FEDERATION'S END III: TWILIGHT
by E. L. Zimmerman
Tensely studying the thin shimmering cable stretching from the shuttlecraft's primary command interface to Commander Data's exposed positronic interface, Deanna Troi asked, "You're absolutely certain that this is ... safe?"
Granting her his best interpretation of a human smile, the silver-skinned android tapped several of the touchplates on Shuttlecraft Io's primary drive console. Turning to face her, he replied, "Immeasurably safer than physical control, commander."
Slowly, begrudgingly, she nodded.
"Has Geordi approved your specifications?"
"Indeed," Data replied, keying in the programmed master control sequence. Io's onboard computer twittered in the affirmative. "In fact, you might find it particularly intriguing to note that this experiment - if it can be appropriate called such - has been nothing short of a joint project between Lieutenant Commander LaForge and myself since discovery of the possible neural interlink nineteen-point-seven-four days ago."
Pleased with himself, the android sat back in the pilot's chair. "Would you be interested in a demonstration?"
Sensing her own nervousness, Deanna swallowed, easing herself back in her own chair. "Are you prepared?"
Instinctively, she swallowed again, hoping her tenseness didn't show. It was one thing to experience fear on her own, but it was something completely different to share it with a fellow officer.
After some thought, she finally said, "I'm ready ... if you are."
"Let us commence."
With that, Data took his hands away from the shuttlecraft's master panel and crossed his arms.
Suddenly, Deanna Troi felt Io lurch to the left, defying the safety of the ship's inertial dampeners.
"Compensating," Data said.
"Please do," she muttered, her Betazed stomach churning at the sudden, unexpected motion.
"As you can see, counselor," the android began, studying the readouts from all his stations ports, "I am exercising full operational pilot of Shuttlecraft Io through the use of a positronic interface. The onboard computer system is responding affirmatively to my neural commands. As the computer can obey my commands neural projected through the interface, I can as well measure the operating efficiency of all onboard systems by the use of simple cybernetic calculation. Information flows freely both ways through the interface. I will now engage braking thrusters to lower the Io into the primary orbital vector approved with the Thilon Duckblind Ops Command."
Glancing up from the controls in time to glimpse the darkness of outer space morphing into the soft blue traces of Thilon's upper atmosphere, the android smiled.
"Fascinating," he said. With a hint of pride sounding in his voice, he announced, "We have entered the primary orbital approach vector, commander."
Relieved, Deanna glanced down at the PADD she held in her hands. Out of habit, she had been reviewing - over and over and over - the mission protocols, trying to commit each and every article to memory. As Data would put it, she found it more 'efficient.' Once on the planet's surface and venturing into the Thilon wilds, she didn't want to take any more equipment with her than was absolutely necessary for fear of 'cultural contamination.' As the Prime Directive stated, there was a tremendous inherent danger in exposing too many pieces of Starfleet technology on assignment to an undeveloped, non-Warp-capable world, and Deanna wasn't about to risk leaving a single PADD or comm badge behind, where it could possibly be found by one of the Thilonians. Such an accident could damage, beyond measure, the course of the burgeoning culture's growth ... possibly placing an entire race on course to societal collapse.
She didn't want to wash the blood off her hands over making such an elementary mistake, and that's why she requested that Data accompany her on the mission. While on leave from the Enterprise-E, the commander had participated in several duckblind operations, with only the one on the Baku Homeworld being labeled a 'catastrophe.' Otherwise, his record was impeccable, and that was the kind of expertise she needed.
"Commander, is something troubling you?" he suddenly asked.
Smiling weakly, she replied, "Oh, no, no. I was just ... lost in thought."
"Thank you for asking."
"You are welcome, commander."
Suddenly uncomfortable with the weight of the mission bearing down on her, Deanna tried changing the subject. "Data, do we have to be so formal?"
Obviously perplexed, the android inclined his head. "I do not understand."
She reached over and patted him on the shoulder. "Stop calling me 'commander.'"
"My apologies ... Deanna."
Smiling, relaxing in the seat beside him, she said, "Apologies accepted ... Data."
At his skillful handling, the shuttlecraft dropped further into Thilon's atmosphere, dipping into a series of bulbous and cottony white clouds. She watched as he, by thought alone, expertly piloted them through the cotton, blazing out the other side, zooming gracefully into the planet's morning sky before slipping behind another cloud front.
"Be careful, Data," she warned, leaning forward to glance out the transparent shield. "We wouldn't want any of the Thilonians glancing up into their morning sky to see us and misinterpret it as a sign from whatever god they might worship."
"Understood, Deanna," he said, already adjusting his flight path to take him deeper into the oncoming clouds. "However, I do not believe we are in any jeopardy. From what I recall from the operational briefing provided by Duckblind Ops, the Thilons do not believe nor worship any higher form of existence."
"Really?" she asked. Tapping a key on her PADD, she retrieved the societal analysis of the Thilon people. "Now, how could I have missed that?"
"In point of fact," the android continued, "the Ammenadra - the Thilon ruling council - eradicated any mention of gods or other higher forms of being from all of their literature four decades ago. Similar revolutions have occurred on other underdeveloped worlds, but they have all been precipitated by unexpected encounter with an outside species. The encounters have resulted in social upheavals, often times nearing collapse of a civilization unprepared to deal so suddenly and unpredictably with the knowledge of any existence beyond their own. According to the historical database, no such event has taken place on Thilon, which leaves the actions of the Ammenadra a curiosity ... a cultural renaissance, one that occurred with no explanation provided to their constituents." Staring forward, he mentally calculated a new flight path for the shuttle. "Nonetheless, I will endeavor to keep Io from any visual detection."
Distracting her attention from the PADD, a light blinked on the console before her, and Deanna deactivated the sensor. "Are you detecting the homing beacon from Starfleet's duckblind operation?"
"Not as of yet," he answered. "However, given our current proximity from the concealed Thilon base, we should be receiving their confirmation signal within the next ninety-point-two-three-five seconds."
Teasing, she said, "So precise!"
Openly curious, she asked, "Data, do you ever grow ... weary ... of measuring variables in terms so exact?"
"On the contrary," he replied, dimpling his chin in his approximation of a human expression, "I find it one of the more comforting traits of my cybernetic intellect. To know - to an exact degree - relieves me of having to accept the unknown." He glanced over at his shipmate. "Counselor, as a single or series of events must have led the Thilons to eliminate the mention of other beings from their literature, one might conclude that the lack of knowledge - to any degree - can radically alter a way of life." He studied her face for a moment. "Would you not agree with that conclusion?"
"Of course, I would," she consented. "But why would that bother you?"
Again, he inclined his head, momentarily lost in thought.
"Since the permanent fusion of the emotion chip in my central processing cortex," he began, "I have detected low to moderate levels of what I can only approximate to be anxiety when encountering a situation that defies my understanding and analysis."
Surprised, she laid her PADD on the shuttle's nearest console. "You've been feeling anxious? I didn't know that, Data."
Cautiously, he studied her expression. "We have yet to ... discuss it."
"You know," she began, sitting back, "it hadn't even occurred to me that now that you're experiencing constant emotion, we might want to schedule regular chats ... from time to time." Reaching out, she placed her hand on his shoulder. "We should be talking about your emotions, like I do with every member of the crew. We should talk about how you're feeling. Together, we should explore what you're experiencing and how you're dealing it."
Politely, the android nodded. "To be perfectly honest, the thought had crossed my mind, counselor."
"Really?" she asked, her curiosity again piqued. "Data, why haven't you said something?"
An alert pinged on the helm, and Data routinely compensated engine propulsion to accommodate for the increased gravitational pull of the planet. "As they say, it was not a pressing matter."
"But, Data, you've been experiencing emotions for several years now," she reasoned. "I'm sure that some of them have left you ... confused?"
Again, he dimpled his chin, nodding.
Leaning toward him, she stated, "Then, it's official. Once we return to the Enterprise, you and I will meet to draw up a schedule of sessions to discuss those emotional experiences you're having in greater detail."
Curtly, he replied, "If you wish, Deanna."
She heard - or, rather, sensed with her empathic abilities - something in the android's tone. Fearing she had insulted her companion, she offered, "Data, you do understand that I would only be trying to help you make sense of impulses that might otherwise seem illogical."
He nodded. With the expression of a child, he asked, "Would it be appropriate if I made a request, counselor?"
Focusing his attention on her, he said, "I would agree that a protracted dialogue surrounding the impulses I receive through my emotion chip would be entirely beneficial to my continued growth as a sentient individual. I would also agree that such dialogues would increase the bonds that we already share not only as shipmates but also as friends. However, solely out of respect for my privacy, I would ask that you keep our sessions ... confidential."
Relieved, she smiled. "Of course, Data," she assured him. "All of the sessions I have with any of the crew are kept in strict confidence."
"That is not quite what I mean ... commander."
Curious, she raised an eyebrow.
"Counselor," he began, "as you know, I am a unique being. I am, perhaps, the only one of my kind in the universe. In fact, there may never be another of my kind, despite Starfleet Sciences' attempt to replicate the technology. The temptation to ... exploit ... such knowledge that could be gained through an exchange of my experiences might be tremendous."
"Data," she began, "are you afraid that, at some point, I might want to author a paper on your emotional experiences?"
Approximating a human frown, he nodded.
"Commander," she began, softening her tone to help ease his discomfort, "I was thinking of speaking with you as my friend ... not as a professional. Of course, my professional opinion may offer a differing perspective on one if not all of your experiences, but I'm offering to chat with you from the heart, Data, not from the head."
"Then I agree and anticipate meeting with you on a personal level, Deanna. And I thank you for understanding my needs."
She returned his smile with warmth. "You're welcome."
"I am already looking forward to our first ... chat?"
"So am I."