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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Paths Not Taken: A Fan Fiction Star Trek Short

Ten years ago, I wrote a Star Trek short story in the hopes of being published in Pocket Books' Strange New Worlds, an anthology series featuring the best of submitted fan fiction. The story was never selected. (Maybe because I was already a published author with stories in Playboy and Marvel Comics, but I'll never really know for sure ;-)) Nevertheless, I'm really proud of the piece and have dusted it off and revised it, and am offering it as a Christmas (or Hanukkah) gift to my fans.The story takes place shortly after the third Next Gen movie, Insurrection. (For a downloadable Pdf version, click link at end of story.)



Star Date 51500.0

Jean-Luc Picard glared at the glass plaque on his ready room desk as though it carried a deadly disease. The gold inscription read: For service, above and beyond the call of duty in upholding the Prime Directive. The irony was not lost on him; Jean-Luc had earned it for an act of mutiny, defending the Ba'ku race from the schemes of an overzealous Starfleet Admiral named Dougherty. He had hoped his insurrection would trigger a dialogue over slack Federation ethics, but the discourse never materialized, and the matter had been neatly swept under the rug. Dougherty had friends in high places, it would seem, and perhaps a few silent collaborators as well. Why else would the fleet's flagship be on a "cooling off" mission cataloguing gas densities in the Mutara Nebula. Picard wanted to hurl the glass block and its polished marble base right into space.

      The mood in the Federation had changed since Picard was a cadet. Breen warships had made it past sector defenses during the Dominion War, attacking San Francisco and annexing Betazed—it had been a long time since Earth had been touched by interstellar conflict. Every year, the war hawks in the Council grew, made up mostly of people who'd never been in battle. Starfleet culled and coddled every new society that could supply fresh troops. The universe had always been dangerous, but its wonders were what originally drew explorers to Starfleet. The captain feared for what the fleet was becoming.
Jean-Luc was tired beyond his years. Perhaps it was time to consider teaching at the academy? Or, maybe a diplomatic post? As an ambassador, he could actively work to avoid conflicts before they boil.
The ship’s klaxons broke Jean-Luc out of introspection.
“Red Alert—Captain Picard to the bridge.”
Commander William Riker surrendered the center seat with a dogged expression. “Romulan scout ship uncloaked five thousand kilometers off the port bow.”
“Status?” asked Captain Picard.
“Weapons offline—shields down.”
“It could be a diversion," Picard surmised. "Data, scan the nebula for other cloaked ves..."
“We are being hailed," Data said.
“On screen.”
The ears looked right and the uniform was that of a Romulan commander. But the forehead was high and smooth and the eyes radiated its vast reservoir of knowledge and experience. It took Picard a moment to recognize his friend.
“Ambassador Spock?!”
“Permission to come aboard, Captain.”

~~~

The crew of the Enterprise lined its corridors, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legend as he passed. Spock was escorted to the main conference room where Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Chief Engineer LaForge, Commanders Data and Riker, and the Captain gathered, both excited and apprehensive about his purpose. He had been working in the Romulan underground, trying to undermine that regime’s praetorian hold on its people, and they were hopeful that he had good news on the progress. They had to wait a bit longer than expected as the nebula outside the viewport captured Spock's consideration.
“Is the Mutara Nebula what brought you here, ambassador?” asked Data.
“One of the ironies of life, Mr. Data,” said Spock. “No, my visit has nothing to do with this nebula. That the Enterprise should be here of all places is merely... a coincidence.”
“Trouble on Romulus, then?” asked Riker.
“Always,” Spock said, with a glint of humor. “What's brought me back to Federation space is larger by far than Romulan politics. A crises that threatens to engulf the entire quadrant—perhaps even the galaxy.”
Jean-Luc craved a cup of Earl Grey. Legendary stoics speaking in hyperbolic terms were never a good sign.
Spock inserted a data crystal and called up a map of the Alpha Quadrant. Multicolored lines charted the movements of many vessels.
“This intelligence came to me through spies in the Tal Shiar,” Spock began.
“You have plants in the secret police?” Riker asked.
“Naturally,” Spock said. “The Romulans recently lost two outer colonies to the Borg. The military has been meticulously charting their movements in the quadrant ever since. The Klingons and Tholians have also had skirmishes with the Borg, with results similar to the tragedy at Wolf 359. This is fortunate only because it has maintained the balance of power in the region. In all cases, the Borg were defeated. Resistance is not futile, despite the propaganda.” 
On the view screen, Spock pointed out one particular vessel marked in red. “Six days ago a Borg sphere entered this corner of Federation space. The Romulans lack vital intelligence about this sector and therefore do not realize its significance; the Borg, however, might, through computer records captured from Federation encounters over the years. They will reach this star system in less than two days,” he said, pointing to a white dot on the map. “We must be there first.” 
“Ambassador, our resources are stretched quite thin,” Picard said. “That system is not near any vital population centers. The Council has made clear that we will only engage the Borg if a Federation member is threatened. We don’t have the resources to defend every world.”
 Spock raised an eyebrow. “There are worlds, Captain, hidden in the recesses of the universe that we cannot afford to let fall to any adversary. This planet—Talos IV—is foremost among them.”
Junior year stellar cartography flooded back into Jean-Luc’s mind. Talos IV was quarantined—the only world that warranted the death penalty if visited without authorization. "General Order Seven," Picard said.
“Yes," Spock confirmed. "The Talosians are telepaths with the ability to project illusions so accurate they are indistinguishable from reality. Captain Pike’s Enterprise was drawn to Talos IV by such an illusion, in the form of an old-Earth distress beacon.
“Ambassador, have you been to Talos?" Geordi asked.
“Twice,” Spock responded. “Dependence on telepathy has stagnated Talosian society over the centuries. They created a menagerie of aliens to provide them with adventurous scenarios, which they fed off empathically. Initially, humans were considered highly adaptable to their needs due to a wide range of intense emotions. Captain Pike was abducted for this purpose. Fortunately, we discovered that strong negative emotions such as hate could shield our minds from them. After we successfully withdrew from their world, Starfleet implemented General Order Seven—a complete quarantine of the sector. Years later, when exposure to delta-particle radiation rendered Pike an invalid, I orchestrated his return to Talos, so that he could live the rest of his days under the illusion of being a whole man again.”
“You allowed telepathic parasites to feed off his mind?” Dr. Crusher asked, incredulously.
“The experience is not unpleasant, Doctor. Pike was already a prisoner of his own body. His mind, however, remained intact. The arrangement was logical, and ultimately his decision.”
“How do you know it was his decision, considering their abilities?” Geordi asked.
Spock considered the notion for a moment. “Logic dictated that my plan was the ideal course of action for all involved. I must believe in that.”
Picard only half listened. Mention of the Borg had triggered memories of his assimilation by that cyborg race. He had been Locutus, herald of death. The thousands he helped kill at Wolf 359 still haunted him. He had destroyed families, not for anything even as significant as an ideology, but for fidelity to a matrix: one race’s consuming model of an ideal universe. There were nights when Jean-Luc awoke in a cold sweat, doubting his soul was whole anymore. Hell is spending eternity as a drone.
“Let the Talosians deal with the Borg,” Riker interjected.
“They have no weapons,” Spock countered. “The Borg’s cybernetic elements render them impervious to illusions of the mind.”
“Ambassador, this has nothing to do with us,” Picard broke in. “The Talosians are not Federation members. We cannot pick fights with the Borg.”
“I do not suggest we fight the Borg at all.”
A pit formed in Picard's stomach, as though someone beamed a rock in there. “What are you proposing?” he asked. The words were almost a whisper.
“The Talosians were a dying race when we encountered them a century ago. By my estimation fewer than a hundred survive. I propose that we evacuate them.”
Jean-Luc’s pit hardened. This strategy sounded oddly familiar. It couldn't possibly be... not again... not so soon. “And if they resist?” he pushed.
“I propose we move the Talosians by any means necessary,” Spock said.
Picard felt the heat drain from his body—someone had poured ice water on him, and he was finding it hard to focus on what Spock had just said. “What?” Picard uttered, almost too softly for anyone to hear. Those words, from his lips…
“Captain, by assimilating the Talosians, the Borg will acquire their abilities. We cannot allow…”
We cannot allow? Picard rose. "Who are we to make decisions for these people?” All eyes were on him.
“Captain, logic suggests the Talosians would come willingly…
“And if not? What if they decide to join the Borg? Does logic allow us to alter the lives of whole races because it’s in our own best interest?”
“Jean-Luc, I do not believe you grasp the implications of this crisis..."
“No Ambassador, you do not grasp the implications of your proposal. Kidnapping people from their world for our self-interest is becoming a Starfleet hobby. These are the actions of Romulans and Cardassians! The Federation does not transplant civilizations against their will. Ever! We’ll proceed to Talos IV and warn them and offer refuge. That is all we will do. Meeting adjourned.”
Jean-Luc left abruptly.

~~~

Picard composed an apology to Ambassador Spock. The image of his command crew as he stormed out of the meeting room left him with a bad taste in his mouth. Jean-Luc’s anger surprised even himself—but he felt betrayed. Picard always believed he could set his moral compass by Spock's ethics. Challenging Spock was almost treasonous. Few men had worked so hard for the betterment of others. Picard was also ashamed at insinuating the Federation was acting like Romulans.
His door buzzed.
“Enter.”
Riker came in cautiously. He looked around the ready room, settling on the wall display of model ships that previously bore the name Enterprise.
“Everything looks intact,” Riker said.
Picard couldn’t restrain a smile.
“Spock?” Picard asked.
“With Data, working on a holo-program that he hopes will persuade you to reconsider. Stubborn as a Vulcan.”
“Sarek believed he got that from his mother.”
“I forgot... you two melted.”
“Melded.”
 “So, if you don’t mind me asking…”
“We’re imposing our will for our own advantage again.”
“Ah… the Ba’ku.”
“That's just part of it," Picard said. "Bad treaties with Cardassia led to the Maquis resistance. We sold those people’s homes out from under them in order to straighten the lines on our maps. Wesley Crusher, Ensign Ro—lost over that mess. For what? Straight lines didn’t prevent the war.”
“It’s your own fault.”
That surprised Jean-Luc. “How so?”
“You keep turning down promotions. As an admiral, you could influence policy. Instead, the politicians move up the ladder. You’re taking orders from people half as wise as you.”
“How many commands have you turned down, Will?”
“I’m not claiming the high ground here, Jean-Luc. I’m also not disturbed by the military buildup of late. I’d rather explore the galaxy peacefully, but new threats keep turning up. Better to be prepared.”
Picard noticed the data-pad in Riker’s hand.
“A high-priority transmission from Minister Saavik,” Riker said. “This mission’s official. It’s strongly suggested we defer to Spock’s judgment.”
Picard remembered the first time he met Spock. The ambassador was working toward Romulan reunification with Vulcan. Picard’s mission was to retrieve Spock from Romulus. The problem with challenging legends was that one pushed against the momentum of their past accomplishments. It was like trying to stop a tsunami with a picket fence.
“These Talosians deserve a warning.” Picard said, accepting his new assignment.
“At least.”
“Tell Spock he can make his case in holodeck two. He's earned that much.

~~~

Spock stepped onto holodeck two and found himself on the bridge of Enterprise NCC-1701. Twenty-third-Century deco—black panels, red and silver trim consoles, red banister circling the command deck, high black-leather padded seats, the static view screens lined above the work stations, the pings and hums—every detail was there. Picard was sitting at Spock’s old science station.
“An interesting venue,” Spock noted.
“Montgomery Scott created this simulation. We rescued him from a suspended transporter loop on a Dyson sphere. He came here to escape the 24th century. Now he teaches at Starfleet Academy. McCoy is director emeritus at the CDC in Atlanta. Your crew’s tenacity to survive past their era is remarkable. Even Kirk.”
“Captain Kirk perished saving Enterprise B, in the 23rd century,” Spock said.
“You hadn’t heard? James Kirk died two years ago—sacrificed himself to save two hundred million people, including the crew of Enterprise D. He’s buried on Veridian III.”
That news strained Spock’s stoic demeanor. Picard allowed the legend a moment to absorb this news about his friend.
“This period of the Federation was one of great accomplishment,” Picard continued. “The early exploits were mandatory reading in school. I look back upon it with biased affection. Men were explorers, the wars were just, and politics always served the good of the quadrant. It was Camelot.”
“Surely, you know better,” Spock replied.
“I know that the men who served on this Enterprise were heroes. At the academy, I was curious about how much was exaggerated, so I combed through the logs and archives. The writers left much out of the stories for the sake of simplicity. Far from exaggeration, your missions were harder than we were led to believe; with archaic equipment, against superior forces, you saved the Federation a dozen times over.”
“An accurate observation.”
“So I have to ask myself, what makes this mission so important that you would leave your mission to save one civilization in order to displace another?”
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
“Do they really? I’ve only come this far out of respect for you. It’s not enough to make me displace a world. Our prime directive exists to prevent us from playing God. We’ve watched dozens of societies vanish from the universe. Why save the Talosians? Why are they the exception?”
“The Talosians are a doomed race—we cannot change their fate. The manner in which they pass into history, however, is of great importance to everyone in the galaxy. Computer, activate holo-supplement Spock one.”
The room shimmered and the bridge was replaced with a 24th-century bridge. The crew was nondescript—they could have been any crew in Starfleet, and they were going about their business, cataloging gaseous anomalies. No one noticed their two guests at the science consul. Spock called up an image of the Talosians; humanoids with effeminate faces and bulging craniums.
“The Talosians are the most powerful telepaths on record—able to project illusions across light years, as they did when Commodore Mendez appeared to be part of my court-martial on the Enterprise nine decades ago. Most species this evolved, the Organians, the Metrons, the Q and others, can easily deflect the Borg. The Talosians, however, are on the brink of extinction, self-absorbed victims of their own telepathic illusions. As with all substance abuse, little else mattered over time. Their science and technology deteriorated until they could no longer even repair the complex systems of their ancestors. They have few resource to fall back on when their telepathic defenses fail.”
You were court-martialed?” Picard said with a smile.
Spock raised his eyebrow. “The logic of my actions led to the dismissal of the charges.”
It pleased Picard that the legend had a chink in his armor. Spock took a deep breath and continued.
“The Borg’s cybernetic processing units and their hive network will prevent them from being deceived by illusions. Sensors will countermand what their wetware perceives as reality. Through their communication link, the Borg can also transfer control of their actions to drones beyond the Talosians’ sphere of influence.”
“We are all vulnerable to assimilation, ambassador.”
“Captain, look around you. Can you spot what is amiss on this bridge?”
Picard surveyed the bridge. A yeoman handed the captain a report to sign. The helmsman and the navigator were sharing a joke over coffee; the science officers were cataloguing data; security was stationed at the main turbolift; a maintenance crew replaced circuit boards at the weapons station; and engineering monitors showed that the matter/anti-matter flow was stable and environmental readings were at optimal levels.
“I see a starship on a routine mission,” Picard said.
“Exactly. Computer, run holo-supplement Spock two.”
The room shimmered. It was the same bridge, except that a dozen Borg were busily assimilating a crew that was unaware of their existence on the bridge. People sat at their stations working while tubes from their invaders’ wrists injected nanoprobes into their blood. Webs of angry circuitry grew beneath translucent skin. The light in the crew’s eyes faded. Mechanical pods burst through their muscle tissue, planting themselves on the surface with barbed claws. The helmsman and the navigator still faced each other as though conversing, but neither moved. Everyone was frozen, oblivious to what was happening to him or her.
Picard gripped the railing even though he knew it was an illusion. The collective’s voice — the cyber whispers at the core of Picard’s mind — was missing. They were the last vestiges of his assimilation. It annoyed him how much he missed it, that they should have any sort of soothing quality whatsoever on him—affirming that he would always be part of their community. “Enough,” he said.
Spock let the simulation continue.
Picard turned to him angrily and was shocked to see a pod burst from Spock’s cheek and clamp itself down. A road map of circuits appeared beneath the ambassador’s face.
“I said enough!”
“Computer, resume holo-supplement Spock one,” the Vulcan said.
The bridge returned to its previous scenario—the ennui of daily existence. Jean-Luc gripped the banister harder, disturbed by this serene lie. “Computer, end simulation now!” Picard ordered.
Picard searched for words to express his rankled thoughts — to make Spock understand about his ordeal with the Borg, his pain and guilt — why this harmless trick of light was in fact the cruelest act. Spock watched him struggle for the words, and soon it became clear to Jean-Luc… Spock knew. Of course he knew. He was the scientist, the academic, a telepath in his own right, and a master tactician; the man who hit the databanks like a force of nature until he knew his opponents better than they knew themselves.
“That was unnecessary,” Picard said.
 “I had to be sure you understood. When the Borg assimilated you, they acquired an immediate understanding of the way Starfleet functioned. They used that knowledge in their assault on Earth and the result was Wolf 359. Thousands died. Earth was nearly assimilated. But despite the great cost, there was resistance. If the Borg add the Talosians’ biological and technological distinctiveness to their own, they will also assimilate the power of illusion. Entire fleets across the galaxy will be completely unaware that they are being assimilated. Resistance will no longer be ‘futile.’ It will be obsolete.”

~~~

Jean-Luc studied the logs from the Enterprise’s first two missions to the Talos star system. Wars from centuries past turned the Talosian surface into a wasteland and drove the inhabitants underground, where they developed their psionic abilities. They could reach into a mind from light-years away, pluck out its deepest memories and desires, and place it in a psychic fabrication so intricate that even the illusion of death could kill. But the rapturous nature of the Talosians’ telepathy doomed them. Like lotus eaters, they wasted their existence in illusions. They had become voyeurs of the intimate, living vicariously off the imaginations of beings in their dwindling menagerie. The Talosians lost their art, their science, and even their place in the universe. The records also showed evidence of compassion. They were not so different from humans once, long ago. Now, through no action of their own, they posed a threat to all life in the galaxy. How they would react was anyone’s guess. Perhaps, frighteningly, they might want to be assimilated as a way of living on past their expiration.
Picard turned the situation in his mind as he sipped his tea. What would the humans have done if the early Vulcans had declared they were there to force an exodus for their own good? Picard tried to convince himself that this situation was different from all others. That this was a rare exception empowering the Federation to influence the destiny of a race. They were not engaged in a scheme for personal gain; rather, so that life may continue to exist as it always had for all races. The stench of hypocrisy still hung about the idea. Picard could barely gaze at his own reflection. He needed to walk.
Picard navigated through his ship, ignoring everyone. By the time he reached the farthest portion of the starboard nacelle he realized there was nowhere left to go. The next step was to put on a space suit and hang from a tether. He turned around and stumbled on a maintenance crew who assumed it was a surprise inspection.
“Carry on,” Picard said, wondering if he could follow his own order.
The ship and his own skin had become too small. There was no escaping either. Questions attacked him with no resolution. He wondered how Spock handled it. It was one thing to logically deduce a course of action. It was a different thing to come to terms with the action when it affected the lives of people so drastically. As he thought more, Picard became angry. There were a thousand ships in Starfleet and the responsibility for saving the universe again fell at his feet. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the duty, but this mission involved doing the very thing he had openly criticized his superiors for. And Spock… his feelings would be submerged beneath his Vulcan veneer. Picard decided he was entitled to the Vulcan’s thoughts. Spock had put this crisis on his doorstep—privacy be damned.
Data exited Spock’s quarters just as Jean-Luc arrived. It made sense that they would strike a friendship. Emotions were a challenge to both men.
“Mr. Data, how soon will the Borg reach Talos after we do?
“At their present speed, we will have 3.2 hours before the Borg arrive; approximately two hours before their sensors notice the Enterprise.”
“Thank you.”
The cabin was dark and hot. The only light came from candles burning throughout the room. Spock sat on a cushion reading a report while Vulcan lyre music played softly in the background. He had changed into a current Starfleet uniform, with captain’s pips and the blue turtleneck of a science officer.
“We can manufacture traditional Vulcan robes,” Picard offered.
“Not necessary. I’ve reactivated my commission, temporarily.”
Spock had not worn a Starfleet uniform in decades. Picard wondered if he still had the center seat on this mission. “I see," he said. "Was that necessary?”
“I cannot present myself as an ambassador. Diplomacy’s objective is to negotiate a compromise. Since the Borg need assimilate only one Talosian to acquire the power of illusion, there is little room for compromise. It would be duplicitous to present myself as a negotiator. We cannot defend Talos. Therefore they must abandon the planet.”
The idea of abducting a race turned Jean-Luc’s stomach. Spock gestured to a chair. Picard sat and found that his vantage was above his host. Yet he felt as though Spock sat above him. He found himself at a loss as to how to begin. Spock turned the music off and allowed Jean-Luc a moment to collect his thoughts.
“I don’t know whether to thank you or curse you for picking this ship for the mission,” Picard finally said. “Burdensome as this issue is, I have the power to affect the outcome in accordance with my values. There were other vessels you could have chosen, with less obstinate captains. Did you pick the Enterprise out of sentimentality?”
“Vulcans do not act on sentiment,” Spock stated.
“So your history with the Enterprise had nothing to do with your choice?”
“Although our intentions are altruistic, we cannot predict the Talosian reaction to our mission,” Spock said. “Once we enter their sphere of influence, our perceptions will be unreliable. It will be as though we suffered from schizophrenia. One officer in Starfleet, however, is impervious to their power.”
Picard realized instantly...“Data.”
“Correct. They cannot manipulate a positronic mind. Hope of success relies on this independence from their abilities.”
Picard was embarrassed. He’d been convinced Spock’s choice was based on their brief history. The decision was tactical—logical.
“It’s been especially hard for me,” Picard said. He rubbed his hands together and studied them. “A Starfleet admiral named Dougherty recently led a Federation-sanctioned mission to displace the peaceful inhabitants of the planet Ba’ku. Scientists had hoped to strip-mine their world’s regenerative radiation to cure Federation citizens of their mortality. The process would have destroyed the planet and ended the Ba’ku civilization, all for the ‘greater good.’ I had to mutiny to stop the mission. Eventually, we discovered the Federation had been tricked into aiding a faction in a civil war. Starfleet was manipulated to execute a vendetta.”
You mutinied?” Spock said. His eyebrow lifted into its characteristic high arch.
Jean-Luc smiled. “Touché.”
“I admire your reluctance Jean-Luc. If we ignored our ethics for the sake of orders, we would be no different than the Borg.”
Jean-Luc became serious again. “We cannot keep interfering with other cultures.”
“A noble concern. But this mission is about self-preservation. The events that are unfolding threaten our very existence. You of all people know that. Imagine the galaxy with no Andorians, Humans, Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans—only Borg.”
Picard didn’t have to imagine it. He understood the imperative intimately. To the Borg, the universe was in chaos and they were the only form of order. He remembered a Horta that had been assimilated—wires and peripherals protruding from its silicone shell. No form of life was exempt from assimilation.
“In one way, it is our fault that it has come to this,” Spock continued.
“How so?”
“We cut our ties with the Talosians because we feared their abilities. With assistance, they would have made an excellent addition to the Federation.”
“Is that what you’re reading… about the Talosians?” Picard asked.
“No.” Spock picked up the data-pad. “This is your log regarding the destruction of Enterprise D.”
Jean-Luc realized he’d intruded on an intensely private moment. Spock was catching up on James Kirk’s death—his captain and best friend.
“I should be going,” Picard said. “We’ll arrive at Talos in one hour.”
As the cabin doors swooshed open, Picard stopped and turned again toward Spock.
“I’m curious, Ambassador…”
“Yes.”
“...You retired as an officer of the line, but you’re wearing the blue trim of a science officer. Isn’t nostalgia a form of sentimentality?”
An amused twinkle entered Spock’s eye. The Vulcan allowed himself a half smile. “I am half human, Captain.”

~~~

From space, Talos IV looked like any other world, except that no human had lain eyes on it in almost a century. The landing party consisted of Captain Picard, Spock, Data, Counselor Troi, and one security guard. They beamed into the center of a city not far from where the first Enterprise team had landed decades earlier. The air was dry and clear. There were fountains, skyscrapers, mobile walkways, storefronts, and trees along the curb. A mass-transit monorail whizzed overhead. The city was vibrant. All around them Talosians in multi-colored metallic robes nodded their bulbous heads in salutation. To Picard they looked vigorous — a far cry from the dying race the log had described, and certainly not deserving of a ban on their world. Except for their massive craniums, which, from behind, reminded Jean-Luc of a man’s backside, they could have been human. This only made what they had planned to do more difficult.
“I thought the Talosians lived underground,” Picard queried.
“They were endeavoring to reclaim the surface when we first encountered them,” said Spock.
“It would seem they have succeeded,” said Data. He scanned the area with his tricorder. “There are approximately 16,000 inhabitants on the surface, and an additional 2,000 living in complex structures below ground.”
“Counselor?” Picard asked.
“People feel optimistic. They’re happy.”
Passersby smiled as they moved along the sidewalk. They came across a plaza and in the center stood a monument honoring Christopher Pike. Two versions of him were depicted: one as an invalid in a wheel chair, and standing behind that, as though wheeling himself, a heroic pose of the former Captain in his prime. The plaque credited him with saving the Talosian race by inspiring them with his imagination.
“Are you registering all this, Data?”
“Affirmative, Captain.”
“Then it’s real.”
 “All is as it seems,” said a voice behind them. They turned to find a Talosian in a silver-metallic gown. The veins in his head throbbed as he spoke, yet his mouth never moved. On a chain around his neck he wore a circular metal amulet with a black center. From the archives, Picard recognized him to be the Keeper, the Talosian responsible for maintaining the menagerie. “Welcome,” the Talosian added. His telepathic voice had a raspy quality to it and was pitched high like that of an excited child.
Picard stepped forward. “Greetings. I am Jean-Luc…”
“We know who you are, Captain. Your thoughts flow through our minds as easily as the air through your lungs.”
“Then you are aware of our purpose?”
“We are in no danger. Please, allow me to show you.”
The Keeper led them from the plaza. They came upon a terrace overlooking a grassy plain on the edge of the city. Their attention was directed toward a mushroom-shaped dwelling in the distant foothills. A metal tube projected from a domed top, like that of a 20th-Century observatory.
“We have repaired the weapons our ancestors built a thousand years ago,” the Keeper said. “That is an ion cannon, powered from geothermal vents beneath our world. There are four more cannons stationed around the planet. We have also prepared other defenses.”
Picard turned to his counselor.
“He’s telling the truth,” she said with a shrug.
Data scanned the structure with his tricorder. “The cannon produces ample energy to penetrate Borg shields.”
“Friends will be received graciously,” said the Keeper. “Antagonists will be punished.”
Spock stood silently, engrossed with the city and its populace.
“I’m relieved you have the means to defend yourself.” Picard said. “We’re pleased to find your society thriving.”
“Your desire not to interfere in the affairs of other worlds is a noble one, Captain. To our shame, we once manipulated other species to suit our own purpose. We pulled them from space with our illusions and caged them to serve our needs. A man of great character guided us toward the constructive path. We are indebted to the Federation for allowing Christopher Pike to live among us. Please stay and enjoy everything the city offers. I must attend to the planetary defenses.”
With that, the Keeper left.
Picard felt as though he’d shed a great weight. The sun was bright and the buildings gleamed in the clear desert air. Data and the counselor had engaged a vendor and were sampling fruit. Spock was at the edge of the terrace studying the ion cannon. His hands were pressed together and he rested his chin on his index fingers.
“You’ve been quiet, Ambassador,” Picard said.
“Fascinating,” Spock responded. “I had forgotten. Richer than any hologram.”
Picard looked out over the plain. “Do you think the cannon is an illusion for our benefit?”
“It is all an illusion, Captain. None of this is real.”
Picard's moment of relief waned. “Are you sure? After a hundred years… couldn’t they have rebuilt?”
“This is what they knew we would hope to see. That Pike’s return resulted in this world before you.” Spock gestured toward the city. “But, this outcome could not have been reached by the path they were on.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because, despite their best intentions, the Talosians were fundamentally addicts.”
Picard's hope unraveled. On some level he knew Spock was right. The proof was there in the logs.
“Their first transgression against the Enterprise was an attempt to perpetuate their habit,” Spock continued. “In order to become productive, though, an addict must first break his addiction.”
“Captain Pike?”
“The efforts that an addict undertakes to achieve independence are Herculean from their vantage point, even when guided by professionals. Pike was an invalid—he no longer had the capacity to resist physically. The Talosians did not have the resolve to overcome their addiction alone.”
The revulsion of the mission crept back into Picard’s gut. The weight felt heavier this time. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“Nothing had changed when I returned Pike to Talos. They promised they would rebuild, but, like the child who endeavors to do better and then steals from its mother’s purse to feed its habit, the Talosians were only fooling themselves. It was their eagerness to take Pike that proved this. Had they been ready to take the next step, they would have refused. The temptation would have been too great.”
“Then by providing Pike…”
A furrowed brow transformed Spock’s stoic countenance. “I used the Talosians to help my captain. There was a possibility that someone might learn from his experiences and choose to take up the mantle — perhaps start a movement. It was a small chance, but by placing Pike among them there was at least hope.”
This mission had revealed more chinks in the legend’s armor than Picard had wished to see.
“And you’re sure it has failed?” he asked Spock.
“The Federation would have heard from them had they truly progressed to this level. This world is too perfect. It is everything I had wished for the Talosian people.”
The city shimmered and vanished along with its citizens. Picard, Spock, Troi, and the security officer were standing on the transporter pad aboard the Enterprise. The transporter chief looked like he was coming out of a daze.
“We’re still on the Enterprise!” said the counselor.
“Where’s Data?” Picard asked.
“On the planet,” said Spock. “I apologize for not informing you earlier, Captain, but I could not risk the Talosians learning of my plan. Chief, please beam us down to the designated coordinates.”

~~~

They materialized on a desolate outcrop of rock and dust. Picard recognized the same plain from the illusion; only it was filled with sand and rock instead of grass. The domed structure that held the ion cannon was actually a ruin. Beside them was one of the Enterprise’s shuttlecrafts.
“It would have been difficult for you to shield your thoughts from telepathic probing,” Spock said. “I am trained in controlling my thoughts, and Data is impervious to telepathy.”
As if on cue, Data emerged from behind an outcropping with the Keeper and three others at phaser point. On their temples the Talosians wore neural inhibitors: silver disks with circuitry and blinking green lights. They approached the group.
“Mr. Data, what is the meaning of this?” asked Captain Picard.
“Ambassador Spock was concerned we might be tricked before engaging in a dialogue with the Talosians. Their talents lie in drawing desires from a victim’s mind and presenting them as reality. We went over several scenarios before our arrival. When everyone in the transporter room blanked, I proceeded with our alternate plan and took a shuttle down to tranquilize the community. But I found only these individuals. There is no one else.”
Picard faced Spock. “It’s bad enough we’re here to move these people, but to attack them? Disable them? How far do we go, Spock, until we no longer recognize ourselves through our actions?”
“It would have been illogical to approach them without anticipating resistance. The alternative would have been for us to leave, believing everything was well in hand.”
The Keeper stepped forward. “Captain Picard. You must not be angry with Spock. His intentions are noble.”
“A century ago he took advantage of you to help his captain.”
“No. We were already on a self-destructive path. Spock hoped that Pike would influence our culture in a positive way. Pike’s lessons fell on clouded minds. Now Spock uses an impending crisis to make a final attempt at saving our race.”
“This kidnapping of your people is not a selfless act,” Picard stated. “Your abilities are now a danger to all life in the quadrant.”
“How ironic,” Spock observed. “It was the same sentiment at Starfleet a century ago that has placed us in this predicament.”
“How so?”
“Our departure after the first encounter condemned the Talosians to slow and certain death. Captain Pike, chief medical officer Boyce, the first officer, and myself recommended in our reports that we help Talos IV rebuild and eventually invite them to join the Federation. Starfleet disagreed. Federation Intelligence had catalogued the Talosians as the most dangerous race known to man; a threat to the stability of the region. A sub-clause in the prime directive discontinued all contact with Talos on the grounds that they were no longer a warp-capable species. Starfleet banned travel through this region of space. The Talosians were essentially cut off from the universe and any possible help—all because our leaders were afraid.”
“Had the Federation helped them a century ago, they would most likely be in a position to defend their world today, perhaps even have a starbase in orbit,” Data added.
“It is Spock’s desire to atone for these perceived wrongs against us,” the Keeper said. “But he takes too much upon himself. It was not the Federation that caused us to wage war centuries ago, nor is it their fault that we chose the path to extinction.”
“An intervention,” Deanna chimed in. She faced Spock. “This is an intervention to help the Talosians break their cycle.”
“The current crisis lent itself to such an attempt,” Spock said. “By playing on the Federation’s self interest we can expatriate the Talosians to Betazed where they can be counseled by other telepaths.”
Jean-Luc turned to the Keeper. He was more child than monster. It was hard to believe that this small being had the great Federation cowering in its corner of the universe. Jean-Luc saw a victim many times over, first of his race’s folly, then of Starfleet’s ignorance, and now the Borgs’ aggression.
“Mr. Data. Take that damned thing off his head,” Picard ordered.
Data removed the inhibitor.
“Keeper, are you all that is left of your race?” Jean-Luc asked.
“We are the last Talosians. I am ashamed of how history will perceive us. To evolve so far and leave only ruins.”
“Keeper, is it your wish to remain here?” Picard asked. He tensed for the response.
“This is our home,” the being said.
Picard let out a deep breath. “So be it. Let the bureaucrats come and move you. I will not force you to leave.”
“That is not a prudent course,” Spock said.
“Ambassador, we expect many leaders to rise above their petty interests for the good of others—the Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi—the list is endless. How are we to lead if not by example? As a Federation ambassador, you persuade from a position of strength because the organization you represent is ethical and just. We cannot throw our ideals aside when they prove inconvenient — even if it only affects one life. Evacuating the Talosians against their will is wrong.”
“The Borg will arrive in less than one hour.”
“No,” Picard said. “The Borg will never reach this world.”
Spock looked as though he’d been accused of an error in his calculations. Slowly, his face unfolded with understanding.
“We will separate the Enterprise,” Picard continued. “I will take a volunteer crew and confront the Borg sphere in open space.”
“Captain, it took nearly two-dozen ships to defeat the Borg during our last encounter,” Data said. “You will be assimilated.”
“I assure you, Mr. Data, we will not.”
Picard’s resolve betrayed his intent. All understood that if the battle turned against him, matter and anti-matter from the engines would be mixed, resulting in an explosion that could incinerate a moon. Picard would never revisit Locutus again.
“You cannot defeat the Borg with half a starship,” Spock confirmed. “Self destruction is the most likely conclusion.”
“Yes. But the Borg will never reach this world.”
The Talosians approached them, eyes wide, as though seeing for the first time.
“The human capacity for self sacrifice continues to amaze me,” the Keeper said. “A century ago, Captain Pike attempted to take his own life as well as the lives of his crew rather than live as a captive on our world. Yet, he offered us the opportunity to escape below ground before his weapon self-destructed. Once again this blend of mercy and self-sacrifice is played for our benefit. I am offered life while another suffers for it.”
“Self-determination is the foundation on which we’ve built our way of life,” Spock said. “The Captain has made his choice in order to protect yours—whatever the cost.”
The Talosians’ temples throbbed excitedly. The Keeper turned to Jean-Luc. “The price is too high, Captain Picard. Talos has much to answer for already. Let our final act on behalf of our people be a choice for life. We choose to come with you openly and freely. Perhaps history will be kinder to us for it.”
Jean-Luc enjoyed the first genuine smile to reach his lips in days. “Picard to Enterprise—eight to beam up.”

~~~

Jean-Luc studied the plaque on his desk as he recorded the details of the mission into the ship’s log.
“…The Talosians had never used a transporter before…” he dictated. “…they have a childlike enthusiasm for discovery which complements their appearance. Physical traveling has invigorated their curiosity. It makes one wonder what might have been had we offered our help a century ago. To the Keeper’s credit, he has not used his powers so far… at least not as far as we know.” Picard smiled. Worf would have insisted the neural inhibitors be reattached. Trust had to begin somewhere, though.
The door to Picard’s office buzzed.
“Enter.”
Spock again wore the uniform of a Romulan Commander.
“I wished to say goodbye before my rendezvous.” Spock produced a bottle of Romulan Ale.
Picard pulled two glasses from a drawer. “Please, have a seat. You’re returning to Romulus?”
Spock poured the ale for both of them. “My work there is not yet done. As I am sure your work here is not yet done.”
Picard took a deep breath and smiled. “I looked on the old days of Starfleet as belonging to an age of Camelot,” Jean-Luc said. “But Camelot cannot exist in the present. It only exists in history where time has worn away the ugly details. Starfleet’s decision to quarantine the Talosians was wrong. It went against our very purpose of seeking out new life and civilizations, and led to a potentially epic crisis a century later. It makes one wonder about paths not taken. Are Starfleet’s decisions today really any more flawed than the ones made a hundred years ago?”
“The American founding father James Madison made the point that men are not angels,” Spock said. “If they were, there would be no need for governments. Had you not chanced upon the Ba’ku mission, a lesser captain might have turned a blind eye to the situation— and had you not been willing to sacrifice yourself for the Talosians, they may not have been as accepting of our offer to let us help them. As long as you sit in the center chair, Jean-Luc, you can make a difference.”
Picard smiled. Spock looked perplexed. He had not intended to be humorous.
“Jim Kirk told me the same thing when I encountered him in the Nexus.”

“Then, who are we to argue against the wisdom of James T. Kirk?” Spock said, holding his glass up in a toast.

“Who are we indeed?” Picard touched Spock’s glass with his own. And they drank.


Edward Lazellari is a blogger, humorist and fiction writer. He is the winner of Playboy's 1999 Short Fiction Contest. His fantasy novels Awakenings and The Lost Prince from Tor Books are available at Barnes & Nobles and Amazon.com.

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