"Commander Riker!" Ensign McKnight shouted through the comm channel.
Riker jabbed his communicator, turning from his overseeing the arrangement of Youilurans for mass transport. They had moved to an area closer to Qctvtjstryu's destruction, and in the distance he could see its black specks flying about. "What is it, Ensign?"
"Sir, a Terran Arabian just breached the Enterprise hull. Scans confirm that Captain Picard is now on board!"
He blinked for a couple seconds. Just like that? Picard was returned to them just like that? "All right Ensign, we'll be up in just a second." He tapped his badge off, and turned to the Away Team. "Well, you heard what she said, the Captain is apparently back."
Geordi tapped a foot. "That's great news! But a little odd, don't you think? Just snap him up and then drop him off without any contact with us at all?"
"I know. It's damned peculiar. Just reinforces my belief we've been played with like toys."
Troi said, "Why don't you go back up now, let us handle this?"
Riker held his chin. "Actually, I'm not sure we aren't being tricked again. I'd like all of you to return; we can send down a rescue team to direct traffic just as well."
The three nodded, and Riker tapped his badge and requested beam out.
The horse disappeared almost the instant Captain Picard's feet touched the carpeted deck of the Enterprise brig. When he was standing, he turned, expecting to see the horse, but it was gone with as much ceremony as it had appeared, which was none.
"Now why the brig of all places," Picard wondered to himself as he walked down the small line of cells. The answer, it seemed, presented itself rather quickly. Data was in one of the cells, currently standing with one of his hands half buried in the wall, apparently stuck, while he concentrated with a ferocious intensity on his other, fist clenching and unclenching. The walls of the brig looked as though some animal had been caged there; there were great gouges carved out of solid duranium, along the walls and the floor, while scattered chunks of metal lay everywhere.
It occurred to Picard not to distract Data in whatever it was he was doing, but it was too bizarre, and the Captain felt in strong need of some answers. "What are you doing?" he asked, calmly.
Data's yellow eyes flicked up and registered a modicum of surprise. "It is good to see you have been returned, sir," he said, but Picard heard an unexpected strain in his voice.
Picard crossed his arms. "Well, yes, it's good to be back, but I would still like to know what you are doing."
Data looked back at his left arm, which the Captain just now noticed was missing the pseudoflesh and a good bit of Data's sleeve. "I am...taking a rather unorthodox chance, sir."
"Hrm. That doesn't exactly answer my question, and I must admit I am grown rather annoyed with less than direct answers as of late."
"I apologize sir." Data paused, and for an instant his face contorted in fury and he yelled, "You lied to me! Let me go!" He pulled at his half-buried hand, but it stayed firmly planted in the wall.
Picard felt that same sense of darkness he had aboard the other ship. But it was frustrated now, and angry. "What is going on, Data!"
Data turned toward him and for a second it seemed he lost control of himself; "You!" he screamed, the unburied hand had somehow become clawed like a raptor's, and the Android attempted to reach outside the confinement field. Picard stepped back instinctively; he knew there was no way for Data to escape, but the rage in his eyes and the present evil had startled him.
It seemed the shock of hitting the forcefield brought Data back to himself, and his hand returned to normal. There was frustration again, and Data returned his attention to his arm. "Sir, I am attempting to pull...Armus...out of the rest of my neural net and confine it in a specially made field in my arm."
"What?!" Picard demanded. "How in the hell did Armus get aboard my ship?!"
"My best guess, sir, given my current information, is that I brought it here."
Picard narrowed his eyes. "Can you explain to me why you think so?" he asked very calmly, keeping the sudden shock out of his voice.
Data nodded slightly. "A certain chain of events...contained...," he paused for a moment, as if searching for the proper words. "It appears that Armus unintentionally copies the neural patterns of all creatures it exercises any power over." He looked over at Picard. "This includes a perfect copy of Lieutenant Yar, Commander Riker, and yourself as you were on that day."
"My God," Picard breathed. "How can that be possible?"
"I do not know...but...it is...sir, I must apologize, before I realized this, I had accessed some of your memories...a question was asked...you asked...which could not be easily answered."
Picard's expression paled slightly. "I...asked? These copies...are they that perfect?"
"Yes sir. They...you...did not know where you were, and asked How did we get here?'...when I did find the answer, I sealed your copy and Commander Riker's copy as best I could, so as not to intrude any more than I had."
Data looked away. "I cannot correctly label her patterns a copy' as the...original...no longer exists."
Captain Picard felt he could easily understand that. Data had a similar copy' of Lal...and Picard was one of the few that knew Tasha had meant a great deal to the Android.
Data continued. "That is how I came to the conclusion that it must have been myself that brought Armus here. She knew things she could not, of this specific situation, indeed of things I must assume I will see shortly for I have not yet viewed with my own eyes a Yoiluran, nor Qctvtjstryu, but I know what they look like. I have thus come to suspect that at some future date, I will be capable of traveling through time, to warp subspace and interphasic fields, to create holographic images, to somehow enjoy some manner or form of telepathy, and to...transport humans through space on Terran horses."
The Captain almost dropped his jaw, but managed to keep his composure. It became more and more clear that his captor had indeed been telling the truth the entire time, unless his captor had completely addled Data's thinking. "What...is this unorthodox chance' you referred to?"
"I believe I can stop the creature tearing Yoilu apart." He glanced significantly at his arm. "I cannot say why." Data seemed to be finished with what he was doing; he easily loosed his hand from the wall, but Picard could not see anything that had bound it there in the first place.
"I think I can understand that," Picard answered.
"But...before I go...I must tell you: I cannot separate out your neural copy from Armus'. When I do what I believe I must, I will either keep it all...or lose everything." His voice was calm, but Picard knew him—there was a question unasked in his words.
It is not the first, but the best, and the worst, record of lives lived that I have kept...I am an eternity of other's memories.
"Let me see your hair."
Picard ordered the field lowered and stepped inside the Brig cell. "Forgive me the intrusion, Mr. Data," Picard said, somewhat reticent, and then reached up and searched for the telltale white streak his captor had said would be there. It took a few moments, but Picard managed to locate it. It wasn't a proper streak, not as obvious...but there it was, just the beginnings of it. He didn't know how long it would take Data to grow out his hair enough that the white would become visible, but just at the very base of his hair shafts, barely a millimeter or two long, there was white.
Picard stepped back and sighed. Then he smiled faintly. "Keep it, if you can. Just...try not to blackmail me with what you find."
Data blinked and stood straighter, and Picard fancied he looked a little offended. "Of course not, sir."
The instant the transporter field faded, Riker slapped his communicator. "Computer, locate Captain Picard!"
"Captain Picard is on Deck 10, en route to Transporter room 3."
Riker motioned to Troi, LaForge, and Sier. "Let's go, it's not that far." Then the Commander fairly broke out in a run, and the other three officers followed him.
As they neared the half-way point between Transporter rooms, four apparent apparitions blocked their path. Across the hallway stood a clean-shaven Riker, Yar, a somewhat younger looking Picard, and Data: the last in some rather gaudy costume made of greens and yellows. Sier flicked her tongue and lowered her crest.
"I've seen this one one too many times today," Sier hissed, pointing at the young Riker.
Deanna seemed on the edge of tears. "Who are you and why are you doing this?" She still sensed nothing behind the faces of these ghosts.
"I have answered that question," Data stated.
Geordi seemed to narrow his blind eyes. "No, actually, you haven't." He held his hand to his VISOR then turned to Riker. "Who ever they are, they aren't who they appear to be. They're just like the phantoms we saw on the Bridge. Except for him," he pointed at Data, "he's reading real enough, but not like Data."
"We don't have a lot of time," Tasha said. "Not now at least."
"Not enough time to explain what I am doing, nor to satisfy the questions you must have," Data added.
"Story of my life!" Riker shouted. "Now if you...whatevers...don't feel like explaining things, would you mind getting the HELL out of our way?"
The one who appeared to be Data looked at Troi. "Did you ask Riker about immortality?"
Troi nodded slightly. "I mentioned what Tasha said...."
The young Riker looked square in the face of the elder. "Well, you're gonna get asked, and you're lookin' at it, in a way. You don't have to say yes, but...you can see what's right in front of your nose as well as anyone else can."
The elder Riker opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly the three phantom-officers vanished, leaving only the strangely dressed Data. "There is a great deal to lose, for all of you, if you do not accept the offer." Data looked at where the images had stood. "She...they are not puppets, Deanna. They have their own voices, and spoke their own words. But I cannot manifest them in a way in which you could sense them. Even were I capable, I would not." Then Data too vanished without a trace, except for the prints his weight had left in the carpet.
Riker wiped his beard and stared at the ceiling for a moment. "When is this madness going to end?" he asked of no one in particular.
"At least that pervasive evil is out of the walls," Sier commented. "It's still here, concentrated...ahead of us. If our extraordinary luck holds, it will be in the Transporter room with Captain Picard."
"No kidding," Riker snorted. "Come on." Then he returned to his running toward the Transporter room.
It didn't take them long; there were no more unexpected interruptions. Sier hissed loudly as soon as the entered Transporter room 3; apparently luck had held and the evil was just where she expected it to be.
What Riker didn't expect was to see Picard, his back turned, facing a seemingly sane Data on a transporter pad. "Sir!" he cried out, skidding to a halt.
Picard turned to face him. "An interesting experience this has been," he said somewhat nonchalantly.
"You could say that sir," Riker returned, slowly. "Sir, I'll be glad to say welcome back' and all that fun stuff in a second, but...," and he pointed up at Data, "last time I saw him, he was stark raving mad."
Picard replied, "Yes, well, it seems that was...a temporary but necessary side-effect. We've been had, Will, by what I must account one of the most devious minds I have ever met."
"HAD?!" Riker was a little upset. "I know we've been played like we've never been played before...and for what? This has been some goose chase we've been on. At least we got to save the Yoilurans."
Picard nodded. "That was part of it I believe."
While the two senior officers spoke, Geordi and Sier went up to the transporter pad. "You OK Data?"
"I am fine, Geordi," he answered calmly.
Sier flicked her tongue rapidly, sniffing at Data. "It's you! You have it!" She clenched her mouth closed so no more of the disgustingly evil scent could get on her tongue, and then she clamped her clawed hands over her mouth. She muttered something incomprehensible.
Data looked at Sier then at LaForge. "What is it she means?" He would have asked her, but it was painfully obvious she didn't want to open her mouth.
"She smelled something evil, before...it was in the walls, all over...but now I'm guessing she smells it on you," Geordi answered.
"Ah. That is understandable." Then with all the solemnity of declaring how nice the weather was, Data said, "I have infected myself with Armus."
Geordi gaped. "You...what...Armus?" This was not making sense.
"Yes," Data said, infuriatingly precise.
Troi walked up, having overheard the conversation. "That is what I've been sensing, at least one of the familiar presences."
"I would guess I was the other one," Data added helpfully.
She shook her head. "No...I don't know. There was more than one, before I sensed Armus."
Data had nothing to say to that, so he stayed silent.
Geordi demanded, "HOW, Data? How could you have done this?"
"I am sorry, I do not have time to explain, and it might endanger what I am attempting to do."
Sier grumbled something behind her hands and stalked off the pads.
At that moment, Picard and Riker came closer. Picard said, "Are you ready?"
"Almost sir," Data answered. "I must ask Commander Riker something."
"What's it about?" Riker asked warily.
"I have...a rather personal request to make, about memories...."
Riker narrowed his eyes. "Wait...that was you. It...that...phantom...it was me, wasn't it."
"I cannot answer that, sir. But the phantoms' we saw on the Bridge were all created from memories of people I have stored in my neural net. I must assume you met me recently?"
"Maybe I did," Riker said thoughtfully. "If I did, I guess the issue is moot. You're going to ask about keeping my memories, right?"
Data nodded, with a subdued expression.
"Doesn't look like it matters. I've been dragged around all over unwillingly enough as it is, guess you can add one more thing to the list." He sounded extremely irritated.
If it were possible, Riker would have thought Data looked sad, and very upset. The Android answered slowly, "I will not if you do not want me to."
Riker shrugged. "If it was you I saw in the hallway, it really doesn't matter what I say. Quit being such a gentleman and get on with whatever the hell it is you're doing."
Picard motioned for Geordi and Deanna to leave the pads, and then Picard ordered the transport. Data dematerialized off the pad in a sheet of blue light.
Then Riker turned to Picard. "So what the hell is he doing? I know he wanted to get to Yoilu pretty bad...but I don't know why."
"He said he thought he could stop this...giant black worm-creature from destroying the universe," Picard answered. "He didn't tell me exactly how; I believe he wanted to be sure Armus would not suspect anything. Data...the future' one, the one who kidnapped me, showed it to me while I was on his ship."
"Armus...damn this just gets stranger and stranger." Riker thought for a moment, then went pale. "I think...I think I know how...."
"What do you mean, Will?" Picard asked, confused.
"Why would Armus be important? It's just evil, an evil life...I imagine it would be poisonous for a Vstrak."
"Vstrak?" Picard asked, while Sier removed her hands from her mouth, and Geordi and Troi joined them.
"Vstrak are a new species we made contact with while you were missing, Captain," Troi offered.
"And their favorite food is living machines," Sier added, lashing her tail.
"That worm thing you saw? It's an ancient Vstrak," Riker finished.
Picard stood still. "...Damn."
When Data materialized as near to Qctvtjstryu as the Enterprise could manage, he was not quite prepared for the sight, or the shaking ground. He could deal with the ground, though it troubled him to see the faint fault lines in it...but there was no way to prepare for the enormous size of the Vstrak he now went to face. Bigger than a continent...its arms' waved around like grotesquely large snakes, ones that could flatten cities if the Youlirans had ever really built any.
It was a staggering sight, outside the realm of any experience Data had had, and he suspected, outside most all experience...except for the Yoilurans.
But he had something to do. No use waiting. So he ran, as fast as he was able, faster than all but the rarest of races, and he leapt up on Qctvtjstryu's side, clinging to the slick black flesh with his strong hands.
And he was known. Qctvtjstryu stopped, the black specks floating and zipping through the air searching for food all paused in their flight. "Give the name! Qctvtjstryu knows there is another." Its voice was huge, deafening, as large as it was itself. If he had been other than he was, Data would never have been permanently deprived of hearing.
"The name given is Data," he said, in proper Vstrak. He knew this one was very old, and he had to speak properly to it or it might simply make a swift movement and send him flying into the quick-draining ocean of mercury in offence.
"Data," Qctvtjstryu boomed, "why has Data come to Qctvtjstryu? Qctvtjstryu feels such power in Data...Data should not have come, for Data will be eaten, like all else."
Data paused, and after a moment, began climbing higher, as fast as he was able on the slippery side of the Vstrak. It was far more than scaling a mountain, but he hoped he would not have to climb far. "Data has seen the might of Qctvtjstryu...Data wishes to give the power...." It was not an out-right lie.
"Is Data stupid Kwi?"
"Data has been compared to Kwi...but Data has been told the taste is better."
He could feel he had gained much more of the Vstrak's divided attention. The black specks that were its mouths floated slowly to the ground, or returned to its hulking body. "The taste is better, so Data says. And Data is still stupid Kwi, to come and be caught so easily."
"But Data has more...more than Kwi. Has there not been many years since Qctvtjstryu dined upon Kwi? And Data offers more...more power, better taste...Does Qctvtjstryu perhaps not realize what so much power could mean?"
"Qctvtjstryu does, yes. If Data has as much as is claimed, Qctvtjstryu could reach Hs from here...stupid Kwi, let Qctvtjstryu see...." Suddenly one of the mammoth arms reached down and entwined Data around his waist. It was just the barest tip of the arm, the rest was so large...perhaps even as large as the Enterprise in width, but it was difficult to judge the size because of the enormity of the Vstrak fooled the senses, the same way a horizon would appear flat even though it was not.
Qctvtjstryu lifted Data off its body slightly, and shortly one of its many mouths arrived and wrapped itself on Data's shoulder. He felt what Qctvtjstryu might have considered a taste', but far more power went out of him than had when Wstfln had done the same. He felt a good bit weaker for a moment, but he recovered quickly.
Nevertheless he could tell Qctvtjstryu was pleased. "Ha! Yes, Qctvtjstryu sees...oh, Qctvtjstryu doesn't always remember the taste of Kwi, but Data Kwi is better by far than memory. Yes, and Data deserves to be eaten for the stupidity of being caught." And it proceeded to draw out energy from Data at an alarming rate...but perhaps more alarming was the speed at which it grew. Data hadn't expected that. It would shorten the time the Enterprise had to rescue the Yoilurans by a considerable span, if the huge Vstrak continued to grow at the rate it was now.
Qctvtjstryu laughed, shaking the world. "Not like Kwi, no, Data replenishes...Qctvtjstryu feels it." It was correct—Data was not re-energizing as fast as he was being drained, but he was. He wondered for an instant how long it would be before he was drained enough to attempt his desperate plan...hours? Days? He calculated quickly and given consumption and re-energizing stayed constant, it would be 17 hours before his physical power was drained.
Then the Vstrak would move on to something else...that which killed.
The crew of the Enterprise was extremely busy. After Picard's return and a short but intense exchange about what had occurred with him and with the Enterprise, they returned to transporting Yoilurans as fast as they were able. It seemed a blessing when Qctvtjstryu stopped eating everything in sight, but it was short-lived, for the creature began growing fast enough to be visible on screen.
The corridors of the Enterprise were filled with Yoilurans, and the starship traveled back and forth between Vs and the fast disintegrating Yoilu with as much speed as they could muster, beaming refugees to Vs and going back to get more.
Jhanai Dormung had attempted to stay on Yoilu as his duty, but Picard convinced him that the Yoilu would need him on Vs more than ever.
On the way back to pick up another load of Yoilurans, the crew and Dormung witnessed the terrible—Qctvtjstryu had finally grown so large that what was left of Yoilu exploded around it, sending tiny bits flying.
There was silence on the Bridge. Where once there was a planet, a surpassingly beautiful planet, there was now a giant monstrosity, a worm, writhing, and attempting to move away from the remains of Yoilu.
Dormung's legs went out from under him; he fell to the ground, and made no sound. There was no way of knowing how many Yoilurans had just lost their lives in that instant where Qctvtjstryu's gluttony had destroyed their world.
Bits of dust hit the Enterprise's shields, lighting them up, more and more until the shields were entirely aglow. Dormung held out the red gem, the sign of his royalty. It burned, and it burned brighter in answer to the shields...a silent goodbye to those who died.
It had been several hours ago since Data had ceased being able to re-charge himself. But Qctvtjstryu still continued feeding, taking away from the Android the intangible that made him, like the Kwi, alive...Data wondered if there would be any way of getting that back.
He actually seemed dazed, and found it difficult to register so much as a thought when Yoilu exploded around him...or beneath him. The Vstrak was now bigger than Yoilu had been. Bigger than a planet...
Qctvtjstryu was committed...it had to be by now. And it wasn't paying attention. Not paying attention to the little morsel it was almost finished with. The last bite...
Data lifted his torn arm and pressed his hand to the slippery star shape wrapped around him, and dropped the force field confining Armus in his arm.
It tried to escape...skin of evil...tried to slither its way back through Data's neural pathways, but the energy pull from Qctvtjstryu was by now so fierce nothing could escape it.
In his mind Data heard the tar-creature screaming, "You lied! You lied!"...he didn't quite know what it meant, but he probably would soon, for he had copied all its memories to preserve Tasha's. Armus was part of Data now, so was Tasha...and Picard, and Riker, and the birds that Armus tortured to death...those that cast it off...uncounted numbers of living things...to keep the Asakans and the Omicron Thetan colonists company perhaps.
Qctvtjstryu flung Data away, stung by the sudden black energy when it had been consuming clear. Stung, more than stung—the Vstrak was choking on it. Qctvtjstryu tried to remove its mouth from Data, but he held it there; not by power or energy but by the simple fact that he was made of the strongest metal, and to move him without his consent was to move a mountain. And it choked on the black energy of Armus, flailing and writhing and shrieking.
Perhaps if it had not been choking, it could have pried Data's hand away, because Qctvtstryu was by far strong enough to move mountains, but it couldn't. The mouth was too small, and Qctvtjstryu in too much pain to do it.
Then Armus was gone, leaving only its substance behind and the copy Data had made...Qctvtjstryu almost recovered, almost made it...but it had drained to the dregs a poison that would kill it.
The last bite...
Jhanai Dormung staggered, raising himself on his large back legs. "It...Qctvtjstryu...look," he said, the translator adding shakiness to his voice to mimic the emotion his natural voice must have carried.
Captain Picard, who had stood from the center seat when Yoilu exploded, watched the worm carefully. It did seem different, no longer moving purposefully, but writhing as if in pain. "Ensign Sier, scan it!" he ordered.
After a few moments at the controls, Nazzi ad Sier reported, "Internal structure of the creature is disintegrating. It is as if it were falling apart from within."
Riker looked over at Picard. "You think he actually managed it?"
"It appears so, Will. If I had any idea what he had planned...but...it looks like it worked."
Dormung asked, "You had a plan to destroy it?"
Picard answered, "No...we didn't; we didn't even know about it until you contacted us, but...from what I gather, someone left a message in a bottle for one of our officers, a way to do away with that menace...he seems to have succeeded."
The Yoiluran flicked a long antenna. "He must have passed then, in space that way. I salute his bravery."
Riker glanced up at Sier. "Actually, your highness, he may not have. He's hard to kill. Sier, scan the area, see if he's still there."
"A marvel...do all of your people have this ability to live in space?" Dormung asked.
"No, not all of us," Picard responded.
"I have him, sir," Sier reported.
"Let's bring him home then," Picard said. He tapped his badge. "Transporter room, beam Data up; Tactical will send you the coordinates."
"If you do not mind, star farer, I would like to meet this person," Dormung requested.
"Of course, your highness," Picard answered, and he, Riker, and Sier left the Bridge with the king of the Yoilu, on their way to the Transporter room.
No one noticed the raven-shaped ship that had been near the area disappear without a trace, never to return.
When they arrived, they were somewhat surprised to find Data lying on the transporter pad, seemingly asleep with his hand holding a large Vstrak mouth to his shoulder. The arm that held the quickly drying mouth was covered in black fluid. Sier was the first to approach, warily, flicking her tongue.
"I don't smell that evil thing...but I smell its substance." She wiped a claw across Data's arm and held it up, letting the thin fluid drip down her hand. Picard came closer to examine it while Dormung and Riker went to look at Data.
Picard touched the fluid and rubbed it between his fingers. "I wonder," he said to himself.
"Sir," Riker said, "I don't think he's dead, but it looks like it was a near thing."
Picard came over and kneeled next to Data. The Android's eyes were open, slit...and he seemed to be watching something, but waving his hand in front of his eyes got no response. He tapped his comm badge. "Geordi, Beverly, we need you in Transporter room 2, ASAP."
They had moved Data to Engineering, as that was the best place to repair any damage that may have been done. Geordi had already started recharging Data's physical energy stores, but he could sense that was not all that was wrong with his friend. He should have started coming around, if a bit weakly, as soon as his energy cells began recharging. No diagnostic turned up anything wrong, but Dr. Crusher's medical scans showed a profound change in the two readings that had been different when Data had complained of being tasted' by a Vstrak. Black fluid continued to seep out of his arm, soaking into his uniform. The Vstrak mouth had been removed, but there was very little they could do about the position of his arm.
Dormung seemed to be very loath to leave Data, even though they had never met; so he stood nearby but out of the way of the Enterprise officers.
"Maybe we should contact the Vstrak," Dr. Crusher suggested, "certainly they would have an idea of how their energy transfer works."
Riker nodded, but said, "We can't bring one aboard; normally they die outside of contact with Vs."
Sier clicked her claws. "The Kwi. We should contact the Kwi."
"I think you're right," Picard said. "We need to make a trip back to Vs to drop off the rest of the Yoilurans anyway."
So he ordered the Enterprise to return to Vs, and as soon as they arrived, Picard contacted the Vs from a small screen in Engineering. Rjklyph answered. "Yes, welcome back, is there something Piikaaard needs?"
"Yes, I do. Do you know how to get into contact with the Kwi? We have an officer down and thought they might know how to repair him."
"Dat'e is the name?"
"Yes, it's Data."
Rjklyph waved its upper tentacles. "Yes, Vstrak can contact Kwi. If Piikaaard does not mind, may Rjklyph request the nature of the problem? Rjklyph has some concern, of course, for the honored guests of Vs."
Picard stroked his chin. "It seems he fed himself to that Vstrak that was eating up Yoilu. Managed to kill it too, but not before Yoilu was totally destroyed."
Rjklyph seemed awestruck. "The Yoilu have been explaining what Qctvtjstryu had done...sad for the planet Yoilu. Yoilu are readjusting well...but Piikaaard says that Dat'e killed Qctvtjstryu?"
"Yes, that's right."
"A feat...a feat! Songs will be sung, remembered among the Vs and the Yoilu alike! So Dat'e was Kwi after all?"
"No, not exactly...but...you could say that. Kwi with a very destructive weapon."
"Of course." Rjlkyph seemed to nod. "Rjklyph will connect Piikaaard to Kwi now."
After a few seconds, a silver-furred creature came on the screen. "This is Eliishhahnrah. I have heard from Rjklyph that you need our assistance?" the Kwi asked, her whiskers twitching.
"Yes, we have an officer down...he apparently just escaped dying at the hands of a very hungry Vstrak," Picard explained.
The Kwi seemed unimpressed. "We do not help those who are caught by the Vstrak...it is better for them to cease than to repair them."
Captain Picard very nearly became livid. "Look, Eliishhahnrah, this is an officer and a friend. He was not caught, but sacrificed himself to stop a Vstrak that destroyed an entire world!"
The Kwi narrowed her eyes. "You refer to the legend of Qctvtjstryu?"
"Yes, except it was certainly not a legend! Were you not made aware that the Yoilu have returned to Vs?"
The Kwi whispered something very fast and delicate to an associate. Then she turned back to the screen. "Rjklyph was less than clear about the situation. My apologies for my behavior. I was simply told there was an injured Kwi. I see this is not so. If you are willing, two of our top researchers will be sent to your ship. It is the best we can offer, for the Kwi do not generally attempt the healing of a Kwi that has been eaten."
"Thank you for your help," Picard said tersely. Eliishhahnrah nodded and the line was cut.
Picard ordered the two Kwi researchers beamed aboard and Sier to escort them to Engineering. After that, he turned to Riker and asked, "Did the Kwi you met seem so...unfriendly?"
"Well, one was insane, the other was...she seemed nice enough, if a bit fatalistic. I can't imagine what it must be like for them, sentient and knowing you are the favorite meal on the menu."
"Well, I hope these two are nicer," Picard commented.
Shortly the two Kwi entered Engineering, gaping at the walls and controls.
Picard went to meet them. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise, I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard." He almost extended a hand, but remembered in time what Riker had told him about their fur.
"Oh!" the shorter of the two exclaimed, apparently distracted. "We were just admiring this wonder of a ship. I am Niirihshehr, and this is my husband Shiirii. Pleased to meet you." The two Kwi bowed low. Picard returned the gesture.
"So," Shiirii asked, "where is the Kwi we are to see?"
Picard pursed his lips. "Data isn't a Kwi. I'm sorry but I feel I have to make a point of that."
"Ah...because he is your friend and was not caught. This was explained to us. We don't know what we can do, but let us see."
So Picard led the two Kwi to Data's side. Shiirii immediately began touching Data carefully, as if he were an old fashioned doctor. His eyes were closed, and he appeared deep in thought. Then Niirihshehr began a similar examination, but with her eyes open.
Niirihshehr finished first. "Physically I sense no problem."
"No, we didn't find anything either," Geordi answered. He looked over at Riker with a look of mild amazement on his face.
Riker whispered, "They're natural machines, I guess it stands to reason." Geordi nodded.
Shiirii finished his examination and opened his eyes. "Program-wise he is normal, at least I assume so. I sensed no errors. If he were Kwi I would say recycle him and give the parts to a young family, but he isn't, and I think he will hold on for a very long time. He is lost in memories...there are so many! It is my opinion he should be left alone for a while."
"If you will observe, he is aware—," Niirihshehr very carefully took Data's arm and slowly pulled it down to his side. "I would not have been strong enough to do that unless he allowed me." Then she looked at her hand and grimaced. Finding nothing to clean what was left of Armus off her fur, she endured it in silence.
"So...you're saying we should just let him...sleep?" Geordi asked somewhat incredulously.
Shiirii nodded. "He is aware and alive...but I think it will take him some time to regain his strength. We contacted Rjklyph and were told he did so once."
Picard nodded. "I have reason to believe you." He looked back at Data, who was watching something only he could see. The captain didn't seem all that worried...Data had a charmed life...he had seen that first hand aboard the ship like a raven. "Thank you for your input. You are welcome to tour our ship if you would like." The Kwi seemed excited about it and gratefully accepted the offer.
When they left, Picard said, "I think we should follow their advice. I'm not saying they know more about Data than we do, but...having seen what I have, what we all have...well, I find it hard to believe that today is the day we're losing him."
Dormung spoke for the first time in a while. "No, fate is not so cruel."
"Fate has nothing to do with it, not this time. Unless Fate has a name, and it's Data."
The solitary light of one reddish star tiredly lit up the faces of the one planetoid and the few remaining asteroids. Other than that, no star shone. The red was dimmer, so dim that only one with eyes to see it could. Data stood again on what little ground was left in the universe. He could see the last remains of light...heat...flickering and fading.
Again, a flash of light to his side. Q was there again. "Well, did you have fun?" he asked, crossing his arms.
Data looked at Q and answered simply. "No." It had been bad on both sides, though admittedly manipulating his friends had been easier to do than absorbing the memories of Armus.
"Hmph." Then he uncrossed his arms and said, "I've been thinking...and wondering if maybe the next one might not need you in it."
"The next one?" Data asked quietly.
Q nodded. "The next universe. The next whatever. Maybe the one next door, or the one after this one. It'll be a bit of a bumpy ride at first I suppose, but something's bound to turn up that might strike your fancy."
The corners of Data's lips turned up. "Possibly." He had made a promise to keep someone safe forever...and another to allow it to torment him for all the time history had left.
History had less than ten minutes left, if his estimates were accurate.
"Q, if you did that, how long would it last? Would you continue to do so, at every end?"
Q waved his hand. "Pssh. I'm omnipotent, in case you had forgotten, dimwit."
"Every end." Data looked down at his feet, at the dust on his worn shoes. "So many ends."
"You oughta know by know that everything ends," Q mentioned. "But then again, it seems that there's a new beginning around every corner."
"How uncharacteristically...cheerful of you," Data commented, not without some slight humor.
"Oh I know. It's enough to make me gag. I'm sure someone wrote it inside a greeting card somewhere."
"I shall...consider it."
"Well you don't have a lot of time left, so think fast," Q muttered.
"What time I have left might as well be an eternity, Q."
Leaving Q to his thoughts, Data turned and watched the last sun set.
Arggghhh...7 years in the making....I can't believe it....!
And now it's an AU. Grr.
Anyway, more notes to come, as there may be revision in the future...