Will Riker threw himself into his seat with a noise closely resembling an exasperated sigh.
"I haven't sensed this much restlessness from you in a long time." Deanna Troi eyed him quizzically. "What is it?"
"We're a Galaxy-class Federation starship! Why are we playing interstellar taxicab?" Will demanded. His impatience was unfeigned. It had been four weeks since the Enterprise's adventures in the Neutral Zone, and he was tired of all the tranquility.
"It's true that we were assigned to take the Birceans home from their conference on admission to the Federation, but the call for a doctor from Rigel VII was an emergency request."
Riker knew these facts as well as Troi, but in his irritation, he chose to ignore them. Troi selected her words carefully, striving to help Will overcome his boredom and the feeling of wounded pride at the Enterprise being chosen for so prosaic a task. "After all, the patient is the one person who can avert an interneceine planetary war. Naturally they want the fastest ship available to transport the doctor. Also, many of these systems are uncharted, and Star Fleet wanted a ship that could handle any surprises."
"The Birceans and the other non-Federation worlds in the sector have explored the systems, even if Federation vessels haven't," Will pointed out, but Troi could feel his mood lifting.
"Perhaps after our detour we'll remedy that," Picard said, coming onto the Bridge in time to catch the last sentence. "We need to return to drop off the Bircean delegates."
"I prefer the completely new systems myself." Riker was not entirely mollified.
Picard exchanged an amused glance with Troi as he seated himself. "If it's excitement you want, Number One, you may get your wish. The doctor we are to transport to Rigel VII is a felinoid from Althena III, and if we're not careful, species relations between the doctor and the Birceans may deteriorate rather badly."
"Just as long as they don't try to eat each other!" Riker rolled his eyes at the memory of a previous confrontation between "diplomats" aboard the ship.
"Yes," Troi nodded at Picard. "Given the felinoid attitude toward even unintentional insults and the Bircean...lack of respect for other races, there could indeed be problems."
"Is that why the Birceans were refused admission into the Federation?" Riker asked. "This 'lack of respect'?"
Troi sought for the proper words. "The Birceans believe very strongly in the superiority of their people, or, at their most liberal, of humans in general."
"But that kind of ... " Riker searched for a more delicate term, then shrugged and used the blunt phrase, "conceit is hardly unknown inside the Federation."
"Apparently not to this degree, Number One." Picard entered the conversation. "The Federation felt that the Birceans' attitude would preclude any cooperative ventures with other species and might even lead to strife within the Federation itself. To most Federation members, the supremacist idea that all other peoples are inferior and exist only to serve the needs of one particular 'master race' is abhorrent. To the Birceans, unfortunately, it is still an integral part of their culture."
"Bircea was settled by a colony from Earth three centuries ago." Troi explained. "The original settlers had a rigid, and even for their time, exclusionary set of beliefs. That value system is still in place to a great degree, and it was viewed as intolerance bordering on xenophobia. Perhaps in time the Birceans will come to appreciate other races as equals, and then they will be able to join the Federation."
"They seem to be impressed with the Enterprise," Riker commented. "They certainly don't mind this detour since it extends their stay."
"Captain," Data interrupted. "We are within hailing and transporter range of Science Station Galen."
"Excellent. Open hailing frequency, Mr. Worf."
"Frequency open, sir."
"Science Station Galen, this is the USS Enterprise. We are here to pick up Doctor Carranazzan for immediate transport to --"
"I am Carranazzan." The Enterprise's viewscreen lit up, showing a female felinoid in her species' version of a Star Fleet commander's uniform. "I am aware of the ssituation's urgency and ssuggesst you beam uss up at once. Coordinates follow. Galen Sstation out."
The felinoid's abruptness and disregard for idle chatter was a species characteristic, and, if brusque and surprising at first, was not intended as deliberate rudeness.
Picard raised his eyebrows, but made no comment. "Number One, if you'll go to the Transporter Room to greet--" A shrieking siren cut off his words.
"Radiation leak in Engineering!" Data reported as Geordi's voice came over the intercom.
"Dr. Crusher to Engineering! Bridge, we have a radiation leak and damage to the dilithium processor!" LaForge's normally sunny voice for once was grim. "Three casualties. The damage is contained for now, but requires immediate attention."
"Understood," Picard snapped. "I'm on my way. Number One, you have the Bridge. If we have warp capability, get us en route to Rigel VII -- we haven't much time. Data, go and greet our guest."
"Crusher here. Captain, when Carranazzan comes on board, please have her report to Sickbay. Her expertise will be of great help."
"Acknowledged." With a nod at Data, Picard headed for Engineering.
As soon as he had arrived in the Transporter Room, Data looked at O'Brien. "Energize."
Seconds later, Dr. Carranazzan was aboard the Enterprise, accompanied not by another doctor, but by a very small human child. "I am Carra," she introduced herself, stepping off the transporter platform.
"And I am Data," the android replied in kind. "Doctor, there has been an accident in Engineering and your assistance is requested -- "
Carra hissed in surprise. "Of coursse! I will go at once." Turning to the child waiting patiently beside her, she said, "I must go to work. Behave. This officer will care for you."
Data opened his mouth to protest. "I am -- "
"I know my way to Sickbay. Watch over Alice." With a last glance at the child, Carra left.
O'Brien looked at Data. Data looked at O'Brien. "If you are not too busy -"
O'Brien convulsively attacked the transporter panel. "Data, I've got this major systems check I've got to work on!"
Data looked at him uncertainly. "But -- "
A tug on his uniform interrupted him. Surprised, he looked down at Alice. She was a dark haired, fair skinned child with a serious demeanor. About four years old, she had to crane her neck to see Data's face.
"Up," she said firmly.
Data gazed down in bewilderment.
"Up. Up! UP!!" At his noncompliance, Alice repeated herself with increasing volume. The volume of the last request was astonishing, considering the diminutive form which produced it.
"Pick her up, Data!" O'Brien said hastily as Alice paused for breath.
"Oh." Enlightenment dawned and Data effortlessly lifted the child, who quieted at once. Secure in Data's inexperienced but steady grip, Alice calmly regarded her surroundings.
"Commander Data to the Bridge!" Riker sounded impatient.
Data turned appealingly to O'Brien, but the Transporter Chief had disappeared beneath the console and was clanking busily (if a bit obviously). With little choice in the matter, Data headed for the Bridge, Alice in tow. Captain Picard's orders regarding children on the Bridge were quite explicit, but short of accosting a crewmember and depositing Alice in his, her, or its lap, Data saw no alternative. Once on the Bridge, he could turn the matter over to Commander Riker.
No sooner had Data stepped out of the lift, however, with Alice tightly holding onto his left hand, then Riker brushed by him on the right. "You have the Bridge, Data," he called over his shoulder as he rushed onto the elevator. "I'll be in Engineering with the Captain."
"But -- " Data was addressing the lift doors.
"Who is that?" Worf demanded, regarding Alice suspiciously.
"This is Dr.Carranazzan's ward, Alice."
"Carranazzan is a felinoid. How -- "
Alice stepped over to Worf belligerently. "She's my mama! We don't look alike, but she's still my mama, and she loves me!"
Worf's brow ridges twitched in shock as the tiny human glared up at him. Apparently the Althenan hair-trigger temper had a societal component as well as a genetic origin. "I meant no offense," he finally grumbled.
Alice relented. "That's OK. Mama says lots of people are surprised at first." With a forgiving smile, she wandered to the front of the Bridge.
"We have warp capability and are en route to Rigel VII?" Data asked, seeing the star systems whizzing by on the viewer.
"Yes. The damage was limited to one area, and Geordi thinks repairs will not take long." Worf's eyes wandered to where Alice was soberly listening to Wesley explain the navigation console. "The captain will not -- "
"Perhaps Wesley could take Alice to her cabin?" Data interrupted hopefully as the new shift's navigator entered the Bridge.
"Sorry, Data," Wesley replied, relinquishing his chair to Lt. Chen. "I'm already late for class."
"Please summon a Security officer," Data said, after a moment's thought, "to take Alice to her cabin."
"My people are not nursemaids," Worf muttered rebelliously, keying in the command.
"No!" Alice placed herself in front of Data, eyes blazing. "Mama said to stay with you. You're s'posed to take care of me."
"I must stay here and you cannot," Data explained. "Children are not allowed on the Bridge."
"I'm here, so I'm allowed," Alice replied with a four year old's logic. "I'll be quiet; see?" She turned away and seated herself on the floor in front of the helm. Data looked after her helplessly.
"Sir?" The Security officer had arrived.
"Never mind." Data gave up.
Alice was as good as her word. She remained at her self-appointed post, gazing happily out at the stars and not uttering a sound. Even Worf, after forty-five minutes of calm, relaxed.
The quiet was broken when Captain Picard and Commander Riker returned. " -- the chances of a systems failure, coupled with a malfunctioning alarm, and a misplaced piece of equipment?" Riker was asking as they stepped out of the elevator.
"More importantly, how do we ensure that it never happens again?" Picard responded. "Three injured is too high a price for any coincidence."
"How are the casualties?" Data asked.
"Doctors Crusher and Carranazzan were able to pull them all through," Riker said with relief. "Carra's experience with radiation poisoning was of great help."
"How far out are we?" Picard asked, turning to the viewer. His voice died as he saw the small form planted on his deck, and he spun back to Data, outraged. "Why is there a child on this Bridge?"
"This is Dr. Carranazzan's ward," Data explained. "Her mother placed her in my care before going to Sickbay, and she refuses to accompany anyone else."
Picard glared at him. "Get her off my Bridge." His voice wasn't loud, but Alice came over.
"My name is Alice," she said, gravely regarding them.
Riker knelt down to her level. "Hello, Alice. How would you like to visit our holodeck?"
Alice considered. "No thank you," she said finally. "It's nicer here. You can see the stars."
"What about going to a place where you can see the stars and have a snack too?" Riker offered.
"With Data?" Alice asked warily.
Riker grinned at the android. "Yes."
"Then I'd like to!" Alice smiled.
Riker turned to Data. "Take her to Ten Forward. Guinan will know what she'll like."
Alice took hold of Data's hand in a proprietary fashion and led him towards the lift. Halfway there, she stopped and trotted back. She stopped in front of Picard, gazing up at him.
"Yes?" he asked uneasily.
"Should we bring back snacks for everyone?"
Lt. Chen hastily turned her giggle into a cough, while Riker tugged at his beard.
"That won't be necessary," Picard told her, forcing what he hoped was an avuncular smile. Alice nodded and left with Data, as Picard eyed his Bridge crew threateningly.
Ten Forward was a definite hit with Alice, and after devouring a multi-colored concoction recommended by Guinan, she consented to visit the holodeck. Once Data explained what the computer could do, Alice was wild to try it. "Let's play, Data!" she cried, clapping her hands.
"I do not know how to play," Data said regretfully.
"You don't?" Alice was shocked. "Then I'll teach you!"