Some poet had named it the Jewel Box cluster, and as he stared at it on the big screen before him, Picard was inclined to agree. It was described in the astrogational charts as simply "binary system 22106, sector 12", but as well as the lumbering red giant and its little white/blue companion, there were three gas giants that made up the rest of the system. Jewel Box 1 was a red/gold planet, fierce with storms. The second planet was purple/blue, surrounded by swirling prominences of radiation, and the third planet glowed aqua and green, its atmosphere moving in turgid waves of warm and cool as it wove its placid path between its primaries.
"Communication coming through, Captain," said Worf.
The scene on the screen was replaced by a man's face. He had an imperious, arrogant look about him and was wearing a uniform trimmed with gold. "Picard, is it?" said the man.
"Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Enterprise is standing by."
The other man grunted. "We have the passengers drawing lots to see who will be going with you."
Picard nodded, only Deanna Troi understood how really angry he was. His feelings were not betrayed by his voice or the expression on his face. "We have an engineering team standing by to beam aboard at your convenience."
The other man grunted again. "I'll have my transporter chief send your transporter chief the co-ordinates. Aurora out."
The face blinked off and was replaced by the star scenery. Picard finally let his feelings get the better of him, making fists of his hands and thumping the arms of his seat. He even made a reasonable attempt at the sort of expression Worf would be pleased to wear.
"Glad it was you talking to him and not me," commented Riker. "I think I might have told him exactly how I was feeling."
Picard straightened his jacket and resumed his normal composure. "You'd have been wasting your breath, Number One. That man doesn't deserve to be cleaning the decks of a garbage scow. His sole concern is financial."
Beverly Crusher leaned thoughtfully back in her seat, her eyes fixed on the tiny dot that was the Princess Aurora. "I've heard she's the most beautiful ship in the galaxy."
"I bet you heard that from my mother," said Troi.
Beverly smiled and nodded.
"I am curious about the name of the ship," interrupted Data.
"Princess Aurora was the Sleeping Beauty, Data," said Picard.
"That is a fairy tale," said the android. "Why would a starship be named after a mythical being, a child's story?"
"Because it's the stuff dreams are made of," said Riker.
"Dreams are intangible," said Data, "and something that is intangible cannot be fabricated."
"No, but the Princess Aurora is a dream ship. A place to make fantasies real. A ship designed to cater to wild desires," said Crusher.
"More like a spaceborne kindergarten designed to pander to spoilt egos," muttered Picard.
Crusher raised her eyebrows.
"Engineering party have arrived on board the Princess Aurora," came Geordi LaForge's voice.
"It's owned by the Ferengi and run as a device for extracting ludicrous quantities of latinum from people too foolish to know better," continued Picard. "Look at what they've done here. They've come to the Jewel Box, showed off the pretty colours until the dense wave radiations have shattered their di-lithium crystals, and simply propped there waiting for a Federation ship to rescue them. That business about drawing lots is absolute rubbish. The richest and silliest passengers will stay on board, and we'll finish up ferrying about a bunch of people considered to be less valuable to the Aurora consortium because they only own asteroids and small moons. The rest will continue on their little picnic, happy in the knowledge that the Federation is around to pick up after them. They've risked the lives of their passengers before and they'll do it again. They're cynical and callous."
"She's a beautiful ship," said Riker.
"She's a mirage created by greed," argued Picard. "Enterprise to engineering Away Team, what's the situation, Mr LaForge?"
"Should take us about four hours to restabilise and replace the crystals, sir," came the reply.
"See if you can do it a little faster than that, I don't want to put this ship at risk."
"I'll do my best, sir."
Chief O'Brien's voice followed Geordi's on the intercom, "Aurora reports refugee passengers ready to beam across, Captain."
"Refugees," muttered Picard with disgust. "At your convenience, chief," he said more loudly.
"Uh...Captain Johannes has requested your presence when they beam across. Sir. Just to make them feel...welcome."
Picard stood, tugging impatiently at his jacket, "On my way, Mr O'Brien," he said quietly. "Data, come with me, and Mr Riker, you may wipe that expression off your face and organise some quarters for our guests."
Riker continued to grin, though as he joined Picard in the turbolift. "Why do you do it?" he said as the door slid shut behind them.
"Because my mother taught me to have the manners of a gentleman and the patience of a Vulcan."
Picard had been pacing the transporter room for at least ten minutes. Data stood in a corner, looking as though he had been switched off, and O'Brien was twiddling his thumbs. Finally Picard stopped. "Chief, would you please contact the Aurora and tell them that if they can't decide who is going to rough it on the Enterprise within the next minute, I will be randomly transporting twenty life forms from their ship."
"Captain, such action contains a three to one risk of accidentally transporting a crewmember," warned Data.
"Considering the way that ship's being run, Data, I'm not sure that's such a bad idea."
"They're ready now, Captain," said O'Brien, considerably relieved, because he hadn't been sure if Picard's previous comment had been a joke or not.
The sound of the transporter filled the room and its shimmering glow was replaced a moment later by three figures; a regal looking woman and two girls, aged about twelve and five. All three bore expressions of disgust, as though something, possibly dead and undoubtedly noisome was being held beneath their noses.
"Ewww gross!" said the bigger girl finally. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
The smaller girl burst into tears.
Picard ignored the scene. He stepped forward as the arrivals came down from the transporter pad. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise ladies. I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I hope your brief stay here will be a comfortable one." He indicated the large amount of luggage that had arrived with them, "Mr Data, would you see the ladies to their quarters, please?"
The rest of the visitors reacted in much the same way to their arrival on the Enterprise. None were happy, some were resigned, some were even hostile. One man demanded to be returned to the Aurora when he was informed that no, the Enterprise would not be providing him with a personal holosuite. When Picard refused to return him to the other ship, he lunged at the captain, trying to punch him in the face. Picard slipped to one side, avoiding the fist and grabbing the man's wrist and elbow, and bringing him up short with a squeak of pain.
"Mr Data will see you to your quarters," said Picard, releasing the man's arm.
"I could sue you for assault! I've got witnesses!" roared the man.
"Have you?" said Picard, looking from O'Brien, who had apparently fallen asleep, to data, who was on the transporter podium with his back turned.
It was close enough to four hours by the time Geordi LaForge and his team were ready to return. Geordi's face was alight with enthusiasm as he beamed aboard.
"Engineering team reporting back, sir," he announced on the communicator. "Wow! What a ship, Captain. She really is a princess."
"Mister LaForge, I take it the Princess Aurora is now spaceworthy," said Picard.
"She's already powered up, sir. She's got the sweetest little set of engines...what a ship! What a lady!..."
But Picard wasn't listening. He was too busy giving the order to plot a course for Starbase 100. To his mind, the briefer their visitors; stay, the happier his crew would be.
Under the circumstances, however, it seemed that even the shortest of stays could become interminable. Especially when the crew seemed to be confronted by what, if it was not outright sabotage from the passengers, had to be stupidity of an order normally regarded as criminal on board a Federation ship.
Lieutenant Craig voiced her displeasure over the communicator: "What these people have been putting into the ship's water system does not bear thinking about, Captain. My two year old has a better grasp of ship's ecology."
"Just do your best, Mr Craig."
"We are, sir. And yet those so-called passengers have had the hide to complain to me about the level of service on board the ship."
"Your sanitation crew is doing a grand job, MrCraig, and you may tell our passengers that I will be happy to look into all complaints, so long as they are hand written in triplicate, duly notarized by three Starfleet Admirals...and witnessed by a laughing Vulcan. Picard out."
Picard slid down into his command chair, rubbing his fingertips across the top of his head. "Command is yours, Number One," he said, rising from his seat and indicating that Riker should take his place. "I am going to take a break."
"It's about time you did, everyone else has," said Riker. "Have you slept at all since we rendezvoused with the Aurora?"
Before Picard had a chance to reply, he was interrupted by Data. "Commander Riker, it would not be possible for the Captain to function adequately without sufficient rest."
"How very true," agreed Picard, making his way to the turbolift. He stopped, though, when he heard Crusher's voice on the bridge communicator.
"Sickbay to Captain Picard."
Riker signalled for Picard to leave, "The Captain's not..."
"Yes, Beverly?" Picard interrupted.
"Could you come down to Sickbay please Captain?"
"On my way, doctor. Picard out." He stepped into the turbolift, accepting the angry look on Riker's face. "Thanks, Number One."
It was annoying having this interruption just as he had planned on finally taking a break, but at least Picard was assured that Beverly Crusher would not be wasting his time with the kind of stupid trivia and run-about that the passengers seemed to have been giving the rest of the crew. He arrived at Sickbay to find Crusher looking slightly flustered and rather embarrassed.
"Oh, Captain Picard," she said loudly. "Thank you for coming so quickly."
"Well, you wouldn't ask me down here for no reason. I assumed there was some kind of medical emergency."
"Not exactly an emergency, it's more a kind of problem..."
Picard's own worried about the passengers faded, he began to steer Crusher toward the privacy of her office. "What is it? A personal problem? How can I...?"
She propped in her tracks. "No. It's sort of more of a kind of medical problem."
He began to feel rather exasperated. "Beverly I am tired and hungry. You might be in the mood for playing games, I am not. Medical problems are your department. Sort of medical problems..."
"It's one of the children from the Princess Aurora," said Crusher quickly.
"Oh, Beverly, you of all people know that when it comes to children I am not..."
"I just need you to talk to her."
"Will can do it. He's much better with children than I am."
"Well, no. It's really a question of authority. I doubt that she'd listen to the first officer, but I'm sure she would listen to the Captain."
Picard sighed with resignation. It wasn't a tactic she abused, but Beverly Crusher could talk him into just about anything. "What do I have to talk to her about?"
Crusher steered him towards the far end of the room where a small girl was perched on a diagnostic bed. On a table in front of her was a plate of food, looking as if it had not even been tasted. The child had an indignant look on her face and her posture was set in stubborn lines.
"She won't eat her dinner," said Crusher quietly. "She's been very unsettled by the change of ship. To be honest, I think it's the mother that has more of a problem than the child. She's convinced that one missed meal means instant starvation. My personal feeling is that when the little girl is hungry she will eat, and this is just pandering to her ego. But under the present circumstances, a little attention is just what they both need."
Picard stood at the end of the child's bed. She fixed him with a steely glare. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"I am Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of this ship. Who are you?"
"Captain, this is Tiara Minkle," said Crusher formally, and then added in a very dark tone: "Tiara doesn't eat her dinner."
"What?!" Blustered Picard, "you won't eat your yoghourt with kudzi and barbins? Why not? Everyone on my ship has to eat their dinner, you know."
Tiara cast a withering glance at the food before her. "It's yucky," she announced.
"You can't know it's yucky, you haven't even tasted it," argued Picard.
"It looks yucky."
"Well it tastes nice. And if you eat it you can have some icecream afterwards."
"I don't like icecream and I don't want this dinner."
"Look, if you don't eat, you won't grow up to be a big, strong bridge officer."
"I don't want to be a bridge officer. I want to be a queen."
"Look," said Picard, "yoghourt with kudzi and barbins is good for you. It has calcium in it to give you strong bones and...I don't believe this. I sound just like my mother."
"It's not as good as Basmar makes on the Princess Aurora," sulked Tiara.
"Well you are not on the Princess Aurora now, you are on the Enterprise and I am the Captain on this ship and I am giving you a direct order..."
But before he got a chance to really make a fool of himself with this silly argument, Geordi LaForge interrupted him. "Engineering to Captain Picard."
"Yes Mr LaForge."
"Captain we have a slight problem, we..."
"I'll be right down. Picard out." He turned to go, then looked back once at Tiara. "Eat your dinner," he reiterated, "or I'll send Mr Worf down to help."
Geordi LaForge was surprised and a little flustered to see Picard in Engineering. "Captain, I'm sorry. You didn't have to come down. I could have..."
Picard waved the apology away, "That's quite all right, Mr LaForge, to be honest, I was grateful for the interruption. What's the problem."
"Well, it's not really a problem. We've got a minor destabilization in the dilithium crystals and the matter-antimatter interface, it was caused by the dense-wave radiation.
"I recall ordering extra shields around engineering to stop this happening."
"We were shielded, it's just that repairs to the Aurora took longer than I anticipated. The destabilization we have isn't all that serious, I just..."
He was interrupted by the arrival of Will Riker, who immediately pointed an accusing finger at Picard. "You are supposed to be taking a break."
"I am, Will. So what exactly are you telling me, Mr LaForge?"
LaForge looked sheepish, this was just too much attention to what was really a minor problem. Still, if his superiors chose to spend their time running from one end of the ship to the other when they could have used the communicators, that was really their problem. "It's just that I won't be able to give you anything above warp 8 until we restabilise."
"But we're only travelling at warp 4," said Picard.
"I know. I told you it wasn't urgent. I just wanted to let you know in case you did want warp 8 in the next few hours."
Picard nodded. He had insisted in coming to engineering. At least it had got him away from that silly child in sickbay. Still, he was feeling rather ordinary at this moment. Riker steered him out of engineering, towards the turbolift. "Pardon me if I'm being insubordinate, Captain, but did you or did you not leave me in command?"
"I'm sorry Will. Yes, I left you in command. No, I need not have gone to engineering. I'm just having a bit of trouble switching off."
Riker nodded sympathetically, "You are, aren't you? What don't you go and have something to eat? You really do need a break."
"I know. Only I've lost my appetite now."
I'm sure if you went to Ten Forward Guinan could..."
Picard shook his head, "No."
"Well, what about the holodeck? Take yourself off the air for a while. Indulge in some Dixon Hill."
The very thought cheered Picard up instantly, "Grand idea, Number One," he agreed, heading off for the holodeck.
There were three people standing in the corridor outside Holodeck 3. They were apparently doing nothing. They had about them the resigned air of people waiting for their turn at the showers in a caravan park. The first was a spotty, rather arrogant looking young man. In the middle was a young woman with a familiar glare, and standing behind her was a slightly older woman.
"What's going on?" said Picard.
"What does it look like to you?" snapped the younger woman, who he realised was Pirouette, Tiara's sister.
"You're all standing about in the corridor. Why?"
"Because at least there's a bit of room out here, unlike our cozy little cabins. Besides, it's closer to the holodeck."
"Well, there are other holodecks, you know."
"And other people waiting to use them."
"So you're planning on using this holodeck?"
"No. We just enjoy standing here staring at the back of each others' heads. Of course we're going to use the holodeck. And if you want a turn, get to the end of the line."
"No. I don't want a turn," Picard shook his head and moved away from the queue. "I have...duties..."
He decided, finally, to head for Ten Forward. Perhaps Guinan could fix him up with something. Coming towards him were tow women, and he hoped that the red hair on one meant it was Beverly. But the smile of welcome that had begun when she was close enough for him to realise that it was Beverly faded quickly as he realised that she was with Tiara's mother.
The woman loomed over him. She had a hairstyle that looked like there was some wild beast perched on top of her head. She spoke patronisingly to him, "Ah, Captain Picard, isn't it? I'm glad I've bumped into you. I wanted to thank you for getting that girl of mine to see sense."
"Oh. Tiara ate her dinner, then?"
"Yes and really, I am quite grateful that you took the time to speak to her. It made all the difference. I'm sure you Starfleet captains must be kept very busy by ship...things."
"The health and well being of the people on board my ship are as important to me as...the integrity of the dilithium crystals."
"Oh." She made a dismissive gesture with her hand, "I'm sure it is. Of course Captain Johannes was most attentive to all our needs."
"I'm sure he had the passengers' enjoyment uppermost in his mind during your trip."
"Well, naturally," she said, failing to notice the sarcasm. "You know, I dined at the Captain's table almost every night."
Crusher stepped between the two of them. "Captain, have you eaten yet? We were just about to go and..." she indicated the door to Ten Forward.
At that moment, Data happened by and was immediately rounded upon by Picard. "Ah, Data. There you are. Did you bring the report from Ambassador Fritta?"
"Report?" said Data, who might have been confused, except that he was quite certain he didn't have a clue about what Picard was referring to.
"What? Captain, I..."
Picard smiled diplomatically, "Thank you, ladies for the kind invitation, but I do have some business to review before we take the ambassador on board. I was planning on a light meal in my quarters." He hurried away down the corridor, bearing Data in his wake. "Thank you, Data," he said when they were out of earshot.
"But Captain, I do not have the report you mentioned."
"There wasn't one. You just saved me from a fate worse than death."
"Ah," Data nodded his comprehension. "An uncomfortable social event."
"Uncomfortable social event is an understatement. Do you suppose Captain Johannes wipes his passengers' noses for them? And I didn't just say that."
"I am not privy to Captain Johannes's conditions of employment, and you did..." he intercepted a look from Picard, "...uh, no, you did not. Is there some work I may assist you with?"
"No, Data. Just go and do whatever it was you were doing before I so rudely interrupted you."
The sandwich was half eaten, the cup of Earl Grey tea had gone stone cold, and the Dixon Hill novel lay open on the crumpled sheets, its pages fanned out, the place lost. The lights had dimmed themselves once he was asleep. Only starlight shone in to glint off the hairs on his chest where he hadn't done up the front of his nightshirt, and on his leg, where it stuck out from under the covers. For a moment it was a peaceful scene. Then red alert began to sound.
Picard rolled out of bed and onto his feet and was hitting the companel before he was really even awake. Will Riker's face appeared as a blur before his not yet focussed eyes. "What is it, Will?"
Riker turned, speaking to someone behind him, "Ok Geordi, thanks. Data, cancel red alert." He turned back to Picard. "Sorry, Captain, false alarm. Engineering just got the dilithium crystals realigned and it caused a slight hiccup that the internal security system read as dangerous."
"Are systems secure?" said Picard, who was wide awake now.
He heard Data's voice saying: "All systems secured, Commander Riker."
Riker acknowledged him, "All systems secured and operating, Captain. Go back to sleep."
What a suggestion. "Will, the next time we find ourselves in a position where we're about to be attacked by a fleet of Romulans, and the situation looks really hopeless, and I turn to you for help...remind me how much worse things could really be."
Riker raised an eyebrow, "Oh, Captain, and I thought all our guests' stories about the wonderful Captain Johannes were keeping you so entertained. I was thinking of asking them to stay aboard for a tour of duty."
"Watch it, Riker. I've had officers keelhauled for less revolting suggestions than that." He cut the connection and turned back to the bed. Movement had brought the lights up again and he felt cold and scruffy when he looked at his half finished meal and crumpled bed. Still, the alternative didn't bear thinking about, and even at warp eight it was going to be a very long trip.