Doctor Crusher patiently observed as Captain Picard set service for two on his desk, and poured a cup of hot Earl Grey for her. After sliding a transparent saucer and cup toward his guest, Picard slipped behind his desk and spent a moment on the niceties of preparing his tea. The Captain shifted back in his chair, which concluded the ritual and set the tone for their meeting.
Crusher stirred a little sweetener into her tea, as she reviewed the sentiment behind each of his movements. The tea itself was more of a personal gesture than a beverage, but keeping the desk between them suggested Jean-Luc preferred to maintain a professional distance.
She'd known Jean-Luc long enough to recognize his idiosyncrasies and understand his little contradictions. Beverly Crusher also believed herself one of the few who made note of them; but she did so for a reason. Before sat a man who labored to keep much of himself in check. The only way she could relate to someone as tight lipped as Picard was through analyzing his mannerisms, which were open to broad interpretation at best.
For example, Jean-Luc's offer of tea was a formal gesture of---no, she decided, not friendship. Camaraderie perhaps, but that didn't seem quite right either. She was still searching for the right words when the Captain set his cup aside after one sip, and finally opened their discussion. "What's your opinion of Doctor Sterling?"
Crusher's mind went blank, then a microsecond later the vacuum was filled with one thought; 'thank you for being so specific'. She kept the weak sarcasm to herself, as she pondered a starting point. After a few seconds deliberation, Dr. Crusher chose to let the Captain decide.
Beverly Crusher set her cup on his desk, leaned back in her chair and asked, "Personal or professional?"
Picard seemed relaxed as he responded, "Either."
She breathed a sigh but kept her exasperation under foot as well, guessing he didn't know where to start either. Her gaze roamed the room, as Dr. Crusher compiled a mental file on Lieutenant Kathryn Sterling. After a few seconds spent shuffling official reports and personal anecdotes, Crusher offered, "Speaking as a colleague, I'd say she's one of the most talented doctors I've worked with. An excellent pediatrician and child psychologist. Sterling relates very well to her patients, and has a remarkable ability to communicate with them on their own level."
Picard's response indicated she had not given him what he was looking for. "Is pediatrics all she's capable of?"
Crusher's hackles went up. "Even in this day and age, children are apprehensive about seeing a doctor. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Doctor Sterling's talents."
Picard could tell by her controlled tone, he had not phrased his question properly. "I'm sorry, Doctor. What I meant was, what skills does Doctor Sterling possess beyond her preferred specialty?"
Crusher backed down a bit. "Don't let Kate's frivolous nature fool you, Jean-Luc; she's an excellent physician. She's worked in our emergency trauma teams since she came aboard. If you check my reports, you'll see I put her in charge of an emergency team over a year ago. Kate's been published a number of times in several different journals on a wide range of subjects." Doctor Crusher was beginning to wonder what this was all about. She refused to make assumptions, but held to a pet theory as Picard pressed for more information.
"So you don't believe Doctor Sterling's, capricious nature, interferes with her duties?"
Beverly Crusher fixed a dour look on her captain. "A lot of grownups are uncomfortable in a doctor's office too, Captain." She watched him stop short and fix a stare on her, when she emphasized his rank, but could not have cared less. Beverly considered Jean-Luc among the most obstinate patients aboard, second only to Worf.
Picard responded icily, "I take it then, you don't see her frivolity as a detriment." It was not a question, and his tone let Beverly score one point for herself. She guessed she would still have to practically drag him in for his next physical; but it didn't hurt to remind Jean-Luc just how difficult he could be.
After enduring several heartbeats of his stoic silence, Crusher's curiosity finally got the better of her. "No, I'd say it's an asset. Every child and pre-adolescent on this ship knows and trusts Doctor Kate. She does magic tricks, tells jokes, and even gives lollipops to well behaved patients. Now are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
Picard grinned and by way of an answer, asked one more question. "Then it is your opinion Doctor Sterling would be a satisfactory chief medical officer?"
Crusher was warmed by the smug sense of satisfaction known to all good guessers. However, for taking his sweet time offering the good news, Beverly decided to have one on her captain. She slipped on a mask of apprehension, shifted to the edge of her seat, and counted a few heartbeats for effect before she inquired cautiously, "Are you trying to tell me something, Jean-Luc?"
Picard went for it. He immediately shifted gears and stammered, "No no, not at all. There's a, well there will be a---an opening, coming open soon."
"I'm not being replaced, am I?" Her old friend actually squirmed, and Beverly enjoyed every second of it. She kept her worried expression in place, hoping to drag out her little joke. Crusher wasn't the ship's drama coach by chance.
Picard swallowed hard, and began again. "There's a new ship under construction; the last of the Galaxy class. The new vessel's captain has asked me specifically for an evaluation of Doctor Sterling."
Crusher let go of the grin she'd held back for the last moment and confessed, "Captain Matthews mentioned it when she stopped by sickbay." Beverly leaned back again, and lapped up the brief flash of consternation on her old friend's features.
Picard was perturbed, but shoved it aside quickly. Beverly was one of the few who could not only pull off a good prank, but also possessed the nerve to play one on him. However his annoyance was still apparent as he pointed out, "You haven't answered my question."
Crusher straightened up and came back to business. "I think Doctor Sterling will make a great chief medical officer, one day soon. I do have my doubts though."
After such a glowing testimonial, Picard could only guess what Doctor Crusher's reservations might be. "Such as?"
"Sterling is young, and doesn't have a lot of charge experience. As her Cee-Em-Oh, I'm compelled to point out her strong aversion to report filing, and a slight myopia when reading the rule book."
Searching for an example to back up the charge, Crusher found herself relating the story of Sterling's first day aboard. After nearly three years, it seemed odd to finally tell the Captain that particular tale. Sterling would certainly be leaving after this mission anyway, so it could do no harm; but as she spun her yarn, Crusher noticed an unusual reaction from Picard. As he listened, the Captain looked to be working harder and harder at stifling a grin.
The end of Doctor Crusher's tale brought silence. Beverly tried to read the Captain's reaction as Picard sipped his tea, and supposed he was trying to think of an appropriate response. At least that blasted smirk he'd worn a moment ago was gone.
All he could come up with was, "I've just seen an example of her, confidence, for myself. I suppose flamboyance alone isn't a limiting factor. Is there anything else?"
"Just the relative lack of experience," Beverly Crusher offered with a shrug.
Picard set his cup down, finding himself forced to agree. "Well there's no substitute for experience, but Captain Matthews wants her for the job, regardless."
It was Beverly's turn to be annoyed, and the doctor took it. "If you're going to fall back on captain's prerogative, why are you asking me?"
His answer sounded like a quote from the manual. "As Doctor Sterling's commanding officers, we have been asked for our opinion of her suitability for the post of starship chief medical officer." His tone warmed up considerably as he added, "Captain Matthews is as entitled to her first choice as I am, but if you have serious reservations, I can recommend---"
"No, I don't think that's necessary." Crusher thought it would be interesting to see how someone like Kate would function without a net; and was quick to add, "I wonder how she'll handle the authority?"
Picard took another sip of tea as he pointed out, "That's interesting. Judging from our meeting, I'd say Doctor Sterling was quite comfortable handling authority."
Beverly considered Jean-Luc's remark, and saw it as an opportunity to toss another rubber knife at him. Before she sipped her tea, Beverly observed, "Judging by our meeting, I'd say she's already learned to handle starship captains. Wouldn't you agree?"
His silent, indignant exasperation was worth all the tea in China.
Commander Riker guided Doctor Sterling to a table near one of Ten-Forward's viewports. Being a gentleman, he held the doctor’s chair for her before seating himself. As he set his hands on the tabletop he discovered, by remembering his manners, Will had lost Sterling's attention to the view.
Not that he could blame her. Watching the illusion of stars zipping by was a most pleasant diversion, as no two streaks were quite the same colors. Riker knew the effect was caused by starlight, stretched into a prismatic blur by perceived velocity, but the explanation stole none of the light show's magic or beauty.
Federation technology built ships capable of exceeding lightspeed, but could not eliminate the human eye's susceptibility to such optical illusions. Riker for one was glad for it; who would want to do their job, if the romance of it were eliminated?
To Riker the most important aspects of Starfleet, the Enterprise and her missions were of an exciting, adventurous nature. He felt himself a man who embraced life, and sought out the most thrilling challenges he could find. Of all the missions he had been a part of in his career, the wan he enjoyed most was whatever assignment he was offered next.
Riker's curiosity had thus far led him to places he could never have imagined. The Commander was grateful for the chance to be among the first to see some of the wonders of the galaxy. Knowing his time would pass long before he could see it all sometimes saddened him, but Will considered himself lucky to have seen any of it.
His gaze shifted to Dr. Sterling, who had not turned away from the viewport since she had been seated. He would have let her stare at the stars all night, if Guinan had not stopped by their table.
With her warm, friendly smile poured into her voice, the hostess of Ten-Forward inquired, "Good evening. May I bring you something?"
Guinan had captured Riker's attention easily, but the doctor held her gaze through the viewport. Not wanting Guinan to think his dinner companion rude, Will gently draped a hand over Sterling's.
Riker asked softly, "Are you ready to order?" His voice seemed to break the spell, and Doctor Sterling was once again yanked back inside the ship.
Sterling smiled apologetically. "Wandered off again, didn't I?" She turned her attention to Guinan and added, "I'd like an Aldeveron fizz, please."
Guinan's smile broadened just a bit, at the Doctor's request for the ship's most popular soft drink. Will shared her amusement, and supposed Kate's patients could influence her thinking as easily as she could guide theirs. Thinking about Sterling, Will didn't immediately notice Guinan's attention had shifted to him, and he was caught off guard.
Why not, he thought, and announced, "I'll have one as well, please. We'll be dining too." Will watched as Guinan left with their orders and an oddly knowing grin; then felt Kate gently pull her hand away from his.
"Thanks for not laughing," she told him.
Will was a bit surprised. "At what?"
"My drink," Kate explained. "It was the only thing I could think of---I mean, I was stargazing, and...well, you know."
Riker knew exactly what she meant. "You forgot the rest of the ship was here. I've had that feeling a few times myself."
A mischievous grin spread across her cherubic features as Sterling confessed, "You daydream about soaring through the cosmos too?"
For confirmation, Riker quoted a line as old as powered flight itself. "Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies, on laughter silvered wings." With a soft chuckle he added, "It's one of the reasons I'm here."
Apparently dead serious, Sterling looked him in the eye. "I thought you were here because you're hungry?"
Riker realized his face would begin to hurt soon from all the grinning Kate pulled from him, but could not have cared less. "I suppose you could call it that."
"So the food here's no good?"
Will chuckled again. "Honestly Doctor, sometimes I forget you're a grown woman."
Sterling settled back in her chair and told him, "Yeah, me too; but then someone shoves a report or case file under my nose and bursts my bubble."
"I don't follow," was all Will could come up with.
"I may grow old, but I'll never grow up," Sterling offered, as her mischievous grin reappeared. "If I learned one thing from my patients, that's it. Oh, don't think for a second I take my responsibilities lightly; quite the opposite, really." She paused to consider, then finished with, "You have no idea how many adults I know who believe they're too old to have fun."
Riker responded, "I have the impression you're referring to someone in particular...Angela, perhaps?"
Sterling seemed to swallow something nasty, and labored at keeping her tone cordial. "No, I had no one in mind but since you brought her up, what about Angela?"
A waiter arrived with the drinks, and asked for their meal preferences. Riker took a time out to order a bowl of Ma'aak-luss---chili, of sorts. Sterling never took her hot stare off him, as she ordered a grilled Darek fish steak, with sides of sliced fried potato and broccoli with cheddar sauce.
As the young man left with the orders, Riker commented, "You certainly have an eclectic taste in---"
"Never mind that, what about Angela?" Sterling was not so cordial this time.
"I didn't mean to offend, Doctor. I just---"
"I know I know, and I'm sorry," Kate assured him. "Force of habit, I suppose."
Riker was taken by surprise once more. "I didn't realize Angela needed a bodyguard."
Sterling sighed, and began again. "She wasn't always Starfleet Captain Matthews. There was a time when Angela very much needed a champion---actually, that's how we met."
She had piqued his curiosity. "Oh, don't stop there."
Sterling seemed mildly perturbed as she went over the story once more. "You have to remember, Angela had a very traumatic early childhood. Lost both parents, saw her grandfather kill a soldier bent on assaulting her, then she had to leave the only home she'd ever known for Earth---Angela was a very nervous little girl. Of course at the time I didn't know why; all I saw was a shy, really jumpy schoolmate."
A slurp of fizz, then Sterling continued. "After a few weeks, an older boy---oh, what was his name? Eh, doesn't matter. Anyway this boy enjoyed tormenting Angela. He loved sneaking up and startling her, just to watch her panic.
Now at the time I was five, Angela was almost seven and this boy was nearly a year older than her. So one afternoon we were all out on the lawn playing, when I saw that brat scare Angela so badly I thought she was going to drop dead from fright right there. I didn't think that was funny at all, so I put a stop to it."
Riker was fascinated. "Just how did you accomplish that?"
Sterling seemed to take a malicious delight in telling Will, "I punched him hard in the abdomen and when he doubled over, I kicked a couple teeth loose."
Flabbergasted, all Riker could think to say was, "You'd have made Worf proud."
"I know, I know," Kate agreed, "but I'm sure you realize there's no diplomatic way to deal with a bully." Her tone wasn't the least bit defensive.
Riker let her have that one. "So you've been defending your friend ever since?"
"More of a loyal sidekick sort of relationship. Most of the time I keep people from slandering Angela behind her back. I suppose, in a way, that incident made both of us what we are today."
Riker inquired, "How so?"
Sterling took a moment to sort through her feelings, and finally came up with, "Well, Angela and I were pretty close after that. I think I showed her she could protect herself because that afternoon, she went home and begged her grandfather to teach her self-defense."
"That he did," Riker let slip.
Sterling stopped short. "Just what does that mean?"
Without a thought Riker told her of Matthews' demonstration on the phaser range, but ground to a halt as he read Sterling's amazement.
Kate Sterling leaned forward and in a low, conspiratorial whisper, she asked, "Let me get this straight; Angela actually showed you how fast and sharp she is?"
Riker felt a pang of concern. "She wanted to make a point about the Major."
Sterling sat up and took a long drink of fizz. "Angela is more worried about her grandfather than she's letting on. For as long as I can remember, Angela's practice sessions have always been very personal, private---she didn't even complete at the Academy. Angela just earned her qualification and left it at that."
"Why do you suppose she didn't join the marksmanship team?" Riker thought it a terrible waste of talent.
"You'd have to ask her, Commander. I know Angela abhors violence, but that doesn't stop her from practicing every other day." To remove Riker's puzzled look, Sterling added, "On even days it's an hour at the range. Odd number days she beats the stuffing out of some holodeck martial art master or other."
Will wanted to ask how Kate knew all this, if Angela's training were such a personal thing. After spending a few seconds mulling it over, he decided everyone should have at least one friend he or she could trust with anything. Although he wished it were him, Will was very glad Angela felt she could confide in the doctor.
Flashing on his own rocky childhood, Will concluded solemnly, "Amazing what early trauma can drive a person to."
Sterling was very quick to add, "Angela's doing much better now. She wouldn't be where she is, if there were any doubts about her stability."
"True enough," Riker agreed. "I, for one, am glad she's with us for this one."
Sterling's charming grin was back. "I, for two, am glad she's here as well. After all, there are only three people aboard who have even a snowball's chance on Vulcan of getting close to the major."
Riker played along. "Who might the other two be?"
Without hesitation Sterling answered, "Lieutenant Worf and me."
The waiter returned with their meals and asked if there was anything else. After ordering another fizz, Sterling leaned forward, and peered into Riker's bowl of Ma'aak-luss. The doctor stared at the globs of green meat and the small, oblong orange beans in bright blue, viscous sauce, and felt her stomach turn. She groaned, clamped her eyes shut, then sat upright to escape the stench.
When her eyes popped open, Sterling immediately locked onto Riker's face as she inquired hopefully, "You're not really gonna eat that, are you?"
Deep into an old mystery novel, Picard reached for his tea mug; but not until it reached his lips did the Captain realize the cup was empty. He closed the book and set it aside, as the cup now held his attention. Jean-Luc couldn't remember draining the last of his tea, and the lapse of memory troubled him.
The Captain put the teacup down as well, taking a moment to rub tired eyes before glancing at the chronometer. He'd returned to his quarters hours ago, done all the things people do when preparing to rest...but then he'd remembered the security personnel changes Mr. Worf had recommended. Couldn't let something like that wait, not with what could become a security matter looming up.
Tending to security personnel would mean changing duty rosters, and at least another hour of reports and organizing. Once he'd reshuffled the security assignments, Picard remembered several professional inquiries from the Vulcan Archeological Foundation he'd not had time to properly answer. Of course, Jean-Luc couldn't let those go any longer, and then came the---damn.
Captain Picard sat up, and willed his weary eyes to focus on the desk chronometer. Numbers wavered on the screen, forming the words it's late, Jean-Luc. Later than he'd intended to stay up and, considering the job at hand, well past his bedtime.
Jean-Luc got to his feet, silently scolding himself for behaving like a frightened child. He would be checking the closet next. Worst of it, without taking even one of his needed forty winks, Picard had convinced himself the dark horse would come for him tonight. Captain of the Enterprise, flagship of the Federation Starfleet, was afraid to go to sleep.
Afraid? Picard felt the awful urge to wash his mind out for even thinking the word. After all it wasn't the correct term...well, not exactly. Was it fear that kept a person from putting his hand in a flame? Certainly not; it was more a question of, avoiding---
"Enough," he growled. This was pointless. It had been a long time, but the nightmare still came from time to time. Picard's abduction, mutilation and enforced violence against his comrades, played out nightly to a captive audience in graphic, obscenely accurate detail. Every night, sound and smell haunted him, all the feelings until even his emotions were taken from him.
All brought about by Matthews return? Picard hoped not. He knew there were a few survivors of the Wolf 359 battle, but Angela Matthews was among the most well known. Despite himself, Picard could not help but wonder if she held him as responsible as he held himself.
Jean-Luc hated himself for the feeling, and he wanted more than anything to see the Borg pay for their crimes. He wanted them punished, not so much for himself, but for all who had suffered to "raise the Borg standard of life"---another thought Picard found obscene.
Destroying one ship collective didn't even come close. Picard knew nothing, not even total Borg annihilation could atone for the pain they had caused. He was but one among billions of Borg victims, who would most likely never see justice for their suffering. All Jean-Luc had to hold onto was his hatred, but he could forgive himself for it. He was, thanks to his shipmates, only human.
In a way he envied Captain Matthews. She fought back, or at least tried to. Knowing they would be horribly punished for resisting, the armada waged a hopeless battle until ship by ship they were destroyed...all but one. Picard wished he could take credit for her survival, but knew the Arcturus's escape had more to do with tactical analysis. The cold logic of power conservation kept the Borg from pursuing a single crippled, fleeing ship.
Locutus had seen them run, but had other targets to deal with. To the monster they made him into, firing one final blast at the Arcturus was merely an afterthought. The hive witnessed, guided, then disregarded a follow up attack when the shot missed. At that moment Saratoga was closing with all phasers firing, and had to be chastised.
Once Dr. Crusher had made his body whole, Picard went over the battle time and again, eyes open and closed. Each time the heavy cruiser came under fire, Picard relived the helpless fury. Seeing Arcturus escape total destruction, was one of the few bearable points in the longest six days of his life.
It was in fact, the point he'd been dwelling on since Matthews came aboard. Hers was the only ship to leave the battle. While other, more heavily damaged ships pressed the attack and were demolished for the effort, Angela Matthews turned and limped away. Arcturus turned tail and ran after taking one massive blow, and so left the rest of the armada to its fate.
Picard paused to reflect, and reasoned it was the best course of action. Matthews was a commander back then, the ship's first officer. She'd done well, having inherited a dead ship, to save as many of her crew as she could.
One by one, many of Starfleet's finest ships were blown apart like so many clay pigeons. Picard's agony welled up from what he'd been robbed of by the the coldly logical Borg. Once Captain Picard had been "altered", the Borg had the knowledge of an experienced Federation starship captain.
Using Locutus to do their dirty work, Borg knew exactly how and where to strike each ship with sickening efficiency. The first shot paralyzed Arcturus, and should have held the stricken ship long enough for a coup de grâce. Matthews and what remained of her crew, owed their survival to the Lancelot's kamikaze attack.
Over forty ships, and how many lives lost? Locutus knew the answer down to the last crewmember, but Picard deliberately blurred the number. There were other little details the Captain pushed out of his mind, but held fast to others. Most important of the facts he clung to was his inability to stop any of it. Locutus was a deceased evil twin, and nothing more.
However this was all a conscious effort. Shadowy monsters were easily dismissed in the light of day, but everyone had to sleep sometime. Jean-Luc knew from past experience closing his eyes meant taking a chance. It could all come back, crashing over him like a wave of hot oil, drowning him in searing pain---
Suddenly Borg were there. All of them; shouting down his thoughts, repressing the faintest trace of individuality. With terrifying ease Picard was once again physically, mentally and spiritually overpowered and held down.
Borg stripped his identity away as quickly and easily as his uniform. They shackled his mind, rapidly beat it down to remove the seeds of his knowledge, then put back what remained in a box, Borg called Locutus. They took his life, his very being, but didn't even have the decency to let him die. They couldn't; it was against their nature to waste anything.
No! Captain Picard would not allow this to happen again. He would not permit---
"Stop!" Picard cried, as his mind jolted from the nightmare. The mystery novel lay open on the floor, next to his recliner. On the small table to the Captain's right, sat a half-empty, stone cold mug of Earl Grey. Jean-Luc took control of his stifled, ragged breathing, and rubbed a hand across a cold, sweaty forehead. He raised himself and on rubbery legs, Picard stumbled toward his wardrobe, intent on changing his cold, sweat drenched pajamas.
"This is a first," Picard muttered, "bad dreams about my nightmares." He stripped away the damp nightclothes, buffed his face and chest dry with the towel he'd intended to use in the morning, then slipped into fresh pajamas. Picard considered leaving the heap of moist fabric where he dropped it, but the Captain made him pick it up.
As he knelt to collect the garments, Jean-Luc discovered the nightmare had left him with a splitting headache. Picard raised a hand to rub his throbbing temple and considered sending for the doctor, but decided against it. Beverly took his headaches far too seriously for the Captain's comfort. Regardless of the hour she would arrive in moments, waving a tricorder at him and posing questions Picard didn't want to ask himself. Anything to help; the short definition of friendship, he supposed.
Jean-Luc stopped by the washroom mirror and stared into the eyes of his reflection. He was pleased to see an ironic smile appear, as he remembered asking Beverly how long a human could survive if he never slept. Without sleep, she had told him, almost indefinitely; but without dreaming, only a few days. That was ages ago---long before the Brittain, and the distress call which nearly drove he and his crew mad. Oh, how he'd envied Mr. Data then.
As Picard began turning from the mirror, a chilling thought crossed his mind and paralyzed his body. He had been held longer by the Cardassians, and if he were to make such grotesque comparisons, the Borg incident would've run a close second. His duel of lights was relatively recent, and physically a far more pain filled ordeal...so why wasn't he having that nightmare? Was it because the Cardassian torture paled in com...
Jean-Luc turned back to the mirror, and stared hard at the man he saw. Something was indeed out of place; one very important variable which made all the difference in the universe. Picard's glare did not waver as he leaned toward the looking glass. Of all the nightmares he'd suffered through with his eyes open, hoping and praying someone would shake him out of, Borg was different.
Picard could see it all; friends who had fallen in the line of duty, all the painful mistakes of his youth, and the Ferengi ship that forced him to devise "The Picard Maneuver". A lifetime of wrong turns, errors in judgement and, sometimes most painful of all, the consequences of doing what had to be done, rumbled through his mind like a freight train. Yet only once in his entire career had the one true course of action been taken away; and even now Borg were still trying to steal it from him.
The ironwork of his soul forced him to say the words aloud. In an even baritone, Picard reminded the man in the mirror, "Resistance is never futile."
The Captain spun away from the mirror and went to bed.