It was the same dream, but never before had it been this vivid. The smell of charred, phaser-blasted flesh filled the dark bridge of the Reman warship Scimitar. He was barely aware of the computer voice in the background counting away the seconds. There was less than a minute left before the ship's deadly thalaron weapon was unleashed on the helpless Enterprise. Picard closed his eyes momentarily, hoping to wake up from this dream, but when he reopened them and saw that he was still there, still in this nightmare, he knew he would have to relive this all over again.

Shinzon was dead. His impaled body was lying limp against Picard's chest. He could not bring himself to look into the young man's dead eyes; it would be too much like looking into his own eyes. He had the overwhelming urge to push him away as far as he could, but his body would not respond. He had just killed Shinzon. He had, in a sense, killed himself. He had brought an end to what could have been.

He was in a shocked daze, aware of everything but caring about nothing. He barely noticed Data's arrival, barely noticed Data pushing Shinzon's body away. The lifeless body hit the floor with a thud that would have made Picard sick if he had not already been paralyzed with shock.

Data regarded him with a look of concern that only Data could express. There was something else there, too. Something he was about to do ...

Suddenly the rest of the dream came to him and he remembered what was about to happen. He wanted to scream, he wanted to beg Data not to do it. He wanted to order Data to transport himself out of there, to tell him that he himself would stop the intermix reaction because, after all, this was his fight. But his vocal cords, like the rest of his body, were not responding. Picard would stand there and watch it all happen exactly as it had happened before.

Data revealed the transporter pin---that cursed transporter pin---and in a smooth motion placed it against Picard's chest. This is it, Picard thought, hating the weight of the pin against his chest. This is the last I will ever see of Data, and I don't have enough of my wits about me to say a single word, or---

As the transporter effect took Picard, he caught a glimpse of Data reaching up with his other hand ... a hand that held another transporter pin.

This can't be, Picard thought. This is not how it happened.

But the transporter took him, and then there was darkness.

He was momentarily unaware of his surroundings when he came to. He blinked hard and brought his hand up to shield his eyes as the bright daylight assaulted his vision. His eyes slowly adjusted, but even then he was no closer to knowing where he was.

He was in a thick, lush, green forest. It was a bright sunny day and the wind was blowing gently, rustling the leaves with just the right amount of vigor to make a soothing sound. He could hear the birds singing in the trees, and if he let himself go, he knew that he could easily get drawn into this world and he would never bother to question how he got here. He might even forget where he had been just seconds ago. But Picard knew better.

The birds, the sun peeking between the leaves ... it was all so familiar.

"I'm on Earth ... but how can this be?"

He had been on Shinzon's ship not more than a minute ago. Data had just placed the pin on him, and he had felt himself dematerialize. Now he had reappeared ... where?

He took a few tentative steps in the grass.

"Oh, my."

His legs felt way too sluggish. The lack of strength in his calves and thighs made him feel as if he had just walked for miles. He was not tired, though. When he looked at his legs he noticed how much thinner they were, as if he had gone through some kind of illness. But that didn't seem right ...

He was wearing some kind of civilian outfit, but he had never seen this particular style before. At least he thought he had never seen it, but it still looked vaguely familiar. He was studying his sleeves when something else caught his eye.

"What is this?" Picard asked.

His hands. They looked at least twenty years older. He reached up and felt that his face was in similar shape beneath his rather long, white beard.

Suddenly, it all came back to him, and he wondered how he could have forgotten in the first place. The Scimitar incident was now twenty years in the past.

He surveyed the forest one more time and realized that he indeed knew where he was. He also remembered where he was going. He took a few careful steps forward (the steps of an old man, he thought) and before long he found the path in the grass exactly where it was supposed to be. He started down the path, moving slowly, as if he was battling the wind with every step. It was all strange, but still oddly familiar. After all, it was inevitable that he would grow old over these past twenty years, not even the former captain of the Enterprise could hide from the passage of time.

The trees parted at the end of the path, and a few minutes later he was standing at the gate of a mansion. How had such a large a beautiful building eluded him until now? It looked like something out of an old Jules Verne novel. In fact, he half-expected to see an old bespectacled man in a smoking jacket and tobacco pipe emerging from behind the gates. Picard knew he had been here many times before, but it still took his breath away every time he laid eyes on the mansion. It seemed so out of place in this modern world, yet still managed to look like it belonged out here in this twenty-fourth century rural setting.

Picard walked up to the gate and wondered if there was a doorchime of some sort, or if he would have to scream to get someone's attention. He was scanning the ground around him for a decent stone to throw when he heard a voice greeting him.

"Ambassador," a young guard said, running up to the gate from inside. Not the bespectacled man, Picard thought. "Please, right this way. He's expecting you." The guard opened the gate and let Picard in.

"Sorry I'm late," Picard said. "It was just such a beautiful day that I had to take my time and enjoy it."

"Yes, it is a beautiful day. And don't worry, sir. It's not a problem. Allow me to show you to the study. The professor will be with you in a few short minutes."

As the guard led him through the mansion, Picard was filled with mixed feelings of recognition and a sense that something was not right. He had definitely been here before, but had it been just a dream? A dream ... too many dreams, Picard thought, not sure exactly what he meant. He pushed all of this to the back of his mind when he walked into the study.

The interior of this mansion definitely did its exterior justice. There was a strong eighteenth-century feel in the architecture. The room was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, and these shelves were filled to capacity with books (actual paper books, Picard thought with excitement). But what impressed Picard the most was the large fireplace along the main wall. It was large, taller than him, and the fire within it burned with intensity.

The guard motioned to one of the chairs in front of the fireplace. A rather large cat was lying on one of the chairs, eyeing Picard with distrust as he approached. Picard reached out to stroke its head, but the cat gracefully jumped off the chair before he made contact. Well, now, Picard thought. A bit shy, aren't we?

"Why don't you take a seat, Ambassador? I will inform the professor of your arrival." The young man bowed politely and left the room.

Picard was about to sit down when he noticed something on the coffee table in front of the chair. He picked it up and handled it carefully as he studied it. It was a small and very beautiful wooden figure of a cat sitting on its hind-quarters. Picard thought that it might be hand-carved, but a closer look revealed much more precision than any human hand could accomplish. He flipped it over and saw the engraving on the bottom. He smiled. Yes, of course. Now it makes sense.

He felt the creaking in his knees as he settled into the chair. Yes, this was nice. Very nice indeed. It had been a while since he had lived in a house with a fireplace---even a holographic fireplace like the one he now gazed at.

"Yes," Picard said to himself. "It is holographic, isn't it?"

He reached out with his aged hand and felt the warmth against his palm. It always amazed him how real it felt. It was hard to believe that it was only a collection of photons held together by forcefields.

I have been here before, Picard thought. Of course he had been here, he had visited countless times. But there was the nagging feeling that there was one time in particular that he was struggling to remember, a time when he had come here in an emergency. For the life of him he could not remember.

He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, all too aware that the memory synapses were no longer what they used to be. He relaxed and cleared his mind, searching for the memory, but the image that crept out was not the one he had been seeking. Instead he saw himself, much younger, impaled and dying.

"Shinzon."

He knew that this word---this name---meant something, but he couldn't remember what.

"Is there a problem, sir?"

He almost bolted out of his seat. He grabbed the armrests, subconsciously remembering having grabbed similar armrests on a different type of chair so many years ago, and turned to face the person who had just entered the room.

"Data!" Picard exclaimed as he pushed himself up.

"No, please, sir. No need to get up."

Data stood at the entrance to the study, regarding Picard with a warm smile. He was wearing a dark-red smoking jacket, something he was quite fond of these days. (The smoking jacket is there, Picard thought. No tobacco pipe or spectacles, though.) The damned white streak was still in his hair. Picard had given up trying to understand why Data, an android who could potentially live for centuries, would choose to alter his hair color in this manner.

Data approached him and held out his hand in greeting. Picard stood up and grabbed it enthusiastically with both hands.

"Data," he said, a beaming smile on his face. "It's so good to see you."

"It's good to see you, too, sir" Data said, returning the smile. "You look well."

"I look old," Picard half-joked. "And I feel old, too, but thank you anyway. You look well yourself, Data."

"Thank you. May I offer you some tea?"

"Yes, yes. Certainly."

Picard took his seat again. Data picked up a teapot and a pair of cups from a table by the far wall. No replicator tea for me, Picard thought, realizing how thirsty the walk to the mansion had made him.

"Earl Grey?" Data asked, but his expression said that he already knew the answer to that question.

"Hot. Of course."

Data poured tea into the two cups while Picard watched attentively. I remember this, Picard thought. Professor Data. He holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics here at Cambridge. He has had the position for many years. Now I remember.

Of course he remembered. What he was having trouble remembering was the dead young man, the one with Picard's face. He pushed the unpleasant memory aside. Why worry about that now? He was visiting his friend Data.

"Is this your handiwork?" Picard asked, holding up the cat figurine.

"Yes, it is. I've taken to wood-carving these past few weeks. I find that it calms my nerves."

"Nerves?" Picard smiled. A Data with "nerves" and using contractions. My, how far along he's come. "The engraving on the bottom says 'Spot.' Your cat when you were on the Enterprise?"

"Yes, sir. Spot was my first pet, so I will always have a special place in my memory for her. You will notice that the figurine is a perfect representation of Spot."

"I have no doubt that it is."

Data handed Picard his cup, then sat on the chair across from him.

"So, what brings you here?" Data asked. "Jessel said that you sounded like it was urgent."

"Did she?" Picard said. That is when he realized that he had no idea why he had decided to visit Data. He took a sip of his tea, hoping that the warm fluid would somehow jog his memory. The only thing still fresh in his mind was the image of the dead young man.

"Sir?"

"It's nothing," Picard said, knowing that he wasn't being too convincing. "I guess I'm just tired from the walk."

"You know, you could have contacted me when you arrived. I would have sent Mister Michaels to pick you up."

"Nonsense!" Picard said, more harshly than he had intended. He saw the look of concern on Data's face. "The transporter deposited me not more than three hundred meters from the front gate. You think that I am incapable of walking three hundred meters?"

Data looked down at his cup. "It is best that a man of your age not exert himself if it is not necessary."

"'Man of my age.' I'm not that old!"

"If you say so, sir."

Data was studying him closely. Picard thought of saying something about it, then realized that he was just being a bitter old man, which he had sworn many times he would never become. Data sensed that there was something wrong and he was just trying to help, that was all. Picard had no right to treat him like this in his own home.

"I'm sorry, Data. I was out of line. I just can't seem to remember ... why I'm here."

"Really?" Data asked, with concern.

"Yes. I just don't know ..."

"What is the last thing you remember?" Data asked, putting his cup down.

"I remember everything about the entire trip here. I just can't remember why I decided to come here."

"Hmm ... Perhaps it would be best if we got a doctor."

"No! No doctor!" Picard collected himself, then said a bit more calmly. "No, no doctor. I didn't come here for medical attention."

"Very well, then. You did tell Jessel that it was urgent. Is it perhaps a family member?"

Picard thought about it for a moment. "No. No, it's not that."

"Is it a colleague? A friend?"

A friend, Picard thought. Someone from the Enterprise. When Picard and his former crew used the word "friend," they were usually referring to an old crewmate from the Enterprise. They had grown accustomed to using that word instead of "former crewmate" or some similar term. Most of the Enterprise's senior staff had remained friends throughout the years, even those that had come after Will's departure. The thought had brought a smile to Picard's face on more than one occasion. Their friendship was very special in this day and age, especially for people who had chosen careers in Starfleet.

"No, it's not a friend. You are the only one that I have seen in months."

"Sir, are you sure that you don't want to see a doctor?"

"I said no doctor!"

The young man was dead---and then someone else had arrived. Then there was the cursed transporter pin.

"My god," Picard said.

"What is it?"

"This can't be real." Picard stood up and looked around as if he had just seen the inside of the mansion for the first time. "None of this can be real."

Data rushed to Picard's side. "What isn't real?" Data asked.

"None of this! This mansion, this fireplace, this cup of tea." He jabbed his finger at Data. "You. You can't be real."

"Sir," Data said, moving in to put an arm around Picard. "I assure you that I am very real."

Picard shrugged off the arm. "No, you can't be!"

"Why not? Do you think I'm an imposter of some kind?"

"No," Picard said, realizing that he was going to have to tell him. But what did it really matter, anyway? If this was an imposter, then he wouldn't care. If this was indeed Data, then telling him about his dream would not affect him in the least, since he was standing right there, alive and well. "You can't be Data because Data is dead."

Data raised a quizzical eyebrow at him. "I'm dead?"

"Yes, you are. You came aboard Shinzon's ship and placed the transporter pin on me. You stayed behind and destroyed the ship, saved the Enterprise."

Data thought about it for a moment. "Is that how you remember it?"

"Yes," Picard said, not liking the lack of confidence in his voice. "At least, that's how it should've happened."

Data let out a worried sigh. "Sir, that is not how it happened. I brought two transporter pins with me. I sent you back first, then I put my phaser on overload and placed it at close proximity to the thalaron intermix chamber. Then I returned to the Enterprise. The phaser detonated and destroyed the intermix chamber and the Scimitar."

"What? You didn't die on that ship?"

Data forced a smile. "I'm right here, am I not?"

The story sounded plausible, and it certainly coincided with his recent dream, but something was still nagging at him.

"No," Picard said, raising his voice. "I might be an old man, but my memory is not lying to me. What is going on here? Who are you?"

"Sir, would you please---?"

"Answer me!"

"Sir," Data enunciated his words. "If you do not sit down, I will call a doctor."

Picard cursed silently and sat down. Data took his seat as well, stealing an occasional glance at Picard, who pretended not to notice.

After a few minutes of sitting in silence, Data finally asked: "Tell me, sir. What makes you so certain that this is not real?"

"I don't know," Picard answered. "I just know it. I can feel it." He saw Data's expression change. "What? What is it?"

"Sir, you 'feel it?' That is highly subjective."

"Look, all I know is that I saw you stay behind on that ship. I saw the ship destroyed. I saw you die."

"But yet I am here. Therefore, I didn't die."

This was not true. It couldn't be. As much as Picard wanted his old friend to have survived the explosion, he knew that it had not been so. So what was this? Was he still dreaming? Was this a holodeck program of some kind? What was going on?

"Why don't you tell me what really happened?" Picard asked with a hint of resignation in his voice.

"Well," Data said. "As I already mentioned, I got you off the ship, then set my phaser on overload, and I transported myself out of there."
"What happened afterwards?"

"After the ship was destroyed?"

"No. After that. I mean, how did you wind up here?"

"Oh. That's quite a leap forward in time, isn't it?"

"Please, bear with me a bit. I'm just curious."

He got the same worried look from Data, probably because he was wondering exactly how much Picard had forgotten. Then Data continued.

"After I retired from Starfleet, I took a teaching position at the Academy. A few years later I was offered a position here at Cambridge. I accepted. Several years later, after I had published a few critically acclaimed papers on theoretical physics and warp mechanics, I was offered the Lucasian Chair, and here I am."

"Hmm ..." Picard regarded him carefully. "You like it here?"

"Of course! It is a great opportunity to not only nurture young minds, but also to conduct important research. It is very rewarding."

"Yes, I would think. You have done very well for yourself."

The study, the fireplace ... even the cats. He had been here before. He put his fingers against his face as if self-administering a mind-meld, trying to coax the memory our of hiding. I came here before ... to ask for something. I came here to ...

Suddenly it hit him, and it all made sense. He remembered when he had seen this mansion and this version of Data. But more importantly, he remembered the dream he had before he appeared in the forest. He remembered what he had been doing before he fell asleep and had this dream.

Data must have noticed the change in Picard's expression. He was leaning towards him.

"Sir, what just happened?"

Picard smiled, finally sure of himself. How could he have missed it? "Nothing, Data. Please, go on."

"There isn't much more to say," Data said awkwardly. "I came here, and I've been living here ever since. It's the next best thing to being on a starship."

"Hmm ... yes, I'm sure."

"Sir, is there something wrong? You have calmed down considerably all of a sudden."

"I have calmed down?" Picard smiled. "You say that as if it were a bad thing, old friend."

"I mean that it seems irregular to be upset one moment and suddenly calm the next."

If Picard's theory was correct, he probably didn't have much time. He had to get it over with quickly while he had the chance. After all, one didn't get chances like these everyday.

"Data, I have to ask you a question, but it might sound a bit strange."

"Of course, sir. Anything."

He noticed the puzzled look on Data's face and had to fight both the urge to laugh and cry at the same time. How he wished he could have seen Data evolve into this person he now was.

"Did I ever thank you for saving me from Shinzon's ship?"

"Of course you did. Many times. Sir, we saved each other's lives on more than one occasion. You, me, and the rest of the crew."

"Yes, I know." He paused to think of how to best proceed. The last thing he needed was to give Data any more reasons to think that he really did need a doctor. "Well, let me thank you again. There were times when I wished you had left me there to die in that ship instead of ..." instead of sacrificing yourself "... but ultimately, I have always been grateful for what you did for me. I thank you."

Data smiled nervously. "You're welcome, sir."

He had said it, but there was still something else. Something he felt he needed to make Data understand. It was something that had occurred to him one night as he lay in bed reading. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined that he would get a chance to ask Data.

"Let me ask you something else," he began. "How do you think we would have reacted if you had died on that ship?"

"Sir, this is a very peculiar line of questioning."

"I know," Picard said with mild impatience. "But please, bear with me. If you had died, how do you think we would have reacted? Or better yet, what would you say to us---from beyond the grave, if you will?"

Data thought it over silently for a few seconds. Then he looked up and smiled at Picard.

"All of my life I strived to become more human. I knew that becoming an actual human being was a physical impossibility, but I always thought that if I observed humans long enough, I could begin to understand them and maybe I could become more like them.

"If given the chance, I would tell all my friends that I tried my best to understand what it means to be human. I would tell them that even though I may have been unable to achieve my ultimate goal, I do not consider it a failure. It was certainly a worthy endeavor."

Data paused for a second. "Someone once said that when someone dies, their physical existence ends, but they continue to exist as long as someone remembers them. I would tell them that as long as they remember me, I will still live, in a way."

Picard struggled to maintain his composure, but he did not wipe away the tear that he felt escaping his eye.

Data straightened in his seat. "Sir, something is definitely bothering you."

"It's nothing," Picard said, waving him off. "It's nothing."

His time was running out. He only had a few minutes left to say everything else he wanted to say. He cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes.

"I want to tell you something that I should have told you a long time ago," he began, wishing that he still had the strength in his voice from so many years ago instead of the voice of an old man. "I don't know why I never told you, and you always realize these things once it's too late. Data, in your never-ending quest to become more human, you achieved your goal a long time ago without ever realizing it. In many ways, you were a much better human ... a much better person than so many of us. You always were special. I hope you realize this."

"Thank you, sir," Data said. "Sir, what did I do to deserve all of these compliments?"

Picard was about to answer, but felt momentarily dizzy. Had he not been sitting down, he was sure he would have lost his balance. The world around him started to fade away ever-so slightly. Everything was still solid, but it looked less real.

"You really believe this, don't you?" Data asked. "You really think that I died, and that this is some sort of dream?"

"I really don't know what this is," Picard said. "The point is, we lost you without getting a chance to say goodbye, and now I'm being given a chance."

Data sighed. At first Picard thought he was going to suggest calling a doctor again, but the sigh was one of resignation, not one of exasperation. Picard stood up, a bit wobbly on his knees. Data got up to help him.

"I'm fine," Picard said. "Data, I have to go. I don't have much time left."

"Go where, sir?" Data asked.

"I have to go back." He trailed off, unable to find the words to explain himself. "I just have to go."

He stumbled his way through the mansion, the world around him spinning and fading, Data following closely behind him, ready to catch him in case his wobbly legs gave. The dizziness was overpowering. Somehow he made it to the front door with minimal help from Data, but he felt that if he didn't leave now he would lose consciousness.

"Shall I walk you to the gate, sir?"

"No, no, you shouldn't," Picard was now having difficulty pronouncing the words. His lips and tongue felt numb. "I have to go the rest of the way alone."

"But you are weak. You might fall and injure yourself."

"I'll be fine, Data."

The edges of his vision were now fading. He had to hold the wall to keep himself from falling.

This was it. He had to leave now.

"Goodbye, Data," Picard said. "And thank you again. Thank you for everything."

Data smiled. "Goodbye, Ambassad---"

"Data ..." Picard interrupted.

"I know. Goodbye, Jean-Luc."

Picard walked out the door, the world around him fading out of existence with every step. The flowers in the garden slowly lost their color and vibrancy. The sounds of the forest beyond the gate died away and then disappeared. He no longer felt the heat of the sun against his exposed skin, and the wind all but disappeared. This world was erasing itself, and slowly it was being replaced by reality. He was waking up.

When he reached the front gate, he took one last look at Data, still standing at the door. Data waved at him. Picard waved back.

He walked through the gate and the world disappeared.

He opened his eyes to the familiar surroundings of his quarters on the Enterprise. There was no grogginess. Instead, he was wide awake and alert, and he could still feel the warm summer breeze against his skin. Had it all been in his head? Had it really been a dream?

He stood up from his couch and took a quick look around. He looked in his bedroom, then checked the lavatory and the closets. There was no one in there with him---not that he had expected to find Data. It had all been a dream.

With a thoughtful sigh he sat back down on his couch. He had experienced vivid dreams before, but never any as vivid as this one. Everything had seemed so real. When he was walking through the forest he could smell the grass, feel the wind, hear the leaves rustling and the birds singing. The holographic fire had felt warm against his hand. And Data had seemed just like the Data he remembered, only a bit older and wiser.

What kind of a dream had that been? Was it even normal to have such a dream? This worried Picard. He would have to consider talking to the counselor in the morning.

He saw what was on the table in front of him, and then everything started to make sense. The last hour before he fell asleep he had been looking at old holophotographs from their days on the Enterprise D. The album was open to a picture from one of Will's poker games. Data, Worf, Deanna, Picard, and Geordi, all of them in their old red, blue, and gold uniforms, were sitting around the table in Will's quarters. Beverly wasn't in the picture, so she must have been the one taking the photo. They were all laughing (and Worf was smiling, which was equivalent to a laugh for him), probably at one of Will's witticisms. Data was wearing the visor he usually wore during poker games, studying all of them very carefully, as if attempting to determine the nature of the humorous moment. It had never occurred to Picard to participate in one of these poker games before. He had started playing with them on a regular basis shortly before they lost the Enterprise D, but he joined them less frequently once they got the Enterprise E, and he had stopped altogether a few years ago. He had to change that.

He now remembered what he had been thinking before his dream. He had been looking at these pictures, wondering what could have been had Data not died. He had dreamt of a future that could have been, one that he sometimes wished had been given a chance to happen. Just before he had fallen asleep he had been thinking that he never got a chance to say goodbye, and that he wished he could somehow express his thanks to Data for saving them all. Well, in his dream he had been given his chance. It would have to do.

He went to flip the page in the photo album when he noticed that there was something underneath it on the table. He closed the book and gasped when he saw what it was.

"How is this possible?"

It was Data's wooden cat, the one he had picked up from the chair. The figurine of Spot.

He picked it up, wondering if he was imagining this, but it was as solid and real as anything. He traced the smooth, carved surface with his thumb. He flipped it over and saw the engraving there, exactly as it had been in his dream: "Spot."

There was something else under the photo album. The figurine had been resting on top of a padd. The screen on the padd was active and displaying text. He picked it up and read it.

Don't ever say I never did anything nice for you, mon capitan.

Picard looked at the padd incredulously, then looked at the wooden cat figure. He sat there a full minute as the significance of what the padd said, and how this affected his interpretation of his dream, sank in. He smiled to himself, and slowly the smile broadened, then turned into a laugh.

-end-