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            When Ensign Donald A. Booker opened his eyes, his first sight was an Asian woman in a blue uniform.   His first thought was a wicked one involving her, but taking one deep breath erased it immediately.  Booker blinked, groaned, then closed his eyes again.   It was all coming back to him.  The fight in the brig and more important, how that old man had slammed him down hard---and right in front of the Captain.

            The nurse glanced at him, then called, "Doctor, Mister Booker is awake."   She moved out of his line of sight and painful as it was, he shifted on the biobed to follow her with his eyes.  As the raven-haired nurse left a shorter, buxom officer in a blue lab coat and medical uniform entered the room.   For a moment he thought she looked familiar, but couldn't quite remember who she was.   After all, there were a thousand-plus people aboard ship.

            The doctor flashed a broad smile that lit up the room.   She read the monitor above his bed, then actually tussled his hair.   "Nice to have you back among the living," she told him, then asked, "Do you know where you are?"

            Booker rolled his eyes around the room, thinking it may be a trick question.  "I'm in sickbay, aboard Enterprise."   Ensign Booker groaned again.   "Sorry."

            The doctor seemed, befuddled.   "Sorry for what?"

            "I don't think you'd understand, Doctor," the security officer responded.

            The doctor had a way of looking irked, without saying a word.   "I think you'll find I'm a quick study, Ensign," she announced dryly.   "I'm a pretty clever duck, after all."

            Booker winced; even blinking had begun to hurt.   "I fouled up bad, Doctor."

            "How so, Mister Booker?"

            "The captain and Mister Worf brought some old guy to look at the android, down in the brig," Booker confessed, "and I let him get to both of them."

            The lights came on for the doctor.   "Ah, so that's it.   Mr. Booker you were brought in here with a broken arm, collarbone, and three cracked ribs.   I find it hard to believe you were on the sideline."

            Booker protested, "But I should've stopped him---the Captain was down.   I...failed."

            The doctor was furious, but took a deep breath and told him, "Well I can see I'm not getting anywhere with you, so I think I'll hand you over to a higher authority."  She looked past Booker, to the next bed.  "Commander, would you be a sport and talk some sense into this boy?"

            Booker shifted in his bed, and saw Commander Riker flat on his back, one bed over.   "Sir?"   Booker couldn't think of anything else to say.

            Bunged up as he was, Riker still managed a wry smile.  To the doctor, he said, "For you, Doctor Sterling, anything."  Booker noticed the doctor blush, then turned his full attention to the commander.

            "They're going to run out of beds if we keep this up," the commander told him.

            Booker's voice cracked as he repeated, "Sir?"

            "At ease, Ensign," Riker told him.  "I'm hardly in a position to jump down your throat."

            "Yes sir, understood sir," was all Booker could come up with.

            Riker settled back with a sigh.  "Ease up, Don," he insisted.  "From what I'm told, you did an excellent job."

            Booker stammered, "But I'm here, and the Captain---"

            "Is not here," Riker observed.  "Actually, I believe he and Mister Worf beamed back down to the colony."

            "I fouled up, sir."   Booker was in deep, and knew it.

            "I don't think so, Ensign.   The old guy you referred to?   They tell me it was another combat drone, like the one that put me here."

            "It was?"   Booker considered the possibility the commander was simply trying to make him feel better, but kept it to himself.   "But I thought---"

            Riker continued, "Doctor Crusher also told me it knocked down Mister Data and Worf as well.   You're lucky to be alive, Don."

            Booker's grip on his guilt slackened a bit.   "I don't feel very lucky, Sir."

            "Neither do I," Riker admitted, "but we did well to have survived at all."

            Booker took a deep breath, and coughed it out.   "You really think so, Sir?"

            Riker's smile reappeared as he said, "Welcome to the glamorous life of space exploration, Ensign Booker.   Remind me sometime, and I'll tell you about the vine that tried to eat me."

            Booker settled back with a smile on his face, as he closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.


            Doctor Sterling pulled the hypospray up, and stepped around Booker's bed to Riker.   The commander gazed fondly at the doctor as he noted, "Impressive sleight of hand, Doctor.   I didn't see the hypo until you'd used it."

            Sterling flashed another wicked grin.   "You boys never do."   Her voice softened as she added, "Thanks for helping out."

            "Comes with the job, Doctor," Riker reminded her.   Staring at the hypo, he asked, "You're not going to slip me another mickey, are you?"

            Sterling's annoyance bubbled back into her features.   "Why does everyone keep asking me that?    I learned more in medical school than how to sedate people."

            Riker grinned.   "Sorry Doctor.   Do I still get my lollypop?"

            Near exasperation, Sterling told him, "I hear that one a lot as well.   Can't you come up with something a little more original?"

            Riker was still wearing his smug little grin.  "You're not exactly seeing me at my best."

            Sterling chuckled.  "That's what you think.   Who do you think cut you out of your uniform?"

            "Doctor Sterling!" Riker gasped, in mock astonishment.

           Sterling offered her standard response, "Oh, get over it."   She looked at Booker and asked, "Can you remember being that young?"

            "Too long ago," answered the commander.

            Sterling droned, "Fresh from the academy, full of big dreams and bold plans; I'll bet Booker here has his whole career completely charted out."

            Riker saw where she was leading, but said only, "Do you really think so?"   There was no harm in letting Kate try cheering him up---she might even do it.

            "Didn't we all?"   Sterling glanced about, then leaned near Riker and whispered, "When I was a girl, I spent hours writing 'Doctor Kathryn Amy Sterling, M.D.', and all the variations I could think up.   I wanted to find the best look for my shingle."

            Riker wanted to know, "What's a shingle?"

            Sterling wouldn't allow him to distract her, but stepping off track for a second wouldn't hurt.   The dopey look of self-amusement returned to her face as Kate explained, "It's either a nameplate for the front door, or something used to serve creamed chipped beef."

            Even though it hurt to leave it there, Riker let his smile stay.   In spite of himself, he gave her an opening by responding, "I'm gonna wake up from this dream any second."

Kate straightened up and asked, "Don't we all daydream a little?"

            Riker muttered, "Ships in bottles."

            Sterling seized on that.   "Did you build models too?    I have quite a little air and space museum of my very own.    Never bothered with the bottles, though."

            Riker smirked.   "Not me; Captain Picard."

            Kate was impressed.   "Hmmh, I might've known.   Model building reaches patience, attention to detail and a light touch.   Then when they're finished, you can play with them."

            "Did you sail them on imaginary voyages?"

            Sterling flashed a grin, as she elaborated, "Not quite.   I always pretended I had beamed aboard to treat the sick and injured.   Angela was my captain back then, too."

            Commander Riker suddenly felt a bit fatigued.  "I suppose some dreams come true."

            "Actually, I always wanted to be an aerobatic pilot," Sterling confessed, "but I knew early on what I was meant to do.   Some people take a little longer to find their calling, and cause themselves no end of grief."

            Riker turned a friendly stare on the doctor.    "Are we still talking about you, Doctor Kate?"

            Sterling scoffed, "Oh Will, we were never talking about me, not you, not even Booker, here."

            "Then who are you speaking of, Doctor?"   Riker was lost again.

            Sterling smiled knowingly, and told him, "Not who, Commander, but what.   Dreams, Will, dreams; without them, where would any of us be?   We pursue them, taking the chance they'll lead us astray but we follow anyway.   Sometimes, we wind up where we're supposed to be, and sometimes we're led right off a cliff; but it's the chase that's important."

            Sterling paused, and slipped into a mask which suggested profound contemplation.   After a few seconds Kate offered a dismissive wave, and attempted to negate her speech with her announcement, "Jeez, what a load of flatulence.   Forget I said anything."    She wandered off, in the general direction of Crusher's office.

            As Riker watched her go, he decided she would make one hell of a chief medical officer.



            The phased matter in the transporter beam faded, leaving Captain Picard with the impression of a dissipating fog.   Once again he had led the away team, this time with Matthews on his left, LaForge and Worf on his right.   The Captain reminded himself this was his place, but it felt odd to be leading yet another away mission.

            Picard corrected himself; he didn't feel odd.   It was something different...a flush, perhaps, of excitement.  There were, in his past and as master of the Enterprise, many tense moments on the bridge.   However, leading an away team was like stepping out for a breath of fresh air.   Jean-Luc felt refreshed, even exhilarated---pity he didn't have time to savor it.

            As the last traces of the fog cleared, Lieutenant Worf and Commodore Matthews spread out, weapons trained on the governor.   Solek sat at his desk, reviewing something on his tabletop computer until the away team beamed in.   Picard guessed from his startled expression, the governor had not expected to receive guests at phaser point.

            As Worf and Matthews fanned away from the Captain and chief engineer, each held  their weapons waist high, never wavering from the bead they had drawn on the governor.    At just about any other occasion Picard would have called both officers on the carpet for over-reacting but after the assault in the brig, he was almost ready to draw his own weapon.   Through his peripheral vision, the Captain could see Mister LaForge had not drawn his phaser either but then, Geordie had not witnessed the fight.

            Outwardly, Picard was as icy calm as Angela Matthews.   He kept his personal feelings on a separate mental subroutine, having fixed his attention on Governor Solek since the instant the transporter beam began to fade. The Captain calmly faced Solek's desk, and read his shocked, outraged expression as both appropriate and genuine.   If he had not been in this very room less than fifteen minutes ago, he would've ordered Worf and Matthews to lower their weapons.

Solek demanded, "What is the meaning of this?"

            Worf ordered, "Do not move and keep your hands in plain sight."    The Klingon's growl sent a visible shiver up Solek's spine, but it did not creep into his expression.

            Instead, Governor Solek looked straight at Matthews and demanded, "Captain Matthews, why am I being treated like a criminal?    What is going on here?"

            If the governor's question had any effect on Matthews, it did not show.   Her cold response was, "We've never met, how do you know me?"

            Picard imagined Solek to be many things, but he certainly wasn't stupid.   The governor answered her question in a much calmer tone.   "Ed---your grandfather---talks about you constantly."   The Captain considered asking a question of his own; but he was getting answers and didn't want to break the flow of information from Solek.

            "You and the major are friends?"   Matthews’s only visible response to the revelation was a tighter grip on her phaser.   "So why have you accused him of murder?"

            Solek's reaction didn't really come as a surprise to anyone.  "I saw him do it, Captain Matthews."   Solek looked pained, and of course nervous.   He expected a loud, vehement denial from Angela Matthews, or perhaps one quick, merciful burst of phaser fire.   Picard observed the governor as he prepared himself for it; Solek's spine went rigid, his shoulders squared back, head held high.

            Solek was stunned as Matthews' shoulders slumped, and her phaser went back to its holster.   He was visibly upset when she told him, "I'm almost certain you did."   He was amazed by her disloyalty, and was about to say something when he discovered himself speechless.  The governor didn't know what to think when Matthews chuckled softly.

            Seeing the look on his face, Matthews apparently elected to explain herself with an accusation, of sorts.   "On the other hand, Governor Solek, I have witnesses who can truthfully say they saw you try to strangle me a few minutes ago."

            Solek blustered, "Preposterous!"

            Picard saw his opportunity, and jumped in with, "I was assaulted in the same incident, Governor, as well as Lieutenant Worf and two more of my officers."

            Worf growled when his name was mentioned, but kept his weapon trained on the governor.   Solek turned a pleading look on Angela Matthews, and begged, "Will you please tell me who these people are, and just what you think is going on?"   Obviously overloaded, the colony governor sagged into his chair.

            Captain Picard turned an uncertain, almost suspicious stare on Governor Solek.  You mean you don't know who I am?"

            Solek almost raised a hand to rub his weary eyes, but one quick glance at Worf welded the governor's hand to the desktop.   "Should I?"

            The Captain was quick to assure him, "Indeed you should, Governor, one way or another.   I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in command of the Enterprise."   He nodded to Geordie and Worf, and concluded the introductions.   "Chief Engineer LaForge, and my Security Officer, Lieutenant Worf.   Weren't you told we were coming?"

            Solek slowly shook his head.    "Starship dispatched, was all I was told."

            Picard barely shifted his head toward his chief engineer; Geordie answered the unspoken question with, "If this is another of them, Captain, it's perfect."   LaForge snapped his tricorder shut and reported, "This is the real Tal Solek, Captain."   Picard flickered his gaze across Worf's face and the lieutenant, somewhat reluctantly, put up his weapon.

            Still out of the circuit, Solek insisted, "Well of course I am.  Who else would I be?"   The governor's jaw dropped as the Captain began explaining.

            Picard opened with, "A scant few moments ago, we beamed aboard an impostor; an android so elaborately disguised and programmed, it led a Betazoid to believe it was you."

            "But, but that's impossible," Solek stammered.

            Picard's answer was dismissive.   "Hardly.   The mechanism is still in my brig, and by now it has been at least partially dismantled.   My engineers tell me they've seen nothing like it before, but I'm hoping you can help us determine its origin."

            Solek sat bolt upright then turned a hard stare on Picard.   "Are you accusing me of something, Captain?"

            Captain Picard paused a few seconds for effect, then replied, "No...but you can account for your movements in the last sixteen hours, can't you?"

            Solek wasn't at all happy with what he saw as an accusation.   Picard was completely convinced this was not another impostor.   This version of Solek was nothing like the dark hearted, yet compelling android impersonation.   Picard had no intention of bringing Solek aboard, at least for the time being; but with each passing second the Captain was more convinced he was dealing with the genuine article.

            Solek rephrased, "Do you think I'm behind any of this?"

            The Captain glanced at Mister LaForge, then at Matthews and Worf.   When he saw they were all of one mind, Picard spoke for them all.  "Governor, right now I don't know what to think but the sooner we exclude you, the better.   Can you account for your time?"

            Solek was still not a happy man, but grudgingly admitted, "Yes, I can.    I've been at the processing plant since yesterday.   I was stranded there overnight when my airshuttle was stolen, and the subspace relay system went down.   Everyone at the plant can corroborate my alibi, Captain."    He shoved out one ironic chuckle, and finished, "I was there to inspect damage done by the vandals."

            The statement pulled in Picard.   "Vandals?   Your impostor spoke of sabotage."   The Captain could see Solek didn't know whether to believe him or not, but seemed willing to indulge.

            Solek grumbled, "Sabotage?   By whom?   Oh, we've had some minor damage, here and there---"

            Picard would not let go.   "Such as?"

            Looking up at Picard, the governor turned a 'well aren't you nosy' look on him---but the Starfleet officers had the phasers.  "Shouldn't I be under a hot light, Captain?  I mean, that's how these interrogations are conducted, aren't they?"

            Captain Picard stepped up to the governor's desk, leaned forward slightly and explained, "Anything you tell us could be important, Governor," with the barest trace of condescension in his voice.

            Solek glanced around his office, then turned a glare on Picard.  "Damage.   Our orbital transporter relay system's been out for weeks, computer systems have crashed, and on those rare occasions when we recover a stolen airshuttle, it's completely stripped---you know, damage."

            Geordie piped up with, "Any stolen power generators?"

            Solek fixed a sour look on LaForge.   "No."

            "There's one missing now," LaForge informed him, "taken from the major's cottage.    It was neatly separated from the supply conduits and carried off."

            Solek was still not amused.   "Hmmh, sounds about right.   Tidy thieves, we have here."

            Geordie tried to emphasize his point.   "Governor, you don't seem to understand; we're talking about a home power generator.   It's not only big, it's too heavy to move without the proper equipment and as far as we could tell, it was just picked up and carried off."

            Solek offered a passionless apology.   "Sorry Commander, but that sort of random theft has been going on for over a month.   Our constables have investigated, but found nothing.    These vandals leave no traces whatsoever."

            Captain Picard was losing his temper.   Solek seemed unconcerned, or at least unaware of the scope of the situation.   He wanted more than ever to haul this annoying man out of his chair and shake him; only years of discipline kept his anger at bay.

            Frustration found its way into the Captain's tone as Picard told Solek, "In the course of our investigation two members of my crew have been injured, and two have been killed.  If you have any information to add, Governor, I suggest you bring it up now."    If looks could kill, Solek would be on his way to a mortuary.

            For once, Governor Solek seemed to take an interest in recent events.   He had the decency to at least look ashamed as he offered a sincere apology.  "I'm sorry about your people Captain, but I really don't know what else I can tell you."

            Captain Picard's mind went blank for an instant, then from nowhere a question posed itself.   "When and where was this first act of, vandalism?"

            Without a word, Solek turned to his desktop terminal, and called up the appropriate records.   Seconds later he reported, "A stolen airshuttle.   It happened just over five weeks ago, near my orchard expansion.    Never recovered it, either."

            Up to this point, Matthews had listened quietly; now she asked the question they all wanted answered.   "You mean the field where the cave is?"

            Solek was visibly weary of what he saw as a cross-examination.    "That's right, Captain---Matthews."

            Angela turned to Picard, and saw he'd expected the answer as well.   Geordie looked from one vessel master to another, waiting to see who would pose the next, more telling interrogative.

            Worf's glare never strayed from Solek as he asked the golden question.  "When did you begin your expansion, Governor?"

            Solek began a reply that stuck in his throat.   Picard guessed the governor had never put it all together as Solek announced, "Nearly six weeks ago.   Work stopped out there at Ed's insistence, when the cave was first discovered."

            Picard nodded, as he answered a rhetorical of his own before asking, "And the most recent incident is at this, processing plant?"

            A dumbfounded Solek answered, "Some of the automated pulp processors have been tampered---re-programmed to throw fruit all over the place."

            The Enterprise chief engineer pointedly inquired, "You're certain it's not a programming error?"

            Solek ruled out the possibility with, "Those processors are pre-programmed at the factory.    We've never had any trouble with them until yesterday."

            LaForge turned to his Captain, but didn't get the words from his open mouth before Picard drummed his fingers across his comm badge.   "Picard to Enterprise; transporter room, five to beam directly to the colony's central processing plant."



            Doctor Sterling ambled into Beverly Crusher's office, and casually leaned against the doorframe.   The chief medical officer was engaged in some masterful piece of computer manipulation, and didn't seem to notice the pediatrician.   Kate watched as Crusher's fingers danced over three different data padds, then to the desktop terminal itself.   Sterling occupied herself by wondering how many hours of datafile shuffling it took to achieve Crusher's level of graceful touchpadd skill.

            Long, boring hours spent filing this and cross referencing that; Kate couldn't imagine a drearier task. Even allowing for the current state of computer technology, updating case files was total drudgery.   How a brilliant physician like Doctor Crusher could master its intricacies confounded Sterling.

            Without turning her attention from the computer readouts, Beverly Crusher asked, "Something I can do for you, Doctor?"

            Sterling snorted, "Your piano's broke, Doctor; all it does is beep."

            The pediatrician's crack brought Crusher's performance to a halt.   A befuddled Crusher uttered a single, "What?"

            Kate Sterling straightened up, then shrugged.  "You should see your desk from my angle, Doctor Crusher."

            Crusher settled back in her chair, and seemed to savor a memory before replying, "I see."   She allowed Sterling to see a thin smile before she announced, "Wait until you see it from my side, Kate."

            Well, well, Sterling thought.   Crusher almost never used first names on duty.   She believed the CMO's practice of referring to her staff by "doctor" and surname, to be a facet of Crusher's professional code of conduct.    Doctor Crusher often called nurses and ratings by first name, but only Doctor S'Lar went by her given name---logical since her surname was a Vulcan tongue twister.

            Sterling realized she had dwelled far too long on the subject, corralled her wits and replied, "You make it sound a bit daunting, Beverly."

            Crusher smiled again.   "It's not quite as hard as you might think.   Actually, I've been waiting for you to ask me for this."

            Sterling was a bit confused.    "This what?"

            Beverly confessed, "When I earned my first Cee-Em-Oh appointment, one of the first things I did was get advice from my senior physician."    She sat up, and shut down her computer systems before asking, "Haven't you come to hear a few words of wisdom from an old pro?"

            Sterling's whole face lit up.   "You never heard me say the 'O' word---but yes, I'd like some free advice from a true professional."

            Crusher blushed a bit from the warmth of Sterling's compliment, but answered, "Thanks.    Is there anything in particular you'd like to know?"

            Sterling couldn't resist.   She tugged at her sleeve and asked, "Yeah; why blue?  It's not my color."


            "I am serious," Kate answered, "but that's way down on my list.    I suppose what I really wanna know is...what's it like, being in charge?"

            Crusher saw her opportunity to return fire.   "Kate, you're in charge wherever you go."

            "True enough," Kate responded thoughtfully, "but I've never had the authority to take command...until now."

            There was a trace of disbelief in Crusher's tone when she asked, "Well now, is the indomitable Doctor Sterling a little apprehensive?"

            "Don't be insulting," Sterling shot back.  "I was just wondering if I'd wind up toiling at a computer console---"

            "Like me?" Crusher offered.

            Sterling saw no reason to backpedal now.    "Well, yes."

            Beverly reminded her colleague, "Good record keeping is vital, Kate."

            "And better than Somazine for those sleepless nights."

            The chief medical officer's tone was stern.   "You are a better scientist than that, Kate."

            Kate groused, "I'd be happy if I turned out to be half as good as I think I am."

            "Now that's encouraging."    Crusher sounded pleased.


            Crusher's grin broadened again.    "A drop of humility dilutes a lot of arrogance."

            For once, Sterling was genuinely unnerved, and let it show.  "Am I arrogant, Beverly?"

            "Better still," Crusher observed.  "Not, 'do you think', or 'do I seem' arrogant; if you have the sense to ask, you needn't worry."

            Sterling retorted, "Asking's the best camouflage."

            Crusher was confident when she told Sterling, "I didn't need Deanna's gifts to read the look on your face."

            Sterling slouched against the doorframe again.  "Yeah, I suppose I'm making too much of one little remark."   She paused to frame her next sentence, and came up with, "Let's call it a mild case of stage fright.   I've never been the last person in line.   I've always been able to point to someone else for the hard decisions."

            "Glad to see you're taking the job seriously."

            Sterling didn't look upset, but the concern in her tone was loud and clear.  "Some people think I don't have a serious bone in my body."

            "I meant you want to be the, second best Cee-Em-Oh in the fleet," Crusher clarified, then waited for a response to gauge.

            Kate pondered the remark honestly, but hopped over Beverly's little trap.   "Well, that would leave me something to shoot for.   So who's number one?"   She could see in Crusher's eyes what she'd hoped for.  Beverly would have to do much better; a pediatrician's patients kept her wits razor sharp.

            The smile on Crusher's face was genuine as she began, "On the other hand, you are one smug little---"

            "Be nice now," Kate cautioned.

            Beverly settled on, "Vixen."

            Sterling tried her best to sound hopeful as she asked, "Gee Bev, do you really think so?"  Within seconds Kate's composure crumbled under the weight of her quiet little snicker.

            Beverly's tone was full of satisfaction.    "Any other questions?"

            Sterling's laughter faded quickly.   "Many questions.    Next on my list is, how do I handle difficult patients?  I'm not exactly used to dealing with grownups."

            Crusher grinned at Kate as she explained, "I believe you'll find most of them aren't really grownups by the time they wind up here."   As an example, CMO Crusher told her colleague, "You've handled Commander Riker and Ensign Booker quite well."

            Sterling's mind raced at lightning speed, taking only a few seconds to review their conversation then continue with, "I see; so the real trick is to know when to step in and when to keep my big yap shut?"

            A second or two of consideration passed before Crusher agreed.   "Well I wouldn't have put it that way, but yes."

            Sterling pressed on with, "My captain I'm not worried about.   I could always talk Angela into anything.    What trips me up is someone like Worf---what a bear."

            The comparison visible amused Beverly.   "A bear?"

            Sterling elaborated, "Oh come on, you know what a bear is.   Big, burly, surly animals, but they'll leave you alone unless you poke at 'em."

            With total sincerity, Crusher said, I think the lieutenant would be flattered; but the difference is Worf will behave himself if you ask politely."

            Sterling snorted.   "So will a bear."  She wiped away Crusher's puzzled expression when she explained, "My Mom was a park ranger, just like the major."

            Crusher cocked an eyebrow and inquired, "Is this the same Kate Sterling who sat Kurn down for a pot of five alarm Texas chili?    I dare say you can handle even a Klingon patient, should the need arise."

            "He should not have insulted Terran food," Sterling growled defensively, then relented.  "I guess you're right though."

            Beverly pointed out, "It's far too late for me to coach you on style now, Kate.   Just do what you do best: improvise."

            Sterling brightened.  "I've always played everything by ear; is that your great pearl of wisdom?"

            Beverly shrugged.   "I'm just a report shuffler, not a Sha'rani Monk."

            "Uh-boy," Kate grumbled, "make one little observation and live to regret it."

            Crusher pressed her friendly assault with, "Let's see what your files look like at the end of your first tour."

            "Excitement abounds," Sterling groused.

            Beverly cocked one eyebrow, and offered some spicy food for thought.   "I think you'll long for a little quiet report writing, soon enough."

            Kate lobbed another verbal water balloon at her boss.   "Could be; after all, you're the one the Captain sends on all the big jobs.   You spend so much time in the limelight, no one knows the rest of us are aboard."

            Crusher smiled, and settled back in her seat.   She wore a wistful look when she told Sterling, "Kate, you'll understand why that is, soon enough."

            Sterling was surprised to see her supervisor didn't take the complaint personally, but was a bit puzzled by Crusher's reaction.   Then again, 'you'll find out' was normally an answer that got Sterling's blood boiling, but…Kate supposed it was the way Beverly had said the words.

            "I dunno," Sterling said, after a long pause.  We're entrusted with the care of hundreds of people, many of whom hate to admit they need us.  They ignore our best advice, run headlong into trouble, but expect us to fix anything and everything that happens to them."

            Crusher commiserated, "What we can't fix is the worst of it.   Handle that and you can handle anything, Dr. Sterling."

            Sterling chuckled.   "Now you sound like the crusty old doctor who handed me my diploma.    I shook his hand, but before he handed me the plate he asked, 'You a good loser, Sterling?'   Me, I say hell no, and that old admiral said---"

            "Good," Crusher finished, "because everyone loses but winners never quit."

            Sterling coughed up another chuckle.  "He must have asked it of everyone.  I wonder if anyone ever said yes?"

            Beverly replied, "I don't know a single doctor who ever admits to being a good loser.   The stakes are too high."

            "Tell me about it," Kate agreed.

            Doctor Crusher's broad smile returned.  "I don't have to, and that's how I know you can handle a starship crew."

            As she turned to lurch out of the CMO's office, Sterling faked a sniffle and declared, "Damn Bev, now I'm all misty eyed."

            Crusher finally had her chance.   As Sterling returned to her duties, Beverly raised her voice a notch and called after the pediatrician, "Oh, get over it."



            Once again the massive automaton ground to a halt, knelt on one center-leg joint and powered down; another air vehicle was passing nearby.   While it waited for the craft to leave the area, the warrior contacted Central with a progress report.

            Since moving away from the installation categorized as a low priority target, the warrior's onboard scanning gear had been reset for nanopulse operation.  At irregular intervals, the system made a complete sensor sweep with all systems in a fraction of a second.    Thus far, it was certain it had eluded detection.

            It knew it was making slow progress toward its objective; a reality which conflicted with much of its programming.   While the android was capable of operating in stealth mode, it was a primarily a heavy assault unit. Normal operation included transport to the objective.   However such activity would alert the humanoids to the warrior's impending assault and had been ruled out.

            The humanoids may not be cognizant of the assault unit, but they had called in reinforcements.   Reports indicated the orbiting vessel to be heavily armed, giving itself the classification of unidentified warship.   Being in orbit uninvited made it hostile.  The ship had used its matter transport equipment several times within the current rotation cycle.  Lacking more complete information, the warrior's programming leapt to the obvious conclusion; ground units were being brought to the surface.

            No data available on the enemy's troop strength or movements, but they were augmenting their recon units with more heavily armed troops.  The warrior did not know if these humanoids were prepared to repel its assault, but it knew they were dangerous.  The infiltrator's last report to Central included location of a dismantled recon unit, and confirmation of the assassination order.  The infiltrator was a casualty, its mission incomplete.

            The warrior's scan indicated no vehicles or personnel within scanning range.  It rose slowly and quietly, and as it prowled through the forest toward its objective, the warrior received another report from Central.   It was redirected to draw out its assault, and the timetable for its attack was moved back.

            The warrior's new mission was to provide a diversion, and the opportunity to place another infiltrator aboard the enemy vessel.  Planetary defenses were not yet on line; the warship had to be destroyed before more enemy vessels arrived.