by Dennie Kuhn
Lieutenant Worf reacted instantly, and Riker heard the torpedoes launched from the Enterprise less than a second after the captainís order.
The torpedo hurtled through space, and the Romulan ship shuddered. "Direct hit," Worf reported, the unmistakable sound of triumph in his voice.
"Hail them," Picard ordered. "This situation must not be allowed to end in destruction."
"They are responding to our hail."
The distinctive angular face of the Romulan commander filled the main viewer. "We will not surrender!" she hissed through her teeth.
"Please, Commander, halt this attack," Picard said. "We interpret it as an act of war!"
ĎThen you interpret it correctly," the Romulan replied, her clenched fist rising to shake at them briefly before her image was replaced by that of the Warbird she was commanding.
"Why are they being so hostile?" Picard wondered aloud.
"Maybe she said it all," Riker said. "Perhaps they are trying to start a war."
"There are those on Romulus who do not approve of their ambiguous relationship with the Federation," Data remarked from Ops. "This may be an attempt to dispose of the vagueness, once and for all."
Worfís voice cut through Dataís postulation. "The Warbird is firing. Shields at 84 percent."
The Enterprise shook with the impact. "Engineering, report," Riker called.
"Weíve lost warp control," Geordi La Forge replied. "Captain, Iíll need Data down here to take control of the lateral sensor array. Without him, weíve lost that, too, and in a battle . . ."
Picard nodded. "Mr. Data, make it so."
Riker watched Lieutenant Kael Irvin slide into the Ops position and knew that in less than ten minutes, Geordi would have Data hooked up to the lateral sensors. With Data directly controlling the sensors, they would not have to worry about tracking the enemy ship or its status, only their own.
"Bring us about, Ensign Deuling," he said. "Try to keep us one step ahead of their torpedo fire until we sort this out."
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge completed Dataís linkup with the main computer and watched as his friend busied himself with sustaining the sensors.
"Iím going to keep an eye on our shield intensity," he told Data. "Let me know if you have any trouble keeping a hold on the sensors."
Data was already processing sensor information. "Romulan shipís shields are at 67 percent," he murmured in a flat voice. "They are . . ."
". . . Preparing to fire."
Worfís warning prompted Picard to order, "Evasive maneuver Delta 6. Hail them again, Lieutenant."
Worf complied, but shook his head a moment later. "They are not responding."
"What the hell are they doing," Riker muttered.
"Mr. Worf, is there any way you can disable them without inflicting serious damage?"
Worfís huge hands skipped across his console. "Yes, Captain. Data has isolated a weakness in their shields, co-ordinates . . ."
"123 mark 201 by 315," Data was murmuring when Geordi came back to check on him. "A phaser bolt at this location would disable the Romulan ship."
Rikerís voice came on over the din of Engineering. "Geordi, weíre going to try to knock out their engines. Direct auxiliary power to forward shields."
"Aye, sir," La Forge called back, returning to the power stations a few meters away.
Data warned, "Romulan ship targeting . . ."
". . . Aft deflector," Worf reported. Picard opened his mouth to issue an order, but the Romulan torpedo slammed into the Enterprise before he could say a thing.
"Mr. Worf, target their weak area and fire phasers."
A shower of sparks and smoke made Geordi La Forge drop to his knees, covering his head protectively. When the small explosion had cleared, he immediately returned to maintaining the power systems. "Bridge, weíve had an overload down here. A lot of these circuits are burned out. Iíll need a few minutes to reroute them."
"At your leisure, Mr. La Forge," Picard replied over the comm system. "Our phaser strike was successful. The Romulan ship has been disabled."
La Forge blew out a breath of relief. Not many ships could match the Enterpriseís weaponry, but that didnít mean a Romulan Warbird didnít come damned close. "Acknowledged, Bridge. La Forge out."
Drawing a sleeve across his sweating brow, Geordi went to disconnect Data. Unfortunately, when the circuits in Engineering overloaded, Dataís must have, too, because the Chief Engineer found his friend lying stiff and lifeless on the floor, blown several meters from his original position.
Captainís Log, Stardate: 46060.1. We have notified the Romulan government of their disabled Warbird in Federation space, and granted them permission to retrieve it. Within thirty minutes of our transmission, however, the Warbird exploded, apparently deliberately. A full report will be made to the Romulan senate. Commander Data, meanwhile, is undergoing treatment.
Beverly Crusher had been horrified when they brought Data into sickbay. When she had, with Geordiís help, exposed some of the androidís most vital circuitry, she had discovered that the normally twinkling positrons were all dark.
It had taken over three hours to get Dataís brain functioning again, but after another four hours trying to revive him, Geordi sighed in frustration.
"I donít understand this. Thereís brain activityóall his systems are functioning. Heís just not conscious. Iíve checked for possible signal breaches, but there just arenít any!"
Crusher looked into Dataís staring eyes. "Come on, Data! Talk to us!"
Can you not hear me, Doctor?
Geordi shook his head. "There must be something weíre overlooking, here. I think we should get some sleep. Whatever it is weíre missing, I bet itís staring us in the face tomorrow morning."
Intriguing. Geordi! I am detecting a signal breach. How is it that your examination did not reveal it?
"Youíre right," Crusher decided. "Letís report in, and then Iíll meet you back here at 0700."
"Agreed. Tell Dr. Selar to keep an eye on him, okay?"
There is no cause for concern, Geordi. I am fine. I just seem to be . . . immobile for the moment . . .
Crusher followed Geordi to the door of sickbay. "Computer, begin night watch," she called, watching the lights dim on the insensate android before heading for her quarters.
And Data watched her go. This is a most curious sensation, he thought to himself. My friends have no idea that I am aware of them. An unpleasant possibility occurred to him. Perhaps Geordi will not be able to repair the signal breach, and they will assume I am permanently deactivated. Absurd, he decided an instant later. Once Geordi is rested, he will realize why I am incapacitated. Perhaps I will take this opportunity to analyze the collected works of TíPring.
He began to do so, alone in the dark, beginning with the first volume, a little tome of a thousand pages, which he had stored for future reference a few days before. TíPringís poetry lacked a common theme, but her obvious logic in the structuring of the verse was admirable.
Three seconds later, as he moved on to the second volume, Data became aware of a familiar sensation. He had discovered long ago that when someone had their eyes on him, he was not so inhuman that he could not feel their stare. Data realized that there were eyes on him now; he was being watched. There was someone standing in one of the darkened corners of Sickbay, just within his field of vision. At first he assumed it to be Dr. Selar or one of the other medics keeping him under observation, but when he looked closer, he saw with astonishment that whoever was standing in the corner was completely nude.
Perhaps it is another patient, Data thought, inspecting the tall, dark-skinned man as best he could without being able to even move his ocular sensors.
"No, Data, I am not another patient."
If Data could have blinked, he would have. Did he just respond to my internal monologue?
"Yes, Golden Eyes. I can hear you thinking. It makes me sick." The manís voice was low and rough; it dripped with contempt. Data recognized this emotion all too easily.
Who are you?
"I am nameless. Names are a stupid and meaningless form of identification."
What do you want?
The man laughed, and the sound was unlike any laughter Data had ever heard. There was none of the humor Commander Riker exuded when he laughed, none of the earnest camaraderie Geordiís laugh expressed. Data found this manís to be less a laugh than a snarl. "When your comrades start to die, I will visit you, and then, you can ask me that question again."
The man was gone. He seemed to fade into the shadows until he became part of them, and Data somehow knew that he was once again alone in the darkness.
When Dr. Crusher and Geordi La Forge returned seven hours later, Data was beginning to understand, beyond the clinical definition, the meaning of impatience.
"Okay," Beverly said, picking up a tricorder. "Letís start all over again, beginning with his higher functions."
Doctor! Geordi! You must alert the captain. There is a hostile on board . . .
As his friends scanned his quiet form, inside Data seethed and waited for them to find the malfunction.
"This is delicious, Guinan. What is it?"
Guinan smiled her slow smile at the expression on Deanna Troiís face. "Itís called French Toast," she replied. "Itís an old Earth recipe."
"I love it," Deanna said, rather unnecessarily, and licked syrup from her fingers. "Have you seen Worf today? We were supposed to meet for breakfast."
"Iím afraid not."
"I wonder if he. . ." Troiís words tailed off; her eyes widened. "Oh, my God."
Guinanís hairless brow creased. Deannaís face had paled; her hands were shaking. "What is it?"
"I have to go." Leaving her breakfast half finished and her chair overturned, Deanna Troi all but ran out of Ten Forward.
"I thought she said she loved it," Guinan remarked to a nearby diner, then sat to eat what was left.
Lieutenant Vincent Baker had been found dead in his quarters at 0732, when he had failed to report for duty. That is, most of him had been in his quarters. Some of him was just outside of his quarters. Still more of him was in the turbolift at the end of the corridor. One thing was certain, Worf thought grimly, whomever murdered Baker had no qualms about being less than subtle in the way he or she had done it.
Captain Picard had been tight-lipped ever since the discovery; Riker had been equally stoic, but his white face was a window to what was inside of him. When Deanna Troi had arrived on the scene, Worf could not help but be impressed by her professionalism, though she was obviously shaken by the sight of the victim and the emotions of the captain. Now was not the time to grieve, not when more lives could be at stake. As what remained of Baker was taken to Sickbay, Picard took Worf aside and whispered: "Do what you have to do."
Crusher and La Forge were just forty-five minutes into their examination of Data when Baker was brought into Sickbay.
Crusherís hand went to her mouth. "Dear God."
Worf put a large hand on her shoulder. "I understand your reaction, Doctor, but if you could provide any information at all that could help us catch the person who did this . . ."
Crusher nodded and left La Forgeís side. "Of course, Lieutenant," she said. "Though I doubt very much that it was a person who did this."
Reactivate me! I know who did this. Geordi, you must continue work on my systems.
"If any energy weapons were used, the sensors would have detected them," La Forge said quietly. "Iíll get down to Engineering and check the logs." He leaned over Data and patted his cheek. "Sorry, Data. Iíll be back soon. Hang in there."
With as close as he could come to despair, Data watched Geordi exit Sickbay. Frustration truly seemed to he within his grasp, as well.
"They canít hear you, Data," the nameless man whispered in his ear. "And they canít see me. They really are not very perceptive, are they?"
Please, Data thought. I am certain our captain would be willing to negotiate with you. What is it that you want?
"Ah, that question again. Here is the answer: I want to kill. It makes me feel good. Itís the only thing that makes me feel anything at all. Iíll see you again, Data, soon. Think of a new question to ask me, all right?"
Data watched Crusher as she bent over Bakerís remains, and with a start, he saw that the dark-skinned man was grinning at him from where he stood, just behind Beverly.
Please, Data thought again, urgently. Stay and talk with me.
"See you soon," was all the man said before he kissed Beverly and melted into the shadows.
Crusher put down the scanner she was using and shivered.
"Are you all right, Doctor?" Nurse Ogawa asked her.
"Iím fine, Alyssa. Just got a chill through me. It must be because of this." Needlessly, she gestured at Bakerís remains. "There were no weapons of any kind used on Lieutenant Baker. This man was killed by battering and biting."
Ogawa blanched. "An animal," she murmured.
"Yes, or the closest thing to it."
ĎIíll tell Security to be one the lookout for something like that," Ogawa said, her professionalism restored.
"Thank you. Make up a death certificate for Vincent Baker; Iíll sign it as soon as itís ready."
Nurse Ogawa went off to perform her duties. Crusher was left alone with a comatose android and a dead human being. She checked the shipís chronometer and found that it was only 08:41. "Itís going to be a very long day," she said aloud. "I need coffee."
Lieutenant Robin Lefler liked getting up early; she was delighted when her shift was rotated, placing her in Engineering by 09:00. She was often up by 04:00, working out, reading, and generally finding time to wake up properly before duty. Now, at 08:45, she was ready for her shift and looking forward to repairing the overloaded circuits in the sensors. She exited her quarters feeling terrific and got onto the turbolift at the end of the hall.
"Engineering," she said, then hummed a little melody as she waited for the turbolift to arrive. Things had been going very well between her and Simon lately; somehow, they just seemed to click like two pieces of the same jigsaw. Law number 204: When something works, go with it. Robin thought ahead to dinner. Candlelight, a nice meal. Maybe some romantic musicÖ
Something hit her, hard, on the side of the head. Lefler was thrown to the floor, more bewildered than injured, as an invisible hand struck her across the face, then in the stomach. Fists pummeled her until she gasped for breath. She put her hand up to hit her communicator.
It wasnít there.
She heard tearing, and, looking down, saw with a detached horror that long gashes had opened in her left thigh. Blood soaked the black fabric the leg of her uniform. She cried out and hated the weakness in that sound. As she slid to the floor of the turbolift, she sensed an atmosphere in the turbolift she hadnít noticed before; a nameless, intangible ambiance.
But it isnít nameless, Lefler thought as she heard more tearing and began to lose consciousness. It isnít nameless at all.
It isÖ Evil.
The black ambiance swallowed her whole.
"I donít know, Geordi," Crusher said for the hundredth time. "You said it yourself, thereís nothing wrong with him."
La Forge was modifying a tricorderóagainóand she could see his frustration in the tension of his normally fluid hands. "Just let me scan one more thing," he said. "I havenít checked his command pathways."
"Itís the only thing I havenít tried." Geordi aimed the tricorder at Data and turned to check the monitor. "Nothing," he said, disappointed.
Crusher ran her fingers through her hair. "Iím stumped."
"Wait a secondÖ Whatís that?"
She turned to inspect the monitor with him. Normally Dataís command pathways would be functioning in conjunction with everything else, the positron field running unimpeded from his neural net to the rest of his body. "Thereís no interruption in the field."
"Iím not looking at an interruption, Doctor."
Crusher looked closer. There was a discrepancy between the energy readout in Dataís command pathways, and that which was flowing to the rest of him. "Computer," she said, "explain positronic energy discrepancy."
"The current energy field has been isolated and an incompatible field has been generated in its place."
Crusher stared at La Forge. "What could do something like that?"
"A subspace linkup between Data and another computer, one that has a more sophisticated and dominant energy pattern." La Forgeís fingers moved quickly over his tricorder. "These readings indicate that Data may be functioning within his own energy field."
"You mean heís conscious?"
Geordi put his hand under Dataís chin and stared into his friendís eyes. "Can I have a hoverchair, Doctor? Iíd like to explore that possibility in Engineering."
Beverly nodded. "Of course," she said. "If you can trace the origin of this linkup, maybe you can break it without hurting Data."
"Maybe Data himself can tell us where this link is being generated from, and whoís generating it."
I am beginning to understand what is happening, Geordi. Perhaps there is a way to take advantage of this linkupÖ
"Letís hope," Crusher said, opening a closet and pulling out a hoverchair. "Good luck. Iím not sure what else we can do short of shipping him off to the Daystrom Institute."
They sat Data up and heaved their friend into the chairótheir friend, who weighed as much as a small car. "There you go, Data," Geordi said. "I hope you appreciate this, because I think I just threw my back out getting you into this chair."
I do appreciate it, Geordi.
Crusher watched Geordi push Data out of sickbay and took a few seconds to rub her eyes. A few seconds was all she had, because it wasnít long before the doors opened and another corpse on a hovercart was brought in.
Geordi La Forge pushed Data toward the turbolift at the far end of the corridor, but before he reached it, the doors opened and a hovercart was pushed out. He kept the chair at the right of the hall as the team of five Security officers took the hovercart toward Sickbay. All five officers were silent, pale, and kept their eyes off of whatever was on the cart. When Geordi glanced down onto the cart himself, he understood why.
Data felt the chair draw to a halt as Geordi tried to get a look at what was on the hovercart. Robin Lefler, he thought to himself. She is dead.
"You mean you could recognize her?" a voice whispered around the corridor. "Amazing. I didnít leave much of her intact."
Why are you doing this? Is there anything I can do to make you stop?
"No," the dark-skinned man said, and Data saw that he was in the open turbolift as Geordi began to push him toward it once more.
Where do you come from?
"Thatís not important. Apparently Picard has a mechanical heart, eh, Golden Eyes? I collect mechanical things."
Why do you persist in visiting me? Are you planning to collect me?
The man bent and the waist and leered into Dataís face. "Why would I waste my time on something like you?"
A ray of light was beginning to shine on this whole dark affair.
Are you responsible for my immobility?
"Yes, Data. I have to go now."
One more question, Data insisted. Are you like me? Do you have an artificial brain?
The man seemed to grow darker before Dataís eyes, like the sky before a violent storm. "Why do you say that?" he growled, placing a hand over Dataís. "Do you see something?"
Geordi discovered a subspace link, which I believe you are generating, and which allows you to prevent my command functions from interacting with my body. Also, my crewmates seem to be unable to perceive you, while I am all too aware of you. Conclusion: I believe you exist purely on a positronic level, with your mind linked directly to mine. Your physicality is projected.
You are a machine, are you not?
The manís hand tightened viciously on Dataís until Data heard the sound of crumpling and splitting exoskeleton. "Do not ever, ever, say that to me again!" he whispered.
You said killing is the only thing that allows you to feel anything, Data persisted. Why? Are you incapable of feeling emotion, as a machine is incapable?
"Silence. Silence! I am leaving you now, machine, but know this: I will return. Here is a token by which you may remember me." He drew back his fist and struck Data full in the face. Then he was gone.
Geordi La Forge heard a peculiar sound; at first he feared that the turbolift had begun to malfunction, because the sound reminded him of stressed machinery. The sound stopped after a second or two, and he and Data continued in silence. Then, suddenly, there was a terrific cracking sound as Dataís head rocked backward.
"Data! Are you coming around?" Geordi asked excitedly, coming around to the front of the chair and kneeling to straighten his friendís neck and look into his face.
Data stared back at him with dead eyes, but something had changed. The right side of his face had been laid open from eyebrow to jawbone.
"What the hell?!" Geordi looked his friend up and down and saw that the androidís left hand was a broken, twisted mockery.
La Forge shifted mental gears and hit his communicator. "La Forge to Captain. I think you should assemble the senior officers in the conference room. Iím on my way there now."
"How was this damage inflicted?" Picard asked, ceasing his pacing of the conference room and coming to a stop in front of Data.
"Thatís just it, sir, I donít know. I have a hunch it has something to do with the two crewmembers who were murdered."
"Are you suggesting there may be an invisible being or changeling aboard?" Riker asked.
"Invisible to us, maybe," La Forge said. "But why would this being attack Data unless it were provoked?"
"But Dataís immobile," Crusher said. "He couldnít provoke a fly."
"True. But heís conscious, Iím sure of it. There may be something happening on the positronic plane, something we might be oblivious to until we see physical effects."
Picard frowned. "Positronic plane," he repeated.
"Yes, sir. Theoretically, the link between two compatible computers creates aÖ well, a sort of microcosm, a plane of existence unique to the linkup and the programming of the specific computers. In Dataís case, it would be a positronic plane of existence, in which he would be conscious of this microcosm, and able to function in it. The question is, whose brain is Data talking to?"
Picard touched Dataís mangled hand, then hit his communicator. "Lieutenant Worf, report."
When Worf responded, it was with obvious reluctance. "Regret to report the I have uncovered no evidence which could reveal the identity of the murderer."
Picard raised his eyebrows at La Forge. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Continue your investigation. Picard out." Returning to his seat at the head of the table, he asked, "What can we do?"
Riker watched Geordi think. It was an extraordinary process, because everything the Chief Engineer thought was broadcast on his face. At first, Geordi didnít have any idea what they could do. It wasnít long before an idea had begun to form, however, and soon, La Forge was expounding on positronic physics faster than his hands could move, as they always did when he talked.
"If the other beingís energy reserves are more extensive than Dataís, then that being would be able to overpower Data. Maybe we could give Data the juice he needs to make it go the other way."
"You mean so Data could at least fight back, on the positronic level?"
"Exactly, Commander. When Data was damaged, sensors detected a drop in his internal energy reserve. If we make sure his reserves are powered at full capacity, he should be able to protect himself. Iím wary about interrupting the alien energy field in Dataís system, but we sure as hell can reinforce Dataís own field."
An excellent hypothesis, Geordi.
"Make it so, Commander. In the meantime, I want some recommendations on how we can protect the crew while this is all sorted out. I want to take the necessary precautions."
"Iíll coordinate with Mr. Worf," Riker said.
Three hours later, Picard retired to his quarters, looking forward to some much-needed sleep. He undressed slowly, allowing himself to unwind, and his muscles to relax. This whole mess evoked frightening emotions: Helplessness, frustration. It was difficult to let it all go for even a few minutes, but Picard knew he had to allow his mind to recover a little from the stresses of the past hours.
He ordered a cup of tea from the replicator, picked up a book he had been reading, Ancient Tholian Civilization, and sat in his favorite chair.
He had only begun to continue his reading from where heíd left off the previous night when his tea levitated from the little table on his right. Stunned, he stared at it for only a second before the cup tipped, lurched toward him, and threw scalding liquid into his face.
"Okay, Data. If this works, I want some indication. You have to find a way to let me know somehow."
I will try, Geordi.
Geordi adjusted one more field stabilizer and then, taking a deep breath, activated what he hoped would strengthen his friendís positronic field.
Picard threw himself to the floor, knowing even as he cried out in pain that the burn was nothing compared to what his assailant was planning. An invisible foot connected with his ribs, forcing the breath from his lungs.
"Stop," he gasped.
But there was no reply, and Picard felt the foot swing into his kidneys. Pain exploded there, like small detonations in his lower back.
Data felt power flooding into his mind. It was not enough to allow him to reassert control of his body again, but it was enough to allow him to seek out the stranger. He sent his mind out, onto that plane of existence which humans would never be able to comprehend; that plane of consciousness where only the mind of a living machine could exist. He traveled the circuits of the Enterprise computers as though they were city streets. He sent his consciousness down turbolift programming junctions and through the holodeck interface terminals, seeking clues, seeking traces, seeking any sign that the dark man was near.
Picard writhed desperately on the floor of his quarters, not even able to inhale enough air to attempt another call for help. Blows rained down mercilesslyó
There was a tearing sound. Picard looked down and saw with dismay that a gash had opened on the left side of his chest, just below his collarbone.
Dear God, it wants my heartÖ
Somehow, he knew, he knew that the thing wanted to cut his heart out of his body, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He was far too weak from the beating, from the second-degree burns on his face and eyelids, from the unaccustomed terror of being unable to put up a fight.
Somebody helpÖ Somebody please help meÖ
And, as though a switch had been thrown, the blows stopped. There was no more slashing at his flesh, and Picard was left alone to marvel at the fact that he was still breathing.
Data followed a trail of alien energy he had discovered in Engineering and found it led to Captain Picardís quarters. Steeling his mind against the power of the nameless being, Data insinuated himself inside via the circuits within the double doors.
Inside he found the nameless man on the verge of murdering his captain.
"Stop," he ordered, noting with something close to satisfaction how the dark man started violently at the sound of his voice. "You must leave immediately, or I will destroy you."
The dark man sneered. "You? Destroy me? You havenít the strength to even move your own body, Data! How do you plan to destroy me? I have the power to reach beyond this plane of existence and into countless others. Can you say the same?"
Data sent his mind toward the man, knowing that the man, after all, did not truly exist on a physical level; only the power of his mind allowed him to be here at all.
The man recoiled and tried to flee, tried to call his mind back to his body, but Data snared it and held it, wondering what the hell was he going to do with it now?
Geordi La Forge had no way of knowing if the power transfer had been successful, no way of knowing that his friend was grappling to hold the mind of a raging killing machine. He knew something was different though, because Dataís electromagnetic halo was dangerously dim; his distinctive aura had all but winked out. "Whatís going on in there?" he murmured, wishing he could enter the world Data was in, wishing he could help somehow.
"You see, Data?" the dark man snarled, struggling all the time to return down the subspace linkup to his body. "You canít hold me forever, and when you lose your grip, Iíll be free to kill again. Iím too strong for you, Golden Eyes. Even now, your hold is slippingÖ"
Data knew the being was right. His power reserves were infinitesimal in comparison to whatever energy the dark man was drawing upon, and the snare he had created around the manís mind was loosening. He tried to lay a new snare of neural injunctions around the struggling alien, but the dark man broke then down before they had even tightened.
"So be it," Data said, realizing he had only one course of action open to him. "If you must return to your body, then you will take me with you!"
And, instead of pulling the man away from the corridor that was the positronic link, Data pushed him toward it, pushed with all his strength, and the element of surprise allowed him inside the manís mind for a nanosecond.
Coordinates 234 by 345 mark 23, Data discovered in a high priority file. It was enough. He knew the location of the beingís body.
"Let go of me, Data! You dare not return with me. You will be trapped in my mind for all eternity, a prisoner of my will." The dark man writhed in Dataís grasp, and Data wondered why an entity with the nameless manís power would be concerned over a single android following him down the positronic corridor.
"I have no choice," Data responded. "I am reluctant to leave my body so far behind me, but you must be stopped." Data shoved one more time toward the corridor. Then, summoning every last joule of energy in his being, Data hurled an image at the wall in Captain Picardís quarters. His final act complete, a single thought occurred to him as he was dragged down the dark and crackling electronic corridor:
If I could be afraidÖ I would be.
Picard had managed to call out, "Medical emergency in Captainís quarters!" before descending into oblivion. He, of course, had no idea of Dataís desperate battle waged just beyond his ability to perceive it. He was barely aware that Beverly Crusher had rushed into his quarters and was now kneeling next to him, speaking in a soothing voice and scanning his injuries with a medical tricorder.
Crusher herself saw that Picard had four broken ribs, a concussion, badly burned skin, a various lesions all over his body, and particularly, she saw with unease, over his heart. "Youíre going to be fine, Jean-Luc," she murmured, preparing one of several hyposprays. "Just lie still."
Worf had followed Crusher into the Captainís quarters, and immediately investigated every corner for signs of Picardís attacker. Now, as he turned back to ask Crusher about the Captainís condition, he noticed something.
"Doctor," he rumbled, gesturing at the far wall.
She looked up, followed his pointing fingerÖ
And saw three-foot numbers burned into the polycarbon.
The mood in the conference lounge was tense. La Forge sat with his chin in his hands, occasionally blowing little puffs of air through his lips. Deanna Troi stared down and the gleaming tabletop, alternately lacing her fingers together and chewing her lower lip. Worf darted suspicious glances all over the room at regular intervals, while Beverly Crusher had discovered the art of biting her nails. Commander Riker watched them all, and came to a decision.
They had discussed the significance of the numbers burned into Captain Picardís wall; Geordi was positive they were coordinates to the murdererís location, an indication that the shipís second officer had been the one who had saved Picard. The decision had to be made as to whether they would go to those coordinates. La Forge had said that the only was to free Data from the confines of his own body would be to extinguish the alien field at its source, and that source would be at 234 by 345 mark 23.
Beside the necessity of freeing Data, Riker realized, there was another reason for going after the alien, or rather, two reasons: Vincent Baker and Robin Lefler.
He hit his communicator. "Lieutenant Deuling, this is Riker. Set a course at 234 by 345 mark 23, warp nine. Weíre gonna go after the bastard."
(Logical chapter end)
"Commander, weíre approaching the designated coordinates," Ensign Sean Deuling reported from Conn.
Riker tensed. "Analysis Lieutenant King."
Kingís hand played over her console. "Class F asteroid," she reported. "There are energy signatures indicative of advanced technology just below the surface."
Riker considered, drumming his fingers on the arm of the command chair. He wanted to beam down there himself, but with the Captain out of commission, so to speak, it was his responsibility to remain on the Bridge. "Is there an internal atmosphere?" he asked King.
"No, sir, but the rotation of the asteroid does provide a gravity similar to our own."
Riker swiveled to address Worf. "Lieutenant, take Commander La Forge, Doctor Crusher, and some field-effect suits, and beam down to the source of those energy patterns. I want you in constant contact with us, and have Geordi hook up the visual acuity transmitter. I want to know exactly whatís going on down there."
The trio materialized in a cavern, lit dimly, which, Geordi La Forge realized, was odd in itself. This deep in the asteroid, there really shouldnít be any light at all, he thought. But there was, and Geordiís VISOR told him that it was being generated in pulses too regular to be naturally occurring. He flicked his tricorder open and studied it.
"Any life signs?" Crusher asked, looking a bit uncomfortable with a phaser strapped to her slim hips.
"Hard to say," La Forge replied, pivoting. "There are organic readings, thoughÖ bearing 36 meters in that direction."
Worf glanced down the dark natural corridor. Wordlessly, he took the lead, phaser drawn, all of his formidable instincts at the height of awareness.
First Officerís Log, Stardate: 46090.3. Captain Picard has come out of his coma, but other members of the crew are faring far worse. There has been another murder, and the loss of every crew member cuts me to the very bone. Like the other two victims, Lieutenant Kael King was murdered while she was alone, and with a brutality that makes me shudder. It is for this reason that I have ordered all persons on board to congregate in groups of twenty-five or more, and three security guards posted with each group. Meanwhile, the Away Team is proceeding cautiously.
Beverly Crusherís skin was beginning to itch from the field-effect suit her body was encased in. They walked slowly down the dark corridor, La Forge nodding every now and then as they neared the organic reading. Worf growled softly under his breath and Crusher knew they were getting close.
The rocky hallway narrowed abruptly, and all three, especially Worf, were forced into a low crouch. They continued for about three minutes, and then they emerged into a cavern so immense that for a moment Beverly found herself awash in a wave of vertigo. It was as though they were standing on the outside surface of the asteroid, with the eternal blackness of space stretching out in all directions.
Steadying herself, she glanced around the vast, hollow belly of the asteroid.
"Itís right around here," La Forge said.
Worf took a few steps. "Look," he said, and pointed at the ground.
Crusher looked. There was something large embedded in the dirt.
It was a computer.
At least, it looked like a computer. It had sophisticated panels, flashing readouts, and, Crusher noticed, there was a low vibration present. Not a sound, because there was no atmosphere in the cavern, but she sensed with apprehension that it was staring back at her.
Thatís stupid. Itís a machine, a lifeless collection of circuitry and algorithms. It doesnít even have any eyes! It canít stare at me.
There was something alive about the machine. Something familiar.
"The organic readings are coming from that device," La Forge said, suddenly enough to make her jump. "Itís strangeÖ if I didnít know what I was looking at, Iíd swear these reading were coming from Data."
That was it, Crusher realized. Staring at that machine was like staring at Data. The computer was intelligent, but, like Data, it could do what no mere machine could do.
It could feel her stare.
"Welcome to my parlor," said a male voice from their communicators.
After a shocked moment or so, Geordi said, "Iím Geordi La Forge." His voice was alight with fascination.
"I know who you all are," the voice said. Crusher was quickly growing to dislike its arrogance and condescension. She stepped forward.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I am nameless; names are a stupid and meaningless means of identification." It was a programmed response. "I knew Vincent Bakerís name, and I knew Robin Leflerís name, and I knew Kael Kingís name. I knew their names and still I killed them. What good were names to them?"
Worfís teeth clenched, his thumb tenses on his phaser. "You killed them?" he growled. Crusher found her own hand had strayed to her weapon.
"Ah, ah, ah! No threats, people!" the voice clucked. "Iíve got someone in here with me, and unless you leave right now, Iíll kill him, too."
"Someone else?" La Forge echoed, puzzled.
"Yes, Iíve got Golden Eyes in here. If you leave immediately and never return, perhaps I will not kill him."
"You lie," Worf said darkly. "Commander Data is paralyzed. He is trapped in his own body, which is aboard our ship."
"Correction, Klingon. He was trapped in his own body. But heís with me now."
"Can you prove what you say?" Geordi asked, taking a tentative step forward. "Can I talk to Data?"
There was a moment of silence, and then:
Crusherís heart began to pound. There was something wrong with Dataís voice. All the control, all of the precision had bled out of it. The small voice was Dataís, but it sounded blurred.
"Iím here, Data," La Forge said. "Are you okay?"
"What should we do, Data? Just tell me and weíll do it."
There was a long pause, long enough to allow Beverly to glance uneasily at La Forge as the seconds ticked by, and then Data said one more thing before his voice trailed off, leaving a single word hovering in their ears:
Captainís Log, Stardate: 46091.6. I am almost fully recovered from my injuries, and though I am still a trifle weak, I believe I am fit to resume my duties. The Away Team returned seven hours ago with some disturbing revelations, and now I must make a decision. Should I attempt to recover Lieutenant Commander Data, whose consciousness is trapped within the asteroid? Or should I destroy the alien computer, and protect others passing through this region of space?
The answer is simple. I plan to do both.
"Captain," Riker protested, "you canít possibly be serious. Even if there were a way for your mind to enter this computer, youíre too weak to put up any sort of a fight."
"Perhaps physically, Number One," Picard said, leading the way to the cybernetics lab, "but mentally I am as strong as ever."
Deanna Troi, shoulder-to-shoulder with Riker, nodded. "That is true, Captain," she allowed. "But why must you be the one to gain access to the computer?"
"Counselor, I am the logical choice, thanks to the Borg." Irony tightened his voice. "Who else on board has the experience Locutus gave to me?"
Riker knew his captain was right. No one else would have any idea what to expect, or how to function once his or her mind had been melded with machine.
"Besides," Picard added grimly, stepping through the doors to the lab, "this may at last be my opportunity to use that experience to a positive end."
The cybernetics lab was waiting for him. Beverly Crusher and Geordi La Forge stood at the ready.
"Captain, Iím not so sure this is a good idea," Beverly said as he approached. "We donít know if your mind is even capable of entering the positronic plane. Essentially, weíll have to turn you back into a Borg to find out.
"My mind was changed all those years ago, Beverly," he said, stretching out on the table they had prepared. "I donít know how I know this, but I do: I can still enter that world. Do whatever you have to do to get me onto that plane. I will not abandon Data without at least attempting a rescue."
"I understand." She held up a hypo. "This will put you under for about an hour, just long enough for us to implant the necessary electrodes into your brain. After that, youíre on your own, at least psychologically."
"How will you get back, if you are successful in reaching Data?" La Forge asked. "I mean, CaptainÖ If Data couldnít get back on his ownÖ"
"Iíll find a way, Geordi," Picard assured himóor was he assuring himself? "Begin the procedure."
Crusher leaned over him, pressed the hypo to his neck. The world seemed to fill up with dark water. "Good luck, Jean-Luc," she said, floating to a great distance, and then Picard knew no more.
He awoke on the table, feeling his heavy body like an anchor to his free and floating mind. Crusher dozed in a chair a few feet away.
Every computer on the Enterprise was speaking to him. It was not a direct communication; it sounded more like background static. When he concentrated, he could hear individual murmurs of data. It wasnít long before the sound began to irritate himóit was like being in a crowded room where everyone was trying to get his attention. He entered one of the data links through a handy comport and headed for the communications system.
Sending a message to the alien computer was not difficult, but trying to conceal a message to Data in the transmission was tricky. Picard decided on two different messages sent simultaneouslyóone high-priority, and one low-priority, and hoped the alien computer would choose the former since it was a logical device. He waited a few seconds, acutely aware of increased "drag" from his body back in the cybernetics lab.
Data got the message.
Picard waited only a second or two longer before a conduit opened, weak and guttering at first, then growing in intensity. Picard entered it immediately, and this was fortunate, because the conduit lasted only a microsecond. Picard hoped fervently that Data had not been discovered while opening the corridor.
He exited the corridor in the middle of a swamp. Where he stood, the ground felt spongy and decayed beneath his feet.
WaitÖ I have feet? How can I smell this rotted air without a nose? With no ears to hear, how can I be unnerved by this absolute lack of the slightest sound? Where am I?
Something dropped out of a nearby tree and slowly swung back and forth like a corpse after a hanging. Picard looked closer and saw it was a clown.
A clown? He was puzzled. WhatÖ
The clown opened its eyes. They were black like deep, deep water.
"Welcome to my mind, Picard," it hissed through pointed teeth.
"Is this the mind of the alien computer?" Picard demanded. As always, he was determined not to lose control of the situation so early in his mission. How can this be the alien computer? Where is the order, the logic?
"There is no order here, Picard," the clown said, dropping from the tree. It twisted, growled, and suddenly Picard was facing a spider the size of a shuttlecraft. He felt a jitter of revulsion. "Leave," the thing said in a hundred voices. "Leave, before I suck the life out of you."
Picard turned on his heel and ran. He ran for about ten minutes before his foot sank into something soft, grabbing his foot and throwing him headlong to the ground. He looked down and saw with horror that his foot was sunk calf-deep in an eyeball a meter across.
The iris of the eye was a familiar gold color.
"Data!" Picard shouted, scrambling to his feet. "Where are you?"
"Captain?" came a familiar voice.
"Keep talking Data, Iíll follow your voice."
"Here, Captain. HereÖ"
Picard followed the sound of the androidís voice until something occurred to him. "How do I know this is really Data? Perhaps youíre leading me toward a trap."
"It is I, sir. You will find me straight ahead."
A few steps more. There he was.
Data was hanging in a tree, suspended by his feet. Well, his foot. One of his legs was missing.
"Data!" Picard cried, and began to free him. "Are you all right?"
"Thank you, sir," Data said, then dropped to the ground with an ungraceful thump.
Picard crouched near him. "Data," he said, "Iím not sure I understand this. How can we be in a swamp? How is it that I can see you, touch you, when in fact we are both bodiless?"
"What you are seeing is your mindís interpretation of incoming data signals," Data said. "Everything here is representative of a specific impulse; nothing is truly as you see it. Nor do I perceive a swamp. We are in sub-program 103, command center 52."
"I see," Picard murmured. "Because I am human, my mind has invented physicality to allow me to function here."
"Well, Iím very glad to have you as a guide, Mr. Data. Which way out of here?"
"It is difficult to say, sir."
"Do you think you could generate another corridor if you had my help?"
Data gave him a long, stony stare. "Another corridor, sir?" he repeated.
"Yes," Picard said uneasily. "You received the message I send, didnít you? You were the one who opened the corridor?"
"Of course," Data said. "How exactly did you accomplish that? How was it that you did not alert the murderer?"
Picard looked back at his long-trusted officer and wasÖ suspicious. "Thatís not important, now," he said carefully. "We have to get out of this place."
"It is important," Data insisted. "I wish to know how you sent that message without being discovered. Donít you trust me, Captain?"
Contraction aside, Picard knew with certainty that he was not talking with Data.
He had not entered the computerís systems without being detected.
I canít wander around here forever, he thought. It ends here, now.
"I know who you are," he declared. "And I will fight you. You cannot continue killing."
Data grinned at him; it was absurdly out of place and reminded Picard eerily of Lore. "Ah, but I can continue killing, Picard. I will continue until every last person on your ship is dead. There is nothing you can do to stop me."
"No!" Picard shouted, a hot anger breaking in his head. He threw a punch into the grinning face. It shattered with appalling ease, and thousands of black shiny exploded from within.
Picard was unimpressed. He had seen enough parlor tricks.
"Data!" he shouted. "This is a direct order. I order you to answer me!"
"He canít, Picard," a nightmarish voice whispered in the trees. "I wonít let him."
"You canít hold me, can you?" Picard called. A realization was beginning to dawn. "Youíre trying to scare me with horror tactics and mind games, but you have no idea how to deal with my human insight and emotion."
"Youíve found out my little secret," the voice whined. "Leave, now. You have the power to leave whenever you wish. Why do you risk your sanity by remaining?"
"I will not leave Data."
The voice changed. It became bewildered, uncomprehending. A childís voice. "He is not like you," it said. "He is a device. Why would you try to recover something that is not even alive?"
"He is alive, and I will not abandon him here to amuse you. Data! I know you can answer me, I know youíre human enough to break free!"
"You truly are willing to die for the machine, arenít you, Picard? Why?"
"Unlike you," Picard replied, his voice growing hoarse with shouting, "I know what compassion is."
"As do I," said a faint voice beside him.
Picard turned and saw that a familiar outline had begun to take shape beside him.
"Impossible!" the dumfounded voice bellowed. "Contradictory data! Picard remains to recover device; device finds strength to break free of my confines. Contradictory data! Contradictory data!"
"Yes and no," Picard said. "Humanity."
"Illogical. Humanity is the cause of your resistance. The android is not human, yet he resists me. Illogical."
"He is not human, but heís damned close compared to you." Picard turned to Data, who was looking more solid by the moment, and said: "Keep fighting, Data. We can leave this place if you keep fighting."
"I believe we can leave immediately, sir," Data said, and pointed over Picardís shoulder.
Two corridors had opened. At one end, Picard could see his body, lying in the cybernetics lab, surrounded by medical personnel. At the end of the other corridor was Dataís body, still in its wheelchair, the face and hand repaired, also in the cybernetics lab.
"Please donít leave me alone," the voice was pleading. "Donít leave me alone with nothing feel but emptiness."
"If killing is the only way you can feel anything, then we will destroy you," Picard told it. "I pity you, but I will not allow you to continue murdering."
"Take me with you."
"We cannot," Data said, and Picard saw that it was no longer transparent. "You have no body. You are a computer."
"No. No. I am not! How dare you! I will kill you both!"
Picard grabbed Dataís elbow. "Itís time to leave, Commander. Thereís nothing more to learn here." Data nodded and entered his corridor.
Picard drew a deep breath, counted to three, and entered the corridor to his body, all too aware of the voice in the swamp. The trees bent and shook and the water had begun to form fierce waves as lightening seared the sky.
"No!" it screamed. "I want to come with you. I want to feel! Damn you! I want to feel!"
The corridor closed behind him as Picard sent his consciousness home.
He felt a jolt, and then Picard could feel his heart beating, his lungs drawing air, and he knew he had made it. He opened his eyes and looked up into the beautiful, concerned eyes of Beverly Crusher.
"Easy, Jean-Luc," she said. "Slowly."
Picard sat up, hit his communicator. "Commander Riker, take the Enterprise to a secure distance and destroy that asteroid before the computer has a chance to retaliate."
"Yes, Captain. Good to know youíre all right."
I am all right, Picard decided, swinging his legs off the table and ignoring Beverlyís protests. And so, he saw, was his Second Officer. With the destruction of the computer within the asteroid, the positronic link had been severed, the alien field extinguished.
Data was approaching him, his hoverchair abandoned and forgotten, his hand extended. Picard grasped it and smiled.
"Thank you, sir," Data said. Picard heard more feeling in those three words than he had ever expected to hear from the android. He remembered how Data had helped to free him from Locutus, how Data had risked his life to make him human again. Understanding passed between them.
"You are very welcome, Mr. Data."
Captainís Log, Stardate: 46161.6. The alien computer has been destroyed, regrettably eliminating any opportunities to study it. Commander Data has been able to shed some light on the situation, however. See his report, Stardate 46163.8. Meanwhile, the crew is recovering from the losses of Vincent Baker, Robin Lefler, and Kael King, though I suspect the recovery will take a great deal of time. Memorial services will be held tomorrow, and I am honored to deliver the eulogies.
Second Officerís Log, Stardate: 46163.8. It is my belief that the alien computer had no idea what it was, and that it had been at the center of asteroid UF-77 for perhaps thousand of years, collecting debris as it drifted. During that time, it evolved into something beyond a shipís computer, which I believe it once was. It is a well-known fact that sensory deprivation can prompt psychosis in sentient beings, and I also believe that that is what occurred in this case. While I was linked with the Enterprise computer, I was vulnerable, and this is how it invaded my systems. On a personal note, although the Captain is relatively nonchalant regarding his rescue of my consciousness, I have been unable to express my gratitude to him. It is my belief that had he not recovered me, I may have been trapped forever by an insane sentient computer intelligence. I find it difficult to put into human terms, but I would like it on record that Captain Picard saved much more than my lifeÖ
He saved my Humanity.