped his commbadge without comment, calling Data to my cell.

"I'd also like my commanding officer to be present", I reminded him. He made that call too, ordering LaForge to join us. But as the two officers entered, he told them to stay outside the restraining screen with him. Neither was to enter my cell.

"You two bio lifeforms can stay outside if you feel it's safer", I said somewhat bitterly, "but I'd like Data at my side. Please", I added. All right, perhaps I was a little more shaken by my situation than I had wanted to let on.

I could see that Picard was about to object, when LaForge said, "It's all right, sir. She's unable to harm Data. Physically - and emotionally."

I caught the fleeting look of surprise in Data's golden eyes. How could he not have known that last? Or was he merely surprised that LaForge knew? A brief touch to an outside control, and the screen flickered off to admit him. I did not move until it was back on. Then I took his hand.

The Captain glared at me as if wondering whether this was some sort of charade, and if so why I would stage it.

Sorry, but it was not.

*  *  *  *

Once my politely stated conditions were met, I made good on my word to tell the captain all he wanted to know. While my main reason for wanting LaForge and Data present was my need of support, I also had a practical one. I wanted them to know as much as the captain, and I wanted to make sure that they both knew everything. So I repeated what I had told LaForge earlier about my clandestine programme - though not about my vivid memories of Lore that kept popping up out of context. I hoped Geordi would understand by my omission that I still wanted to keep that part a secret between him and me. Then I added all I could about those recent, unfortunate events.

"The reason I did not tell you before, Captain", I said, "was that I felt I could handle it myself; that I would be able to block my - guerrilla programme until such time as I could go to Lobelia to have it removed. As you can imagine, I'm no longer confident that that is the case. The programme seems to be fully automatic, and once it sets in, it runs its course. I had no conscious wish - or reason - to sabotage the negotiations or to cause any harm at all to the Romulans."

"I believe you", he reassured me, much to my relief. "The question now is, what do we do about it? For my part, I shall try to repair things with the Romulans - that will be some test of my diplomatic skills", he added as if to himself. "At least they haven't left yet, so I must assume they are waiting for an explanation. Which would seem to mean they are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. But your special programme must be disabled at once." He seemed about to order this done on the spot, when something must have occurred to him. "Could you show me your built-in weaponry?" he asked.

Well, he could only have glimpsed two blades quickly, so I tried to comply by unfolding everything built into my arms. Nothing happened. "I don't seem to have it under conscious control", I said in wonderment. Quickly, I accessed my manual. "No, that's correct; I can't access my arsenal system except through my special programme. It'll have to be activated first."

"And how is that done?" he asked.

"Either by sufficient motivation in accordance with my orders to make trouble for the Federation", I said, "or, the way Lore tried to activate it the first time, by a direct attack. I've reason to believe the latter would work instantly now - the safety delay he encountered might have been active only at the initial triggering."

He nodded. "So if Data were to make a threatening move.."

"I think it would take more than a threatening move", I informed him calmly. "I would have to believe I was in danger."

Picard opened his mouth, but Data intervened quickly. "Please sir, do not order me to hurt her."

"I wouldn't advise it, sir", LaForge leant his support, "There is a remote risk the conflict would short him out. Or, since the paradox would be largely emotional, it might burn out the chip."

"It might not work anyway", I said. "I doubt that my defence systems would be activated. Causing harm to Data would short me out, I know that. I don't think he could trigger the programme."

Data looked relieved, but his captain was less than pleased. "I take it your weapons could be examined in their resting position then?" he suggested.

"I suppose so", I said. "If you want to open me up and have a look at them."

He nodded to Data. "Make it so."

Data tried to open the access panel in my arm - and I screamed. He let go immediately and stepped back.

"Sorry", I said. "I seem to have some fierce warning systems surrounding them. I suppose Lore must have deactivated those while he was repairing me." Accessing the manual again, I found the relevant information. "Wrong. They can't be shut off, but they can be bypassed. If you just reach behind my ear and feel around for a latch.."

After some gentle tinkering on Data's part, the captain finally got to examine my weapons. "Quite vicious", he said. "Not that I had much doubt about it." He straightened to his best command posture. "I wish we could go to Lobelia right away, but we have to stay and - if at all possible - mend relations with the Romulans. Such are my orders from Starfleet Command - as if I wouldn't have thought of it myself. But this programme has to be terminated right away. What's your opinion, Chief Engineer - can it be done?"

"Well, I would need Data's help, sir", LaForge said. "He's a different model, but there are things he would know about her setup, or could access faster than I could look them up while working. Timing might be critical. But it should be possible to shut down the programme or put it on hold somehow. Sleep cycles, wait states, whatever. I wouldn't try to dismount her arsenal systems though; I think we'd better wait for the Lobelians to handle that part."

Picard nodded. "Make it so."

*  *  *  *

'Right away' proved not to be feasible till the next day, but I suppose that was fast enough. Except that I spent a worried night in my cell, wondering what could go wrong. Data stayed with me as long as he could, though just as I was about to say I needed to be alone if I was ever going to learn how to handle this, he was called away to the bridge. Then I was alone with my thoughts - and my all too clear memory of Lore's warning not to attempt shutting down my programme without help from the Lobelians.

In the morning, they came for me. I had the impression LaForge had just woken up, so I asked him if he had had breakfast. I would not wish him to get to work on this without having eaten first. He reassured me with a grin; he had indeed had breakfast; he had had the same thought about important work on an empty stomach.

"Before you two get started", I said, "There's something I'd better tell you. Before I left the Keep, right after he had done his repair work on me, Lore practically begged me, Don't try to shut it down before you reach Lobelia - promise me that. You can't do it on your own, so don't attempt it - please."

I quoted verbatim but did not use Lore's voice - I wasn't sure I could have. But I did my best to relay some of the strange urgency I had heard in his words.

Data frowned. "Normally I would not believe a word my brother says, but I should have thought he could think of better safeguards for his investment than simply trying to invoke your good will." He glanced worriedly at his friend. "Geordi, are you absolutely certain we can do it?"

LaForge had opened an access panel amid my masses of hair and was now shining a light into my head. "Don't see why not. 'Least I can't spot anything that might go wrong. That's not to say it can't of course, but it does look a lot simpler than I had expected. My greatest fear was that both systems would be hopelessly intertwined, but they are about as separate as the voluntary and autonomous nervous systems in a human, I would say."

"You cannot shut down either one of those", Data said, and I added,

"You're not to touch the hardware - just disable the programming. I thought we had all agreed on that."

"All right, all right, I wasn't going to meddle with your actual weapons system. I was only making a point. Data, can you have a look at the software? But have a peek at these leads first. With the physical systems as separately controlled as this, I don't think the programming could be exactly tangled. Especially as we know the weapons part was added later." He looked down at me. "Do you mind if I connect you to the screen over there? I'd like to be able to reference your manual while we're working."

I had been about to suggest it myself.

*  *  *  *

After about half an hour, came the first subdued 'Uh-oh', from LaForge. It was not what I would have liked to hear.

Data was working silently with my subversive programme displayed on a small console to my right, while LaForge was examining leads and comparing all connections with my schematics as shown on the larger screen - for future reference, he had said, but also to verify the existence of every connection controlled by the individual routines.

At his friend's soft comment, Data looked up. "My thought exactly."

"Come on, you two", I said anxiously. "What's wrong?"

"You are booby-trapped", Data said, his voice unnaturally level, but I could see the anguish in his golden eyes. "I will endeavour to work around it, but I shall have to be very careful."

I stared up at the ceiling. "That what Lore was talking about?"

"It may well be. I can safely say that had it been obvious from the start, we never would have made the attempt."

"Data, don't try to shut anything down, that'll probably trigger it for sure", LaForge cautioned his friend. "Just see if you can suspend it - preferably until we can get her to Lobelia. Failing that, simply leave everything as it is and I'll close her up."

Data glanced at him. "Do not worry, Geordi, I am not going to attempt a full shutdown of the programme after discovering this. However, I must do something. Our tampering in itself seems likely to trigger a mechanism that will probably become fully active once all panels are closed. I can no longer leave things as they were."

I closed my eyes. I trusted Data with my life, always had, but I wished it had not come to the actual test in this way.

*  *  *  *

It was an insidious trap. In the end there proved to be things that not even Data could do. I felt something snap, then something I can best describe as a cool, silent ticking.

"Damn!" Data said. There was more despair than anger in his voice, but all the same I suspected the curse was an unaccustomed mannerism for him, even with the chip. It spoke volumes against the safety of my situation.

"Get out of here quickly, both of you", I said. "No need for more than one of us to blow."

LaForge glanced quickly around the part of Engineering we were in. Data made a dismissive gesture with his head. "Get out, Geordi. I'll stay. Perhaps there is still something I can do."

LaForge, about to turn, stopped firmly in his tracks. "I'm not leaving you."

"Geordi!" Data pleaded. Then his manner changed. "Get out, that is an order."

I wondered if it would work. As First Officer, Data outranked his friend, if not by actual rank. On the other hand, the Chief Engineer was on his own turf and consequently in command. Hierarchies are tricky structures.

"I haven't blown yet", I said. "Is there some kind of time limit on this thing?"

Data looked closer. Apparently the timer was well hidden, but he found it. "I do not understand", he mused. "It is set for 30 Federation standard days. It would seem there is no immediate need for you to evacuate after all, Geordi."

LaForge joined him at the display, looking just as puzzled. "Why such a generous time limit?"

"There can be only one reason. To give Llin time enough to reach a Lobelian workshop - or the equivalent. The trap was not meant to destroy her except as a last resort. It was probably intended to put pressure on her - and on us."

"What do you mean by equivalent? I thought the Lobelians were her only chance."

Data shook his head. "The Keep."

LaForge looked decidedly shaken. "You mean - your brother did this to her?"

Data's lips tightened - in that moment he looked very much like Lore. "The Lobelians never would have treated a living being this way. Even if they were less scrupulous than they are accounted for, the risks would be too great. They would stand to lose their main business, if but one such incident got out. I would not put it past my brother though. And he had ample time while effecting his 'repairs'."

LaForge whistled. "So he repaired the damage he'd done only to inflict a deadlier one. Sounds like him."

"Very. But it stands to reason that he can also remove it. That must be why he set such an expansive time limit."

I noticed that he was deliberately avoiding the term 'deadline'.

"He has granted us time enough to return Llin to him." I could hear the slight tremor in Data's voice as he said that, and I knew that Lore had better watch out after this. Once Data had forced him to remove the booby-trap, Lore might not even be worth his scrap value. "I hope he is still at the Keep.." Data added as a wistful afterthought. I wondered if Lore had just managed to override his brother's ethical programme again - inadvertently this time..

"The trap is set then?" I asked. "Irrevocably? I mean, if Lore can remove it, why can't you?"

"Access code", he said curtly. "I just found it."

"If anyone can break it, you can." I tried to sound encouraging, though I was feeling pretty miserable.

"I cannot risk it. I might break more than the code. I have already tampered too much."

"What happens if you just disable the timer?" I asked. "Physically, I mean?"

"You don't want to know", said LaForge. He was probably right.

"Without the timer, detonation will be instantaneous", Data confirmed.

"I take it it'll be a powerful one", I said with an attempt at misplaced levity. "I'll go out in style.."

"It might actually pose some danger to the Enterprise", said Data, though he seemed to find the words hard to come by.

That yet.

"Yeah, if we were to disable the timer for any reason at all, we'd better separate the ship first", LaForge agreed. "But we're not going to. Is it safe to close her up, Data? I mean - apart from.."

Data nodded. "I am doing that now."

The screen and the little side-display both went blank as connections were pulled, and I felt my access panels latch into place. Data's hand lingered after closing the last one, somehow moving on to stroke my hair. I looked up at his worried face.

"Do you think a kiss would trigger anything explosive?"

*  *  *  *

According to LaForge, Captain Picard had been clearly frustrated at not being able to act on their report at once. He had to stay put until the Romulan situation was resolved - one way or the other. Me, I was confined to quarters for the time being. I took that as a gesture of compassion on the captain's part, though I regretted not being able to go to work. Of course, I could understand Picard's misgivings. He could not very well let me have the run of the ship with my special programme virtually intact. Even if he could have, it would hardly have smoothed things with the Romulans.

I was supposed to be under Data's surveillance, but he was needed on the bridge more often than not, and usually I found myself alone with Spot whom I pampered mercilessly. The quietude of our rooms helped me to actually feel the timer - that cool, silent ticking - so that I would know the second I might present a danger to the cat. I was not sure what I would do if the ticking stopped, but I hoped I would have the chance to get as far out of harm's way as possible. A month was a long time, but I could not be certain I really had that much. Perhaps something might trigger the trap prematurely.

Whatever might, sex was not it. Data had calmly opted to continue our intimate life, and my new alertness to my own inner workings told me the danger would be minimal, so although I still felt inordinately reckless for it, I had decided to let him risk it. The constant menace added something; we both made love as if each time were to be the last.

Romulan diplomacy was a tricky procedure at best, and because of me, the situation was not the best. A week passed, and nobody seemed any closer to a solution - yet the Romulans still had not left in a huff. It did not seem likely that they would, any time soon, if they had waited this long. Picard was getting frustrated; he had hoped to at least see his escape - and mine - on the horizon by now.

One day Geordi came on a social visit - I assumed, though I was a little surprised that he would have an offshift in ship's midmorning; usually he was required to follow the ship's arbitrary circadian rhythm. Most of the time that worked out fine; maintenance on systems that were less heavily used at night was carried out by his personnel on rotating shifts. Such work did not normally include the engines. Maintenance on the warp engines required taking them offline, on the impulse ones it called for shutting them down. In general, that was almost as inconvenient at night as at any other time, so Geordi might as well do it in the daytime, if he had to be personally present. And we did have service windows - I knew the Engineering schedule by heart of course.

The day he came to visit me, he sat talking for a while, mostly bringing me up to date on work issues, as if he had really only come to keep me company for a while. Then he said, "Actually, I came to escort you to shuttlebay three. I suppose Data will be there now, waiting for you. There was something the captain needed him to do first, but I was to take you down there about now. You're going back to Lore's retreat planet by hop, skip, and jump, since the captain can't see any way of taking the Enterprise anywhere near the place right now. Just for convenience's sake", he made a face, "we're out of shuttle range of all starbases at the moment, and a regular rendezvous with another ship would be too precarious given the delicate diplomatic situation", His mobile face again showed me exactly what he thought of over-sensitive diplomats. "But the Hawkwind of all ships is close enough to pick up a shuttle, while staying well out of transporter range. So.."

A subroutine of my special programme clicked in, unbidden. "Galaxy Class starships are deployed in a very dispersed, so-called disrupted symmetrical pattern", I pointed out. "So what is the Hawkwind doing this close? It isn't as though the galaxy were swarming with the big, topclass Federation vessels."

"Knock off the military survey", Geordi said steadily. "It isn't you."

"I know. But I see no risk to anyone at the moment. It was only an observation."

He stared at me, long and hard. I had known him long enough to interpret his VISORed gaze perfectly, by his face and the tilt of his head. Then he said, "I suppose it's a question of pull. You know who's captaining the Hawkwind."

I felt a surge of warmth that Picard would have done this for me. "I suppose this means I'll be welcome back when I've got rid of the boobytrap and my special programme?"

He seemed very surprised that I should have to ask. "Of course. You're logged as on sick leave right now and up until you've had your treatment. Then I'll expect you right back at your station", he added - sternly, but I had grown sensitive to nuances in his voice also. So I asked, "How come you're trusted to escort me to the shuttle bay? What if I suddenly run amok again?"

"The captain and I consider that highly unlikely with no Romulans aboard", he said. A pause, then, "All right, I volunteered. I wanted to say goodbye to you - in case, I mean, I just wanted to say goodbye, that's all."

I nodded. "In case things don't work out. Well, there are no guarantees in the universe, that's what makes it such a worthwhile place to be." I sighed. "What about Spot? How long will Data be gone; I assume he's to take the shuttle back?"

"He'll go with you all the way. To hold your hand throughout the treatment. Don't worry about Spot, I'll take care of her while you're gone - I usually do."

"You mean the captain will spare his First Officer for several weeks in the midst of these awkward negotiations? Just to 'hold my hand' as you put it? Lore might remove the boobytrap quickly enough, I don't know - but then I'll have to go on to Lobelia for the actual reversal treatment. And that treatment might take a lot longer; I know I had a period of convalescence too, last time. It isn't likely to be any different this time."

"The captain will spare Data for as long as it takes", Geordi assured me. "He isn't emotionally dense, you know. He knows you need Data with you now. And he knows Data needs to be there. Besides, he's met Lore - once too many, as he put it - and he's not about to trust him alone with you."

"Hes got a pointe there", I conceded. "Well, shall we go then?" I stood, and so did LaForge.

"There's just that little matter of saying goodbye.." he said. He stepped up to me and hugged me, and I gave him a quick peck on the cheek in acknowledgment. Chances were I would be returning in a few weeks; I didn't want to get all mushy with my C.O.

But I may have dropped a stray tear in Spot's coat as I said my farewells to her. From the green glare I got, I concluded that I probably had.

Data was waiting, as Geordi had assumed. He relayed the captain's wellwishes and hope for a speedy return. We boarded the shuttle and stood for a while just inside the closed hatch, just holding each other and kissing for so long that Geordi's voice sounded slightly worried over the speakers as he asked if we were ready to leave.

The trip over to the Hawkwind was only a matter of hours, but I always relished every moment Data and I could have to ourselves. On the Enterprise we never had much control of our own time. Even if Picard had begun to think twice about calling Data to the bridge in the middle of his offshifts..

*  *  *  *

We were met in the Hawkwind's shuttlebay by Lt Cmdr Worf and Counsellor/Cmdr Troi. Worf glared benignly at us both, and the counsellor hugged us, not at all taken aback by my current appearance - I suppose my emotional setup was pretty much the same. Except for the strength of it perhaps, for she congratulated us radiantly, saying she always knew we were a natural couple (I could remember a time when she had not thought so, but I was not about to hold that against her now) but it was not often she had the pleasure of sensing such love even in the most starcrossed relationships. I though of the present threat to my life adding its shadow to the effect - but I said nothing. She seemed so happy for us I did not want to cloud her experience, if indeed she sensed nothing wrong.

Amid her happy chatter and the occasional pleased grunt from Worf, we were led through the corridors toward the turbolifts. The Hawkwind seemed familiar yet strange, as for some reason any part of her design that could be mirrored, was. As compared with the Enterprise, that is. For all I knew, half of Starfleet's Galaxy ships were mirrored off the other half; I had not been on any besides these two.

Captain Riker met us in the Observation Lounge. He looked a little slimmer than when I had last seen him aboard myself as the Llinhwyfar, so I knew he had been hard at his exercises. There were a few grey strands in his beard, though none in his hair as yet. Well, people are ageing almost as slowly as cats these days.

He was surprised to see me in my present state, and I caught him looking at me from time to time, as though he could not really get over it. Perhaps it was my mauve skin. He might not have been warned about that little detail.

A slender, middleaged woman rose out of her chair and came over to us, he hand outstretched. "Good to see you again", she said with a wry smile. "If 'again' is the right word", she added, looking at me. "Well, I suppose you won't be needing my services this time, but if there's anything I can do to help.."

"Dr Pulaski!" I beamed, "It certainly is good to see you again. I had no idea you were stationed on the Hawkwind!"

"It hadn't been decided yet when I talked to you about my reassignment", Riker said. "She came later. Well, I see you did find him again.. even brought him back to the fold.." He nodded towards Data who seemed suddenly as disoriented as he often did in the old days.

"Actually, returning him to Starfleet was Picard's idea", I said. "Putting me back on the Enterprise was mine."

"And mine", Data calmly assured Riker. "I am First Officer of the Enterprise now", he added as an afterthought, in case his old friend would not have been brought up to date on recent events.

Riker nodded. I caught his glance at Data's Lt Cmdr pips, and so did Data himself, but Riker did not comment and neither did we. The good captain would be quite familiar with the difficulties involved in promoting an android.

We all sat down to a quick briefing. I saw a couple of warm glances pass between Troi and Worf and was surprised. But maybe captaining the Hawkwind and courting the counsellor had grown to be too much for Riker. I wondered a little about Troi's tastes in men though - but, to each her own.

"You understand that I can't take you all the way to your present destination", Riker said, giving us one of his serious-minded, ice blue stares. I had understood nothing of the sort, but I assumed Data had been briefed, so I nodded anyway.

"I wish I could", Riker resumed, "but there's no way I can take the Hawkwind that far off her course right now - we're in the middle of an important mission."

"Isn't everybody these days?" Pulaski and I commented simultaneously, then grinned at each other. Data glanced from one of us to the other in mild surprise.

Riker looked annoyed but chose not to comment. "What I can do", he said, "is take you as far as Starbase 367 and drop you off there, but you will have to find your own transport for the rest of the way. Depending on the outcome of my mission, I might be able to pick you up again after you've completed your errand, but I'll make no promises for now. I certainly can't wait around for you, I hope you realize that."

Data nodded. "Captain Picard told me. We thank you for going this far out of your way to help. I foresee no need for any further assistance, once we are on Starbase 367. You have been most kind."

I knew it to be the truth, I knew there must be strong reasons for not diverting the Hawkwind too long for the mere purpose of saving the life of one gynoid - all the same I wished Riker had not been so stiff about it. Still, that had always been his way when faced with unpleasant priorities, so I suppose in a way he was on our side. Deep down.

*  *  *  *

We made it to Starbase 367 without incident, while spending some wonderful days on the Hawkwind. Nobody had thought of confining me this time, and as Data sometimes lent a hand on the bridge, I would do the same in Engineering. Other than that, we were mostly left alone. Once or twice we met the counsellor for a quick drink and a chat in the ship's bar, but that was roughly the extent of our socializing. We did spend quite a lot of time in our cabin, but I had the feeling that those who knew us understood. If not, I was certain the counsellor could inform them.

Once on the starbase, we decided we had better not waste time. Data had tried to send messages to his brother by way of the starbase, to advise him of our arrival, but there was no answer. We could not find an available pilot, so we rented a small 'trading' ship - which had most likely been used for smuggling, for it certainly had the required speed and agility - named the Goldbottle of all things. She made it to Lore's planet in just over four days.

We found the Keep empty but for the eagle in the attic and the little artificial marmoset who had had a recent addition to her programme; she was now capable of feeding the eagle at regular intervals. Once we saw the wolf roaming about; he had been let loose so as to be able to feed himself, but for some reason he still stayed in the vicinity.

"With all these preparations, it looks as if Lore means to be gone for quite some time", I said. "And we have no idea where. On the other hand, we don't know how long ago he left either."

"That much we can find out at least", Data said, discarding some of the worry I had seen on his face since we landed. I followed him down into the cellar, where he checked the computer logs. "He seems to have left two days after we did. There are no entries since then."

I nodded. "So he's already been gone for quite some time. Not that it helps much; we still don't know when - or if - he plans to return."

"Oh, I think he will return", Data said. "He has not closed down the place completely; the Keep was not locked, the computer has been left running, and there is a reasonably limited supply of food for the eagle. About three weeks' worth left, I should say. But you are right, we cannot wait around here on the off chance that he will come home before it is too late.." He did not seem to want to dwell on that. "Lobelia is the logical second choice. They might be able to at least neutralize the trap, if not remove it."

"They would have to override Lore's access code", I pointed out. "Do we have that much faith in their skills?"

"I do not see that we have a choice. They should have had to deal with enough unknown access codes in their day, should they not?"

"Perhaps", I said. "And you're right, our choices are severely limited. Leave a note for Lore, then let's be on our way. We should make Lobelia in just under two days with the Goldbottle."

*  *  *  *

Eight hours out, we passed through a milky shimmer that we took to be some sort of gas cloud, although it did not register on any of the Goldbottle's somewhat outdated scanners. There was a puzzling shudder, as if the ship had nudged against something - equally unregistered in that case - and then we had clear space again. We went over all our instrument logs, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

We reached Lobelia when expected, but our orbit broke early due to what was really a minor malfunction, although it proved to have some devastating effects. In the end we had to make an emergency landing - which avoided actually totalling the ship but still set us down hard enough to disable her.

"Are you all right?" we both asked each other at the same time, while running our selftests. Taking my question for sufficient answer, Data helped me to my feet and kissed me. Then we looked out the half-open, damaged hatch.

Desert. I remembered a small desert area just across the river from the central city and main space port. "We have a long way to go", I said. "Through sands and high water, if I'm correct. But we should be able to make it. Question is, how long will it take?"

"Twelve hours or so", Data said. "Are you quite sure you have no ruptures anywhere?"

"You mean the sand might..? Oh, of course - the water. Might short us out if we have cracks.." I ran appropriate parts of my selftest again. "Nothing", I said. "You?"

He shook his head. "My surface seems to be intact." He went over to the instrument panel and ran a few checks on the ship as well. "However, the Goldbottle is clearly defunct. We will not be able to take off in her, at least not without repairs."

"There goes our refund", I said. "What about insurance - did you sign up for one?"

"It is on Starfleet", he said sheepishly. "Captain Picard told me I could draw any transports on the service account, since he was unable to provide transport himself. He will not be pleased.."

I laughed, then checked myself with a hasty look at my lover. I did not mean to sound unkind or ungrateful, it was just that.. oh well. I suppose I shall always have it in for authority. Not that 'always' means much any longer.

"But the real problem is time", Data reminded me needlessly. "We had better start walking right away. And when we are through here, perhaps it would be best to find another transport rather than wasting time on repairing this one."

I could see the wisdom in that. The cold ticking was ever with me - as if I needed any reminder.

We started hiking through the sands. Fortunately, there was no wind. It made the sun hotter, but it kept our ears, mouths, and eyes free of sand that might otherwise have got at our inner workings. The heat caused our cooling systems to work overtime though, and we panted as if we were short of breath which was not the case. I quickly accessed my online manual to verify that I was air-cooled too. I assumed it was the more elegant solution; water or other coolants might be hard to come by, but air was generally present - or at least most of the time.

The desert band was not as wide as I had feared. We had come down closer to the river than to any fertile land behind us. We walked right up to the water and stood on the quay for a while, assessing the river. I had not paid much attention while the Goldbottle passed over it. I remembered it as wide, though not quite this wide, and I had no memory of the ships. But they would have been too small to spot from even a low orbit. There were quite a few of them busily trafficking the river, some of them were even steamers, and once I thought I saw a sailing vessel. Some distance to our right was a long pier.

"We don't know if we can climb out on the other side", I mused.

Data gave me a brief smile. "This river is affected by the tidal effect of the two moons. There should be stairs down to the lowest mark, for use when the boats are lying dry. Moorings might need to be slackened if nothing else. I do not think we shall have a problem."

He did have a point. I should have thought of it myself, but Midgard is a planet of seas, not tightly bound rivers, and its single moon does not have much pull. Soon we managed to find some of the stairs on our side - all flooded now - and started down.

Walking across the bottom was fascinating, although the river seemed to be dying, for there was not much plant life. The most frequent creature was a kind of large eel - I wondered what it lived off. Probably other eels. Mostly I saw them as passing shadows; the dying water was very clear but we were about 20 meters down in midstream and it was too dark to see well. I took Data's hand so as not to get lost, and I could sort of sense him smile at me, although I could not see it. All in all, it was a sweet experience, walking hand in hand on the bottom of the river, knowing it to be busy on the surface while we were relishing the deep silence and eternal stillness in its depths.

We climbed out wringing wet, ignoring the occasional curious glances from passersby who did not stop. The central city and port of Lobelia was a big and busy place; I had heard of pre-spacetravel civilizations that had been so involved with their own affairs that they had noted their first visit from extraterrestrials only to ignore it for lack of time. A millennium ago, that might have been a Lobelia's story as well.

Our clothes had time to dry while we walked through the streets, looking for the famous cybernetics centre. We both knew where it ought to be, but the Lobelians had been busy; the city layout was not quite the same any more. We found it odd that so much could have changed since we were there last. Still, it was not impossible, and neither of us had any information on Lobelian predilection for rearranging their environment. If their cybernetic skills were any indication, they liked to build things.

We tried to ask for directions, but communications were less than perfect, and we did not fully understand the answers we got. Finally someone walked with us, taking us to a large, pale yellow building situated just about where the cybernetics centre had been. We had passed it a couple of times, but the signs said it was a hospital, and there was no reference to cybernetics research. This time, giving up on any better directions in the streets, we went in and asked the hospital's pathfinding computer for directions to the cybernetics centre. It came up blank.

Data sighed. "Do you know the names of the people who treated you here?" he asked.

I shook my head. "There was one they called Lys - I had the impression it was an abbreviated, possibly affectionate form of her real name."

He searched for a while. "There is a Dr Lystine Aur listed as working in this hospital, a researcher mainly - only she seems to be a biochemist, not a cyberneticist. Do you think that might lead somewhere?"

"Not really, but I'd be glad to talk to a Lobelian scientist - any Lobelian scientist. Though for all we know, Lystine might be the most common name on Lobelia."

"No", Data said, "it is not. It is in fact highly unusual here. However, it is much more common on Arethe, the next planet inward. She may have originated there."

I waved my hand dismissively. "Whatever. Is she in?"

"Just a moment.. Yes, she is. Fifteenth floor. The lift is straight ahead."

Dr Aur was that kind of physician who may have five deadlines to meet as well as seven ulcers to bother her but who will never let it show when talking to a patient - or a potential patient. She listened to us, then explained very gently and thoughtfully that no, she did not know of my contract. That is how she started out. Only after letting that sink in, she added that in fact she had never seen an android - or a gynoid for that matter. And that she was pretty sure there was no such thing as a cybernetics institute on Lobelia. She looked very sad about it too. I had the impression she did believe us - without any demonstrations at that - but there had to be some mistake. She even called in a colleague of hers, a male Lobelian who did nothing much to hide his opinion that he was far too busy for this. He gave her the same answers she had been giving us, and I had the impression he was telling the truth.

When he left again, Dr Aur promised us she would look into the matter. Perhaps if we would come back the following day, she would be able to offer some more information.

"Thank you", I said, "but it won't be necessary. We have to leave tonight." From the corner of my eye, I saw Data nod. He must have come to the same conclusion that I had.

"But I want to help if I can", she insisted. "Can't you stay just one more day? Your case interests me very much; I would like to find out what happened to your contract - and, most of all I suppose I'd like to find out whether we really have something like cybernetics research on Lobelia", she admitted with what probably passed for a Lobelian grin. "Also, there are lots of questions I would like to ask you two - I did not know that artificial life was possible. My shift will be over in two more hours - how about dinner? Or can't you eat?"

She certainly had the characteristic Lobelian interest in cybernetics. I gave in. We promised to meet her by the gate when her shift ended.

*  *  *  *

It was already getting dark. I have never understood species who can eat heavy meals so late in the day, but it does not bother me now the way it once used to.

In a couple of days, it won't bother me at all.

"Cybernetics work has always been Lobelia's main business as well as her pride and joy", Data mused. "It has never been clandestine."

"Yes, I thought of that", I said. "Something is decidedly odd. Maybe we should have left right away. But she seems so kind and interested - surely one more day couldn't hurt?"

He made that little clicking sound of doubt from the corner of his mouth, accompanied by a half shake of his head - to one side only. A gesture I had come to love very early in our first acquaintance. "That depends on what difficulties we may encounter in getting out of here", he said. "Which in turn may depend on exactly how we got in."

"You have a theory as to what happened?" I asked.

"I do - and I should think that so do you."

"I wouldn't call it a theory", I said ambiguously. For some reason I was not yet ready to say out loud what I knew. I tried to convince myself it was because I was not yet certain. But deep down I was.

We had expected some kind or restaurant, but Dr Aur would not hear of it. Instead she invited us to her home and cooked for us herself, using her replicator for the ingredients only. I was certain this was not how she usually prepared her meals, so I tried to feel honoured. I think Data did the same.

During dinner she asked so many questions I imagined I could feel my database draining up, but I answered them readily enough. Data sometimes shot me a worried look, and in general he tended to clam up whenever he could do so gracefully.

Dr Aur persuaded us to stay the night - she seemed totally unaware that we did not need to sleep. Since that was about the only question she did not think of asking, we both pretended we did. I suppose we both felt deeply the need to be alone.

*  *  *  *

In the morning, before she cheerfully went off to work, obviously eager to begin her research - research that I for one knew would yield no results - Dr Aur told us she was sorry we could not stay another night, because the Bard was in the city, and we really ought to hear him. There would be a performance tonight, she was going and she was certain she could get us in too.

After getting over the first emotional jolt at her words, I asked her if the Bard's name was Garth. It was. I wanted to decline firmly, but Data held out half a promise that maybe we could be back that night.

"Splendid!" she said, her violet face beaming all over. "Meet me here then, if you can make it. I'll take you to the show."

Once she was out of earshot, I groaned. "That yet! Whatever made you agree to it?"

"I did not agree, precisely because I did not know how you might feel about it. I merely stated that perhaps we could make it. I would very much like to see the Bard."

"You're supposed to go there to hear him."

"Naturally I shall enjoy listening to him; his is a remarkable talent. But I also want to see what he looks like here and now. It might help us determine where we are in time - how far, if at all, into Lobelia's past we have come."

"I thought that was why you seemed uneasy about Dr Aur's questions. You weren't certain it was our place to ignite the famous Lobelian passion for cybernetics. Well, you can relax. We're not in Lobelia's past. This is a parallel Lobelia."

"What makes you so certain?"

"Dr Aur. She's identical with the Dr Lys - or Lystine - who treated me. It's the same woman. And she's not a day older or younger, if I'm any judge."

"And are you?"

"96 % probability. I got to know her pretty well back then - or over there, as the case may be. After spending time with her here, I'm certain. And I'm also convinced that in this place she really doesn't know anything of cybernetics. Although she'd very much like to."

"It seems likely that you are right. My xenocultural database is extensive, but it holds no information of any known period in time when Lobelia would have utilized steam ships concurrently with replicator technology. I had hoped that the Bard's apparent age might give us a clue."

"The fact that he's here at all might be clue enough. I don't think he ever was contemporary with steamships, not in any spacegoing culture at any rate - ye gods!" I shouted, stopping in my tracks. "I hope it is spacegoing!"

Data merely glanced at me. I wondered if I was detecting a slight hint of condescendence in those amber eyes, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I would deem it highly likely that the Bard arrived by some sort of spacegoing vessel", he said.

I made a face. "Unless he got here by steamer..", I said. Lame, because I could not really see Garth as a native Lobelian in any universe.

*  *  *  *

It was Garth all right. He looked just like he had the last time I saw him, roughly the same amount of silver among the gold of his hair. My feelings were decidedly mixed. In one far-away corner of my being it was very good to see him again. The rest of me just wanted to leave - fast. Data and I knew by now for a fact that this Lobelia had space travel - we had spent the day looking for the space port which was a longer distance from the city than on the Lobelia we had known. We had not gone all the way out there, yet close enough to see a few telltale landings and takeoffs. The way I saw it, we really did not have to sit through this whole show; we might leave as soon as it was socially correct in regard to Dr Aur.

But you don't walk out on the Bard until he is through. To my knowledge, nobody ever did in all the years I spent with him - nobody could. They stayed as if glued, no matter if their feet, behinds or various other parts were killing them; they had to hear more, as long as they were gracefully granted any more to hear. Spellbound might be a good word for it, except that Garth was always utterly pragmatic; he cast no spells. He had his skill, his harp, and his voice - and that was always enough.

And yet I had never seen him draw an audience like this one. I was impressed by Dr Aur's influence; I could not imagine how she got us in. We were in an arena that could have staged a fairsized battle - though the accoustics were impeccable - and the place was absolutely packed. I took this as yet another sign that we were not where we had started from, because Garth had never been this popular on our plane of existence. Those who heard him never forgot, and they would always be back, but it would generally take a first time. His reputation had not travelled ahead of him, the way it seemed to do here.

I shall frankly admit it - I could not leave either. I never could. And I could see the same effect on Data - with some regret, as he had not been so easily impressed in the old days, before the chip. How often do we not mistake deficiency for superiority.

Once the show was over, Data thanked Dr Aur for her kindness, while voicing our regrets that she had not found any of the information she sought. She on the other hand seemed quite undaunted; I had a distinct impression she would not give up so easily.

Then Data said he would like to meet the Bard.

The doctor laughed, saying her influence did not quite extend that far, but we might be lucky if we moved quickly. She pointed to where the dressing rooms were supposed to be, but said that for her own part she would have to go home now; she had to get up early in the morning.

"As do we, if we are to catch an early flight out", Data said with a bow. We said our farewells rather briskly, then Data pulled me through the crowd in the direction of the stage complex.

"If you think for one minute that I will seek out Garth..", I began.

He spun around and took me in his arms with a pleading look. "I merely want to know if he recognizes you. We do not even need to talk to him. If he sees you, that will be sufficient. Then we will know for certain whether this is a true parallel - or if something simply went awfully wrong at some point in time after we were here last. He did see you after your initial treatment, did he not? He should know what you look like now?"

"Certainly. He came to see me a couple of times to explain why he had not yet raised the money to pay for my treatment", I said. "He knew, all right. Back there, anyway."

Garth was standing by a side exit, apparently just about to make his escape. A minor throng was blocking his way, touching him, asking questions.. We made it through easily, trying not to shove too blatantly, although the crowd more or less seemed to expect it.

We stood for about two minutes right in front of Garth, but all he did was look up questioningly, as if wondering what we wanted, but not at leisure to ask, because he was busy answering questions from other directions. I am sure he saw us. So was Data, because as a final test he called out my name: "Llin, we had better go now.."

Data's voice does not have Garth's sexy streak, nor is it as captivating as the Bard's, but it is the clearest, most audible voice I know - save for one other. I saw that Garth heard him, but there was no reaction in those blue eyes. I sighed with relief as we left.

"He doesn't know me here", I said once we were out of the stage area, too pleased to refrain from stating the obvious.

"No, it would seem that this is truly a parallel Lobelia", Data agreed. "All the same.."

"Now what?"

"I gather from conversations in the crowd that the Bard will give another performance tomorrow night. Perhaps we should - remake his acquaintance as it were."

"Not on your life!" I spat. "Besides, we wouldn't stand much chance. He's too famous here. We wouldn't get close, at least not long enough."

"If he is the same man here, he would notice you eventually. It would be only a matter of time."

"You trying to unload me?" All right, it was vicious, but I really had no wish to get involved with Garth in a place where I could finally avoid it. "I'm sorry", I said immediately as I saw Data's wounded look, "I didn't mean that. It's just that I don't.."

"Do not say anything like that again", he said softly. "Please."

I kissed him, long, and a little harder than humanly possible to take. Being artificial sometimes has its advantages. "I won't", I said. "But I really don't want anything to do with Garth. Please don't make me."

"I would not. Even if I could. It was merely a suggestion."

"You could make me do anything, if you half tried", I muttered. "But I feel that Garth has been trouble enough in our own universe; I don't want to go through it again on this side of things. Why the suggestion?"

"I was thinking that if he were - well, infatuated with you, he might be persuaded to provide us with transport out. He could drop us off at some starbase where we could find a transport of our own, then I have a reasonably good idea of where to go after that."

"If he got infatuated with me, his first ambition would be to get rid of you. He certainly would not do us both a favour. I know Garth. No, it's not a viable solution."

"Very well - then we had better find our own transport."

"All right", I said. "Let's start walking - the space port must be at least five hours' hike from here."

Data shot me a quick, golden glance. "Are you up to it?"

"Why shouldn't I be? We've wasted enough time."

*  *  *  *

The walk was harder on my nerves than on any other part of me, including my feet. Apparently Lobelians were not inclined to go for a stroll at night, because once we left the city proper, we seemed to be the only ones on foot. I imagined that every passing hovercar or ground carriage - an unlikely combination, but those two seemed to be the most common types of vehicle - held a violet face staring out at us. I was also imagining that we were breaking some telltale taboo by walking outside the city in the small hours of the morning. But I said nothing, relying on an assumption that Data held his imagination in better check than I did mine.

We reached the port shortly before sunrise. It was as quiet as a Midgard industrial area on a holiday, and with much the same atmosphere to it. It was closed off by a high fence with a sternly functional look. The gates were high and forbidding.

I touched them to see if I would set off an alarm. The hour might be a little irregular, but essentially we were there to get passage - we had every intention of paying for it. Setting off the alarm should be a sure way of getting served.

There was no alarm. So Data opened the gates - as simple as that. He also closed them behind us, almost fastidiously. Yet I can almost swear neither of us had any conscious thought of stealing a vessel - until we saw her. I was the first to recognize her - I would be.

"The Hwyfar!" I gasped. "She's still here.. nobody has.. I mean, what is she doing here?" I gave Data a frightened look. "Is there another me walking about also? Someone this Garth knows, perhaps? Or.. am I still in there?" I almost whispered.

"I do not think that would be possible", Data said. "I have been giving this particular kind of parallellism some thought on our way to this spaceport. Provided that my calculations are correct - and that my theory on how we got here has some foundation - the intruding replica would always be cancelled out by the local original, if two copies tried to occupy the same continuum. In your case, we have some circumstantial evidence to support this theory. Nobody seems to have seen an artificial humanoid before. Which would indicate that you have never been here before."

"Then what's the Hwyfar doing here?"

"That", he said, looking sweetly regretful, "I cannot answer."

Of course we boarded her to have a look inside - not even I could resist that. Especially I could not. I had to see what changes, if any, had come her way in this universe.

There were some differences; some areas were smaller, some larger, the pantry's location was mirrored. The layout of the bridge was the same though the colouring was subtly different - a bit more tone to the same colours that I had known. The integration connections looked different too, but there was no mistaking their function. This version hinted at another solution to the same task, no more.

Data looked over the connections, closely. "Odd - these are not primarily designed to interface with a biological being. With a slight modification they could be, but it does not seem to be the main idea. Rather, it would seen that the designers had a mechanical autopilot device in mind. In fact, I think it would be entirely possible for one of us to plug into this Hwyfar the way we are, and equally easy to disconnect again. Hopefully without the trauma you experienced."

"It's too good a chance to pass up", I said. "There's nobody around yet, and she is my ship - in a fashion. Or should be."

He nodded. "We are sorely pressed for time. Unless we can gain some while switching universes - if we manage to switch universes - you have only eleven days left. I do not know how long it might take Lore to deactivate the trap - or how long it might take us to find him if he is still not back at the Keep."

"I thought you were about to try for our version of Lobelia."

"No. The Keep would be easier to find. I have deduced that the thin, gaseous cloud we passed through must have been a hitherto unknown form of anomaly, one that passed us through to this place without dramatic effects of any kind."

"Very subtle", I said. I had in fact had my suspicions in the same direction; after all, there had been no other unusual phenomena along the way.

"Exactly. I would love to study it, but we must see you safe first. As I see it, going straight back through the anomaly is our only chance - if it has not shifted, if the other end still points to where it did, and if it is at all possible to enter it from this side. However, I cannot see that we have much choice but to make the attempt."

I agreed. "If it's still in place, we should be able to see it from orbit, once we're out of the atmosphere. It was quite close - I was surprised that it did not seem to affect Lobelia herself."

"But it might have. That is why I would prefer going back to the Keep instead of trying for 'our' Lobelia while the anomaly is around. There is a possibility Lobelia was changed into this so-called parallel, in which case there might not be a Lobelia in our universe right now. We could search forever."

"You mean that Lobelia herself could have become the nexus of the anomaly?"

"Yes. If so, at least we know that the anomaly is still in place, for Lobelia is still changed. If she is not the nexus but a true parallel in the next universe, our chances of finding the other one right now are still slim, as the anomaly will probably be blocking her. Or we would have reached the right one the first time around instead of winding up here."

"Makes sense", I said without really having thought it through. I had always trusted his judgment. Always would.

He nodded without conceit. "Are you up to connecting with the Hwyfar again - or shall I?" he asked solicitously.

I smiled. "The 'trauma' as you called it is not as bad as it was before I was - rebuilt. Paradoxically, I used to feel it worse when my emotions were shallow and blunted. It will be good to take the Llinhwyfar on one last trip - only it will not really be the Llinhwyfar this time, will it?"

"Close enough, I should think."

I shook my head. "I'll be able to feel all the parts of her the way I always did, but not to the exclusion of my present body. I will only be connected, not.."

"..attached", he filled in with a smile, referring to our early misunderstanding - or perhaps understanding - when we had just met on board the Enterprise.

"I was going to say 'integrated'."

Somehow that once hateful word did not seem to mean much anymore.

*  *  *  *

I had been right. It was still a special feeling but not as special as it used to be. It was more a matter of wearing the ship as a cloak or perhaps carrying her piggyback, than of her being a part of me. I tried to revive the old soaring feeling, but found that I could no longer readily do so. Well, perhaps it was all for the best.

The anomaly was still in place, and it turned out to be no different an experience to enter it from this side. I don't know what we would have done, had a reentrance proved impossible. Sought out an altered version of the Keep? Of Lore? There was no telling what had become of him here. If he even existed here.

We glided slowly through the space mist, as I secretly thought of it, more cautious now that we knew what it could do; as yet we had no way of knowing where we would emerge.

"Have you thought of a possible time differential?" I asked.

"Thought of it, yes. Insufficient information for a theory, however. There might be a differential and there might not. Why do you ask?"

"No reason, I suppose. Just that the Midgard fairy tales all claim that time runs faster in the Otherworld. I think some of Earth's legends have the same idea. As you returned from Faerie you looked younger than anybody else, your family had grown old and grey if it were not dead already. That wasn't the only catch though. There was a sort of 'defusing' factor. You were only all right as long as you still had not touched any part of the so-called real world. If you did, say you got off your horse and put your foot on the ground, all the elven power sort was sort of discharged and you shrivelled up fast, catching up with the rest of your contemporaries."

"I have read some of those stories. Do you think there may have been small anomalies on ancient Earth? Perhaps she had not yet stabilized on all levels of existence?"

He had to be joking. I had never heard him offer a speculation like that. "I suppose it was a form of wish fulfilment", I said. "Coupled with the atavistic fear of Nemesis. At least that's what it sounds like to me."

He looked up from the screen where he was monitoring our progress through the anomaly. "Do not discard the improbable until you know that it is impossible", he said.

"Whose is that one?" I asked, thinking it sounded like a quotation.

"Mine, I fear." As if to avoid possible embarrassment, he added quickly, "Actually, I am hoping that the time differential - if it exists - will be negative. An extra day or two would be quite useful."

"Any particular reason to expect it to be negative?"

"No, I merely decided to be optimistic about it. However, I do not expect any differential. I noticed no changes in my chronometer as we passed through in the other direction."

"Nor did I", I said, surprised that I had not even expected anything unusual, going through the first time. "Unfortunately, that goes for the timer connected to my explosive device as well.."

Then we were suddenly through, returned to black, starry space - and floating free. The Hwyfar was gone - no trace of her. Absolutely no trace, no debris, nothing. As if she had never existed..

My connections were gone too, and Data quickly caught my hand before we could drift apart. I moved my head close to his - carefully, without jerky movements - and put my lips to his cheek 'bone', in the hope that this would make communication possible. "It was your theory that duplication could not occur. That anything replicating an already existing counterpart in either universe would be annihilated. Can you honestly tell me you didn't foresee this?"

Apparently he heard, for he turned his head slightly to answer in the same way. "I had hoped it would not affect inert objects."

"Obviously it does. An just as obviously, the Hwyfar has not yet been scrapped in this universe either. She exists somewhere - though not necessarily on Lobelia. But I'm curious; in the event that this did happen, what's your plan?"

"I do not have one." Probably noticing my eyes in the faint light of the anomaly, he hastily added, "It did not seem likely to happen. There was, admittedly another aspect. If the Hwyfar were duplicated, then so, almost certainly would we be. And if so - we could always hope that our counterparts in this universe would have better success. In any event, we would - again almost certainly - never notice a thing."

I felt a surge of compassion at the thought that he had borne all this himself. "You could have told me."

"I assumed you had thought of it too. I am sorry if that was not the case; I did not mean to deprive you of your choice."

"To stay in the Otherworld and blow up? Nah, I would've come anyway. But perhaps we should not have taken the Hwyfar. Yet we did, so there's not point in dwelling on that. Well, obviously we were not duplicated on the other Lobelia, and obviously we are not duplicated here. I suppose that means we have been out of this universe while we were in the other?"

"I hear you have checked your chronometer too", he said sadly. "Yes, time has passed. Mine leapt forward three days as we emerged from the anomaly. Yours?"

"The same", I said. "So I now have nine days left of my life, and I'm drifting rudderless in space.."

"Please", he said, despair in his golden eyes.

"No accusation. I was merely musing. Trying to think of something, I guess. But frankly, I can see no other solution than the odd ship coming by to pick us up. It would have to be some sort of junkdealer, I suppose, a salvage vessel. Not every ship would have sufficiently sophisticated scanners to register us as lifeforms."

He said nothing. He knew the odds as well as I, perhaps better. After all, he had spent more time in this quadrant.

"Promise me one thing", I said after a while. "When the time comes for me to blow, see that you shove off in good time. I want you at a safe distance when I go off. You have no time limit - eventually someone might come by."

He did not seem to want to answer that. "I cannot exist indefinitely in a vacuum", he said. "Only for a very long time - I do not know how long."

I thought of our air-cooling function. Under water or in a vacuum it closed off, becoming a self-contained, recycling system. No immediate problem there. Even if the cold of space could not get at our inner workings to take over the cooling function. "Should be two years at the very least", I said. "Didn't you tell me that was how long Lore drifted in space after you had beamed him off the Enterprise?"

"That", he said, "has been on my mind ever since we found ourselves here."

I suppose I can be thoughtless sometimes, even as a gynoid.

I fell silent then, and tried to enjoy the drifting. It was not as difficult as it could have been. After all, my yearning to drift in space had been the main component of my psychological need of the Hwyfar. Yet in all my years as an integrated ship, I had never come close to this immediate experience of soaring. I did my best to relish it. It had come late, as with so many good things that you only achieve when you no longer need them. I have always seen that principle as the effect of somebody's wisdom - perhaps that of a sentient universe? - rather than as perpetual bad luck. And though I had not stroven for this destiny, I could still appreciate it.

After a while I again pressed my lips to Data's head. His eyes opened; I realized that they had been closed and I wondered briefly if he had been dreaming. "I've always wondered..", I said. "Do you think it's possible to make love in open space?"

"I have my doubts", he said. "However, we could always try. But it will have to be slow, and you will have to hold on tightly.."

*  *  *  *

After two days of drifting, I felt my timer change. I did not speak of it, mostly because I had no words to describe the experience. It was still running, I was sure of that, but the cold ticking was gone. I now had to strain to feel the pulse of it, and there was no particular coldness or other sensation associated with it. If I turned my attention tightly inward, I seemed to detect a faint whirring that I could not recall had been there earlier. Or else the ticking had obscured it.

Then, on the third day, we both saw a glint that had not been there when we last looked, a couple of hours earlier. It could have been a new star - distances are hard to judge without a reliable reference, even when you're artificial. If we had not already drifted a fair distance from the anomaly, we might not have seen it at all. We watched it grow, over the hours. It had to be a mechanical object, but it was on impulse, and we had no way of knowing if it was indeed a ship, a shuttle, or merely a probe sent out long ago from a vessel which might not even be near. Our tricorders had been lost, not that they would have functioned over such distances anyhow. We had to wait, patiently, for the thing to come closer.

As it did, we saw that it was definitely a ship, though a smallish one. She seemed to have better spacegoing capability than a shuttle, but was not much larger. We had been slowly drifting in the direction of Lore's refuge planet, and from the vessel's course it looked as if she were going the same way. I suppose that is what made us look carefully for the first sign of identity.

Just when it looked as if she might never pass us close enough for identification, she made what could only be a deliberate change of course to make a beeline for us. In another hour, I felt Data's lips against my cheek.

"It is the Flying Dutchman. I thought as much. What other ship could it be, heading that way?"

I made the connection. "Lore named his private vessel the Flying Dutchman? Why?"

"A joke, Data said. "While I am familiar with the ancient Earth legend, I must say that I still do not understand many of my brother's jokes, even with this chip in. I suspect his kind of humour is somewhat - special."

I was not so sure it was a joke. "Condemned to drift, or else be kept from drifting.." I murmured.

"That is not out of the Flying Dutchman, is it?" Data asked.

"Not to my knowledge", I confirmed. "Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan. A full Bard like Garth, but 20th century Earth. Used to be one of my favourites."

Data fell silent, searching. For a moment I was slightly annoyed - all the Starfleet personnel I had ever encountered had always been very knowledgeable about the widest known and, I would hardly hesitate to say, the most conformant artists in the history of their many worlds. But very few would know also of the special ones, the colourful ones, those who added some spice to the generally pleasant but bland artistic soup.

I never found out whether Data's search came up with anything; the Dutchman finally had us in transporter range, and we were promptly beamed aboard. Good thing she was big enough for transporter facilities at any rate.

*  *  *  *

He was sitting at the helm, having controlled the transport from there. As we made our way forward, he swivelled his chair to greet us with that characteristic, amused smirk. "Well well", he said. "The last two pieces of flotsam I expected to find loitering on my doorstep - you did know you were practically in orbit? A slight miscalculation on my brilliant brother's part, or what's the occasion? Just felt like spacing out..?"

"No miscalculation", Data said, more defensive than I felt he had the need to be. "An off chance too many perhaps. Thank you for retrieving us."

Lore shrugged and turned back to his controls. "You're welcome."

I saw Data watch him. Waiting for barbs no doubt, about who had beamed whom out in space to drift for two years, and who had just rescued whom from a similar fate. None came. Nor did Lore rub our noses in the fact that we had been extremely lucky. We could have been on the other side of the planet, and he might never have spotted us at all. But he said nothing. My theory was that he felt we already knew all of this perfectly well, though I could see by Data's face that he fully expected his brother to capitalize on this incident later.

I sat mostly silent, while the brothers kept up what sounded very much like strained smalltalk. In the course of it, Data related what had happened, our reason for coming back to the Keep as well as the weird detour we had been subjected to.

"I thought you'd be back", Lore said, "but I didn't expect you quite so soon. I had some errands to make."

"Did you install the booby trap?" Data asked with ice in his voice.

"Admittedly", Lore replied, looking up at him with a mocking, carefree smile.

"And can you remove it as well?" I asked quickly, into the tension.

"I should think so. How long has it been activated?"

I counted fast. "25 standard days. At least I think that's what it comes to, allowing for time lost in the anomaly."

Lore spun around again, staring at me. "25?? You fool!" he ranted at Data, "How the flaming heavens over Sidian IV could you waste that much time!"

"I have just told you", Data said, a little too succinctly.

Lore was not listening. Turning to me, he asked, "Is your timer still running?"

I tried to feel it. "I think so. But there was some kind of change yesterday - it doesn't feel the way it did before, but yes, I think it's still running."

"But it changed?"

I nodded.

"Then it's locked." He threw up one hand, in despair as well as impatience. "It's too late! Up until yesterday I could have removed the trap. Now, I can't do a thing!" He was nearly sobbing, then caught himself.

Frankly, I could not understand why he would take on so. He must have had great plans for me.

Data gave me a wounded look. "Why did you not tell me that you felt the timer change?"

"I didn't see much point to it. Nothing much was happening. And if the change meant anything, I suppose I just didn't want to worry you. Had I thought the detonation would be hastened, I'd have warned you. But I felt no change in the timer's measuring function, just in the way it was going about it."

Data actually groaned. Wonder when he had picked that up. Probably before the chip, storing it among other unintelligible mannerisms for future reference. "It would seem that you have made a miscalculation, dear brother", he said. "And not a slight one either, but a catastrophic one. Now tell us, what was the real timeout on that device?"

"I'd have thought that was obvious by now", Lore said irritably. "The timer was set to lock seven days before detonation. After that nobody can do anything, not even me. Not even with the access codes. Detonation can no longer be aborted. It's as simple as that. I - I'm sorry." He actually sounded as if he was.

"I thought you had set a remarkably generous time limit", Data said.

"Well, if you found that out, couldn't you have discovered the lockout limit while you were poking around in there anyway?" Lore spat at him. "For an artificial lifeform, you can be awfully dense at times, brother."

"I was understandably quite apprehensive about - poking around in there", Data retorted, his tones almost as clipped as Picard's, though with his best android articulation to add to the effect. I secretly wondered whether he sometimes drew on his captain's example in emotional confrontations. If so, it would probably stand him in good stead; he could have found worse role models.

Lore sighed. "All right, this is getting us nowhere. I'll see what I can do. Now, understand - both of you - that I don't have much hope. If any. But I can't just sit around waiting for.. I mean, I've got to try, haven't I?"

"You most certainly do", Data said, with more morality than menace in his voice. "I will help", he added, readily enough. "Perhaps if we work together, we can find a solution."

I said nothing, but inwardly I sighed. I had felt nervous enough with Data and Geordi doing their explorative surgery - and they were best friends. With these two watching each other across my open body at all times.. well, I was not exactly confident.

*  *  *  *

For three days they worked together as if linked by a common goal - which might have been an overstatement but not entirely untrue. Lore's reasons were his own, but there was no doubt that he wanted to find a way, wanted it as badly as Data did.

On the fourth day, they were no closer to a solution - and that is when the message came. The same way as before, by way of various relay starbases, and in writing only. Picard was very apologetic, but the Romulan situation had finally worsened, and he needed his First Officer at his side. For his counsel if the Romulans went one way, for far more vital duties if they went the other. I got to read the final lines:

I promised you that you could stay until Llin's dilemma were solved, I know that. Believe me when I say that under any other circumstances I would never, never have called you back in your present situation. Please understand that I am not ordering you back. Just as last time, I am asking you. Though I could almost say: entreating you. I dearly hope that when you get this, Llin's problem will have been successfully removed, and that you are both free to return to the Enterprise.

Signed as before, J-L Picard.

"In other words, Data, get your ass back here on the double", Lore commented. I wondered that Data had not stopped him from reading over his shoulder. "Are you going?"

"He needs me", Data said.

"So does Llin. Whom do you love the better? Or shouldn't I put it like that?" His tone surprised me. There was no mockery in it. Rather - resignation? Bitterness? Disappointment? All three seemed close, but there was something else too, something I would never have expected of Lore - and it had a duranium ring to it.

"It would not be entirely fair", Data agreed. "Moreover, if I stayed with the one I love the better as you so aptly express it, would I not be indulging myself at the expense of my duty?"

Lore stared at him. For a moment I thought he would ask Data to leave immediately, and none too courteously either. Then the elder android just turned his back on his brother and walked out of the room.

Data sighed. "Things were easier before I had this chip installed. Now I can - read between the lines. I can appreciate what it must have cost the captain to send a message like this, after giving his promise. Knowing my need. In the old days, I would have.."

"..slid blandly and smoothly along the parameters laid down by Starfleet regulations and your own misguided ethical programme", said Lore's voice from the doorway. So he had not gone out of earshot. It figured. "You would've left even faster. Thanks for at least having doubts."

"My ethical programme is not misguided", Data began, but his brother, reentering the room, cut him off.

"I should've said oversimplified. My mistake. Data, there are no algorithms to cover all eventualities."

"I may be your kid brother, but that much I do know", Data shot back with enough exasperation that I knew he was leaning heavily into the chip. "I am sorry, but I must go. My duty lies on the Enterprise right now, at my captain's side. My presence may be crucial there, but there is nothing I can do here to bring us closer to a solution. Nothing that you have not already thought of yourself." He turned to me, placing those wonderful hands on my shoulders. "You do understand, Llin, do you not? I could not stay here now, knowing that my friends depend on me for -"

"It's all right", I said. "Go ahead. I'll die without you."

The vicious ambiguity of that hit me only as I saw Lore's approving thumb-up sign behind his brother's back.

Data looked pained, but he stood his ground. "So might everyone on the Enterprise. If things go really amiss, my presence could make that kind of difference."

I nodded. "And to me, it won't. Not in that respect. After all, you're leaving me in capable hands."

He sighed. "I can understand - now - that you will not make this easy for me. As indeed you should not; the decision is mine, you cannot make it for me. But while I have never trusted my brother, I have seen enough these past days to convince me that he really wants to save your life. It may well be for the benefit of some even more despicable scheme of his, in fact it almost certainly is, but at least he wants you alive and out of your present danger. When you are, do not stay here any longer than you have to. I hope to be back for you shortly, but if I am not, get in touch with me any way you can, and we shall think of the most expedient way for you to rejoin the Enterprise."

"You hear he has every confidence in his dear brother", Lore said. He might have been sarcastic, with reference to the blatant warning uttered in his presence, but I was far from sure. There was a slight edge of sadness in his voice, a faint touch of despair. I wondered how confident Data's 'when' really was.

Probably not at all. So I decided not to dwell on it. "Data", I said, "you could be going into a war. You might not be back. Ever. In fact, there might not even be an Enterprise for me to return to."

It would be a war that I had sparked, which did not exactly make things easier. Even if the fault was not mine, but.. I glanced at Lore. If I were to be left alone with him, I would certainly make the most of it - as long as I was dying anyway.

But time enough for revenge later - if barely. Right now, I just wished Lore would have the sense to leave. "I suppose what I'm trying to say", I told Data, "is, I won't stop you if you feel you have to go, but - must you leave right away?" And I kissed his lips, then his throat.

"He can't", Lore said calmly. "The other ship needs fuelling. It'll be ready in a couple of hours. I'll see to it. Take your time."

And with that, he finally sauntered off.

*  *  *  *

Two hours were hardly enough, given that we had every reason to believe that this was truly the last time, one way or the other - perhaps both. Nevertheless, it was all we had.

And then it was back out on the stark landing field in an icy wind, saying our farewells.

The leavetaking between the brothers was brief. They shook hands, and Data said, "Thank you for giving us a little time. I mean, you could have lent me the Flying Dutchman. She does not need refuelling. She runs on dilithium entirely, not just in warp."

"No, I couldn't", Lore replied. "I wouldn't have trusted some hired Ferengi or whomever to take her back. I would have had to come with you, at least as far as Starbase 367. And I could not spare the time.."

Then it was my turn - with Lore watching in the background again.

One last, lingering kiss that I wished would never end, but of course all things are timed. Perhaps even our love, I thought defiantly into the pain.

But I held his hand for as long as I could. "Say hello to Geordi for me", I said. "With my thanks. And give my love to Spot."

Data nodded, tried to smile a little, but it did not quite work out. I watched his fingers detach from mine, then I remained there, seeing him walk across the field to the vessel we first arrived in. He boarded without looking back; I knew that without the chip he would have found the time for one last wave. Now he could not find the strength. As the hatch closed, I felt suddenly disassembled. Or at least as if a large part of my more vital circuits had been forcibly removed. Oddly, watching the actual takeoff was not as hard.

"Had enough?" said Lore's voice so close to my ear that had I still been human, I would have jumped. I was glad some reflexes seemed to be missing these days.

"Good of you to at least wait until the skies were empty", I said acidly, annoyed at not having noticed him sneaking up on me.

"Always", he said, enigmatically. "Are you ready to come back to the Keep? I'm afraid we're running out of time fast.."

*  *  *  *

Lore worked for the rest of that day, through the night, and all of the next morning. I spent the same time wide open on his working table, a good amount of my parts spread all around me, running my manual on displays for him, sometimes reading passages aloud from memory when he did not have the time to look at the screen. He had not suggested connecting to my brain directly, so neither did I. I suppose it was a matter of safety; getting our personalities mixed might be remotely possible even with our different brain structures. Or else he was concerned about committing another invasion of sorts - but I could not quite believe that.

Towards the afternoon he began putting things back and closing me up, so I assumed he was going to take a break and think. I knew he had not solved anything yet, for his movements were as despondent and methodic as before. He was not really a methodic person - his integrated emotions had given him too full a measure of impatience for that - but he was never careless when anything was important enough to him.

"Taking a break?" I asked for confirmation, as I sat up, fully assembled again - timer and all, as always.

"No", he said, looking up at me with such pain as I had never seen in his usually cool eyes. "This is it. There's nothing more I can do."

It was not as if I had had any hope, but I still felt an icy shiver through my mind rather than along my spine - like a memory of another time, another type of body. "You're that sure already? What if you were to take greater risks, try more outlandish ideas?"

"Llin, there are no risks left to take. No ideas untried. I cannot work around the lock I myself installed, it's as simple as that. After all, I did a very thorough job."

"And not enough thinking", I muttered, but for once he did not flare at that.

"I didn't allow for all eventualities, no", he said. "And yet I didn't install an escape route. I honestly thought three weeks would always be enough. I'm sorry."

I could have pointed out the blatantly nonethical aspects of having the whole special programme installed in the first place, let alone the booby trap, but there was no point dwelling on it now. All that held any meaning now, would be to find a way to trigger my special programme one last time - with him standing really close.

"So you're giving up", I said scornfully - although I knew he had done all he could. "There are still a couple of days to go - what do we do now?"

He stood, gathering up his tools. "I felt that that should be up to you. Any way you want to spend your final days will be fine with me. I'll take you anywhere you want to go."

I could believe that. He probably would not be any too careful to avoid populated areas either. Just so long as he himself got out in time.. "Well, I would have preferred to die in Data's arms", I said. "Since that is the one thing that is totally out of the question under the circumstances, perhaps I'll settle for yours."

He took the threat well. Actually, I think it cheered him up somewhat, for his eyebrows lifted in amusement, and he chuckled a little. "I'd be the last to blame you", he said. "I'm kind of partial to my own life though, so I think I'll forego your embrace if you don't mind. At least on your final day", he amended - which made me wonder. "Yes, I think you should definitely be alone on your final day. To - prepare?"

"To get my thoughts gathered before they are shattered?" I countered. "Very well - where?"

"Anywhere at all, as long as we can reach it in time", he said, spreading those disturbingly slender hands. "Any suggestions? Any particular setting you prefer?"

My mind flipped through the Midgard seasons like so many holodeck sceneries. I thought long on the autumnal woods where Data and I had first made love all those years ago - but I felt they would not be appropriate. This one would be for me, and me alone. Besides, I had no particular wish to see Lore in those same surroundings.

"Winter", I said. "Hard winter, but not too dry, if you can find such a climate. A winter that just might ice me over and freeze my joints before I blow, but then again it might not. That kind of winter."

"Then we won't have to go far", he said. "I told you about the harsh climates on this world. The other side has winter now - and it ought to be quite fierce enough for your liking."

"Good. How densely populated is that side?"

"About as densely as this one. This ball is abandoned now; part of the reason why I settled here."

"Animals?"

"Not likely, this time of year. What breeds there are, are all in hibernation, and they burrow deep. They have to. You'll probably clean out a wide area of the plant life though - but it'll be back."

"Sounds reasonable", I said. "All right, let's go."

"You want to go right away? You have a little over two days - and nights."

"I think I'd prefer to be alone as soon as possible", I told him.

Did he look a little hurt at that? I did not really think so.

He went down to the cellar console to check the weather reports. After a while, he came back up. "There might be a certain risk of getting caught in a blizzard tonight", he said. "That might not be quite what you had in mind. There should be no winds tomorrow. Better chances of finding a suitable spot."

I shrugged. "All right. I'll stay the night."

"I'm glad", he said, "I had hoped for one more opportunity to dance with you. How about dinner?"

"Not on your life", I spat. "I have things to do, messages to send. See you in the morning."

And I walked off, seething. The nerve of that piece of scrap metal..

*  *  *  *

I spent that night putting my affairs in order, you might say. Sending the few messages I needed to, mostly to various people on the Enterprise and the Hawkwind. All of those - including my long letter to Data - I put a delay on, so they would not be relayed to their first mailnode until well after my time had run out. Then I wrote one to Garth as well which I sent off right away, since it would take long enough to find him anyway. I had no doubt it would eventually, but it might be years before it reached anyone who knew where he was.

At dawn, Lore and I boarded the Flying Dutchman. The winds had abated shortly before first light, and I saw no reason for further delay. We flew low, in atmosphere all the way, noting in silence where the first glittering snowfields began to appear below.

"You did leave a message for my brother?" Lore asked conversationally.

"Of course", I said testily. "Why shouldn't I?"

He did not answer that directly. "I'm still surprised he actually left. But then, there's always been a little too much Starfleet about him. Too well structured."

"What's the matter - jealous?" I asked derisively.

He shook his head. "I only know that in his boots - I would not have left."

"Because you're not Starfleet material", I told him. "You can't take orders, only give them. You see yourself as a leader, not a follower."

He shook his head. "That's not it. I simply wouldn't have left, that's all. Never in a million years - if the situation were repeated."

Somehow, that last addition shook me. I realized that it was entirely possible he meant what he said. After all, he might well live a million years - unless I managed to do something about it - and his memory would not dim and change his original characteristics.

"Though there's some truth in what you say", he admitted calmly, still looking down at the helm controls. "I could never adjust to a command structure. Never unquestioningly obey orders regardless of personal cost."

"Because you have no ideals", I said. "Ideals are what makes for continuity in life. The one thing that may survive even you."

"Oh, I have them", he said lightly. "Only, I prefer to engineer them myself."

I said nothing. The exasperating thing was that I could actually see what he meant. My own motto had always been 'neither a leader nor a follower be' - who was I to preach the values of command structure, any command structure, to the one being in the universe who might have a potential for the truly chaotic? Not that he would have much chance of exploring the hopefully inherent creative aspect of that potential - not if I could help it..

I secretly began seeking the state of mind which might help me trigger the basically unconscious functions of my special programme. I was far from certain it would work.

We set down about two hundred metres from a small cave, got out and walked over to it. For some reason I regretted leaving footprints in the pristine snow.

There had been mists recently, and all the trees were covered in frost, down to the tiniest of their limbs. It seemed a pity that so many of them were soon to be destroyed. I wondered if staying in the cave would lessen the general devastation. On the other hand, it would certainly ruin the cave.

We stopped in front of it. The glaring sunlight had ceased; the sky was now overcast, its clouds for some reason less varicoloured than they had been the day I first arrived here. Perhaps this was the normal winter sky.

"I'm sorry I failed", Lore said, sounding as if he meant it.

"Yes", I said, "but after all, it was only to be expected, wasn't it?" I looked around. "The Midgard hell. No wind, no movement, all frozen over. Eternal silence, once we're both gone. As good a place as any to die, don't you think?" And I turned on him, both arm phasers enabled and set to the only level they possessed.

There was nowhere he could run, but he did not even try. "I'm not armed", he said quietly, almost indifferently. I knew then that he had been expecting something like this.

Perhaps it was that he did not give me the satisfaction of showing fear, perhaps it was that he seemed vulnerable just standing there, waiting - or perhaps it was simply that in that moment he looked so very much like his brother. But I lowered my phasers again, retracting them and closing the panels before it struck me that I had done a conscious override on a system that had always been outside my control.

"You must have done something", I said in wonderment. "I've never been able to cancel an attack before."

"I gave you the option yes", he said. "I found out I could do that much without triggering the detonation. But that was all I could do. Figured it might come in handy. Though I admit I was rather relying on the assumption that you wouldn't be able to start the programme of your own accord. How did you do that?"

"Anger", I said. "I used it as an indirect trigger. Didn't know if it would work, but it did."

"And quite well too. So why did you use the override?"

"Perhaps I didn't want to become like you."

He shook his head. "In your place, I'd have no problem with that. But then I don't believe anyone could become anything statically, for all time. I know I change all the time. I expect you do as well." He was right of course. That's what was so maddening about it. He smiled. "Unless you've been around my brother too long", he added. "The upright constant of the universe. I still think our father made a terrible mistake in creating him."

"Oh?" I said. "Then pray tell, looking back on your life so far, and particularly on recent events - which one of you would you say had inherited the 'OftenWrong' aspect?"

I think he would have paled, had that been possible. I expected him to attack me, but he did not. In the end, he just shrugged. "Touché, I suppose. Perhaps if someone had realized that before you did.. If he had seen it himself at an early stage.."

"Or if you had", I said sharply.

"Or that", he agreed, without the wrongfully-accused tone I had come to expect.

It started to snow.

"Well", he resumed, "what else did you see? Besides my heritage of incompetence? I mean, since you chose not to kill me?"

"I told you my reasons", I said. "You don't believe me?"

He shook his head. "Revenge is a fully understandable goal - if impractical. At least when executed for its own sake." He smiled a little, and it occurred to me that I had not seen his usual, tightlipped smirk for some time. Not since Data left, in fact. Perhaps he wore it mostly for his brother's benefit.

It was snowing harder now, soon our tracks would be covered. Some of the soft flakes landed in his hair, on his shoulders, and on his goldleaf face as he looked up to see more flakes coming.

All my anger collapsed and broke, together with my earlier resolve. I found myself with my arms around his neck, holding on tightly.

It took a moment, probably of surprise, then I felt his arms around me too.

We stood like that for a long while, holding each other in silence while the snow went on falling. Then I slowly detached myself, and he did nothing to prevent it. "And what was that for?" he asked calmly.

"For all the pain we have caused each other", I said, glad to think of an answer I was not certain I had.

He seemed to accept it.

*  *  *  *

The snowfall was now too heavy for Lore to make an easy takeoff. We went to sit just inside the entrance to the cave, to wait it out. No further in than we still had light; no further out than we still had some shelter. The snow would not harm our joints but it was still a nuisance.

"I hope nobody's hibernating in here", I said.

"I checked for lifesigns before going down. There were none around here."

"Because you knew I'd object?"

"Not exclusively. I've rarely found reason to kill other beings than humanoids." His bitterness should not have been enough to justify his position. But I could find a faint echo of it within myself, and so I said nothing.

"It can't be that cold", I opined, abruptly changing the subject. "Or it wouldn't snow, would it? On Midgard, it rarely snows at below -8 or so."

"It happens quite frequently here. But it shouldn't be less than -25 at the moment. Would you have preferred a colder place?"

"No, it's all right. At least it's peaceful."

He caught my drift - in fact a little sooner than I did myself. "I'll be going as soon as it lets up."

*  *  *  *

In an hour or so, I went out to check on the weather. The snow had not abated much.

"You brought no skis, did you?" I asked unnecessarily as I came in and sat down.

"I ought to be able to walk through it", he said.

He was right of course. I chuckled. "Humans are pretty much lost if it gets above their knees and they have no skis or snowshoes."

He smiled a little. "I always said we're an improvement."

"But on a rather sketchy design", I said. Then the 'we' struck home. "I'm only a duotronic F-3130. Do you honestly mean I'm an improvement too?"

He reached out to pluck some snowflakes out of my hair. "I have great respect for the Lobelian arts."

I did not quite like having him touch me. But his long fingers were very gentle on my hair, and I could not quite bring myself to stop him. Part of me was simply too surprised - I had never known Lore to be gentle. He did indeed seem different with his brother gone. As if he had been constantly in armour and now saw no need for it any more.

After a while he stopped of his own accord when I offered no encouragement. I realized I had expected that. I no longer feared his violence. In a way, it was much too late for fears. Though I'm not sure that was the reason I had none.

An hour later, he stood and looked out. "I'd better be going. The snow has eased up, and it'll be dark early."

He was right. It was barely two hours past noon, but I could see the beginnings of twilight.

He held out one of those exquisite hands, and I took it. "Goodbye", he said simply - he was through apologizing for what could not be mended. But his voice trembled a little in a way that I felt was uniquely his. I had heard many nuances in Data's voice lately, after the chip was installed - but nothing had sounded quite so natural as this.

"Go easy on the universe", I said, in an effort at lightness. After all, wishing him well hardly seemed relevant.

For some reason I held on to his hand. And for some reason he did not detach right away but knelt beside me again. And began to sing. I recognized the song, an old Rhymavian lullaby. I suppose it was appropriate.

There are no dreams between the stars
No yearnings and no pain
Yet beyond the end of time
Outside the reach of space
I hope once more to see your face
And wish we meet again

His voice was as beautiful as ever. I must have always loved it, hearing him singing in the Keep. Lore sang often - Data never. I knew that Data must have exactly the same prerequisites, but I had never heard him sing. Perhaps it took a - more chaotic mind.

Once the song was finished, Lore got up and left. Just like that. I heard his heavy footsteps crunching the snow for a while, then nothing. His footprints would soon be gone.

*  *  *  *

They are quite obliterated now. It is dark but for the fluorescence of the snow and the faint light of some stars and one of the small moons peering through the clouds. I am sitting outside the cave, staring at it, wondering if I should go in again or whether I had better stay outside. I think I would prefer to die out in the open, but there is the detonation impact to think of.

It has stopped snowing.



THE END