Machines I

DISCLAIMER: I recognize Paramount's ownership of the Star Trek universe and all characters and concepts that have so far appeared in any of the Star Trek series or feature films. No infringement or other kinds of harm intended; I just needed to tell this story. Thanks to Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang for some inspiration for the predicament of my heroine. Here also, no infringement intended.

COMMENT: The story MACHINES is a trilogy. This one, lengthy as it may be, is merely the first part. Although I feel compelled to issue a 'marysue' warning, I'm hoping the story might have a few interesting angles to recommend it all the same. Some facts are not necessarily quite in accordance with what has later been established in TNG, but after some consideration I let them stand. This is after all an early story, taking place sometime during the second season of TNG - for the most part, though the end sort of branches out to a vaguely alternate point between events in DESCENT II and GENERATIONS.

It was written in the autumn of 1995.

RATING: Well, most of it's clean, though there might be one brief scene that's sort of iffy..

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my main page.


 

MACHINES vol. I

by Eliann SleepingCat

 

We had been out for a Midgard month when I first became aware of the other ship. Until then, we had had a quiet, peaceful journey through empty space with no one to know where we'd gone, least of all our folks back home - if any of us would ever think of Midgard as home again, which I strongly doubted.

I had warped frequently at first, to minimize the chance that anyone would follow - but as soon as we realized that 50 people are not all that important once they stay out of reach, Alan told me to save our resources. So when I noticed the ship, I was soaring leisurely on impulse power through the eternal void, or rather, the AUM of space, the emptiness that brings strength. It certainly felt invigorating, although I liked warping. I was capable of warp four at a maximum, but the big difference lies in warp or no warp - after warp one there is not that much distinction between the multiples.

"I detect a blip at bearing -7,8,16", I duly reported before anyone on the bridge would spot it for themselves. "It's a vessel, and a big one."

"One of ours?" Alan asked, his voice low as usual but tense with apprehension lest anyone had found us after all.

"I said big, and I meant big", I reassured him. "As far as I know, Midgard has no Galaxy class vessels."

"Starfleet!" he almost hissed, probably not meaning to be overheard, but I of course heard him.

"My conclusion exactly", I told him. "So what are your orders - sir?" If he detected my mockery, he took it in his stride - as he did most things. Those were great strides.

"Hard about, and warp 3", said Garth, his voice as husky as Alan's, but pitched a pleasant couple of keys higher - he was not our Bard for nothing.

Alan ignored him. "Maintain", he said. "Let them find us."

I kept on drifting. Far be it from me to question Alan's judgment. Besides, I knew Garth would.

"Have you gone quite mad?" he snapped, his tone ice-cold and controlled to the last formant. "Starfleet is Authority - they'll turn us back to Midgard, or worse, considering we stole the ship."

"No, they won't", Alan said. "We are refugees, aren't we?"

"From a civil conflict", Garth shot back. "They wouldn't want their paws dirty."

"Who's to tell them it's a civil conflict?" Alan asked mildly. "You?"

"I might at that", Garth muttered, "if only to spite you." But he sounded already less belligerent, and I knew he had accepted Alan's proposition - for now.

Alan gave him one of his famous squints. "You let me do the talking", he said. "And you stick to your singing. Between us, we have beguiled tougher crowds than Starfleet."

"Your manly bickering has just become academic", I informed them. "It's definitely a Starfleet vessel, and they have spotted us. It's - oh, my gods.."

"Report!" Alan spat.

If I could have moved my head right then, I would have shaken it. "You may have bitten off more than you can chew this time, Alan", I said. "I just got her identification - it's the Enterprise!"

"The Federal flagship!", Garth crooned, almost gloating. "This time you've done it, Alan."

Alan said nothing, but I could see that he was determined not to let it make any difference - and frankly, I don't think he was that impressed. Alan always was his own man - quite apart from having some back pages in Starfleet Academy.

But his next order shocked me.

"Shut down all systems!" he told me. "A few at a time, and make sure to fake failure reports. Then set up a distress signal and relay our coordinates to them."

"Just what do you think you're doing, Alan?" Garth said, in his dangerous voice. And to me, "Belay that order - as if you didn't have the sense to disobey it on your own.."

"We must abandon ship", Alan told him. "Captain Picard will ferret out the truth anyway in the end, but if we seem like true fugitives and distressed to boot, he will have no choice but to rescue us first. And by then it will be too late; we won't even have a ship he can put us back on."

"I've never yet burnt my ships, whether in space or water, and certainly not under my feet", Garth said, "But I'll agree - on one condition. That you detach Llin first."

Alan sighed. "Garth, it's been a month. We can't detach her - she'll likely turn psychotic. In fact, under the circumstances it'll likely kill her, it would have to be that abrupt. Face it, Garth, there's nothing for it.."

"Hey guys, will you two stop speaking about me as if I weren't present?" I managed to remind them. "I'm here too, you know."

"Shut up while I'm trying to save your life!" Garth snapped.

"I won't take orders from anyone inside my womb", I retorted. "But Alan may have a point. In which case you are not saving my life, Garth, but risking it. And for all the wrong reasons no doubt. You have many admirable qualities, sir Bard - but altruism isn't one of them."

"You heard the lady", Alan said quietly.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Garth countered, ominously. "It was your idea, Alan. That we resort to the very thing we were fleeing from, in order to make good our escape. You said - and she agreed - that it was better to be a spacegoing ship than to be a dishwasher. But never once did you tell me that I could never have her back. Did you tell her?"

You might say it had dawned on me gradually, but Garth was right - I hadn't heard it from Alan.

"No, I did not", Alan admitted. "After all, it wasn't a certainty, so why worry you? But now that we are pressed for time, it's simply not feasible." For a moment, I saw plain compassion in his eyes. "Come on, Garth", he said. "It isn't as though we're killing her. She'll shut down, but she'll be fully operational. She'll not even be set adrift; it'll only seem that way. She can handle herself well in space now, and she has fuel enough to approach a safe starbase. Garth, I know you loved her, but - "

He shouldn't have said that. Especially not in the past tense. Garth whipped out a vibroblade - he never carried a phaser, preferring more vicious weapons - or more honest ones, as he was wont to put it. "Detach her", he said calmly.

"Please, Garth, no", I pleaded - knowing that it would get me nowhere, it never had in the past. "Come with me if you must, but don't detach me. Garth - I'm afraid." It wouldn't sway my bold lover, I knew, but maybe it would steel Alan.

"Don't be", Garth said, "The flagship of the Federation should have adequate medical facilities." And to Alan, "Detach her. Now."

I knew Alan had a phaser, but either he must have realized that the vibroblade would get him before he could draw it, or else he simply did not want to use it on a friend - of sorts. "Don't challenge me, Garth", he warned softly. "Never do that. Not over a ship - and not over a woman."

Ice-blue eyes meeting ice-blue eyes. Both blond, Alan slightly greyed but a good head taller. Accustomed to dominate - all except the fire of the Bard. And Garth was not one to fight fair if he would lose by it.

Yet he too saw the foolishness of bloodshed on the bridge with the flagship of the Federation zooming in on us. I never said he was dumb. His blade still trained on Alan, he put his finger lightly on the intraship comm button. "Shall I call Vidar?"

If I had had my eyes, I would have closed them. My burly uncle, the Big Warrior. Understanding three things in life: fighting, drinking, and getting laid, but not much use anywhere else. Big on family though, and certain to round up a fullblown mutiny in no time, if he got wind of this before the fact.

My hailing frequencies suddenly came alive - I had interpreted my orders as including a request to keep them open.

"This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise", said a cultivated, no-nonsense voice. "Please identify yourselves. What is your situation?"

I muted the channel briefly. "I've been sending them a few distress flashes and failing-systems reports", I told Alan. "I thought that much would apply whatever the outcome of your little duel.."

"Good", said Alan with almost visible relief. "Hands off, Garth, and tuck away that blade. I'll have her detached. I'm not saying you win - I'll deal with you later, be sure of that - but I will have her detached. Just hope to the gods that you are right about the medical facilities of the Enterprise - or you will answer to me not only for insubordinance, but for Llin's life as well. And maybe then you can give a thought to what our relationship was before you came along with all your pretty songs.."

"Insubordination?" Garth almost scoffed, only at the end turning it into an amused inquiry. But he took his hand off the intraship button, and he did put the blade away.

The starship captain's request was again booming out over me, already a little less patiently. Alan nodded. "On screen", he said.

*  *  *  *

I don't know exactly what Alan told the Captain, because I was busy shutting down unobtrusively, and my hearing had to go some time. And then it was time for them to detach my brain from the ship and put my body back together; I saw Elisa and Ingemund come up from below decks, tools in hands - and that's the last I remember until I woke up in the sickbay of the Enterprise, seeing Garth's and Alan's faces hovering over me.

"Please stand back", I heard a woman's deep, melodious voice. "You are crowding her; she is not comfortable with you here."

Alan stood back, Garth did not. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Perhaps you'd better come back later", the woman said. "She is more than uncomfortable - I sense almost resentment."

Oh no, an empath. As if I didn't have enough of our own Corina. Well, maybe those two would hit it off eventually.

I heard a slight chuckle. "Other than that, I'd say she's coming around nicely", she gossipped. "I don't think you need to worry."

"Come on, Garth", said Alan, and there was some steel in his voice. "Time to go talk to the Captain.."

"You do that", said another female voice, and a seasoned woman with slightly faded blond hair and a no-nonsense look about her came into view. "We'll take good care of her, I promise", she added, her face cracking in a heartwarming smile that told me she had a substantial sense of humour which might well have seen her through some hard times in life. I took to her right away, and I'm not one to do that lightly.

But Garth wouldn't leave. "Just tell me how you feel, and I'll be gone", he promised. As a Bard, maybe it was more important to him to hear my voice than merely see me awake - unless he was really worried he had lost me some of my marbles in this process of detachment. Somehow I found it hard to believe he should worry. On the other hand, I could not eliminate the possibility; there had been some sweet times in the past..

I glanced over to my other side, to see the empath - and I'm afraid I just stared. She was a stunningly beautiful brunette, her looks well matched to her pleasant voice. I could just imagine Alan falling like timber for her.

I had forgotten to even try to hide my opinion. She actually blushed. "Why, thank you", she mumbled, and damn if she didn't aim a furtive glance in Alan's direction. He might have been her father, but he's tall and slim and certainly doesn't look anywhere near his age - even in these days, when people might look young at 100. Also, he was grinning like a supernova, which certainly didn't detract from his charms.

"Tell me how you feel", Garth insisted again, and this time I could detect a note of anxiety in his voice - though to all the others it must have sounded just like impatience.

I looked him square in the eye. "Amputated", I said.

*  *  *  *

It took Captain Picard about two minutes of debriefing to figure out there were holes in Alan's story, big enough to drive a starship through, and from what I heard, he hadn't needed the empath - Counsellor Deanna Troi; she had introduced herself already that first day in sickbay - to tell him either. But Alan's plan had been better than his story, and in fact, he had the Captain stymied.

Alan conceded that the 'war' he had blamed our departure on was in fact a prolonged state of oppression on the part of one of the cultures on Midgard, directed at most of the others, including ours. An intraplanetary affair, but by rescuing us, Captain Picard had already technically taken sides in the conflict, something he was not allowed to do, under the Prime Directive. However, since we had been 'shipwrecked in space' he could not very well have left us either - I was glad I had managed to look sufficiently beyond repair to be.. for the ship to be abandoned, I mean. So far, not yet quite bad, according to the Prime Directive. What he could not do, however, would be to give us transport to any planet or starbase, or even provide us with a new vessel. That would be aiding us in our escape, whereby his involvement would suddenly carry over from technical to actual.

Nor - by the same token if the opposite side of the obol - could he take us back to Midgard. What he could have done was put us back where he found us, but since we no longer had a ship to be put back on, that was out too. I had always known Alan for something of a strategist, but I must say I hadn't foreseen all his angles on this. When it came to devious thinking, he was worse than Garth. Must be all that Academy training..

In the end, the Captain contacted Starfleet Command and dropped the whole mess on their collective lap. While he was waiting for an answer, Alan dropped hints of the Kirighs' treatment of the rest of the population of Midgard - subtly stressing the point of mechanization - the building of people into electronic tools, household equipment, etc. And Garth, suddenly deciding to help, gave them the whole story in his songs, time and time again, in an abundance of variations, bringing tears to their eyes. The only thing Garth and Alan both chose to omit was who had built me into our escape ship. They simply claimed they had stolen a ready-built 'integrated' ship, rounded up their next of kin and whomever was willing to risk the escape, and taken off. Good thing loyalty is so inbred in most of our culture - the rest of the lot never gave them away.

Eventually, Starfleet settled on a temporary solution. Since we could not go anywhere without causing them embarrassment, we were to stay on board the Enterprise. But everyone could smell a makeshift congealing into permanence, so we were to work our passage - presumably to whatever destination might be found in a misty future when all had been forgotten, including us.

So the first thing our hosts did was go around and ask if anyone of us had Academy training - we all had our own cabins by then, or rather, one set of quarters per household, independent of how many or how few people made up that household. I thought it was very generous of them at first, then, for the first time I began to grasp how big the ship really was, as I realized that the whole fifty of us were rather like an ember in space.. they could always find or free room for a mere fifty people.

Turned out of course that only Alan had Academy training, but he did, and he had made Commander before he settled down, having seen a considerable amount of service as well. This was rather funny, because at one time they actually considered putting him on the bridge. And if they had, Alan would have outranked the little android they had for a second-in-command, as the mechanical man was only a Lieutenant Commander. Alan had been on the bridge at times, but apart from an initial tour of the ship, the rest of us were not allowed up there. However, Garth found out about the dilemma and told me, and we laughed together for the first time in six weeks. I couldn't understand why they didn't simply promote the android to full Commander too, but then Garth told me they had apparently thought of that, but that the little robot had refused to be promoted on other grounds than his own achievements. That stuck with me somehow. I still laughed, but that time I don't think Garth and I were laughing at quite the same thing..

However, their First Officer - Commander William T. Riker, a rather stuffed shirt if you ask me, though I suppose he was trying his best; to be correct at all times anyway - solved the problem by pointing out that Alan had been retired from active duty for so long that he did not really belong on the bridge of a Galaxy class starship, regardless of the fact that he had captained our escape vessel, the Hwyfar - or rather, the Llinhwyfar as long as I was part of her - very competently. But that ship had been much smaller, and she was, after all, sentient.

Well, thanks for that. But I overheard some of the non-bridge personnel talking about it, and Riker's solution seemed to have been obvious to them all along. I suppose they hadn't met Alan yet. That man was born with a command presence. He could have had no rank at all above that of a hobo and yet walked in on anybody's bridge and just taken over. He usually did not speak much, he did not have to. In all manner of circumstances, people reacted to his presence with gratitude and relief, as if they could not wait to yield all their responsibility to him. I could see both points of view: to the off-bridge crew it must have seemed quite inexplicable to even consider stationing a complete stranger on the bridge, let alone worry about his rank in relation to those of the permanent bridge staff. To me, knowing Alan, it was only too plausible. I could imagine Alan walking on the bridge, ostensibly unobtrusive, maybe standing off in one corner, just waiting. And all their eyes would be riveted to him, and this discussion would have started as the most natural thing in the world. I doubted that Alan had said two words on that bridge, certainly never unless spoken to.

It was not that he was naturally taciturn - but he was good at making that impression when he found it effective. He could take in his audience at one glance, then play it as Garth would any of his musical instruments. It had occurred to me that Alan had no casual acquaintances. He had devoted friends and dedicated enemies. Occasionally, someone would trade one category for the other - going both ways - but no one stayed in-between.

I suppose I was his friend. For old times' sake if nothing else. I certainly wasn't his enemy. On the other hand, I knew he was capable of misjudgments, some of them questionable enough, so I might not be willing to die for him any more - at least not without asking questions first. But I was still fond of him; I would always find it easier to forgive him his faults than he ever would himself.

I knew some of his enemies - he was making new ones as fast as he was making friends. I had met all of the bridge crew by then, and quite a lot of the others. Alan was actually a good catalyst, if you wanted to classify people in order to remember them better, but I didn't really know what other purpose it might serve. Dr Pulaski - who incidentally was still treating me for various post-op ailments - was professionally impartial, but personally amused by the phenomenon of Alan, and I suspected that she secretly liked him very much.

Nothing like Troi's open admiration though; he might be closer in years to Pulaski, but who cared these days, and I had gathered that no matter how impressed the good doctor might be with a man these days, she did not care to go through all that mess again, she must have been there enough times in her life. That was yet another reason I liked her; I could well understand her point of view in that respect.

Alan's friend - and enemy - of the longest standing was of course Garth. I said that nobody was neutral, that did not mean that somebody could not be both. And Garth was generally both. Of most choices, as if on principle. Never predictable, he had nevertheless given me glimpses of a pattern; I felt that he would oppose Alan in all things as long as the contest was between the two of them. With others involved, Garth would suddenly side with Alan. More often to save his own skin than to present a unified front, but it might still be the one reason why Alan hadn't done him any serious harm as yet.

I knew the Captain did not like Alan, for obvious reasons. Picard had a good command presence as well as the loyalty of his crew, but Alan was a natural, and too strong a personality for any starship captain's taste. I suspected Picard was worried about what would happen in an emergency involving all the thousands of people aboard, not just his immediate crew. How many would follow him, how many Alan? The division would be inevitable - as just that, a split, not a mutiny - and I could imagine the Captain pondering how to put it to its best use - without knowing what the future might have in store. I liked the Captain, but I did not claim to fully understand him, and I was in considerable awe of him - something I had never felt for Alan, come to think of it. Maybe because I had noticed his great, underlying warmth of character from the first. If Picard had any such warmth, he kept it under hatches, well batted down.

Stuffy Riker didn't care for Alan either, though he was bending over backwards to be fair. Apart from the threat of a possible conflict in loyalties, I suspected it had much to do with Troi, as rumour had it there was an old understanding of sorts between the beautiful empath and the boyscout Commander.

I knew some helpful soul must have told Alan; I also knew he wouldn't care. You heard the lady - I had heard him say that more than once. If the lady in question was willing, so was he, and nobody else had any say in the matter. Somehow I could not find any fault with that reasoning. He was certainly strong enough to back it up if challenged.

Lt. Worf, their Klingon Chief of Security, did not seem too impressed with Alan, though I could not be sure. Maybe he feared that Alan would beat him in a silence contest.. I found the Klingon almost as stuffy as Riker, though harder to understand. They told me he was a Warrior - and I could hear the capital W - but I had not met any warriors like that, laden with pride, rules, and aeons of tradition. In my experience, warriors were like my uncle Vidar, slaying, drinking, and making love with the same cheerful enthusiasm, and never mind the figure they cut.

Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher, an insufferable boy of 16 Midgard years, was of course full of admiration for Alan - within the limits of his loyalty, especially to Commander Riker, whose boyscout tendencies he seemed bent on emulating, and indeed often surpassed.

Another one I wasn't sure of, apart from Worf, was Lt. Geordi LaForge, their blind Chief Engineer - who made up for his handicap by wearing a VISOR device which reportedly made him see better than anyone else, though I still failed to understand how he could read printout and facial expressions as well as he apparently did. I could allow for reading screens maybe, but I had seen him with hardcopies, albeit rarely. In my opinion, he must have had a masochistic streak, for Dr Pulaski once let slip that the device was painful to him. I knew I could not have lived with a constant headache - not by choice, the way he had. As for his opinion of Alan, I really didn't know. My best guess was that he was impressed and would have liked to show his admiration openly, but found his loyalty to Captain Picard getting underfoot at every turn.

The android, Lt. Commander Data, was of course neutral.

*  *  *  *

Within three weeks of our arrival, most of us had jobs or were in training for more suitable tasks on a Galaxy class starship. Redheaded Corina, our empath, was already assisting Counsellor Troi, providing the semi-Betazoid with a relief she had not had in years, as there had been no fully rotating schedule. Corina soon called in Rhonda as well - Rhonda has bursts of a telepathic talent - mostly with non-humans - but above all she was a trained psychologist already when she came along with us. Elisa went to Engineering of course, and her husband Ingemund was placed as third on the surgical team, rotating his schedule with that of Dr. Pulaski and her Vulcan relief, Dr. Selar.

Garth of course refused to be anything but a Bard, and he soon convinced Captain Picard that the ship could do with one. He was right too - I for one could not fathom how they had got along without one all this time. And after the first week, neither could anyone else. Garth is good - you don't get to be a Bard unless you are, but he is exceptional. I knew that before I got involved with him, and regardless of all our skirmishes later, he could still both soothe and charm me if he wanted to. He was of course equally good at the other side of his talent - he could satirize anyone with a cutting edge well surpassing that of his vibroblade. I shuddered to think what he could do to Lt. Worf - and the consequences. Those with an image to protect are natural targets.

In all our years together Garth had never satirized me. I had been prepared for it, but it never came. I don't know why; perhaps he felt that he could not very well criticize his own choice, that it would be too much like empty complaining. Then again, perhaps it was something else. I could not fault him with a code of honour, and loyalty did not exactly spring to mind, but he often shifted so fast that not even I felt I really knew him. As for his friends and enemies, they were usually the same people. In his professional and artistic capacity, they were his friends, he could sway anyone as long as he was singing; on a personal basis, they usually hated him, finding him too unreliable for comfort. Somehow I could never understand that harsh judgment - he might be a mental shapeshifter, but I preferred to think of it as versatility. Or perhaps it was just that I had been around him long enough to begin to detect patterns in chaos.

The only ones conspicuously unassigned were my uncle Vidar and I. Someone briefly considered teaming Vidar with Worf on Security, but one growl from the Klingon and some hasty advice from those of our crowd who had been placed in Staffing, assured them that this was not the best policy. Vidar had quite a few warrior companions among us, but none of them was unruly enough to be considered unfit for everything. Of course, Vidar could drink anyone of them under the table, that might have had something to do with it.

So for the time being, he drifted around, the same as I, though we rarely walked together, and other than that, he was sitting in the bar on Deck 10. He had taken a liking to the chief bartender of the TenForward Room - a Listener named Guinan, the spiritual universal Mother of them all. Vidar was quite impressed with her, or at least her company, as I don't think she ever responded to his passes, though she always seemed to take them as compliments rather than insults. The drinks were varied but not very strong unless called for by circumstances rather than personal preference, and Vidar would sometimes complain they were trying to wean him off the booze. He may have been right; maybe that was why he was suffered to lounge in the bar as often as he wished, instead of making himself useful in any way. I knew for a fact that he had taught Guinan how to brew mead, and she had managed to greatly enhance the taste while halving the alcohol contents - something Vidar as well as I would have thought impossible. I don't know if she had actually done a speeded-up brewing herself, or whether she had simply fed the recipe into the food synthesizer complete with a few amendments - but whatever the method, the result was remarkable.

As for me, I was convalescing. My neck had been resealed where the leads had gone from my brain into the hardware of the Hwyfar, and I had nothing now to control except my own human body. A hard enough task at times, as all my muscles had weakened and faded during the month my body had been inert, and the rebuild was slow and painful. Still, after only a month of mechanized life it ought to be possible.

Sometimes I wished it had been longer; if my body had had the time to wither, there would have been no question of detaching me. I was on psychological recuperation as well as physical, and in that area the going was even slower, although Counsellor Troi and Corina both tried to convince me I was coming around nicely. I wondered what use anyone would find for me, once I was considered well enough to work. I supposed I would follow Elisa into Engineering; after all, that had been my main occupation before all this, and the reason I left Midgard in the first place - I did not want to perform mechanizations.

My story was all over the Enterprise. It did not help that whenever questioned about my background I always answered a noncommittal, "I just flew the ship." They all knew. "Oh, it's you", they would say, and then they wanted to know everything about my horrid experience. At first I tried to tell them that my horrid experience began when I was forcibly detached, but I soon gave up. I assumed I was already enough of a freak in their eyes, without differing so profoundly from their expectations.

One day a horrible little child - I never liked children; I don't much care for humans on the whole, except as an interesting pattern, but children are the worst, they don't even form a pattern, unless it be one based on chaos - got in my way in the corridor, and asked me, "Are you a Borg?"

I contemplated swatting her, but my manners got the better of me. "No", I said. "The Borg have a collective mind; with me it was strictly one on one. Me and the Machinery."

I don't think she understood my answer, but she caught my dismissive tone. She nodded and left me alone. When I looked up, I saw the android further up the corridor. He was just standing there, watching me, and I gathered he had heard the exchange. Fearing that he too would start asking questions, I fled quickly.

*  *  *  *

It was just my luck that the first day I walked into Engineering to start my probation period of work, the android was there. Of course, I had heard that he and Chief Engineer LaForge were buddies - much like cultivating a friendship with your physician, I suppose. Until then I had had no real problem avoiding the automaton, as he was mostly on the bridge which was off-limits to me. I could not have explained why I wanted to avoid him; my reasons were mixed. I suppose in a way I envied him. He was one unit; I had been two, and was now halved. He may possibly have run the risk of being totally disassembled - don't we all from time to time, what with accidents and suchlike - but he would never face detachment. Existing as a machine, and allowed to remain that way, even appreciated for what he was, from what I'd heard. Granted, he was not a ship, but there was still something about the serenity of his existence that I had had and then lost.

So I guess that was one part of my uneasiness about him - the other was his silliness. Oh, he was every bit as intelligent as the ship's computer, possibly more so, but he had little sense. Inquisitive to a fault, he studied the human patterns just as I did, but never having been human he kept testing his findings on everybody around in the most embarrassing ways, asking foolish questions, talking a blue streak, and behaving like nothing so much as a gilt-faced clown.

You couldn't even hit him for it, because you would be likely to break a few of your own wristbones while you couldn't harm him with less than a blowtorch.

I surreptitiously sneaked over to Elisa, hoping he had not noticed me. But of course he had. When did he ever miss anything? Anyone leaving or coming, any changes to the room he was in, he would note immediately, in much the same manner as a cat, I suppose, by an instant comparison of patterns. And as with many cats, any change would trigger the urge to comment.

"Greetings, Llin", he said, ambling over to us. I thought I could hear a slight catch before my name, as if he had been seeking a title but found none. None of our people had one, save only Alan - Garth was not called by his - nor did we have more than one name each, unless you wanted to recite a few pages of genealogy. Then again, neither did the robot.

Elisa rolled her eyes; I assumed he had greeted her earlier.

"I trust you are well?" he went on, so I countered,

"Well enough to be considered functional at any rate." He blinked slightly at my choice of words, but I did not know how else to put it. "Now would you mind? I'd like to talk to my friend for a moment, before I get started here."

"Of course", he said. I shall be right over there, with Lt. LaForge. If there is anything you need to know, I shall be happy to explain it to you. I am off duty at the moment."

He wandered off, and I said to Elisa, "That yet - off duty. Is he often down here?"

"Too often", she said in her best long-suffering voice. "Beats me why they don't shut him off when he's not needed anywhere."

Now, that hurt. I could not help but wonder if she would have been as eager to shut me off, when the ship was not needed any more. Irrational, because I knew she had not been given the opportunity to have an opinion, nor had anybody else, apart from us three on the bridge - but still, I suddenly found myself almost defending the automaton. "On the other hand, he declined a promotion he felt he had not deserved", I said. "I suppose that goes to show something, though I'm not sure what."

"Character?" she offered. "He sure is one, at any rate.."

She was right, he was - and an annoying one at that. I had to see LaForge to be shown the ropes as it were, and the little clown was right there all the time, taking an interest, overexplaining things, butting in out of turn.. I gritted my teeth, but I had set my mind to endure it without complaints. After all, this golden gadget was a senior officer, third in command of the whole bucket. Luckily, LaForge caught my mood.

"Data, she knows", he said into the middle of one long explanation. "She wouldn't be here if she didn't; she'd still be in training. So just shut up for a moment, okay?"

The android cut off in mid-sentence. "Oh", he said. "Have I been annoying?"

"You could say that", his friend muttered goodnaturedly, but I had the impression the question had actually been directed at me. Damn, he was only a machine. How could he be expected to understand humans when I myself did not, and I was one - nowadays.

"Yes, you have", I admitted, "but there's something disarming about such a direct question. I forgive you."

"Thank you", he said, adding learnt gravity to learnt response, and overdoing it as usual. I sighed - hoping that I would not have to explain why.

He kept hanging around, looking over our shoulders, but I could sense he was holding back his comments - the majority of them anyway. Curious as a cat - that was the third time I had found something catlike about him, and I wondered why. I like cats - for some reason I've always got along well with animals. Animals and machines, but few people, humanoid or otherwise - though the ones that are not humanoid at all are easier to strike a rapport with. Of course, Data was a machine, but to me who had so recently been a ship, he seemed uncomfortably human. It was a relief each time I could directly derive his behaviour back to what must be going on in his operating system and the algorithms of individual programmes, but all the more disturbing the few times I could not, as I could not help but keep searching for the clues I felt had to be there.

He had an amazing database, and he kept adding to it constantly, sponging up information from all objects and events around him at all times. Yet he seemed to have reliable algorithms of sorting and prioritizing, for he was never overwhelmed by the amounts or variety of input. As his own only user he was also able to optimize any function as he went along, and he never ran the risk of the infamous SBK error. I found myself beginning to tolerate his mental presence.

His physical one was another matter. He was standing so close at times, reading screens over my shoulder, that I was terrified he would tread on my foot - lending a new significance to the term footprint as the weight of his foot would certainly crush mine. I found my concentration slipping, as I was wondering about his possible failsafes. Between him and LaForge, I was beginning to feel decidedly crowded, and I could not remember why I had always thought of Lt. Commander Data as that little.. something or other. He was taller than LaForge, I would guess at somewhere around Garth's height which meant exceeding mine, and rather wide-shouldered although he naturally was not equipped with any exaggerated muscular padding; someone who can simply lock his grip or posture has no need of muscles. My earlier impression of him as small must have been due to first seeing his generally slender form squeezed in between the towering ones of Worf and Riker - or perhaps to a feeling that he should have been smaller. Why build him lifesize? Wouldn't somewhere around halfsize be easier and more convenient? But perhaps his creator - Dr. Noonian Soong if I remembered correctly, and I had been told often enough by now - had already passed the stage of half- or thirdsize prototypes before producing this one.

At long last, the solution to the distraction entered my head. I simply told him I was afraid of being trod on, and asked him to move off. He assured me there were no grounds for my fear as he was fully aware of where he was in relation to everything else at all times as long as he was functioning perfectly - which he was - but he also obediently moved aside, affording me some welcome space. For another halfhour of interesting instructions from LaForge, I actually managed to forget all about the Chief Engineer's artificial superior officer.

Until I felt something touch my hair, only lightly, at the ends - it was still long; as the leads had gone in further down the back of my neck, there had been no need to shave any of it off. The touch more than distracted me, it nearly put me in a trance, and yet it wasn't until he spoke that I realized who was doing it.

"There is an ancient Earth saying that fairhaired females are better able to enjoy themselves than those endowed with hair of any other colour", he said. "I have often wondered if this can be verified, and if so in what context and for what reason it is applicable."

That old line - and from him? I shot LaForge an exasperated glance but he wasn't helping any.

"In other words - is it true that blondes have more fun?" he translated, grinning.

"I believe that's what he just said", I told the Chief Engineer, before the android could make the same claim.

But I felt I had had it. Turning to the automaton, I spat, "Not after they've been attached to machinery, they don't!"

All right, I was feeling sorry for myself again despite all efforts to the contrary, but I had the satisfaction of seeing the grin wiped off LaForge's face and the bland expression to some extent off the android's - but then the latter did something totally unexpected. He let go of my hair, calmly turned on his heel and left - without a word at that.

I watched him go, then turned to LaForge in disbelief. "Do you think - I hurt him?"

"Can't say", he replied with a slight shake of his head. "I only know that it's far easier than most people think to walk roughshod over his heart - there is not a joule of aggression built into him."

"Considering all that was built into him, it would seem that Dr. Soong was not only a genius but a very wise man to boot", I said, and LaForge nodded.

"The thought has crossed my mind." Then, with a slight smile, he added, "Permission granted."

"What?" I stupidly asked.

"In case you want to run after him and apologize, it's okay by me. You might still catch him - if not, use the computer to locate him. He's not due on the bridge for two hours yet, barring emergencies of course."

Apologize to an android? Well, why not; somehow it almost made sense. I gave LaForge a quick nod, then rushed out into the corridor. He was gone of course, so I went over to a wall terminal. "Computer, location of Lt. Commander Data?" I requested.

"Lt. Commander Data is in corridor 10b, heading for the TenForward Room", she answered promptly. Somehow I always thought of her as she - because of the voice, no doubt. Female computer voices have been the standard on Starfleet vessels for millennia; for better clarity, they tell me. I took the nearest turbolift for Deck 10, hoping that that was what he had done, and that it would deposit me in corridor b.

It did; I exited less than fifty metres behind him.

"Commander", I called, and he paused but did not turn around; an oddly human response and one which told me I could have been right. What the hell. "Data!" I called, walking up to him, and this time he did turn, probably out of surprise at my unorthodox use of his name. Well, it's the privilege of the uncommissioned - to be able to take a few liberties now and then.

"Data, I'm sorry", I told him right off as I caught up with him, "I didn't mean to snap at you. It's only that I was feeling sorry for myself, and I hate myself when I am, because it means I'm already half beaten without even running into any real adversities, and when I hate myself I take it out on others - it's the human way, as I suppose you must know by now." I didn't really care if I was blabbing; after all, he was hardly the taciturn type himself.

"Apology accepted", he said at once, so apparently it had been in order, just as I thought. "Will you accept mine?"

I must have looked totally nonplussed, for he went on, "I realize now that I ought not to have touched you without permission. But I assure you that a 'connection to machinery' was not foremost in my mind at the time. However, I have been most interested in your fate and experiences ever since I first learnt about them, and I would like to discuss them with you at some time. On the other hand, since the subject of connection seems painful to you, I assume I had better desist."

All right, I can be slow at times. I swear that was the first time it dawned on me what I had actually said to him - the exact wording I mean. "Oh damn", I said, "Did you take that personally? You're getting quite good at reading humans, double-entendres and all, aren't you? Too good, in this instance, because the fact is, I meant only what I said; I was referring to my past experiences, nothing else. It does happen that a human is only talking about one thing at a time, you know. It may be rare, I admit, but it does happen."

Of course my self-irony on behalf of my miserable species was lost on him, but it did not really matter. "Oh", he said. "I thought the wording of what you said might be what is usually referred to as a Freudian slip. I was just on my way to TenForward to ask Counsellor Troi if my interpretation was correct. I thought I had learnt something." He actually seemed dejected by the idea that he had not; that he had thought he had found out something new about humans and been mistaken.

"Hmm", I said, "while I don't think I meant to imply anything I wasn't aware of, it would of course be in the nature of the thing that I would not be aware of it - why don't we both go and ask Counsellor Troi if what I said constitutes a Freudian slip?"

He looked at me as if he wasn't sure whether or not I was putting him on. Truth to tell, I wasn't sure myself.

"I'd really like to know too", I said. "Whether you can detect a Freudian slip, I mean. It would be interesting to find out to what extent you can understand human doubletalk - I mean, understand what we mean as well as what we say, if and when there is a discrepancy." I meant that much at least. Already his very attempt at such an interpretation was mindboggling enough.

"And yes", I continued, "some of my recent experiences might make for painful memories, but I'm sure it would do me good to discuss them. I'll tell you all you want to know. Friends?" I added intuitively, holding out my hand to him.

He took it - his was warm to the touch, I don't know why that should surprise me, but that wasn't what distracted me most about it. "My gods, you have beautiful hands!" I exclaimed before I thought.

"Thank you", he said, examining his free one with a puzzled look on his face. "I have always considered them expertly designed for maximum usefulness" he mused," - exactly what about them do you find pleasing to the eye?"

Damn, why couldn't I keep my big mouth shut? My aesthetic sense does get the better of me sometimes. Now I would have to explain that too. "The overall exquisite slenderness", I said, indicating that feature along the one I was still holding, "makes for sublime elegance. And I think you have the longest fingers I've ever seen in a - within a humanoid frame of reference", I amended. It was true; until then I had always considered Alan's hands the most attractive ones I knew of - oddly enough for a musician, Garth's hands were not his best feature, that title probably falling to his ears - but not even Alan's fingers were as long as Data's which were about as long as they could be while still falling short of freakiness.

"And you find that beautiful?" he marvelled. "I would have thought being long-fingered was not considered an admirable trait in humanoids."

I groaned with the burden of having to explain everything. "That's just a figure of speech", I began. "Don't mix it up with.."

Then I caught his slight smile.

I admit I was tempted to ask him outright if he had actually made a joke. Knowingly applied an intended pun. But I held back, merely making a mental note not to underestimate this particular automaton again. "Oh never mind", I said, letting go of his hand. "Come on, let's go see the Counsellor."

Troi looked doubtfully at me, as if she were not sure of my motives. As any such uncertainty seemed pretty much out of the question in an empath, I could only conclude that she had found something inconsistent about them. Then I caught on. She was sitting at a table far off in the corner, and there were two drinks in front of her, the one opposite her being a kind of ale I knew Alan liked. Obviously, we were interrupting something - or could have been. Somehow I was glad Alan was out at the moment, I did not feel like talking to him right now. As I thought this, I could see the Counsellor brightening; apparently she had been wondering if I were checking on her. Or on Alan. Or both. I wondered if Garth had told her about my old relationship with Alan, but so what if he had? On the other hand, why should he?

"I can't really answer your question", she said. "Only you can do that, Llin. You say your - somewhat unfortunate - wording was not intended at the time; what do you feel about it now? Could you have meant it unconsciously, or is that thought alien to you?"

"I thought you'd be able to sense that", I said, but she shook her head.

"It may be buried too deep - or it might not be there at all. It's very hard to sense something the subject is not aware of - unless it be her main motivating drive, as is sometimes the case with disturbed people. And while you could be classified as disturbed to some extent, I would say you know yourself quite well. You are certainly aware of your main motivation in life - not that I would call it a healthy one."

"Oh?" I said. "Then tell me what it is, so I can decide whether or not I can agree with you."

She hesitated a little, as if afraid to give voice to anything that was better confided to her journals, but as I did not seem to mind, she finally said, "Well, it appears your main desire right now is the reverse of Data's." She acknowledged the android with a slight nod. "While he's trying his best to be human - you want to be a machine."

I looked away, quickly. She was wrong - and right. I realized I had been aware of it - though I would not have put it that way. I don't think I had seen it quite like that. I was lamenting my detachment, yes, but it had not occurred to me that I might strive for a reversal of it. Or even that such a reversal might be possible.

She took my hand. "I've hurt you", she said. "I'm sorry - you did seem aware of it. Are you familiar with the fairytale of the cow who jumped over the moon? You're a little like that. You had something which you lost, and you are still looking for it, whether you know it or not."

I had not wanted Data to hear this, though I could not have said why. I could tell he was listening attentively, and not only from the angle of his head.

"Thank you", I said to Counsellor Troi, detaching my hand. "But your simile is not entirely adequate. I certainly did not go to any lengths to lose the star that singled me out - though I may have jumped over a few moons, I really can't tell. The detachment was not my choice."

I left her abruptly, putting some distance between us before I would start wondering too hard whether I had said too much. As if that would help - I knew she was quite good over distance as well as up close.

Data nodded politely to her and followed me, just as I spotted Alan coming back. I dodged into the shadows between two tables and nearly bumped into my uncle Vidar, but he was sitting with his back to me, and I managed to find another obscure corner table without either member of my former crew seeing me. The android joined me, having followed my course changes effortlessly.

"I am not familiar with the story of the cow", he said. "Would you tell it to me?"

So I did. I rather liked the story myself, of the cow to whose horn a falling star sticks - I apologized for that before he could object to the factual insanity of that idea, but he had collected enough fairystories he said, to know that for symbolism's sake they were not subjected to the laws of physics and logic as we knew them. Well, that was a relief anyway. Good thing he had an impressive database.

I told him about the cow, how the star makes her dance, how all the other cows frown on her and how she gets so exhausted by her constant dancing that she wishes she could get rid of the star, and how she sees somebody wise about this - I had forgotten who or what this being was, so I told him to insert some appropriate character of his choice, the way Garth ofted would when singing a traditional narrative.

"She gets the advice to jump over the moon", I said. "and she tries and fails a couple of times, but then she succeeds and she soars over the moon - this being the single moon of Earth, it's an old story - and as she's above it, the star is finally detached from her horn, vanishing behind her with a faint tinkling sound.. and then she lands, and she sleeps for days, she's so exhausted. And all the other cows are relieved she is back to normal and they feel sorry for her to have gone through all this.

"But after a time, it occurs to her that dancing was quite enjoyable, so she tries it, but without the star she cannot dance. She starts missing it. To the point that she starts looking for another star to fix to her horn, and as the story ends, she goes from house to house, looking into the gardens to see if maybe there will be a fallen star, just lying around.."

"Does she find one?" Data asked, much as a child would, I thought.

"As I said, the story ends there. Perhaps she does, perhaps she doesn't. I'm not sure of the intended moral of this story; I suppose you could make a case for it being about impossible ambition - but I don't quite see it that way. To me, it's about artistry, individuality - talent if you wish. A talent that is simply bestowed on her, as talents are, and which singles her out, isolating her from the others who disapprove. But it's uncomfortable, as many talents are, so for her own sake as well as that of her community, she feels she must get rid of it. And she doesn't simply throw it away, she works hard to lose it. Yet after all her efforts to obtain a comfortable existence and be like all the others, she finds out that the talent was worth more, after all. Worth the drain on herself, even worth losing her friends for. Among whom she might never really have belonged in the first place. Worth everything. And that, I find is an interesting moral to a story, as it is rather the opposite of what you would expect."

He nodded. "To thine own self be true", he quoted. As simple as that. Another thing that had not struck me before. So that's what the whole thing was about?

"Exactly", I said. "And have you considered how many traditional fairystories preach just the opposite? That nobody is happy until they return home and settle down like everybody else and can forget about their adventure?"

"That is true mainly of the ones written for children", he said. "Perhaps it was felt that the children needed a solid base of beliefs to start their adventures from. But there are other stories, for instance the one about the ancient Asiatic god who is awakened after a hundred years of sleep.."

"..and who refuses to take part in whatever he was summoned for and goes right back to sleep", I filled in. "I know that one. Perhaps someone had had enough of stories with a moral to them. As have I. Weren't we going to delve into the matter of Freudian slips?"

"Counsellor Troi said you would know", he said, adjusting smoothly to the change of subject. "Do you?"

"I've been thinking about it. The definition of a Freudian slip is something you say when you say what you mean rather than meaning what you say, isn't it? Or something to that effect", I hastily added, as I saw his lips parting to produce the correct definition. "So in order for what I said to be one, I must have meant it, without knowing it - uh, what did I say by the way? I've forgotten. Something about connecting to machinery?"

"No, that was my interpretation of it. What you actually said was, not after they've been attached to machinery."

I was suddenly extremely glad he had not quoted my voice too. I strongly suspected he could have.

"The overt meaning of course being a reference to your experience as the sentient part of a spacegoing vessel", he continued, "but what we are trying to determine is whether there was a hidden one - hence, whether or not my interpretation of a double meaning was correct."

"And what exactly was your interpretation?" I asked.

He frowned. "I am not certain that my interpretation of a presumed hidden meaning is relevant. I was referring to my interpretation that such a secondary meaning was indeed present."

"Come now", I said. "If there was a secondary message in what I said, we must also determine whether or not at some level of my consciousness I meant it. For if I did not, it's not a Freudian slip. So what was your interpretation of the message?"

"That you thought I was - I believe the expression is, making a pass at you. And that you were in effect telling me that you had no interest in any intimacy with me. But is not the interesting aspect whether or not I could actually detect a double meaning to what you said, not the contents of that meaning?"

"If you could not, it's just a matter of time before you can", I said dismissively, "since the idea occurred to you at all."

He seemed rather taken aback at that, as if he had been overlooking several steps of his recent progress. Me, I was sort of shaken and trying not to show it. I had underestimated him. And had I really been telling him all that? I had been so certain I had only snapped at him.

"I concede now that what I said could well be interpreted that way", I said. "But I don't think that's what I meant. I can't quite imagine why I would - I mean, I didn't - oh hell, let's just drop it, shall we?"

"You would not have thought me capable of any such connection so you would not have refuted the idea because you would not have recognized any possibility to refute", he told me levelly, his face expressionless.

"And I thought the empaths were the psychologists around here", I said. "Are you sure no one built a telepathy circuit into you? No, don't answer that."

"So I was wrong", he said. "While an additional meaning could have existed, I was wrong about its contents. Besides, you did not say connected", he reminded me. "You said attached."

I suddenly grew cold. "That's right", I said, "I did, didn't I? In that case.. I may actually have meant it."

He frowned. "It might imply a greater level of abstraction", he admitted, "but I fail to see how that would.."

He was interrupted by the short if formidable figure of Guinan, suddenly mainfesting itself next to our table. I wondered how long she had been in the vicinity. "You two turtledoves haven't ordered anything", she said innocently. "I can understand it in one case, but in the other..?"

"Just give me a glass of coolant", I said tiredly. "Sorry, make that a half-stein of uncle Vidar's mead", I amended, seeing four eyes widening on me. Guinan nodded and left.

"Turtledoves?" Data wondered, looking at her retreating back.

I shrugged. "She must have got her metaphors crossed. Where were we?"

*  *  *  *

We talked for the remainder of his offshift, and yet we did not have the time to get very far into my experiences as a ship - and after. He asked me if Counsellor Troi had been right in assuming I would rather be a machine again, and I said a ship yes, not a tool or a household appliance. He opened his mouth to ask something more - presumably why I should be a household appliance - but his commbadge interrupted him, calling him back to the bridge. I suddenly realized that LaForge might not have expected my apology to take nearly two hours.. it was easy to forget having work to do after having been out of it for so long.

"Well, there'll be other times", I sighed, as we both rose.

"Indeed I hope so", he said, fixing me with his golden eyes, looking very serious. I would like to continue our discussion in some depth. Perhaps we could match our schedules. I shall talk to Lt. LaForge about it."

For some reason he held out his hand in goodbye, and I could not help looking at it as I took it. As I glanced up at him again, he was wearing a distinct little smile - and it wasn't stylized. I could have sworn he was actually amused.

Only after we had parted did it occur to me that he had not once acted silly the way I had feared. So there were more sides to this construct than readily met the eye.. Probably more than the ship's human population gave him credit for.

*  *  *  *

There were other times. You hear so much about the adventurous lives of starship personnel, but I suspect most of it can be attributed to Starfleet's recruiting propaganda.

Granted, the so-called adventures are often spectacular enough when they do strike, but truth to tell, emergencies are often as far between as the stars in space, and if it were not for the warp drive, we might be hard put to meet with any at all. Which makes warp technology a mixed blessing, I suppose.

Hence, synching my schedule with Data's was really no problem - in the sense that as long as there were no emergencies, the synchronization stood, once we'd set it up. The setting up itself was not as easy as I had expected. Realizing that he had more hours to his day than I or anyone else aboard, I had foolishly concluded that there had to be times when he had nothing to do. There weren't.

He was often working double shifts, though Captain Picard had laid down once and for all that the android was not to work full triple shifts - except in cases of emergency. His offshifts only meant he was free to pursue his personal projects, of which he had several going at once - all of them concerned with gathering more information in one way or another. Well, I suppose I was one of those projects.

Also, we ran into another difficulty - of an unexpected kind. Counsellor Troi heard about our attempts to synchronize, and she and Corina both vetoed it, on the grounds that if I were to consort mainly with machines, it would aggravate what they termed my instability. Well, to give them their due, they did not put it quite like that - what they said was that I ought to mingle more with the rest of the crew and passengers, the more the better, but I'm good at hearing between the lines, and I'm afraid Data was too, on this subject at any rate.

LaForge, being the better psychologist in this case - or perhaps simply better acquainted with Data - turned their argument elegantly by pointing out that consorting with a humanoid machine might be just the sort of transition I needed to be able to eventually move on to the company of biological minds. But they were not convinced, and they insisted on yet another psychological checkout of me first.

Luckily, I got Rhonda for that checkout as both of the others were offshift at the time. I'm not saying that being an empath naturally clouds a person's mind, but all the same I was glad that Rhonda isn't one. I'm not alien enough for her telepathy to work well with me, but she has a good deal of common sense and besides, one thing was certainly strong enough for her to catch.

"Well", she said drily, "considering that you have been recommended to mix with people since you were a child, and that this recommendation has always caused vivid resentment on your part - not to mention that all your attempts to 'humour the psychologist' by following it have always backfired - I must conclude that enforced mingling is strongly counterindicated in your case."

And that was what went into her report. Though Counsellor Troi who was never one to give up easily wanted to know exactly what Rhonda meant by 'backfired'. If I had run into rejection, probably all I had to do was try again, and eventually..

"Backfired means the attempts bored her to tears", Rhonda explained bluntly. "She did mingle, she was not rejected - and she did not enjoy it. I go with Lt. LaForge's line on this - I may even use his words: Don't throw her into the pool until she can swim. Or, more to the point, don't throw her into the sea until she has learnt to swim in the pool, but I gather Mr LaForge is not given to long metaphors."

I had contemplated seeking the backing of Dr. Pulaski too - somehow I felt she might help - but there was no need. Troi and Corina gave in, gracefully conceding that Rhonda - and LaForge - might have a point.

Needless to say, LaForge supported the schedule synch practically too; I found all my offshifts matched to Data's without half trying myself. Some of them I did not see him at all anyway, as I had other things to do - not the least being the rehabilitation sessions I was still going through, although my muscles were now nearly back to normal. I can't even say I used most of my synched offshifts for discussions with Data.

But quite a few of them I did use for that purpose. Generally, we would meet in TenForward and talk through the shift. Once or twice we met in his quarters, that being more convenient for one reason or another. I told him all about the month I had been the Llinhwyfar, even all about the ensuing detachment trauma - and something about my life before the escape, though I was being careful there, out of loyalty to Alan. I told him more about conditions on Midgard itself, as that was only fleshing out the story Alan and Garth had already been telling shipwide.

The android's questions were endless. "How would it be possible for one nation to hold dominion over most of the others like that?" he would ask, and I did not really know.

"Better education, more wealth, I suppose", I said.

"But surely a better education would preclude using their fellow Midgarders as tools and household appliances?" he objected, somewhat naïvely, I thought.

"A better education does not necessarily provide more wisdom", I said. "As for the dominion by the Kirigh - there are of course more of them. In fact, that's what started the whole thing."

"Oh?" He frowned. "The connection is not immediately apparent."

"Overpopulation", I said. "Household appliances don't breed." I had not really thought that would silence him. It did not.

"Then, would not the logical solution be to select Kirigh for mechanization? You said they use people of the other nations exclusively."

I nodded. "Have you ever heard of a nation willing to decimate itself as long as there are others sharing the situation with them?"

"In fact I have", he said. "On Karakkal II, there were.."

"So this is where you freaks are hiding", said a husky tenor next to us, and Garth pounded down his stein of mead on our table, dragged up a chair, and settled as if for the night.

"Please sit down", I invited acidly.

His blue eyes were slightly red-rimmed - making for a rather startling effect, incidentally - which led me to believe he was already into his second stein. That surprised me, as I knew he was not a heavy drinker. If I wanted to be vicious, I'd say he did not have to be.

"You know you two are the talk of the ship, I suppose?" he said, his voice as steady and controlled as ever.

"No, I did not", I said. "I would have thought there would be far more important and interesting things to talk about." I could not imagine what ever there would be about me and Data - us freaks, as Garth had so helpfully put it - that anyone could want to discuss, but I'd be damned if I'd ask. Data had no such inhibitions.

"What are they saying?" he asked, with genuine curiosity.

Garth sampled his mead, savouring the moment. "Oh, mainly that you are well matched", he said. "Two mechanical monsters.."

"Thanks to you, I'm no longer even semi-mechanical!" I spat, before the faint disbelief on Data's face could evolve into a comment.

"Thanks to me is right. You really ought to be grateful, you know", Garth said. "But are you? Have I even seen you in the last three weeks - except in here, with this - little mannequin."

"In what sense are you applying the term mannequin?" Data wanted to know. "If in the late-evolved connotation of artificial human then of course you are correct, but if you are using it in its original sense of little man, meaning less than a man I must beg to differ, as in many aspects I am more than a man."

I would not have used that wording. Not with Garth. Not now.

"I only meant subhuman", Garth said lightly.

The wonderful thing about trying to insult an android is that he can almost always refute emotional epithets on the grounds of inaccuracy. "Then I maintain that you are mistaken", Data said, "as the same argument applies. Many of my functions are far more advanced than they would be in a human; hence I cannot rightly be termed subhuman."

"Except in the only sense that matters", Garth insisted. "You have no feelings, and you cannot reproduce."

"So intelligence and kindness do not matter?" I said ominously. "Besides, he has more feelings than you ever had - or ever will have."

"I beg to differ", Data said again, "as it is fairly obvious that it is precisely the Bard's feelings which are causing his erratic behaviour at the moment, something that I as an artificial being am not likely to experience. As for my inability to reproduce", he turned politely to Garth, "by which expression I take it you mean produce human offspring, of course you are correct, but I fail to see the relevance of.."

"So do I", I cut in. "Your own hypothetical reproductive powers are also irrelevant, Garth", I told him. "Completely irrelevant."

I knew him to strike with the swiftness of a cobra - he had slapped me often enough - but right then I honestly thought that if he hit me I would kill him.

However, he made the mistake of standing up first, which alerted the android to his intention in time to catch Garth's wrist in a dead man's lock. "I would not advise acting on your present hostility, sir", Data said. I was a little surprised at the sir until I realized that he was using the honorific in its social sense rather than its hierarchic one.

For all his passion, Garth is a swift thinker. He did not try to strike back, nor to free himself. "All right", he said. "Let go of me, I won't strike her - until you are out of the way", he added, knowing that there was precious little the android could do about that. Especially as the Captain's voice just came through on his commbadge.

"Lt. Commander Data to the bridge", said the clipped tones. Then, as if in an aside to someone, "Where is he?" as though Data had missed the end of his offshift, which I knew he had not. On the other hand, he had about 20 seconds to reach the bridge, which might be cutting it a bit fine.

Acknowledging the summons, he quickly released Garth and made his leave, though I almost thought I saw a worried look on his goldleaf face as he turned to rush for the exit. For a moment I wondered if Garth had chosen the end of Data's shift to start this brawl, or if I was just being paranoid. Well, it was the end of mine too.

I stood, finishing my drink. "Nice talking to you", I said with as much venom as I could press into the brief statement. "But I have work to do. In fact, I'm already late."

"Sit down", Garth said, pulling me back on to my seat. "I need to talk to you."

"You're interfering with my duties", I said.

"File a complaint", he countered. "Why haven't you been to see me lately?"

"Why should I? Am I under any kind of obligation to see you regularly?"

"You weren't like this before the takeoff."

"No", I said. "I was not." He could chew on that, if he liked.

"Or even when you were half ship.. at least I don't think so. Llin, what happened?"

"You are seriously asking me that? You really don't know what you did in insisting on my detachment?"

"I was not about to lose you", he said with finality. "And I'm not now. Especially not to that little assembly of spare parts. What the bloody ice are you two up to anyway?" he suddenly burst out, his voice rising.

"Just talking", I said, truthfully.

"Just talking? Do you deny having been to his quarters?"

I couldn't help laughing, even knowing it was hardly the best policy. "Don't be absurd", I said, "Data hasn't even got a bed."

Slamming his stein down hard on the table, Garth stood. "Hasn't got a bed?" he yelled, "What's a bed got to do with it, he's got a floor, hasn't he? Considering the weight ratio, I daresay he's got himself", he added, revealing how much thought he had actually given to the matter; I was beginning to wonder if he had finally lost his mind to this fantasy of his. "Tell me, when did the absence of a bed ever stop you?"

He shouted that last so loud that even the ones who had not taken an interest sooner were certainly taking one now. Including a familiar, burly character who suddenly appeared at our table, placing a beefsize hand on Garth's shoulder. "Is that my niece you are barking at in the manner of a rabid cur?" uncle Vidar asked in his silkiest voice - which was rather gravelly all the same.

Garth shoved him. "Back off, old man. Get back to your drink, this doesn't concern you."

"Oh no?" Vidar began, and I decided it was high time to intercede.

"Please, uncle, no barroom brawls in the TenForward", I begged him nervously. I had a strong feeling we were barely tolerated as it was, after all Garth's shouting.

Vidar, more sober than I had dared hope, nodded agreement. "No brawls it is. But this fellow is leaving. Excuse me, sir Bard.." And with that he hoisted Garth up on his massive shoulder and simply carried him off the premises. I had not really thought it possible, but while Garth is quite strong, he is no heavyweight.

The general outburst of applause in the TenForward disturbed me. I slunk off to work, hoping that no one would notice me for some time.

*  *  *  *

It must have been around this time that we had apparently made contact with an alien vessel - though from what I heard, contact was hardly the word. The ship grapevine had it that the alien was just drifting powerless in space when the Enterprise came upon her, so Captain Picard had offered assistance but received no reaction at all - or at least none that he could interpret. There were life forms aboard though; the name of their species was given as the Enyddth because the Enterprisecomputer and Data both had agreed on an 88 per cent probability based on scanner-gleaned information that this was the correct designation. The name of the ship had been easier to determine; she was the Ywq, possibly named for some avian species, if the crude image on her bow was any indication.

And that, such as it was, was all the information anybody had on the encounter. One day I turned into a corridor on Deck 9, only to find myself walking behind Counsellor Troi and her boyscout, Commander Riker. I don't think they heard me, though she must have sensed me. But since she apparently chose not to let on, I felt free to listen in on their conversation.

Her arms were making a wide, frustrated gesture as she said, "I can read them, Will - they are not like the Ferengi, a blank. But nothing I read makes sense, or rather, the sense it makes is not borne out. I sensed fear at first, which seemed plausible although we could not know the reason. But then I sensed joy, anger, sadness in rapid succession while they seemed to be talking to us, though none of this was acted upon nor reflected in anything they did. I'm beginning to think I simply got them wrong from the start."

Riker grinned. "No wonder the Captain was less than pleased with your performance. I've never known you to be vague before, nor, I warrant, has he."

Troi shook her masses of dark hair impatiently. "It's like this. Imagine yourself stranded in a foreign culture where you are trying to read people's reactions from their faces, the way you usually would. Except that all the familiar signals mean something else, and you have no way of knowing what. They start shaking all over when they feel friendly towards you, they yawn when they are happy, they shake your hand when they mean to kill you - but you don't know that. You sense that something is off, compared to your own frames of reference, but that's all."

Riker whistled softly. "I see.. then Data showed some inspired insight with that remark about what peoples on Earth nod when they mean no, and shake their head for yes. And Wesley was all wrong when he compared you to a faulty translator - well, he got duly reprimanded for that one at least."

Troi was walking with her back to me, but I could imagine her classically beautiful face brightening, as I heard the amusement in her voice. "Yes, by the Captain and Data both, poor boy. One stamping on his attitude and the other on his facts.. but yes, if the working theory is that our translators failed because they had nothing whatsoever to build on, because the language of the Enyddth is totally outside all linguistic hierarchies anybody has ever encountered, then indeed it isn't quite the same thing. I do get readable feelings, it's just that I cannot interpret them correctly in an Enyddth. Whereas the translators seem unable to get anything at all."

"Or else they just give up earlier than you", Riker mused. "At least the Enyddth do have a sound language, and hence presumably the sense of hearing; I suppose that's always something."

"Quite a beautiful language too", Troi said almost dreamily. "Very musical at times, I thought."

"Maybe I should have tried harder to read their faces. What if that should prove easier?" Riker ventured, but he did not sound quite serious.

Troi shook her head in doubt. "They are that dull red colour all over, which somehow doesn't make for good shadows. Their faces seem to change expression with the angle of the lighting as they move, in much the same way as you can get expressions on the face of a statue by playing the light over it, although there are no expressions there. In this case, we don't know whether there are or not - why suddenly so pensive? I felt your mood change as if a cloud had passed over you."

"I was just thinking..", Riker said, "do you think that's what we do to Data? Play the light over him, as it were? Assigning him emotions that are not there, I mean. But the light of what?"

"Our own emotions of course. Projection is a human failing that comes all too easily when we expect it the least."

"Then you think that is what we do?"

"I am certain of it. One indication being that I never sense anything from him. If he had feelings, I would sense them."

"What about the Ferengi?" Riker asked, with more shrewdness than I would have given him credit for. "You can't sense them. But you can't seriously claim they have no feelings.."

"Now you're teasing again, Will. Data is not Ferengi."

"But neither is he human", Riker pointed out, just as they were rounding the corner. I had slowed down deliberately, loth to hear more of this. Emotionalism as a philosophy. Snobs.. What was so glorious about feelings anyway; look where they had brought Garth..

*  *  *  *

Garth continued to make a nuisance of himself. He even showed up in Engineering one day, and LaForge had Security throw him out. I was afraid I would be blamed for the behaviour of my ex-lover, but nobody said anything about it, so I decided to ignore the matter until told otherwise. But I knew I would probably have to talk to Garth, before he ruined all his social relations. Or maybe to Counsellor Troi - or Alan.. but somehow I knew that that was not likely to solve anything, Garth would not listen to them. I had never known him to listen to anyone - except perhaps me, come to think of it. Perhaps it was because others were usually listening to him; I suppose he had never learnt to work it the other way around.

Fact is, they were still listening to his songs, whenever given the opportunity. Either they assumed his outburst in the TenFore had been a single occurrence, or else they felt it had no bearing on his artistic performance. I suspected the latter; even I would disregard his personality, as soon as he was singing. Only this time I had been avoiding his performances as well as his company, so as not to be unduly swayed.

It would just be my luck that when he snagged me in the corridor, I really did not have the time to talk. "Could you come with me for a moment?" he said. "I'd like to show you something."

I could imagine what; he was carrying an electric harp. "My compliments on your change of tactics", I said, with more venom than I had actually intended. "In fact, I have been meaning to talk to you too", I mitigated, "Only not right now; I haven't got the time."

"Come on", he said tensely, "I know you're off duty, I checked your schedule. Or are you going to see your bignosed tin man again?"

Somehow the mounting tension in his voice served only to anger me, not to warn me. "Since you took the pains and liberty to check my duty roster", I said, "why pass over my exercise schedule? I'm due for a one-hour session in gym 6c in three minutes."

"Skip it. I had them program holodeck two for autumn in northern Midgard. I hadn't meant to tell you until we got there, but I see that I must. I can't keep it booked forever. And I have a new song. I want you to be the first to hear it; it's been aeons since I wrote anything for any other first opinion than yours."

Well, apparently he had really tried. But his timing was way off. "I'm sorry, Garth", I said, "I really am. But I cannot pass up a session yet. I'd be half paralyzed tomorrow. Look, the programme will be saved, and your song won't evapourate if you put the whole thing on hold for a few days. Just tell me in advance next time, okay?"

He looked disappointed, but no more than that. "Your muscles no better than that yet?"

I shook my head. "It takes time. For some things there are still no fast cures."

"Then let me come with you", he said. "Let me help, the way I did after the accident on Lake Granir. I had you up and about in three days, remember?"

"That was hardly the same thing", I said. "The damage was much less extensive. But you could be right. I've begun to feel that these training programmes are not all that efficent."

He grinned, for the first time in weeks, and I suddenly realized how much I had missed that smile, like an edge of sunlight, always running from ear to ear. "Well, let's give it a try then, shall we?"

*  *  *  *

He was suddenly so nice and considerate that I found myself wondering on our way to the gym whether it would actually be possible to pick things up from where they had got lost - and I could not see it. It would mean committing myself to be fully human again, and to me that would mean giving up. Giving up my search for another star that could make me soar in silent space again.. preferably without a crew this time. Counsellor Troi was right. I was rather like the dancing cow. And yet - it wasn't only that, any more. I wanted to go back in space yes - really in space, not simply closed up in and yet apart from the can I was riding in, the way I was now - but there was something else too, some other reason that I could not resume my relationship with Garth; a reason I could not quite put my finger on as yet.

We both got our changes of clothes on the premises as was the rule, and he helped me stretch, by putting his weight on me in appropriate places. He was good at that; as he said, it had helped me that time back on Midgard, before all hell broke lose and we had to escape by such drastic means.

We hadn't been such friends for a long time. Once, after tying me in an unusually complicated knot, he said playfully, "You know I could make use of this situation? In fact I think I will. Give me a kiss or I won't let you up."

"I can't", I said, "I can't even reach you. You'll have to disentangle me first."

"Keep trying", he said, so I strove a bit and managed to meet him halfway.

And he kissed me but no more. Somehow I knew he would take no more advantage than that, not under the circumstances.

"Do you still love me?" he suddenly asked, catching me off guard. I could have said yes, I meant to say yes, but something in me prevented it. I changed my position before I answered, and he leant on my leg this time. "Well, do you?" he asked, almost pleadingly. I had never heard him plead before.

"I wish I could", I said slowly. "But after my detachment - or more likely after my mechanization in the first place, once I'd grown into it - I no longer have any understanding of all that passion of yours. I'm still fond of you, yes, but I have no way of responding to all your chaotic emotions any more. I'm sorry but I don't think it's something that will go away. I think maybe it's part of what Alan meant when he said it was too late, that you could never have me back as I was."

He did not say anything, but I saw the light go out of his eyes to be replaced by something else. He did not leave me though, if anything he worked harder. In fact he was leaning on me so hard I asked him to stop before something would break.

"Come on, you can take it", he said. "You have before. But don't push back now or you might tear something. Relax, I'll let you up in a few seconds."

But I could feel that it was not going to work, so I was loth to just give up and fold under his weight. Half panicked, I slapped the deck a couple of times for him to release me, but he didn't, so I tried to relax as he had told me - and felt something snap in a synaesthetically visible flash of searing pain. And that's the last thing I knew for a while.

I awoke in sickbay, Dr. Pulaski and Data hovering over me. Searching my mind for a reason why he would be here, I seemed to remember being carried swiftly down a corridor - the ease with which I had been carried told me who must have found me. Found me where..? Oh. Garth again. Why had I ever trusted him? It was perfectly like him to pull something like this. And precisely what had he pulled, come to think of it - how great was the damage? The pain was gone, so I had nothing to go by.

"You have a torn ligament in your right leg", Dr. Pulaski informed me. "Nothing serious, but because of your earlier condition it'll take a few days to heal, even with modern methods. And after that you will have to stay away from your training sessions for another week, which is where the actual problems come in. You may experience a setback when you start training again, but you should be able to catch up soon enough." She nodded to Data and left.

"Thanks for bringing me in", I said to him. "I suppose it was you. How come?"

"Dr. Pulaski told me to", he said. "I found you on the floor of the gymnasium and called for medical help, but after hearing my report the doctor told me I could bring you in myself - if I preferred, she said; I fail to understand what she meant by that, but as she apparently considered it safe for you to be carried, I did."

"I didn't mean that", I said, "I meant, how come you found me? Wasn't Garth anywhere around?"

"The Bard? No, he was not. Was he with you?"

"Yes", I said curtly. So the little rat had just left me there. Then something odd struck me. "How come you happened by? We had no discussion set up for this offshift, had we?"

"No, but I was with Geordi in Engineering when we both noted that you had failed to turn up. Since exercise outfits are not usually equipped with commbadges, our attempts to locate you were to no avail, so I examined your other offshift schedules and went to look for you."

"Oh gods, had I been gone that long.."

"Not long, actually only five minutes into your shift."

"Five minutes? And you went to all this trouble to find me?"

"You are usually on time. I was - concerned."

"A legitimate reaction in a sentient machine", I said for some reason. I did not mean it the way it came out, it just did.

He did not comment on that right away, perhaps he was debating with himself whether to do so at all or let it lie. Then he said, "I am a machine yes, but an android, not a robot. A marginal portion of my functions, while synthetic, are in fact biologically based."

"Careful", I cautioned him in jest, "that was almost a non-sequitur. I never said you were a robot."

"I merely wished to clarify that I may in some small degree seem to share human reactions due to a similar biochemical setup in certain circuits."

"It's all right", I said tiredly, "you don't have to apologize."

"Apologize? I was merely pointing out.."

"Data, give it a rest. I'm really very glad you were concerned enough to go after me. The reason I may not act too happy is that I'm very bitter about Garth at the moment. He seemed so kind.. almost like the old days - then he caused this injury, and just left me. There's no trusting that man."

"I was under the impression that you did not, at least not after his behaviour in TenForward."

"I see now that I shouldn't have. But he wanted to sing me a new song, he had even booked Holodeck II for a proper setting - autumn in northern Midgard he said - he seemed completely changed, as if he had thought about the brawl and regretted the way he'd treated me. I suppose I fell for it. For medical reasons I couldn't skip my exercise session, so I said he could come too."

"You said he caused your injury - are you sure he did it on purpose?"

"Oh yes, I'm sure. He was to help me with my stretching by leaning on me, like he once did to help me recover after an accident back on Midgard, only this time he put too much weight on me; he actually leant on me till something snapped. I'm not sure he really cared what either."

Data looked puzzled as though trying hard to piece this together. "Did anything happen to make him change his mind about being friendly?"

"He asked me if I still loved him - and I told him I no longer could. I suppose I shouldn't have told him until he'd let me up, but I trusted him right then, and he had to know sometime. The mercury is in my blood - I no longer know how to love."

"That is not possible. Mercury is poisonous to humans; if you had any of it in your bloodstream.."

I smiled in spite of my mood. "It's a saying among the Mechanized. A metaphor, nothing else."

"Ah. Then the very fact that mercury is a poisonous substance would enhance the metaphor? From what I understand, what you call mechanization is not a pleasant process. But there is something here that does not compute. While it seems highly unlikely for Garth to have formed so strong an attachment to you in the mere month of your flight, particularly as you were then firmly connected to the Hwyfar, I would not entirely put such a behaviour past a human. But, you also referred to an incident on Midgard which must have taken place before you left that planet, and while you still possessed a human body. Unless of course you are referring to your inert body as connected to the ship. But if so, I fail to see what kind of accident could befall you while still on Midgard that would require stretching your human muscles and ligaments."

Me and my big mouth. As if I hadn't known I'd slip up sooner or later. For a few milliseconds I contemplated lying to him. Then I gave up the idea, partly because it might simply prove too hard to cook up a story that his analytical mind would not pick to pieces - one that had to hold water over time at that - and partly because I was tired of lying and had never promised Alan to do so; he had simply taken it for granted that I would back him up.

"You're right", I said. "Garth and I go way back. Years before we had to flee Midgard. Alan and I even longer. I was a mechanic then, taking extra courses to become a full engineer. Then, when I graduated, my grades were too good."

"How can grades be *too* good?" Data wanted to know.

"The Kirigh monitor all technological and surgical education. The top third of each year's graduates are forcibly recruited as mechanization specialists. And I did not want to do that kind of work. For various similar reasons, and for having lost their loved ones to the mechanization process itself - it's a popular punishment for unpaid tax debts, among other things - several of us had had enough at roughly the same time. We figured fifty would suffice to steal a ship and escape. So we did. An unintegrated ship of course. The finished ones are too well guarded. The only catch being that an unintegrated ship can't fly. They aren't designed for it.

So, when Elisa and Ingemund wanted to come with us, Alan had this bright idea. Since we now had a typical engineer-surgeon team, they could connect one of us to the ship. For some reason, he felt I was the best choice, and he swore it was only temporary, so Garth agreed. I did not have a pilot's education or anything like that, but it's not hard when you are your ship. You just have to - move."

"Your own friends did this to you?"

"Yes, that's what Alan did not want to admit to the Captain. That he had used the same methods as our enemies - the very process we were objecting to. He claims he hoped it would prove reversible - and yet he panicked when the Enterprise loomed on our figurative horizon, presenting the first real hope we had had. He would have to either detach me too quickly, risking my life or sanity or both - or abandon me with the rest of the ship. He wisely opted for the latter, which would at least give me a chance of sorts.

But Garth wouldn't have it. He wanted me back - as a human wreck rather than a functioning ship, apparently. I don't think Alan would have given in to his threats - but as time was running out, Garth's faith in the Enterprise sickbay swayed him. I'm not saying it was unfounded - after all I'm neither dead nor psychotic.. at least I don't think so."

I could see that my story made a profound impression on Data - though I could not even begin to guess at the nature of that impression, and I was in fact getting rather drowsy. Whatever painkiller Dr. Pulaski had given me was probably also a mild sedative. Hard to avoid perhaps..

*  *  *  *

I had more visits during my convalescence. The very next day Data showed up again - with the Captain. Of course, he had felt he ought to report this, and I hadn't even asked him not to. I wasn't after revenge on Alan - or Garth for that matter - I just hadn't thought to try and keep it secret.

Picard was hardly impressed with my story. I had a feeling he did not like me. "You must have agreed to the treatment", he assumed at one point, and I could've sworn I saw Data flinch, as though that idea had never occurred to him.

"No, they clubbed me and screwed me to the hardware"; I said testily. "Of course I agreed. Wouldn't you? Fifty people and probably only that one chance to escape? I suppose I hoped it would be reversible too. At that point."

"Why were you considered the best suited to - fly the ship?"

"I don't know. My education perhaps - at least I knew what it was all about. Or else my psychological profile - how should I know? Alan said I was the best choice. You've met Alan. Besides, I've already said I did not want to do it to anyone else. So I suppose I was the logical choice all around."

"Counsellor Troi tells me you have not abandoned the hope of 'picking up' another - unintegrated - vessel one day", he said, almost accusingly.

"She's right." No point denying that.

"And what sort of ship do you envision? What are your demands on it?"

I don't know, I suddenly had an idea he might have found something suitable, salvaged some still functional piece of flotsam, whatever.. "Well, warp drive for one thing.." I told him. It did not go down well.

"Warp 9? Or perhaps 10? A Galaxy class starship perhaps?" He looked like bad news in foul weather, but honestly, he had to be joking.

"Why? You mean the Enterprise can be enabled for integration?" I joked back. "Do you need a sentient ship?"

It was only as I saw Data's stricken face - for an android, that is; I was actually getting quite good at reading him now - that I realized his Captain was seriously apprehensive lest my yearning for another ship drive me to just about any lengths.

"Now wait a minute, Captain.." I began. Too late. He had already made his sortie, spearing me with a glare that could have frozen a Kirigh mechanization furnace. His second officer followed, a decidedly concerned look in his amber eyes.

The next man in was Alan, and he wanted details. There was no way to keep the specifics of my 'accident' from him, nor did I see any real need to, so I told him.

"I should have dealt with Garth as soon as we came aboard this ship", he said, his voice rasping in a way I had not heard for some time. "Well, it's about time I did. I'll certainly not wait around for any more of his mischief. Where is he?"

"Don't you know?" I asked. "Because I sure don't. I don't know a thing from when I passed out in the gym till I woke up here."

Alan shook his head admonishingly. "Don't try to protect him, Llin. This time he's gone too far."

"Protect him? Why should I? He left me injured in the gym, he hasn't even been to see me, he.. Maybe he panicked, that's the kindest interpretation I can give it, but would you say Garth was given to panic about anything? Rash acts yes, panic no."

Alan did not answer that directly. "So he's in hiding then", he said between his teeth. "Well, I guess it didn't take a twelfthpart of his cunning to figure out I was coming after him. He was to have given one of his late-night performances tonight - he even stayed away from that. Well, sooner or later he'll show, and when he does, I'll get him - and that's not open to bets, if you were thinking of joining the shipwide gambling that seems to be always going on around here."

His mention of gambling reminded me of a certain member of the crew who was extremely proficient at it. "Alan", I said, "when you leave here, could you get me Data? There's something I need to talk to him about."

I hadn't expected Alan to react in much the same way as Garth, but he did - though perhaps with less vehemence. "I don't want you hanging around with the android all over the ship", he said. I may not have much say in the matter any more, but I won't have you laughed at. Talked about can't be avoided I guess, but you're amusing the whole ship the way you're carrying on."

I stared at him in disbelief. "You're serious, aren't you? Then please tell me what there is to laugh about; I really thought they were his friends too, same as I am."

Alan was finding this difficult, but I certainly wouldn't let him off the hook now. "Well, obviously it's your background", he said. Alan never fidgets and he wasn't doing so now, but his stance was begging me to figure out the rest for myself. I refused.

"So what's the joke?" I asked him. "Excuse me, but I haven't found much in my recent experiences to laugh about so far."

"Well, you've just been hooked up to one set of machinery", he told me with the bluntness of exasperation, "and most of the ship knows you're eager to repeat the experience. In more ways than one, it would seem."

All right, when he put it like that, it was funny. I actually laughed, and I couldn't remember when I had the last time. "Thanks, Alan", I said, "I needed that. You can't be serious of course, or else the crew have been pulling your leg. I'll say this for them, they do profess an unshakable faith in the abilities of their second officer.." I giggled.

Alan smiled too, looking decidedly more relaxed, but he was not about to agree with my view of things. "I see nobody's seen fit to tell you about Tasha Yar, their late Chief of Security", he said. "I'm sorry, I thought you knew."

"No, what was she - another Klingon?" I asked, in an effort to back up his change of subject, which I hoped this was.

"Human", he said. A blonde. She and the android had an affair - well, more of a onetime experiment, if I understand it right. They kept it secret of course, though the Captain knew about it, and maybe the First Officer, I don't know who else, presumably the Counsellor - but some time after Yar's death, as they were for some reason holding a hearing to determine to what extent human rights apply to androids, the whole story came out. Well, she was dead, it didn't hurt her any, and I suppose it made him seem more human. There wasn't all that much to it though, from what I gather. But if Garth should ever tell you, Llin, this fellow thrives on blondes!" he turned out a very good imitation of Garth's most intense if cultured quarrelling voice - I shuddered. "..or something to that effect", Alan added in his own voice, "at least you'll know what he's referring to. And maybe you can just begin to guess why neither of us is any too eager to see you dragging about with the ship's artificial officer."

Well, it did give me something to think about. Enough that I wasn't angry. I cared little for people's opinions as I'm sure he knew, but I was surprised at having been so dense. After all, Data had once said something about my not thinking him capable of sex - or was that really what he'd said? Not for the first time, I wished I had been equipped with some of his total recall. But neither had he indicated that he was - I was pretty sure of that much. Besides, why should he? For all my annoyance at his circumspect question about my hair colour that time in Engineering, I had not interpreted it as a come-on, and I was not doing so now. A misguided attempt at a joke yes, but not an invitation. I was fairly certain that though he might be physically capable of - well, docking with a human would be the closest image I suppose, as it could not very well go much beyond that - his very BIOS would certainly render him unable to initiate such a contact. And I certainly hadn't made any sudden first moves..

"All right, I see", I told Alan. "At least I think I do. You're wrong though. And if you must know - and I suppose you do - I only want to see him now because there's something I must explain, and I have a strong feeling he's about the only one who will listen to me."

"Try me", Alan said.

"I would, but it doesn't concern you. It's something I have to explain to the crew. To the Captain really, but as I said, I don't think he'll listen."

I had said too much of course. Alan was waiting.

"It's all a silly mistake - but I think the Captain is honestly worried that I might take over his ship in order to fullfil my desires. No, don't laugh, that's what I did, more or less, and I'm afraid I sort of went along with the joke, as I naturally thought it was, and.. well. I'd better explain, that's all."

Alan nodded. "All right. The android should be on bridge duty right now, but I'll let him know. Promise", he added, so I suppose I must have looked doubtful. "I doubt he can make it until tomorrow though, so you'd better go to sleep. You need it." With that, he quickly bent his tall frame over my bed to give me a quick peck on the lips. Then he left me.

*  *  *  *

It was three days before Data sought me out, explaining that they had had some trouble on the bridge - I recalled having heard the klaxon for red alert once, and yellow had been going on and off a couple of times. He gave me no details though, and I was wondering if I was no longer trusted - if ever I had been.

I was already up and about with no more than a slight limp which would go away when I could resume my exercise programme, at least according to Dr. Pulaski. Data asked me to come with him, so I did. To my surprise, he took me to holodeck II. I wondered idly whether Garth's autumn-in-northern-Midgard programme would still be running, but of course it wasn't. Instead, we entered a perfect replica of the Enterprise bridge - without a crew.

Or nearly perfect; as I looked around, I began to see a few distinct differences, and I turned cold. Over at the helm panel were a few telltale leads, hanging out of a socket I could not recall from our tour of the actual bridge. The display at the Engineering monitor showed that station as being hooked up to the helm. Ops looked disabled. Data placed his hand very lightly on my back, guiding me without a word to the door of what would be the Captain's ready room on the real bridge. He opened the door to show me not a room but a small closet containing a transparent chamber, just large enough to hold a human body and seemingly well equipped with life support functions set to human values.

I should have been angry, I should have laughed, I should have done anything but panic. But I suppose there was something to what Counsellor Troi and Corina were always claiming; I was not yet stable. I simply couldn't take it. Seeing it all like this, the opportunity presented before me without a warning, I just collapsed. I sat down hard on the deck and started to cry.

If it were at all possible to shock an android, I had made a good job of it. I had no idea what sort of reaction he had expected, but this wasn't it. There was actually a minor delay, presumably while he was searching wildly through all his algorithms for one single programme that might serve. Then he too dropped down to sit beside me - and put his arm around me, consolingly. Well, why not; I've always supposed that reaction to be one acquired by learning in humans, and he was usually a fast learner.

"I am sorry to have upset you, Llin", he said. "Such was not my intention. I am under Captain's orders to ascertain whether there is any foundation for the suspicions voiced against you, that you may harbour a wish to take over the Enterprise for your own ends. While I do not believe such a foundation exists, I am nevertheless obligated to prove that it does not."

Well, I suppose it wasn't his fault. He did not know the first thing about being cruel; he did not have it in him. Literally.

Idiotically, meaninglessly, I actually clung to him, suddenly feeling that he was the only friend I had on the Enterprise crew. "Whose idea was the shock treatment?" I murmured against his shoulder.

"Shock treatment?" He sounded genuinely puzzled. "Oh. Is that how it affected you? Then I do regret it; when Commander Alan and I set it up, we merely.."

"Alan. So this was his idea? Why?"

"In fact, it was. We decided that the quickest way to disprove the accusations against you would be if you yourself could explain in detail what you want to do, and then see if your plans are even applicable to the Enterprise. Commander Alan claims that they are not, and based on what I have already seen, I am inclined to agree. He suggested a holodeck setup, approximating a view of the Enterprise bridge as enabled for - integration as I believe you call it. Because of my lack of familiarity with the exact procedures of such an integration, I naturally required Commander Alan's assistance in setting it up. Basically, I programmed the simulation of the Enterprise bridge, and he effected the changes needed for the integration. I suggested bringing you here, because your own opinion on the setup would be most valuable. The Commander agreed, but said he would rather not be present, or you might misunderstand his motives. Though I failed to understand his meaning at first, I now realize that he foresaw your perception of the setup as a 'shock treatment'. I must say that interpretation entirely eluded me, for which I am truly regretful."

"All right, I believe you", I said, unnecessarily, since I assumed he could not lie. I sighed, and got to my feet. "Let's go through it then. You can shut this closet back up again, it is an exact replica of what contained my body on the Llinhwyfar, so that much is correct. But this", I said, moving over to the helm while he took my advice - somewhat hastily I thought, but I could have imagined that - "would not be nearly enough on a ship as big as the Enterprise. Our vessel had only the one integrated maneuver panel, she was designed for one pilot, no more; a built-in pilot of course, though the panel could be switched over to limited manual control in an emergency - if, for instance, I were to die in midflight and there were no replacement immediately available.

Already this backup function would be hard to arrange on the Enterprise, as it would take a full crew complement standing by to unhook and take over all these stations."

"Ah", Data said. "And by the same token you would find it extremely difficult to handle all these functions by yourself, even if you were built into the vessel. I thought so, though I would find it valuable to have this assumption confirmed by you."

"You bet your sweet.. never mind. Yes, I would find that difficult, to the point of being damn impossible. Also, you haven't even hooked up a third of what I would need - channelling Engineering through the helm is a bright idea, but I would need direct access to the fuel chambers, life support for the backup crew as well as that which would sustain my own body; scanners, sensors, transporters - weaponry for crying out loud, as well as all other in- and outboard functions with a very few exceptions that could be disconnected as long as I were performing them myself. I don't think it could be done, not on this scale.

You see, I would have to be able to feel every last one of the ship's functions as a part of my own nervous system. When I was part of the Llinhwyfar, I could easily 'wriggle my ramjets' or 'flap a wing' - figuratively speaking of course", I added hastily. "On a Galaxy class starship, if integration were at all possible, there would still be numerous functions to which I might know I was connected, but I would be - numb in those parts, unable to tell whether or not they were still working. There are simply too many. You could try it yourself - you'd probably stand a better chance than I. Plug yourself into the bridge somewhere; though my guess is it would be a year or two before you had even completed all the connections properly.."

"Nor would such a course be advisable", he said. "I sincerely doubt that the Captain would allow such an ongoing experiment on the actual bridge. I had in fact considered performing it on this model but had to desist, as the experiment would interfere with the actual controls of the holodeck."

I closed my eyes briefly. "You were right to desist", I said. "You could have killed yourself."

"The possibility did occurr to me", he said. "While I could in all likelihood be repaired, I would certainly find the experience extremely painful. But more to the point, the holodeck circuits would also interfere with the experiment, effectively invalidating it."

I nodded - then realized what he had just said. "Painful?" I couldn't help but ask. "You can feel pain?"

"Electric and chemical damage is exceedingly painful", he confirmed dispassionately. "So is loss of my bodily fluids - nutrient and coolant - to such an extent that my circuits are beginning to run dry. An EMP would be painful if I had the time to sense it - it would effectively stall me and could actually kill me, permanently that is. Broken internal circuitry, blows, or deep stabs would cause me no pain as such, though the warning pulses from my diagnostic routines would be extremely unpleasant until I were repaired, at which time the sensations would cease immediately. I never have to endure periods of painful convalescence, such as you have just experienced."

"What about burns?" I asked.

"My skin is somewhat more sensitive than the inside of my body", he explained. "Especially on my hands which have to be at least as efficient as those of a human. Consequently, I would receive ample diagnostic warning of damage if I were severely burnt, but I still believe burns cause me considerably less discomfort than they would a human. I base this belief on a number of past experiences and comparisons under accidental circumstances."

"I'm not sure you should tell me all this so readily", I said. "But I'm glad you did, as I find it extremely interesting. Are you always so eager to share this kind of information about yourself?"

He gave me one of those naked stares that I had marvelled at once or twice before. "I trust you", he said simply. "I do not believe you would ever knowingly attempt to sabotage me."

*  *  *  *

We went over several aspects of the model in detail. I had an uneasy feeling that we had not conclusively disproved anything, and I said so. "I'm not sure this will satisfy your Captain, but I hope it has convinced you. Though I can't say an integration of the Enterprise would be impossible - with an extensive rebuild - at least it's not practical. And if it's not practical, why should I try it?" I could see his response to that coming, so I added, "All right, humans often do impractical things - but am I that desperate? There have to be other ships around, better suited to my purpose. And - believe me, I don't want the Enterprise."

He seemed a little taken aback at that, so I explained.

"As I told Captain Picard, I'd prefer a ship capable of warp drive - I meant: at all. Warp one will do, but most low-warp classes can do three or four which is plenty. I'd not be going anywhere fast - I may need to renew fuel and other supplies from time to time, but I could plan an itinerary between bases that would never call for more than warp four. There'd be no hurry - ever again", I added perhaps a little too wistfully. "I don't really require warp drive for speed. I want it for the feel of it, to optimize the experience - for life quality, if you wish. It's hard to explain to someone who's never felt it", I realized, "but for once that puts you in an equal position with everybody else, and perhaps a better one, as you have actually been plugged into external circuits in emergencies, from what I'm told.

We could always ask Captain Picard to imagine what it would be like if he were directly connected to the warp drive, but I wouldn't give it much hope. Though, if he loves his ship, perhaps he could imagine it.. Anyway, the big difference is between sublight and warp one. That's the - kick, if you know the term. After that, each new multiple is of course discernable but it offers nothing new. So I really have no need of high warp. And I think we have managed to prove that a Galaxy class starship would be cumbersome to say the least. Satisfied?"

He nodded. "As I said, I did not believe the accusations well-founded in the first place. I now have enough for a report which I hope will suffice to convince the Captain."

"Who made these accusations?" I suddenly realized I wanted to know.

"Unknown", he said. "So far we have been unable to ascertain who started the rumour. Most of the crew were discussing the possibility openly, so the Captain felt he would have to do something about it, before the rumour itself started to have a demoralizing influence. In my own opinion, the idea must have started on the Enterprise side, perhaps among those of the passengers with the least technical qualifications. To them it may have seemed plausible enough for concern. I fail to see why any of your own people, as more familiar with the process of mechanization/integration, would think of the possibility, let alone worry about the fate of the Enterprise in this respect."

"I could think of one who might come up with something like that anyway", I said bitterly. "Garth."

Data frowned. "What would be his purpose?"

He got me there. Revenge? There were better ways than dragging the ship's crew into it, and from what I knew of Garth, he would prefer to keep such things between the two of us, where they belonged. Garth always loved plotting, but in this case I could not really see a reason to plot. He stood to gain nothing by incriminating me.

"Unknown", I admitted. "I just felt it would be in character for him."

"Then we can discount the possibility for the time being. I shall however bear it in mind for the event that a plausible reason presents itself. Now I must go see the Captain and report our findings here."

That's when I must have suddenly decided to complicate matters, although I was not aware of it at the time. "Don't leave me yet", I said.

He paused civilly on his unerring way to what had to be the exit, and turned. "Is anything wrong?"

"I'm still shaken up", I said - which was actually the truth, for I had had great difficulty going over all this, though his own objectivity about it helped me a great deal. "I'd like to talk for a little while longer - not in this setting though.." A thought occurred to me. "Garth's programme for autumn in northern Midgard - is that still around?"

"Certainly", Data said. "Shall I order it?"

I told him to go ahead, and he had the - to me - unsettling view of the Enterprise as prepared for integration exchanged for a frosty autumn morning under pinkish golden skies. We were standing on a damp mat of fallen leaves, but many were still on the trees, and they were all shapes and colours that Garth's artistic mind had been able to remember at once. I particularly loved the deep purple ones of the ronkhmar tree.

I shivered. "I'm glad he didn't add a morning wind", I told Data who was busy looking around as if to memorize everything. "I had forgotten how cold it can be in autumn."

"I could have the temperature adjusted", he proposed.

"No, it's all right", I said. "It wouldn't seem accurate; it could ruin the impression. I could stay close to you", I suggested, meaning it as a joke, "you can adjust your own temperature, can't you?"

"Not by myself - I would have to undergo maintenance. Geordi usually resets my body temperature before visits to planets with extreme climatological conditions. He cannot exceed my natural range though, or my circuits might melt. Low temperatures are less dangerous, as long as nothing becomes brittle."

I sat down on a rock. It wasn't much drier than the leaves, but that small difference would have to do. "Sit down", I begged him. "I know the ground isn't exactly dry, but I'd like to talk for a while. Ah - do you mind personal questions?"

He plopped down beside me with little regard for the dampness. He looked decidedly puzzled. "You have asked me a good many questions about my functions", he said. "I have no objections to those - or are they not to be considered personal?"

Touchée. I wondered briefly if I had been discriminating against him without knowing it, but I did not think so. "I didn't quite mean personal in the same way", I explained. "I - I wanted to ask you about Tasha Yar." I was glad I had at least managed to remember the gal's name.

He did not answer right away, but I felt it was due rather to acquired social response sets than because he needed the delay to access anything - unless it be a way out.

"I take it you are not referring to the service record of our late Chief of Security", he finally said, probably adding up my use of the term 'personal' and the fact that I could have looked up such a record at any time, the crew's service records being fully public. "I'd rather not talk too much about our relationship, as I did give my word not to, and I have already broken it once because Captain Picard felt it was all right to do so in order to save my life."

"Naturally I don't want to force you", I said - as if I could have - "my reason for asking was merely that it seems to be sort of all over the ship - or the upper decks anyway - and just as you wanted to find out the truth in a rumour about me, I wanted to know what was behind the one about you."

That was not fair, and of course he saw it right away.

"As I told you, I was ordered to prove or disprove the accusations against you. Do you have a similar reason?"

"Are you telling me you would not have bothered about the accusations against me, if you had not been so ordered?" I countered, even less fair, but this time he fell for it.

"You are right. I would not have let harmful rumours about a friend pass without further examination", he said. "But is there anything harmful in the rumours about me and Tasha?"

"Not really, I suppose." Since I knew he'd never ask, I decided to tell him anyway, "They are merely saying you had an affair - more of a onetime experiment actually - and, sorry about this, that when you had to mention it at all you presumed on that onetime incident to make it out as if it had been more. That is about as harmful as it gets, which isn't much."

I had never believed he would rise to that, but he did.

"Presumed? All I said was that we were intimate. We were."

"That's what implies it was more in the way of a frequent occurrence." I suppose a human would have sighed - or already thrown me out of the holodeck on my ear. He did neither, but I had the impression he was debating something with himself.

"I have not told anyone about this before", he finally said, "but neither has anyone ever asked. It was more than a onetime experiment, though I would not call it a frequent occurrence. After our first time together, she was embarrassed and wanted us both to deny everything. But she came back, to tell me that she felt she had been unfair, and from then on we had this intermittent relationship. She still insisted that we keep it secret though", he added, and for the balance of a moment I imagined I heard a touch of bitterness in his voice.

"I'm sorry", I said. "I didn't really mean to remind you."

"That is all right", he said. "I cannot forget."

No, of course he couldn't. So why did I feel as if he had just slapped my face?

Then, of his own accord, he added, "She was highly sensitive about many things. I always concluded it had to do with her upbringing - of which there was precious little before Starfleet rescued her from the world of total anarchy where she was born and abandoned at the chronological age of five. There was something about organized rape gangs too - the only kind of organization they had, I presume, and it was not much. She claimed to have eluded them for ten years, until Starfleet picked her up, though she was never very explicit on that part of her personal history."

I felt more and more wretched about having brought up the topic at all, not that I had actually asked for all this information. And there was more.

"I know that Counsellor Troi sometimes tried to persuade Tasha to 'open up a little' as she called it, to display more of her feminine side - but Tasha rarely did. At first I surmised it was simply not consistent with her style, one I have found to some extent preferable to that of the Counsellor herself, but to each her own, as the saying goes, and I cannot think of any that would suit the good Counsellor better than the one she has adopted for herself."

"And now you no longer think it was just a matter of style?" I probed. "An attitude, as it were?" I amended viciously, as one good thing Garth taught me early on was to consider style just as phony as any other mask. He's often told me when you're singing to an audience, you have to be yourself; they'll see through everything else - as well they should. I know he carries this philosophy offstage too. I suppose it means that if you are a shithead you should act like one, but still, it sounds good.

"No", Data replied in his usual, curt way of voicing that word. "I have since concluded, partly on my own, partly based on some of the Counsellor's remarks, that Tasha had little choice but to conceal her femininity as best she could. The danger from rape gangs had passed of course, but the habit stayed, being early programmed into her by circumstance. Also, I have found it interesting to note, it would appear that femininity is an acquired trait in Earth-type women. It is not something they are born with. And I doubt that Tasha ever had the opportunity to learn - or that she found that particular accomplishment desirable."

"I see", I said. "The only female who did not know how to be a woman fell for the one male who did not know how to be a man. You were well matched."

"Is that an insult?"

"If it is, it certainly was not so intended. In fact, you two may have come closer to that elusive state of basically human than any of the humanoids around you."

He arched an interested eyebrow. "Please explain."

"Well.. what do you know of lady imitators?"

His eyes flicked sideways, and as the search went on for an instant longer than I had expected, I knew he had had to access the ship's historical database. Where would we be without radio technology, even in this sophisticated era..

"Ah", he finally surfaced. "A Terran form of entertainment, the popularity of which peaked in the 20th century, where male artists dressed up as women to add to their stage performance which consisted of singing, dancing, and telling jokes. The most celebrated artists of this type and era were the highly talented Danny la Rue and Christer Lindarw. The art form did not survive far into the 21st century although attempts have later been made to derive comedy value from dressing up as other species and try to behave in a manner generally believed to be consistent with those species. The attempts have rarely been successful, and the artform is now considered stagnated and outdated."

"Midgard is a backwater planet in many ways", I said. "The artform was subject to a brief renaissance for about a decade or so - though only as reruns of old Earth performances, never on an actual stage as we didn't have any good artists. But I've watched all the recordings of the great Danny la Rue and Christer Lindarw - and I liked them."

"You do not agree with the judgment stagnated and outdated?"

"Certainly this form of entertainment has no place in times sophisticated enough to know the difference between humans on the one hand and male/female 'varnish' on the other - figuratively speaking of course, I don't know what else to call it - but are we that sophisticated even now? And if we are, are we so everywhere? I have strong doubts about Midgard, for one world..

But what interested me was that those men were better at being classically feminine than any woman would be. Certainly better than I could ever be, had I wanted to. And the men in the audience fell for it, you could see their state of arousal from their flushed faces. Only they were, unknowingly, merely acting out the other side of the coin.

They were only half people too, having little more than the superficial trappings considered at the time to make up a real man. Needless to say, I never cared for real men", I could not refrain from slipping in.

"Anyway, the lady imitators should have had some educational influence, because if they could be so feminine who were not female, then obviously that was not it. That was not what being a woman was about. And we all know, after centuries of research, that there are differences - outside of the purely biological ones that is. But the actual differences may not be so visible. In fact, they may not be visible at all.."

Something about the suddenly soft lines of his mouth made him look sad. "Perhaps this insight could have helped Tasha", he said. "I do not suppose she ever had the time for peripheral research.."

How could I have believed I had managed to get him off the subject? You can't change subjects on an android, especially not one who wants to learn all he can about humans. He'll be making cross references continuously. But his words had brought back all my feelings of guilt for prying so hard into what was really none of my business. "I'm really sorry I was so inquisitive", I said. "Are we still friends?"

To my relief, he seemed to regard that as a clearcut non-sequitur. "Since you have expressed no wish to discontinue our friendship, I fail to see any reason to do so."

"Thanks for that", I said, choosing not to elaborate. "I have some other questions though - hopefully more neutral. Such as - that time in Engineering when you commented on my hair colour and I snapped at you, you said afterwards that a connection to machinery was not foremost in your mind at the time. Was it - at all? On your mind, I mean?"

"On some level the possibility must have occurred to me. Or I would not have interpreted what you said as a Freudian slip."

"Granted. But it was not a conscious idea?"

"My ideas are usually more 'conscious' than they would be in a biological brain, where the layering according to priority is of necessity more severe. But I have my own methods of prioritizing, so as I said, it was not foremost in my mind."

"And was it a pleasant idea?" I asked, wishing I hadn't. I really wasn't aiming to initiate anything - exactly - it was just that.. well, somehow I couldn't help asking. I must have wanted to know.

"Decidedly positive, yes", he admitted dispassionately. I am programmed to give pleasure in a variety of ways; it is a well-functioning programme, yet one that I do not often find myself in a position to access. But you must tell me directly if you wish to activate it."

I suppose I had it coming. After probing him the way I had, I couldn't exactly say it was 'kind of sudden'.. "I'm not sure", I said. "I suppose I must know how it works first. I mean, programmed to give pleasure doesn't sound as if you would get anything out of it yourself. Would you feel anything?"

"If you mean, would I derive the same kind of pleasure as a human male under the same circumstances, the answer is no", he declared. "But that does not imply that I would find the experience negative or even uninteresting."

'We exist to serve', I thought. Thanks - but no thanks.

"I refuse to use you as a human dildo", I told him bluntly, an un-called-for edge of inexplicable disappointment lending harshness to my words.

I caught the quick sideways movement of his eyes - searching.. Apparently they had not used those antique devices outside of Midgard for some time. But his reaction when it came was totally unexpected.

"Thank you", he said.

"What?"

"You said human", he pointed out.

Dammit, I did, didn't I? "That", I said, "we may safely consider a Freudian slip. On some level, I did mean it. And I still don't want to use you for something that gives you no pleasure. Except for one thing - could I kiss you?"

"I would advise against it, as it might activate the programme."

I couldn't help laughing. "What - no failsafes?"

"I am not sure. I might be able to abort - but it could depend on the exact algorithm you set off."

"By the nature of my kiss?" I guessed.

"Exactly. And I would not know enough to caution you - as I said, I do not often have reason to access this particular programme."

"All right, then I'll just have to be careful." For some idiotic reason I was beginning to enjoy this. "Let's risk it, shall we?"

I bent over from my rock, found this slightly awkward, and slid off it to sit beside him. He did absolutely nothing as I put my arms around his neck and gently touched my lips to his. He tasted slightly synthetic, nothing else. More disturbed by this than I had expected, I brought my tongue into it, probing a little to see if there was really nothing more to this.

That's when I realized he had put his arms around me too, and for a moment I nearly panicked, suddenly remembering his android strength. As he almost never used it with humans, it was only too easy to forget. But should he decide to hold on, there was no way in the world I'd be able to get away. Or was there? What? Exit.. Abort.. Ctrl-C..

He must have sensed my reaction, for he let go immediately.

"There is no reason for concern", he said. "I now know I can break it - at least if you start it by the same means."

But in the next instant he took the reassuring edge off his words by stating, "I would much prefer to continue, though."

"Why?" I asked. "If you can derive no pleasure from it, what's the point?"

"You are wrong in assuming that I would derive no pleasure from pleasing you", he said.

My ears were starting to play tricks on me. I could have sworn I heard a little sadness, almost a need, in his voice. Well, projection comes only too easily to us humans. I suppose I heard what I had not realized until then I sorely needed to hear.

"If so, the assumption begs to be tested", I said, trying to work around the catch in my voice to make my words light. Then I kissed him again, deliberately, and hang the synthetic effect.

*  *  *  *

He was really exquisitely built all over, no coarse or heavy lines anywhere. And the same, quite beautiful pale gold colour throughout. His skin actually did seem more sensitive than I had thought, or perhaps it was an effect of the programme. Only once, as I reacted acutely to his delicate fingers on my nipples, did he say, "I could certainly never feel anything like that."

"Don't worry", I forced out, "most human males can't either."

Dr Soong must have been an expert in many fields - or else he had certainly done his homework. This little piece of machinery had been quite right, he was programmed to please in a wide assortment of ways, and I could see now it was a shame he did not get the chance more often. The only thing that disturbed me a little was the fact that he had no bodily scent at all - or at least none that I could detect. Just as in his kisses, that made it seem as though something essential was missing.

As for the connection itself, when the time came - and his timing was immaculate - I could not figure out whether his actual ennabling for it was a conscious thing or as automatic as in a human. I would have loved to ask, but somehow I couldn't find my tongue right then..

I must have fallen asleep afterwards, in the dampness and cold and all, for I awoke still in his arms, to the sudden chill of a rising wind. A little Midgard rodent was sitting some distance away, cocking its long-eared head, more inquisitive than afraid. Data was calmly staring back at it, with much the same expression.

"You don't sleep?" I asked. I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear his voice.

"No", he said, "I do not recharge the same way as humans do. But occasionally I have had this notion that perhaps it would not be impossible for me to dream."

"Uh-huh", I said. "Of electric sheep.."

I saw the quick shift-right of his golden eyes. Somehow I loved to cause him to search; I was beginning to find that little flick of his eyes very endearing.

The search stopped, and I braced myself to endure a full encyclopaediac biography over Terran author Philip K. Dick. But it didn't come.

Instead, Data just smiled. A very little smile, but unmistakable.

*  *  *  *

They found Garth in Transporter room Two. It was unmanned at the time, so apparently he had been beamed in from somewhere else; nobody had fetched him in.

No, he was not dead, though he could have fooled anyone seeing him there like that, as Chief O'Brien told me later, in Ten-Forward, over a reasonable imitation of a very black stout. He refused to give me any details, but he had apparently given them to Vidar who described Garth's condition vividly enough to send me limping as fast as I could for the nearest turbolift which could take me to sickbay.

Well, it wasn't quite as bad as I had feared, not any more, though I could see that it had been. He had received a transfusion, and his scratches were healing quite nicely, though he was still unconscious, without the benefit of sedation.

"Concussion?" I asked.

Dr Pulaski shook her head. "No evidence of it. Shock, most likely."

"Shock? Garth? You must be.."

"From his injuries", she explained. "Those were some bad wounds. He's healing fast though; I expect him to be awake by tomorrow."

Right then Alan walked in. I turned on him like a carnelian-backed viper. "What have you done to him?" I spat. But Alan shook his head.

"I had nothing to do with this. Not that I didn't have a mind to, but this is the first I've seen of him since he snapped your tendon."

"Ligament", I corrected, but he did not hear me.

"I've been looking all over the ship - I could've sworn he was not on board. Seems someone beat me to him."

"You're not talking that way about my patient." Pulaski was just returning from fetching something in her back office. "Now get out, the both of you, and let him rest while he can."

We did, but I held on to Alan's arm, preventing him from striding away. "What was that about him not being on board?" I wanted to know.

"I don't see how he could have been", Alan said. "I know he refuses to wear a commbadge, but I know people in every part of this bucket by now. I've been using my social contacts as well as all the fancy technology I could think of to try and locate him, but he just wasn't anywhere. I was just beginning to suspect something like this when they reported him found. It just wasn't like him to miss one of his major concerts."

"Not on the ship", I said. "And he was found in one of the Transporter rooms. What if it wasn't an intraship relocation as everybody assumed?"

"Then there's really only one place.." Alan said slowly.

I dragged him towards the turbolift. "Let's get the Captain."

*  *  *  *

Acting on our conjectures, Captain Picard was with us in sickbay as we heard Garth himself confirm what we had already guessed. Besides, Pulaski had been wrong on one count; Garth was stronger than she had given him credit for and woke up the same 'evening' instead of 'next morning' - calculated in relation to the Doctor's own shift schedule. After hearing Alan and me, the Captain had ordered her to let him know the moment her patient woke up.

We were all gathered to hear Garth's first words. "Llin.." he said on seeing me, "I tried to get help for you, but.. I was seized - transported over before I could summon anyone.."

He sounded a bit faint, and his general pallor seemed to bear it out, or I would have suspected him of faking it. Nevertheless.. "I wish I could believe that", I told him.

"You might as well", Alan butted in. "I spoke to those who found him in the transporter room - they happened to mention he was still in his gym outfit."

"Transported over to where?" Picard snapped. As if he didn't already know.

"That alien vessel that's been hanging around", Garth rasped weakly. "The Whatnot.. the Ywq, that's what you call it.. they just snatched me from out the corridor outside the gym."

"The Enyddth beamed you over to their ship?" Picard wanted clarified.

Garth simply nodded.

"Any idea why? What did they want?"

Garth laughed, managing to seem a little more like himself, at least until his laugh turned to coughing. "Are you kidding?" he wheezed, with just as little regard for authority as always, despite his condition. Then again, Picard held no authority over him, even if he might want to make that impression. "Have you been able to make any kind of contact with them? I don't know, I must have done something wrong eventually, though I can't imagine what. There wasn't all that much to do.

I was beamed to a room behind a forcefield - I assumed it was their brig, though of course I had no way of knowing. But I couldn't get out, and they just kept me there - perhaps they meant to use me for a hostage against whatever action from you, or perhaps it was merely a standard, initial precaution." His eyes closed briefly, but Picard was not about to let him drift off.

"You were gone a little over three days", the Captain pointed out. "Did they know enough to give you anything to eat?"

"There was a food dispensor slot in the - cell with me. Once I learnt how to work it, I managed to get a few things that weren't too poisonous. Most of the food looked awful and tasted worse, and my stomach acted up a bit, but I had no choice, and at least I survived. The water seemed normal if a bit flat. Of course, it might have been radioactive for all I know, I wasn't carrying a tricorder.."

"Lots of things you weren't carrying", Picard muttered. "Weapons for instance.."

"True. I had left my blade with my clothes as I changed for the gym. But to look on the bright side, I had left my harp too - I suppose it has fared better here than if it had been hanging on me, in view of what happened.."

"What exactly did happen?"

"Well, they came to see me now and then, and I was pretty certain they were trying to talk to me through the screen. You've heard them? Rather musical lot, aren't they? Sounded more like singing or perhaps fluting - sometimes I almost imagined they had stolen a few bars from my own work - but I do think they were trying to contact me. Sorry to say I didn't get a word - or should I say a note? - of what they might have been trying to tell me."

He coughed again, and Pulaski approached to wipe a little blood from the corner of his mouth while shooting a remonstrating glare at her diagnostic screen, as if trying to improve the readings by sheer strength of will. She was staring at one readout in particular, one that I think had to do with Garth's lungs. I wondered if he might have a broken rib poking into one, and found that I did not really want to know.

Yet his voice was almost back to normal as he went on, "I don't know, they might have thought I couldn't hear them, or that I couldn't hear them well enough, because eventually, after what I think was a debate among themselves, they decided to switch off the field. They were standing right in front of the screen as it came off, a bunch of five or six individuals, so maybe they were trying to block my way. I could see no weapons though - not that they needed any, as it turned out.."

"They attacked you? Just like that?" Alan asked.

"More or less, though there was a delay - a couple of seconds, no more, though noticeable. Then four of them fell on me, biting, kicking, scratching.. you name it, I'm sure glad they didn't have any external weapons, though at the time I would have preferred it - I knew they would kill me, and they weren't being quick about it. Then one of them sounded off in the bass register - like a foghorn but more melodious than that.. a harmonious foghorn, if you will. That's the last I remember. Except that.. I don't think Foghorn was one of those on top of me, so, in view of the fact that they obviously changed their minds and beamed me back, I suppose it's reasonable to assume that Foghorn might have been calling them off. Could have been their captain, or some other kind of superior officer.."

Picard shook his head. "That's assuming too much. We can't know if they have anything like our command structure. And they might not have changed their minds. They may well have meant to kill you, only they thought they had made a good job of it, knowing nothing of human resilience."

I watched his Roman features then, but it appeared that he was serious.

"And what better way to dispose of the body than by beaming it back to whence it came?" he concluded. "Perhaps as a warning to us not to interfere? But interfere with what? They seem utterly becalmed in space - why would they object to assistance?"

"Because they don't know that that is what you've been offering", I said, "and they have had some bad experience in the past? Just as good a guess as any.." I finished a bit lamely.

"Even so, Garth could be right", Alan offered. "About the foghorn I mean. Even if they thought he was dead, it could well have been a signal to desist, since they did stop beating him up, and they beamed him back soon after. So just maybe, we have the first note in our new vocabulary.."

Pulaski, watching us the minute we stopped talking to Garth, interjected, "If you are all through bothering my patient, maybe you could.."

Picard held up a hand. "All right, Doctor, we're leaving. This isn't getting us any further for now; I shall have to call a meeting of all senior officers on this."

"Don't look at me", she said, "this is the end of my second double-shift in 40 hours."

Her Captain glared at her. "Go to bed", he said. "That's an order."

Outside, in the corridor, he muttered, "And the same goes for my First Officer. Riker just went offshift too, after doubling it again.. now whom have I still got.."

He wasn't talking to anyone in particular, and though I don't think he was in the habit of talking to himself - few captains are - I'm pretty sure that for a moment, he had clean forgotten Alan and I were right behind him. Alan seized his opportunity.

"I'll be glad to fill in for Commander Riker temporarily", he said calmly. "If you need someone to bounce your strategic ideas off. And if you will have me."

Picard glared at him over his shoulder. Then, surprisingly, he nodded. "All right. You can sit in. I have no doubt but that your experience will prove valuable. As things now stand, I am certain we must do something soon, preferably already tonight. If the Enyddth intended a hostile act, they will expect a response - and we had better let them know we cannot accept this. If their intent was not hostile, however.. then I'm at a loss to explain what it was", he finished in some surprise at the sudden limitation of his options.

"That", said Alan, "will have to be our first task to determine."

*  *  *  *

Believe it or not, apparently they could not come up with anything better than sending in an away team. After what happened to Garth, I'd have thought that would be the last approach they would try. Perhaps Alan wanted the chance to prove his worth while Riker was out of it, I don't know, I wasn't in on the discussions. As far as I know, only Alan, Lieutenant Worf, and Counsellor Troi were, outside of Picard himself, that is. I know for a fact that Data was not present - with both the Captain and the First Officer gone, someone had to command the bridge.

They beamed over right after the conference, having taken every precaution. A team of three: Counsellor Troi for liasons, Worf for security, and Alan for command, albeit temporary.

It should have worked. Fact is, had I not seen Garth's injuries, I would have had no doubts.

They beamed into what seemed to be an empty corridor on the Ywq, prepared for anything. Phasers on stun.

They were jumped. From the direction in which well-prepared humanoids usually look last - above. Apparently the Enyddth sleep among the piping of the ceiling or whatever they may have there; I don't know, I've never been on one of their ships. Alan got two of them with his phaser, but the stun setting was not suited to Enyddth metabolism - why should it be, when we didn't know anything else about them - and had little or no effect. He tried to adjust it to heavy stun but never got the chance. Worf tried to fight one of them who had just scratched Troi, and he was apparently doing a reasonable job of it, but Alan kept his wits and called for a quick beamout.

We were back to knowing nothing, although the Enyddth were beginning to look decidedly hostile, from the Enterprise's end of things.

In the morning, Riker was back on the bridge - and with a fresh angle on the situation. "What if they simply have a thing against humans?" he offered, on hearing about the night's unsuccessful exploits.

"And Klingons", Worf grumbled.

Alan was still present, that's how I know what they were saying. After a speedy discharge from a checkup in sickbay he had returned to the bridge and was hanging around until somebody would order him off it. Worf and Troi had also been cleared by Dr Selar and, not yet at the end of their respective shifts, had returned to work - the Klingon on, the Counsellor off, the bridge.

"Not to mention a semi-Betazoid", Picard mused. The Captain had only slept four hours but was blearily pretending to be at the start of a fresh new shift. "I must say that sounds pretty hostile to me, Number One. So how do you mean, simply?"

"I'm not sure", Riker said, "but since we have no inkling what the Enyddth are about, if there is any other explanation, besides hostility, we must make sure that we find it."

"Indeed", Data said - he was into his second shift straight by now and just as unphased by this fact as always - "many unfortunate mistakes have arisen from similar situations in the past -"

"Thank you, Commander", Picard almost barked, before his second officer could launch into an interminable list of examples. "That's exactly what I am worried about. But what other explanation could there be?"

"Fear?" Data ventured, obviously still assuming himself addressed. According to Alan, Riker at this point raised a supportive eyebrow, concurring with the suggestion.

"It is a valid alternative", Picard granted. "Question is, fear of what? Mr Data, find out if the historical databases - or your own - have any references to previous encounters between the Enyddth and the Klingons - or the Betazoid. I know that our human Bard was the first visitor to be attacked, and he was alone, but all the same.."

He broke off, uncharacteristically vaguely, with a quick glance at Alan, who guessed that he did not want to voice his suspicions that Garth might have done something to upset the Enyddth.

"Though you may run the search for human/Enyddth encounters again, if you can think of an angle we may not have covered the first time", Picard added.

Data set to work on several search patterns at once, but, as Alan put it later, surfaced without the proverbial goldfish in his mouth. I must say I was at a loss to recall what proverb Alan was referring to, but then, he sometimes likes to mix his metaphors.

Of course, Data did not neglect to point out that the fact that he had come up with nothing was not conclusive evidence that no such encounter had ever taken place, even if it now seemed a lot less likely. Needless to say, he had not searched merely for references containing the name of the Enyddth but also for descriptive parameters that would fit their species. It would seem that if the Enyddth had a reason to fear other beings, it was not borne out by historical records. Which did not mean much, as neither was any hostility on their part. Then the Captain's intuitive streak made itself known. Checking briefly to see that Dr Selar was still supposed to be on shift, he called sickbay.

"Doctor", he said over the intercom, "have you had the time to look at the tricorder information that the away team brought back on Enyddth metabolism and anatomy?" "I have, sir", the calm Vulcan voice stated. "I have not perused it in detail as yet, but I have - looked at it."

"Could you tell me if the Enyddth might have a medical reason to fear humans? Or Klingons or Betazoid?" the Captain asked. "Could we be contagious or poisonous to them in some way?"

"I shall look into it", she said. "It may take some time."

"Understood, Doctor", he said. "Just let me know as soon as you have a result - whether positive or negative."

"Of course, sir", she acknowledged. "Sickbay out."

She was back within half an hour. "While I cannot be certain that this is the reason for the Enyddth behaviour", she said, "a distinct possibility exists that human pheromones could trigger a severely allergic reaction in the majority of the Enyddth. Not all individuals in the group scanned by the away team show this propensity, but I would estimate that at least six out of eight could have it."

Although trying his best not to attract attention, Alan gave a low whistle. He could not help himself.

"An allergic reaction?", Riker mused aloud. "Badtempered lot, aren't they?"

Selar's Vulcan ears had no difficulty receiving that over the open link. "As I said", she pointed out, "if I am interpreting the signs correctly and the Enyddth do indeed have this susceptibility, then the allergic reaction would be quite severe. The allergy would mainly affect their respiratory system, resulting in slow suffocation. However, once the allergene were removed from their environment, they would probably recover almost instantly."

"So we're deadly only if we hang around", Riker ventured. "What of Klingon pheromones?" He did not mention Betazoid, presumably concluding that the Counsellor's human half would prove deadly enough to the Enyddth. Worf growled under his breath.

"Unknown, Commander", the Doctor said. "I have not enough information to isolate that particular influence."

"Could you isolate the particular pheromone - or pheromones - that would cause the allergy?" Captain Picard asked hopefully.

"No sir. Again, insufficient information."

"If you're thinking antidote, Captain, just forget it", said Pulaski's slightly raspy voice. "I'm reading over Dr. Selar's shoulder here, and as recall, she hasn't even got enough to say with certainty that there is an allergic reaction. The readings seem to point that way, yes, but they are little more conclusive than the results of your efforts to communicate with the Enyddth."

"So we might not even be able to communicate a disease", Alan could not refrain from inserting. "Well, that's always something.."

"What are you doing down there?" Picard addressed his Chief Medical Officer. "You're not on duty for another eight hours.."

"All right, all right", she conceded - unusually gracefully for her. "Just thought I'd pop in. Here comes Ingemund now, to relieve us both.."

"Right", the Captain said, signing off. Then he turned toward Ops. "Mr Data, you are the logical choice for our next attempt at contact. I'm afraid you will have to go alone, as we cannot send anyone who might trigger this allergic reaction in the Enyddth. Assemble what you need to gather as much information about them as you possibly can -"

Alan told me Data had brightened at that, and I could well imagine it; he would appreciate a chance like this.

"- and report to Transporter Room Three. If you meet the Enyddth, try to contact them. They were quick enough to recognize danger; they should be equally quick to realize that you present none."

Data acknowledged his orders readily, leaving the bridge with what Alan claimed he could only describe as a spring in his step.

*  *  *  *

I could not believe it at first - but that must have been because I didn't want to. Certainly I was the first to see the connection.

I was in Engineering, having just started my shift for the day - nearly sixteen hours after Data had beamed over to the Ywq as a one-android away team, so Alan had had the time to tell me all that had transpired on the bridge. My only thought right then was why hadn't they thought of sending Data alone before - then again, they had had no real reason to expect the first away team to meet with the same treatment as Garth - after all, Garth was known to aggravate people, why should the Enyddth be an exception?

I was trying to solder some delicate circuitry when the turbolift doors hissed open and my boss erupted from them with such haste my soldering pen went wide off its mark, sending hot pewter across the deck, barely missing Elisa's toes. It wasn't that I hadn't seen LaForge in a rush before, he wasn't exactly a sedate man, but I can safely say I had never yet seen him come running with such urgency, such - anxiety. Normally, whatever happened he would at least keep his cool; he would not have been such a remarkable engineer if he'd been unable to keep his head on in a crisis. But this time..

Then I saw why, as another turbolift opened and two ensigns emerged, guiding an antigrav stretcher between them. LaForge quickly ordered a makeshift screen erected, presumably so as not to distract his staff unduly, but I had seen.

Elisa made a half-whistling sound. "The Enyddth are not easily charmed, are they?"

I wondered briefly how fast news travelled on this ship, then I remembered that she had been with me in TenFore when Alan told me what had happened on the bridge.

"But..", she went on, "how could they.. I mean, didn't you say the Klingon had wrestled one of them? Everybody says the 'droid is stronger, so how come.."

"First", I spat, "don't call him a 'droid. The abbreviation is linguistically unsound, to begin with. As for Enyddth strength, I do keep hearing this rumour that there are more than one of them." I knew I had no reason to bite her head off, but I also felt I had to do it to someone, and it was just her misfortune to be the one closest to me - in more ways than one.

Right then LaForge called for me, looking briefly around the screen from the inside. "Come over here a minute, will you, Llin?" But as I approached he put his hand on my arm to hold me back briefly. "That is, if you're up to it", he added in an undertone. Damn, what did he know? Was I really that readable? Or was he just good at guessing?

"It's worse out there", I said noncommittally, nodding in the direction of the Engineering deck behind me, with all the eyes I could feel on us, all the voices I could not quite hear, Elisa's among them..

LaForge's VISOR scrutinized me for a moment, then he nodded. I went behind the screen, steeling myself for a detailed view of what I had only seen briefly.

He was stretched out on a workbench, motionless, eyes closed. His cheek and throat were ripped open, the softly golden skin stained with a pale greenish liquid that seemed to be everywhere over his uniform too, and torn to reveal a cheekbone that looked like platinum to me, though I just realized I had never asked him what he was really made of.. His throat was a mess of broken membranes and circuitry, too intricate to diagnose and too delicate to repair.

That's when LaForge's compassionate manner suddenly changed and he yelled at me, "Dammit, Llin - didn't you bring your tools??"

I went to fetch them. Silently daring anyone to even notice my tears.

*  *  *  *

"I'm hardly qualified for this", I said once, as I was trying to disentangle the slender wires. "For one thing, I don't see well enough. They say your VISOR comes with a telescopic option - so why me?"

LaForge, at work alternately in the chest and lower abdomen area, simply pointed out, "There is a strap-on magnifying glass in your kit. Use it."

I found it and did. With the glass over one eye, I had considerably less difficulty.

"As for your question", LaForge calmly went on, his emotions apparently shielded by his having set to work, "my hands are too big. I needed an assistant. Yes I know, there are tools for delicate work and if I were all alone I would use them, but it's always better if you can have someone reach in with her hands. The tools might miss something or drop something. When human women are assigned to my department, I always take notice of their hands. Looking for what we've taken to call Swiss watchmaker hands, because we need as many as we can get. We usually don't have a problem getting enough of the big fists - and that goes for a lot of species and most sexes."

I stared down at mine, stained with the light-green fluid. He could be right. When I had been doing my mandatory martial arts training back on Midgard - barely average compared to that of Starfleet, and I can't say I ever took much of an interest either - my instructors had always complained of my hands.

"As for why you", he continued, "well, I figured you'd be wanting to do this yourself. I couldn't really see you put up with having another do it and not knowing what was going on. Sorry if I was wrong.."

But I could tell he did not really think he had been.

I thought about it for a while, continually removing broken pieces, replacing membranes, and connecting wires. I supposed LaForge had done the right thing.

All the same I knew I never wanted to do this again. Not on a - hopefully - living android. Especially not on this one, if ever there were more. Like my boss, I was detached from my reactions while working, but I was only too well aware of that fact. I knew the experience had hit me hard down deep, far below my balance point, and that it might well deck me at the first available opportunity.

"Any chance his own recovery system might take over soon?" I asked after a while, but LaForge shook his head.

"No way. Still too much broken circuitry - not even his on/off switch works yet. Always the first thing I try.."

So he knew that Data had told me he had one - to avoid accidents on the holodeck, most likely. I wondered what else he had imparted to his friend. Enough, from the way LaForge was acting. A thought struck me.

"What state did you leave it in?" I asked, suddenly fearful he might not know.

"On of course. What did you think?" he answered calmly.

Of course. He had done this many times before.

"You said always the first thing..", I remarked. "How often have you had to do this.. this kind of repairs?"

"Too often", he said with feeling. "Much too often. So rest assured; I'm something of an expert by now."

I thought of his near panic as he had come rushing into Engineering. "And do you ever get used to it?" I probed.

"Never", he stated, with calm emphasis. "And maybe that's just as well."

I couldn't quarrel with that.

*  *  *  *

It took hours, with only a short break for refuelling, though neither LaForge nor I took much of an interest in our food. Still, we probably needed the break to refresh our minds.

Towards the end of our current shift, we found ourselves moderately successful, if you can call it that. LaForge had already closed up most of the cavities he had been working on, though he was still busy in the chest area, trying to hook up some circuitry to the biochemical system while muttering something about better getting someone from sickbay to do this kind of work.

"You're all too specialized", I mumbled. "Comes from running an operation too smoothly, too long.."

Right then, Data's eyes flicked open. I found myself staring into those golden irises - and they seemed full of pain. His pale lips moved, but he had no voice as yet - because I was working on it. I still don't know what that moment did to me, and with luck I shall never find out.

Desperately, I tried to remember what he had said about when and from what he could feel pain, but all I could think of doing was to close the last of those delicate connections as fast as I could. LaForge nodded approval; he had of course noticed the minute his friend was awake.

It seemed to take me an eternity to finish, under that silent, yellow gaze. Then he rasped something tentatively, and I located one last fragment of an old membrane which I removed. His voice was not quite back to normal but fully understandable, as he said,

"Please turn me off."

I wanted to throw down everything and run, but I stood as if paralyzed, tears mercifully blocking my view of his suffering.

LaForge took it better, but he too sounded a bit raspy as he said, "You don't usually want me to do that - can't you just shut down and run low for a while? You should be able to by now."

With an effort not entirely due to his drying membranes, Data explained, "I have lost too much nutrient solution. I am running dry, and in low-power mode I would still feel the pain. Though it is conceivable that this pain in itself would shut me off after a protracted length of time, I would much prefer it if you switched me off now, and left me off until you have finished."

LaForge nodded, wordlessly.

"Sissy", I said to my patient, my freely flowing tears belying my effort at levity. I saw the puzzlement in his amber eyes just before LaForge threw the switch, and all expression went out of them. Gently, I closed them, for no reason at all except that I couldn't bear the emptiness.

"He's not used to pain, the way we are..", LaForge pointed out - needlessly, for I knew he had recognized my challenge for the feeble joke it was.

"Humans can go on beyond their endurance..", I quoted. "I once heard him say that, and it stuck with me somehow. I hadn't thought of it before - that he can't. If he tries, his safeguards will shut him down - or off, depending on his need to conserve energy."

"Well, it's a good thing to keep in mind the weaknesses of the strong", LaForge said. "And that goes for our friends as well as our enemies, though we usually concentrate on the latter."

I looked down affectionately at the soft gold of broken skin still surrounding those ragged wounds. "I don't know how to close that up.." I said. "I never was very good at sewing."

"That will be Sickbay's job", LaForge said. "They've got the tools for it, and they can handle synthoskin as well as all the homegrown types.. it's almost fully organic anyway, vatgrown. Strengthened though, to make it tougher, but I suppose it had to be mainly organic not to turn out insensitive."

I nodded. "Insensitive it certainly isn't.." I muttered to myself. I think LaForge heard me, but to his credit, he made no sign of it.

"If you're done, we can turn him over to Sickbay now", he said. "I don't know who's on duty there now, but they're the ones who will have to replenish his nutrients as well. And I'd feel better if they could check up on my connections to his organic system - it's not like I haven't done it before", he hastened to assure me, "At times, I've had to put him back together in the wilderness with no one else around, but whenever I can have a second opinion on that part of my work.."

"I understand", I said. "I'd feel the same way."

*  *  *  *

Dr Pulaski was back on duty in sickbay, and she performed the final touches herself, with skill that spoke of considerable experience with this particular patient, although she had not been assigned to the Enterprise all that long.

She had wondered a little that we brough Data in unpowered, but LaForge's curt explanation His diagnostics were screaming at him apparently was more than sufficient. She did not lack imagination.

I walked over to talk to Garth for a while; he was mending well and would soon be discharged, although his scars were still looking bad. After Pulaski's expert treatment, Data had no scars at all. There's something to be said for synthoskin; it fuses better than the human variety. Garth's had also been fused - not sewn - but it still left him with more rugged features than he had had before the Enyddth incident. Good thing Garth had never been exactly what you'd call handsome.

I heard Pulaski say, "Nutrient solution replenished. As far as I can tell, all systems are go - if you excuse me for stealing your line, Geordi. Want to throw the switch?"

LaForge beckoned me over. "I think I know someone who might prefer to do it herself."

Garth got out of bed and tagged along with me. I didn't particularly care for that, as I didn't want him to hang over my shoulder right now, finding out the location of Data's switch, but his curiosity was understandable, and unless either of the others objected, I could not really veto it.

I tried to be as unobtrusive about it as I could, pretending to merely examine the flexibility of Data's arm while I felt along his side for the switch. It came on, and he sat up immediately, so abruptly that I barely had the time to step back. I had no chance to see if he used his hands for support or merely folded upright, as it were.

Both LaForge and Pulaski chuckled. "He always does that", the engineer said. "Better not be in his trajectory."

"I'd say it's a good sign", the doctor suggested. "How are you f.. I mean, how are you, Commander?"

By the flicker of his eyes, I could see the POST still going on for a moment. Then, "As good as new, Doctor", he said. "Thank you. And - thank you too, Geordi, and Llin.. I regret putting you to all this extra work on my behalf. I seem to have done it again, have I not? Nor can I safely say it will be the last time."

I noted that he did not explicitly thank us for shutting him off, but two otherwise inexplicable catches in his voice as well as something in his eyes told me that the thought was there.

"What happened, Data?" Pulaski wanted to know. "I suppose the Enyddth attacked you - I'm beginning to recognize that particular type of wound by now. They don't seem to like androids either; any idea why?"

If I hadn't been more or less drinking in the sight of him alive and fully repaired, I might have missed the quick flicker of that golden gaze in Garth's direction. So he had drawn the same conclusion I had. Well, I supposed it was inevitable. He did have all the facts..

"I had better make my report to the Captain right away", he said evasively, swinging his feet off the bed.

Pulaski quickly put her hand on his shoulder to hold him back, shamelessly making use of the fact that he was too polite to merely shrug her off.

"Not so fast, young man", she said - and if her choice of epithet startled or pleased him, he made no sign. Then again, he may have concluded that a mechanical man is also a man and found no difficulty with the term. "There are some diagnostic routines *I* would like to run on you first. Besides, I'm curious", she admitted with disarming candour. "And I can make a good case for my curiosity being of the professional variety, given our working theory about the Enyddth. So I suggest we call the Captain down here - along with anyone else with a bad need to know."

Data gave her an almost pleading look, but acquiesced.

The Captain was finally getting a few hours of sleep, so all we got was Riker - and Alan, whatever he was doing on the bridge again. He was getting quite good at hanging around up there. Riker was all for mercilessly waking the Captain up, but Pulaski overrode that, saying that even a captain would have to sleep sometime. So, turning command over to the Klingon and disappointing the highly intrigued Ensign Crusher by telling him that someone had to stay and man the helm, Riker made his way down to us, picking up Counsellor Troi on the way.

By a slightly different route Alan got there first, and nobody questioned his right to be present at the debriefing. After all, he had been in the way of the Enyddth too, though his team had fared better; Garth was generally considered his man - by all but the Bard himself - and Alan was already widely known for his good perception of strategy. I suspected everybody felt they could use some imaginative new input.

"Apparently I beamed over in the Enyddth sleeping period", Data said, "and so the first fact I gleaned was that they do indeed sleep. They were not curled up under the ceiling this time, so I presume that that behaviour was more in the nature of an ambush, as they heard your team arrive, Commander", he told Alan.

"In fact, as I was able to move around the ship quite freely, I also came across their sleeping quarters, but did not enter. Reasoning that they may well consider an uninvited intrusion in their private quarters a hostile act, I contented myself with taking readings outside the entrances. But since they had posted no guard whatsoever and I was under the illusion that my presence would not prove harmful to them, I regret to say that I moved around a great many areas of their ship, gathering what information I could, as per my orders as well as my own interest."

"But you shouldn't have been harmful to them", Pulaski butted in, a frown on her face.

"Correct, Doctor", Data resumed. "In theory. I sincerely hope that whatever damage I may have inadvertently caused, will not prove irreversible. I was only alerted to my mistake, when I heard an alarm go off - quite a musical sound; more like the tolling of a bell than a klaxon - and twenty Enyddth emerged from the corridors all around me, attacking before I had the time to stun more than two of them."

I could feel my tension mounting and once I caught myself casting a worried glance at Garth. Then I saw Troi's sharp glance aimed in my direction and tried my best to focus on Data's story of how the eighteen Enyddth had quickly realized they could not get at him all at once, so they had taken turns, in effect passing him between them so he would have no chance of recovering between their attacks. So that was how they'd managed - almost as if they had known what he was, or at least caught on quickly enough to deal with him through their number rather than by their strength alone.

Hoping that Troi would decide my tension was due to the suspense of Data's account, I also fervently wished he would not be forced to say too much - at least not in the presence of Garth. But of course he had to, as there was precisely that one point about the whole thing they did not understand.

Pulaski shook her head. "I still don't see how they could feel threatened by you", she said. "Certainly not for the reason we suspected in the case of the earlier visits to the Ywq, so it would have to be something else. But what?"

Data fixed her calmly with his clear, golden eyes. "I would say Dr Selar's theory was correct", he said. "And that the reason the Enyddth attacked me too - in self defence, for they evidently took the first opportunity to beam me off their ship, as soon as they had subdued me - was exactly the same as their reason for attacking humans earlier. It was my mistake that I had not foreseen it."

"You mean you do produce pheromones?" Riker asked. "I wouldn't have thought.."

By then I had a feeling a human would have sighed at the Commander's density. Data of course didn't.

"No, Commander", he said. "I do not. Nevertheless, at the time I was carrying them. They were however - not my own", he finished, his eyes pleading with them not to ask any further questions.

I suppose it was his semblance of - chivalry? - that did it.

"Thanks for trying to shield me, Data", I said calmly. "But I'm afraid this is all my fault. You have to admit you would not have caused any harm to the Enyddth - let alone been attacked by them - if it hadn't been for me."

I saw almost horror on LaForge's face. So he had not known things had gone that far. And now he was thinking of how he had ordered me to repair the damage I must have felt that I had caused myself - I did not have to be a telepath to follow the blazed trail of his sudden guilt. Nor did Troi, I could read her face just as well.

"Don't worry, Geordi", I said, forgetting titles and rank, "You did the right thing - I needed to help right then. Especially as it was my fault."

"I beg to differ", Data's voice spoke up, its clarity fully regained now that his throat was no longer running dry. "the mistake was mine. I should have foreseen the risk and calculated with it. After all, it was obvious enough after the fact."

"Dammit man, couldn't you at least have had the sense to take a shower after you'd been with her?" Alan spat, with all his usual practicality as well as a total disregard for Garth's feelings which I could see Troi beginning to unconsciously edge away from at the moment.

"But that is just it", Data told him eagerly, "you see, I did. Only, I do not often use the water showers, having no real need of them, so it never then entered my calculations that a sonic shower might fall short of its purpose in some respects. While I did not possess any information about its inefficiency in removing human pheromones, I might have drawn conclusions to that effect. But as this was not an issue at the time, I did not do so. However, once Dr Selar had come up with her theory and I was chosen for the next away team of one, I should have drawn this conclusion and entered it into my preparation processes.

I regret to say I failed to do so. I can only ascribe this to my eagerness in carrying out my mission, to gather more information on the Enyddth."

"In other words, it never entered your head", LaForge said, shaking his. "I never thought I'd hear you say that, Data."

"That is not entirely correct..", Data objected but was cut off by Garth's roar of rage. I saw the whiteness of his scarred face and knew that his belated reaction was due to a slow but steady stoking of the furnace, as it were.

"How could you?" he yelled at me, Riker and Alan quickly catching him before he could jump me. "I know you've gone to extremes to spite me these days, but this is really so far beneath.."

"It had nothing to do with you, Garth", I said, more calmly than I felt. "While all your as yet unfounded and ill advised accusations might have been more than enough to drive me to act upon them - that was not it at all. No, Garth", I told him, wishing I did not have to say this for them all to hear, but equally determined to ignore that fact, "All I can say is this: despite all your 'caution' to the contrary - he stole my heart easily, when I wasn't looking."

Garth grew still. "I'll kill you", he said quietly. "You know that, don't you? I'll kill you. Both", he added with a venomous glance at Data, although this lent a touch of futility to his threat, as it seemed highly unlikely that he would be able to carry it out.

"I won't have you threaten anyone on this ship", Riker snapped at him, at the same time as Alan said, quietly as a desert snake,

"You're not killing anyone, Garth. You heard the lady. It's about time you learnt to take no for an answer."

*  *  *  *

Never in a hurry, Alan waited until Garth was fully recovered before beating him up. Though he did trick him - by setting up a meeting on the holodeck, in Garth's own Midgard setting, no less, and challenging him there, when he wasn't really expecting it. Of course, he always carried his vibroblade, but somehow Alan got it off him, turning the whole thing into a serious and protracted fistfight. They both looked rather the worse for wear afterwards which surprised me, as I had expected Alan to win easily, if only because Garth had always been so careful about avoiding an unarmed confrontation with him. I suppose it might have been another of Garth's tricks. By playing the coward with Alan, he had successfully deceived him as to his own strength, and I cannot say but that that deception came in handy. I wondered briefly what would have happened if Alan had lost - and whether that would have been better for Captain Picard's peace of mind - but I felt pretty sure Alan would simply have come back for a rematch.

But Garth, thoroughly despising Alan's command, was no replacement for him. So perhaps it was all for the best that, despite the difference in height, they were well matched. I suppose they had settled something, perhaps even agreed on something, if only to let well alone. All I know for sure is that Garth stopped bothering me - though that could have been because he was suddenly busy..

One night he was performing. I had actually turned up, more of a peacemaking gesture than because I had any real interest, but as usual it didn't take me long to become completely enthralled. And then the Enyddth finally decided to make contact.

Garth, still sporting one black eye but with his voice fully recovered, was singing his new song, the one he had wanted to sing to me on the holodeck. It was a wonderfully sweet little thing, a simple, slow ballad of the kind he did not do many, but when he did, he did them well, and this was the first time I heard this particular one.

Apparently, the Enyddth heard it too. Suddenly the shipwide intercom system came alive, and the song was broadcast back at us, a perfect replica, Garth's voice and all. At first we thought it was part of his performance - and that Picard or Riker would have his hide for using the shipwide system - but he seemed thoroughly astonished. Then he stopped singing, lowered his harp, and shrugged as a sign that he was not doing the playback. I knew he never had; he considered it beneath a true Bard, and I could agree with that.

My next thought was that someone must have played a trick on him, but I didn't know that he had recorded the song. I knew most of them were in the ship's computer by now, but I wouldn't have thought he'd had the time to put this new one in there. Besides, he only recorded them on request. If nobody asked for them, nobody got them. He had his pride. Plenty of it, at times.

Turned out I was right; he had not recorded it yet. But his performance was going out not only through the sound system of the holodeck we were all gathered on, but also on direct channels to the recreation areas - and, on the Captain's request, the bridge. It could be muted of course, when needed, so as not to interfere with programmes running on the other holodecks or with an emergency on the bridge, though I doubt it could be muted in TenFore. Anyway, even before the song got into the emergency broadcast system, it was in various backup sound systems, and hence it could be monitored. By any ship in the area; in this case, the Ywq.

I don't know if the Enyddth had tried and failed before, but it might have been the reason they beamed Garth over in the first place. They obviously did try to contact him, until they found out he was poisonous to them, and panicked. But this time - perhaps because the song was so simple - they managed to repeat it back at us, note by note, all formants intact.

Then they began to change it, not for musical embellishment and variation, not unless their music was more outlandish than we had any reason to think from what we'd heard of their sounds so far; they did not add anything but used only permutations of Garth's own notes and words.

Garth, naturally, was the first to catch on. Picking up each of their variations on his harp, he played it back at them, to show that he understood what they were trying to do. And got more variations in return.

As a means of communication, it was rather distracting because I for one could not leave the words of the song out of my consciousness although I had every reason to suspect that the words meant nothing to the Enyddth. But I think we all got the message, namely, that messages were finally forthcoming.

Finally Garth lowered his harp again and nodded to Ensign Crusher who happened to be the bridge crew member closest to the stage. The boy looked bewildered for a moment, then hit his commbadge to report to the Captain. Only then did it dawn on me that nobody else had thought of that before Garth did, and gave his consent. And yet there was not one among them that was not highly professional. The power of a true Bard should not be underestimated.

Naturally, Garth was immediately enrolled in the further attempts at communication with the Enyddth. The Captain was delighted to have arrived at some sort of breakthrough; he had felt forced to keep hanging around, offering assistance since the Ywq seemed plainly becalmed and nobody had declined his aid, yet he was sending no more away teams.

Eventually, Garth and the Enyddth got far enough towards a common language to establish a) that he knew his physical presence was harmful to them, b) that they knew and could erect a sort of quarantine structure for him to beam into, c) that he was to stay in there all the time he was on the Ywq, d) nobody else was to beam over, and e) that they very much wanted to talk to him.

So he did beam over - equipped with commbadge as well as tricorder this time. Plus his harp and an electric bass which he preferred over a phaser. While this certainly impressed the bridge crew as being more consistent with Starfleet ideals than whatever precautions they themselves would have taken - he aborted the inherent lesson by flashing them his sun-edge grin while looking at the profferred phaser:

"I couldn't hit a barn with that thing.."

*  *  *  *

He stayed on the Ywq for nine days, making continuous reports. As he came back, he had the beginnings of an Enyddth agreement to negotiate with the Federation to find out if there might be grounds for trade and possibly an eventual membership. If anybody had told me a few weeks before that Garth could function as a diplomat, I would have laughed. Still, perhaps it wasn't so odd. A certain flair for the turncoat's way of life might stand any diplomat in good stead.

As for what the Enyddth were doing there, just hanging around in space, that was one of the first mysteries to be solved. They were not becalmed. They had shut down because they were waiting for someone. In a month or so they were to rendez-vous with a trader sent out by the Rrynphath, a species distantly related to them though long since emigrated to another system. The encounter was to take place at these coordinates, and the Enyddth had arrived early, so they were simply waiting. Not understanding the Enterprise's offer of assistance, they had not thought of proving that their vessel was fully functional.

Somehow I would have loved to see the Captain's face when he heard that.

Compared to what had been gleaned before, Garth had collected a treasure of information on this enigmatic species, and he could also reassure us that the Enyddth had not suffered any permanent damage by the previous 'invasions' though they had greatly feared so at the time. But once they had flushed the pheromones out of their environmental system and replaced some of their atmosphere from liquid storage, they were all back to normal.

I knew Data was relieved to hear that - though he might not have put it that way. Nevertheless, he clearly appreciated the information. But when he requested to work with Garth to assemble and sort all the data the Bard had received, Garth declined. "Let that mechanical little busybody get it from the ship's computer like everybody else", he said.

During those nine days that Garth was gone, I had met with Data twice - once in his quarters, just talking quietly, the other on the holodeck, doing more.

The evening in his quarters he asked me if there was a special significance to my name - he was not sure he had found the correct reference. I said he probably had, it's an ancient word for lake, the custom of naming girls for features of nature still being widespread on Midgard.

"The Lady of the Lake..", he said softly, surprising me not by the reference - I had the highest regard for his database - but by the poetic inaccuracy of his statement. I'm no lady - never was - and there is none in my name. "Then what is the significance of Hwyfar?" he asked.

"I'm not sure", I said. "I think it's either wave or white but I forget which - if I ever heard it."

"Making the full name either White Lake or Lake Wave", he mused. "I shall endeavour to find out which it is - and when I do I will tell you."

Somehow I had no doubt of that.

*  *  *  *

I don't know if Data's reference to my old ship half was mere coincidence or if he had already heard something. I choose to think the former, as I'm pretty sure it was not until after the whole Enyddth business was resolved and the Enterprise was well underway again, that Picard received the message. It was relayed from Starbase 17, letting him know that they had picked up what they termed a rudderless vessel, brought in by some Ferengi who probably considered it worthless but were not above selling it, of course. The Starbase had been given the goahead by Starfleet Command who informed them that the vessel was of interest to the Enterprise - to solve a delicate situation, as they put it. Apparently, once the exact nature of the bucket's 'rudderless' condition had been ascertained, they saw a convenient end to our diplomatic limbo which they must have felt still gnawing them in the back.

The ship was the Hwyfar. When Captain Picard first summoned me to tell me the news - causing me to wonder what the ice I'd done now - I had thought it might be. The odds against finding another integrated Midgard vessel drifting about without its human part, were ridiculous. I also recognized that if the Captain had thought it might be any other vessel, he would not have told me about it. Because then the choice would not have been mine. Putting us back on another ship was not the same thing as putting us back where we came from.

Still, I waited for confirmation of the thing's identity before I talked to Data about it. He was no help; he simply asked me what I planned to do. Then again, perhaps he was right; perhaps I already knew.

"Captain Picard tells me we have a choice", I said. "He says that it would be inhuman to force me to reconnect to the vessel; if I'm to do that, it has to be my own decision. Well knowing of course, that all this time I wanted little else. Until..", I broke off and continued on another track. "Then there's the matter of the others. They have adapted well and proved valuable to the Enterprise; hence the Captain feels he is within his rights to give them the choice too. They can stay and work the way they are doing now - or they can leave with me, if I decide to reconnect. The first choice is mine. If I decline, they all stay, and nothing said about it. He's prepared to back that up with Starfleet, though he wanted my opinion first."

"So what is your decision?" Data asked.

"I don't know", I said. "I suppose I cannot really stay here with you.."

"With me? You can stay on the Enterprise, since the Captain is granting you that choice - but there are no guarantees that I shall be always around. I may be transferred, or even destroyed. While I personally wish you would stay, I think that you ought to consider carefully what you stand to lose in either case. And if you decide to stay, you must be prepared to do so whatever happens to me. You cannot base such a decision on one individual - no matter how unique", he added with what might have been self-irony though in his case it was not. In reference to him, uniqueness was not merely a figure of speech.

"No", I said. "There are a fair number of others to consider. Quite a few of the original fifty might want to move on - the question has never come up before, so I don't really know."

"The Captain said the first choice is yours. You cannot choose reconnection as a sacrifice for them. If you so choose, then that too must be your own, uninfluenced decision."

Well, that left only me. I thought about it for a while. It didn't really help. "Perhaps the mercury is still in my blood", I said then. "But you have taught me that a quiet attachment may run deeper than the fierce passion I once knew. I'm not sure I'm quite prepared to leave that behind as yet."

He nodded. "I spoke to Counsellor Troi about that yesterday", he said. "About - us, if you will, because there are still many aspects of our relationship that I do not quite understand. She said that contrarily to most beings she had ever met, you did not need to be loved. You needed to love. Which made me in a way the logical choice to fill your need."

If this was so, then that truly left only me.. "She's a wise one", I conceded. "Though I'm not sure I would have put it the way she did. Not to the face of someone I knew for a fact was at least capable of loyalty, compassion, curiosity, surprise, and concern."

He gave me a puzzled, topaz look. "Why not?"

"It sounds like she meant I picked you because you had no feelings."

"And did you not? I thought that was what you just agreed with."

"Perhaps, but it was not a conscious choice." I sighed. "Sometimes I think emotions have caused more trouble than money."

"Historical research would bear you out", he said soberly.

"I'm sure it would. Yet you are not alone in your quest for them. Half of humankind seems to be seeking their lost emotions - only to spend the rest of their lives trying to lose them again when they've found them", I grumbled, a little annoyed at Troi's accurate analysis of my motives.

"Like the cow and her star?" he asked, taking me completely by surprise as I had forgotten all about that.

"I hope not", I said, "because then we'll never be content, will we? Still, you're probably right. Well, now that my lost star has suddenly turned up, I suppose I'd better grasp my opportunity. I never really thought I'd be given a second chance.."

"You are going to reconnect?"

"I'm going to reconnect", I confirmed. To float among the stars. To leave you here, where you can go back to mourning your Lt. Yar.."

I don't know why I said that. It was unfair and a non-sequitur which would most certainly elicit a number of puzzled questions. But at the time I only meant it as a reference to our discussion on emotions and his lack thereof. His reaction came as a total surprise.

"It is not like that!" he said, with an initial click of his tongue and a sideways look of annoyment that made him for a moment seem so human that I wondered briefly if he might be malfunctioning in some way. In fact, he immediately looked surprised himself. For the space of a heartbeat I was certain he was looking to me for an explanation. Then he caught himself, resuming, "I mean, I am not in the habit of dwelling upon memories the way humans do. I have no need to, as I can access all my memories at any time, with perfect clarity. I do not have to repeat them to myself in order not to lose them."

"You mean that's what we humans do? A futile effort in that case, because rerunning our memories won't keep them from changing over time. They may not be totally lost, but they will no longer match the original event. Maybe there's something to be said for living in the now", I concluded, standing up and moving over to him. "So let's. Because tomorrow I'll report for reconnection."

"Are you sure?" he asked, and I nodded.

"I still wish you would stay", he said.

I smiled. "Would you come? With me, I mean?"

He shook his head. "That would interfere.."

"..with your duties as a Starfleet officer", I filled in. "I know. And I think I've just realized that if I stay on the Enterprise, that will interfere with my duties to myself. The Hwyfar needs a head. Tomorrow, she will get one. But not until tomorrow.."

*  *  *  *

For some reason, I had expected a fifty-fifty split among our people once they were given the choice, but of all the original fifty, only four chose to join me. Alan, realizing that the Enterprise was not really big enough for him and Picard both, opted to leave and make his fortunes elsewhere. Rhonda had had enough of the empath rule in psychology, she said, and by the obverse token Corina felt too restricted by Starfleet regulations.

Elisa was in two minds for a while, but although she wanted to follow me, she finally opted to stay with LaForge's crew. He appreciated that, he told me as he was saying goodbye; he did not care to lose both of us. And uncle Vidar finally made up his mind to come too, claiming that Starfleet ale was too weak and the chance of warrior booty too slim for his taste. He did however say a lingering farewell to a smugly smiling Guinan before he left.

Ingemund was staying because Elisa was, which meant that once they had connected me up, I would be on my own. No team to undo the mechanization. That suited me fine; I had no wish to go through all this again, once I'd been put back where I truly belonged.

They were waiting onboard the Hwyvar as I was saying my farewells to the bridge crew of the Enterprise. For some reason I wanted to do that in my human form. I went to Data last, determined only to shake hands this last, semi-public time. But he bent over to whisper in my ear, "Remember I shall find out the meaning of your full name. One day I will tell you."

"I'll remember", I said, wondering slightly that the ship's computer had not already provided the answer. Or had it? But then why would he.. That's as far as I got in my thoughts before he actually drew me gently to him and kissed me - amid the cheers and friendly catcalls from the rest of the crew. As he let go, he looked around him with perfect, deadpan innocence, as if he were really wondering what they were going on about. I don't think anyone fell for it though.

He still tasted slightly synthetic.

*  *  *  *

I was reconnected, and I woke up to feel myself whole again. I could see with my ship's sensors, hear every faint system buzz as well as the silence of space, and every last one of the ship's functions now obeyed my motoric signals again.

I was the Llinhwyfar. The mermaid had regained her tail.

Elisa and Ingemund had debarked; I had received the all-clear signal, and said my last goodbyes over communications channels to the Enterprise. When they suddenly asked me to hold for a moment, as there was one person standing by to beam over.

Truth to tell, I had wondered why Garth had not said goodbye - or even told me whether he was staying or coming with me. When he had not, I had assumed he would be staying; he had filled his place well on the Enterprise, and I did not think he'd be any too eager to follow Alan again.

Yet there he was, on screen, slightly tousled as if recently in a hurry, a Northern Midgard-style sailor's sack thrown over his shoulder, presumably containing all his musical instruments along with what little other packing he might have had; I doubted he had acquired any more than he came with. He grinned; that sun-edge smile.

"Permission to come aboard?" he asked.

"Deserting the Enterprise?" I countered, my voice ringing slightly metallic over the open channel, free now of any humanoid rasping or huskiness. "What will they do for a Bard if you leave?"

"They've had me long enough to learn", he said. "They know now what they need. And if they can't find another, at least they have my music stored. Up to this point in time, that is..", he added, his smile turning a shade more mischievous. Then he sobered. "I couldn't stay in any one place, on any one ship. A Bard is meant to travel - always was. There are other worlds, other cultures who also need to learn the value of my music. If you'll not have me, I'll beam down to the Starbase and await the next ship out. Still, I'd much prefer to go with you.."

"A last-minute decision?" I asked. "Have you really thought it over? Or didn't you think I would really opt for reconnection?"

"Oh, I knew you'd reconnect", he said, suddenly serious. "That was the one thing I was absolutely sure of. But - I waited until you had. I thought you might appreciate the gesture."

I did. He had not changed in any way. Meaning that he could still be very considerate at times. But then, I suppose chaos never really changes, being always in flux..

"Permission to come aboard", I said. "Granted."

*  *  *  *

Garth stayed with me the longest.

Alan got off on a planet composed largely of deserts but with a small number of hardy colonies, in one of which he happened to meet an old friend who had once served with him. I had only stopped to refuel, as they had a small station in orbit for that purpose, mainly serving their own vessels. So it was sheer coincidence that Alan chose to take a few hours shoreleave, met his old friend, and decided to stay. I didn't blame him. It was the kind of life he was always best suited for. He knew where he was needed. And as he pointed out just before I took off, I knew where to find him. He didn't figure he'd be going anywhere soon.

The girls left a couple of months later, both for Starbase 23 which was expanding its medical facilities and in particular the psychology department. In addition to the work, there would be ample opportunity for research. Neither Corina nor Rhonda could resist, though I strongly suspect the work attracted the one, and the research the other. I could be wrong though.

But Garth stayed. Once I made a reference to his words the day we left the Enterprise, when he had said a Bard could not stay on any one ship, or something to that effect. He simply answered that the main thing was for a Bard to travel - and he was travelling.

I got used to having him around - or perhaps I should say inside. He was still the same Garth, but it seemed he had finally given up on me, now that so many months had passed that my once human body was almost totally withered, and there was no way in the known universe I could ever be taken apart again, in the manner of my first detachment. Barring accidents - like blowing up or diving into a sun somewhere - I would outlive most unmechanized humans, then die with my ship. Which, if it was still sound enough, could then be refitted with another human part - if a suitable and preferably consenting one could be found.

The months blurred into years - not that they were totally eventless; I often had to rescue Garth from worlds where he had made himself impossible in one way or another, and indeed I was often worried about him. I didn't mind being alone, but I found myself increasingly unwilling to lose him, all the same. So I kept threatening locals with my scanty arsenal, or snatching him out fast by transporter.

After all, he was my last link with my Midgard past. And his music was truly wonderful; I couldn't do without that. It filled me often, on our long hauls.

One day - I'm not sure how long after my final reconnection, only that it had been several years, Garth who had been planetside all morning surprised me by announcing two to beam up. Wondering what he was up to now, I did as requested.

"Someone to see you", Garth said, stepping off the transporter platform, a 15-litre jug of ale over his shoulder. "I'll be in my quarters, practising. You can shut down the commlinks down there if you wish."

With that he was gone, and to my amazement I saw Commander Riker step off the platform behind him. Still sporting his beard, no grey in it yet, so it could not have been all that long ago, I mused.

He grinned. "Just wanted to say hello, for old times' sake. I ran into Garth, and he told me you were hanging around in orbit. Where should I sit - I mean, where can you best see me?"

"Just about anywhere", I chuckled. "But come up on the bridge; I suppose that will make you more comfortable. I'm sorry I haven't got any turbolifts, but if you take the steps you see forward and to port, you'll get there all right."

When he was in the centre seat - what on a Starfleet vessel would have been the command chair - nursing a stein of ale of his own, I asked him how come he had happened to be on the same planet as Garth and at the same spot too.

"Small universe?" he suggested, one eyebrow raised. "No, but it's a popular place for shoreleave. And I'm on an extended one, between commands. I'm still assigned to the Enterprise, but in three weeks I'm to get my own command. The Hawkwind - finally a Galaxy class starship, so I felt I could not turn it down this time. Also, Captain Picard and I both felt it was time I moved on before I was getting on, as the saying goes.."

He sat twirling his glass a little, obviously still faintly regretful he had at last received the offer he could not refuse. He had had some good years on the Enterprise. I now saw that although he still had no grey hairs, his waistline had widened since I saw him last. He might soon be getting into that time of his life when he would no longer be able to control it by exercise.

"Congratulations", I said. "And what of Counsellor Troi?" I added innocently.

He brightened. "She's coming with me. I said I could do with a Counsellor, and the Hawkwind has none right now. She thought it over for a few days, discussed it with the Captain no doubt, and then she accepted. But she had lots of preparations to make - clients to transfer and such, I imagine. So she's not here with me now, or I'd have brought her. I'll be returning to the Enterprise before I transfer, to pick her up and to say my farewells.."

"Anyone else transferring with you?" I asked.

"Worf, as a matter of fact", he laughed. I don't know, he seems to estimate my chances of getting into a scrap as somewhat better than Captain Picard's. And he always did want an opportunity to fight.."

"Wesley Crusher?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Still at the Academy - that's true, he hadn't left yet when you did, had he? I might pick him up once he's through though - unless someone beats me to it. I believe he'll make a fine officer."

Finally, I could not refrain any longer. From asking the one question I knew he was expecting. "And how's Data these days? Condition still not altering with the passage of time?" I had never actually heard Data say that himself, but I had heard the quote a couple of times, from his crewmates.

Riker looked pained, and I knew I had been right. I thought he'd looked like there were something he did not know how to tell me. "I - don't know."

I waited. I knew he would get to it.

"He's gone. We don't have him anymore. We believe he joined his brother - there is considerable evidence to support that theory. Deanna says he went in search of his Shadow. She claims he finally became human enough that he could no longer do without one."

So that was it. I had heard about this 'brother' on my travels, and I wondered if they felt Data was guilty of treason - I supposed they must see it that way. If they ever found him again, would he be facing a court-martial? Within a non-martial organization? I could not bring myself to ask. In search of his Shadow.. well, didn't he have the right? Shouldn't everyone have? I recalled one of our discussions on fairytales - possibly brought up by a reference to Pinocchio, because Riker was forever calling him that in those days, and our discussion had been full of old-Earth references.

"So he ultimately grew up, exchanging Pinocchio for Peter Pan?" I said.

Riker looked slightly startled, I was fairly certain he had not thought of it that way before. Nor had Troi, obviously. But Riker was not able to take this lightly. I could see he really missed his android colleague - and probably more than he had ever expected to.

"I suppose it was all there from the start", he mused. "One of the very first things he ever said to me was that he was superior to humans. Though he had the courtesy to add, in many ways. Or the sense."

"The grace.." I said, but the Commander did not seem to hear me.

"Have I ever told you how we first met, Data and I?" he asked me.

"I've heard bits and pieces", I said. "Not from you though - we never did talk much together, did we?"

"No, that's true.." he acknowledged. Then he launched into the tale of how he had been sent to get Data to join him on an away team when all he knew about him was that he was a machine, because that and Data's educational background and service record was about all he had had the time to look up - and how he had found him on the holodeck, high up in a tree, trying to learn how to whistle a tune.

I should have laughed. I should have said something. Pointed out the fact that I had never mastered that art myself, for instance. But I said nothing. I could imagine that little incident only too well. And it brought back the memory of him clearer than I had ever thought possible, after all these years.

Finally I found something to say: "What tune was he trying to whistle?"

"Pop Goes the Weasel." Riker tried to laugh, but something got in the way.

"Pop Goes the Weasel." I repeated, thinking, he would.

"Pop Goes the Weasel", he confirmed. "Don't cry.."

"How could you tell I was?"

"I don't think we are all that different, you and I. And I know I sometimes do. It's got to be hell of a lot worse for you. You still love him, don't you?"

I did not answer that.

He put his empty glass down on the deck. "Well, as if I couldn't guess. I'd better be going. You can switch the commlinks back on.." He stood, turning vaguely around, finding no eyes to look into. "Perhaps we'll meet again sometime", he said. "Though I wouldn't count on it. Space is a big place.."

"Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore", I quoted. Bob Dylan, 20th century Earth. Some of the Bardic historical tradition must have rubbed off on me over the years. "Clear skies.." I added, as he was beaming out.

You still love him, don't you? he had asked.

Well, did I, for all my lack of passion?

"Let me count the ways.." I whispered to myself.

Then I called Garth back to the bridge. 


*** The End ***