Dr. Crusher shifted her position for the eighth time in three minutes and Captain Picard finally lost his temper.
"Doctor!" Hearing the edge in his voice made him pause and moderate his tone. "Doctor, are you sure you wouldn't prefer to be in Sickbay?"
Crusher turned to him, her own temper dangerously short. "Are you putting me off the Bridge?" she asked icily.
Troi and Riker exchanged a glance as the rest of the Bridge crew paid meticulous attention to their consoles.
"No." Picard kept his tone level. "I was merely suggesting that you might be more needed elsewhere. As soon as we are within hailing distance of Omicron III, you will be notified."
"I am more needed elsewhere," Crusher agreed sharply. "On Fomalhaut. Acrenia is a very virulent plague; the window between the first reported case and a global epidemic is extremely narrow. If we don't reach them within that period, millions could die!"
"I am aware of the urgency, Doctor," Picard snapped back. "And I dislike this mysterious detour as much as you, but Star Fleet Command was very specific."
"Where did the orders come from? Was Medical even consulted?"
"As soon as we reach Omicron III, I will transmit your concerns to Commodore Eaglefeather!"
Troi's face puckered worriedly as the irritation levels in both captain and doctor soared. Crusher's concerns were legitimate, and this seemingly unnecessary delay was alarming and angering her. Picard shared her sense of frustration, further magnified by the unease engendered by their strange, encoded summons to Omicron.
"I imagine that the commodore will be able to answer all of these questions," the counsellor said soothingly.
"Captain, we are now within hailing distance," Data reported.
Picard rose to his feet, closely followeed by Crusher. "Open a channel to Commodore Eaglefeather."
"And make it secure," Riker added, "as per our instructions."
Seconds later, the commodore's face appeared on the screen. "Captain Picard, you made excellent time."
"Thank you, sir. I have some questions -- "
"I'm sure you do, and they'll be addressed shortly. You will assume a high orbit around Omicron III -- as distant as your transporter will allow -- then beam down to the following coordinates."
"Commodore, this is Chief Medical Officer Crusher. The plague on Fomalhaut is -- "
" -- no longer your concern, Doctor. The Hood was dispatched twenty hours ago; she'll arrive at Fomalhaut shortly, well within the critical period."
Crusher blinked, surprised but relieved. "I see."
"Commodore, our assignment -- "
"Yes, yes, Picard." Eaglefeather waved an impatient hand. "I will explain all of this when I see you. Beam down alone as soon as you achieve orbit -- " Eaglefeather's attention was caught by someone off screen. "What? Oh, yes. Belay that last, Picard. You're to be accompanied by your Chief Engineer, Geordi LaForge. You'll be met and escorted to me as soon as you arrive. Oh, and Picard, wear civilian clothing. Eaglefeather out."
"Coordinates for beamdown received," Worf reported.
Riker frowned. "Civilian clothes? Secured channels? What is all this?"
"It appears we'll shortly find out, Number One. Inform Mr.LaForge I'll meet him in the transporter room in ten minutes. You have command."
"Captain!" Riker called after him. "Be careful."
Picard found Geordi in the Transporter Room, already in civilian attire. "Sir, is there any chance that I could get shore leave while we're here?" Geordi asked hopefully.
"Without knowing anything about our mission, I couldn't say, Mr.LaForge. But perhaps afterwards -- "
"Oh, no, that's all right, Captain. It's just that my kid sister is here on Omicron. She's at the university and I was hoping to get the chance to see her."
"Ah." Picard nodded understandingly. "After the commodore explains, maybe there will be some time for you to visit."
"Captain, the Bridge has indicated that you can beam down anytime," O'Brien said from behind the console.
"Fine." Picard and Geordi mounted the platform. "Where are the coordinates the commodore sent?"
"In the middle of Omicron's university, sir. On the main quad."
Picard wrinkled his brow. "Curiouser and curiouser. Energize."
The two materialized on the planet, green grass underfoot and active young people on all sides. Sports, meetings, and conversations took place around them, while many other people simply hurried past. Their arrival appeared to attract no attention amidst all the activity, save that a game of Frisbee relocated slightly to one side.
"Now what?" Geordi asked, looking around.
Before Picard could answer, a young woman dressed as a student and carrying a satchel of books hurried up to them. "Geordi! Hi!"
"Um, have we met?" Geordi asked uncertainly.
Ignoring the question, the woman dumped her satchel in his arms and turned to Picard. "Professor, about that last astrophysics quiz -- "
"I'm afraid you have us confused with -- "
" -- the fourth problem was awfully tricky. Could you explain it to me? Was the proper equation -- " Without changing her expression or tone, the woman lowered her voice slightly " -- I'm Ensign Blaine, sir, from the commodore's office. Would you come with me, please?" Seguing smoothly back into her role as a student, Blaine linked her arms in theirs and began to stroll down one of the many paths. "It was the pulsar in the problem that I couldn't account for, Professor. How do you .. "
Blaine eventually brought them to a small office building at one end of the campus. As soon as they were inside, she dropped their arms and adopted a more formal posture. "The commodore will see you right away, sir," she said, indicating a door to the right.
Picard and LaForge entered and found themselves in a typical Star Fleet office.
"Geordi!" Another young woman rose to her feet.
"Tanesha?" Geordi's jaw fell. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't you know? I'm the reason you're here."
"What?" LaForge abruptly remembered his manners. "Captain Picard, this is my sister Tanesha."
"And I'm Commodore Eaglefeather." A raven-haired man in his early sixties stepped from behind a desk. "My apologies for this masquerade, gentlemen, but I want to keep the Enterprise's presence here very quiet."
"Why is that, sir?"
"What do you know about Etruna, Captain?"
Picard paused a moment, thinking. "It's a planet within the Denebian sphere of influence, I believe, that has been proposed as a site for terrafarming."
Eaglefeather nodded. "Very good. The Denebians have decided that the planet shall go to whomever can best develop it into a productive and habitable world. A half-dozen groups, including the Federation, are competing for the rights." Eaglefeather paused long enough to call up a star map. "Etruna is strategically located, close to the Neutral Zone. Accordingly, Star Fleet is very interested in winning the franchise from Deneb."
"Where does the Enterprise come into this, sir?"
"The Denebians will make their decision based on the development proposals submitted by each group's world wizard."
"I beg your pardon?"
Tanesha spoke up. "A 'world wizard' is someone who can visit a lifeless hunk of rock and magically see its potential. A wizard directs all aspects of the terrafarming effort, from the design of the atmosphere to the selection of the flora and fauna that are eventually introduced."
"I thought terrafarmers did that."
Tanesha shook her head dismissively. "Terrafarmers only follow orders. They may implement an ice age, but the wizard decides how, when, where, and why."
"The Federation has sent three world wizards to Etruna, Picard. None has survived to complete the job."
"What's happened?" Geordi asked.
"Kenji Kamada, the first one, fell to his death while touring the planet. He was alone and it was assumed to be an accident; it looked as thought the edge of a cliff had given way beneath him. Mary Weston was chosen to be his replacement. A malfunctioning transporter killed her. Then, last week, Shiru Biko was given the assignment and left for Etruna in his private ship. He never arrived."
Eaglefeather shrugged. "No sign. His flight plan carried him through several asteroid fields, and for all we know, he may still be in one of them... but his air would have run out days ago."
"Excuse me, Commodore," Geordi broke in warily, "but what has all of this got to do with Tanesha?"
"I've been selected as Biko's replacement, Geordi!" Tanesha said excitedly. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"You're not even finished with your training! There must be someone more qualified."
"No, Commander." Eaglefeather shook his head. "There isn't. World wizards are few and far between, especially ones of the caliber we need. And Etruna is an unusual planet, geologically speaking. There are literally only five people in the Federation capable of designing her future. Three of them were Kamada, Weston, and Biko."
"What about the fourth?"
"Professor Suzumu is 117; the trip is beyond his physical abilities. Your sister is the fifth."
"I've been studying with Suzumu for five years! I can do this!"
"Actually, she was the professor's top choice when we first approached him and asked for candidates, but the Federation felt that someone with more experience was needed. Now, she's our last hope."
"It's too dangerous!"
"Oh, Geordi, stop it." Tanesha lay a hand on his sleeve. "You're as bad as the commodore -- jumping at shadows. These accidents are probably just coincidences. There's no evidence that anyone is out to get us."
"Three out of five isn't evidence?"
"Stop acting like I was a child, Geordi. Accidents happen. Nobody likes to think about it, but transporters do malfunction, and I'd be the first to admit that when we're working, we wizards are in another dimension. It'd be easy to get so caught up in your plans that you forget to look where you're going or misprogram your navigational computer. Etruna is beautiful, Geordi, or it will be when I get through with it. Like it or not, I'm going."
Geordi subsided, unconvinced.
"Doctor, if you and the commander would get your bags, I'll give the captain some final instructions."
"'Doctor'?" Geordi echoed. "You haven't graduated yet."
"As a special favor to the Federation Council, the university agreed to give your sister her degree a few months early. We didn't want to risk the Denebians taking offense at our sending a mere student."
"I'd finished all the work; it was just a formality," Tanesha amplified. "But now I'm officially 'Doctor Tanesha LaForge'."
She led Geordi out, leaving Eaglefeather and Picard alone.
"I take it Star Fleet does not agree with Dr.LaForge's theory of coincidence," Picard commented.
"Hardly. And it would appear that the saboteur is well-informed and highly determined. That's why I've implemented this tight security. I'm hoping to get Dr.LaForge off the planet before anyone even realizes she's gone."
"But if she's the last qualified person, it's no secret that she'll be going."
"True, but I'm going to try the old bait and switch routine. Tomorrow afternoon, Ensign Blaine will board the commerical yacht Tristar using the name Tanesha LaForge. With a little luck, the saboteur will follow her, not you, and
you'll be on Etruna before he realizes his mistake. But even if he figures it out, he should find the Enterprise less easy a prey than Biko's singleship."
"So we are to transport Tanesha to Etruna?"
"Yes, safely and with all due speed. The Denebians require that all proposals be presented by next week. At maximum warp, you should arrive at the planet in 72 hours. That gives LaForge four days to work."
"Will that be enough time?"
"It'll have to be. When you get to Etruna, have an armed guard around Dr.LaForge at all times. Her safety and the successful completion of her mission are of the highest priority to Star Fleet."
Eaglefeather paused a moment. "You've never dealt with a world wizard before, have you, Captain?"
"Then I'd better warn you about them. Designing a world takes a particualr sort of personality; a true creative genius is necessary of course, but there's more to it than that. There's a dedication, a single-mindedness that borders on obsession. When they're 'playing God' -- that's what they call the creative process -- their work is the only thing that matters to them. They don't eat; they don't sleep. They demand complete solitude and unlimited access to the planet."
"But, Commodore, if they require complete solitude, it will be impossible to guard LaForge constantly."
"I didn't say they require it, Picard; I said they demand it. The psych department says it's a fetish, an affectation really, not a true necessity in the creative process, but, yes, LaForge will scream bloody murder when you assign guards to her."
"Commodore, Dr.LaForge is not a Star Fleet officer. I cannot force her to accept a security escort. If she insists on privacy -- "
"Then you will prove to Star Fleet whether your reputation as a diplomat is deserved!" Eaglefeather snapped. "She is never to be left unguarded! Her successful completion of this assignment is your personal responsibility. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," Picard snapped back.
"It may not be as bad as all that." Eaglefeather relented a bit. "LaForge is very young; the habit of solitary composition may not have taken hold yet. And you have another piece of ammunition: her brother. Her psych eval shows that she holds him in great regard. If he backs you on the security issue that might be enough to sway her."
"And if it isn't? Am I to understand that Star Fleet is ordering me to curtail the doctor's personal liberties?"
"Star Fleet is ordering you to complete your mission! Failure to do so, on any level, will be unacceptable!"
At that point, Tanesha and Geordi reentered the room. "All set."
"You have your orders, Captain. Carry them out."
Picard nodded coldly to the commodore, then called to Chief O'Brien. "Enterprise, three to beam up immediately."
Once they materialized on the ship, Tanesha smiled at her brother. "This should be fun, Geordi. I haven't seen you in ages."
"Commander, why don't you escort your sister to her cabin? Perhaps later she'd enjoy a tour of the ship."
"I sure would! When do you get off-shift, Geordi?"
Before LaForge could reply, Picard interrupted. "Haven't you some preparations to make, Doctor? We'll arrive at Etruna very shortly, and you'll have only another four days to complete your proposal."
Tanesha wrinkled her nose. "You sound exactly like Professor Suzumu, Captain, but, yes, you're right. I guess the tour had better wait."
"After your sister is settled, report to the Briefing Room, Commander."