There came forth in return only a jingling of bells.
"T'Shau to Commander Brouchard."
Before she was fully awake Commander Grace Brouchard gave the comm. badge on her nightstand a careless swat. It wound up landing on the floor but the link was made nonetheless.
"Go ahead, Doctor." She said groggily.
"My apologies for waking you, sir. But your presence is required in sickbay."
Brouchard opened her eyes and shut them again. This must be a dream, no one would be calling her from sickbay.
"Sickbay…" she muttered "Are you certain you have the right room, Lieutenant?"
"Quite." Responded the Vulcan succinctly. "It is at the Captains request. Please report to sickbay, immediately."
'At the Captains request' had a sobering effect and Brouchard sat up in bed quickly.
"On my way, Lieutenant."
"And Commander?" T'Shau queried.
"Yes?" she responded, already having found a clean uniform.
"Tell no one."
Brouchard paused, one leg into her clothing and stared at the badge.
"Understood." she said after a beat. She got dressed quickly, affixed the badge and fastened her hair into a presentable bun before leaving her quarters. Reaching sickbay from there was no short trip but it did allow her time to speculate on what might be going on. The idea that she was needed in sickbay as well as it being Captains orders was strange enough but a command to keep mum was stranger still. Things didn't clear up as she rounded the corner to the medical lab and saw it guarded by two of Starfleet security's finest.
"Gentleman I-" Brouchard began but the officers briskly stepped aside to allow her entry.
Apparently she'd already been cleared and with a surprised nod at them both she walked into the lab and found it deserted. Brouchard's eyes began to tear almost immediately as she was assaulted with the smell of burnt plastic, skin and spent fuel. Not a good sign.
"Doctor T'Shau?" she called out into the seemingly empty lab.
"Here, Commander." Called an unfamiliar voice. Tracing the voice to its source Brouchard encountered the Vulcan doctor, the solemn faces of Captain Everett, Admiral Phillipa Louvois and 3 bodies lying prone on exam tables.
Louvois turned to observe her. The JAG was only hitching a ride via the U.S.S. Paracelsus to Starbase 156, it made even less sense that she'd be here in a situation like this, whatever this was.
"I want to make it clear, Commander, that what you are going to see does not leave this room. As far as I'm concerned too many people know about this already. The bridge crew has been instructed not to discuss anything they've seen and sickbay staff have been relocated to a makeshift lab on Deck 26."
"Pip, she gets it." Everett responded wearily as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"I want to make certain of that, Lee. This isn't some pop over to a backwards Terok Nor this is…And I'm not just speaking for myself here, I'm speaking on behalf of Starfleet. Now, Commander, you were called here because of a certain degree expertise you're said to possess."
Brouchard looked at T'Shau for some sort of explanation but found the doctor as impassive as ever.
"Grace," Everett began. "About an hour ago sensors picked up a shuttlecraft just off the stern. It hadn't been there before it just…appeared. Long story short its rigged to blow and we transported these three onboard in the nick of time."
"With all due respect, sir" T'Shau said motioning to the three bodies shrouded in white sheets. "I wouldn't say it was the nick of time."
Captain Everett eyed his chief medical officer for a moment before apparently deciding if you didn't want candor then you shouldn't have a Vulcan on board.
"Quite right, Doctor. Because in truth we have one casualty or three casualties…I don't know. That's why you're here." He concluded with frustration.
Louvois beckoned Brouchard over and without hesitation pulled back one of the sheets.
Brouchard gave a sharp intake of breath and felt her heart rise up into her throat.
"You know who this is?" Louvois pressed.
"…I…I know who it appears to be."
"Then you also know he was reported killed in the line of duty four months ago."
"Think you can do it?" Captain Everett asked.
Brouchard found herself suddenly filled with horror.
"Sir, I don't think I'm the person you should be talking to-"
"This is no time for false modesty. You graduated from the Daystrom Institute, correct?"
"I'm an engineer, I minored in cybernetics but in all honesty this may be above my pay grade."
Louvois gave her a tight smile and seemed to have no intention of relenting.
"As of now this is your top priority."
"Ma'am, wouldn't it make more sense to bring someone else in on this like-"
"I know what you're going to say and that's a negative. As of right now this project remains classified."
"Grace," Everett began "We're already on course to arrive at the Daystrom Institute in two days."
"And in those two days I expect some results, Commander. I'll leave you to it." Louvois concluded and turned on her heel leaving sickbay without another word.
"Captain, permission to speak frankly." Brouchard said addressing Everett.
"Go ahead, everyone else has."
"I'm not cut out for this, a degree in cybernetics is one thing but actually having to work on-. And not to mention he appears altered, that's blood isn't it?"
"Commander, he has suffered damage, the extent of which I cannot tell. However as with all lifeforms, even artificial ones I am certain the sooner it is corrected the better." T'Shau offered, breaking her silence. "I have dressed his wounds as I would anyone else."
"You'll have whatever you need, Commander but I'm afraid you're looking at your staff. And don't get too worked up about Louvois. Pip is..well Pip is Pip. I'll be on the bridge. If you need me, have them patch it through to me ready room."
"Aye, sir." Brouchard responded a bit helplessly as Everett exited medical.
Brouchard turned to T'Shau with a sigh.
"Guess it's just you and me."
"So it would seem. I noticed the Admiral put a significant priority on this android yet neglected to mention the other."
"The other? There's another android?" she asked incredulously.
"A female of indeterminate 'age', identity unknown."
Brouchard sighed trying to process what felt like an overload of information.
"And the third body?"
"A human female, approximately 60 years in age, dead on arrival. My autopsy is pending."
Brouchard nodded. "All right, first things first. Daystrom knows we're enroute?"
"Ok…Ok. Guess I need to get started." Brouchard approached the body of the male patient and gazed down at him. "You now I just attended an entire symposium dedicated to him, his life, his growth, his advancement, about a month ago. There was a lovely reading by a Doctor named Bashir, a paper he authored after having worked with him. Not to mention there was a sort of combination character study/physiology lesson/eulogy by his shipmate LaForge…my God, what have they done to you?"
"Perhaps he may be able to answer that for us sometime in the near future." The Vulcan ventured with uncharacteristic hope.
"I hope you're right. Let's move him to that lab and get this show on the road. What I wouldn't give for a secure channel with Bruce Maddox right about now…"
(I think I may be showing a bit of inexplicable faith in myself by posting this epilogue cause it means I'm sorta cornering myself into writing the sequel I've been toying with in my head. In any case I think you know I couldn't leave Data dead like that. I am however considering this story closed and will start a new tale with a new title for the continuation. As always I hope you've enjoyed this. The starting quote is one of the last lines in the Cask Of Amontillado by Poe, that story doesn't have any real relation to this one but I always found the line rather haunting and sad. OK, guess that's it for now. As always, let me know what you're thinking, I love to hear it. I still don't know how this is all gonna end but onward and upward, right? Or rather, The Higher, The Fewer.)