Commander Will Riker was weaving his way through crew members heading toward the bridge. He always enjoyed the morning shift change. He liked to take his time and stopped frequently to exchange greetings with people he knew well and trade cheery smiles in passing with those he didn't know as well.
He halted so Dr. Beverly Crusher could catch up to him. Will admired the Doctor's fierce dedication to her profession. He also admired her deep brown eyes and red hair that fell in soft curls around her shoulders.
"Are you doing anything terribly important right now, Will?" she asked.
"I'm on my way to the bridge."
Dr. Crusher took Will's elbow and steered him down a narrower corridor. "Could you spare a few minutes to help me with something? It would mean a lot."
"What did you have in mind, Doctor?"
"Well," replied Crusher, "there is a little ceremony. Usually it's something we take care of quickly and quietly but in this case it just cries out for an officer of command rank to officiate."
"What kind of ceremony are we talking about Doctor?" Will's curiosity piqued.
Doctor Crusher hesitated before replying, "A...funeral"
"A funeral! Who Doctor? I wasn't aware of...your report didn't indicate anyone was...We should inform the Captain. What happened?"
"Easy Will, this is nothing that Captain Picard would want to be bothered with," Crusher explained. "He died of old age. There were no surviving relatives. He lived a long, full, happy life. He was a faithful companion and he was loved by all.
Will looked around him and realized that Dr. Crusher had steered him into a section containing classrooms for the ship's children. They entered one of the rooms. There were several children perhaps 8 or 9 years old and several adults. Will recognized a couple of teachers among them.
The children were all clustered around a small box sitting on one of the desks. Will peered over the children and his confusion dissipated rapidly. The box contained the body of a small golden-colored hamster lying on a bed of flowers.
Will turned and gave Dr. Crusher a look of mild amusement, "Hamster funeral, Doctor?"
She smiled, "His name was Roger. He was the class pet. I'm sure the children would appreciate it if you could say a few words."
Unseen eyes viewed the entire proceeding. Their interest grew as several of the children wiped water from their eyes. One of the young males placed the box in a jettison tube. Then, one of the adults depressed some switches, sending the box into space.
Eyes watched as the one called Commander somberly shook the hands of each of the young ones individually, occasionally he rested his other hand on their shoulders. The touch seemed to be an action of some significance. The teacher also shook the hand of the Commander and thanked him for his concern. The healing woman smiled and touched her lips to the Commander's cheek as they parted in the hall.
Riker entered Captain Picard's Ready Room. Picard looked up from his desk when the door opened.
"You're late Number One. Anything I should know about?"
A smile played about the corners of Will's mouth. "Nothing much, I had to stop and preside over a hamster funeral this morning," he said offhandedly as though it were an everyday occurrence.
Picard paused, "hamster funeral?"
Will grinned, "You did put me in charge of seeing to your image of geniality with the children."
"I see, well done, then. Shall we get down to business?"
"Certainly, sir." Will replied as he pulled up a chair.
Picard and Riker spent the day discussing and dividing up the work to be done on the Annual Report. The Enterprise was one of the newly designed Galaxy Class ships. So Fleet would be especially interested in how their brain child was faring. The report included all problems that occurred in the last year, recommendations on changes in the ship's design, supply usage, basically anything and everything concerning the ship's operation was to be included.
The Enterprise was involved in a mapping mission which meant charting the various orbits of objects, noting any abnormalities and making special note of any planets that could sustain life. As they might be candidates for colonization.
All this meant that navigation and sciences had plenty to do leaving the Captain and First Officer all the time necessary to complete the Annual Report.
As Will climbed into a hot shower that night, he wondered if they had drawn this assignment because the report had been late last year and this was fleet's way of making sure they had plenty of opportunity to get it in on time this year.
A shower with the option of real water was a luxury on a ship of the line. The water was collected and reprocessed so extremely little was lost. It was one small reason why Will loved his job on the Enterprise so much.
Will stood under the scalding water mentally trying to persuade his body to relax, but he still couldn't shake the odd sensation he'd had all day. The unsettling feeling that he was being watched.
Vague, anomalous shapes hung suspended amid the steam in Will's bathroom.
"Yes, this is the one. His idealism and passion for life make him the natural selection.
That night, Will's dreams were unsettling. Wild images passed before his eyes. Silent screams sounded in his ears. A cold presence touched his mind. He rebelled.
Will woke with a start. When his heart stopped pounding he turned and looked at the clock. He would have to get up soon, "Might as well make an early day of it, " he thought. "I can get a good start on the Engineering section of the report."
The engineering section was the longest most involved portion, and Will's responsibility. He had scheduled a meeting with Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge for this morning. Geordi was known as an early riser. Maybe he'd like to get started. The sooner they got started, the sooner they'd have the dreadful thing finished.
Will spent the day in Geordi's office going over the recommendations on design changes and meticulously examining the Enterprise blueprints hanging all over the walls. Will tried to pay attention but as the afternoon wore on he had to stifle yawns more frequently. He also, had to keep resisting the urge to look over his shoulder.
That evening, Will had dinner in 10-Forward. He sat alone at a table instead of the bar where he usually sat when he didn't have a date. He propped his head up on his arm and he picked at his food. Long fingers touched his shoulder. Will jumped.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," Guinan sat in the chair opposite Will.
"That's all right I'm not very alert tonight."
"So I notice. I also notice you're not eating. The food's no good tonight?"
"Food's fine. I'm just not hungry." A quiet pause.
"It's unusual for you to be so quiet," Guinan observed.
"Sorry, I didn't sleep well last night and I've had the oddest feeling someone's been staring at me all day." He shook his head, "I just feel unnerved somehow."
"I have just the thing. Be right back." Guinan headed off behind the bar. She operates 10-Forward, the social center of the ship. In addition, she doubles as ship's enigma.
No one knew how old she was, except maybe Captain Picard and he was not telling. It was rumored that her wisdom knew no bounds. And she always knew just the right thing.
Guinan returned with a tray. On it sat a glass filled with thick, white liquid. Will looked at it with a sinking feeling in his stomach. It was warm to his touch. He picked it up, smelled it. The aroma was all too familiar.
"What is this?"
"Warm milk," she replied. Seeing his look of distaste she added, "Drink it. It will relax you. Put you to sleep."
"I don't know, I don't think I'm quite that far gone yet."
"It'll be here when your ready. Now go to bed before you fall asleep at this table and I have to call somebody to come put you to bed.
But Will wasn't sleeping. He was tossing and turning and generally tying knots in the sheets, but he was not sleeping. And he didn't know why. Once that night he had caught the beginning of a dream. It was like no dream he had ever experienced before. It wasn't a nightmare. It was something else. Something different. Something he didn't quite understand.
He wondered if his unusual bout with insomnia had anything to do with it. On the other hand maybe it was nothing, maybe it was the paperwork.
Finally, Will had enough. He got up and went into the main room of his quarters. He glanced through the shelf of old antique books. Nothing. The pile of music tapes, likewise nothing. Even his favorite holofilm of an Antean quartet left him cold. He finally settled for wearily climbing into his clothes and taking a walk.
The Enterprise was deep into her night cycle. Humans needed night and day in order to keep their body cycles running smoothly. Without the simulated night the crew would begin to lose sleep and tempers would become increasingly short. Will encountered no one in his aimless trek along the corridor. It did not surprise him that he eventually ended up in one of the deserted observation lounges. He often came here: To be depressed, sad, introspective, to ponder the meaning of the universe, or when he simply wanted to be left alone. The observation lounge was a place to be alone, meditate, whatever. It was an unwritten rule on any ship that anyone in the observation lounge was to be left to their own thoughts. It was a solitary place. It was a good place for putting life's little problems into perspective.
Will also came here to stare out at the stars and dream. Here, he is First Officer under Captain Picard, but someday he would have a ship of his own. Someday, he would be sitting in the command chair gazing out the view screen into the vast unknown reaches of interstellar space, orbiting worlds as yet undiscovered, reaching out to the inhabitants of those worlds with the hand of friendship...
Will leaned against the viewport and spent the remainder of the night gazing out into an imaginary future of his own design.
Veiled shadows lurk nearby. Frustration. He does not understand. He feels threatened. Wait. With his weakness will come acceptance and understanding.
Will squirmed uncomfortably in his bridge seat. He couldn't keep his mind on what was going on around him or on the report in front of him. He almost wished something unexpected would happen, maybe the adrenaline would wake him up but he knew he was in no shape to deal with it. he felt weary. It had been two nights with little sleep and no rest. He didn't smile a good morning to anyone. He was already on the bridge before the shifts changed. Will had been staring at the unfinished report for some time. Staring at it but not seeing it.
"Will, are you all right?" Counselor Troi asked concern written in her face. Will hadn't even heard her approach. She sat down in the observer's seat next to his. "There seems to be a weariness about you."
"Weariness is a good word for it, Deanna. I seem to be suffering from a peculiarly human affliction, insomnia." She knew him so well. It didn't seem that long ago since they were together on her home planet. Close didn't even begin to apply to what they had. But Deanna had ended it. She said he wanted to be married to a ship and not a woman. And deep down he knew she was right, but deep down he wondered if there was still a flame burning somewhere. And couldn't there be a way to have both ship and woman?
"Anything you want to talk about?"
"No," he smiled, his wonderfully, honest smile, "I wouldn't know what to talk about, nothing's bothering me that I'm aware of. I just can't sleep well." He stifled a yawn.
"If it isn't psychological, then maybe it's physical?"
"Again, nothing that I'm aware of. But it's a thought worth looking into. Thanks." She moved back to her normal seat.
Captain Picard came out of his office and took his seat between Deanna and Will.
"You've finished your reports already, sir?" inquired Troi.
"I have not. I am merely taking a break. A long break."
"In that case, Captain," Will said, "if you will be staying on the bridge for awhile, I would like to request permission to report to Medical."
"Are you ill, Number One?", Picard asked giving Will a closer look.
"I'd like Dr. Crusher to make that determination, if you don't mind."
"I assume all's quiet here."
"I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't."
"Very well then, you may consider yourself relieved."
"Thank you, sir." Will turned off his screen and was conscious of the eyes following him up the ramp to the turbolift. He fought the need to turn and look at what he knew wasn't there.
"Will, a little insomnia now and then is normal for people who live in space. The simulated night aboard ship keeps the body's rhythms in line most of the time but there are bound to be minor fluctuations from time to time."
Doctor Crusher casually leaned against the corner of her desk. Her dark blue lab coat set off her shoulder length red hair magnificently.
"But I've never had a problem with insomnia before, Doctor."
"There is a first time for everything, Will. I can't find anything wrong with you. I don't want to give you anything for it yet because it isn't that bad right now. You're tired, yes, but it's better if your body can correct your sleep cycles for itself. If the sleeplessness continues, then we'll need to look deeper. Until then, trust me on this, your body will sleep when it is ready to sleep."
"And not a moment before, huh."
"My husband always swore a glass of warm milk would work wonders. It never helped me, but it couldn't hurt to try."
A slight smile played about the corners of Will's lips, "Centuries of medical knowledge behind mankind, and my doctor is prescribing folk remedies, ones that I've already been apprised of. Thank you, Doctor."
That evening Will drug himself into 10-Forward and slumped at the bar. Guinan sat the milk in front of him without his having to ask for it.
He stared at the milk. "Guinan, do you really think this will work?"
"We'll never know until you try. What can it hurt?" she asked matter-of-factly.
He picked up the glass, a resigned expression on his face, and downed the milk in as few gulps as he could manage. And he sighed.
"If it's any consolation, that odd feeling you mentioned?" Guinan prompted.
"When you're in the room, I feel it, too."
"You think its following me around?"
"I don't know," but the mysterious bartender looked concerned as she watched Will leave.
Sleep came that night but Will couldn't stay asleep. He would almost begin to dream and something would startle him. It was like the feeling that he was falling and woke up just before he hit bottom.
Finally he became so frustrated, he pulled a book at random from the compartment next to the bed and began reading.
Several long chapters later, Will's weariness overcame him and his eyes closed. He dreamed the same wild dreams. Only this time they were bizarre distorted visions of reality. He slept but again he did not rest. He fought the icy tendrils as they crept through his mind.
Gratefully he rose to the voice of the ship's computer. He dressed and retrieved the cup of coffee waiting at the food dispenser, "God," He thought, "Do I need coffee, lots and lots of coffee." He took his cup with him as he headed for the bridge and another long dull day.
Will jumped and found Captain Picard looking sternly down at him. "Yes, Captain. My apologies. I haven't been sleeping well lately."
"So Counselor Troi tells me. I assume that was the nature of your visit to Medical yesterday."
"Just see to it that it doesn't interfere with your duty."
"The engineer's report," Picard prompted.
"Oh, the engineer's report, sir." Will handed him a small stack of computer tapes.
Picard took them and strode into his office. Will understood his outburst, sleeping on the job was not looked on highly. Will glanced over at Troi. Deanna smiled at him reassuringly and returned to updating her personnel files. Will monitored the incoming data from the ship's sensors on his console. Again his mind began to drift. He couldn't keep his eyes open. His head felt heavy. It was as if he was being lulled to sleep. "Oh come on," he thought to himself, "last night you couldn't keep your eyes closed for an instant, now you can't keep them open."
In another moment Will shuddered as if he was intensely cold and was asleep.
Counselor Troi was deeply involved in familiarizing herself with the records of new personnel taken aboard at Starbase 17. Otherwise, she should have sensed the presence which had entered Will's mind sooner. Her body tensed. Instantly she opened a channel from the bridge to the Captain's ready-room.
"Captain, come to the bridge, now!" The urgency in her voice caused Captain Picard to emerge from his office immediately. He recognized Troi's trance-like state, but he was not prepared for Will's.
Will sat. His eyes were empty, glazed, staring. Their usual sparkle was gone. His face was blank. Picard had stopped in midstep. Slowly he approached Troi.
"What is it? What's happening?"
"I'm not certain, sir. A presence...several presences...one of them has joined minds with Will."
"I see nothing." Picard squinted his eyes as if trying to discern something through a fog.
"Nevertheless, there is something there, sir."
"He is hardly breathing, sir," Data reported. He had moved from Ops to the observer's seat next to Will's. Data appeared more than a little concerned.
"Medical to the Bridge, at once!" Picard ordered.
Troi's voice was little more than a whisper, "They do not intend to harm...human conscience...too fragile...only in subconscious...must find..."
"Must find what, Counselor?"
"I don't know, sir."
Suddenly Will was flying. He didn't know how or why, but he was flying. No ship, nothing about him but the atmosphere. He looked below himself seeking some bearing. He was above a cloud. Arm's spread wide, he soared like a bird, swooped down into the cloud. He could feel the mist on his face. The nothingness of the cloud blew through his hair and he was through it. Below him, he beheld the most beautiful landscape he had ever seen. Hills of rolling blue leading to a clear green river bubbling through snowcapped mountains. Will was flying.
A slow smile spread over Will's face. He rose like a marionette having its strings pulled. He turned and walked up the ramp to the upper deck, Data followed. Picard paced them around the bridge via the other ramp. As he passed, the turbolift doors opened and Doctor Crusher entered, medikit in hand. Picard motioned her to silence behind him.
Will faced the science console and began accessing the Enterprise's memory banks. Screenfulls of information began flicking across the panels at a dizzying rate.
"Data?" Picard inquired.
"He is pulling up information on planetary bodies, their type and location. Intriguing, sir. He is searching mythological as well as factual."
"Troi, what are you getting from this?" Picard asked.
"It's not hurting him. I sense a need, a deep longing for some knowledge."
"But there is no malevolence?"
"Quite the opposite, sir," she responded, "I sense only goodness. I-"
Suddenly Will collapsed against the console, but caught himself before he hit. However he leaned heavily against it. Data pulled out the chair from it's position under the console and helped Will into it. Crusher was there, med scanner in hand.
"Commander, are you all right? Will?"
"I'm all right, I think," his voice trembled when he spoke. His face was deathly pale.
"Will," the Captain asked., "What happened? What or who are they?"
"I'm not sure." a pause, "Such beauty..." his eyes glassed over, his body shuddered again and he was gone.
Will stood next to the green river in the valley he'd flown over earlier. He stepped away from the river before the water lapping against the shore got into his shoes. He saw a bird of some sort sitting on a branch. It was partially hidden behind the blue leaves. It had a furred body and feathers only on its wings and tail.
Will breathed in the sweet air and moved toward a nearby rock to sit down and drink in the natural beauty of the place. He felt very calm and at peace here, but when he placed his weight on the rock it gave way and he was sitting on the ground inside the rock. It wasn't real. It was like sitting inside a hologram. He could pass right through it.
He stood up again and stepped from the rock. Realizing that this was not the paradise it appeared, he took a closer look at his surroundings. He noticed that the bird had still not moved. He walked right up to it and saw it wasn't breathing.
He tried to touch a leaf on the tree but his fingers couldn't hold on to the ghostlike images. They were perfect to all appearances right down to the tiny veins in their surfaces but they were not tangible. At least in the holodeck you could touch things.
Will could see the water bubbling in the river but there was no sound. There were no sounds anywhere except his own.
He took a deep breath. The air was no longer sweet. It was his imagination. As he looked around, he realized that this must be what its like to be locked in a painting. Everything appears real but none of it is real except the canvas beneath his feet.
"A painting is an excellent analogy, Commander."
Will turned back toward the trees but nothing was there. The voice had come from inside his own head.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Come out and show yourselves."
"Please do not be defensive. It makes communication difficult. We will try to make ourselves visible to your senses."
Gradually a thin veil-like form appeared about 5 meters in front of Will. It was completely transparent, like a thin, wispy cloud.
"What do you want with me? Why are you doing this?" Will asked.
"We mean you and your companions no harm. We merely wished to have a mutual exchange of information" The voice was still coming from inside Will's head. It continued, "You see we may have very different forms and levels of existence but we have very similar perceptions in other ways. We each seek to explore what is. We relish the joy of discovery. We seek the place of inherent beauty."
"I still don't understand why you picked me."
"You understand more than you know. We are, as you say, artists or painters. This is, indeed, one of our works. You also noticed that it is real only in appearance. Only to the sense of sight. We have other works of sound, touch, and thought, but as yet we have not been able to achieve an effective union.
"The beauty we perceive is the sense of beauty that we project into the work itself. The work is not inherently beautiful. We seek the place of inherent beauty that we believe will enable us to paint with all senses instead of just the one sense we perceive beautiful in the work.
"Your passion for life and beauty extends to all your senses. You were the necessary choice because you could comprehend our quest."
"Necessary choice for what? What was I chosen to do?"
"As you see we have no physical form in your plane of existence. We needed to speak to your computer."
"And to do that you needed a physical form. I see." Will thought a moment. "Has my insomnia been because I have been fighting your attempts to contact me?"
"Yes," they replied. "We have what we need to know. We thank you for your help. Your Dr. Crusher is becoming very distressed over your condition. We shall not worry her any longer."
Dr. Crusher called for a stretcher after Will collapsed. He was near coma, totally withdrawn into himself. The med-team had just picked up the stretcher to take Will to Sickbay when he moaned and opened his eyes.
"Wait. Put him back down. Will, can you hear me?"
"Yes." He sat up.
"How do you feel?" Crusher began running the scanner over him.
"Tired, but otherwise okay."
Picard kneeled next to him, "Will, what happened?"
"I was in a place. It must've been in my own head." Will paused to gather his thoughts. "They're artists, painters, seeking out landscapes to paint."
"Paint how? They have no form we can detect."
"With a mental canvas, Captain. They take pictures with their minds. Whatever images they choose to 'paint' they remember with the detail of a photograph. I saw one of them." Will foundered for words, "They are totally amorphous beings. A completely different existence from us."
"This planet they are searching for, sir," Data inquired, "Did they find it?"
"No, it wasn't here, but I think they have a direction now." Will glanced at the console, "I got the feeling that they aren't sure it exists themselves."
"It is a myth, then?"
"Yes, Data, but if they find it," He inhaled slowly, "To see such a painting. Such absolute beauty." Will still felt dreamy.
Doctor Crusher finished her exam. "He appears fine, but I'd like to examine him more closely in Sickbay."
Picard turned to Troi, "Do you sense anything, Counselor? Are they gone?"
"Yes, Captain, I can sense nothing."
"Will?" Picard asked.
"They're gone, sir, I hope they find what they're searching for someday."
"Very well, I agree, Doctor. Report to Medical, Number One."
Will nodded and followed Doctor Crusher into the turbolift. Captain Picard returned to his seat in the center of the bridge.
"Well, Counselor, at least it won't be another totally uneventful day."
Troi had resumed reading her files, "Perhaps Will will be able to get some sleep now."
At Picard's questioning glance, Troi explained, "The beings had to contact Will's subconscious mind. His subconscious sensed their presence and not sleeping was the only way to refuse them entry. So they had to wait until Will was too tired to put up much of a fight and they could overpower his subconscious without harming him."
"I understand they needed to join with someone, not having any physical mass, they couldn't work the console. But why choose Will? Why not you or one of the Vulcans onboard, who have greater telepathic abilities?"
"Evidently our minds were not as compatible as a human's would be. As for why Will. I'm afraid that's probably partially my doing. When Will was stationed on my home planet, we became close. He developed the ability to read my thoughts at times. That left him open to receive them."
"I see," he reflected a moment, "Incredible that such beings exist. The diversity of life in the universe never ceases to amaze me and just imagine the pictures they must have painted during their journey."
Data turned from the Ops station, "Captain, there is a new file in the memory banks and it is currently downloading to the navigation systems."
"A new file, Data?"
"Yes, sir. It is a map of this system and the next one on our course with planetary bodies, their types and locations noted and cross referenced."
"We helped them on their way and they helped us on ours." Wesley Crusher commented from the Helm.
Picard nodded, "The search for knowledge is our primary mission. It is comforting to know we are not the only ones searching."
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