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Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 2

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Welcome to the next exciting installment of Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I. If you’ve ever wondered what Star Trek would be like as a modern, Tom Clancy-esque techno-thriller, you’ve come to the right place.  Just in case you’ve missed the previous installment, you can find it here:

Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Prologue

Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 1

As I mentioned before, if you like this book and want to see it in print, ping Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books on social media and let them know!

Chapter Two

 

USS Enterprise

It had been almost eighteen years since Jack Crusher sent out the transmission that secured his wife’s reputation as the Dancing Doctor throughout Starfleet.  The name had started out innocently enough—just something her colleagues called her as an inside joke—but when Jack found out how sensitive she was about it, he couldn’t resist the urge to make sure everyone else found out about her off-duty proclivities.

Of course, it had been Jean-Luc Picard who had actually sent the transmission.  As the Captain of Stargazer, he was the only one who could have approved it. Years later, when Bev Crusher was assigned to Enterprise, she had asked Picard, who had the reputation of being the biggest stiff in Starfleet, how Jack had talked him into it.  Picard, of course, had pleaded ignorance, confessing only that Jack had set it up as an anniversary present—but the wry grin that followed told her otherwise.

So in the deepest possible way, Bev was overdue for some payback—even though in all the years she had known Picard, she had never been able to settle that particular debt of honor.  It was for that reason, and that reason only, that she paraded down the corridor in full 1940s regalia, catching every eye that passed by her.  Not that it was unusual to see such a thing—the holodeck, after all, provided for all manner of entertainment. 

It was just that nobody was used to seeing the chief medical officer like that.

She had chosen black, though to describe it as such would be an understatement.  Trimmed with silver lace, the front of her dress was cut so low that it caused more than a few crewmen to look at her in an entirely different light.  The hem left a little bit more to the imagination, but not by much, the smooth silk of her stockings completing the picture of a lady on the town.  Ordinarily, the stares she drew might have made Beverly feel self-conscious—but not tonight.  The giddy rush of her impending revenge cast all other considerations aside.

Jean-Luc Picard, it’s time to pay up.

Two non-coms dropped what they were doing as Beverly approached the arch-like doors of the holodeck, parting ways to let her pass.  She sauntered past them, playing her part to the hilt, and sidled up to the comm panel on the wall.

“Status program, Crusher Five,” she said in a husky voice.

“Program already in progress,” the computer answered.

She smiled.  “Has the captain arrived yet?”

“Affirmative.”

“Wonderful,” she said, preparing herself.  “Open the door.”

The doors slid open to reveal a vast cityscape in the dead of night, accompanied by the sounds of traffic gliding across rain-soaked streets.  Bev turned briefly to the two young crewmen, blowing them a kiss before stepping inside.  A tantalizing hint of perfume remained in her wake as the doors closed, sealing fantasy off from reality once again.

One of the crewmen shook his head and whistled.  “What do you suppose that’s about?”

“I don’t know,” the other replied, a silly grin stuck on his face, “but I swear to God—one of these days, I’m gonna make captain.”

 

Angelo spotted the redhead as soon as she walked in, along with every other set of eyes in the place.  It was hard not to notice, dolled up the way she was:  dress as black as a widow, though Angelo couldn’t imagine any man having the nerve to die on her.  Even through the smoky haze, he saw the way those legs carried her across the floor—almost like a tango done solo, inviting anyone with guts enough to join in.

He knew the type.  The kind of woman who could break your heart into a dozen easy pieces and smile as she did it—there was nothing new about that.  But the way she carried the package, all moonbeams and magic, made you want to believe that she meant it, as if any joe could get next to her if he came on the right way.  Angelo knew different, though.  Body language didn’t know how to lie—and right now, hers was talking up a storm.

A quick dart of his eyes over to the left told Angelo that Vance had noticed too.

That much didn’t surprise him.  He’d seen it all at one time or another—different people, different names, but everyone with the same sad story.  And with the way looks got tossed around the joint, like the loose change left behind by some cheap tipper, most of the people who sat at these tables night after night could tell if you were up or down with one bat of an eye.

Except for Vance.  He always sat alone.  He was never interested in anything or anyone else.  It was just part of the business—you never let anyone get too close.  Especially if that someone looked like her.

“She’s trouble, Vance,” Angelo said to himself.

The Gentleman, as he was called, paid no attention.

The woman breezed by his table without a care in the world, cutting through the crowd and turning heads like a magnet as she made her way to the bar.  Like Vance, they couldn’t help themselves.  Not Phil, the big bearded cop in his sensible flatfoot suit—and certainly not the hood Papa Roselli, with his pale face and weird eyes, decked out in a Zoot with the shoulders half as wide as he was tall, surrounded by his usual collection of molls.

Then there were the others who worked the place.  Sally was the canary, up on stage in her little red dress and long, dark hair, keeping Phil’s attention real easy.  And there was Mikey, who tickled the ivories as the banger boy of the orchestra:  he had these strange glasses that were a little hard to get used to, but the man could charm a piano into doing whatever he liked.

Though tonight, it was the redhead doing all the charming.

She slid onto one of the barstools just as easy as you please, blue eyes getting the lay of the land as Angelo did the bartender routine.  She reached into her purse and plucked out a couple of bills, whistling to get his attention.  “What does a lady need to do to get a drink around here?”

Angelo took it in stride.  “All you gotta do is ask nice.”

The redhead took one of the bills and slipped it into Angelo’s pocket.  She took the other and slipped it down the front of her dress, where she kept it nice and warm.

“I’m asking,” she said.

Angelo raised an eyebrow.  “Coming right up,” he said, and walked away.

“That’s a neat trick you have there,” Vance said, appearing out of nowhere.  He didn’t sit down.  He just leaned against the bar casually, with a smile on his face to match.  “Makes me wish I was a dollar bill.”

“You’d make a better dime,” the redhead replied, unimpressed.  “Much easier to jingle around in my pocket.”

The Gentleman tried to keep his cool—and by all appearances he did, if you ignored the bright red flush that appeared for just a second across his face.  He fired a quick glance at Phil, who watched the performance with great delight.

Vance took a deep breath and turned back to the woman.  “You got a name, angel?”

Angelo returned with a shot of bourbon. “Thanks,” she said, and tossed it back.  She then returned her undivided attention to Vance, leaning in close and caressing his chin with her finger.  “Everybody here calls you the Gentleman.  Now why wouldn’t the Gentleman know my name?”

Vance cleared his throat.  He actually started to sweat.

“Clearly,” he forced out, “my reputation has been greatly exaggerated.”

“That’s too bad,” she said, drawing even closer.  “I really wanted to find out if it was true what they say about bald guys.”

Phil couldn’t take it anymore.  He burst out laughing, nearly knocking over his beer in the process.  Vance tried to ignore the outburst, but it wasn’t easy.  It got so bad that Phil had to leave the bar, and stumbled over to Roselli’s table where he plopped down into an empty chair. One of the molls eased in next to him, and started giving him the same kind of massage therapy that Roselli had been enjoying.

“Now that’s entertainment,” Phil chuckled.  “I hope we got a shot of that face.”

Roselli studied the man with his cold, calculating—and yellow—eyes.  “I would advise ya to show some respect, flatfoot,” he said in a thick Bronx accent, “or I might just take a shot at yer face—without a camera, capiche?” Roselli then snapped a finger, and the moll who’d been working on Phil went back to her boss.  “Cops,” he sneered.

Phil shook his head and grinned.  “I love this place.”

Vance, meanwhile, kept pouring on the charm.  “That’s quite a lip you got on you,” he said, lowering his voice a notch and matching the redhead’s stare with his own.  “You must be new in town.”

She cocked her head and feigned interest.  “How do you figure that, mister?”

“I make it a point to know everything that happens here—and everyone.”

“You must be a busy man.”

“Maybe you could help me out with that.”

The redhead smiled coyly.  “I wouldn’t want to take you away from your business.”

“A pretty lady is my business.”

“Then I’d suggest another line of work.”

Vance kept his cool as long as he could, but the cracks were hard to miss—especially when Sally started to sing “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and he knew the game was up.

“Wasn’t that the song…?” he began.

“Mmm-hmm,” the redhead drew out, and then whispered in his ear:  “Now it’s your turn to dance for me.

With that, she grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the bar.  Everyone spread out to clear a path while the redhead worked her best steps, twirling around Vance and daring him to join in.  Vance made a feeble attempt to fend her off—but with the lights shining on him and the crowd practically demanding a show, he finally gave the redhead what she wanted.

And it was a sight.

Vance tried to match her moves, but it was an effort just to keep up.  That he had no rhythm didn’t help matters much, and he damn near took a tumble before the redhead could catch him.  She didn’t mind in the least, throwing her head back and laughing while Vance held on tight, going with the flow as best he could.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this terrified,” the redhead bubbled.

“And I had no idea you were so cunning,” Vance replied.  “You’re recording this, aren’t you?”

“Every minute.”

“And how do you intend to use this footage?”

“At a time and place of my choosing.”

“In that case, perhaps you had better lead.”

The redhead laughed even louder this time, and took him up on his offer.  She even managed to smooth out his performance a bit, so by the end of the song they had achieved a form of simpatico—not that they would be winning any competitions with it.  Even so, the others applauded as they finished, and Vance capped everything off by dipping the redhead as low as she could go.

“Nice touch,” Beverly Crusher said as he lifted her back up.

Jean-Luc Picard flashed her a crooked grin.  “I’m not completely lacking in ability.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Will Riker said, snapping the brim of his fedora as he shed the role of Phil the cop.  “The boys in Ten Forward were laying odds on how long you’d last out there.  I had you pegged at eight-to-one.”

“Just remember that the house gets ten percent,” Picard said, turning back to Beverly.  “Am I to assume that this makes us even?”

“Not by a long shot,” she promised.  “I haven’t even gotten started.”  She then ordered the computer to save program, which made Angelo disappear into a cloud of pixels, along with most of the crowd in the bar.  Geordi La Forge, meanwhile, helped Deanna Troi off the stage as they left their personas of Mikey and Sally behind, while Data switched gears from the gangster Roselli to his android self.

“Well, I thought he was charming,” Troi announced, doing her own impersonation of Rick Vance.  “‘A pretty lady is my business.’  I know I’d find that hard to resist.”

Picard mounted a weak defense.  “According to the data bank, it was a perfectly acceptable thing to say.”

“Maybe we just need to work on your delivery,” Riker suggested.  “Tell you what, the next time we get shore leave, I can take you to this place I know where—”

“Belay that,” Picard snapped.  “I’d be safer taking advice from Mister Data.”

“I am well-versed in the Method, Captain,” Data said.  “Perhaps after some study, we could bolster your confidence to a higher level.”

Picard, however, ignored the remark, watching after Beverly and Troi as they exited the holodeck together, whispering and laughing amongst themselves the entire way.  Before leaving, though, Bev tossed a glance at him from over her shoulder and gave him a little wink.  Then she was gone, leaving Picard to wonder what it all meant.

Riker leaned toward the android and intoned:  “I don’t think that’s the kind of advice he needs, Data.”

Picard shook his head and sighed.  “What a damned nuisance.”

“If that’s the way you feel about it,” La Forge said, “I could go back to the keys and play some blues for you.”

“No way,” Riker interjected. “That’s my department.  Nobody knows the blues like a bone man.”

“I’d like to debate that,” the chief engineer said, loosening his bow tie.  “But this gin joint is already starting to get the best of me.  I’ve got some fine tuning due on the intermix chamber, but I wouldn’t mind coming back.  Any chance of us doing it again?”

“Ask Doctor Crusher,” Picard said, his voice stilted.

Geordi laughed.  “Yeah, maybe you’d better sleep it off first.  A man can take getting shot down like that only once in a while.”  He then walked out, whistling as he went.

Data watched the whole exchange curiously, his positronic brain unable to decipher what he had just witnessed.  “I will never fully understand the subtleties of human interaction.”

“Join the club,” Picard said.  “I’ve been from one end of the quadrant to the other, Mister Data, and never once have I come close to unlocking the secrets of the female mind.”

“The mystery is what keeps us coming back,” Riker added, circling around the bar and grabbing a bottle of scotch from the shelf.  He lined up some glasses and poured as Picard and Data sat down.  “We just can’t resist a challenge.”

“And here I thought you set your sights on their more tangible assets,” the captain observed.

Riker raised his glass.  “Guilty as charged.”

“It still seems like an impedance to efficient communication,” Data said.  “Would it not be simpler for males and females to state their intentions clearly to one another rather than engage in forced subterfuge?”

“What would be the fun in that?” Riker asked.

“Obviously your idea of fun is vastly different from mine,” Picard said tiredly.  “Perhaps it’s time for an unscheduled battle drill—since there obviously isn’t enough to do aboard this ship.”

“I hate cargo runs,” Riker agreed, pouring himself another shot.  “If Starfleet wasn’t so short on vessels right now…”

“They’d be sending a scout to Maxia Zeta instead of us,” Picard finished.  “I suppose I could just seal myself in my quarters for two weeks.”

“Two weeks, three days, five hours, twenty minutes at current warp factor,” Data corrected.  “Assuming there is no alteration in our course.”

As if on cue, the intercom chimed and Lieutenant Worf’s voice came over the channel.  “Bridge to Captain,” the Klingon announced formally.

Riker exchanged a quick glance with Data.  “Did you put up him to that?”

“I believe the old saying was saved by the bell,” Picard said.  “Go ahead, Mister Worf.”

“Message coming in for you over courier subspace, sir, code marked personal.”

“On the courier channel?”

“Yes, sir.  It requests that you and Lieutenant Commander Data be present to open the seal.”

“A sealed message?”  Picard frowned curiously.  “From Fleet Command?”

“That is unknown at the present time, sir.”

Riker raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t know why the brass would send a priority message over a courier network.  They have their own channels for that.”

Picard was just as intrigued as his first officer.  “Have it piped down to my quarters, lieutenant,” he said to the intercom.  “Mister Data is here with me now will accompany me.”

“Aye, Captain,” Worf said. 

“I’ll coordinate with you on the bridge as soon as I find out what’s happening,” Picard told Riker.  “In the meantime, it’s probably best to keep this quiet.”

“Do you think it’s anything serious?”

“We treat it as such until we know otherwise.”  Turning to Data, he said, “I believe we have a letter to open, commander.”

The two of them left quickly, leaving Riker alone.  He looked down at the fedora in his hands, remembering how just a few minutes ago Bev Crusher had given Picard the best run he’d ever seen on his captain.

How quickly things can change.

“Exit program,” he said and the nightclub disappeared, replaced by the gold grid squares of the holodeck.  As he strolled out, he thought about jazz and the old days and what he might do if things ever really got simpler.  Then the holodeck doors slid shut behind him, leaving that fantasy life behind in the dark, giving no answers.

 

 

The turbolift doors at the rear of the bridge swished open.  Riker stood up from the center seat and watched as Captain Picard and Lieutenant Commander Data stepped onto the deck.  He tried to read from the captain’s face what kind of news to expect, but Enterprise’s CO was inscrutable as ever.

“Alter course to one five nine mark two,” Picard ordered the conn, elaborating no further.  “Make your speed warp factor seven.  Senior staff, accompany me.”  He and Data then exited through the door that led aft to the observation lounge.

“Officer of the watch, you have the con,” Riker announced.   He motioned for the senior officers on duty to secure their stations, and one by one they followed the captain without saying a word.  Beverly was the only one who showed any outward reaction, flashing Riker a concerned glance as she walked past him.

The rest of the bridge crew picked up on it as well—particularly the watch officer, who released a long, tense breath after Riker was gone.

“So much for cargo duty,” the conn officer said.  “Any idea what’s up?”

“Just hold your course,” the watch officer replied.  “We’ll find out soon enough.”

 

Picard stood with hands clasped behind his back, facing the long bank of windows at the rear of the lounge.  He remained that way as the others filed in, watching the stars streak through subspace until everyone had taken a seat at the conference table.  Only then did he turn around and take his place at the head of the table, still pensive as he prepared to deliver them the news.

“As you’re aware,” he began, “Commander Data and I received an encoded message a short time ago.  It was sent on a frequency generally used for low-grade diplomatic traffic.  We now know that this was done to avoid attracting the kind of attention that an emergency message would generate, as those bands aren’t monitored extensively.”

“Pardon the interruption, Captain,” Worf said.  “But every channel of communication we have is monitored by Threat forces on a regular basis—even non-priority ones.”

“It isn’t the Romulus or Cardassians that the sender is worried about,” Picard explained. “He doesn’t want Federation entities to find out what’s happening.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Beverly said.  “Why would the Federation want to hide something from itself?”

“Because the Council isn’t involved yet.”

“Then who sent the message?”

“Admiral Carlton Morrow.”

Silence descended as everyone contemplated the significance of Commander Starfleet using back channels to communicate with one of his own ships.

“He wants to make certain that member governments know nothing of what you are about to hear,” Picard continued.  “Mister Data has downloaded all the intelligence Fleet Command has been able to gather and will give you a brief summary.”

With a nod, Data took over the presentation.  “Three days ago, a military altercation occurred between a Starfleet vessel and a Bezzeret warship.  At issue was the disposition of Jeffrey Dalton, a Federation national, whom the Bezzeret accused of high crimes.  They were in the process of apprehending Dalton when fire was exchanged.  Several casualties resulted—some of them serious.”

“The Bezzeret,” Troi mused.  “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“Because they’re allies,” La Forge explained.  “And because they’re a high-value strategic asset.  You name the technology, they probably developed it:  graviton-enhanced phaser arrays, hyper-ablative shield upgrades, planetary defense grids—not to mention rewriting the book on phaser tactics.”

“They’re are also heading up the Nova Weapons project, which has been proposed as a possible defensive measure against the Borg,” Riker added.  “It would be an understatement to say that their culture has revolutionized our defensive capabilities.”

“Indeed,” Data continued.  “The Federation extended the Bezzeret full membership twenty years ago, although we have been aware of their culture for nearly half a century.  Former chancellor Darelian of their Planetary Assembly spearheaded the initial talks.  She now serves as prime minister, as well as the primary link between her government and the Federation Council.”

“I remember those hearings,” Picard said.  “My friend Gregory Quinn was a member of the Naval Staff at the time.  He felt that Starfleet was too anxious to admit the Bezzeret, as a way of getting its hands on their technology.  His testimony slowed the process down—but ultimately the Council signed off on membership.”

“And since that time, relations have been smooth,” Data added.  “At least until Dalton’s arrest.”

“What was the charge?” Troi asked.

“Espionage.”

“That’s a stretch,” La Forge scoffed.  “As far as I know, the Federation isn’t in the habit of spying on one of its own.  Besides, there’s already a free flow of ideas between us and the Bezzeret.  Why would we need to steal something?”

“An alliance does not preclude secrets,” Worf pointed out.  “The Klingon Empire has been known to keep its share from the Federation.”

“And so it is with the Bezzeret,” Picard said.  “In spite of their candor in military matters, there’s still a great deal we don’t know about them.”

“What about Dalton?” Riker asked.  “How much do we know about him?”

“He is an Academy of Sciences laureate,” Data said.  “A specialist in xenoarchaeology and ancient cultures, with a distinguished career up until recently.”

“I remember hearing about that,” Beverly added.  “The Academy censured him, didn’t they?”

“Yes, Doctor—for making what they called ‘unreasonable demands’ for funding to prove his theories, which they found to be speculative and unsupported.  Dalton later resigned to continue his research privately.”

“So he has a checkered past,” Riker said dubiously.  “That doesn’t make him a spy.”

“Prime Minister Darelian thinks he is,” Picard said.  “She’s already begun the process of sending the case to trial and intends to seek the death penalty.”

Troi looked at the others in shock.  “Can they do that?”

“They are well within their rights, Counselor—but even that isn’t the worst of it.”

After a long, uneasy pause, Picard nodded at Data to deliver the news.

“The Bezzeret have also stated their intention to secede,” the android said.  “They are breaking formal ties with the Federation.”

“My God,” La Forge muttered.  “Do they have any idea what that will do?”

“It will fundamentally shift power within the Federation,” Worf answered, “to say nothing of the Starfleet.  It would leave a vacuum could not be filled.”

“The implications go even further than that,” Troi said, turning to Picard.  “We have to view this as much more than a political act, Captain—it is a very public symbol, meant to convey the depth of the Federation’s alleged betrayal.  It’s no wonder that Admiral Morrow wants to keep the situation under wraps.  Once word leaks out, other planets will want their own investigations into whether the Federation has been spying on them.

“Which could set off a chain reaction,” Picard finished, following Troi’s logic to its grim conclusion.  “Such a breach of trust would be like a cancer eating away at the Federation from the inside—even if the charges against Dalton turn out to be false.”

“If?” Riker asked, incredulous.  “The Bezzeret attacked one of our ships.  We have no reason to believe a word they’re saying.”

“Until the facts are known, we cannot rule out their version of events,” Data said.  “We are bound to the truth, commander, wherever that leads.”

“Is that the way Morrow sees it?”

“Admiral Morrow is making his own discreet inquiries,” Picard said. “And no—he does not consider these accusations beyond the realm of possibility.”

The admission stunned everyone.  Nobody wanted to believe it—least of all Picard, even though a part of him had anticipated this.  The Borg incursion had left Starfleet in a profoundly weakened state, which the more hard-line elements at Fleet Command had used to expand their influence.  Policies that would have been considered extreme a year ago now seemed reasonable, so long as they promised security.  So far, Morrow had managed to hold the various factions at bay by playing them off one another—a dangerous ploy that was bound to unravel sooner or later.  Picard was just amazed that the game had lasted as long as it did.

The captain released a long breath.  “How long until we reach the Bezzeret system?”

“Sixteen hours, present speed,” La Forge answered.

“Not much time to develop a strategy,” he lamented.  “We’ll start with Darelian.  Counselor Troi, I’ll need you to put together a dossier on the prime minister—personality traits, political affiliations, anything you can find that might be useful.  I want to know exactly who I’m dealing with before we begin negotiations.”

“Of course, Captain.”

“It would also be useful to research Dalton’s personal history,” Worf suggested.  “Spies do not operate independently.  If he has been engaged in espionage, he would need support—people to provide resources and logistics.  That kind of activity leaves a trail.”

“A trail we can follow,” Picard agreed, nodding.  “Very well, Mister Worf.  You and Commander Data will delve into Dalton’s known contacts and travel destinations.  Look for unusual patterns—particularly those that intersect with the Bezzeret.  Treat nothing as  coincidence.”

“Aye, sir.”

With that, Picard stood up and straightened his uniform jacket.  “I don’t need to remind you of the sensitive nature of these matters.  Limit discussion to what’s absolutely necessary, and then only amongst yourselves.  Commander Riker will brief away teams when the time comes.”

“The crew will be wary of the course change, Captain,” Troi cautioned.  “Perhaps even a cursory announcement could alleviate—”

“Those are my orders, Counselor.”

Troi lowered her eyes at the mild rebuke.  “Yes, sir.”

“That will be all,” Picard finished, and that ended the meeting.  

A din of hushed conversations followed everyone as they got up and left—except for Beverly, who remained steadfast in her seat.  She carefully avoided direct eye contact with Picard until all the others were gone, then fixed him with a knowing glance—not unlike her alter-ego back at the bar.

“Something on your mind?” Picard asked.

Beverly shrugged.  “Thought I’d give the kids something else to gossip about.”

“After the show you put on today, there will be plenty of that.”  He sat down on the table next to her, studying her closely—a face he had known for so many years, though it still had the capacity to surprise him when he least expected.  “I hope you enjoyed yourself.  You probably won’t get another chance for a while.”

“Because of this mission or because of choice?”

Picard smiled.  “A little of both, I suppose.”

“It was fun while it lasted.”

“That has a familiar ring to it,” he observed, not without some regret.  “Our timing was never good, was it?”

Beverly was practical.  “It keeps us from getting too comfortable.”

“Would that be such a terrible thing?”

“Why, Jean-Luc,” she said, raising a coy eyebrow.  “You aren’t going all soft on me, are you?  What would Rick Vance say?”

“Something clever, I suppose.”

“Perhaps too clever for his own good.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Picard admitted, before trailing off into an uneasy quiet.  He looked toward the window, out into the vast expanse of space—a great comfort in days past, with its endless possibilities.  This time, however, the stars left him cold.

Beverly’s eyes narrowed, reading him perfectly.

“You’re really worried about this one, aren’t you?”

“An attack from the outside we can deal with.  We regroup, we rebuild, and in time we emerge stronger.  But this,” he said, shaking his head gravely, “this has the potential to do much more damage.”

“And you don’t know how to stop it.”

“Depending on what we find, I’m wondering if we should.”  He let slip a moment of despair, something he couldn’t allow the others to see.  “It isn’t the same Starfleet, Beverly.  The Naval Staff is fractured, members forming their own private alliances—all while the Federation Council looks the other way.  We may well be on the wrong side.”

“Did Morrow tell you that?”

“He didn’t need to,” Picard said, frustrated.  Unable to sit still, he got up and paced the lounge slowly, hoping that some insight might emerge.  “Right now, there’s so much spin that hardly anyone knows the full truth.  How am I supposed to talk to the Bezzeret when everything I say could be a lie?”

“A lie is deliberate, Jean-Luc.”

“Darelian won’t make that distinction.”

“All the more reason to go in there hard and fast,” Beverly told him.  “She’s the one who escalated this.  Now we have to show her that we’re willing to do the same.”

Picard was stunned at her candor.  “That’s rather provocative.”

“So is weakness.”

He smiled a little.  “I had no idea you were such a pragmatist.”

“I have a son at Starfleet Academy,” Beverly said, turning deadly serious.  “The last thing I want to hand him is another war.”

Her remark struck Picard precisely as intended.  “I won’t let it come to that.”

Beverly stood and went over to him, leaning in close to whisper.

“You better not,” she said, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

She then left without looking back, the door sliding shut in her wake—and leaving Picard alone with his thoughts.  For some reason, he found his mind wandering off to a memory of Walker Keel—though for the life of him he couldn’t quite place why.  Then he sensed it:  a fragrance suspended in the air, something Picard hadn’t encountered since the night Keel had introduced him to Beverly.  Jack had also been there, of course—but Picard had seen her first, the move his for the making.  He often wondered what might have happened if he had asked Beverly to dance, but the moment passed before he could summon the courage.  He spent the rest of the evening with his drink, watching her and Jack move across the floor.

But I saw her first.

Maybe that’s what Beverly had in mind when she created the holodeck program.  Picard resolved to ask her about it sometime after the mission—the same as he had done countless times before.  But there was always another mission, always another reason to remain silent.  By now, it might as well have been destiny.

“Captain on the bridge,” he heard the officer of the watch say, as he resumed his proper place in Enterprise’s center seat.  Ahead of him on the screen, somewhere off in the reaches, the Bezzeret awaited.

“Steady as she goes,” the captain said.


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