Site hosted by Build your free website today!

            For Captain Picard, touring the chakka fruit processing plant was somewhat nostalgic.  His family operated a vineyard and winery, and the procedures for processing chakka were not all that dissimilar.   Chakka was a fruit, harvested from the tall, wide trunk trees that covered most of the planet surface.   The big difference was size; a chakkafruit averaged in diameter between grapefruit and a small melon.

            Processing began by stripping away the chakka's tough, dark blue skin, then pulverizing the richly hued, blue-violet fruit meat.   The syrupy liquid was then sterilized and diluted with pure water, to form a high protein drink popular throughout the sector.  The crushed pulp was also packaged, and offered as replicator raw material.

            This processing was done on a grand scale.   Tons of chakka passed through the mostly automated factory every hour---when the equipment was operating.  Governor Solek's tour of the massive plant took Picard and his team past row after row of sophisticated, silent machinery.

            The entire plant had been shut down when some of the robotic fruit handlers went berserk.  Instead of loading chakka from delivery bins to antigrav conveyors, the machines suddenly began hurling fruit in all directions.   Three workers had been injured during the effort to shut down the line; the loading section foreman believed the machines had attacked his workers.

            Picard weighed the possibility as the foreman insisted the loaders had deliberately turned on the three humans.  He claimed the machines first selected large chakka, before they launched the heavy fruit directly at his crew.  What the foreman described was awareness of environment, which until today Picard would have considered impossible.

            The factory equipment was remarkably versatile, but lacking in program storage.  The machinery was capable of remote operation, but only through an optical cable link. Considerable upgrades would have to be made to the loader's data processor and its safety protocol overridden, before it would do anything but what a factory programmer had taught it to do.

            Mister LaForge was checking over the machinery, to determine if the loaders had indeed been tampered with.  Commodore Matthews was with the plant supervisor, checking backgrounds of all plant technicians.  While she searched for a worker with either an ax to grind, the requisite skills or both, Lieutenant Worf became Captain Picard's shadow.

            Oh the security officer was discreet, to be sure; but Worf should have been combing the personnel records, not Matthews.   Instead, the lieutenant lurked a few meters away, always out of the Captain's path but ever present.   Try as he might, Picard could not fault his security chief for doing his duty.    It was Worf's job to insure the safety of the ship and its crew; but this afternoon he took special interest in Picard's well being.

            Surveying the loading dock walls, the Captain had to admit the loaders had done some considerable redecorating.   Splashes of fruit meat stained the walls and ceiling, illumination fixtures had been knocked out of place, and bits of chakka were strewn about the large loading bay.   The loaders themselves stood silent, their power supply conduits interrupted at the base of each bolted down mechanism.   One was frozen in the act of lifting a large chakka, the other extended its heavy claw skyward.

            The loaders were designed to lift a cumbersome metal bin, turn and dump its contents onto a graviton field conveyer.   The beltless ramp would carry the fruit directly to a mechanical peeler, which should send the cargo to one of several processing equipment lines.   Now the entire plant was silent, immobilized at the first step in the process by a pair of rebellious machines.

            Captain Picard had sent Solek and the plant supervisor off with Matthews, so he could make an unencumbered, personal inspection of the factory and the damage done to it.   He'd contacted the ship since beaming to the processing plant, more than anything to inform Lieutenant Barclay he had more time to work up his report.  Picard and his shadow had then spent much of the afternoon wandering about the food factory.

            So far though, Captain Picard had seen nothing he had not heard from Solek and the plant manager during the guided tour.   Now though, Picard wandered through the plant in near silence.   In the last few hours, the Captain had heard only Worf shuffling along behind him, and the sound of their tricorders.   The recording sensor units picked up nothing useful, either.

            Picard was growing tense and annoyed once again.   While it felt good to be doing something, he knew the answers he sought were here, in this factory.   However the plant itself covered several square kilometers, and was filled with machinery, repair equipment, antigrav tractors and stored, processed chakka.   Finding any sort of clue was tantamount to searching for the proverbial needle.

            Picard brought his maddening search back to where he'd left Lieutenant Commander LaForge, who at the moment was grinning as he gazed into a loader's open access plate.  The engineer crouched by the machine, just below the loader's heavy, three-pronged claw, examining exposed circuitry with a tricorder.  When Picard cleared his throat, Geordie moved away from the loader's cylindrical pedestal and snapped his tricorder shut.

            The Captain was hopeful as he inquired, "Have you found something, Mister LaForge?"

            Geordie was obviously pleased with himself as he reported, "Indeed I have, Captain."   Beckoning the Captain forward with a crooked finger, LaForge elaborated, "Both of these units have been modified, their onboard memories upgraded."

            Picard asked, "Really?    How so?" then braced himself for a torrent of technical jargon.

            "Here, and here," the engineer explained, pointing out various access plates in the loader's computer core housing, "are weld seams so clean they're barely noticeable to the naked eye.    You'd have to be looking for 'em to find 'em.    Now behind this plate is empty space, designed into the housing for extra memory capacity.    It's meant to be accessed at the factory since it means stripping down the unit, removing the primary translation matrix, as well as---"

            "So it couldn't be done here?" Picard interjected.

            Geordie took another deep breath before explaining, "Well yeah, I suppose, but you'd need a team of factory trained technicians, a shuttlecraft full of specialized tools and about five uninterrupted hours.   Once you begin removing components, in an environment like this you have to keep going; too much risk of dust contamination.    That's why these things are programmed and sealed at the factory."

            "Factory sealed."  The Captain made it sound like a question.  Geordie had his tricorder, but he had brought no other tools with him.

            "Yeah," LaForge agreed, "welded up tight before it leaves the factory, but whoever installed the extra data processor left the exterior access place loosely fastened with a magnetic seal.   All I had to do was pry the panel up by hand."

            The Captain prodded, "Extra processor?"

            "Actually it reads more like a secondary isolinear sub-processing matrix, but I'd have to disassemble the whole program actuator to me sure," LaForge reported.   "It's linked into the primary command sequencer, with a short range subspace receiver for remote command."

            Picard was grateful to Worf, who asked the obvious, "It has definitely been sabotaged?"

            There was a touch of envy in LaForge's tone as he added, "No doubt about it, and it was done by a master.    I mean, with an engineering support team I could have done this in about a day.   Data could do it himself in about half the time, but I don't think either of us could have done a job this elaborate with scrounged parts."

            The engineer had piqued his Captain's curiosity.   "Scrounged parts?"

            Geordie became animated again as he told Picard, "That's the wildest part of the entire upgrade, Captain.   Whoever installed the second command program, used components from an airshuttle's onboard computer."

            Picard speculated, "Well now, that would certainly explain why stolen shuttles were either stripped or never recovered."   He remembered the adamant plant foreman, and asked, "We know the loaders were reprogrammed, but could they have assaulted the employees working in this section?"

            Worf threw his two cents in.   "These machines have no means of acquiring a target."

            LaForge grinned again.   "That's what I thought at first.   They're just loaders; one big claw arm that's blind as a stump---that is, until I examined the recently installed additions a little more closely."   Enterprise's chief engineer extended an arm to a far corner, opposite the loading dock itself.    "Up there," Geordie asked, "secured to that support y'see it?  It's part of an airshuttle sensor array, and the loader's computer is tied into the sensor output."

            Lieutenant Worf, normally bored with technical work, had to admit he was impressed.  "The loading mechanisms were provided with an external set of eyes and ears.    Remarkable."   The Captain guessed Worf was already working out a plan to eliminate such a threat aboard ship.

            Picard returned his attention to his chief engineer in time to see Geordie's grin fade, disappearing far too quickly for the Captain's peace of mind.    He studied LaForge, as the commander glanced quickly around, then turned back to Picard wearing a worried look.

            "Captain," Geordie posed, "no one's supposed to come within a loader's reach when they're in operation.   That would explain why they threw fruit instead of grabbing workers, but what if---the governor did say several airshuttles had been stolen."

            He knew it was impossible, but Picard thought he felt his heart skip a beat.   "Are you saying more plant machinery may have been altered?"

            Adversarial admiration filled Worf's voice as the Klingon growled, "Each attack would appear to be a mere equipment malfunction…cowardly, but ingenious."

            From the spiel Solek recited during their tour, Picard quoted, "This plant has recently been plagued with unexplained malfunctions."   The Captain shifted uncomfortably as he asked, "Suppose none of the so called 'programming errors' were accidental?"

            Worf offered the unsavory answer.   "This entire processing plant could be a minefield."

            Geordie was downright glum.   "I'd have to tear into every one of these machines, to find which ones our saboteur had time to rig.   Governor Solek won't like it."

            The engineer's last sentence slipped a ramrod down Captain Picard's spine.  "He doesn't have to like it.   What will you need, Mister LaForge?"   The Captain could see the size of the task on his chief engineer's face.

            LaForge's tone matched his dismal expression.  "I'll need at least twenty people working around the clock.    If the others are modified as cleverly as these loaders---at least two days, Captain."

            Picard nodded silently, then made up his mind.   He tapped his comm badge and commanded "Picard to Enterprise; Mister Data, assign four engineering support teams to away team duty.   All of the processing plant machinery is to be inspected for signs of sabotage.  Picard out."    The Captain turned his steady gaze on his chief engineer, and stated unequivocally, "Twenty-four hours, Mister LaForge."    He could see Geordie wanted to remind him the days on Sendatius Minor were twenty-six hours long, but thought better of it.

            "Aye, Sir," LaForge grumbled.

            Picard wished he could give Geordie all the time and manpower he needed, but knew it wouldn't be possible.   The Captain had to keep the number of his crew exposed to danger planetside to a bare minimum.   As for time constraints...he could feel time was growing short; almost an instinctive countdown to disaster.

            Instead the Captain said, "Good.    Let us see what luck Matthews is having."



            Commander Riker lumbered through the Enterprise passages, leaning on Counselor Troi for support.   In his sickbay issue pajamas, he felt more like a crippled old man than a Starfleet officer.   Laying on a biobed for nearly ten hours had done nothing to make him feel better.   Doctors hovering over him, running tests, making scans---he would feel much better in his quarters.

            Doctor Crusher was understanding enough to release him from sickbay.   Riker was certain she'd check in on him periodically, if for no other reason than to make certain he stayed in bed.    At least, Will reassured himself, he would not be on public display.

            A nightmare he'd had while laying unconscious in sickbay summed up his feelings.   Riker had seen himself laid out on a roped off slab, part of some bizarre Academy lecture exhibit.  Cadets filed past him as an instructor droned, "This is Commander William T. Riker; he was clumsy enough to get himself killed on an away mission."    The only good part of the ugly scene was waking up.

            The bile taste of his dream was quickly washed away when Will woke to see Deanna by his bedside, holding his hand.   For an all too brief instant he'd forgotten his injuries, and enjoyed a pleasant memory of Deanna.   For a second or two she was---but then it was gone, over and done with a long time ago.    Something else he'd abandoned in pursuit of his dream of starship command.

            As he lurched through a corridor with an arm draped over Troi's shoulders, Riker tried to put a humorous spin on his condition.   He tried to imagine Troi and himself as dance marathon winners, but couldn't hold the image in his mind.   No matter what he sought to divert his attention, Riker kept coming back to his quest.

            He'd been offered a command, but passed on it to accept a tour aboard the Enterprise.  Since becoming the flagship's first officer, he had passed up two other commands of his own.  He'd done a great deal of soul searching after the last offer---the Melbourne---and as he recalled, Will never found a satisfactory answer.

            Just as well, Riker supposed, for the Melbourne had been destroyed with all hands only days later.   Although he'd avenged the armada from the center seat of the Enterprise, he was left with nothing but the choices made by circumstance.   In the end, with a staggering number of opportunities laid out before him, Riker elected to remain first officer of the Galaxy-class flagship of Starfleet.   An exciting, enjoyable assignment…but a bad career move.

            Now commands were passing him up.    He had to admit he felt jealous, and disappointed when Doctor Sterling inadvertently told him he was no longer in the running for command of  Tirpitz.    He remembered feeling a lot of things, but mostly a sudden urge to nap.  Riker chalked up his overwhelming drowsiness to Sterling's hypospray and her remarkable sleight of hand.   Strangely enough only his brief, unsavory nightmare blocked his gratitude.

            What he might have asked for troubled him most.   Riker blamed his weak, unconscious wish to be put to sleep on his injuries and general fatigue.   Searching his memory, he could come up with a number of times he had felt like giving up completely; moments he'd always found the strength to phaser out of his mind, and rather quickly.

            Yes, Commander Riker assured himself, he would overcome this disappointment as well.   After all, he would have the help of some of his closest friends.   The arm he had slung around Deanna's shoulders for support slid down, firming into a hug around her waistline.   Perhaps it was his imagination, but Will could swear Deanna's grip around his midsection tightened a bit as well.

            After a second of wishful thinking, Riker decided it was indeed his imagination.   Once, she had been---but now she was Counselor Deanna Troi.   He couldn't afford to think of her as Imzadi; not when one or both of them could wind up in harm's way.

               Troi would, of course, always be a truly close friend.    Deanna knew him better than anyone else aboard.   Sometimes, Riker felt she understood him better than he understood himself.   Not because she was...of long acquaintance, nor through her empathic gifts; it was the way she willingly combined the two.   Deanna genuinely wanted to know him.

            Riker winced; he knew Troi could read people at a distance, and holding him on his feet brought her close enough to read his palm, if she so desired.   He was too tired to let his mind do anything but wander, and roam it had--­right through his libido.   Hard to keep a secret around an active empath; but if Troi had felt anything from him, she wasn't letting on.

            Their long walk had come to an end.   Troi gently led Will to his cabin door and as the barrier moved aside, she helped him in.   As the door closed behind them, he realized she had planned to stay awhile.   Riker was delightfully surprised when Troi ignored Doctor Crusher's order and steered him to a chair, instead of putting him right to bed.

            The chair was at a brass and glass table at the forward end of his cabin.   After Deanna seated him, Riker noticed the table had been set for two.   When Deanna stepped up to the nearby replicator, Riker's growling stomach helped him realize how long ago breakfast had been.

            "If I'd known an injury would win me dinner with you, I'd have shot myself in the foot days ago," Riker cracked.

            Troi turned away from the replicator and asked, "Feeling better, then?"

            Will tried to bring up a chuckle, but his parched throat changed it to a cough.  "Can't you tell?"   Right at that moment he was thinking how good she looked in her blue and black, medical department uniform; and could tell she'd tried to read him when she blushed.

            Troi turned back to the food processor.   "You're feeling better, all right," she dropped over her shoulder.

Riker settled back in the chair.   "Sorry, Counselor."

            Troi closed the subject by telling him, "No need.   I'd be disappointed if I wasn't noticed once in a while."

            Will flashed back to a completely different conversation, and caught himself murmuring, "Stand in the shadow."


            Will collected the cars of his broken train of thought, then set them on track one by one.  "Something I was accused of, once.   Deanna, do you think I'm, hidden---or hiding, in the Captain's shadow?"

            Troi was taken aback, and reacted more as a friend than an experienced psychologist.   "Who made this accusation?"

            Riker found his smile again.   "That's not important.   I need to know if the observation is accurate."   He felt her eyes on him, as he lowered his gaze to his place setting.   A set of replicated china, antique flatware and crystal glasses held his eyes, but not his attention.

            Counselor Troi answered, "Do you think you're, hiding?"

            After a couple of false starts, he observed, "I'm one of the best first officers in the fleet."   He turned his friendly stare on her, and could see what he thought to be pity in Deanna's eyes.

            The counselor posed an unexpected question.   "Second in command?"   She must have thought he'd been fishing for a compliment

            Riker blurted out, "Can you think of a more qualified officer to command a Galaxy-class starship?"

            "Right at the moment," Deanna answered, perhaps too honestly, "not that many."

            Will wanted to sound hopeful as he prodded, "Am I one of them?"

           "Do you believe you are?" was all she would give him.

           Honestly, Riker thought sarcastically, Troi's method of digging for the truth could be quite infuriating.    Without a thought he snapped, "Well of course I do, I'm just wondering---"

            "If Starfleet Command still thinks so," Deanna finished for him.

            The word 'still' stopped him cold.    He spent a few seconds building a denial, then quashed it and admitted, "I guess so."    Riker waited for Deanna to say something reassuring, but finally realized she was waiting for him to continue.

            Will tried to think of something to add, and came up with, "Angela Matthews leaped at the first command she was offered."

            He seemed to have sparked the counselor's interest, for she turned a steady gaze on him and asked, "Do you know why?"

            Riker was getting tired of this game.    "No---do you?"

            Trying a different vector, Deanna put another question to him.    "Do you know what her previous assignment was?"

            Will could see Deanna wasn't about to give him an answer he had not worked for.  Although it hurt like hell to do so, Riker shrugged.   "Last I heard, she was an instructor at the Academy."   Answering her attentive silence, Will followed up with, "Do you think she was unsatisfied with the posting?"   He had done a bit of teaching in his time, and felt the task of molding young people into the future of Starfleet quite challenging.

            "Were you?"

            "Of course not."    There had to be a point here, and he wished she would get to it.

            Troi wanted to know, "Then why aren't you an instructor at Starfleet Academy?"

            Will responded automatically, "There was an opening for a second officer, on the…"   He stared at his friend, as a dumb grin spread across his face.   "I think I see what you're getting at."

            Deanna Troi heaved a sigh.   "Finally."

            "Then you don't think I've become...complacent?"

            She was wearing that know-it-all smirk of hers---the one he fell in love with---as she inquired, "Do you think so?"

            Riker laughed in spite of his pain.   "Oh no, we're not gonna start that again."

            Troi brought his chortle to an abrupt halt by asking, "Is there an assignment anywhere in the fleet you would rather have?"

            Will Riker thought in earnest, and had to admit to himself there was one post where he'd like to serve.    However, as he gazed warmly at his closest friend, Will announced, "No, I suppose not."

            Deanna's smile lit up the room.   "Good, then dinner is served."

            Wonderful machines, those replicators.    Anything from anywhere in the known galaxy was yours to savor---providing the mechanism had a sample to analyze.   Will had, from time to time, used the device to conjure raw materials for his own, honest to goodness cooking.   Without a replicator, Deanna was like most people these days; just short of lost.   He couldn't help but wonder what delicacy she had selected for the evening's repast.

            When she turned away from the wall, Deanna held a tray with two dishes; a Betazed wild leaf salad, and some sort of meat entree.   Riker asked jovially, "And what have we here?"   As she set the dish before him, he could see it was some sort of fish filet, with a serving of cream sauce covering it.

            "Angela called it 'Pike ala creme'," Deanna informed him, as she seated herself and split the salad with him.   "A game fish called muskellunge."

            Riker echoed, "Angela?"

            "She wanted to do something nice for you," Troi explained, then cracked a smile and threw in, "And since she doesn't give trombone lessons..."

            Grinning, Riker admonished, "Go ahead, kick me while I'm down."

            Deanna inquired playfully, "Is that how you feel?"

            Will eased back, set his fork down and moaned, "Oh, here we go again."



            Lieutenant Barclay sat alone in the cell, unaware of the chronometer's progress.   His world consisted of the detention area, the two partially disassembled androids and a broad range of tools.   He was very grateful to the Captain, for allowing more time to sort out the complex machines.  Sadly, Reg was certain the Captain would, in exchange, expect a highly detailed report.

            Details which had thus far eluded him; Reg Barclay was beginning to doubt his considerable talents.   He had been running diagnostics on these machines since early this morning, and had learned nothing more than he had from his first few hours of examination.   He'd buried himself in his work, shut out everything but the Captain's reprieve.   Barclay was happy Picard had found something else of interest since in the last six hours, Reg had not.

            Reg set what he believed to be a wave guide processor on the deck, and stared at the droid body he had pulled it from.   Absently tapping his knee with a tool, Reg went through a remarkably long list of checks, tests and analyses he'd already performed, before turning from the alien machine.

            He had sorted out the thing's primary data processors, command translation matrix, and cybernetic ‘muscular’ linkage.  He had even found, removed, and very carefully disposed of, powerful micro-charges; bombs he assumed were the center of the droid's auto-destruct system.   At the cost of a clean uniform, Reg found what he guessed to be the coolant system; but what continued to elude him was the primary power grid.

            Excluding the self-destruct mechanisms, the android had indeed been boobytrapped; as Barclay discovered when he attempted to access the machine's onboard computer systems.   A power surge wiped all programming and fused the android's brain into a pile of junk.   There was no warning, and nothing anyone could have done to prevent it; but Barclay had made use of the tamper prevention surge.

            The diagnostic engineer had, during each facet of disassemble, left a tricorder running.   Barclay had seized the little unit immediately after the surge, and the tricorder's playback showed him where the energy had come from.   Hope sprang anew, as Reg dug into the android and pulled the appropriate part.

            He'd removed and replaced the wave guide processor a number of times before the surge, and his studies had not indicated a power generation capability.   After the surge, he examined the part again, then replaced the unit and tried to reactivate the onboard program file.   With not even a hint of a power surge, Reg removed the processor again and now stared at it in disgust.

            "Oh, what the hell," Barclay grumbled, as he completely reassembled the first android.   As with the last three assembly jobs, the android sniper went back together as easily as it came apart.    Barclay imagined the thing was very easily maintained by a trained technician.   Reg hadn't felt this blend of frustration and fascination since he took apart his mother's antique mechanical clock.   On the other hand he'd got the old, broken clock running.

            The task complete, Reg wiped the sweat from his brow and sat the android up on the cell's bunk.   As he rebuilt the second droid, Barclay marveled at the complex machine's ease of assembly.   A number of access panels were located throughout the robot's body, and most components could be removed and replaced without tools.

            Barclay set the second droid on the bed, next to the first.  The Starfleet officer stretched, and worked a kink out of his lower back.   As he turned, Reg noticed for the first time he was still alone.   Security hadn't even sent someone to replace poor Ensign Booker.   He shifted back to the pair of alien combat droids, and decided to do something about his irritation.

            With a little effort, the sniper had its hands folded in its lap, while the infiltrator had its legs crossed and its arm draped over the other droid's shoulders.  Reg stepped back, out of the cell to admire his handiwork.   He looked from one droid to the other, then announced, "Well, you two look comfortable.   I'll be over here, writing my report so if you need anything, just ask."

            He nearly leaped out of his skin when a soft, feminine voice pleaded, "Oh Reggie, just hold still and don't make me get the butterfly net."

            Barclay spun around with the grace of a rhino, and found Doctor Sterling behind him.   "Y-you, you startled me half to death, Doctor."

            Sterling began, "Sorry Reggie, I just---Doctor?    Last week on the holodeck it was Kate."

            Reg edged back a bit, and observed, "This week it's Cee-Em-Oh Sterling, of the Tirpitz."

            The wind fell from Kate Sterling's sails.   "Aw Reggie, I'm sorry.   I hoped I'd be able to tell you before the scuttlebutt caught up to you, but I've been kept very busy today."

            Reg cast his gaze downward as he groused, "Packing, I suppose."

            Kate's whole body went rigid.   "Actually, I just finished assisting Doctor Crusher with two autopsies."   Seeing his face, Sterling put a glove on before throwing her follow up punch.   "I've already been shot at today, Reggie."

            "Sorry…Kate," Reg offered, ashamed of himself.   "I suppose I'm, just, uh…"

            "Disappointed?"   Kate slipped an index finger under his chin, and lifted his eyes from the deck.   "Well of course you are.   A gem like me doesn't come along everyday."

            Reg forced a smile.   "Don't I know it."

            "Aw, Reggie."   Sterling stepped up and wrapped herself around him.  After a second of uncertainty, he closed his arms around her and returned the hug.  "We'll always be friends," Kate asked, "won't we?"

            Barclay reassured her, "Of course, but…I had hoped we---we might be, uh…more than just friends, someday."

            Kate responded in her most dulcet tone, "Oh, Reggie!"

            He felt her squeeze the air from his lungs as she softly admonished, "You should've said something---better yet, done something.   I've certainly provided you enough opportunities."

            Reg tried to mentally track down the aforementioned opportunities as he said, "You know me."

            Sterling eased up her hug enough to look into his eyes and agreed, "You're the original shy guy."

            "Yeah," Reg embellished, "shy, nervous, easily embarrassed---"

            "Tall, handsome," Sterling countered, "and a terrific dancer."

            Barclay pulled away from her, turned and shuffled to the security desk.   "I seem to remember stepping on your feet an awful lot."

            Sterling pointed out, "That was over a year ago.    Ease up and take a compliment, Reggie."

            Barclay couldn't stop the smile, nor budge it before he turned to face her.   "How'd your feet survive the mashing I gave them?"

            Sterling giggled.   "Geordie made me a pair of reinforced shoes.  You look too good in white tie and tails to give up on."

            Barclay heard himself laugh, and liked it.   "You really enjoy that program, don't you?"

            "Me?    I wasn't the one who left the holodeck whistling Let's Face the Music and Dance, now was I?"

            Reg startled himself by finding the fortitude to point out, "No, but who swung onto the deck of the Spanish sail ship, sword in hand?"

            Kate blushed.   "All right, so I got tired of playing the damsel in distress.    Shoot me."

                Reg reminded her, "Did that, in Deadwood Arizona."

                Sterling pushed up the brim of her imaginary Stetson, lowered her tone and said, "But it was only a flesh wound, pardner."

            Barclay wanted to laugh again, but couldn't find it in him.   "Who am I going to play with, once you're gone?"   Kate had been the only real person with whom he'd willingly shared a holodeck.

            Sterling beamed.   "Ask someone."

            Barclay's shoulders slumped.   "Right after I build a starship with my bare hands."

            He realized he'd raised her ire again as Kate fumed, "You can really be infuriating at times."  She huffed, then told him, "Lucky for you one of us thought ahead.   I programmed a suitable partner into the ballroom dance series, months ago.   She'll even slap you, if you get fresh."

            "You never slapped me," Reg observed, a bit startled and hurt.

            "I can always start," Kate glowered, "but I think you know why it's programmed that way."

            Yes, he knew.    As Mr. LaForge once put it, Reg could write the book on holodeck addiction.   He breathed a long, melancholy sigh, and thought of things that might have been.   "It just won't be the same without you."

            Her reply startled him, as Reg hadn't realized he'd thought out loud.   "I'll miss you too, Reggie."    Her sad face suddenly lit up like an overloaded console.   "Of course you could come with me," Kate suggested hopefully.   "I'm sure Angela can use a talented diagnostic engineer."

            Barclay's search finally turned up a single ironic chuckle.   "You have a knack for offering difficult choices, Kate.    Assuming the Commodore would have me---"

            "I think that's a given," Kate said smugly.

            Barclay took a deep breath, and began again.  "Okay, but I'd still have to start all over.  I'm just beginning to feel...comfortable, here, and I'm, not exactly the life of the party right now."  He saw that look in her eyes, and knew Kate was a few pages ahead of him.

            Her face shifted to a sad clown's, as Sterling put on a smile she obviously didn't feel.  "I won't force you to choose," she promised, "but if you change your mind, say the word and I'll haul you off this ship myself."

            "It's a deal," Reg told her, while thinking he must be insane.   He waved a padd toward the cell and its cozy occupants.   "I---I'd uh, better get back to work."

            Sterling wasn't quite ready to leave.   "So which one of them shot at me?"

            "Hmm?  Oh uh, the one on the left," Reg told her.

            Kate stared at it, then cracked a smile.   "Doesn't look so dangerous now, does he?"

            "Less than it looks."    Reg elaborated, "I accidentally shorted out its primary computer system."

            Sterling perked up a bit, as she stared at the motionless android.   "Brain dead, huh?    Serves him right."

            This was better, Reg thought; work was easier to discuss than relationships.   "I agree, but the other one is, as far as I can tell, fully functional.   By rights it should simply get up and walk out of here, but it's as dead as the other one."

            "Trust me Reggie," Sterling insisted, "we're all better off."   The worried look on her face spoke volumes, even to him.

            "Yeah, but, I'm sure the Captain will want to know why it's dead, Kate."

            Doctor Sterling shivered, then turned to Barclay.  "I think Captain Picard will want to know why you're wearing a sloppy uniform, Reggie.   Been slurping your soup again?"

            "Wha---oh, yeah."    Barclay's eyes fell to his shirt, and saw the dark, greasy stains had completely dried.   "The sniper's coolant system spurted this stuff all over me."

            Kate kept the alarm out of her voice but not off her face as she scolded him, "Reggie, that stuff could be toxic."    She whipped out her tricorder and gave Reg a quick once over, before centering on the dried residue.    Half a minute later, her jaw dropped.

            Staring at her tricorder readout, Kate inquired, "You're convinced this is from the coolant system, Reggie?"

            She'd finally managed to make Barclay tremble.  "Well, yes I---it's from a ducted system that circulates through every millimeter of both drones.   My best guess is a coolant/lubricant combination, but there's nothing like it on file in the engineering database."

            Sterling had regained her composure.   She managed to stop his quaking with a hand on his shoulder, but her declaration put his mind at ease.   "Don't worry Reggie, this stuff won't hurt you," she told him, then half-panicked him again with, "but it's not what you think it is."

            Barclay jump-started his heart, and tried his best to politely inquire, "So, uh...what is it?"

            Wide-eyed, Doctor Sterling slowly shook her head as she snapped her tricorder shut.  "It's blood."