"Thank you, Guinan." Picard smiled as he accepted his drink. A mildly spiced Aldebaran tea, the beverage wafted a delicious fragrance in his direction, and he eyed it with anticipation. Before he could bring the glass to his lips, however, a hesitant cough caught his attention.
"Excuse me, Captain. May I talk with you a moment?" The speaker was a woman dressed in Security gold, with lieutenant's insignia at her throat. Her face, while attractive, was marred by worry lines, not all of which were due to her temerity in disturbing the ship's captain.
Picard glanced regretfully at his tea, but said cordially enough, "Of course, Lieutenant. Shall we find a table or would you prefer a more private setting?"
"No, this is fine, sir. I'm sorry to bother you, but I have a problem and..." Her voice trailed off.
"It's Lt.N'kuma, isn't it?" Picard asked as they seated themselves at a quiet table, a little apart from the rest.
"Yes, sir. It's, well, it's about my son, Andy."
Picard looked uneasy. "Perhaps you should be speaking with Counselor Troi or Dr.Crusher. My experience with children --"
"Oh no, Captain. It's nothing like that. You see, it's, um, it's Andy's imaginary friend."
"His imaginary friend."
"Yes. I mean, when Andy first started talking about his invisible friend George, I naturally assumed he had invented an imaginary playmate. But now I'm not so sure."
"Sure of what?" Picard pressed, still mystified.
"Sure George is imaginary," N'kuma blurted out, clearly expecting that Picard would think her mad.
"You now think that Andy's invisible friend is real?" Picard asked, his voice carefully neutral.
"I know I'm expressing this badly," N'kuma exclaimed in frustration, "but I don't know what to believe anymore. When Andy first mentioned George, I assumed it was some character he'd dreamed up on the holodeck. But then strange things started happening. I'd get home and find chairs and tables moved. Andy's only six; he can't move those heavy things, but he'd say George moved them so that the two of them could play a game. Or he'd have accessed the computer and ordered some sweet. He doesn't know the commands for that -- I security coded the unit myself --but he just said, 'George showed me.'"
Picard was regarding N'kuma skeptically. "And there are times when I swear I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn, there's no one. And then yesterday...You see, I've been promising Andy that we'd redecorate his living area and we've planned it all out. When I got off duty yesterday, the redecoration was done. New wall coverings, furniture rearranged, everything. Andy insists he and George did it all, and the computer says no one but Andy entered the cabin, but that's impossible.
"Maybe you'll order me to undergo a psych eval, and maybe I should, but I think there's an alien intruder aboard the Enterprise." Her piece said, N'kuma fell silent, watching Picard.
Picard took a deep breath. "I appreciate your concern, Lieutenant, but you must see that the evidence for your statement is flimsy at best."
"Captain, I'd be the last to admit I've got any real evidence, but I've been a Security officer for nine years, and I've learned to follow my instincts. Right now, they're telling me that something very strange is going on.
"Sir, by dodging the chain of command I may have stuck my neck out, but I felt that you should be aware of the situation, whether it's an alien intruder or an unstable Security lieutenant," N'kuma finished with a rueful grin.
Picard was far from convinced, but N'kuma's record was exemplary, and it was clear she felt strongly about this. "Very well, Lieutenant," Picard agreed, rising from his seat. "Why don't you introduce me to your son?"
A relieved smile lit N'kuma's face and she eagerly led the way to her quarters. "Andy's back from classes by now," she explained as they turned the corner to her room, "and -- oh no!"
Both Picard and N'kuma stopped dead at the sight that greeted them. A small boy was happily splashing red paint on the corridor wall, while another pail of green stood nearby.
"Andy!" N'kuma may have been a devoted mother, but from her expression all she wanted to do right then was strangle her son.
"Hullo, Mama!" Andy said happily, waving his paintbrush. Picard recoiled as paint sprayed the two adults.
"Andy, how could you do such a thing?" N'kuma demanded furiously, advancing on her son.
"But, Mama, George said it would look nice if we painted bunnies here."
"George was wrong!" N'kuma said through clenched teeth. "You know better than to paint the ship's hallways! You're not a baby anymore!"
Andy shot an accusing look at the empty space behind him. "That's what I told George, but --"
"Never mind George!" N'kuma interrupted. "Right now you are the one in trouble. Haven't I told you --"
Picard left the scolding N'kuma and inspected the damage. A seven foot red and green blotch, roughly bunny-shaped, covered the bulkhead. With an unfriendly look at Andy, Picard bent to retrieve the second pail.
"Wait!" Andy piped up, interrupting his mother's rebuke. "That's George's paint!"
Picard opened his mouth to reply, but before he could do so, an incredibly powerful blow sent him flying. He hit the opposite wall two doors down and crumpled to the floor.
For an instant, N'kuma stared in shock as her captain was hurled four meters by an invisible force, but then her training snapped into play. Shoving her son behind her with a terse "Stay there!" she ran to where Picard was groggily trying to get up. Slapping her communicator as she went, she called out, "Emergency! Security to Crew Quarters T16!"
Picard made it to his knees before a second blow caught him in the ribs and bounced him off the wall. N'kuma threw herself in front of him, shielding him with her body as she braced for attack. Her readiness and years of experience could not prepare her for combat against an invisible foe, however, and she was batted to one side as the creature again reached for Picard.
Dazed though she was, N'kuma heard Andy's shout of "Mama!" as she converted her fall into a roll and once again flung herself in front of the captain. This time the onslaught knocked both flat, with a force that robbed them of their breath.
"Mama!" Andy rushed forward despite N'kuma's shout. Instead of running to her, however, he stopped short, grabbing hold of some unseen object. "George! Stop it! Stop it!" Andy yelled furiously, bracing his body and yanking at whatever he held in his hands. "You can't hit people -- expecially not my mama or the captain!" He paused, as though listening to someone. "It doesn't matter what you thought," he said angrily, apparently replying to an excuse. "Hitting is very naughty."
At that moment, a Security squad led by Commander Riker and Lt.Worf dashed around the corner, phasers drawn; Dr.Crusher hurried in their wake. Seeing a six year old in angry conversation with thin air, while the captain and a security lieutenant lay sprawled together on the floor, brought the squad up short, then a signal from Picard ordered them to wait.
"Andy," Picard said quietly, not moving from the floor. "What happened?"
Andy turned to him, something invisible clenched in his fist. "George is very sorry, Captain," he said earnestly. "When you started to take his paint, he got angry. He thought you were being naughty and taking something that was his, like when Billy or Sara take my toys. He didn't know you were a grownup or that you must never, ever hit. And, Mama, he says he didn't even see you. He's not used to how little we are, he says, and he promises he'll never, ever hurt anyone again."
"Andy, why can't we see George?" Picard asked.
"Oh, George can make himself invisible," Andy replied, clearly impressed with his friend's ability. "He did it at first to hide, and then later because he says it's fun."
"Tell George I'd like to see him."
"He can hear you, Captain. He just can't talk to you. He -- what?" The last was clearly addressed to George. "Well, you have to," Andy said to the air beside him. "Yes, you do. He's the captain; that's like the daddy of the whole ship and you have to do what he says, even if you don't want to."
N'kuma was too well trained to smile in this still potentially dangerous situation, but Picard noticed a suspicious twitch of her lips. Then, suddenly, standing next to Andy was a three meter tall, bright blue alien. Worf hissed, bringing up his phaser, but a wave from Riker halted the action.
"This is George," Andy told Picard proudly, tightly holding onto a fistful of George's long blue fur. George was a biped apparently; that fur hid a lot. It had two upper limbs, plus a long flexible trunk. No mouth was readily visible, but two large, limpid eyes put a fawn's to shame. Right now they were fastened moistly on Picard, their expression one of repentence and remorse.
"He says he's really very sorry, and please don't be cross," Andy reported, a hint of anxiety entering his tone as he remembered his role in the paint escapade. "You can get up now, he says."
"Not yet!" Crusher called out, pushing forward with her scanner.
"Andy, you and George go to your room and wait there."
Now both regarded him with identical hangdog expressions. "Are we being punished or can we play a game?" Andy asked unhappily.
"You can play a game," Picard told them.
"Oh boy!" Andy and George hastily headed to their room. "No, it's my turn to pick!" Andy was saying indignantly when his voice was cut off by the closing door.
"What was that?" Riker asked, walking over to where Crusher was scanning Picard and N'kuma.
"That was George," Picard replied with admirable restraint. "Well, Doctor? May I get up now?"
"Just a minute," Crusher said in exasperation. "I'm still checking you over."
"I'm perfectly all right," Picard said impatiently, oblivious to the rapidly darkening bruises that covered the left side of his face.
Crusher snorted. "Look at N'kuma."
"I'm fine!" N'kuma said in surprise.
"Hm." Picard took in the lieutenant's bloody nose and rumpled uniform. "N'kuma, you'd better go to Sickbay with the doctor."
Crusher threw up her hands in disbelief. "Your injuries are much more serious than hers!" she told Picard bluntly. "You've got three fractured ribs, bruises all over your body, and a gash by your left temple. All the lieutenant has is that bloody nose and a few scrapes."
Picard had the grace to look sheepish. "Point taken."
"You can either lie there, let the medications I gave you take effect, and report to Sickbay later, or you can try to get up and have me take you there right now. Which will it be?" Like all doctors, Crusher had the ability to make even starship captains feel like errant schoolchildren.
"I'll lie quietly," Picard said with all the dignity he could muster.
"Fine. Then the both of you may sit up." Riker and Worf, the rest of the squad having long since been dismissed, helped the two upright, bracing their backs against the (unpainted) wall.
While Crusher bustled about doing medical things with hyposprays and bandages, Picard and N'kuma filled the others in. " -- So the obvious question is how did George get on board?" Riker said when the story was finished.
"And why form a friendship with a six year old?" N'kuma added.
Picard absently massaged his ribs. "And will he, despite his promise, pose a threat to the ship?"
"I can put him under guard," Worf volunteered. "Or place a forcefield on the door."
"No." Picard shook his head. "Until we know more about him, I don't want to restrain him unnecessarily. But where is he from? Does anyone recognize the life form?"
"I think I do," Crusher spoke up. "At least, I seem to recall reading, a few years back, about a First Contact with a planet whose inhabitants had the ability to bend light rays around their bodies, rendering themselves invisible. As I recall, the article mentioned that the ability had developed very early on in the species' evolution as a way to evade predators, then persisted despite the race growing larger and stronger."
"I'll say they're strong!" N'kuma exclaimed feelingly. "He bounced us off the walls like we were weightless. And their invisibility is a potent weapon too!"
"The article also said something about telepathy developing so that the invisible organisms wouldn't reveal their positions to predators, but could still communicate among themselves."
"George is clearly communicating with Andy telepathically; why not with the rest of us?" Picard wondered aloud.
"I'll have Data locate that article," Riker said.
"Good. I"ll go and try to get some answers from George...if I may, Doctor?" Picard added with a pointed glance.
Crusher nodded. "Of course. Just report to Sickbay when you're through."
"Captain, a Security officer -- or two -- should accompany you," Worf warned.
Picard smiled at N'kuma. "Lieutenant? Are you up to it?"
N'kuma grinned in return. "Yes, sir!"
"Number One, have Counselor Troi join us. Her insight may prove valuable." Riker nodded and, with Worf, headed to the Bridge. Picard and N'kuma entered her quarters.
Andy was seated on the couch, avidly watching as George, curled up on the deck at his feet, used his trunk to manipulate the manual computer controls. The trunk moved with astonishing speed and delicacy as it directed the movement of a holographic ship through an asteroid belt. The ship made it through safely and the computer played a few bars of victory music as tiny figures exited the ship and waved. "You always win," Andy complained. "You've got to make the asteroids come faster."
George responded to this by tickling Andy with his trunk, and Andy picked up a pillow to retaliate.
"Andy." N'kuma frowned.
"Hello, Mama. Hello, Captain Picard," Andy said politely, hastily replacing the pillow. "George says hello too."
"Can't George talk to us himself?" Picard asked.
"Uh uh. He says he doesn't know how to. Just to me."
"Andy, how long has George been on the Enterprise?" N'kuma asked.
"I dunno, Mama. He says -- what's that mean? How many days, George?" Andy turned back to the adults. "George dunno what days are, Mama."
"Andy started talking about George around a week ago, Captain. But George could have been on board longer than that."
The cabin door opened at that point and Troi entered. With a smile, she seated herself beside N'kuma.
"Eight days ago we rendezvoused with that trader," Picard mused, "to pick up the logs from the scoutship Explorer. Perhaps the Explorer landed on George's homeworld, unwittingly brought him aboard, then transferred him to the trader's ship when they gave him the logs to bring to us."
"And then we beamed him aboard when we brought the trader over?" N'kuma finished. "But wouldn't the transporters have shown that another being was beamed over?"
"If George were invisible, it might have been dismissed as a power surge. I had best contact the Explorer and see what worlds they've had contact with."
"Why did George leave his home? Does he want to return?" N'kuma asked her son.
Even before she had finished the question, George was moving restlessly about. His trunk gestured wildly and his eyes disconcertingly filled with purple tears.
Andy became upset too and tried to comfort his friend. "Don't cry, George! We'll take you home."
"But why did George leave in the first place?" N'kuma pressed gently.
"Captain," Troi interrupted quietly, "are you aware that George is a child?"
"George? You mean Andy," N'kuma said in confusion.
Troi shook her head. "George also. His mental patterns are unmistakably those of an immature being. Mentally, he is around the same age as Andy."
"Are you telling me I've got an alien runaway on board?" Picard asked in dismay.
"I don't think George meant to abandon his homeworld, Captain. I get the impression that he followed the crew from the Explorer and was caught by their transporter beam. His distress at your question is caused by a feeling of homesickness and loneliness."
Picard sighed and looked over to where Andy and George sat. Andy was fiercely hugging George, while the latter's trunk was tightly wrapped about the little boy's waist. "Lt. N'kuma, we will be altering course as soon as we know where George's homeworld is. Do you think you can supervise both -- children -- until then?"
N'kuma smiled. "They've done pretty well on their own, Captain, those 'bunnies' aside. I'm sure I can manage."
"Andy, George." The two, both tearstained, looked up at him. "We will take George home just as soon as we can." George raised his trunk and honked in apparent happiness, and Andy brightened immediately. With what he hoped was a reassuring smile, Picard left, accompanied by Troi.
Before the door closed behind them, Picard overheard N'kuma say, "First you two go clean the paint off the corridor --"
Troi walked with Picard silently for a few minutes, then quietly said, "I can sense your concern. Is it for George?"
"In part." Picard admitted. "But also for the Federation's relations with his home planet. What do George's parents think? That we abducted him? How do we appear, after all this time, and tell them, 'Excuse us, here's your child.' Will we be able to convince them that our intentions are harmless?"
By then they had reached the Bridge. Troi was not able to offer much reassurance, but she did say, "I don't believe George is in any way traumatized by this experience -- surely that will help?"
"We've found George's homeworld," Riker called from the library station.
"Set in a course for it. Warp six. And try to open a channel to the Explorer."
"Records indicate that First Contact was made only two years ago, Captain," Riker reported. "The inhabitants of the planet -- Dargal V -- are technologically far behind the Federation, so contacts have been kept to a minimum. Despite their lack of advanced technology though, the Dargali have evidenced no difficulties in accepting the existence of other races and have been most welcoming to all expeditions."
"Let's hope this experience doesn't change that," Picard remarked sourly.
"There's something else, sir. The Dargali have exhibited such cooperation and hospitality that the Federation, on the recommendation of the study teams, has offered them full membership despite their level of technology."
Picard raised his eyebrows. "That is unusual, Number One. And it would seem to indicate a desire on the Federation's part to extend the friendly relations --"
" -- that may no longer exist. Exactly."
"What was the Dargali's response to the Federation's offer?" Troi asked.
"Our records show that they have taken the matter under advisement, but haven't yet sent an answer. Since they'd immediately gain access to our technology, their culture would be changed overnight by membership. Apparently they're taking their time to think it over."
"Why do I have the feeling that this little adventure of George's is going to have far-reaching effects?" Picard asked of no one in particular. "If his people make their decision based on a misapprehension about his disappearance--"
"We'll arrive at the planet in just under two days. Unfortunately, the Dargali have no subspace capability, so we can't even tell them we're coming."
"I have the Explorer, Captain," Worf interrupted. "The transmission is poor because we are forced to relay through two other ships."
"On viewer," Picard ordered. "This is Picard of the Enterprise."
"Thorssen of the Explorer, Captain. What can I do for you?" The Explorer'scaptain was a big, fair haired man, resembling his Viking ancestors. His demeanor was genial, but puzzled.
"Captain, did your ship land on Dargal V recently?"
Thorssen looked surprised. "Why, yes. About, oh, two weeks back. Do you need the exact dates? What's this all about?"
Picard told him. As the situation sank in, Thorssen lost his smile. "You're saying we beamed a Dargali child aboard by mistake?" he breathed in dismay. "And the child was transferred to -- Good Lord, Picard! His parents must think ..."
Picard nodded. "We are en route to Dargal now."
"We're three sectors over," Thorssen said, running his fingers through his thick shock of hair, "but we could head back. If the Dargali think malicious intent was involved, we should be the ones to return him and face their judicial system."
"I hope that won't be necessary, Captain. Given the Dargali power of invisibility, it's an understandable mistake. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to explain the matter to their satisfaction."
Thorssen chewed his lip, clearly undecided. "I don't want to leave your people holding the bag, Captain, but we won't be able to get back for at least eight days, even at maximum warp."
"Our first priority must be the child's return," Picard pointed out, "as quickly as possible. Continue your mission; if your presence is required we'll notify you. With luck, though, it won't be."
Thorssen nodded agreement. "All right. My apologies for this mess, Picard. I hope the child hasn't been a problem."
Riker coughed, a bit too late to completely mask the laugh, and Picard shot him an annoyed glance. "We'll keep you informed. Picard out."
"I've notified the mining colony of our delay," Riker said, perfectly straight-faced. "Shall I see if Lt.N'kuma requires anything for her charge -- food, toys...paint?"
"Perhaps the lieutenant could use an assistant, Number One," Picard purred. "Isn't your shift over soon?"
Riker grinned at him. "Point taken, sir. I'm sure the lieutenant is doing just fine."
"Bridge. This is Sickbay. Where is Captain Picard?" The doctor sounded exceedingly testy.
With a hunted look, Picard headed to the elevators, pausing only to turn the conn over to Riker.
Two days later, the Enterprise entered orbit around Dargal V.
"Sir," Riker said, his voice tight with anger, "I wish to go on record as being opposed to your leading the Away Team."
"Now, Number One," Picard said placatingly, "as captain, I am the senior representative of the Federation and must therefore be the one to try to explain this inadvertent abduction. With the planet's continued association possibly hanging in the balance, I must carry out the negotiations myself."
"It is too dangerous a situation for you to risk yourself in! Sir."
"Commander, the Dargali are not an unknown race. There is no reason to assume that they will attack us."
"This is hardly your typical diplomatic greeting! We are returning a kidnapped child. The parents of any species may react violently when they feel their young are threatened! How will the Dargali know we're not here to take more of their children?" Riker demanded.
"Because we'll be returning the one that is missing," Picard said patiently. "Number One, I appreciate your concern, but I'll be leading the Team." His tone was kind, but it had the ring of finality. Riker subsided, still dissenting, and the two entered the Transporter Room.
N'kuma, Andy, and George were already waiting for them. George was fidgetting, apparently excited and eager to return home, while Andy moped at his side. "All ready, sir," N'kuma reported, her face showing signs of tension at what lay ahead.
"Will you at least take Worf and Data?" Riker tried one last time. "If there is trouble --"
" -- then you'll beam us up," Picard finished calmly. "To arrive with a large Team would merely fuel any suspicions."
"Come, George. Stand on the platform," N'kuma instructed. "Andy, you'll have to say goodbye here."
"I want to come!" Andy wailed, tears beginning. "Don't leave me, George!"
Troi entered the room as the small human flung himself at his friend. "Don't leave me behind!" Andy sobbed, clinging to George's fur.
N'kuma looked at Picard, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, sir. Andy, you have to say goodbye now."
"Noooo!" Andy howled.
N'kuma tried to pull her son away, but George's trunk swept out to encircle the boy, and his two arms gently fended the lieutenant off. "Andy!" N'kuma said, sympathy and annoyance battling within her.
Now George was emitting honks and moans of distress too, and N'kuma turned to Picard helplessly.
"Perhaps Andy should go too," Troi said unexpectedly.
"Bring a child into a dangerous situation?" Riker asked furiously. "The captain shouldn't be going!"
"George is becoming increasingly agitated, as is Andy," Troi pointed out. "Allowing Andy to come would quiet both, as well as demonstrating to the Dargali our benign intentions. By bringing Andy, we would show them that George was well cared for and enjoyed his stay with us. Andy's presence might serve to defuse the situation."
Riker glared at Troi, but could find no fault with her logic.
"Lt. N'kuma, how do you feel about Andy's accompanying us?"
N'kuma paused, thinking. "I guess that if the situation were reversed, I'd like to see Andy's friend. If the Counselor thinks Andy will help reassure the Dargali, I'll let him come."
Picard nodded. "Very well."
Both children immediately brightened.
"Andy, you must do what your mother says," Picard said sternly. "Exactly. Do you understand?"
Andy nodded furiously.
Picard took a deep breath, then he and Troi joined N'kuma and the children on the transporter platform. "Energize."
As soon as they materialized on the planet, at the same coordinates from which the Explorer Team had left Dargal, Picard contacted the ship. "Enterprise?"
"Yes, Captain?" Riker answered immediately.
"We'll keep an open channel. Stand by."
N'kuma scanned the surroundings as Andy looked about curiously and George danced in delight, gesturing with his trunk.
"Captain." Troi and N'kuma spoke in unison.
"Three Dargali approaching." N'kuma indicated the direction.
"Andy, stay by your mother. George, Counselor, come with me." Picard took two steps forward as the three Dargali, now visible, hurried over.
The adult Dargali were four meters tall and physically very intimidating. They stopped a few paces away from the Enterprise party. George was suddenly still.
"Counselor?" Picard asked quietly.
"I detect no hostility, Captain."
"Why would we wish you harm?" A surprised voice asked inside the Enterprise people's minds.
"You have returned our child!" A second voice exclaimed. "And we are very grateful."
"Our very naughty and irresponsible child," a third voice added reprovingly.
Picard blinked. "I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. This is Counselor Dianna Troi, Lt. Saha N'kuma, and the lieutenant's son Andy. Your child was inadvertently brought aboard the USS Explorer and -- "
"Not inadvertently," the third voice interrupted.
"Excuse me?" Picard began to feel concern.
The second voice spoke. "No, it is we who ask pardon. I am Latana. These are my life-mates Vanz and Raluma." As the message was telepathically received, the middle Dargali bowed its head, then indicated its companions with its flexible trunk. "What Vanz means is that while your colleagues had no intention of taking our child, Jhorzhan was not so innocent."
"I don't understand," Picard said. "You mean Geor -- Jhorzhan wanted to go aboard the Explorer?"
"Jhorzhan is a very inquisitive child," Raluma said, amusement evident in its thoughts. "It was intrigued by the crew from your Explorer and wished to learn more."
"Once we realized Jhorzhan was missing and no longer on the planet, it was clear what had happened." Latana gestured with its trunk. "Jhorzhan has always been precocious; we felt certain it would be able to board your vessel, especially since you cannot hear its mind."
"Yes -- why can we communicate with you so easily?" Picard asked.
"Because we have been trained in projecting and receiving thoughts from non-Dargali," Raluma explained. "But you are unable to receive from Jhorzhan and that, coupled with its invisibility, convinced us that hiding would be very easy for it."
"But Andy could talk to Jhorzhan," N'kuma objected.
"They are both children," Raluma said, surprised.
"As soon as we realized where Jhorzhan was, we felt no fear. We knew you would eventually discover the child's presence and return the wanderer to us," Latana said serenely.
"We felt you might be concerned for Jhorzhan's safety," Picard said cautiously.
"You would not let harm come to a child." There was no doubt in Latana's tone.
"Our only concern was that Jhorzhan would forget its manners," Vanz said, wiggling its trunk at George in a scolding manner. "This child can be rambunctious at times. Were there any problems, Captain?"
Picard's hand unconsciously went to his ribs. He glanced at George and found the Dargali child's eyes fastened on him in mute appeal. "No, no problems," he said drily. "He and Andy became good friends, and Lt. N'kuma looked after him."
Vanz's trunk went caressingly to George's head. "We are proud of you, then, our child."
George bleated in relief and excitement and charged to his parents. All three honked lovingly at him. Soon Latana turned back to the humans, its trunk still entwined with George's. "Even if Jhorzhan was no trouble to you through misbehavior, Captain, you have surely travelled out of your way to come here. Will you stay for refreshments?"
"Please do," Raluma urged. "I wish to thank all of you, but especially you, Lieutenant." The Dargali gently encircled N'kuma's arm with its trunk.
"And Jhorzhan would like to show Andy around," Vanz added, holding an appendage out towards the human child.
"Of course," Picard agreed. Andy ran forward to Vanz and George, while Latana escorted Troi and Picard to a clearing to which Raluma had already guided N'kuma. Everyone seated themselves on the ground, and the Dargali adults offered their guests bowls of native foods. Andy and George played about merrily as the adults conversed.
"Tell us of your Federation," the Dargali asked, once the humans were settled comfortably.
Picard began, speaking in generalities, but the Dargali soon asked more specific, pointed questions, and shortly three separate one-on-one conversations were taking place. All Star Fleet officers have diplomatic training, so even N'kuma, whose duties did not normally entail explaining galactic politics over a picnic lunch, felt competent to answer her host's inquiries.
In time though, Andy and George returned, tired and hungry, and Picard excused himself and his crew. "We must return to our mission," he explained apologetically.
"Of course," Latana agreed. "We apologize for the delay our child caused you, and we again thank you for Jhorzhan's safe return."
Andy gazed sadly at George. "Will you ever visit?"
N'kuma glanced at Troi and Picard. If the Dargali refused membership in the Federation, it was unlikely that Andy and George would ever see each other again. "Come, Andy," she said quietly, taking him by the hand. After one last hug, he followed.
"Captain," Latana asked, "can you carry a message to the Federation on our behalf?"
"Certainly," Picard said evenly, keeping the surprise he felt out of his tone and expression.
"Please tell the Federation we accept their offer of membership."
Picard broke into a broad smile, mirrored on the faces of Troi and N'kuma. "The message will be delivered," he promised, "and let us be the first to welcome you. May I ask if your child's adventure had any part in your decision?"
Latana paused for a moment. "In a way, yes. Before Jhorzhan's experience, our people were uncertain about the offer. We sensed the candor and friendship of your emissaries, but we were not convinced that our society would benefit from the abrupt change in our lifestyle. However, speaking with the three of you and hearing about the wonders beyond our sky swayed many of us."
"Many of you? But how --"
"A telepathic society can be very efficient at sharing conversations," Troi reminded the captain.
"The deciding vote was cast when we saw our children playing together. They enjoy each other so and have learned such a great deal from one another, that to deny them -- and the other children of our races -- this friendship is unthinkable. It is our hope that the friendship will blossom and grow like the children themselves."
Picard smiled. "It is our hope as well. Farewell.
"Enterprise, four to beam up."
Riker met them in the transporter room. "Congratulations!"
Troi and Picard stepped off the platform. "You heard?"
"Every word. The Federation will be pleased."
"So will George and Andy," Troi said, eyes sparkling as she glanced at Picard.
"Speaking of Andy," N'kuma said, coming forward with her drowsy son in her arms, "if I may, Captain, I'll go put him to bed."
"Of course, Lieutenant. And good work." N'kuma left, beaming.
The Enterprise's senior officers watched as the small boy was carried off to his room. "What is it they say, Number One?" Picard asked softly. " 'And the little children shall lead...' ?"