Qniverse
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER FOUR

As they had done every morning for the last twenty years, Jean-Luc and Beverly Picard enjoyed a few brief moments of intimate conversation in bed before thinking about and rising for their respective days at work. Together, their bones creaking tiredly, they climbed out of bed and quickly dressed in tattered work fatigues, Jean-Luc with his beige manager's jacket. For the first few years of the Occupation, Beverly had tried almost desperately to keep up with mending their uniforms; but, when it became apparent that the Voronina had no intention on supplying the growing amount of thread necessary for her to keep up, she surrendered their clothing to the fates. To her surprise, her husband then took other the duty ... only to eventually throw caution to the wind and, equally exhausted, leave the tears and tatters alone. As always, the image in her mind of her loving husband holding a sewing needle, bent over his dark trousers, trying to mend a small tear, brought a tear of laughter to her eye, but she never told him. She loved, cherished, and respected him too much ... for what he was trying to do as much for what he had managed to accomplish under such a tiresome set of circumstances.

Hurriedly, they each grabbed a pastry from their fresher, laughingly trying to romantically feed one another on their way through the door and onto the busy street outside. Two blocks down from where they lived, they walked up the stairs to the tram, politely nudged their way through the already growing morning crowd of excavators and dig support personnel, and rushed just-in-time through the closing doors onto car 933.

"Thank you for choosing Voronese Transport," the car's automation speaker said, and the tram shook, wobbling forward on the single rail. "The Voronina welcome you and wish you a safe journey."

Glaring up at the speaker, she jokingly praised, "All hail the Voronina."

"Beverly!" Jean-Luc snapped.

"Do we have to begin every day like this?" she wondered aloud, disgusted, running a rough hand through her auburn hair to brush it back from her face.

With a husband's smirk, Picard replied, "Didn't you ask that yesterday?"

She quickly fixed an expression of challenge on him. "Your wit is so dry, Jean-Luc. I think that's why I married you."

"Oh, come now. You wouldn't have me any other way."

"That I wouldn't," she agreed, returning his smile with one of genuine affection.

Interrupting, the car's automation speaker offered, "The Voronina, in cooperation with the great people of Earth, are working hard to make this world - your world - a better place, a safer place, a happier place. Enjoy the ride, and have a safe journey."

Quickly changing the subject, she tried, "What's on the schedule for today? Same old song-and-dance ... or should I shall dig-and-danger?"

Glancing around the car at the sullen faces, he sighed. "Afraid so. As it always has been. As it always shall be."

Shifting, she reached up and took hold of a protective arm strap as the tram pulled away from their station.

"Are you meeting Jack this morning?" she asked, curious.

"Yes," he answered curtly, clearing his throat, reaching into his coat pocket and retrieving his palm scheduler. He activated the visual interface, and he studied the agenda items flashing across the screen. "We've several items to go review before the Voronina bring them to our attention. We, along with the other crew chiefs, are trying to be more proactive. If nothing else, we're saving face for all of mankind."

"Do you really think the Voronina care?"

"They care well enough," he told her. "We've a dig to complete. If we fall behind, there could be more ..." He searched for the right word, but he could only think of one. Although he didn't want to speak it, an inner frustration compelled him to. "Casualties."

"Can the crews be brought back to schedule?"

"I don't know."

"How far behind have they fallen?"

"It's hard to tell. There's no coordination between the multiple digs, so the information we're given is confusing, at best."

"You're not in any trouble, are you?"

"Not that I'm aware."

Again, the car's automation speaker spoke to the passengers: "The Voronina care about you, and that's why we're striving to make Earth the safest place in all of the solar system. With your cooperation, we'll get there together. Enjoy the ride, and have a safe journey."

Her smile faded. She fixed her eyes on him with all seriousness. "Jean-Luc?"

"Mmm?"

"You're shutting me out."

Surprised, he lifted his head and studied her expression before gambling on a response. "Beverly, of all the people on all the planets of the inhabited systems, you are the one person I would never shut out."

"Then you're going to have to say something to the Tussaun," she argued.

Again, he glanced around, fearing he was going to be overheard. "If it were only that simple."

"It'll have to be."

"Xavius is a very busy woman," he countered, deactivating the small computer and returning it to his pocket.

"You know you're one of her favorites," Beverly tried. "Use that to your advantage. Find a way to get through to her. It'll do the dig crews a world of good."

"Beverly, if Tussaun Xaxius were to make time for the concerns of every lead engineer, I'm afraid the excavation wouldn't need to fall behind schedule. There wouldn't be a dig." Sniffing, he pulled down at the base of his jacket. "If there was no dig, there would be no Voronina. If there were no Voronina, then there would be-"

"A free Earth?" she shot, stopping him in his verbal tracks.

Shrugging, he concluded, "Who knows? Without the Voronina, there might not be an Earth at all."

"You make it sound as though they're our saviors."

"No," he denied. "Not saviors. Galactic benefactors, perhaps, but certainly not saviors."

"Benefactors?" Angrily, she tugged her hair back from her eyes once more. "Jean-Luc, let me be plain as that would seem to fit this morning's mood. Someone - I don't care who - has to say something. The work crews are being pushed too hard. These people are being worked beyond the limits of their bodies. I'm treating more and more of them at the health facility on a frighteningly regular basis. And these deadlines are ridiculous! There is no way any of us can safely-"

"Yes, yes," he immediately interrupted her, looking around to insure that no one in the cramped tram car was eavesdropping on their conversation. Some of them would undoubtedly find it mutinous, and that person might report Beverly to the proper Voronese authorities. He wouldn't have his wife, hot-tempered though she may be, absconded in the middle of the night by one of the infamous alien abduction forces. "I think we've debated this enough for one public display, my dear. Let's just ... let's just talk about it at home." He saw her expression, and he knew what her response was going to be. Before she could blurt it out, he promised, "Tonight. I give you my word. We'll talk about it. All night, if that's what it takes."

Huffing, she gripped her strap tighter as the tram lurched slightly as it nearer the drop station. "Fine," she spat at her husband.

"Beverly, dear," he whispered, leaning his lips close to her ear, "I'd be more than happy to accommodate your desire to talk about my work ... but I'd much prefer we choose a more strategic venue, one with less witnesses? Hmm?"

Surrendering, she closed her eyes. "All right, all right."

"Thank you."

The tram lurched again, the brakes grinding noisily as the train came to a halt at Station Gamma. The car doors immediately parted, the crowd inside shifted and headed for the opening, and a horribly automated computer voice said, "The Voronina are pleased to have provided you with a safe and reliable means of transportation to take you wherever you needed to go. We hope you have enjoyed the ride, and have a safe journey."

Wryly, Picard glanced up at the ominous speaker. "Of course, we will," he replied.

Arms extended in greeting, Jack Crusher stood waiting for them on the tram's main platform. The workers filtered around him, leaving Picard and Beverly a clear path to their friend. He, too, wore a manager's jacket, a large tear showing across the left breast. Beverly had thought about offering to mend the coat for him, but then she realized he had plenty of opportunities with the other women he fancied with his time. "If it isn't my two favorite people in all the universe!" he tried enthusiastically as they stopped in front of him. Nudging Beverly, he added, "Well, at least my one favorite person in all the universe."

"Good morning, Jack."

"And how's the Frenchman today?"

Glancing back at Picard, she said, "The same wonderful person I fell in love with so many years ago."

"Same old grump, eh?"

"You know what they say about 'all work and no play,' Jack."

Comfortingly, he slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Beverly, you know that all you have to do is say the word. I'll be more than happy to take this bum out and take you away from all of this."

Smiling, she playfully slapped a hand onto his chest. "One woman's suitor is another man's grief. Go to work." Again, she looked at her husband. "Both of you."

Quickly, the married couple kissed, and she slipped away into the crowd of workers on their way to their varied destinations. Together, Jack and Picard watched her go, both noticing a rare beauty disappearing amongst the dreary masses.

"Somehow," Jack began, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder, "she makes even that worn out beige uniform look better and better."

Taunting, Picard replied, "I'll bet you used that same charm to win your last three wives."

Jack raised his other hand, clearly signaling a number for his friend.

"Four?"

"That's right," the man said. "For your information, Jenny said 'yes' last night when I proposed."

"Four?" Picard asked again, incredulous. Nodding in the direction of their station, he starting walking, and his friend took up stride beside him. "Really, Jack. Four wives? Are you going for some kind of world record?"

He pulled his hands away and planted them on his waist. "You tell me, Johnny: what else is there to do but while away your free time with welcome members of the opposite sex on this occupied Earth?"

He tilted his head in astonishment. "Couldn't you read? I hear Shakespeare is quite good for the soul."

The man shrugged. "Too much trouble getting approval from the Voronina."

"I'm sure the female contingent of our species would greatly appreciate your giving it a try."

"With wife number four, I think the female contingent of our species is making their opinion of my effort very clear, thank you very much," Jack retorted. "Besides, reading isn't nearly as much fun, and it takes too much mental effort. No, thank you. I'm happy being able to share my life with women."

"Yes, and limiting yourself to just one has proven such a challenge," Picard teased. "If your mother weren't spinning so in her grave, she just might be very proud of you, Jack."

A face moved in the crowd, and Picard recognized it. "Mr. O'Brien!" he called out.

Turning nervously, Miles O'Brien stopped. He studied the crowd, looking for the voice that had called out to him, and he found his commanding officer. Quickly, he smiled, an expression of relief washing over him. He reached out, tapping the arm of the young lady with him, and, together, they trotted over to where Picard had stopped.

"Good morning, sir," Miles offered.

"That it is, Mr. O'Brien," he agreed, "and I'd like to keep it that way. How are the reports of our dig progressing? I'll need to present them to Tussaun Xavius before the day's end."

Excitedly, the man fished in the pocket of his dirty trench, and he produced a small computer, much like Picard's. "I've almost finished cataloguing yesterday's results with the year-to-date data we've been trending. If I might get a few moments off the line this morning, I should be able to have it complete by the lunch break." Nodding at the woman with him, he added, "I would have finished them this morning, sir, but Miss Lefler and I had already arranged to have a bit of morning coffee."

Eagerly extending his hand to the lady, Jack offered, "I don't believe we've met."

Smiling, she took his hand and shook it. "Robin Lefler, sir."

"Jack Crusher."

"It's a pleasure to finally meet the man I've heard so much about."

"Oh, please," he said. "The pleasure is all mine."

Smiling much like an innocent child, Robin concurred, "So I hear. No offense intended, sir, but it's a small world after all. I've already been warned to avoid any romantic entanglements with you."

Ignoring the 'Crusher Manuever,' Picard stated, "Very good, Mr. O'Brien. Plan on spending whatever time you can off the line this morning. I need those reports, and I need them accurate as soon as you can get them to me."

"Actually, Johnny," Jack interrupted, "I don't think that you'll be able to pull Mr. O'Brien off the line this morning."

Everyone stared at him.

"I'm sorry, but I thought you'd heard the news?" he asked.

"What news?"

Sighing heavily, Jack explained, "The Earth Opposition Forces staged another assault on Voronina Command very early this morning. They managed to get away with quite a massive amount of copied data from the Voronese mainframe." Smirking at the small group, he added, "I guess this Shadow source really has the Tussaun baffled. She's called a special meeting of all crew chiefs."

"The crew chiefs?" Miles asked, sounding confused. He frowned. "Does the Tussaun actually suspect one of the human leads to be serving as the Shadow informant?"

Shrugging, Jack continued. "I couldn't tell you what Xavius is thinking, Mr. O'Brien. All I know is that the meeting has been called. I've heard that Vorone has dispatched a task force to deal with this latest threat from the E.O.F., and I understand that some efficiency expert has been brought in to meet with certain members of Dig Command." Turning, he gestured at his friend. "I believe you're one of them, Johnny."

Surprised, Picard asked, "Me? What would some ... efficiency expert want with me?"

Dismissing it, Jack waved a hand. "Again, I can only tell you what I've heard. Who knows? It may only be a rumor."

Pursing his lips, Picard briefly considered his options. If he were to be in counsel with Tussaun Xavius, he certainly wouldn't have the luxury of pulling any of his crew from the line. As well, if he were to meet with some 'efficiency expert,' who knows how long the session could last? This was new to Voronina strategy, and he couldn't risk upsetting the balance of power within the excavation ranks.

"Well, this certainly changes the schedule," he remarked. "Mr. O'Brien, I'm afraid I'll have to leave the crew in your capable hands until further notice."

"Yes, sir."

"Once I'm released from the doldrums of staff meetings and an efficiency review, I'll be along shortly."

"Of course, sir."

Smiling, Picard added, "Enjoy your coffee."

"Thank you, sir."

Before the two of them were out of earshot, Jack shouted, "Still a pleasure meeting you, Miss Lefler!"

Her only reply was a girlish smile.

Quickly, Jack took up stride with his friend.

"An efficiency expert?" Picard asked. "What in blazes do we need with an efficiency expert?"

Shaking his head, Jack Crusher laughed heartily. "I'm with you, Johnny. But, while you're with the man, maybe you can find out what all this digging is for."

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