This story first appeared in Issue 107 of the Power Star Fanzine, February 1997, published by the team of Jerry Seward and Kimberly Murphy-Smith (Editors), Walter M. Scott III, (Graphics Editor), J. Calvin Smith (Manuscript Editor) and Anthony Van Pyre (News Editor). Text taken from the fanzine. Story by Philippa Sidle.
This story is posted without the author's permission - with due acknowledgment - hoping to attract her attention. If you wish it to be removed, please contact the webmaster without any delay.
For three months, nothing had happened.
It was as if they had reached the end of space, and the moon had fallen off the edge of the universe. The stars above them seemed to have stopped. A general feeling of lassitude on Moonbase Alpha was interrupted by the discovery that a young woman in hydroponics, Carol Earnshaw, was pregnant. Because of the far-reaching implications, a command meeting was called to discuss the situation. Maya attended reluctantly, feeling that it was none of her business, and anxious to get away for a scheduled reconnaissance flight.
"There's no point asking 'what are we going to do'," said Helena. "There is nothing we can do."
"Was this deliberate?" asked the Commander.
"She says not. Equally, she's determined that she won't have an abortion and we can't force her."
"I could talk to her..."
"That wouldn't be a good idea."
"What could you do to her anyway?" said Tony. "Discipline her?"
"There is nothing we can do," said Helena again.
Maya said, "Carol isn't married."
"No, she isn't."
"She doesn't even have a boyfriend, does she?" said the Commander.
"She says the father is Michael Jones from metallurgy. They were together for a brief time, three months ago, when he and Angela Carter temporarily broke up. They're back together again now."
"I don't understand why we've spent all this time talking about Carol," said Maya. "If Michael's the father of the baby, why hasn't anyone asked him to give an account of himself?"
"I think it's something they both want to forget, Maya," said Helena.
"But they can't, not if there's a child involved! How can Carol want to have a child without its father, and how can Michael want to forget it? On my world, it was considered a great tragedy for a child to grow up without both parents."
"Didn't marriages break up?"
"No, never, it wasn't the way people behaved."
"And didn't girls ever get pregnant accidentally?"
"If they did, then the parents married. That was the way things were. On Psychon, Michael would have been ostracized--he would have lost his job, the respect of every decent person--if he behaved as he's behaving now."
"What, you want Michael to leave Angela, even though they're happy together," said Tony, "and go and set up home with Carol, even though they can't stand each other?"
"If they can't stand each other, then they had no business creating a child in the first place."
"I never knew you had all these strange views, Maya."
"They are not strange views. On Psychon, that was the way everyone thought--there was no question about it."
The Commander her up his hand. "Hold on, we're getting side-tracked here. I'm not interested in a debate on morality. We have to decide what to do with the situation as it is."
"John, I repeat," said Helena, "there is nothing we can do."
"We all know the problems. One woman having one baby could open the floodgates, and our resources could be swamped."
"Open the floodgates," said Helena.
Maya looked up from doodling aggressively on a pad on the table in front of her. There was a silence in the room as all attention focused on Helena. Tony had been perched on the edge of a couch, studying his boots with a dark expression, but he lifted his head and caught Maya's eye briefly. Alan Carter shifted backwards. The Commander was motionless for a moment.
Helena placed her fingertips together and looked straight at him.
He stood up. "No. You know my views on this, and this isn't the place to bring it up again."
"I'm talking about survival," said Helena earnestly, pressing forward. "This is our sixth year in space. Most of the women are still young, but how much longer do you think we can ask them to wait? Twenty-two people have died since Breakaway--"
"And how do you propose we allocate twenty-two babies?"
"If there were more, we could still accommodate them. Babies don't consume as many resources as adults. Our systems have become more efficient--hydroponics has increased its yield by over thirty percent in the last two years--this could be it, you know. Has that occurred to you? This lull might not be a lull, it might be the way it ends. It could be us drifting in empty space forever, dying out in the end because we were too cautious to do anything about it." She sat down again, her expression unwavering.
"Comments?" the Commander snapped at the others.
"The doctor's right," said Alan.
"I'm with you, John," said Tony. "We can't take risks at the moment. We're all breathing each other's air as it is."
"Maya?" said the Commander, after waiting a moment.
"I don't know what the answer is. I think it's a difficult question. Intuitively, I would be inclined to agree with Helena but rationally I know how precarious our resources are."
"This is all going to resolve itself anyway," said Helena. "We can't sit around this table deciding fundamental things like this for other people. Carol says her pregnancy was accidental and I believe her, but once it gets around the base people are going to act on their own initiative. I just think we might as well give it our blessing or we could end up with mutiny."
The meeting ended inconclusively and in an atmosphere of muted antagonism. Maya left hurriedly for her Eagle flight, feeling lonely in an alien culture. She was lulled for most of the time into a sense of belonging to the Alphan community, but every now and again she was jolted by an unsuspected difference in values or outlook which made her remember that she might always be an outsider.
She was due to meet Douglas Mullins in the docking bay at eleven hundred hours, and the meeting had made her late.
"How about that," said Tony, catching her up. "You could actually hear Helena's biological clock ticking."
"That's not a very nice thing to say, Tony."
"What was all that between John and Helena anyway, have they had an argument or something?"
"I don't know. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you, I don't gossip."
"She doesn't usually speak out against him in public like that, though."
"No, the Commander was taken aback, he wasn't expecting a confrontation. Maybe you're right."
"What did you really think, then, did you agree with her?"
"I agreed with her when she said it's probably going to happen anyway." She stopped in front of the travel tube entrance. "I've got to hurry, I have an appointment with an Eagle."
"You're going right now?"
"Yes. See you in a couple of days."
"O.K." He kissed her. "Be careful."
"There's nothing to be careful of," she said, reflectively, pausing while the travel tube arrived. "I really don't think there's anything out there. We're going nowhere."
Since Moonbase Alpha, which had never been designed for space flight, had no long-range sensors, the only way of telling what was up ahead was to go and take a look. Maya had been looking forward to the flight. Although she had a lot of work to do on Alpha itself, she was as bothered as everyone else was by the uneventfulness of the past few weeks and a reconnaissance mission, though routine, held the promise of variety. Twenty-four hours into the flight, after a night of uneasy snatched sleep on an uncomfortable bunk, she was finding Douglas Mullins claustrophobic company. The great lost passion of his life was the classic cars he used to restore, and his conversational repertoire consisted entirely of small talk about engine parts.
"When we get back to Alpha," he said, "you must come to my quarters and I'll show you the pictures. I've got a whole album of Mini Cooper engine shots."
Slightly shaken out of her daze, Maya wondered if this was a proposition. "Thank you, Douglas, I'd love to," she muttered. It was probably innocent enthusiasm and if it wasn't she could handle it, once she'd had some sleep anyway.
"Nearly time to turn around," said Douglas.
Maya flicked through the Eagle's small array of sensor readings once again, without expecting a response. She sat forward immediately as something registered as a rhythmic blip on the wavelength sweeper. She refined the tuning until a signal stood out against the noise of space, and filled the Eagle cabin with a complex repeated pattern sound.
"That sounds like it comes from a transmitter," said Douglas.
"It's definitely a signal of mechanical origin."
"Hey, this could be our lucky day after all! Can you decode it?"
"I don't think it's trying to say anything. It's repeating the same eight tones over and over. It may be a standard signature to some spacefaring race, but it doesn't mean anything to me. I'll feed it back to the computer on Alpha just in case." She called up Command Center. At this range, communications were breaking up and the Commander's face jolted in and out of focus on the tiny screen.
"How long will it take Alpha to reach the source of the signal?" asked the Commander.
"Our current trajectory won't take us anywhere near it. If we want to investigate, it will have to be by Eagle in the next few days."
There was a pause, as, Maya assumed, a consultation took place off-screen. Then Koenig's face reappeared. "Go ahead and see if you can locate the source of the signal," said the Commander when he returned. "We'll send a refueling Eagle to your current position. I know you haven't got a full survey team on board--"
"Maya counts as a full survey team in her own right, doesn't she?" said Douglas.
"Don't take any risks."
"Now this is more like it!" said Douglas.
"The source of the signal might still be beyond our range," said Maya. "We'll travel in its direction as far as we can."
"You can't tell how far off it is?" Koenig questioned.
She shook her head. "Maybe there's some navigational information encoded in the radio signal, but our computer simply doesn't recognize it."
"Keep us posted. Koenig out."
Maya found it an easy matter to set the Eagle guidance system to travel in the direction of the signal's source, and since there was nothing else to do she tried to get a few hours' sleep again. She found it almost impossible to let her mind relax enough to lose consciousness, even when she was exhausted, unless she was in her own surroundings. It was only recently that she had stopped being afraid of sleep every night, as the nightmares had become infrequent.
She had just managed to drift into a queasy semi-doze, with the lights up and her arm locked over her eyes, when Douglas shook her awake again. "There's something on the screen," he reported.
Maya looked up and saw a tiny planetoid, which Douglas said had appeared suddenly in the Eagle's visual range. "That's the source of the signal all right," said Maya. "But this is hardly more than an asteroid. It's about half the size of the moon." She scanned for life signs on the planetoid, but there was nothing. As the Eagle approached closer, they both saw a red cross sign constructed on the surface large enough to be visible from space.
"Wow, that's something," said Douglas, "There's civilization down there."
"No there isn't, at least not any more. I can localize the signal to a point on the surface which should be at the center of that cross sign."
"I'll take her down."
"I'm not sure."
"Oh, come on, you said there was nobody alive down there."
"That doesn't mean there's no danger. The Commander told us not to take risks."
"Well, we're out on our own now, we're outside communications range. We can't come all this way then go back and say, hey, there was a big red cross on a little planet."
"I hoped we might find some people."
"Maybe we will if we land--these Eagle sensors aren't exactly state-of-the-art." He pulled back the thruster stick and took the Eagle into the gravity pull of the planet without waiting for her assent.
Maya was annoyed at this neglect of her authority, but she said nothing. The Eagle glided smoothly toward the planetoid.
"Something doesn't feel right," said Douglas, then, "Hey!"
"What is it?"
"It's taken over!"
"What's taken over?"
"Nothing I'm doing to these controls makes any difference! Something down there on the planet's guiding us down!"
The planet's surface filled the whole screen. Maya could distinguish structures on the red, apparently artificial terrain.
"Full reverse thrust!" she said. "Get us out of this!"
"I'm trying! Nothing's happening!"
"Haven't you got a manual override?"
"Of course I have--but it isn't working! All the controls are dead."
Maya ducked down and opened the inspection hatch underneath the control panel, but she was not an expert on Eagle design and the neat tangle of circuitry and cables meant nothing to her at first glance. Her immediate idea had been to cut the wire to the autopilot, but she recognized in a moment that she would not be able to find it quickly enough.
"You shouldn't open that panel while the Eagle's in flight!" said Douglas, sounding incongruously scandalized.
"Do you have any ideas yourself?"
"It's too late, we're landing."
Maya snapped back the hatch and scrambled into her seatbelt. For a sickening moment they seemed to be on a collision course with a wall that slammed up to the screen, then the Eagle stopped smoothly and she realized that they had been guided into some kind of enclosed docking bay.
After the panic of the previous minute, there was an anticlimactic silence. Carefully Maya unlocked the seatbelt and ran sensor readings. Once again, the instruments registered no life outside. "Breathable oxygen atmosphere," she said. "Temperature, normal and pleasant for human life forms."
"Seems almost too good to be true," said Douglas. "O.K., you're the boss, are we going out?"
"It doesn't look like we've got much choice--now."
As she was packing a bag of equipment at the back of the Eagle, Douglas stood awkwardly in the cabin door. "You mean about bringing her down without your order."
She looked at him, but said nothing. It was the thing she found most difficult in her role on Alpha, to assume a command function. Partly because she was conscious of her youth, certainly because she felt as an alien she had less natural right to authority, and probably because it was simply not in her personality.
But Douglas looked genuinely abashed, as if he really did care about stepping out of line. "I got carried away, it won't happen again."
She handed him his bag and smiled. "Come on then."
The docking bay was huge. At first Maya had thought the lights were dimmed, but in fact the interior space was so large that they could illuminate it only in part.
"This was built for something a lot bigger than us," said Douglas. His voice echoed off distant walls.
The air tasted perfectly neutral and the silence was undercut by a hum that Maya supposed was the operation of an atmospheric circulating system. She lifted each foot up. "The gravity's normal. They must have an artificial generator like the one on Alpha."
They walked cautiously across the floor, which was made of some kind of plastic composite that was warm to the touch and, Maya imagined, impervious to thruster burns. Far up above in the walls and ceiling she could see what looked like extendible rigs. "I'm sure this is a repair and maintenance bay," she said.
"Maybe we'll come across a spacefaring service station. I wonder if they serve hamburger and chips?"
There was a door at the side of the bay, which slid open with a quick whoosh as soon as she stepped up to it to examine it. Beyond was a wide, well-lit corridor, empty.
"Hello?" called Maya. Her voice sounded nervous to her own ears.
Deferentially, Douglas was hanging back behind her. She noticed that he had his gun ready at his hip. She set hers to stun and moved out into the corridor.
"We don't mean any harm," she called out again. "Hello?"
"This place is deserted," said Douglas, in a low voice.
Maya felt instinctively that he was right. The corridor was built in a short curve and had a few doors leading from it. One, at the far end, opened into a dormitory with several neat, empty beds and no signs of occupation. Another led to a smaller room with benches along each wall, cupboards, and lit wall cavities. The cupboards contained what seemed like vacuum-packed food.
"Combat rations!" said Douglas, after he had peeled the packaging off one and sniffed at it. "I bet that's what this stuff is--the equivalent."
"No hamburger and chips, then."
"You didn't have that sort of food on your planet, did you?"
"No--but I've heard about these things. I wonder what these machines in the wall are? For heating the food?"
The room next door, which they entered less tentatively now that they were almost certain that the place was uninhabited, was undoubtedly an emergency medical center.
Maya moved a wall-mounted instrument across an examination couch. It glided to her touch as if it were suspended on air. "This medical equipment is very advanced. I don't understand its function, but it's much more sophisticated than anything Helena has back on Alpha. And yet--you know, this is odd, and it's hard to describe, but it has a similar idiom. It's not at all like a Psychon medical center. For all I know the technology is equivalent, but--it looks more like Alphan design than anything else."
It was the same deja vu feeling she had had on first stepping out of the Eagle. Douglas had made no comments, but it was possible that she could see the similarity more clearly for being an outsider.
"This must be some sort of base." said Douglas, when they entered the room at the far end of the corridor. "I wonder why it was abandoned?"
The last room was small and had four cubicles set into the wall, which looked as if they were designed for a humanoid form to enter. There was a bank of controls opposite, which Maya examined quickly. A wide screen was evidently for visual communication, but the colored touch-pads on the instrument panel were incomprehensible at first sight.
"All this stuff is supposed to do something," said Douglas. "What's it for?"
"I've no idea."
"I thought you were supposed to be the expert."
"I may be an expert on systems that are familiar to me, but I've no more seen this technology before than you have."
"I can't get on with electronics," said Douglas. "I prefer moving parts you can really get in touch with. That was what those old car engines had--you could have a physical relationship with them."
"Mm-m. I could probably work all this out if I had the time, but I don't think we can stay this far from Alpha for very long. It's infuriating--I'd love to know." She stepped into one of the cubicles, noting that its three walls were lined with a highly reflective metal and that there was a radiating circle etched into the floor under her feet. She ran her fingers over the circle but it had no texture, and she was just about to straighten up again when Douglas yelled.
She was an instant too late to react. A transparent door glided shut smoothly, closing her inside the cubicle.
Douglas mouthed frantically, but the cubicle appeared to be totally soundproof.
A flashing caught the corner of her eye. Two square buttons had lit up on the side wall beside the door. One was yellow and the one above it, pulsating urgently, was red.
She tried to pull the door open with her fingers, but the seal was invisible. It might be breakable by some creature stronger than herself, but it was equally likely that she or Douglas had inadvertently activated an automated mechanism and that one of the lit controls was simply the door control. Flashing red for danger--she touched it.
Helena had only just fallen into a deep sleep when she was awakened by the chirrup of her commlock on the bedside table. She was used to snapping awake for emergencies and she came to her full senses with her feet already touching the floor.
"Helena," John said brusquely. "We need you in Command Center now."
"On my way." She slung on her dressing gown, grabbed her emergency kit, and half-ran the short distance between the living complex and the command complex. It was quarter past one and the corridors of Alpha were deserted, so there was no base-wide emergency.
Command Center was almost empty too, but John was waiting for her. As soon as she entered he took her arms and his expression made her heart sick.
"Helena, I'm afraid there's some very bad news and I didn't want to tell you over the COMM. Eagle Four has rendezvoused with the refueling Eagle and Douglas Mullins has come back alone--something's happened to Maya."
"From what Bill can make out, she was disintegrated--destroyed--Mullins said that there was nothing left."
Helena sat down.
"Douglas wasn't in a fit state to talk to us, he wasn't making sense," said Alan. "We have to go out there and find out what happened for ourselves."
"We're preparing Eagle One for immediate launch," said John. "Get ready as quickly as possible and meet me there."
Helena stood up then stopped at the door. "Where's Tony? Has someone told him?"
"He's already helping in the landing bay. But Helena--we haven't told him everything, just that Mullins came back without Maya and that it looks like she's in trouble."
"That's just going to make the shock worse when he does find out."
"As far as I'm concerned, Mullins hasn't said anything that makes sense. Until we get to the rendezvous point and talk to him ourselves we haven't got any information. I'm not going to pass on what Fraser says Mullins says. It's a twenty-four hour journey out there and there's no point in causing him unnecessary pain."
"All right," said Helena, dubiously. She ran back to her quarters, changed into her uniform, and was in the landing bay within five minutes.
The journey to meet Eagle Four was long and tense, and nobody said very much. John and Tony took turns piloting, but Tony would not leave the cockpit to sleep. Helena spent most of her time in the back of the ship, trying to rest and finding the long hours unbearably tedious. Because they did not discuss it, she managed to keep thought and feeling at arm's length until they connected with Eagle Four.
"O.K.," said Tony, as soon as they stepped through the airlock. "What's the story?"
Douglas Mullins looked composed now, but Helena sat down beside him and gave him a quick examination. His complexion was very pale and the skin underneath his eyelids was anaemic-looking.
"I'm O.K.," he said, pushing her hand aside.
"Have you had anything to eat?"
"He threw it up," said Bill Fraser, his arms folded.
"That was hours ago, I'm O.K. now."
"Mullins," said Tony, "what the Hell's happened to Maya?"
Douglas's eyes flicked between John and Tony, and he chose to address the Commander. "We found the source of the signal, it was a small planetoid no bigger than the moon. There was a great big red cross marked on it, and we went in closer but the Eagle's landing controls were taken over--some remote system just guided us into a docking bay, a huge one, built for much bigger ships. It was a base, but it was abandoned--everything was working, the lights were on, there was atmosphere, normal gravity, there were just no people. The technology was fantastic, but we didn't know what some of it was for--and we found a room with man-sized cubicles in it--and Maya got in one to look at it--and one of us must have done something, because the door shut--she was shut inside. She tried to get out, she was scrabbling at the door, and I went to try the control panel, but before I could get there, the cubicle was filled with some kind of ray--it was a blinding light, it stung my eyes. She was paralyzed by it--I saw her screaming, but I couldn't hear her--she clawed at the door--it seemed to last forever--then blood splattered over the inside of the door and she was--gone. Completely destroyed. There was nothing left of her." His voice, which had begun to shake, died away.
Helena glanced up and saw that Tony's face had gone white. He grabbed at Douglas, pushing him half off his feet. "Why didn't you stop her?"
"Tony, back off," said John sharply, interposing.
Douglas had stumbled back against the wall, unresisting. Helena took his arm and made him sit down, and Tony turned away from them all.
"It all happened so quickly, Mr. Verdeschi. She was my superior--it was her decision to look into the booth--she was the one in command."
"Douglas," said John, "just tell us what happened after that."
"You ran," said Tony.
"To get help. There was nothing left, there was nothing I could do."
"How did you get the Eagle out of the base?" asked John.
"There was no problem--as soon as I fired the thrusters the same automatic mechanism took over and I was guided out."
"How far is this place from here?"
"About six hours."
"O.K. Bill, take Eagle Four back to Alpha. Douglas, you come with us."
"John," said Helena, "I don't think Douglas is really up to it."
"No, doctor, honestly, I'm fine. Commander, I want to come. I was there--I can show you."
John nodded, and they made the arrangements to transfer the crew in silence. There was no longer an atmosphere of urgency.
Tony took the pilot's chair after Douglas had set in the flight path to the same co-ordinates that Eagle Four had followed. Taking her lead from a glance from John, who followed Douglas into the back of the ship, Helena knelt down beside Tony and said, "Tony--I want you to go and get some rest. You've gone without sleep for over twenty-four hours now, you're in no condition to pilot."
"It's not likely I'll be able to sleep, is it. I might as well be here, doing something."
"I'll give you something to make you sleep. We've got six hours until we get there."
"No thank you."
"Tony, as Chief Medical Officer I could order you to go off duty. Killing us all because of an error you might make through exhaustion--that isn't going to help Maya."
" I don't feel tired. I'll tell you when I do. Just--leave me alone."
Lacking the heart to press it further, Helena stood up to go back through.
"Can you believe he just ran away, left her there?" said Tony suddenly. "It's been thirty hours now. We could be too late."
"Tony--if what he says happened is true--no matter when we get there, we'll be too late."
"Well, I won't accept she's dead unless we find her body."
"You may have to. We may all have to. I know how hard that is."
"She disappeared, he said. Doesn't that mean she could have reappeared somewhere else?"
Helena said nothing, keeping her hand on his arm. She could feel the muscles, locked hard.
"It was just a routine reconnaissance mission," he said, in a different tone. "I didn't think anything of it. Before she left, we were just chatting about nothing--I can't even remember the last thing she said to me. You never know, do you."
Helena felt tears threatening, and the urgent necessity of keeping her composure forced her to leave him. John and Douglas were looking through star charts on the screen. She shook her head.
"Douglas," said John, "can you take over the flight. Tell Tony to co-pilot, and that's an order from me."
"And don't mind him--you know, it's personal for him. Nobody blames you."
"Commander--to be honest, I blame myself. She wasn't sure about going down there in the first place, and I didn't wait for her order. Then we got caught by the automatic system--"
"You couldn't have known what was going to happen. Go on."
When the door slid shut behind him, John sank down beside Helena and said, after a moment, "I still wonder whether I did the right thing, promoting Tony. I've no doubts about his general abilities, but he just hasn't learned to control himself. There's no way he should lash out at someone like that."
"John, under the circumstances--"
"That's not the point, I need a second in command who can keep a cool head no matter what kind of pressure he's under. In situations like this, he comes close to being a liability. I would probably have come out here anyway--I owe it to Maya--but I feel I had to, to make sure Tony doesn't do anything stupid. We can't afford to lose him too."
"I know." He put his arms around her.
She tried to cry, but she was unable to release her grip. For some time she lay with her head against his neck, absorbing his warmth. "Tony said something to me just now--you never know. Don't you see we have to do it? If this doesn't convince you--"
"I was thinking just the opposite. If Maya had a child, it would just have lost its mother."
She drew away.
"Our life is too precarious," he said. "Sometimes, when we go for weeks like the last three months with nothing happening, it's easy to be lulled into a sense of security, almost of normality. It's an illusion. If we had children, we would raise the emotional stakes tenfold. It's hard enough as it is for us to stay objective. We don't operate professionally any more, we're all too involved with each other. What are the Commander and the Chief Medical Officer doing way out here, beyond communications range? I said it was to keep Tony reigned in, but I'm emotionally involved too."
"I don't think that's wrong."
"I don't know. If we had children, we'd be vulnerable to anything that wanted to attack us."
Helena shook her head. "At least we'd have a life. Oh, I can't talk about this now."
After a moment, John said, "Maya was hardly more than a kid herself. I felt responsible for her, I felt her father gave her into my care."
"Don't speak about her in the past tense. We don't know yet."
John pulled her against him again, and they passed the rest of the miserable journey in silence.
Maya heard a voice, very distant. As soon as she glimpsed consciousness, her mind snapped into focus and she thought, quite lucidly, how corny it was; the voices were remote and reverberating, just like the sound effect of an unconscious person recovering in a film. When the echo wore off she could distinguish words, for a few moments before she could move anything.
"We have a normal brainwave pattern, as far as I can tell. She's coming out of it. The brain tissue looks undamaged--she's lucky there weren't any cerebral ruptures." She felt a cold hand against her cheek. "Hello? Can you understand me?" The voice was calm and low.
"Helena?" Maya said in confusion. She opened her eyes and focused on a face which gradually became different, and realized that the woman leaning over her was a stranger. With a terrified gasp she bolted upright and jarred against some equipment across her.
"Hey, easy, easy," said the doctor, pushing her back down onto the bed with some strength. Another woman did the same with her other arm. "You're safe, you're on a Federation starship."
Maya looked at the other woman, whom she supposed was a nurse. She was also a stranger. The doctor was about Helena's age, but taller, and had red hair. She looked entirely human. The nurse, though humanoid, did not appear to be of Earth origin.
"I don't want you to make any sudden moves just yet," said the doctor. "You've had the worst case of transporter trauma I have ever seen. In fact, I think you might have made medical history. Congratulations."
"Transporter--trauma?" said Maya carefully, testing her voice. Her throat felt dry and catching.
"Adverse effects from going through emergency long-range transporters are common, but the symptoms are usually disorientation and nausea. You suffered severe internal hemorrhaging--I thought at one point we were going to lose you. It was a race against time to replicate enough of your blood to keep you alive. I'm afraid I've never seen your species before and we couldn't find any records of you in the computer, so we had to start from scratch."
"How do you feel?"
"Good. I have to ask, because I don't know what's normal for your species physiologically and though I think I put you back together in the right order, I can't be certain how you are now."
"How long have I been here?"
The doctor check a chronometer on her belt. "Just over twenty-four hours now. You've been in a state of controlled sedation for the last six hours."
"How did I get here?"
"You don't remember?"
"I remember going into a kind of booth on an abandoned base--and I was trapped inside when the door closed. I hit a button to try to get out--" The vague mist cleared from her mind and she remembered, suddenly, the appalling pain as she was transfixed by a beam of light that tried to tear apart her body molecule by molecule. She had fought against it with all the strength of her metamorphic control, but the force had been too great. The last thing she saw was Douglas Mullins' terrified face, staring and shouting silently, as every particle disintegrated. "I was pulled apart," she said, less composed. "What did that to me?"
"A transporter beam. You came from Lifeboat 898 on a long-range emergency transporter."
"Oh! A means of turning living forms into energy and transmitting them to another location?"
"You sound as if you're not really familiar with them."
"We knew the theory on my world, but we never developed the technology." She blinked at the ceiling and tried to take in her surroundings. The medical room was much more spacious than anywhere on Alpha, and the equipment obviously more sophisticated. "Where am I?"
"On a Federation starship, the Enterprise. I'm Chief Medical Officer Dr. Beverly Crusher." She held out her hand.
Maya eased herself up carefully. She felt shaky, but otherwise uninjured. "I'm Maya, daughter of Mentor. I'm science officer on Moonbase Alpha."
"Is your ship still at Lifeboat 898?"
"The exploratory craft I was in must be--but Moonbase Alpha isn't a ship, it's a research station that was built on the satellite of a planet called Earth. It broke away--"
"Earth!" said Dr. Crusher.
Maya saw that she and the nurse exchanged a look.
"We're from Earth," said Dr. Crusher. "That is, I am, and the Federation that this starship represents originated with Earth. Moonbase Alpha--that was lost four hundred years ago."
Maya sipped carefully at a cup of hot, savory liquid that Dr. Crusher said would help restore her strength without putting a strain on the digestive system that had been damaged and repaired only hours ago. She did have a slight ache in her bones, as if she had flu without the temperature, and she had no appetite at all. In every other way it was impossible to tell that she had suffered serious internal injuries. Dr. Crusher had shown her beautifully explicit slides of her insides and explained, proudly, how she had regenerated the tissues.
"I tried to hold myself together," said Maya, as she gazed in fascinated disgust at a picture of her own intestine. "I fought against the molecular transformation from matter to energy. I shouldn't have done that."
"That's an understatement. Considering the results, I would advise you never to use a transporter again. This control over your own molecular composition--that's remarkable."
"It's a characteristic of my species. It's what I am."
"I'd be interested to see a demonstration, but definitely not now."
Maya didn't feel strong enough to transform herself anyway. She only just had the energy to sit up and drink the liquid meal. Now Dr. Crusher had gone off duty--or had disappeared somewhere--and she had been left alone in the medical center with a nurse and the two security guards that she had noticed were posted at the main entrance. They were discreet and they did not look directly at her, but she recognized what they were and she knew they were there for her.
The door opened with a swish, and Dr. Crusher came back with three others. One was an older man with a curiously bald head and a definite, distinguished aura of authority. As he sat beside her bed, the very way he moved and looked at her made her realize that she was being visited by someone of importance.
He had sat down, she thought, so that he could be at eye-level with her, without making her stand up. "I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard," he said, "from the planet Earth. I am captain of this starship, the Enterprise."
"My name is Maya, daughter of Mentor," she said, matching his formality. "I come from the planet Psychon. I'm science officer on Moonbase Alpha."
"This is Commander William Riker, from the planet Earth," he continued, gesturing at the people behind him, "and Counselor Deanna Troi, from the planet Betazed."
Commander Riker gave her a nod and a smile and the kind of look that she was used to receiving from men. She gave him the calm half-smile that she was used to replying with, and she shook hands with the friendly-looking Counselor. "Are you commander here?" she asked the Captain.
"I'm in charge, if that's what you're asking."
"Oh, then send me back to my friends on Moonbase Alpha. Please."
The Captain looked at Dr. Crusher, then turned back to her with a grave expression. His voice was cultured and gently. "Emergency transporter beams on lifeboat stations only operate in one direction. They're for use when there's no hope of repairing the ship, or if someone needs urgent medical attention. Have you any idea what the lifeboat station is for?"
Maya shook her head.
"There are hundreds of them, artificial planetoids positioned in remote sectors. If a spaceship runs into trouble light years from a friendly planet, they provide emergency facilities--guidance systems, ship repair docks, food, medical equipment, subspace communication. The transporters lock onto any starship within range and beam the crew to a secure area."
"I see. I must have activated it accidentally."
"Were you with others?"
"Only one other--a pilot. We were on a reconnaissance flight and we found the lifeboat station just at the edge of our range."
"Dr. Crusher tells me that you have a remarkable story. Everyone on Earth knows about how our moon broke away from orbit when its nuclear waste dumps exploded, four hundred years ago, and that there was a research station there with survivors. Nobody had any idea that the moon was still traveling, or that Moonbase Alpha still existed."
"Oh yes! We've been going at sub-light speeds for nearly six years, and we've passed through several space warps. It doesn't surprise me that four hundred years have passed on Earth, relative to us. Everyone on Alpha understood that they would never be able to go back to Earth as it was."
"Only now, of course, we've developed warp drives, and relativity is no longer a problem."
"Please, Captain, send me back. My friends will already be very worried about me, they'll be taking risks to try to find me."
The Captain leaned forward. "I think a better idea would be for the Enterprise to go there and rescue your friends from Moonbase Alpha."
Maya stared at him as the implications sank in. She had been considering herself as being somewhere from which she needed to be rescued, or to escape from. Suddenly, she realized that everything was reversed. She had escaped. This was it, this was the outside world.
And everyone on Alpha would be delighted. She wondered why she felt chilled and depressed at the thought of leaving the base.
"Commander Riker has already established the position of Lifeboat 898 and the moon relative to our position now," Captain Picard was saying.
"It will take us about ten days to get there," said Commander Riker.
"But my friends won't know what's happened to me! Is there no way I can communicate with them?"
"Not unless they have a subspace receiver," said the Captain.
"Of course we don't have a subspace receiver on Alpha!"
"But there is one on 898," said Riker. "Maybe your pilot's still there?"
"Yes--maybe. I have to try." She stood up, and immediately swayed.
Dr. Crusher caught her. "Oh, no! You're not discharged."
Maya concentrated and regained her balance.
"I want her to rest for at least another twenty four hours before she goes anywhere," Dr. Crusher continued, addressing the Captain.
"Captain," said Maya, still on her feet. "I must speak to Moonbase Alpha as soon as possible."
The Captain met her gaze seriously, looked up at Dr. Crusher, and said, "Doctor, one short trip to my ready room and I promise she will be returned in one piece."
Dr. Crusher deferred immediately and had a wheelchair brought out for her. Feeling embarrassed, but glad that she would not have to walk, Maya allowed herself to be helped into it. One of the nurses pushed her out of the medical area along bright, wide, seamless corridors, surrounded by the three officers and still accompanied by a security guard who had said nothing. They were often passed by people in the same one-piece uniform, and occasionally by others in civilian or casual clothes.
"How many people live here?" asked Maya.
"One thousand and thirty-nine at the moment," said Commander Riker.
They stopped in front of what Maya guessed was a lift entrance, and she heard a familiar unfamiliar sound that made her heart jump. Just as the lift door opened, a tiny child of no more than two years old came round the curve of the corridor at a running toddle, shouting happily. He stopped when he saw them and looked at Captain Picard with solemn eyes. A woman appeared behind him.
"Hello, Dominic," said the Captain seriously.
"I am sorry, sir," said the woman, scooping the child up and retreating.
"Children," said Maya, as they entered the lift. "You have children here."
"Yes, we do," said the Counselor. "Have you left a child behind on Moonbase Alpha? I sense your anxiety."
"No...we don't have children. None of us have. Our resources--we can't."
"That must cause stress and conflict," said the Counselor, as a sympathetic comment rather than a question.
"Yes." Maya was surprised by her reaction to the sight of the little boy. Perhaps it was her weakened physical state, but her stomach was filled with a fluttering sensation and her throat was seized by something that felt dangerously like tears. She hadn't seen a child for over five years, since the last of the Psychons had evacuated the planet. During the discussion at the meeting on Alpha, which seemed liked several weeks ago but had probably been the day before yesterday, she had felt entirely detached from the subject of the debate. She knew Helena's stake in the argument--she knew more about the conflict with the Commander than she had told Tony--but it hadn't really occurred to her that it might have anything to do with her.
And now, in this strange place, as the door of the lift shut in the little crowd, she realized for the first time in her life that she could actually have a child. Merely acknowledging it as a possibility amazed her, before she asked herself whether it was something she wanted and discovered immediately that it was a longing like thirst. The intensity of the desire was astonishing.
She felt the Counselor's eyes on her. Looking up, she realized that the woman had no irises.
"Starfleet personnel often serve on board starships for years at a time," she said. "We consider it essential for those who want it to bring their families with them."
Maya looked away. The moment had passed, leaving her deflated. The reality was that it would be a long time before she had a child, if she ever could. She didn't even know whether Psychons and humans were compatible.
Helena knelt cautiously at the edge of the booth, and scraped a sample of dried blood from the floor. Douglas was standing beside her, holding the edge of the place where the door came from. She edged back and ran an analysis on the sample with her hand-held medicom, but she was sure that it was Maya's blood. As soon as they had entered the room and seen the dark splashes on the floor and walls of the booth, they had all known what it was. At first Tony had gone from room to room and door to door shouting confidently for Maya, but when he saw the bloodstains he had stopped still and stared.
"God," said Douglas. "It's worse than I remembered."
Helena straightened up. "This is blood--I can't tell whether it's Maya's blood or not until I take a sample back to Alpha for DNA analysis."
Tony looked round at the console of controls, and back at the booth. John rubbed his mouth with his hand.
"It's a teleporter!" Tony shouted suddenly. "That's what it is! Look at it! It's some sort of teleporter! She's been beamed off somewhere."
"Tony, no," said Helena, helplessly.
"These controls do something--they could get her back--"
"Don't touch anything," said John.
"Don't, I really wouldn't," said Douglas, panic in his voice.
Tony turned to the control panel and was about to disregard them when, below the large screen on the wall, a red panel began to flash on-off, on-off, and the room was filled with a deep tone in synchrony.
"No!" cried Douglas. "That's how it happened--a flashing light--Mr. Verdeschi--"
But Tony was right beside the screen and he pressed the flashing panel. The screen was filled with the image of a human face, a man with a bald head. Tony backed away.
"I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise," said the face on the screen, with perfect composure. "Am I addressing personnel of Moonbase Alpha?"
John looked at Helena, then took a step forward. "I am Commander John Koenig of Moonbase Alpha."
Tony joined him in front of the screen. "What have you done with Maya?"
Helena noticed that the man on the screen glanced sideways, with a small smile. There was a blur of movement, and then she caught her breath in joy as Maya appeared.
"Commander," said Maya, smiling brilliantly. "Tony. It's all right, I'm all right."
"Where are you?" asked John.
"On a Federation starship--a wonderful spaceship, you can't imagine how wonderful. These people are friends--Commander, they're your people, they're from Earth."
"Four hundred years after you left."
"Four hundred years," said Helena to herself, her heart sinking again. It had been one hundred and twenty years when they had last been contacted by Earth. After four hundred years, how much of her world would be left?
"They've got warp drive technology--they can cross space now without dilating time."
"Maya," said Helena, "are you sure you're all right? We found blood everywhere."
"I was injured by the transporter beam, but their doctor treated me--she regenerated all the damaged tissue within twenty-four hours."
"How can we come and get you?" said Tony. "Where is this spaceship?"
Maya looked off-screen, and the Captain replaced her again. "Commander Koenig," he said, "we are presently dozens of light years from your position. However, we intend to come and get you. We've already laid in a course. I am right in assuming you don't want to stay on Moonbase Alpha indefinitely?"
"Can you take us back to Earth?" asked John.
"We can take you anywhere."
John's expression was set. Helena tried to catch his eye, but she had to go up to him and touch his arm. He laid his hand over hers but said nothing.
"We've had our hopes raised before," Helena said to Captain Picard, feeling one of them ought to say something.
"This time, I assure you, you will be rescued. We will reach you in ten days."
"Why can't we just all hope into those transporters and beam straight to you, like Maya did?" said Tony.
"The long-range transporters can be hazardous to use, and we have no way of knowing whether it was Maya's particular physiology, or a malfunction in that transporter, which caused her injuries. The Enterprise has plenty of room to accommodate your people in comfort."
"We're only just in range of Alpha as it is," said Tony in a low voice to John.
"I would advise you," said the Captain, "to go back to Moonbase Alpha and wait for us."
"Return Maya to us," said John.
"We'll bring her with us--of course."
"That's unacceptable. We want her back here, now."
"I'm afraid that's impossible. The emergency transporters only operate in one direction."
"Look," said Tony, his temper rising, "if you got her there you can get her back."
"We did not bring her here. She sent herself, by activating the transporter. I understand your concern for your crewmember, but you will just have to trust us."
"We've learned not to trust anyone we meet," said John. "Most of the species we've encountered have been hostile to us."
"Hostility is often a two-way process," said the Captain.
Helena was impressed by his dignity and calm. She had the feeling that he negotiated with difficult types every day of his working life. "John, I trust him," she muttered. She felt the grip on her hand tighten.
"You say you're from Earth?" said John.
"The Starship Enterprise represents the United Federation of Planets, an alliance of peace-seeking worlds who came together over a century ago to promote galactic unity. Starfleet--the Enterprise is staffed by Starfleet officers--seeks to explore the outer reaches of the galaxy, making contact with new species, spreading peace and understanding."
"Why does that sound so different from everything we've seen?"
"You are traveling in a very remote part of the galaxy, at sub-warp speeds. If you're taking a course away from Lifeboat 898 then you're heading into centuries of oblivion. Unless you want to live the rest of your lives on Moonbase Alpha, I suggest you let us rescue you."
"Is there no way you can send Maya back here now?"
"None. I'm sorry."
"John," said Tony, "he said the transporter was one-way. That way. Let me go over to them--then I can report back over that transmitter, and at least we'll have some sort of check on what he says."
John nodded, and turned back to address the screen. "I want to send my second-in-command through to your ship."
"I would strongly advise against it. The Enterprise is traveling toward you at full warp, which would make using the long-range transporter extremely dangerous under any circumstances. And, as I said, we suspect it may be damaged."
"I want to try anyway," said Tony, to John.
John looked at Helena for an opinion. She shook her head with a slight motion.
"Don't," said Douglas. "I saw what that thing did to Maya."
"But she looks all right now," said Tony. "Maya!"
"Yes, Tony." Maya appeared over the Captain's shoulder. "Don't use the transporter, it nearly killed me. I'm only better now because of the medical technology they have here. Do what Captain Picard suggests, go back to Alpha. I'm quite safe here."
Tony stared at her hard, sighed, and turned away.
"Very well, Captain Picard," said John. "It seems we have no choice. Ten days."
"We'll signal you as soon as we're in range of your communicators. I look forward to meeting you, Commander, and all of your crew. To us you're people from the history books."
John nodded, and the screen went blank.
They had a tense conference in the Eagle as soon as it was in flight, on its journey back to the rendezvous point with Eagle Four. With the craft on autopilot, they gathered together in the cabin.
"Before we even report in to Eagle Four," said John, "I want to talk to you. Now I don't think we should tell anyone on Alpha what happened back there. If this Starship Enterprise turns up in ten days time, that's fine. If not, it will just be one more disappointment to lower morale."
"But what about Maya?" said Helena. "What are we going to tell people?"
"We'll tell them," said John calmly, "that we got to that base and we found no trace of her, beyond those bloodstains. Closest to the truth is the simplest way."
"We can't do that!" said Tony. "I can't go back to Alpha and pretend that she's--dead. It's spooky."
He looked, Helena thought, like he was teetering over the verge of exhaustion. The grim animation which had kept him alert on the way out had collapsed into weariness.
"It's the only thing we can do," said John. "We three here are the people closest to her--we know she's safe, that's what matters. Douglas--you understand why we have to say nothing?"
"Yes, sir, I won't give anything away."
"You really don't think this ship is going to turn up, do you," said Tony, in a flat voice.
John said nothing.
Tony slammed his heel against the metal bunk. "We should have done something. I should have tried the teleporter whatever Captain what's-his-name said."
"There wasn't anything we could do."
"If you believe what he said--we had no proof. Do you trust a man with a pointed head?"
"Maya believed him," said Helena.
"Maybe they were controlling her, intimidating her...maybe that wasn't even Maya."
"Is that what you think?" asked John seriously.
Tony sat down again and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "No, it was her."
"Tony," said Helena, "you've got to get some sleep. You're not thinking rationally any more."
When John and Douglas had gone through to the cockpit to pilot, Helena dimmed the lights in the cabin to minimum and, to encourage Tony, took off her boots and stretched out on one of the upper bunks herself. She knew that John would be reporting to Bill Fraser in Eagle Four with the story that they had agreed. She listened to the tense breathing below her until she realized that there was no sound any more, and Tony had at last given in to sleep. Then she slipped down and crept through the connecting door to the cockpit.
"How is he?" asked John, as she knelt down beside him between the two seats.
"I'll go and get some rest too, if that's O.K.," said Douglas. "I'm beginning to see spots in front of my eyes."
"Do you really think the ship won't arrive?" said Helena, when they were alone.
"Helena--how can I tell. Nothing's worked out for us up until now. I don't want you to get your hopes up either."
"It's difficult not to think about it. What will we be going back to, what is Earth like by now? After all this time I've come to think of Alpha as home. I think a many of us have. I've always imagined that we would find a habitable planet and settle down as a community."
"Well, maybe the reality of it will be more complex than that. Whatever happens, at least Maya's O.K. That takes a huge weight of my mind. Even if we never see her again--she looked happy."
"John, don't say that."
"I'm just trying to make myself feel better about doing nothing to get her back."
Helena squeezed his arm and took her place in the co-pilot's seat, and before long--and against the rules--she was asleep too.
After the relief of talking to the Commander and Tony, Maya began to feel considerably more sick and faint than she had since waking up. For half a minute she was gripped by the humiliating certainty that she was going to bring the liquid meal back up in Captain Picard's ready room, but the nurse gave her a shot of something and whisked her back to sickbay. She had only a weak impression of the Captain and the other two officers bidding her farewell.
"All right, lie back," said Dr. Crusher. "Your blood pressure is so low I'm surprised it's still circulating. I'm going to put you on this monitor overnight and give you a mild hypnosedative to help you relax completely."
"Will I be well by tomorrow?" Maya asked, feeling rather pathetic.
"How's your health generally?"
"You seem in good shape. You're young and fit. I would expect that by tomorrow you'll be feeling much better. We'll try breakfast in the morning." Dr. Crusher attached a disk to her upper arm, which Maya supposed communicated electronically with a piece of equipment she moved over to the bedside. She had a technical discussion with a junior whom she summoned over, talking as doctors did in a low voice that the patient was supposed to ignore. Then she pressed a narrow hand-held instrument against Maya's forehead, saying, "This will just make you relax that little bit you need..."
Maya felt a faint buzzing in her head, then almost at once a dreamy sleepiness came over her. She waited in a pleasant, detached daze while Dr. Crusher went away and the junior doctor left the bedside to attend to something else. This was very different from Helena's brutal white sleeping pills, which she resorted to occasionally when she was afraid to go to bed alone. They knocked her out like an iron bar and made her wake up the next morning exhausted, with a headache and a bitter taste. But this delicious soft doze felt so natural... she had been longing for Helena's care, yet now she felt safe and comforted. Hardly thinking at all any more, as soon as she closed her eyes she drifted to sleep.
Her eyes were stinging with smoke and flames. Her body was trapped in a dreadful paralysis. She could move, but so slowly that she could neither run from the fire nor into it to save her father, who was shouting for her or at her. If she could break free she could still reach him, but she struggled hopelessly. The heat was so intense that her skin began to singe and she could only just hear her father's voice over the roar of flames, the crash of disintegrating glass and metal and the distant, seismic explosions. His hands rose out of the fire, disembodied and reaching for her.
Suddenly the grip broke and she was free to fling herself into the inferno--
And to scream. She heard herself scream as the terror shattered around her and she felt cool ordinary air and darkness again. She reached out for Tony and grasped his arms, then screamed again as she saw the face of an unknown man.
"Don't be afraid," he said, and hit his chest. "Slater to Dr. Crusher, come to sickbay."
Maya realized that he was fumbling with some handheld instrument and she waved it aside forcefully, sat up, and breathed deeply to regain control. She could feel sweat freezing on her and her heart was still racing in her ears.
The doctor, who was no older than her, watched her anxiously.
"I'm all right," said Maya. "It was just a nightmare. I'm all right now."
The door hissed, and to Maya's dismay Dr. Crusher entered clad in something that was unquestionably nightwear. She repeated her protestation.
"She was screaming for at least half a minute," said Dr. Slater. "I'm afraid I may have panicked a bit, calling you."
"That's all right, Andrew, I'm glad you did." She ran a diagnostic instrument over her. "Well, your blood pressure's back to normal but your heart rate is seriously elevated and you're in a state of extreme stress."
"I had a nightmare, that's all. Really, I'm all right now."
"Do you often get nightmares?"
"Sometimes--not much, recently."
"Is it the same one every time?"
"Would you like to tell me about it?"
"No--I'd like to go back to sleep. It won't happen again tonight, it never does. Could you give me something, please?"
Dr. Crusher sat by the bedside. "Do you often take something, to make you sleep?"
"Not very often. Sometimes."
"All right. I'm only asking these questions because your mental health is as important as your physical health, and I wanted to know whether this nightmare was related to the transporter trauma which I'm treating. If it's a recurring problem that you had before, that's a matter for your own doctor. Your heart rate's back to normal now. I'm going to give you this hypnosedative on level four--that should make your sleep dreamless."
She felt the coolness of the instrument on her forehead, but nothing after that.
Riker attended the 0700 hours briefing in an animated state of mind. He had woken with his immediate thoughts still on the girl from Moonbase Alpha. The night before he and Data had worked until 2300, reviewing all available information about Earth's original satellite and the research base that had been lost with it, and he had chased through the computer displays with a feeling of excitement that he recognized in himself. Looking through the sketchy personnel files, skimming the books and teledramas that had been inspired by the event over the past four hundred years, he found his concentration was sharpened by the memory of her face.
"As you know," said Captain Picard, "we've changed course for Lifeboat 898 and we anticipate reaching the present estimated position of Moonbase Alpha in approximately nine days. Starfleet Command has recommended that we cancel the mapping mission and give this one top priority. It should not, however, prevent us from arriving at Lanthenon for the wedding of Princess Amarantha and Ambassador Trewhella, as Starfleet also gives that mission top priority."
"Commander Riker and I reviewed the available data on Moonbase Alpha last night," said Data. "Commander John Koenig was in command of the base when the old moon broke away from Earth orbit, and when they were contacted again in the twenty-second century. Analysis of the recording of the subspace communication between the Enterprise and Lifeboat 898 appears to confirm that this is the same person. The other two persons who spoke appeared to be Dr. Helena Russell, listed as Chief Medical Officer, and Anthony Verdeschi, of the security division."
"Maya herself wasn't listed," said Riker. "But that wasn't unexpected--Earth at that time had no contact with extra-terrestrial species. We think she must have joined them somewhere en route."
"Well, there was no doubt that she knew them and they knew her," said the Captain. "How is your patient this morning, doctor?"
"I haven't looked in on her yet," said Beverly, "but Dr. Slater says that physically, she's recovered completely. I do have something to report that worries me, however. She had a nightmare last night which made her wake up screaming--it was bad enough for Dr. Slater to call me. She apparently has a history of recurring nightmares."
"Who knows what kind of psychological strain these people on Moonbase Alpha have been under?"
"This was a recurring nightmare?" said Deanna. "Do you think it was linked to a specific trauma?"
"She wouldn't talk to me," said Beverly. "It was the middle of the night and I didn't want to push it. I was going to recommend this morning that she saw you."
"Yesterday," said Deanna, "I didn't sense any immediate emotional or psychological instability. She was anxious, but her composure was genuine--I thought she was handling the situation well."
"Nevertheless," said the Captain, "we must do all we can to make her feel welcome here while she's our guest. Mr. Data, as Maya is science officer on Moonbase Alpha I'm sure she would find you and a tour of the Enterprise interesting. I want you to take care of her until we reunite her with her colleagues."
"Captain," said Riker quickly, "I'd like to request that assignment."
"Reasons, Number One?"
"From what Dr. Crusher says she's obviously feeling lost. She's been living among Earth humans--I think a human from Earth would make her feel more at ease."
"I wouldn't disagree with that," she said.
Although Riker kept an impeccable poker face, he knew Deanna's eyes were on him. He didn't need to look up to see the skepticism they expressed.
"Very well," said the Captain. "Make it so, Number One."
Riker enjoyed the surge of excitement from his diaphragm. He was working on instinct, almost an intuition, but it was strong and he trusted it. It wasn't exactly that he had planned how to get her into bed as soon as he had seen her, though he thought he knew exactly how her lips and her body would feel; it was a more subtle anticipation, an enjoyment of the possibilities. Two moments had ignited the fascination. The first, when she had looked up at him in the turbolift and he had seen that her eyes were full of lively intelligence. The second, when she had seen her colleagues from Moonbase Alpha on the subspace screen and smiled. It was a radiant smile which lit up everything around her. For the time being, he thought, he would be happy to see that smile for him. It took a moment before he realized that Captain Picard was still speaking, and he refocused his attention.
"I don't need to tell you that there will be considerable media attention when news of the discovery of Moonbase Alpha and its crew gets out. Until we have them on board, Starfleet Command is not issuing that news. We may have to prepare ourselves when it does."
"We may also have to prepare the people of Moonbase Alpha," said Deanna.
"Think about that over the next nine days, Counselor."
"Do we know what's going to happen to them after we evacuate them from the Moonbase?" said Beverly. "Where are we going to evacuate them to? We're talking about over three hundred people, aren't we?"
"Three hundred and fifty-one personnel were listed at the time of the accident," said Data, "but it is possible that some have subsequently died."
"That will be a matter for the Federation Council," said the Captain. "We can, however, find out what their wishes are. Until then, we may be in for an uneventful nine days."
For the first time, Riker allowed himself a small smile.
Maya remembered where she was before she opened her eyes, and she felt very much more in possession of her senses than she had the day before. It was like waking up feeling well again after struggling with a fever that distorted perception and thoughts. As she turned her head and saw the young doctor at the other side of the room, working at a computer terminal, her spirits sank. She remembered how she had woken in a panic, exposed to these strangers. She didn't want to be here. If it was going to take ten days to get back home, then she wished that she could find somewhere to curl up and hide. The thought of having to talk to people and explain herself made her miserable.
When Dr. Slater moved she closed her eyes and pretended to be still asleep. To her dismay she heard the distinctive sound of the door opening, and a low conversation. She decided to take some control, and sat up before Dr. Crusher approached her.
"Well, good morning," Dr. Crusher said, smiling briefly and looking over the instruments above the bed. "How do you feel?"
"I feel much better."
"All your life signs are back to normal, as far as I can estimate for your species. I just want to do some tissue scans and then we can see how you handle breakfast."
"Can I have a shower?" Maya asked, as Dr. Crusher moved some equipment to the bedside. She wondered whether it was too mundane a request. Perhaps there was nothing on the Enterprise as low-technology as a shower.
"Of course, as soon as I'm through with these scans."
"Where are my clothes?" It registered for the first time that she was wearing pajamas in some kind of silken material.
"The clothes you were wearing when you came through the transporter were badly damaged. I put them into the matter recycler."
"You destroyed my uniform?" said Maya, suddenly angry. "Shouldn't you have asked me first?"
Dr. Crusher blinked. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was important. We can replicate any kind of clothing you want."
Maya bit back the flare of emotion, desperate not to let any more of herself out. She waited tensely while Dr. Crusher ran her scans. Even her hair, she realized, was unbound. She had nothing of her own left. At least when she escaped from Psychon she'd had the dress and jewelry she had been wearing.
"Beautiful," said Dr. Crusher, after studying a screen. "You'd never know there'd been any damage. Would you like to see?"
Maya had looked at the scans yesterday, but she shook her head now.
"I am sorry about your uniform," said Dr. Crusher. "I just didn't think."
"It doesn't matter. Really."
"What would you like to wear?"
"Whatever women normally wear here."
When she got up she didn't feel unsteady as she had yesterday, and Dr. Crusher showed her to a bathroom that was incredibly spacious and luxurious compared to the tiny cubicle on Alpha. Maya washed with a slab of scented soap like one that Helena had lent her once, but larger and obviously new. There were soft towels and perfumed lotions in bottles. She touched everything with a sense of dismay, realizing how cramped and shoddy Moonbase Alpha was in comparison.
Dr. Crusher had laid out a dress for her made of a material that was opaque, but so soft and light that she could hardly feel it when she slipped it on. The skirt fell in swirls. On Alpha she had three things to wear. When she looked in the mirror, she hardly recognized herself.
She wanted to go home. Overwhelmed by sudden misery, she clenched her fists and fought back the immediate thought that she had no home. From day to day it wouldn't occur to her that she wasn't one of the Alphans; but something always made her remember in the end. So far away from the familiar texture of her life there, she felt vulnerable to these doubts.
There was an area of the sickbay that looked like a patient lounge, with tables and chairs against the wall. It had a more relaxed, pastel appearance than the hospital room. Someone had laid out a pot of strong-smelling black liquid and a crumbly fragrant pastry which Maya fingered in wonder before she bit into it. Its soft, fresh, sweet texture brought back a burst of memory; she couldn't pinpoint when she had last tasted newly-baked pastry, but she saw herself sitting on the patio of her house at Tamyara, ten or eleven years old, the sun baking the golden stones and dappling through the old tree, eating sweet bread straight from the oven.
"Coffee and croissants," said Dr. Crusher, coming in. "I hope you like it, I chose something neutral."
"I've never had it before."
"I thought that since you've been living with people from Earth, you might have."
"But we have nothing on Moonbase Alpha like this! Apart from a few fresh vegetables grown by hydroponics, all our food is based on a protein fungus and chemically-engineered starch."
"I guess so," said Dr. Crusher. "Of course, no replicators."
She poured some of the coffee and tasted it. It was pungent and bitter and bore no resemblance to what the Alphans called coffee; a powder that was mixed with hot water to make a pale musty-tasting drink. Tony hated it and had often told her that it was nothing like real coffee. This presumably was the genuine item. She put it aside and started on the second croissant.
"Let me know if it makes you feel ill," said Dr. Crusher cheerfully, and left her alone again.
Maya heard voices outside the room, and had the feeling that she was about to be disturbed once more. When he strode in, she remembered the first officer from the day before, but she could not recall his name. He was, she saw now, a person of great physical presence because of his sheer size; unusually tall and broadly-built, he seemed to fill the small room.
"Good morning," he said with a pleasant smile. "I hope I'm not disturbing your breakfast."
"No, I've nearly finished."
"I'm Commander William T. Riker, first officer of this ship. We were introduced yesterday but I thought you might have had your mind on other things."
"I do remember you, Commander Riker."
"You look much better this morning. How are you feeling?"
"Yes--much better, thank you."
He took possession of the other seat by the table, swinging it under him with a movement that seemed to make it into a piece of child's furniture. "I've been assigned to look after you until we reach Moonbase Alpha."
"Am I considered a security risk?"
"Not at all, I'm nothing to do with security. When I said look after you, I mean just that--make sure you're comfortable and at ease, and keep you entertained."
"Thank you," said Maya, immediately more uncomfortable. She thought that the first officer of what was obviously a huge ship ought to have something more important to do with his time. He was looking at her in the way that men often did; a gaze just a little too long to be accidental, followed by a blink and a forced casual expression when she met his eye.
"When you feel up to it I thought you might find a tour of the ship interesting. In the meantime, I'll show you to your quarters."
At first Maya felt conspicuous, walking along the wide corridors of the ship in the company of Commander Riker. She was sensitive to the way that people moved aside for him, and she knew she was getting curious glances as an unfamiliar face in the company of the first officer. She also noticed that not all of the people on the ship were Earth humans. Some were much more obviously alien than she was.
Commander Riker kept up an easy flow of information. "There are forty-two decks altogether on the Enterprise, connected by turbolifts. This is a turbolift. Most of the living quarters are on decks seventeen through twenty. Deck nineteen," he said into the air, tilting his head.
Maya looked up instinctively. The lift moved with a barely noticeable sensation.
"Voice activated," Commander Riker explained, with a sudden grin. "If you want to address the ship's computer, just shout."
"That's very impressive," said Maya. "I'm surprised--" She broke off, wondering if what she had intended to say would be tactful.
"Surprised at what?"
"That the Alphans' technology has advanced so far in such a short time. Moonbase Alpha is very much more primitive than this."
"Moonbase Alpha was built right at the beginning of the human race's exploration of space, before warp drives, before contact with other intelligences. Once we had that input, technology did develop rapidly."
"We weren't spacefarers on my world," said Maya. "We didn't have warp drive technology, and we knew there were no inhabited planets close enough to reach at sub-light speeds."
"Where do you come from?"
"A planet called Psychon."
"I don't know it."
"It no longer exists," Maya said, trapped into the admission and steeling herself against sympathy and curiosity. She wondered how much of the awkwardness she felt with new people was caused by the great discontinuity in her life, the fact that she had nothing left of her past. It was impossible to make small talk about herself without coming up almost immediately against the tragedy, which then killed the conversation.
Commander Riker, however, seemed to take the information without embarrassment. "What happened?" he asked, almost matter-of-fact.
"It became seismically unstable over several years, and in the end the planet's core exploded."
"When did it happen?"
"Two years ago."
"Is that how you came to be on Moonbase Alpha?"
"Yes--Commander Koenig rescued me."
The turbolift stopped at its destination. Commander Riker held out a hand to indicate that she should step out first, a gentlemanly gesture which Maya had almost forgotten. And, to her relief, he did not ask her any more questions about her past.
She had thought she was adjusting to the different scale of the Enterprise, but when she saw her quarters she stopped in astonishment again. The living room alone was four times the size of her entire quarters on Alpha, which had never seemed unnecessarily small to her. Beyond, there was a separate bedroom, and a bathroom attached to that. Maya was amazed to see a bathtub sunk into the floor.
"Where do you get all the water?" she asked.
"It's replicated," said Commander Riker. "No problem. I always have a shower, myself."
He showed her how the matter recycler and the replicator worked. Maya recognized the compartment set into a wall in the living room as the same apparatus which had puzzled her on the lifeboat station.
"This is a food replicator," he said. "There are matter replicators on other parts of the ship."
"There's a difference?"
"Not a fundamental one. The food replicators are more finely-tuned, that's all. What would you like?"
"I don't know what kind of food you have here."
"Any kind of food you like," he said, with that direct grin again. "Or drink."
"Beer," said Maya.
He looked surprised. "O.K.! Touch this button here, and voice your request--beer."
The air inside the compartment shimmered, and a tall glass materialized from nothing. At Commander Riker's invitation Maya picked it up--it was icy cold--and sipped it cautiously. It tasted rich and malty and almost sweet, with a dry undertone. "This is beer?" she said.
"I guess it must be--I'm more of a synthale drinker."
"It's so easy!" said Maya, laughing suddenly and irresistibly. She checked herself as she looked at Commander Riker, who was watching her with a pleasant but uncomprehending expression. "A friend of mine on Moonbase Alpha makes this beverage called beer, he spends a great deal of time and a great deal of resources trying to get it right, and the result still tastes--well, nothing at all like this. When he finds out that all you have to do is look at a hole in the wall and say 'beer'--he is going to be so annoyed!" She laughed again.
Commander Riker joined in with a light chuckle.
A shadow fell over her. She put down the glass of beer carefully on a tabletop. "Commander--you really are taking me back to Alpha?"
"Yes we are," he said seriously. "The Enterprise changed course at about 2100 hours last night, just after we talked to you in sickbay. When I take you for a tour of the ship you can see for yourself."
"I don't mean to sound as if I doubt your word, but it is very important to me that I get back to my friends."
"I understand. And I'm sorry there's no way of reaching them in the meantime."
Maya nodded. She felt less wary of Commander Riker now. He hadn't stopped looking at her, but he wasn't doing it offensively and she judged that he probably wasn't going to press it. His manner was, in fact, professional and considerate.
"I'll leave you to settle in," he said. He paused and looked more serious. "Captain Picard would like to see you for a debriefing, if you feel you can cope."
"Certainly I can cope," said Maya, calmly.
"Good. I'll be back in about an hour to take you there. After lunch, if you like, we can do that tour." He made a gesture that was almost like a bow, and left her alone.
Maya tried another mouthful of the beer and then, feeling obscurely disloyal, dropped the glass into the matter recycler.
Riker strode along the corridors of the Enterprise, ignoring the turbolift and taking the long way round to Deanna's office to work out the energy inside him. He was full of exhilaration. He had set himself the goal of seeing her smile for him first, and she had laughed. It was a sudden laugh like a girl's giggle, but it transformed her set and slightly pensive features. She wasn't as prim as she thought she seemed. She couldn't hide the glint in her eyes; he had seen that. He had not been able to appreciate yesterday, when he had only seen her prostrate, that she was tall and elegantly proportioned. With her evident bashfulness, she must find it difficult having the sort of looks and figure that made heads turn. He thought that she seemed quite ill at ease with herself, a sweet impression of shy naivete behind her dignity.
He almost walked straight past someone he knew without acknowledging him. Riker pulled his thoughts back on course. There was no point in dreaming and speculating yet. She might turn out to be married or otherwise unavailable, and he would have to judge from lunch today or dinner tonight how far her could set his sights. It might become an urgent necessity to find out what her personal situation was.
Instinct and experience made him fairly certain that she wasn't married. Married women under stress always said 'my husband' by their third or fourth utterance, and she seemed anxious just to get back to all her colleagues on Moonbase Alpha. It was very possible, however, that she had some hanger-on back on the base. He wondered about Commander Koenig, whom he had seen on the screen; he would be a serious obstacle. He had certainly been determined to get her back, and she had been pleased to see him.
It would be tricky to find out because he had no intention of asking her; that would admit an interest and contain a rejection. No, he would let her talk and see what she said.
Deanna was alone in her office, working at her terminal.
"I thought I'd look in, if you're free," he said, hanging round the door. "I want to talk to you about Maya."
"Of course, come in. Where is she?"
"I left her in her quarters, getting drunk."
Deanna looked momentarily alarmed.
"Don't worry," said Riker, grinning. "I'll take better care of her than that. I wanted to ask you how I do that."
Deanna considered for a moment. "I haven't spoken to her today yet, but I would say that she's bound to be feeling disorientated in her new surroundings and, probably, still anxious about the people she left behind. I would imagine that the community on Moonbase Alpha has become close-knit and self-reliant, and from what we saw yesterday she's obviously very important to them."
"Particularly to Commander Koenig, would you say?"
"I really couldn't tell that, Will."
"I'm just trying to get a handle on how to understand her."
Deanna blinked at him again. "Well, I think you made a good start by suggesting that she would feel more at ease with someone from Earth. The Captain's idea that she would find the ship interesting is also worth pursuing. The nightmare that Beverly reported may be of no real significance, if she does have a traumatic incident in her past, the shock of being here, and her injuries, could well have triggered the memories. As I said this morning, my initial overall impression of her was of stability and psychic resilience. I would just be friendly."
"That won't be difficult," he said, letting himself smile again. There was no point in trying to conceal his feelings from Deanna. Even without her empathic abilities, she knew him too well.
Maya concentrated on mastering the appliances in her quarters. She explored thoroughly and found that the wardrobe, built into the bedroom wall, was filled with clothes in her size. There was underwear in the drawers and a pair of pajamas folded under the single sheet that covered the bed, and there were fresh sticks and pots of makeup laid out on a shelf underneath a mirror. Someone had clearly taken care to see that she wanted for nothing while she was here.
In the living room there was a computer access point with a wide screen, and she played around with it while she waited for Riker to return. It was a considerable advance on the rudimentary computers on Alpha. On the other hand, she was in total control of the Alphan system. In the two years she had been there, she had rebuilt the network with the help of the computer engineers and she was proud of the increase in power and efficiency that she had effected in what she had once thought were primitive calculating machines. She had really achieved something on Alpha, and earned the respect of cynical engineers as well as her own research staff. Now, in a way, it would all have been for nothing.
She had to meet Captain Picard. She would do so professionally, as science officer of Moonbase Alpha, even though she no longer had her uniform to give her that identity. She went back to the wardrobe and chose an outfit that was more formal and sober than the soft flowing dress Dr. Crusher had provided her with, and seemed to approximate to the tight-fitting uniform the crew of the ship wore. Then she tied up her hair--there was a supply of ingenious flexible bands on the dressing-table shelf--and put on some makeup. When she studied the result in the mirror she felt more in control.
Commander Riker noticed the transformation with a flick of his eyes down her body, and another frank gaze at her face. Irritated, Maya felt herself quivering on the verge of turning into someone old and ugly.
In contrast, Captain Picard greeted her with natural courtesy and shook her hand formally. Commander Riker had taken her to a room that she supposed was used for personnel briefings. It had a long conference table that looked like polished wood, and a wall of space windows. "I'm very glad to see that you've recovered," said the Captain.
Maya was just about to take the seat that he offered her when she looked again at the space windows, and saw to her astonishment that the stars were streaming by like running water.
"It's a beautiful sight, isn't it," said the Captain.
"How fast are we going?"
"Warp eight--I'm not sure how to translate that into units that would fall within your frame of reference. Perhaps my chief engineer Mr. La Forge or operations manager Mr. Data will be more informative."
"You'll meet them when we do our tour of the ship," said Commander Riker.
"I wanted to appraise you formally of the situation as soon as possible," the Captain continued, sitting at the head of the table. "And, perhaps in a more informal manner, find out something from you about Moonbase Alpha. Would you like something to drink--some tea, perhaps?"
Out of politeness Maya assented, and the Captain fetched it himself from a replicator at the end of the room. For some reason Maya had started to feel nervous, though she kept her face impassive. Without thinking, she glanced sideways at Commander Riker. He was watching her with a steady, friendly expression, and gave her an encouraging smile.
"You must understand what this means to everyone from Earth," said the Captain, setting two glasses of a hot pale fragrant drink on the table. "Our original moon was lost four hundred years ago, and it's haunted the collective consciousness of humanity ever since. We built a replacement in the twenty-second century--at the time it was the largest astroengineering project ever undertaken--but the image of the moon is something so deeply embedded in our literature and in our language... people on Earth are going to be very moved when they know that it's been found."
"I'd never thought about that," said Maya. "To me, it's just an asteroid, an inhospitable wasteland of rock. Our home is Alpha itself--the base."
"How long did you say it's been in your time since the breakaway from Earth orbit?"
"Nearly six years. I've been with them for two."
"And how have you survived?"
"Very well on the whole," said Maya, feeling slightly defensive in the midst of the luxury around her. "Alpha was designed to be self-sustaining. We have a hydroponics division that grows enough food to sustain us, and our atmosphere and water is recycled very efficiently. We're short of some mineral resources, but we scavenge what we can from passing asteroids and space wreckage. Our fusion generators have enough fuel to last for thousands of years, and we have a fleet of small spacecraft called Eagles for exploratory missions. The only major disadvantage we have is that we can't control the moon's course, so we have to go where it takes us and we can't avoid obstacles. We've been through several space warps--I suppose that's how we came to be so far adrift in space and time."
"Very far adrift indeed," said the Captain. "I have to tell you that you are almost on the edge of the known galaxy. If the moon is on course to drift past Lifeboat 898 then it is heading into an empty region of space. You were very lucky to find us. The only reason the Enterprise is in this region of space is that we came to officiate at the wedding of Federation Ambassador Trewhella and the Princess Amarantha of the planet Lanthenon. Lanthenon has only just joined the Federation and we need to re-inforce our relationship, particularly at the first intermarriage between their Royal House and a Federation official from Earth."
"Have I taken the Enterprise away from the wedding?"
"No--fortunately--we had already scheduled a two-week scientific exploration mission while we were in this remote sector. We've abandoned that instead. I just wanted to explain to you that once we've evacuated Moonbase Alpha, we will have to prioritize going to Lanthenon before we take your colleagues back to Earth--if that's where they want to go."
"That's where they've always wanted to go," said Maya.
"How about you?" Commander Riker asked.
Maya looked at him. His voice was different from the Captain's calm, impersonal tone. "I don't have a home," she said to him. "Alpha is my home, and that's over now."
She had a moment of bleakness as she realized that she had just put into words the undefined unease that had been troubling her.
"I'm sorry," said Commander Riker, perfectly sincerely, still meeting her eyes.
Captain Picard said nothing but watched her gravely, his fingertips poised together.
Maya bit it back and suddenly felt better, and smiled slightly at Commander Riker. "We would have lived the rest of our lives, grown old and died drifting in empty space. There's nothing to be sorry for."
Once the briefing was over, Maya felt that she had established herself and spoken for the Alphans as best she could. The oppressive feeling had lifted.
Commander Riker took her to a communal area for lunch. "This is the forward section of Deck Ten," he explained, showing her the breathtaking view from a whole curving wall of space windows. "That's why we call it Ten Forward. It's one of the Enterprise's main social areas. It's quiet at lunchtime, but it comes alive in the evening."
"We have communal eating areas on Alpha too." Maya thought about the low-ceilinged underground canteen, with its bare white tables and cracking plastic chairs laid out in rows, where she had eaten so many lunches of soya burgers and baked starch with Tony. She wondered, with a pang, what he was doing now. Eating there alone? It probably wasn't even lunchtime on Alpha. For all she knew it could be the middle of the night. She had lost track of time completely.
"Hamburger and fries?" said Commander Riker, coming back to the table with a tray of food. "I wasn't sure what you'd be used to eating on Alpha. I asked them at the bar for a traditional twentieth century meal."
"It looks delicious. Really, you mustn't all worry so much, I don't care what I eat. Living on Alphan hydroponics for two years has made my tastebuds immune."
"That's appalling. I'm going to reawaken them for you. Food is one of life's great pleasures, intellectual as well as sensual."
"In what sense is food intellectual?"
"The cuisine of any culture tells you almost everything about the people. Klingons, for example, like their food still to be moving. The Japanese tradition on Earth lays out the freshest ingredients in flower-like, tiny patterns. This--"he took a hearty bite of the hamburger--"says to me that in the twentieth century they liked fat too much. I'll get you something better for dinner."
"No, this is nice," said Maya. "But I'm always ready to try something new."
What Commander Riker called a lightning tour of the ship took up the rest of the day. Maya forgot her self-consciousness entirely in her admiration and fascination. Up to now she had gained a general impression of spaciousness and luxury, but when Commander Riker took her to see the bridge, the cargo holds, the computer core, the holodecks and the engine rooms she saw what a feat of technology and engineering the Enterprise was. She was awed by the warp drive in particular, as it was an achievement that scientists on her own world had failed to attain.
"I would love to study the theory," she said to the chief engineer. Like everyone she had met on the Enterprise, he was pleasant and forthcoming and he took evident pleasure in showing her the depths of the ship.
"The theory's simple enough," Mr. LaForge said. "Matter and anti-matter propulsion. How's your physics?"
"Comprehensive, I used to think. But now I see there must be large gaps in my knowledge."
"Nobody can be an expert on everything."
"Maybe not, but I would like to know the basics."
"You'll soon catch up. What's your subject, anyway?"
"Well, I was an expert on biological computers, but the Alphans have nothing approaching that technology."
The chief engineer, whom Commander Riker called Geordi, blew through his teeth. "These things exist but that sort of research is illegal in the Federation. It's not considered ethical."
"It depends how it's done," said Maya, feeling defensive again. "But to be honest, on my world biological matter had the specific property of molecular transmutability, so we could do things with it that simply can't be done with life-forms that have evolved elsewhere. My knowledge in that field is useless now."
"No knowledge is useless--ever!" said Geordi. "There's someone I bet you'd love to meet."
Maya tensed at the prospect of being introduced to yet someone else, but Commander Riker hit the communications badge on his chest and asked for a Mr. Data to report to Engineering immediately.
When he appeared, she was at once taken off her guard. He was not human. When she touched his hand in greeting, she could sense that his composition was entirely non-organic. It was both disconcerting and in a strange way reassuring to be appraised by a creature that looked like a male human, but gave off no kind of aura.
"You're not--" she began in surprise, but broke off as she wondered how to be tactful.
"I am not human, you are correct," said Data, in a perfectly natural tone. "I am an android. Although my form closely resembles a human body, I am composed of mechanical, cybernetic and positronic components, with regulatory biochemical lubricants. Captain Picard has suggested you may find me interesting, and I would be willing to let you examine me at any convenient time."
"Thank you," said Maya, at a loss. "Do you--are you sentient?"
"I am sentient. My positronic brain is in some ways superior to a human's, being able to perform trillions of calculations every second like any computer, but I am not able to experience emotion."
"That's very interesting. How do you know you're not experiencing emotions?"
"All my observations of human behavior have led me to the conclusion that I do not."
"That must be rather nice in some ways."
"No," said Data, promptly. "I perceive it as a lack, and I work constantly toward attaining a more human perspective. I have duties today to which I must attend, but if you would like to discuss these matters further I would be pleased to make an appointment with you."
"Yes, thank you, I'd like that very much."
After they had left the engineering section, Maya asked Commander Riker, "Do you have many of these androids on your ship?"
"No, Data's unique. He wasn't made by the Federation, he was the lifework of a maverick scientist who lived in isolation on a colonial world. He's considered a sentient being and he serves in Starfleet as an officer in his own right."
"That's fascinating. Particularly so to me--you see, when I touched Data's hand, I felt nothing, as if he were an inanimate object, and yet he spoke and reacted to me like a human being."
"What do you mean, you felt nothing? Are you telepathic, or empathic in some way?"
"Oh no, not in the sense of knowing what's going on in other people's minds--but I can sense the pattern of living cells and forms, and that sometimes edges into an intuition about things like emotion--usually only on touch, though."
"I can often tell what people are feeling when I touch them," said Commander Riker. "It's amazing."
Maya glanced sideways at him as they walked, almost amused but feeling she ought not to be.
He left her for an hour before dinner to attend to some necessary duties, but he showed her the entertainment options on the console. The Enterprise's library, which could be accessed directly from the console onto the screen, contained music, books and films from hundreds of different worlds.
"It can search intelligently," he said. "If you don't know what you're looking for, you can say, 'I'd like to see a light-hearted film, not set on Earth, with an upbeat ending and no violence', and it'll give you a list of suggestions."
Maya browsed through the catalogues, sampling snatches of music and dialogue here and there and searching for the things she already knew. She was comforted to find the touchstones of familiarity. All the books, plays and music that she had learned to enjoy on Alpha were here, intact and instantly accessible. When Commander Riker came to fetch her for dinner, she was skimming through later episodes of a serial drama that had not finished its run before the moon left Earth orbit. She flicked this off-screen rather guiltily.
He had changed out of his uniform into what were evidently casual clothes. Clearly he was now off-duty. "I thought we could go somewhere less busy than Ten-Forward," he said. "It gets crowded around this time. There's a restaurant on Deck Twelve run by a real chef--I think most of the ingredients are replicated but he puts the dishes together himself."
"Is this an appropriate thing to wear?"
"People tend to dress up to go there."
"O.K. Hang on a moment." She left him in the living room and rifled through the wardrobe in the bedroom. She found a long blue dress which looked elegant, but when she put it on she realized it had a deep plunging neckline. Anxious not to keep him waiting, she decided it would do, found a pair of high-heeled silver shoes to match, and pulled out the bands in her hair. It tumbled everywhere untidily. She could make it appear in any elaborate arrangement she chose in an instant, but then to maintain it would require a slight continuous mental effort and it would only revert to its true state of disarray in about an hour. She ran a brush through it and caught half of it up in a hairband, and hurried back through.
"Very nice," he said, and of course his eyes found her cleavage. But only once; and he kept his hands clasped behind his back as he led her to Deck Twelve. Some men tried to come into the space around her, usually without realizing they were doing it. Maya disliked this more than being looked at, because people on Psychon had been more respectful of each other's persons and did not engage in physical contact much unless the circumstances were appropriate. She tried not to overreact to a friendly hand on the arm, but she often froze inside.
Commander Riker, however, radiated so much energy from his large frame that she felt that she was the one in danger of invading his space. He made no attempt to touch her.
The restaurant was a small, tastefully-decorated room, with tables in screened enclaves. It had a private atmosphere which made Maya relax. No-one else dining in the restaurant paid any attention to them.
"This is nice," she said, as he pulled the chair out for her; another gentlemanly gesture.
"It's my favorite place to eat, when I have company. Did you enjoy seeing the ship?"
"Yes, very much, it's all extremely impressive."
"How about the entertainments bank? Did you find anything interesting?"
"It's all interesting. Moonbase Alpha has a library similar to it, though not so sophisticated in its access mechanism, of course. I've spent a good deal of time researching Earth literature, watching Earth films and trying to understand Earth music."
"Do you have any particular difficulty with Earth music?"
"Yes, on Psychon we had a very different concept of music, and we had nothing like the variety of instruments and richness of forms that you have. I have a friend who introduced me to Italian opera, and I love that."
"Verdi and Puccini?"
"Yes! You know about it then? I thought it might all have been forgotten about by now."
"Of course not. There's an opera group on the Enterprise--they put on all sorts of shows. Would you like to see one?"
"Yes, I would."
"I'll see what I can do. One evening, I might treat you to some of my own trombone playing. Or how about a movie? They have a late show every other night at the holo movie theater. Watching movies on the flat screen is nothing compared to experiencing them in the theater."
"Aren't you off duty? I seem to have taken up all of your time today."
"It's a pleasure," he said, sounding quite sincere.
Maya was beginning to feel that she had been ungracious in her earlier cynical interpretation of his intentions. She studied the menu card that the waiter brought them; pressing her thumb on the corner activated streams of words on the decorated slide. The names of the dishes meant nothing to her.
"May I order for you?" said Commander Riker. "I said I wanted to reawaken your tastebuds, and you said were ready to try something new."
"All right." Maya laid down the card in some relief.
When the waiter returned, he held a technical conversation with him about the origins of a rabbit and the merits of a preparation called a souffle.
"Commander Riker," said Maya, taking her courage after the waiter had left them alone, " I appreciate how kind you've been today, but I don't want to take you away from your duties any longer."
"That's no problem. Until we reach Moonbase Alpha, you are my main duty."
"But I must have some way to occupy my time. Isn't there some work you could give me to do?"
"What do you mean, work?"
"Well, do your computers need attention, can I help in one of your research departments--anything at all?"
He looked down into his drink as if considering, and then met her eyes with a serious expression. "The Enterprise is fully crewed."
"There must be something I could do somewhere."
"I don't know how to say this without seeming insulting, or sounding patronizing, but being assigned to the Enterprise is usually the biggest step forward in a Starfleet officer's career. We have over one thousand exceptionally well qualified and experienced people on this ship--"
"So--you don't need me," said Maya, cutting across him, mortified.
"Don't think of it like that. This isn't your ship anyway. Have a holiday."
"You seem to me like someone who hasn't had a holiday for a long time."
"We don't have holidays on Alpha. We have days off-duty, but there's nowhere to go on holiday to."
"I guess not. What do you do with your days off-duty?"
"Generally, I study Earth culture."
"That sounds like work too. What do you do to relax?"
"Lots of things. I enjoy our Alphan amateur theater--we have one too--I listen to music--"
"Among other things--I read a lot, I spend time with my friends--but work is very important to me. Now that you're going to evacuate Moonbase Alpha I have, in effect, lost my job. How can I have a holiday when I've nothing to go back to?" She had to keep a rising panic out of her voice.
Commander Riker leaned across the table, his eyes still serious. "Maya," he said, gently, "the Federation will do everything it can to help you and the other Alphans readjust."
"But I'm not from Earth, I'm not one of your people."
"That will make no difference. Please believe me."
The first course arrived. It was arranged on the plate like a work of art, vegetables and slivers of fish radiating like petals from a mound of garnish.
"Tell me about your commander," he said, attacking the food with no reverence for its artistic appearance.
"Commander Koenig? He's a strong leader and a good man. I have the greatest admiration for him."
"He must have the loyalty of the crew, still to be in command after six years in circumstances like yours."
"All the Alphans are extremely loyal to him. I don't think we could have survived this long without his leadership. He inspires people."
"I guessed he did. I'll look forward to meeting him. How is morale on the base?"
"Generally very good. To you it must seem an odd thing, but to be honest most of the Alphans have adjusted to the situation they're in. As far as I'm concerned, the way I was living before wasn't very much different, except that there were fewer people."
"Fewer people? Fewer than three hundred?"
"Psychon, my homeworld, became uninhabitable. Over the space of two years those of us that were left had to retreat into an underground research establishment on the southern continent, which was once a government laboratory. In the end, everyone left on spaceships, except my father and I."
"On spaceships? You said you didn't have warp drives."
"No, but drifting into unknown space at sub-light speeds was a better hope than dying with the planet."
"What happened to them?"
"I have no idea."
"And why did you stay?"
"My father was working on a project to restore the planet, to halt and reverse the geophysical instability by matter transmutation. I stayed to help him, and because I couldn't leave him."
"Is your father on Moonbase Alpha now?"
"No--he was killed when the plant disintegrated. I was the only survivor."
Commander Riker had finished his starter in a few rapid mouthfuls, and laid the fork down. His hands were laced together and he was watching her intently, but without discomfort. "I'm sorry," he said again, in the same frank manner. "Does it bother you, talking about this?"
Maya considered, listening to her slightly accelerated heartbeat. She was shivering a little, but the pain was still distant and dull. It was getting better. "No. I don't want to pretend Psychon or my family never existed. So if someone asks, I have to tell them."
"You never found out what happened to the rest of your people?"
"I guess you haven't had the resources to search for them, stranded on Moonbase Alpha."
Maya shook her head.
The main course arrived. It was a dish of rabbit, real rabbit from Earth, boned and carved to look nothing like the animal it had once been, served in a pool of creamy aromatic sauce. Glistening vegetables came on a separate dish. Maya saw, watching Commander Riker, that one helped oneself and put them on the main plate with the meat.
He took a quick mouthful of rabbit and nodded. "Some people say the replicator doesn't do justice to meat. I'm afraid I can't tell the difference."
"I would imagine that the complex cell structure of animal organisms would be more challenging for a mechanical device to perfect."
"Did you have replicators on your world?"
"No, not like this, but we had a similar transmutational technology. Our machines couldn't reproduce living forms from non-living matter either. There was a whole branch of metaphysics which tried to understand the definition of life and the distinction between living and non-living things--we had a word for it but I don't think there's a translation."
She found herself talking a surprising length about the metaphysical science of alazancon, which she had read round but never studied in depth, and from there to the general subject of using biological components in computers and machines. She realized, by the time they finished a sweet airy concoction called a souffle and were drinking small cups of bitter coffee, that she had talked more freely and discursively about these things than she had for years. It wasn't that the Alphans weren't interested in hearing about the work she had done on Psychon, but she was always aware that their own level of knowledge was so far behind the basis of hers that it was impossible not to trip and stumble over every concept. They regarded her as a kind of miracle worker. Even the Commander, for whom she had a fervent respect, was amazed by her simplest calculations and conclusions. Maya knew she was bright, and she had always studied and worked hard, but equally she knew she was no real genius as her father had been. It was unexpectedly refreshing to be with someone who was more on a level with her, and who had plainly told her that there were hundreds of people on this very ship better qualified than her.
She felt stimulated, and more relaxed than she could possibly have anticipated that morning. Commander Riker escorted her to her quarters through corridors that were now dimmed to simulate night-time, and said goodnight with another polite half-bow.
Her head buzzing pleasantly, she went straight to bed and forgot to be afraid. It was only when she had already turned out the light that she remembered, and fear crept to the edges of the darkness. She hated going to bed alone. Determined not to be weak and turn up the lights again, she covered her eyes with her arm and concentrated on all the interesting things she had seen and learned today. She tried to imagine the pleasure that the Alphans would feel when they in turn saw the Enterprise. But it was no good; the longing that she had been staving off all day was filling her now, in the lonely darkness. She wanted Tony. She wished that there had been an opportunity to say something to him more privately, when they had spoken briefly and briskly on the subspace link. But they had been surrounded by people, and anyway he would just have made a joke of it. And so would she.
John had called the meeting just after eleven hundred hours, when it had become all too clear to him that the base was alive with rumors. Since the evening before groups of people had fallen silent when he approached, and looked at him half-suspiciously. He had gone to the medical center and tackled Helena about it, and she had said shortly, "Everybody knows something, John."
"What do they know? The whole story?"
She shrugged slightly. "People have stopped talking around me as well."
So he summoned Helena, Tony and Alan Carter, whom they had briefed as a matter of course, for an urgent consultation.
Alan, being perceived as more removed from the Commander, had been privy to the rumors. "Gorgio and Ken Elsworth were talking about it this morning, talking about a ship from Earth being on its way to rescue us. They reckoned you knew about it--well, you, Helena and Tony, the party that went to find Maya. I asked them where they heard it and they said everyone was talking about it at breakfast this morning."
"Dammit! Do they believe it?"
"I reckon they believe you're trying to keep something from them."
"What did you tell them?"
"I said that if there was anything the Commander was keeping from them, it was for a reason, and they seemed to agree with that. People are loyal to you, John. You've got the trust of everyone on Alpha. But, you know, you've got to say something soon now."
He sighed. "I might have known we couldn't count on Douglas Mullins to keep his mouth shut."
"It wasn't Mullins, John," said Tony, without looking up. "It was me."
It was the first time he had spoken, and he was sitting on the edge of a chair as he didn't want to be there, his hands dangling over his knees and his attitude dejected. John didn't like the way he had been in the five days since they had returned to Alpha. He had put in conspicuously long hours of duty but had sat at his station in Command Center silent and self-contained, obviously depressed and devoid of his usual energy and humor. Since they were maintaining to Alpha that Maya had disappeared and was presumed dead, John supposed this was reasonable behavior. But Tony had no artifice in him, and he wasn't convinced that it was an act. He had been wondering whether to speak to him, or ask Helena to have a word. Now, he turned on him with unintentional irritation. "What the hell did you say?"
"Gillian Merle came to see me a couple of nights ago. We had a long talk and--things got sticky. I had to tell her about Maya being O.K."
"And then you told her the whole story, I suppose."
"There wasn't any choice." He looked up for the first time, his eyes dark. "I'm sorry about this, but I thought I could trust Gillian. She and I go back a long way, you know that. I explained to her why we hadn't told everyone, and she understood. She's got a lot of sense. I don't understand it."
"I bet I know how it happened," said Helena quietly. "Gillian's close to Ellie Martin."
"Little Ellie, the student placement in biotechnology?" said John.
Helena nodded. "Ellie did a lot of work on projects that Maya supervised. She came to me the morning after we got back and sat in my office and cried for an hour. I had to give her tranquillizers. Gillian must have told her that Maya was still alive."
"I never knew that Maya was particular friends with Ellie Martin," said Tony.
"Well, Ellie's very fond of Maya. She said to me that helping her on the projects, and seeing her most days, had made all of what happened worthwhile. You know."
"She should get herself a boyfriend," said Tony.
"Ellie and Gillian Merle are both involved in the theater," Helena continued. "Ellie's very friendly with Sarah."
"Oh great," said Tony. "Tell Sarah Pulcher something and you might as well broadcast it over the speakers. Well, that's how it got round."
"It doesn't matter how it got around," said John. "I'm not interested in recriminations. What are we going to do about it now?"
"Why don't we just tell everyone?" said Tony, with the beginnings of anger. "I don't see what the problem is."
"You know what the problem is, Tony."
"That it might damage morale if the ship doesn't turn up? That's what it comes down to--you don't believe the ship is going to turn up."
"What I believe is unimportant--what concerns me is how it's going to affect Alpha if it doesn't and people are expecting it. Tony, I know how hard this is for you."
"No you don't," said Tony flatly. His flare of anger subsided, and he lost all animation again.
John reigned in his own temper with an effort. He had said he wasn't interested in recriminations, but the truth was that he felt let down by Tony. He glanced at Helena, who was watching him coolly. Helena, despite her apparent fragility, never let her emotions control her when it mattered. It was a pity, he thought briefly, that as chief medical officer she was only fourth in command.
"You're going to have to talk to the base, John," she said. "There's nothing else to do now."
It wasn't a long debate, with this the only conclusion possible. He called over the speakers for all personnel to assemble in the theater, which was the usual place for public meetings and held three hundred people comfortably, and got up onto the stage to make the announcement. He saw Sarah Pulcher, proprietor of the venue, standing by the front row watching him with folded arms and a steady expression, and he became fairly certain that she had indeed been the principal rumormonger.
The personnel listened with physically tangible attention as he told the story of how they had gone to the base on the deserted asteroid in search of Maya, and spoken to a man of human appearance who claimed to be the captain of a large ship from Earth that was coming to rescue them. He was careful to couch it all in the conditional, but he could feel the waves of excitement coming from the audience.
"We can't be certain," he said, "that this ship, the Enterprise, will arrive. That's why those of us who were there decided not to tell everyone what we saw, and raise false hopes, as we've experienced in the past. All I can say is that Maya appeared to be on that ship, and we spoke to her, and she clearly believed what the captain told us. And I'm sure everyone here trusts Maya's judgment."
There was a murmur of conviction. John knew, as he stepped down, that he had managed to convince no-one to be circumspect. After so many monotonous weeks without incident, when life on Alpha had become routine and introspective, hope was spreading like brushfire in a drought.
As people went back to their stations, talking loudly, he caught sight of Carol Earnshaw leaving the hall alone. If this rescue happened, there was a situation that would lose all its significance immediately. He hadn't thought through the implications of that.
"Has it gotten around yet about Carol?" he asked Helena, as he walked back to the medical center with her.
"No. I don't think she's told anyone, except me. I think she's lonely."
"I should have a word with her. Let her know--well, that I care about what's going on."
"Maybe you should wait until we know what the situation is with the Enterprise."
"No--unless you think it's a bad idea and I'd scare her, I'll do it soon. We can't put our life on hold."
"I thought that was your philosophy," she said with her soft acerbity, and turned into the medical center.
Riker had woken that morning after a deep and satisfying night's sleep, feeling that his heart had grown to three times its size within his chest. As he dressed and strode to the 0700 hours briefing, he mulled happily over the dinner. He had her summed up now. The way she had spoken about Commander Koenig convinced him that she admired him, but did not have a romantic relationship with him. He would soon persuade her out of any frustrated desires in that direction. No, she was a serious young woman whose work, up until now, had been her life. She was like a Starfleet Academy cadet, too preoccupied with studies and duties to have developed a personal life. And she was younger, he thought, than he had at first assumed. Because she was tall and striking and had unusual features, and because she was serving as a senior officer on her base, he had misjudged her age at first. She was no more than a girl, perhaps even--he hesitated--too young for him. But the hesitation was momentary. He couldn't pull back now, he had to see this through and find where he could take it to. He thought of the way her emotions played over her face like weather on a spring day; light shadows and clouds breaking into brilliant sunshine. She thought she was impassive and self-controlled, but she was charmingly transparent.
He took his place at Captain Picard's right hand and looked round his colleagues with a sense of well-being. One plan was already making rapid connections at the back of his mind, while he listened to the briefing on routine events the day before.
"I spoke to Ambassador Trewhella yesterday afternoon," said the Captain, moving onto the subject of the Lanthenon wedding, "and although he understands fully the reasons why we have had to delay the arrival of the Enterprise at Lanthenon, he is anxious that we should be there in time for the wedding. A situation appears to have arisen on Lanthenon of which the Federation was unaware. When the planet was being considered for Federation membership, all the usual assessments to establish political stability were of course carried out, and Lanthenon appeared to have a mature, one-government society with a constitutional monarchy. It now appears that some underlying problems may have been suppressed, and are now emerging because of the wedding between Princess Amarantha and the Ambassador. Until one hundred and twenty years ago, the Royal House of Lanthenon ruled absolutely, by divine right. There is a faction on Lanthenon which always opposed the cessation of power to an elected assembly, and which would like to see absolute monarchy restored and the planet sever ties with the Federation. Ambassador Trewhella reports that he has received threats, and there have been some terrorist incidents which the Royal House itself has been very keen to keep quiet. I might remind you that Princess Amarantha is heir to the throne, and to this group the idea of the Queen of Lanthenon married to an off-worlder is totally unacceptable."
"I suppose the Ambassador was hoping that the presence of the Enterprise would frighten the terrorists off," said Riker.
"It's always very difficult to predict how terrorists will react to a given situation," said the Captain. "Such groups are notorious for failing to behave rationally. However, security at the wedding is a matter for the Lanthenon authorities. Both King Bahu and Ambassador Trewhella are extremely anxious that there should be no visible incidents that would damage Lanthenon's reputation with the Federation."
"But Trewhella is a Federation ambassador," said Riker.
"He has a personal stake in Lanthenon now, obviously," said Deanna. "I expect it will be his last posting."
"Indeed," said the Captain. "The Ambassador has resigned his post, to take effect after the wedding."
Don't mix pleasure and politics, thought Riker with a smile to himself, it ruins your career. Something occurred to him, but he decided to speak to the Captain in private after the briefing.
"I was able to reassure the Ambassador," the Captain continued, "that Lanthenon is only thirty-six hours' journey from our estimated position of Moonbase Alpha. We will be there in time for the ambassadorial reception, as arranged. We'll even have some distinguished extra guests. Which brings me to our present guest. I hope Science Officer Maya is settling in, Number One?"
"She seems to be. I took her for a brief tour of the ship yesterday and she seemed to find everything interesting," said Riker blandly. "I also spent as much time as possible socializing with her, to make her feel comfortable."
"And did you succeed?"
"I think so, sir."
"When I checked over her yesterday," said Beverly, "she was absolutely fine. Her tissues seem to heal at least fifty percent faster than the humanoid average. I'll continue to monitor her, but you'd never know she almost died three days ago."
"Excellent," said the Captain. "Counselor?"
"I still haven't spoken to her," said Deanna. "I haven't really had the opportunity."
"What I was going to suggest," said the Captain, "was that we all have the opportunity. Now that Will's done such a good job in making her feel at home, she might feel comfortable enough to enjoy an officer's party. Would you agree, Number One?"
"Yes, if it's an informal affair. I get the feeling she doesn't like crowds."
"Just those of us seated round this table now, and some of the senior crewmembers, if nobody has alternative plans for this evening."
Nobody indicated that they had. Riker, who had already anticipated another quiet and perhaps more intimate dinner, masked his disappointment perfectly. There were many days to go before she was distracted by being reunited with the Alphans.
After the rest of the day's business had been discussed, he spoke to the Captain as the others were going out. "Captain, I just remembered that I've got twenty-four hours shore leave booked when we reach Lanthenon. Has that been canceled due to the Moonbase Alpha mission?"
"It shouldn't be--we'll be arriving at Lanthenon at our scheduled time. There just isn't the possibility of arriving any earlier, as the Ambassador might have wanted. When exactly did you plan to take this leave?"
"Between the ambassadorial reception and the wedding itself. Deanna and I were going to spend a night at the Summer Palace Hotel on Lake Gargatha, it's supposed to be beautiful there. If you remember, sir, we did discuss it."
"Yes, Will, I don't actually remember, but it was probably some time ago."
"What I wondered was--does this terrorist threat make our taking shore leave on Lanthenon inadvisable?"
"I should doubt it. We'll assess the situation when we get there, but it's a long time since you've taken any leave, and I wouldn't want to discourage it."
On his way to Maya's quarters, with a welcome glow of excitement in his stomach, Riker suddenly had another very good idea.
Maya woke after a thankfully undisturbed night feeling refreshed and full of anticipation. She was impatient with herself for having felt lonely and melancholy the night before. Her mind was still soaked through with images of wonder, of the Enterprise's propulsion units and transporters and computer core. With so much to learn about, she was amazed that she had been worried about filling her time. If there was no work to do she could spend all day at a computer terminal, studying the structure and technology of the ship. She was trying to get the replicator to give her cereal flakes and soya milk for breakfast when Commander Riker appeared, as polite and solicitous for her comfort as ever. She smiled at him, ashamed of her previous coolness.
"I came to see how you were this morning, and to ask what you wanted to do today. Data has a couple of hours free this afternoon, he says he's happy to let you examine him and discuss his construction."
"Doesn't Data mind being an object of curiosity?"
"No, he's fascinated by himself, he's the most self-conscious and self-obsessed android you've ever met. His enthusiasm is genuine."
"Then I'll be happy to share it. Artificial intelligence developed to such a degree of sophistication is very impressive."
"And the Captain would like to invite you to a small informal officers' party in his quarters this evening."
"You don't have to go," he said quickly, in a low concerned tone. "I can tell him you don't feel up to it."
"No. I'm quite happy to go, Commander. Please thank him."
"There'll be only a few people there, most of whom you've already met."
"And something else--please call me Will. I'm not your Commander."
"I'll see you later then," he said with a grin. "Lunch?"
"I'll pick you up here at one."
"No--meet me there. I'd like to start finding my own way around the ship, if I'm allowed to go unescorted."
"Of course you are. Look, wander freely--the restricted areas are made obvious. I'll see you in Ten Forward at thirteen hundred hours, then." He bowed out.
Maya smiled. She enjoyed people who were full of energy, even though she thought she ought to admire refined intellect more. When she had been a child, one of her elaborate fantasies had been that when she grew up she would choose to notice a quiet, shy, plain bookworm that none of the other girls looked twice at. He would need patient persuading even to make him believe that she preferred him to the boys who swam in the lake and raced each other on plainhooves, but he would make her much happier that the boys her friends favored for their looks and physical prowess. When she grew up, she found that she was not able to live up to this ideal. Quiet studious men were quite uninteresting to her, and she was attracted to self-confident extroverts who made her laugh. Commander Riker was probably very popular on board the Enterprise.
She gave up trying to explain her request to the replicator--it persisted in denying that it had the pattern in its memory banks, and requesting her to redefine--and asked for coffee and croissants instead.
Her assignation with Data took place, to her surprise, in his quarters. She had vaguely imagined that he switched himself off and inserted himself in a storage cupboard for his off-duty hours, but he was equipped with a suite of rooms as luxurious as those of the other crewmembers. Indeed, the living area showed evidence of his various artistic pursuits; there was an easel set up in one corner, a violin and a music stand, painting and sculptures, and the unexpected presence of a ginger cat.
"I have applied myself to most human art forms," Data explained. "In many of them it has been easy for me to attain a degree of technical accuracy in my performance that humans strive for several years to accomplish. I am aware, however, that human observers perceive a lack in my interpretation, and it is the pursuit of this abstract quality that fascinates me. That is why I have concentrated increasingly on art forms which rely less on execution and more on this more nebulous element of expression--such as painting, and the composition of poetry. I have written poetry in various forms. Would you like to hear a sample?"
Maya wondered why she felt she had to be polite to an android, but she listened patiently as Data read out some stanzas of almost surreal banality.
"Please give me your opinion honestly," he said. "Do not be concerned about offending my feelings. I have none."
"I--think your paintings are much better."
"You do not think my poetry is successful."
"Oh, please don't pay any attention to what I think, I'm no judge of poetry."
"But I am very interested in what you think. Your reaction is similar to that of my friends among the Enterprise crew. I have asked them to analyze that reaction, so I can attempt to rectify the faults in my poetry, but I have been aware of a certain impatience. I thought another person, who was not familiar with me, might be able to bring a new perspective to my problem."
He was gazing at her earnestly with pale eyes that blinked occasionally, but not quite often enough. It was an extraordinary experience to be questioned so intensely by a being that she could sense was not organic. Maya was trying to muster a suitably solemn reply, against a desperate inclination to laugh, when she was shocked by the warmth of the cat sliding onto her lap. She ran her fingers through its fur, feeling its contrasting reality. "Perhaps," she said, "if you really don't experience feelings, perhaps you can't write poetry because poetry is about feelings."
"This explanation has occurred to me. I countered it by supposing that humans write poetry about feelings because feelings are important to them, and poetry is written about what is important to the poet. I would write poetry about what was important to me. My cat, for instance, is a significant element of my life. Therefore, I wrote a poem about my cat. Would you like me to recite it to you?"
"I think--that perhaps your poems don't work for humans. They might work for another android."
"There are no others like me."
"Yes, Commander Riker told me."
"I had a brother, but he has been destroyed. I did once create another like myself, but she was also irreparably damaged."
"That makes us quite like each other, Data," said Maya, suddenly moved. "As far as I know I'm almost the only one of my kind too."
"Commander Riker told me that, also."
It was an odd transition from this to Data opening the side of his head to display his positronic circuits, but that was almost the next thing that happened. As he peeled away pieces of skin on his hand and legs, invisible panels to allow easy maintenance, he talked calmly about his composition and function. He also told her the story about how he was created, by a brilliant scientist working alone and following a vision that no-one else shared. Maya was haunted again by a feeling of kinship with Data, and she wondered more seriously if he were wrong to think of his lack of emotions as a misfortune. No pain at the memory of loss, no fear of a future alone as the last of his kind, no stabs of doubt in love. And no dread at having to go to the Captain's informal officers' party that evening.
Riker left it until the last moment before going to pick up Maya for the party, though he had come off duty half an hour before. He wanted to give the impression that he had not spent all afternoon planning for it and thinking about her. She looked like she had been ready for some time, in a pale blue chiffon-like dress that flowed round her body and tuned with her eyes, and he could see that she was fired up for an ordeal. "I brought you something," he said.
He brandished what he had been half-concealing against his leg. "Real beer. You thought that synthohol the replicator produced was the real thing--this is from my private supply, bottled in Alaska, made from real hops, genuine alcohol content."
"Oh!" She looked delighted as she took the pack of four bottles from him. "Thank you! Is it all right to take it to the party?"
"That's one reason I brought it. It might liven things up."
She laughed again, looking at him directly.
Riker had to suppress the sudden impulse to forget caution and common sense and just to say what he thought. For a moment it seemed simply like the honest, straightforward thing to do. He had to control himself; it was far too soon. It would be too easy to burn bridges. He adopted the casual, friendly air he had kept up since they met, and walked with her to the Captain's quarters savoring the elation he felt when she was with him. When she was elsewhere, his mind fell into a more logical and detached frame of operation. When she was there, he just enjoyed her presence.
He felt her tense as they entered the Captain's quarters. There were about twenty people in the room--the senior officers and their immediate subordinates, and the heads of civilian departments--and in the relative confines of the Captain's living room, they constituted a minor crowd. It seemed that all heads turned to look at Maya, but the Captain took charge of the situation with his usual diplomacy.
"Welcome to my quarters," he said to her. "It's a pleasure to see you looking so well. I trust Will has been making you feel at home?"
"Thank you, Captain, he has."
"I take pride in a job well done," Riker said.
"Let me introduce you to our chief of security, Mr. Worf, whom I believe you have not yet met."
Riker let the Captain steer her away with, he noticed, an easy hand on her elbow. He had not yet dared touch her, except to shake hands.
Geordi, nearby, had made some remark to Data, the tone but not the content of which Riker half-overheard. He turned to him. "What was that?"
Geordi looked slightly abashed. "I just said--I wondered at the briefing two days ago why you put in a special request for this assignment, but when I saw the assignment yesterday, it made sense."
"That's a cynical assessment of my motives, Geordi," said Riker, with a grin. "I'm surprised at you."
"Geordi," said Data, "may I ask you a question relating to a general subject which interests me, and of which this provides an example?"
"From the comments which you and Commander Riker have just exchanged, and from two separate remarks made in my hearing by Ensign Berwick in engineering and Mr. Dela in Ten-Forward, I conclude that Science Officer Maya is generally regarded as sexually attractive."
"You got it, Data."
"I am anxious to know which aspects of her appearance convey this impression."
"Well--Data--that's a big question. It's not just appearance, it's a kind of combination. I'm not even the best person to ask, since I can't see her the way most people can. It's her figure, her hair, her face--"
"Her smile," said Riker.
"You can't explain it."
"Does the shape of her figure, or the configuration of her face, lead you to anticipate that you would experience greater pleasure in a sexual coupling with her than with a woman without these attributes?" Data continued.
"No, Data, it doesn't work like that. It's not logical, you're trying to rationalize the irrational. It's just the way men react. It's a biological thing," Geordi concluded.
"Then I, being of a non-biological composition, am unlikely to experience the same reaction."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"And yet I did find the meeting that we had this afternoon to be extremely stimulating. It is something that I would like to repeat, if possible, before she rejoins her colleagues from Moonbase Alpha."
"Go for it, Data," said Geordi.
Riker opened one of the bottles of beer and poured a glass, which he took over to where Maya was making a foursome with the Captain, Worf, Deanna and Beverly.
"I am sorry," said the Captain, as Maya took the glass. "I had meant to get you a drink."
"Oh no, this is what I wanted, Commander Riker got it for me specially."
"What is it?" asked Deanna. "Some kind of synthale?"
"Beer. It's the only kind of alcoholic beverage available on Moonbase Alpha, but our chief of security makes it himself and I always wondered what it was supposed to taste like. Mm-m, this is delicious."
"The rest of it is over there," said Riker, and left the group again. He wasn't going to hang too conspicuously around her.
No matter how smoothly he circulated, however, he remained acutely aware of her. He knew exactly where she was in the room, and he could hear her voice constantly and clearly through the hubbub of conversation. In one of his snatched glances, he saw that she was in deep conversation with Deanna, and that pleased him. He wanted Deanna to make her acquaintance, and to like her.
"Well, Number One," said the Captain, "this seems to be a success. Maya appears to be enjoying herself."
Riker smiled in acknowledgment, then turned his head involuntarily as he heard her laugh loudly. She was talking to Data, who must have said something inordinately amusing.
Captain Picard also looked in her direction, frowning faintly.
Swiftly, Riker went over to her, nodded in apology to Data, and led her to sit down on the nearby sofa. She smiled at him radiantly, complying. "Hello, Commander, I haven't spoken to you much this evening," she said, in perfectly precise tones. But her eyes were huge, and her tactile defenses had all gone down.
Riker allowed himself to keep a hand on her arm. "Call me Will, I said."
"Will." She giggled again.
"Did you enjoy the beer?"
"Yes, it was lovely."
"Did you drink it all?"
"Maybe that wasn't such a good idea."
"No, it was delicious," she said earnestly.
He was fairly sure that the Alaskan ale was about as potent as beer got, and if Maya was used to nothing but some undrinkable home brew she probably had no tolerance at all. Pleasant as it was to have her relaxed and friendly--he was sure he could easily slide his arm around her shoulder now, and it would seem natural--it was unfair to take advantage, and he didn't want it to appear that he had got her drunk. Strictly speaking, it was against Starfleet regulations to serve real alcohol on board a starship. It was certainly against all protocol to drink enough of it to get inebriated.
"Maybe you should switch to something not quite so...potent," he said. "I'll get you some water. Stay there."
He darted over to the replicator and ordered a pint of water. In the three seconds it took to materialize, Maya was joined on the sofa by Lieutenant Glover from engineering. He had noticed Glover watching Maya earlier, and he had evidently decided to make his approach.
"I'm from Earth," he was saying, as Riker came back with the water. "When I was a kid I used to read stories about Moonbase Alpha. Never thought I'd meet someone who'd been there. Tell me something--are all the woman there as beautiful as you?"
"Oh no," said Maya seriously. "Some of them look like this!"
Afterwards, Riker's trained mind was able to recall everything that happened in clear and sequential detail, though at the time he was too stunned to react immediately. The elegant form of Maya blurred and dissolved in what looked like a miasma of energy, which hung in the air for a fragment of a second then expanded and solidified into a creature made of slimy tentacles with one giant pulsating eye.
He heard the crash as the glass fell from his fingers and smashed on the floor. He saw Lieutenant Glover yell and scramble backwards over the sofa to fall in an undignified heap. Some woman screamed, and Worf sprang forward with his phaser.
Riker's instincts snapped into action. "Mr. Worf! Disarm!"
He had been watching her, and he had seen her do it. He knew the nightmarish creature was really Maya.
And another moment later, as Worf reluctantly lowered his gun and stepped back, it was Maya again, laughing helplessly in the midst of a concentrated, horrified silence.
"I have always wanted to do that," she said to Riker, grasping his arms for support and gasping for breath. "Whenever somebody says something like that--I've always wanted to do that!"
"O.K., now you've done it. Maya--"
"Number One," said the Captain gravely.
"Curious," said Data. "A remarkable transformation. I would be interested to know how to achieved it. Was it collective suggestion, or is your physiology capable of genuine molecular rearrangement?"
"Not now, Mr. Data," said Riker sharply. "Maya, let's go."
He managed to maneuver her out of the room before the Captain could intervene, and before anything more disastrous could happen. She was still giggling and stumbled slightly as he propelled her as swiftly as he could along the corridor, his arms around her shoulder and waist. Some passing ensign turned his head to see who was so intimately intertwined with Commander Riker.
When the were in the nearest turbolift he stopped it between floors and took her arms. "Maya. Look at me."
She gazed at him, her eyes luminous. "Yes, Commander."
"One, call me Will. Two--what was that party trick? I need to know."
"What is that, an ability of your species?"
She smiled. "Some of us. It takes practice."
"Is it dangerous?"
"Am I dangerous? It's just me. It's always me."
"O.K. Deck nineteen."
To his relief, the corridors on deck nineteen seemed deserted. He managed to get her to her quarters without anyone else seeing, and sat her on the sofa. "Let's see if you can drink the water this time."
As he was getting it from the replicator, his COMM badge sounded. "Picard to Commander Riker."
"What's the situation, Number One?"
"Under control, sir. I've escorted Maya back to her quarters, I'm there now. She's given me a brief explanation of what we witnessed in your quarters. In my opinion it poses no threat to the security of the Enterprise."
"Understood. I want a full briefing tomorrow. Do you require medical assistance?"
"No, sir, I don't think that will be necessary."
"I want to see you before the 0700 hours briefing tomorrow."
Riker turned round and saw that Maya had slid down on the sofa and looked quite comfortably asleep. He wondered if he ought to leave her there, but she might fall off in the night. She would be better off in bed. Carefully, he eased his arms under her and gathered her up.
She was heavy. Her face rolled snugly into his neck and he could feel the texture of her copious hair, warm and silky. As he carried her through to the bedroom he was unable to suppress a flare of desire, and for a moment he stood still and uneasily enjoyed the feel of her body.
She stirred. "Tony," she said in a small, sleepy voice. Her arms twined round his neck. "Tony." She tried to kiss him.
"Hold it, Maya, I'm not Tony." Her lips had grazed his. He disengaged her and let her fall as gently as he could onto the bed.
Her eyes opened and she looked at him, unfocused and puzzled. "Where's Tony? I want him. Please get him. Where is he?"
"On Moonbase Alpha, I guess. Come on, Maya, lie down. There we are. Are you O.K.?"
She said nothing. She had rolled willingly onto her side and closed her eyes again, and after a few moments Riker decided she was soundly asleep. Her breathing sounded normal. He eased off her shoes and pulled the bed cover over her.
Perhaps the wisest thing to do, given her recent accident, would be to call Beverly. But he wanted to spare her any more embarrassment and exposure, and as a compromise he decided to stay with her. There was a reasonably comfortable-looking chair in the corner of the bedroom. He kicked off his own boots and sank into it, as much to think as to sleep.
So, there was somebody called Tony, was there. Somebody she seemed pretty soppy about. The disappointment ate into him slowly as her watched her still form, spreading through his stomach like a physical pain. For a time he felt low and dark and almost disinclined to move. The intensity of the feeling was unexpected, but made one thing clear to him; he was more serious about her than he had acknowledged until now. The possibility had become a reality, and he was already ensnared. Accepting this, he began to feel better. His spirits were never low for long. The bitterness dissolved and his thoughts became more constructive. This Tony person was not here on the Enterprise and he, Riker, was. She had moreover failed to mention him even once in all their conversations, and they had talked about her life on Alpha a lot. Tony could be someone she had shared something with in the past, which she was now remembering. There were many possible scenarios. He was certain that she was not married, and really that was all that mattered. Maya was far from stupid. She must realize that he was attracted to her. Even if there was a Tony, until she chose to mention him in sober waking state he could proceed with impunity as if there were not.
He settled down with these more comforting ideas and fell asleep, fully and soundly as always.
Maya woke up suddenly, with a feeling of fear. Her head was filled with a dull pulsating pain that moved with her and she was afraid to open her eyes fully. The glow of the bedside lamp, which switched itself on to signal the ship's daybreak, was too bright.
She closed her eyes tight and curled up. Her mind was horribly clear. She remembered, in sharp picture-liked detail, what had happened at the party. When Commander Riker had given her the beer she had been touched--quite surprised that he had remembered their conversation, and acted on it--and she had drunk it all to show that she was pleased. It had also tasted nice, sweet and rich and malty. In fact it had gone down so easily that she had been on the fourth bottle before she realized the effect it was having on her, and by that time she had been in a detached daze. Losing her self-consciousness was like suddenly no longer having a pain that she had hardly been aware of. It had been delightful to be in a room of strangers, light-years from home, and not to care.
Maya risked opening her eyes. Commander Riker was standing by the bed, looking at her with a faint smile.
"How are you feeling?"
She couldn't reply. She pressed her hands against her eyes. The bed moved as he sat on its edge.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It was my fault. I shouldn't have given you real alcohol and I should have realized you'd have no tolerance."
"What are you doing here?" she managed to say.
"I brought you back, then I thought I ought to stay to make sure that you were O.K."
She remembered now, in flashes. She had a dream-like recollection of looking at him and thinking that he was very attractive, and a feeling that she had been close to him.
"You should try to drink some more water," he was saying. "It'll help. I'll get you some."
He left the room and Maya tried to get up. As soon as she moved she was seized by violent nausea and she only just managed to get through to the bathroom before everything she had eaten yesterday came back up.
Utterly humiliated, sick and dizzy, she sank to the floor. Her eyes were streaming and her head was throbbing.
Commander Riker knelt beside her and put his arms round her to support her. She was too weak to feel the indignity. "I'm going to call Dr. Crusher."
"No--no. Please don't. Please."
"I feel slightly better now--oh no, I couldn't drink it..."
"You've got to, otherwise you'll get more dehydrated. Go on, or I'll have to call the doctor."
Slowly, she managed to get the glass of water down. Commander Riker helped her to her feet and led her back to the bedroom, where she collapsed onto the bed.
"I've got to go," he said. "We have a briefing at 0700 hours and the Captain wants to see me beforehand. I should be able to look in on you in a couple of hours. If you feel worse, promise me you'll call sickbay."
His voice was gentle, and when she half-opened her eyes she saw that he was gazing down at her with a look of direct, steady tenderness. Her body did not have the strength to react with alarm or with anything. She curled onto her side, trying to roll up and disappear.
She felt him arrange the sheet over her, and he said as he went, "Try to remember--you'll be better by this afternoon. Nobody ever died of a hangover."
"But I want to," she muttered, pulling the cover over her head. She was too preoccupied with physical wretchedness to think very clearly, but she was haunted by the looks of horror on the faces of the party guests and the image of the glass of water smashing at Commander Riker's feet. She wasn't going to be able to leave her quarters, or face anyone else, until they got to Alpha. And that was days and days away.
Maya had met Data by prior arrangement to pose for some sketches that he wanted to make of her. He had become interested in portraits and thought it might help his interpretation of humanoid facial expressions. She was mildly apprehensive that she would find herself represented as a series of geometric shapes, but when Data was satisfied with his preliminary work he showed her two straightforward drawings of her head and shoulders.
"I will work these into a more detailed portrait in oils," he said. "I wished to take these preliminary sketches to allow me to do so at leisure."
"But surely, Data, you have a photographic memory. Can't you just call up a mental image of me any time you want, and paint from that?"
"Yes--but I would not capture the particular impression of your personality without your physical presence, and this is what I hope to convey in the finished portrait. By making some attempt to express it in these, I may succeed. It is not so easy for me as it probably is for you to remember the essence of a person, as I have only a rudimentary grasp of the emotional processes that result in these nuances."
"Well, I'll sit for you as long as you want, as long as you keep talking to me, otherwise I'll get bored. Oh, and as long as I'm allowed to laugh."
"That will not be possible," said Data, taking back the sketches and putting them into a folder. "The Enterprise is scheduled to arrive at the last estimated position of Moonbase Alpha at 0300 hours tomorrow."
"You did not know?"
"I thought the day after tomorrow... so you mean tonight?"
"Yes. One of the reasons I wish to succeed with this portrait is to provide me with a means of remembering you accurately, when you have left with them."
"Oh, Data. You're so sweet."
Maya's communication badge sounded and said, "Riker to Maya."
"Yes, Will, I'm here."
"Are you busy at the moment?"
"Data's been drawing me, but I think he's finished."
"Good. Could you meet me in my quarters in ten minutes?"
"Of course," she said.
She left Data's quarters and made for Riker's feeling uneasy. He had sounded abrupt, almost formal, and it was still half an hour before she was supposed to be meeting him for lunch in Ten-Forward.
Her sense of foreboding sharpened as he greeted her with a grave expression, and invited her to sit down.
"Will, what is it?" she asked, remaining standing. "There's something wrong. Why are you here--aren't you on duty until twelve?"
"Yes, I am. I wanted to speak to you, in private."
"It's Alpha," she said, everything inside her taking a sickening dive. "Something's gone wrong."
"No--don't worry, it isn't Alpha."
Relieved, and sure she could face anything else, Maya let herself be sat down.
"I got a report back just half an hour ago," he said. "Something I've had a researcher in demographics working on full time for the past four days. I wanted to be able to give you good news, but I can't. I've got to say that now, before I tell you what I asked him to do."
"What did you ask him to do?" The solemnity of his manner was frightening her.
"I was sure, from what you told me about the way your people left Psychon, that there would be some trace of what happened to them somewhere in the Federation's databanks. So I had someone who's a expert in computers searching look through the records for any reports of people like you, anywhere."
"He found nothing."
"He found one reference. There's an independent group of plants called the Croton System--"
"Dorzak," said Maya. "I know."
"The ship taking him to exile landed on Alpha."
"Well... according to what the researched discovered, one of the Psychon ships made it to the Croton System, but there was some kind of clash of cultures and they were all killed expect one--Dorzak, as you say."
"He was an immensely charismatic man," said Maya, watching her own fingernails cut into her palms. "I think he had the other Psychons on that ship in his thrall, and made them behave badly toward the Crotons. Maybe, too, there was what you said--a clash of cultures. I don't know."
"He's still alive," said Riker. "He's on exile on their prison planet. If you like, I'll take you there."
"No. I don't want to see him again. He--turned on me, he tried to use the Alphans in the same way he used his fellow Psychons. He would have sent me to that prison planet in his place."
"I don't know. He must have had some kind of breakdown. I knew him on Psychon, he was a colleague of my father's. But what happened to our planet did terrible things to so many people."
"I'm sure," said Riker gently, "that for every one of your people who broke, hundreds were brave, like you are."
"I'm not brave!" she said.
He took her hands and pressed them. "I think you are."
Made self-conscious by the physical contact, but not liking to pull back, Maya looked at her feet and said, "That was all your researcher found?"
"That was all. I'm sorry. But it doesn't mean that they aren't out there somewhere. It's a big galaxy. I've put in standing instructions at all starbases and stellar demographic institutes for the Enterprise to be informed immediately if news of a Psychon-like race ever reaches them. Then, wherever you are, however many years from now, I'll get in touch with you and let you know. That's a promise."
"You don't do things by halves, do you, Will?"
"Never," he said, lightening the moon with a grin. "Now I've got two surprises for you."
"I've learned to be wary of your surprises."
"No more beer. Both these things I've been working on all week. One--how would you like to accompany me to an opera this evening--Otello?"
"On the holodeck?"
"No, a live concert performance by the Enterprise Opera Group."
"Well, they did a fully-staged production a few months ago, and I figured they could probably remember enough of it to put together a concert version in a week. I called in a few favors, and they've obliged."
"Will, that was very--it was a lovely thing to do."
"The second surprise, I hope you'll like as much. Would you rather go on a picnic than have lunch in Ten Forward?"
"This time it must be on the holodeck."
"This time you're right, but I've had some software engineers working on a new program. Let's go."
Intrigued, Maya followed him to the holodeck level. He kept up a mysterious, satisfied silence until they got to the entrance to holodeck four.
"Computer," he said, "run program Riker 6. O.K., Maya, close your eyes."
She did so, and she felt the warmth of his hand as he led her into the simulation. The door closed with its distinctive whirr, and the subliminal hum of the ship's systems vanished. She could hear distant birdsong, water lapping, and feel a slight breeze on her face.
"You can look now."
She opened her eyes, and stared in wonder.
She was on a bank by the lake at Tamyara, at the far side from the city. Across the shimmering water, the buildings of the old town tumbled down the hill amidst the trees, their flat roofs glowing golden in the sun. She could even see the newer buildings of steel and glass rising behind them. On the opposite bank was the Forest of Daznor, where she and her brother had played all day in the summer months. Behind her--she whirled round, stunned by the reality of the illusion--was the plain that rolled to the distant Elzak mountains.
"It's Tamyara!" she said, her voice sounding different and softer in the open air. "This is where I grew up, this is where I spent most of my life on Psychon! How did you know?"
"You told me," he said simply.
Yes, she probably had. He was incredibly observant and attentive. "But how did you--do this?"
"The first thing the researcher found was some detailed geographical data on Psychon, buried in an old galactic exploration file. I got the computer to extrapolate. Is it as you remember it?"
"Oh yes! It's so realistic."
"It was a beautiful place."
"It was beautiful. Tamyara was a center of learning, but it was also designated as an area of unspoiled natural beauty. We lived in a four hundred year old house, near the edge of the lake. We were lucky--" She broke off, overwhelmed. "I never thought I'd ever see it again. I know it's only an illusion, but--" She turned to him. "Thank you."
He held her with his eyes, and then took her arms and kissed her lightly.
She had sensed it coming and done nothing to stop him. She had an odd detached feeling of inevitability. Meeting no resistance to this first approach he drew her up against him and kissed her again, with deliberate passion.
It was an extraordinary sensation; the unfamiliar smell of his skin, the bristling of his beard, the sheer strength she could feel in his body. And her own, immediate response, an instant flush of physical excitement. One calm voice in her head said, Well, this is very nice. A moment later another, a thought that also came complete like a line of dialogue, said, I really shouldn't be doing this. Feeling almost as though she were acting a part, Maya pulled away.
Still holding her arms, he said, "What's wrong?"
Her calmness was disintegrating, and she began to feel horribly conscious. She felt her face grow hot.
"Maya--is there someone already?"
She nodded, still looking at the ground.
He lifted his hands clear of her, held them in the air, and smiled. "How could there not be? I was a fool to hope otherwise."
"I should have told you."
"Now why should you?"
"But I wasn't sure--what your intentions were--" And, she thought, because she had been enjoying Will's attentiveness and she hadn't wanted to put an end to it.
"Maya. Don't worry about it. You know that I think you're beautiful, and very special, and I'm extremely attracted to you. Because you hadn't mentioned anyone I was beginning to think you might not be attached, so you can't blame me for trying my luck."
"Oh, I should have told you!"
"But it doesn't matter. Really. Men and women can have relationships that put all that aside."
"I'm sure they can," she muttered.
"Deanna, more than anyone, taught me that. Look, since we've got into the swing of personal confessions, you might be interested to know that Deanna and I were almost married once."
"Many years ago, before either of us served on the Enterprise. We split up, but we work together now as colleagues and good friends. We don't have to deny the physical bond, but we've gone beyond that. I don't think there's another human being I'm closer to, and yet we don't have that kind of relationship any more. If she married someone else tomorrow, I'd be very happy for her."
Her embarrassment was easing and she began to feel more comfortable. He broke the mood by opening the picnic box and sitting down on the grass. Although her first desire had been to get out of the holodeck as soon as she could, Maya felt that she had to accept the proffered sandwich and cake and, as she ate, she regained her internal balance. It helped that Riker was clearly unconcerned.
"So," he said, "tell me all about the mystery man."
"He isn't a mystery! There's nothing to tell."
"Name, rank and number, at the very least."
"His name is Tony Verdeschi," said Maya, feeling desperately exposed. "He's chief of security, and second in command of the base."
"I've got it--I bet he's the one who makes beer? And the friend who introduced you to Italian opera? Am I right?"
"Then you have told me about him. I just didn't listen. Maya--come on now, you've gone cold on me again."
"I prefer not to discuss this sort of thing, that's all. It's private."
"I understand. Do you still want to come with me to the opera tonight?"
"Of course I do."
"Good," he said. "Then nothing's changed."
They finished the picnic without further personal conversation, and Maya tried to relax and enjoy herself again. She could not. Inside, she was still shaking, and her mind was in a distracted daze. Whatever Will said, something had changed; and since he had clearly forgotten about it already, it had to be her.
It was nearly midnight and only the late watch was in Command Center when John made one final check before going to bed. Three hours before, Eagle Four had returned from reconnaissance of the third quadrant with a negative report. Eagle One, with Alan Carter and Erica Chang aboard, was still out there in the fourth quadrant and was due to come back into communications range sometime in the night.
Tony was still at his station, swivelling the chair slightly from side to side, gazing at the monitoring screen.
"Any word from Eagle One?" John asked him.
John leaned over the instrument bank and said in a low voice, "You should've gone off duty hours ago. You're not on the late shift."
He wanted to remonstrate, but he recognized that it would probably be useless. "O.K...let me know if there are any developments."
There was a peculiar, tense atmosphere on the base which was detectable even at this time of night, when most people were in their quarters preparing to sleep. If the Captain of the Enterprise had been telling the truth, the ten days were nearly over and the ship was due to appear some time within the next twenty-four hours. John was gratified by the way every member of the team was carrying on with their duties, punctually and thoroughly. Apparently staff in the various research departments had even been working overtime, anxious to get projects finished before the deadline that was hanging over all of them.
If the next twenty-four hours came and went without the ship arriving, nothing would change on the base. He was sure of that now. He had the definite idea that many people would be quietly relieved. Everyone was inclined to fear change, and after six years, this life on Alpha had become their only life.
When he got back to his quarters, Helena was already there and fast asleep. She stirred only slightly as he undressed quickly and slipped in beside her. She felt very warm and peaceful, and he nuzzled up against her neck thinking that nothing mattered much except this.
"Is there any news?" she muttered.
"No, nothing. They'll let us know if there is." He wanted to talk to her about his concern over Tony, but he didn't want to wake her.
She clasped his hands round her body, and he felt the grip relax away as she fell asleep again.
He could not. Thoughts and worries chased monotonously round in his head, until they became broken and spiky. When a sudden random memory jolted him, he felt as though he had been lying there going over the same things for hours. But it was twenty past three, so he had probably dozed off. He got quietly out of bed and went to the communicator at the far side of the room.
Tony's face came up on the screen. "Command Center."
"What the Hell are you still doing there?" said John.
Tony said nothing.
"Any news from Alan?"
"Yes, he reported in about quarter of an hour ago. Nothing. He's on his way back."
"O.K.," said John, not surprised but dismayed anyway. "Then there's nothing for you to stay up for. Go to bed."
"There's nothing for me to go to bed for either, is there?"
"That's an order!" he snapped. "I've had enough of this, Tony, just pull yourself together."
Tony looked momentarily taken aback, said, "Yes, sir," with an inflection of sarcasm, and turned off the screen.
When John turned back toward the bed, Helena was sitting up with her knees tucked under her arms, watching him with a measured expression.
Knowing that he was under accusation, he said, "I meant to talk to you about Tony."
"But instead you thought you'd bite his head off?"
"Helena--I can't afford to walk on eggshells, I need someone I can rely on. I haven't got a second-in-command any more, I've got some kind of sullen automaton."
"He's depressed, John!"
"Fine. Then declare him unfit for duty, and let Alan take over."
She leaned forward earnestly. "John--this is Tony you're talking about, Tony who has saved your life and mine more than once, and not just by being in the right place at the right time--because he's got the courage and initiative to put himself on the line. That's why you chose him to replace Paul, when there were a dozen others who were as well qualified, and most of them more experienced. As far as I'm concerned, he's proven his worth. I trust him. You can't throw him aside just because he's under a lot of stress right now."
"And if the ship doesn't turn up, if we don't get Maya back, what then?"
"We'll have to deal with that situation if it arises. But telling him to pull himself together is not a useful strategy."
"O.K., O.K." He got back into bed and tried to relax, attempting to put off thinking about anything else at all until the morning. And that was all too few hours away.
But Helena was still sitting up, her chin on her knees. She had the ability to fall asleep and wake up at will; a skill developed, he was sure, in the course of her medical training. She thought nothing of holding major discussions in the middle of the night. "Of course," she said, in a more reflective tone, "if the ship does appear, it won't matter anyway. Moonbase Alpha will no longer be operational. You won't be commander, you won't need a second in command. Have you thought about that?"
"Of course I have. But how can I stop thinking in those terms?"
"That could be a problem, for a lot of people." She sighed, and snuggled back down under the covers, curling up to him.
He stroked her hair, desire stirring inconveniently. It really was very late and he was tired and tense. He gave her one goodnight kiss and then another, and had only just abandoned the idea of going back to sleep immediately when the communicator sounded.
He used the commlock he kept by his bed to respond. "Koenig here."
"John." It was Tony. "You'd better get down here fast."
Riker had gone straight from the holodeck to take the bridge for a four-hour stretch, a duty that was likely to be uneventful. He was glad that he was unlikely to have to do anything , because what had happened on the holodeck was filling his whole self. His Starfleet training and experience kept him functioning as an alert and efficient officer, but just below the surface he was totally preoccupied. He had only himself to blame for the rejection. By pretending not to know about his rival, he had enjoyed an unclouded week with her, but he had not been playing an honest game. He ought to have got her to admit to it the day after the party, by the simple mechanism of asking her, while he still had time to change her mind. On the other hand, she had not been honest with him. He was unconvinced by her coyness, when she had talked to him freely about things that he would have considered far more private. She hadn't wanted him to know.
One thing he had no doubt about; she had responded. She hadn't received his embrace passively, she had moved with him before pulling away so awkwardly.
As he remembered holding her, the sensations came back him and his body responded again. There was no pleasure in the longing any more, but he couldn't help thinking about the softness of her mouth--which she had opened to him--and the full silkiness of her hair between his fingers. He shifted uneasily in the command chair, painfully aware that he shouldn't be sitting here in command of the Federation's flagship while in the grip of near-adolescent sexual fantasies. But he was less in control of his imagination now that he had ever been before. It was beginning to worry him.
And it was maddening to know that it was only dutiful loyalty to the uninteresting Tony that had made her throw up the barriers once more. He had got to the stage where she didn't seem to mind him touching her in an impersonal way, but after the repulse she had rolled up like a hedgehog again. No eye contact, no smiles, voice polite and precise. He was back where he had started, and he had run out of time.
Unless...she had got over it by this evening, and they had a good time at the concert he had arranged. There was still a chance, if her immediate reaction of embarrassment had mellowed and he got her to relax.
"Commander," said Ensign Petra, who was at the helm. "I'm getting some readings which may indicate that we're approaching an inhabited asteroid."
"You think it could be Moonbase Alpha? I thought we weren't due to arrive at its estimated position until 0300 hours tonight."
"No, sir. We had no precise information about Moonbase Alpha's position, only that it was somewhere near Lifeboat 898."
The Enterprise had reached the sector where Lifeboat 898 was situated two hours ago, and had slowed to impulse speed to scan it quadrant by quadrant. The computer had estimated that this process was likely to pinpoint the location of the moon within fifteen hours, which was why they had been working on a time of 0300 hours. If he had thought about it more carefully--and he ought to be thinking about things more carefully than he was, at present--he would have realized that they could find the base fifteen hours either side of that approximation. He had not told Maya this earlier. He hadn't wanted her to have it on her mind. "Do we have visual, ensign?"
"No, sir. These are frequencies on long-range scanners only. It would take us an estimated--"she paused and keyed in the figures on the terminal--"twenty-eight minutes to get within transporter range at full impulse."
"Understood. Head toward that source unless it starts to look unlikely. Mr. Aziz, send out a general hail on all frequencies. If it is Moonbase Alpha they probably won't have the equipment to pick it up at this range, but we want to give them some warning of our approach if possible."
He lifted his hand to call Maya, but lowered it again. If it was a false alarm, it would only agitate her. Captain Picard was his second thought, which was another disturbing sign. He informed the Captain of the possible approach, and was asked to report to the observation room.
Worf and Deanna were already there.
"I understand there's a possibility we may be approaching Moonbase Alpha ahead of schedule," the Captain said as soon as he entered. "That's good, because I was about to call you anyway to discuss the situation on Lanthenon. I have just had another subspace conversation, this time with His Majesty King Bahu himself. The Royal House is very keen indeed that we should arrive as soon as possible, and I have to say that I don't think His Majesty fully appreciated the necessity of prioritizing what he understands to be a routine evacuation over his daughter's wedding. He went so far as to suggest that we should have sent out another ship to rescue the Alphans."
"These people obviously have a great sense of their own importance," said Riker.
"Perhaps all cultures do, Number One," said the Captain. "The Lanthenons have been isolated, because of their remoteness. This wedding has great significance for them--it's a bold step to unite their future monarch with a member of another race. As I've said, the Federation regards this occasion as vital to the planet's integration."
"I can understand what the Lanthenon King feels," said Worf. "This stranded base has great meaning for humans, because the people there have come from your past. But the ceremony on Lanthenon is happening now, and will shape their future. That is more important."
"It's all pretty important for the people on Alpha," said Riker. "And for Maya."
"Indeed," said the Captain. "Despite His Majesty's insinuations, I have made my position clear to him. We will proceed with the evacuation of Moonbase Alpha. But in the interests of diplomatic relations, we will have to make the evacuation rapid and head straight for Lanthenon thereafter. Study of the base, possible recovery of the moon itself--they are talking about that--reintegration of the Alphans, will all have to be put on hold until we complete the Lanthenon mission. So the sooner we find Moonbase Alpha, the happier all parties will be."
Except me, thought Riker. He felt Deanna looking at him, and avoided her eyes.
His commbadge sounded. "Aziz to Commander Riker."
"Go ahead, Mr. Aziz."
"We're getting further readings that seem to indicate the asteroid is inhabited, and of a mass compatible with Earth's former moon."
"Any contact yet?"
"No, sir. But we wouldn't expect that with the technology they've got."
"Keep trying. What's our ETA?"
"Nineteen minutes forty-eight seconds, sir, at full impulse."
Captain Picard tapped his communicator, and stood up. "All senior officers report to the bridge. Number One, perhaps you should inform Maya."
"Recommend we wait until we're certain that asteroid is Moonbase Alpha. I don't want her to be disappointed."
"As you think best."
They made their way to the bridge.
"You got me out of bed for that?"
"It's a signal," said Tony emphatically, trying to brush off John's increasingly hostile reactions as of late. He gestured again at the readings on his screen. "It has to be some kind of calling code. It could be from the Enterprise."
"How far away is its source?"
"We can't tell, Commander," said Annie Fraser, the young engineer who was on night watch at the communications station.
Helena was leaning back against a console, clutching her dressing gown around her body with one arm, rubbing her thumb and fingers together on her other hand. She lifted her head as he looked at her, and her eyes told him to go carefully.
He rubbed the back of his neck and, reflexively, glanced across at where Maya would have been. She would be the first on hand with an accurate theory and a sensible recommendation of action, in her calm decisive way. "What's Eagle One's position relative to that signal?" he asked.
"In the opposite quadrant," said Tony.
"So there's no point in telling Alan to change course toward it. Turn up the audio, Annie, let's hear it."
A pulsating tone filled the silence of Command Center. The few personnel who were on night watch had abandoned their prescribed tasks and were gathered around the communications terminal. Then the tone stopped, and they heard a ghostly whisper.
"Amplify that," said Tony.
Annie turned some controls and blasted out static, drowning the voice they had heard.
"Can't you do better than that?" Tony snapped.
Annie bit her lip, and said quietly, "I'll try routing it to our main receiver dish, the one that's used for astronomy."
John went to stand behind her and put an encouraging hand on her shoulder, not wanting to remonstrate with Tony in front of the junior personnel.
When Annie completed the transfer, a human voice sounded out clearly. "Starship Enterprise calling Moonbase Alpha. Starship Enterprise calling Moonbase Alpha."
"I don't believe it," said Tony, seeming stunned. "Can we reply?"
"I'll try." She opened a channel and began to hail in the direction of the signal.
"Visual," said John. "Anything on visual?"
The screen showed empty space, the same distant stars they had been traveling toward for weeks, on all sides.
"We are receiving you, Moonbase Alpha," said the voice, faint but precise. "ETA to transporter range, six minutes fifteen seconds."
"But there's nothing out there!" said Tony.
John looked at Helena again. Her expression was still taunt, her face case into shadows by the dim night-time lighting in Command Center. Her eyes widened. "Look," she said.
On the screen, one of the stars had resolved into a bright dot which was growing as they watched. Within seconds it had expanded to the small but distinguishable form of a space vessel.
"What kind of speed is that thing going at?" said Tony.
John felt Helena at his side, and he took her hand. Her nails pressed into his palm as the ship approached, until it hung in space like a jewel, shining in the starlight. Its fluid lines swept back from a forward saucer section, and the glitter of tiny portholes have some perspective on the vessel's massive size.
"It's beautiful," said Helena, almost under her breath.
"God, that's some ship," said one of the night watch, an Eagle technician.
"Annie," said John.
She snapped out of a transfixed daze and opened a channel. "Moonbase Alpha to ship. Please identify yourself."
The view of the ship above the moon was replaced by a clear image of its interior. He could see the sweep of an impressive control room, with several uniformed officers at their stations. A man whom he recognized as Captain Picard stepped down from what looked like the command chair and came near the screen.
"Commander Koenig," he said, with a faint smile. "On behalf of Earth, and the United Federation of planets, I would like to welcome you all to the twenty-fourth century."
Maya had been studying in the Enterprise's education center when Riker called to tell her that they had arrived at Moonbase Alpha. Not that they had sighted it, or were due to approach it; that they had arrived. She realized that she was able to detect the slight lack of motion now that she had been made aware of it, but she hadn't noticed the cessation of the engines because she had been too distracted. Words and figures rolled up on the screen, without getting past her eyes. She had started one section of the tutorial program three times over, and each time her mind had slipped away from it.
When she got the message, calm and curt over the communicator, it affected her like a physical shock. She jumped up immediately to obey the order to meet Will in shuttle bay four, but then she sat down again to control her feelings. Her first reaction had been distress, quite unaccountably. She had felt a deep anxious pang that seemed to come from her diaphragm. What was she afraid of?
She knew, but she was reluctant to form it into an articulated thought. She didn't want to go back to the place where she had been happy, and settled, when she knew that their life there was about to be broken up. Irrational though it was, she had always felt threatened when the officers of the Enterprise talked casually about the 'evacuation' of Moonbase Alpha. The others would be happy. She tried to concentrate on that. How she felt was unimportant.
Captain Picard himself was waiting in the shuttle bay, with Riker, Deanna and Dr. Crusher. Maya had gained some feel for Starfleet protocol and she realized that they were extending respect by sending a delegation of high-ranking officers to greet the Alphans, but were being careful to choose only humans or near-humans. She knew also that it was an extraordinary measure for the Captain to leave the ship. Inevitably, the contingent included one security guard to ensure his personal safety.
"Have you spoken to Commander Koenig?" she asked Riker.
"Yes, he preferred that we went down in the shuttle, rather than beam down. I explained that you couldn't use a transporter anyway."
"They're very anxious to see you," said the Captain with a smile. "I doubt we'd get a friendly welcome without you."
"Captain," said Maya hesitantly, "I must ask you to understand that we've encountered several hostile races, and so I would imagine that the Commander's reaction would be cautious."
The Captain nodded. "I do understand that, Maya. I'm relying on you to establish his trust as quickly as possible."
Maya sat forward as soon as the shuttle cleared the docking bay, and saw the familiar pale disk of the moon. The small craft glided easily toward the base, so smoothly that she could feel only a brief acceleration and deceleration. She thought of the laborious roar and rattle of the Eagles.
"The moon," said Captain Picard. "This is a moment of history, Number One. A small moment, perhaps, but one that will be remembered."
"It certainly is," said Riker.
Maya avoided looking at him. For the first time, she wished that he was not there.
The shuttle touched down like a feather on the Eagle landing pad, and the universal docking ring seemed to engage without a problem.
"Cleared to enter, sir," said the pilot, over the Captain's communicator.
The Captain indicated that she should go first, and Maya stepped across the docking ring with the extraordinary feeling that she was entering a strange place rather than coming home. Her unease vanished when she saw the Commander, Tony and Helena, who all ran forward to meet her. She hugged Helena briefly and then threw her arms round Tony, overwhelmed by the realization that she had missed him painfully. He pressed her head against his cheek and murmured her name, and she looked into his eyes and touched her nose against his.
"Are you O.K.?" he asked.
"I thought you said I'd see you in a couple of days."
"Well, I got side-tracked."
He was going to kiss her, but she was conscious that this behavior was not appropriate in the presence of the Starfleet officers. She broke away and made some rather incoherent introductions.
"I'm pleased to return your science officer to you as promised," Captain Picard said, as he shook hands.
"We're certainly glad to have her back," said the Commander.
"Are your crew standing by to evacuate?"
"Ah--not exactly. It's five past four in the morning here."
"I would appreciate it if you would prepare them immediately." The Captain spoke with casual authority, as one used to and certain of being obeyed.
Maya saw the Commander's expression darken, and he exchanged a glance with Tony. She remembered the Captain's orders to her and she said, "It's all right, Commander."
"Captain," said the Commander. "Do you mind if I speak to my people alone for just a moment?"
The Captain raised one eyebrow and indicated with a movement of his hand that he had no objection. Maya felt embarrassed and slightly angry as she followed the Alphans into the travel tube, leaving two security men behind. "Commander," she said as soon as the door was closed, "there's nothing to be suspicious of, this is all real. You must have seen the Enterprise on the viewscreen in Command Center."
"The ship definitely comes from Earth?"
"It belongs to Starfleet, it represents the United Federation of Planets. Earth is a founding member. When you go up there you'll see that there are lots of people from other species serving on the ship too. I've been with them for ten days, I know."
The Commander was still frowning. She looked round in exasperation at their pale, taunt faces.
"You don't believe me, do you," she said. "You think they've influenced me somehow."
Tony looked down. He had crossed his arms against his body. Helena also avoided her eyes, with a slight motion of her head. Only the Commander kept his gaze steady on her, and reached out to take her arms. "Maya," he said, gently, "we would never doubt you. But you know the kind of tricks that hostile aliens have tried to play on us in the past."
"The last time a big ship showed up promising to take us back to Earth it was full of Creatures from the Pit," said Tony. "And they looked and behaved like people we knew."
"Is that what you think?" Maya said, suddenly on the edge of panic. "You don't think I'm me? Tony--Tony, you know it's me." She went to him and touched him.
His eyes were dark and reserved, and he kept his arms crossed.
"Ask me something!" she cried, shrinking back at his coldness. "Ask me--what you gave me for my birthday last month."
"If you were constructed out of my mind, like Guido was," Tony said, "you'd know anyway."
She stood for a moment in silence, hurt and fighting down the emotion. She had to control it before she could speak again. She had not been prepared for this tension, and she felt at a far remove from the people that she had considered her closest friends. Although she recognized that their concern was justified from their past experiences, she still felt that they mistrusted her loyalty. After all, she wasn't really one of them. She was an alien.
She tried to keep her voice calm. "If you want to talk about it without me, I'll go back through and leave you alone."
"Oh, come on, Maya," said Tony. "Don't start getting paranoid."
"I'm paranoid?" she cried.
"Easy," said Helena, leaving her neutral position beside the Commander and clasping her shoulder. "Of course you're really Maya."
"Just go up to the Enterprise," Maya said. "Once you're there you'll realize what I'm telling you is true."
There was a pause. Helena remained firmly at her side. Tony had uncrossed his arms but was leaning against the wall, his expression moody.
"All right," said the Commander, after looking between them. "I'll go."
Maya felt Helena tense, and glancing sideways she saw that her face had taken on a stony look. Whatever she said, Helena didn't trust her.
"No, I'll go," said Tony, standing up straight.
"It's my job, Tony," said the Commander. "I need someone with authority down here, to start preparing the people to leave, if that's what's going to happen. I'll return to the Enterprise with Captain Picard and Maya, and you and Helena wake everyone up and tell them what's going on."
Maya wanted to say that she would rather remain behind as well to help with this, and to pack her own belongings, but she realized in the next moment that the Commander wanted to keep her with him until he was satisfied about her story. It was the standard Alphan practice of risking as few lives as possible, and she understood that; but it still pained her.
She was mortified, too, that they were now going to have to ask the delegation to get back into the shuttle and go. It made the Alphans seem discourteous. Nobody said anything else, and the Commander led them back through to the docking bat where the Starfleet officers were waiting patiently.
"All right, Captain," said the Commander. "I'll go back with you to your ship. Just me--and Maya. If everything is what you say it is, we can discuss bringing along the rest of our people."
"Very well," said the Captain. "Can my officers remain here, to tour the base and help you with your preparations?"
To Maya's relief, the Commander consented to this after a moment's thought. Within minutes, the shuttle was on its way back to the Enterprise.
The shuttle was creamy white inside and looked as though it had been designed as much for comfort as functionality. The seats were padded and had restraining bands that seemed to fasten without a visible buckle. John watched what Maya and Captain Picard did with the belts when they saw down opposite him, and copied them. The material melded under his hands. Then the shuttle took off with a whisper of motion, like the faint lift of an elevator. Through the viewport he saw the great elegant bulk of the Enterprise loom rapidly. The craft seemed to skim nimbly along a gleaming wall of metal, then plunged into an aperture and stopped with a gentle nudge. He heard a thudding noise as the space doors rolled shut behind them, and heard a hiss as air was let into the docking port. The journey had taken about three minutes; an Eagle, he estimated, would have made it half an hour from start to finish. There was no doubt that this was space technology beyond anything he had seen before, and yet it did not feel alien.
"Welcome to the Enterprise," said Captain Picard, disengaging his belt.
Maya did the same. John found he could not make the belt come apart, and struggled for a few seconds until Maya leaned over him and did something which made the two parts separate. "Thanks," he said, grinning at her.
She gave him a tight half-smile in return.
He was aware that they had distressed her by appearing to doubt her, and that was one reason why he had asked her to come back to the ship with him; he wanted to have one of his own people as back up, and it made sense to choose Maya, who was familiar with the situation. He also wanted to demonstrate to her that he trusted her. It had never seriously troubled him that she might be some kind of trick or manifestation, only that perhaps she had been influenced adversely. And he found himself unexpectedly relieved to see her. Not only would Tony be happy now, but he had missed her more than he'd realized; her beauty and vivacity as much as her qualities as a science officer. These aren't adulterous feelings, he thought without concern, just an acknowledgment of nature. He pressed her elbow briefly as they stepped out of the shuttle, and she returned a warmer look.
The docking bay was sizeable. Several people were waiting for them, standing in formal groups. John was becoming less uneasy by the moment. Most of the people in the docking bay looked human, but they were approached immediately by a creature of humanoid but undoubtedly alien appearance. He wore the same uniform as the rest, though with the added decoration of a jointed golden sash across his body.
"May I introduce Lieutenant Worf, of the Klingon Empire," said the Captain. "Mr. Worf, this is Commander John Koenig from Moonbase Alpha."
"I am honored to meet you, Commander," the alien said, in a deep resonate voice.
As John shook one of the alien's rough, oversized hands, he became convinced in his mind that this time everything was all right.
"Commander Koenig has come here to reassure himself that the Enterprise is capable of undertaking the evacuation of Moonbase Alpha before he commits his people to our care," said the Captain, leaving the shuttle bay and taking them into a wide, brightly-lit corridor. "Mr. Koenig, you've already seen one of our shuttles. We can transport your people on these if necessary, but it would take some time. Normally, for travel between the Enterprise and a nearby planet we use transporters, the device that caused your science officer to come to us in the first place. I would be pleased to show you the transporter bays. We can beam up your entire crew within minutes if necessary."
John realized that the Captain was presenting the tour as a display of the Enterprise's facilities, and not as a demonstration of his integrity. It was a subtle diplomatic charade which he played along with, because Maya had been right. His doubts had been dispelled as soon as he had seen the interior of the ship. There were only practical considerations now.
Captain Picard showed him the several transporter rooms, which could pluck all the Alphans and their belongings up into this bright new world, and the decks of guest quarters, where there was ample room to accommodate them in comfort far beyond what they were accustomed to on Alpha. He was shown the food replicators in operation, and assured that even for deep space voyages the resources of the Enterprise were close to limitless. Finally, they were to a conference room with an impressive wall of space windows. The moon hung outside, large and luminous.
The Captain had dismissed the alien lieutenant, so it was a private meeting. Maya sat at his side, her fingers interlocked on the table, her face grave.
"Now you've seen the Enterprise, perhaps you've been able to form a judgement of us," said the Captain, presenting him with a cup of tea.
"Yes, I have," said John, sipping the tea appreciatively. It burst onto his senses like a sudden memory, and he realized how long it was since he had tasted anything real. "Everything seems satisfactory. I'm sorry if we seemed suspicious, but we had to be sure."
"Understandable. I must take you into my confidence now and discuss something which is relatively sensitive. Maya already knows something about this, that our next mission is to officiate at a state wedding on a planet called Lanthenon, which is approximately twenty hours journey from this position. Over the past few days it has become increasingly apparent that our presence there is required more urgently than was originally thought, and I'm under pressure from various quarters to get there as soon as possible. Contact with and evacuation of Moonbase Alpha was our top priority, but I would appreciate it if you could prepare your crew to leave as soon as possible."
"How soon is that?"
"No more than two hours?"
"Just one moment, Captain. We've lived on Moonbase Alpha for the past six years. We won't be ready to abandon it in two hours."
"I understand your concern, Mr. Koenig, and under different circumstances we would want to spend several days here, while our people studied the base and your people got accustomed to the change in their situation. We will return to complete a study of Alpha, as soon as we finish our business on Lanthenon. The base is a remarkable living museum, you can be assured that the Federation will want to keep it intact. None of it will be lost."
"How long until you return from this planet?"
"About five standard days. I can offer you a choice. After all, you are free agents and you can decide whether or not you wish to accept our help. We can evacuate the base quickly now, and you can all come with us to Lanthenon, or you can stay on Alpha and wait for our return."
John thought rapidly. He glanced at Maya, whose expression was faintly anxious. His first instinct was to play it safe and take the second option, but he felt that the Alphans would be better off removing to the Enterprise as soon as possible. Alpha only seemed to be a safe haven because they had been there so long. It was really a dangerous, defenseless drifting asteroid. He had to make the decision, not procrastinate.
"I'll issue the order for Operation Exodus."
"Excellent," said the Captain. "I'd recommend that you leave a skeleton crew behind to keep the base operational until we return. We can provide you with subspace equipment, so that Alpha will remain in communication with us."
"I'm sure I'll find volunteers."
"Our ship's counselor has already arranged for a team of liaison officers to meet your crew and help them settle in. Perhaps Maya would like to remain on the Enterprise to assist with this."
Maya glanced at him for approval, and he nodded. He was mildly disconcerted that Picard had seen fit to suggest an order to one of his people, and perhaps more so that Maya seemed to accept it so readily. He let it pass in his mind.
He radioed down to Alpha using his own commlock, glad to find that there was no problem with communication. Tony's face appeared on the little screen.
"O.K. up here," said John. "I'm coming down, I'll tell you more when I get there. How are things going?"
"Fine, we've shown them a bit of the base. They seem to be behaving themselves."
"Have you alerted the crew?"
"Yes, everyone's awake and standing by to see what's going to happen."
"Get people together in the theater. I'll be with you shortly."
They used the transporter to return to Alpha, leaving Maya behind. There was a brief sensation of brightness that burned his eyes like a flash of direct sunlight, and the surroundings of the transporter room dissolved. He had a moment of disorientation and enough time to feel a stab of panic before he staggered, felt a colder air, and realized that he was in Command Center. Abruptly Helena was there, catching him. The suddenness of her presence was shocking.
"John!" she said. "Are you all right?"
The dizziness passed. He held onto her arms until he was sure, and he took stock of his surroundings. Helena was there, with the red-haired doctor from the Enterprise, and Tony.
"Where's Maya?" said Tony.
"Still on the ship--she's going to help with the evacuation on that end."
"We're going, then?"
"Yes. Is everyone ready?"
"Well, they should be in the theater by now."
"How about the officers from the Enterprise?"
"I left the other two in Anderson Lounge while we got our people together."
"Get them. Captain Picard--doctor--if you'd like to come with me."
With Captain Picard gone, Riker found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to lead the delegation. It was uncomfortable because he felt as if something was clawing out the insides of his stomach, and he had nonetheless to be interested in Moonbase Alpha and pleasant to its personnel. Which, of course, included the man whom Maya had embraced so happily, without any appearance of her usual reticence.
The two Alphan officers--his rival and the doctor--took them for a tour around the base. It was extraordinary, like walking into one of those movies set at the dawn of the space age; except that there was a peculiar intangible tang in the air that characterized a past time. Even though Moonbase Alpha was physically in the twenty-fourth century, it felt and tasted like it was still in the beginning of the twenty-first.
The complex was extensive. Different parts of the installation were connected by tunnels, along which ran motorized transporter capsules called travel tubes. They were shown the medical center, the large hydroponics unit, some of the research laboratories which had been the focus of the base's original mission, and the adequate but confined living quarters.
"We have recreational facilities, too," said Dr. Russell as they walked down a corridor in one of the residential blocks.
"They must have been important for the psychological well-being of your crew," said Deanna.
"Yes--that's been the hardest thing of all."
"I'm sure it has," said Beverly.
Riker was interested in Dr. Russell, whom Maya had given him to understand was probably the most powerful person on the base after the Commander himself. She was smaller than he had imagined, with a soft voice and a gentle manner, and she didn't seem on first impression to be the authoritative figure Maya had described. "The way you've managed to maintain this base is extremely impressive," Riker said, meaning it sincerely. Everything he had seen was meticulously clean and in full working order.
"We don't sit around doing nothing all day," said the security chief shortly.
Diplomacy obviously not a compulsory subject for space training in the twentieth century, Riker thought as Dr. Russell smoothed over his reaction with an observation that finding raw materials for repairs was often a difficulty. He was unimpressed by Verdeschi, who was young and abrupt and seemed to have nothing in his favor but moderate good looks.
When they were left alone together in a recreation lounge after the Alphan officers and Beverly went to prepare the personnel for evacuation, guarded discreetly and provided with vile chemical coffee, Deanna said quietly, "Did you know about--"
"She told me this afternoon."
"I wish I could say it doesn't matter."
Deanna put a hand on his knee, looking at him with steady understanding. He was comforted, as he always was by her, and he touched her cheek.
The door opened, and Verdeschi looked in. "O.K.," he said. "The Commander's reported back. It looks like we're going."
All the Alphans were assembled in the theater by the time John arrived there, and the atmosphere became intense as he entered with the Captain and the others. Helena and the Enterprise doctor took seats in the front row, and John invited the Captain onto the stage with him. It was important, he thought, to make a face-to-face address to the people of Alpha, though it would have been quicker to address them via the loudspeakers. "People of Alpha," he began, formally, "we've been looking for a way off this rock and back to Earth for a long time now. Many of you probably feel by now, as I know I do, that our life here has taken on a validity of its own, and that we've all discovered strengths in ourselves in surviving what we've come through that we might never have found if the moon had never blasted out of the orbit, and we'd all carried on being physicists and botanists and astronauts. We've focused on the hope of settling on one of the planets we've passed by, but as you know none of those worked out. Well, now Earth has come to find us after all. I'd like to introduce Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise. Earth now belongs to a United Federation of Planets, and it has the technology to build ships like the Enterprise, with faster than light capabilities. I guess you've all seen the ship on the viewscreen or in the observation lounge. I've just been there myself and I'm satisfied that everything's as it appears to be. There's nothing left to say except--get ready to leave."
There was a buzzing in the audience.
"How long will it take you to get us back to Earth?" asked someone.
"We're a long way out," said Captain Picard. "It's a voyage of about four months from this point."
"What can we take with us?" asked someone else.
"Anything you like. And, as I've already explained to your Commander, the Federation wants to preserve Moonbase Alpha intact."
"We need to do this quickly," John added, over a rising tide of voices, which subsided slightly as he spoke. "The Enterprise has another mission and will be coming back here in five days. Anyone who wants to stay until then, can. I'm looking for volunteers to keep the base operational during that time. See me in Command Center in half an hour."
He decided to go to his own quarters briefly to pack his personal belongings, so he could then concentrate on overseeing the operation. Helena followed him, and as soon as the door was closed she said, "You could have discussed this with me."
Momentarily taken aback, he said, "There's nothing to discuss. I've been to the Enterprise, there's no question that they're from Earth and they're friendly."
"But for us just to abandon--all this--everything we've lived with for years--just like that?"
"We've always been poised to do that."
"When we decided to, not when someone told us to."
"It is my decision. Well, it's our decision. You can stay for a few days more if you want, but I'd rather you came with me."
"Oh, I'll come--I'm not about to let you go off in a spaceship without me--but this is our home. I know it's not rational, but that's how I feel." She sat on the bed, bending her hand against its spring.
He joined her there. "None of this will make any difference to us, if that's what you're thinking about."
She looked full at him for a moment. "Yes it will," she said. "It has to."
"Not as far as I'm concerned." He cupped her face and kissed her seriously. This malaise would pass.
"I didn't mention this before," she said, "but the day after you told everyone about the Enterprise, Carol Earnshaw came to see me--she was very upset."
"Why? I would have thought she, of all people, would have been pleased at the prospect of getting off Alpha."
"No, she felt just the opposite. She said she'd known that, on Alpha, she would be supported, and her child would have a close community to grow up in, and that it would at least be near its father and would know him. She was terrified of what was going to happen if a spaceship from Earth rescued us, and we all went our separate ways. She would be completely alone."
John considered. "That never occurred to me. What did you say to her?"
"What could I say? We don't know now what our future is going to be."
"Helena, trust me. From what I saw of that ship, we're all going to have a better life."
"Well," she said, standing up, "one thing's for sure, we can't put the genie back into the bottle. Let's get organized."
Within the space of an hour, the Alphans were ready. Several people had come to him and said that they wanted to stay until the Enterprise returned, to finish experiments or to help keep the base running.
Alan Carter returned from his Eagle flight and was briefed quickly. "I'll stay behind to command the base," he said.
"Thanks, Alan, I was hoping you'd say that."
"Well, you could hardly ask Tony to do it, not if Maya's going with you. One thing I'd say, though. Take a couple of Eagles with you. I don't care how big and flash this ship is--you want to have your own transport, just in case you want to get out in a hurry."
John nodded, taking this advice seriously. He put the request to Captain Picard straight, without giving a reason, and was surprised when he replied that there would be no problem, without asking for one. He sent Eagles Four and Ten up to the Enterprise immediately, while the rest of the Alphans assembled in Command Center to be transported.
In groups of six, one after the other, the people of Moonbase Alpha shimmered and disappeared.
Maya was trapped on the ship by her inability to use the transporters, so she helped in the Starfleet crew in the transporter bays to receive the Alphans. They looked shabby and crumpled in the bright surroundings of the Enterprise, their faces drawn and pale and their uniforms dingy. Her spirits were uplifted by how many people were delighted to see her, and she was fully occupied for the next two hours in showing everyone to their guest quarters and answering questions about the ship and what had happened to her. She hardly had time to think about Tony or the others. She was showing Sandra Benes how to use a replicator when Riker called her.
"I thought you'd like to know that the evacuation's complete," he said, his voice slightly tinny against her chest. "The Enterprise will be setting off for Lanthenon almost immediately. It just occurred to me that you haven't had a chance to get your own things off the base."
"No, I haven't--but it doesn't matter. I haven't very many personal possessions anyway. Those I do have, I can easily pick up when we come back. The Captain said we'd be returning in about five day's time."
"If everything goes smoothly on Lanthenon, yes."
"Why shouldn't it? I thought it was only a wedding."
"Weddings are notorious for going wrong. There's something else I wanted to say--this opera. They're all ready to go, and the singers have lined up their off-duty time for tonight. Are you still interested?"
"Of course I am, but I thought we had to go to dinner with the Captain."
"I had a word with the Captain. He doesn't mind if we go to the opera instead, he knows what we both look like."
"If you're sure."
"No problem. I'll see you in your quarters in half an hour."
Maya went back down to the transporter deck to check that there was nothing left for her to do, and ran into the Commander, Tony and Helena in the company of the Captain, Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi. They had been the last to beam up, and were being shown to their own quarters.
Tony acknowledged his earlier coldness by hugging her shoulders as they walked along, silently asking whether he was forgiven. Maya wasn't sure that he was, but she could never stay angry with him and she was too glad to be with him again.
"I'll show you my quarters," she said. "I can take you to yours later."
"That sounds like some kind of invitation."
When they got there and the door was shut behind them, Tony grinned and said, "I thought we were never going to get a chance to be alone." He grabbed her and kissed her hungrily.
"Do you want to see how a replicator works?" she said, emerging.
"It can make beer."
"Then definitely not."
She laughed. "Oh Tony, I'm so happy to see you," she said with an impulsive burst of warmth. It wasn't the sort of thing she usually dared say to him, but he was too busy looking her up and down to react, as she feared he might, with flippancy.
"You look different," he said. "You've done your hair differently--looser."
"It's the fashion on the Enterprise."
"And the dress--"
"Do you like it?"
"It's very nice. How does it come off?"
"Tony!" Still laughing, she tried to wriggle away from him when she realized he was searching down her back for a fastening. "Not now."
"Why not now? We don't have to go to the Captain's dinner for another hour."
"No, but--Tony, you've just arrived on this incredible starship, and this is the only thing you can think about?"
"After nearly three weeks without you, you bet it is." He gave up looking for the fastening and tried to pull the dress down round her shoulders, pressing kisses on the exposed flesh.
"Tony--no--I mean it--we can't. Will's going to be here any moment."
"Will? Who the Hell's he?"
"Oh, I see. What's he coming here for?"
"He's taking me to an opera."
"He's taking you to an opera? Where do you think we are, La Scala Milan?"
"No, the ship's amateur opera group are doing it. He arranged it for me specially."
Tony drew away with an expression of annoyance. "You haven't lost any time hob-nobbing your way up the hierarchy, have you?"
"Tony! You're jealous."
"Me, jealous? How can I be jealous of a man who forgets to shave in the morning?"
"You can come too."
"No thanks, I wouldn't want to play gooseberry."
The door sounded.
"Ignore it," he said, in a more serious tone, drawing her close again. His quick dark eyes were soft with passion.
She wanted to, and she struggled with her conscience. "I can't," she said, breaking away and opening the door.
Riker stood politely outside, his hands folded behind his back, instead of entering immediately as he usually did. He gave her a brief smile in greeting, then glanced down at her dress.
Maya hitched the sleeves back over her shoulders, and her face flushed.
"I'm interrupting," said Riker quietly. "I'd better go."
"No--don't. Is it all right if Tony comes with us?"
"Of course it is."
"I'm ready, then." She turned to Tony expectantly.
Tony crossed his arms and stayed where he was. The pause became embarrassing.
"Excuse me a moment," she said to Riker.
He nodded, and she left him standing in the corridor and went to Tony. "Come on, Tony."
"I told you, I don't want to go."
He was serious. Exasperated, Maya said, "Why are you being like this?"
"Well, for a start I don't want to go to Captain what's-his-name's dinner on my own."
"But Will arranged this performance for me, I have to go. Look, Tony, Will's been very good to me since I got here, he's spent a lot of time looking after me."
"I bet he has."
"What do you mean by that? You are jealous!"
"No, but I think you should tell him to go off to his opera by himself and stay here with me."
"I can't." She took his hands. "Please, Tony."
"No!" He snatched away.
Both irritated and hot with embarrassment, Maya gave up and joined Riker, who was examining the wall. The door hummed calmly shut on Tony's glare, and she marched heedlessly along the corridor.
Riker followed her pace easily with his large strides. "If there's a problem--"
"No! There's no problem. I'm sorry about Tony's rudeness."
"That's all right. I can take it."
His calm affability was soothing. There were a few moments when Maya thought she ought to change her mind and go back, but by the time anger had propelled her as far as the theater she was trapped by courtesy. As she took her seat she decided she may as well relax and enjoy it. She would find Tony and make him sorry later.
Helena had struck up an immediate rapport with Beverly Crusher when she discovered that they had a lot in common beside their profession, and after the Captain's dinner was over they went to Ten Forward to continue swapping their life stories. John had only had about two hours sleep, and had to go to bed to catch up. Helena was used to getting by on any small disjointed amount of sleep, and was able to stay awake without strain. She felt brilliantly awake anyway, her senses sharp and flooded.
Beverly brought her an iced drink in a glass. "Raktajino," she said. "Klingon coffee. Try it. This is the sophisticated thing to drink late at night, this year anyhow."
Helena sniffed at the black oily liquid, and tried a sip. It tasted like it looked. Sophistication in the twenty-fourth century was evidently not going to come easily.
"Tell me if I've read this right," said Beverly, settling down with her own cup of raktajino and leaning forward. "You and Commander Koenig--are you together?"
"Yes, we are."
"How do you find that? I mean, I've often wondered, in a general kind of way, whether it would be difficult being in a relationship with your own commanding officer. And if that commanding officer is also in command of the ship, or starbase or whatever, I imagine you'd run into all sorts of conflicts of interest and awkward situations. Have you found that?"
Helena considered. "Yes, I suppose so. It's something I've gotten used to, so I haven't thought about it much recently, but--yes. We used to be very careful. It certainly wasn't love at first sight. When we first met, just before breakaway--John had only been assigned to Alpha a few days before it happened--we were circumspect with each other. We were attracted--I mean, you are, aren't you--but I remember I was wary, and I didn't think it would be the best idea to get involved. It was almost a year before anything happened, and then it was a case of a late night, a bottle of wine on his birthday, and waking up the next morning wondering if we'd done the right thing. We did try to backtrack, and cool it off after that, but--well, that didn't work. And then, for a long time, we tried to keep it quiet. But Alpha is hopeless, of course--everybody knows everybody's business. It became a charade and we dropped it."
"How about your patients, though? In a closed community, wouldn't it affect your relationship with them?"
"To some extent, yes. Everyone on Alpha thinks that I make the decisions--which isn't true--and I wonder if people are wary of opening up to me because I'm assumed to have the Commander under my control. The truth is, if John and I do have a conflict of interest in a professional matter, he thinks he has to be firmer than he would have been if he weren't involved with me. And he's always out there, at the forefront of any mission, putting himself at risk--and I find that hard to cope with, sometimes."
"Captains of starships don't do that anymore," said Beverly. "It's not considered good strategy to risk the life of a captain by letting him lead an away team."
"John feels it's his job to be first in the line of fire, or he can't ask anyone else to follow him. I've nearly lost him so many times and yet I never get numbed to the fear. When you lose your husband so young--well, you know that--you know, ever after, what can happen, and how it will feel. I think that's why I wasn't interested in having another relationship for so long after my first husband died. I did the classic thing, I threw myself into work. Moonbase Alpha seemed like a good assignment. If breakaway hadn't happened, I'm sure I'd still be single. I just wasn't interested. But in a survival situation, you realize what things really matter."
Although Beverly was watching her with an expression of concentration, Helena realized that she had been talking too much about herself.
"What about you?" she asked. "Have you anyone special?"
"No," said Beverly. "From what you say, I think I'm still where you were six years ago, and my husband died more years ago than I care to tell you. I really do admire your courage."
"Me? I'm afraid almost all of the time."
"But you've had the conviction to commit yourself in spite of that, and acknowledge, as you said, what really matters."
"You had a child. I wish more than anything else I'd had the resolution to do that."
"Why didn't you?"
"Oh, we were going to concentrate on our careers, and then, ten years down the line or so, start a family when we were secure in our professions. Lee was an astronaut, I should have considered the possibility that he might have been killed, but when you're young you just don't, not seriously. Three years after we were married, my career was all I had left."
"But you couldn't have known," said Beverly. "Jack and I made the opposite decision, we had a child as soon as we were married. In Starfleet you often have to be apart sometimes, a lot of Starfleet couples seem to have children to maintain the bond and cope with the separation. That's one reason, anyhow. And, of course, I'm glad we did, because part of Jack lives on in Wes."
"Yes. I guess, though, if Lee and I had children, I would never have gone to Moonbase Alpha, and I wouldn't have met John."
Beverly was silent for a moment, then began in a more measured tone. "Maya told us about the decision you all made on Alpha, not to have any children while you were stranded there."
"I have to say, if it had been me, I would have argued against that."
"I did," said Helena. "It's the only thing John and I have serious arguments about. At first I was in complete agreement--it was obvious why we couldn't allow it. Then, as time went on, and more couples came together, and we didn't find a planet to settle on, and we lost more people, I began to change my mind. I thought that for all the resources they would consume, a few babies would give a tremendous boost to morale. John just didn't see it that way. We've fought about it on and off for maybe the past three years. He says we can't risk adding an extra burden on our resources, but I can't help feeling there's more to it than that."
"You think he doesn't want children himself?"
"Yes," said Helena, glad that she was so quick on the uptake. It was heady, and liberating, to be able to talk like this to someone who understood and who was unconnected with the humid tangle of Alphan society. "He didn't have children with his wife, and they were married nine years before she was killed in the war. He says she wasn't interested, but he dropped the subject very quickly the one time I asked him. Maybe the memory's painful for him, so I never press it, but who knows? Perhaps it's paranoid of me to think that he'd condemn everyone on Alpha to childlessness just because he didn't want them, but it might be at the back of his mind."
"Jean-Luc hates children," said Beverly, "and I can tell you, he'd happily have the entire ship cleared of them."
It was a moment before Helena realized that she meant Captain Picard.
"Have you asked him whether that's the case?" Beverly continued.
"Of course I have. And he just says 'don't be ridiculous' and won't talk about it. No reassurances, just a cut off."
"So you decided to go ahead anyway, hm?"
Helena stared at her, stunned. "No, of course not," she said, automatically.
Beverly looked at her intently, then dropped her eyes and gave a slight shrug. "O.K. I'd have considered it myself."
Disconcerted, Helena looked round the bar. It was filled almost to capacity with people of all races and species in chatting, intimate pools. Suddenly, near the entrance, she spotted Maya in the company of the officer who had not been at the Captain's dinner. They appeared just to have come in, and were looking round as if searching for someone. Helena waved her hand to attract Maya's attention, and Beverly followed the direction of her gaze.
Maya caught her eye across the long room and made her way toward their table. The Enterprise officer followed her. "Have you seen Tony?" she asked.
"Not since the dinner. I think he went to bed, Maya. It was the middle of the night when the Enterprise reached Alpha and I know for a fact that Tony hadn't had any sleep before that."
"Oh." She looked distracted, and glanced back at Commander Riker. "I'd better not disturb him."
"We might as well have some dinner here, in that case," he said. "I could do with something to eat now."
"All right," said Maya, and smiled at them. "I'll see you later? We haven't had a chance to talk yet."
"Tomorrow I guess we'll have all the time in the world," said Helena. She watched, slightly puzzled, as Commander Riker led Maya away to a table at the other end of the bar. There was an atmosphere of intimacy about them, and she saw Riker touch her hand as he offered her a seat and Maya smile up at him.
Beverly had twisted round in her chair to watch them too. She turned back, sipped at her coffee, then said, "How close are you to Maya?"
"Oh--fairly close, I should say."
"Enough to give her some advice on a personal matter?"
"Look, maybe this is none of my business. Correction, it is none of my business. But one reason I suggested we come here was to have a word with you about..." She indicated over her shoulder with a slight motion of her hand. "I didn't want to say anything to Maya herself because I don't know her, and I don't think it's my place therefore to interfere. You're her friend--if I tell you how I see it, you can judge whether or not to pass it on."
"Go on," said Helena, intrigued.
Beverly cupped her hands round the glass and leaned further forward. "Will Riker has been courting Maya ever since she got here. There's no other way of describing it. He specifically requested to be her liaison officer when she first arrived. Normally, that would mean he'd look after her for a couple of days till she settled in. As far as I can see, and a friend of mine who's very close to him confirms it, he's spent every minute of his off-duty time with her."
"Maya always attracts attention from men. She's very good at fending them off."
"She hasn't been doing much fending. It's become the talk of the ship. I promise you, for the past two weeks I have never seen them apart."
"Maya is already involved with someone."
"Hmm. Your security chief, the one who said nothing at dinner?"
"Yes. He's been under stress recently."
"You see, I was surprised when I saw the way she greeted him when we met you on the base. I was convinced that she had been receiving Will's attentions quite happily."
Helena was about to say that this couldn't be the case, but she looked again at Maya and Riker eating together at the far table. Maya was laughing, her expression animated, and Riker's head was dipped quite close to hers across the table. She looked extremely relaxed. Helena thought about Tony's brooding silence and dark face at dinner, and wondered with a sudden qualm if anything unpleasant had passed between them.
Beverly continued, "Will's a good friend of mine and I'm very fond of him, but as a romantic prospect he comes with two major drawbacks. One, he's a dedicated Starfleet officer and, as I've already said, ambition in Starfleet and commitment to relationships don't usually mix. He likes women, but for the short-term pursuit I would say. Now maybe that's what Maya wants too, and if so fine, but she seems very young to me and I wondered if she might appreciate a warning."
"What's the other--drawback?"
"He has a long-term relationship with our ship's counselor, Deanna Troi. They were serious about each other years ago before they came to serve on the Enterprise, and they still spend a lot of time together. You know, they take holidays together and things like that. I can't see him giving her up altogether. If I were contemplating a romantic involvement with a man, it's not the sort of thing I'd like going on in the background."
Helena didn't know what to say.
"This is all confidential," said Beverly.
"If you want to say something to Maya, it's up to you. Just don't mention my name."
"I must admit I'm surprised to see her with Commander Riker," Helena said. "I would have thought she'd want to be with Tony tonight. Thank you for the advice. I'll test the waters tomorrow." She yawned against her will. Tiredness was creeping over her like a sudden tide, and her brain was stretched thin with new stimuli.
Beverly offered to show her the way back to her quarters, and before they parted at the door she said, "If you want to see my about anything, find me in sickbay."
Helena nodded and said goodnight, and curled into the strange wide bed awake with thought.
In the morning, Maya woke up early filled with unease and a haunting urgency. She had gone to sleep elated, her head slightly hazy with the synthoholic wine they had drunk with dinner and her mind and emotions tingling from the opera, which had been truly thrilling. She had never seen this art form presented live before. The closest had been a rather indifferent production of The Mikado, which Sarah Pulcher had staged in the Alphan theater. The Enterprise's three principal singers, playing Otello, Desdemona, and Iago, were unlike anything she had ever heard and she had been unprepared for the power of the performance, the beauty of the voices. Will had been surprised by her enthusiasm. He had often seen professional shows and to him it had just been a competent amateur production, but she had been moved. She remembered talking a lot in her excitement, the synthohol unbinding any remains of reticence. She had forgotten the embarrassment of the lunch on the holodeck. She had forgotten the squabble with Tony.
And now, she thought, she was suffering from something like an emotional hangover. As she went through the motions of making herself presentable, she wondered whether she ought to have gone to find Tony even if he was asleep. After all, he must have been feeling as odd and disorientated as she had on her first night on the Enterprise. But she had still been angry about the way he had behaved, and she hadn't wanted to spoil her inspired, elated mood.
Those feelings had gone, and all that was left was an anxious desire to see him. She hurried along the early-morning corridors, already bright and bustling with people going about their duties and children running to their classrooms. Inconveniently, Tony had been assigned quarters two decks below and halfway round the hull from hers. When she got there she buzzed the door three times and got no reply.
An ensign who had shown her some of the engineering systems greeted her in passing. Maya smiled back and began to feel foolish and exposed standing out here in the corridor. She tried the door, and found that it was not locked anyway; it slid back as she touched the access panel.
The lights inside were down, and Maya had to stumble carefully through the living room to the bedroom door. He was still fast asleep, curled into a ball under the sheet, a huddled shape.
Maya whispered for dimmed lights, sat on the bed, and ran her fingers into his hair.
He woke with a start and bolted upright, blinking and glaring. "What? Oh." He glanced around, evidently remembering where he was and not looking pleased about it. "What's the time?"
"About 0800 hours. It's late."
"For what?" He rubbed his face. "I've had about four hours sleep then. Where the Hell were you?"
"You know where I was!"
"Afterwards, I mean, after whatever it was you went to see."
"I--had dinner. Helena said you'd gone to bed because you were tired. I didn't want to disturb you."
"Well, I didn't go to bed. As soon as I got out of the Captain's dinner I got that robot to take me back to your quarters. You weren't there--I waited for two hours--then I went round the ship looking for you."
"I was only in Ten-Forward, having something to eat."
"Helena was there to. But yes, with Commander Riker. I mean, I wasn't going to sit there and eat by myself. What's the matter, Tony?"
"I'll tell you what the matter is. I went to the bar too. I didn't see you there, but I did end up having a conversation with some Enterprise people which turned out to be very interesting." He slumped back on the pillows.
Maya waited for him to go on, her heart chilling. She could guess immediately the import of the conversation and she knew very well what this confrontation was about, but she kept up a desperate attitude of innocence. Eventually she prompted him. "Why? What did they say?"
"That you and Riker have become quite an item on board the Enterprise. Lead story in the weekly bulletin, in fact."
"But that's just not true."
"These people didn't know me, Maya, they just knew I was one of the Alphans--why should they lie to me?"
"It's gossip, that's all!"
"Based on what?"
"On nothing! I told you yesterday, Will's looked after me and made me feel welcome, but it was his job to do that."
"That includes going off with him after a party, for instance?"
"Oh, this is ridiculous!" She stood up. "What do you think I would do?"
He looked at her sullenly. There was no lightness in his manner, and she felt injured and guilty at the same time. She did not feel like making a physical appeal to him, with so little warmth coming from him.
The silence was broken by the door buzzer.
"Oh, maybe that's Riker come to find you now," said Tony.
"Answer it, then. I don't even know how."
Leaving him in bed, Maya went through to the living room and answered his door for him. It was Data.
"Good morning," said Data. "I am surprised. I expected to see Mr. Verdeschi."
"He's through there, Data. He isn't up yet."
"Then I will not intrude. I had only come to remind him that I am his liaison officer, and to offer to show him the ship's facilities now that he has had the chance to rest. Perhaps you could suggest a convenient time for me to return?"
"I'm not sure." She looked at the bedroom door, from which he showed no signs of emerging. Perhaps his bad mood was mostly due to lack of sleep, and if she left him to rest he would be more reasonable later on. "Are you busy at the moment, Data?"
"No. My assignment for this morning was to guide Mr. Verdeschi."
"Do you want to have breakfast with me?"
"Thank you. I have in fact already eaten sufficiently this morning to maintain normal operating parameters until 1300 hours, but I will enjoy your company while you do."
Then somebody would, she thought.
She had breakfast with Data in Ten-Forward, where a few other people had met to eat together. She saw two Alphans in the company of one of the civilian Enterprise staff; she knew that a large number of the crew had been assigned to take care of them. Most of the crew were trained to be skilled in what they called 'first contact procedure'. Having read something about the theory and practice that was established, she wondered if the Alphans could have benefited from such training themselves.
Even though day and night on the ship were artificial, there was a cold atmosphere of morning in the bar. For the first time in several days now, she remembered that she had no work to go to.
Some workers were up on scaffolding near the roof, draping decorations. "What are they doing?" she asked. "Is something going to happen here?"
"Yes," said Data. "The Enterprise will be arriving at Lanthenon at 1600 hours today, and this evening we will be hosting a reception for Ambassador Trewhella, the King and Queen of Lanthenon, and Princess Amarantha. I believe that you and the other senior officers from Moonbase Alpha will be invited."
"I see. Are they having the wedding here?"
"No. Weddings are sometimes held on board the Enterprise, but this one, I believe, is to take place in a state building on Lanthenon where royal weddings have been held for hundreds of years."
"Are you going?"
"No, I will be required on the bridge. I regret this. I have attended several marriage ceremonies and I always find them interesting."
"I think I've only ever been to one wedding," said Maya. "A friend of mine, a girl who works in astrophysics, got married on Alpha a few months ago. Don't you find it all incomprehensible, Data?"
Data blinked his eyes at her, and put his head on one side. It was a curious mannerism that was unique to him. "Do you mean do I find it difficult to understand human romantic relationships? Although I am an android, I have had some personal experience of that kind of relationship with human women. I find it challenging, indeed fascinating. I can understand very well the desire for companionship, and the wish to have a compatible person with whom to share one's life. The emotional aspects, and the rituals and uncertainties of courtship, I can only observe."
"Then you're lucky."
"I remember that you expressed such a sentiment when we first met."
"Yes. It seems to me that you could appreciate the pleasant aspects of being with someone, without feeling the pain of the unpleasant things."
"That may be so. However, I would suggest that it would not be reasonable to pursue a potential partnership if pain and unpleasantness are all you experience."
"That, I'm coming to think, is a basic flaw in the human make-up." She drained her coffee cup and filled it up again, fighting her mood. She found it distinctly soothing to be with Data. Not only did he amuse her, his honestly gave her a great sense of security in talking to him and his genuine interest in everything charmed her.
"When Mr. Verdeschi is ready to be shown around the Enterprise," said Data, "perhaps you would like to accompany us."
Maya nodded. It was pointless to be upset. Tony had black moods sometimes and she usually just left him alone until he came round. The problem was, she though, that they were no longer on Alpha. The familiar pattern of their life there, the physical confines of the corridors and little rooms and the routine of their duty schedules, no longer provided a structure. She felt a stab of nostalgia for the texture of Alpha--the very taste of the pseudo-coffee--and an equally sharp pang of envy for Data, who had duties to go to.
She went to see Helena, but she and the Commander were not in their quarters and she assumed that they were being 'looked after' and given the guided tour. She had decided to give Tony until lunchtime to catch up on his sleep, and in the end she could think of nothing to do but go back to the study room on deck twelve, where she had spent so much time while waiting for the Enterprise to reach Alpha.
She ran up some math programs, flicking through the problems without interest and solving them in her head. She was bored, and she was lonely. She wasn't going to give in to being miserable as well.
She sensed a presence and looked round. Will was standing in the doorway watching her. Something jumped inside. She turned back to the screen, trying to control her reaction.
He smiled. "I thought I might find you here."
She said nothing.
He swung a chair underneath him and sat close to her. "I'm off duty now until we reach Lanthenon. Do you want to have lunch?"
Maya suppressed her first instinct to refuse, with a twinge of anger. If she started to ignore Will now, or behave differently toward him in any way, then she would be lending credence to Tony's suspicions. One part of her admitted there was some small truth in them, and that made her all the more determined to carry on as if there were not. But she paused too long.
"If, of course, you're not doing anything else," he added in a measured tone.
She noticed that her fingers were pressed white against the console, and she relaxed her hand. "At the moment," she said, "I'm not doing anything else."
"I'd been thinking," he said, "that when we got to Alpha, you'd be too busy with your colleagues and friends to have time to spend with me. And yet here you are, same as before."
"Everyone is very well catered for. You do a good job of making people feel welcome."
"That's one of the things Starfleet exists to do."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Ten-Forward, then?" He stood up and held out his hand.
"No--not there. I--had breakfast there. Perhaps we could just go to your quarters."
He hesitated, then sat down again and leaned closer to her. She could feel his warmth. His eyes were serious. "Can I guess? Someone told your friend that we've been together a lot, and he's made some assumptions."
Overwhelmed and hot with embarrassment, Maya could not look up. She said, "It's ridiculous."
"You told him, I assume, that he's wrong."
"It's as if he doesn't believe me!" she said, in sudden frustration. "I don't know, Will, maybe he was just bad tempered because he was tired--lack of sleep can be disorienting--but I've never known him to be so...unapproachable."
"Jealously can be as irrational as it is powerful. That's the point of the opera we saw last night."
"But that's fiction--people don't really behave like that!"
"If you want to keep away from me," he said, gently, "I'll understand."
"No," she said firmly. "Why should I? It's all in his mind."
Riker was silent for a moment, as if thinking. She risked glancing round at him and saw that he was still looking at her intently, rubbing his beard. Pale blue eyes, she noticed suddenly, the color of her own people's, not dark and alien. "I'm not a psychologist, far from it as Deanna will tell you," he said, "but I am older than you, probably quite a bit older, and I can guess I've had a lot more experience with people. And if someone starts to make you change your behavior for fear of their reaction, that's the start of an attempt to control you. And that's a bad sign, for both of you."
Maya was about to say that Tony wasn't like that, but she knew that she had never been in this situation. On Alpha several men had made overtures to her, and a passing space trader had even tried to abduct her, but she had never--liked anyone in return before. Tony had always been protective of her, and she had rather appreciated it.
"It's odd," she said. "Data said something similar to me this morning."
"Data's not unperceptive, just because he's an android. In fact, he can bring the ultimate outsider's view to a human relationship." He grinned. "Let's go to the holodeck. Is that private enough?"
Riker ran the Psychon program again, and they sat comfortably on the grass slope above Lake Tamyara eating quantities of a sweet red fruit from Earth called a strawberry. The fruit was served, as Will said was traditional, with cream. He had also brought a bottle of a chilled, sparkling wine called champagne. Maya had known about this drink before, though she had never seen any; it was used for celebrations. She sipped cautiously. Although she knew now that synthohol had nothing like the potency and lingering effects of genuine alcohol, she was still wary of it.
"It's O.K.," said Riker. "It's not real, I promise."
It had a cool, biscuity taste, and went well with the strawberries.
Riker touched the rim of his glass against hers. "Better now?"
"Fresh air, strawberries and cream, champagne--that'll cure almost anything."
"Fresh air is a novelty in itself, except that it's not real."
"Would you like it to be?"
"What do you mean?"
"Would you like to go to a place like this, a real place, on a real planet? A lake--mountains--blue skies--open air?"
"Lanthenon. We're arriving there soon. I've got twenty-four hours shore leave tomorrow, and I've already booked into a hotel there. I was going with Deanna, but she'll understand."
"Understand what?" said Maya, her tone rather cold, her heart thumping uncomfortably. She was taken aback by her own reaction of sudden racing excitement.
"Well, that you haven't been ashore for far too long. The hotel at Lake Gargatha is supposed to be a beautiful setting, and it's summer there just now."
"I don't think it would be possible, Will."
"Anything's possible, if you make it so. You're going to say that you can't, because Tony wouldn't like it? Doesn't he trust you? Doesn't he accord you that much respect? Doesn't he care about you enough to let you do something that would be for your own good?"
Confused, and feeling attacked, Maya said nothing.
"Come on," he said gently. "I'm sorry. Forget about it."
"No--I'll think about it."
"Talk to Tony. I'm sure he'll understand, if he loves you."
Maya let him fill up her half-empty glass. There was no answer to that, except the one that stabbed her briefly from inside.
She looked up at an electronic sound. The illusion of the lakeside scenery was ripped apart as the holodeck door materialized out of the air, and Data and Tony stepped through.
Tony's expression froze.
"I apologize for interrupting your lunch," said Data.
"Not at all, join in," said Riker, pleasantly. "Champagne, Mr. Verdeschi? Or try the strawberries, they're very authentic."
Tony glanced at the proffered glass, then took two tentative steps across the grass. "Authentic?" he said. "You mean they're fake, like everything else in this place." He glanced around uneasily. "What's this, another trick? All done with mirrors?"
"That is not correct," said Data. "The illusion of reality created by the holodeck relies on a number of techniques, but the use of mirrors is not one of them. The principle mechanism is the assembly of basic matter via a process similar to that used in replicator systems, and controlled by complex computer arrays."
While Data explained, ignored, Maya went to Tony and took his arm. She was dismayed to have been found in Riker's company, but she was determined not to show it. "Tony," she said, "this is a place on Psychon. It's the lake at Tamyara, where I grew up."
He gave her one strained glance, cold and agitated, then looked around again without interest. "Uh-huh?"
In disappointment, she moved away from him.
"If you do not wish to eat," said Data, "perhaps you would like to start your tour of the ship. I am required to be on the bridge at fifteen hundred hours."
Tony assented with a gesture, and Maya followed them both out of the holodeck. She felt too awkward to say anything to Riker, but she looked back before the door closed. He raised a glass to her, and grinned.
The tour of the ship was appalling. Maya trailed along beside Tony as Data led him through the wonders of the Enterprise, getting angrier and more ashamed by the minute. Tony showed no interest in the engine rooms, or the transporter rooms, the gardens, the observation gallery or the shuttlecraft. He delivered the odd acerbic comment but otherwise said nothing. Maya was mortified that Tony could fail to be impressed by the Enterprise, even that he obviously felt no pride in the achievements of his own people. It showed a lack of something as basic as imagination, and his attitude made him seem boorish and stupid. She was pained by what Data must think of him, and upset by what she was beginning to think herself.
When Data was summoned to the bridge, and they were left alone in the observation gallery, she turned on him. "Why are you being like this?"
"I would have thought that was obvious," he said, immediately heated, as if he too had been simmering with anger for the past hour. "I don't enjoy being made a fool of."
"What, you think I'm doing that?"
"How do you think it looked to the robot?"
"What do you mean?"
"Coming across you and Riker picnicking in the grass together."
"Don't be ridiculous, Tony."
"You know that he's already carrying on with someone else, don't you?"
"That dark-haired officer, the shrink."
"Deanna Troi? He was involved with her once, but it's been over for a long time."
"That's not how it looked to me. On Alpha, I saw them together, she was practically sitting on his lap."
"You're wrong," said Maya, a bolt going through her. "They have a--platonic relationship."
"He told you that, did he?"
"Oh, you're so bloody naive. Of course they don't. I don't care what century this is, people don't change, and I know his sort."
"You don't know him at all," he said, coldly.
"What's the matter with you, Maya? Since when did you start going for fat bearded oafs?"
"He's not fat! He's just large. It's all muscle."
"Oh, and how would you know that?" "I've been swimming with him."
"Yes. Twice." She glared at him. "I'm going back to my quarters."
"Yeah. See you."
She walked quickly away, not even wanting him to follow her--knowing that she was leaving him stranded in a remote part of the ship, and hoping that he stayed lost for a long time. She took the turbolift straight down to deck nineteen, but headed for Helena's quarters instead.
Helena answered the door in a long party dress, an appearance which caused Maya to make a mental doubletake.
"I'm figuring out what to wear for this royal reception tonight," she explained. "This isn't it."
"Oh, the replicator can make any style you want in exactly your size--have you found out how to access the fashion database?"
"No, that's your department. Show me."
Glad to be useful again, even in a trivial capacity, Maya activated the big screen and called up the replicator's pattern bank. She flipped through examples of formal wear, and they were soon laughing at most of them.
"When I think of how we all swapped dresses on Alpha," said Helena.
"And none of them ever fit me," Maya added.
"And now all we have to do is press a button--it's wonderful. Or it would be, if any of them were worth wearing. That's very nice, what you've got on. I like the way you've got your hair, too."
Reminded by this of what Tony had said to her, her temporary levity evaporated. Part of her wished now that she had just stayed with him then. But she would have missed the experience of seeing the opera, and for no other reason than humoring his caprice. Will was right, it was an attempt to control her.
"How about this one," she said, bringing up the image of a soft blue shimmering dress that clung closely round the imaginary model on screen. She knew that Helena liked to show off the trimness of her figure.
"It's too long."
"No, that's what women wear here. We can replicate it, and if you don't like it, we can just recycle it."
"As simple as that. I must say, Maya, you seemed to have made yourself quite at home on the Enterprise. But you always pick things up quickly."
"I like it here," said Maya, as she activated the replicator. "The people are kind, like the Alphans--well, they are your people, in essence. And, to be honest, I haven't had much else to do." She lifted the dress out and presented it to Helena.
Helena held it up critically, then started to take off what she was wearing. "I heard," she said, "that you've been getting on very well with one of them."
"Oh, you too!" Maya cried in annoyance. "Has no-one on this ship anything better to do than spread rumors about me and Commander Riker?"
"Well," said Helena, in her calm way, pausing with the dress folded over her arm, "I saw you with him last night, and I thought you looked friendly. I'm interested, that's all. And, if you want the truth, I am a little concerned."
"There's no need."
'Well, good." She stepped into the dress, and twisted her head round. "Where's the zipper?"
"There isn't one. It comes together by itself."
"A great advance for women. I often think only a man could have invented the zipper that comes up the back. What do you think?" She smoothed the material over her hips and looked at her reflection in the mirror complacently.
Maya lacked this confidence that Helena had, a feeling of satisfaction with her own appearance. "It suits you," she said, sincerely.
"Yes, it does. I'll take it. What are you going to wear?"
"I don't know--something."
"Come on, let's look for something for you. After all, you have to look your best for Commander Riker."
"I do not!" She wasn't sure whether Helena was teasing or not. She often couldn't read her.
Helena smiled softly. "I hear he's quite a lady's man."
"Well, I don't know what that means. To me, he's always been perfectly kind and courteous--respectful."
"He's not as good-looking as Tony."
"That means nothing--especially to me!"
"True. So, you do like him."
"I like him--does it matter?"
"Not at all, so long as you don't intend to do anything about it--and just so long as Tony doesn't take it the wrong way."
The way she spoke told Maya that she had some idea of what had passed between them. Helena was unfailingly perceptive. Feeling herself blush, Maya said, her voice sounding slightly sullen to her own ears, "Tony doesn't own me."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Helena shrug, and raise her eyebrows. Then she became solicitous about finding Maya a suitable dress, and Riker was not mentioned again.
Maya went, alone, to the observation gallery to see Lanthenon when the Enterprise fell out of warp. It was what Starfleet called an M-class planet, capable of supporting humanoid life. She stood with many others and admired its pale violet hue silently. Every time the moon had drifted near a planet like this--it had happened perhaps five or six times since she had been with the Alphans--hopes had been raised that it might prove to be a home that they could settle. She had talked with Will about this, and he had pointed out to her the improbability of that ever having happened. In her heart she had known that, but it had been the shared assumption. Everyone had plans, located in the middle distance of their imagination. She wondered how many of those dreams were disintegrating now, as hers seemed to be.
She was surrounded by Alphans. None of them, today, were wearing their uniforms, but she knew all their faces. She lingered there for nearly an hour, wishing that Tony would appear behind her and lay one hand on her hip and slip the other into hers. By now she was willing to do without a verbal apology. Eventually she saw Helena and the Commander climbing the curving stairs to the gallery. She left by the other staircase, not wanting to be seen so obviously waiting for someone who wasn't going to come.
The reception was at 1900 hours. Maya dressed for it without enthusiasm, with a queasy sense of foreboding. Helena had picked out a white gown for her, with a simple shape and a fabric textured like watery pearl, and Maya twisted her hair up onto the top of her head and bound it with a long flexible sparkling band. The resulting appearance was very formal, but she supposed it would be appropriate for the occasion. At least no one there would be paying particular attention to her.
She waited until ten minutes before the scheduled time, giving Tony the chance to find her if he wanted to escort her. Even as she made her way to Ten-Forward she hoped, every corner that she turned, that she would run into him coming to see her.
She entered alone. Ten-Forward had been transformed from an informal bar/restaurant into a spectacular function room. All but a few of the tables on the outer gallery had been removed, leaving a wide floor space for dancing, and the bar was covered with exotic buffet food attended by uniformed waiters. The curving wall of space windows was dominated by the swell of the planet below.
There were sparse groups of people, including some in a distinctive style of dress that emphasized red and gold braid. She assumed that these were the Lanthenons. They were smaller in frame than an average Earth human, and their faces had a delicate tapered bone structure.
Riker was with the Captain, one of the aliens, and Deanna Troi, who was standing close enough to him to be touching against him. They had, at a glance, the unassumed appearance of a couple.
Maya, hesitating just inside the door, had the sudden idea that she ought not to stay. She was on the point of obeying the impulse to turn round and go back to her quarters when Riker caught sight of her. Immediately, he said something to the Captain and came over to her.
"You look amazing," he said, grinning at her frankly. Then he glanced behind her and said, in a quieter tone, "Are you on your own?"
With an ironic look backwards in the same direction, Maya said, "I appear to be."
"The royal party isn't here yet. Come and meet the ambassador."
Ambassador Trewhella was a pleasant, intelligent-looking man, slight in stature but with a strong handshake and direct, lively eyes.
"Maya is the Alphans' science officer," Captain Picard explained. "Are your colleagues on their way?"
"I expect so, sir. I--didn't come with them."
"I've looked forward to meeting you all very much," said the ambassador. "It's a most remarkable thing--you can't imagine the interest it's going to generate on Earth, when we lift the embargo."
"The Federation Council has decided not to release the news until after the wedding is over and the Enterprise has left Lanthenon," the Captain said to her, with a slightly abashed air.
Their party was approached by two Lanthenons, and the ambassador's attention immediately switched to them.
"Come on," said Riker, touching her elbow. "Let's get a drink."
Deanna came with them.
Maya wondered with a sharp twinge of embarrassment exactly how she felt about this situation. Her demeanor was relaxed and smiling and she seemed quite at ease. Maya envied her unforced composure, her naturalness--her maturity. She also remembered unhappily that this woman had some kind of telepathic empathy, and she didn't like the thought that her feelings were in any way accessible to her.
"When do we get to see the princess?" Deanna asked, as Will handed her a fluted glass.
"The royal party will make their entrance at about 19:20, after everyone else is here."
"Do you dislike this kind of ceremony?" said Maya awkwardly, conscious that there was an old, casual understanding between Deanna and Will.
"Deanna would never tell you this in a hundred years," said Will, with another glance at her, "but she is herself heiress to the succession of a very old, very noble house on Betazed. She has to take some kind of stand against ceremony, or nobody would believe she hasn't rejected her aristocratic heritage."
"I haven't rejected my heritage," said Deanna. "Don't listen to him, Maya, he's only trying to provoke me." She caught sight of someone coming in, and greeted him with a wave. "Excuse me."
Left alone with Riker, Maya wondered if Deanna had done it deliberately. There was a certain satisfaction in the way he watched her go, then turned to Maya and gave her a glass of pale green chilled liquid.
"It's a Lanthenon wine called dequith, so I'm told," he said. "Be careful, it's real alcohol."
"Thank you for warning me. This time."
"I thought I'd better. Though a repeat of your party trick might liven this reception up a bit."
"Don't you like functions like this?"
"I hate them."
"I thought you were gregarious."
"I can be, that doesn't mean I like to be. It's part of the job. But it can be boring, that's all. I like to be with a few friends, in an informal setting. But best of all, I like to be with one person."
Maya felt just the same way, though she didn't say so in case he misconstrued her words somehow. She was irritated that she now felt tongue-tied with Will, she was angry that a friendship she realized had become important to her had been spoiled and curtailed.
She saw his expression change slightly, inscrutably, and she looked round. The Commander and Helena had just entered, arm-in-arm, in step and together. Behind them was Tony, looking pale and tense. His eyes searched round and fixed on her.
She smiled, nervously but trying to appear forgiving.
He looked away without acknowledging.
Mortified, Maya turned her back on him and took a gulp of the Lanthenon wine without tasting it. Will must have seen what had happened, but he started to talk about something else without apparent concern.
Captain Picard had approached the Alphans and was introducing them to Ambassador Trewhella. Without consciously looking, Maya saw them all shaking hands and smiling. She tried to subdue her own feelings of hurt. This was not the place to risk any sort of scene, though she wanted to resolve everything right now. She promised herself that she would confront Tony after the reception, behind closed doors, and make it clear to him that his behavior was unacceptable and had upset her; reasonably, without losing her temper.
She sipped the wine, forcing herself to focus on its clear fragrant taste, and started to listen again to what Riker was saying.
He was interrupted by an elaborately-robed Lanthenon chiming some kind of gong, and the room hushed.
"Their Majesties King Bahu and Queen Eletha," he said, in a high ringing tone. "Her Highness, Princess Amarantha."
The King, to Maya's surprise and vague amusement, was very fat. All the other Lanthenons seemed to be slender and fine-boned, but this did not appear to be a racial inevitability. The Queen was slightly taller than her husband, and perfectly elegant in contrast. Princess Amarantha, who had the glamour of a bride attached to her, followed a short step behind her parents and seemed unremarkable. She was magnificently attired in a golden garment that Maya guessed was traditional royal clothing, but her appearance was not otherwise striking. When, a little later, she was formally introduced to the Princess, she saw that she had a quiet manner but very clear eyes. The ambassador stayed at her side, and it was obvious, though they made no demonstrations of affection, how attached they were.
Maya was surprised by the strength of her sudden feelings, cold and queasy and longing. The trappings of a state occasion meant nothing to her, and instead of a princess she saw very clearly a girl no older--perhaps even younger--than herself about to marry the man she loved. She broke her resolution and looked to see where Tony was. He was with Data, who was sticking closely to him as instructed, and he was wearing the glazed look that Data's conversation often induced. She tried to catch his eye, but he wouldn't look at her.
After the royal party had circulated, a small orchestra began to play and the Princess and the Ambassador led onto the dance floor. The atmosphere immediately became more relaxed.
"Do you dance?" Riker asked her.
"Sometimes," said Maya.
"Like now?" He held out his hand.
"I think I'd rather just watch, for the time being."
He looked over at where Tony was, put his glass down, and said seriously, "Maya, don't let anyone's rudeness, or stupidity, dictate how you enjoy yourself. Go and ask him to dance with you if that's what you want, I'm not about to be offended, but don't not dance just because he doesn't want to."
More couples had taken to the floor. Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher were dancing together with elegant precision. As she watched, the Commander was half-persuaded, half-pulled by Helena. She considered going across to Tony, who was sitting now at one of the tables with Data in patient attendance, but it seemed impossibly awkward to approach him like that without any indication of good will from him. It would also be conspicuous. And it would appear to Will as if she had rejected his polite offer, in favor of playing some childish game. She didn't want to make such an issue of it.
"O.K.," she said. "Let's dance."
He smiled widely, took her hand, and led her onto the floor.
Immediately she began to think it had been a mistake. It was a simple waltz, of the kind she had learned on Alpha, but she had only done this with Tony before and she had forgotten how close the dance licensed their bodies to be. Will was taller than her, and she was unused to that. She was also troubled by her response to his touch, and reminded of the moment on the holodeck.
"You're trembling," he said, almost in her ear.
She could say nothing. She stared at his shoulder.
"Let it happen," he said, in the same murmur. "Don't be afraid."
She pulled back slightly and missed her step, meeting his eyes indignantly.
They said nothing more while they danced, and when the orchestra finished its piece Maya felt she had to get away from him. With a muttered apology she went over to the bar and let one of the waiters help her to some food. She ate something without noticing what it was and her stomach knotted around it.
Not much longer, she thought. She could leave reasonably soon, with it appearing abrupt, and then she could talk to Tony and make everything all right. She couldn't see him anywhere; perhaps he had already left.
Seized by this idea, and longing to get the confrontation over with, she went back to Riker to tell him that she was leaving.
"Don't go yet," he said, with concern. "The Captain's built up the Alphans to the King, he wants you to impress them."
"Well, Commander Koenig and Helena will do that. I'm not important."
"You are to me."
Suddenly Maya caught sight of Tony. She wasn't sure where he had concealed himself, but he looked straight at her now, put down a glass with a clatter that she could hear across the room, and marched toward them. To her consternation, he brushed aside a Lanthenon official on his way across the floor. His face was still pale, but the top of his cheeks were flushed.
"All right, Riker," he said. "I've had enough of this."
"You've had enough," said Riker very quietly, "of what?"
"You know damn well."
"Now, Mr. Verdeschi, I've no quarrel with you."
"The Hell you haven't! You've been stuck to her like a leech all evening, leering at her, pawing her--you touch her again and I'll kill you."
"Tony!" said Maya.
"Shut up!" he cried.
A mesmerized pool of silence had spread around them, as people nearby realized that there was something going on.
Still with unwavering calm, Riker said, "Maya's not an object for you to possess, Mr. Verdeschi. She can make her own choice as to who she wants to be with."
Tony lunged at him.
"Tony!" Maya cried again.
Riker got to his feet and the chair clattered behind him. He made a defensive move but it was not quick enough to stop Tony punching him. He staggered back with the force of the blow, rallied quickly, grabbed Tony expertly by the arms, and threw him away.
Riker's strength was obvious and overpowered Tony, who was flung halfway across the floor and slammed with force against the sharp edge of a table. In the silence that had fallen, Maya clearly heard a crack. He cried out and rolled over.
She ran to him.
He started to get up, leaned over, and coughed. A shock went through her as she saw blood fall onto his hand.
"Don't move," said Dr. Crusher, striding over and immediately taking charge. "Don't try to get up."
Helena knelt by him too.
Maya took several steps back.
"I'm sorry," said Riker. "I didn't mean to do that."
"Computer," said Dr. Crusher, "medical emergency. Beam two directly to sickbay."
Immediately, she and Tony vanished in a shimmer of energy.
A babble of voices filled the void. Maya saw the Captain talking to Princess Amarantha and the Ambassador, and steering them away.
Helena stood up, looking shocked at the sudden disappearance. "I think his lung may have been punctured by a broken rib," she said to Maya.
"I'm sorry," said Riker again. "I didn't want to hurt him."
"Come on," said Helena, taking Maya's arm.
Maya saw the glance of distaste she gave Riker, and the Commander looked at him too before coming with them. She was in a daze of mixed anxiety and shame, and glad to be led out of the room full of people.
"He'll be all right, Maya," Helena said, when they were in the turbolift. "It might have been more serious back on Alpha, but the medical technology they have here--they can repair tissues and bones in hours."
Maya nodded but did not reply. When the got to the medical center, they were met by Dr. Crusher. She had put a kind of apron over her ballgown, but her hair was still arranged in jeweled ringlets.
"There's nothing to worry about," she said. "He'll be fine. One of his ribs was cracked, one was broken, and a splinter of bone's landed in the right lung--Dr. Ekan is operating now."
"Operating?" said Maya.
"It won't take more than forty minutes. I want to keep him here overnight, though, just to make sure the tissue regeneration holds and the lung doesn't collapse. He was unlucky--it seems to have been a kind of freak accident, the way he landed."
"It didn't look like any kind of accident to me," said the Commander. "As soon as this reception's over I'm going to speak to Picard."
"No, Commander!" said Maya. "Please don't. Please don't involve Captain Picard."
"Involve him? His first officer just assaulted mine!"
"I get the idea," said Helena quietly, "that Tony started it."
"Please, Commander," said Maya again.
He frowned and sighed, and looked at Helena.
"You're welcome to wait through here, if you want to see him," said Dr. Crusher blandly, into the silence. "He won't be able to see anyone for at least an hour, though."
"You go back to the reception," said Helena to the Commander. "I'll stay with Maya."
"No," said Maya. "Leave me, Helena."
"I think I ought to stay. You're upset."
"I'm not upset. I'm angry. Please. I want to be left alone."
"All right. There's nothing I can do here, to help?" she asked Dr. Crusher.
She shook her head and smiled. "Really, it's not a serious problem."
Maya was led through to what was clearly designed to be a room for relatives and friends to wait in. It had low lighting, deep soothing sofas and undisturbing designs on the walls. There was even a replicator outlet. She sank down into one of the sofas, desperately relieved to be alone at last.
For a long, blank time she remained motionless, trapped in a horrible place between fury and pain. She couldn't help being distressed that he was hurt. It affected her physically, bypassing her mind and emotions and tugging at her stomach. But she had never felt so ashamed before, and she could hardly begin to swallow down the complicated humiliation. She pulled the band out of her hair and fiddled with it miserably.
Eventually, Dr. Crusher looked in with a calm smile. "You can see him now."
He was in the small open-plan ward, half-propped up under a piece of medical apparatus straddling his chest. He looked at her with a quick sullen glance that seemed to have a hint of repentance in it.
"Are you all right?" she asked, neutrally, keeping her distance.
"Yeah, great, no thanks to your pet gorilla."
"Well, it was your own fault! How could you do that to me?"
"To you? I thought I did it to him."
"You humiliated me in front of everyone there--the ambassador, the King and Queen, Princess Amarantha, Captain Picard--"
"Who are these people?"
"And you hurt Will--"
"Look, I'm the one who's lying here mortally wounded."
"Thanks for the sympathy."
"You don't care, do you? You really think that was an acceptable way to behave."
"What about you, if we're talking about behavior? You were with him when I came in, you were dancing with him, you spent the whole evening hanging onto his every word--"
"Because he was talking to me, Tony, he was being pleasant to me, he wasn't glaring at me or shouting at me, or ignoring me--"
"What do you expect me to think? What the Hell has been going on between you?"
"That is enough!" said Dr. Crusher sharply, coming swiftly forward.
Maya jumped. She hadn't realized she was still there.
"Will you please sort out your personal life somewhere other than in my sickbay."
"I'm very sorry, Dr. Crusher," said Maya, with quickly mustered dignity. She spun round and left the medical center without looking at Tony again.
Her heart was pounding. She could feel the energy surging up in her cells, driving her body to change into something fierce and wild. For a moment she broke out in sweat in the effort to hold herself back, and pressed the bones of her hands against the wall of the corridor to feel their hardness. When the urge died down, she felt flat. Fortunately no one had seen her, and she carried on walking much more slowly.
As she turned the corner she almost collided with Riker. "I was on my way to see how your friend was," he said, catching her and letting her go immediately. "And to apologize to him."
"There's no need for your to apologize to Tony," she said, made less uncomfortable by the encounter than she thought she would be. Actually she was glad to see him. "He should apologize to you. I'm afraid there's not much chance of that." She saw that the corner of his lip was cut and bruised.
"Well, never mind. How is he?"
"He's fine now--they're keeping him there overnight. Will, I'm so sorry about this."
"Hey, don't be," he said, clasping her arms. "It wasn't your fault."
His gentleness was a soothing balm on her exposed feelings. She wanted no more pain and conflict, for tonight at least.
A lieutenant passed by, and his head flicked round before he carried on.
Riker took his hands away. "Want to come back to my quarters for a raktajino? You look like you could do with something in it."
As soon as he could get away from the reception, John went to the ship's medical center to see Tony. Helena stayed in the waiting area, at his request. He wanted the chance to talk to Tony alone, something his conscience nagged that he ought to have done some time ago.
Tony did not look well. There were shadows like bruises under his eyes, and his face was white. He acknowledged John with an unsmiling glance, then continued to stare at the monitor across his chest.
"Tony," said John carefully, "I've been told that Commander Riker has been behaving badly toward Maya. Now if that's true, then it's my business too. I'll take it up with Captain Picard, if necessary."
"Maya's a grown woman, John," said Tony, after a long pause. He kept his eyes fixed on the monitor. "She can make her own choices."
"O.K... if that's how it is, I'll leave it. I just wanted you to know you're not the only one who cares about her."
"Yeah," said Tony, after an even longer silence.
"How are you doing, then, have they fixed you?" he asked, with a forced change of mood.
Tony made an inarticulate noise of affirmation.
Abandoning his resolution, John left him to it. He had intended to see Picard that evening, but he wondered now if it would be better to leave it until the next day. He wondered, in fact, if he ought to let the matter drop unless Picard called him to account for his second-in-command's behavior. He went to bed disheartened and undecided, and lay, as he so often did, in a hopeless, aching state of wakefulness.
Eventually, as he always did, he got up. On Alpha, there was nothing to do but brew a cup of foul-tasting coffee and stare at the pictures on his wall. Here, he could draw aside a kind of electronic blind and see space outside. Light from Lanthenon's sun flooded into the bedroom, as cold as neon, making everything sharp and shadowed.
Nothing had changed, he thought. The burden of commanding Alpha had been taken away from him, and it was heavier than ever, weighing on him like guilt. And the difference was, he could do nothing about it now.
He turned to look at Helena, and saw that she had woken up. She was lying still, watching him, one hand resting on the pillow.
"What are we doing here?" he said, answering her unspoken question. "What are we supposed to do with--all this?"
She smiled and held out her hand.
He joined her on the bed. "You were right, what you said back on Alpha. I don't know what I'm going to do, what's going to happen to us. It hit me tonight, when Picard was introducing us to those aliens. Commander? Commander of what? At least you're a doctor, you've always got that."
"No, I haven't," said Helena, quietly. "When Tony was hurt, I wasn't the one there treating him. Beverly didn't even have any use for me in the medical center afterwards. To them, I'm no better qualified than a medieval apothecary or a barber-surgeon."
He hadn't thought of that one. He had folded her in his arms and she was clinging to him, almost like a child. Her face, pressed against his chest, was expressionless.
"We'll be O.K.," he said, meaninglessly.
"We've been alone for so long, in haunted space...everything hostile, everything a threat...and now all these people who want to help us..."
"I'm not sure I want to be helped," said John.
She lifted her head and looked up at him. "No, you never do."
In the strange light, she looked different. Her skin was soft and her eyes were bright.
"Come on now," he said, trying to change the atmosphere. "We might be lost, but we're not alone."
"No. We're not."
"I've got to talk to Picard tomorrow, see what our options are. We'll get things sorted out in the morning."
"Yes, I think so. In the morning." She separated herself from him and lay back on the pillows.
Soon he heard her breathing dip to a regular rhythm. More at peace himself, he settled down and slept.
Maya perched on the edge of the sofa to drink the raktajino, to which Riker had added something sweet-tasting from a bottle with a dark label. She realized that her muscles were all clenched hard, and she tried to let them go. The lights in the room were dim, the silence was peaceful, and Riker, who sat on the east chair opposite and leaned toward her, was quiet and patient.
"Really, I'm fine."
"You're pale and you're shivering." He left his seat to join her on the sofa.
"Then I will be all right, in a little while. Please don't be concerned."
"Of course I'm concerned, I feel responsible."
"Then you needn't. Tony was responsible."
She didn't dare to look at him, in case she precipitated something. Although he was close, he was scrupulous in not touching her. She saw his hand move, hesitate fractionally, and reach over for his cup of coffee.
"I think I will go with you to Lanthenon, if the offer's still open," she said.
"Certainly it is. It would be the best thing for you, to get away from these pressures for a while."
"The hotel's booked for tomorrow night. I was planning to leave at around twelve hundred hours tomorrow...of course, we'll have to take a shuttle instead of transporting--but that's not a problem, I'll arrange to have one first thing tomorrow."
There was a kind of forced casualness in his tone, which Maya realized was an attempt not to sound too pleased. She felt a strange calm now that she had made this decision, or rather this leap. She had not debated it internally; until an hour ago, it hadn't occurred to her that she would accept his offer. The shaking died away, and a numb warmth crept over her.
Riker was about to say something when his COMM badge sounded. "Picard to Commander Riker."
"I want to see you in my ready room in ten minutes."
"Aye, sir. Riker out."
"Is--will Tony get into trouble?" Maya asked, her heart jumping again.
"No, I'm the one on the carpet." He grinned at her apprehension. "Don't worry, I can handle it. Stay, if you want, until I get back."
Maya excused herself. It was ridiculously late now, and she knew she ought to try to get some sleep. Fortunately, her mood of calm lasted when she went back to her quarters and curled round a pillow. She wondered if she would feel differently in the morning.
Riker felt that in such a state of elation he was not only unconcerned about what the Captain could say or do, he was actually uninterested. His confidence faded as soon as the door of the ready room closed behind him, and he saw the Captain's cold expression.
"Starfleet represents peace and good will between all peoples of the galaxy. Perhaps the only way we can communicate that ideal is in our own personal conduct, and especially the conduct of the senior officers of our flagship. The people of Lanthenon are new members of the Federation, and I don't have to tell you who the people of Alpha are--how important it is that we demonstrate to them our integrity. For both parties to witness the first officer of the Enterprise engaged in a squalid brawl over a woman--"
"Sir, anyone who was nearby will tell you that Verdeschi attacked me unprovoked. I retaliated in self-defense, and what happened to him was an accident."
"There are more powerful means of provocation than physical assault, Number One, as well you know. It's been brought to my notice, possibly not before time, that you have been pursuing Science Officer Maya with inappropriate attentions."
"What the Hell's that supposed to mean?" said Riker, unable to contain his annoyance.
"It means, Will, stop pestering the girl, or I'm going to have to order you to have nothing more to do with our Alphan guests."
"Sir," said Riker, forcing down his temper, "this isn't some kind of trivial flirtation."
"No?" said the Captain, raising his eyebrows.
"No," Riker said emphatically. "I'm serious about Maya. I do not believe that my attentions toward her are inappropriate. I'm convinced that she does, or could, feel the same way toward me. I realize that there's this--complicating factor of Mr. Verdeschi, but that's her decision to make and I've done my best not to interfere. I've asked her to come with me on shore leave to Lanthenon, and she's agreed."
"I must admit," said the Captain, his expression unreadable, "that I had considered canceling your shore leave as a result of this incident."
"Permission to speak freely, sir."
"As always, Number One."
"That would be a grossly unfair punishment for something that wasn't my fault, something I didn't invite and did my best to deflect. I know it didn't look good in front of the Lanthenons, and I have to take responsibility as your first officer, but I must ask you not to do something that might affect the rest of my life."
"Then you are serious."
The Captain rubbed his eyes, and sighed. "Very well. It might be just as well to put some physical distance between you and Mr. Verdeschi for the time being, anyway. I thought you were planning to take this shore leave with Counselor Troi?"
"Deanna will understand."
"I suggest you speak to her to see if she does. And I want you to apologize to Mr. Verdeschi."
"I'd intended to do that this evening, but Maya warned me it wouldn't be wise."
"Dismissed," said the Captain, sounding weary. "Will," he added, as Riker was about to activate the door, "I'm not unsympathetic, but I wish you could have conducted this affair more discreetly, and with a somewhat better sense of timing. I'm also made uneasy by the thought that you've taken advantage of your position with respect to Maya."
"There isn't any affair, and I haven't taken advantage of her. It's just a possibility at the moment. But I have to try, sir."
The Captain nodded, and smiled faintly for the first time.
In the morning, Helena woke early with her decision in mind. She slipped out of bed without disturbing John, and made her way to the medical center. She had already noticed that the Enterprise kept very early hours, so she was unsurprised to find Beverly already on duty.
"I'm in the process of discharging Mr. Verdeschi," Beverly said, coming into the reception area. "He's one hundred percent now, if you want to check him over yourself. I haven't forgotten that he's your patient, after all."
"That's good, and I'm glad, but... that's not really why I came."
"Uh-uh. I thought I'd see you here sooner rather than later. Come on over here."
She took Helena into one of the private bays, a small room filled with equipment.
"Hop onto the couch and let's see what we've got."
Feeling as awkward and reluctant as she always did when she was forced into the role of patient, Helena climbed onto the examination couch. Beverly maneuvered a piece of equipment over her. Although Helena was intensely curious about its exact purpose and function, she did not want to parade her ignorance and so asked no questions. She watched in silence as Beverly touched some buttons and examined a hand-held device.
"O.K.," said Beverly, after about two minutes, "what we've got is a fetus about thirty-two days old, nicely implanted, female, no genetic or other defects on a first analysis."
Helena breathed out. "Thirty-two days...are you dating that from conception?"
"Yes, of course."
"I guess that would be about right. You knew."
"I'm one of those people who can always tell. To me it looks like a woman has a bright glow under her skin. How do you feel?"
"Sorry if I made you uncomfortable the other night, but I thought you might want to talk about it."
"I do now. Could we go someplace else, or are you on duty?"
"I am on duty, but I'll make a house call to Ten Forward if you like."
"Thank you... I hate hospitals when I'm on the receiving end."
They passed Tony on the way out, shrugging on his Alphan jacket. He looked, Helena thought, as washed-out and downbeat as if he had just recovered sober consciousness after a drunken night. His very movements seemed to want to avoid attention. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"If you want to come and see me later--you know--we could have a chat, just you and me."
"No thanks, Helena."
She touched his arm, feeling that she would have felt rebuffed if she were not to a certain extent working on automatic pilot herself and was at a remove from everything about her. The cup of coffee that Beverly placed in front of her seemed a long way off. The aroma caught her, and suddenly she decided she didn't want it. The croissant was unobjectionable, so she began to eat it without appetite. All of a sudden, almost in the space of the journey between the medical center and Ten Forward, she had become aware of a gritty undertaste of nausea.
"So," said Beverly. "Accident?"
"I thought not."
"More like--political act. Except now I don't think I did the right thing."
"Why do you say that?"
"You remember all I told you, when we talked before, that I had an idea John might not want children at all. I thought I made a calm and conscious decision, but maybe I was just fooled by my hormones into thinking it was rational. Really, I was desperate, and now, when it comes down to it, it isn't about Alpha, the future of Alpha, it's me--and the man I love, whom I've deceived--and another human being, who didn't ask to be brought into all of this."
"Well, I can't imagine that he won't be pleased when you tell him."
"I don't know. You've no idea what an issue it is between us. Not with reference to us, the argument never got personal, but with Alpha."
"But you don't have to worry about that any more."
"No... if I'd just hung on it could have been all above board. That's how it should be, a mutual decision, not one partner forcing or deceiving the other."
"I imagine that a good half of the people walking about this ship were brought into existence without that mutual decision." "What, even these days?"
"Oh yes. Men and women haven't changed since your time."
"I guess this is my time now. What about you? Did you and your husband plan your son?"
"Not exactly. To be truthful it was a bit of a surprise, though we rationalized it afterwards. That's why I say, these things work out in the end. You have a good relationship, that's what matters."
Helena toyed with the handle of the coffee cup, trying to bring herself round to drinking it. She did enjoy coffee in the mornings and it was so nice to have the real thing again after years of Alphan sludge; it would be such as shame not to be able to face it. "I haven't felt very close to him for the past few weeks, ever since I decided to do this. I've never kept something like this from him, and of course it's put a distance between us in my mind, though I don't think he's noticed. He's been preoccupied--worried about Maya--I mean, we didn't know that you were really coming for us--worried about what would happen to morale on Alpha if you didn't--worried about Tony, even. He didn't realize that he had to be worried about me, too. There was a girl on Alpha who got pregnant, accidentally. We had a command meeting to discuss it, it was very serious. That was just before Maya disappeared. I was already one day late then. I sat there, knowing that I could well be pregnant myself, and John was so implacable--he was more or less insisting that we try to persuade Carol to have an abortion. I got no feeling of sympathy from him."
"It sounds to me like you need to have a long talk with him and get all this sorted out."
"Yes... but I'd so much rather have done it from a position of strength, and not as the guilty party." She pushed the coffee aside again. The badge that they had given her to use as a communication device bleeped, making her start slightly.
John's voice said, "Uh--Helena?"
"Hello, John. It's me."
"Good, I'm still not sure how these things work. I feel pretty stupid standing here talking into mid-air. Wish we could have kept our commlocks."
"We don't want to look like we just walked out of the stone age," said Helena, smiling and wishing that everything between them could go back to where it had been. She hoped that it would, but it had to be different once he knew that she had been prepared to jeopardize it. With a sudden pang, she realized that she wanted to get it over with. She wanted to be back on intimate terms with him one way or the other, not isolated on the other side of her secret.
"Where are you?" he asked. "I thought you went to medical to see Tony."
"I did, but I ended up having breakfast with Beverly."
"How is he?"
"Physically fine, psychologically not so good."
"Is anyone going to bang their heads together?"
"Hmm, I'll try to have another talk with Maya this morning, but I don't know, I get the feeling that things might not be looking too hopeful for Tony."
"I...don't know. I'll try to find out what the situation is."
"O.K., keep me informed. I don't want to put my foot in it. I've spoken to Captain Picard, he wants to see the command officers in his briefing room at nine hundred hours."
Helena glanced at the watch they had given her, set to shipboard time. It was just after eight. "I'll see you there."
He signed off, self-consciously, and she removed the badge from the fabric of her tunic and looked at it as if it retained some part of the voice that had spoken through it.
Beverly gave her what looked like an encouraging smile.
Maya did not feel different in the morning, except that the heat of shame had cooled away. She woke with an immediate memory of everything that had happened the night before and a sense of cold disgust. She knew she ought to go and see how Tony was, but she doubted he would have died in the night and, otherwise, she couldn't bear to face him. Another shouting match would destroy what composure had grown overnight, and all she wanted to do was get off the ship and down to the planet without even seeing him.
She fingered her commbadge on the table, then tapped it lightly. "Maya to sickbay."
"Sickbay. Nurse Cooper speaking. How may I help you?"
"I'm just calling to enquire about Tony Verdeschi, who was brought in last night."
"The Alphan officer?"
"He was discharged at 0700 hours this morning."
"He's all right, then."
"Yes, Dr. Crusher passed him as fit to be discharged."
"Thank you." It was nearly half past eight, so he had obviously not decided to come to her to apologize. She stared into her coffee cup while, for a vivid half second, her mind threw up a vision of him slipping into her bed, sliding his arms around her and waking her with a kiss on her neck. She put the idea aside, and concentrated on remaining calm.
Just as she was fastening on her badge, it sounded again. "Hello, Maya?" It was the Commander's voice.
"Maya here, Commander."
"Can you be in the Captain's briefing room in half an hour?"
"Yes, of course."
She dressed more formally than she had intended and put her hair up, wondering at the back of her mind whether this could be anything to do either with the incident at the reception or her intended trip to Lanthenon. She approached the briefing room with a feeling of dread, and entered in an agony of self-consciousness. The Commander and Helena were already seated at the table, and so was Tony. She only let her glance graze him, but she saw that he looked sullen. Captain Picard was at the head of the table, and Deanna Troi sat at his right side. Will was not there.
The Captain greeted her, pleasantly, and invited her to join them. "Now that we've all here," said the Captain, "please let me start by saying that the Federation is genuinely concerned to find the best reintegration option for all of the Alphans. You are all citizens of Earth--I'm sorry, Maya; I mean that with one exception, you are all citizens of Earth--and as such are entitled to residency on the homeworld. However, I feel I should be honest and make it clear to you that this may not be what you might expect, or what you all want. Residency entitlement on Earth is considered a privilege, and it's only granted to those who have a hereditary right to it, or those who marry an Earth citizen, or--very rarely--when someone can do a job that no Earth citizen can fulfil. I should point out that most races in the galaxy have similar restrictions on residency on their homeworlds. Spacefaring peoples are geared, nowadays, to colonization and expansion."
"We're concerned," said Deanna, "that you might not find it easy to readjust to life on Earth, without families, without connections, and without professions. The fact that you are all highly trained, highly intelligent people could make it more difficult for you to come to terms with having no relevant qualifications and no immediate place in Earth society. Now you can and will be retrained, but we wondered if, given your experiences and your obviously highly developed sense of community on Alpha, you might prefer to stay together and colonize a planet."
"Colonize a planet!" said Helena, with a catch of surprised eagerness in her voice. Maya saw her exchange a glance with the Commander, who remained impassive.
"The minimum colony size laid down by the Federation Council for Colonies is two hundred persons," said the Captain. "There are over three hundred of you. Individually, the Alphans may have other preferences, other plans. But if at least two hundred of you want to pursue this option, I am authorized to tell you that the FCC has available an M-class planet in the Argetta Region where you could settle almost immediately. Normally, potential colonists wait years for an allocation and have to demonstrate their motivation and suitability at some length. In your circumstances, they are willing to bypass the normal procedure."
"You would all be given a six-month retraining period in any case," said Deanna. "Starbase Twenty-Nine specializes in preparing colonists for the task ahead of them, and they'd adapt the course to equip you with some of the twenty-fourth century skills you don't have at the moment. But it may be more rewarding for you all you carry on living with each other, operating at more or less your own level, each of you continuing to make a valuable contribution to a small, growing society--than to end up back on Earth."
"It is, of course, entirely up to you," said the Captain, lifting his hands.
A tight sick knot of tension had formed at the pit of Maya's stomach. She sensed that Helena was excited and almost nervous, and the Commander looked thoughtful as he glanced between them.
"Well," he said, "I'll have to put it to the rest of the Alphans."
"When do we have to make up our minds?"
"There is no great pressure of time," said the Captain.
"Captain," said Maya, "may I ask a question?"
"By all means."
"Did I understand what you said correctly? Would I not be allowed to live on Earth?"
"Yes--unfortunately--I'm afraid that's probably the case. I'm sorry, Maya, but residency limitations on Earth are strictly enforced. Unless, of course, you were married to an Earth citizen."
"But I have no homeworld. Where would I go?"
"Almost anywhere else," said Deanna, leaning over the table and touching her hand in a sudden, unexpected gesture of sympathy. "If the Alphans don't want to establish a colony, or you don't want to be part of it if they do, we'll find you a home."
Maya scarcely heard the concluding exchanges of the meeting. She was fighting a whirlpool of panic and concentrating on keeping it under control and hidden. The touch of Deanna's fingers on her hand had made her aware that she was exposed to one person around the table; as soon as they were outside, she realized that her consternation was self-evident.
The Commander put his arms around her shoulders and hugged her. "Maya--don't worry--we won't leave you to fend for yourself."
"You're one of us," said Helena, taking her hand. "We'll stick together."
"That may not be reasonable," Maya said. "If you and the other Alphans want to go back to your home planet, and I know I might want to in your situation, you won't not go because I can't."
"The Earth we knew doesn't exist anymore," said Helena. "I think we should do it."
"The colony, you mean?" said the Commander. "Yes, I thought you liked the idea."
"Don't you, John?"
"If the others back us--yes, I do."
Helena smiled at him.
The weight began to slide away from her spirits, the weight that she had been carrying almost since she had arrived on the Enterprise, and for a few moments she was almost happy. She looked at Tony, who had said nothing, and he met her eyes.
Captain Picard came out of the conference room and said, "Mr. Koenig, Mr. Verdeschi--I wonder if I could have a further word with you both?"
Maya tensed again. Helena hesitated forward, then realized that her presence had not been requested, and stopped. "I'll see you back in our quarters," she said to the Commander.
With some reluctance, Maya allowed herself to be walked down the corridor by Helena. Neither of them spoke for some time, but she was sure that Helena was thinking the same as her; that the further, private conference could only have been about the fight at the reception.
Eventually, Helena said, "We'd better get our people together and tell them what Captain Picard suggested. How do you do that here--can we make a loudspeaker announcement?"
"I think so."
"Perhaps you could ask your friend Commander Riker."
"I'm sure Commander Koenig will make the arrangements."
They reached the door of Helena's quarters. "Come on in," she said. "It's odd, isn't it, to have nothing to do? I keep wanting to go to the medical center and check it out."
"Yes, I felt that way too, very much, when I came here. Helena, if we do colonize a planet--that's what you want to do, isn't it?"
"This may sound strange, but I want somewhere to belong, somewhere to be important. In some ways I liked Alpha, despite the restrictions and the frustrations. There was a sense of certainty combined with a sense of adventure, and I liked being useful. I liked power, I guess you might say. There's no other way of putting it. I don't want to go back to Earth to be a nobody, or some kind of freak celebrity."
"Well, the Commander seems to agree with you."
"And you, Maya? What do you want?"
"I don't really know," she said, surprising herself.
Her commbadge sounded. "Riker to Maya."
"Maya here," she said, trying to sound businesslike in Helena's presence.
"Not...yet. I've been in a meeting--I haven't had time to get ready."
"No problems? You still want to go?"
"No problems. I still want to go."
"I'll meet you in docking bay nine at 1200 hours, then."
"Going somewhere?" said Helena.
"Commander Riker thought I might enjoy visiting Lanthenon," she said, desperately casual.
"That's nice. I heard last night that there are some beautiful places to see there. If you're leaving at twelve, we'd better have the meeting with the others before then."
"Don't worry, I don't need to be there. I understood what the Captain said."
"But Maya, I want you to be there, I don't want it to feel that it doesn't concern you."
"I don't feel like that."
"How late will you be back? We can set it for this evening instead."
"I'm not coming back this evening. Will has twenty-four hours shore leave."
"You're staying overnight?"
"On Lanthenon, with Commander Riker?"
"Maya, are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Why not? Why shouldn't I? I'm going to visit a planet with a friend, that's all. It's a very long time since I had the chance to go to any planet that wasn't dangerous. All I want to do is breathe some fresh air and walk on some real grass. Will happened to have already booked this, and he's invited me to go with him. There's nothing more to it than that."
"It might look to other people as if there were more to it than that."
"You're sounding like Tony."
"Maya, you can't blame him for being jealous. You have to make some decisions here. And if you decide Will Riker is the man for you--well, that's great. But if this is just a flirtation, or some way of getting back at Tony because you're angry about what happened last night, I would think very carefully before doing something you might regret later on."
Maya was embarrassed into silence, and she felt heat rise into her face.
"Or," said Helena, more gently, "does that advice come too late already?"
"No! Of course not." She stood up in exasperation, hating that she had been goaded to talk. "But Tony doesn't believe that! He doesn't trust me. Ever since he got here he's been unreasonable and impossible. What happened last night was the culmination. Is it going to be like this from now on, Helena? Is he going to shout at me every time I speak to another man, now we've left Alpha?"
"I don't know."
"He only ever once said that he loved me, and then he took it back," she said, with an unexpected surge of bitterness.
"That's just Tony," said Helena, with half a smile.
"Would you find it amusing?"
"I've got to go and get ready," Maya said, getting up.
"Maya--talk to Tony, explain that Commander Riker's just a friend, try to tell him what you told me--that you want some commitment from him. He does love you, very much. You can't just go off to Lanthenon with Will and expect it not to change things. Don't do something--irrevocable."
"You have no difficulty talking to the Commander," said Maya. "You don't understand."
She left, shaken.
He almost forgot. It was only as he was striding past the entrance to the corridor that led to her office, on his way to his own quarters to throw some things into a bag, that he remembered he had to speak to Deanna. He halted in mid-step and took the turning, half-hoping that she would be with a visitor, as she called her patients.
She wasn't there at all. Her office was locked. He asked the computer for her location and was told that she was in her quarters. Ashamed of the twinge of dismay, he went straight there.
She looked up from her desk as he entered, after punching a cursory signal at the door. "Hi."
"Deanna, can I have a word with you?"
"Of course," she said brightly. She left her desk and went to the sofa.
He joined her there. "We planned to take shore leave on Lanthenon--"
"Well, I haven't got myself ready to go, because I know you want to take Maya instead."
"That's it. Sometimes I think you're always one step ahead of me."
"I have an unfair advantage."
"I should have asked you before I asked her--" "Yes, you should. But if the moment's there, you take it. Is she going with you?"
Deanna looked away.
He felt a brief apprehension, near pain.
She said, as if carefully considering, "I don't want you to misunderstand if I sound the voice of caution, Will. You know I want for you what will make you happy. I just wonder if you're doing the right thing."
"Why, don't you like her?"
"She's bright and funny. I like her very much. And if she were unattached, I would be delighted for you. But I can't help feeling that you're not serving her best interests by trying to break up the relationship she's already in."
He stood up, exasperated. "Oh, she can't be serious about Verdeschi."
"He's a brainless lout! She's three times smarter than he is."
"A third party can never really understand what two people value in each other. When I first saw them together a sensed a great deal of empathy between them, as well as a strong physical bond. True, since you started stirring things they've done nothing but fight, but at least that shows they have strong feelings about each other."
He slapped the back of the sofa, moving restlessly. "I can't be rational about it any more, Deanna. I want to care about what's best for her and I know I've caused trouble for her, but I can't seem to help myself now. It's like something's possessed me, I can't think about anything else. I swear to you, the only thing I thought about when I met her two weeks ago was how good it would be to get her into bed--and now, I can't believe I was so cavalier. I'm going to get her away from the Alphans and from Verdeschi, and tell her how I feel. Then she can make up her mind."
Deanna was watching him, her head slightly to one side, with her patient counselor's look.
Suddenly aware that he had been too voluble, Riker forced himself to sit down to calm the driving motion inside him. He slid his arms over her neck and gathered her against him. She was warm and supple, very sweet. "Ah, imzadi," he said, pressing his face into her hair. "When this is over one way or the other, I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"If things work out the way you hope with Maya, you may not be able to," she said, calmly. She pressed his hand.
He thought of all the times he had wondered in the middle of the night if Deanna was the woman he was really supposed to be with, if it had been a fundamental, fragmenting mistake in his life to let her go all those years ago, and if he would ever be free of that disturbing regret and even more disturbing desire to begin it again. For the first time in a long time, he hoped he would.
She had the replicator make her a small suitcase and started to pack what few necessary items she could think of, still unused to the casual availability of material things. New cosmetics, new toiletries, a new hairbrush and bands. She was just folding a new negligee when she heard the outer door open. She had forgotten to lock it as usual.
It was Tony. He hesitated in the bedroom doorway, awkward. "Maya...," he began, quietly, then he stiffened. "What are you doing?"
She was still holding the nightdress.
"It's you he's going off to that planet with, isn't it!" he cried. He snatched the nightdress from her hand.
"What are you going to do?" said Maya, frozen. "Hit me, too?"
"No, I have some instincts of self-preservation." He balled up the negligee and threw it against the bedstead with a motion of disgust. Then he turned away and said in a lower tone, "Picard said that Riker was off on shore leave, so I wouldn't be tempted to kill him for a couple of days at least. I should have known he wasn't the kind of man to holiday alone."
"You've no idea what kind of man he is, because you've never spoken to him."
"Oh, you expect me to have become a bosom buddy, do you?"
"No, but you could have made some attempt to get to know him as my friend--or at the very least, show him some respect as first officer of the Enterprise."
"That's it. I spent a lot of time when I was hooked up to that machine last night trying to work out how you could possibly have been taken in by an overweight Lothario like that, but now I get it. He's Mr. Enterprise; second in command of this ship is better than second in command of some runaway moonbase."
"Tony, I will not listen to any more of these nonsensical accusations."
"You've always been keen on authority. You're a real Daddy's girl, aren't you? If you want my opinion, a lot of your problems are down to your father."
"Don't you dare talk about my father. You never even met him."
"Oh, come on, Maya, your father was a bloody lunatic! He nearly killed us all."
For a moment she had a vision of herself as a tiger or a hyena, springing at him with outstretched claws. The image was so vivid that the transformation might have started, because she saw his eyes widen and he took half a step back. The flash of fear in his expression was enough to bring her back to herself, and she stuffed the nightdress into the case, fastened it shut, and left the bedroom. "Excuse me."
Recovering his posture, Tony said, "Maya--if you go with him to the planet, then it is over!"
"Oh, that's fine by me!" she shouted back.
She half-ran along the corridor, heedlessly.
Helena stayed in her quarters and worried until John returned from the additional meeting with Captain Picard, looking weary. "He was reasonable about it, I suppose," he told her, accepting a mug of coffee, "given that the facts of the matter seem to be that Tony assaulted Riker. He just wanted to hear our side of the story and know if there was anything they could do to help."
"Helping again," said Helena with a smile.
"Kind of worrying, isn't it? God knows, I didn't have a side, I haven't any idea what's been going on--I didn't know there was anything going on until you told me yesterday, after the event. I felt like an incompetent commander, I fumbled with generalities."
"Ah, he was better, he actually said sorry. I get the impression he was off to make it up with Maya."
"Oh? I wonder. It's just that Maya left here not half an hour ago determined to go to Lanthenon with Commander Riker."
John looked surprised and rubbed his mouth. "This has been a whirlwind romance, hasn't it?"
"I think she's been swept off her feet."
"Hell, poor Tony. Do you think she's going to stay with Riker?"
"Damn. I don't want to lose her."
"No, if we're going to colonize a planet, we could certainly use her."
"Still, these things happen, I guess."
Helena felt a sudden sick twinge of guilt and fear as she watched him gazing into his coffee cup, reasonably perturbed by the possible break-up of one relationship and untroubled by any suspicion that his own had already been changed. Now was as good a time as any to tell him--she doubted there was such as thing as the right moment--but she shrank from it. They ought to get the meeting with the Alphans out of the way first.
The 'public' meeting was set for thirteen hundred hours, but John failed to get Tony to respond to a personal hail over the communicators. Helena felt she was the one to investigate, and she found him eventually in Maya's quarters. He was just sitting in one of the armchairs, slumped as if asleep but obviously awake. He had something in his hand. As Helena came hesitantly closer she saw that it was Maya's necklace, the only thing, other than the clothes she had been wearing, that she had been able to bring with her from her destroyed homeworld.
He stirred and looked up, expressionlessly. "The shuttle left half an hour ago. I checked. She was on it."
"I didn't think she'd really do it."
"She told me she just wanted to see Lanthenon, breathe some fresh air, you know. There may be nothing more to it than that--why don't you give her the benefit of the doubt, and talk it through when she gets back."
"I told her that if she went with him, we were finished."
"It's not the best idea to issue ultimatums you don't want to keep."
He was silent for a moment. "What I can't stop thinking about is how she came out with all that crap about Psychon family values, about how in her society marriages never broke up--"
"But Tony, you and Maya are not married. From things she's said to me at odd times, I don't think you've been sending her messages of commitment."
"She knows how I feel."
"Does she?" said Helena, more sharply than she had intended.
After a long silence he tossed the necklace onto the table with a clatter. "To Hell with it. To Hell with her." He got up and was about to leave.
"What I came here to tell you," said Helena, "was that we're having a meeting to discuss the colonization option with all the Alphans. It's in the assembly room in half an hour. John wants you to be there."
"If he's got anything to say, he can find me in the bar. Moonbase Alpha is over, Helena. John's nobody's commander any more. Neither you not I are anybody any more. Get used to it." He slapped the side of the door as he went out.
She seemed to leave all her misery behind on the Enterprise, as if it were a physical thing. As soon as the shuttle approached Lanthenon's outer atmosphere, she was filled with a heady excitement that had echoes of the thrill she always felt in approaching an unknown planet, sweetened by the knowledge that this time she was safe. She didn't even have to do anything, though she was seated in the co-pilot's position. On an Alphan mission, if she hadn't been piloting she would have been watching the computer's screen output for atmospheric analyses and indicators of trouble. This ship didn't even seem to have such instruments visible from the pilot's seat. She supposed it was all automatic.
They got clearance from space traffic control to descend into the atmosphere, and the shuttle dipped through a rapidly changing pool of violet air until they could see the long swirls of clouds and pastel smudges of green and blue.
"I ought to try it this way more often," said Riker. "Transporters take away the sense of travel."
"And the beauty!" Maya wondered if she sounded artless, but Will was looked at her warmly.
It was only a few more minutes before they came over an unbroken cloudless patch, and saw a long sparkling lake of incredible brilliant blue in mountainous terrain. As the shuttle descended, Maya saw a structure perched on the side of the mountain, overhanging the lake. She saw when they were close that it might have been some kind of defensive building originally, but had been added to extensively in a newer style. The shuttle skimmed over the rooftops of the complex to a bulkhead set into the mountain. Riker communicated with the hotel and the door opened into a parking place for shuttle and personal transporters that seemed to go on into the mountain forever. It was nearly empty. Only a few small vehicles, looking lost, occupied the occasional bay.
"The woman who took my booking said that she expected business to be slack for the time of year," Riker said. "Apparently everybody's gone to the capital for the wedding. We might have the place to ourselves."
"That's all right. I don't like crowds."
They were conveyed by an automated cubicle like a luxurious version of a travel tube to the hotel's entrance foyer. It was a vast hall, carpeted and mirrored and adorned with decorations in red and gold that there undoubtedly in honor of the forthcoming royal wedding. There were only two visible guests, a very old man and a very old woman who were sitting in huddled conference in an alcove. As Maya followed Riker across the hall she felt their eyes staring at them, frankly. This planet, she remembered, was new to the Federation. They might never have seen aliens before, and both she and Riker must appear unnaturally tall to the Lanthenons.
The receptionist, however, was unfazed. "Mr. William Riker of the planet Earth, and Miss Deanna Troi of the planet Betazed?" she enquired brightly.
"Miss Troi was unable to come," said Will, without embarrassment. "This is Maya, daughter of Mentor, from the planet Psychon."
The receptionist made no comment, tapped something onto a pad on her desk, and said, "You're in room 522 and room 530. Very nice rooms, both with views of the lake. If they're not to your liking you can certainly change, I'm afraid we're not at all busy because of the Royal Wedding, of course."
"We'll take a look," said Riker, accepting two small rods of clear plastic from her.
Maya had been anticipating a moment of awkwardness over the room arrangements, and had half prepared a question and response at the back of her mind. She was actually surprised by this, and was wrong-footed enough to react when he handed her the key to her own room.
"What did you expect?" he said in a low voice, as they walked away from the reception desk. "I told you Deanna and I don't have that kind of relationship any more. Didn't you believe me?"
"Well, perhaps not."
"Of course, if you're unhappy with the arrangement, I can always get it changed."
"No," she said, smiling.
He grinned back.
I'm really going to do this, Maya thought, and a disturbing, delightful physical emotion ran over her.
"We've lost a couple of hours to the day," he said, as they were going up in the lift. "It's mid-afternoon. Shall we explore down by the lake, first?"
Their rooms were on the same corridor on the uppermost floor of the hotel. Maya's room was not as large as her suite on the Enterprise, but like the rest of the building it had a more solid feel. And it smelled of real air and natural fabrics washed in scented soaps, a powerful indoor aroma that caught her unaware. The two windows were open, blowing filmy curtains on the slightest breeze. She stood by them and looked over the lake far below, wondering how long it was since she had been in something as simple as an ordinary room.
She unpacked her case and chose a white sleeveless dress, as it seemed very hot outside. That was something else she had almost forgotten about; the vagaries of planetary weather. She let her hair fall loose and studied herself in the full-length mirror. Sometimes, these days, when she caught sight of her own face it seemed for a moment alien, because she was so used to looking at humans. She wondered how Will would react if she made herself aged and ugly; he would probably only be amused.
Tony had once refused outright to kiss her in the form of an ugly old woman. She had teased him in front of everyone in Command Center, and he had declined to take the joke. She remembered how she had been confident and carefree, enjoying his frustration and her power over him, her heart untouched. That had been a very long time ago, before...
She shut down her thoughts in the way she stemmed memories of Psychon and her father when they started to hurt, and turned away from herself.
Riker had changed too, now wearing the casual clothes fashionable for men--loose fitting trousers with an ornamental belt and a tunic top half split open at the front. Out of uniform he looked significantly different in a way that Maya found difficult to define. She felt more intimate with him even though they walked along the path by the lake without touching, and he made no move at all to get closer. She was pulled between overwhelming delight in the beauty of everything around her, and an equally powerful consciousness of her situation. It was only mid afternoon. The night was a long time off.
The lakeside path wound for miles through woodland, with lush vegetation to the water's edge. Wildfowl dappled in the reeds and small mammals darted through the undergrowth. Everywhere underfoot were clusters of blue flowers, filling the air with perfume.
"Daquetha," said Riker, when Maya commented. He stooped down and pulled some up. "Gargatha is famous for its carpets of daquetha flowers at this time of year. I was talking to the receptionist while I was waiting for you to come down. Do you want some?"
"You shouldn't pick wild flowers," said Maya, half seriously. "It can be dangerous." She took them from him, suddenly fascinated to see how tiny the delicate blooms were in his hands. The silence was pleasant, and filled with birdsong.
"We picked the right time to come here," said Riker. "The receptionist said this place was thronging with tourists last week."
"You seem to have had a very long conversation with the receptionist."
"You were a long time. Here it is."
"The boat hire place she told me about. Ever been on a boat?"
"Not since I was very young."
They had come into view of a long low building partly concealed by the trees. There was a reception terminal into which Will put his room key, and tapped in some instructions on a keypad. A slip of plastic whizzed out of a slot, and there was a rumble of machinery from inside the building. At the waterfront, Maya saw a small vessel slide into the water. They followed the path down to a boarding dock.
Will stepped into the boat confidently from the platform, and then held up his hand to help her in. She was unexpectedly uncertain, and had a moment of panic as the boat swayed under her weight. He caught her and steadied her, and helped her sit on one of the two scooped-out seats. It was a tiny boat clearly intended for only two people, and she suspected that the Lanthenon designers had expected those two people to be smaller.
"Our starships," said Riker, "are the very distant ancestors of vessels like these. Here's the warp drive." He indicated two free-moving propellers that were attached to the boat. "I hope it works like an Earth rowing boat." He pulled back on the oars and the boat glided away from the quay with surprising smoothness.
Maya found the sensation of being afloat uniquely soothing. Will rowed confidently, with rhythmic strokes, and she enjoyed watching his strength. The feeling of sun on her bare arms and her face was delicious. Riker maneuvered the boat into the very middle of the lake and then stopped, lifting the oars out of the water.
The slapping noise stopped.
"We're alone," he said.
"Feel better than you did on the Enterprise?"
"Yes," she said frankly, with a smile. She felt, in fact, as if she had just stretched her limbs after being physically confined for a long time.
Riker, she thought, knows when not to say much.
They floated in silence, savoring the stillness.
"Can I ask you something?" he said eventually.
"Your transformations--do they tire you?"
"Not significantly, if I choose something close to or smaller than my own size. If it's something much larger, it can drain me, and if I try to hold it for too long, that's very difficult."
"How long is too long?"
"About an hour."
"What does it feel like, being another creature?"
"Do you have the abilities of the animal that you change into--if you're a bird, can you fly?"
"Do you want me to show you?" she asked blandly, knowing very well that he did.
She threw herself into the form of an eagle, the bird symbolized by the Alphans' small spacecraft and a safe option in an unknown ecosystem, and soared up above the lake. It was something she had been longing to do anyway, to escape her own body and dive through the clean air. Riker and the boat grew smaller and smaller but acutely distinct. She saw tiny creatures darting about on the ground, and was filled with the desire to swoop at them, though she controlled it. She flew toward the hotel, covering in seconds the ground it had taken them half an hour to walk, and caught a flash under her. It was a person, on the roof of the hotel, angling some kind of telescope toward her. The birdwatcher would never have seen anything like an eagle on Lanthenon. She circled twice, to puzzle him, then glided back over the lake.
Emotions as a bird of prey were sharper and simpler. Riker smiled widely as she descended and held up his hand, and without hesitation she landed on him. The human flesh felt spongy through the scales in her claws. Then she let go and became herself again, soft flesh and heavy body and a hammering heart, and found herself tangled up in his arms.
The little boat rocked.
"Careful," she said.
"No," he said, and kissed her.
It was no different from the sensual pleasures all around her; the sun, the lapping water, the smell of woodland and flowers. She relaxed and let herself enjoy it, suddenly uninhibited. She could feel how deliberate and restrained Will was, kissing her slowly, luxuriantly, without fervor and without moving, demanding hands. A dispassionate passion, she thought with the part of her mind that was still clear.
When they parted her held her for a while longer, studying her. They were precariously balanced. Maya made the first move to let go and ease her way back to her own side of the boat.
She supposed they had stopped pretending now, but Will made no comment and took up the oars again.
"When you can do that," he said, glancing upwards, "human life must seem limited."
"No, not at all. It has advantages."
He grinned and pulled back on the oars. "Want to see the other side of the lake?"
She agreed, sank back in her seat, and let her fingers trail in the water. Her ankle touched Will's leg and she left it there.
The meeting to put the colonization option to all the Alphans went well, as far as Helena could judge. John made a simple address to their assembled people, explaining what Captain Picard had proposed and concluding, to her surprise, by saying, "This is something that Helena and I very much want to do. If at least one hundred and ninety-eight of you feel the same way and want to give it a go, we're on. Now I don't expect anybody to make up their minds right now. We'll have another meeting tomorrow, to discuss where we go from here. If anyone wants to come and see me in private, please do. One other thing." He paused. "I'm not your commander any more. I'm sure a lot of you have thought it through and come to that conclusion. If so, that's fine. We were in a survival situation, and you all did your duty with courage and discipline. Now--we're free. You're free. I can't tell you what to do now, and I don't want to. All I can do is ask you if you want to join us."
Helena was unexpectedly affected, as he stepped down from the speaker's platform. "Was that an abdication speech?" she said, in a low voice.
"Could be. That's up to the populous now."
"I never though I'd see the day when Alpha became a democracy."
"Well, since most of my command staff seem to have deserted me, I guess it's time to go to the polls."
They spent about an hour discussing the plan with those who stayed behind to talk about it. Nobody seemed to have taken any notice of what John had said on one point; he was still 'Commander' and 'sir' to everyone, and he didn't bother to correct them. Helena could sense guarded enthusiasm and the beginnings of excitement even in those she had expected to be skeptical.
When the meeting broke up eventually, John put his arm around her shoulders and said, "Why don't we try out all this leisure and go swimming, or maybe see if we can use that amazing holodeck?"
"I don't feel like swimming just right now."
"O.K.--then why don't we go back to our quarters, and catch up on things?"
"John...let's do that, let's go to our quarters, but--because there's something we have to talk about."
He saw her expression, and stopped and held her arms. "Something serious?"
"You've changed your mind about the colony?"
"Is it something more personal than that?"
"Yes--can we at least go somewhere private, not standing out here in the middle of the corridor?"
He frowned and was silent until they got back to their quarters. As soon as the door slid shut he said, "Well?" He might not have meant his tone to be accusing, but that was how it sounded to Helena.
She walked round the room, twisting her wedding ring on her little finger. She felt as if she was one foot over the edge of a precipice, and she couldn't shut her emotions down. "I'm pregnant," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean--we're going to have a baby."
He stared at her, as if still uncomprehending. "How the Hell did that happen?"
"Well, John, you know, the usual way."
"You know what I mean."
"It's very simple. Three months ago, after our last big fight about it, I decided to stop taking contraceptives."
"You ignored the decision that we made--"
"No, John, you made it."
"Helena--that wasn't about us, it was about surviving on Alpha. How would it have looked if we had a baby and no one else could? What could I tell people?"
"You could tell them whatever the Hell you liked. You know I didn't believe we couldn't support babies on Alpha, and I wanted a child, with you--or--or without you."
"O.K.," he said quietly, his eyes going cold. He turned abruptly and left the room.
The door slid shut with its usual even sound.
Helena walked carefully to the nearest chair on legs that she couldn't feel, and burst into tears.
Deanna noticed the Alphan officer Tony Verdeschi when she dropped in to Ten Forward in a half-hour gap between appointments. At 1500 hours in the afternoon there were only a few people round the bar, having coffee or snacks. He was sitting alone at a far table, examining a glass. Although she was used to screening out random emotions, his misery caught her as soon as she entered the room. It was impossible to focus away from it; the pain drilled into her diaphragm. As usual, she was mildly annoyed that everyone else in the bar was oblivious. She sometimes wondered if it would be nice to live in a self-contained cage of feeling, untroubled by others. She ordered iced tea and went to join him.
"Hi," she said, smiling.
He gave her a quick, surprised look, and shifted in his seat.
She appraised him rapidly, having the chance to study him properly for the first time. He was young, no older than thirty, and had the kind of dark good looks that she found appealing. She did not need her empathic sense to tell that he was sunk into unhappiness, so preoccupied that he was past caring how his behavior appeared to others.
"I don't think we've met properly," she said. "I'm Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor."
"Yes, I know that," he said.
"It's my job to help people on the Enterprise feel comfortable with themselves and each other," she said. "I sense your unhappiness."
"That's very perceptive of you." He drained the glass in one gulp, then gazed into it. "The worst thing about this bloody place is that you can't get blind drunk if you want to."
"I would advise you against trying to drink enough synthohol to get drunk. Although it doesn't act on the brain in the same way as alcohol, too much of it at once can certainly act on your stomach. You'll only make yourself unpleasantly sick."
"Don't worry, I've just decided to give up." He pushed the glass aside. "So, the fact that your boyfriend has taken my girlfriend on a dirty weekend qualifies you to come and cheer me up?"
"Will is not my boyfriend," Deanna said, with a smile.
"Yeah? Well, Maya's not my girlfriend any more, either, so that gives us something in common."
He looked up again, and she realized that he had noticed her eyes for the first time. "Are you an alien?" he asked, in a different tone.
"We don't use words like 'alien' any more, Mr. Verdeschi. Why should one species feel themselves to be deviations from a norm? Everyone is normal to themselves. My father was from Earth, like you are, but my mother is from a plant called Betazed, and that's where I grew up."
"How do you buy a girl a drink around here?" he asked.
Maya had brought only one evening dress with her, and there were no replicators on Lanthenon to confuse her with further choice. It was a deep blue, ornamented with deeper blue scrolls of shining material, and it had no shoulders and almost no back; it clung to her body so tightly that she could only move because there was a slit in the skirt to the top of her thigh. It was very elegant, and too formal, she thought, to be construed as provocative. But it left more of her accessible than she would usually like. She tied up all her hair into tight coils, leaving her neck bare.
She had showered, and dressed, and now put the final ornamented pins into her hair, with a sense of excitement that was almost hypnotic. She felt that she was a different person, as if she had transformed into something that looked like herself, but was not the same. As this alternative woman the feelings and loyalties and obligations that defined what she could do no longer bound her. As, when a bird, she could escape gravity.
But she could only be a bird for an hour.
She met Riker in the lounge which served as an anteroom to the hotel's banquet hall. He rose and clasped her hands, greeting her with a smile of unambiguous appreciation. "You're beautiful," he said. "But then, I guess you've heard that many times before."
"Would we be here if I weren't?"
"I'd like to think so. I hope I can separate physical attraction from personality, though the way you make me feel now--how can I do that?"
"I could be ugly, if you want, for an hour." She could only draw half her breath, and her voice sounded stifled to her own ears.
"No," he said, drawing her into his space. "Let me enjoy you, the way you are. And the way you look is part of who you are."
She closed her eyes and felt his breath.
"Would you care to look at the menu now, sir?"
She moved back with a start, shocked to find a small Lanthenon waiter inserting a scroll between them. Will caught her eye with amusement, nodded at the waiter, and unrolled the menu.
"I particularly recommend the baked whole elquath in a sauce of scented hapla beans," the waiter added, and retreated with his stare still fixed on them.
Maya suddenly noticed that the elderly couple, who appeared to be the only other guests in the hotel, were watching them openly from the corner of the lounge.
"We should have signed in as Mr. and Mrs Smith," said Will, in a low voice, sitting down and studying the menu.
"I get the feeling we're offending the local mores."
The elderly couple had returned to reading some kind of papers.
"Perhaps we should choose what we're going to eat," Maya said.
"You're not used to this, are you?"
She said nothing, suddenly embarrassed again.
He leaned toward her, without touching her, his eyes serious. "Maya, I don't care about what the Lanthenons think--the way I see it, if they want to be part of the Federation, they have to tolerate the customs of other planets--but I do care if I'm offending you."
"No, Will, you're not. But I understand how these people feel--Psychon society wasn't dissimilar. When I was sixteen, I became friendly with a boy who studied with my father for a while. He came from another city to stay for the summer. I was convinced I was in love, and we used to go for walks along the banks of Lake Tamyara together, sometimes after sunset."
"And kiss in the moonlight?"
She smiled. "Yes. And my brother was very concerned for my honor."
"Had he any reason to be?"
"Certainly not. But my brother talked to him, and not long after Jovak decided to go home."
"Did you hear from him again?"
"Of course not." She wasn't sure why she had told him this. She hadn't thought about it for years, nor had she realized that she remembered the boy's name.
"The only good thing about teenage romance," said Will, "is that you get it over with first. Do you want to go for the baked whole whatever he recommended? Because the rest of this menu means nothing to me."
She nodded, and they went into the banqueting hall together without further impropriety.
Riker claimed not to understand the menu, but he did seem to have an uncanny ability to grasp the contents of a wine list. After a cursory perusal he had ordered a clear wine full of tiny pink bubbles that streamed up the side of the glass and burst over the surface of the liquid. "It's quenarana, a celebration wine."
"Like Earth champagne? But sweeter," she added, sipping it.
The baked equath were unfortunate small animals, served on a bed of spicy vegetation. Numerous sweet-sour accompaniments were provided alongside the meat dish, beautifully presented in jeweled bowls.
"There's no substitute for going planetside and eating real food," said Will, dismembering his elquath with enthusiasm.
"I thought you couldn't tell whether food was replicated or not."
"On board a ship, when someone puts something in front of me and says 'this is real caviar', no--I can't. On a planet, the food is part of the whole experience and then there's a real difference. Even on Earth, they say that regional food only tastes right in its own country. What was Psychon food like?"
"Different from this, different from Alphan food. I can't easily describe it."
"Is Lanthenon like where you lived on Psychon?"
"In some ways. This is much more mountainous than Tamyara, and the lake is longer, and we didn't have such lovely blue flowers, but the climate is similar, and the trees are much the same. The wildness, the untouched natural beauty--that's very like where I grew up."
"What happened to the planet? How could it have deteriorated in so short a time--that you remember it being like this, before it got to a state where it broke up? I would have thought that kind of change would take millennia, not years."
"We don't really know. It was some catastrophic seismic chain reaction that caused the planet to self-destruct. Our geophysicists had a theory that Psychon was never stable as an ordinary planet is, that it was a time bomb and what happened had always been waiting to happen. Science did not predict it, the disaster was upon us before we had any way to react."
"Did your scientists try?"
"Of course, but it was hopeless."
"Were you involved? You must have been very young."
"I was seventeen in the year when volcanic eruptions destroyed most of the Far Lands. That was the beginning. I knew about what was happening because my father and my brother were both on the High Scientific Council."
"What happened to your education?"
"I was always taught by my father, and that continued."
"You didn't go to school, or college?"
"When I was very young, a small child, I did. After my mother died, I couldn't really leave my father, so I had to stay at home with him. On Psychon, it wasn't uncommon for children to be taught by one parent or another anyway--not everyone went to school."
"You know, my mother died when I was a kid too."
"Yes, when I was a baby. I don't remember her, but I grew up feeling her loss all the same."
"You always feel the loss of a parent," said Maya firmly, driven to talk about this to ease the pain of what Tony had said. "I was twelve when my mother Ilana died, and after that Mentor--my father--changed. He was never the same, he became obsessive to the point--perhaps to the point of madness. I had to look after him."
"Who looked after you?"
"My father did. However difficult things became for him, he was always my father."
"Where did your brother fit into this? Aside from breaking up your romances."
"My brother and I had misunderstandings sometimes." And that, she thought, was the valued Psychon art of understatement. "He didn't believe in Mentor's vision to restore Psychon. My father had developed a biological computer which could harness psychic energies, and when the planet began to disintegrate he worked on ways to use its power to transform matter on a global scale. The scientific establishment believed he was years away from getting results, if he ever would, and that's why they organized a mass evacuation."
"You stayed to help your father?"
"Yes. I couldn't leave him."
He put his hand on hers. The warmth of contact shocked her for a moment; she had started to feel cold. "You must have been close."
"We always were. Even before Ilana died--and after that, I was all he had. I believe that if you have parents who love you, and who love each other, for at least the first few years of your life, nothing inside you can really change afterwards. Whatever's happened to me since, I still have that."
He had twined his fingers through hers. "What did happen--in the end?"
"Mentor's computer was destroyed--he died in the fire--Commander Koenig saved me. Because Psyche, the computer, drew its power from the planetary core, its destruction caused the planet to explode. We barely escaped in the Eagle, but we did escape--I wasn't even injured."
"You've been through a lot," he said, steadily.
"So had everyone on Alpha. They had all lost their families and their homeworld. Maybe that's why I found it easy to fit in."
He picked up his cutlery again to finish off what was on his plate. "You know, these people have seen you through a bad time, but you don't have to stay with them."
"What do you mean?"
"It seems to me that all your life you've been loyal to other people, doing what you think you have to do for others, and not necessarily what's right for you. Maybe it's time you put yourself first. You're still a very young woman, you've got your whole life in front of you. I can tell you now that if the Alphans go to establish a colony they won't be choosing the easy option. Do you want to spend your life as a farmer, sowing crops and baking bread and maybe patching up some old machinery? You could join Starfleet instead--had you thought of that?"
"Yes. I had thought of that."
They were interrupted by the waiter, who removed their plates and brought them a selection of sweet things in tiny, elaborate bowls. There were perhaps twenty altogether, covering the table, fashioned as birds and animals and glistening with jewels. Another bottle of much sweeter wine appeared, but Maya allowed Will to pour her only half a glass. She had drunk her fair share of the quenarana and, for the first time since the terrible officer's party, felt alcohol going to her head. This time the sensation was different; it was as if a delicate, sparkling film had been cast over everything. Perceptions were heightened, thoughts were slightly blunted. She felt the bones in Will's hand and the pressure of his leg against hers, but no anxiety.
"How long were you alone with your father on Psychon?" he asked.
"Just over three years."
"And two years on Moonbase Alpha. It's a long time since you've led a normal life."
"That depends what you mean by normal."
"Normal," he said, raising his glass, "is walking along the side of a lake, in the moonlight, with someone you like, wondering what to do about your honor."
After dessert, the waiter returned. "After dinner is over we usually have dancing in the ballroom," he said. "Usually, every table is full--they certainly were this time last week."
"Let's dance anyway," said Riker. "Can we have music?"
"Certainly, sir. The ballroom is through here."
It was at the end of the banquet hall, behind manually-operated double doors. The waiter touched a switch and crystals embedded all round the walls glowed, illuminating a huge room with a soft, jeweled light. The floor was made of an extraordinary translucent many-colored stone, which mirrored them as they moved across it. She saw the waiter touch another switch to make music come from nowhere, then pull the doors closed behind him.
They were alone. Their fellow guests, the elderly couple, had been eating in the far corner of the dining hall but had gone out some time previously.
At the other end of the ballroom, patio doors were standing open to a balcony. Out of curiosity, and enchanted by the incongruity of being left alone in possession of such a grand public place, Maya explored out there first. The balcony was more like a terrace, curving round a corner of the old part of the building. It was very high up. She leaned cautiously over the balustrade and saw a sheer drop to the lake below.
"The Enterprise," said Riker, putting a hand on her bare shoulder and pointing up at a bright fixed star. "I can always tell. Shall we dance?"
Their footsteps echoed as they returned into the ballroom. Maya felt self-conscious at first, sure that to dance alone was odd, but as she fell into his rhythm it seemed natural.
"I'm glad you came," he said.
"I'm glad too." She returned his smile and it felt comfortable to slide her arms up round his neck.
They stopped still.
With the same air of calm, he kissed her. Maya closed her eyes and thought of nothing, letting delicious desire and heat rise through her body.
"I like long hair," he said. "Let it loose." He tugged gently at the bands and she felt her hair unwind down her back; he took handfuls of it and arranged it. Then he drew her against him again, and for the first time, with a slight shock, she could feel his arousal.
"Come on," he said, suddenly pulling back. "Come out here. I want to ask you something."
She followed him out onto the balcony, pleasantly mystified.
He dropped her hand and went to lean on the balustrade. "We were talking earlier, over dinner, about your future," he said after a few moments silence, turning to face her again. His tone was straightforward.
Not understanding why he had broken off the physical contact, Maya joined him a little way along the railing. "Yes."
"I mentioned the possibility of your joining Starfleet and you said you'd thought about it."
"Yes. But not in detail--I've no idea of the procedure."
"The usual way is to enter Starfleet Academy, then train there for three years on Earth. That's how you become an officer, that's what I did. But there are other routes. It's possible to gain experience in the field and pass qualifying exams as you go along. How would you like to stay on the Enterprise, serve on the ship in some capacity? The last two weeks might have been dull, but we've seen things you can't even imagine. From what you've told me about your experiences on Moonbase Alpha I know you're used to surviving danger. We go out there in the Enterprise and conquer it. Everyone in Starfleet wants to serve on the Enterprise--I've turned down three promotions to Captain to stay there. You could learn anything, see everything. Would you like that?"
"Yes. I would."
"There's only one way. Marry me, and they'll let you stay."
"Marry you!" She stared at him, unconsciously gripping the balcony rail.
He no longer looked dispassionate, or even at ease. His eyes were full of some desperate emotion. "It's the only way," he said again. "You're a welcome guest on the ship now, but sooner or later, you'll have to leave. Only spouses and children of officers can live on a Starfleet ship."
"Hang on a moment. Two weeks and a few kisses, and you want to spend the rest of your life with me?"
"Or are you suggesting some kind of arrangement for convenience?"
"No! No. I put it like that because it does, I know it does seem sudden. It is very soon. And I don't know how you feel, perhaps you don't know how you feel. But I want to marry you because I've fallen in love with you, I love you, and I want to be with you."
"Oh boy." It was a Tony-ism. Maya took half a step back, avoiding the hand that he reached out. "Will, you can't possibly want to marry me. You don't know me!"
"I feel as though I do. I thought if we came here we'd have the chance to get to know each other away from all the pressures on the Enterprise. What did you think this was about? Sex?"
"Well, everybody who's taken it upon themselves to offer me advise about you has said that your interest in women is--limited."
"It is now. It's limited to you." He sighed. "Look, fifteen years ago I walked away from the love of my life, my imzadi, for the sake of my career. I've wondered ever since if I was a fool. There was nothing trivial about that, it's affected my whole life, and I feel as if I'm standing at the same kind of crossroads now--and I would put nothing before you, Maya."
"So, if I said I wanted to help the Alphans establish their colony, you would resign your commission and become, as you put it, a farmer."
"But I'd rather you married me in three days time, and stayed on the Enterprise."
"Why in three days time?"
"That's how long it takes to get a licence."
"You certainly like to do things in a hurry."
"When I make up my mind, I do."
"Will--I can't give you an answer now, I'll have to have time to think."
"Give me hope, then," he said seriously, stepping close to her.
"I want some time alone," she said firmly, without moving. "I'm going to bed."
"Yes. Of course."
She walked with him, separately, back through the ballroom and the now-deserted dining hall to the lift and the upper corridor where their rooms were, and stopped outside her door.
"I'll say goodnight, then." He kissed her softly and swiftly.
Maya nodded and shut the door behind her.
She leaned on it for a moment, listening to his footsteps retreating, then without bothering to put the light on, she sank onto the bed and curled up.
She felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her. She struggled to keep down great waves of panic, so intense that for a while she was afraid she was going to be physically sick. How could she have got herself into this situation?
She pulled her knees tighter to her chin. It was impossible now not to think clearly, coldly and painfully. She had come here to sleep with Will, because she had been sexually attracted to him and because Tony had hurt her. All rationalizations about wanting space and wanting to walk in the open air were so much window-dressing. She had believed that Will was offering straightforward physical pleasure, without any danger of emotional involvement, and the idea of that had thrilled her. It was unlike anything she had ever contemplated doing before. And now, not only was she horrified to find that his intentions were very much otherwise--that was desperately unfortunate, but it wasn't what worried her most--she realized that she had always wanted Tony to say the same things to her, and he never would.
After a long time she stood up, stepped out of her dress, and dropped it to the floor with a feeling of disgust. She moved slowly, her limbs hurting. The sight of her face in the mirror when she washed off the make-up made her turn away.
She climbed under the cold covers and drew her knees up to her chest.
She remembered another time when touching things had hurt, and bed was a place where she was afraid because she couldn't escape the vivid restless pageant of pain and memory. One evening she had accepted Tony's invitation to try out his beer, and stayed in his quarters until three in the morning just talking. She had no idea now what they had talked about, and they had certainly done nothing else, but for the first time she had felt normal again.
And she thought about how Tony had held her, so many times, in the middle of the night when she woke in terror from a nightmare. He was always awake and attentive as soon as she was, he never made a fuss or asked her to explain. Then she had been very ill about a year ago, and after the crisis had passed it had taken her what seemed like a long time to recover fully. He had spent every off-duty moment with her, cheering her back to strength. He had been with her at her most vulnerable times and she had always felt utterly safe. There was nothing of herself that she had to keep from him.
She had risked her life, not so long ago, to be with him when he was attacked on a mission and she thought he was dying. She remembered his joy at seeing her, and the relief when he recovered. She had been the one then to sit up all night in the medical center, watching him sleeping.
Then she thought about all the evenings in the long weeks when nothing happened except the meticulous internal routine of Alpha, when they watched films or played complicated Earth games or just sat reading together. She often worked at the terminal in his quarters while he fiddled around with his brewing apparatus, trying to make something palatable out of hydroponic vegetable fiber and various chemicals. The strange, flat brews he came up with--she would never taste it in his mouth again, and all the fine food and wine of the Federation could never make up for that.
Her still body had warmed a patch of sheets. When she shifted, wretchedly, the bed was chilly again. She would never fall asleep.
She dreamed about her father.
It was not, as all the other dreams had been, a nightmare, a flashback to his death. For the first time she was with him as he had been when he was alive. He smiled at her, he touched her face. She knew he was dead, but she felt his love and that he was proud of her. The sense of loss, the sorrow that she would never be with him again was more intense than any emotion she had ever experienced.
"Daddy," she said, helplessly.
Perhaps she had never really believed he was dead, but had just walked around and talked as if he was. The nightmares always ended before she was sure he had died, as if she could have rescued him at the last moment. When she was awake she remembered none of it in detail, nor most of the first few days on Alpha. As she looked at him now, she knew. He clasped her hands, still smiling.
Suddenly, the dream changed to the shocking vividness of her nightmares. She was making love with Tony and for one lucid moment everything was real; his weight on top of her, the smell of fresh sweat, his tongue in her mouth.
She woke bolt upright with a gasp, not sure whether she had really called out his name. The room was dark and quiet. She pressed a switch by the bed and raised a dim glowing light, and turned the bag she had brought with her upside down until her COMM badge fell onto the floor. She knelt there, looking at it in her palm.
If she dared to use the transporter she need only call the Enterprise and she could be beamed right out this hotel and this situation in a moment. But, though she was almost sure she could control her molecular structure so that the transporter beam wouldn't harm her this time, the risk that she might not was too great.
Equally, she could speak to Tony right now just by tapping the badge and hailing him. It was impossible. She started to shiver, a breeze from the open window chilling her. He had made it quite plain that he would not forgive her if she did this, and why should she expect him to? If their places were reversed, she would have been heartbroken. There was nothing, now, that she could do or say to make things right again.
Even so, she could not stay here.
She jumped to her feet and ran along the silent corridor to Riker's room.
He opened the door to her knock immediately, fully awake. "Hi," he said with a grin, holding open the door. "I couldn't sleep either."
Not wanting to talk out in the corridor, she accepted his invitation and stepped into the room. It was only when she was inside and he had closed the door and turned to her that she realized how he must interpret her coming here. The bedside light was on, he was in his pajamas but he had clearly not been asleep. Of course, he was waiting for her.
She glanced down at herself and saw that the nightdress barely covered her. Confusion drove what she had been determined to say out of her head. "Will--"
"It's O.K.," he said, taking hold of her.
Maya both felt and heard a crack, as something slammed against her arm. The pain was the last thing she remembered.
Helena was awakened by the other side of the bed depressing. A moment later, cold arms slid around her. She was startled and groggy. She reached out for the bedside clock and saw that it was what she would call two in the morning. She had no idea where he had been, but for a disorientated moment she assumed that he had come off a late duty before she remembered where they were.
He said nothing.
He must know that she was awake, since she had looked at the time, and she didn't want to go to sleep in silence. So she got up to go to the bathroom, and when she went back through she could see in the light through the door that he was watching her.
She sat on the bed, facing away from him, and waited for him to do something. She was finding it hard to be controlled, even remotely pragmatic about this. She didn't want to cry in front of him, as it was degrading and achieved nothing, but she could feel tears threatening again. She had hoped she'd got those out of her system by now.
He put his arms round her from behind and kissed her neck. "Sorry," he said.
"Is that good enough?"
"It's a start." She turned round to look him in the eyes. She felt shaky, but more in command.
"I realize I reacted badly, but it was a shock," he continued. "I never expected you to do anything like this, Helena."
"Why not? You knew the way I felt about it. You must have realized...time was running out."
"I never thought about that," he said, suddenly touching her hair tenderly.
"I saw us as a partnership, taking a united stand."
"I know. But we don't always think the same, or want the same things."
"I thought we did. Everything I've done over the past six years has been for you, for us. None of it would have meant anything without you."
"I feel the same, but I wanted--more. Not more than you, but the next stage--a child as well, maybe more than one."
"With me or without me?"
"I--didn't mean that, John. I'm sorry I said that."
"Would you have taken it that far, though?"
"I want to know. If it had come to that, would you?"
"Do you mean, would I have left you because you didn't want a baby?"
"No," he said, frowning. "If it had turned out I couldn't father one?"
She looked at her small hands wrapped in his, which always seemed too large in contrast, and up at his face. She saw immediately that he was in earnest. "You thought that? John, why?"
He sat back, taking away his hands. "I never told you. All this time--I guess it's the only thing I've kept from you." He paused. "Jean and I did try to start a family, four years before she died. It didn't happen."
"What was the reason?"
"We never found out. Jean didn't want to go to the doctor. She was always fatalistic about these things, she said that if it was meant to happen then it would. And she had a friend who'd undergone years of fertility investigations and treatment, and suffered a lot, and still didn't have a baby at the end of it. She said she didn't want to go through all that."
"But there could have been some quite simple, easily correctable reason why you didn't conceive."
"I know that. Jean might not have wanted anything to do with it, but I read up on infertility, and one thing the books made quite plain was the fifty percent of the cases are due to the man. So, it could have been me. I should have told you, but I knew how you felt about wanting a baby someday. While someday was still in the future, I didn't have to face the possibility of losing you."
Understanding everything, and moved by relief to tears she no longer tried to restrain, Helena held him in silence for a long time.
"You thought I didn't want us to have a baby?" he said eventually.
"Well, the way you clammed up when I tried to talk about it made me wonder."
"Of course I've always wanted to, I just didn't believe it would ever happen. I still don't know what we're going to tell people."
"Don't tell them anything, nobody will work out the timing too exactly. Everyone will assume we lost no time in celebrating our rescue."
"Then perhaps we'd better do so."
Helena smiled in acquiescence, but they were interrupted at the first kiss. A quiet, but somehow arresting warble from the communicator badge at the bedside made them both start. She could feel John's muscles tense and lock, and she probably did the same. They were still alert for an emergency.
John sighed, visibly forced himself to relax, and reached over her to tap the badge. "Koenig here."
"This is Captain Picard. We have a situation, Commander. I would like you to report to the observation room as soon as possible."
"A situation? Involving me?"
"Involving one of your officers. Please be here immediately. Picard out."
Helena stared at John and saw the same thought on his suddenly grim face. "It must be Tony," she said. "Oh God, what has he done?"
"Get dressed. Let's go."
When they reached the observation room, Helena was astonished to find the Lanthenon King, the Federation Ambassador and the young Princess Amarantha with Captain Picard, his alien security officer Lieutenant Worf, and the android Data. Picard said in brusk greeting, "Mr. Koenig," and nodded at Helena with a slight frown. "Dr. Russell." Helena realized that he had not expected her. "Please sit down."
"What's going on, Captain?"
"I'm sorry to have to tell you, Commander, that your science officer has been kidnapped on Lanthenon by terrorists, and that she and my first officer are being held hostage in an unknown location, and that conditions--and threats--have been issued by the group responsible."
"Maya?" said Helena, bewildered.
"What does this mean?" said John, glancing between Picard and the Lanthenon party. "What terrorists, what threats?"
"I must explain to the Commander," said the King. "We have always had strong royalist factions on my world, people who have never believed that the monarchy should have ceded power to an elected parliament. Some of these groups have extreme methods. They take offense at the fact that my daughter is going to marry what they term an alien, and they're prepared to do anything to sabotage the wedding. It appears they plotted and planned the kidnapping of Commander Riker some time ago--his intention to visit our planet was communicated nearly two months ago."
A look passed between the King and Picard.
"Neither myself nor Commander Riker had any reason to suppose that there were security implications surrounding shore leave on Lanthenon," said Picard evenly. "Starfleet officers do not generally need to worry about making hotel reservations on planets which belong to the Federation."
"Are you saying that these terrorists are holding Maya and Commander Riker hostage to try and stop the wedding?" said John.
"Those are the conditions they have issued."
"What can they hope to achieve?" said Princess Amarantha suddenly, in her quiet voice. "It's so awful."
Ambassador Trewhella put his hand over hers.
"And what are they planning to do if you go ahead?" asked John.
"They threaten to kill them both," said Picard, his face expressionless.
Helena gripped the edge of the table.
"Two years ago, when we were on the verge of concluding negotiations to enter the Federation, the Crown Guard--as they call themselves--kidnapped, and did murder, a senior member of my government," said the King. "They issued the same kind of simplistic ultimatum, and although we tried to negotiate, we refused to concede. Lady Calcutha died, bravely, for the cause she fought so hard for."
"Nobody's going to die because of Eddie and me," said the Princess, with a sideways glance at her father. "We'll postpone the wedding if we have to."
"We will do no such thing," said the King. "You don't appreciate the political implications of giving in to these people. Riker's a top Starfleet officer, they won't dare harm him."
"They killed Calcutha, and she was a Minister of State! Why do you think they'd take any more regard of Commander Riker, an off-worlder? And what about his friend? She doesn't even have the protection of being somebody important. Father, I want to postpone the wedding."
"You will do what I judge best."
"It's my wedding, I'm the one getting married."
"And I am your father and your king."
"Oh, but we're a democracy now, I thought that was the point."
"Ama," said Ambassador Trewhella, "we've got to stay calm. We'll find a way to rescue Commander Riker and his friend, even if we don't reach an agreement with their kidnappers."
The Princess looked down, her brief flare subsiding into abashed silence.
"Indeed," said the Captain. "Your Majesty, you are probably already aware that my powers to act in this situation are limited by Starfleet's policy of non-interference with the internal affairs of any world--"
"Then a lot of good you are, Picard," said the King, with a sudden rise of temper. "I had expected that the Enterprise being here would stop any attempt by the Crown Guard to cause trouble during the wedding. Instead, your first officer exposes himself by running off on holiday with some woman who isn't his wife, gets himself kidnapped, and you can't do anything?"
"I didn't say I couldn't do anything, only that I have to work in conjunction with you...and take your advice. And I will say it one more time, to both of you--Your Majesty, Mr. Ambassador--we should have been warned of a danger you both anticipated. You know very well that Lanthenon would never have been accepted into the Federation if we had known the extent of your terrorist problem. That's the wider issue. The immediate problem is that you failed to inform me, specifically, that the Crown Guard had a history of kidnapping and ransom demands of this nature. If I had known, I would never have allowed Commander Riker to go on shore leave. So please, let's put aside remonstrations and concentrate on how to tackle this problem."
He looked up.
Helena turned to follow his gaze. Deanna Troi had come into the room. She took an empty seat beside the Captain and leaned on the table, shaking back her hair, her face impassive.
"Counselor," said the Captain. "I'm sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but you may well prove invaluable. Counselor Troi," he said to the Lanthenons, "has the ability of her species to sense emotions in others, and to determine, for example, to some extent whether someone is lying or not. She is also a close friend of Commander Riker's, and so would be attuned to his presence. She may be able to help locate him if it comes to a surface rescue mission."
"All right," said John. "What's going to happen now?"
"The group made contact at 0200 hours, shipboard time, demanding to speak to me personally. I took the call in my private quarters, as I was awakened by the Bridge. The spokesperson was a woman, and she had two accomplices with her. I saw Commander Riker, and Maya. They appeared to be unconscious. The woman told me that they had been drugged with a gas to allow their capture without Commander Riker attempting to transport to the Enterprise."
"In that case, how do you know they're all right?" said Helena.
"I have to assume that the terrorists recognize that living, unharmed hostages are more valuable than dead ones. They said that they would make contact again at daybreak their time, when we had considered our position."
"When will that be?" asked John.
"In about two hours."
"And when exactly is the wedding?"
The King said, "The day after tomorrow."
"O.K.," said John. "You tell them you'll call it off--they release Maya and Riker--then you go ahead anyway, how will they stop you?"
"They want my daughter to broadcast a statement to the whole of Lanthenon renouncing Ambassador Trewhella, and vowing never to ally the Royal House to any--ah--alien. They will only release the hostages if she does this, and then only after midnight on the appointed day."
"I couldn't do that," said the Princess, in a very low voice. "I don't mind putting off the wedding--that doesn't matter--but I couldn't do that. If I gave my word to the people, I couldn't break it, and Eddie would have to leave."
"Nonsense," said the King. "You are not going to do anything of the kind, so stop upsetting yourself about it."
The Princess stood up and left the room, in a sudden swift movement. Ambassador Trewhella followed her.
The King looked around in obvious embarrassment. "I do apologize," he said gruffly. "She's been under strain, what with all the preparations and exposure--disconcerting to see your own face on every damn box of biscuits. This is a disaster."
"We must act as carefully as possible to make very sure that it is not a disaster," said Captain Picard. "We are not at the moment even considering the possibility of giving in to the terrorists' demands."
"Certainly not," said the King.
"There, we have two hours until we might be forced into our next move by the terrorists' contact, two hours in which to gain an advantage. Mr. Data?"
"The transmission originated from the same planetary sector as the hotel where Commander Riker and Maya were kidnapped," said Data. "The terrorists used an unsophisticated but adequate masking technique on the signal which made it impossible for the Enterprise computer to locate it precisely in the time available."
"Could you do better next time?"
"I can try, sir."
"Well, the first thing we can do is move the local security forces into the hotel--though I doubt they're still there. Are your people standing by?"
"Of course they are," said the King.
"Get them to search the hotel--I'll send down a complement from my crew to assist. Mr. Worf, you lead that party."
"Counselor, go with him. You're looking for any evidence from the place and the hotel staff to indicate exactly what happened when they were abducted. From what the terrorist spokeswoman said, it seems that they knew about Commander Riker's booking, which means that someone connected with the hotel is working for them, unless their computer could have been accessed. Find out. Report back here in two hours."
Worf and Troi went out without comment or questions.
"Mr. Data, work with his Majesty to correlate known data on this terrorist group with patterns of other political kidnappings, to build up a probability picture of how they might proceed--and a psychological profile. I also want a map of the area, if we have to go down there and look for them ourselves. Your Majesty, is there a news blackout on Lanthenon?"
"Keep it that way. Will you assist Mr. Data?"
"If I can. I'll get my security advisor Ankara up here too, she's the expert on this group."
"Excellent. We'll meet back here in two hours."
"Excuse me, Captain," said John, as Picard was preparing to leave the table. "What can we do?"
"I don't think there's anything you can do, Mr. Koenig," said the Captain, focusing on him as if he had forgotten he was there. "I know this is hard on you, but you must leave it to us. We'll keep you informed, of course. I'll expect to see you here in two hours."
"One of my people is down there, and you're telling me to go away and not to worry?"
"You recognize, I'm sure, the wisdom of leaving a mission to those most qualified to undertake it--not necessarily those most anxious to see it succeed. Oh--there is one thing you can do to help."
"I would appreciate it if you didn't let this situation become general knowledge. At the moment--King Bahu agrees--we're restricting information to those directly involved only." He glanced at Helena, and she realized that he was actually annoyed that she had come with John to the meeting.
It hadn't occurred to her not to. She was so used to being at the center of power on Alpha, the Commander's consort.
They walked out of the observation room together in silence. Helena shivered, and John put his arm around her. Neither said anything until they were in the turbolift.
"We leave it to Starfleet and the Lanthenons, like the Captain said," John said abruptly, answering her unspoken question.
"He's a clever and capable man, I can see that. No doubt he knows how best to go about it."
"John... he was cutting you out."
"He's just doing his job. I think it's a big embarrassment to him that Maya got caught up in this--he sees us as a complication."
"We just go back to our quarters and sit it out?"
"For the moment." He folded his arms and leaned against the wall.
The turbolift stopped at their deck.
"John--we'd better go and tell Tony."
"No." He stopped and turned to look at her. "It's better if we keep him out of this."
"Helena, I feel awful that I can't do anything to help Maya--how do you think Tony's going to react if we tell him what's happened, and then tell him this time he can't get into an Eagle and rescue her? Do you think he'd accept it calmly and go back to bed?"
She knew he was right in a way, but it was far from the closeness they had shared as a command team on Alpha. It was another symptom of their loss of control over their own lives.
"We can't afford to antagonize these people," said John. "They're our lifeline to the kind of future we dreamed of on Alpha. That's more important than ever, now," he added, in a gentler tone.
Helena shrugged, then leaned against him. He kissed the top of her head.
"Picard's not letting the ship know about this--we can keep it from Tony. I'm sure they'll find her and bring her back in no time. Come on, let's go and get some coffee to keep us awake."
Maya regained consciousness slowly, aware of cold and pain as the main components of her senses before warm hands touched her and she blinked at Will's blue eyes.
"Careful," he said. "Move slowly, it's disorientating at first. Here."
She tried to get to her knees but swayed, sickly, and found herself lying against Riker, held close. The cold was less but the pain was still there and getting worse.
"We're in some kind of dungeon," he said, in a low but matter-of-fact voice. "My guess is we were knocked out with gas and kidnapped, but by whom or why I don't know yet."
"I remember--something striking me--"
"Whoever knocked us out with the gas burst in through the door. I caught a glimpse before I went under--I think the edge of the door slammed into you."
Maya realized it was her arm that hurt, and it was hurting more because Riker was pressing it. She wriggled free and looked, with something approaching fascination, at a deep running bruise on her upper arm near the elbow.
Riker studied it. "That's nasty. But you can move it, so it's not broken. You might have to live with it until we can get back to the Enterprise."
Her head clearing rapidly, Maya tried to assess their surroundings. They were in a low-ceilinged, dismal room with a flagstone floor and walls of brick. There were no windows and only one empty doorway. She went to it and saw immediately that there were electrodes lashed to the outer frame, generating an invisible but very solid forcefield. She ran her hand over it, feeling its numbness. From the positioning of the nodes, crudely attached though they were with binding tape, she could see that the field criss-crossed the entire doorway with no gaps.
"It's a forcefield," said Riker.
"Yes, I know. I was looking for a way through. A fingerwidth of a gap, and I could get out."
"Really? Something about this set-up gives me the impression that they know about you--whoever they are."
Maya tried to see what was beyond the doorway; there was nothing but darkness. The light in the room came from a glowing crystal placed on an upturned, smashed-in box. The only other item was a heap of grimy fabric, where she had been lying. She shivered. It was very cold, and she was wearing nothing but her insubstantial nightdress.
"Come here," said Will. "Body heat."
Aware that it was sensible, Maya huddled up against him on the cloth. He wrapped her firmly in his arms, then grinned. "This wasn't what I had in mind for tonight."
"It may not be night any more," said Maya, rather pleased at her own coolness. Here she was, as close to him as she could get and almost undressed, and yet the spell was broken. She felt sexless, as if she were being cuddled by a rather large girlfriend. "Without windows, it's impossible to tell what the time is. We've no point of reference."
"They took our COMM badges, of course. Hang on, I'm going to try and rouse some interest." He got up, and went to the door. "Hey! Hi there! Is anyone listening?"
Maya searched round the walls, running her fingers over the crumbling brickwork, trying to find a drain or a ventilation shaft or any kind of opening.
Riker's shouting produced quick results. A young woman appeared at the doorway, stared at them, and ran away again. Even dressed as she was in utilitarian padded trousers and a thick tunic, with her hair tied back, Maya recognized her immediately as the hotel receptionist.
A few moments later the woman returned with two others, a man and a woman dressed in similar style. They looked familiar too, and Maya realized that they were their fellow guests the elderly couple. Only they were not elderly. All three of their captors were holding clumsy-looking but undoubtedly effective weapons. The elder of the two women stepped forward, holding the gun across her front as if it were a shield. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Do you mind telling us who you are, and why you've imprisoned us?" said Riker, without apparent rancor.
"We represent the true interests of Lanthenon and its Royal House," said the woman. "You're going to be instrumental in preventing the greatest calamity that could ever befall our people."
"I'm glad to hear it, but you should know that kidnapping a Starfleet officer is a pretty serious offence in the Federation, and you're in the Federation now."
"We don't recognize the Federation's jurisdiction."
"You might not, but your law enforcers certainly do."
"As a Starfleet officer," the woman continued, "you make a valuable hostage, and our King, who has fallen under the influence of traitors and republicans, will do anything to appease the Federation. He'll agree to call off the wedding to prevent your assassination."
"You've taken us hostage," said Maya, "to stop the Princess's wedding?"
"Yes," said the woman shortly. "If the King and your Captain deal with us honorably you won't be harmed."
"I don't know what King Bahu's opinion on the matter is," said Riker, "but you should know that it's Starfleet policy never to pay ransoms of whatever kind. Captain Picard won't concede to any of your demands, and nor will Starfleet Command. So you may as well release us now."
"We keep our promises," said the woman. "We've already spoken to Captain Picard and told him what will happen to you if the Princess marries the alien."
"At least let her go," said Riker. "She's not a member of Starfleet, she isn't even a citizen of the Federation. She's no use to you."
Maya stared uneasily back as the leader of the group turned her hard, nervous gaze on her. There was contempt in the woman's expression. "Are you married to him?"
"No," said Maya, flatly.
"Aren't you ashamed to be with him like this?"
"That's none of your business," said Riker. "Leave her alone."
"You're wrong, it's very much our business. Because this kind of behavior, and these attitudes, are what the Federation will spread to Lanthenon, and destroy the ties that bind people to people."
Maya drew her arms tighter round herself, stung by the passion in the woman's voice, and trying not to show her embarrassment and dismay. Even though she had no intention of explaining to this hostile stranger that things were not as they appeared, she felt keenly how hopelessly compromised she was.
"Let her go," said Riker gently. "I'm hostage enough for you."
"No," said the woman. "She's our insurance to make sure you don't cause any trouble." She turned as if to go.
"Wait," said Riker. "Bring us some warm clothing, or better blankets at least."
"Pedra," said the woman, "go and see what we've got spare."
The group departed, taking their swinging lights with them. Riker peered round the doorway. "Can't see anything," he said. "I guess we're in some kind of cellar. If we're deep underground, it'll be impossible for the Enterprise to get a fix on us."
"Will they be searching for us?"
"They'll be doing nothing else. Unless an opportunity presents itself, our best tactic could be to wait for rescue. I don't hold out much hope of reasoning with these people." He sat down on the heap of blankets and stretched out his arm.
She joined him again. Her bare feet had gone numb on the stone floor, and she welcomed the warmth he gave her. There was nothing she could really say to object when he started to stroke her hair away from her forehead.
"I'm sorry you got involved in this," he said.
"It wasn't your fault." She shook her head with an automatic motion and he took his hand away.
"I wonder how much they know about you?" he said, in a tone which Maya felt she recognized. He wasn't really prepared to sit here and let himself be rescued.
"I don't see that they can know very much. I think one of them saw me when I was a bird, over the lake. I saw someone with a telescope and at the time I thought it was a bird-watcher."
"So perhaps they think you can turn into a bird, nothing else, some kind of dual species--they might not have come across shapeshifters before. If you turned into something fierce, could you overpower them?"
"Easily. But I would still be vulnerable to their weapons."
"When she comes back and drops the barrier to give us the warm clothes, do your stuff. The element of surprise should be strong enough for us to disarm her before she can use the gun."
They waited in silence until the young woman Pedra returned, carrying two jackets like the one she was wearing. She tumbled them to the ground and, pointing her gun directly at them, took a device from her pocket and waved it at the doorframe. Maya heard a faint sizzle as the forcefield deactivated. She started to get to her feet.
"No," said Pedra, swinging the gun. Her voice was higher, and more nervous than the ringleader's. She sounded like a frightened girl. "Stay back. There's no stun setting on this weapon."
"Then you'd better be careful with it," said Riker. "Your leader wouldn't be pleased if you killed her hostages."
Pedra's eyes flicked toward him.
Maya hurled herself at her, transforming in mid-lunge into a Psychon wildcat, a beast of coiled muscle and hooked claws and teeth. Pedra screamed and fired, only just missing her. Maya landed on her, claws retracted, trying to floor her and disarm her without hurting her.
Pedra screamed again, and the gun skidded across the floor.
"I've got it!" Riker shouted.
Pedra was still screaming, pinned under Maya's weight. She was about to let go when the other two rounded the corner of the corridor.
Maya prepared to spring, but she was just a second too late. Without hesitation the ringleader lifted her gun and fired.
Helena had ignored the Captain's unspoken signals and accompanied John to the observation room when they returned, along with the others, to see what progress had been made. The King had brought with him a dignified middle-aged woman whom Helena supposed was his security advisor Ankara. The Princess was pale and silent.
Deanna Troi and Worf had returned from their investigation of the hotel. "I sensed no trace of Commander Riker anywhere in the building," Deanna said. She looked, Helena thought, under strain, as though her composure was maintained with an effort. "I searched through every floor, but there was nothing. Of course, that may have been because he was still unconscious."
"There has been no further communication from the terrorists," said the Captain. "If they keep their promise to contact us at their daybreak, it could be within the next few minutes."
Helena followed his glance to the screen on the wall.
"We are ready for them," said Data. "We have analyzed the nature of the blocking signal and there is a 95.3 percent chance that the ship's engineer will be able to track the source of the transmission accurately enough to allow an away team to beam down nearby."
"Well," said the Captain, "while we're waiting, please report on what you found out about this terrorist group."
"Minister Ankara is the expert," said Data.
The Captain nodded at her.
"The Crown Guard is a fanatical group with a long history of opposition to constitutional reform," she said, in the clear decisive voice of someone used to speaking in an assembly. "They claim descent of authority from the original Crown Guard, the hereditary elite bodyguard of the Royal House of Lanthenon. It was one of the institutions disbanded when the monarchy was reformed in our year 974--the is, one hundred and forty-eight years ago, in Federation standard time. There were a number of hereditary offices associated with the Royal House and they were all done away with, in an attempt to remove anything that could be seen as non-democratic in the government--other than the king himself, of course. I don't think Lanthenon would ever have stood for abolition of the monarchy. But the reform was painful to many parties, even though King Ushquen was the prime motivator. There were suicides amongst the hereditary officers. And several of the Crown Guard, and their families, ended up exiled from the royal favor for refusing to retire gracefully. The present-day so-called Crown Guard are the descendants and sympathizers of these rebels. The problem for us in combating them is that they have a lot of popular support, particularly as they choose their targets carefully. They don't go in for indiscriminate killings of civilians and innocents, they attack unpopular public figures or non-Lanthenons, or anyone who might have a case to answer. Commander Riker is a typical choice. An outsider, and a representative of a Federation that many Lanthenons felt ambiguous about joining."
"And my officer, Maya?" said John shortly.
Minister Ankara turned to him, looking faintly annoyed at the interruption. "Again, an outsider. It's very unfortunate. You have my sympathy."
"What's the best way to proceed with them, in your opinion?" said the Captain.
"I wouldn't advise a rescue mission," she said, "not unless you're very certain of exactly where they are and are almost sure of succeeding."
"They're capable of ruthless action, and when they say they'll do something, you can be sure that they'll do it. If you want to guarantee the safety of the hostages, it's important to present the appearance at least of complying with their wishes."
"Lanthenon does not have transporter technology," said Data.
"So they will not be prepared for a rescue mission to beam down. Intellectually they will be aware of the possibility, but psychologically, they may not allow for it."
"That's a good point, Data," said Picard. "But we won't make a decision on our next move until we talk to them."
Helena almost sensed, rather than heard, John sigh, and she saw his fist balling under the table. Below the table, out of sight, she twined her fingers into his other hand and squeezed. She got no response.
Picard was about to speak again when his communicator sounded. "Captain, a personal transmission for you."
"Thank you, Ensign. Put it through to the observation room screen."
The screen on the wall switched on, and a woman's face appeared in close focus. The image was slightly distorted. "Captain Picard," she said. "I want to speak to you alone."
The Captain stood up, and walked in front of the screen. He held out a hand to the table. "All of these people are affected by your actions in kidnapping Commander Riker and Maya. One of them is your King, in whose name you have done this."
"We're doing this for the greater good of Lanthenon," said the woman. "An alien wouldn't understand. Does His Majesty agree to our terms?"
"I do not," said the King. "If you were true royalists you would be loyal to the wishes of the House and its heir."
"Does Your Majesty know who I am?"
"Of course I don't." "I am Lady Elbathura, great-granddaughter of Lord Neha of Elu, the last Captain of the Crown Guard. It should be my place to stand at the right hand of Your Majesty's royal person, protecting you from the usurpers the republicans and traitors have tricked into the court. That minister there--Ankara--she's nothing more than a peasant woman. Her grandmother pulled grain out of the swamps of Equon, her father was a factory manager. Don't you realize that the world has been turned upside down? If your Majesty allows Her Royal Highness to marry the alien, then the royal blood of Lanthenon will be tainted forever. I'll die myself before I see that happen--so don't think we won't go to any extremes to prevent it."
"You cannot prevent it," said the King. "The wedding is going ahead in two days' time, whatever else happens."
"Then Commander Riker will die. And to prove we're serious, we'll kill the woman at noon today."
"Now wait a minute," said John, standing up.
"Mr. Koenig!" said the Captain sharply. "Lady Elbathura, you misunderstand us if you imagine that we consider Maya to be any less important than Commander Riker. If any harm comes to either of them, you won't escape the full force of Federation law."
"Then agree to our terms."
"Perhaps we could meet to discuss it."
She frowned, and then said, "Yes. I'll meet with the King. Nobody else. At noon today, or we'll execute the woman. Your Majesty," she concluded, with an incongruous bow of her head.
The transmission was cut and the screen went dark.
Picard turned round on his heel and faced the table, letting out a long breath. "Perhaps we should have kept her talking longer. Mr. Data?"
Data was tapping a hand-held terminal. "There was no need to prolong the conversation, sir. The computer located the signal within the first fifteen seconds. It appears to originate from the Gargatha mountain range, where the hotel is located."
"Then they were not taken far," said Worf.
"Great," said John. "So we know roughly where they are."
"Roughly is not going to be good enough," said the Captain. "Unfortunately, as the Minister has already pointed out, a bungled attempt at rescue could easily endanger the hostages."
"Absolutely," said Ankara. "Elbathura's shown her face, she's desperate. She doesn't expect to get out of this alive. Don't underestimate these people's fanaticism."
"There is a further problem," said Data. "The mountains around Hotel Gargatha are rich in the mineral garradium, one of the metals which interfere with transporter beams. That is certainly one reason why sensor sweeps of the area have not picked up Commander Riker or Maya's life signs. If they are being held underground, we will not be able to rescue them simply by beaming them out, even if we can locate them."
"It seems they chose their hiding place well," said the Captain. "Very well, Mr. Data. Keep trying with the sensor sweeps, you may still pick up something. Your Majesty, are you prepared to meet this woman, as she suggested?"
"Impossible," said Minister Ankara. "It won't achieve anything."
"What do you mean, it won't achieve anything?" said John angrily. "It might save Maya's life."
"The King cannot possibly put his own security at risk in any way."
"But," said Picard, "we could construct a trap around it."
"For whom? For Elbathura? She'll have her followers holding a gun at the hostages, and if you take her they'll press the button."
"With respect, Minister Ankara, we can't pass up the opportunity to get closer to them."
"You have to go," said John. "We can make it look as though you're alone, but while you keep her talking, the rest of us can fan out and search for them."
Minister Ankara laced her fingers and shook her head.
"We have at least six hours until noon over Gargatha," said Picard, impassively but with a hint of apology in his tone. "We'll have a plan in place by then. Mr. Worf--"
John pushed his chair back from the table and left the room.
Helena went after John, her heart beating fast, her stomach moving uneasily.
In their quarters John strode back and forth in silence while she sat on the bed, fighting down the nausea that had overtaken everything else. "Picard isn't free to act," he said, still pacing. "The Lanthenons don't care about Maya or Riker. They let one of their own people die at the hands of these terrorists."
"If--Commander Riker is killed--surely it will embarrass them?"
"Yes, but they're more interested in their domestic political scene than the Federation. The agenda there is be tough on the terrorists and be seen to be an enlightened monarchy." He stopped moving, sat down, and put his head briefly in his hands. "I shouldn't have walked out of there, but you were right. He was cutting me out; nothing I said would have made a difference. Are you O.K.?"
Helena made it to the bathroom before she was sick, bringing up the cocoa she had drunk in the tense, tedious two hours between the meetings. She washed her face, feeling slightly shaky and irritated by the lack of control she had over her body. After hesitating in the doorway, John came to her and kissed her neck.
"I'm going to get Tony," he said, much calmer. "Maybe it's a risk, but I can't leave her down there."
"I wish Alan were here--"
"He would do what you told him. But Tony's smarter, you know that."
"Yes...are you all right?"
Maya opened her eyes to darkness. For a while, shaking the confusion out of her brain, she wondered if her eyesight had been affected. But gradually, grey outlines of a tiny room like a cupboard formed from the gloom, and she decided that she had been left somewhere without a light.
She moved experimentally and found that she was uninjured, though her arm still hurt and she had the kind of dull sick headache she associated with a stun weapon. Someone had thrown a jacket over her, and a blanket.
"Will?" she said, though she knew he was not there. They had been separated.
She explored her new surroundings by touch, feeling the same rough stonework on the walls and floor, and another forcefield over the doorway. The damp, musty smell was stronger in here, though she was not so cold.
Despite the headache, she concentrated and turned into a night weasel, whose infra-red vision enabled her to see every detail of the room. As she had suspected, it was a small featureless storeroom without any openings in the floor, wall or ceiling. Again, the door appeared to have been wrenched off to make the forcefield easier to install. Outside, she could see a passageway ending in a sharp turn. The room's wooden door was lying halfway along, abandoned on the floor.
When she fell back into her own form the headache was worse. There was nothing to do but fold the blanket into the corner as best she could, and sit down to wait. The hard stone of the floor, and the cold of the wall, worked through the thin fabric.
She hoped that Will was all right, but she supposed that he was. He was their key hostage. It was likely that she had been separated from him to make him easier to blackmail into good behavior.
The darkness and the silence grew shadows, and it was difficult not to be irrationally afraid. She wondered if it was daylight yet.
This was the morning she might have woken up with Will. As this occurred to her she had a brief vivid image of how that might have been, and felt a flash of longing to be safe in a warm bed, curled against another body.
"Tony," she said out loud, pointlessly.
Whatever danger she was in, she would rather be here now than in the hotel in bed with Will.
"Why the Hell didn't you tell me as soon as you knew?"
John couldn't stop himself exchanging a glance with Helena, and he saw Tony noticing that and scowling in exasperation. Tony was pulling on his clothes, having waked up as soon as they both arrived, uneasy, at his quarters.
"You thought it wasn't my business if Maya was in trouble?" he said, fastening his boots.
John did not want, now, to get engaged in personal discussions, though he realized the situation was fraught with emotion. He could see that Tony was raw all over, but he could also see that there was a great difference in him since the last time they had spoken, in the medical center. His confidence, the spark of independence and determination, had re-ignited.
"We didn't think that, Tony," said Helena, sitting down on the bed beside him and touching his arm. "We just--thought at first that it was best to let Captain Picard deal with it. The situation's--delicate."
"And if I'd gone in all guns blazing it would've upset everyone?"
Helena took her hand away and sighed.
"How long ago did they get her?"
"Three hours ago," said John.
"Three hours!" Tony snapped his head up, glaring. "You two have sat around doing nothing for three hours?"
"In my judgment Picard was more capable than we were of getting them out of there. I gave him the chance to do it his way, Tony. I never intended to do nothing and I certainly don't now that they've threatened Maya's life directly. That's why I'm here."
"O.K., then let's go." He stood up, then turned and looked at Helena.
"I'm staying here," she said. "Commander's orders."
"Are you sure, John?" said Tony. "We might need her."
"This is a two-person mission. Less people, less risk...to us and them."
"What if someone gets hurt?"
"We can ask for direct beam-up to the Enterprise."
"John," said Helena, "what about those caves, or mines, or whatever they are? The metal disrupts transporter beams. We don't know what you're going to find down there--you don't know what emergency might arise. Perhaps I should come."
"No," said John, feeling a sudden rush of adrenaline that was a mixture of fear and excitement. "Non-negotiable."
Tony was at the door, making no attempt to conceal his impatience to be gone. John broke off his gaze with Helena, who looked mildly pleased, and went with him.
They never said goodbye.
John had already considered and rejected taking what might have been the easy way down to the planet, via the transporter room. That route would require a third party to operate the transporter controls, and none of the Alphans knew how. He and Tony had reached the docking bay where Eagle Ten was before it occurred to him that someone from the Enterprise would have to open the doors to let it out, but at least he would have his own transport. Alan had been right.
The Enterprise was not in a state of alert because knowledge of the kidnapping was restricted to the command crew, and the ship was still on its graveyard shift. In the docking bay there was a long technician, electronic board in hand, going through what looked like a series of maintenance checks. He stopped to look over the Eagle, running his hand along the metal of the hull, and started as if guilty when John and Tony stepped into view. "Fine old ship," said the technician.
"I bet you never thought you'd see anything like it," said John, genially.
"Not outside a museum. Not in working order. It does work, doesn't it?"
"It's fully maintained, overhauled from top to bottom on a monthly turnaround. Do you want to come for a spin?"
"Ah--not me, sir. Thank you."
"We've got space suits in there."
The technician grinned uneasily.
"We're taking her out, just to check she's running smoothly--it's part of the maintenance routine. Go on, I promise you it's safe."
"I'm not allowed to leave the ship, not without permission. I'm sure she is spaceworthy--no offense, sir."
"None taken. Well, Mr. Verdeschi, are you ready to take your life in your hands?"
"I think so, sir."
"Would you operate the docking bay for us, ensign?"
John climbed into the Eagle more confidently than he felt, pleased that Tony followed him with deadpan casualness. He was frowning impatiently as he strapped himself into the co-pilot's seat. "Is he going to fall for it?"
"This is our ship and we don't belong to Starfleet. As far as I'm concerned we're doing nothing wrong." He tapped his badge. "Ready to launch, ensign."
"Aye, Commander. I'm clearing the docking bay now. Wait for my signal before starting your--ah--engines."
There was a tense wait of perhaps forty seconds while the docking bay decompressed and the space doors rolled back. John watched Tony drumming his fingers on the flight console. Then, to his relief, the bright voice of the ensign said, "Clear to go, Commander."
He pulled back on the thruster and the Eagle moved, with its familiar shudder, clear of the Enterprise's hull.
John had found that he could make the Eagle's on-board computer talk to the Enterprise's computer, using the same switch that had connected them to Moonbase Alpha. Evidently it was some kind of sophisticated universal communications system. He was able to ask for guidance to the Gargatha mountain range, and the Enterprise's computer obligingly transmitted data to the Eagle.
"So far so good," he said. "At least we know where we're going. We'll start over the hotel, and fly over the mountains."
"You're sure they're there?" said Tony. "I mean, it occurs to me that with these teleport devices they've got, they could've been taken anywhere on the planet."
"The Lanthenons don't have transporters. I suppose they could have imported some, but it seems unlikely. And the signal came from the mountains--I think they're down there, somewhere. Maybe not too far from the hotel, where they were captured last night."
"They were together, then? Oh, forget it. I don't want to know."
John considered whether to reply, and decided to be honest. "I think so, Tony. They were after Riker."
"Yes, well, they can have him."
John was wondering if it would be worth saying anything more--there didn't seem to be much that could be said--when the communicator signaled for his attention. He acknowledged, and Captain Picard's image snapped onto the screen.
"Commander Koenig. Return to the Enterprise immediately."
"Negative," said John calmly. "One of my people is in danger down on that planet, and I'm going to get her out."
"Mr. Koenig, I thought I made it plain to you that this situation has to be handled in conjunction with the Lanthenon authorities. The King and Minister Ankara have insisted that a surface rescue mission at this stage could endanger the lives of both the hostages."
"You have to play by those rules, Captain. I don't. I don't belong to Starfleet. My authority over the Alphans comes directly from Earth and as far as I'm concerned it predates yours. Nobody's revoked it yet."
"If you don't turn your craft around, I will be forced to take measures to stop you."
"What's he going to do?" said Tony. "Shoot us up?"
"We're proceeding to the planet," said John. He switched off the communicator abruptly.
Tony grinned. "If he's worried we can always leave Riker behind for them to rescue."
The ship jolted violently, throwing John forward against his restraints. For half a second he wondered if the Enterprise really was firing on the Eagle, but he knew that a missile attack of any kind would probably have destroyed the small craft at first strike.
"What the hell's he doing?" Tony shouted, stabbing at the instruments.
"We've stopped dead. Maximum thrust." He yanked back on the thruster control, and the frame of the ship shuddered.
"The hull's overheating," said Tony. "What's going on?"
The engines screamed. John kept the thruster pressed back at maximum. He caught a whiff of something burning, and then, without apparent reason, the Eagle responded and they catapulted forward.
"Temperature, velocity normal," said Tony, and held up his hands.
"He let us go," said John. "I wonder why?"
Helena watched the small, familiar shape of the Eagle fall out of the tractor beam and continue in its flight toward the planet. She had been summoned to the bridge, where she had been only once before on their preliminary tour of the ship, to answer for John and Tony's actions.
Data had warned that the tractor beam was on the point of breaking up the Eagle, and the Captain had ordered him to switch it off.
"You see," said Picard to Minister Ankara, turning away from the screen. "We have no power to stop them without destroying that fragile old craft."
"And you really have no authority over this man? I thought he was a Starfleet commander."
"I'm afraid you thought wrongly."
The minister rubbed her hands together and sighed. "I only hope he doesn't get everyone killed." She nodded her head in a perfunctory gesture and strode off the bridge.
"Dr. Russell," said the Captain, "a word with you, in my ready room."
Helena followed him through a door at the side of the bridge, which led into a private office. Picard went behind his desk, but remained standing. "I could," he said, after a silence, "have removed your commander and his first officer from that ship by transporter. The Lanthenons seemed unaware of this possibility, and luckily Mr. Data did not suggest it. I imagine he understood my motives."
"You want them to go down there."
"No, Doctor, I want to entrap the terrorists by means of a meeting with the King, as they suggested. But Minister Ankara is implacably opposed to that. Since they won't be expecting a straightforward rescue attempt by two people in a non-Starfleet vessel, Commander Koenig may have more chance of succeeding, in a foolhardy fashion, than a fully-equipped away team from the Enterprise. I must admit, if nothing is done quickly, I fear very greatly for Maya's life, in particular." He balanced the tips of his fingers on the desk and paused, as if thinking. "I would like to be kept informed."
The mountain range looked endless as John circled the Eagle above the hotel, at an altitude high enough to avoid visual detection from the ground. At this height he could see Lake Gargatha, the area's principle landmark, as little more than a ribbon of silver. There were patches of green and points of white.
The Eagle's instruments, which he had flicked onto diagnostic without thinking about it, were registering a breathable atmosphere, abundant water, a comfortable surface temperature, and a large quantity of an unidentified mineral which he supposed was the transporter-disrupting garradium.
"It looks good down there," he said.
"Pity we're not in the market for habitable planets any more," said Tony. "We've got to go lower."
"As soon as we get low enough to see ground detail, everyone for miles around will be able to hear us."
"Unless they're underground," said Tony. "Then how do we find them?"
John saw him look at the chronometer. Two and a half hours had now passed since the terrorist woman had made her threat to kill Maya at noon over Gargatha, and he had an anxiety like a pain in his diaphragm. He was beginnings to have doubts about the wisdom of this exercise, now that they were here without any real information or means of finding them. He wondered if he had been too eager to seize control and do what was familiar, rather than what was responsible. And Tony...
Unconnected and unintentionally, he remembered about Helena and the baby. It was remembering like rediscovering, with a shock and the complex of new emotions that he had thought through earlier. He had put the whole lot aside to think about this crisis instead, but it burst back on him now as he glanced at Tony, whose state of mind no longer worried him. He was like a man who had broken a fever, weak but back in control.
"Let's give it a go," said John, decisively.
He edged the joystick forward.
There were footsteps. Maya jerked out of a semi-doze, and tensed herself. She had no chance to do anything, before one of her captors, the woman who seemed to be in charge, appeared at the turn of the corridor with a light. She paused there, holding the swinging lamp ahead of her, then moved forward. "When are you going to let me go?" Maya demanded.
"That depends on how cooperative your people on the Enterprise are."
"My people have nothing to do with your cause."
"I'm afraid, at present, they're not being co-operative at all. I've brought you some food and water. Do you see this communicator?" She fingered a button-like device on the front of her jacket. "My friends are holding a gun to Commander Riker's head at this moment. They can hear everything that's going on here. I'm going to deactivate the forcefield long enough for you to pick up the food. If you try anything, Pedra and Sabahu will kill your lover. Do you understand?"
"Stand at the back of the room."
Maya obeyed, a new idea flashing through her mind. She concentrated minutely on the woman, imagining the texture of the flesh on her hand as it stretched forward to place the canister on the ground in front of the door.
"Elba?" said the nervous voice of the younger woman, crackling on the communicator. "Are you O.K.?"
"I'm all right, Pedra, I've just put the food down and I'm going to switch off the forcefield now." She had her own gun pointed directly at Maya.
"How do I know Commander Riker is still alive?" said Maya, coolly.
"Talk to her," said Elba into her badge.
"Maya?" said Will's voice. "Take your chance, just get out of there--"
"Be quiet," said the woman.
"All right," said Maya.
Elba backed halfway along the corridor, still aiming her gun, then raised her device to turn off the forcefield.
As she heard the buzz, Maya turned herself into the smallest, fastest fly she could manage. She knew she had only three seconds at the most before the other two realized something had happened, and she was gambling on their uncertainty and what she suspected was their inexperience--and that they wouldn't harm their hostage without good reason.
Elba whirled around, confused. "Pedra!" she shouted.
"What is it?"
Maya dropped out of the sky to land on her feet directly behind her. She hooked her arm around Elba's throat to silence her, wrenched the gun out of her hand--somewhat surprised to find her strength was much greater than the other woman's--and fired it at stun setting straight into her temple. For all she knew that was enough to cause brain damage, but she didn't have time to be careful.
Elba crumpled into her arms. Maya snatched the badge from her jacket and flowed into one more transformation.
"Elba!" cried Pedra's voice, with an edge of panic.
"All O.K.," she said, in Elba's voice. It sounded perfect, to her own ears at least. "She tried to escape, but I stunned her. Get a forcefield between you and Riker, I don't trust him either."
"Yes, my lady," said the voice of the man.
She dragged Elba's limp, heavy body into the storeroom where she had been held, covered her with the blanket and the other jacket to conceal her, and re-activated the forcefield.
The body of the Lanthenon was disconcertingly light. At first Maya had the feeling that she was going to lose her balance and stumble with every step, but she was an expert at adapting to alien physionomy and she quickly gained control as she half-ran along the passage. As she had already suspected, they appeared to be underground. It seemed to be a network of corridors, with smashed, abandoned rooms. There was nothing left here to indicate what the place had been used for, but it was obviously long derelict. She opened each door quickly, her nerves tense for the approach of the other two.
At the end of the second passage, one door opened into a room which the terrorists had clearly turned into their hide-out. It was lit with several glowballs, and there were blankets, bags, a few books and other provisions stacked neatly onto crates serving as tables. In one corner there was something which looked like a computer.
Maya put her head round the door and saw no one outside. She closed it and examined the equipment, quickly judging it to be a portable communicator with some built-in processing power. When she activated the on-switch the screen presented her with a helpful menu, including the option to enter her own wavelength.
She was trying to work out how to call the Enterprise without knowing its communications code when she heard the voices of the man and the young girl. Quickly, she keyed in a distress signal on the wavelength used by Alpha--it was all she could remember in the few moments she had--and turned off the screen. She managed to sit down on one of the blankets and pick up a canister of water before the door opened and Pedra looked in.
"Sabahu's gone up to the top again," she said. "He says he'll be about ten minutes."
"Are you all right?" said Pedra, coming in and closing the door. "I was worried."
"There was no need. I had my gun on her. She should be out for at least an hour. Did he give you any trouble?"
"No. Not at all. He really is concerned about the woman. It's strange, isn't it, that he can care so much, and yet treat her like that."
Maya looked at her.
Pedra sat down on one of the other blankets, pressed her hands together, and looked as if she was about to say something difficult. "Elba--what we talked about, I've been thinking."
"If--this doesn't work. I mean, I don't want to be pessimistic, but Commander Riker seems convinced that the Federation won't give in, and you know it's unlikely that the traitors in the government will stop it now. Executing Trewhella might be the only way, and the only way to do that is what you said, a suicide mission. I suppose--you meant that you would do it. Did you mean that?"
"Elba, let me." Pedra suddenly knelt at her feet and looked at her, imploringly. "I don't matter, I haven't got any family pride left after what my father did, and I don't care for myself--all I care about is stopping this. You should carry on the fight, it's your birthright, your destiny. Everyone follows you because of that. Let me kill the alien and die."
Maya almost forgot her fear of discovery in horror and pity. She was furious that this girl was eager to murder the Princess's fiance, but in the same emotion she was so sorry that someone so young should be determined to die herself. She wanted to tell her how life and love could grow up again, like spring shoots, even from a burnt-out ruin.
"It won't come to that," she said.
Pedra gasped and sank her face into her hands.
Maya knew she ought to take the chance to stun Pedra and reduce her opponents to one, but she had hesitated too long. From the corridor outside she heard the man, Sabahu, shouting.
"My lady! My lady!"
Pedra jumped to her feet with a start, and Maya stood up too, more slowly.
Sabahu threw back the door and slammed it. "There's a ship outside."
"A what--a spaceship?"
"It must be, it's alien, it's like nothing I've ever seen before. It's flying low over the mine."
"Did it see you?"
"I don't think so, I kept inside the building."
"Should we call the Enterprise and tell them we'll kill Riker unless they keep back?" said Pedra.
"No," said Maya. "There's no time. If they've found out where we are let's take Riker up to the surface and show them we mean business."
"What about the woman?"
"She doesn't matter. Anyway, she's heavily stunned."
The other two prepared to follow her without any further debate, in an attitude of scared subservience. Maya had the feeling that they considered it their duty to obey Elba without question. She was always surprised how easily other species accepted a physical impersonation and seemed to have almost no power to detect it. It was because they didn't think in those terms, even though they knew she was a metamorph and might have worked it out; no Psychon would have been fooled for long.
She let Sabahu, who seemed to be the lowest-ranking of the three and regard himself as Elba's protector, to lead the way to where Riker was being held. It was only around another corner.
He was lying down, his hands laced behind his head. As soon as they appeared, he stood up and looked at them warily.
Maya found herself locking eyes with him, and seeing blank anger there.
"Come on," she said.
"You're letting me go?"
"No--you're coming with us to show your friends we're serious."
"If Starfleet has found out where we are, you've no hope of getting out of this."
"Stop talking. Come on." She deactivated the forcefield, training the gun on him. "It's set to kill," she said. "Sabahu, go ahead. Pedra, walk abreast with me." She prodded the gun into his side, and they moved out into the corridor.
She had decided that, with Pedra and Sabahu outnumbering them in arms, it was safer to get out into the open before she broke her own cover. She could turn into something powerful and take out both of them, but there was always the chance that one of them would fire first. In the confined space of the underground passages, it was too dangerous. If the ship Sabahu had reported was still there, it could come to their assistance. If it had gone, they could still fight more easily in the open.
The corridor led to a low-ceilinged, open area stacked with smashed boxes. It smelled worse in here. Stairs upwards led past another empty room with an internal window, and a sign above it--the first one she had seen anywhere--which read 'GOODS INWARD OFFICE'. Filth and grime smothered everything; it was impossible to imagine that this place had ever been someone's workplace.
At the top of a clattering metal staircase, Maya saw daylight at last.
"Where's Maya?" said Riker, suddenly, stopping.
Maya pressed the gun more firmly into his ribs. "Keep walking."
"Why are we leaving here without her?"
"Did you kill her?"
"Out!" said Maya, desperately. She was terrified that one of the others would question this too, and go back to find Elba. She could see no way of letting Will know her identity without giving herself away; if she made a secret signal, his reaction might betray her.
Sabahu started to go up the last few stairs but Maya said, "No. Sabahu, get behind me. He goes out first. If there's anyone watching, I want them to see him."
"Yes, my lady."
"O.K. Move. Hands where I can see them."
Will held out his hands wide, and she nudged him forward into a deserted building filled with dusty shafts of sunlight.
"I can't hear the ship any more," said Sabahu.
She could see, through the building's empty doorway, a yard and some more structures. She indicated to Riker that he should step out into the open, and suddenly they were in bright sunlight. The heat and freshness were startling after being in the clammy underground complex for so long. For a few seconds, she was disorientated.
"My lady!" shouted Sabahu.
Pedra made a slight squeaking noise in her throat.
To Maya's amazement and relief, Tony and the Commander ran into the middle of the yard, breaking cover from another derelict building. When they saw that she was holding a gun against Riker they backed away slightly, but did not lower their own weapons.
"Where's Maya?" said Tony.
Maya tried to think quickly, desperately aware that everyone was standing with weapons pointed at everyone else. If she made a wrong move, anyone could get shot. She stared into Tony's eyes.
At the edge of her vision she saw Pedra looking confused, and she realized that she was not acting as Elba should.
"Lady Elbathura," said the Commander, "I'm Commander Koenig of Moonbase Alpha, Maya is my science officer and I want her released."
"If you've hurt her," said Tony, evenly, "I swear I'll kill you."
She had one moment of joy, and the next she doubled over in shock and pain as Will slammed his elbow into her diaphragm. He had sensed her distraction too, and taken the split-second advantage.
He tore the gun from her fingers and rammed its barrel to her forehead. "Drop your guns or I fire!" he shouted.
She struggled to pull down a breath, unable to speak and quite without the power to transform. She heard the clatter as Pedra and Sabahu threw down their weapons.
"Get them!" said Riker.
The Commander and Tony dived to retrieve them and turn them on the other two.
"Now, I second Mr. Verdeschi's sentiment," Will said, shaking her viciously. "It's set to kill. Take us to Maya, or I'll get myself drummed out of Starfleet for you."
Maya caught her breath at last and cried out, "Tony!"
"You idiot!" shouted Tony, whirling round and throwing himself at Riker. "That's Maya! Get your hands off her!"
Riker let her go and she stumbled heavily backwards and fell onto the ground, while he, taken by surprise, toppled under Tony's attack. Riker's gun fired into the air.
Sabahu, whom Tony had been covering, broke toward them and the Commander fired at him. He crumpled down, just avoiding Tony and Will who had fallen together.
Maya got back enough physical control to let go of the form she had locked herself into. Will, who had scrambled to a sitting position, stared at her with a dazed expression as if he still didn't understand. Tony let go of his grip on him with a scowl and held out his hand to help Maya up.
"Tony," she said, reaching for him.
He stiffened and thrust her away. "Oh, forget it."
Shocked, Maya took some steps back. Looking down at herself she realized that she was dirty and bruised and barefooted, and still dressed only in the ridiculous nightdress, which was torn and smeared with grime.
She was vaguely aware that the Commander had taken over Pedra, who had begun to weep hysterically, and that Tony was checking Sabahu. Riker was calling the Enterprise for an immediate beam-down of a security team to take the terrorists into custody.
"Maya," he said, coming over to her, "what did you do with the ringleader?"
"She's stunned, and trapped behind a forcefield--down there in the place where we were. I fired the stun straight into her head, it may have injured her--I don't know."
"You're wonderful," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing. "I didn't suspect a thing, I'm sorry."
Some Starfleet people, clean and efficient, had arrived, and Riker left to organize them. She clasped her arms round herself.
"Are you all right?" said the Commander, having handed over Pedra.
"I'm fine, Commander."
"I guess it was you who sent the signal that led us here."
"Well done. We landed the Eagle just out of sight, over there. Are you coming back with us?"
He hesitated, as if wondering whether to say something else, then patted her arm and said briskly, "Come on, then. There's nothing to stay here for."
John was happy to let Riker and the security team from the Enterprise take charge of the terrorists, and make his own departure without any more involvement. He had half-expected Maya to stay behind with Riker, who had said that he would be returning to the hotel to pick up the Enterprise's shuttle craft.
Tony, immobile in the co-pilot's seat, said nothing as the Eagle lifted from the planet's surface. John glanced at him and decided that conversation was not going to be light-hearted on the way back. As soon as they were clear of the atmosphere and the ship was locked on auto-pilot to the Enterprise, John unfastened his seat-belt and went through to the cargo section.
Maya lifted her head as the door slid back and John saw the eagerness die in her eyes as she realized it was him. She resumed her glassy, inscrutable expression.
He sat close beside her. "Are you sure you're O.K.?"
"I'm tired, that's all, Commander. I've done too many transformations and I haven't had much sleep." She pulled the jacket she had got from the Eagle's equipment locker tighter round herself, as it she were cold, and gave him a faint smile.
"Maya...I know you weren't at the meeting when I asked the Alphans if they wanted to stay together and start a colony--and, I don't know whether you've been thinking about it--I just wanted to say that you don't need to feel under any obligation."
"What do you mean, Commander?"
"Well... your being with us was an accident--and we were lucky to have you on Alpha--and I'm grateful for all the help you've given us--but I understand that when it comes down to it, we're not your own people, and I don't have a right to expect you to stay with us. I realize things are changing for you, and that you might want to make other plans. Don't feel bad about it."
She lowered her head, and John got the feeling that he was not saying it in the way that he should. He had thought that they had a confiding relationship, but it was obvious that she didn't want to talk to him now.
"I'm sorry, Commander," she said, lifting her eyes again. "I am tired."
"Sure." He pressed her shoulder. "Get some rest."
Tony remained motionless when John went back through to the cockpit, making no acknowledgment and showing no curiosity. John sighed, and settled himself in for a grim half hour.
Maya was shepherded to sickbay when the got back to the Enterprise, where Beverly checked her over and removed the bruises on her arm with a single tingling sweep of an instrument. She was only just allowed to shower and change after this before she was escorted to a debriefing with the Captain, King Bahu and a sharp-spoken Lanthenon woman. Will was there; it was the first time she had seen him since he had spoken to her in the mining yard. Once more in his Starfleet uniform, he looked different and remote.
She gave a full and straightforward account of her experience with the terrorists, and answered their questions concisely, hearing her voice--calm and well-modulated, a little cold--from some distance away. The ringleader, Lady Elbathura, had been found still unconscious but unharmed, and she had been taken into custody on Lanthenon with the other two.
"It's clear from all accounts," said the Lanthenon woman, who seemed to be directing the interview, "that the capture alive of these three very dangerous enemies of our state was almost entirely down to you. I'll certainly be recommending you for an honor."
Eventually, the Captain said that she could go, which was all the reward that Maya wanted. She felt Will following her, and he caught her outside, once the door had closed on the small conference room.
He took hold of her arms, gazing down into her face with tenderness in his eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Will, I've been in much worse situations than that. I'm fine. I need to get some sleep, that's all."
"I'm on duty now--I'll see you for dinner?"
She nodded. She had to speak to him eventually.
"Then we can pick up, maybe, from where we were interrupted," he said with a wide smile, and kissed her lightly.
She let him, feeling nothing; not even embarrassment when the door of the conference room opened and Captain Picard and the King stepped round them.
She lay in the dark, floating, fighting, trying to force herself under the surface of her fatigue. Her limbs ached, a consequence of spending too long locked into another form, and her eyes were stinging. Her body craved sleep but her mind was refusing to let go, because--she knew this, consciously--she was terrified of what was waiting for her. On Alpha she would have gone to Helena for a sleeping pill.
"Lights," she said, sitting up.
Light had the usual effect of dissolving the surreal painful dimensions of the bed and the surrounding air. It steadied the spinning in her head, and when she got up, though she still felt dull with tiredness, she realized that there was one thing she could resolve immediately.
The Commander was where she first looked for him, in his quarters. He signaled that she could enter, but his living area was empty and he came through from the bedroom, tying on a dressing gown. He had obviously been asleep.
"I'm sorry," said Maya. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I'll come back later."
"No--Maya--come in, sit down. I lost a night's sleep, I was catching up."
Helena appeared at the door, blinking.
Maya didn't sit down. She felt like an intruder, though she tried to ignore that. She had been too easily blown about by her feelings, she thought, in the past few days. She stood in front of them, clutching her arms to herself.
"I've come to ask you if I can be part of your colony," she said. "I know I'm not really one of you--as you said, Commander--but I also know I could make a contribution, if you want me."
"Maya!" said Helena, in concern, coming over to her. "If we want you?"
"When I said that, in the Eagle," said the Commander, "I only meant you shouldn't feel you had to stay, that we'd understand if you didn't want to. Of course you're one of us."
She knew he had meant that, but she was desperate for reassurance and affirmation. "Thank you," she said. "Then I will come with you."
"Then things haven't worked out with Commander Riker," said Helena.
"It's not what I want."
Helena and the Commander exchanged a glance, then he held out his hand to her and shook it. "I'm very glad to have you back on board, Maya. You know that."
"Thank you," she said again, turning to go. She could see in their faces that they were concerned about her, and she wanted to go away and compose herself.
"We're having a base meeting at 1600 hours this afternoon," said the Commander, making her pause. "We don't know yet if enough of the Alphans are going to go for the colony. We'll find out then."
"You have my vote."
"See you there?"
As the door opened to let her out, Tony stepped in. He kept his eyes and head firmly averted from her and she passed by him, trying not to react.
Out in the corridor, she walked along in a dream of misery, hardly conscious of her surroundings until she got back to the safety of her own quarters. There, she sat down and tried to force herself to talk to herself. If she was going to work with Tony to establish the colony as one of the command team, she had to put herself back together again. They couldn't continue to ignore each other; or, if he chose to behave in such an immature way, she would have to become indifferent to it.
Her eye was caught by something familiar lying on the table in the living area. It was her Psychon necklace. She sat down and fingered it, letting the jeweled metal fronds clink gently together, knowing immediately without thinking it through that Tony must have brought it for her.
She was surprised, and bewildered, by how much it hurt, and how unimportant everything else seemed now. Surviving the death of her father and the destruction of her homeworld, and building a new life from nothing at all, had made her--she had thought--immovably strong. Why should losing Tony eclipse everything, and consume her with a pain she couldn't bear? She still had her other friends, she had an exciting new challenge in the colony, she had a valued place in Alphan society and she knew she had the Commander's love and respect. She laid all these blessings in front of her mentally, and thought how different she was from the poor shattered girl who had found herself stranded in an unknown spaceship, weeping into the arms of two alien strangers who had been at a loss to comfort her.
She shivered and laid down the necklace, and got up to get herself a hot drink from the replicator. There was nothing she could do now, because talking to Tony was impossible. Perhaps, in a few days time, it would not be. All she could do was decide to exercise self-control and be polite to him when she saw him, or try not to care if he ignored her. When they got to the colony, there would be plenty of time to become friends again, even if they could no longer be lovers.
This conclusion encouraged her, and her feelings eased slightly. She was wondering if she ought to have another attempt at getting some sleep when the door signaled, and everything inside her jumped. Calming herself, she said, "Come in!"
It was Data. "Good morning. May I speak with you?"
Slightly disappointed, slightly relieved, Maya said, "Of course, Data. Come in. I haven't seen you for a while."
Data stepped in, and the door closed behind him. He stood there with an odd indefinable air, as though he were not quite at ease. "I hope you have recovered from your experiences at the hands of the Lanthenon terrorists."
"It wasn't so bad--they were more frightened than we were, I think."
"Nevertheless, I was concerned for your safety."
"I'm fine now. But thank you. Come and sit down."
"Unfortunately, I am on duty. I do not have much time, and should strictly be in engineering at this moment, assisting Mr. LaForge. However, following a conversation I had with Dr. Crusher, I decided it was important to see you immediately."
"What's the matter, Data--what do you want?" She had the distinct impression that he was disconcerted, as far as he could be.
"I understand that you have terminated your relationship with Mr. Verdeschi. Have I been correctly informed?"
"Data--I don't really want to talk about it."
"No, you misunderstand my inquiry, I am not motivated by prurient curiosity, or the desire to communicate gossip to others. I have a genuine reason for wanting to know, and I assure you that I will discuss the matter with nobody."
His pale, slightly golden eyes were calm and earnest. Maya felt more comfortable with Data than with any other man, she thought, especially now. It would be easy to indulge in an outpouring of self-confession, while he listened with quiet interest. She resisted and only said, "Tony and I have split up, yes."
"And is it your intention to enter into a similar relationship with Commander Riker?"
"No. But I haven't told him that yet."
"In that case, I would like to ask you if you would consider doing me the very great honor of becoming my wife."
Maya stared at him. It was one of the few times in her life that she had been struck speechless.
Data paused, and then continued. "You are surprised. I anticipated this reaction. You have possibly thought that, because I am an android, and do not have emotions, I would not have any wish to be married. That is not the case. I have often thought about it, and considered what advantages I could bring to a married partnership, and what advantages such a partnership would bring to me. I have even discussed the matter, on occasion, with Counselor Troi. For some time now I have hoped that, eventually, I will marry some day. I had imagined it to be a distant event, something that might happen when I had become more fully human. I did not realize that I would meet someone who would turn that hope into an immediate desire."
"Oh, Data," said Maya, unexpectedly moved.
"As a husband, I could offer you companionship, friendship, and sexual gratification. I have told you that I am not without previous experience of relationships and, though that experience has not been extensive, the two women with whom I have had sexual intercourse both expressed themselves satisfied by it. I was programmed with some abilities and techniques, and I can learn many more. I cannot, of course, impregnate you. But if you wish to be inseminated by some other means, I would be proud, and happy, to be a father to your children."
Maya recovered her self-possession. "Data, you'll be a wonderful husband, and a father, to someone. That someone can't be me, I'm sorry."
He blinked--she would have thought expressionless, except that he always had the same expression, a curious, blank, intelligent look. "Have I expressed myself badly?"
"No, you expressed yourself very well, and I'm flattered. That kind of marriage wouldn't be right for me, that's all, and because of that, I wouldn't be right for you."
Data inclined his head. "I appreciate your honesty."
She took his hands and kissed him, on the lips, curious. His mouth was warm. Data responded and kissed her back, properly, with surprising sensitivity.
For half a second she thought about those two woman who had enjoyed having sex with Data, and realized that it was probably a very good way of getting pleasure without the dangers of emotion. What she had foolishly, and wrongly, expected from Will.
She put the momentary temptation firmly aside, and stood back. It was never that simple.
"If at any time in the future you reconsider my proposal," said Data, in parting, "please contact me. My feelings, as I have none, will not have changed."
After three hours of comfortable, dreamless sleep, Maya woke up in a refreshed state of mind and feeling hungry. She was still thinking about Data as she got some soup and bread from the replicator and carried it over to the table to eat. The smell of the mushroom soup and the crisp, chewy texture of the bread awakened a sharper hunger, and she ate it slowly, remembering that she had eaten nothing since the dinner on Lanthenon a thousand years ago last night. It was good to be able to enjoy something, however simple.
The door sounded. Maya looked at the clock on the wall. It was still only 1200 hours. "Come in," she said. "It's open."
This time it was Tony.
She had been so far from expecting him that she was shocked. There was nothing in his dark expression to suggest a change of heart, and at once she felt herself slipping back down into chaos. She struggled, and said, in a voice that sounded horribly artificial, "Tony. Would you like some lunch? I was going to get some more."
He stared at what she was eating, in distraction, and shook his head. "No, I don't want anything to eat," he said, as if eating was a frivolity that he had given up.
She put down the last piece of bread and stood up, leaving the table.
"I've come to tell you that I've got a job with Starfleet," he said, hanging back at the door, avoiding her eyes.
"You? With Starfleet?"
"Yes--why not? On the Starship Excalibur. It's rendezvousing with the Enterprise when we get back to Alpha, to take the Alphans to wherever they're going. Captain Picard pulled strings with the captain of the Excalibur. They can use me in security--I'll be a kind of NCO."
"You're--not going to the colony?"
"No. I told John this morning. There's nothing left for me with the Alphans, I'm going to put it behind me. Start a new life."
"I thought you were going to the colony."
"I've come to tell you, just in case I didn't get the chance again, and--I didn't think it was right not to say goodbye."
She caught her breath, but lost it, and to her horror she found herself shaking and sobbing. She touched her face and looked at the tears on her hands as if they were blood.
"Oh, what are you sniveling for?" Tony snapped, intense bitterness breaking through his reasonable tone. "You've got what you were after."
"What--what do you mean?"
"Staying on the Enterprise with Riker."
"I'm not staying on the Enterprise with Will."
"Because I don't want to. I'm going to the colony with the Alphans." She swallowed, fighting with the tears.
When she looked up he had crossed the room, and sat down on the sofa. He was sitting in an attitude of dejection, his head hanging, his hands dangling.
She perched on the other end, breathing steadily to regain control.
There was a long and dreadful silence.
Eventually, afraid that he was just going to walk out any moment with no last words said, Maya broke it. "Tony, I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, I'm sorry too. That's another thing I came to say. I shouldn't have pushed you away like that--on the planet. Who you sleep with isn't any business of mine any more."
"I didn't sleep with him."
"Oh, come off it, you were standing there in your nightdress!"
"I was in my nightdress because it was the middle of the night when they kidnapped me!"
"But you were with him."
"Only because I'd waked up and gone to his room to ask him to take me back here."
He made a skeptical sound, then glanced at her and saw she was telling the truth. Then he sighed, and rubbed his eyes.
"He asked me to marry him," Maya said, after another silence.
"Oh yes, he was very serious about it. That's when I realized I shouldn't be there with him--because I love you."
"You've got one Hell of a way of showing it, Maya."
The oppression of tears in her head broke out again, and this time she was helpless to stop it. She felt as if a long, deep, dry, painful channel that ran right down inside her had suddenly burst open, and all the poison from the tragedy that had broken her life was gushing out at last. For a while, she even forgot that Tony was there, until she became conscious of his warmth and his voice and his hands stroking her.
"Maya--Maya--don't, come on, it's all right. It's all O.K., it doesn't matter. Come on. Please stop."
"I can't!" she cried.
But she could. She let it wash over her, feeling a feverish wave of heat as the tears subsided and she was calm again. Clinging onto Tony, who rocked her in his arms, her head against her neck.
"What are all these tears anyway?" he said. "You don't cry, I've never seen you crying."
"I don't think--I ever have--not since my father--"
"Oh God, I'm sorry what I said about your father--I was a bastard to get at you like that."
"It was true."
"I wanted to hurt you, and I knew how to do it. Hey, come on. You've got me at it now."
She lifted her head and saw that his eyes had filled with tears, too. She smeared one away with her finger, and he caught her hand aside and kissed her desperately.
"You didn't sleep with him?" he said, breaking away.
She shook her head, smiling.
"Did you mean--what you said?"
"I always have."
"Well, so do I."
"Tony--do you mean it this time?"
"What do you mean, this time?"
"Oh--it doesn't matter."
He didn't pursue it, but took hold of her and kissed her again, passionately, confidently. He tasted good after so long apart, deeply familiar and yet thrilling to return to. She had no sense of time after that, until she jabbed her elbow awkwardly against the table by the sofa and Tony lifted his head from between her somehow uncovered breasts.
"Want to move somewhere more comfortable?" he said.
She smiled. "The bed is very comfortable."
She didn't remember getting there, nor what happened to the rest of their clothes. And it was a straightforward, vigorous, pent-up explosion, probably over in minutes, with each of them knowing the other so well. But afterwards, Maya felt thoroughly relaxed and at peace. She could hardly imagine the storm of dark emotion that had gripped her, nor the unease that had been haunting her ever since their first quarrel over the opera. It was like waking after a nightmare.
She moved and sat up, slightly sore and a little out of breath. Tony lay on his back and watched her, relaxed. "Don't go," he said, holding up his hand. "Don't go anywhere."
"I'm just getting comfortable. But--Tony--you won't go, will you?"
"Do I look as if I'm about to move?"
"To that other ship, I mean."
He tutted. "Of course not. I never really wanted to do that anyway."
"I thought not."
"Can you see me as a glorified security guard on a spaceship? In the old sci-fi movies on Earth, they were always the ones who got shot first. No way."
"More to the point, I can't see you in Starfleet. It's a very disciplined service."
"It'd suit you then."
"No, I want to stay with the Alphans."
He was quiet for a moment, rubbing her hand. "When you told me that, I got a shock. I honestly believed you were going to stay with Riker."
"Tony, I was never with him in the first place."
"Yeah, I know."
"Why wouldn't you believe me when I told you that before--before I went to Lanthenon?"
"Because I was jealous. Because maybe I've never believed my luck that someone as gorgeous and talented as you wanted me, and at the back of my mind I've always thought you'd find someone else if you ever had the chance."
"And because I nearly did the same thing myself, on Alpha, when you were away."
"You did?" said Maya, with a sudden twist in her heart. "Who? Sandra? Gillian? Not Michelle?"
"Hey, I didn't know you knew about any of those."
"Well, of course I do."
"Who told you?"
"They did. You don't seem to realize, Tony, that when you get involved with a man, or look as if you might be getting involved, women offer the benefit of their experience and advice."
"And what was their advice?"
"Let's see. No, I think they were all complimentary on the whole."
"I never slept with Michelle."
"I mean, she married someone else."
"Yes, I know."
"And you don't think I've ever--since you and I got together--"
"No, Tony. But you were going to tell me."
"Oh yeah." He lay back and looked more solemn. "When you disappeared--they woke me up in the middle of the night and I could tell as soon as I looked at Alan's face that they thought you were dead. They didn't say anything--John, Helena, Bill--but I knew. From then on I was living in some kind of nightmare that just seemed to get worse. Even when I spoke to you on the subspace link, I was suspicious, I wasn't sure you were really O.K. and coming back. John didn't want to raise false hopes so we didn't tell anyone, and everyone thought you were dead, and I didn't know if I was ever going to see you again. It was very weird. Nobody spoke to me, they all left me alone, so I had plenty of time to think about it. And I thought about you every single moment of the day. Alpha just seemed like a rock, a prison, without you. I did the most ridiculous, stupid, soppy things, like going to your quarters and lying on your pillow--except that it didn't smell of you, because you spend most nights in my quarters. But that sort of thing. I had lunch alone in my quarters because I couldn't face the canteen. I realized that we'd never been apart since you came to us, except for the length of an Eagle flight. I couldn't believe some ship was coming to rescue us, I thought I'd lost you, and nothing seemed worth it. And I swore that if I ever saw you again, I'd tell you how I felt. So--now I have."
Maya breathed slowly, gazing at him, drinking in a dizzy joy. She knew he might never speak to her like this again all their lives, but she would be happy with just this once and lock it in her heart. She scarcely dared to move for fear of disturbing the mood.
He squeezed her hand. "I said everybody left me alone, but then Gillian Merle came to see me, and ended up offering a bit more than sympathy. I only got out of it by telling her the truth, that you were still alive. But while I was kissing her, I did want to, because I was lonely and I missed you and it went through my head that you'd never find out."
She shook her head. "Oh yes, I would."
"Yeah. Even though I stopped myself, I carried on feeling guilty about wanting it, and maybe that's why I was so ready to be suspicious of you. I don't know. I wish I'd gone with you to that opera, though."
"No, I should have stayed with you."
"No, you were right, I was an idiot. Tell you what, we can argue about that, now."
"Let's not have any more arguments, Tony, not for a long time." She slid back down into his arms and they cuddled together in silence for a while. She pulled the sheet over herself, getting slightly chilly.
He fingered strands of her hair. "Tell me what you meant."
She wondered whether to affect not to understand, but she felt that everything was possible now. She propped herself on her elbow and looked at him seriously. "You said once before that you loved me, and then you said that you didn't mean it."
"No, I didn't."
"Yes you did. You said that it was all wild garbage."
"Yes, you did."
"Maya, I did not say that."
"You did say that."
"Last year sometime."
"My God, never say anything to a woman you don't want to have repeated back to you word for word twelve months later."
"Well--that's what I meant."
"I must have been drunk."
"No, you weren't drunk."
"No, the number of chances we got to get drunk on Alpha were few and far between, I would have remembered. Maya, I'm sorry, O.K.? Have you been holding it against me ever since?"
"Of course not. Well, perhaps."
"Come here." He pulled her down and kissed her. "Of course I love you."
She smiled. "Do you know, this is the first serious conversation we've ever had about us?"
"More or less."
"Yes, well, it's time to get serious, isn't it, for everyone--all the Alphans. I bet there are conversations like this going on all over the Enterprise."
"So, how about it, then?" He paused, looking at her as if expecting an answer.
"How about what?" said Maya, confused.
"Well, do you want to get married?"
Maya burst out laughing.
Tony scowled. "Don't laugh, Maya, I'm serious."
"I know--I'm sorry--it's just that I've never had three proposals of marriage within twenty-four hours before--it must be something in the water."
"Three? Who else proposed to you?"
"What, the bloody robot?"
"Oh, he was very sweet, he offered me guaranteed sexual gratification. I thought about accepting him, his was far the nicest proposal I've had so far."
"Of course I do, Tony. Of course I will."
They fell down under the sheets again, and Maya felt Tony's interest rekindling.
"I thought about it before," he said, "but on Alpha, it never seemed right. I wanted the complete package--kids and everything--if that's what you want. If we can."
"I don't know if we can."
"Is it what you want?"
"Yes--in a little while, not just yet."
"We'd better get some practice in, then."
This time, Maya closed her eyes and luxuriated, utterly without tension, as she let Tony kiss her slowly all over. Desire built up gradually and deliciously. She was concentrating on the waves lapping slowly through her body and became conscious of an external noise with a start. It was a footstep in the living room.
She had forgotten to lock her outside door again, and neither of them had heard a signal. For a brief moment she was afraid it was Will, the last person in the universe she wanted to see. Then the Commander's voice said, "Maya?" and he opened the bedroom door.
Maya pulled the sheet over her head, incidentally pulling most of it off Tony. "Commander!"
She couldn't see, but she could imagine him standing helplessly in the doorway, grinning in embarrassment. "Maya. I--uh--came to ask you to talk Tony round to coming with us--he, um--"
"Go away, John," said Tony, tugging at the sheet. "Can't you see we're busy?"
"Right. I want to see you both at the meeting in an hour."
She heard the Commander retreating. They clung to each other until they heard the outer door close, then collapsed together in laughter.
They fell asleep and only just woke up in time to hurry to the meeting, making their entrance to an already packed room conspicuously intertwined. Maya felt a twinge of embarrassment as she saw the Commander coming toward them, but she ignored it when Tony said, "Hey, everyone, before we start, I want to make an announcement. Maya and I have decided to get married."
Everyone cheered, the Commander hugged her and shook hands with Tony, and someone in the assembling said, "Well, that one was a long time in coming, wasn't it."
Helena kissed her and said, aside, "I'm so happy for you, Maya. The business with Commander Riker--"
"It was nothing," said Maya, firmly. "Anyway, it's all sorted out."
"I'm glad. A little later, when we're somewhere more private, I'll tell you my news."
There had been something different about Helena which Maya had perceived but not understood, nor thought very deeply about, ever since the Enterprise had reached Alpha. Now, suddenly, she had a good idea of what that news was, and she was shocked and thrilled. Helena smiled slightly, seeing her comprehension. Their private moment was interrupted by Tony, who came to take possession of her again, and John called the meeting to order.
"I'm not going to make a long speech," he said. "You all know I'm uncomfortable in the role of orator. I asked you all yesterday whether any of you would like to stay together and take the chance the Federation has offered us of colonizing a planet. Since then, as I'm sure you've heard, we've had some excitement--and some good news. I guess things are likely to go on like that for us. I hope you've had a chance to make up your minds." He spread his hands, and stepped down.
One by one, couple by couple, all the Alphans came forward to say that they wanted to establish a colony. In the end, there were no dissenters.
Riker sat in Ten Forward, staring at a synthale that he wished was something stronger, feeling as though he had come out of a transporter the wrong way round. He barely looked up when Deanna joined him.
"She's marrying Mr. Brain-Cell Verdeschi," he said, without preamble.
"I know. I heard. I'm sorry."
"And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I probably put the idea into his head."
"I think you precipitated a crisis in their relationship which helped them both see more clearly what they wanted out of it."
"Oh, she's making a mistake. She's too good for him. A man with a vocabulary of about three words, all of them expressed with his fists."
"Will, it isn't reasonable of you to expect a man in his twenties to have the same degree of intellectual and emotional maturity as you. Tony Verdeschi reminds me very much of a brash young Starfleet lieutenant I once met."
"I talked to him, when you were on Lanthenon, and he was very good company, articulate and amusing. We were attracted to each other, and I enjoyed that. I understand what she sees in him. What really matters, though, is that she's in love with him. I always sensed that, and that's why I was uneasy about the relationship you wanted with her."
"But I was so close! If it hadn't been for those kidnappers--I don't know. I don't know where I went wrong."
"You can't talk someone into loving you, Will. No matter how you feel, it has to be mutual or it won't work."
The irritating thing about Deanna, he thought, was that she stated the obvious--particularly anything you didn't want to hear--with a maddening air of conviction and calm professionalism. And yet they had hardly made much of a success of their own life, emotionally.
Irresistibly, he thought of Maya's beautiful eyes, shining with warm humor and innocence when she smiled. "Oh, imzadi," he said, stretching his hands across the table. "Help me."
She took hold of them, wrapping his fingers firmly in hers. "Look, let's go back to my quarters and open that bottle of Betazoid wine my mother sent me. It has to be more effective than synthale."
The Enterprise returned to Moonbase Alpha after the Lanthenon wedding had taken place without any more attacks or interruptions. Maya was granted what apparently was the great honor of an invitation to the event, in recognition of her work in capturing the terrorists, and she held Tony's hand at the edge of a huge circular auditorium while Princess Amarantha and Ambassador Trewhella--tiny insects in bright clothes--were joined far below. She watched what little she could see of the spectacle with an enjoyment made up mostly from her own excitement that she and Tony would soon be doing the same.
Afterwards they went for a walk in the public gardens, which were gaily decorated with banners of red and gold, savoring the novelty of being together under an open sky.
And now she was back in her own quarters on Alpha. Everything was dowdy and diminished. She had been comfortable and happy here, but she could see now that the close white walls were a prison, and that their sense of security had been an illusion of necessity.
She gathered up her few bits and pieces; her spare uniform, her Psychon dress, some photographs. In an old one of herself, taken at her first party on Alpha, she looked much younger than she felt now. Though the girl in the photo was laughing, holding up a cup of beer, she seemed--fragile.
The door opened and Tony came in, carrying a bag. "Ready?"
"Almost. Has the Excalibur arrived yet?"
"Yes, it came out of warp five minutes ago. You should see it on the screen in Command Center--two galaxy class starships at once, it's quite a sight. Come on, I want to have a technical discussion with the transporter chief on the Excalibur."
"What sort of technical discussion? You don't know anything about transporters."
"No, but I want to make sure he beams up my beer-making equipment without damaging it -it's delicate."
"Tony! You are not taking that junk with us!"
"Yes I am."
"But why? If you want beer you can get it from the replicator."
"It won't be the real thing."
"It's nearer to the real thing than your concoctions ever were."
"Ah, but when we get to New Alpha or whatever we're going to call it, I'll be able to grow proper hops, and then we'll be in business." His enthusiasm was genuine. "Maybe we'll plant grapes, and I can take up winemaking, too."
She laughed and put her arms around him, and he saw the photograph she was holding.
"Hey, I remember that party. You wore that long tight dress and I thought what a fantastic body you had...then I wondered if it was really you, or if you just chose to make it that way."
"What an odd thing to think about."
"Well, I didn't know what to make of you then."
"You did, later on that evening."
"Was that when we--oh, yeah. It was, wasn't it."
"Tony, you haven't forgotten that."
"No, I remember. Of course I do."
"I was so--concerned that you would realize--that I didn't know very much at all."
"To be honest, as far as I can remember, I was so excited to have got there at last, I wouldn't have noticed anything."
"What do you mean, at last? It was about six weeks after we met!"
"It felt like forever. I was crazy about you from the first time I set eyes on you, when John brought you into Command Center and introduced you."
"You know I don't really remember that, Tony."
"Yes." He kissed her nose. "Was it too soon?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Only Helena gave me this heavy lecture about how it was too soon, and how I was taking advantage of you in your vulnerable state."
"She did, did she? I knew what I was doing by then. Even if I didn't really."
"It was your first time, wasn't it."
"So that means, I guess, there's only ever been me."
"You know, I never thought of that before."
She took one self-conscious look around her quarters. "I feel I ought to say goodbye--I didn't have the chance to take leave of my own world--but I don't know how."
"Well, we could--"
"No, I don't think so, Tony, I don't want the Commander to come looking for us again. Let's just go."
They left to join the others in Commander Center, to look at the ship that would take them on the next step of their journey.