A Good Job

by Jane Carnall



Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10


He prayed, as he had prayed every morning all the years of his life since he was eight years old: “Immortal God and Master, praised be your holy name. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Let me eat today, and forgive me the evil I have done as I forgive the evil done to me. Grant me the strength to endure, the courage to change, the wisdom to know; for yours is the dominion, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”

He prayed, a hasty mutter, not wanting to be overheard, and finished just as he saw his morning’s work beginning to turn beside him. He waited to smile. Amen.

Part One

He was lovely. Picard stood in the stableyard, waiting for the horse he was due to ride today, and watched the other man swing athletically into the saddle. Pale skin, dark hair, extraordinary blue eyes... Picard grinned to himself, thinking as he turned to saddle up the horse brought for him, that Troi, after all, had been quite right; what Picard had needed was a holiday.

The Enterprise had been in dock for a week. Troi had told Picard flatly to go away and relax. Riker had told Picard bluntly that any calls to find out how the refit was going would be ignored. LaForge had told Picard, very politely, that his assistance was really not needed. By the time Worf had commented on how tired Picard looked and Data had mentioned that there were Terran horses on Liwydniwael, Picard had already given up.

It had been six very pleasant days, riding, swimming, and falling asleep over his archaeology book in the evening. Picard hadn’t made a single entry in his log and had tucked his communicator away in his pocket the first day. And Picard had gradually become aware of himself again, sliding comfortably into the Jean-Luc Picard who wasn’t a starship captain or a Starfleet officer, just someone who could ride and was here in Ayanwel because they were famed worldwide for their splendid horses.

And he’d become aware of something else, as well. Aboard ship, and with his crew, Picard simply didn’t think about finding people attractive. It wasn’t a perfect system, there were always moments when someone got under his guard, but it worked for the most part, and slips could generally be ignored.

But here, he wasn’t the Captain; he was just Jean-Luc, and he could like who he liked. The riding hostels didn’t have much privacy, but everyone co-operated in cheerfully ignoring the odd lapse, and in good weather the undergrowth round a hostel would generally be full of rustling and giggles and other friendly noises.

Picard hadn’t gone off into the undergrowth with anyone - but he’d enjoyed all the friendly flirting and the appreciative eyes, people getting to know each other who’d met one night in a riding hostel and were unlikely to meet again in the same hostel the next night. Riding between hostels in the pastoral countryside was a common holiday for all ages in Ayanwel, but most common - evidently - for the unattached.

And in particular, he’d noticed this man. About Picard’s height, maybe a little taller, but more strongly built. He had a look of cheerful confidence, cockiness, Picard thought. And he was, and visibly knew it, quite, quite lovely. They hadn’t spoken, or not beyond the usual social interchange, though they’d crossed paths before in the past six days. But Picard was enjoying, very much, the freedom to openly enjoy someone else, someone for whom he had no responsibility and never would.

The trail this morning was cool and green. Picard was in no hurry. They would reach the city soon enough, and he’d have one last night on holiday (though not in a riding hostel) and go back to the ship again.

In the city riding hostel, Picard handed the horse over to the stablekeeper, patted her on the nose and wandered out, his own saddle in his arms. It would be simple enough to call the Enterprise and have it beamed up, but somehow calling his ship would mean the holiday was over.

The man’s voice startled him. “Do you have anywhere to stay tonight, or are you going to sleep on your saddle?”

Picard turned and grinned. “Oh, I was just going to sleep on my saddle.” It seemed the end of a perfect day, to find this man at his side. “It’s very comfortable.”

“Really?” The man stepped closer, and ran an appraising hand over the old leather. “Yes. So it is.” He was staring Picard right in the eye, and then suddenly he smiled and ducked his head a little, looking up at Picard through ridiculously long eyelashes. “What do you think, is it big enough for two?”

“There’s only one of me,” Picard pointed out. He felt his heart thumping, just a bit faster.

“Saddles usually need two,” the man said. His hand, as if accidentally, slid from the saddle to touch Picard’s chest. “One mount... one rider.”

“And which would you prefer to be?” Picard was almost laughing. This was so absurd, and so perfect.

“Well, why don’t we find somewhere for your saddle to find out?”

“Oh, we’re to let the saddle judge?”

“It must be an expert by this time, don’t you think?”

They were wandering along the street now, shoulder to shoulder, and what they said didn’t matter nearly so much as the looks they were exchanging. There was a hotel a few hundred metres along, and, still making silly conversation, they wandered in. The manager was a tall woman with a narrow, expressionless face. She took their money - both of them offered cash - without a smile, and handed the other man the keycard, since Picard’s arms were full of saddle.

Their room was on the second floor. They were moving towards the lift when the door opened and Picard suddenly leapt towards the stairs that curved behind the lift and raced up them, pausing when he was safely out of sight of the front hall.

The man was right beside him, hardly out of breath. “What is it?” he asked.

Picard shook his head violently. He was grinning with amusement at his spontaneous reaction, and at the coincidence, but just the same he had no wish to meet the First Officer whose voice he could hear flirting with the manager down the hall. He waited, silently, until he heard the front door close. Riker had evidently chosen to find a sleepover room before he found a partner: very prudent, Number One.

“What was that about?” the man asked, and then he grinned. “Ex-lover?”

“Not exactly,” Picard said dryly, and turned to go upstairs. They climbed in silence, and it wasn’t until they were in the room and the door closed that the man said anything.

“He was a Starfleet officer. I saw the uniform. You in trouble with them?”

“No, not at the moment,” Picard said. “Are you?”

The man grinned. “I just followed your lead. Are you ever going to put that saddle down?”

“Why should I?” Picard had been looking round for a safe place to deposit it. The room wasn’t big, and it was largely occupied by bed. Eventually he decided that inside the wardrobe would be safe enough.

Picard turned round, to discover that the man had been standing right behind him. “Now,” the man said, and kissed him.

A moment of being overpowered by the touch of mouth to mouth, lip to lip, and then Picard opened his mouth to the other man’s and tongue leapt to duel with tongue. They tasted each other, lapped at each other’s mouths, testing with teeth and lips and tongue the other’s resolve, and Picard broke away to find breath to laugh.

“What’s the joke?”

“We forgot to leave the saddle out to watch,” Picard said promptly, beginning to tug at the other man’s shirt. “How is it going to adjudicate now?”

“You can tell it all about it later,” the other man said, with a gleaming smile. “Every detail. Blow by blow.”

“I’d rather tell it at length,” Picard said. He could feel the other man’s length pressing against his own.

“Oh, yeah, you like tall tales?”

“Lay it on thick.”

The other man laughed. His hands were busy. “Oh, that’s a long story.”

They were naked and tussling on the bed, giggling at each new inanity and kissing between inanities, when the man suddenly sat up, taking Picard by the wrists to prevent further distractions with his nipples, and said “You know, I don’t usually fuck people whose names I don’t know.”

“What makes you think you’re going to fuck this one?” Picard answered, startling himself.

“Well, do you usually fuck people before you’ve been introduced to them?” The man was grinning.

“Not invariably, no,” Picard said, straight-faced. Suddenly he laughed aloud, for a moment loving this stranger more completely than, it seemed, he had ever loved anyone. “I’m Jean-Luc. And you are?”


Picard snorted with laughter. He couldn’t help himself. “Will? You?”

“Yes, I will,” the man said, and slid his hands up Picard’s arms, freeing Picard’s hands to continue their work on his nipples, pulling Picard closer and beginning the battle of the kisses again.

Will had a tiny bottle of lubricant, tucked into one of the pockets of his jacket. Naked and lying prone, he had a kind of heavy elegance, solidity, like warm wood or stone. He was scarred on his back, an odd mark like the cut of a sword. He must have been a long way from medical treatment when that injury was taken.

Picard said nothing of this; he lay down along the length of Will, and kissed the nape of his neck as he slid into him. The man rose up under him, thrusting back at him with ferocity, taking control from beneath him, till they both cried out and came. Or Picard thought Will had come; but when Will turned him on to his back and rose above him, cock hard -- either again, or still -- he wasn’t altogether surprised.

“Yes,” he said.

Will’s large hands were at his arse, fingers probing gently. “It’s been a while,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but his eyes met Picard’s with a different query in them.

“Yes,” Picard answered. “Come on.”

“All my life, people have been telling me,” Will said lightly, “that when I grew up I’d learn to be a bit more patient. Now look at you, at your age -- ”

“Are you calling me an old man?” Picard propped himself up on his elbows, grinning with raised eyebrows at the man with his fingers up Picard’s arsehole. Will’s hands hadn’t stopped their gentle work. Will leered.

“I like older men.”

“How old are you?”


“A baby.” Picard laughed and caught his breath. At thirty-two, he’d been Captain five years.

Will’s hands moved to pull Picard into a different position. “Do you mind? I want to see your face?” and, in a different tone, “A baby? So you’re admitting, Mr Jean-Luc, that you dragged a baby in off the streets and up to your private room and did unspeakably erotic things to this poor innocent -- ” with a grunt, he slid all the way inside, and grinned like a devil “ -- this poor innocent baby?”

“Absolutely not!” Picard protested, staring up into the amused face above him, noticing as if for the first time the way the eyebrows were crooked, like a smile. “I was rather hoping -- “ he grunted, feeling Will move inside him, rocking him “ -- that it would be the other way around!”

“Good, fucker...” Will rocked again, grinning.

“Good,” Picard echoed, trying to move back against the other man, finding himself pinioned helplessly by the position Will had him in, and rising to the occasion.

Will fucked slowly, very differently from the way he’d been underneath Picard, as if when he was the rider, not the ridden, he could afford to take his time. His eyes on Picard’s, focussing, intent, inward, pulling them both into a world no larger than this meeting point of their lives.

Coming from being fucked always felt different than coming from fucking. There was a point when Picard was no longer aware of time or space or pride, only of being opened and spread wide open to light, to fire, to fire within him. He yelled, and heard another voice yell, and the light was all the way through him.

And then silence, soft, sleepy and dark, and Picard pillowed his head on the offered shoulder and went to sleep.

Part Two

Picard woke, feeling rested and complete. He had surfaced gently from sleep, becoming aware with slow pleasure of being in the strange bed with this stranger. Will.

He propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at Will. Asleep, he looked younger than his years, boyish, even, though there had been nothing boyish about him last night. Picard frowned a little. He had never been attracted to youth, or even to conventional beauty; it was a little disorientating to have found himself so instantly enthralled with a pretty face.

And a fine body, and a finer sense of humour. Picard smiled. Holidays were over, it was time to go back to work, but this was a wonderful memory to take back with him. Of what it had been like to be utterly, irresponsibly foolish, pursuing happiness as if all that mattered was to be happy.

Will really did have impossibly long eyelashes. Picard was contemplating them when Will’s eyes flicked open, wide and dark blue. He smiled, and if it was a little arrogant, Picard could forgive that.

“Thank you,” Picard said, softly.

Will’s smile grew wider. He said nothing, but reached up and tugged Picard’s head down to kiss him hard.

There was a knock on the door, and after a moment, it opened. It wasn’t the manager come to tell them they were overstaying their time, not unless -- Picard thought with an inward flicker of laughter -- she’d metamorphosed overnight into a lithe, blond man, with cold blue eyes.

After a moment, the man stepped into the room, closed the door, and said, with chilly politeness, “You’re late.”

“No, I’m not.” Will sat up and was glaring at the blond man.

“Change of schedule. Now you’re late.”

“Oh,” Will said, and rolled out of bed, beginning to pull on his clothes. He added casually to Picard, “Sorry, love. I thought we’d have longer.”

“No problem,” Picard said, politely, deciding not to observe that he would have had to leave himself in a couple of hours.

“We’ll go out by the back door,” the blond man said. Beyond the first chilly glance, he had paid absolutely no attention to the man he had found in bed with his -- partner? (Some definite relationship, in any case, however they defined it; it was implicit in the tone they used to each other.) Picard appreciated the courtesy, but felt a little invisible under it.

“Where are you off to?” he asked.

“What you don’t know, you can’t tell,” Will said. He was fully dressed now. “You could do me a favour, though.” He leaned forward and kissed Picard again, a long, masterfully exploring but definitely final kiss. “Just have your sleep out, love -- “ Picard wasn’t sure he cared for the tone of ‘love’ “ -- and no one has to know just when I left, right?”

Whatever these two were or had been up to, Picard decided that it was probably better that he never know. “Right,” he agreed.

Will dug in his pockets and dropped a handful of coins on the bed. “Keep that lot. I won’t be wanting it.”

He and the blond man left, the door closing quickly but silently behind them, and Picard shook his head, bemused. At the moment, and for the next couple of hours, it wasn’t his job to worry if a pair of possibly-dubious characters planned to go offworld in a hurry. As they undoubtedly did plan; from the looks of things, Will had just dumped all of his planetary cash.

He might as well take Will’s advice. Picard lay down again and tried to go back to sleep. He managed a fitful doze for an hour, but by then daylight was coming in through the window at full morning strength, and Picard was actually quite hungry.

Time to find breakfast at one of the pavement cafes scattered through the city. Time to sit leisurely over coffee and remarkably good croissants. Spin out his holiday a little longer.

Picard sighed, stretched, and stood up. His clothes were heaped in an untidy pile where Will had left them. Picard dressed, frowning. His clothes felt wrong, somehow. He slid his hands into his pockets and realised that his communicator and his wallet were missing.

It took a minute before he could be sure that they hadn’t fallen out of his pockets last night, or he hadn’t somehow put them into the wrong pockets. They were gone. And that meant, unless someone had managed to open the door and get in last night without waking either of them, that Will had taken them.

Picard cursed, under his breath, wishing it were any other way than this. There hadn’t been much cash left in his wallet, and the ID card was genelocked. His communicator would have to be reported lost so it could be deactivated, but there was no real harm done. He would just have liked better memories of Will.

Well; this changed his plans. Instead of a leisurely breakfast, Picard would have to find one of the public transporter stations and get himself back to the Enterprise. Wait a minute...

Before Will had left, he had offloaded his planetary cash. It was a common enough habit among people who travelled frequently between worlds. Picard gathered the handful of coins together, and frowned at them. There was enough to pay for breakfast, more than enough; and if Will had been leaving immediately, why had he bothered to steal Picard’s wallet? All he could have known for sure it contained was more of the same planetary cash that he’d been willing enough to throw away.

Picard shrugged, stowing the coins in a pocket. Maybe Will liked souvenirs. He went to the wardrobe to retrieve his saddle.

It wasn’t there.

Picard slammed his hand against the side of the wardrobe. “Merde.”

He stared down at the empty floor of the closet, trying to make the saddle reappear by force of will. Wearily, he rubbed his face with his hand. This changed everything. He’d have to talk to the local law enforcement, he’d have to ask Worf to try and track the ship on which Will had left this world, he’d have to admit -- this was the most vastly irritating thing -- that he’d made such a vilely bad choice in a sleepover partner. And with all that, he’d probably still never get his saddle back. He’d had it for years, it was comfortable old leather, familiar and treasured. Irreplaceable.

Wait a minute.

The wardrobe wasn’t empty. There were clothes in it. Last night -- Picard frowned, rubbing his head, trying to remember clearly -- last night it had been empty, as you’d expect in a cheap sleepover room. Neither of them had used it, except for Picard seeing a convenient place to stow his saddle.

He glanced round the room. It was hard to remember -- he hadn’t been thinking at all clearly last night -- but it didn’t look quite like the room he remembered. Nothing he could pin down.

No, there was something. The door last night had a lock on the inside. Picard remembered locking it. A casual action, something one might do without even thinking about it, but he remembered the feel of the lock against his fingers.

And this door had no lock on the inside at all. Nor any sign of it being removed.

It was certainly time to return to the Enterprise and try to get this mess sorted out. Picard glanced round the room to confirm that he’d forgotten nothing, and went out the door.

He was almost at the stairs when a door opened and the manager from last night stepped out and barred his way. “I thought I heard you,” she said ominously. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Out,” Picard said, self-evidently. He’d heard about shakedowns like this, but was in no mood to deal with it now. “You were paid last night. Excuse me.”

To his astonishment, the woman took hold of his arm and yanked him back. Surprise held him still for a moment as she pushed him against the wall and began patting him down, as if for a concealed weapon.

“I thought so,” she said grimly, and slapped him. “Empty your pockets.”

“What?” Picard stared at her.

Another door opened further down the corridor, and two people came out. Picard glanced that way, and felt a rush of pure embarrassment. However much it might simplify things just now, Picard would really rather not have met Riker under these circumstances. Still, done was done; Riker could hardly have failed to see him. “Let go of my arm,” he said to the manager, and called briskly, “Number One!”

The manager brought her hand up to slap him again, and Picard grabbed her by the wrist and turned, ducking, to twist his arm out of her grasp. He had no intention of getting into a fight.

Riker had appeared silently at Picard’s shoulder, and Picard smiled up at him, trying to cover embarrassment. Riker had a look of polite non-recognition on his face. “Good morning, Will.”

“Are you having trouble?”

“You could say that,” Picard observed ruefully.

“Just a little discipline problem,” the manager said, over-riding him, as if she thought Riker was speaking to her.

With calm swiftness, Riker took Picard by the shoulders and pinned him back against the wall. “Let go of the lady’s arm, or you’ll regret it.”

Picard let go, too astonished to do anything else. “Riker, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Thank you,” the manager said, rubbing at her wrist.

“You’re welcome,” Riker said. He was looking down at Picard with an odd, puzzled frown. “How long have you had this one?”

“Two years. I can’t understand it, he’s never given me any trouble before.”

“I haven’t been here in three years,” Riker said. “How does he know my name?”

“Will, if this is a joke, it’s gone far enough.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the manager said. “He just needs a damned good hiding, and that’s exactly what he’s going to get. If you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand down to the cellar, I’ll stow him there for the time being.”

“What?” Picard stared from her face, to Riker’s, wondering if the whole world had gone mad. “Riker. Will. You know who I am.”

“I know what you are,” Riker said. “Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Commander Will Riker, First Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard. You’ve served with me for five years. You’ve turned down three offers of your own command to stay as my first officer. And I don’t understand what the devil you’re playing at now!”

“How the hell do you know that?” Riker’s hands on him gripped harder, hurting him for the first time. His voice had suddenly gone deeper, betraying surprise and anger.

Picard stood still and glowered back at him. He knew Riker inside out. He knew that when Riker’s voice changed and grated like that, it meant Riker was marginally out of control, and angry at himself for being so. Stay calm. “Riker, I have no idea what’s going on, but I’ve known you since you were posted to the Enterprise, and you’ve known me.”

“Shut up,” Riker said.

“Will -- “

“I said, shut up. I’m not interested in your fantasies.” He turned and looked at the manager. “How much?”

“What? Oh, ten an hour, or sixty for the whole night.”

“How much to buy?”

“To buy?” Both Picard and the manager spoke simultaneously, and with almost the same surprise. The manager recovered faster.

“Three thousand.”

“You know, I happen to know something about the law in this part of this world.” Riker was smiling. It was not a pleasant smile. “A slave who strikes a free person, if it’s a first offense, has its hand amputated.”

“Oh, he didn’t hit me,” the manager said. “Just a little discipline problem.”

“Yes, but you only have one free witness.” Riker was still smiling. “And that’s me. I saw him hit you. As a Starfleet officer, obviously it’s my duty to lay that information with the magistrates. They’ll make a compulsory purchase order on him, and once justice has been done, he’ll be up for sale at probably about fifty, given his age and that he’ll be damaged goods at that point. I have no objection to going that route; it’ll take a few days longer, but for what I want him for, he doesn’t need both hands.”

Picard was speechless.

The manager’s mouth gaped open for a moment, and then closed. “Damn you,” she muttered.

Riker smiled widely. “So, shall we start again? I think you meant to say, three hundred, cash down.”

Picard went with them without further argument. Riker was gripping both his wrists, but Picard knew he could have broken that grip. It would probably have meant breaking Riker’s arm, but at that precise moment, Picard felt he would have no objection to that.

However, the first thing he wanted to do was get out of this damned hotel. It seemed that they were heading that way.

They stopped in the manager’s office on the way out. There was a slight altercation when the manager claimed that she hadn’t included the slave’s clothing in the price: Riker sighed and added fifteen to the three hundred. Then the manager insisted on getting Picard’s last “tip” -- the planetary cash that the other Will had left -- and Riker seemed to eye Picard a little oddly as he willingly emptied his pockets. “All right, three hundred fifteen,” Riker said finally, and let go of Picard momentarily as he put the money down on the table.

Picard thought about making a break for it, but by this time he was quite interested in the fact that Riker took this nonsense seriously enough to hand over some serious money. Planetary cash, yes, but a sizable chunk of a Starfleet officer’s cash privileges. Riker turned back and caught him by the arm again.

“Don’t even think about it,” Riker warned dryly. “I’ve just paid for you, and I don’t want to have to shoot my investment.”

Picard shrugged, but went with Riker quite compliantly. Outside on the street, Riker tapped his communicator badge. “This is Riker. Two to beam up.”

It was an enormous relief to see the Enterprise transporter room form about him. Picard let himself relax. He turned to Riker, almost smiling. “You can let go of my arm now, Number One.”

Riker cuffed him, not hard, across the mouth. “Shut up.”

Picard stared. He glanced across the room where Miles O’Brien stood, looking non-committal. “Mr O’Brien, would you call security?”

“Call security, Mr O’Brien,” Riker said.

“Security to main transporter room,” O’Brien said. “Commander, if you don’t mind me askin’ -- who’s this?”

Two security guards arrived. Riker shoved Picard at them. “Take him to sickbay.”

Picard could only explain it afterwards, to himself, that he had gone a little mad for a moment. The security guards -- people he recognised, Watt and M’kenchie -- putting their hands on him, as if they had a right to, were just the last straw. Here, on his own ship.

He ducked, almost as if cringing, and smashed both hands into Watt’s stomach, catching him hard on the jaw as he doubled up, and turning he slammed his shoulder and his ducked head into M’kenchie, knocking her down. Using the momentum, he leapt for the doorway, and was through it and gone before either Riker or O’Brien could react.

There was an access plate to one of the Jeffries tubes nearby. Picard flipped it up and was nearly through when a voice he almost recognised snapped “Freeze!”

Then he knew who it was. And froze.

“Move,” the voice said. “Back out. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Picard stood up, and turned. Tasha Yar, in the uniform of chief of security, was standing with her phaser pointed directly at him. Despite everything, he smiled.

“Tasha. It’s good to see you.”

She didn’t smile. She jerked a gesture with her phaser. “Move.”

Riker had come out of the transporter room. “Nice work, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, Commander. How are M’kenchie and Watt?”

“Watt’s unconscious. M’kenchie’s fine. Take him to sickbay. You’d better put him in restraints.”

“These are really unnecessary,” Picard said, as Yar approached him with the cuffs. “I understand what’s happened now, I think, though not how or why.”

Ignoring him, Yar wrapped the cuffs around his wrists and locked them. “I’d like to speak with Lieutenant-Commander Data,” Picard said.

Yar cuffed him across the mouth. Harder than Riker had. Picard brought both his hands up to rub at his mouth, and found that she’d split his lip.

“Commander, who is he?” she demanded.

“Well,” Riker said, “that’s just what I bought him to find out. He’s a slot from one of the houses in the Ayanwel capital. He’s been there two years. The madam bought him at auction, we might be able to find out where he came from before that through the auction house records. But he seemed to recognise me, and now he appears to have a remarkable amount of trivial information about the crew of this ship -- and far too much for a slot. We may have to do something about that.”

“Not just the crew,” Yar said. She gestured with her head at the open access panel. “He broke away from security and he headed straight for the nearest Jeffries tube. It’s as if he’d memorised the design specs.”

“That panel isn’t on the design specs,” O’Brien said slowly. He had appeared behind Riker a few minutes ago, supporting M’kenchie with a hand under her elbow.

Riker turned and looked at him.

O’Brien said, even more slowly, “It’s part of a redesign we put through at the last refit, last year, at Starbase 10 -- and that’s half the quadrant away from here. You’d need to have read the Starbase 10 records, or be aboard this ship sometime in the past twelve months, to know where that panel is.” He was looking at Picard very curiously. “I’d love to know how he knew.”

“I know about that panel,” Picard said deliberately, focussing his attention on O’Brien, “because I remember it being requested by Petty Officer Ann Lockwood, about eighteen months ago, and then after she was killed in a turbo lift accident, you repeated the req at the pre-refit conference. Besides, I pass it every day.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the U.S.S. Enterprise,” Picard said. “But not this U.S.S. Enterprise.”

“He said that before,” Riker said grimly. “Lieutenant, take him to sickbay. Ask Doctor Crusher to run a complete identity scan on him. And see how far back you can trace his records. I want to know who he belonged to, and what he’s done, right back to the day he was branded -- and further, if you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Beverly,” Picard said, and then sighed as she stared at him. “Sorry -- of course, you don’t remember me either.”

“Who’s this, Tasha?” Crusher asked.

Yar pushed Picard at the nearest examination table not occupied by the still-unconscious Watt. “Sit there.” She was still watching him as she spoke to Crusher. “He’s a slot Commander Riker bought in the Ayanwel capital.”

“Really?” Crusher was amused.

“He seems to possess information about the ship and the crew, and no reasonable explanation of how he knows it.”

“Really?” Crusher looked at Picard. “All right, what’s my name and rank?”

“You’re Doctor Beverly Crusher, Lieutenant-Commander. You took the command test about eight years ago. You have a son, Wesley, who’s living on Dorvan V. Your husband, Jack Crusher, served with me on the Stargazer. He died,” Picard said gently, “about eighteen years ago. And you like tea and hot rolls for breakfast.”

Crusher and Yar exchanged unreadable looks. Then Crusher shook her head, frowning, and turned her attention back to the diagnostic readings. “How is Mr Watt?” Picard asked.

“Shut up,” Crusher said absently, without looking at him. That was a jarring moment in itself. “Tasha, can you keep him quiet?”

Yar raised her hand to slap him, and Picard raised his, to block the blow. He had had enough of being hit in the mouth. “All right, Lieutenant, I’ll be quiet.”

“How is he, Doctor?” Yar asked, still glaring at Picard.

“Concussion and bruises. Nothing very serious, but something hit him pretty hard.”

Yar gestured at Picard. Crusher looked at him. “He doesn’t look capable of that kind of violence.”

“When you have time, Commander Riker wanted you to run a complete identity scan on him.”

“Of course.” Crusher nodded. “Does the Captain know about this?”

Yar sounded faintly, unexpectedly amused. “I think Riker went right off to report to him.”

“Just in case anyone thought for one minute that Commander Riker might have brought a slot aboard out of anything but the sincerest dedication to duty.”

Yar -- most unexpectedly -- giggled. “How could anyone think that of our dedicated First Officer?”

“How indeed,” said another voice that Picard could scarcely believe in. He didn’t move, couldn’t move, could hardly bear to turn his head, because it couldn’t be him. But it had exactly that crack of suppressed amusement that Picard had heard a hundred, a thousand times.

“Captain,” Yar said, straightening abruptly into tense attentiveness.

“Captain,” Crusher said, in an entirely different tone, and smiled.

Picard forced himself to look round. Jack Crusher, not dead, stood in the entrance to sickbay, smiling.

Picard stood up. Everyone else in the room might have been invisible, they had so entirely faded from his awareness. “Jack,” he said. “Jacques.” He moved forward, swiftly, intending to take his friend in a friend’s embrace, convince himself at last that Jack wasn’t dead.

“Jack, it’s good to see you -- “

Jack slapped him across the mouth. This time it really hurt. Yar grabbed his arms from behind and yanked him backwards. Picard was staring, disbelievingly, at his friend. “I wish people would stop doing that,” he said, and grinned involuntarily, even though it made his mouth hurt.

“So this is the slot who charmed Riker, decked a security guard, and apparently knows all our names.” Jack Crusher sounded grim. “And he can’t keep his mouth shut, either.” He went past Picard and stood looking down at Watt. “How is he?”

“He’ll be fine, with a few hours rest.” Beverly smiled sideways at her husband. “I’m just about to run an identity scan on the slot.”

“Good.” Jack stood back, hands tucked behind his back, in a familiar stance. Picard stood patiently -- and in silence -- as Crusher took a blood sample from him, and fed it into the computer. “It’ll take a few minutes, Captain. If it’s all right with you, I’ll run a medical check on him, as well.”

“Go ahead.”

“Lie down,” Beverly Crusher told Picard. “Arms away from your sides, legs slightly apart.”

Picard lifted his wrists, raising an eyebrow. His hands were still cuffed together. Crusher sighed. “Can we get him out of those for the moment?” she asked Yar.

“No, Doctor, we can’t,” Jack said, without waiting for Yar to reply.

Crusher shrugged, pursing her lips slightly, but without uttering a word of argument. “Just lie down, then.”

Picard obeyed. He looked up at the ceiling. This Enterprise was virtually identical to the Enterprise he knew. But the crew, and the Federation, was clearly very different. It was going to be difficult trying to explain to them what was going on, since he’d barely understood Data’s explanation of quantum fissures when Worf had been caught by one. And particularly when it seemed everybody else’s reaction, any time he opened his mouth, was to tell him to shut up.

Maybe I’m trapped in one of Lieutenant Barclay’s holodeck fantasies. If so, I wish he’d cast me as Athos again.

“Computer, end program,” Picard said out loud.

“Shut up,” Beverly Crusher said. Nothing else happened.

Well, it was worth a try.

“I’m getting some very peculiar readings from him,” Crusher said, looking down at her tricorder. “Captain, if these readings are correct, he has an artificial heart installed that’s worth more than he is.”

“Anything else?”

“He seems to have had some kind of control device implanted in his brain at some point -- which isn’t that unusual. It’s been removed. Apart from that, nothing. He’s in good health, well-exercised, well-nourished, one sexual use in the past twenty-four hours, no infections and no scarring. Not even a brand.”

“No?” Jack Crusher moved to stand by the examination table, looking down at Picard with a kind of impersonal appraisal that Picard found peculiarly unpleasant. “Slot. Are you branded?”

“No,” Picard said. “No tattoos, either. Jack, would you please let me explain -- “

Jack raised his hand. Picard shut up.

Yar said, “Captain, it isn’t compulsory for slaves in Ayanwel to be branded. Usually it’s only done as a punishment. Or if the slave’s sold offworld, of course.”

“Is that so?” Jack stood a moment in thought. “Anything back on the identity scan yet?”

Crusher moved to look at the computer panel. “Oh yes. He’s sixty-six, birthplace the Azad Farm, Ayanwel, Liwydniwael, sold from there aged eight, forty-seven owners since then. That includes all the auction houses, though. Thirty-one owners, not including auction houses -- about half slot houses and half private owners.”

Picard sat up. Yar glared at him, but when Picard made no further move, she didn’t move to hit him. He looked at Beverly Crusher, and Jack, and saw them accepting this version of him, as if it was him. It seemed almost dreamlike; quite, quite unreal.

“No unusual gaps in his service?” Jack Crusher asked.

“No. Of course some of the sales were private, and the date of transfer could be inaccurate.”

“When was the last private sale?”

“Five years ago. Between a slot-house manager and a customer, it looks like. The customer sold him back to an auction-house.”

“Any unusual owners?”

Picard could hear the shrug in Crusher’s voice. “We’d need to run a full security check to find out.”

“Lieutenant Yar.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get a list of names of the previous owners of the slot and run a full security check on each one of them. Especially I want to know about their offworld connections.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But before you do that, take the slot to the brig.”

“Jack,” Crusher said. That was all; but Picard remembered being on the receiving end of that tone of voice, Beverly not quite about to argue with the Captain in front of anyone else, but wanting some change in the orders. He didn’t understand what it meant this time, unless Beverly wanted him kept in sickbay.

There was a pause. Then Jack Crusher sighed. “All right. You have a point, Doctor. Lieutenant...” he paused, and then Picard could hear the familiar humour in his voice. “Lieutenant, take the slot to Commander Riker’s quarters. Make sure he’s secure, and leave him there.”

No protest this time from Beverly. Picard sat up and glanced at her. She was frowning at him, visibly seeing a problem to be solved.

“Yes, sir,” Yar said. She swallowed, and added, rather edgily, “Sir... am I to inform Commander Riker?”

“No, Lieutenant, I think I’ll take that pleasure myself.” Jack was grinning. “If he will land us with a problem like this, I think he deserves some of the... responsibility as well.”

By the time Yar and Picard had reached Riker’s quarters -- which were just where Picard expected them to be -- he had thought up one opening line which might, hopefully, let him get a full sentence out without getting another split lip. Perhaps even a paragraph.

Riker’s quarters looked exactly like Picard remembered them. Yar maneuvered them across to the couch, and clipped the cuffs round Picard’s wrist to the arm of the couch. Thorough as ever -- even irritatingly so, under these admittedly special circumstances -- Yar requested a pair of ankle cuffs and proceeded to cuff Picard’s feet together and clip them to the leg of the couch.

“Lieutenant,” Picard said, while she was in the middle of doing this, “may I have a word? I wanted to apologise.”

“That’s not going to do you a lot of good,” Yar said, without smiling.

“I wanted to apologise for whatever it was I said about Lieutenant-Commander Data that upset you.”

Yar’s face, never communicative, closed up like a wall. “Shut up.”

“I take it Data is no longer aboard?”

“I said, shut up,” Yar grated. She was on her feet now, staring down at him.

Picard made himself look harmless. That wasn’t difficult. “Lieutenant, this isn’t easy to explain, but I think I’ve somehow transferred into a different, parallel universe, where certain things are very much the same, but many are different. For example, the access panel to the Jeffries tube is where I expected it to be, but you are head of security instead of Lieutenant Worf.”

“Worf? That’s a Klingon name.”

“Yes, well, some things are obviously very different. Lieutenant, where is Data?”

“He was dismantled six years ago by some idiot who thought he could build more androids. He was wrong. He couldn’t even rebuild Data.” Yar stared over Picard’s head, at the stars beyond the window. “Data was just a machine.”

“As I remember,” Picard said, very quietly, “Data was never ‘just’ anything.”

“No,” Yar agreed softly. Her gaze snapped back to him, and her face froze. “Shut up, slot.”

Picard sighed, and shut up. He hoped some of what he had said had sunk in. It was a blow that Data was dead.

It was hours before Riker came back to his quarters, and Picard was uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, and tired out from trying to think of a way out of this situation. His mouth was dry and tasted of iron where it had bled. If he could get someone -- someone who knew more about quantum physics than Picard did, which didn’t narrow the field excessively -- to talk to, uninterrupted by slaps or any other distraction, then he might be able to explain to Jack, or to Will Riker, what was going on. If either of them would listen to him.

Riker came over and stood looking down at him. Picard had never once been intimidated by his First Officer’s superior height and weight. He was not about to start now.

“I wonder if you realise how much trouble you’re in,” Riker said finally. He was using the mildest of rebuking voices.

Picard grinned at him. “I think I know exactly how much trouble I’m in. Commander, if you’d let me explain -- ”

“What is there to explain?” Riker leaned closer. “Two counts of assault against free people. One count of disabling a Starfleet officer. One count of attempted disablement. One count of attempted escape from your lawful owner. Several counts of insolence and free speech. Slot, you’re dead at least three times over, which has its bright side: you don’t need to worry about having both hands and your tongue amputated.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“Slot, you have the strangest sense of humour.”

“My name is Jean-Luc Picard. I’m from another universe.”

Riker snorted, and stood up again, eyeing the bonds Yar had fixed. “The Lieutenant,” he murmured to himself, “is nothing if not thorough.”

“Tasha Yar always was like that,” Picard agreed.

Riker looked at him. “Shut -- “

“Wait a minute,” Picard cut in hastily. “I’m sorry, Commander, that was an inexcusably stupid thing to say, I should know better by this time -- but I do have one quite urgent favour to ask you, before you tell me to shut up, again.”

“What is it?”

“Can I use your bathroom?”

There was a moment’s pause, and then Riker grinned. “Given that you’re sitting on my couch, yes, you can. But if you have anything in mind like you tried this morning, you won’t get twenty metres and you will end up in the brig.” He unlocked the cuffs at Picard’s ankles and wrists. “You might wash up while you’re in there, as well. Your face is a mess.”

It was: it looked, in fact, even worse than it felt. Even gentle washing made Picard’s lip start to bleed again, but he blotted it with a towel until it seemed to have stopped. Picard was about to strip off his shirt and replace it with a uniform shirt when he realised, abruptly, that his voice might well not activate any replicator program aboard this ship. He had better hang on to what he had.

When he re-emerged, Riker was still waiting outside. “Good. Come over here and sit down. We have some work for you. Do it well, and you’ll be well treated.”

Picard glanced up at Riker. “I do have a name, you know,” he observed.

Riker shook his head. “You’ve got a nerve, slot, and you know damned well you don’t have a name. I bought you, and I haven’t given you a name yet. Now sit down and shut up.” He enforced the first order with a firm pressure on Picard’s shoulders; Picard sat down.

There was a screen set up on the table in front of him. It was displaying an unfamiliar face in an ensign’s uniform. Riker leaned over his shoulder and tapped the screen. “When you recognise any of these people, you tell me their name, their rank, and anything else you think you know about them.”

Picard sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. “I presume this is a test of how far my knowledge of the crew of this ship extends. Good. But with over a thousand crew, it’s going to take quite a while. Do you suppose I could have something to eat, first?”

“You can have some food after the first hundred names,” Riker said. “If I’m satisfied with your work. Do you recognise her?”

“No.” Picard shrugged. “She’s an ensign, probably engineering. I’m not as familiar with the junior officers in engineering as I am with those on the command track.”

Riker tapped the control pad again, without saying anything. Another face appeared, this time one Picard remembered. “Ann Lockwood. Petty Officer, Engineering. She was with the Enterprise since it was built.” And in this universe, she’s still alive…

And again. Picard was interested to find that over half the faces were familiar. He had no idea how accurate the rest of his information was: he couldn’t read Riker’s face when the man was standing behind him. After a hundred faces they stopped and Riker, as promised, supplied sandwiches for Picard.

Then they went on. And on.

Deanna Troi’s face did not appear. Neither did Ro Laren’s. In fact there were remarkably few faces in the crew that weren’t human. Geordi LaForge appeared, about halfway through, and Picard drew in a shaky breath. If anyone could think of a way of getting him back to his own universe, since Data was... no longer in existence, Geordi could.

And Lieutenant Barclay. “Did he inherit Data’s cat?” Picard remembered being told that Barclay was the only member of the crew, apart from Data, who got along with Spot.

“Data’s cat?” Riker sounded startled. “Why would an android keep a cat?”

“For company. To have something alive to look after. To be more human.” Picard was pleased to have some response out of Riker.

“Next,” Riker said abruptly, and changed the picture.

Picard was trying to keep count by hundreds, but had lost track somewhere around seven hundred. It was towards the end that another face he had been looking for appeared.

“Guinan.” Picard relaxed. With Guinan’s abilities, she might even remember him -- and at the very least, she’d let him tell his story without slugging him at regular intervals. “She’s the bartender in Ten Forward. She’s an old friend of mine. I’d like to speak with her.”

Riker changed the picture to someone else. “Mot,” Picard said. “Ship’s barber.” And went on.

The entrance signal sounded, and Riker looked up and called “Come in!”

Beverly and Jack Crusher walked into the room. Riker changed the picture again. “I’m almost finished here. Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Thanks,” Picard said. “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

Riker rapped the back of his head. “Shut up and pay attention.”

“That’s how it’s been going?” Jack Crusher asked.

“No, he’s been good, mostly,” Riker said. “We’ve just a dozen or so people to go.”

“We’ll wait,” Jack said, with a brief smile.

The last face on the screen, the last of the dozen Riker had mentioned, was Jack’s. Picard looked at the screen and looked up at Jack Crusher. “Crusher. John James. Everyone calls you Jack, except for an upperclassman at the Academy who called you Jackie.” Jack’s mouth tightened, and Picard moved smoothly on. “You were my First Officer on the Stargazer for four years, at least you were in my universe, and in that universe, you died in a zero-gee accident eighteen years ago. You have one son, Wesley, and you’re married to Doctor Beverly Crusher.” Picard smiled. “And I’m very glad to see you well.”

Riker touched a switch. “I set the record-and-analyse program up as you suggested, sir.”

“Good,” Jack said. “Move the slot back and let’s take a look at the results.”

Riker pulled Picard to his feet and shoved him towards the couch. “Sit down.”

“Make him secure, Will,” the Captain said. Riker shrugged, picked up the wrist cuffs, and locked Picard’s arm to the arm of the couch.

Beverly sat down at the table opposite from where Picard had been placed. He met her eyes, trying to drive a message into them. Though what that message was, he realised, he wasn’t quite sure. Pay no attention to what all your records tell you, this is me, your friend... your friend you never met.

Beverly glanced away a moment and then looked back, frowning. Riker sat down in the chair facing her, cutting off Picard’s field of vision. Virtually all he could see, unless he leaned uncomfortably (and conspicuously) sideways, was Riker’s broad back. Jack seated himself between Beverly and Riker; Picard could just see the side of his head.

“The computer shows that the slot recognises about half the crew by name. Of those he doesn’t recognise -- four hundred and ninety-four -- he simply says he doesn’t know them. Of those he does claim to recognise, six hundred and forty-seven, he claimed in just under twenty-five percent of the crew not to be certain of the name, but to recognise the face, and he was right about their rank and line of duty. But that just proves he knows how to read a uniform shirt. Which itself could be significant: not many civilians on backwater planets even know the difference between four pips and three.” It sounded as if Riker had grinned, briefly, but his voice as he went on was very serious. “Of those he identified by name, he identified them correctly fully ninety-five percent of the time.”

“That’s a pretty high success rate,” Beverly said. She sounded thoughtful.

“It amounts to about forty percent,” Jack said. “Go on, Will.”

“Well, you might want to consider this, sir,” Riker said. “The five percent of mistakes, he seems to have picked the married name instead of the unmarried name, or the other way around. His error rate goes down to less than one percent, if you discount those errors.”

“Is that so?” Jack leaned forward. “What about the trivia he’s picked up? How accurate is that?”

“About fifty-fifty. Sometimes he’s just completely wrong, sometimes he’s offered information that the computer can’t check -- but about half the time, he’s dead on target.”

“As for instance?”

“Well -- “ Riker was definitely grinning. “When it came to my picture, he identified it immediately, of course. Then he said ‘You play the trombone, you like jazz, you love cooking, and you’re im’zadi with Deanna Troi, if she exists, of course.’“

“Deanna who?” Beverly asked, just as Jack said “Imzadee what?”

“Exactly.” Riker shrugged. “Well, I do like jazz, and I enjoy cooking, and of course I play the trumpet. Which is close enough, if you’ve never seen or heard either one.”

“And that’s what you call fifty-fifty?”

“That seems to be what the computer calls fifty-fifty,” Riker said mildly. “Two right, one wrong, and one out of this world.”

“This universe,” Picard said, quietly and clearly.

“Shut up,” Jack said. He turned and looked at Riker. “Commander, I don’t think you realise the scale of this problem. Someone has programmed this slot with information that no one outside Starfleet should possess. Our problem is to find who it was and how they did it. It wasn’t one of his legally registered owners; Lieutenant Yar’s checked back through the list of owners, and all of them are Ayanwel natives, with two exceptions: a Klingon trader, twenty years ago, and a Ferengi who ran one of the slot-houses he belonged to, over ten years ago. Neither appear to have had any contact with the slot since they sold him -- in fact, neither is now resident in Ayanwel.”

“What about the others?”

“The manager of the slot-house where you found him is being given a thorough security check. He’s been there for the past two years. His previous owner was an auction house, and before that, a farmer out by the Tivaldian border. They’re both being checked, too. So far -- nothing.”

“But why would anyone do this?”

Jack shrugged. Beverly said, in her cool, quiet voice, “Maybe to prove that they could. I don’t think it was just a coincidence, your finding him, Will. I think it’s some kind of message.”

“Who from?” Riker demanded.

“I don’t know. But there are some very peculiar details.” Beverly dropped into her formal mode, and Picard could visualise her, leaning back a little, hands together and raised, fingers interlacing. “I mentioned the artificial heart. It was installed in his early twenties, from the readings, and it’s not impossible -- it’s just significantly implausible. He must have been quite a good looking slot, when he was younger, and at one time he was fairly valuable, but slots just aren’t a long-term investment. That’s one.” Beverly sighed. “The second point is the absence of penetrative sexual use. You found him in a slot-house, and he certainly had one customer in him, sometime in the previous twenty-four hours... but while I wouldn’t take my oath on it, I’d say no more than one, and none at all for several days before that. How likely is that in a slot-house?”

“Well, not that I’m an expert,” Riker said carefully, “but I would say it’s fairly unlikely.”

“Is that so?” Jack murmured. “Go on, Doctor.”

“Point three. I’ve been thinking about this. When the slot was brought into sickbay, he greeted me by my first name, and then apologised. Then he made a kind of statement about me, most of which registered, at the time, as simply wrong. He said that I took the command test eight years ago. I never have. He said I have one son, Wesley. I don’t. He said I like tea and hot rolls for breakfast. And of course, you didn’t die eighteen years ago, Captain.”

Jack chuckled a little. “I wondered when you were going to get around to that.”

“The key was the tea and hot rolls. That’s what I have for breakfast when I’m alone -- when you and the children are away and I can please myself. I can’t think of a single other person alive who would know that. That’s what started me thinking. Jack, do you remember, when I was finally posted aboard as CMO, the discussion we had about the command test?”

There was a pause. Then Jack hit the table, open-palmed. “Yes. We discussed it, and we agreed that it would cause unnecessary confusion to have husband and wife both line officers on the same ship. You’ve never pursued it further.”

“Right. And you know we debated calling Jim after his grandfather, and decided against it.”

There was a long pause. Jack Crusher turned and looked at Picard. His face was set and hard. His eyes were very cold. “I think you’re right,” he said, slowly. “Three things that have never even gone into the personal logs. The programmer wouldn’t just need to be able to break Starfleet codes, he knows our lives. The slot’s a message -- a message that was left for us to pick up.”

“The question is, who sent it?” Beverly asked.

“The question is,” Riker said softly, “what’s the message?”

“No,” Jack Crusher said, standing up. “The first question is -- how did they do it? I think we need to ask the slot some real questions. Doctor.”

There was a pause. Beverly sighed. “All right.” She stood up and came round the table, towards Picard. Riker and Jack were both on their feet. Picard saw, with dawning belief and unfolding panic, that Beverly had a hypo in her hand.

“Veridical drugs. You’re going to drug me.”

“You’ve had them before?” Jack asked.

“Yes.” Picard swallowed, trying to keep his gaze steady on Jack’s face. “Yes, I was t- taken a year, year and a half ago, taken prisoner by Cardassians, they used them.”

“Cardassians,” Jack said thoughtfully. “Well, we’ll find out.”

“For God’s sake,” Picard said desperately, knowing it was futile, “I’ll answer any question you care to put. You can verify it -- use a lie-detector -- you don’t have to drug me, Jack!”

“Will, can you hold him?” Beverly asked.

Riker sat down on the couch beside Picard, and gripped his shoulder, and the side of his head, holding him still so that his throat was exposed and vulnerable to the hypo.

“Beverly. This is me -- ” Picard jerked, but Riker’s grip only tightened.

Beverly touched his face. Her hand was gentle. “Don’t panic like this,” she said. “These drugs are not addictive. We won’t hurt you. Try not to struggle.”

And the world, what there was of it, simply went away.

Part Three

The world felt good to Riker. He’d had a pleasantly satisfying night on shore leave. This morning he was almost alone on the bridge of the Enterprise, just a couple of ensigns sitting watch with him, and all the facts and figures of the refit streaming through the padd under his hand looked dead right. He was looking forward to presenting the results to the Captain, when Picard got back from holiday.

“Incoming transmission from Liwydniwael, sir,” one of the ensigns said abruptly.

“Who’s it for?” Riker asked.

“Well -- the speaker says he wants whoever’s in charge.”

“Put him on,” Riker said, and leant back in his chair. “This is the First Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise,” he said cheerfully. “How can I help you?

“Are you missing any crew?” The man’s face on the main screen was pale, dark-haired, blue-eyed. He spoke Standard.

Riker frowned. “What’s this? Why do you ask?” More than half the crew were on leave at the moment, but they all had communicators on them, and the computer hadn’t reported anyone falling out of contact.

“Because I’ve a man here who might be one of your crew. He’s got one of your Starfleet communicators, and his ID card says he’s Starfleet personnel.”

“What’s the problem?”

The man shrugged. “I wish I knew. Something’s wrong with him. He isn’t talking.”

“What’s the man’s name?”

“Well, the ID card says Jean-Luc Picard.”

“What?” Riker leapt to his feet. The man was holding an ID card up to the screen. It was a basic temporary card, of a kind most of the crew on leave would be carrying, with a share of planetary cash credited to the card’s memory. It was genelocked. Even as lightly as the man was holding it, it was already turning faintly discoloured where his fingers touched it. And the name on the card, shorn of rank, was the Captain’s.

“We’ll beam down a medical team,” Riker said hastily. “Ensign, can you get a fix on his location?”

“Done, sir.”

“Transfer it to the main transporter.” Riker touched his comm badge. “Riker to sickbay. Emergency medical team to main transporter, on the double.”

The corridor where Riker materialised turned out to be in the sleepover place where he’d spent the previous night. Riker glanced round, faintly embarrassed, hoping that the manager wouldn’t show up.

Doctor Crusher glanced round and shrugged. “Where’s the Captain?”

The door in front of them opened and a blond man looked out. “You’re Riker? My partner spoke to you earlier. Come on in.”

The room was small. Mainly what was in it was a double bed. Picard was sitting on the bed, his arms wrapped round his legs in a nervous hug. He looked up as they came in, but said nothing.

“Captain, are you all right?” Riker asked, his voice trailing off as he realised the idiocy of the question.

Picard didn’t answer. His arms tightened their nervous hold, and Riker noticed that he was rocking back and forth a little, shivering.

“Jean-Luc?” Crusher sat down on the bed next to him. “What’s wrong?”

Picard looked at her. His voice, when he spoke, was very soft, and somehow fragile. “Jean-Luc is my name?”

Riker sucked in a breath. Amnesia? Shock? He could see Doctor Crusher flinching, slightly, though her voice was quite calm and controlled. “Yes. That’s your name. How do you feel, Jean-Luc?”

“Thank you,” Picard said. It was almost as if he were whispering, though Riker could hear him perfectly. “I’m in good health. Am I to go with you now?”

“I think you’d better,” Crusher said gently. “Can you stand up? Would you like to get dressed?”

Picard unfolded himself and stood. He looked at Riker with no recognition at all in his eyes, and then ducked his head and turned away a little as he knelt to gather up his clothing. Picard had been naked in front of Riker before, in the swimming pool, in a holodeck sauna, on a few other occasions. But not like this. Picard stayed on the floor to dress, and got to his feet with apparent reluctance.

Crusher got to her feet and touched her comm badge. “Crusher to Enterprise. Two to beam up, directly to sickbay.”

When the Captain and Doctor Crusher had vanished, Riker looked at the other two people in the room. “What happened to him?” he asked.

“I wish I knew,” the dark-haired man said. He sounded honestly perplexed. “He was fine last night. Then we went to sleep, and when I woke up this morning, he was like that.”

“What did you do?”

“I tried to get him to talk to me, tell me what was wrong, but he just didn’t react. So I hunted his pockets and found that ID card.” He handed it over to Riker. “And a Starfleet comm badge. He’d said something last night about being in trouble with Starfleet -- ”


“It was a joke. I think. Well, I’m not too sure, actually. He didn’t seem very worried about it, anyway. So I called my partner -- ”

“Ilya Nicolaievich Kuryakin,” the blond man said, stepping forward and extending his hand. “My partner is Will Bodie. We own the Rencontres. We’re due to leave at noon, and while of course we both want to do all we can to help, we are in rather a hurry.”

“Neither of you are going anywhere,” Riker said with finality. “Not until we sort this out. Your partner called you, and you came -- when?”

“Just half an hour ago. I recognised the name on the ID card at once, but Will didn’t believe it.” Kuryakin smiled urbanely. “However, I suggested that Will call the Enterprise immediately.”

“And half an hour later, he did?”

“It took me a little while to convince him. Really, sir, I can’t see that either of us can help you further.”

“I’d like to help,” Bodie said. Kuryakin glared at him.

Riker smiled. “If you wouldn’t mind transporting back to the Enterprise with me, we can pursue our enquiries more comfortably.”

“We are due to leave at twelve hundred hours,” Kuryakin repeated. “If we don’t, we’ll miss our Tholian rendezvous, and we’ll lose our profit margin. That may not seem to matter very much to you, Mr Riker, but it’s our ship on the line if we don’t.”

“Let me explain something to you,” Riker said, very gently. “You are, of course, at perfect liberty to refuse to come back to the Enterprise. But if you do refuse, I’ll ask the port authorities to put a hold on your ship pending investigation of -- well, whatever’s happened to Captain Picard. It will probably take at least three days for you to have the hold removed. On the other hand, if you co-operate, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you do make this vitally important rendezvous. Do we understand each other, sir?”

Kuryakin was still smiling, though his blue eyes were cold. “I believe we do. Very well, sir.”

Riker escorted Kuryakin and Bodie to one of the meeting rooms, and left them there with two security guards on the door. “Please ask for anything you’d like from the replicators. I’ll be back soon.”

In sickbay, Picard was seated on one of the examination tables, his hands folded in his lap, his head slightly bowed. Riker thought the Captain glanced up when he came in, and believed that he saw a faint expression of relief. It was fleeting; Picard’s face was utterly, strikingly impassive.

Crusher had turned away and was studying the triage readings on the screen. Her hands were clenched, and as Riker looked at her more closely, he realised that she was shaking. “Will,” she said. Her voice was light and tense with control. “Can I have a word with you in private?”

Riker nodded, surprised. Crusher glanced at one of her nurses. “Buchi, could you keep an eye on the Captain? Call me at once if -- if he shows signs of disturbance. Oh, and don’t let him leave sickbay.”

“What’s the problem?” Riker asked, in Crusher’s office.

Crusher sat down behind her desk, dropping the hardcopy, and brought her hands up, rubbing hard against her eyes. After a moment, she looked at Riker tearlessly. “I’m sorry, it’s just... become rather personal for me. Commander, I formally request you to arrest those two men on a charge of assaulting a Starfleet officer. I need to take some... some samples for analysis.”

“What?” Riker glanced at the door as if he could see through it.

“Will -- “ Beverly swallowed. “They raped him.”

“What?” It felt as if the universe was drained of warmth. Riker stared at Crusher, shaking his head, not in disbelief but in denial. “They -- the Captain?”

Crusher sat down behind her desk. “I ran a standard triage checkup. He’s been raped. More than once, in the past twenty-four hours. If it was those two men, I can’t prove it without taking some tissue and sperm samples, and the only way to get that without their consent is if they’re under arrest for assault. So arrest them, Will -- “ for the first time, her voice actually cracked, and it was a moment before she could continue “ -- bring them into sickbay under guard, and I’ll get the evidence.”

“Right,” Riker said. He heard his voice grating, rough with loss of control. It made him angrier. He couldn’t give into it. Do it by the book, and those two would be spending the next twenty years on a penal colony. Make a mistake, and they might get away with it. “Right,” he said. “Get the Captain into a private cubicle. I’ll bring those two to sickbay.”

“I think he’d be better off in his own quarters,” Crusher said after a moment. “He doesn’t like sickbay. It’s obvious from his reactions that he particularly doesn’t like it right now. And there’s the memory problem. I think he’d be better in familiar, comfortable surroundings. I’ve sent for Deanna, but it may be two or three hours before she can get here -- she’s out of communicator range at the moment.”

Riker nodded. “She was going sub-aqua caving,” he said absently, getting up. “She wanted me to come along, but the idea of being several hundred feet underground and underwater just didn’t appeal to me. I’ll escort the Captain to his quarters, and then bring those two in.”

“Fine.” Crusher nodded. “I’ll be ready.”

Picard hadn’t moved from where he was sitting. He didn’t look up as Riker approached him. “Sir? Would you come with me?”

Picard didn’t move. Riker put a hand on Picard’s shoulder. “Sir?”

Picard looked up then. His eyes, wide and bright, focussed on Riker, and Picard nodded. He slid off the table and stood, hands clasped in front of him, looking up at Riker.

It wasn’t often that Riker was ever aware that Picard was shorter than him. He was suddenly very aware of it; of how much shorter and slighter Picard was, of how fragile he looked. Riker wanted, abruptly and with a passion that startled him, to take Picard in his arms, hold him closely, and assure him that everything would be all right.

He didn’t, of course. He put a gentle hand under Picard’s elbow, and turned him towards the door. They walked out of sickbay together.

Picard said nothing on the way to his quarters. He looked at Riker often, but glanced away again if Riker ever returned his glance. His eyes flickered this way and that, taking in his surroundings -- the corridors they walked through, the turbo-lift -- as if they were entirely new to him, and had to be memorised.

Riker opened the door and walked Picard over to the couch. “Why don’t you sit down?” he suggested, and was startled again when Picard simply obeyed. He turned to the replicator and told it, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot. With sugar.” It was supposed to be good for shock.

He handed the cup to Picard, who took it and looked up at Riker again. “Thank you,” he said softly.

Riker shrugged and smiled, happy to have got even two words out of Picard. “You’re welcome. Why don’t you just drink that, and try to relax? I’ll be back soon.”

Picard nodded, and started, cautiously, to drink his tea.

Kuryakin was seated in one of the comfortable meeting room chairs. Bodie was standing by the window, staring out at the stars. When Riker walked in, Kuryakin didn’t move, but Bodie swung round and glared at him.

“What the bloody hell is going on?”

“I am Commander Will Riker, First Officer and temporarily in command of the Federation Starfleet vessel Enterprise, registration number NCC-1701.” Riker had looked up the regulations five minutes ago. He intended to do this by the regs, to the last detail. “You are in my jurisdiction as a law-enforcement officer. Will Bodie, you are under arrest for committing an assault on a Starfleet officer, Jean-Luc Picard. Ilya Nicolaievich Kuryakin, you are under arrest for conspiracy to commit an assault on a Starfleet officer, Jean-Luc Picard, and suspected collaboration in the assault on the aforementioned officer. You are both hereby warned that everything you say is recorded and will be used as evidence in a court of law.”

“Assault?” Bodie said. “What the hell are you talking about? What the bloody hell is going on?”

“You will be escorted to sickbay, where tissue and sperm samples will be taken as evidence. You have the right to have an independent medical or legal witness present to ensure the samples are correctly taken.”

“What?” Bodie stared. “You’re talking about rape?”

“Will,” Kuryakin said. He was on his feet now, and his voice held some warning that Riker could not read. Bodie shut up. Kuryakin went on, quite smoothly and coolly, “We would prefer to have an independent medical witness. I think we also require a legal representative. However, the latter can wait. We want these samples taken and checked as soon as possible. Please call the Paradox Clinic, in the Ayanwel capital, and ask Doctor Marie Jones, as a personal favour from Ilya Nicolaievich, if she would be our medical witness.”

“Certainly,” Riker said.

Bodie was shaking his head. “Listen, Riker -- I can understand what it looks like, I was bloody worried about Jean-Luc -- I still am bloody worried about him -- But you’ve got to understand -- it wasn’t rape.”

“Will,” Kuryakin said urgently, but Riker hardly heard him. He was full of a rage so overwhelming only one thought prevented him from striking out. Hit Bodie, lay a hand on him, and the chances were, Bodie would get away with what he’d done.

“I don’t care,” Riker heard his voice grating, and didn’t care that it gave him away, “about your fantasies. I don’t care what you may have thought you were doing. I have seen the physical and mental results of what you did, and I will not rest until you have paid the full penalty for it.” He looked at Kuryakin, who was standing quite still with a frozen gaze, and said formally, “An escort will bring you to sickbay when Doctor Jones is available as your witness.” He turned on his heel and left the room.

Doctor Jones was irritated, but agreed to witness the procedure. Riker told her briefly what the charges were. Bodie and Kuryakin were brought to sickbay, samples taken -- Bodie took a long time producing the sperm sample, and his face was very white when he emerged from the small cubicle -- and then escorted to the brig while Doctor Crusher carried out the tests.

“Positive for sample A. Negative for sample B,” Crusher said finally. She looked at Doctor Jones, who nodded.

“In other words?”

“Bodie did it,” Crusher said simply. “Kuryakin may well just have been called in afterwards.”

Doctor Jones had been silent most of the time, never even exchanging a word with the two prisoners. She cleared her throat. “I can’t fault the evidence,” she said slowly, “but based on what I know of Bodie, it does seem unlikely.”

“In what way?” Crusher’s voice was cold.

Jones shook her head. “I’ve known Ilya Nicolaievich for far longer. I first met Bodie only about five years ago. But... he’s a shocking flirt. He’s completely promiscuous. He’s very certain of his attractions. But... I’ve never known him hurt anybody sexually before.”

“Perhaps you just never found out about it before.” Riker’s anger was still there, deep and abiding.

Jones met his eyes unflinchingly. “Perhaps. Still, it doesn’t seem in character. He’s too vain. Someone turns him down, he’d just go out and find the next one. He’d be so sure the next one would come across, he wouldn’t waste his time on someone who didn’t want him.”

She shook her head. “I don’t like him. I don’t get on at all well with that type of man, and I’ve never understood what Ilya saw in him. But -- that’s my opinion,” she finished abruptly. “I need to go back to the clinic now -- I had to reschedule two appointments to come here.”

“Very well. You’ll be available as a witness when it comes to trial?”

Doctor Jones shrugged resignedly. “Yes.”

Riker visited Bodie and Kuryakin in the brig to inform them formally (by the regs) that a public defender had been assigned to their case, and that they would have the opportunity to speak privately to her tomorrow, at 0900 hours for Bodie and at 1000 hours for Kuryakin.

“Why separately?” Kuryakin asked. Bodie was sitting on the bench at the back of the brig, his head in his hands. He hadn’t moved or reacted to Riker’s presence.

“You may want to separate your cases, Kuryakin.”

Kuryakin lifted his chin and looked Riker over coldly. “Will is my partner, and my friend. He did not commit this crime, and I have no intention of throwing him to the wolves. And I am Captain Kuryakin.”

“What?” Riker looked at him, startled.

“I would prefer that you address me as Captain Kuryakin, Commander Riker.”

Riker spun on his heel and walked off. Behind him, he heard Bodie mutter “Maybe you shouldn’t have said that, Ilyushka,” and Kuryakin respond with a one-word expletive in a hissing language Riker didn’t, at first, recognise.

Deanna was still out of touch. The above-ground contact for her caving group said apologetically that the group weren’t expected to surface for at least another hour, and he for one wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t show up for three or four. Riker asked O’Brien to bring her up as soon as possible, and left.

It was with an odd and dragging reluctance that Riker went to the Captain’s quarters. He could have called Doctor Crusher, and suggested that she sit with the Captain, but he’d seen Beverly’s face, holding on to control with an extraordinary effort. Beverly ought to have the chance to collapse in private.

Riker pressed the door-signal automatically, but wasn’t very surprised when there was no response. He went in. The empty cup of tea was sitting on the table in front of Picard; the Captain was sitting exactly where Riker had left him, his hands folded in his lap, his head bowed. He looked up as Riker came in, but said nothing.

“How are you feeling?” Riker asked.

“Very well, thank you.” Picard had a deep, mellow voice. It shouldn’t sound like this, soft and quiet and almost stifled.

Riker sat down on the couch beside him. Picard turned towards him, looking at Riker as if he expected him to say or do something. Riker swallowed, wishing there was something he could do, something he could say, that would make it all right.

“We’re -- we’re in space?” Picard asked, very tentatively. His hand came up, an unfamiliar nervous tic.

“Yes. You’re on the Enterprise. You’re safe.”

Picard nodded. His hand moved again. It was not like Picard’s usual means of talking with his hands, it was almost as if Picard meant to touch his own nose, and then stopped halfway and thought better of it. “What -- what am I going to do here?”

“You don’t need to do anything for now,” Riker said carefully. “Just relax. Don’t worry about anything.”

Picard nodded. He wasn’t quite meeting Riker’s eyes.

“Do you remember who you are?” Riker asked.

Picard, visibly, flinched. “Yes,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Jean-Luc Picard. You’re Jean-Luc Picard.”

“Yes.” Picard nodded hastily. “I remember.”

“You’re Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

“Captain...?” Picard stared. He was shivering, Riker noticed, small contained ripples.

“Yes. You’re the Captain. I’m your First Officer. Your Number One, remember?”

“Is that... what I call you?” Picard sounded increasingly nervous. Riker was beginning to think he should never have started this. He nodded. Picard swallowed. “When do I... when should I start?”

Riker nearly laughed. It wasn’t funny. It was just too incongruous; Jean-Luc Picard asking when he should start being Captain. It was too painfully incongruous for anything except laughter or tears, and Riker was not going to break down either way. “That’s what you are,” he said, firmly and definitely. “Don’t worry about it, sir. Just do it.”

Picard nodded. “All right -- ” his voice came out soft and nervous, but then he cleared his throat and said, in more nearly his usual deep and mellow tones, “All right, Number One.”

Riker grinned at him, more pleased than he had words for. “Right, Captain.”

Picard smiled back. “Come here, Number One.”

Smiling, puzzled, Riker shifted a little closer along the couch. Picard put strong hands on his shoulders, pulling him into the right position, and kissed him, his mouth on Riker’s firm and unbelievably skilled and demanding, not tentative at all. Riker opened his mouth to the kiss without even thinking about it, tongue darting to meet tongue, burningly aroused, wanting more...

And then thought entered in, and he pulled back. Picard let him, though he was still holding on to Riker’s shoulders. Captain Picard wouldn’t do this. Riker shook his head, absorbing the man he knew, the man he’d thought he’d known. Picard was doing this. Picard was watching him now, lips parted, focussed on him, on Riker, wanting him....

And if Picard wanted him, wanted to make love to someone he knew and trusted, wanted to take away the memory of being raped.... If Picard wanted Riker for any reason at all, he could have him. Riker hesitated. We shouldn’t do this. If he regrets it later... And he will, Riker told himself firmly. In his right mind, Picard wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t get involved with any of his bridge officers.

But if Picard wanted this now.... If Picard needed this now.... Or, Riker thought, am I just convincing myself I ought to say yes because I want to say yes so damn badly? Because I want to be close to him. So close to him. Picard was still trembling a little. Riker did what he’d wanted to do in sickbay; he put his arms carefully round Picard, pulling him in, holding him close. Picard tilted his head a little and found Riker’s mouth again, and began to kiss him, long hot kisses, each one leaving Riker breathless and wanting more.

The door signal sounded. Riker jerked back from Picard. Picard’s hands fell into his lap, and clung to each other. “Come in,” Riker called, since it seemed Picard wasn’t going to say anything.

Deanna Troi walked in. She was wearing a freshly-replicated uniform, but her hair was untidy and looked damp. “Good afternoon, Captain,” she said with Deanna’s usual gentle cheerfulness, and then stopped short, staring at Riker and at Picard with an unexpected frown. “Will...?” she said.

“Counselor,” Riker said, taking refuge in formality from having almost been (and from the expression on Deanna’s face, as good as) discovered in the Captain’s quarters swapping kisses with the Captain. “Have you spoken to Doctor Crusher?”

“No,” Deanna said, still staring at them both. Her voice was calmly formal; under deep control. “No, Miles O’Brien called me as soon as I was in transporter range, and said I was needed. I only stopped to change out of my wetsuit.”

“I think she should explain,” Riker said.

Deanna shook her head. “No,” she said, with very quiet authority. “Will, I think you should leave now.”

It was what Riker had meant to do, quarter of an hour ago: sit with the Captain until Deanna got here, and then go. But it seemed as if everything had changed. Picard was still watching him, bright-eyed, intent. “Counselor,” Riker said, “please go to the Chief Medical Officer and ask her to brief you on the situation.”

“Commander,” Deanna said, still with that strange formality, “I will not leave the Captain alone with you.”

“What?” Riker stood up abruptly. “Deanna!”

Deanna was frowning, looking past Riker at Picard. “I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry, Will, but he’s terrified of you.”

The door-signal sounded again. Without waiting for an answer, it opened, and Crusher walked in.

“Will,” Crusher said abruptly. “Oh. Deanna, thank goodness you’re back. Second-level triage identified a higher pulse-rate for – “ she halted, staring at Picard.

Picard did not respond. Riker looked questioningly at him, and then at Crusher.


“His pulse rate’s within range for a normal heart, but far higher than normal for the Captain’s,” Crusher said. “When I looked at third-level triage…” she stared at Picard again. “He has a normal heart.”

“What?” Riker turned and stared down at Picard, who raised his hand again, covering his mouth, and let it fall.

“I don’t understand,” Deanna said. She looked pale and uncomfortable. “Beverly, are you saying someone’s regenerated the Captain’s heart?”

“No, that’s impossible,” Crusher said. “No, I’m saying that man sitting there isn’t Jean-Luc Picard. He can’t be. I want him back in sickbay -- I want to run a complete molecular scan on him.”

“Are you sure?” Riker demanded. He realised that he was wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, and brought his hand down, surreptitiously, to scrub it against his trousers.

“Well, I’ll be sure, after the scan,” Crusher said impatiently. “But right now I’m as sure as I can be without it that he -- “ she jerked her hand in Picard’s direction “ -- has the heart he was born with.”

Riker put out a hand, instinctively, to steady Deanna. “Are you all right?” She looked terrible.

Fear, he heard, inside his head. Terror. Deanna was looking at Picard. Or whoever it was.

Riker turned and looked at Picard. He looked like Picard. Except for his voice, except for that little habit of lifting his hand to his face, except for making a pass at Riker and almost convincing him...

The man sat there and looked back at them. He lifted his hand again, and Riker snapped “Would you stop doing that?”

“I’m sorry.” The man’s voice was soft and fragile again. No trace of those mellow tones. His hand fell back to his lap, and he clasped his other hand round it, bowing his head in silence.

“He isn’t, is he?” Riker said at last. “He’s not the Captain.”

“I need to run that scan,” Crusher said briskly. And then, as the man made no move, to him directly “Come on. We have to go back to sickbay.”

The man pushed himself to his feet. He did not look any of them in the eye, but he walked unevenly towards Crusher and waited. After a moment he whispered “I’m at your disposal.”

Crusher looked disconcerted. Troi turned under Riker’s hand as if to reassure her. But instead, with a couple of quick steps, she moved to stand in front of the man who wasn’t Picard, putting her hands on his shoulders and looking into his eyes. “It’s all right,” she said, in her gentlest voice. “We aren’t going to hurt you. No one wants you to come to any harm. We just want to find out who you are.”

Riker traded a puzzled look with Crusher. Whoever he was, the man didn’t look particularly frightened. He didn’t look particularly much of anything. Troi bit her lip and looked still whiter. “What can I say to you?” she asked.

“Deanna,” Riker said.

“Deanna,” Crusher said. “Maybe you’d better come to sickbay?”

“I think I’d better,” Deanna said.

Riker put a hand under the man’s elbow, as he had escorted him from sickbay only hours ago, and turned him towards the door. Crusher followed, putting an arm around Deanna’s shoulders.

The man who wasn’t Picard went obediently to the examination table, and lay down. Crusher guided Deanna to one of the other tables. “Sit down. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m all right,” Deanna said. She was shaking.

“You don’t look it.” Crusher sighed. “Let me deal with this.”

Riker knew enough to know that Crusher was initiating a deep scan, right down to the DNA. The man who wasn’t Picard lay still. After a moment he closed his eyes and his face, too, went still as a calm pool. Oddly enough, he looked exactly like the Captain -- like the Captain if you could ever imagine Captain Picard acting like this.

Crusher left the scan to run and returned to Deanna. She started to run a quick diagnostic checkup, asking Deanna questions in a low voice.

Deanna shook her head, again and again, finally pushing herself to her feet and snapping “Beverly, I’m all right!”

“You’re not.”

“It’s the fear.” Deanna put her hand to her forehead, an unconscious gesture as if she were trying to shove something back. “He’s so afraid. And nothing I said changed that. He’s afraid of everything.”

The scanner beeped for attention. Crusher said to the man who wasn’t Picard, “You can sit up now,” and began to look through the data provided.

The man sat up. His face was a perfect blank.

On impulse, almost, Riker asked him “Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” the man said, a bare, expressionless word. “Sir, please, do I have a name?”

“What is your name?” Crusher asked.

The man shook his head. His eyes, the only mobile part of his face, flickered back and forth between Crusher and Riker. His hands were clasped in his lap, and did not move.

“Your name is Jean-Luc Picard,” Riker said. He couldn’t stand it any longer.

Deanna stared at the man, at Riker. She looked both relieved, and very surprised.

Crusher looked up from the read-outs and shook her head. “Whatever he is, he isn’t,” she began, and Riker cut her off.

“We have to call him something. What else are we to call him?”

“Sir,” the man -- Jean-Luc? -- said, this time, definitely to Riker. His gaze was fixed on Riker as it had been before, and his eyes were as bright and intent. The same intensity that Riker had mistaken for desire. “Please, sir, I know I did something wrong earlier. Please tell me what it was so I won’t ever do it again. I’m a very quick learner, sir.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Riker said shortly.

Crusher gestured to Riker to come round and look at the screen. Deanna stayed where she was, watching the man, who was (Riker glanced up to check) still watching Riker.

The screen was displaying two sets of data: Picard’s, from his last medical, three weeks ago, and this man’s, from the scan a few minutes ago. Even Riker could see that on most levels, the data matched precisely. “A clone?” Riker suggested.

“That man is more like Jean-Luc Picard than an identical twin would be,” Crusher said shortly. “He has the same genetic pattern right down to his cellular RNA. The same fingerprints. The same brain-print. If it wasn’t for his heart -- it would be hard to believe that he wasn’t Jean-Luc Picard. I want Data.”

It had been, quite literally, years since Riker had even thought of making puns on Lieutenant-Commander Data’s name, but for a moment he thought Crusher meant she wanted more information, and that moment’s confusion jolted him worse than he had expected. “What? Oh, yes, of course. Go ahead.”

Crusher already had. Data appeared minutes later, unruffled and entirely ungrudging at being recalled from shore leave.

“Captain. I hope you had a pleasant holiday.” The man who wasn’t Picard didn’t respond, and Data glanced at Deanna, who shrugged.

Crusher pointed at the information on the screen. Data looked at it, and began to flick through the screens faster than the human eye could follow. The expression on his face did not change, which meant that he wasn’t giving it any thought.

“Interesting, Doctor,” Data said finally. He looked up and studied the man who wasn’t Picard for a few seconds. “I believe I understand your hypothesis. You require scan program Data alpha-five-five-zero-six.”

“It’s hardly even a hypothesis,” Crusher said, edgily. “Just a wild guess.”

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Data quoted. His hands were moving faster than ever. “Please ask the gentleman to lie down for another scan.”

Riker turned to the man who wasn’t Picard. “Lie down,” he said, and was startled, even now, that the man so silently and easily obeyed.

It only took a moment or so. The information finished piling up on the screen, and Data nodded. “The quantum flux in his cellular RNA extends to the sub-atomic level. It is asynchronous with normal matter. In essence, he does not belong in our universe.”

“It’s the same thing that happened to Worf. He’s from another quantum reality,” Riker said slowly. “He is Jean-Luc Picard.”

“An interesting philosophical point, Commander,” Data said. “They were born the same person, who then experienced vastly different realities. Are they still the same person? There is complete genetic identity, a correspondence closer than could be achieved even by cloning.”

Riker shook his head impatiently. “Where’s the Captain?”

“Presumably,” Data said, “in another quantum reality. Possibly, though by no means certainly, in the quantum reality from which this Jean-Luc Picard originates.”

“If he came through a quantum fissure, like Worf did, then all we have to do is scan and find it.”

“I will do so immediately, sir,” Data said. He turned to go.

“Wait,” Riker said. He looked at Crusher. “I’m calling a staff meeting at 1500 hours in the observation lounge. All senior officers. Doctor, will you make sure this - ” Riker hesitated “ -- he’s secure, before you attend? Data, how soon can you complete the scan?”

“Uncertain,” Data said. “If the quantum fissure is stable in relation to the planetary surface, then the scan will locate it in minutes. If its location follows normal gravitational laws, perhaps hours. So little is known about quantum fissures that I cannot be more precise.”

“Well, do what you can.”

“Of course.” Data nodded, turned again, and went out. Riker looked at Deanna.

“What’s he feeling now, Counselor?”

Deanna’s voice was more controlled. “He’s afraid,” she said. “But it’s not as bad as it was.”

“Is he afraid of you?”

“Not especially,” Deanna said evenly.

Riker nodded. “Stay with him. Try to get him to talk about where he came from and who he is.”

Deanna wrapped her arms round herself, looking at the man who wasn’t Picard. “Yes, sir,” she said, in a very small voice.

“Do you want to declare yourself unfit for duty?” Riker asked, deliberately unsympathetic.

Deanna shook her head. “No. Beverly, how is he?”

“At the moment, physically, fine.”

“Then I’ll take him back to -- back to the Captain’s quarters.”

“Make sure he’s secure before you attend the meeting,” Riker said. “Doctor Crusher, could I have a word with you? In your office?”

There was one problem that Riker could not ask anyone else aboard to help him solve. Or rather, two problems, one blond, one dark. It didn’t seem to have occurred to Doctor Crusher, not yet, but the Enterprise now had not the least shadow of a right to hold Bodie and Kuryakin in custody. Bodie had not assaulted anyone in Starfleet. He had quite possibly assaulted the man currently in sickbay, but that man, though certainly now a Starfleet responsibility, was not Starfleet personnel. That made Riker’s arrest of Bodie and Kuryakin look distinctly shaky, and their detention aboard the Enterprise quite possibly illegal. They ought to be turned over to the planetary authorities, and charges made against them in a civilian court.

“Are you asking me what you should do?” Crusher asked, frowning.

Riker shook his head. “No. I’m asking you for information. Was that man raped?”

“Yes,” Crusher said, certainly and steadily.

“What evidence do you have that he was?”

Crusher was beginning to look annoyed. Riker leaned back in his chair, trying to look as cool and calm and collected as the Captain would in his place, facing an angry Doctor Crusher.

“What evidence?” Crusher’s voice was brittle. “I have the scan records. They show physical trauma, some bruising -- Will, that man was used. Repeatedly. Recently.”

“What evidence do you have that he was... ‘used’ by Will Bodie?”

“You saw the tests.”

“Yes,” Riker said. “Those tests prove that Will Bodie...” he hesitated, “had anal sex with that man. Do they prove that Bodie was the one who... mistreated him?” He was thinking of the way the man had practically thrown himself at Riker. If the man had done that to someone who had no reason to say no, could you call it rape?

Crusher looked him over with biting disbelief. “The state that man was in he would not have consented to anal sex -- ” she used Riker’s phrase, with sarcastic emphasis “ -- with anyone, no matter how persuasive or charming they were. It must have been... agony. It doesn’t prove that Bodie was the only one to mistreat him. But he was one of them.”

“All right.” Riker sighed. He stood up. “I’ll see you at 1500 hours.”

He had to find some way to keep Bodie and Kuryakin in Enterprise custody. Letting them go to planetary authorities... meant letting the man who wasn’t Picard go as well, as evidence and witness. (Some witness. Doesn’t even know his own name....) And he had to inform Starfleet Command that Captain Picard had... disappeared.

It felt odd to be sitting in Picard’s chair. The chair at the far end of the table; Riker had taken it time and again, when convening meetings at which he was the senior officer. But it felt odd. Riker had put off informing Starfleet until after this meeting. If he had known for sure that they would give him command of the Enterprise until they got Picard back, he would have called them sooner. But these days, it was hard to be sure which way the cat would jump. Riker had sufficient seniority to ‘inherit’ the Enterprise, as the crude First Officer phrase had it, but he had also turned down four offers of promotion to Captain, and as Picard had warned him, had done his career no favours.

The last had been the worst; a field promotion to Captain, and command of the Enterprise. But Riker could only have kept it if, in the aftermath of the Borg, Picard had been kicked upstairs to an Admiralty, the way Starfleet had a habit of kicking brilliant but untrustworthy Captains. Riker had never told Picard why the board of promotions had vetoed his field-Captaincy, and sincerely hoped Picard never found out. (“Did you imagine it would help, Number One?”, in that cool, sarcastic voice that could make even Worf wish he’d never been born.)

The table was filling up. LaForge and Data arrived at almost the same time. Worf wasn’t long after them. Doctor Crusher was almost the last, looking almost too composed. Deanna was last of all. She looked bleached.

There wasn’t a good way to explain this. Riker waited until Deanna had sat down, and then said, “We’ve lost Captain Picard. I mean that literally,” he added. “As far as we can tell, he isn’t dead. We just don’t know where he is. Mr Data?”

“Captain Picard is in another quantum reality,” Data said. He reminded them of the incident a couple of years ago when Worf had been thrown from one reality to another. “The person we have aboard this Enterprise -- “ there was a faint stirring among the officers who hadn’t heard about this “ -- is a Jean-Luc Picard who was born into another quantum reality. All matter in the universe resonates on a quantum level with an unique signature. It cannot be changed through any known process. It is the basic foundation of existence. His quantum signature is different from ours.”

“How different is this person from the Captain?” Worf rumbled.

“Very different,” Riker said. “I believe the phrase is, ‘all possibilities which can happen, do happen, in an alternate quantum reality’. Some very different possibilities have obviously happened to this man.”

“He is not very different,” Deanna said. “He is the same person. He’s just... been taught to react to events in a very different way from the Captain.”

“Can we trace the Captain using his quantum signature?” Worf asked, clearly speaking to Data, though his gaze rested on Deanna with an odd kind of compassion.

“If we can locate the quantum fissure through which he passed,” Data said. His voice betrayed no hint of exasperation. “It is nowhere on the surface of the planet, nor anywhere where the planet has passed in the preceding one hundred and sixty-eight hours. Clearly it is not subject to normal gravitational influences. I have set up several search patterns.”

“We will find it, eventually,” Riker said emphatically.

“I trust so,” Data agreed.

“We will,” Riker repeated.

Data nodded.

“Counselor Troi,” Riker said, very formally. “In your opinion, what is the mental status of the man we have aboard?”

Deanna paused. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Riker pressed his fingertips together and looked very hard at Deanna. “In your professional opinion, Counselor, does this man need to be watched for his own protection?”

Deanna’s eyes suddenly widened. “Oh. Yes, yes, sir, I would say that he does.” Her voice was suddenly smooth and professional. “He is not emotionally stable. He is not, at present, capable of fending for himself. I would say that for his own safety he ought to be kept aboard the Enterprise where he can have constant care and protection.”

“You are not satisfied with the quality of care he would receive in Ayanwel, his presumed place of origin?”

“Absolutely not,” Deanna said, very firmly.

“Very well,” Riker said, and grinned. “Thank you, Counselor. Commander Data, tell me, do your search patterns require us to leave orbit now, and move the Enterprise to another part of this sector?”

Data had been looking from Deanna to Riker and back again, his mouth slightly open. He tilted his head to one side and contemplated Riker for an instant. “That would be my recommended course of action, sir,” he said finally. “Towards the 131 sector.”

“The sooner the better?”

Data tilted his head the other way. “Yes, sir.”

“Very well.” Riker tapped his communicator. “First Officer to the bridge.”

“Robinton here, sir,” the watch officer’s disembodied voice said.

“Take us out of orbit, course to the 131 sector, warp factor 3.”

There was just a moment’s pause. “Aye, sir.”

Riker leaned back in his chair and sighed deeply. “Thank you very much,” he said, quietly. “LaForge, Data, your highest priorities are to find the quantum fissure and trace Captain Picard. I know that everyone here will do their utmost to ensure that when Captain Picard returns he will find the Enterprise, the ship and the crew, living up to the standards he’s always set. I have every confidence in all of you. Any problems or queries, see me.” Riker stood up. “Dismissed.”

Deanna waited as the others left. Worf glanced back at her, at Riker, but went out without a word.

“Will, I need to talk with you.”

Riker eyed her suspiciously. “What is it?”

“It’s about -- ” Deanna hesitated “ -- the other Jean-Luc Picard.”

“What about him?”

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” Deanna said carefully. She meant, Riker knew, the moment when she had virtually accused him of rape. I won’t leave the Captain alone with you. Riker didn’t want to talk about it, and it was typical of his im’zadi (and they were still im’zadi, unavoidably, even though Deanna was now involved with Worf and Riker was trying not to think about either of them) that she would know exactly what he didn’t want to talk about.

“That’s all right,” Riker said brusquely.

“No,” Deanna said. “It is not all right. Will, he is very afraid.”

“You already said that.”

“I was wrong,” Deanna said. “What he is most afraid of isn’t you, Will. He’s afraid of being abandoned.” Deanna swallowed. “He thinks you own him.”

“What?” Riker was less surprised than he tried to feel. “Well, I don’t.”

But Deanna was nodding. “He is afraid of you. But he is much more afraid that you won’t want him.”

Riker sucked in a long breath. “What do you expect me to do about it?” he asked, quietly.

“I took him to your quarters,” Deanna said, very calmly.

“You did what?”

“I took him to your quarters. I explained to him that this was where you live. I reassured him that you would return soon.”

“You left him alone in my quarters?”

“He won’t harm anything belonging to you,” Deanna said. “He isn’t suicidal. He won’t try to escape. He just needs to know that he isn’t being abandoned.”

Riker nearly exploded. But everything he might have said, or shouted, was far too revealing. He choked it down, and said in a voice that grated only a little, “I hope you’re right, Counselor.”

Deanna nodded, leaned forward, and kissed him swiftly on the cheek. You’re a good man, Will, she said silently. “I know the Captain has every confidence in you.”

That’s the trouble, Riker thought, watching her leave. The Captain has every confidence in me. Deanna apologises for ever doubting me.

But I don’t trust myself.

Not as far as I could throw you, Will Riker. Not nearly that far.

What am I going to do?

I’ll do what you want. He sat and waited. I want to do what you want.

Waiting was never the worst part of it. Others – mostly dead now, or vanished into the labs and therefore hoped to be safe dead – had said that the worst part was waiting to find out what was wanted from you this time. He had thought, but seldom said, that this was never the worst part: the worst part was when you knew that however you knelt and crawled and begged to be allowed to please, it would do nothing to shield you from whatever they meant to do. You could pray then it was God’s time to release you into death: and God had never answered that prayer for him.

Please let me do what you want. Please God let me please him.

Part Four

What have I said? Picard was swimming up to consciousness, still hearing at the edge of sanity the questions that had been fired at Fhim. He had answered them all, truthfully and thoroughly and completely and endlessly. His throat hurt from talking. His head ached from the drugs.

Riker leaned over him. Picard mumbled “In a minute, Number One,” but it didn’t come out right and Riker didn’t answer. Instead he slid a hand round behind Picard’s head to tilt it up, and held a glass of water to Picard’s mouth.

Somehow, as he gulped greedily at the cool liquid, Picard realised where he was. It came to him like waking into a nightmare. Jack Crusher was saying something, not to him. Beverly was answering. Picard fought to make sense of it.

“ -- not possible by the present state of the art. Or current technology.”

“But it must be possible,” Jack Crusher said again. He sounded impatient. “It’s been done. Could it be the Vulcans?”

“No.” Beverly sounded quite definite. “We know the Vulcans have some extraordinary techniques for excising memories. It’s possible that they could blank out every memory from a person’s mind. And though they deny it, if we can implant false memories, I’m sure they can. But this -- it’s as if someone wiped the slot’s memory completely, and then implanted a complete artificial brainprint. And did it all without leaving any traces. No brain lesions, no traces of psychotropic drugs or surgery. That does point to a telepath.”

“A Vulcan.”

“A telepath capable of creating and holding an entire life’s memories in its mind, and implanting the whole structure in one session? Jack, it’s a physical impossibility. Even for a Vulcan. They may be superhuman, they’ve told us so often enough,” (there was an odd, old bitterness in the words) “but they do have limits.”

There was a pause. Picard finished the water in the glass, and Riker took it away from his mouth and lowered Picard’s head to rest on the arm of the sofa. Picard realised he was stretched out on the sofa in Riker’s quarters. The wrong Riker. He wasn’t chained up, but he felt too dazed and dizzy to move.

Riker straightened up and turned away. “Could a Vulcan telepath have done it in several sessions?” he asked.

“Theoretically, yes,” Beverly said. “But that would have resulted in gaps and contradictions in the memory implant. And the computer’s analysis program is clear about that. It’s all completely self-consistent.”

“So we still don’t know how or why it was done, or even who did it,” Jack said wearily. “And it’s clear enough that the slot doesn’t know.” Silence for a little while. Picard felt too sick to risk turning his head, but he could imagine Jack pacing, hands folded behind his back, head down, the little frown between his eyebrows. Jack had paced like that when he had a difficult decision to make.

“Well,” Jack said, and he had obviously come to a conclusion and come to a halt; his voice was quite clear. “I don’t think we need the slot any more. We’ve got a comprehensive record of his memory implant, and he was never aware of it being transposed. Or if he was, that’s been wiped with the rest of his memories. We’ll be at Starbase 131 day after tomorrow. Doctor Crusher, you’re to perform a thorough mindwipe on the slot before then, at your convenience.”

“Yes, Captain.” Beverly’s voice was dry and accepting.

“Mr Riker, you can dispose of the slot to any commercial lab on Starbase 131, once Doctor Crusher’s fixed the memory problem. You bought him for cash, and you’ll sell him for cash, and you are formally forbidden to attempt to make a profit on the deal.”

“Yes, sir.” Riker sounded wry. “With respect, sir, once he’s mindwiped, I’m unlikely to make anything near what I paid for him.”

“Good.” Jack sounded quite serious. “Will, Starfleet does not buy or sell slaves, and we can’t afford to have it said that we do. I accept that you had good reason to buy this one, and I commend your good sense in making it a private transaction. You will not be compensated for any monetary loss. But meantime,” and a sudden amusement appeared in Jack’s voice, warm good humour, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t make the most of him.”

There was a grin in Riker’s voice. “Yes, sir.”

Beverly laughed. “I’ll schedule the mindwipe for 10:00 hours, day after tomorrow, Will,” she promised. “That gives you two days.”

“Thank you,” Riker said. He sounded embarrassed, but amused, as if he were being good-naturedly teased. Picard was still finding it hard to process it all.

“He is very good-looking,” Jack Crusher said thoughtfully, and Picard heard Beverly laugh at him.

“You can only borrow him if I can share him too,” she said.

“With all due respect, Captain, nobody’s borrowing him,” Riker said. He sounded as if he were getting a little tired of the teasing.

Jack chuckled. “Don’t worry, Will, he’s all yours. But don’t be late on shift.”

Picard heard the door close, and Riker came back and leaned over him, peeling back one of his eyelids and grunting with satisfaction. “Stay where you are. You’ll be less dizzy in a little while.”

The sounds of Riker moving round his quarters, out of Picard’s field of vision. Picard could tell where he was, but hadn’t the first idea what he was doing. He had rarely been in Riker’s quarters, and then only on official business. Riker had invited him to an officers’ breakfast party, more than once, but Picard had, on principles evolved long ago on the Stargazer, always refused. Riker sounded content and at ease. After a while, he started to whistle quietly, a few notes of a catchy tune.

Picard was feeling better, but common sense suggested he remain still and behave as if he were still feeling sick. Acquire as much information as possible.

The beep of the replicator, the sudden smell of food. Picard hadn’t felt hungry until then. Riker went over (his feet on the carpet were almost soundless; he must have kicked his boots off earlier) and took the tray out of the replicator (scrape of neowood on metal) and came back to the table, setting it down.

“Are you hungry?” Riker asked.

Picard didn’t answer.

Riker came over again and stood looking down at him. Picard kept his eyes closed and his breathing shallow and even. He could almost feel Riker standing there, tall above him. Then a hand, out of nowhere, slapped the side of his face, and Picard’s eyes jerked open.

“I knew you were awake,” Riker said with satisfaction. “You should be able to sit up now. Are you hungry? Yes or no?”

Picard shrugged, as far as he could in this position, and said “Yes.”

“Then sit up.”

Picard waited until he saw Riker’s hands move, ready to pull Picard up forcibly, and only then pushed himself into a sitting position, making it look smooth. He ached with unfocussed tiredness, a weary unsleepiness that he remembered from before, but he had kept his dignity then, and he was going to keep it now.

Supper for one was laid on the table. Picard looked from the table to Riker as impassively as he could, and said, “Thank you. Have you had anything to eat?”

Riker was frowning down at him. Then suddenly, quite abruptly, he laughed and shook his head. Without a word, he went over to the table, picked up a wide shallow bowl, and dropped it and its contents into the waste-disposal unit. He tapped a code into the replicator, and after a moment or two it beeped.

A second supper had appeared. Riker picked it up and put it on the table, facing the first meal. “Come here and sit down,” he said to Picard. He was still grinning with imperfectly-suppressed amusement; Picard could hear the familiar unvoiced laughter in the words.

Smiling himself, Picard stood up and went over to the table. He sat down in the chair facing Riker, and pulled the second tray towards him. “Thank you,” he said, with unforced courtesy. “Can I share the joke?”

“It had just occurred to me,” Riker said, leaning back in his chair and grinning, but not at him, “that as far as you’re concerned, you really are the Captain of a starship, and I’m your first officer.”

“And that’s funny?”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to find it funny,” Riker said with unabated good humour. “It’s your reality -- ‘Captain Picard’. But from where I’m sitting, yes, it is.” He chuckled again. “And I don’t have time to spare this evening to argue with ‘Captain Picard’ about how he expects to eat his food.”

Picard raised his eyebrows. “Thank you,” he said with faint sarcasm.

“You’re welcome -- ‘Captain’,” Riker said easily. “Now -- eat.”

Picard was hungry. The sandwiches Riker had provided seemed -- and probably were -- a long time ago. Riker had ordered a meat and potato and bread meal, a set of foods out of Riker’s own traditions. Picard found it bland but edible.

Riker ate fast and efficiently, without bothering to make conversation. Finishing, he watched Picard, who was deliberately eating slowly, making it last, trying to think. They planned to mindwipe him in two days. Therefore he would have to escape before then. Escape, or try and convince them he was telling the truth?

Picard glanced up, caught Riker’s gaze on him, and looked back down at the food remaining on his plate. No. At present, he was completely in their power, and since they had a working theory which allowed them to dismiss whatever he said as “part of the programming”, no matter what he said, they would mindwipe him in two days. Picard caught and suppressed the jolt of terror at the thought. It wouldn’t happen because he would escape first.

All right. Escape. Since they planned to mindwipe him before the ship was within transporter range of the starbase, that meant stealing a shuttle. So the sooner the better. Neutralise Riker, find a uniform to wear, and get to the shuttle-bay. Steal a shuttle. Once out of sensor-range.... Well, then it would be time to make further plans. That was enough to be going on with.

It was fairly obvious what Riker intended. It amused Picard, more than anything else; he’d seen that look on Riker’s face so many times. Riker was such an enthusiastic seducer. It was quite possible that Picard’s best chance at getting away would be after Riker had played his seduction game (I wonder if he’ll tell me ‘Your eyes are as mysterious as the stars?’) and gone to sleep.

It was impossible to spin the meal out any longer without arousing suspicion. Picard finished the last bite on his plate, sat back, and looked soberly back at Riker.

Riker stood up, moving lightly, and came round the table towards Picard. Picard stood up. He had never liked being loomed over.

“‘Captain Picard’,” Riker said, slowly, reflectively, looking Picard over from head to foot. “Well, ‘Captain’, how much do you remember?”

“Remember?” Picard frowned at Riker a moment, genuinely confused.

Riker put out a hand to catch at his wrist, and Picard took a step back, and then another. He had never liked being manhandled, either. Riker didn’t grab at him, but let Picard back away. Riker was smiling. “Not a great deal, from the look of you.”

It was becoming undignified. Picard had already decided to let Riker seduce him. It was the most practical way to render Riker somnolent. He stood still. All right, seduce me, Number One. It was no longer amusing.

In two quick steps Riker pushed him back against the wall, and leaned in against Picard, pinning him firmly. As firmly, Riker’s mouth pressed into Picard’s.

It was only a kiss. Riker opened Picard’s mouth with his own, his tongue thrusting inside, and Picard felt his tongue shrink back before the invader, and knew, pinned and immobile, that this was rape. Riker wasn’t hurting him, wasn’t trying to hurt him, but this was not a seduction. Riker’s hands and mouth and weight against him were not asking, they were telling. It was going to happen, it was happening, it was rape in a kiss.

Riker stopped kissing him. He still held Picard immobile, but he grinned. “You have forgotten,” he said, in a voice thick with humour and lust combined. And then, more kindly, “Your body remembers. This isn’t going to hurt.”

Picard swallowed. Still looking up in Riker’s bright blue eyes, into that familiar face, he could hardly believe that if he snapped out an order, this Riker was more likely to slap him than obey. “I see,” he said. Relax, he told himself. Go limp. Breathe. Deep and slow. Relax. “Thank you.”

“Just protecting my investment,” Riker said, with a swift grin. “Don’t worry about it. Come on.” He slid his hands down to grasp at Picard’s elbows, and tugged him along the wall to the door into his bedroom.

Picard went with him, letting Riker shove him and tug him, feeling as if his eyes were expanding, taking in every detail. Relax, breathe deep and slow, relax, go limp, just breathe.

Riker started to tug at Picard’s shirt, and Picard almost lost it. But he saw from the swift and sharp change of expression that Riker was expecting a fight, if there was going to be a fight, at this point. Riker was still wearing his uniform shirt with his communicator. It wasn’t just that Picard had to win; he had to win before Riker could even begin a signal for help. Riker had to be relaxed, and he had to lose his uniform shirt.

All right. Picard, expressionless, helped Riker remove the green shirt he had put on this morning all those centuries ago, and without prompting, started to shed his shoes and pants. He had been naked in front of Riker before, in a holodeck sauna, in the swimming pool, on a few other casual occasions. Not like this.

Riker shoved him face down on to the bed and lay on top of him. Picard felt Riker making himself comfortable, shifting himself until he was lying as firmly on top of Picard as if Picard were part of the bed, and his cock was hard against Picard’s backside. “Feel good?” Riker whispered, thrusting a little. “It’ll feel better soon.”

Still pinning Picard down, shoving his face well into the covers, Riker began to strip off his own clothing. Picard breathed in and out, concentrating on staying limp, focussing on the right moment. Riker’s shirt landed on the floor to the right of the bed. He didn’t remove his pants, but he must have flipped them open, because when he lay down on Picard again, Picard could feel his naked cock wet and hot and silky.

Picard spread his legs a little, hearing Riker’s grunt of satisfaction with half his mind. Gradually, gently, spreading his legs a little further with each move, Picard was bringing his right knee up towards his stomach. Riker was whispering in his ear, thickly describing a plan of action that involved Picard begging for more.

It was the last thing on Picard’s mind. Breathe. Relax. Breathe. He was limp under Riker, completely focussed. Riker was panting in his ear.

Picard thrust his right foot down the bed hard, pulling his left foot up and shoving himself up with his right arm. Riker went over like a mannequin, startled into silence for an instant, and in that instant, Picard slammed his elbow hard into Riker’s face. It connected with a whack of pain that hurt right down his arm, but it shut Riker up again. Picard used that moment to twist over on his hip and kick Riker in the groin, hard, so that Riker went over the left edge of the bed and landed, with a sullen thud, on the floor.

Picard stood up and looked round with swift concentration. Riker was probably still conscious, though he had hit his head when he landed, but from the cramped and agonised sound of his breathing, Picard had at least two clear minutes before Riker regained enough control to call for help. The cabinet facing the bed? There were a good many drawers in it, but the fifth or the sixth proved out. A standard grey phaser marked with the Hood’s ID code lay with a few other souvenirs. Picard set it to stun, checked the setting twice, and fired at Riker.

Riker twitched a little, and his breathing changed, but not by much, Picard told himself. Phaser stun never hurt anyone permanently. Riker would wake up in six to eight hours with a splitting headache. Picard rolled him into the recovery position and left him there. Riker’s nose was still bleeding.

Picard meant to get dressed immediately, but his knees felt weak and he sat down suddenly on the floor. He bent over, breathing deeply. It felt almost as if he were going to faint, or be sick, and neither would be helpful just now. He had barely registered it at the time, or so he’d thought, but he could still feel the way Riker’s cock had pressed wetly between his thighs. And if he looked up, he could see Riker lying on the floor, half-naked, stunned, bleeding.

He was going to rape me. I could have killed him.

Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

Picard’s hand was still clutching the phaser when he lifted his head and looked round the room again. No more than ten minutes had passed.

Think clearly. No one would expect to see Riker again until he was due on duty. An unpopular First Officer might be called for a non-existent emergency if the crew were aware that he especially wanted a night to himself, but Riker had never been unpopular. Rather the reverse. Most people liked him. Picard had liked him.

Think clearly. Riker would be unconscious for at least six hours. He would not be due back on shift for at least that long. There was time enough to take a shower and find a uniform that would fit. No point in stealing Riker’s.

Picard had showered and was experimenting with the clothing programs when he remembered Guinan. He had appointed himself a lieutenant, with the Science uniform tunic. There were sixty or seventy lieutenants aboard, and junior Science officers often changed postings. There might be someone from Engineering working in the shuttle bay, but as a lieutenant he could walk right up and stun them.

Thinking this, it was then he remembered Guinan. Assuming that her cabin assignment was the same (and if it wasn’t, he could find it out from Riker’s terminal) he could go and talk to her. Explain what had happened. It was possible, just possible, that she would believe him. At least, she would let him talk; Guinan had never stopped anyone from talking.

But could he convince her? And if he did, could she convince Jack Crusher? It was an all-or-nothing throw; if he failed, he would be mind-wiped. There would never be another opportunity to escape.

Picard clenched his hands together. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t take that chance. He had to get away.

Picard walked down the corridor, easily, casually. It was more of an effort than he had worked out beforehand to walk so easily, so casually. There were -- there could be no more than twenty people aboard this Enterprise who would recognise him on sight. Most of them should be on the same cycle as Riker and would probably be asleep right now.

There was this stretch of corridor between Riker’s quarters and the turbo-lift. There was the turbo-lift itself. Then there was another stretch of corridor between the turbo lift and the shuttle bay Picard had chosen.

It had seemed like a short enough distance in the safety of Riker’s quarters. Out here, it seemed to take forever. Picard wanted to run. But he walked, easy and casual.

Picard met no one on the way to the turbo-lift. There were two ensigns in the turbo-lift when it arrived; they were obviously off-duty, slightly buzzed, leaning against each other and giggling. They made an effort to straighten up when they saw his uniform, but they left the turbo-lift a deck after Picard entered it, and he heard them burst into fresh giggling as the doors closed behind them.

There were a few people in the corridor between the turbo-lift and the shuttle-bay. Picard recognised two or three of them. It was odd to see them, knowing they did not recognise him.

The shuttle-bay was empty. Picard walked directly across to a shuttle, and climbed in. This was the final step. There’s justifiable homicide, he remembered a lecture on interplanetary law, but there’s no such thing as justifiable theft.

Picard was running checks on the shuttle systems, his hands moving without thought. But no, this was not the final step. No step is final unless you choose not to stir another step. I am not going to be mindwiped. If I stay aboard the ship, I will be mindwiped. Therefore I need to leave the ship. The only way to leave is to take a shuttle. Therefore I take a shuttle....

Everything worked. Just as in Picard’s universe, you could set the airlock from the shuttle. Picard closed down his mind to everything but the tasks required to leave the ship. Do it right, and no one would notice until the physical presence of the shuttle was checked.

The shuttle was out, and Picard did not look back. The nearest space station of any size was, as he’d feared, Starbase 131. Picard laid in a course on an opposite bearing to the Starbase, and set the shuttle to run on automatic. Deliberately, he let the shuttle’s warp drive flare a little, the kind of mistake to be expected from someone who had little experience of flying a ship in warp. It would set the beginnings of a trail when Riker woke up and they started looking for him.

Starfleet shuttles were as well equipped as many civilian ships. One routine item of equipment was a homing beacon. It could be switched off entirely, but unless switched off, it emitted a continuous signal on a certain frequency, unique to each Starfleet shuttle.

The homing beacon was lodged at the back of the main console. It was intended to be removable with minimal tools -- there was always the possibility that Starfleet personnel might have to leave a crashed shuttle, but would need to take the beacon with them. Picard sat down on the deck with the shuttle’s toolkit at his side and contemplated a problem that would have given Geordi LaForge no trouble: he had to make sure the power source for the beacon would run out in twelve hours or so. That should give the Enterprise time to locate the beacon, but not enough time to find it and establish that it was no longer with the shuttle. Picard wished he could just specify the problem and hand it over to LaForge.

In the end, Picard removed the power source, drained it till it was barely active, and replaced it. LaForge would probably have thought of a more elegant solution, and one with better measurement of how much power was left, but Picard had three hours. Riker would be awake in four. Picard had to assume that they would immediately connect the disappearing shuttle with the disappearing prisoner, though that gave them credit for overcoming what appeared to be quite settled prejudices.

The beacon went out the airlock. It was odd to let it go. Picard turned back to the controls and set another course, one that would evade the Enterprise’s most likely course and reach Starbase 131 in three days. This time there was no flare from the warp drive. Picard set an alarm to wake him if any ship came within sensor range of the shuttle. He needed sleep, more than anything else, real sleep, not the drugged unconsciousness he had suffered earlier.

But though he felt tired and sick, sleep receded from him. He lay in the narrow bunk, staring at nothing, wondering if he were already asleep, and everything since he’d fallen asleep with Will last night had been another of the recurring nightmares. The Cardassian legacy. How often, in the past year and a half, had he startled awake from some nightmare of captivity, helplessness, interrogation, rape?

Was this only another nightmare? Was there any way to be sure?

Or a triple-time paradox like the one Q had set up for him, where he had dreamed his own unreal past, confused present, and future protracted and uncomfortable death from Irumodic Syndrome?

Picard sat up, cautiously, and slid off the bunk. The replicator would not have Aunt Adele’s hot milk programmed in. Or if it did, this was a dream.

It did not. Picard spent a busy twenty minutes re-creating the program from memory: the replicator had programs for cow’s milk, for nutmeg, for honey. They only needed to be combined in the right order, the correct proportions, and the perfect temperature.

Then he ordered a mugful for himself and sat down on the bunk. Aunt Adele had prescribed hot milk for any sleepless child who crossed her path, and as she ran a child refuge centre, a good many decades of sleepless children had done so. Picard had met one highly-qualified doctor in neuromedicine who admitted, privately, that nothing worked on insomnia like the familiar sweet milk-and-nutmeg taste.

Picard had liked the refuge much more than his own home. The children in the refuge wanted to do what they could, as well as they could. Aunt Adele never laughed at any childish ambition, not even the six-year-old nephew who had told her that he wanted to command a starship someday. The children of the refuge had no parents to set out a path for them, to push them on the way that they should want to go. No one was bullied for being brighter than the others. No one was teased for getting prizes at school.

Picard never learned how much he had valued the things he had that the children of the refuge lacked until he reached Starfleet Academy and lost all of them. A room of his own, with a door that locked from the inside, real books to read -- some of them at the Picard farm had Jean-Luc’s great-great-grandmother’s name inside -- and the vineyards and forests to walk in, whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted.

That freedom he had only gained back with promotion to Captain. And even then, though a Starfleet Captain had freedoms that Jean-Luc Picard had never dreamed of, he had never regained the utter freedom of a day in summer when he could disappear first thing in the morning with a couple of books and a baguette for his lunch, and not be seen again till dinner, twelve hours later.

Sixty-six, birthplace the Azad Farm, Ayanwel, sold from there aged eight, thirty-one owners since then.

Picard finished his milk and lay down again, pulling the cover up to his shoulders. I am Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Enterprise.

You don’t have a name. I bought you, and I haven’t given you a name yet.

I hope Riker’s all right. Picard shook his head tiredly, almost annoyed that he had even thought it. But it was so utterly out of character for his first officer, the best first officer he had ever had, to turn on him. Picard, half-asleep, was remembering the way Riker had looked unconscious on the floor.

I’d have killed any other man who did that to him.

On the other hand, said an irrepressible part of him, you’d have killed any other man who tried to do that to you. Why not call it quits?

I doubt if Riker’s willing to do that.

Born on the Azad Farm, sold aged eight, thirty-one owners in fifty-eight years. If that had been my life, would I have submitted as Riker expected me to?

Asleep, he dreamed.

Part Five

Riker walked into his own cabin and looked round, carefully, even though his mind was swimming. The man who wasn’t Picard was sitting on the couch, hands folded in his lap, looking... dazed, Riker had to admit.

“Hello,” Riker said, with conscious cheerfulness.

After a moment, the man smiled back at him. It was a smile that almost begged for approval. He didn’t say anything, though.

“Uh,” Riker said, intelligently. “Have you had anything to eat?”


“Are you hungry?” Riker asked, more explicitly.

“Only if it pleases you, sir.”

Riker sighed. Had Deanna managed any more of a conversation than this? “Are you hungry? Yes or no?”

“Yes, sir,” the man said after a moment, and ducked his head, a cringing kind of bow.

Riker suppressed his first, annoyed reaction, and asked with conscious joviality “What do you like to eat?”

“Whatever pleases you, sir,” the man said. He had lifted his head again and was smiling hopefully.

Riker turned away to the replicator, muttering under his breath “Should have known...”

There were a few Ayanwel foods programmed into the replicator. New foods were always being added, after the Enterprise visited any world new to any or all of the crew. In a fit of irritated generosity, Riker selected them all. He added, a little more rationally, a selection of fresh fruit and hot breads -- he knew the Captain liked those -- and for himself a classic favourite, burger and fries.

The computer would supply the food in trayfuls; Riker turned back from the replicator, the first tray in his hands, and almost dropped it. The man was standing right behind him, his hands out to collect the tray.

“What the hell -- “ Riker hadn’t even heard him move.

The man swallowed. It was a visible, nervous choke. He stayed where he was, his face quite as impassive as the Captain’s could be, but he was shivering again. His hands were still out for the tray.

Riker handed it to him. It seemed to calm the man a little. He ducked his head again -- Riker still couldn’t tell if it was meant to be a bow or a cringe -- and backed away, setting the tray down on the table. The replicator beeped again.

Riker stood aside. The man seemed to be made quite happy -- or at least reassured -- by the simple task of taking the trays from the replicator and arranging the various dishes on the table. When it was all complete, the man stepped back from the table and bowed -- and this time, it was definitely a bow, not a cringe -- to Riker. “Sir.”

The man evidently hadn’t known quite what to do with the plate of burger and fries, so he’d put it in the middle as a kind of centrepiece. There was one table setting, of an oval plate almost like a wide shallow bowl, with the chopsticks and slender spoon that went with an Ayanwel dinner.

Riker pulled back the chair in front of the table setting. “Come here and sit down.”

The man hesitated. He looked disconcerted again. But he came, cautiously and quietly, and sat down obediently, looking up at Riker.

Riker pulled out another chair and moved it to the other side of the table. He put the centrepiece in front of it, and sat down. “Help yourself to whatever you want.”

The man sat still, his hands in his lap. “Sir?”

“You heard me.” Riker was running out of patience. “I want you to have something to eat. There must be something on the table that you like. Help yourself.”

“Sir, may I ask a question?”

Riker was getting hungrier by the minute. “Of course you can,” he said, annoyed, trying not to show it.

“Am I to eat here with you, sir?”

“Yes,” Riker said.

“At this table... sir?”

“Do you have a problem with that?” Riker almost snapped. He added, more gently, “Yes, I want you to eat here, at this table, with me. Help yourself to whatever you want.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” The man reached for a bowl of steaming rice, studded with small greenish nuts and dried fruit, and began to layer it on the oval plate.

With considerable relief, Riker picked up his burger and bit into it. There was the rice and a couple of glutinous-looking stews, a flat loaf of greyish-brown bread, and several bowls piled with crisp bright-coloured bits. Most of it smelled odd but good. Some of it just smelled odd. The man who wasn’t Picard built himself a curiously decorative plateful of rice and stews, dotted with the crispy bits. Then he tore off a piece of bread and began to eat, using the bread to scoop up the food. Once he had prepared his plate, he didn’t touch the chopsticks or the spoon again.

Riker tried several times during the meal to start a conversation. He found that the man simply didn’t respond verbally to anything but a direct question. Direct questions got answered, but always by the same unhelpful variation on “Whatever pleases you, sir.” And whenever Riker spoke, the man stopped eating, folded his hands in his lap, and gave Riker his fullest attention. It was incredibly distracting.

Eventually Riker gave up. He finished his burger and the last of the fries, and reached for a plumcot. The man was only halfway through his rice, but he stopped eating and pushed his plate away.

“Are you still hungry?” Riker asked.

“Not unless it should please you, sir,” the man said quietly.

“I asked you a question.” Riker was finding this polite and constant evasion more than irritating. “Answer me. Are you still hungry?”

The man pressed himself back in his chair. He was watching Riker with bright, intent eyes. Riker had seen Picard stare at a dangerous and perplexing problem like that -- though usually on his feet, and never cringing back in his chair. “Sir, no, sir,” the man said, hasty and quiet. He was watching Riker as intently as if he were studying him.

“What do you want?” Riker said, more gently.

The man shifted a little in his seat. “Sir?”

Riker sighed. “I’d like to be able to talk to you,” he explained. “It’s a bit difficult if all you’re ever going to say is variations on ‘Yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir.’”

The man only stared, silent.

“Look, apparently I gave you one hell of a fright earlier. I misunderstood the situation.” Riker hesitated. The man’s silent look only grew more intense. Riker called up the cheerful, friendly voice he used for shy ensigns and said, firm but jovial, “I can’t say I understand it all that well now, but I’d like to get to know you better -- so do you think you could manage to drop all this ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’, and cooperate? What would you like to know about me?”

The man smiled. It was a little hesitant, but quite charming, and Riker smiled back. “Well?”

“What -- ” the man cleared his throat, and said more firmly, “What would you like me to call you, sir?”

“Will,” Riker said, without hesitation. “What’s your name?”

“Jean-Luc Picard,” the man said.

“No,” Riker said, half-laughing, “What were you called before you came on board?”

“Rencontres,” the man said.

“Rencontres,” Riker said, and nodded. “Well, Rencontres, tell me about yourself.” It felt damned odd to be talking to Captain Picard like this, but this wasn’t Captain Picard, nor anyone like him.

“What would you like to know?” Rencontres asked. He was leaning forward now, looking almost eager.

Riker smiled, pleased with himself. “What kind of music do you like? Can you ride? Do you play chess? That sort of thing.”

“I used to play the guitar,” Rencontres said. “I’m afraid I haven’t practiced for years. I can ride horses. I can play chess, and go, and klin zha.”

“Why did you give up the guitar?” Riker asked. “I play the trombone. Jazz, mainly.”

“I was sold,” Rencontres said matter-of-factly. “I learned when I was called Atos and I belonged to a man who liked to hear me play. Then he sold me to a House, and the owner let me play in the evenings sometimes. Then a farmer bought me, and I was called Boomken, and he sold me to another rancher when he was done. Farmers buy for use and for work, not for decoration. By the time the rancher sold me to the House where I was called Rencontres, I hadn’t touched a guitar in five or six years.”

“Wait -- Sold?” Riker was staring. “Sold?”

Rencontres nodded, looking bewildered. “I’m sorry,” he said, as if feeling his way. “I thought that the lady of the House would have given you my history. It will be in the public records, in any case -- I’ve been sold by the public auction houses, very often, and they always keep records.”

Riker was not easily made speechless. He stared at the man who wasn’t Picard, and it seemed that his mouth had been stuffed with cotton wool. If this man -- Rencontres, or whatever his name was -- wasn’t making all this up, then it did explain --

Oh, God, it explained everything about him.

“What is your name?” Riker asked, through the cotton wool.

The man shivered. “Please,” he said, as if involuntarily. “Please, Will, name me. I’ll be Rencontres or Jean-Luc Picard or anything you say, but please, sir, I can’t bear - ” His voice cracked, and he stopped for a moment, and when he went on, though he was still trembling, his voice was calm and flat. “I’m very sorry, Will, I don’t mean to be impertinent, but the truth is, I’ve never gone so long without a name even when I was in an auction house. I would like to know who I belong to, even if it’s just for tonight. Is it you?”

“You don’t belong to anyone here -- or from now on!” Riker snapped.

The man’s control broke. And it had been control, Riker realised, as he saw it break. With a muffled whimper “Oh, God,” the man slipped off the chair and when Riker stood, he saw that the man was sitting on the floor, knees against his chest, arms wrapped round his legs, face bent against his knees. He was whimpering to himself, rocking back and forth. “God, god, god, god...”

“Oh, hell,” Riker muttered. He tapped his communicator. “Riker to Troi.”

“Troi here,” Deanna said after a moment. She sounded sleepy.

“Can you come to my quarters? Now, please.”

“Yes,” Deanna said, and Riker heard her sigh sharply an instant before the communicator cut off.

Riker went round the table and bent down to pull the man to his feet. Instead the man uncurled and caught hold of Riker’s sleeve. The man’s face was wet and his voice was broken. “Please -- oh God, please -- ”

“It’s all right,” Riker said hastily.

The man rolled on to his knees, letting go of Riker’s sleeve and clasping his hands together behind his back. “Please forgive me,” he said in the same rasping sobby voice. He sucked in a breath, let it out again, and said, with a little more control, looking up at Riker, “Please, forgive me. Please, I am very sorry that I have offended. Sir, please, I know I look old but I’m still useful. I’m a good slot. Please, make use of me for tonight and anything you can name, I’ll do it. And I learn fast, you can use me for anything you need, please, forgive me for offending you and make me useful -- “ He swallowed tears, his shoulders jerking, his eyes still fixed on Riker.

Riker could have hit him. He wanted to. Part of the horror that kept his mouth shut while the man sobbed out his apologies was his own reaction to the abject weeping thing on the floor. He wanted to strike out and make the man shut up, stop crying, stop kneeling there looking like Captain Picard --

The door opened and Deanna walked in. She looked at the man on the floor, and then at Riker, and shook her head.

Tell him it’s all right.

Riker thumbed his chest. Me? he mouthed.

Deanna nodded emphatically.

Riker cleared his throat. “It’s all right,” he said.

The man swallowed. “Sir?”

“It’s all right,” Riker repeated, glancing at Deanna. “Please calm down. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“And stop apologising,” Riker snapped.

The man ducked his head, and didn’t apologise for apologising, which Riker had half-expected. He looked up at Riker again and said, in a voice that barely shook, “Sir, what do you want me to do now?”

Get out of my sight. Riker didn’t say it. “Would you get up, please, and go over and sit on the couch?”

The man obeyed, with a glance at Deanna. Sitting still, upright and silent, he looked more like Captain Picard than ever, if you could imagine Captain Picard with tearstreaks on his face.

“Just wait there,” Riker said. “We won’t be a moment.” He took Deanna by the arm and all but hustled her into his bedroom. The door once safely closed behind them, Riker exploded, “Deanna, do you know that man used to be a slave?”

“Yes,” Deanna said. “He told me so.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did,” Deanna said, looking faintly annoyed. “I told you, he thinks you own him.”

“Well,” Riker saw the grounds for righteous indignation dropping away from beneath his feet, “well, I didn’t think you meant it -- quite that literally.”

Deanna nodded. She still looked faintly annoyed, and, now that Riker thought about it, rather tired. “Did I wake you up? Sorry.”

“Not to worry about it,” Deanna said, and smiled, brightly and deliberately. “Will, what did you say to him that made him react like that? He has immense self-control.”

“I told him he was free,” Riker said, thinking about it. “No, wait a minute, I said something about him not belonging to anyone, any more.”

Deanna sighed.

Riker swallowed. “I suppose... if he was that afraid of being abandoned... it wouldn’t have been very reassuring, would it?”

Deanna put her hand on his arm and leaned a little forward, her dark eyes wide with understanding -- and compassion, Riker knew, yes, but overwhelmingly, empathically, Deanna understood. “Will, I know you don’t like seeing Jean-Luc Picard like this. But you have to think in the long term. We’re going to find the Captain and bring him home. Yes?”

“Yes,” Riker agreed.

“We can’t do that without sending the man in there back where he came from, can we?”

“Probably not,” Riker agreed cautiously.

“If we could keep him here, and keep him safe, we would. But if we can’t, if our choice is between bringing the Captain home and keeping the man there safe, then I choose to bring the Captain home, and so do you.”

“Yes, of course,” Riker agreed emphatically. He wouldn’t mind keeping that man safe, so long as he never actually had to see him.

“So long as he is here, and our responsibility, isn’t it part of our responsibility to keep him happy?”

Riker stared into the jaws of the trap. “Is it?”

“At least,” Deanna said, gently merciless, “not to keep him in misery while we must keep him here.”

“So I should let him pretend to be my -- ” Riker spat it out “my slave?”

“Don’t reject him,” Deanna said, reasonably. “You don’t need to do anything, really. Just let him be.” She turned to go, and Riker, frightened and angry almost to wordlessness, struck.

“He expects me to rape him,” Riker said brutally. “Right before you came in, he was begging for it.”

Deanna turned back and looked at him. “I know this is very painful for you,” she said at last. “I know you won’t hurt him. Good night, Will.”

She left Riker with a quiet smile of farewell. Riker stood and seethed.

It was several minutes before he could bring himself to go back into the other room. The man who wasn’t Picard was sitting exactly as Riker had left him, hands folded in his lap.

Riker went over to the couch and sat down beside him, a foot or so away. “I’m sorry,” he said.

The man looked at him, bewildered.

Riker rubbed at his beard. Sometimes this helped him think. “I didn’t mean to upset you earlier,” he said. “Can we talk about your name again?”

The man nodded. He still looked wary and confused.

“What was your name originally?”

“Before I was sold the first time?” the man asked, and at Riker’s nod, “The farmers called me Boy One-Oh-Seven.”

The implications of that made Riker shudder. He asked, awkwardly, “You were born on Ayanwel?”

“Yes, on the Azad Farm.”

“What did you do on the farm?”

The man looked at him, a little puzzled. “We worked in the fields,” he said hesitantly. “Child-farming is a good business, you see, because although a woman who can bear is expensive, the children can raise their own food, and take care of each other, so we don’t cost much to rear. I was sold when I was eight, but lots of children stay till they’re fourteen or fifteen.”

“Did your mother give you a name?”

The man smiled, as if Riker had made a joke. It was a moment before Riker realised that there was something forced about the smile, that the man was not really amused. “Oh, I expect so,” the man said. “While she was suckling me, anyway. The farmers let them call the babies what they liked, until they were weaned.”

“What name have you had that you liked?” Riker asked.

The man answered promptly, but his gaze on Riker was cautious. “I would like any name you gave me, sir.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

The man shifted a little. “No, sir,” he said quietly. “Sir, I have never disliked any name I was given. Shall I tell you what my names have been?”

“No,” Riker said. “Just tell me a name you were given that you liked.”

“Jean-Luc, sir,” the man said.

Trapped, Riker nearly said “No, another name,” but realised that it wouldn’t work. The man would probably offer “Captain” as a possible name next. “All right.” Riker nodded. “Your name’s Jean-Luc. And please, call me Will.”

Riker saw the man relax. It was extraordinary, like a tight coil melting. “Yes, Will,” the man said. “Thank you.”

Now they were back exactly where they were an hour ago, Riker realised. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked, and lifted a hand as the man opened his mouth. “And I don’t want to hear any variation on ‘Only if it pleases you’, OK?”

The man -- Jean-Luc -- smiled a little. “I would like something to drink,” he said. “Thank you, Will.”

Riker got up promptly and went over to the replicator. “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” he told it. “Coffee, Jamaica Blue Mountain, hot.” He turned and found that once more the man was standing right behind him. The steaming cups appeared in the replicator, and the man picked up the coffee mug and passed it to Riker with a small bow of his head.

“Yes,” Riker said, disconcerted all over again. “Thank you. Why don’t you take your tea and we’ll... go and sit down again?”

Jean-Luc obeyed. Riker shook his head and followed him, again sitting a good foot away down the couch. “So... Jean-Luc, can we start again? What would you like me to know about you?”

The man lifted the glass of tea to his mouth and drank. He looked very like the Captain for an instant, as if he were buying desperate time for thought. But his voice was calm and even. “I’m a good slot, Will. And I have many other skills. I don’t know if any of them will be of much use to you here, but I can learn.”

“I know you can,” Riker said. “You -- ” or at least your counterpart, he added mentally, “you’re a very intelligent, very able man.”

Jean-Luc looked up at Riker and smiled tentatively, a look that hoped for approval, a smile that thanked Riker for his good opinion. “I work hard,” he said.

“I’m sure you do. But I meant,” Riker said carefully, “what do you like to do?”

“I’d like to please you,” Jean-Luc said, cautiously. “I know I did something wrong earlier. Please, Will, if you told me what I did to offend you, then I would never do it again. And I could try to please you.”

It suddenly dawned on Riker what the man was talking about. You’re Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. You’re the Captain. I’m your First Officer. Your Number One, remember?

And Jean-Luc, increasingly nervous, asking Is that what I call you? When should I start?

“Oh, God,” Riker said, and turned away from the intent bright gaze. “You thought I wanted you....” He put down his coffee-mug and rubbed his hands through his hair. To play the Captain. To pretend to be a Captain in love with his First Officer. To feed my fantasies.

“Oh God,” Riker repeated, despairing. I did. He glanced at the man and saw him, for the first time, not as Jean-Luc Picard and not as an intruder who looked too much like Picard for comfort’s sake, but as someone in his own right, a rather anxious, middle-aged man, who believed -- whose entire life had led him to believe -- that his only safety lay in keeping his protector happy. “I’m sorry, Jean-Luc,” he said. “Look, I think -- I want to try explaining something to you.”

The theory of parallel universes was, classically, explained by considering the multiverse as a four-dimensional book, with each universe as one of the book’s three-dimensional pages. Riker had a book in his quarters, on loan from the Captain. He showed it to Jean-Luc, and he explained the theory of parallel realities to the man, who listened with quiet intentness. He explained what Data had said about quantum signatures. He picked up his coffee-mug to drink again, and realised he had finished it at some point.

Jean-Luc got up and went across the room to the replicator. A little hesitantly, he said “Coffee, Jamaica Blue Mountain, hot.” A mug appeared, and he picked it up and brought it back to Riker.

“Thank you,” Riker said. “Did you understand what I was saying?”

“I don’t know,” Jean-Luc said, glancing at Riker as if hoping for permission and then sitting down again anyway. “We are in another universe from the one I was born in. I am a replica of a man in this universe. When you found me in the slot-house, you thought I was that man.”

“Yes,” Riker agreed. He thought of asking “But do you understand it?” and decided not to. Or to ask Jean-Luc if he believed Riker. Jean-Luc would never say if he didn’t. “You see... it’s not you I want.” That central admission almost made him cringe, even though the man he was talking to was, in fact, the only person aboard the Enterprise of whom it was certain that he would never get a chance to talk to Captain Picard.

“Would... the man you do want...” Jean-Luc sounded very awkward. “Would he... object to your using a slot?”

“Yes,” Riker said. The only way he could imagine getting through this was to be able to face Captain Picard with the knowledge that he had not taken advantage of the situation to rape Picard’s counterpart. He wished he didn’t know he wanted Picard, and he hoped Picard never knew that he wanted him, but it was certain that if he raped this version of Picard, Picard would never forgive him. If he knew about it.

He doesn’t have to know about it.

I’ll know about it. Deanna will guess. If I know and Deanna guesses, sooner or later the Captain will work it out... and he’ll never want to see me again.

“Will, may I ask a question?” Jean-Luc said.

Riker smiled at him, deliberately reassuring. “Yes, of course.”

“You bought me by mistake,” Jean-Luc said. “And you don’t need me or want me. What’s... what are you planning to do with me?”

We’re going to send you back to whatever your old life was, Riker thought. Healed of all your injuries, all ready to have everything done to you all over again.

But that’s where he belongs. We can’t do anything about it.

“Well, we’re still discussing that. Don’t worry. You aren’t going to be abandoned, or... whatever.” Riker smiled. He didn’t like this. “But that’s what I meant when I said you don’t belong to me. This is a different universe.”

“Yes, Will.” The man finished the last of his tea and put the cup down on the table. He sat still, hands between his knees, watching Riker intently.

“Is there anything you would like to make you more comfortable?”

Jean-Luc almost smiled. “I’d like to talk to God,” he said. “I think God did this to me. And I don’t know why.”

“Ah.” Riker was formally a Deist, but for years this had meant not much more to him than a way to define himself – a box to check on forms, a distinction between himself and his father. No one in Starfleet was allowed to ask you what your religion was, unless invited: and the discussion of religion was explicitly recommended against in Starfleet officer guidelines. Riker had no difficulty in following those guidelines. “Ah. We have a ship’s chapel,” he said, “if you’d care to use it.”

“Not unless it should please you, Will,” Jean-Luc said.

That brought Riker up short again. “Well, whatever you’d like.” It was far earlier than he would usually have gone to bed, and he’d just drunk two cups of coffee, but he wanted not to be having this conversation.

Could you really call it rape?

The man who wasn’t Picard didn’t seem to have a way of saying no. Certainly not to Riker. Given that… could you ever call it anything but rape?

Riker stood up hastily and yawned, very conspicuously. “It’s getting late – on my time schedule – and I think I’ll go to bed,” he said heartily. “Let me just show you where everything is. Would you like to take a shower?”

“Only if it would please you, Will,” the man said, up on his feet in one quick movement after Riker had risen. The eagerness sounded, to Riker, like a yes.

“Fine.” Riker showed him the shower and the soap dispenser, and programmed a set of conservative pyjamas from the replicator. Then he retreated, closing the bathroom door after a second’s struggle with his conscience. If he’d left it open, Jean-Luc would probably have assumed Riker wanted to watch.

He went through to his living room and office. The couch was long enough for Riker himself to stretch out on comfortably: comfortable enough to serve as a bed for the night. He had a blanket and a pillow replicated, left them on the couch, and found other small things to do, picking up and tidying up, until he thought the man must have finished showering, and he himself wanted to use the sanitary: having drunk too much coffee too quickly, and hydraulic pressure was making itself felt.

When he went back through to his bedroom, the man was standing in the middle of the room, dressed in the pyjamas, the bundle of the clothing he’d been wearing neatly under his arm. He looked as if he’d been standing there for some time, wondering what to do next.

Riker all but pushed him out of the bedroom and pointed at the couch with the blanket. “You sleep on there,” he said. “The lights will go down if you say ‘Dim’ and go out if you say ‘Out.’” The stars outside the window shone briefly in naked glory, and by their light Riker saw the man who wasn’t Picard turn his face to the starfield in a moment of seeming wonder. “To get them back up again, just say ‘Light,’” Riker added, and retreated from the room to his own solitary bed.

God, what have you done to me?

From the moment he sat up and looked around the room and saw it had changed, he had been afraid. He had thought he had been sold, and transferred to his new master while in a drugged sleep, and his master would not tell him what his name was. And then to be taken to and from the lab, by a new master who seemed uncertain whether he wanted to keep a slot – it had been like a nightmare, the whole day.

God’s will. God, speak to me. God, what have you done to me?

Part Six

The dream parted and Picard sat up, abruptly, almost knocking his head against the upper bunk. “My God,” he said, half disbelieving and half ready to panic.

From here he could see the sensor panel. It was blinking softly, a pattern of lights that said another ship was near. A Federation vessel. The sensor panel expected this to be plain good news.

They couldn’t have found him in this time. Picard was certain of that. He hadn’t slept more than two hours or so; Riker would barely be coming round from the effects of the stun.

Picard slid out of bed and was halfway to the controls when he felt the familiar thump and shudder of a tractor beam locking on to the hull. It wasn’t the Enterprise, at least; the sensors showed a much smaller vessel, no more than four or five times the mass of the shuttle.

“This is a Starfleet vessel.” Picard opened hailing frequencies and spoke in a steady voice. “Identify yourselves.”

There was no answer.

Picard glanced down at his uniform and grinned a little wryly. “This is Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Identify yourselves.”

Again, no answer.

Picard switched on the viewing screen, turning it in the direction of the tractor beams. What he saw didn’t help; a spaceship with an unfamiliar hull design, something like a Nebula class but modified, painted a dullish green. There were Federation registry letters on the hull, but Picard suspected that those were frequently changed. A non-aligned free trader ship. He might have done better telling them that he’d stolen the shuttle.

The shuttle was pulled inside the hull, and a forcefield sealed behind it. The starlight cut off, the viewscreen went dark. Picard switched it to infra-red and scanned round the shuttle, discovering, as he had expected, that he was in a storage bay that was considerably larger than the size of the ship warranted. And it was in vacuum. Evidently his hosts didn’t want him trying to leave the shuttle before he was invited.

There was a pressure suit in one of the lockers. Picard considered it, and decided against it. Unless he proposed to advance his career in piracy by stealing a crewed free trader ship only hours after stealing a Starfleet shuttle, the best thing to do was to wait. With any luck the crew of this ship would discover a need for an archaeology expert....

It was two hours before the sensors warned Picard that there was now an atmosphere outside the hull. Picard switched the scanner back to standard view. The bay was now lit. He was too late to catch sight of the crew-member who was now in the airlock, but from the infra-red trace there was just one.

Picard turned the chair round and leaned back, making himself relaxed and unafraid, ready to meet the free-trader with a casual but stern frown. Absently, he tugged his uniform tunic down.

He was startled when he recognised the man. It was nothing to the shock he had evidently given Will.

“You,” Will said, slowly, frowning. “What the hell are you doing here?” He spoke almost as if it were a rhetorical question, not as if he expected an answer. His next question was sharper, more abrupt: “Who else is on board?”

“No one.” Picard shrugged.

Will looked him over. “Get up.”

“Excuse me?” Picard said, very politely. Complete, polite bewilderment. Anger was stirring, but his best defence was a cool quiet refusal to be offended, however deliberately offensive Will chose to be. “This is a Starfleet shuttle, and I am a Starfleet officer. I’d like to know what you thought you were doing when you hijacked my shuttle.”

Will was still staring at him, an odd, half-amused, rather grim expression on his face. “What’s got in to you?” he asked, coming a step or two closer. “What’s your name?”

“Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And your name and ship?”

“Who told you to say that?”

“Excuse me?” Picard was beginning to feel rather as if he were opening his mouth and no sound was coming out.

Will shook his head. His look of half-amusement had become an open grin. “Never mind. On your feet, Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard.”

Picard didn’t move. “I think we can discuss the issue here.”

“Do you?” Will chuckled, backed half a step, caught Picard by the knees, and yanked hard. Picard kicked out as he went down, and Will rocked backwards with a yell of angry surprise.

A cool voice from the airlock door said, in a language Picard recognised as the common tongue of Romulus, “Is there a difficulty?” The blond owner of the voice stepped forward. He had a phaser in his hand, and it was pointing directly at Picard. He said in Standard, to Picard, “You will remain where you are,” and switched to Rihannsu again. “If you mean to amuse yourself with our lieutenant from the Enterprise, perhaps you would be good enough to take him to your own quarters, and allow me to investigate our new shuttle?”

Will shoved himself to his feet. “Ilya,” he began, and went on -- to Picard’s surprise -- in Klingonaase with no trace of human accent. “Someone’s taught him new tricks, but I swear it’s the slot I had the night before we left Liwydniwael.”

“I recognise him.” Ilya’s voice was still very cold. “Take him to your quarters if you want him again. I have more important things to concern myself with.”

It had been several years since Picard had spoken Rihannsu. But they said you never quite forgot a language learned under the cortext-thumper. “Sthea’hwill vaed’rae,” he said, carefully employing the politest mode, and trying not to hiss too much on the sibilants. “I request that you listen to me. I am a Starfleet officer, this is a Starfleet shuttle, and I do not understand why you have taken my shuttle and why you think you have taken me.”

Ilya looked at him with abrupt, genuine astonishment. After a moment, he said to Will, now in Klingonaase -- slightly accented -- “New tricks? I think not. Let’s get him out of here and talk to him somewhere more convenient.”

“You only have to ask,” Picard cut in, switching to Klingonaase with relief; he was far more fluent in that language, though it hurt his throat to speak it for long. “Between warriors, courtesy proves honour.”

Will looked as if he were about to explode. Ilya smiled narrowly, and shook his head. Will let out a long breath. Ilya said, to Picard, in Standard, “Very well. Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard, please rise and leave the shuttle. We will discuss your accomplishments in more comfortable surroundings.” He added to Will, “He is the only one aboard. I checked. We have time.”

“I suppose we do.” Will sounded half-amused now.

Picard stood up, neatening his uniform with an absent tug. “Well,” he said, still politely, “Where do you propose we continue this discussion?” He didn’t let himself be openly sarcastic on the last word, but Ilya raised his fair eyebrows as if he had heard it.

“Just walk. We’ll let you know the way.”

The ship had once been a Nebula class. The internal layout was still much what it was, at least in the forward hull where the bridge and the crew quarters were set out. They didn’t take Picard to the bridge, but to one of the guest cabins that seemed to have been fitted up as a recreation lounge. Once inside, Ilya pointed to the centre of the room. “Stand there.”

Will had gone to the replicator. He came back with two glasses, and handed one to Ilya. When he sat down in one of the comfortable chairs, Picard glanced from one to the other, realising that the two men had, consciously or not, positioned themselves so that he couldn’t watch both of them at once. Smoothly, Picard turned his back on Will and looked at Ilya, speaking to him alone.

“I believe introductions are in order. I am Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Hwiiy?” It was not polite; an imperative request for identification.

“Rh’e,” Ilya said, with a sharp laugh. “Is that so? Very well, I am Ilya Nicolaievich Kuryakin, my partner who already named you is Will Bodie, and you are aboard the Rencontres. Who told you that your name was Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard, and where are they?”

“Jean-Luc is from my great-uncle. Picard is my father’s family name. Lieutenant is Starfleet rank.”

“Who told you to say that?”

“I don’t understand,” Picard said, crisply. “No one told me to say anything to you.”

“You were told to say that?” Ilya didn’t wait for an answer. Looking past Picard, he said in Klingonaase, “The question is -- why?”

“I’m getting very tired of that question,” Picard said, in Klingonaase, realising a moment later that the strictures of warrior speech had made it sound rather more aggressive than he’d intended.

Ilya’s eyes flickered. Picard understood it for an unspoken order a second before Will grabbed his arms from behind. Ilya had turned and was walking over to a console. Picard cringed, hunching his shoulders forward, ducking his head. Bodie’s grip didn’t relax. “Move,” he said. “Come on, we’re not -- ”

Picard slammed his foot down hard, right on to the instep, felt Will’s grip loosen and heard his outraged yell, twisted round and stamped the other instep for good measure, and slammed his knee up into Will’s groin. Bodie yelled again, and -- he had let go of Picard -- protected himself from a knee in the face by throwing himself backwards, still folded in half around his testicles.

Picard had already launched himself for the door. He jabbed at the control panel, and jabbed again when the door didn’t open. He heard Will scrambling to his feet behind him, and turned, ready to do serious damage if Will laid a hand on him again. Bodie’s face was white, his eyes dark with agony and rage. “You’ll bleed for that,” he snarled, breathless with pain. “You’ll bleed -- ”

“No, leave him,” Ilya said, unexpectedly.

Will looked at his partner. Ilya lifted his chin and looked back, cool and expressionless. Picard tried the door control again. Will said something in highly idiomatic Klingonaase. Not Will. This wasn’t Will. Bodie.

Ilya smiled, swift and cold, but shook his head. “All true, no doubt, but this is not the time.” He switched to Standard again. “Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard, if I might have your attention a moment?” He sounded amused, but it was more politeness than Picard had received in the past twenty-four hours.

“Of course,” Picard said, with equal politeness.

“We would appreciate your assistance,” Ilya said, with smiling courtesy, “in establishing your identity.”

“I’ve told you who I am.”

Ilya grinned. “Why, yes, you have. You are Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise, and you were aboard a shuttle which was clearly stolen from Starfleet, on a pre-programmed course which I doubt that you could alter. You claim that the shuttle is yours and that you are a Starfleet officer.”

“What makes you think the shuttle is stolen?”

“The homing beacon’s gone,” Ilya said.

Picard sighed. Clearly he lacked a natural aptitude for a life of crime. “The shuttle is mine. I am a qualified and experienced pilot, which I will be happy to demonstrate to you, if you really need proof of my identity. I programmed in that course.”

“Directly through a Tholian rendezvous?” Ilya asked, eyebrows rising.

Picard felt his jaw drop.Tholian objections to unauthorised intrusions on their space were well-known. “I... apologise,” he said, fumbling for a graceful way to say it. Of course any sensible pilot would have checked reports on the area. “Thank you very much for, ah, ‘hijacking’ me.” He smiled, rather awkwardly. “I believe it was Admiral Kirk who described interrupting Tholians as ‘an expensive and timeconsuming way to commit suicide.’“

Bodie laughed. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant sound. Ilya smiled. “How appropriate.”

Picard glanced at Will. The dark man hadn’t moved a step nearer since Ilya had told him to let Picard go. He still looked white as death, and rather more menacing. Not Will. Bodie.

“Nevertheless, I am a qualified and experienced pilot, and I would like to leave. Now.” Picard kept his voice cool and steady.

“We would like you to identify yourself,” Ilya said. “Come over here and put your hand on that plaque.” He gestured.

“I don’t see why that’s necessary.”

Bodie snorted. “I don’t either.” He had reverted to Klingonaase. “This game’s played long enough.”

“We’ll play it out,” Ilya answered him in the same language, before switching to Standard again. “Come, Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard. I promise you, if your identity is what you claim it to be, we will return you to your shuttle. My partner will even apologise to you.”

The best Picard could hope from that damned plaque was that the computer wouldn’t be able to identify him. “I refuse,” he said coldly, ignoring the teasing humour in Ilya’s voice. “I’ve told you who I am. I haven’t asked for proof of your identity.”

Ilya smiled. “True.” He turned away, and spoke a phrase in Battle Tongue, the most condensed and expressive form of Klingonaase. “Now, Bodie!”

Picard turned. He was fractionally too slow to dodge the knife that sliced neatly into his neck. Bodie leaped back, snarling something idiomatic in Klingonaase. He moved fast. Picard had scarcely time to flinch. “What -- ”

Will Bodie handed the bloody knife to Ilya, who tapped a drop or two on to the plaque. “Identify,” he said to the computer.

“Bloody dramatist,” Bodie muttered, watching Picard intently.

The knife had nicked the skin. It stung, and was bleeding, but Picard was barely aware of it.

Ilya had set down his glass at some point. He picked it up and handed it to Bodie. “Your need is greater than mine,” he said politely.

Will looked at it wistfully and put it down again. “Not till we have the slot down.”

“You still think he’s just another slot?” Ilya hadn’t taken his eyes off Picard.

“I’m going to cut him,” Bodie said. “Cut him fucking deep.”

Ilya shrugged and said, a little soberly, “Drink up, Bodie.”

There was a moment’s silence. The two men were standing side by side. Bodie looked white and rather sickish. Ilya was eyeing him with a kind of impatient compassion. Both of them still had rather more than half their attention on Picard. Finally, Bodie picked up the glass and drank from it, eyeing Ilya over the top of the glass.

Picard cleared his throat. “I apologise,” he said, with some dignity. “I’ve had -- a rather trying time since we last met, Will.”

Bodie put the glass down. “Oh, don’t apologise, slot. Not when I was just getting to like you.”

It was Klingon humour, phrased in Standard. Picard smiled tightly. “The computer will identify me incorrectly. This -- mistaken identification is what I’ve been trying to escape.”

“Really,” Ilya murmured.

The computer interrupted. “Subject is 425-M107, chattel status. Planet of origin, Liwydniwael. Place of birth Ayanwel. Born chattel -- ” the computer gave the year in Romulan and in Klingon reckoning, which Picard noted even at that moment as odd “? initial owner Azad Farm Limited. Forty-seven sales on record, thirty-one private and sixteen public. Do you wish further breakdown?”

“No,” Ilya said. “Name and location of current owner?”

“Lieutenant-Commander William T. Riker, First Officer, U.S.S. Challenger.”

“Merde.” It was heartfelt. “U.S.S. Challenger?”

“Bloody hell,” Bodie said. “Starfleet sent him?”

Ilya said nothing. He looked Picard over once more, thoroughly, and shook his head, very slowly. Finally, with curious inexpressiveness, he said, “I think I do need a drink.” He strolled over to the replicator, ordered something Romulan, and stood holding the glass a moment, not drinking from it yet, staring at Picard.

“Something very odd is going on,” he said finally, reflectively, taking a few steps closer to Picard. “And you claim that shuttle is yours?” He lifted the glass, as if about to drink from it, and then without an instant’s warning, flung the contents of the glass into Picard’s face.

It was Romulan ale. It burned.

Blinded, breathless, Picard staggered backwards, ducked, and was hit a punishing blow at the back of the head. Someone else punched him in the stomach. He lost track of who was hitting him after that, but never quite lost consciousness.

They were competent; when he was down and incapable of moving, his hands were locked behind him with metal and after that they didn’t bother to hit him. He heard sounds of argument above him, and then cold water hit him in the face. It eased the burning a little, and he blinked his eyes open. The two men were standing over him.

“Up,” Ilya said.

“I don’t think -- ” Picard started to say. He wasn’t sure he could get up with his hands behind his back. He wasn’t sure he could have without help even if his hands were free.

Bodie leaned down and slapped him across the mouth. It was almost a tired slap, and Bodie sounded tired when he said in Rihannsu, “What do we have to do to him?”

“Get him to sickbay,” Ilya said briefly. “Once we’ve dealt with your assets, I’ll make sure of him.” He leaned down to grab hold of Picard’s shoulders. He was stronger than he looked; he heaved Picard up as far as his knees. “On your feet. You can walk.”

He gave Picard a helping shove the rest of the way, and once up on his feet, Picard discovered he could walk. In sickbay, Ilya secured the cuffs to the wall with something that rattled but wouldn’t break. Bodie had gone directly to an examination couch, and lay down on it, grimacing.

For minutes, Picard was too dazed to take in his surroundings. Whatever was fastening him to the wall was too short to let him sit down, and leaning back against the wall was actively painful -- there was a metal bar or ledge sticking out just level with the worst of the bruising on his back. Standing upright was the least painful alternative, but what he really wanted to do was collapse. Eventually, he knew, you got to the point when even a minor beating was almost too much to bear; but -- he tried to add the time up again, and still couldn’t make it more than twenty-four hours -- not yet, surely, it had been nothing yet.

This was, he realised, in itself a successful minor torture; he couldn’t seem to stop himself from trying to find a comfortable position, even when he had tried all the alternatives already. It was hard to keep to his feet, it was impossible to sit down, it hurt to lean back against the wall, and every time he moved there was a rattling, scraping, grating sound that got on his nerves.

Ilya had been moving around the examination couch for some time. He turned to look at Picard. “Stand still,” he said brusquely.

“It hurts,” Picard said, trying to sound as if he were pointing out a minor detail that Ilya had accidentally overlooked.

“Stand still,” Ilya repeated, “or I’ll knock you out.” He turned back to Bodie and picked up the regenerator again. Picard stood still, focussing. Ilya handled the regenerator easily but not quite with a medical doctor’s professional dexterity. From the way they had talked Ilya and Bodie might simply have been joint-captains of a half-legal ship, but there seemed to be no one else aboard apart from themselves -- if there had been, Ilya would surely have called them in to assist. Or just to supervise Picard.

Was there anything that could be done with that information? Not with his hands locked behind his back and chained to the wall, but Ilya had seemed willing to listen to reason, and Bodie -- well, if Bodie were a Klingon, he’d be more willing to listen to someone after they’d kicked him where it hurt. Two of them to convince.

Stand still or I’ll knock you out.

Breathe. Breathe. Stand still. Breathe. Wait to try again.

Bodie sat up. Ilya fetched him a glass of water. “All right,” Bodie said, in accented Rihannsu, “what do we do now?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Ilya said crisply. He sat down on the examination couch next to Bodie, glancing at him, speaking conversational Klingonaase. “As I see it, we have three alternatives. We can space him into warp and get rid of that shuttle as spare parts.”

“Bloody waste.”

“Or we could mindwipe him, sell him for whatever he’ll fetch, re-sell the shuttle, and trust to blind luck that Starfleet won’t be looking for him and find us.”

Bodie grimaced. “Right. What’s your third option?”

“Hand him back to Starfleet, and tell them the story.”

“What?” Bodie exploded in Klingonaase. He glowered at Ilya and went on in a quick angry undertone. Mostly in Klingonaase, though Picard noticed that when Bodie was trying to be calm he was more likely to speak Rihannsu than not. Just as Ilya spoke Klingonaase when calm and Rihannsu when ruffled. Both of them only used Standard when they wanted Picard to understand.

“Why don’t you believe I can understand Klingonaase?” Picard asked, in Rihannsu. Out of the frying pan, right into the fire --

Breathe. Stay calm. Breathe. They ignored him. It was as if he hadn’t spoken. Breathe, stay calm, try again.

Picard caught hold of the chain behind him, and yanked on it. His wrists hurt. The rattle and scrape cut across the conversation, and Ilya frowned. “Stand still,” he repeated, in Standard.

“Why don’t you believe I can understand you in Rihannsu?” Picard asked, in Klingonaase.

“I think we have to hand him back,” Ilya said to Bodie, in Rihannsu, in a smooth and patient tone, “because there’s something very strange going on. I think Starfleet have programmed him. Maybe he’s in the middle of an experiment, or maybe their experiment got away from them, but look at him, Bodie. Look.”

Bodie looked. “Yes?”

“We haven’t given him a name. We haven’t made any use of him. He ought to be terrified. He isn’t.”

Bodie studied Picard. Picard looked back at him, wondering what on Earth Ilya’s ideas of terror were, if he didn’t think Picard was scared. “Yes...” Bodie said thoughtfully. And grinned. “I bet I could make him scared.”

“He’s been a slot his entire life. Granted slots get taught strange things sometimes, have you ever heard of a slot who could speak Rihannsu and Klingonaase? Or one who was any good at unarmed combat?”

“Bodyguard,” Bodie suggested.

“He hit you.” Ilya shrugged. “Hard enough to bruise. Do you believe he could do that without orders?”

“He’s mad,” Bodie said. “That stuff about the Enterprise, and being a lieutenant, and expecting us to believe he could pilot that shuttle? And quoting Admiral Kirk at us, too. He’s for the labs.”

“He isn’t scared enough,” Ilya said.

“Want me to do something about that?” Bodie was cheerful.

“I don’t understand it.”

“It’s quite simple,” Picard said. “I’m from another universe. In my universe, there is a U.S.S. Enterprise. My name is Jean-Luc Picard, and I am the captain of the Enterprise-D. The first U.S.S. Enterprise was captained by James T. Kirk, and I’ve read his logs; that’s why I happen to remember what he said about the Tholians.”

He got to the end of it without being interrupted or hit. Ilya hadn’t moved; he was regarding Picard with an absent, slightly puzzled look, and Bodie, though he stood up from the couch as Picard spoke, after one glance at Ilya, folded his arms across his chest and stood still. “Well,” he said dryly, “Quick promotion. Last time he mentioned rank he was only lieutenant.”

“Where did he get the Enterprise from, though?”

It suddenly occurred to Picard that he had identification with him, and the relief was so enormous that he could almost have laughed. “I do have proof,” he said calmly, still using Rihannsu. “My translator. If you scan, you’ll find it in my right arm just below the elbow. It has the ship’s ID code.”

“Fuck,” Bodie said. He turned and looked at Ilya. “Tell me you scanned him.”

“I’m sorry,” Ilya said. He had gone absolutely expressionless. “It didn’t occur to me.” He stood up, moving towards Picard, as Bodie went to a locker and pulled out a hand-held scanner. He threw it at Ilya, who caught it neatly, and, beginning with the right arm, scanned Picard. He didn’t say anything about the results, but turned to Bodie. “We have to hand him back. They can find him.”

“Great.” Bodie moved towards the door. “Come on. Let’s find the Challenger before they’re peering down our throats.” He stopped a moment, and laughed, Klingon humour; “Or let’s warp him. They can never prove it.”

An unprotected body in warp disintegrated in several very thorough ways, including, so current theory stood, temporally; the body never had existed. Picard said, in Battle Speech, “No warrior taunts a warrior in chains.”

Ilya caught Bodie by the elbow. “Come on. We don’t have time.”

It was quite a while before Bodie came back. Picard was swaying with fatigue, only the pain keeping him awake, but Bodie woke him up. This man didn’t look Klingon, didn’t even really move or act like a Klingon; but he spoke Klingonaase without a trace of human accent and he certainly had the Klingon sense of humour.

At the moment, there wasn’t the slightest trace of humour on his face. He watched Picard straighten himself and stand upright, head up, and moved to stand directly in front of him, staring Picard up and down. “If I let you loose, what do you want to do?”

Picard almost laughed. Sleep for about twelve hours somewhere safe without anyone drugging me or trying to rape me or chaining me to a wall. Seriously enough, he said “If you’re worried about Starfleet finding me here, I’d rather leave. If you’re prepared to listen to me now, I’d be very glad to talk to you both. I want to get back to my own universe.”

Bodie stared at him, and muttered something in Klingonaase, idiomatic and disbelieving. “They really got to you, didn’t they?” He began a movement, and then stopped, saying in clear Standard, “I’m going to unlock you from the wall. Then we’re going through to the rec room.”

Bodie made Picard walk ahead of him, using the fastener as a leash. They went back to the room they’d used before. Ilya was sitting waiting for them. Bodie let go of the leash and pointed to the floor in front of the comfortable chairs. “Sit.” Then, in Rihannsu, he said to Ilya, “You were right. More of the same.” He glanced back at Picard and said, impatiently, “Sit.”

“I’d rather have a chair,” Picard said.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Ilya said, leaning forward and speaking with abrupt decision. “With your hands locked behind your back, sitting on any chair except a backless stool would be very uncomfortable. Sit on the floor or stand. Bodie, leave him.”

With a shrug, Bodie moved away and sat down beside Ilya. After a moment, Picard shrugged, and, trying to make it look casual and good-humoured, sat down on the floor. He needed to sit down.

“Let’s start from the beginning. What are you?”

“Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. You’ll have found the ship-ID coded into the translator in my right arm.”

Ilya was sitting very upright, his face absolutely expressionless. “There is no U.S.S.Enterprise, not for seventy years. There is no Jean-Luc Picard on the list of captains. There is no translator in your right arm.”


“And your explanation for this?” Ilya cut across him.

“I don’t know -- ” Picard was trying to think. Of course he had worn the translator on Liwydniwael, although most of the people in Ayanwel seemed to have Standard at least as a second language. He rarely had it taken out at all, except for the annual checkup or to have a later model installed. “I was on the U.S.S. Challenger for a few hours, and for part of that time I was drugged. Possibly it was removed then.”

Bodie was frowning, staring at him with concentration. Ilya said, still expressionless, “And the rest of your story?”

“I’m from another universe. I believe I must have passed through some fracture, between the two realities. I have no idea how it can have happened, I’m not a physicist, but it’s obvious that it has happened; there are innumerable differences between my own universe and this one. Not least,” he smiled diplomatically, “that in my universe, slavery is illegal in the Federation.”

“And when do you believe this happened?” Ilya asked crisply.

Picard had been trying to work this one out. “I think that it must have been at some point during the night I spent with you,” he nodded to Bodie. “Or possibly after you left. Or rather, that would be your counterpart in the other universe.”

Ilya glanced at Bodie. Bodie met his gaze with a blank stonewalled stare for an instant, and then ducked his eyes and said, gratingly, “When do you think it happened?”

“If it was you,” Picard said, “your partner,” he nodded to Ilya, “arrived shortly after you woke up and insisted that you leave. You dumped all your planetary cash on the bed, so I deduced that you were leaving Liwydniwael. Does that fit your memories?”

Bodie glanced at Ilya and said in crude gutter-Rihannsu, “Yeah, you turned up before I could have a bit that morning, but he was a sweet fuck so I left a good tip.”

“Why don’t you believe I can understand you?” Picard snapped. Diplomats learned insulting speech to be able to recognise it if used to them, and to refrain from accidentally using it themselves. Picard had never heard some of these words spoken aloud before. But he knew them.

“Shut up,” Ilya said softly, in Standard, never taking his eyes off Bodie. He went on in Rihannsu, cool and precise, “How long have you been fucking in slot-houses?”

Bodie glowered. “Ever since I had the cash and knew what they sold, and what’s it got to do with you?” He was speaking Klingonaase, and speaking roughly. “Are you trying to tell me you never fuck anyone on shore-leave?”

“Never a slot,” Ilya said coldly. “Never someone who had no choice.”

“Oh, come on, it wasn’t a warehouse, it wasn’t even a cafeteria. That slot wanted me, he made it clear half across the room. I’m not a fucking rapist!” He was still glowering. “And no one can rape a slot anyway.”

“Legally, that’s true.”

“Slots are bred for fucking. That one was, for sure.”

“Oh, no, he’s Captain of the Enterprise,” Ilya said, and suddenly and inexplicably, to Picard, both he and Bodie started to laugh. Picard watched, shifting to make himself more comfortable. It seemed likely from his earlier attempt to get away that all the doorlocks were genekeyed.

Bodie was laughing almost too hard to speak coherently, but he got out “You Klingon bastard -- ” and Ilya capped him with something else, a whoop of laughter distorting his speech so much that Picard could not understand him. It occurred to Picard, not for the first time, that laughter made the human face wrenchingly ugly.

“Right,” Bodie said at last, brushing his hand over his eyes. “What bothers you about it?” He was speaking Rihannsu again, and Ilya answered him in Klingonaase. He had stopped laughing a moment or two before Bodie.

Ilya shrugged, and said, almost immediately, “We have to hand him back.”

“Yeah, it’s a waste,” Bodie shrugged. He was eyeing Ilya thoughtfully, and Picard realised that if he had seen that hesitation in Ilya’s answer, Bodie, who must know Ilya well, had also seen it. That wasn’t what was bothering Ilya.

“You were a slave,” Picard said. “Hwiiy’t’arrhe.” The sundered children; the children of human prisoners, reared in Romulan households, speaking Rihannsu before they spoke Standard. In his own universe, the last of them had been returned only twenty years ago, when the Romulans had one of their sporadic genetic-purity purges. “That’s it, isn’t it?” He spoke directly to Ilya, pressing his point in Rihannsu. “You don’t like seeing me -- seeing anyone treated like this, because it reminds you of how you were kept on your knees, forced into silence -- ”

Ilya put out a hand, blocking Bodie’s fist, reaching to touch Picard’s chin and lift it. He spoke softly. “Worthless one, you wish for death.”

Picard jerked his head back; Ilya’s hand followed, gripped sharply at his throat, and moved upwards, pincerlike, seizing his chin. “I warn you, worthless one,” he went on, still smooth and cold, “we will not kill you. You are still one step from the labs. I want to hear what you have to say for yourself; my partner wants to beat you into silence. Now if you have any sense remaining in your head, speak carefully, and I may tell my partner you are still useful.” He took his hand away, and Picard opened his mouth. Ilya laid his fingers across it. “If the first words out of that mouth aren’t a humble apology, I’ll assume that you weren’t listening to me.”

When Ilya removed his hand, Picard grinned. “I’m very sorry you feel that way,” he said, in a voice he did his best to keep humble, but a flash of triumphant humour came through. “But you spoke to me in Rihannsu.”

Ilya half-smiled, and shook his head, turning to Bodie to say something.

Bodie was on his feet. With an abrupt, jerky movement, he turned away from both Ilya and Picard, walked across the room, and only turned back when he reached the wall. He did not look at either of them. “He called you kuve and he still lives.”

“I called him arrhe,” Picard said, switching to Klingonaase with relief. “Not servitor.”

Bodie reached out and tapped the replicator control. “Control gag. Size four.”

Something materialised. Bodie picked it up and came back across the room with it dangling from his hands.

“I want him to finish his story,” Ilya said. He was watching Bodie warily.

Bodie shook his head, violently, making a wordless sound of rage.

“Why?” Picard asked. The thing was inches away from his face, straps and fastenings and a lump to prop his jaws open -- Picard forced himself to stare up at Bodie’s face, ignoring Bodie’s hands, and go on, in Klingonaase, trying to press his question past Bodie’s guard before Bodie silenced him. “You want to stop my voice. Why? How can words hurt a warrior? I am not kuve. I am not tokhe straav -- ”

“You are -- ” Bodie’s voice was a snarl. He shoved the gag against Picard’s face, and whacked the side of his head with one hand when Picard tried to get away and keep his balance. Ilya’s hands appeared out of nowhere, grabbing Picard and holding him still. Bodie fitted the gag past Picard’s jaws. For a moment, the pains of a bruised mouth and the straps cutting into his ears and the back of his neck and the sound of the fastenings clicking home all came together, and dazed him. A solid hand on his chest shoved Picard down to the floor, and he lay there, unable to see much of either man. Both were now standing, speaking to each other fast and intimately. As if he wasn’t there.

“He is not a willing slave,” Ilya was saying. They were both speaking Klingonaase.

“You didn’t have him the other night.”

“Did you? Was he like this?”

Picard couldn’t hear Bodie’s reply. If he made one. From the angle of their feet, they were standing close together, close enough that a look or a twist of the mouth would be answer enough; and though Picard could have struggled, he knew he could not even rise to his feet without help, and if he had there was nowhere to run, and without his voice --

“He called you servitor, and you let him live,” Bodie repeated, his voice rough.

“He called me arrhe, worth-in-cash,” Ilya answered. There was another movement, a sound that Picard strained to make sense of. He rolled his head a little, staring straight up instead of to the side, and realised that Ilya was holding Bodie. His voice was still clear and unemotional. “And so I was, no shame of mine. I was hostage-fosterling until the Empire threw me out. I want to know how he knew.”

The roughness in Bodie’s voice became audible pain. “If it’s because I fucked that slot it hurts you to see him -- ”

“That does not hurt me.” Ilya’s voice was raw.

Klingons do not apologise. You could hear the awkwardness in Bodie’s voice. “I’m sorry. Ilyushka, I’m sorry -- ”

Why are they talking like this --

Because I’m not here.

If my chair started talking back to me, telling me what its name was and that it didn’t want me to sit on it, I’d find out who was responsible for the joke.

If I couldn’t find out who or how or why it was done, and I could prove that my chair was still my chair and not a shapeshifting alien, but my chair kept talking back to me, talking annoying nonsense, wouldn’t I get rid of it, and buy another chair? No matter how brightly it spoke, would I ever believe that my chair had somehow developed intelligence?

They don’t believe it. A chair can’t think.

“Bon dieu!” Through opened jaws, past a muffling obstruction, Picard heard himself groan incomprehensibly. God, god, god --

Above him they were embracing, but when he made a sound, they broke apart. One laughed. The other kicked him, rolling him over on to his face.

It was Bodie who had laughed. “You’re right -- not tokhe straav,” he said, and laughed again.

They spoke to each other again, swift, elliptical phrases, and then they left. It was some time after he heard the door closed that Picard realised he hadn’t paid attention to what they were saying. He wasn’t even sure what language it had been.

Part Seven

Riker woke. His mouth hurt. His head ached. There was an enormous tender pain in his groin.

He sat up, carefully. He had gone from stunned unconsciousness to sleep on the floor by his bed. His bed, and, as far as he could see, his bedroom, was empty. Despite everything, he managed a smile. Something had worked.

It was a couple of hours before first watch. Riker glanced down at himself and decided he had time for a shower and a change of clothing before he reported the news. In the shower, he discovered a few more bruises he hadn’t noticed, and a horrible area he did not intend to look at until someone went over it with a regenerator.

Still, he felt rather better showered and dressed. He tapped at his communicator. “Riker to Crusher.”

When Beverly answered, her voice was rather tired. “Crusher here.”

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Not exactly. What can I do for you, Will?” She was abrupt, and Riker grinned, but kept his voice formal.

“I’ll need some medical attention in my quarters, Doctor.”

“What happened?”

“Well, things seem to have gone a little more than according to plan. I’m about to check up on the rest of the plan.”

Riker was still feeling good-humoured despite discomfort as he went through to his living-room and office. He halted in the doorway, all good-humour vanishing and all his various aches and pains uniting to grab at him.

The slot was standing by the replicator. The slot said “Coffee, Jamaica Blue Mountain, hot,” and picked up the mug and brought it across the room to him, smiling at him.


Riker slapped the offered mug back and the hot fluid went over the slot’s chest. The slot just stood there, his smile fading. “I’m sorry, Will -- ”

That was the last straw. Riker hit him again, a hard back-hand slap. “Who the hell do you think you are?” He punctuated the sentence with another slap, grabbing hold of the slot’s arm as he tried to back away. “You conniving, stupid, useless -- ”

Riker didn’t like feeling this angry. His right hand was beginning to hurt, on top of everything else. It had all been a complete waste of time; they might as well have dumped the slot in the brig and let the entire security crew fuck him. The slot was just standing there, that look of distance and self-control on his face. Riker jerked him round and sent him sprawling. He made a small sound of pain as he landed, barely more than a gasp of breath knocked out of him.

Riker stood over him. “Who do you think you are?” he repeated, and prodded with his foot to indicate he expected an answer.

“Jean-Luc,” the slot answered. He looked up at Riker, and his face was all but expressionless. “Jean-Luc Picard...?” His voice trailed off, almost like a question.

Riker bent down despite the aches and grabbed a fistful of shirt. “I don’t want to hear any more about that,” he said, and jerked hard, upwards. The slot sat up, bringing his face into range again. Riker let go and rapped at the slot’s mouth with his knuckles. “Do you hear me? One word more about being Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Enterprise, from a parallel universe, and you are going for a full mindwipe so fast your feet won’t touch the deck. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Will.” The slot, even now, was trying to smile at him.

Riker hit him again, hard and fast. “What did you call me?”

“Sir,” the slot said. He sucked at his lip. “Sir, I’m very sorry, sir.”

He sounded as if he were genuinely, humbly, defusingly contrite, and that only made Riker angrier. You couldn’t really beat a slot for sitting where you had put him, or for not running away, or even for talking back once the slot had apologised convincingly. And God above, this slot was acting convincingly. Riker doubted if he’d feel any better if he did beat him.

“Sir?” The slot’s voice was cautious.


“I’m sorry, sir -- I wanted -- want to please you.”

Riker stared down with disbelief. The slot sat there and swallowed, looking up at him, voice all full of well-faked desperation. Or the truth, perhaps; maybe the slot had finally realised what he was doing to himself. “Sir, if you tell me what I did wrong, I’ll never do it again.” The lines had plainly been rehearsed; the slot spoke smoothly, though with a edge of panic. He went on, “Please, sir, tell me what you want and I’ll do it -- ”

Afterwards, the only explanation Riker could give himself was that he really had lost his temper. He hit out as hard as the slot had hit him last night, made angrier when the slot ducked his head down and tried to curl up, protecting himself. A hard kick landed on the slot’s thigh, another on his buttocks: Riker was barely feeling his own bruises, but he realised moments later that he’d hardly done himself any good.

The door chime sounded. Riker let go of the wrist he was yanking at, trying to pull up a shielding elbow in order to be able to launch a good kick at the ribs, and turned to the door. He ran a hand over his hair. God, what had got into him? “Come!” he called.

Beverly Crusher walked in. Her smile faded as she looked at him. “Will -- what happened to you?”

“The details can wait, but -- ” Riker half-laughed, wincing. “Put it this way; I got beaten up, and it didn’t even work.”

“What didn’t work?” Doctor Crusher looked markedly bewildered.

Riker glanced back at the slot. He was huddled more or less where Riker had left him, beside and now half-under the table. Trying to get out of sight. Riker couldn’t exactly blame him.

“Where’s the Captain?” Riker asked.

Doctor Crusher was staring past him. “Will, what’s happened to him?”

“Well, I lost my temper,” Riker admitted. He spread his hands, inspecting the abraded knuckles with some embarrassment. “This isn’t quite as bad as it looks, I think some of that is his blood. Where’s the Captain? And can I get one of your nurses in here with a regenerator? Preferably a male one,” he added hopefully.

Beverly looked at him again. She didn’t say anything.

“Where’s the Captain?” Will repeated.

“He’s -- ” Her voice was faint, and wavered. “He’s not here -- ”

Alarmed, Riker reached out, but she stepped back, shaking her head. Her voice was firmer. “I think you’d better sit down. I’ll -- call -- I’ll call -- someone.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Riker asked. She looked as if she were half in shock. “Beverly, has anything happened to Jack?”

Her breath came out in a small huff of surprise. “No -- ” And then, more firmly, “Commander, sit down. That’s a medical order.”

“All right,” Riker said, amused and startled. He moved back and sat down the couch. “It’s just bruises, Doctor. Some of them in tender places, but nothing serious.”

Doctor Crusher said nothing. To Riker’s surprise, she stepped back into the corridor, and as the door closed, he heard the chime of her communicator. It was actively uncomfortable sitting down. Riker got up again. No matter how subdued the slot looked, he ought to be locked up. The cuffs were in the cupboard where he kept his trumpet.

Only the cuffs weren’t there. It was exasperating: Riker happened to remember, vividly, how he’d opened the door and put the cuffs down on the shelf. The Captain had said something to him at that moment, something about Riker watching his back, and Doctor Crusher had laughed and made a joke about Riker watching the slot’s back: and Riker could remember putting the cuffs down, closing the cupboard door, and deciding not to answer Doctor Crusher’s joke; because while he definitely wanted to fuck the slot, he was irritated by the Crushers’ attitude that it was vastly amusing.

Anyway, the cuffs should be here. Unless the slot had taken them? Riker turned back. The slot was still huddled under the table, knees to chin, arms wrapped round his legs. He looked as if he were trying to become as small as possible.

Riker said, brusquely, “Arms behind your back.” The slot obeyed him.

Something else was bothering Riker. Something about the cupboard. His trumpet wasn’t there. In fact, when Riker turned and looked the contents of the cupboard over again, shelf by shelf, it didn’t look much like his own storage space; everything was more-or-less what he remembered, but nothing was where he remembered putting it. As if someone had gone through the cupboard, taking everything out and then putting it back in just the wrong order.

Riker looked round the room. It was his room. Everything was familiar. Except for the trombone. It was leaning against the wall in one corner.

The slot had told him he played the trombone. He’d never owned a trombone.

The slot had obeyed him swiftly and with no back-talk. The slot of yesterday would have said something, if he’d obeyed at all.

The door opened again and a Klingon came in, wearing Starfleet uniform.

It was a moment before Riker could get his breath to speak. Doctor Crusher followed the Klingon in, and after her --

“Data,” Riker said. “Well, well. Data.”

“Yes,” the android said. “I am Lieutenant-Commander Data, Second Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Who are you?”

“The Enterprise?” A bubble of hysteria nearly choked Riker. “And is that -- ” he pointed at the Klingon “ -- Captain of the Enterprise?”

The Klingon growled. It wasn’t words, it was just a growl, and it sounded furious.

Riker shook his head. “Data, I’m Commander William T. Riker, of the U.S.S. Challenger. I think I know what’s happened -- but I’m damned if I understand it.” He hesitated, because even though he was staring at a Klingon in Starfleet uniform, which meant something very weird had happened, it sounded bizarre even to himself. “I think somehow I’m in a different universe. A different reality.” He grinned. “Either that, or I’ve gone crazy. You shouldn’t be here.”

“I think it is you who should not be here,” Data said, in that level expressionless monotone. “We will need to investigate events leading up to your presence here, but I believe that your hypothesis is correct; you have somehow been transferred from your native universe to this universe, replacing the Commander Riker of this universe.”

“Data,” Doctor Crusher said. She sounded urgent.

“You are, however, a Starfleet officer,” Data said. “Would you agree to accompany Mr Worf to a secure area? I assure you that we will make every effort to return you to your universe, but with the disappearance of both First Officer and Captain, there are various duties which I must carry out.”

“Yes, sure,” Riker agreed immediately. It was a natural precaution for them to take. “I won’t cause any trouble. Mr Worf?” He glanced at the Klingon. “It was a bit of a surprise to see someone like you here, but I hope to hear all about it when we have time. You’ll want to put the slot somewhere secure. I’ll be glad to take responsibility for that, at least.”

“No,” Doctor Crusher said. She sounded unexpectedly angry. “I’ll take him to sickbay.”

Riker nodded. The slot’s memories were no longer of any value. “I suppose you might as well.”

Crusher shot him a look that could have cut. Riker rubbed his hand down his beard. Well, it had sounded as if he were giving permission. Crusher might feel this slot wasn’t actually his property. But the doctor seemed unexpectedly touchy. Crusher went past him without a further glance, towards the slot, her face pale and set.

Before she could reach him, the slot moved. Fast, as swiftly as he had hurled himself at the two security guards when Riker had brought him aboard, he flung himself at the Klingon, but not -- though Riker almost moved to stop him -- to attack.

The slot grabbed the Klingon’s hand and fell to his knees on the deck, gabbling something -- in Klingon? Riker barely understood it, even through his translator. Worf looked down at the slot, frowning. He said nothing.

“Kuvesa tokhesa,” the slot said again, more slowly. Your slave willingly, Riker’s translator supplied. And then his mouth was on the Klingon’s hand. A kiss, Riker thought, and then the Klingon jerked his hand back and Riker saw the blood. The slot had bitten deep.

The Klingon spoke for the first time, his voice a deep savage rumble. “You will not do that again.”

“Worf?” Doctor Crusher said. She sounded appalled.

The slot was kneeling on the floor as if he were a puppet and someone had cut all his strings, except for a single strand holding his head upright. He was staring at Worf with intense concentration.

“Mr Worf?” Data asked. His mouth was slightly open.

“Doctor Crusher,” the Klingon said. He sounded furious, but this might be his natural tone of voice. “Take this...” he hesitated, noticeably, and then started again. “I believe he should be in sickbay.”

“I agree,” Crusher said with sudden intensity. She touched the slot on his shoulder, quite gently. “Come on.”

The slot jerked his attention from the Klingon, and looked at her. He seemed to shrink, huddling closer into himself, and Riker wondered a moment whether they should call a couple of security guards to carry or drag him. But the slot pushed himself to his feet, quite meekly, and stood still, not saying anything, head bowed. After a moment, Doctor Crusher put a competent hand on his elbow, and steered him towards the door. Data followed her.

The Klingon watched them go. Only when the door closed behind them did he turn his frowning gaze on Riker, and Riker thought he could read the eternal enmity that Klingon and human had for each other in that stark look.

No. This is a different universe: in this place, Klingons and humans work together. He is not my enemy: he is a Starfleet officer. There are cultural differences, but we can work them out. “Mr Worf,” Riker said with the friendliest grin he could manage. “Well, where are you supposed to put me?”

The Klingon did not smile back. “Come with me,” he said.


Riker found himself gestured out the door in front of the Klingon, and obeyed. They walked down the corridor to the turbo-lift side by side. “So, Mr Worf,” Riker said, “how long have you been in Starfleet?”

Resounding silence. Maybe Klingons didn’t believe in small talk when they were on duty. Riker tried again once or twice in the turbo lift, but got nowhere. He said nothing more until, a minute or two after they left the turbo lift, he realised where he was being taken.

“The brig?”

The Klingon turned and looked at him. The same glowering look that Riker was beginning to be convinced was a Klingon’s natural expression. This time, the Klingon spoke. “Yes.”

Riker had been about to protest, to point out that he was a Starfleet officer, that he had done no harm to anyone aboard and had no intention of doing harm, but it seemed unlikely that the Klingon would listen. Data or someone would have to come speak with him eventually: for that matter, Doctor Crusher would probably be sending one of her nurses down, and Riker could ask him to take a message.

Just as on the Challenger, there were only three cells in the brig, with clear force-field doors across the entire front of the cell. One of the cells was occupied by a couple of civilians. The Klingon escorted Riker past this cell, let him into the next one, and re-sealed the force-field behind him. He paused a moment outside the cell, glaring, and Riker thought he was about to say something, but after a moment, he turned away, still silent.

Sitting was uncomfortable, particularly on the hard bench at the back of the cell. Riker paced around for a while. No one appeared. Coffee would have been nice: Riker was beginning to wish he hadn’t wasted the mug the slot had brought him. Breakfast. Above all, someone with a tissue regenerator to deal with these maddeningly uncomfortable bruises. Well… with both the Captain and the First Officer having disappeared, there would be a lot to deal with. No doubt the senior officers were busy. Riker lay down on the hard bench, found a comfortable position, and waited.

He waited for a long time. When at last someone entered the cell, he realised he had nearly been asleep.

“Commander Riker,” Data said politely. “Would you come with me?”

“It will be a pleasure,” Riker said, pushing himself to his feet with a sudden groan of discomfort as bruised muscles were forced into motion.

“Is something wrong?” Data inquired.

“Just bruises,” Riker said. “I’d have thought Doctor Crusher would have sent someone down to see to them by now.”

Looking at the android, Riker remembered how exasperating the utter changelessness of Data’s face could be. Data did not make any excuses, or smile, or frown, or even shrug. There was only a short grunt, almost a beep, that Riker remembered Data had used to express understanding. Data said “I have asked Doctor Crusher to send someone. I will request a regenerator.” He tapped his communicator and spoke.

A few minutes later, one of the nurses appeared, looking puzzled. Riker recognised him at once. “Coro,” he said, with some relief. He had been slightly worried that Beverly would indulge her capricious sense of humour and send a woman, and there was something about being kicked in the balls that made Riker want to be dealt with by someone with a steady supply of testosterone.

Coro was quick and efficient. He didn’t say much, but then, Riker had noticed, he seldom did. He dealt with the bruising: he had to ask Riker to sit down and close his eyes as the regenerator ran over his face. The relief was unspeakable. When Coro finished, Riker opened his eyes and smiled up at him, the first time he’d been able to smile without pain in hours. “Thank you, Mr Coro.”

Coro didn’t smile back. He glanced at Data before he said, hesitantly, “You’re welcome, ah, Commander Riker.” Then he fled.

Data hadn’t moved from where he had been standing when Riker first saw him. When Coro had left the brig, he said “There are some matters that I think you can help us with, Commander. Will you come with me?”

“It will be a pleasure,” Riker repeated, with sincerity.

On the Challenger, there were two or three rooms fitted up as secure interview rooms. On this ship it looked as if they had fitted this one up in a hurry: Riker spotted the camera almost immediately. Data sat down on one side of the table, and Riker sat down on the other. There was a terminal on the table between them. Data’s fingers tapped the controls swiftly. “I think this will make some things much clearer to you,” he said, and swung the terminal around so that Riker could see the screen.

It was showing a picture of the slot, staring straight ahead, with a look on his face that made Riker’s knuckles itch. No slot should look at anyone like that. It was a moment before Riker registered that in the picture, the slot was wearing Starfleet uniform, complete with rank pips and communicator badge. It was so incongruous that without thinking, Riker put out his hand and covered the slot’s face.

He was looking at the first page of a Starfleet Captain’s record. The officer’s name, rank, ID code, date of birth, date of commission, were all there. Riker stared. Picard, the record said. Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Riker removed his hand. The slot was still there. He looked up at Data. “What kind of joke is this?”

“I mentioned to you when we met earlier today that the Captain was missing,” Data said. “Captain Jean-Luc Picard is missing: in his place, we have a man who looks exactly like him. Now Commander Riker is missing, and in his place, we have…” The android paused. “We have you. Mr Coro scanned you while he was regenerating your bruises. You are a Commander William T. Riker who was born into another quantum reality. The quantum flux in your cellular RNA resonates to a quantum signature that is different from that of everyone else aboard the Enterprise, except for the man who looks exactly like Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I conclude that you and he come from the same quantum reality. Do you recognise the man depicted in this Starfleet record?”

Riker tried to gather himself. It was remarkably hard to convince himself that this was anything other than a complex practical joke. But Data had never been known to take part in practical jokes, and in any case, Data was dismantled. In his universe. “Yes, I do,” he said, straightforwardly. “It looks like the slot I bought…” it took him a moment, “…yesterday. When I woke up this morning, the slot was in my quarters. You’re saying that although they looked identical, they were two different people.”

“The same person,” Data said, “born into two different realities. We have been engaging in a search for the quantum reality into which we believe Captain Picard has disappeared for the past twenty-four hours. The search is progressing. However, there is a very important matter with which I believe you can assist us.”


“When the man who resembles Captain Picard was brought aboard, he was given a medical examination, and Doctor Crusher discovered that he had been raped.” Data paused. “Were you about to say something, Commander?”

Riker shut his mouth and shook his head.

Data tilted his head to one side. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “Tests were carried out, and the person responsible was arrested and placed in custody. He denied the charge, but the forensic evidence seemed inarguable. However, we cannot now escape the possibility that the person apparently responsible may also have a duplicate in your own quantum reality. If so, the forensic evidence becomes ambiguous. We can only try to establish by questioning the man who resembles Captain Picard whether he was assaulted in his own reality, or in ours.”

“Why can’t you just check the sperm for its quantum signature?” Riker asked, interested despite himself.

Data’s unblinking gaze was disconcerting. “I have. The result was not conclusive. I am forced to conclude that contamination may have taken place.”

Riker shook his head again, disbelieving. “I don’t understand you,” he said finally. “I can’t believe this. Your Captain is missing, your First Officer is missing – who’s in command of the ship?”

“I am,” Data said. “Mr Worf is acting as my First Officer.”

A Klingon and an android were in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise? Riker very nearly had hysterics. It sounded like a joke. He bit down on the inappropriate laughter, and said, with an effort, “Don’t you think you have more important things to do that find out who last used a slot?”

“The two civilians accused of assault and complicity in assault of a Starfleet officer were arrested and detained aboard this ship. It now appears that the arrest, though justified on the information available at the time, may have been wrongful. I cannot conceive that a Starfleet officer has any more important duty than to establish the truth and set right a possible injustice committed by Starfleet.”

“Right.” Riker spoke definitely. “But you’ve already done that. There’s no question of assault on a Starfleet officer – if either of these two civilians did use the slot, there’s no crime involved. A misdemeanour, perhaps, if the slot belonged to someone else, but nothing Starfleet needs to be involved in.”

“You have twice employed the phrase ‘used the slot,’ as if it were a justification for assault,” Data said. His voice, as ever, was utterly expressionless. “That may be your opinion, but it is not appropriate behaviour for a Starfleet officer in this universe, and I must ask you to refrain from doing so.”

“Or – what?” Riker asked.

“Or I shall return you to the brig,” Data said, “and continue this investigation without your assistance.”


“I shall return you to the brig,” Data said, meticulously, “and continue this – ”

“Yes, I heard you the first time, Mr Data,” Riker cut in. “All right. What is this investigation? Have you informed Fleet Command?”

“A report is on its way. The purpose of the investigation is to discover whether the man who resembles Captain Picard was assaulted in this reality by a civilian whom we have charged with the crime, or whether he was assaulted in his own reality by the civilian’s counterpart in that reality.”

Riker considered this. Until Fleet Command received the report and responded – as he was sure they would – with a transfer of command, the android was technically in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and had evidently decided to focus resources on this useless investigation. If Riker could help get Data past this task he had set himself, that could only be an improvement in the situation.

“Very well. What can I do to help?”

“Doctor Crusher has attempted to question the man who resembles Captain Picard,” Data said. “He has refused to respond. He will not respond to Lieutenant-Commander Troi, or to myself. He will not even give his name. It appears that your counterpart, Commander Riker, had some more success in getting him to talk about himself.”

“Has anyone given him a name?” Riker asked.

“We do not know what his name is.”

“He doesn’t have one,” Riker said irritably. “He’s a slot. You want me to get him to talk?”

Data nodded, and Riker swept on, “Have you kept him in sickbay since you took him away this morning?”

“Yes,” Data said, with an oddly human note of puzzlement.

“Good.” Riker grinned. The slot had been scared enough this morning, and after five or six hours held in a lab, he’d be terrified. Terrified enough to beg Riker for a name, probably. Riker had seen slots in lab holding areas, curled silently and alone with dead eyes, waiting for experimentation to begin, and the ‘refusal to respond’ was almost certainly the beginnings of that catatonia. “And you want to know who – ” Riker corrected himself just in time, “who fucked him last? Easy, I can probably get him to tell us about his whole history for the past five years, if you want to know it.”

“An account of the past twenty-four hours will be sufficient,” Data said. “Can you obtain this without touching him and without threatening him?”

“If I have to,” Riker said, frowning. “Why?”

“Because if you touch him, or threaten him, I will return you to the brig. You will remain there until you can be charged with assaulting a defenceless civilian.”

“I don’t believe this,” Riker almost snapped. “I have never harmed a civilian.”

“Mr Riker,” Data said, with the same almost-human note of puzzlement, “Yesterday, after Doctor Crusher had regenerated various minor injuries, the man was left in Commander Riker’s quarters completely healthy and whole. Today he has fresh bruising over much of his body, including his face, the ligaments of one wrist are badly wrenched, and he has a first-degree burn on his chest, probably caused by a large quantity of hot coffee. If you wish to claim that you did not cause these injuries, can you explain what did?”

“Look,” Riker said, with patience, “I understand now that it wasn’t his fault. But at the time, I thought it was the slot I bought yesterday. Believe me, if you’d met that one, you’d understand that he deserved a lot worse than that.”

Data tapped the Starfleet record. Riker had been avoiding looking at it. “The man you bought yesterday,” Data said, “was this man?”

Riker glanced at it again. It still looked like a slot, dressed in a Starfleet uniform. “They certainly appear to be identical,” he said after a moment, “as far as I can tell from a picture. But if that really is a Starfleet captain, then they can't be.”

“Why not?”

“A slot?” Riker laughed, a single bark. It wasn’t really funny. “A android can be a Starfleet officer, a fairly good one. I’ll accept a Klingon can be a good officer. But slots are bred for good looks, docility, and frankly, lack of intelligence. A slot wouldn’t even make a good soldier: they obey orders, but they’re easily frightened, they have no idea of initiative, and unless they were directly ordered, they’d never fight.”

“According to my knowledge of genetics,” Data said, after a moment, “which is considerable, it is impossible to reliably breed human beings for docility, stupidity, cowardice, lack of initiative, or even good looks. It is, however, very easy to coerce humans into required patterns of behaviour, especially if you begin when the human is very young.” He stood up. “You will be under observation the entire time that the man is in the same room as you. If you touch him or threaten him in any way whatsoever, I shall return you to the brig.”

Riker nodded. “Fine. Now can we get on with it?” He barely noticed when Data left. After a moment, he succumbed to temptation, and looked at Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Starfleet record.

The odd thing was that it seemed to match the story the slot had told yesterday when Doctor Crusher had drugged him. Riker wished he had a copy of the interrogation record to confirm this, but the broad similiarity was certain, and certainly some details definitely matched.

But cover the Starfleet uniform, and a slot looked back at him from the picture, exactly as the slot yesterday had looked at him: with wordless dignity, almost defiance, overlaid by an impassive mask. Some owners might have tolerated that kind of behaviour: Riker never would have. Then again, Riker had never owned a slot for longer than a couple of weeks shoreleave. This slot, from what Riker could remember, had regularly had one owner for as long as two years at a time. Maybe long-term owners tolerated different patterns of behaviour from slots.

Whatever Data in this universe had to say, it wasn’t possible that a slot could be a starship captain. Doctor Crusher had speculated about a false personality with faked memories, recorded over the slot’s mind and memories. Maybe this universe was the source of some of the memories. Riker took his hand away from the picture, and frowned at the uniform. Maybe.

“God knows,” he said aloud, and was startled when the door opened. He had half-expected the slot to be dragged in, but he was walking, escorted by a medical technician on one side and a security guard on the other.

Riker reached out and shut down the terminal, leisurely, though he was annoyed that that the slot’s escorts hadn’t signalled at the door. “Thank you,” he said, crisply. He didn’t recognise either of them. “You can go now.”

Instead, the medical technician walked the slot across the room and, gently, made him sit in the chair across the desk from Riker. The slot moved without resistance: his face was empty.

“Thank you,” Riker said, with a nod. “You can go.”

Neither the technician nor the security guard said anything to him, but they went. The door closed. Riker leaned back in his chair and surveyed the slot, slowly, irritated that the initiative had been taken out of his hands. If the slot could walk, he could stand until Riker told him he could sit down.

“What’s your name, slot?”

No answer. The slot was clearly not catatonic: his eyes were focussed, and he was quite capable of independent movement, though since the technician had made him sit down, he had remained very still.

“Answer me when I speak to you, slot.”

The slot wasn’t even really looking at him. He was staring across the desk at the far side of the room.

Riker was silent for a moment. The next obvious step was to slap the slot into paying attention. It was remarkably frustrating to be unable to do so. Once Riker was certain his voice was under control, deliberately genial, he said “Fine. We’ll take this a step at a time. You know what kind of trouble you’re in, and you know that you can go back to the labs at any time. I understand you’re afraid and you think this is the end.” He paused a moment. “But if you cooperate, things could be different.”

Now that got a reaction. The slot was looking at him now, his eyes wide. Riker smiled, and went on, casually and gently. “You don’t have to go back to the labs. There’s a few questions I want you to answer, clearly and in as much detail as you can. Do it, and I’ll give you a name and I’ll keep you out of the labs. We’ll find something for you to do aboard ship.” His voice hardened. “On the other hand, try being stubborn, and you’ll find yourself back where you were. You’d make yourself useless. Now is that clear?”

No answer, but Riker hadn’t expected one immediately. He said crisply, “You have permission to speak. Answer the question.”

No answer.

Riker moved on, as if there had been an answer. “Now, you’re going to tell me what customers had you in the last day you were in the slot house. How many?”

No answer. The slot sucked in a breath, but he sat still, looking at Riker impassively.

“I want an answer. You were bought from the slot house yesterday, so your last day in the house was from breakfast time the day before yesterday. How many customers had you between breakfast time the day before yesterday, till yesterday morning?” No threats. Promises…. “I told you I wanted a detailed account of your last day in the slot house. You don’t need to worry if you can’t remember some details, or if you’re not sure. You won’t be punished for that.” Riker made his voice warm and friendly. “Everyone forgets things. Just answer my questions, in as much detail as you can remember, and you’ll be safe. I’ll give you a name, and you won’t have to go back to the labs. Just answer my questions.”

The slot opened his mouth. Riker smiled at him.

“I don’t believe you,” the slot said, whispering.

“What?” The smile died on Riker’s face. For a moment, he was genuinely uncertain if he’d heard right. “What did you just say?”

The slot didn’t repeat it.

“How many customers had you between breakfast time the day before yesterday, till yesterday morning?” Riker asked again. It was a nice, simple question. “Come on. Answer me.” He stood up, and the slot flinched back.

Good. Riker walked round the desk and stood very close to the slot. After a moment, the slot looked up. His hand came up, shielding his mouth.

“Put your hand down,” Riker said.

The slot obeyed. Both hands were now clenched into loose fists at his sides. Riker shook his head. “Put your hands on your thighs. Palms up.”

After a long moment, the slot did as he was told. Riker nodded, satisfied. “Good boy. Now you’re going to answer my questions, and I’ll see you’re all right.”

“I don’t believe you,” the slot whispered again.

This time Riker knew what he had heard. He leaned in more closely. “I didn’t quite catch what you said, slot. Would you care to repeat it, or are you going to answer my question? How many customers had you – ”

The slot’s voice was loud, rough, harsh as if each word was tearing its way out of his throat. “I don’t believe you.”

Involuntarily, Riker jerked back. He stared at the slot, for an instant utterly out of his depth. Even yesterday the slot hadn’t spoken to him like that. He kept his hands by his sides by an effort of will: he could not allow the android to disable him, and Data had evidently meant what he said. Strike the slot, and Riker went back to the brig, leaving an android and a Klingon in command of Starfleet’s flagship – even if it was called the Enterprise. “Slot,” he said slowly, deliberately keeping his temper, “you’re in a lot of trouble.”

The slot was breathing hard. Helplessly, his hand came up again to shield his mouth. He didn’t say anything.

“Put your hand down,” Riker said, keeping his voice slow and easy.

The slot lowered his hand, staring at Riker. After a moment he said, his voice hoarse and shaky, “You can’t make me…” He trailed off. “You can’t make me do anything.”

This was hopeless. Obviously someone had told the slot that Riker wasn’t empowered to punish him. Riker stepped back and glanced up at the camera. “I want someone in here,” he said. “Now.” He waited, watching the slot, who didn’t move, though he was visibly trembling.

Within a minute, Data appeared. Presumably, he had been watching.

“We’ve got a discipline problem,” Riker said.

Data ignored him. With calm swiftness, he crossed the room and sank to his knees in front of the slot. Riker bit back a request to know what the hell Data thought he was doing.

“Sir,” Data said. “My name is Data. I need information from you. Can you help me?”

The slot stared. By kneeling, Riker noticed, Data had brought his face into the slot’s field of vision: if the slot sat still with his eyes cast down, he would look Data right in the eye. Riker decided to shut up for the moment. Perhaps Data knew what he was doing.

“Sir,” Data said again. “I have already deduced a large part of what I need to know. I would like to explain the areas my information covers, so that you understand why I must know the answers that I cannot deduce.”

The slot’s voice was still hoarse when he spoke at last. “What if I won’t?”

Data never hesitated. “As you correctly observed, sir, we cannot make you do anything. However, I ask you to listen to me.” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Last night you were told that somehow you had moved into a parallel reality, another universe. That is the truth as far as I can discover it. I do not yet know how you were moved from your own reality into this reality. If you can tell me what happened in the last hours in which you were in your own reality, it may be possible to discover how you were transferred from one reality to another.”

“And when I tell you,” the slot said after a moment, “what then?”

“We will retrieve your counterpart from the reality in which he is lost. If we can do this without returning you to your reality, we will do so. However, I must tell you that it seems unlikely that we can do so. All the records we possess of travel between alternate realities indicate that a transfer of counterparts is essential. You may not have realised it, but another transfer between realities took place some time last night: the man who interrogated you this morning is not the same man who spoke to you last night, but his counterpart, from the same reality as you.”

The slot seemed to push himself a little further back in his chair. He didn’t move his head, but Riker spotted a flicker in his eyes, and knew the slot had looked at him. Data must have seen it too, but the android remained on his knees, absolutely still, focussed on the slot.

“I don’t believe you,” the slot said again, but without the harshness with which he had spoken before: his voice wasn’t just shaky, it was wobbling, and there was no stubborness in it at all. Push once more, and he would crack. Data had done a good job after all.

“I can understand that, sir. You have reason not to believe what you are told,” Data said. “I assure you, sir, that if you choose not to help us, you will not be physically assaulted. As you yourself pointed out, we cannot make you do anything you do not wish to do. All I can do is ask you for your help, and if you choose to refuse it, we have no way to compel you.”

“What happens then?” the slot asked. His voice was faint, but steadier. Riker frowned.

“We will try to find other ways of locating and retrieving your counterpart.”

“And you’ll go to the labs,” Riker interjected. Data was doing well, surprisingly, but he’d let the slot recover a little, and Riker thought it was good tactics to remind the slot how close to the edge he still was.

Data did not move. Only his head turned, and he regarded Riker with an expressionless look. “What labs are you talking about?”

“Where you’ve been keeping him today,” Riker said, with meaning. Data in his own reality had occasionally been this obtuse. He glanced over Data’s head at the slot, who was still not looking at him. “Where slots go when there’s no further use for them.”

Data seemed to freeze, for a measurable time: two or three seconds. Then he turned and looked up at the slot. “Sir, I apologise,” he said. “I did not fully understand what you believed your situation to be.”

“Why are you calling me sir?” the slot asked.

“Because I do not know your name.” Data went on, as if that were a sufficient answer, “Sir, it seems that from your point of view, you were taken to a laboratory, rescued from the laboratory by Commander Riker, taken back to the laboratory, removed from the laboratory again by Commander Riker, and then this morning beaten and returned to the laboratory. This was further complicated by the Commander Riker who explained your situation yesterday evening being removed and replaced by a different Commander Riker who contradicted the explanation. I can only ask you to believe that until a few moments ago, no one aboard this ship knew this.”

Silence. Riker was speechless: he felt an odd sympathy with the slot, whose mouth was trembling.

Data’s expression did not change. “You believed, each time you were taken to sickbay, that you had been taken to a laboratory where you would be used for scientific experimentation, and that experimentation would end in your death. There is no sufficient apology for not reassuring you that this is not and has never been the case. Neither the Federation nor Starfleet uses self-aware individuals for experimentation. Indeed, non-consensual experimentation on self-aware beings has been banned on all Federation worlds and within Starfleet for the past two hundred years. That is why it occurred to no one here that you were afraid of this. I apologise on behalf of Starfleet, whose guest you are, that we did not realise until now.”

Riker nearly bit his tongue. He had no idea why Data was talking like this, but guessed that the android (or, more likely, someone working with the android – the Klingon? Beverly Crusher?) was trying what reasssurance would do to make the slot answer questions. Fair enough, if it worked. However, the slot was, pretty definitely, Riker’s personal property, and it was beginning to sound like Data wanted it confiscated. A guest of Starfleet?

“Sir?” Data sat back on his heels, easily, keeping his gaze levelled on the slot’s face. He waited.

“Is that my name?” the slot asked. His voice was dragging, inexpressibly weary. “Who owns me?”

“In this reality, it is illegal for anyone to claim you as their property aboard this ship,” Data said. “Therefore, no one owns you. You are free.”

The threat was delivered in a voice that never wavered from Data’s usual even tones. Riker was, almost despite himself, deeply impressed. The slot’s lips moved, but he made no sound, only hunched back in his chair.

Data’s head turned, and once more he gazed at Riker, who could read nothing in the android’s face. Was Data asking for approval? Riker was ready to give it: that final touch, telling the slot he had no owner and was free for use, seemed to have cracked the slot wide open.

The slot’s lips moved, but he made no sound. Then he lifted his hand again to shield his mouth and said, almost in a mumble, “If I tell you what you want to know… can you make it quick?”


“If you promise to make it quick,” the slot said, his voice a mutter that Riker could barely make out, “I’ll say what you want.”

“Sir, I cannot promise you anything,” Data said. “I am sorry. All I can do is ask for your help.”

The slot sat there with his head down. After a moment, Data said “Sir, we need to know what happened during your last night on Liwydniwael.”

The slot’s voice was a whisper. “Anything – anything - what do you need to know?”

Data reached out and his right hand danced over the keyboard, moving far faster and more accurately than a human hand. Riker watched, interested. Data in his universe had always been shy of demonstrating the abilities that had made him extrahuman and so useful to Starfleet.

“Do you recognise any of these people?” He turned the screen again to face the slot.

“Yes,” the slot said after a minute, in a dry voice. “The third one and the one at the end.”

Data’s hand danced again, spookily independent. “These two men?”

“Yes.” The slot’s face was still, but Riker noticed that his hands, though he held them against his knees, were twitching.

“When did you see them, sir?”

The slot swallowed. “I – sir – “ He glanced at Riker, and Data followed his glance. For an instant they were both looking at him.

“Is it that you are not sure how long you have been here?” Data asked. “You have spent one night aboard the Enterprise. You were beamed aboard yesterday morning. Last night you spent in Commander Riker’s quarters, and the night before that was the last night you spent on Liwydniwael.”

“I saw them then, sir,” the slot said finally. He was no longer looking at Riker: he was gazing across the room, his eyes not focussed on anything. “Yesterday morning I saw the blond man, sir, I don’t know his name. The night before that I saw the dark man, sir, he named me Rencontres for the night, he told me to call him Shipmaster. That’s all I know, sir.”

“I am sorry I have to ask you some more questions, sir,” Data said.

“I told you all I know,” the slot repeated. He was pressing himself back into the chair, his head up and his hands tightly clinging to each other in his lap, Riker realised that he should tell the slot to put his hands back on his knees and keep them apart, but despite himself, he was fascinated. They’d never let Data conduct an interrogation by himself: Riker had no idea that he was this good at it. He almost felt sorry for the slot.

“Can you tell me what the relationship between you and the dark man was, sir?” Data asked.

“Relationship?” The slot swallowed. “I – sir – ” His voice was now shaking. “I hadn’t seen him before, sir.”

“That is not what I meant,” Data said. He was still for a long moment, as if running a complex program in what he called his brain.

“He wants to know if the dark man – his name’s Bodie – raped you,” Riker said. It was like delivering a merciful blow to the neck: there was really no point in dragging the interrogation out. Both Data and the slot turned to look at him again. Before Data could tell him to shut up, Riker said again, “Just tell us. Did Bodie rape you? Yes or no?”

The absurdity of asking a slot if someone raped him made his voice rough and hard.

“Sir,” Data said. “I must protest – ”

“You want an answer, don’t you? Then ask the question!” Riker snapped. “Come on, slot, say it.”

The slot flinched, glancing from the screen to Riker’s face, and opened his mouth, and closed it again.

“Sir,” Data began, but then the slot did something Riker had never expected.

He stood up. “No,” he said. His voice was no more than a croak. “I saw the man, that one, last night, I knew he was a spacer and I got him to pick me for the night.” His hand came up to shield his mouth, and he was shivering, but he went on. “I’d had three men already and I knew I could take another one but no more, and spacers usually want partners for the night – so I picked him out. But I’d never seen him before. Never. And I’m not going to say what you want me to say. God! Do you hear me! I will not.” His voice, not strong to start with, choked up by the end, but he got out – spat out – a final, bitter “Not,” and then he stood there, plainly, speechlessly, terrified.

A slot can’t do that. Riker swallowed, stung to unwilling admiration for the man: visibly he expected to be killed, or taken back to the labs where, this time, he would remain. A slot had no courage, nor pride: but this slot was still on his feet, and that speech had been the bravest thing Riker had ever seen a slot do. Irritating, but true.

And then the slot swayed backwards, staggering as if he had been struck, though neither Data nor Riker had even moved towards him.

God knew, the labs were always waiting.

He had obeyed, and watched for the lightest hint of his new master’s desires. Any master would at times reverse all orders from one day to the next, and you would then be punished for obeying yesterday’s orders: you curled up and waited for it to be over.

Why not lie? When the man who was master promised him comfort and peace and the pleasure of having achieved approval for a litle longer, only a little longer, why not lie for a few hours more life? It would have been easier to lie.

God is cruel.

Part Eight

Picard was never sure how long he had lain there on the floor, trying to breathe through his nose and not past the tainted thing that propped his jaws open and pressed on his tongue. All the familiar sounds of a small ship hummed around him, as he lay there under the burning lights, unable to do more than roll himself so that he was not staring straight up into the dazzle.

He heard them coming back after a while: the door opened and they came in. They didn’t talk to each other. One moved to get something from the replicator, the other came over and stood above him. Picard could feel him there. He tried to say “Get this thing off me,” but it came out as a series of muffled noises.

“Help me get him up,” one said. Klingonaase. Must be Ilya. The one standing over him was Ilya.

Between them they moved him like a puppet, settling his legs again so that, involuntarily, he knelt, his arms still held behind his back. Bodie even tapped him under the jaw to bring his head up. They sat down in the chairs facing him. Exactly as it had been – how many hours ago? – only Picard ached all over and his eyes felt itchy and he was imexpressibly tired, and the gag was going to make him sick. He mustn’t be sick.

“Convince us that you’re going to be good and we’ll take the cuffs off,” Ilya said. He was nursing a mug between his hands: coffee or tea? It was hot and wet and Picard’s mouth wanted it. “Now, listen to me, slot. I want to know how you knew I was hostage-fosterling. But when I take that gag off, if you say one word when we have not given you permission to speak, it goes back on, and we’ll hand you over to the Federation, gagged with our compliments.” He paused. “Do you understand? Grunt, if you do.”

It was a moment, even after all that, before Picard could bring himself to do it. He grunted. Once.

“All right.” Ilya stood up and put his coffee mug down. It was coffee: Picard could smell it now. He moved behind Picard and, after a moment when the straps seemed to cut even more tightly into his face, the gag was off.

Absurdly, it was all Picard could do not to say “Thank you.” He shut his mouth and swallowed, creating saliva, and swallowing again. He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth, checking the tender places. Oh God, it was good to be free of the gag.

Ilya sat down again and drank coffee, eyeing Bodie. Bodie was slouched back in his chair, cradling his mug between his hands just below his chin. He barely seemed to be looking at Picard. Ilya certainly appeared to have most of his attention on Bodie. Picard did not move, not even to ease his angry muscles. His arms were beginning to be worryingly numb; he very much wanted to be convincing.

“All right,” Ilya said finally, putting down the coffee mug. “You have my permission to thank me for taking the gag off.”

Picard swallowed again. “Thank you,” he said, in Rihannsu, using the inflection of equal-to-equal.

Bodie sat up and glowered at Picard. He spoke to Ilya in Rihannsu with the same inflection. “Tell him to speak Standard.” It was somehow not less threatening because Bodie was still holding his coffee mug tightly in both hands.

Ilya shrugged a little. Bodie’s frown grew more pronounced. “Standard,” he growled in Battle Tongue.

“I’ll assume,” Ilya said in his quiet voice, without answering Bodie directly, “that you don’t know Rihansu very well, and therefore do not realise that I could have your tongue torn from its roots for the way you have just spoken to me. You have permission to speak in Standard only, slot: you do not have permission to defile any other language.”

Picard held himself still, looking at Ilya with an expression of mild enquiry on his face. He hoped that it still looked like mild enquiry, and not like a grimace of pain.

After a long moment, Ilya sighed. “You have my permission to tell me that you have understood and will obey.”

“I understand,” Picard said. “I will speak Standard except when discussing matters of klin and mnhei’sahe, of which it is impossible to speak in outworld tongues.”

Ilya put down his coffee cup, leant forward, took hold of Picard’s chin with one hand, and slapped Picard, not hard, but deliberately, with the other. Out of the corner of his eye, Picard saw Bodie lean back in his chair and take another comfortable swig of coffee. “Now say it.”

There was something about being slapped in the face. It didn’t hurt very much when Picard compared it to the pain in his wrists or his knees or the bruising elsewhere. It was a small, deliberately humiliating pain. Trying to analyse it was better than shouting in fury and outrage – or more useful, at least. Picard swallowed, licked his lips, and said “I have understood, and will obey.”

“Good,” Ilya said, and sat back in his chair for another drink of coffee. “Now, slot: how did you know I was hostage-fosterling? You have my permission to speak freely, so long as you begin and end each sentence with Sir.”

Picard gathered his thoughts. “Sir,” he began carefully, “it was a deduction that fitted all the facts as I knew them. Sir.”

“What facts could you possibly have known about me?” Ilya asked. He did not look at Bodie.

“Sir,” Picard began, and ticked the items off a mental list. “You speak Rihannsu like a native, and not like someone who learnt it from tape. You are not a Romulan with surgical alterations, because your body temperature is human-normal.” Picard had felt Ilya’s hands often enough in the past few hours to be quite certain of that. “You speak Klingonaase well, but not like a native, and again, I don’t think you learned it from tape. And you’re the right age to have been born on one of the frontier worlds and taken as one of the child-hostages at the time of the last Imperial expansion, and then – ”

Bodie leaned forward again. “He’s forgotten to say ‘Sir,’” he said to Ilya in quiet Rihannsu. He used the Standard word for ‘sir’. “Remind him.”

Ilya sighed abruptly. Once more, taking Picard’s chin in one hand, he slapped him with the other. “Go on,” he added, picking up his coffee mug again.

Picard drew in a deep breath. “Sir,” he said sharply. “As I was saying, Sir, you were probably born on one of the human worlds and taken as a child-hostage the last time Romulus had an expansionist Imperial policy. Sir.” He paused, just long enough to indicate that he was ending a sentence. “Sir, I further deduced that you were expelled from the Empire during a genetic purity purge. Sir.” Another pause, this time as brief as possible, as Ilya was already frowning. “Sir, in my universe the last genetic purity purge in the Romulan Empire was – “

“Shut up,” Ilya said.

“Sir,” Picard said, finishing his interrupted sentence.

“You were owned by a Klingon, for about half a year,” Ilya said. “Did he tell you all this?”

“Sir. I learned most of the details in a briefing when the ship I commanded at the time of the last genetic purity purge was sent to the Romulan border to pick up genetic refugees. Sir.”

“So you were a trader then, slot?” Ilya’s voice was half-laugh, half-sneer.

“Sir, I was Captain of the U.S.S. Stargazer. Sir. But that was in another universe, about twenty years ago. Sir.” Picard found it almost like speaking a newly tape-learned language, to keep remembering to drop in Sir like spoken punctuation.

Bodie put down his coffee cup. He was still speaking Rihansu, quite calmly. “We’re not getting anywhere, Ilya.“

“Aren’t you curious?” Ilya spoke in Klingonaase.

“I’ll restrain myself.”

“What was he doing there?” Ilya had never taken his eyes off Picard. He went on, in Standard, “What did you think you were doing in that shuttle?”

“Sir, I was getting away from a starship where I was being held prisoner and abused in a way that violated Starfleet regulations and Federation laws governing the treatment even of convicted criminals, and under the threat of a mindwipe. Sir.” Picard paused. “Sir, I think you did exactly the same thing twenty years ago. Sir.”

Once more Ilya put down his mug and leaned forward. But this time, before he could strike, Bodie put his hand out to stop him. “Why do you think that, slot?” he asked.

“Sir, because he – “ Picard jerked with his chin, lacking any other way to point at Ilya “ – asked me if I was a trader when I said I had been sent to the Romulan border. Sir. I deduce that in this universe, instead of being welcomed as applicant Federation citizens, the genetic refugees were sold as slaves. Sir,” he finished, as Bodie’s hand was lifting to strike.

This time it was Ilya’s hand that blocked the blow. “We agreed,” he said quickly and savagely in Rihannsu. He slapped Picard’s face again, once on either side. “Now shut up,” he added in Standard. “You no longer have permission to speak.”

Despite the fact that clearly neither wanted to acknowledge that Picard understood them, two swift sentences into what promised to be an angry quarrel, Ilya stopped and jerked his head at Picard. As one, they got up and pulled Picard to his feet. They hustled him along a corridor and into a small disused sleeping-cabin. Ilya unlocked the cuffs and relocked them with one cuff around a bar at one end of the bare bunk. “If you’re good,” he added in Standard, “I’ll bring you a drink later.”

Again, Picard had to remind himself not to say “Thank you.” Instead he nodded, formally, as if thanking one of his officers for a minor service, sat down on the edge of the bunk, and began methodically to flex his free hand, working some feeling back into it. Ilya was watching him with a peculiar look. Bodie was standing by the door, his lips twisting, clearly biting back the next installment of their fight.

“What good do you think you’re doing yourself?” Ilya asked abruptly, and as Picard flashed a glance upwards, he said “Yes, go on, speak.”

“Sir,” Picard said deliberately, “I am trying to convince you both that I am not – whatever you think I am.” He had nearly said “a sex slave”, but even after all that had happened to him, it seemed too ludicrous to describe himself like that. “Sir,” he added.

Ilya reached out and tilted Picard’s face upwards, towards the light. “What do I think you are,” he said slowly, as deliberately as Picard had spoken. He was silent a moment, staring directly down into Picard's face. “Exquisite.” He brushed his thumb across Picard’s left eyebrow as he took his hand away.

Picard shut his mouth like a trap. He glanced across at Bodie, and saw the furious glare. Which of us is he angry with?

With an effort, Picard made a casual shrug, and began, carefully, to massage his cuffed wrist with his free hand. He did not look at either Ilya or Bodie. Ilya’s hand under his chin tilted his head back up. “But you’re not used to being told so.” Ilya waited. “You still have permission to speak.”

Picard managed another shrug. “Well - Sir. I can’t think of anything to say to that. Sir.”

“You could say thank you,” Ilya said thoughtfully. “But that doesn’t occur to you.” His hand was still on Picard’s face. “You could try to seduce me the way my partner claims you seduced him. But perhaps you don’t find me as exciting as you found him? Even though I am your owner, and he was merely another customer in a long, long line of… paying guests.”

“Perhaps – “ Picard nearly bit his lip. “Sir. Perhaps I don’t find the idea of being owned all that exciting. Sir. Besides, my memories of our first encounter are rather different. Sir.”

“I thought they might be,” Ilya purred. “Well, why don’t you tell me about your... encounter… with my partner?”

Bodie had to stay over by the door, Picard realised, because so long as Bodie was out of reach, Ilya could safely remain within arm’s reach of Picard, and be certain that Picard wouldn’t attempt another assault. They must think he was insane: trying to attack with one hand tied behind his back, either literally or metaphorically, was one thing: trying to attack with one hand chained to the wall was quite another.

But perhaps they did think he was insane. Or at least, that his behaviour was so outrageous that it was completely unpredictable.

And Ilya had chained him up like this, with one hand free: and Ilya was standing close enough that if Picard had been crazy enough to try, he could have grabbed at the other man and… wrenched his arm? Taken him hostage and threatened to bite his throat out?

Well… “Sir,” Picard said, crisply, “Your partner is glaring at me from the door, and he’s already done me enough damage that I’d rather not provoke him to any more. Sir.”

Ilya grinned. “On the other hand,” he said, and brought his other hand up to tap, lightly, at Picard’s jaw, “I’m standing much closer. Describe your first encounter with my partner.”

“I woke up yesterday morning and there he was,” Picard said. Involuntarily, he jerked his head backwards, and for an instant was out of Ilya’s hands. “I met his counterpart earlier the previous day in another universe. And the rest is none of your business.”

“I own you,” Ilya said, just as it struck Picard that he had omitted the required “sir”, and not been hit for it. Thoughtfully, Ilya’s hands encircled his throat, but applied no pressure.

“Actually,” Picard summoned up a faintly ironic smile from somewhere, “according to your records, Commander Riker owns me. And from what you’ve said and refrained from doing, I don’t think you like the idea of owning someone, anyway. Everyone else I’ve met appears to have taken it as a personal insult if I spoke to them like a normal human being.”

“I’m surprised you have any bones left in your face,” Ilya said, after a moment. “Most of them ought to have been broken by now.” He let go, slapped Picard’s face lightly with the fingers of one hand, and glanced at Bodie. “Now, tell me about your first encounter with my partner, and this time remember that if I decide you’re not worth listening to, my partner is extremely anxious to gag you.”

“I told you,” Picard said, and Ilya shook his head, once. “Sir,” Picard said immediately. “I met your partner’s counterpart in another universe about three days ago, I think. Sir. I’d seen him several times in the previous few days, but we’d never spoken. Sir. I first saw your partner sometime yesterday morning. Sir. I don’t know when. Sir. I could describe our encounter, but it’s unlikely to match your partner’s memories. Sir.”

“That is supposed to be a term of respect,” Ilya said, and his hand closed, briefly, jawlike, on Picard’s throat. “Try again.”

“Sir,” Picard said, with pure exasperation, “what’s the point of telling you the truth when you won’t listen and you won’t believe me? Sir.”

Ilya shrugged and stepped back. “You might as well gag him again, Bodie.”

Bodie swore at him in Klingonaase. It was something to the effect that Ilya had asked for it. He was colloquial and fluent: he too had evidently learned the language as if he were a native, and Picard wondered if he’d get the chance to say so. Klingons had no tradition of hostage-fostering, but they did have servitors. Bodie never moved from the doorway.

“Still,” Ilya said. “He’ll have to learn.” The contrast Picard had noticed earlier between the way Ilya and Bodie spoke Klingonaase had never been more stark.

Bodie looked as if he were biting down on something hard and unpleasant. Finally he said “H’ta-fvau, Ilyushka.” Come back here – as imperatively spoken as a single syllable in Battle Tongue, but not spoken as a warrior’s command. Not at all.

Ilya turned away from Picard, a step or so, and stood, a moment, looking at Bodie.

“Very well,” he said finally, in his precise Klingonaase. He went towards the door, and Bodie reached out and took hold of him. It was the first time, Picard thought, that he had seen Bodie touch Ilya… he thought he remembered seeing Ilya holding Bodie, but that stretch of time was red and vague.

Alone, Picard tried to find a comfortable position in which to sleep – he was thirsty, but more than that he was desperately tired. Having his hand cuffed to one end of the bunk made it awkward. He hoped that Ilya and Bodie had a lot to argue about. God, he was tired.

He was woken by a savage pain in his wrist, caused by having tried to bring his chained hand up with his free hand to fend off the assault. The hands on him, he knew in his first waking moment, were Will’s big hands, strong and invasive, tearing at the tough Starfleet uniform he had stolen.

Picard fought back as best he could. He had been right when he thought that fighting with one hand chained to a wall was an impossible situation. Bodie turned him – he thought his arm was going to break, until the cuff turned on his wrist, tearing the skin – and bent him over the bunk, pinning him against it. Once Picard was immobilised, Bodie’s attack on the uniform he wore became more precise, and trying and failing to kick as his pants were pulled down around his knees was only less humiliating than the stinging slap that landed on his bare thighs a moment after.

There were no taunts, no promises, no threats. Bodie was silent, though hard-breathing, and efficient: Picard had not even managed to turn enough to see his face. He was a sweet fuck, so I left a good tip.

Effortfully, Picard turned his head to one side. “I am not – “ he said out loud, and was interrupted by another hard slap. That didn’t matter. “I am not kuve. What were you, Bodie, when you learned Klingonaase?”

Bodie hit him again, twice, before he could finish asking the question, and then put his hand on Picard’s face and pressed him mouth-down against the mattress. Picard bucked, trying to take advantage of the slightly increased leverage this manoeuvre of Bodie’s had given him, and Bodie moved his hand away from Picard’s face to hold him more firmly.

The only defence was attack. “What were you, when you learned Klingonaase?” Picard repeated, as soon as he had his mouth clear again. This time the last word was driven out of him with a ferocious blow to his ribs, but he knew that Bodie knew what he was asking, and that was what mattered.

Bodie let go and jumped back. When Picard had managed to turn and lean against the wall beside the bunk, Bodie was standing a little further away than arm’s reach with the gag swinging from one hand. Picard tried once to retrieve his pants, and failing – they were tangled around his knees, out of reach unless he bent and scrabbled – he did his best to ignore his half-nakedness. Picard had hoped Bodie would need to find a replicator, but evidently he had brought the gag with him. Bodie didn’t say a word: he moved in on Picard, warily but with an overbearing confidence. Picard saw it all laid out: whether he fought or not, Bodie would pin him, gag him, turn him over, and rape him. All that fighting would gain him was more bruises. And God, he was so tired, and so thirsty –

“Where were you,” Picard said through a dry mouth, “what were you, when – ”

When Bodie moved, he moved fast. Picard had just time to bring his arm up to shield his mouth, and Bodie’s fist met his elbow with a painful crack. Bodie grabbed his arm and yanked it down, glaring at Picard face-to-face, fumbling the gag clear with his free hand. There was no lust in Bodie’s eyes, Picard realised: none of the intent interest he had seen in Riker’s – or in Will’s. Bodie intended to rape him, but it wasn’t out of sexual desire. It was pure rage. For a moment, for a horrible terrified length of time, Picard wanted to hold still and let it happen, because it was going to happen anyway, no matter how much he fought, no matter what he said. He couldn’t help himself. Why even try?

“You can’t shut me up by doing this,” Picard forced out, in Klingonaase, though it rasped his throat. “What is done before the naked stars is remembered. You will remember this – ” he ducked his head to dodge the gag, though it required a definite act of will to do so, and went on talking “ – how you tried to dishonour a warrior in chains – ”

The mouthpiece of the gag went in. It tasted fouler than last time, and Picard heard himself make a sound like a choked scream. Bodie pinned Picard’s other hand against the wall with his knee, and strapped the gag around Picard’s head.

Bodie never gave him half a chance, after that. He had Picard pinned against the wall, and with swift and meticulous care, never so much as letting Picard enough freedom to struggle, let alone fight, he turned Picard again and forced him face down into the bunk. It had been hard to breathe before. It was a struggle for life with the gag in his mouth and his nose jammed against the bare mattress.

He’s going to kill me. Picard had stopped trying to fight, it was enough of a battle to draw each breath. Dying like a drowned duck, helpless and undignified, dying of suffocation as his rapist lay on top of him and shoved his hardening cock against Picard’s arse, breathing harshly and easily right in Picard’s ear.

“Finish it and I’ll kill you, Bodie.”

It might have been his own voice speaking, a dreamed revenge. Clear harsh Rihannsu. Why would he speak Rihannsu to his killer?

There was a brief pause. Then a large part of Bodie’s weight left Picard’s back and Picard snorted in a grateful breath. Bodie said, after a moment, in equally stark tones “You lineless son, you’d do it, wouldn’t you?”

Bodie stood up and left Picard where he was. Picard turned his head to one side and just breathed. Ilya said nothing, but Bodie sounded disbelieving and angry. “If you want him, have him. But don’t stick a gun in the back of my head just because you don’t want me to have him.”

“I don’t want you to rape him,” Ilya said. Clear, harsh, and cold, starkly cold. “I thought I’d made that clear.”

“I didn’t rape him,” Bodie said savagely. “I told you he’s a slot. He’s kuve.”

“All right,” Ilya said. Picard heard him step back. He was speaking almost lightly now. “All right, if it matters so much to you to prove that you are not kuve, go ahead, shove it up him, and you can leave this ship tomorrow.”


“I’ll buy you out if I have to mortgage my half. I am not interested in serving with someone who is so afraid of appearing a servitor he must force a man who is chained to his bed to prove otherwise.”

“You’ll buy me out – ”

“What, do you expect me to allow you to buy me out? This was my ship before it was yours.”

“For that?” Bodie’s voice rose in a snarl that was half-Klingon, half-human, wholly vicious. “The slot’s right, you are afraid of looking like a kuve – ”

“I was a slot,” Ilya said, cutting across Bodie’s voice like a swordblade at white heat. “For half a year. Not arrhe, not kuve, it was not they who decided I was worthless, it was the human traders who looked at me and saw a fucking hole.” His voice dropped to a hiss. “So you will not tell me that slots are bred for fucking: I heard enough of that before I was seventeen.”

“Ilyushka – ”

“Captain Kuryakin.”

“Ilyushka,” Bodie said. “Don’t.” He sounded utterly tired. “You never told me. You should have told me. I told you – “

“Nothing.” Ilya’s voice clashed down, like a shield. “Get out.”

“What - ?”

“Not forever,” Ilya said. Past the shield, there was – was there? – the faintest trace of humour in his voice. “Not yet, at least. Go make something to eat. We’ll talk.”

A pause. Then Bodie, still tired, but with a matching grace of humour, “Yes, Captain Kuryakin.” Footsteps, and the door hushed open and slid shut.

“Get up.”

Picard pushed himself to his feet and turned. Ilya was half-stripped, as if he had been getting himself ready for bed, but it did not make Picard feel as if they were on equal terms. Ilya’s face and voice were glacial. “Cover yourself.”

Awkwardly, and painfully – Picard noticed that his wrist was bleeding, under the cuff – he bent to pull up his pants.

“I should kill you now,” Ilya said. “Every time you speak you make matters worse.” Nevertheless, he slid his gun – a neat little laser, quite illegal, Picard noted through his astonishment – back into the holster. “In fact, I should have gagged you again the first time you forgot to talk like a good little slot. I don’t think you believed I was serious.” He came forward and took Picard’s face between his hands. “My partner, though you may find this difficult to believe, actually means you no real harm. He would sell you in a minute, and – evidently – he would rape you just to prove a point, but I doubt if he would kill you unless you enraged him.” Ilya smiled. “Of course, you’re surprisingly good at that.” He went on, never taking his eyes from Picard’s, “On the other hand, you don’t need to try and make me angry to give me a reason to kill you. I think you’d rather die than go back to Starfleet, and I would rather you died than have to deal with my partner going berserk at regular intervals.” He shook Picard’s face a little, his strong fingers making the straps of the gag bite into Picard’s flesh. “So if you start talking out of turn when I take that gag off, I’ll kill you. Immediately. You’ve had all the second chances you can hope for.” He let go of Picard and began to unstrap the gag. “In case you’ve somehow lost track,” he went on, pleasantly, “that means you don’t speak unless you’re asked a direct question, you call us Sir or Master, and you speak in a respectful tone of voice. If you are invited to speak at length, you thank us for this privilege, you begin and end each sentence with Sir, or Master, and again, a respectful tone of voice. I hope you’re capable of remembering that much.”

The gag was off. Picard swallowed, rubbing at his mouth with his free hand. He looked at Ilya. He said nothing. I don’t understand you.

Ilya stood and watched him for what felt like quite a while. Several minutes. Finally, he smiled. “Good.” He took hold of Picard’s cuffed wrist, glancing at him in mild curiosity when Picard winced. “Hm…” Unlocking the cuff around the bar, he recuffed Picard’s hands together in front, instead of behind him. Then he gestured at the door. “Go on.”

It was almost becoming a familiar route. They went back to the rec room. It was empty. Ilya pointed Picard to a chair, and made him push it into the middle of the room, away from any other furniture, before he sat down. Then Ilya unlocked the cuff around the torn wrist, and cuffed his other wrist to the arm of the chair.

Ilya sat down, as before, aeons ago, and sat looking at Picard with peculiar watchfulness. Picard sat still and stared back. He was quite certain that Ilya had meant it: that Ilya made no threats he didn’t mean. Bodie had certainly thought so.

It was a few minutes before the mutual silent staring was broken by Bodie with a tray of food. He didn’t say anything, though his eyebrows went up when he saw Picard sitting in a chair. He put the tray down on the table between his seat and Ilya’s, and sat down, and looked at Ilya, who was still watching Picard.

“We’ll speak Standard,” Ilya said, after a moment.

Bodie looked plainly startled, and then shrugged, nodding. “All right,” he said.

“First of all,” Ilya said, “I want to hear – “ he gestured at Picard “ – that one’s story. In detail. Without interruptions. Then yours. I’ve told you mine. Even if you chose not to believe me.”

“You didn’t intend me to believe you,” Bodie said, quite quietly.

Ilya shrugged. He poured out a glass of water from the tray, stood up, and handed it to Picard. “Drink it.”

It wasn’t enough. But it was good. Picard gulped half of it and forced himself to drink the rest in smaller mouthfuls. He was almost finished before it occurred to him to evaluate the glass as a weapon, not against Ilya, but against himself. He drank the last mouthful and let Ilya take the glass back. It would do no good. He had never been suicidal. Not even when he had wished for it.

Ilya sat down again. “You are going to tell me exactly what happened from the last night on Liwydniwael to the point at which we took you on board this ship. You have permission to speak. Begin now.”

Picard cleared his throat. Ilya’s eyes were on him intently. Bodie was leaning back in his chair, hardly looking at him at all, concentrating on Ilya.

“Sir,” Picard said carefully, “thank you, Sir. I was on shore leave and taking a riding holiday in Ayanwel. Sir. It was the day before the end of my holiday, and I met… Will Bodie… on my way to find a hotel for the night, Sir. We agreed to share a room. Sir. We went… we went to bed, and when I woke up, I was in this universe. Sir.”

Bodie stirred at this point, and looked at Ilya, but Ilya said nothing, propping his chin on his hands and watching Picard.

“Sir, the transfer from my own universe to this one may have occurred earlier or later. Sir. All I can be certain of is that I was in another universe at the point, shortly after you and your partner left, Sir, when I looked in the cupboard and saw that my saddle was gone. Sir.”

“When do you think this happened?” Ilya asked, cool and level.

“Sir, sometime in the night, Sir,” Picard said. He had fuzzy memories of a moment when light had seemed to be all the way through him. “Sir, at that point I left the room, meaning to find breakfast and then arrange to be beamed up to my ship, Sir. Sir, instead I met my first officer – or rather his counterpart in this universe – and he… bought me from the manager of the hotel, Sir.”

“Why did he buy you?” Ilya asked tonelessly.

“Sir, because I recognised him and said so, and he found this… suspicious. Sir.” Picard waited a moment before he went on. He hesitated again before he could tell them about the drugged interrogation, and tried to speak of it briefly, but Ilya questioned each evasion, until Picard ended up unloading every word that he remembered. Each sentence punctuated by Sir at either end: how had he believed it was becoming easier to speak this language? “Sir, I then planned to wait until Riker had gone to sleep, and then escape, steal a shuttle, and get away. Sir. That’s what I did. Sir.”

“You just waited until he went to sleep, and he did?” Ilya said. “And left you unrestrained to steal anything you chose? Including a Starfleet uniform?”

“They meant him to,” Bodie said, speaking for the first time. He glanced from Ilya to Picard, but his eyes slid back to Ilya. “Talking about mindwipe in front of him when they must have known he’d come round? They meant him to run. That’s how he could get hold of a shuttle at all. That’s why the tracer. If they laid in the course for him, they even meant him to find us.”

Picard swallowed. That might actually be true. He had meant, before he went under the drugs, to find Guinan and convince her that he was – himself. He knew enough about her past to get her to listen, and Guinan in any universe would pay attention to anyone who interested her. But when he’d come round, while he had remembered Guinan, he’d made up his mind to steal a shuttle and run. That could have been programmed in.

The shuttle? Conceivably. Picard tried to remember why he had chosen that particular bay, that shuttle, but he couldn’t. It had felt like random choice.

The course? No. Being picked up by Ilya and Bodie had to be an accident: he had not chosen a course at random, but had planned exactly how to evade the Enterprise and still reach the nearest Starbase. Not checking for a Tholian rendezvous, among other space hazards, had been simple stupidity.

Or programmed stupidity. How can I tell?

Well: what would the Enterprise – the Challenger officers have gained by sending him into a situation he would probably not survive? Even if he’d vanished completely, they could never have been certain whether he was alive or dead or in limbo in a pocket universe. If they’d planted a tracer on him, then they would hardly have wanted to be uncertain about what had happened to him.

Could they have planned that he should be picked up by Ilya and Bodie? Picard stared at them, barely perceiving that they were beginning to glare at him. If they had planned this, why? Did they want an excuse to board this ship? But there were more effective and less effortful ways of creating such an excuse: Picard could think of three, offhand.

Unless Ilya and Bodie were somehow behind this translocation between universes? Bodie – both of him – had been there when Picard transferred. Ilya had appeared – not long after. And here they were again.

If they had planned this, they were damned good actors.

“Th – ” Picard began, and then caught himself. “Sir. They can’t have meant me to be found by you. Sir.”

“How do you know?” Bodie snapped.

Picard shrugged, as well as he could with one wrist cuffed. “Sir, I – ” he glanced at Ilya. “Sir,” he said carefully, “It’s possible that while I was drugged, I was programmed to run. But - Sir. Sir, I don’t think that the course I laid in to the shuttle’s pilot was pre-programmed, because I doubt that the people who put a tracer in my arm would have wanted – ” he shrugged “ – to be perpetually uncertain what became of me. Sir. And since if I’d gone into Tholian space they could never have known, one way or the other, sir – ” It was even more difficult than, as an ensign, trying to explain a bright idea to an admiral that contradicted an order. Whatever Admiral Crawford would have liked to do to a cocky young ensign, he wouldn’t have shot him.

Ilya was eyeing him thoughtfully. “But you didn’t,” he said, “because we picked you up. How can you be so sure that’s not just what your masters intended?”

“Sir, if they knew you were here, yes,” Picard said. He almost asked Did they? but caught himself in time. “Sir. But if they programmed me to run, wouldn’t they have done that to find out where I would run to, sir?”

“Only if they assumed that you do know how to pilot a ship,” Ilya said. He glanced at Bodie.

“Sir, they could easily have asked about my qualifications and experience while they had me drugged, sir,” Picard said. “Sir, in fact, since I assume they asked about my time on the Stargazer, they would have discovered I was a helm officer before I became Captain. Sir.”

Once again, neither of them were looking at him. They were staring at each other. “We should get rid of him,” Bodie said savagely.

“It’s a problem,” Ilya said. He sounded cool and detached. “We have to consider the following possibilities. One, Starfleet programmed or trained the slot and sent him directly to us. Two, the slot stole a shuttle, ran away, and invented this rather over-complicated story so that we would treat him as something other than a slot. Three, the slot’s been very thoroughly programmed by someone to believe that he is what he claims to be. That seems to be what Starfleet believe, or what they wanted the slot to think they believed, and of course the question then is, if not Starfleet – who did the programming?” Ilya turned to look at Picard. “Or, of course, the slot – or whatever – is telling the entire truth.” Before Picard could react, Ilya’s attention was back on Bodie. “Can you think of anything I’ve missed?”

“I can,” Bodie said, with an abrupt grin. “We’ve both gone stark raving mad and we’re hallucinating him. Let’s chuck him out an airlock. If he comes back, he’s not real.”

Ilya did not even smile. “Tell me why he makes you so ungovernably enraged.”

“He’s a slot. He’s kuve.”

“True. But if he’s been programmed to behave this way, it’s hardly his fault. And if he is deliberately behaving this way, then – he may be a slot, but according to everything I know, he is not kuve – no more than you are.”

Bodie jerked his head up. “I am not – “ he began, and then fell silent, glowering at Ilya.


Bodie had lived in the Klingon Empire for some time: so much Picard had already deduced, and so much, and more, Ilya evidently already knew, because Bodie began in the middle. He was no longer speaking Standard. “It wasn’t after the second Year Games that Captain Kault took my oath. It was the third. I was two years in the Klinzhai training grounds, not one. But they judged me not kuve from my first fight, the first Games.”

Picard did not stir. He was beginning, in an appalled way, to understand. It had been more than a hundred years ago, in his universe, that Klingons and humans had first begun to understand each other, beginning with the honorable treatment of prisoners of war. Before that first agreement had been reached, Klingons had treated human warriors with Klingon honour: they might be killed immediately, or tortured for information, or used for scientific experimentation, but they would not be held alive as captives, except those few who were chosen to fight to the death in the bloody arenas at the end of each year. Only kuve, in those far-off days, were considered suitable to be left alive to serve: and Klingons did not judge humans to be a servitor species.

That scar on Will’s back. Any injury taken in the Year Games would not be given medical treatment until the Games were done.

“The first Games… they put me up against prisoners in the second year, and warriors in the third.” Bodie hesitated, staring hard over Ilya’s shoulder. “I was the only human who made it that far. None of the others got through the first Games. There are houses, you see, for children who don’t have families. They can make it as warriors, if they get through the system, and if they don’t, they die. Part of the system… maybe that’s the whole point of the Games…” He stopped, and said harshly, “Do I have to draw you a fucking picture?”

“No.” Ilya spoke gently, as gently as it was possible to speak in Klingonaase.

“I’m not kuve. I proved it. I killed them all.”

“Perhaps he isn’t either.”

Bodie turned and looked at Picard, full on, glaring. Picard met his gaze without flinching. “He’s bent and crawled and begged,” Bodie said. “That’s what slots do to stay alive.”

“I haven’t seen him do that,” Ilya said. “If he is a true runaway, does he have a right to prove he is no longer kuve?”

Bodie was still staring at Picard. “Maybe. If he can fight me.”

“He was trying, when I… interrupted,” Ilya said dryly. “Except that one hand was chained to his bed. He tried earlier: we knocked him out between us, but I think either of us alone would have had difficulty with him. Certainly he is a slot: but is he kuve?”

“Humans are easy prey,” Bodie said.

If he had still had his universal translator in his arm, Picard would have heard that as the traditional Klingon jibe: not that any Klingon had ever said it to his face. But hearing it with his own, learned knowledge of Klingon, he perceived the literal translation, and shuddered. Humans are children’s prey.

“We are both human,” Ilya said. This time, he spoke Rihannsu, and Bodie’s head jerked round and he looked at Ilya again.

“Yes,” he said after a moment, also in Rihannsu. He took a deep breath, and another, visibly fighting down rage. “All right. Ilya, I am calm, listen to me,” his Rihannsu was overly-formal, but he did seem to be trying to be less angry. “We have to get rid of him. Warp him. If even half of what he says is true, the Federation set him to run for the people who programmed him. It wasn’t us, but how the hell can we prove it?”

“And the shuttle?”

Bodie shook his head. “The beacon’s gone. Send it into the nearest star. If we don’t have the slot or the shuttle, they might just believe that we don’t know anything.”

“Or they might believe that we disposed of the evidence. Whereas, if we keep him, the worst they can accuse us of is a little theft.”

“The tracer?”

“Cut it out.”

“And if you’re not going to use him for fucking, what is he going to do?”

Ilya shrugged and glanced at Picard. “Find out what he’s good for.” He looked sideways at Bodie. “What do you think, can you keep your temper with him?”

Bodie grinned, swiftly and irrepressibly. “Maybe if we keep him gagged.”

Ilya’s lips twitched. “Can we compromise? If – when he says something you don’t like, you can hit him. Once. If he says something I don’t like, I’ll kill him.”

“That’s a compromise?”

“My favourite kind.” Ilya almost smiled again. “But we get rid of the shuttle.”

“It’s worth – “

“Nothing, when it’s traced back to us.”

“And the slot?” Bodie looked at him again, assessingly. “He’s been good so far.”

“Because I told him I would kill him otherwise.”.

“And he believed you?”

“You believed me,” Ilya said flatly.

Bodie grinned outright. “But I know you.”

After a moment, Ilya grinned back. “Are we settled?”

“All right,” Bodie said. He glanced at the food. “Do you want to eat?”

“No,” Ilya said. He stood up. “I’m tired. Let him have it.” He gave Picard a brief, but intent look, and went on, speaking casually in Klingonaase, “Put him back in the cell with the food. Don’t bother to chain him up. If he’s got any sense, he’ll feed himself, get some sleep, and be ready to do whatever we want when we let him out again.”

“If you say so,” Bodie said, as casually, in Rihannsu. Together they escorted Picard back down the hall: the tray of food was dumped just inside the door, and Ilya uncuffed him and shoved him so that he went staggering back.

He was picking himself up, nursing his injured wrist, when the room went milky around him and he wasn’t, any more.

Part Nine

“I hear you,” said God.

He was standing in a vast space that was entirely whiteness. It was strange, and yet nothing about it was unfamiliar. He had been here before, long ago, before he was first sold.

Two others were in the vast space with him: God, and a man whom he knew at first sight was his own Token.

“God,” he said, after a moment. “Am I dead?”

His Token turned and stared at him, and spoke with frighteningly uncontrolled anger. “Who is this?”

God smiled. “Why, it’s you.” God wore the aspect of a tall man in middle age, with dark hair and dark eyes. When God looked at him, and spoke, he shuddered: this was the voice that at a word had set stars turning in the heavens, the voice that had called all things to life. “What have you to say to me?”

He dropped to his knees: he had never done so as willingly. Before the face of God, how could even his Token remain on his feet? He spoke aloud, as he had done every morning all the years of his life since the last time he looked upon the face of God: “Immortal God and Master, praised be your holy name. May your will be done – “ he saw his Token’s face change, as if his Token was devastated by the words that he himself was saying, and he almost stumbled on the cadence of the prayer “ - on earth as it is in heaven. Let me eat today – “ his Token looked starved, and beaten, as if representing his own starved and beaten soul “ - and forgive me the evil I have done as I forgive the evil done to me.” A Token was a wraith of the living, but no one lived long having seen their self alive and face to face. He looked on his Token and he saw both the evil done to him written in the bruises on his face, and the evil he had done written as clearly in the rage and pride he saw there. “Grant me the strength to endure, the courage to change, the wisdom to know; for yours is the dominion, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”

“Q,” his Token said, outrage in his voice, “you are not God!”

God only smiled, and spoke, only to him. “This is not your Token – and you are not dead. This is the man you were born to be. As you are the man he was born to be. He is yourself.”

“He’s nothing like me,” his Token snapped.

He stood, having prayed, and looked his Token in the face. His own face, his own eyes meeting his, the set of his shoulders and the turn of his hands, his height and his balding head. His chin, lifted in anger: his mouth, set with open pride. His wrists were cut and bruised and bleeding, as if he had fought the shackles. His lips were swollen, as if he had been hit too many times for talking out of turn. His face was bruised and scraped, and he carried himself as if he had been hurt. But seeing his Token like this, he saw his own hard-won elegance and bearing that had kept him alive long past the age at which he should have been disposed of: he saw himself entire.

“Thank you, God,” he said aloud.

“He isn’t God,” his Token said, as God made a gracious gesture of acknowledgement. “Q, what have you done?”

“He is the man you were born to be,” God repeated. “As you are the man he was born to be. I gave him your place, for a while, and put you in his.”

“You gave him my ship – “

“Don’t worry, your loyal and observant officers eventually realised that they were dealing with a different person. I had to change your Riker for his counterpart, too – he was getting on entirely too well with your other self.”

“For what?” His Token was visibly enraged: he watched with interest, having never seen himself like this, and wondering if the pain in his Token’s anger was his own. “What kind of game are you playing, what kind of test was this supposed to be - ?”

God smiled. “What makes you think this was concerned with you?”

His Token, after the first amazed stare, had been averting his eyes from himself. It took an effort of will to look himself in the face: his Token had only managed to look at God. But now his Token turned to look at him, and he saw, with surprised compassion, that his Token’s face was full of pain, as brittle and jagged as broken glass, and as carefully controlled as he himself had learned to control both anger and pain.

He stepped forward, taking his Token’s hands in his own, half-expecting to die at the moment of contact. His Token’s hands felt like his own. “Who am I to question God?” he said to himself, feeling his hands quiver and jerk within his grip. “He has me under his hand.”

His Token gave him a strange, withdrawn look. “Let go of me – “ and jerked back, hard, trying to take his hands out of his hands. He held on to his Token, but when one wrist began to bleed again, he could not bear to keep his grip, and let go.

His Token raised his hands to shield his face and looked sick. He looked at his Token, wondering why he did not share more of what his Token so clearly felt, and turned to God. “Why does he say you are not God?”

“He is my atheist. I created him an unbeliever.”

“He is my Token,” he said.

“No,” God said. “He is the man you were born to be. In his universe, a woman and a man met and married and had two children, and the second one was you. That was the same woman and the same man who sold their seed to the trader who supplied fresh stock to the Azad farm, and from it you were born.”

“What?” His Token’s voice was full of angry incredulity. “You – my parents – I don’t believe you. My parents would never have done that.”

“Perhaps not,” God said. “But they never saw it done. They were paid for a small amount of genetic material. They never met each other. Your father married and had five children, your mother never married and had no children. Neither of them have ever thought of the people who could have been created from something they did a long time ago.” God’s voice, as he spoke to the atheist, held a kind of jeering amusement, something very familiar to him, not something he had ever heard from God. “But in another universe, I made them meet. I created you. I am your God. When you knelt for your first communion, what you tasted was me.” God’s voice was thunder. “Kneel down and worship me.”

The atheist stayed on his feet. “You are not God,” he repeated, though his voice was tired and defeated.

“He knows I am,” God said, pointing at him. “And he is you. He is the man you were born to be. Every day of his life he has prayed to me.”

“If you’ve fooled him,” the atheist said, giving him one quick angry glance, “that doesn’t make me a fool.”

“But you are a fool,” God said, and laughed with open contempt. The atheist looked down, fleetingly, shielding his gaze from God’s.

He did what he had done before, when he wanted to shield himself from those who owned him – and no one owned him more thoroughly than God – he murmured “Immortal God and Master, praised be your holy name. May your will be done – “ he saw both atheist and God turn to look at him, but went on, the cadence of the prayer carrying him, “ – forever and ever, amen.”

“You see?” said God. “Even now he worships me.”

The atheist was looking at him at last. “Will you stop doing that?” he demanded, sounding exasperated.

“If you are my Token,” he said reasonably enough, “you are not my owner nor my master: why should I obey you? Even if you were my owner, I would obey God, rather than you.”

“What – ” the atheist stopped, as if recognising and acknowledging what he had said. In a softer voice, he went on, “I’m certainly not your owner. But believe me – trust me – that is not God. It is an entity known as Q, and it has a habit of meddling with other people’s lives against their will and without caring about the cost. It may have told you that it is God, but – “ and the atheist’s voice rose again, fierce and angry, so like and yet so unlike his own voice, “ – it is not.”

“God has meddled in my life,” he said. “God knows I have prayed for him to lift his hand from me. If you’ve felt it too, you know it’s a heavy hand. But God’s will, not mine, prevails.” He was trying to find a way, in the oblique language of slot to slot, to warn the atheist against such open defiance.

The atheist opened his mouth, but then bit down on whatever he was going to say – or shout – as suddenly as if he had been gagged. When he spoke, his voice was calmer. “All right, Q, you’ve had your fun. Now get me back where I belong.”

“Where would that be?” God asked, mellow and smooth as honey.

“On my ship.” The atheist was standing very stiff and straight. “The Enterprise.” It was a strange way of begging, to speak with such rigid, cold formality, making a plea like a demand.

“Do you really think you belong there?” God asked. “What have you done to deserve it?”

The atheist glanced at him, a strange, quick, almost guilty look. “It’s hardly a matter of what I deserve, Q. Your test is over – put your toys back where you found them.”

“You weren’t the one being tested.” God dismissed the atheist with a turn of his hand, and the atheist staggered back, as if struck. “You were merely an interesting incident. I was testing you.” God levelled his finger and pointed directly at him. “And you passed your test. Now I want to reward you.”

“God’s will,” he murmured faintly, trying to look elsewhere than God’s face. He thought his Token was picking himself up, shivering and afraid – or was that only what he would have felt?

“I intend to let you choose where you shall spend the rest of your life.”

“Q, no – ” the atheist exploded.

“Shut up,” God said, gesturing at him again. “Well? Where will you live? In the universe that offers you freedom, and safety, and education, and a chance to live a long, comfortable life? Or will you return to the universe that offers you only a pointless existence and, in the end, a protracted and uncomfortable death?”

He lifted his face and looked God in the eyes. “Sir,” he said, speaking as he would to his master, “may I talk with my Token alone before I choose?”

God’s voice held only warm amusement. Before he had heard him speak to the atheist, would he have tasted the faint flavouring of contempt? “Of course. Call on me when you’ve made up your mind.”

A moment, and God was no longer there. They stood in a landscape made of friable brown and dull red rocks, a splash of green here and there burning at the duller colours. They were standing on a smooth-surfaced dusty road through the landscape. He and the atheist stood and looked at each other.

“Walk with me,” he suggested, and began to move down the road. It didn’t matter in what direction. This was all God’s country.

After a little while, the atheist asked, a little wryly, “What’s a Token?”

“A wraith of the dead,” he told the other, “or worse, of the living. If you see your Token’s face, you die within the year.” He saw the atheist’s face change, a little, and added, intending to reassure, “But God said you were not my Token. And, I suppose, I’m not yours.”

“Somehow,” the atheist said tersely, “I don’t find that very comforting. What do you want to say to me?”

“I want to know what you are,” he said. “I was born boy-107, of the Azad Farm, in Ayanwel. What are you, where were you born?”

“I am Jean-Luc Picard, son of Maurice and Yvette Picard, born in LaBarre, France. On Earth.” He lifted his chin, slightly, a small, fragile defiance. “Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

Despite everything, a small glimmer of amusement woke in him. “I was called Jean-Luc,” he said, smiling faintly, slot to slot. “I think I met your First Officer.”

“You were aboard the Enterprise?”

“They told me so.” He went on walking, looking around him at the largely barren landscape. “I saw the stars,” he added, glancing at the other. “I‘d never seen so many stars.”

His Token’s – the atheist’s footsteps were exactly in time with his own. When they stopped, he stopped, and looked inquiringly into the atheist’s face.

“What do you want from me?” the atheist demanded.

“Only to know who you are,” he said. To see himself was frightening, but not terrifying, no matter what wildness the atheist displayed.

“Why?” The atheist was plainly angry and afraid: it was not wise to show so much.

“God said you are the man I was born to be,” he said. “I want to know who that is.”

“What is your name?” the atheist demanded.

He didn’t answer. God had said it: he was not yet dead.

“What’s your real name? Everyone kept telling me I didn’t have one – you didn’t have one – ”

“Brother,” he said, understanding where some, at least, of those bruises on his own face had come from “ – if a slot ever claims a name that no master has given, the slot dies. Before we were born we were named: when we die, we will have our names again. To survive, brother, you have no name.” He took his other’s shoulders between his hands, ignoring his other’s flinching from him with an effort of will, and kissed him, as one slot to another, on either side of his bruised face and on his swollen lips. “To survival, brother, yours and mine. Even against God.”

The atheist stood flinching. “What are you going to tell him?” he said abruptly, and his voice shook.

That was strange. “You don’t know?”

“I can guess.”

“I will make the choice God wants me to make,” he told the atheist. “I’ve never defied God’s will.” He turned from himself and looked over the empty landscape. It was time to go: he called on God, and saw it all dissolve into white fog, like milk poured into water.

God was there, smiling. “Well?”

“You knew what I would choose,” he said.

God’s smile grew tinged with malevolence.

“To go back where I belong,” he said steadily.

“And where do you belong?” God said. He lifted his hand to still the atheist.

“God, no,” he said wearily. “God, you took me out of my life: you took my brother out of his: return us both. You said it was my choice.” He went down on his knees, knowing he did it without much grace, remembering that he had knelt to beg the Klingon for slavery or death. Biting God’s hand would not tempt God to use him: God used him without mercy, and always had, and would till the end of his life.

As he had prayed every day of his life since God first came to him, he began, “Immortal God and Master – ”

And the light was in him and he was no longer aware of time or space, only of being opened and spread wide open to light, to fire, to fire within him. He yelled in surrender, and the light was all the way through him.

And then silence, soft, sleepy and dark, and the smell of food. He found a tray with filled dishes, and ate. There was a bunk. He pillowed his head on his arms and lay waiting for the door to open, waiting for whatever new mastery the morning would bring.

Part Ten

The room seemed to sway around Riker for a moment, and change. He was in a room on the Challenger – no, the Enterprise, Data was there, kneeling - and a man leaning back against the desk as if he had half-fallen against it. Riker swallowed, glancing at Data, looking at the man. He was bruised and wary-looking. He pushed himself upright and stared at them – at Riker - raising a hand to shield his mouth in a nervous, automatic gesture, before he seemed to realise what he was doing and tucked his hand down by his side, lifting his chin, staring at Riker with a kind of brittle defiance.

“My name is Jean-Luc Picard,” he said, “Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

Data stood up, much faster than Riker could react, and suddenly all the tight muscles of the Captain’s face relaxed into a smile. “Mr Data,” he said, and his voice wavered unexpectedly. “Good – to see you. What ship is this?”

“It is the U.S.S. Enterprise, Captain,” Data said, his voice even. “I believe that you are home.”

“Welcome back, Captain,” Riker said, feeling himself grin uncontrollably.

Picard looked at him. There was a frosty moment when Riker’s grin died, but then Picard gave him a small, cautious smile, and said, warily, “Number One - ?”

“Yes, sir,” said Riker.

“Riker to Crusher,” the voice said, exactly as it had all those hours ago. It was a flinching moment before Doctor Crusher could answer: “Doctor Crusher here,” she said steadily. “What’s going on?”

Riker’s voice had a cheerful glow to it. “Captain to sickbay, Doctor,” he said formally. “In need of some medical attention, but otherwise – quite himself.”

Picard came in with Riker on one side and Data on the other, but neither of them were helping him walk: Picard was keeping a little ahead of them. He was wearing a battered-looking Science lieutenant’s uniform, and just the visible injuries looked painful. “Up on the table,” Crusher said, confining herself to a wide smile. “And the rest of you, out – “ She intended to get that tunic off and investigate. From the way he was holding himself, he had broken ribs under there.

“No,” Picard said. He gave Crusher a brief but very warm smile. “Good to see you, Beverly. Mr Data, I want you to deep-scan both myself and Riker, and confirm that we are in the right universe.”

“It can wait – “ No matter which Picard was here, and this was the quiet presence of authority that had been so entirely absent from the withdrawn man she had tried to deal with, those injuries had to be healed. Both wrists were injured: the skin on one was fairly torn up.

“No,” Picard said, “it can’t. Mr Data.”

“Yes, sir,” Data said. “Doctor - ?” Crusher handed him the device his replicator program had produced for Coro. Picard stood still for the scan.

“Confirmed, sir,” Data said. He turned the device round and showed Picard the screen. “Your quantum signature resonates with the rest of the matter in the universe – or more precisely, sir, in this immediate vicinity: this version of the scan does not perform wide-ranging sampling. However, you are unquestionably aboard the right U.S.S. Enterprise.”

“Thank you, Mr Data. Now Riker.”

Riker sat on the edge of a diagnostic couch and submitted to the scan. Crusher was itching to get at Picard’s abraded wrist: he was rubbing it, and wincing, apparently quite unconscious of what he was doing. She could see blood on his fingers. He looked at Data’s readings on Riker for a minute or two in silence, and then, with a quick glance under his brows, he pushed himself up to sit on the diagnostic couch beside Riker.

“All right, Doctor,” he said, and held out the worst-injured wrist for Crusher to begin with. This was bad: it looked as if it had been wrenched inside a metal brace. But no bones were broken. If this was the worst injury -

Picard was holding himself very still. After a minute or two, Riker slipped down from the couch and took a couple of steps away. Picard said, abruptly, “You’re next, Number One.”

Crusher grinned to herself, bending her head over the other wrist, enjoying the clear distinctive command in Picard’s voice. Strange how you could often only notice things by their absence. There was nothing to grin about in the state of the wrist: the flesh was not torn, but the same bracelet of bruises marked the skin. Someone had manacled Picard and then, from the patterning of the other bruises, had beaten him.

“I’m fine,” Riker said.

“I can check him over when I’m done with you,” Crusher offered, not raising her eyes from her work. But Riker had looked fine when he came in through the door: whereas Picard looked as if he had not only been beaten, but deprived of sleep, food, and drink during his absence.

Picard began to rub at the side of his face with the healed hand, but stopped when Crusher tapped it.. “What happened to you, Number One?” he asked. His voice was rough and awkward, adding hastily. “You’ll need to make a formal report in any case, no need to go over it twice – “

“Well, nothing,” Riker said. He sounded faintly embarrassed to have to say so. “I went to sleep in one universe, and woke up in another one, and – to tell you the truth, sir, I only realised what had happened when I called for security, and – “ he tried to cover a slight crack in his voice, “Tasha Yar answered. She took me to report to the Captain, and I walked into the ready-room – well. Worf wasn’t on the bridge, and – a couple of unexpected people were, and after quite a bit of talking they believed me. It didn’t help that the Enterprise in that universe seems to have been discontinued as a name since Admiral Kirk blew up the original U.S.S. Enterprise. They tell jokes about it.”

“I – gathered that,” Picard said. “So they believed you?”

“Well – there I was. With my translator in my arm with the Enterprise ID encoded into it. They pretty much had to believe me, eventually, but it was hard going.”

Picard lifted his arm and looked at it almost curiously. Crusher hissed, unable to conceal her anger. “Don’t move your head, Jean-Luc – “

“No,” Picard said, and held still. He dropped his arm. “You’re going to have to re-implant a translator, Doctor,” he added. “I – lost mine.”

“Lost? How?”

“I’m not – entirely sure,” Picard said. He was beginning to sound very tired. “I think Q took it. Part of his… interesting incident.”

“So Q was responsible,” Data said, with quite definite satisfaction.

Picard lifted his head suddenly. Crusher nearly snapped at him to hold still, but restrained herself. He asked quietly “How did you work that out, Data?”

Data’s voice was almost puppet-like in its lack of expression: which, Crusher had learned, meant that Data was paying no attention to how he was perceived, and everything to – his perceptions? Or what he was saying? It meant that Data was worried, however unscientific a way that was of putting it. “I became certain that Q was responsible at the point when Commander Riker, too, disappeared without trace. One quantum fissure that appeared and disappeared without leaving any traces was improbable, but possible. Two exceeded the bounds of probability, unless controlled by some external force. No force within our comprehension can control quantum fissures, and Q is known to take an active interest in you, Captain. Therefore I considered it highly probable that Q was involved.”

“You were… correct, Mr Data,” Picard said, after a long moment’s silence. “Well done.”

Crusher wanted to get everyone else out of the way. She had just run her scanner down Picard’s back, and she wanted to get his shirt off and use the regenerator. “Why don’t you two run along,” she said briskly.

“Excuse me, Doctor,” Data said formally. Crusher looked up from her work, and Data went on, “Captain, there is a serious matter requiring your urgent attention.”

“What is it, Mr Data?” Picard sounded more tired than ever.

“Due to some confusion which I will detail in a later report,” Data summarised, “we arrested two civilians under suspicion of committing violent crimes against you. We have now held them for nearly thirty-six hours, under circumstances of increasingly dubious legality. We must either release them from custody or confirm charges against them and allow them access to legal counsel.”

Picard dropped his head a moment, looking at his hands clasped together in his lap. When he spoke, his voice was so like – the man who wasn’t Picard – that Crusher’s hand clenched on her regenerator, wanting to hit someone.. “Will Bodie,” he said, “and Ilya Kuryakin.”

“Yes,” Data was still expressionless.

“Release them from custody,” Picard said, after a moment.

“You are certain, sir?”

“Yes,” Picard said. His voice was dry and thin. “Neither of them have committed any crime of violence against me. We – Number One, would you be my spokesman, and explain that there has been – a terrible misunderstanding. Starfleet will offer full apologies and compensation, and I – will see them – and apologise personally? Later.” There were odd cracks in his voice, pauses, spaces, and Crusher was not sure that Picard was aware what his voice was doing. He should be asleep.

“Right, sir,” Riker said. He looked as if he would be glad to disappear for a while.

The worst part about being locked up aboard a Federation starship was the boredom. There were only two activities open to Ilya: pacing the cell (six steps one way, six steps the other) or sitting beside Will, who wasn’t doing much of anything, not even reacting when Ilya shouted at him. They should have been in separate cells – the Starfleet types kept saying so – but Ilya had enough worries clawing at him without worrying about what Will would be thinking about if left alone.

They had missed the Tholian rendezvous, which had taken Ilya over a year and a sizable amount of investment to set up. It would have been worth it if it had come off: the Tholians dealt in knowledge, and if you could get one information-cluster to agree to meet with you, the benefits were almost literally incalculable. But though that had aggravated Ilya almost worst of all, in the first twenty-four hours, by now he was simply walking down a near-panicked fear: what had happened? Starfleet types could be obstructive, and were frequently arrogant, but simply locking the two of them away for this length of time with no information at all – this was unprecedented in Ilya’s experience. A crime of violence against a living being, especially a self-aware being, meant a minimum stay of two years in rehab: but they had been promised legal representation, and that should have meant independent legal representation, not the Starfleet cadet who had shown up at 0900 to inform first Ilya, then Bodie, of their rights. Had a war started? Had the Borg invaded? The cadet hadn’t said, and no one else they’d seen was saying anything either.

God, the captain of the Enterprise was the man who had been Borg’d, wasn’t he?

That made Ilya stand still for a moment. Will had worried about his sleepover partner because – “he went dead on me” – what if that were literally true? What if the Borg had come back and reclaimed his mind –

Fighting off a Borg invasion, Starfleet would be too busy to arrange for anyone to come talk to a pair of free traders. Someone would have mentioned it –

But we haven’t seen anyone in hours.

Ilya turned on his heel and jerked to a halt. Commander Riker was standing outside the cell. He deactivated the door, and came in.

“Commander,” Ilya said, finding that he could still achieve formality, “What a pleasant surprise. How nice of you to visit us. Is there anything in particular that we can do for you?”

“Captain Kuryakin.” The Starfleet officer had never spoken to Ilya like this in all their brief acquaintance: with a desperate, embarrassed politeness. “Sir – Mr Bodie?”

Will lifted his head and looked Riker in the face. He said nothing.

“I’ve come to apologise: on my own behalf, on behalf of Starfleet, and on behalf of Captain Picard. There has been – an appalling misunderstanding. You are both free to go. I am very sorry that this has occurred. Starfleet will recompense you for any inconvenience you have suffered.”

Will stood up. He was standing elbow-to-elbow with Ilya, and he was glowering at Riker. “The fuck,” he said finally, hoarsely, and coughed. It was the first time he’d spoken in fifteen hours at least, and Ilya couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten or drunk.

Ilya put a hand on his shoulder. “Right,” he said with a savagery he hadn’t expected of himself.

“Guest quarters have been prepared for you,” Riker said. He was getting redder in the face, but still managing to keep the angry embarrassment out of his voice. “If you’d care to come with me, gentlemen, we can discuss this further in more comfortable surroundings.”

“Right,” Ilya said again. He glanced round at the holding cell – comfortable enough, after some places he’d been kept – and gave Riker another long look, watching the man’s hands clench at his sides. An appalling misunderstanding?

Right. Unless Starfleet had hired a Trill to negotiate for them, Ilya was about to make them pay like a Ferengi gone to heaven.

“Will? You ready to walk?” he asked quietly, and at his partner’s nod, turned towards the door.

They kept the Commander waiting while both of them showered and changed into freshly replicated clothing. There was no Trill: and Ilya found that Riker was quite eager to accept Ilya’s minimum first offer of a swift passage back to their ship, still parked in Ayanwel’s port, payment of all docking fees from their visit, and compensation for the missed rendezvous with the Tholians.

It was only on that score that Riker actually tried to negotiate: Ilya found the argument refreshing. They eventually came to a conclusion about two-thirds of the way up from Riker’s initial suggestion to Ilya’s initial suggestion.

“And now,” Ilya said, almost happily, “compensation for the insult offered my partner and myself – “

Bodie had said nothing so far. He had a glass of water, and was drinking it slowly. He put the empty glass down, and said flatly “I want to see Jean-Luc. I want to be sure he’s all right.” His voice was familiarily, rigidly stubborn. With genuine cheerfulness, Ilya nodded. “Non-negotiable, Commander. We’d both like to meet Captain Picard.”

“Tomorrow,” Riker said.

Ilya shook his head. “Tonight.” He saw no reason why Will should endure another night’s uncertainty.

The Captain looked as if he ought to be asleep: but he was sitting drinking tea in one of the private cubicles off sickbay, Crusher having insisted on one night’s observation. Troi made a small sound to indicate her presence, and smiled at him when he looked up.

“Counselor,” he said, with a shadow of his usual politeness. “Not tonight.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest it,” Troi said. “I really just wanted to make sure you were back, Captain. May I come in?”

“Of course.”

He didn’t move: he was wearing a comfortable sickbay-replicated tunic, meant for long-stay patients, not a uniform shirt. He looked rather like a shipwreck survivor, rescued but still with the air of dereliction. Troi wondered, briefly, how non-empaths perceived him. She had just begun to able to endure the – the not-Picard’s presence, and begin to think about what she could faintly perceive beneath the fear, when he had disappeared and Captain Picard had re-appeared. The similiarities were vast: the differences were considerable but harder to specify.

Troi smiled again, and perched on the edge of the couch. “It’s good to see you.”

Picard grinned, half a grimace, and drank from the cup he was cradling between his hands. “It’s good to be back,” he said, mildly: “I missed not being able to order tea.”

Troi nodded. “It must have been very difficult.” She hesitated. “We’ll talk tomorrow. You should get some sleep.”

“I’m tired enough,” Picard said, with another half-grimace.

Troi stood up. “Good night.”

“Good night, Counselor. Wait a minute – “

Troi had turned to go: she looked back at him, and waited. She thought that he should be asleep, but if this was the right moment for him to begin to talk to her – the beginning was always difficult for Picard – she wasn’t going to stop him.

“You met my – counterpart.” It wasn’t a question. “What did you think of him?”

“I would have been able to tell you apart,” Troi said slowly. “Not in looks, of course – but in the feel of your mind.” That was true: alike, but different enough. Once she had known what the difference was that she was perceiving. “Everyone is very much a product of their environment, Captain. His was clearly very different from yours. But – “ she hesitated again. “If it had been possible, he was enough like you that I think I would have liked him – if he had allowed me to do so.”

Picard nodded, and was about to say something – probably “Thank you,” and a dismissal – when they were both startled by a shout from outside, in sickbay: “Jean-Luc! Jean-Luc!” Picard dropped the empty cup.

The Starfleet bastard and a warrior in Starfleet uniform escorted them both to sickbay. Ilya kept by his side: Will was starkly relieved. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to say much: but surely if Starfleet had taken their accusation back, it was because Jean-Luc had come to himself and been able to say that Will hadn’t – hadn’t – forced him. It was worse than impotence, that fear all these hours – how long had it been? Ilya would know – that somehow though Jean-Luc had seemed as eager as he for sex, something that Will had done had damaged him. He hadn’t been so agonisingly afraid since the first time he’d had sex with a human and had discovered that it was, amazingly, easier and sweeter than sex with another warrior. He hadn’t been that good at it, then, but it had been a pleasure to learn how to be better. He’d been proud of that: a well-learned skill.

The doctor – one of those who had been present when he and Ilya had been forced through those excruciating tests – came towards them as they entered sickbay, looking grim. “What is this?”

“They want to see him,” the Starfleet bastard said.

“He’s asleep,” the doctor said.

She might have been telling the truth. Will didn’t honestly care. He didn’t have to see Jean-Luc for long, but he had to see him now. He could not bear another night of uncertainty. He raised his voice, projecting it as if hailing an order across a noisy battle. “Jean-Luc! Jean-Luc!”

The doctor, quite understandably, looked furious. Ilya put a hand on his shoulder – a signal that all was well but not to repeat himself – and Will glanced along the room, and recognised the man immediately. He was standing in a doorway off sickbay, and another Starfleet bastard had appeared right behind him. He looked tired, but as he glanced down the room and met Will’s eyes, he seemed to straighten, lifting his head, as if some burden were being removed from him.

“Jean-Luc,” Will said.

As if making up his mind, the man walked towards him. “All right, Mr Worf,” he said – the warrior must have made some kind of protective move, that Will hadn’t even noticed. “Will.”

“Yes.” Will swallowed. “Are you all right?”

“More or less,” Jean-Luc said, with a quick, tight smile. He held out his hand.

Well: it had been a one-night sleepover – that was the tacit arrangement, and the one night was over. Will shook Jean-Luc’s hand formally, and, in the spirit of the occasion, said politely “I’m glad to see you looking better. I was worried about you.”

“I’m glad to see you,” Jean-Luc said. “I wanted to make sure I remembered what you look like.” There was a faint, odd stress on you. “And I – wanted to tell you that while I appreciate the reasons behind my crew’s misunderstanding of the situation, I am very sorry for the inconvenience that they caused you.”

When the Starfleet bastard had said “inconvenience”, Will had wanted to rip his throat out. When Jean-Luc said it, he found himself smiling. “Well – my partner’s been getting compensation out of Starfleet. And I’ve been in worse holding cells.”

“I’m glad ours meet with your approval,” Jean-Luc said, with a touch of the solemn humour Will had liked in him. It struck Will then that he and this man were unlikely ever to meet again: though he hadn’t thought of this before, of course Jean-Luc was captain of this ship, a Starfleet officer even higher in rank than the Starfleet bastard who’d arrested them.

“Just so long as you’re all right,” Will said. He could see that, though the man didn’t look quite as well as he had the night they spent together, he looked infinitely better than the poor shell who had asked where he was and who he belonged to and what his name was, and then curled into a ball and rocked silently on the bed. “You look better - ?”

“I’m fine,” Jean-Luc said, with a sudden brisk smile. “I hope to be able to explain what happened, to you and to your partner, but I’m afraid Starfleet is likely to classify it.”

Will nodded, confused.

“And now, my chief medical officer – “ that would be the doctor, still glaring “ – is indicating that I should get some rest. I hope to see you tomorrow, but the Enterprise will reach Liwydniwael within a few hours.” He held out his hand again.

Right. Will echoed the gesture, startled when Jean-Luc dropped his hand and looked at Will a further moment, very intently.

Then, with a swift move that startled Will, Jean-Luc put his hands on Will’s shoulders, and kissed him, on each side of his face and finally, quickly, on the lips. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Goodbye.”

They were on their way out of sickbay again before Will realised that Ilya was looking at him oddly. He put a quick hand on Ilya’s shoulder for reassurance. He was actually thinking, for the first time in his life, about monogamy.

The two free traders departed from the Enterprise, and all the other officers involved started working on their reports. Data could have deduced this, but he was fairly certain of it, from the increased activity in certain sections of the computer core. Data’s report, naturally, was already complete.

He presented it to the Captain, who was in his ready-room. Deanna Troi had been there half an hour ago, and would be there again in twenty-five minutes, but at present she, too, was trying to write a report on the presence of the alternate-reality Picard.

“I must inform you of an incident that occurred in your absence, Captain.”

“Isn’t it in your report?”

“I chose not to log it, sir,” Data said “It concerns an action that I took which may not be conducive to morale aboard ship. I require your instructions.”

“Ah?” Picard was more than usually laconic.

“Sir, the computer recordings – ” The computer recorded every word spoken aboard the Enterprise, in one-second slots that were filed unlabelled in the computer’s unused memory. The computer could only access the most recent one-second recording, and used it solely for location and for safety purposes. The one-second recordings were routinely overwritten, as the memory they occupied was required for other purposes, and almost everyone aboard the Enterprise thought of them, if at all, as having been erased two seconds after they were made. “I can access the computer’s memory, and unlike the computer, I can put the recordings together and listen to a coherent conversation. I utilised this ability after Mr Riker disappeared, in order to find out what I could about his last hours aboard. While there are often gaps in information obtained in this way, due to recordings being overwritten at random, I have a nearly complete record of the conversation that Mr Riker had with your counterpart before he was moved to the counterpart’s reality.”

“And your question?”

“Should I document my ability to do this?”

Picard thought about it for a while, but not long. “No. And, Mr Data, while I appreciate that you were in command, in a tricky situation, and you felt that you needed all possible information, when you’re next in command, take my advice – and don’t.” He looked thoughtful again, and grinned, without humour. “Or at least never, ever let anyone know that you did.”

“Yes, sir.”

Picard glanced down at the report. “And the conversation – the private conversation between Riker and – my counterpart?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Forget it,” Picard said distinctly. “Wipe it out of your memory.”

“Yes, sir,” Data agreed: and it went, along with a small datastore of questions that had occurred to Data since listening to the conversation.

It was several days before Worf could be sure of finding the Captain in his ready-room without Troi. It would be neither fair nor right to burden Deanna with this.

Picard stood up as he came in. “Mr Worf,” he said, formally.

“Captain,” Worf said. “Sir – “

“Is this about something that happened – while I was away?”

“Yes, sir.” Worf felt distinctly uncomfortable, though all that Picard did was move over to the window and stand looking out at the stars for a moment, a response familiar to both of them. What is done before the naked stars is remembered.

“Well, Mr Worf?”

“I did not say it to you,” Worf said slowly, reluctantly, “and you did not say it to me. But words were spoken, and my honour – required me to answer the words. I ask you to take back the words that were spoken, without demanding an answer.”

“What answer?” The Captain’s voice was almost too quiet to be heard.

“Death – or willing slavery.” He should have either killed the man who knelt there, or accepted him as kuve. He could not bear to do either, to the man who could have been the Captain: so he had left the man’s desperate plea lying open and vulnerable. He wanted it closed.

The Captain turned, facing Worf. He spoke Klingonaase well for a human, though softly. “I call back my words by the breath that spoke them, by the God that heard them, by the stars that witnessed them.”

“I no longer hear the words,” Worf answered. Closed: a door closed between them. A door that must be closed. He could still feel the man’s mouth and teeth in his hand. He would not stay much longer with the Enterprise.

None of that need be said. “Sir,” he said with inexpressible gratitude, and in Standard “Thank you, sir.”

Picard had been promoted to Captain years before Captain's Counselor became a standard Starfleet post for all starships with a crew of two hundred or more. It did not come naturally or easily to Picard to talk to Troi, but he had learned to do it. But he could not tell her about this. He could tell her about everything else, even how he had felt when Bodie and Kuryakin had left him lying like a piece of furniture, even the helpless fury that had filled him when Q had appeared, deus ex machina, and revealed that everything that had happened was only another of his cruel little games.

I refuse to believe that you are God. The universe is not so badly designed.

You are my atheist. I created you to be an unbeliever. When you knelt for your first communion, what you tasted was me.

To survival, brother, yours and mine. Even against God, in whom I refuse to believe.

Then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions: So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life. I loathe it; I would not live alway: let me alone; for my days are vanity. What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment? How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone...? (Job, 7.14-19)

The End

57 300 words

begun in Edinburgh, 1997

finished in Seattle, 1999

Feedback: e-mail me (or comment me if you have a livejournal).

Thanks to Shoshanna for editing, Stranger for criticism, and Ajay for assisting Doctor Crusher.