Tin Soldier

Lost in space; tumbling closer and closer to the world that whirled in and out of his line of sight, Data woke from a dream of falling to the terror that had become his existence.

There had been no warning. The eruption that sent his shipmates to oblivion and ripped his ship to pieces had flung him, with the wreckage, into hard vacuum; explosive decompression adding a sickening spin to his already tumbling body. In the two days it had taken for the planet's gravity to slow and reverse the parabola described by the debris field, he had come to understand that he was as dead as his crew. It was just, in his case, taking time for the event to be finished.

He probed at his feelings the way one would wiggle a loose tooth. The acuteness of the pain was definitely abating; emotions no longer occupied the bulk of his processing. He found that he could think about the end to his fall, burned up in the planet's atmosphere, almost dispassionately. It would certainly be a relief to have this experience over.

His sleep program had a ten hour default, so he couldn't take refuge in unconsciousness for the whole time left to him. Neither, it seemed, could he stay in a state of black despair, indulging the profound grief he felt for the loss of the lives he had had in his care as commander of the exploration scout FarStar. He found he had mourned the passing of each of the twelve crew, every interaction he had had with them over the past year had been noted and sorted. The speed of his thought processes, usually his greatest strength, had become a liability. With an internal sigh he decided to spend some time reconfiguring his visual pathways to compensate for the apparently spinning universe, at least he would be able to observe his life ending, if he was no longer terrified it seemed his curiosity was undimmed.

***** Beverly Picard looked up from her research notes, and fumbled under a pile of books to locate the com' screen that was insistently beeping for her attention. She grabbed it just as the computer started its pre-programmed inanity.

" Jean-Luc and Beverly cannot get to the link........"

"Hello." She ran her hand through her hair to pull some strands out of her mouth, found herself smiling widely at the image of an old friend forming on the screen. " Will, how lovely, where are you?" She leaned forward trying to read his expression, hidden as ever behind his trademark beard.

"Beverly." He was grinning at her obvious delight " Have you been so caught up in that project of yours that you haven't kept up with the fleet gossip? The Enterprise is in orbit."

" Here? But Jean-Luc didn't say anything. " Beverly looked distracted for a moment " I'm sure I would have remembered... What for Will?"

" Do I need an excuse to call on old friends."

" No, but this is wonderful, are you able to visit?"

" If you'll have me. There is something I want to discuss with the Captain."

"Jean-Luc to you Captain. And don't you forget. I've finally got out of the habit of calling him that and I'm not having you setting me off again." She grinned to take any sting from her words. "Come Will. It will be like old times."

"I'll be down shortly, Riker out."

Beverly reached to switch off the view screen, leaned back in her chair and tried to see the river from her seat. She could just see him, perched on the rickety jetty, fishing rod in hand. She debated whether let him know about Will's visit. And decided soon enough would do. There were few enough surprises for him at the moment. She wondered why he hadn't told her that the Enterprise would be visiting, then shook her head, working out why he thought the things he did was a full time job. She had a report that had to be in. A little later she watched out the window as Riker's tall form materialized on the road outside the house. Signalling and pointing she managed to tell him in mime where to look for Jean-Luc. Riker caught sight of him, blew her a kiss, and set off down to the water front.

Apart from the sound of the river slapping against the wooden piles the summer afternoon was silent, the scent of weed and water intense after the clinical cleanliness of the shipboard environment. Jean-Luc sat with his fishing rod braced between his knees, peering into the water's green depths, concentration pulling his eyebrows together. The thoughts he was lost in were obviously deep enough that he failed to hear Riker's approach.

Jean-Luc Picard, ex-captain, now private citizen, contemplated the fishing line and the sea, the heat of the sun warming his back, and felt lazy and useless. For the hundreth time he wondered what he had thought he was doing when he let Beverly talk him into this project. She was happy enough. Her work, that had brought them to this frontier planet, was essential; and the government considered obtaining a doctor of her calibre a godsend they were not about to question. The retrovirus that had killed twenty percent of the native Arands was enough to keep her hard at her research for as long as she had. But, for him, archeology had proved, as he had long suspected, not enough to compensate for the loss of his command. The team of specialists he had joined at the dig were young and enthusiastic, the vast Rand city remains intriguing enough as hints of Seeder technology kept turning up amongst the artifacts. He should be in his element. He felt, as Professor Galen had once accused him, guilty of dilettantish self indulgence. He jumped as an unexpected voice hailed him from behind.

"Sir ?" Beverly's prohibition had left Riker in a slightly awkward position as to how he was to address his friend. Jean-Luc labored under no such restriction.

" Will!" He peered up the great length of his former number one, and scrambled to his feet, in an effort to confirm the evidence of his ears. " Will it is you! " He lay his fishing rod down on the wooden boards of the wharf and clasped the younger man by the upper arms. " What are you?... Why didn't Beverly?.....Have you been to the house? "

He stopped, and stared at the imposing figure in front of him, suddenly realizing that he was babbling. Embarrassed by his outburst, he stepped away, and bent to pick up his fishing rod, muttering gruffly. " Damn near made me fall in the water, sneaking up on me like that." Trying to recover his poise, he glared at the younger man.. "What're you doing in this god forsaken backwater Will? Starfleet letting you use that behemoth of a ship as your own personal transport?" He shot an assessing glance at the other man's careworn face. " Mind you, by the look of you, your days have been busier than mine have lately." Breaking off, he started up the hill, casually handing Riker his folding stool to carry. " So?"

Riker shook his head at his departing back and bent down to pick up the bag he had put down when he greeted Picard, then strode out to catch up with him. Somehow when he was out of Picard's company he remembered him as easier to get on with than he always proved to be.

He thought ruefully about the mission he had just completed. Starfleet had assigned the Enterprise border duty. They had him ferrying unwilling colonists from ceded Federation worlds along the, yet again redefined, Cardassian demilitarized zone. Riker was feeling tired, and his crew really needed the shore leave and more positive assignment they had just pulled. Recently all they had seemed to be doing was fending off Macqui sabotage attempts, and Riker was having difficulty avoiding thinking about who might be on the tiny ships they occasionally had to engage. At the moment Picard's relatively low stress life-style seemed the purest luxury.

With the guilty feeling of giving in to temptation, he decided to rise to the taunt tacit in Picard's last comment. "The Enterprise, as you would know if you had taken me up on any of my invitations to visit, is neither my personal transport nor a behemoth. And as to why I am here." He paused to look at Picard, who had a slight smile lifting the corner of his mouth at the success of his teasing." I came to see you. To ask for your advice. And perhaps a favor or two."

Picard raised an eyebrow but refrained from commenting or questioning. Beverly would never forgive him if he heard the bulk of the gossip before she did. He held the garden gate open for Riker then followed him to the front door. It opened as they approached and Beverly stepped forward to hug Riker. Picard took the opportunity to study them both for a second. Will looked older. From his bearing command was sitting heavily on his shoulders. Tough life, tough decisions. With a pang he realized how much he missed it. He caught Beverly's eye and, waving the fishing gear, he vanished around the side of the building, leaving Riker grinning into Beverly's face.

" He looks well Beverly. As do you, as beautiful as ever. " She pulled a face and waved him inside, pointing him at the living room before pausing to turn off the computer. Following him to the chairs a moment later, she sat gracefully on a sofa facing Riker, then looked thoughtfully at him, noting the worry lines engraved since their last meeting, and was quiet for a while before answering .

"Oh yes, physically he's fine." She looked beyond him for a moment, as if distracted by the patterns on the wall made by the sparkling water. " But I won't be able to keep him," she almost whispered before looking up, then smiling, as Jean-Luc emerged from the back of the house, sans fishing gear. "I was just telling Will about your itchy feet."

Picard grimaced and sat himself down beside his wife, his mouth tight with displeasure." I wish you wouldn't do that Beverly."

They locked eyes for a moment; the intensity of the silent communication made Riker smile again, an expression he tried to repress as Jean-Luc turned his gaze back on him.

"To what do we owe the honor, Will?"

Riker's brow creased and the light mood created by his unexpected visit evaporated. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, turning a tan box he had removed from his bag over and over in his hands.

Eventually he looked up and began, his voice soft. " Do you realize it's been over a year since we lost Data? " He studied the lid of the box, then looked up at the couple in front of him, the blue of his eyes remarkable.

Beverly reached over and slid her hand under Jean-Luc's as she felt him stiffen slightly in the seat beside her. Data's loss was a wound that had not healed in any of them.

Riker cleared his throat "Now some evidence has come to light that leads me to believe he may have survived the explosion that destroyed the FarStar."

Picard sat up straight and stared at Riker. "Whatever do you mean, Will? The ship was lost with all hands. God knows Starfleet spent enough time sifting through the wreckage. Nothing survived."

"So we all thought; but last week an old friend in Federation security sent this to me. "

He pulled off the top of the box and took an object out. It glinted as he tossed it over to Picard, who caught it, then held it up to the light to examine it more carefully.

Riker continued. " My friend is a collector of rare and unusual artifacts. She said that the sudden appearance of these, in the open market, is unprecedented. She made inquiries but the mystery was only partly solved. She found a match; but it was classified, sealed in the Enterprise D mission logs. She thought I might be able help."

Picard stood and moved closer to the window, held the object up and squinted at its bottom. " This looks like a Pallal icon, in fact I'm almost sure." He held it in his clenched hand and closed his eyes. He felt the faint warmth and vibration the artifact gave off. It soothed him and he had to fight the temptation to lay his head on Beverly's shoulder and relax completely. " Yes, it's authentic." He looked questioningly at Riker. " These are rare, but hardly difficult to source. What has this to do with Data?"

"Open the chest cavity."

Picard carefully twisted the top of the little statue and a recessed door swung out revealing an embossed panel beneath. Beverly saw the color drain from his face, and alarmed asked, " What is it Jean-Luc. Show me?" He handed the statue to her and turned to look out the window, struggling to get his feelings under control.

Riker saw a look of puzzlement appear on Beverly's face." Look carefully at the pattern inside." Beverly held the panel to the light, then gasped and looked in disbelief at first Riker and then questioning, at her husband's back.

Incised on the icon's chest a row of symbols. She had only seen them once before but they were instantly recognizable. Then, these shapes had led to the Enterprise being transformed piecemeal into an alien city. Data had worn the one on the left on his forehead, like a badge, when he had expressed the personality of Ehat, the trickster. In the middle was the symbol of Masaka bringer of death. To the right, and smaller, the horned symbol representing Korgon, the hunter and hunted. Since the mission logs pertaining to the dangerous alien library were classified, suddenly Riker's surmise made sense. "Who was selling them?" Her voice took on a tinge of anger, if someone was playing tricks it was in extremely bad taste.

Riker stood, and moved over to stand beside Picard. " An anonymous vendor. Six of these have been auctioned recently, at widely different sites throughout the Federation. The Pallal deny allowing any off planet, but also confirm their authenticity . They have to have been made by a Pallal" Riker reached for the icon and held it in his hand for a moment, savoring its calming vibration. He met Picard's eye again. " Each of the six has a different arrangement of symbols. And each symbol is one that was generated by the archive. The Pallal are asking the Federation council to help, they fear they have somehow lost a collective."

Beverly reached up to touch the statue and ran her fingers over the symbols. " How could the Pallal lose a collective? They have a world mind." She looked dreamy as the icon worked its relaxing magic. " But does this have to be aimed at us? We are the only ones who would recognize the symbols for what they are but perhaps Data told someone about the array. Could it be one of Data's acquaintances using the patterns in memory of him ?"

Riker shrugged. " I thought of that, but I can't imagine Data breaching security, can you?" Both Picards shook their heads, Riker continued." The Pallal want the Federation to help them find the lost collective. They will even leave the planet to assist, if necessary. Then the request came through from the council to try to follow this up without breaching the information lock on the array. I thought of you. If you could get away that is? " He looked at his friend and mentor, challenge in every line of his frame. Picard ran his hand over his head and sat again beside Beverly. He wanted this with an intensity that made his knees feel weak.

" I have no access to a ship. And my work........" He trailed off. Riker was smiling again,. "The Enterprise has been reassigned to help Arand with the plague... that's the real reason why I am here " He cocked an ironic eye at Jean-Luc , who had the grace to look a little sheepish. Beverly looked first startled, then relieved. The assistance of the Starship and its state-of-the-art technology would make a nearly impossible job realizable again. Picard caught her eye and asked a question with a raised eyebrow, she leaned across and kissed him on the cheek . " How could you live with yourself if you didn't follow this up? Go Jean- Luc. I suspect Will will be able to find you a ship."

Riker had returned to sit in front of the couple. He nodded at Beverly." And some company, if you would like. Non essential personal have been granted shore leave, and in this case I can safely count myself as non- essential. I think I can trust Shelby not to drop my ship while I'm away, even if I have to wrestle her to get it back again. We could take the Yacht and follow up some possible leads ...?" Riker tilted his head and grinned at Jean-Luc, suddenly looking more like the keen young man he had met years ago.

Jean-Luc stood and held out his hand to Riker, who surged up out of his seat to grasp it. " You're on Will, give me a day to finish up here." He looked over at Beverly who had headed to her computer to start interfacing with Dr. Keshvare on the Enterprise, and turned his wry grin back to Riker. "It looks like I'm a little non- essential around here too."
***** Data woke from a dream of falling to find the universe spinning around him with such sickening intensity that a groan escaped his lips before he shut his eyes. He was simultaneously flooded with enormous surprise as shutting his eyes worked, and the groan actually emerged audibly. He froze, and defaulted his visual receptors to normal before risking opening his eyes again.

He listened, and tried to gather as much information from his sensors as he could. He ignored those that told him about the loss of an arm and leg, and the ones telling him about needing to replenish his stores of organic components. He attended to those listing gravity, atmosphere and temperature. He could hear the sigh of air recyclers and an insistent drip, his sensors reported one grav, one atmosphere, eighteen degrees centigrade. He opened his eyes again. Although the lighting was dim, his analysis told him he was on board a starship. He was lying on his side on a transporter platform in a cargo hold, pieces of wreckage scattered about him. He let his eyes follow the line of fluid leaking from the stump of his upper arm until it dripped off the edge of the platform. With an effort he shut off the conduit that was leaking the bulk of the fluid. His alarm program was warning him that automatic shut down should commence, now immediate peril was over, so that regeneration of his biologic systems could take place. He found himself beyond caring.

He heard the swish of a door, and delayed the shut down for the moment as an impossibility walked toward him. A Pallal alone; as unlikely as a snowflake in a furnace. Like a flame, she twisted towards him, in a pattern that should have brought each member of her Writhe in turn to face him. Her movement confirmed his initial impression and showed him a possible explanation for her survival. Beneath the fine sensory web of golden filaments that resembled human hair he could see a silver collar fastened around her slender neck. A rectangular box parted her mane at the back, winking with status lights. The tapered end of her long, whip-like, antennae, that should have been linked with the others of her person, were socketed in the device. Even alone she was a creature of beauty. Humanoid in build, about human average in height, her sky pale blue skin set off enormous dark eyes, and graceful elongated limbs. Geordi had taken him once to see a Pallal festival. The Fairy Ball he had called it, and Data had sat entranced as the earthbound female Pallal had danced in their Writhes, and then met with the winged males, to be carried aloft in a paeans of song and emotion. The visit had taken place before he had installed the chip that would have allowed him to explore the nuances of the emotion expressed, but the pure beauty of the Pallal culture had needed no explanation at all.

She stopped beside him, her head cocked to one side as if listening, her face a emotionless blank. Her hands lifted as if of their own accord to touch her partners, then fell awkwardly to her sides as emptiness met her questing. She hummed on a rising note, and bent down to brush a gossamer finger across his face. Then twisted manically aside, and hopped and danced around the cargo bay, graceful even in her distress. It was painful to watch, like observing a blinded bird.

The door opened again and a human called for lights. Once again Data snapped automatically into a more alert state, the voice was one he would never forget. Fajo. Master of cruelty, collector of the unique. He stood by the door with his hands on his hips, his mouth twisted in a sardonic grin as he watched the occupants of the cargo hold. Laughed at the desperate Pallal, and spun her back towards Data as she whirled past him in the doorway.

"Fix. Then add him to the zoo."

The creature jerked, its face twisting , then calmed, and padded over to where Data was laying. Her sensory web brushed against the torn ends of his limbs. Data could feel his repair programs being accessed, and was unable to maintain his fully conscious state.

Fajo's voice grated in Data's ears as he felt himself slipping away. Fajo giving the Pallal additional instructions, recalling remembered indignities from the last time he had held Data in captivity. The android shut his eyes, and regretted that his programming had meant that he had hesitated to take advantage of the opportunity he had once had to kill this enemy.

*****

Picard entered his dusty office and cleared a space among the shards and piled up data padds, to set the icon down. He checked the time, Smith would be here soon, and the Lorpid. He hoped Lawrence would bring Ttikatik rather than waiting for it to get here under its own steam. Lorpids were among the best archeologists in the Federation, but their glacial metabolism, and unique sensory appreciation of the whole gestalt of a situation, meant that human time scales seldom fit their physical or cognitive space. In fact Picard had yet to manage a whole conversation with the creature. The two to five minute gap between question and answer was more uninterrupted time than he was usually granted. Managing a diverse team of individualistic specialists made running a well disciplined Starship seem easy. Picard looked up at the door chime, and called permission for the senior archeologist to enter. At thirty, Lawrence Smith was cursed with a sandy haired, open faced, countenance, and a lumberjack build, that meant that he was seldom taken seriously out of his work speciality. The Lorpid was draped languidly across his broad shoulders. Its green tinged fur contrasted with the red of Lawrence's check shirt.

Picard watched as Smith helped the Lorpid onto the perch kept for it, and then turned to find the only other chair in the office. Picard tried to guess what it was that the Lorpid wanted. Smith was more than capable of running the project while Picard was away, and he had the advantage of maintaining a close friendship with the slow moving alien. In fact he had confided in Picard a week or so ago that he now knew the twenty second syllable of Ttikatik's name, an honor bestowed on few humans. It had taken him ten years to learn it.

Smith finally straddled the chair he had cleared of a week's worth of reports and looked at Picard. The Lorpid had raised its head and fixed Picard with its intent stare. Smith glanced at the creature, then at Picard and decided to translate. Otherwise they could be here all night.

"Ttikatik wonders if you could show him the icon." Picard handed it over without comment. Smith handed the Lorpid's data translator over to Picard in exchange, and Jean- Luc started read the reason for the Lorpid's curiosity from its screen. He was half way through the complex syntax of the Lorpid's opening sentence when Ttikatik cut to the chase with a verbalized comment that was the equivalent of a yelp of surprise in the quickness of its reaction.

" Commander Data," it intoned in its deep voice. " Spoke to this one in real time. Kind. Lost. Help?" Picard felt a surge of affection for his former second officer. Trust Data to have been able to stay focussed long enough to have a meaningful conversation with a Lorpid. Smith opened his mouth to elaborate, but was cut off by another ponderous announcement from his friend. He was so startled he forgot to shut his mouth.

"Take this one."

Smith looked at the sleepy looking creature in amazement. The Lorpid had already explained to him, via the padd, that Data had been kind to him. He had assumed that that was what he had wanted to talk to Picard about. Now it seemed to be requesting a berth on Picard's mission to find his friend. The creature slowly put the icon back on the desk and pulled its head back into its shoulders. It had finished. Picard tried to look polite but only succeeded in looking surprised. " Only Captain Riker and I know about the nature of this trip Mr. Smith, how did your friend.......?"

Smith shrugged." Lorpid's miss nothing. They draw accurate conclusions from the most minimal information. He must have noticed something yesterday when you announced your 'holiday'. Something he has confirmed from looking at that icon"

Picard focussed on the Alien, and was disconcerted to find its liquid dark eye studying him back. "Ttikatik, why do you feel you need to come ? "

The padd in his hand flashed a message, 'answer one minute'. He nodded and leaned back in his chair and watched Lawrence Smith stroke the fur on the Lorpid's back. The big man had a unique relationship with the alien, Picard wondered what the story behind it was.

The padd dinged and the Lorpid's answer came up in text. Once again the Lorpid forestalled his reading of it." Importaant. Without miss important. " It looked at Lawrence, pleading.

Smith shrugged at Picard. "I have never seen him so agitated. You've just heard more language from him in five minutes than I usually get in a week. This is something that matters to him. Sir?" Picard looked at him " If you are considering taking him you had better take me too, T'Pau can run the dig, there's nothing here that won't keep until we get back, and I understand him."

Picard glanced down at the densely packed text of the Lorpid's whole answer, and thought that sounded like a good idea.

"We are shipping out this evening Mr. Smith." He studied the languid alien and then downloaded the text from its padd to his desk terminal. "I think in this case the more the merrier. Please ask T'Pau to step in here, I have some administrative details she will need to know ." It was a dismissal, and Lawrence untangled

Ttikatik from its perch, and beat a hasty retreat. His mind in a whirl.

Beverly sat on the bed and watched as Jean-Luc packed, efficiently, a few belongings into a compact bag. He looked vibrant, the greyhound intensity of him barely contained by his clothes. She closed her eyes and tried to fix this image of him in her mind, overlaying the grim picture that had built up during his gradual withdrawal into depression over the last year.

"Beverly?" The questioning lilt in his warm voice jolted her from her memories and back into their bedroom. She tried a smile but he stooped in front of her and was not fooled.

"What is it? " He tilted her chin up and looked deep into her troubled eyes. " I won't be gone long." Now her smile was genuine. " I'll miss you."

" I doubt it." He grinned at her " I think you may be a little busy."

She leaned far enough forward to kiss the end of his nose. "I reserve the right to miss you anyway." He caught her to him and stood, holding her heart to heart. She breathed in the smell of him, adding to the store of memories.

"Find him, then come back." She leaned back and stroked a fond hand over his head. " I love you."

"I guessed. " He replied lightly. They kissed, then he pulled away and picked up his bag. They walked together to the door and he held her in his eye as he stood in the road waiting for beam up. "Don't work too har....." The final part of his call was swallowed by the transporter effect.

" I will" Beverly said to herself; then leaned against the door and wondered how she was going survive when the time really came to let him go.
***** Data, who privately thought he had done with sleep and dreaming for as long as he could suppress the program, watched over the occupants of Fajo's zoo during the ship's night cycle and occupied himself by cataloguing the emotions that were dominant today. The other nocturnal member of Fajo's prison, an Ursid from Deneb, was so traumatized by its captivity that it had retreated into a stereotyped behavior display that Data could now ignore; although at the beginning of this incarceration it had nearly overwhelmed him to see sentience so degraded that all was left was instinctive behavior patterns. In a pause in the bear-like creature's obsessive pacing he hitched himself forward and moved the fruit, previously piled out of the Denebean's way. By this time hunger would have grown to a stage where it would at least pause before trampling the supplies underfoot.

Using his left arm and leg to scramble back out of the creature's track, Data was struck again by the effectiveness of only having two limbs as a restraining technique. Wedging himself in the corner formed by the intersection of two walls, he walked his shoulder blades into the angle and pushed himself up to a standing position. Upright again, he leaned against one wall to free his arm, then reached out and stroked Threa's cheek. She hummed and moved over on her platform, in sleep her hands still reaching for her absent Writhe, although in the day she seemed to be adjusted to her new reality.

" Most likely about as well as I am adjusting to only having one leg. " Data thought sourly. His vestibular system kept defaulting to bipedal, causing him to put down a non existent leg if he moved suddenly, with the resultant fall usually unbroken because he also put out his non existent right arm to save himself. Resetting his defaults, if he had time, was the work of a moment, but he couldn't fix the glitch in his base programming without outside assistance. The Pallal was instinctively good at system organization, but the problem made him think of Geordi; and the sudden pang of homesickness made him wonder, not for the first time, why on earth he had dabbled with emotions.

To distract himself from self pity, Data scanned the other inmates of his prison. The pacifier embedded in the forehead of the Gorn artist winked its evil red light at Data. Fajo had a problem there, if the Gorn was pacified he could be controlled but could not paint, the opposite was also true. And Fajo had yet to find a compelling lever to control his behavior, so he stayed pacified.

Curled in a feral heap, as far away from the others as she could get given the confines of this modified cargo hold; Patricia, the shape changer. Snatched from the only litter of her generation and burning with rage for the restraints. The madness in her eyes now shielded by sleep; for she was, after all, very young. Her natural shape was furry, with an improbable number of teeth and claws. Not a person to wake unexpectedly.

Data still did not know which aspect of her uniqueness Fajo was attracted too, or hoped to profit from.

He used the uncertainty to hone his hate, it wasn't an emotion that came easily to him. His basic mind set was still pro-life, and he kept on trying to find reasons for Fajo's disregard for any feeling towards his fellow creatures.

He recalled his first conversation with his jailor, when he had woken for the second time in the room that adjoined this. Fajo had been leaning against the wall, a personal shield flickering around his body, a boyish grin on his face.

" Was it you?" Data's need to know the cause of the explosion that had destroyed his ship drove him to ask the question, although in the second or so it took Fajo to reply his positronic brain had pointed out that he could hardly believe this man whichever answer he came up with. Fajo sauntered nearer to Data's supine form. The restraint field was a little superfluous when he was wearing a personal shield but it seemed he was taking no chances.

" Of course it was me. " He looked at Data as if he was a backward child. "I'm rich. I was rich before you interfered with me, and I certainly didn't tell the Federation about all of my resources. When you are as rich as I am, acquiring a cloaked ship poses no challenge at all. The photon cannon was more fun. You shot at me all those years ago. Did you think I was going to forget. Or...." He leaned against the bed and flicked the stump of Data's arm where it ended, about five centimeters down from his shoulder." Forgive?" He watched Data's face avidly, for a flicker, of pain or alarm, but was disappointed. Data's expression did not change. He merely started to ask another question.

" The rehabilitation facilities.......?"

Fajo exploded away from Data's bed, flicked off the restraint and pulled Data into sitting. He clutched at the chest of the sleeveless coverall Data was wearing and pulled him as close as he could to the shield. The interference of the forced proximity locked all Data's systems and made him wince.

Fajo looked gratified at the reaction. He hissed in Data's ear ." They messed with my head, Data. Thanks to you they messed with my head." He pushed the android away, and Data fell off the bed. As he looked up from the floor, he saw Fajo looming over him, his face red, his fists clenched in anger." They stopped me from loving my things. I had to sell them." His forehead creased like a petulant child's as the thought of the priceless possessions set up a conditioned aversion response. He kicked Data in the side and moved over to the wall. " So now I am collecting unique life forms, Data. Aren't you lucky, you qualify, again. And I found you. You have no idea how happy that last scan of the FarStar's debris made me." He giggled, stepped over to the wall to punch instructions into a control panel, then transported from the room.

After a moment Data rolled on to his back and examined his surroundings, then pulled himself into standing, using the table he had been lying on for support. Apart from cleaning up the ragged ends of his right arm and leg, so that the synthskin sealed itself over the stumps, nothing else seemed to have been done to him. A double door to an inner room opened and he could see the Pallal, dancing. Ignoring the tacit invitation, he hopped precariously over to the nearest wall where the outline of another door showed; but, before he could investigate its controls, he was thrown to the floor by a security field that shorted him out for a couple of minutes. When he opened his eyes again, he was looking into the indigo on azure eyes of the Pallal. She brushed her fingers over his face and rested them on his lips for a moment; then straightened and skipped away to the inner room. With a little difficulty Data hoisted himself into a semi sitting position, then scooted through the open door backwards, very careful not to touch the sides.

The Pallal was dancing in the middle of the room, and Data realized she was trying to direct her dance towards him. She touched all four walls of this inner room, to show him they were safe, then whirled over to a set of shelf like bunks hung on one wall. She sat on one, and leaned across to drape a hand lightly across another, the invitation plain. Data moved over to the side of the room and, for the first time of many, used the corner to stand up. Then, using the wall as a support, he hopped carefully over to the bunk that the Pallal had indicated. It was like returning home, the relief he felt when he finally got there and was able to sit with his back supported to free his arm. For a moment he just leaned, with his eyes shut. A light touch on his cheek prompted him to open his eyes again.

"I sorry, not fix." Her voice was so breathy and low he had to turn up his auditory receptors to hear her. He thought about this for a moment then turned his own voice volume down so that when he replied it was almost as soft.

" I am not easy to fix, thank you for trying." He was disconcerted to see tears welling in the jewel-like eyes looking into his.

The Pallal turned away from him and then back in a sort of jerky confusion. " Should be dead, am dead, not dead." She turned her palms over and held them up to him in supplication." Am dead?"

Data looked at her for a moment, trying to think of anything he could do that would help. A memory of how his Human friends behaved when they saw others in distress came, and he lifted his remaining arm in invitation, then held the sobbing Pallal until she was quiet.

Eventually he started talking. He told her about his ship, the FarStar. About the novelty of feeling proud when he had been given a command. He told her about some of the crew he had shared a year with. About Jonathan his first officer, who had become a friend, despite an upbringing that suggested artificial lifeforms were blasphemous. He told her about Sarah his helmsman who was brilliant, and had freckles on her nose and wild green hair. Sarah who had teased him often; and, he thought, wanted to become more than a friend to him. He told her of Nikalya and Bill, twinned in life and death, finishing each other's sentences to the end.

Then he told her about the shock of the sudden explosion and his survival, spinning in the darkness of space. More lost and alone than he had ever thought possible.

At last he fell silent, and the Pallal tilted her head up to meet the bleakness in his golden eyes and heard him repeat what she had said to him. " Should be dead, am dead, not dead." And knew that at least she was not alone in her grief .

*****

"Wasted time."

Riker stumped into the small common room of his Captain's yacht, Le Chat Noire, and plonked himself down in a seat opposite Picard. Even the Lorpid lifted its head slowly to look at the angry and frustrated man. Picard swung his boots off the table, and put down the two blue shards that he had been idly trying to fit together. He leaned forward and fixed Riker with an inquiring look.

"I gather Damon Frith's brother was of no more help than his seven cousins?"

Riker slammed the palm of his hand down on the table, and spun away from Picard's calm reason to glare at the star map pinned to the cabin wall. Four of the possible contacts had been investigated and they were running out of time. He did not have indefinite leave to follow this. And so far they had drawn nothing but blanks.

Lawrence Smith came in with a tray full of drinks and exchanged glances with Picard. Riker had been very confident that this last lead would bear fruit. He handed a streaming mug to Picard and then one to Riker, who nodded curtly at the big man before wrapping his hands around the comforting warmth. Smith took his own drink over to the map. "I still can't see any pattern. They seem random, two Ferengi contacts, one Andorian collector, three human antique dealers and an Denebean decorator. What would an Ursid want with a Pallal icon?"

The Lorpid stirred and they all looked at him. So far on this trip it had only spoken three times; and one of those times it had been to request a change of menu.

" Tilted grid, base operations near Denebean system. Have considered other missing sentience." It held up its padd. Picard leaned over and took it from the long claws, and Riker, energized, strode round the table to look over his shoulder. As he brushed past Ttikatik his jacket got caught, as he bent to untangle himself he found himself eye to deep eye with the alien.

" Patience. Works."

"As action, Ttikatik. Each to his own."

The curved claw disengaged, and Riker was free to look over Picard's shoulder. Lawrence frowned at his friend, who had subsided into its usual inaction. Shaking his head he joined the other two on the far side of the table and ruffled the green fur as he passed.

Picard tapped the screen of the padd, and looked up at Riker's stormy expression. He sighed. "It's times like this that I miss Data. There's hundreds of names on this list. Cat?" The triple tone of the yacht's operating system indicated that it was waiting for input." Plot the area proposed by Ttikatik and match with the missing person reports dating back two years."

The view screen lit up with a three dimensional grid, taking in many of the surrounding star systems. Flagged were the missing person reports. Lawrence completed his circuit of the table, and walked over to look at the viewscreen. His attention sharpened as he saw what was not obvious from across the room. "Look, Captain." He turned to see both men looking at him attentively. Picard grinned at the reflex and patted Riker on the shoulder. Riker moved over towards the map that Lawrence peering at. " On this sector of the grid; wasn't that near where Data's ship was lost? And look, along a little further, within two months of that date, a Denebean passenger cruiser vanished without trace; and a traveling concert party from Alonse, in the same sector a month or so before."

Picard joined them at the map." Alonians are the only race that routinely travel with Pallal. What happened to the ship ?"

Riker addressed the air. "Cat, access the salvage records of the two ships in Sector 2 d and e."

" Ships lost with all hands. Starfleet records show no discernible cause."

Picard and Riker exchanged looks, that had been the verdict for the FarStar.

Picard asked " Cat, are there any aggressive civilizations in or near those sectors?" The computer answered in the negative. Lawrence ceded the map to Riker and sat back at the table. He looked dreamily at the Lorpid as he sipped his drink.

"I wonder where the remaining sale sites are in relation to Sector 2 ?"

His question was rhetorical but the computer put it on screen anyway. Two red lights winked on either side of the grid that encompassed the suspiciously dangerous sector. The last site was almost across the other side of the grid but centered another cluster of missing person reports. Riker turned to look at the two archeologists and punched one hand into the other with a crack. " At last, a real lead!"

Picard pulled a chair up beside Ttikatik and waited until the alien gave him some eye contact.

" Thank you." The Lorpid blinked at Picard, slowly. Then subsided back into its usual torpor.

Lawrence looked at his friend fondly. He met Picard's eye. "He always comes through. When I was a student he taught me everything about observation, about the whole picture. He was the first being that saw thoroughness and not slowness in the way I did things. He accused me of being too quick, too flighty. Before I met him my nickname was Slow Loris." He smiled his goofy grin. " Nobody calls me that any more."

Riker leaned on the table, sharing the joke. "And now we have a choice to make Deneb, or Thallia next."

"Deneb." Ttikatik opened one eye and then shut it again. The three men shared glances and then burst out laughing.

Riker said to the air " Set a course for Deneb, Cat. Warp five."

*****

Threa danced. In the cleared centre of the common room she dipped and swirled, as if gravity only voluntarily connected her to the deck plates. She danced to hide her despair. She knew Data relied on her, enjoyed her lightness. But she could not go on much longer. The artificial mind she carried on her back was as false as her existence. Pallal did not live alone. She had tried to explain it to him. Her continuation was as obscene as keeping a severed human hand alive; free to crawl forlornly down the ship's corridors, mourning the body it had been attached to. Data spoke of returning her to her people; and did not seem to want to understand that they would recoil from the life she had been forced to live. For nearly a year she had been in limbo, for eight months the only reason she let herself wake was that Data needed her. From somewhere in the room Patricia sang out the agreed code, and Threa sank cross legged to the ground in front of Data and waited; placing one long fingered hand on his knee as he sat on the floor, wedged into a corner as usual. She understood that this was his way of resting, to seem to be a long way away from his cell mates inside his own head. She studied him. Trying to understand.

He was alone. Even more alone than she, freak that she was. Had always been alone if his tales were true. She loved him for his tales, for his endless patience with her, and the others. She tried to protect him, as if he were a cousin from another Writhe, from the anger of the others who took his patience for granted, and inflicted their frustration on him because he never showed pain. The prisoners had learned to be careful of each other's pain; but, after that first time with her, Data had never shown his own. He kept an equanimity that he said was programming. She knew better; but still leaned on his unfailing good nature. Even Patricia was learning, because she could not resist his stories. Data would tell her anything she wanted to know. He explained again and again the history of her people, and the events that lead to their recent admission to the Federation. He had met Patricia's mother, and told Patricia stories of her mother's adventures on board one of the ships he had served on.

Data was the only one strong enough to restrain Patricia when her impulses made her dangerous to her cellmates. He was able to explain why might was not right, even if she was hungry. She would always be hungry, her shape changing was not energy efficient. He taught her the rules of civilization, and if Threa only slept with Data between her and the cell; well, that was merely prudence.

Threa remembered his swift action when Patricia had started stalking the Ursid when she got hungry after the sudden cessation of the regular provision of supplies. Data had simply held her, through every shape in her repertoire, and every insult she could think of. He only let go when, after a hungry day, Fajo materialized in the middle of the room. Patricia attacked immediately. She always did, and always bounced off the personal screen Fajo wore. Snarling Patricia contented herself with perfecting her copy of Fajo's form. She was bored with the limited shapes she had amongst her fellow captives.

The rest of the prisoners ignored him. It was a policy that they had evolved over the months, to give him as little satisfaction as possible in his tormenting of them.

Fajo's face crumpled into its usual petulant frown." You are not interesting anymore. You, "he walked over and kicked at the Gorn's tail, Ssvardid impassively moved it out of the way. " You only paint rubbish or try to eat me. You," he shook his finger at the Pallal but kept his hands off her. " You will not dance for me. It sleeps, "he waved at the inert lump of the Ursid, then turned his attention to Data. "You ignore me unless I threaten one of these. At least she knows I'm here." He turned towards the shape shifter, who immediately blended with the grey wall so that she was impossible to see.

Fajo placed his hands on his hips and glared at them all. " You will have to start earning your keep. Make something for me. Something I can sell. From now on you will get no food unless you work." He transported out, and left the hungry looking at each other.

Threa remembered turning towards Data. She had been chilled by the smile she saw. It made Patricia look tame, containing the banked fire of his hate. Noticing her regard he tilted his head slightly, then pushed himself away from the wall, gathering the eyes of all the captives.

" We have been given our first chance. It is a way to the outside. Finally." He let some of the emotion he felt spill into his voice. " Finally, my friends, we can start to escape."

And now the second part of his plan was coming to fruition.

" Data." Threa patted his knee. " Data, Patricia wants you to see if you can find her, she is sure she has the wavelength this time."

Data came back into the room, back behind his own strange golden eyes, and let his lips curl into a slight smile for her. She was the most graceful being it had been his pleasure to know. Pleasure being relatively new to him, even now.

"That is what she said the last time."

Threa shrugged, and waited until, despite his scepticism, he pushed himself into standing.

" Coming ready or not, Patricia." He called out, then started threading his way between the profusion of artifacts, large and small, that the group had been making . Fajo stored them in their jail. His conditioning was still working, and things upset him, even though he had no aversion to making money out of them.

Threa danced a little as she worked her way over to Ssvardid. The Gorn opened an impressively ruby toothed mouth at her, his idea of a smile. Ssvardid turned back to his canvas, the pacifier was off and he was painting almost all day on Data's instructions. His latest canvas was nearly ready and Data was well pleased with it, as was Fajo. He had a buyer.

Threa took her eyes off the massive abstract long enough to see how Data was getting on. Patricia may have got it right this time, it didn't usually take him this long to find her. She skipped past the Gorn and tried to plan. At the end of her life she wanted to be the one in charge; so many of her choices had been taken away from her. To help her thinking she danced, and fooled the watching android; who felt his heart swell within him for her beauty, and let himself hope, for a moment, that they may yet salvage something from this mess.
*****

Welfoundone; known as uncle to his adoring family, and as a sharp operator amongst his antique dealer peers, wondered if he was losing his mind. The feeling of being watched was getting worse, not better; despite the calming herbs his wife had brewed for him this morning; and the suddenly conscientious reciting of his morning devotions. With a growl he padded out from behind his Miran eye-wood desk and stood in the middle of his shop, whiffling and sniffing at the air, for all the world like a grizzly bear scenting a bee hive. Slowly he sat back on his haunches and tugged at the embroidered waistcoat that seemed too tight this morning. Nothing. All his beautiful things remained what they were, overpriced and rare, but stubbornly inanimate. He shook himself from head to toe, like an adolescent losing his baby fur, and shuffled over to the door of his shop. It was that damned Human trader, he smelt mad. Undersold his artifacts for cash; which should of course, be his problem, not Welfoundone's. The Ursid's ear twitched as he heard a faint scrabbling in the back of his silent shop. Twice damned mice, eating his precious things. He would call the exterminator. The scrabbling stopped. Welfoundone shook his shaggy head. Perhaps some air would clear it. The door dinged as it closed itself behind him; and the scrap of fur and teeth, that had been held tightly by a suddenly extruded tentacle of picture frame, gave a final despairing squeak as it vanished into a toothy mouth.

Welfoundone's breath of fresh air was short lived. As he rocked on his heels outside his shop, he spotted group of prosperous looking Humans leaving Trueblood's overpriced flea market. The very tall blond conferred with the nearly furred dark one, and they both deferred to the opinion of the diseased looking small one. Welfoundone could not imagine how the creature had the courage to venture outside with no fur. Obviously he was immensely rich, so rich that he could scorn convention. The blond one looked across the road at the gilded sign above his own shop door, and consulted a padd. Welfoundone read their body language and smelled a sale. Quickly he entered his shop again, watching through the window as the group approached his door.

" This is the last one on this street." Lawrence watched as the shaggy proprietor skipped into the door of his shop with surprising agility for such a portly creature. He looked at his companions and grinned. " I think we can safely presume he saw us coming."

Picard strode across the road slightly to the front. It was amazing how he always seemed to lead the group, it just seemed natural to fall in step a little behind him. Riker followed, at Smith's shoulder; fleetingly musing on the mystery of command presence. It was something that came naturally to him in any other company, but Picard could command from a bathtub.

The bell on the shop door sounded as Picard pushed it open. The Denebean proprietor had indeed been expecting them, and it rolled forward in its bear-like way to greet them as they entered. Riker's attention was focussed on the Ursid for a moment, and he almost fell over Picard; who was standing, uncharacteristically open mouthed, gazing at a large canvas leaning against the back wall of the shop. The Ursid's little black eyes took on an unholy gleam as it noted the leader's distraction.

Picard shook himself out of his surprise and wandered over to the picture. He looked over his shoulder for Riker, and spotted Smith who had quickly engaged the Ursid in conversation to cover Picard's activities.

Picard reached up to trace the abstract pattern." Do you remember, Will?" He spoke softly . Riker stepped up beside him. He met Picard's eye. " The key to Korgon." He whispered. Picard nodded and ran his fingers along the lines.

" A line as to the endless horizon. A curve as to the distant hills. A ray as to the rising sun. And a dot as to a distant bird."

The two men were silent for a moment; remembering. Picard jumped a little as Welfoundone's voice sounded surprisingly near their shoulders.

"Painted by a Gorn artist, Gentlesirs. You will never see another like it. Gorn's are renowned for their originality."

Picard raised a discreet eyebrow at Riker while they still had their backs to their host. Then they turned as one to deal with the owner of the voice. Poker faces installed.

" I don't think so. It's garish. You have something else?" Picard's bored tone belied the excitement he was feeling. It took half an hour of intricate bargaining before they could allow themselves to be scandalously overcharged for the masterpiece. The Ursid loaded it onto a null gee sled so they could take it back to the public transporter platform at the end of the block.

"And the next shipment from your supplier ?" Smith's offhand manner, and the Ursid's greed, overcame its discretion.

"Two standard days. He has promised a Pallal urn, and a Denebean flute tree. Shall I hold for you?" Riker slipped the creature a small denomination Latimer bar. " Obliged if you would." Welfoundone saw them out the door, then returned to gloat behind his eye- wood desk." Such luck. Such skill. " He poured himself a celebratory brandy, and sipped it appreciatively. After a couple of minutes he found, to his pleasure, that the sale had also cleared the shop of the pervasive feeling of surveillance. " I smell my luck changing." He told the artworks left behind; his shaggy head nodding sagely, "These mad Humans will make me rich." The artworks, he was pleased to note, kept their counsel.

***** Threa lay on her bunk in the night and watched the darkness and Data's back. The time for decisions was now upon her. Fajo was getting increasingly suspicious. Patricia had been gone for a month, and their jailor had taken to materializing in their cage at unexpected times, in an effort to catch her. The extra contact had an advantage. Threa could now exactly match the harmonic of his transporter signature. With Data's help she thought she would be able to override the force shield in the anteroom. And then they would be free in Fajo's ship. The thought was almost overwhelming for Ssvardid. It filled her with gladness too, but she hid the difference from Data. She would not add to his hurts.

***** Ttikatik, capable in its own way, managed the combination of commands that operated the Chat Noire's transporter. He scanned the readings of the artifact as the three men formed on the platform. There were times when Lorpids could move very fast indeed, and the information that Ttikatik received from the scan meant that, as Picard solidified on the platform, he was treated to a sight that not many humans had seen. An enraged Lorpid, fur puffed up to twice normal size so that it looked like a green pom-pom, holding a very business-like looking phaser in a rock steady claws.

" Ttikatik....What?.... Explain!......." The men's outraged exclamations trailed off as the large parcel they brought up with them started to change shape before their eyes. In the space of a heartbeat, instead of a package holding a picture, on the anti-grav trolley stood an apparently human child; festooned with wrapping and string.

Picard stepped between the Lorpid and the child, despite the anguished yelp that came from both Ttikatik and Riker.

"Enough!" Still shielding the shape changer from the Lorpid with his body, he turned to Smith. "Disarm your friend."

Smith stepped down from the platform and walked over to Ttikatik, whose fur had started to settle, but who was showing no sign of putting down the weapon. Smith glanced at Riker, who had a murderous expression on his face as he watched the stand off.

Smith held out his hand." Ttikatik, please."

The child spoke. She peered around Picard's shoulder and looked straight at the Lorpid. " Not food." She said with conviction. Ttikatik dropped the phaser into Smith's outstretched hand. Riker heaved a sigh of relief and turned to look at Picard, who had removed his jacket to drape it round the naked child's body as she picked the last bits of wrapping off her feet.

The apparent little girl looked up at him then and smiled a very alien smile. "Picard," She turned to Riker, "Captain Riker." She frowned at Smith, who was attempting to stroke Ttikatik's fur down. " Not you, or it." She looked back at Picard." Data said you would come; what held you up? I was getting awfully sick of mice."

Picard closed his eyes briefly at this confirmation of the theory that had brought them half way across the galaxy. A weight he had not realized he was carrying lifted from his shoulders. Riker bent down so that he was more on eye level with the child," And you are.....?"

"Patricia. Data made a plan to get me out. He said you would take me home?"

Picard looked at the young child who wasn't." And where were you; before you were a picture that is?"

Patricia dimpled a smile at him, " In Fajo's rotten ship of course. With Data, and Threa and Ssvardid and Uncle Sleepy." She suddenly looked sad. " I miss them. Do you think they are still all right. Fajo will get awful mad if he realizes I'm gone."

Picard and Riker locked eyes for a moment. The identity of Data's jailor was unexpected but logical.

Smith asked plaintively, "Could someone please tell me what is going on?"

Riker said in a conspiratorial tone to Patricia. " I bet I can find you something better to eat than mice. Come with me." He led her out of the transport area towards the cabins and the nearest replicator. Picard sat down on the edge of the platform and looked at Smith, and his yet to be mollified Lorpid.

" It's a long story..........."

***** Dead of night; calculated by the only invariable of their captivity; the regular dimming of the lights, and Threa tried to avoid fidgeting. The tension made her want to move, and Data had been murmuring to the unresponsive Denebean, named Uncle Sleepy by the absent Patricia, for nearly an hour. The tip of a furry nose had crept out from under the creature's arm, but it looked no closer to understanding the need for them all to move together once she had the door open.

They had no way of knowing how close a scrutiny Fajo kept on his captives, but the success of Patricia's escape lent hope to Data's surmise that most if not all surveillance was passive at worst, and absent at best. They had managed to fool Fajo's sensor scan with a collection of artifacts cobbled together from various ingredients requested for their legitimate creations. So far it had worked. Fajo had left with his latest consignment of a Denbean Flute tree and a Pallal urn in the afternoon, non the wiser that one of his captives was missing.

With a convulsive shudder the large creature lumbered to its feet. It peered at the small humanoid in front of it for a moment, then backhanded him across the room. A wall ended his skid and Threa hurried across to him, guiltily grateful for the chance to move.

He turned his head as she knelt by his side and held out his hand, she knew his android build would not be affected by the mishap so stood again, and helped him pull himself to his feet.

He tilted his head, the sign that he was recalculating " We will leave the door open, he may join us. I think he understood. " He looked across, at the end of each turn it paused, sniffing the air. Data looked at it for a moment then looked back at Threa. " Shall we go and try the door? I think we will only get one chance at this."

Threa nodded and skipped past the Gorn and entered the inner room. She felt tingly and alive for the first time in an age.

The first part of Data's plan worked without a hitch, the force field fell as Threa hummed a complex series of harmonies at it, she had her sensory web spread at the interface and as each section matched she was able to cancel out the field until it vanished with a sucking pop.

Data moved immediately to the outline of the door and started manipulating the lock. The first number only took a couple of minutes, but then an alarm sounded. Data leaned wearily against the door, and raised an eyebrow at Threa and Ssvardid.

" He has the connecting corridor evacuated. There is no atmosphere out there." His shoulders slumped.

Ssvardid lumbered over to the inner door and cast an eye over the seals. " Thisss is airtight. Could you not open it and leave usss insside." He cocked his ruby toothed head on one side in uncanny imitation of Data's own inquiring look.

Threa whirled over to the Gorn and brushed her web against the seal. Then danced back to Data. She touched her fingers to his lips. " This is a class three merchanter Data; we agreed. It is the closest match. Environmental control is at the end of the connecting passage next to the airlock. You could interface even in vacuum?"

Her soft voice made the question seem intimate. Data lifted his hand to touch the complexity of her golden sensory web. " I can. Get Ssvardid to protect you if he beams in." She nodded at him, and walked almost sedately over to the closing inner door. Data watched her swaying form vanish, then shut his eyes.

After a moment he looked at the door he was to open and felt the fear building. The unknown was outside the door, and his imagination furnished it with all the ways he could die. He heaved a sigh; fear was the last thing he needed at the moment, he had learned to ignore terror while falling through space and he wasn't about to let it interfere with this task. Focusing, he concentrated on the door lock, the number encryption was standard; and in a couple of minutes the outside door of the prison swished open. He let himself be pulled into the corridor with the escaping atmosphere. The ridged tube was intermittently lit by a red flashing alarm light. Data peered cautiously down its length, then hopped towards the end where an airlock sign shone its regulation green welcome. Beside the airlock he could see the computer interface, just where the plans of class three merchant ships he had found in the recesses of his vast memory had listed it.

Data yanked the covering panel off and pulled the diagnostic cord out of its holder, then glanced up and down the airless corridor again; nothing stirred to interrupt the red strobing shadows cast by the emergency lighting. Reaching over the top of his head he popped open the access panel above his ear and guided the cord to the socket by touch. A familiar calm descended as he merged his consciousness with the computer systems of the merchant ship. He started sorting through the ship's operating systems, distantly amazed at how muddled his thoughts had become under the influence of the emotions generated by the chip designed for him.

He found the systems controlling atmosphere, and initiated the repressurizing of the corridor and room, incidentally locking out bridge control of the ships environmental systems. He flicked through the rest of the ship's operating parameters and interfaced with internal sensors in an effort to locate Fajo. The ship read as empty, the only life signs registering in the cargo hold that had served as their prison. Suddenly the calm that had ordered his thoughts was shattered by the realization that there was one too many life-forms registering in that room. Fajo.

Fear for the other prisoners knifed through him. He checked the sensor logs and found a record of a transport only minutes earlier. Unable to find any direct visual feed into the cargo hold frustration clamped him, he had to know what was happening. He reached to disconnect the cord, then was distracted again by a communication initiated from a ship approaching the merchanter. Its content was a standard hail, but the voice filled Data with such relief that he felt involuntary tears prick his eyes. Jean-Luc Picard. Data calculated the time it would take them to dock, initiated a standard distress message that would leave all outside locks accessible to a rescue ship, then ripped the interface from his head and moved as quickly as he could back up the corridor to the cargo hold.

*****

Lawrence Smith swallowed the rather revolting local coffee in one scalding mouthful as his communicator buzzed on his chest in the agreed signal. Riker had spotted their quarry entering the antique shop and the next part of the plan was up to him, he was the only human Fajo wouldn't recognize. He felt his mouth go dry at the prospect of action, this sort of thing was far out of his everyday experience. He remembered some of Picard's advice, and managed to restrain his impulse to jump to his feet and rush over to the shop. He did look out of the cafe's window to see if he could spot his target across the street. All he saw was Welfoundone's door swinging shut. He sighed. Then pushed himself to his feet and sauntered out of the coffee shop and stood on the pavement, apparently consulting a tourist map.

Riker, lurking in a shop four doors down from Welfoundone's, watched the big blond man's efforts at seeming natural and shut his eyes. As an archeologist he was prepared to believe he was at the top of his profession, as a spy he left quite a bit to be desired. He watched as Smith moved out of sight across the road, heading for the shop, and prayed that Fajo would be so involved in his sale that he wouldn't be spooked.

Lawrence pushed open the ringing door and then paused on the threshold, the shop appeared empty. He felt his heart drop and turned to look back out of the window, surely Fajo hadn't left. He took a tentative step further into the cluttered interior, muted voices rose from the back of the shop and he sighed in relief, his quarry was still here. He turned to one side and started picking up and examining some pottery shards artistically arranged on a table inside the door. He strained his ears, trying to make sense of the voices, but was thwarted by the muffling effect of the other artifacts Welfoundone filled his shop with. He turned back to the shards, holding them to the light, his interest suddenly piqued; these were Questor fragments from Altair two. His professional eye swept the rest of the table and he bent closer to the arrangement, automatically trying to date and source the pieces. He had two pieces and was about to fit a third when his concentration was broken by a sudden deep voice seemingly at his elbow. He jumped and whirled, the pieces protectively held in one of his big hands, and found himself almost eye to eye with a human male.

The man had the strangest eyes he had ever seen, intent and fixed. Seemingly looking beyond his present surroundings, focussed on a reality apparent only to himself. Lawrence took a startled step back, and knocked the table with the shards into the window. Lawrence reached out a hand to save himself and the table and, at the same time grabbed a handful of striped sleeve. The man looked at him, shaken out of his abstraction by Lawrence's clumsiness, and then glanced at the hand holding his sleeve. Lawrence hastily put the shards down and stepped forward, brushing at the stranger's shirt front and attempting to apologize.

" Forgive me, I wasn't looking......" He trailed off at the icy disdain he read in the other's eyes.

" Let me pass." Fajo managed to make Lawrence feel as if he had impeded royalty, such was the menace and arrogance of his bearing.

He stepped back again and shivered as Fajo wrenched open the shop door and strode out into the street. He turned back to help the Ursid pick the shards out of the window display, the dismay he expressed unfeigned and the interest quite genuine; now his part in Picard's plan was over.

Riker watched Fajo storm out of the shop, then turned quickly away as the angry human appeared to be heading straight for the coffee shop recently vacated by Lawrence, and now staked out by him. He concentrated on the local paper he had bought as camouflage, and only risked a peek when he was sure the man had passed his vantage point.

He spoke softly into his com badge. " Did he manage to plant it?"

" Affirmative," came Picard's satisfied reply from the orbiting Yacht. " I'm tracking him now. Collect Lawrence and prepare to beam up, he's heading straight back to the port." Picard sounded intent, Riker could almost feel sorry for Fajo. Like a dog after a bone, Picard was not going to let this chase end in anything other than success.

*****

Data let the inner door of the cargo bay open and slid round the corner in a crouch to make a small target. He was not surprised when a disrupter bolt lanced through the air he would have been occupying had he stood still. He rolled quickly behind a large urn and then scuttled diagonally behind a pile of Denebean clay. He lay still and listened, trying to analyze the positions of the prisoners he had caught a glimpse of as he came through the door. Ssvardid and the Ursid were in a corner about five metres away from him. He could not locate Threa, and from the direction of the blaster bolt it would appear Fajo was in or near the diagonally opposite corner.

"Come out, Data." Fajo had his calm reasonable voice on. " I'll kill them, you know I will." The blaster disintegrated the urn beside him and he had to resist the temptation to move again, Fajo only knew approximately where he was.

" Why do you try Data? I'm going to start on them soon." Data risked a peek around a vase, Fajo was turning in one of their cleared spaces, looking for him. Ssvardid and the Ursid stayed in their corner, exposed to Fajo's whims. Threa remained missing. As Data watched Fajo it became obvious that another constant of their captivity was missing also, Fajo was not wearing his personal shield. Its almost subliminal flickering was missing from the air space around him. Of course he would not be able to use the blaster if he had the shield activated, but it appeared that he was not even wearing the belt generator. A feeling of savage eagerness gripped Data as he started to work his way towards the two prisoners he could see. At least they would be all together. He had little doubt about their eventual end. Any shreds of sanity seemed to have deserted Fajo.

With a final wriggle he slid behind Ssvardid's tail then stood up. Fajo looked at him. "Shall I kill you all then?" He asked in a tone of sweet reason.

Data pulled himself in front of the impassive reptilian. He met Fajo's mad eye and felt: nothing. A part of him was still scanning the room to try to locate Threa, but his concern was distant as he concentrated on their foe. He hopped towards Fajo. Fajo blasted the floor at his feet, Data didn't flinch. He hopped one step closer, almost within reach of the blaster wavering in Fajo's hand. Fajo took a step back.

" Do you know I am looking forward to the end of this ." Data remarked conversationally, as if surprised by yet another anomalous emotion. He cocked his head slightly to the side as the man stepped back again. " Are you frightened, Fajo? I am not armed." The android smiled slightly at the pun as he swung his one arm out, hand open. Fajo's eyes flickered toward the movement, looking for a trick. And Threa whirled out from behind him and kicked him with one exquisite dancer's move, neatly behind the ear. His head jerked, the crack echoed around the room. And he folded quietly to the ground, the look of surprise frozen forever on his dead face, the blaster rolling from his limp hand.

Data met Threa's stricken eyes.

"You had no choice," he said. She whirled away from him, stumbled blindly between the artifacts piled in her way and fell to her knees beside her sanctuary of a bunk. Data turned to look at the other two prisoners who were moving towards him.

" There is a rescue ship coming. We are going home." Almost in answer a pillar of light started resolving itself into a familiar shape in the outer room. Ssvardid growled but Data put a restraining hand on his arm.

" It is a friend." He met Picard's eye for a moment as the older man solidified, then made his way over to where Threa was kneeling beside their sleeping platform.

He touched her shoulder gently. " Threa, we are going home." For the last time her blue on blue eyes looked into his golden ones. Then he saw her glance over his shoulder at the materializing rescue party. She sighed and shut her eyes against the sight of strangers. Wrapped her long arms around her torso and drew her knees up to her chin, and, as gently as a child, slipped away from him into a place he could not follow.

******

On Arand, back in his office, yet to take on its usual clutter after the Vulcan's tenure, Picard looked up from the exhaustive report T'Pau had written for him as the desk screen beeped for attention. "Picard". He leaned back to stretch his back as first the United Federation of Planets logo appeared on the screen, closely followed by Will Riker's face.

" Will! I thought you had left?"

Riker rubbed his beard as he nodded. " As soon as some last minute viral samples arrive from the city. Jean- Luc," He leaned forward. " Data has beamed down. To your place I think, but he was vague." Riker shrugged his shoulders at him. "I'm worried about him. He really hasn't been himself since we brought him back. Do you think you could speak to him. He's not saying anything to his friends, and our ship's counselor was concerned enough about his last session with him that he notified me. " Picard rubbed his hand over his head. He had had the feeling that that episode was not finished with the returning of the participants to their life-styles.

"I'll get on to it, Will. When is the hearing into the loss of the FarStar?"

Riker punched up some information on his desk terminal, "Admiral Nachayev has read our reports and sees no urgency." Picard nodded. Riker ran his fingers down a list on one side of his screen. "She's coming out to Starbase Eighteen on her general circuit in two months."

Picard looked past the screen at the view out of his dust obscured window. " Plenty of time then, " he said, more to himself than to Riker. He looked up again and met Riker's eye with his intent hazel ones. "Leave it to me, Will."

Riker looked relieved, and nodded as he broke the link. " Keep me posted." Picard gazed at the blank screen for a while then tried his home.

Data strode down the dusty path that led to the wooden jetty outside the Picard's house on the riverbank. Dressed in a dark top and slacks he looked both smaller and more human than he did in Starfleet uniform. He was trying not to think. Thinking, over the last few weeks, had got him precisely nowhere. Except around and around in circles. He had checked with the chief engineer on the Enterprise; the emotion chip imbedded in his cranium remained impossible to remove without damaging his higher functions. It was indicative of his state of mind that he considered undergoing the procedure anyway. He walked onto the resounding boards and looked at the end of the road. He found his lips curving up at the literal and figurative irony. Where did you go when there was nowhere to go? He shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling his restored balance. Then in a sudden demonstration of android skill, jumped up on to one of the tall posts that supported the platform. He stood perfectly still on the top, watching the grey water sliding past in its uncaring way to the sea. The movement pulled him, sinuous and deep, and unbearably reminiscent, as breathing was reminiscent, of Threa.

The water was mesmerizing. In its motion he felt his mind calming to the nothing he was seeking. He let himself sway, just a little. Giving in bit by bit to temptation. He let himself wonder what it would be like, to lay in the mud under all that water, quiet until the silt covered him.

"Data." Picard's voice, deep and caring sounded behind him. " Would you come down ?" Not an order, just a gently voiced request. Data took his eyes off the water long enough to look at his friend. Steady as a rock Picard reached his hand out. Data looked at him, cocked his head in thought for moment and jumped. He landed beside Picard, his feet booming on the planks. The noise startled a flock of gulls, and they took off in a noisy swirl, screaming their annoyance at the sea. Picard touched Data on the shoulder, watched him watching the birds.

He sat down on the end of the platform; after a moment Data joined him. They sat in silence for a while, as the sun set over the far bank.

Finally Data turned his head, looked into the shadowed eyes of the man who had survived death and loss over a lifetime. He looked away again, and stretched out his restored hand, turning it so that the tendons caught the odd fading light.

"My diagnostics tell me I am fully functional. So do the engineers, and Doctor Keshvare on the Enterprise." He shook his head and looked again at Picard "So what is broken?" He made a fist of the hand he had been examining, and pushed it against his chest." It catches me, here."

Picard returned his gaze silently. Data lifted his chin and then focussed on the far bank, now almost black against an orange sky. "Was this why she died?"

Picard pursed his lips and sighed. "Threa?" Data nodded, then had to blink as his eyes filled with tears. Picard kept his regard on the water and only spoke when Data appeared to have himself under control again.

"Would you stay with us, until the hearing, Data? Come and work with me at the dig." He stood up and waited for Data to look up at him. " Work gives you some distance. Time helps a little." He held out his hand and Data pulled himself into standing. Picard looked at him narrowly, "It's what life is about, Data. A long tunnel lined with good-byes. Find a way to cope." Data met his eye and nodded mutely.

The two turned from the sunset and started to walk up the road to Picard's house. Beverly watched them from the door and held it silently so they could enter.

Data walked over to the windows, and Beverly slipped her arm around Picard's waist.

" Tea?"

Picard looked into her wise eyes and sighed. " I never argue with my Doctor. Tea it is." They wandered into the kitchen and left Data in the living room.

And in the reflections of the room's central fire, mirrored in the window, Data saw his beloved Pallal, dancing.

" Farewell." He whispered, spreading his hands across the unyielding glass. Poetry written by a man dead for centuries scrolled, called to mind by old programming he had initiated in an effort to understand both love and grief. It spoke to him but alleviated neither.

"I can give not what men call love. But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above and the heavens reject not -
The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow?

Percy Bysshe Shelley, his relentless brain sourced the quote.

He turned from the window, walked over to the flickering fireplace and waited for the Picards to come back into the room. Substituting patience for understanding and, with an effort that was as physical as dying, continuing to exist.

The End