By ship's morning, Picard woke to find Beverly gone and his mind clear, free of its nocturnal terror. He dressed, and by the time he mentally reviewed the tasks of the day, he had convinced himself that the Borg chatter had been no more than a vestige of the dream.
The first stop was engineering. Picard entered to find the android B-4 sitting, legs sprawled with unselfconscious gracelessness, clad in the mustard jumpsuit he routinely wore. His expression bland and benign, B-4 let his ingenuous gaze wander, without curiosity, over his surroundings. Picard could not determine whether the android had actually registered the captain's entry, or the presence of Geordi La Forge or Beverly Crusher.
"Captain Jean-Luc Picard," B-4 said at last, without inflection. From experience, Picard knew this was not a greeting; B-4 was merely parroting the name of an object he recognized. But for the sake of the others, the captain took it as such.
"Good morning, B-4," he said briskly, with false cheerfulness. Silently, he nodded a greeting to La Forge and Beverly.
Geordi stood next to the android. Beverly stood across from the two of them, her arms folded, her expression carefully professional, that of chief medical officer and nothing more. Technically, since B-4 was not human, what was about to occur could not be called a medical procedure. Nonetheless, Beverly had insisted on coming.
Geordi's features were composed as well, but there was a poignant undercurrent in his prosthetic crystalline eyes. Data had been his closest friend, and spending time with B-4 -- Data's double in physical form only, certainly not in personality, intelligence, or attitude -- had only served to underscore the loss of that friend. Geordi had worked the past few months with B-4 in hopes of summoning Data's memories -- to re-create, if possible, all that Data had been.
The effort had proved cruelly futile. B-4 had regurgitated names, snippets of events from Data's past, but had never put them into context, had never shown the slightest interest in their meaning.
But as he had wandered the Enterprise's corridors, Geordi so often in tow, B-4 had kept Data's ghost alive for them all. Picard still struggled with a sense of guilt: in the most human and loving of gestures, Data had sacrificed himself so that his captain and crewmates might live. Even months later, Picard was visited too often by the horrible instant of materializing on the bridge, of seeing the dazzling flash of the Scimitar's destruction, of knowing that Data was dead, incinerated into nonexistence...
There had not even been time enough to say good-bye. He missed Deanna Troi dreadfully; she was serving with her husband Will Riker aboard the Titan now, and only in her absence had Picard come to realize how much he had relied on her as a counselor not only in professional matters but in personal ones as well. He was limited now to remembering what she had told him shortly before she left the Enterprise with Will:
Data's final act was one that brought him the most happiness; it gave his entire existence the greatest meaning. Yes, he could have lived centuries longer...but what's the use of immortality if there's no meaning to it?
Case in point, Picard thought, looking at the android in front of him. As the captain took his place beside Beverly, B-4 sat staring vacuously, oblivious to the feelings of the humans surrounding him. Data, of course, would have been keenly aware. Picard tried, and was entirely unsuccessful, to suppress a memory: Data, standing in the scalded dust of the desert world Kolarus, lifting B-4's head from the sand and holding it before his eyes in unwitting imitation of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull. Brother, Data had called him. So like Data, to have yearned for the closest of human relationships.
"B-4," Geordi said, with the same gentle tone he had used so often with his old friend, "do you realize what we're about to do?" La Forge unconsciously fingered the laser wrench in his hand. Nearby sat open storage compartments: one the size of a torso, another that of a human cranium. A third was designed to house limbs. B-4 would soon return to the state in which they had first discovered him: disassembled.
The android looked in turn at each of them: Beverly, Picard, then back at Geordi.
"You are sending me away," B-4 said.
"Yes," Geordi answered, his tone infinitely patient. "You're going to the Daystrom Institute. They're going to study you and learn about your design, how you were made."
"How I was made," B-4 echoed tonelessly. He glanced at the storage compartments, then at the deck.
"We're going to deactivate you now," Geordi persisted. "Most likely permanently. We talked about all this, remember?"
"I remember," B-4 replied, distracted by the movement of another engineer passing by en route to her station.
Apparently more for himself than the android, Geordi added, "It's a good thing you're doing, B-4. You're helping science."
After a brief silence, B-4 looked up at La Forge and asked abruptly, "What is it like to be deactivated?"
Geordi was caught off guard; Beverly stepped in.
"It's like...nothing," she said. "Like being nowhere at all. It's not uncomfortable. Humans might compare it to a dreamless sleep."
"Nothing?" B-4 tilted his head in painful imitation of Data.
Geordi recovered and nodded. "You won't see or hear anything. You'll no longer receive any input."
B-4 blinked, considering this. "That sounds very boring. I do not think I want to be deactivated now."
Geordi shot an openly helpless glance at Picard. Beside him, Beverly shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable.
"B-4," Picard said sternly, "it's too late to change your mind. You already agreed to be deactivated. That was a good decision, one you must abide by." Now was not the time for dialogue. True, the situation might trigger memories of a lost friend, but swift action was required lest it turn maudlin. B-4 was not Data, and that was that.
There followed a slight pause. "All right," B-4 answered mildly.
Picard directed a curt nod at Geordi. "Please deactivate B-4, Mister La Forge."
Geordi hesitated no more than a heartbeat, then with his free hand, reached for a panel at the back of B-4's neck, opened it, and pressed a control.
B-4 froze: his eyes no longer blinked, his head no longer moved, his limbs no longer fidgeted in realistic representation of human motion. Even the blandly pleasant expression had resolved into one of soulless vacancy. In less than a millisecond, he was transformed from sentient being to inanimate object.
Picard had expected the moment after to be the easiest. To his surprise, it was the hardest -- for there, in front of them, sat Data, just as he had appeared all the times they had been forced to shut him down. There was no longer B-4's vacant expression and witless repetition to remind them that this was someone, something else. Picard's throat tightened; he recalled a time, many years ago, when Command had wanted to deactivate Data for study. He remembered how hard and eloquently he and Data had argued against it, and won.
Now it felt as though he had ultimately lost.
Standing beside Picard, Beverly gave a few rapid blinks, then regained her composure. Geordi, his tone soft, his words forced, said, "I'll finish up here, Captain. He'll be ready for shipment within the hour." He lifted the laser wrench in his hand and fingered a toggle.
"Very good," Picard said. He turned on his heel and tried to leave Data's memory behind, in engineering -- just as he had earlier dismissed the dream about the Borg.
It had been a strange night, followed by a strange morning; Picard could not entirely rid himself of the odd feeling the world had somehow gone awry. Nothing more than mental phantoms, he exhorted himself. Nothing real: just ghosts. Ghosts and whispers...
As he rode the turbolift up toward the bridge, Picard's mood gradually began to lighten. His next task would be a far happier one: he had been planning an announcement with great care. The previous night, after he had received some anticipated news from Starfleet Command, he and Beverly had each enjoyed a glass of wine and laughed over his nefarious plan for delivering said news. They had planned, too, a small celebration of the senior crew after hours.
Picard was nearly smiling when the turbolift slowed and arrived at the bridge, but by the time the doors opened, he had already forced a frown in order to produce a properly grim expression.
The Enterprise bridge was a study in silent efficiency: a recent transfer from Security, Lieutenant Sara Nave, straw-colored hair loosely coiled at her neck, sat at the conn, studying the stars on the main viewscreen. Nave's serious expression and consummate professionalism belied her off-duty behavior. At the academy, she'd had a reputation as a fun-loving hellion -- the captain recalled that several senior officers had used the same label for him. Unlike her captain, Nave had graduated at the top of her class and was one of the best in her field.
Born on Rigel to human parents -- both of them high-ranking officers in Starfleet -- Nave had been a prodigy, convinced from early childhood that she wanted to follow in her family's footsteps. Her academic record was stellar enough to convince Starfleet Academy to grant her early admission; after an accelerated program, she graduated at the age of eighteen. She was now twenty-five, with seven years of outstanding service under her belt -- though it was hard sometimes for Picard to believe it, given the fact that Nave looked even younger than she was. Her pixielike features would always give her the appearance of youth, even into old age.
She was not a tall woman, though her limbs were lithe and long -- yet her strength was formidable, in part because she had started in Security. She regularly practiced mock combat with Worf using the bat'leth -- the quarter-moon-shaped Klingon scimitar -- albeit with a slight han...