Empty Is the Shape of Silence

Author's Note: I wrote this about 20 years ago, so it is one of my earlier stories. It was originally published in the fanzine Tantalus 3.

Disclaimer: The crew of the Starship Enterprise doesn't belong to me.

The fever rose steadily, raged through his body with a vengeance, burning tongues of fire that licked at the last, cool, dark corners of his mind and set them aflame. His system had resisted every drug Beverly Crusher had administered, and he'd slipped into a semi-comatose state, eyes slightly open, but glazed and unseeing. The doctor sat by his bed for hours at a time, bathing his body with a damp cloth, whispering soothing words. There was little response. Occasionally a sound, low in his throat, like a half-moan, as if he were in pain. She prayed that he wasn't.

She hadn't yet identified the cause of the fever, had at first assumed it was a simple virus that would run its course in a few days. But it had been a week now, and Beverly Crusher knew there was nothing simple about the captain's illness.

"Any change?"

She looked up from her desk. Will Riker leaned in the open door frame of her office.

She smiled weakly. "No."

Riker stepped further into the room, sank into a chair opposite her. "You still have no idea what's causing this?"

She shook her head tiredly. "None. I have teams of doctors in the lab working around the clock, but they haven't found anything yet. I don't even have any theories."

"What's going to happen to him?"

Crusher stared at the first officer, forced herself to give him a clinical answer instead of an emotional one. "If the fever persists much longer, it can cause brain damage... even death."

"Beverly!"

"I'm sorry, Will," her voice was hard, as if stealing herself against the prognosis, "but it's a possibility."

He leaned back in his chair, ran his hands through his hair. "Oh, God," he breathed. For a moment all he could think of were those away missions the captain had managed to come back from, and now some stupid, unknown virus could possibly kill him. "What do we do?"

"Exactly what we're doing right now. Wait... and hope."

Riker rubbed his eyes, then nodded. "Yeah." He looked back at the doctor. "How are you doing?"

"Me?"

"Deanna said you're not getting much sleep."

"Neither are you."

"No," he shrugged, "I guess none of us are."

Except for Jean-Luc, Crusher thought, but didn't say anything.

~vVv~

"Deanna?"

The dark-haired woman stood beside Picard's bed, staring down at him, her hand gently rubbing his forehead. She looked up at the sound of her name.

"Hi."

"Hi," Crusher returned as she walked over and stood across from her. She gazed at the captain. "How is he?"

"Quiet."

"Do you sense anything?"

Troi shook her head. "Nothing. No thoughts or dreams." She saw Crusher frown slightly. "But I don't sense any pain either," she added quickly.

The doctor's frown faded. "Thanks, Deanna."

"Waiting is always difficult, isn't it?"

"You'd think I would have grown used to it by now."

"There are some things we never grow used to."

"I know," Crusher agreed. "I've seen him ill a half a dozen times, and I never grow used to him being anything other than vital and commanding."

"He will be again, Beverly." Troi drew her hand away from the captain's forehead, walked around to the other side of the bed, and gave Crusher a hug. She stepped back. "Now don't stay in here all night. Get yourself some rest."

"I will."

Troi left, and Crusher leaned across, checked the IV that dripped into Picard's arm. Then she pulled a chair over, and sat down. The diagnostics panel above the bed indicated that there had been no change in his temperature; it still hovered just under 104 degrees.

"Oh, Jean-Luc." She reached over, took hold of his hand; even it was fevered, hot. She held it to her cheek, stared at his face, could just barely see the dark green of his eyes. "If you can hear me, stop this, Jean-Luc Picard. Just... stop it." She reached up, wiped a tear from her eye.

What happens if I lose you? What do I do? What do we all do?

There were no answers, despite the fact that she'd thought of these questions before. How many nights had she lain awake and thought of what it would be like to lose all the people she loved? She never thought of that with Jack; it never occurred to her that something would happen to him. They loved each other too much for that. But then she'd lost him, and found that love wasn't powerful enough to defeat death. And here, holding Jean-Luc's hand, she realized it all over again. She needed him. Even more so now that Wesley was back on Earth at the Academy. Jean-Luc Picard was all she had left from the old days.

She sat there for almost an hour, just holding his hand, reluctant to leave. But finally, remembering Troi's suggestion, she went back to her office, tried to get some rest. The thought of going all the way to her cabin and getting a proper night's sleep never entered her mind. She could never be that far away from him. So, she leaned back in her desk chair, closed her eyes, and within minutes, fell asleep.

~vVv~

"Doctor. Doctor Crusher."

She opened her eyes, blinked up at Selar. "What is it?"

"The captain's temperature has risen."

She bolted out of her office, ran down the corridor to his room. When she stepped through the door, she froze. A medic was beside Picard's bed, holding the captain down. And Crusher was momentarily shocked by his activity. For the past week he'd been so still, and now he was tossing, turning, fighting the medic's restraining hands.

Crusher came back to herself, remembered who she was. She grabbed a hypospray off the instrument tray, set it, went over and reached in past the medic, pressed the hypo to Picard's neck. Seconds later, his movement diminished. She studied the readouts above him. One hundred and six degrees.

"Bring me a basin of water/alcohol solution and some cloths," she instructed the medic. When all else fails, doctors go back to the old ways, she thought. Sometimes they're the best.

She pulled the sheets and blankets off of Picard, quickly removed his pajamas. The medic returned, and they both began to rub him down with the dampened cloths. Two hours later, his temperature had dropped four degrees.

Crusher breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that it wasn't just temporary.

"Thanks Gordon," she looked over at the medic. He was putting a clean pair of pajamas on the captain. Then they pulled the blankets up around him. His fever broken, he had begun to perspire. She didn't want him to become chilled, causing his fever to rise again.

"You can go now," she said, and the medic left.

Crusher leaned over, ran her hand along Picard's face. It felt a little cooler, the grey fringe of hair around his ears damp from the cloth she'd bathed him with. She kissed his forehead. "All right, you, that's enough. Get well."

She pulled the chair closer, sat down, propped her elbows on the edge of the bed, rested her chin in her hands. She wasn't going anywhere. Except to sleep.

Fifteen minutes later, her head sank onto the bed.

~vVv~

Umm. It felt nice, the gentle pressure on her head, the feel of someone stroking her hair. She smiled, yawned, came awake slowly, but then snapped her head up when she remembered where she was.

He drew his hand away, stared at her, a slight grin playing across his lips. He'd always loved the color of her hair, the softness, the way it fell over her shoulders. It had been the first thing he'd seen as his eyes focused and his surroundings took shape. Instinctively, he'd reached out, touched the fine red strands.

"Jean-Luc," she breathed, looked up at the diagnostics panel. 99.2. It wasn't normal, but it was beautiful. She grabbed hold of his hand. It was comparatively cool. "Thank God." She started to ask him how he felt, but the grin on his face had faded and the look that replaced it was at first puzzled, and then frightened.

"Jean-Luc?" Something was wrong.

His eyes grew wider, and his jaw began to tremble, his hand tightened around hers. "Beverly," he rasped, "I... I can't hear you."

~vVv~

"I've given him a mild sedative," Crusher explained, staring across her desk at Riker and Troi. "He's not asleep, but he's resting. Gordon is with him."

"The fever caused this?" Riker asked.

"Yes," Crusher answered simply.

"Then it's brain damage?"

"Not exactly." Crusher leaned forward, folded her hands on the desk. "The severity of the fever destroyed the nerve endings in the captain's inner ears."

"Can the nerves be regenerated?" Troi inquired.

The doctor shook her head. "No. The damage was too extensive. But there are other alternatives."

"Auditory implants?" Troi suggested.

"That's a possibility," Crusher replied.

Riker stared at the counselor, a look of surprise on his face.

She smiled slightly. "I do read medical journals every now and then, Will."

He sighed. "Then explain these auditory implants to me?"

Her smile faded. "I didn't say how closely I read them."

"Actually they're very simple," Crusher spoke up. "They're surgically placed in the inner ears, and basically perform the same function as the damaged nerve endings. Much less complicated than the cardiac implant he already has."

Riker nodded. He rarely thought about the captain's heart. Hadn't even been aware of the arthenogenetic implant until Picard had to have a replacement. A slight shiver ran up Riker's spine. They'd almost lost him then, too.

"Beverly..." Troi hesitated. "Auditory implants aren't possible for all patients."

"I know. I've contacted Doctor Edward Warrick. He's the best in his field. We worked together at Starfleet Medical. I want him to examine the captain. And if the implants are possible, he can perform the surgery. He's done it dozens of times."

"Starfleet's sending him then?" Riker asked.

"Yes. But... it's going take at least a week for him to get here. Now, in a way, that's good. The captain needs the time to recuperate. His temperature is almost down to normal, and although we still haven't determined the cause of his illness, I believe that the worst of it is over." She exhaled a deep breath. "The next few days won't be easy for the captain. He's going to be very disoriented and self-conscious. Damage to the inner ear can cause balance problems, and once he's a little stronger, he's not going to like the idea of having to depend on someone to help him with simple tasks, like walking, dressing himself."

"We'll all help, Beverly," Riker assured her.

"I know you will. I'm just concerned as to how much help he'll accept."

~vVv~

Not much, Beverly Crusher discovered the next morning when she tried to help Picard out of bed. He shook his head, pushed her hand away, determined to do it himself. And he did manage to stand. One step towards the bathroom, however, proved too much, and he pitched forward. Luckily, Gordon was there, and he reached out and caught him before he hit the floor.

Crusher took hold of Picard's shoulders, shook him slightly. He looked at her.

"Let Gordon help," she said, over enunciating each word so he could read her lips.

He nodded resignedly, leaned against the medic. Gordon led Picard into the bathroom and helped him take a bath and shave and then change into a pair of pajamas. A half hour later, when he returned, the doctor was waiting for him next to his bed.

Once he was settled under the covers, and Gordon had left, Crusher leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He glared up at her. She took hold of his hands.

"You are going to be all right," she assured him. "There is a good chance that the auditory implants can compensate for the damage."

He squinted at her, unsure of what she'd said. "Beverly?" he whispered.

She pulled a tray table over to his bed, activated the computer that was on it, then keyed in the words she'd just spoken. Picard read them, nodded. Their conversation continued, with Crusher speaking directly to his face and only typing in the sentences he couldn't understand.

"I know this is frightening, Jean-Luc. But it will get easier to deal with. And when Doctor Warrick arrives, we'll get things taken care of."

"What if..." he began, swallowed several times, then continued. "What if I'm not able to receive the implants?"

"Then we begin extensive therapy. Deafness is not nearly the handicap it once was. People can live perfectly normal lives."

Picard gaped at her, incredulously, shook his head. "No..." He couldn't lead a normal life if he couldn't hear. He couldn't be a starship captain if he couldn't communicate with his crew. Surely she understood that. "I..." He couldn't even hear his own voice, and it was unnerving.

Crusher sensed his frustration. "It's all right, Jean-Luc." She rubbed her hand over his shoulder. "Let's just hope that the implants are possible. If not, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Picard frowned. And Crusher remembered that he hated sayings like 'cross that bridge when we come to it,' and 'putting the cart before the horse.'

She smiled apologetically. "Sorry. If I bring you some breakfast will you forgive me?"

He sighed. "Maybe."

~vVv~