A Woman's Place

This story first appeared in 1993 in issue 1 of New Voyages.Edited by Deena Brooks.

Captain's Log stardate 46164.4:

We are on a mission to the Neties system to make first contact with a race calling themselves the Egat. The Egat are, we believe, a compatible humanoid race, possibly of the same common stock that we find occurring again and again throughout the Galaxy. Their ultimate origin perhaps a part of the same cosmic mystery as our own.

A small Away Team from the enterprise will be making first contact, and assessing the social and technological standards of the Egat. The results of this meeting will, I hope, mean the welcoming of a new people into the United Federation of Planets.

Captain Picard sat in his ready room.His First Officer, Will Riker was standing by the desk, smiling. "I've completed negotiations with First Secretary Uuzurm," said Riker. "And I've planned the Away Team for first contact. It's only a small team.

"Who do you have?" said Picard.

"I'll be taking Lieutenant LaForge with me. There's to be a tour of the city and some of its industrial complexes, including power plants, and I'd like to hear his comments on them. Uuzrum did make a couple of requests that I think I can comply with."

"They were?"

"He said he wanted one of our 'high-up' doctors, someone who could appreciate their wonderful advances in medicine and surgery. I think he wants to show off a little. Dr Crusher said she'd be happy to do the favour."

Picard nodded. "You said there were two requests?"

Riker perched himself on the edge of the captain's desk. "There is to be a formal banquet. A state occasion. The Captain has been invited to that."

Picard hit the off key of his computer, stood up, and tugged at the hem of his tunic. "Well, come on," he said. "Data can mind the ship. What are we waiting for?"

"I thought you'd like that," grinned Riker as they left the room.

They beamed down to a small, richly appointed central room where they were greeted by a man who identified himself as Uuzrum. PIcard made his own introductions and Uuzrum seemed quite cordial and open. It was only as the doctor was introduced that his expression changed. The smile froze on his face. It was as if Uuzrum had suddenly got a bone caught in his throat, or tried breathing methane for a change. His expression became norman again as the greetings were completed, and he turned his attention to Picard.

"Captain Picard, we have an honour guard ready to escort you to Premier Axryx's grand banquet and meeting of head of Great Local families. I trust you will have a most enjoyable time."

Picard nodded and headed off, flanked by a pair of guards dressed in florid military uniforms.

Uuzrum stared at Crusher in a way that made Riker feel uncomfortable. In fact, now that he thought about it, all the guards had also been staring at the doctor. The expression on their faces was one of curiosity, and there was something else. It might have been disgust. It was the sort of look someone would reserve for the "baby born without a head" exhibit at a freak show.

Crusher had noticed it too, and as PIcard left the room she whispered to Riker: "Do I have something green stuck between my teeth?"

Riker shrugged and shook his head. "I can't figure out what's eating them, either."

"Er...doctor," Uuzrum's stare was openly rude. "The Administrator of the HOspital, Mr Erbly, is looking forward to showing you our medical facilities."

Uuzrum was struggling to keep a straight face now and one of the guards sniggered. Uuzrum glared at the man. "You will kindly escort the Doctor to Mr Erbly."

Once Crusher was gone, the atmosphere in the room seemed to become more normal and Uuzrum's smile at Riker and LaForge was warm and genuine. "It is my honour to escort you gentlemen around our beautiful city. Come.

When Crusher reached the hospital administrator's office, she was again given strange treatment. Erbly's stare was downright rude, and his attitude was offhand.

"I'm sorry, uh...doctor," the title seemed to catch in his throat. "I was supposed to give you a tour of this facility, but I fear that is not now possible." There was no question about the fact that the man was lying. He wouldn't even look Crusher in the face. "Duties," he said. " You know."

Crusher did not know. This was a first contact. She had expected the man to be excited at the prospect of hosting an offworlder and showing off facilities that must in some way be remarkable because they had been chosen in this ambassadorial manner. She could not even accept xenophobia as an explanation, given that Humans and Egat looked so similar that they could easily be mistaken for each other, and technology meant that language was not a consideration.

"I will get someone who can show you around," said Erbly. He opened the door to his office and spotted a young man swabbing the floor. "You there!" The young man looked up. "It's Hobbs, isn't it?" The young man nodded. "Put that aside," he indicated the mop and bucket. "I have something I want you to do."

Beverly Crusher was quite taken with Hobbs the minute she saw him. He was a clean-cut young fellow with swept back hair and calm, dark eyes. He reminded her of her son Wesley, so she couldn't help liking him. He was even about the same age as Wes. Between his eyes was a tattoo, a blue diamond. Crusher supposed it was a caste mark of some kind.

"This is Doctor Crusher, one of the offworlders. Doctor, this is Hobbs."

Crusher stepped forward and shook Hobbs's hand. "Mr Hobbs. Pleased to meet you. Please call me Beverly.

"You will give the doctor a tour of this facility. Show her whatever she wants. Perhaps the offworlders will benefit from our medical advances." He looked with curious directness at Crusher as he said this and she was glad to be leaving his office.

Axryx was a robust, genial looking man with a great expanse of belly and hair like the mane of a lion. HIs ruddy face lit up when he saw Picard and he took the Captain's arm like an old friend, saying: "Welcome Captain, to you and all that you represent."

The banqueting room was sumptuous, and reminded Picard of royal occasions. NOt that he had attended any, but he'd seen pictures.

"Seat yourself here," said Axryx indicating a chair at the head of the table. "You can be by my right hand so that I can ask you all about the Federation," then the host began to laugh. "Actually," he admitted, "I really want you close by so that you can listen to all my boasts about our lovely planet. I suppose I'm just being parochial, but I doubt that you'll find a nicer place anywhere."

Picard said nothing, but allowed himself a small smile. Axryx was no more chauvinistic than a lot of dignitaries he had met, but it was nice to see someone who was at least a bit honest about it. As PIcard sat down, a girl came and was seated on the other side of Axryx. Picard was no judge of children, but he thought she was perhaps twelve, certainly no more than fourteen. There was an almost fragile look to her, as though puberty had not yet laid a hand on her. Her arms and legs were long and almost painfully thin, but the fragility went deeper than that; she seemed aloof in an innocent, unworldly way. As though she had spent her short lifetime wrapped in cotton wool. As if, in an effort to impress, she had obviously spent a great deal of time in preparation for the banquet, though. Her hair had been twisted and knotted into a complex style that must have taken hours to complete and cost her a great deal of pain. Her face was painted with an almost masklike putty of makeup, so that her eyes, which already looked too large for her head, were accentuated. Her hands had been powdered and painted in intricate lace patterns. PIcard had a little time to muse while everyone was seated, and he assumed the girl to be Axryx's daughter or granddaughter.

"Captain, allow me to introduce you to my beautiful wife, Ruella," said Axryx, and the child extended her filigree hand.

Picard was perplexed. "Your wife? Surely...?" he took her hand. "I'm uh, honoured to meet you."

"She is very beautiful, isn't she?" boasted Axryx.

"She is very young," said Picard, unable to help his honesty. By his own confession PIcard was not good with children, but he thought they at least deserved their childhoods before they took on the responsibilities of marriage. Especially to someone so much older.

Instead of being insulted by PIcard's remark, though, Axryx began to laugh. "I don't know who you compliment more with your remark, myself or my wife," said Axryx. "Actually, Ruella is one year older than I am. So it was she, you see, who robbed the cradle, and not myself."

Now Picard was really confused. And it showed, much to Axryx's continued delight. "Ah, Captain, you do me honour. Ruella has always had the best of everything; the best food, though not too much of course. The finest of cosmetics, and our most experienced surgeons."

"Surgeons?"

"Her scars are so minute they can only be seen under a glass."

"Oh, your wife has had a lot of illness then."

"Not for a single day in her life."

"But you said she has had surgery."

"Cosmetic surgery. HOw else do I keep her looking so beautiful. So...presentable?"

"But surely everyone deserves the dignity of looking their age," PIcard didn't like this. He was getting involved in something that felt suspiciously like a political argument and that wasn't his duty. He had to back down, even if it meant just shutting up and seeming rude.

"Dignity?" said Axryx. "A strange concept, Captain Picard. How, after all, can anyone have any respect whatsoever for a woman who's not beautiful? Eh? I mean," and his face went red and he laughed, as though Picard had made some sort of obscene suggestion, "what good is an ugly woman to anyone?"

Picard was saved from having to answer by the arrival of the first course of the meal. It was a small, pretty salad made up entirely of flowers. He picked the petals up with his fingers, just as Axryx did, well aware that the dignitary kept looking at him and shaking his head. "You're a strange one, Picard," said Axryx as the plates were being cleared away. "You didn't really mean it, did you?"

Picard took a deep breath, ordering his thought. He didn't want to offend his host, but he was certainly not going to tell Axryx that he thought it was all right to treat a woman like a garment, sending her back to the shop for repairs every time she started to show signs of wear.

"We have a saying where I come from; Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said Picard. And he was again rescued by the arrival of food. This was more substantial; little pastries containing pleasantly spicy fillings. He noticed, though that Ruella and the other women were not given the pastries, but a dish containing clear soup. Picard took one of his pastries and began to nibble it.

Uusrum had taken Riker and LaForge to a large industrial complex. "It's a very convenient setup we have here. The workers live in the internment camp which is only a short walk from their working place."

"It appears to be a very low level of security for prisoners' quarters," Riker commented.

"Oh, no. This is not a camp for criminals," explained Uuzrum. "It is a women's internment camp. This particular facility is a Home for the Intolerably Plain."

"You keep women in an internment camp?" said Geordi, hardly able to keep the amazement out of his voice.

"Oh, only the ugly ones."

Crusher and Hobbs stopped before a set of large, white doors. "I thought," said Hobbs, "That you might like to see the obstetric unit before we go on to surgical."

They pushed the doors to the unit open. Just inside there was a desk with a man seated at it. He leapt up when he caught sight of Crusher. "What the hell kind of a bad joke is this?" he demanded of Hobbs.

"This is no joke, Nurse Krops. This is Doctor Crusher, our Honoured Guest from offworld."

Krops glared at Crusher. He wasn't just rude, the man was hostile. "Sure it's not one of your girlfriends, Hobbs? One of your lovers?

"This is Doctor Beverly Crusher. She has come from offworld. She is the Federation doctor who has come to visit this facility. Now if you don't think obstetrics is up to the standard..."

"I didn't say that!" snapped Krops. He fished about in a drawer of his desk, finally coming up with a surgical mask which he handed to Hobbs. "Here. Make her wear that so she doesn't frighten the patients."

As they walked away, Crusher put the mask on and Hobbs began to explain the layout of the ward. "The ward is split into three sections. There's standard obstetrical for surrogates," they entered a room filled with women who were enormously fat. Not just large due to being pregnant, but bloated from years of pregnancy, from years of having their bodies used for nothing other than carrying and bearing other people's children.

Beverly moved to one of the beds and looked down at the sweet face of the woman lying there. The woman was dozing, unaware of the visitors. Beverly brushes a curl from her eyes.

"Do you wish to speak to her?" said Hobbs. "I could wake her up.

"No," Crusher shook her head. "I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that my presence seems to have an unduly disturbing affect on people. I don't suppose you'd like to tell me why?"

"You'll see when we get to surgical. The next section here is andro-obstetrics."

"Andro-obstetrics?"

"Male mothers."

"Yes. I thought that was probably what you meant."

The men were sitting up in their beds. Each bore the unmistakable bulging basketball shape as Uuzrum.

"I'm assuming these pregnancies are not natural," said Crusher.

"That's right. Fertilization occurs naturally, and the embryo is flushed out before implantation takes place. It is then surgically deposited on the father's liver. The placenta grows normally, taking its nourishment from the blood supply of the liver. The baby has a normal gestation. Towards the end of term the male mother is brought in to hospital for testing, and when the baby's enzyme profile and lung function show normal, it is delivered by surgical section. After that, the father can decide on whether he wishes to breast feed or to use an artificial formula. It is becoming fashionable, I'm afraid, to use the formula."

"Oh," said Crusher. "That's a shame."

One of the male patients beckoned as they came to the door and Hobbs entered, followed by Crusher. It was Crusher that he spoke to, though. "Are you the Visitor? The one from another planet?"

"Yes I am," she said, and introduced herself.

"Morlax," he said, introducing himself. "It would seem you are female."

"That's right, Mr Morlax."

"Is it common for females to be doctors on your planet?"

I represent a Federation of many planets. In our societies is is normal for men and women to share most tasks equally, as befits our best strengths and abilities."

"In our society we like to protect our women. They are our most valuable commodity."

Crusher bit her tongue, the idea of treating any human being like a commodity was offensive to her, but she did not want to say so. Instead she said: "That is most interesting, Mr Morlax, though my field of expertise is medical rather than social. In my experience I have never met a pregnant man. I was wondering if you would mind telling me about your experience of pregnancy."

Morlax looked critically at Crusher. "Well, I can see you've had children," he said.

"That's right. I have a son. He's grown up now."

"Then I can tell you that it is different for a man. Having a baby. We feel it more than women do. The little body weighs heavily on us. It is not uncommon for the amniotic sac to attach itself to the pelvis, and when that happens we feel movement. Every thumbsuck and twitch. Every heart beat thuds through our bones. It is like a form of exquisite torture."

"Then why do you do it?"

"Why do I do it? Why do I bring life into the world? Why did you, doctor?"

"I mean why do you do it? The male body wasn't designed to have children, Mr Morlax. Surely your wife...?"

"This is a gift of life. It is the supreme sacrifice. I give my body that a child may be born. Parenthood is the gift I give my wife."

"At the expense of your own health."

"Better that I should risk my health than her beauty. I should be shamed to force the disfigurement of pregnancy upon a precious wife."

"Can we leave?" said Crusher.

"Through here," said Hobbs indicating a door. "Is vet-obstetrics."

"Pregnant animals?"

"Animal surrogates."

Crusher peered into the large room. It was filled with animals that might have been small ponies, or perhaps goats, she wasn't sure which and she had never been that good with animals. "Don't tell me. These animals carry your babies instead of fathers and mothers."

"That's right. They live with the family as pets until a couple of weeks before delivery time."

"That's most interesting," said Crusher. "You know one of the great philosophers of Earth was born in a stable."

Hobbs nodded dismissively. "Our present state of the art research is developing an artificial womb that will be placed in the center of the family home. That way everybody can watch the baby grow."

Crusher stared at him.

Hobbs's smile faded a little. "Perhaps you'd like to see surgical now."

"Come, Captain, put me at my ease," insisted Axryx. "You surely did not mean you wish my wife looked as old and ugly as I do, do you?"

Picard had finished his pastries and dusted the crumbs from his fingertips. "Axryx, the last thing I would ever wish to do would be to offend you or your family. I commend your surgeons who have created in Ruella the appearance of extreme...youth, and I apologize if what I said caused any slight. That was not my intention."

Axryx nodded, mollified, though not utterly convinced. He smiled, "Ah, Captain, I am enough of a politician to know an evasive answer when I hear one. I am also enough of a statesman to let it pass. For now, Captain...for now. There will be time for this argument later."

From somewhere in the room there was a sound of music. It was a complex rhythm full of intricate fripperies that just sounded twee to Picard.

"Now you will see some of the most beautiful women in the universe," boasted Axryx in a loud whisper.

Picard settled himself back and the dancers began to flow around the table. He wasn't so sure about beautiful, they all seemed to be more or less carbon copies of Ruella. The main difference he would see was that they were wearing fewer clothes and they had lots more hair. Not one of them looked like she had even reached puberty, let alone the age of consent, but he had to remind himself that Axryx insisted the youthful looking Ruella was older than he was.

It wasn't exactly that Picard didn't like it when two of the dancers made him part of their routine, draping themselves about his person and licking his face. He might have even enjoyed the obscene suggestions they kept twittering at him, if he could only, for a moment, have gotten out out of his mind that these were children.

"I think," said Hobbs, "That once you see the surgical word, the rude manners of the likes of Krops will be explained."

"Oh really?" said Crusher. "And do I have to keep the mask on?"

"No. They've seen everything here." He pushed the door open and they entered a room with much the same layout as the previous ward. The nurses' station was at the side, a gentle looking man in perhaps his early forties sat at the desk there. "Hobbs," he said, nodding to the younger man.

Hobbs made the introductions; "Nurse Pinchgut, this is Doctor Crusher, the visiting offworlder."

Pinchgut raised his eyebrows. Then he actually smiled at Crusher. It was the first positive reaction she'd had from one of these people, she was bowled over. "Most interesting to meet you, doctor. You know you're an oddity here. We don't have any female doctors."

Crusher just smiled, assuming this was the reason for the strange treatment she'd been getting.

Pinchgut continued, "Not that the women here couldn't be doctors if they wanted to. It's just that they have better things to do. Ah, but yourself, doctor..." he gazed at her, shaking his head and scratching his chin thoughtfully. "We have a saying on our world that the doctor sees a patient in every face but the one in the mirror. We have a marvelous team of surgeons here. I'm sure that they would work miracles with you. It's the bone structure. You have good bone structure, and the foundation is vital to a stable surgery."

"What are you talking about?" said Crusher.

"Here, look..." Pinchgut held up a pair of pictures of a woman. "Do you see the difference?"

"Of course. This picture was taken years before the other one."

"No. In this picture she is actually two months older. It was taken, you see, two months after her surgery."

"But what did she need surgery for?"

"Oh, doctor," Pinchgut shook his head.

"Look at this," said Hobbs, and he took from his wallet a photo of himself standing beside a girl who was perhaps a couple of years younger.

"Is she your girlfriend?" said Crusher.

"No. She's my mother."

Crusher shook her head, "Mr Hobbs, I have a son your age." She patted herself low down on the belly. "I carried him right here. Not in a jar or in a goat, but here. Where he was meant to be. And I raised him. His father died when he was young and I raised him all by myself. It was hard work and I loved every second of it. If doing this generated a few wrinkles and a few bulges on me that your people find distasteful, then I'm sorry for you. I lead an interesting life and I like it to show. Mr Hobbs, I have earned every damn one of these wrinkles and I wear them with pride."

"Perhaps you'd like to see the plague ward," said Hobbs in a very small voice.

The plague ward was not what Crusher had expected. In fact, its layout seemed no different to the other two wards. As in the surgical ward, all the patients here seemed to be female.

"I thought you said this was the plague ward," said Crusher, wondering about barrier nursing.

"It is. Every one of these ladies has the plague." Hobbs sounded proud.

"But there are no precautions."

Hobbs looked at her, a questioning expression on his face.

"Isolation procedures," prompted Crusher. "Something to stop the plague from getting out of this ward and into all the others?"

"Ah," said Hobbs, "But Beverly this is a very special plague."

Crusher looked at him, waiting for him to continue. The idea of a plague being at all special did not impress her and it showed. "Tell me about it," she said finally.

"Well, for one thing, Anorexia Cholerosis is genetically engineered. We created it right here in this city and it is now used all over the planet to help women lose weight and maintain a suitable appearance." Hobbs smiled the whole time he spoke. He was proud of this achievement.

Crusher, on the other hand, was having a great deal of trouble maintaining a suitable appearance of her own. What she really wanted to do was to scream at these stupid people, the men who demanded and the women who complied by torturing and deliberately polluting their own bodies with home made illnesses in order to conform to someone's notion of what a presentable woman should look like. Presentable. She cringed, recalling agricultural shows from her home planet, where prize cattle and chickens were compared and judges, the best being those that conformed to some breed standard. She wondered if they held similar beauty contests for women on this planet.

"Well?" said Hobbs finally, waiting for Crusher to speak.

"Mr Hobbs..." she sighed and thought for another moment, as if changing her track in mid sentence. Then she began again. "Mr Hobbs, this mission I am on is called First Contact. This is the initial meeting between two peoples. I am here to learn, not to judge. I am most interested in your plague. Where is the men's plague ward?"

"Men who get the plague don't have a ward. They have a pit."

"A what?"

"A pit. As in a hole in the ground. They are put down the pit and it's attached to the city's underground sewerage system. Every so often the pit is flushed and the bodies are carried away to the sea."

"So you treat the women who get the plague but you let the men die, is that it?"

"Well it isn't really that simple. You see, the plague isn't all that contagious. The only reason these women are here is that they've lost a little too much wight and we're treating them for weight loss. Otherwise they might die of a kidney disorder or something. But occasionally a woman with the plague will come into contact with a man who has a peculiar lack of immunity. The plague mutates within him and he becomes ill with it."

"But you still don't treat him."

"Mutated plague is very, very virulent, Beverly. Nobody will even touch a man with mutated plague. We've been trying to find a treatment for it, there's research going on right now. But so far nothing's been found. But plague in either form is harmless to women."

"Of course. It just makes them look nice. Mr Hobbs, where is this pit that the men are put down?"

They departed the plague ward and made their way down one of the corridors. "You don't want to see that."

"Can you take me there?"

"Well, I could, but really..."

Will you take me there?"

"Beverly..."

"Mr Hobbs, I am here as an observer. Above that I am a doctor. Your methods pique my professional curiosity."

They stopped walking and stood in front of an elevator. "It isn't far from here but really, it isn't a good place."

"I don't doubt that."

"It can be dangerous."

"I'm sure."

"I don't want to do this."

"That's obvious."

"Oh...come on then." Hobbs pushed a button on the elevator control panel. The doors opened and they entered.

The dancing girls left and the meal continued into dessert. It was a frothy confection. Each guest was served with a bowl of crystal so brilliant that it sparkled like diamonds. The confection itself was white and glittering, layers of crystals alternating with something of a softer texture. It looked like ice and snow. There were spoonlike utensils to eat it with; slim, elegant pieces of cutlery made from a light, glittering silvery metal so fine it almost looked fragile. Picard lifted his spoon and began to eat.

Data had been watching Troi for some minutes now. She seemed to be finding it impossible to sit still in her seat, squirming one way, looking at her fingers, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Data had finally come to the conclusion that it was time for him to find out what she was thinking, and, more importantly, what she was feeling.

"Counselor," he began. "In my study of human behaviour it has become apparent to me that humans communicate effectively, albeit often unconsciously, by using body language."

That's right," Troi agreed.

"I have been observing your body language for the past seven minutes and nine point one seconds."

Troi smiled, she could have asked Data to come right out and say what was on his mind, but she enjoyed the rhythm of his conversation. "And what has it told you?"

"It is an inexact form of communicating. The conclusions I have drawn from observing your behaviour are somewhat diverse. Either you are suffering some physical discomfort, or you are upset about something. I further surmise that as you are a rational person, you would attend to your own physical requirements and not allow them to interfere with your duties. I therefore conclude that you are worried about something. Given your Betazoid sensitivity, my concern is that you may be picking up disturbing thoughts from members of the Away Team."

"That was succinctly put, Data, and quite accurate."

Worf had tuned out during all the polite nonsense about discomfort and body language, but he snapped to attention at the mention of the Away Team. "What? You mean the Captain's in trouble? I knew I should have been on that Away Team."

"No, Worf," said Troi, "No one's in any trouble. They are just uneasy. The thought of all the team members are uneasy."

"Are any of them in danger?" said Data.

"No. I don't feel fear. What I'm feeling is anger, as though an injustice is being done."

Axryx's mind was still with the dancing girls. "Remarkably beautiful, wouldn't you say?" he raised a questioning eyebrow at Picard. "Ah, but then a worldly man such as yourself..." he paused for a moment, considering. "Though perhaps worldly is too parochial a term," and he turned to Picard to ask him if there was a better way of expressing what he meant." Tell me Captain..." he began, but as he spoke, he could see that there was something terribly wrong.

Picard had raised the spoon halfway up, when he began to foam and froth at the mouth. It took Axryx a moment to realise that what he was seeing emerging from Picard's mouth was simply a mixture of the dessert and the man's own saliva. Picard sat as if frozen for a moment, and then the froth dribbled out of his mouth and spilled down the front of his dress uniform and the spoon dropped from his hand and fell to the floor. It bounced once or twice, making a delicate musical chiming sound. Picard's face had turned grey-green and he began to double over, gagging and gasping for breath.

Axryx watched for a moment as if mesmerized by Picard's strange actions. Then he leapt from his chair, knocking it to the floor and backing away from Picard. "Guards!" he yelled in a voice swollen with panic. "Plague!"

The whole room was in motion now, chairs had been upset to the music of spoons dropping and tinkling against serving dishes. Everyone was backing away from the point where PIcard, now slumped in his chair, was slowly sliding beneath the table. They watched him fearfully, as though he really was a foaming mad dog that might attack them at any moment. But all he did was utter a low moan as his guts churned and twisted with fiery pain. He wondered how long it would be before he utterly disgraced himself by throwing up at his host's table. There was certainly no way he could get to the toilet, or even out of the room now, without help.

He looked about for Axryx, though it sent waves of nausea through him every time his head moved, and he know that if he opened his mouth to apologise or ask for help he would undoubtedly vomit. Apologise? For being ill? It was hardly his fault. He certainly hadn't done it deliberately. He was aware of some sort of fuss going on in the room, and hoped it meant that some medical attention was coming for him.

He was on the ground, now, and something was trying to move him. Not hands or even feet, but sticks were poking at him, trying to lever him and push him onto a stretcher that was on the floor beside him. He tried to protest his treatment but gagged instead. He tried to stop the spasm, but the pastry was suddenly in his mouth again and the fragrant taste of the spices, mixed with his gastric juices made him vomit. He could hear voices yelling: "Get him out! Get him out!" Then he heard Axryx saying: "No! Wait a minute."

Troi jumped up out of her seat as though she had been bitten, "Data, something's wrong. I'm getting confusion from the Captain and a great deal of pain."

Data's voice never lost its calm tenor, though he managed to speak and act more quickly than any human would. "Sickbay, stand by. Transporter room, please beam up Captain Picard immediately."

"The pin on his uniform," said Axryx. "It's some kind of identification badge, I think. Get it off him. When we notify his officers of what has happened they will probably want to have that."

One of the guards removed his ceremonial knife and flicked Picard's communicator off with it. He held it up on the blade of the knife for a moment, to look at it. And then the communicator pin suddenly vanished in a haze of transporter as Miles O'Brien locked onto its coordinates and transported it back to the ship.

Axryx watched with faint surprise. "Just get him out of here," he said, his voice thick with fear.

Picard was vomiting the flowers now. He watched in a detached sort of way the surprising bits of colour that flowed out of his mouth while his body wrenched and convulsed of its own accord. As well as wretched he felt shamed and humiliated as his bowels turned to acid and he lost control of his bladder.

As the guards carried him away on the stretcher he heard Axryx saying: "This is such a shame. I really think I quite liked him." And he was aware of the genuine remorse in the man's words, though he could not see the way Axryx's mouth trembled, not the tears that threatened.

O'Brien stepped forward and picked up the communicator which arrived without its owner. He heard Data's voice asking if the captain had been beamed aboard safely.

"No," said O'Brien. "He has not."

O'Brien told Data what had happened, and Data immediately informed Riker.

Axryx left the banquet room, taking two of his honour guards with him. They went to his office where his secretary, a slight young man, sat at a desk. "Where is the itinerary for the visiting offworlders?" said Axryx.

The secretary typed a few words into a computer keyboard and turned the screen so that Axryx could see it. Axryx scanned the paper for a moment and then turned to his guards, "Their next stopping point should be here," he indicated an address on the list. "I hate to cut their visit short, but I am absolutely certain that Commander Riker would want to be notified of this sad event as soon as possible. You will go and get them and bring them here. Do not tell them what has happened. I fear they will be deeply distressed and we must leave it to the politicians and statesmen to smooth these things over."

Street level grids above their heads provided Hobbs and Crusher with lighting as they walked through the sewer.

"You know, Mr Hobbs, you are a most unusual man."

"Funny thing to say."

"When I first saw you, you were cleaning the floor, is that right?"

"Yes. My job at the hospital is floor cleaner."

"Please excuse me if I'm overstepping good manners here, perhaps I'm just letting my basic prejudices get in my way, but where I come from we would find it a criminal waste for somebody to be working so far beneath their potential."

"How do you mean?"

"You show signs of normal, average intelligence, yet you do the kind of work that we would reserve for machines, or people of considerably below average intelligence. This is fulfilling to them, though I don't believe it can be for you."

"Ah yes. I do the work reserved for idiots. For idiots and criminals. Of course, there's a reason for that."

"Are you going to tell me?" asked Crusher.

"Maybe," he said. But he didn't tell her just then. They simply walked along in silence for a while. "It's not all that far now," said Hobbs after a time. "But it's around this area that you have to be careful of..." he didn't get to complete his warning.

From behind them a shadow leapt, all feet and fists. It pummeled both Crusher and Hobbs to the ground and its hand clutched at the front of Crusher's uniform. With a cry of: "Gold!" the figure vanished into the shadows.

"Are you all right?" said Crusher, dusting herself off and helping Hobbs to his feet.

"Yes. Thank you," he touched the side of his face and checked his fingertips for blood. "I'm sorry Beverly. I did try to warn you. We shouldn't have come down here."

"Well I did insist," Crusher looked down. "He took my communicator."

"Your what?"

"The little badge I was wearing. It's a communicator pin."

"Was it very valuable?"

"Only to me. I should really follow standard procedure and get back to the beam down point. Are we very far from these pits?"

"No."

"Then I'll take the risk of getting my knuckles rapped. I haven't come this far in order to just turn around and go back again. Lead on."

Picard lay on his stretcher, his thoughts centered around his pain. The two guards who carried him neither spoke to him nor touched him. He couldn't have spoken to them, even if he's wanted to. His stomach continued to revolt and all his muscles were straining and shuddering of their own accord. He had no power either to stop it happening or even to relax between attacks.

He had hoped that they would take him to a hospital. Perhaps to an infirmary of some sort for medical attention, or better still, to the sickbay of the Enterprise, but the guards treated him so coldly that he had begun to fear them. Picard was able to look at the guards' faces. There was a determined set to their features, though underneath there was something that looked like compassion. Nevertheless, their silence continued and they simply carried him to the edge of a concrete pit and upended his stretcher, dumping him down a slide into the pit. Then they went away.

Picard sat up. The shock of being dumped seemed to have stopped the muscle spasms and he was able, just for a moment, to feel a little self pity and a lot of disgust at the state he had got his clothing into. Then he saw what else was in the pit; dead people.

All the bodies, as far as he could make out, were male and by their smell, they too had been devastated by this plague. The pit he was in was too deep for him to climb out of, and it was quite narrow. Like a channel. At either end there was a tunnel opening. Picard looked again at the bodies, none seemed to be in an advanced state of decomposition. Picard supposed that the channel was flooded from time to time and the bodies were flushed away like debris.

From somewhere he found an atom of strength. Enough to let him stand, leaning against the wall, and walk down the tunnel away from the stinking plague pit. Just walking was taxing, though, and it wasn't long before the hurt muscles in his stomach began to rebel again. He wanted to keep walking. To find a place where there was a cool breeze that would at least take away his own rank smell, but he began to vomit again. The straining retch of a stomach now empty of food, filling his throat and mouth with nothing but the putrid burning sweetness of his own digestive juices.

He sank down, wallowing in the damp filth of his clothing. He tried to keep his head up so that he would at least not choke himself, and then he wondered if that, perhaps, might be a kinder death than what he was facing. He thought about the bodies he had seen, and it occurred to him that if this continued much longer his digestive juices would begin to turn upon the stomach that produced them and instead of bile he would be vomiting blood and tissue.

Through his fugue of pain and confusion it suddenly occurred to him that there was a very simple way for him to get back to the ship, and he tapped at his breast where his communicator pin should have been. Like a man dreaming of his heart's desire he willed it to be there. Between the muscle spasms that caused him to retch and gag he managed part of a message: "Picard to Enterprise...Mr Data..."before his slipped into unconsciousness.

The two guards brought Riker, LaForge and Uuzrum into Axryx's office. "I apologise for interrupting your tour, gentlemen," said Axryx, the expression on his face telling them that there was something terribly wrong.

Riker snapped at Axryx, ignoring the other man's gentle approach. "What have you done with Captain Picard?"

"Commander, you must believe me. I am most sincerely distressed. I am truly, truly sorry. Captain Picard is dead."

"Dead?" whispered Geordi, his voice sounding small and awed.

"You will take me at once to his body," snapped Riker.

"I am sorry. That is not possible."

"What do you mean not possible?"

"He had the plague. The body has been disposed of."

"Then I will go to where he was disposed," Riker's anger was fast becoming rage. He looked as if he wanted to hit someone. The guards moved protectively towards Axryx, who motioned them back. Riker continued, speaking more calmly now, after a deep breath. "I will have his body beamed back to the Enterprise."

"No," Axryx shook his head. There was a set look about him, resignation or stubbornness. "You may not go to the plague pits, Commander Riker. You may not sacrifice your own life and your whole crew. I understand how you must feel. I too have had friends and loved ones who've been put to the pits, but it is the best way. No. It is the only way. It is for the wellbeing of all."

"How could this happen?" muttered Riker. "How long...I mean," he paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "The banquet had hardly even begun. This plague of yours must kill very quickly."

"Commander, the man who shows the merest symptom of the plague is a dead man. There are no ifs, buts or maybes."

"Wait a minute," said Riker. "Was Captain Picard dead as in no longer breathing, or had he shown the merest symptom of your plague?"

"Commander, plague is virulent, malignant, and deadly. Always.Breathing or not, your captain was a dead man. Now I say this with the deepest sorrow and..."

"He was alive then!" roared Riker. "You took Jean-Luc Picard and you treated him like trash. And he was alive."

"It was not disrespect, it was self-preservation."

Riker slapped his communicator, "Riker to Enterprise."

"Enterprise. Data here."

"Troi, what are you reading from the captain? Is he still alive?"

"Yes, of course he is, Commander. But he's v..."

"Mister Data, have Lieutenant Worf prepare a small Away Team. I want Security and Medical personnel. They will beam town to my location and I want them here in two minutes."

"Lieutenant Worf is on his way to the Transporter Room now, sir," said Data, who had witnessed with awe the speed at which the bulky Klingon had made it from his bridge station to the turbolift the moment Riker had given his order. "Will there be anything else, Commander Riker?"

"Yes. Have sickbay prepare an isolation unit."

"Is there someone to beam up, sir?"

"We will be beaming Captain Picard up. As soon as we can find him. And Data, have Dr Crusher beamed to my location so that I can brief her. Apparently there is some kind of plague disease on this planet. Riker out."

A moment later Data's voice came back over the communicator: "Commander Riker, we are unable to contact Dr Crusher."

"Then beam her up to the isolation unit immediately," barked Riker. He turned a baleful look upon Axryx and added: "Maybe she has this plague as well."

"Please," said Axryx, "Please reconsider. I know what you are thinking and I know how you feel, but believe me there is not cure. We have all been through it," Uuzrum was nodding sadly, agreeing with Axryx. "We have tried everything there is to try. Do not, Commander, I implore you, do this. Captain Picard is dead and any man who touches him will die also."

"You need not show us to these plague pits yourself," said Riker. "A map or a set of coordinates will do."

Axryx was about to say something, but it was Uuzrum who stepped forward. "I will take you personally to the pits."

"That is not necessary," said Axryx. "Think of your child."

But Uuzrum shook his head. "Your Excellency, my own brother was taken by the cursed plague only a month ago. In a way Felt it helped me to see that there was not hope for him. It is hard for the offworlders to understand."

Axryx nodded. "You will receive a commendation for this," he said quietly. Axryx and the two guards watched as the transporter did its magic and Worf and his Away Team appeared before their eyes. His team comprised Grace Lorkus, a burly human female, and Dr Selar, a lithe Vulcan female.

"Lieutenant Worf, reporting as ordered, sir," said the Klingon. Riker had the feeling that maybe things were going to be all right.

O'Brien was nonplussed when the person he beamed up wasn't Crusher at all but a wild looking derelict. Data, standing beside the transporter Chief stepped forward and studied the strange man. He plucked the communicator from between the man's fingers and returned to stand beside O'Brien. The derelict had not moved since being beamed, he was transfixed by his own astonishment.

"I think," said Data, "That under the circumstances the best was for us to expedite the Prime Directive would be the return of the native."

"I'm with you, Mr Data," said O'Brien.

"Energize," said Data.

Crusher and Hobbs moved quietly through the tunnels, though there was no reason for it.

"We're not far off the pit now, there won't be anyone to attack up," said Hobbs. "But we can still go back. If you like."

Crusher shook her head. Squeamish was not in her vocabulary. She pointed to a shadow in a dark corner. "There," she said. "What's that? Could one of them have fallen this far?"

Hobbs moved cautiously. He poked the heap with his foot and it groaned at him.

"Well, it's alive," he said, backing away. "And probably still contagious."

As Hobbs moved away from the body, Beverly moved in. "Alive?" she muttered, all the time referring to her tricorder. "No," she said finally. "He sin't contagious. He's certainly had the plague, but there is no sign now of increasing infection or contagion vectors." She reached down to grab the man's arm."

"What are you doing?" said Hobbs.

"Well I want to get him into the light a bit so I can treat him. He's over the plague, but he's still very ill."

Hobbs looked resigned. "Over the plague?" he muttered. "I don't see how that can be. Oh, put him down, I'll move him for you." He reached down towards the man and gagged. "It stinks," he complained. He searched for the least disgusting bit of the man's clothing and eventually dragged him out of the corner by the sleeve of one elbow. The man groaned again as though it hurt him to be moved. "You'll want to put the hose on him before you go touching him," warned Hobbs. "He's absolutely putrid."

Indeed, very little of the man was visible beneath his covering of vomit and excrement and filth. Crusher ignored the muck and reached to turn the man onto his back, though he whimpered: "Don't" and shook as she touched him. For a moment his face was in the light, then he put his hand up to cover his eyes. Crusher had had long enough, though, to see that it was Picard.

Hobbs was ware that something was wrong by Crusher's sharp intake of breath, and he misunderstood. "Look, you really don't have to do this," he began.

Crusher shook her head, "It's Captain Picard."

"Who? You mean you know him?"

"Yes. It's Captain Picard. What's he doing down here? Why would they put him down here?"

"Because he's got the plague. Or had it, anyway."

"But you said plague victims are put in the pits."

"That's right, anyone who has the plague is a victim of it."

"So they go to the pits alive." There was nothing further for Crusher to say on the matter. Instead she turned to the task at hand. "Mr Hobbs, what we need is clean water for washing. Do you know of any place about here that I can get some?"

Hobbs nodded and vanished. While he was gone, Crusher scanned Picard with her medical tricorder and began calibrating her hypo spray. It would have been so easy on the Enterprise with Picard safe and clean on a diagnostic bed in sickbay, attended by herself and her staff. Beverly wasted no time on wishes though. She had just finished injecting PIcard when Hobbs returned, bearing a bucket containing warm water, and in his other hand was a cake of soap and a piece of clean soft rag.

"Mr Hobbs, you're a champion," said Crusher. "Where'd you get all this?"

Hobbs just smiled. "I know my way around these parts. What was the stuff you just shot into him."

"A nice little concoction I just put together out of my bag of goodies," as Crusher spoke she packed the hypo spray away. "Mostly palliatives calibrated to human requirements. One set to enhance immune system reactions. Something to revitalise intestinal flora, something to ease the pain of the muscle spasms, and electrolytes to help balance his body salts. He's quite dehydrated, though. He'll need drinking water."

"Well, this is just washing water, I'm afraid." Hobbs watched while Beverly soaped and rinsed her hands and then proceeded to peel the filthy garments off Picard. "You washed before you touched him?"

"He's quite sick enough as it it. He doesn't need to be catching anything off me."

"Well it's a bit primitive, isn't it? Soap and water when you've got all this whiz bang technology."

"Mr Hobbs, more lives have been saved by the simple process of good old soap and water than anything else. My Grandma was a doctor and she used to say if you wash your hands before you touch a patient and after you've finished with him, then ninety-nine percent of the germs have been taken care of. And ninety-nine percent of the other one percent are harmless."

Hobbs laughed and Crusher returned her attention to Picard. "How come he isn't dead then, if he's had the plague?"

"Surely not everyone who contracts it dies," said Crusher. "There must be some natural immunity within the population."

Hobbs shook his head. "No. Any man who gets the plague dies."

"It must be kind of hard to tell if you go dropping them down the pits while they're still alive."

"It's the best form of containment that we've found. Still doesn't explain why your captain should have survived."

"there are slight biochemical differences between the two species. I would say that a combination of that, plus his overall fitness and the fact that Starfleet personnel have routine immune system boosters could explain why Captain Picard is still alive. No thanks to the barbarian who treated him like refuse." Crusher began to extract Picard from the miasma of his dress uniform. On the inside, where it was less than utterly rank, Beverly thought it still showed a dull reddish colour. There was no sign of his communicator though. "You didn't see his communicator over there, when you picked him up, did you?"

"Like that little badge you were wearing? No," Hobbs shook his head. "Just a lot of stuff that came out of him. You know."

"I know," said Beverly, beginning to swab at Picard's face. He made small whimpering noises as she continued to wash his face and neck.

Hobbs watched. "He's all mucky all over the back of his head, too. If I hold him so he's sitting up, you can make him clean there as well." Hobbs got behind Picard and began to ease him into a sitting position. When he had Picard halfway up, he slipped the dirty uniform off his shoulder and down his arms, mainly so that he would not have to touch it too much. He put his hands under Picard's armpits and sat him right up. Though Picard was not unconscious, he was very weak. His head lolled forward and he made an unhappy little moaning noise. The right side of his head was hardly dirty at all, but there was quite a bit of vomit caked about his left ear and Beverly scrubbed at it.

"You're lucky to be alive, Jean-Luc," said Crusher. She got no response. "You know, if you hadn't been lying on your side you would have choked on all this."

Picard lay quietly in Hobbs's arms. The little noises of pain or complain or whatever they had been now stopped, though he had gagged and dry retched a couple of times. Despite his passive acceptance of the ministrations of Crusher and Hobbs, Picard's consciousness moved through a confused fog of semi-awareness and bewilderment. At one stage he reached his hand up to cover Hobbs's and squeezed it, as if in gratitude.

Now that Picard's top half was coming clean, and he had begun to look human, Hobbs began to feel a little sympathy for him. "We should probably take the rest of his clothes off and wash him all over. He'd feel a lot better. I'll get us some clean washing water and some drinking water for him. And a blanket to wrap him up in."

"Thank you," said Beverly.

Hobbs lay Picard down gently and set off with the bucket."

It was like a display of synchronised fidgeting. Every move Troi made, Data shadowed. She crossed her legs, he crossed his. She uncrossed her legs, he uncrossed his. She searched the front of her uniform, picking off invisible bits of lint. Data, after a moment's hesitation while he watched, did likewise. Eventually, Troi noticed and said, "Data, you keep doing everything that I do."

"That is correct, Counsellor. It is my experience that when a human is in a state of anxiety, he or she will move about in this manner as a form of displacement activity, to vent their frustrations. I thought you might feel comforted if I did this with you."

Troi leaned back in her seat, making no effort to hide the smile that was spreading over her face. If nothing else, these conversations with Data were diverting. "Oh, Data. You have a way of reminding me how really absurd we human types can be."

Data's expression did not change. "I do not consider you at all absurd."

Troi shook her head. "My current behaviour is though. All these silly displacement activities are of no real help to anyone. They are simply an inefficient method of burning off some of the extra adrenaline in my system."

"Caused by what you are feeling from the Away Team?"

"That's right. From Commander Riker particularly. He is feeling a great deal of anger and anxiety and I am having trouble controlling its affect on me. To a certain extent, very powerful emotions will influence my endocrine system. Hence the extra adrenaline."

"And do you feel anything from doctor Crusher?" said Data.

"Also some very powerful emotions. Mainly a lot of indignation and anger, though not directed at any particular person. It intrigues you, doesn't it, that I feel the emotions of another person from such a distance?"

Data considered the question for a moment, "Counselor, the very concept of emotions intrigues me. Commander Riker is deeply concerned for the captain, is he not?"

"Yes. Captain Picard's welfare is at the center of Commander Riker's fears."

"What are you feeling from the Captain at the moment?"

Troi considered for a moment, pushing her ability to its limit. It was difficult for her to get through the wall of powerful emotions set up by Riker and Crusher, but eventually she tuned in to Picard's weaker signal. "It's...very difficult to get a reading from the captain. His state of consciousness is unstable. He's not really aware of his surroundings. I'm just getting a lot of confusion and bewilderment.

"Does he have a sense of being in any pain or immediate danger?"

"No. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though he's in a fugue state, he feels safe.

"If we were to tell this to Commander Riker, it may ease some of his fears. If his emotions were less intense you would be more comfortable."

Troi gazed at Data's blank expression, wondering at his depths. "That's a very perceptive piece of psychology, Data. Thank you for being so concerned for my welfare. I really think, though, that the only thing that will help Commander Riker calm down will be to find the captain himself."

"And in the meantime you will fell the urge to relieve your internal hormonal disturbances with displacement activities."

"I'll try not to if it disturbs you, Data."

"On the contrary, Counselor. As acting captain I give you my permission to fidget and pace on the Bridge."

This time Troi laughed out loud. "Thanks, Data," she said.

Uuzrum indicated the pit to Riker. "This is as far as I can come," he said.

Selar checked her tricorder while Geordi just looked for lifesigns. "They're all dead down there," he said.

"Concur," said the Vulcan.

"Could any of them be Captain Picard?" said Riker.

"Infra red indicates they've all been dead for over twelve hours," Geordi told him.

"I am not reading any human DNA from the pit," added Selar.

"He probably went down one of the tunnels," said Worf, and he ran down the slide to the bottom of the pit. Lorkus followed him and stood beside him. "Jump," ordered Worf to the three people standing on the edge of the pit looking down at him. "I will catch you."

Riker looked dubiously at the Klingon's outstretched arms. He decided he would get to the bottom of the pit the same way Worf did, and he ran down the slide. Grace Lorkus caught him at the bottom.

"What makes you think Captain Picard went down a tunnel?" said Geordi, a worried look on his face as he weighed up his options.

"It is the only logical explanation for his disappearance from the pit," said Selar behind him.

Worf made a small growling sound. "Because Captain Picard has too much dignity to die in this place," he said.

Geordi sighed with resignation. He threw his Visor to Riker and then jumped, trusting Worf to catch him. Which of course the Klingon did. While this was happening, Selar threw her tricorder to Lorkus and simply jumped from the edge, landing in the pit as lightly as if she had just jumped one meter, not ten. "We are wasting time," she reminded the others, straightening up and checking the readings on her tricorder. "Human DNA now registering," she said, pointing down the tunnel.

They went in.

Crusher and Hobbs wrapped Picard in the blanket and he tried to sit up. Hobbs had brought drinking water this time, and Beverly managed to get a sip of it into Picard's mouth before he was hit by a wave of nausea and had to lie back down.

"What am I doing here?" he mumbled.

"Assuming your intentions are to follow doctor's orders, you're resting and recovering," said Crusher.

"Why aren't we on the Enterprise?"

"We can't contact the..."

"Contact the ship, doctor. That's right. I can't because I seem to be out of uniform and I can't find my communicator anywhere..."

Crusher put the water bottle to his mouth, getting him to drink rather than listen to him rave. At least it gave her a chance to talk some sense to him. "Now listen...just sip, that's right...we can't contact the ship, but I'm sure Commander Riker..."

"No. No more."

"You're dehydrated. You need more water."

"Not now. It makes me feel sick. It hurts my stomach."

"Well, you can just rest for now, but you'll have to have more in a minute. Do you remember what happened?"

Picard lay still for a little while with his eyes closed, so that Beverly thought he had gone to sleep with the blanket shrugged up around his ears and his feet sticking out. "I was at the banquet," he said finally. "And I started to feel ill. I don't know what...I thought it was food poisoning or something. But they went and then...and...when I thought they were coming to help me they started to poke me with sticks. And they took away my communicator. They...I...they went...they took me. I couldn't even contact the ship because they took away my communicator. I thought they were going to help me but do you know what they did?"

"They dropped you down the plague pit," said Hobbs. "Because they thought you were as good as dead and they didn't want to catch your disease."

"They threw me away. Like rubbish. Like a spent chip. Used up and thrown away. Thrown away like Locutus did to me. Like Locutus was coming again."

"Oh, Deanna," muttered Crusher. "Where are you when I need you?"

"Welcome to the society of outcasts," said Hobbs.

"What do you mean outcast?" said Crusher.

"Well look at us. We have a woman who looks her age, a plague victim, and a criminal. Don't you recognise this?" he indicated the diamond shaped tattoo that had been gouged between his eyes.

"Uh, no," admitted Crusher. "I'm not familiar with that particular marking. I just assumed it was a caste mark of some sort."

"That's right. It's a caste mark. Caste of criminals. Mark of a rapist."

Crusher drew back in horror. Picard merely looked confused and bleary. "Rapist?" he said. "What's that mean?"

It wasn't a good time for him to suddenly become partially cogent. "Ask Tasha Yar," muttered Crusher.

"But she's dead," said Picard after a moment's thought. "You tell me . What is it?"

"Assault," said Crusher. "Extreme violence and humiliation involving the sex act.

Picard looked back at Hobbs, and for a moment his colour had come back, lending hectic blotches to his face, now a mixture of disgust and horror. He raised himself to a sitting position. "Do I understand that you somehow managed to turn the love act into brutality? How could you do that?"

The man looked with some surprise at Picard, as if thinking how naïve is this guy? "You want to know how I could do it? Very easy. I had a lifetime's training. As a kid I was beaten, abused and sexually assaulted. You want to know why?"

Picard did not want to know why. Not just then. He sank back down to floor level, once again drawing the blanket up around his ears, as if he wanted to shut this whole rotten planet out of his life. It looked so good from the outside, but there seemed to be no sensible treatment of people here at all. The women were simultaneously deified and treated like objects for owning and decorating. The men were thrown away like garbage, and the children were beaten and sexually assaulted. He really didn't want to know. He wasn't well enough.

Crusher shook her head, gazing at Hobbs and drawing his attention from Picard. "Why?"

"Because I had the wrong genes. My mother is...well, you've seen her picture. She's beautiful. Not my father. He's big and strong and heavy. He's just built big. I got my mother's build. It would have been okay if my sister could have too. But she was made big. Like dad. We tried everything. Not even the plague worked. She just used to eat. She got so big."

"How old was she when this happened?"

"Right from day one. But it got much worse when she was around twelve, thirteen."

"She ate like a normal teenager," said Crusher. "Putting on a normal amount of weight so that her body could have enough energy to make that dash through puberty to adulthood. Just like her body was programmed to do."

"She stayed heavy," argued Hobbs. "And she got worse. She finished up in an internment camp for the embarrassingly fat. And my parents blamed me for getting her genes. It was their fault, not mine."

"You don't seem old enough to have had all these things happen."

"Twenty. I'm twenty. Two years ago I was working as a night nurse in an internment camp for irreconcilably old women. I wasn't always a floor cleaner, you see. There was this one old woman. She was an ugly, useless, horrible old bag who was scared of me. She did anything I told her to. She was eighty-one and I raped her. I did it because she was scared of me. Of me. Useless, stupid me. I did ti because for the first time in my life I had some control." He began to weep, and his own self disgust at his pathetic, appalling act was evident. "Well I'm not proud," he said.

Revolted as she was by what he had done, Crusher still saw who he was; a young man who reminded her so much of Wesley. She saw only too well how circumstances could drive someone as they had driven him, to sociopathic behaviour. She wanted to put her arms around his shoulders and hold him, but he began to back away from her. The admission had hurt him, and he wanted to lash out. "You look nearly as old as she did," he said, standing now, as if he was about to run away.

"Where I come from it isn't a crime for a woman to look like an adult. Or for a man to share his feelings." She looked up at him and he sat down beside her, and this time she did put her arm around his shoulder, as she would have done with Wesley.

That was how they were when Worf and Riker and the others found them. Crusher trying to heal the wounds of the young man who reminded her far too much of her own son. And Picard, hiding under his blanket.

Picard lay on his bed. His own bed, that was, not the one in sickbay. Crusher had decided that since he was well on the way to recovery he was better off enjoying the privacy of his own quarters. Provided, of course, that he followed her instructions to the letter.

Deanna Troi sat beside the bed, administering her own kind of medicine. She watched Picard as he took a sip of water. He still did not look completely well, but she wondered if the slight tremor in his hand as he replaced the water glass was entirely due to illness. "I know you are not comfortable with this therapy. You do not like to see your own weaknesses, or share them. But think of this; the more you understand your weaknesses, the more you can work on them. Now, would you like to continue?"

Picard pondered the question. "Would I like to continue?" Troi didn't have to see the little gleam in his eye to know what he was going to say next. "No." He waited for a reaction but Troi saw his bluff and simply sat him out. "But I don't suppose you'll allow me to totally ignore it, will you?"

"No."

"Let's get on with it, then."

"This incident has brought up a lot of fear that you've had locked away since your time as Locutus. Fear of losing yourself generated by a loss of overall integrity. The Borg assaulted you psyche. This time it was your physical wellbeing that was compromised. In both circumstances..."

She was interrupted by the sound of the door chime and Picard called: "Come in, Number One." He smiled at Troi. "Sorry Counselor, I forgot I had called this meeting."

"I doubt that," she replied.

Riker came in, followed by LaForge, Worf, Selar, Lorkus and Data. Beverly Crusher came in last of all, a look of suspicion and concern on her face.

"Our assessments of the planet have been completed, Captain," said Riker.

"You were given an order captain," snapped Crusher.

Picard's expression was pure innocence. "You told me to stay in bed and I'm in bed." He pulled the blankets up defensively. "It still hurts when I laugh, and I assure you, doctor, I'm not getting up till that's been cured."

Crusher was not amused. "Lets' just get this over with, shall we?"

Picard nodded, "Data, begin recording. Number One?"

"Findings were conclusive and unanimous, Captain. While the technology is at a compatible level to allow some limited Federation contact, we do not believe the society in its present form is capable of accepting sustained contact with alien cultures."

"To put it bluntly," said Crusher, "These people treat each other so appallingly that they simply cannot be trusted with others. Their own bodies...they treat their own bodies like pieces of cloth to be cut and sewn to shape. If the shape goes out of fashion, then it's thrown back into the matter converter. Or it's torn into rags and used to clean the floor," on the last word her voice broke and she fled the room.

Riker watched her go, and expression of concern on his face. He finally turned back to the captain, "I think the doctor put that quite succinctly. I will be recommending denial of access to all Federation ships and personnel for at least one hundred years."

Picard nodded. "Concur, Number One."

Troi asked for permission to leave.

"Beverly?" said Picard.

Troi nodded.

"I hadn't realised she'd been so upset by all this," said Picard.

"She spent most of her time on the planet with a young man. He helped her save your life."

Picard shrugged sadly, "I seemed to be having a strange conversation with someone about some kind of bizarre crime. I don't really remember."

"I got a good look at him," said Riker. "He reminded me a lot of Wesley."

Troi nodded.

"Go to her, Counselor," said Picard.

Crusher was sitting by the big window in Ten Forward. Tears had left smears on her face and her eyes were a little bloodshot. Troi seated herself beside Beverly.

"He looked so much like Wesley," said Beverly.

"I think you may benefit from spending some time with your son," offered Troi. "If that is what you would like, I'm sure I can arrange it for you."

Crusher smiled through her tears, "That would be lovely, Deanna, thank you, but I don't need it. I don't need to be reminded of what a fantastic kid he is. I don't need him to be close to know how much I love him."

Stardate 4616.9 Doctor Beverly Crusher. Personal Log:

Some of us rise above the lot that fate has thrown us. But for the most part we have no option but to go the way we are driven. For my own part I am very glad for the joy and understanding I have in my life.

the end

*:)

amanda