"Geordi," Captain Picard called out as he entered engineering. A second later, his chief engineer's head emerged from around the corner.
"Captain," Lt. Commander La Forge replied. "How is the case going?"
"I was hoping to talk to you about that. Actually, I was hoping to talk to one of your engineers."
"Ensign Patel?" La Forge asked.
Picard frowned. "Yes, how did you know?"
"Ensign Patel talked to me this morning. Apparently, Cadet Torres contacted her near the end of her shift Monday night. You're going to want to hear what she has to say."
Cadet Wesley Crusher took a second to orient himself after he materialized in the transporter room aboard the Enterprise. "Wesley!" his mother explained as she rushed forward.
"Hey, Mom," he replied, giving her a hug. "Captain Picard wanted to see me?"
Dr. Beverly Crusher nodded. "He's waiting in his ready room. He asked me to take you right there." She smiled slightly. "I don't know what he wants, but it sounded urgent. Come on." She tilted her head toward the door and began walking. Her son followed obediently.
Dr. Crusher left her son at the door to the ready room and rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. He smiled back before walking through the door.
"Ah, Cadet Crusher. Have a seat. Can I get you anything?" Captain Picard asked when the cadet entered.
"Uh, no, I'm good, thanks," he replied slowly, noticing the ensign already sitting in one of the chairs.
"Do you know Ensign Siobhan Patel, Cadet?" Picard asked as he took the seat behind his desk, sipping his tea.
"Only by reputation. It's nice to meet you, sir," he said, extending his hand toward the ensign.
"You too, Cadet," she said, her voice cold even as she took his hand.
"Ensign Patel and I were having an interesting discussion before you came in," Picard said casually. "She was explaining to me how maintenance requests for Nova Squadron work. One thing I didn't realize is that pilots and engineers have different forms to fill out. The pilot request forms go directly to the chief engineer, whereas the engineering requests are discussed as a group. It seems like an efficient system, if you ask me."
"Yes, sir," Crusher replied, confused. He didn't know where this was going.
"Apparently, you pilots are pretty rough on the crafts," Picard continued. "Some more rough than others, and some report problems more than others. Over the course of a season, how many pilot requests would you say are processed, Ensign?"
She frowned as she pretended to think about it. "Well, the season starts in November, ends in May. Things are busiest in March and April as the team is getting ready for the Rigel Cup. Overall, I would say the average is forty requests a month, for almost seven months, so almost three hundred requests, ranging from the mundane to the elaborate."
"And all of those are processed by the chief engineer?" Picard continued.
"During March and April, when the requests increase, sometimes the deputy chief gives a hand, but for the most part, yes," Patel replied.
"I'm sure near the end of your term as chief, you got pretty good at processing those requests."
"It got to the point I could guess what crafts needed what by simply glancing at the request," Patel boasted.
Picard raised his eyebrows. "That seems rather impressive. How did you do that?"
"Well, each pilot had his or her own craft, and typically did the same type of damage each time. After reading nearly three hundred reports, I could tell each pilot by the formatting of the request alone."
"So you mean to tell me that each pilot wrote his or her requests differently?" She nodded in reply, and he continued, "So if I gave you a request without the name on it, you could identify it?"
"As long as it was one of last year's pilots, yes," she replied without missing a beat. Crusher began to see where this was going, and he didn't like it.
"I think we need a demonstration," Picard continued. He handed her a PADD. "I've downloaded a random sample of requests from last year. Could you tell me the authors?"
She took the PADD and began scanning. "Sito Jaxa," she began. "Ryan Addison. Sito again. Jean Hajar—check the date, it's probably off by a week. Tom Paris. Addison. Nick Locarno. Paris. Sito. Hajar." She got to one and chuckled. "The name will say Paris, but it was written by B'Elanna Torres. She wrote most of his requests near the end of the year. Always clearer when she did them. Addison again. Hajar." She glanced at the captain, no more requests to read. "So how did I do?"
"One hundred percent," Picard replied lightly. "Impressive."
"Sir, what does this have to do with me?" Crusher finally asked. Patel turned to him, her eyes cold, but it was Picard who answered.
"Apparently, Cadet Torres sent the maintenance request she had in her possession to Ensign Patel late Monday night, shortly before she was taken into custody. She eliminated the name to avoid getting anyone in trouble, but since she had never processed maintenance requests from pilots, she didn't realize how identifiable each would be by formatting alone. According to Ensign Patel, the request was written by Nicholas Locarno." Crusher swallowed, but Picard wasn't over. "Cadet Torres said something this morning in her testimony that got my attention. She said that Locarno gave her the request because the team was having problems in the simulators. However, when I went back and checked, I could not find any record of the simulators being used by Nova Squadron in the last month. In fact, for all of the time periods that Nova Squadron was scheduled to use the simulators, there were not any records of them being used at all," he paused, then added, "almost as if someone had erased the records. So tell me, Mr. Crusher, had you been using the simulators?"
Crusher took a deep breath, remembering Locarno's words about protecting the squad. Somehow, that suddenly didn't mean as much as performing his duty as a future Starfleet officer. "Yes, sir," he admitted.
"And this never came up until now?" Picard asked sharply. "What else aren't you telling us? What simulation were you running?"
"I didn't know anything about the request, that much is true. And neither did Josh or Jaxa. On Monday night, Nick called us all to his room for a meeting. He said that someone had gotten wind of the fact that we were running simulations of the Kolvoord Starburst. Jaxa replied that it wasn't a big deal, we were allowed to run simulations of whatever we wanted, it just meant that we couldn't do it for real. Josh was relieved; he wasn't comfortable with the maneuver, even in the simulator. Jean got upset, and said that we could get in trouble for even running the simulations, and told us that we couldn't tell anyone what we had done. It wasn't until the next day when I saw Cadet Torres escorted to class and heard what she was accused of that I figured out about the request."
Picard studied him for a moment, as if trying to decide if that was the whole story. "If you want to save your career, you have to report this. If you don't, I will, and you will go down with Locarno and Hajar." He rose and walked to the other side of his desk, leaning back against it, still studying the cadet. "I will not have you ruin another cadet's career to save your own. That is not the type of Starfleet officer that I want to be associated with. Do you understand, Cadet?"
"Yes, sir," Crusher replied automatically. "Sir, please, give me some time to talk to Jaxa and Josh and let us come forward together. They weren't any more involved in this than I was."
"You have until tomorrow at 1000 hours," Picard replied. "If you haven't reported this by then, I'll do it, and the five of you will most likely be expelled."
"Yes, sir," Crusher replied.
"Dismissed, Cadet." Before leaving the ready room, Crusher's eyes drifted briefly to Ensign Patel. Her dark green eyes were focused on him, and burned with an intense anger that he had never seen the likes of before.
"In light of the testimony brought forth by Cadets Sito, Crusher, and Albert, this board has no choice but to clear Cadet Torres of all charges," Admiral Brand began. "In addition, for conspiring to accuse a fellow cadet of crimes she did not commit, it is the ruling of this board to expel Cadets Nicholas Locarno and Jean Hajar. For their involvement, and considering their eventual willingness to come forward, Cadets Sito, Crusher, and Albert will be placed on probation for the period of one year. Finally, I believe it goes without saying that Nova Squadron will not be performing at commencement this year." With a final clang of the bell, the inquiry was officially over. Ensigns Winat Gial and Siobhan Patel, who had beamed down that morning with Captain Picard, rushed over to Cadet B'Elanna Torres to congratulate her. She smiled thinly and thanked them, thanked her lawyers, then turned and headed toward the exit.
Standing right on the other side of the door was Ensign Tom Paris. He looked up, surprised, at the sound of the doors sliding open, and his face broke into a wide grin. "I knew you'd get off without any problems," he said, pulling her into a tight hug. After a moment, Torres pulled away and looked up at him, her face serious.
"I'm leaving on Thursday, after my last final," she said bluntly.
He blinked, processing her words. "Leaving for where?" he asked.
"Qo'noS," she replied. "Admiral Chapman arranged for me to do a summer exchange at the Klingon Institute of Engineering. Their summer classes start in a week."
"So when are you coming back?" he asked, his good mood fading quickly.
She looked up at him, then glanced back at the closed door where her inquiry had been. "I don't know if I am," she said finally. "I don't know if there's a place here for me anymore." While he was still searching for words, she turned and walked away.
The End... To be continued in Part 3