"Program running. Enter when ready."
The doors slide open, and Beverly's eyes go wide. She steps cautiously onto a grassy hillside by a broad, still lake. An illusion, but one so perfect that she has to glance back at the open door to reassure herself that it isn't real. The sandy soil gives gently beneath her feet, and a warm, subtle breeze ruffles her hair and stirs the summer-parched branches of the trees.
Deanna comes in beside her, smiling. "Well, this is very nice," she says, hands clasped behind her.
"I'd call it amazing," Beverly replies, gazing around to take it all in. "Usually with holographic images there's some hint that it's an illusion, something odd about the perspective..." She places her hand on the trunk of a tree, peering up into its branches; the bark is dry and crumbling beneath her palm. "...but this is remarkable. If you took me in here blindfolded I'd be completely fooled."
The doors close behind them with a pneumatic hiss, making Beverly jump slightly.
Deanna's lips purse, hiding a laugh. "I guess this is one of the benefits of serving on the flagship."
"All the newest toys?"
"In case we have to impress any foreign dignitaries, of course," Deanna adds.
"Right," Beverly says, shaking her head in wonder as they move down towards the water. "Even the acoustics are perfect. It really sounds like we're outdoors, not in a little room." She shouts experimentally into the hills — "Hello!" — and they share a grin at the returning echo.
"You know what," Beverly goes on with growing realization, squinting into the midday sun. "I've been here before. This is Lake Anza, near the Academy."
"Yes — though a bit less busy than the real lake at this time of year!"
Beverly nods. "I barely recognized it without the crowds."
"And now we get it all to ourselves. I can't wait to try out these new water algorithms they've been talking about." Deanna reaches back to undo her dress. "I've been wanting a swim for ages."
Beverly turns away quickly — to be polite, of course — and begins to unbutton her shirt. "Is the air really as hot and dry as it feels, or is the computer fooling us?" she calls behind her.
"I'm not sure how it all works, there have been so many advances lately. Geordi and Data installed the upgrades; I'm sure they could explain it to you in great detail."
"I don't doubt that," Beverly answers wryly, stepping out of her slacks. She asks the computer for a bathing suit, and it complies with a modest green one-piece; she knows it isn't really there, but she feels better with it anyway.
She turns, and Deanna is knee-deep in the water, still nude, leaning down and splashing at the surface with amazement. "You must come feel this!"
Beverly picks her way down to the lakeshore, instinctively avoiding sharp-looking rocks though she knows they can't hurt her. It doesn't look so different from the water she's seen on holodecks before, but when she dips a bare foot into the lake, she gasps. "It feels so real," she says, gingerly submerging both feet and wriggling her toes in the cool, blue-green illusion. "Are we really getting wet? On the old holodeck if you touched the water it was just a gravitational trick that simulated buoyancy."
Deanna is already on her way to find out, wading further out into the lake, the surface rippling in her wake. She ducks in, dunking her head under, and comes up with her hair sleek and heavy, dripping as she runs her hands through it.
"It feels wet to me," she laughs, brushing hair and water from her eyes.
"Maybe it's a manipulation of the environmental humidity controls," Beverly says, stepping into deeper water. It seems to soak into her bathing suit, and the waterlogged sand slips out from beneath her feet, just as it ought to. She even feels the chill of evaporation as the breeze passes over her skin.
"Does it really matter how it works?" Deanna asks, pushing off to swim. "Sometimes it's nice to lose ourselves in the illusion."
Beverly sinks down to her neck, knees bent and toes brushing the slippery sediment at the bottom. "I guess I spend so much time thinking analytically, it's hard to turn it off," she admits.
"Then I'm glad we came."
Deanna turns to float on her back, eyes falling closed against the sun, arms waving gently. Her skin looks paler beneath the water, distorted waves of blue and white. Beverly has seen her crew mates' bodies before, of course, professionally, but Deanna looks, well — beautiful this way, lovely long limbs breaking the surface now and then, bare breasts glistening in the summer sun...
Deanna's eyes fly open. "Beverly!" she says with mock indignation, a smile in her eyes.
Beverly flusters, her face going hot. "I— I'm sorry, it was just a passing thought, I didn't mean to..."
But Deanna is laughing. "It's perfectly all right. I don't mind at all. Do you want to swim further out?"
Beverly nods, still blushing, but relieved that Deanna isn't offended. She tries to focus on the water as they swim out into the center of the lake, where you're not allowed to go in real life, all so unnaturally deserted and still.
Deanna is the stronger swimmer between them, cutting through the lake like a fish while Beverly lags behind, dog paddling. She recalls the amphibian ancestry of Betazoids as Deanna draws a breath and dives deep, not coming up for long moments. When she breaks the surface again, she spits water in a high arc, like a garden statue.
"Oh, Deanna, doesn't that taste awful?" Beverly says, surprised and a little horrified.
She shakes her head, swallowing. "No. It hasn't any taste at all."
"I guess it seems so much like the real lake that I half expect there to be all kinds of dead fish and algae down there..."
"Don't tell Data and Geordi that," Deanna advises teasingly. "They'd probably stay up all night programming new algae subroutines."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Beverly chuckles. "It's perfect the way it is.
Deanna nods. "I could stay here all day."
Beverly relaxes into the water, letting herself float, the sun warming her face. "Do you ever worry that these simulations could become so real that people really don't leave them? Could reality start to seem a little... imperfect by comparison?"
"Psychologists have wondered that ever since primitive computers were invented," Deanna points out. "I think the answer remains the same. People who wish to avoid reality will always find a way to do so. Technology might provide an outlet for a neurosis, but it can't create one where none exists."
"I suppose you're right."
By the time they get out of the water, the sun is simulating a dip behind the hills. As they emerge onto the shore, Beverly tries not to look at the water dripping from Deanna's elegant back and slender legs, tries to think about matter conversation, force fields, humidity controls...
"Yes?" Her voice comes out breathless; she finds herself trying to look innocent, though she knows Deanna can't be fooled.
Deanna is standing before her with a secretive smile.
"You don't have to push those feelings away," Deanna says quietly. "In fact... I wish you wouldn't."
She gently slides her hand into Beverly's own, meeting her gaze. Beverly's heart catches in her throat, and there is no question in her mind that the touch of Deanna's skin is the only thing that's real.