"Fro spot my spyryt ther sprang in space;
My body on balke ther bod. In sweuen
In auenture ther meruaylez meuen.
I ne wyste in this worlde quere that hit wace…"
—Pearl, lines 61-65
"Thirty cc's tricordrazine," she snapped. "Get the cortical stimulator. Ready—now. Again. Again…"
Picard's body, below her on the surgical table, convulsed once more. She would have been able to save him, she knew, even with the massive damage to his internal organs—if only his artificial heart had not been fused in his chest cavity by the energy beam. Now, his life was inexorably ebbing away from his body, in spite of all her frantic efforts to hold the two together. Still, she did not let him go until all synaptic activity in his brain had ceased. Only then did she bow her head, and softly begin to cry.
It fell to one of her assistants to make the official entry in the log: "Death occurred at 18.27 hours."
It was the small details in the scene that caught his attention: the splatters of blood, a dark red against the blue of her uniform sleeve; the way her long hair lay fanned across her back; her tears. He would have reached out to comfort her, but he felt so distant. And how small his body looked down there, lying crumpled on the table…
"Pathetic, isn't it?" He whirled around, to find Q standing there beside him. "How fragile your human bodies are. She lost her husband in an accident very like this, and now she's lost you too…"
Picard tried to ignore him, tried to turn his attention back to Beverly, but he found that he could see her no more. All was lost in a field of featureless whiteness.
"Q," he said slowly, squinting into the glare, "why have you brought me here?"
"Brought you here? You do me too much credit. This is something that you achieved entirely by yourself."
"What are you talking about?"
There was a part of him that was grateful for Q's usual insouciance, marking the one point of familiarity in a landscape as alien as anything he had encountered. He could see nothing of the distance, nothing of the ground beneath his feet. Aside from himself and from Q, all was shapeless, brilliant void. Deprived of the world, he found himself looking simply at the back of his hand. It was his, but yet—different, suffused with the same radiance as the rest of this place.
"Jean-Luc," said Q, interrupting his reverie, "you're dead."
Dead. Yes. He had forgotten. Now is all came rushing back—the firefight down on the planet, the searing pain in his chest, being transported back to the Enterprise. And now this. He gingerly touched his fingers to his chest, but felt only the smooth unblemished fabric of his uniform.
"Died," he whispered. "I died…"
"Yes, yes," said Q impatiently. "Some three minutes ago in fact, under the inept ministrations of Doctor Beverly Crusher."
Shading his eyes, Picard attempted to look at him, and found the brightness still too much. "And I suppose this is the afterlife," he said, curiously tranquil, unable to hold on to the anger that he knew he should be feeling.
"Very astute. I can see that the separation of your soul from your body hasn't affected your rapid wit."
"Are you saying…" For a moment he faltered. "Do you mean you expect me to believe that this really is the afterlife?"
"Ah," said Q, a disappointed particle. It hung in the air a moment. "Perhaps not as quick to make the adjustment as I had hoped."
"Don't be ridiculous!" That was better. He could imagine that he felt his heart beating again. "I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you."
"Really?" Q moved closer; now Picard could almost make out the expression on his face. "What does the afterlife require which I couldn't bring to it?"
"A sense of justice, for one thing."
"Justice?" Q laughed delightedly. "Mon capitaine, have you ever seriously considered the universe? There's no justice. There's only me."
And Picard thought of Beverly, back in sickbay, bent over his body.
"You wound me," continued Q. "I take the trouble to rescue you from eternal non-existence, grant you being beyond the finite bounds of your puny existence… and this is all the thanks I get? Why do you mistrust me so?"
"Perhaps it's because every time you involve yourself in our affairs, an ulterior motive soon becomes apparent."
"Ulterior motive? You died three minutes ago. I hardly think you're in a position to criticize."
Picard sighed. For once, he felt, there was nothing that he could say. What purchase could he have with any argument, in a land where there was nothing that he could touch, or even see? Not that he did believe that this was the afterlife. Not that it could be…
"Aren't you going to ask why?" continued Q impatiently. "It's all because of your artificial heart, in fact. If it hadn't been for that mechanism, ticking away in your chest, you would still be in the land of the living. Odd, isn't it, to owe your life—or lack thereof—to such a little thing? Nothing more than a small… duranium… pump." Something flashed into existence in Q's right hand; an artificial heart of the very model, Picard knew, that had been implanted in him. With a keen sense of drama, Q held it aloft. "Would you like a look?"
"No, I would not," he replied, touched by a sympathetic twinge which he knew he could not really feel. He had not liked to think about his heart, even without knowing that it would be responsible for his demise, but somehow now he felt a strange feeling of loyalty towards it, held so lightly in Q's hand. "It kept me alive for the past twenty years. I could easily have died back then, in that foolish accident."
"An interesting choice of words." The heart winked out of existence again, forgotten in Q's renewed focus on Picard. He leaned forward. "You and a friend got in a fight with a Nausicaan at a San Francisco bar, and you were stabbed through the heart. Hardly an accident, mon capitaine. And hardly the Jean-Luc Picard that I've come to know."
"I was… very impetuous in my youth. We should simply have walked away from them, Jack and I. We believed that we were immortal; life had not yet taught us otherwise."
"Regrets? I'm surprised at you. But I suppose all humans must have them… things done, things left undone, the paths not taken, even in a life as virtuous and worthily dull as your own. It's a wonder that you can live with them…or, should I say, that you can die with them."
Unbidden, he thought of Jack Crusher, the way he had watched helplessly as his best friend died in front of him. Only you weren't helpless, were you? You made the decisions that led to his death. The way that he had abandoned Jack's wife and son, choosing to indulge his own guilt rather than taking responsibility for his actions. And all that he had left unfinished with Beverly, all that he had wanted to tell her. He would never be able to make things right… now.
"If I were to give you the chance to change your past…" Q continued, raising a hand speculatively in the air.
"I wouldn't take it," replied Picard quickly. "What's done is done."
"It pains me to say this, Jean-Luc, but I don't believe you. Surely there must be something…?"
"If you believe you know what I regret," Picard snapped, "then will you please tell me, and end this charade!"
"I was quite enjoying it," said Q sulkily, picking an imaginary piece of lint off the sleeve of his white robe. "But if you insist…
"What if I could offer you a past where you never were stabbed by the Nausicaan, where Jack Crusher never died—and where, incidentally, you found yourself married to the delectable Doctor Beverly Howard?"
He was about to say no. He would have said no. And then, even the whiteness faded away…
"Jean-Luc, are you all right?" It was Beverly's voice.
He opened his eyes, and was assaulted with a sudden familiarity. A big sunny room, with overstuffed couches, and long windows overlooking the Starfleet Academy campus—it was the common room in Jack Crusher's hall of residence. He had not been there since Jack and Beverly had graduated, over twenty years earlier…
"Earth to Jean-Luc..." It could not be, and yet it was—Jack himself, sitting on a couch opposite, his arm around Beverly's shoulders.
"I'm fine," he replied, as normally as he could. "I was just a bit distracted."
"Are you sure?" pursued Beverly, looking at him curiously. "You look a bit disoriented."
She was so young. His own Beverly, now in her forties, had aged so gracefully that it had hardly been noticeable, in a way that had made it possible for him to assure her (with the utmost sincerity) that she had not changed at all. But of course, she had. Now, in front of him, she seemed impossibly youthful in her cadet's uniform, sitting with her legs tucked up under her, all angles, her long hair pulled back untidily. And Jack beside her, living as he had always lived in Picard's memories and dreams—only real, vital, with that reassuring solidity that he had always possessed, and a smile that said all was right with the world.
If only I could trust that it was…
"There's nothing wrong with him, Bev," said Jack. "He's probably just still thinking about Lucretius. Or Cicero. He spent the whole of lunch yesterday talking to me about Cicero, you know…"
Cicero. Yes, of course. Picard had returned to Starfleet Academy on secondment at the age of thirty-four, to teach a class in first contact diplomacy, his speciality—and had taken on a few classics tutorials as well. Jack Crusher had loved the study of classical history, but languages had never been one of his strong points.
So if he was tutoring Jack, that meant that it was nearly the end of his sabbatical year, just before… Well, Q had returned him to the right time, as promised. As to what the future would hold, there was no way of knowing. Except to live it.
"You would be well advised to spend some time thinking about Cicero, Cadet Crusher," replied Picard finally, putting a mock sternness into his voice. "Or better still, Polybius. You won't be graduating unless you pass your finals."
"I'm not that worried," said Jack with his usual easy confidence. "Not with you as a tutor, anyway. I'll pass—even verse comp."
"I'd take a cadaver any day," put in Beverly, shuddering with exaggerated disgust.
"Beverly, I don't know how you do it. Those hands look so innocent…" Jack, easily distracted by his girlfriend from the topic of his imminent finals, took up Beverly's hand and kissed it. "And the rest of you looks so innocent too…"
"Really?" She gave him a mischievous look, which turned, as these things did, into a lingering kiss.
"To each their own," said Picard lightly. "Well, I had better be going now." He stood, and felt his muscles responding with unaccustomed strength and ease. His friends were not the only ones who had been returned to their youth. It would be easy, so easy, to lose himself in this life, forgetting all that had come before… or would come after.
"Jean-Luc," called Jack after him, brought back to the here-and-now, "Beverly and I are going out tonight—to the bar over at Bonestell. Do you want to come along?"
"Wouldn't you two prefer to—well—to spend some time alone together?" As Picard recalled, he had been very reluctant to join them, afraid to come between Jack and his girlfriend of only five weeks, afraid of his own feelings. And then Jack, wilfully misinterpreting him, had laughingly said…
"Not in the middle of the bar, no."
"Jack wants someone to play Dom-Jot with," said Beverly, with an air of satisfaction, pleased at being able to explain Jack to his best friend. "Apparently I'm not good enough."
"Come on, Jean-Luc, you've got to go. We only have a month left before we all get posted God knows where. We've got to make the most of it."
"If you're certain that you want the company…"
"Sure I'm sure," replied Jack decisively. "See you at 19.30."
Jack had once commented that the Bonestell taught diplomacy just as effectively as Starfleet Academy—filled, as it was, with species from across the galaxy, mingling with a few adventurous academy cadets, united only in their desire to find a good time. It was a cellar bar, crowded, low-ceilinged, and disfigured by moody purple lighting. But it also had, so Jack believed—and Picard tended to agree with him—the best regulation Dom-Jot tables in San Francisco. And Jack, in pursuit of his somewhat unusual hobby, was difficult to restrain. They had simply grown used to standing out from the crowd.
The evening ran just as Picard remembered it. They stood together, and drank, and talked, shouting over the noise of other conversations. Jack tried to teach Beverly how to play Dom-Jot, standing close behind her, his hands over hers on the cue. She laughed, and shrugged helplessly, but Picard noted that even without Jack's steadying touch, she was better at the game than she thought. When she focused, her handling of the cue was careful, and her eye keen. The training of a surgeon, and of a dancer.
"You have quite a bit of talent, Beverly, whatever you may say."
"Thank you," she replied, flashing him a brief, brilliant smile.
"See?" said Jack. "I told you that you could do it. Now let's just try a bank shot." And again, he leaned easily forward, picking up her cue. Beverly leaned back, saying something into his ear, and brushed her hair out of her face. Jack laughed. They fit together as if made for one another, echoing each other's movements perfectly.
Picking up his drink again, Picard turned away, not wanting to intrude upon this moment of intimacy. Instead, he moved towards the bar, scanning the crowd, wondering when…
And there he was—the Nausicaan, as if Picard had waved a hand and conjured the creature up from his memories. He was difficult to miss: nearly seven feet tall, his topknot grazing the vaulted roof of the bar; an ugly, feral-looking creature with distinct upcurving fangs. He parted the crowd as he moved through it, in the direction of the Dom-Jot tables; looking over at Jack and Beverly, still bent together over the table, he let out a derisive laugh.
Picard quickly stepped back to the side of his friends.
"Jack," he said, trying to keep the urgency out of his voice, "why don't we go somewhere else? It's getting very crowded in here; we could…"
"I've still got four balls left. Just wait until we've finished this round, and then we'll see."
"Let's go somewhere that serves cocktails," put in Beverly. "Somewhere with dancing."
But it was already too late.
"Human play Dom-Jot!" The raucous voice of the Nausicaan cut through all the noise of the bar. It was clear, despite the roughness of the translation protocols, that he was not offering Jack a compliment.
"Yes, that's right," Jack replied, pulling himself to his full height. He left his hand protectively on Beverly's arm. "Does that surprise you?"
"Everyone know humans can't play! Show you how; teach you a lesson…"
"I think I could be persuaded to play one more game."
Despite the insulting nature of the challenge, Jack had stayed calm; a good man in a crisis. Picard recalled having been much more easily angered. But then, Jack did have a high opinion of his own abilities, and he was the one who handed the Nausicaan a cue.
"Jack, I'm not so sure about this," said Beverly slowly.
"It's not a good idea," added Picard, speaking to his friend in confidential tones. "Nausicaans can be very bad-tempered. And they do have a reputation for cheating."
"Let him try. You never know, he might surprise you. Are you in?"
"It's not worth it, Jack." He was more urgent now; he could feel events building almost inexorably towards the same conclusion, like the gathering of thunderclouds.
A momentary frown passed across Jack's face, puzzled by the unaccustomed reticence of his best friend. "Why don't you go and get another drink with Beverly, then. This shouldn't take too long." And he smiled confidently at the Nausicaan. "Well, then?"
So Jean-Luc and Beverly sat together at a table nearby, and watched anxiously as the game unfolded.
"I wish he wouldn't," said Beverly, the worry in her voice plain. "They don't look like they would take kindly to losing."
I'm not worried about them losing, thought Picard to himself. He felt curiously adrift, beyond the reach of his memories. Before, he had joined Jack in playing against their challenger, without a qualm as to the consequences. He could not remember having considered what Beverly's feelings were. He could not even remember whether she had said anything, then. Now, though, things were different. And he could not see what the results of his actions would be…
"I don't know what he thinks he's proving," Beverly said plaintively.
"He would like to impress you, I think," replied Picard.
She took another sip from her glass of wine, and shook her head. "He's impressed me already, doesn't he realise that?"
"It's not quite as simple as that, you know…" he began, trying to put his thoughts in order.
"Evening, Jean-Luc." The young woman who had stopped at their table had blond hair, and wore a short metallic dress hardly worthy of the name. She looked vaguely familiar, but was no one that he could recognize; not after a lapse of twenty-odd years.
"Good evening, ah…"
"Susan," she said, pouting slightly. "We met at Walker Keel's party, don't you remember? He said you didn't have a good memory for faces, but I thought…"
Beverly shot him an amused look. Yes, he could remember now. Susan. They had dated briefly—well, perhaps dated was the wrong word. Walker had always been trying to set him up with some young thing and, as he had once told Jack, it would have been ungrateful to refuse such generosity. He could hardly believe now that he had ever been so immature. What Beverly thought of him, he did not want to know.
"Susan, of course. If you'll excuse me, I'm a bit busy at the moment, but if you…"
"Never mind; I can see that." And with this parting shot directed at Beverly—whom she must surely have known was Jack's girlfriend—she turned and left.
"I'm sorry about that," he said, embarrassed. "It isn't how it looks." It was, of course, exactly how it looked. But, with Beverly's curious eyes upon him, he could think of nothing else to say. What justification could he make for the behaviour of the impetuous young man that he had once been? If I had it to do over again…
A ragged cheer from the Nausicaan caught his attention. The game was over. Jack had lost.
"Nine points," he was saying reluctantly. "Game yours."
"Learned your lesson, human?"
"I'm not sure I have," replied Jack. "There was something very odd about that last shot. I'd like a look at your cue…"
And that was the way it had started. Jack, stood there, fearless, facing up to a being nearly a foot taller than him. And Picard felt his heart—his real heart—flutter in his chest. Time flowed on, sweeping away the obstacles in its path; Jack would be stabbed in his stead, if he did not act to prevent it. Abruptly, he got to his feet and made his way forward, pushing through the knot of people that had gathered around the Dom-Jot table.
"What are you saying?" rumbled the Nausicaan.
Finally reaching Jack's side, Picard pitched his voice low. "Jack, just leave it. It's not worth it."
"Not worth it? You didn't see what he just pulled."
"It may have been extraordinary luck."
"It wasn't," said Jack simply, as if Picard ought to have known better. Which of course, he did.
And then, Jack spoke more loudly: "He was cheating, I'm sure of it."
"Cheating? You call me cheat?"
"It won't do any good, Jack." Beverly had followed in Picard's wake; her voice came from behind him.
"He's trying to pick a fight, Jack," said Picard, putting a calming hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let's just walk away."
Jack looked at Picard in disbelief. "If you want to leave, then go. But I'm not going to let him get away with it!"
"Starfleet don't always win," said the Nausicaan, mockingly, obviously unwilling to be deprived of his confrontation. Picard could feel people gathering closer, expecting an evening's entertainment.
"Not if you cheat, no."
The fight nearly erupted there.
"He really isn't used to losing," said Picard hurriedly, interposing himself between the Nausicaan and Jack. "He really doesn't mean what he's saying. I'm afraid he's had a bit too much to drink."
"Come on, Jack," said Beverly. "Let's go."
And Jack turned, reluctantly, to leave—when the Nausicaan commented, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the whole bar, "Starfleet! Afraid!"
Much quicker than Picard had expected, Jack spun around and launched himself at the creature. Picard blocked; they grappled for a moment; and then, desperate, he shoved Jack backwards as hard as he could, away from the table. He could not have hoped to hold him.
Jack stumbled back, caught by surprise, over-balanced, and fell. The look of shock and betrayal on his face was awful to see.
None of them said a word until they had left the bar, the laughter of the Nausicaan following them out. Picard took a deep breath of the foggy San Francisco air, trying to clear his head of the claustrophobic atmosphere, and of his crowding memories. And he set off after Jack, who was striding down the street as if trying to leave his friends behind. Beverly was nearly pacing him, her long hair flying behind her.
"Jack, will you slow down?" came her voice, plaintive and echoing in the empty street.
Finally, under a streetlight, Jack stopped, waiting for Picard to catch up, his hands clenched at his sides. Picard wondered whether Jack would hit him—almost, he wished that he would. But Jack was not that sort of man.
"What the hell did you think you were doing in there, Jean-Luc?" he said roughly.
Before Picard could reply, Beverly jumped in, her emotions running high. "Of all the childish, immature things to do… Jack, you could have gotten killed!"
"God, Beverly, you sound like my mother!"
"And you sound like you think you're immortal," she retorted, "but you're not. Your problem is that you'll have to die before you believe it."
Picard took a sharp breath, feeling her harsh words as a slap across Jack's face. Yet both Jack and Beverly behaved as if this statement, this unconscious prophecy, had no meaning other than as words spoken in the heat of anger. For them it did not.
"It's good to know that my friends are there for me when I need them," Jack was saying, the heavy sarcasm so unlike him.
"Jack," said Picard, trying to calm his best friend, "the Nausicaan was carrying a knife. I didn't want to intervene, but I had no choice. I couldn't let you…"
"I can take care of myself, Jean-Luc. I don't need you interfering. Just leave me alone for a while, all right?"
"Don't say that, Jack," said Beverly in placatory tones, stepping towards him. "You don't mean it…"
"That goes for you too. I don't want to see either of you."
And again, he strode off down the street. This time neither Jean-Luc nor Beverly followed him.
Jean-Luc slept hardly at all that night, haunted by memories and half-memories, turning restlessly in his unaccustomedly narrow bed. He wondered where Beverly was, what she was thinking. She never slept well at the best of times—at least not in later years, on board the Enterprise. But then, so much had happened in the intervening years.
He turned again, folding the thin pillow behind his head, and leaning back on it. Out the window, the night was clearing, thin clouds trailing across the full moon. New Berlin was up there, and Copernicus City, and the universe beyond. Up there too was the Stargazer, somewhere, waiting for him and for Jack. If indeed, he had not already altered the future. Did Q expect him to live out his life in this universe? He did not know.
"Q?" he said, softly, testingly, to the empty room, the quiet walls, to the lawns of Starfleet Academy outside. Only silence answered him.
He woke very early in the morning, just before dawn, knowing that there was something he had lost. What it was, he was at first not sure, and he would have given anything to realise that it was simply the feeling from a dream. But it was not.
As soon as it was late enough he went to see Jack, cutting furtively across the quad, through the dew-soaked grass. When he came to Jack's door he paused for a moment—and heard Beverly's voice within. Suddenly the world was right again. Beverly and Jack together. He had not really thought that they would be estranged for long. After all, they would soon be engaged, or so he expected. So he remembered. So he… believed, without any reason to justify it.
And then he realised that the voices were raised. They were arguing. Still? Had they gone home together in the end? Or had Beverly woken even earlier than he?
Even though they were both shouting, he could make out only snatches. Just showing off… So the two of you were just sitting there laughing at me… How can you say…
It was not his place to interfere. He was just turning to go when, abruptly, the door opened. Beverly emerged, and they collided, hard. She rebounded, took a startled breath.
He had grasped her shoulders automatically, to keep her from falling; she was so much lighter than Jack. He lowered his hands to his sides, feeling a brush of awkward shame.
"It's not worth talking to him." She sounded angry, her voice brisk and tightly controlled, but there were tears gathering in her eyes. "He's being completely unreasonable."
"His pride has been hurt," Picard said gently. "It may take some time, Beverly, but I'm sure he'll see past it soon enough."
He wished now that he had left a hand on her shoulder, a reassuring touch. Once he would not have hesitated to do so… but when had that been?
Beverly looked at him disbelievingly.
"He thinks that we should spend some time apart," she said slowly. Every word was pregnant with tears, underscoring the enormity, reproaching him. And she fled down the corridor without saying another word, before she could begin to cry.
And there, still, Picard stood, caught between the two of them, Jack in his room, and Beverly gone who knew where. After counting a few more beats of his heart, he knocked.
"Who is it?" Jack's voice was harsh.
He let himself in without waiting to say. He did not want to find out whether or not Jack wanted to see him.
"Oh, it's you," said Jack. "I thought—" He was standing poised by a chair, as if he had jumped up at the sound of the knock. Still in his pyjamas, a T-shirt and shorts, he looked as though he had not slept at all. Picard was sure that he himself looked the same.
"You thought that Beverly had come back," Picard replied simply.
"Yeah." He fell back into the chair. "That'll teach me to hope."
"Jack…" He wanted to say something about Beverly, to assure his friend that it would all come right in the end, but he did not know where to start.
"You saw her?"
"I ran into her in the hallway." Which was true, as far as it went.
"She told you, of course."
"God, I just wish that she would listen to me," said Jack, his voice rising in frustration. "I just wish she would understand…"
He had listened to Jack's monologues about Beverly many times already over the past five weeks; in enthralled tones, Jack had told him details at which Beverly would certainly have been aghast, had she known. But nothing like this.
"Jack," he said, "I am very sorry about what happened last night. I never intended…"
It was not how he should have replied, not at all. Jack looked at Picard in disbelief. Then he got to his feet again and began to pace. "I shouldn't have to explain things to you, Jean-Luc, you're my best friend. Supposed to be, anyway," he added bitterly.
"I was afraid for your safety—"
"For your own good. That's a damn poor excuse when Starfleet uses it, and it's a damn poor excuse coming from you. What right have you got to treat me like a child? And especially in front of Beverly? I thought you and I were better friends than that. Turns out I was wrong."
"My only justification," said Picard stiffly, "is that I did what I felt I had to do. That's all I can say."
"It's not much."
"Just go away, Jean-Luc. I don't feel like talking."
"So rounde, so reken in vche araye
So smal, so smothe her sydez were…"
—Pearl, lines 5-6
The afternoon and early evening he spent staring at his books, Cicero, Lucretius, Polybius, Tacitus, all lying open on his desk. But the characters blurred in front of his eyes, and instead he looked out the window at the mockingly clear sky. He had lost his patience for study in the seven years since he had been at the Academy. It felt as if it had been an eternity, decades at least.
A knock on the door finally roused him from his reverie. He looked at the clock—18.37. For a moment, frozen, he debated whether to answer it. There was no one to whom he really felt like speaking… with the exception, of course, of Jack.
"Come," he said, laying his padd carefully atop De Rerum Natura.
Nothing. Picard got to his feet, wondering why the academy had not bothered to install voice-activated doors, and went to let his visitor in.
It was Beverly.
"I was on campus for a class," she said tentatively, in that offhanded way that she had, "and I thought I would come by and see you. I hope I'm not interrupting…"
"Not at all. Do come in. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Yes, that would be lovely." Her smile was warm, but wan.
While he prepared the tea, she stood and examined the books on his desk, lightly touching the pages, but not turning them. He didn't suppose that she had been much exposed to paper books, growing up as she had on a colony world. Perhaps as a gift for her birthday… she would like that…
"I'm sorry there isn't more room," he said, carefully handing her a cup. "Please take the chair."
"Thank you." She settled herself in the one armchair in his small room and, inhaling the fragrant steam from the tea, smiled again. "Raspberry," she said, in a tone of faint surprise. "My favourite."
Picard self-consciously took a seat on the edge of his bed, and put his tea on the floor to cool off. He looked over at Beverly, sitting blithely with her boots pulled up on the cushion of his chair.
"What can I do for you?"
"I wondered whether you spoke to Jack this morning after all," said Beverly carefully, tracing the edge of her teacup with her finger.
"Yes, I did. I must admit he seemed very… agitated, still."
"I know. I feel like I ought to apologize to you, somehow. I just don't know why he's behaving like this. I tried to tell him, I did try to explain, but—" She trailed off, unable to continue further.
"You bear no responsibility, Beverly. Jack and I will simply have to work things out. It will undoubtedly happen, sooner or later."
"To be perfectly honest, Beverly, I must say that I'm more worried about you. Are you—all right?"
"Me? I'm fine, really." But her face belied it, the redness in her eyes that showed she had been crying. "We've only been together five weeks; it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. Walker will be disappointed, I know…"
"Beverly," he said, interrupting her nervous flow of words. She fell silent. "You and Jack have… separated, then." They had both said so in the morning, but he found it difficult to accept the idea, spoken as it was in the heat of anger. It should not have happened.
He chose his words with great care. "That's a great shame. The feelings that Jack has for you…"
"We've barely known each other for a month," she said, faintly incredulous. "It isn't—it wasn't—"
"He loves you deeply, Beverly."
She ignored him, speaking in that tone of abstracted rationality that, for Beverly, always boded ill. "It's better this way; I know it would never have worked in the long run. There are only three weeks until we graduate, and we would have only gotten posted light years apart. It's not much of a basis for a relationship. We just should have realised it earlier." She leaned forward and put her hand on Picard's. "It's very good of you to be concerned about me, Jean-Luc, but I'm doing fine. Really."
She stayed on for some time, talking to him of this and that, but always superficially, never quite returning to the subject of Jack. As it grew later, Picard suggested the idea of moving down to the dining hall for dinner, but Beverly demurred.
"I don't really want to see anyone," she admitted ashamedly. "It was bad enough going to classes today. I don't know who Jack has told… and I don't feel like explaining things to people…"
So she had come to him, the only other person who knew what had happened between her and Jack. It would be cruel, he felt, to try to get back to his work, with Beverly in the state that she was; so he suggested instead that they have a meal delivered, and eat in his room. From the alacrity with which she accepted, it was clear that she did not want to be left alone.
Thus it was that Picard found himself still with Beverly at nine o'clock that night, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his student room, eating a Cambodian meal. It had been Beverly's choice, but she was only toying with her food, delicately pushing a king prawn around her plate with the tine of her fork. It was not like her.
"Are you not hungry?" he asked gently.
She looked up guiltily from the plate, caught out. "Late lunch. I had a practical at one." Determinedly, she speared the prawn and ate it, but she swallowed as if it stuck in her throat.
So he cleared their plates, and made no comment. They opened a bottle of his family's wine—and then another, at Beverly's request. It was obvious that she was not accustomed to real alcohol; she was already showing its effects, her pale skin flushed rosily, her voice wavering. But he had not the heart to refuse what she asked of him. And, truth be told, he found some solace in it himself.
"Do you know," she said softly, out of silence, "I think I've underestimated you, Jean-Luc." Her eyes were very blue under her long lashes.
"Is that so?"
"When Jack introduced us, I thought—well, I was afraid that you didn't like me."
"That couldn't be further from the truth," he said, every instinct he possessed telling him to change the subject.
"You seemed so distant, so formal. But what you did last night—I appreciate it, even if Jack doesn't. It took a lot of courage… and maturity. You're an exceptional man."
"And, I have to admit, I find you very attractive…"
His eyes met hers—and Picard realised, all over again, how utterly beautiful Beverly Howard was. A very young woman, all confidence and vulnerability blended together, that artless air that she had perfected so well. And he could not bring himself to look away.
She leaned forward, and her lips gently touched his. Oh Beverly, Beverly…I mustn't… But he felt his heart pounding—his heart, his own—and the rush of blood in his youthful body… Somehow, he pulled away, the supreme effort of will.
"You don't want to do this," he said, knowing that he was speaking to himself as much as to her.
"But I do, Jean-Luc, I do."
And the sultriness of her low voice sent another thrill through his body.
"But Jack…" he said, a final protest against the inevitable, the fate that he felt coming, in spite of every warning in his mind, every reason why he knew it was wrong.
"I don't want to talk about Jack," she replied, silencing him with a brush of her finger across his lips. And, slowly, she drew him into another kiss.
In the night, Picard awoke and found Beverly's soft form still beside him. Half asleep, he turned onto his side, the curve of the mattress pulling him closer to her—Einstein's gravitation. As if far away, he thought he could hear her weeping, her face buried in his one pillow. But the sound faded away, mixed with his troubled dreams. Jack's death, Beverly a widow, forever beyond his reach…
The sun was bright, shining in as if to erase the night before. The bed was empty beside him. And the sick feeling in his stomach was not just from the wine. He could not bear to allow himself to think.
When he finally opened his eyes, the sun was high.
"I wondered when you were going to wake up," came a soft voice.
Beverly—sitting curled up in the armchair, reading his copy of The Picture of Dorian Grey. She was wearing her cadet's uniform, its jacket open over a light shell, but her long hair flowed in disarray down past her shoulders. In all his thoughts, all possible worlds, he had never imagined that she would stay.
"I'm sorry," he replied, his voice hoarse. He hardly knew why he was apologising.
With formal hospitality, he offered her breakfast, and they ate together—awkwardly, half-silent, not quite meeting one another's gaze. He could hardly bear to look at her, afraid that he would find her even more beautiful, afraid to remember something that he never should have experienced. For remember he did.
"Last night;" he said, finally, "what happened; I take full responsibility."
"It was both of us, I think, Jean-Luc," she replied softly.
"I should have—I should have known better." Not just Jack's girlfriend, but an academy cadet more than a decade younger than himself. Had he really allowed himself to become so blinded by lust as to forget that? Whatever his feelings for her seemed to be, in reality he hardly knew her.
She looked out the window, said nothing.
"We have to tell Jack," he continued, knowing his way now through the thickets of desire. All he could do was to behave as scrupulously as he knew how, accepting the full consequences of his actions.
"I'm sure he'll find out sooner or later." Her tone was flippant, only partially disguising her feelings.
"Beverly, he's my best friend."
"Not for long," said Beverly.
"I will speak to him. I know that he will forgive you, if…"
"Don't you see, Jean-Luc?" she said, now looking into his eyes. "I can't take his forgiveness. I don't want it. It's over between us now. There's nothing to go back to; I can only go forward."
The weather held fine, brilliant and luminous, the long June evenings glowing with life. They should have been outside in the open air, enjoying those brief days of freedom before Beverly and Jack's graduation. Instead, Jean-Luc and Beverly stayed indoors together, away from their friends, not wanting to apologize, to defend, or to explain what they had begun. They talked, they argued, and they made love, the three blending seamlessly together.
Beverly wanted to ignore her graduation and take her degree in absentia.
"There's no reason for me to go," she said for the third time that day, lounging on his bed while he tried to finish writing up his reports. "It's not as if I've finished my studies anyway; I still have my internship and my residency before I qualify. What's the point?"
He sighed. "The point, Beverly, is that you're about to graduate from Starfleet Academy."
"Besides which," she continued, "there's no one to see me graduate but you, and you already did all this seven years ago. This is ancient history as far as you're concerned."
"I'd like to see you graduate," he said, trying to keep the testiness out of his voice.
She sighed, and slowly stretched out one leg, idly demonstrating her astonishing flexibility. "I don't know, I just can't muster the enthusiasm."
"You've come top in your class at Starfleet Medical. Surely, that's worth celebrating?"
"That's what Jack would say, I'm sure…"
Jack. That was what all of this was about, of course. Ensign Beverly Howard, Starfleet Medical, first in class, would be sharing a platform with Ensign Jack R. Crusher, Starfleet Academy, Command track, thirteenth in class. (Having failed to heed Picard's advice when it came to his classical studies, or perhaps he would have been first.) They would meet, almost certainly; they might even have to speak. Picard was not sure whether Beverly had seen Jack since the day that their relationship had ended, but he did not believe so. Neither did he believe that she had entirely put herself beyond him, as she claimed to have done. She seemed fragile still, her temper flaring at small things, and occasionally prone to tears which she did her best to disguise.
As for him—he could not yet believe that he would remain permanently estranged from Jack. Surely some remnant of their friendship remained to be salvaged, even if they would never again be as close as they had been. It would not—should not—simply end like this.
"I would like to see Jack again before he leaves Earth," Picard admitted, finally.
It attracted Beverly's attention enough that she turned from her contemplation of the ceiling to look at him.
"If you think that he's ever going to forgive you—or forgive me—" she added, her eyes widening at the impossibility of it all, "then I think you'll be disappointed."
"Jack Crusher is a good man. I'd like to believe that he will, eventually."
"So would I," said Beverly, sighing. "But not in this universe."
They fell silent again. Picard found himself thinking of Emily Dickinson. Not in this world to see his face/ Seems long until I read the place… But Jack was very much alive, and the poem was about death, was it not? He could not remember.
"I promised that I would give him my tickets," said Beverly, half to herself, as Picard got to his feet to look for his Dickinson.
"What tickets?" There it was on the shelf, next to his edition of Sun Tzu.
"The tickets for the graduation. We each were allocated four, but Jack has two brothers and a sister, and he wanted to invite his grandparents too. So I was going to give mine to him. I wasn't going to use them; Nana couldn't come so far from Caldos. And he was going to introduce me to his family." She easily rolled upright, began looking on the floor for the hairclip that she had casually tossed there. "But that's not happening now," she added indistinctly.
"Is it really that difficult, Beverly? You could send them to him anyway."
"Yes, it is," she replied simply. "I wouldn't know what to say."
There it was. He turned his attention back to the book.
Might some one else—so learned be—
And leave me—just my A-B-C
Himself—could have the skies
In the end Beverly steadfastly refused to attend the graduation. Picard went on his own—for the ostensible reason that, temporarily at least, he was a member of the Starfleet faculty. In truth, no one would have much minded if he had stayed away. Certainly not Jack, who had no reason to expect him there.
The ceremony had an odd air of familiarity… echoes of his own graduation, of course. He sat solemnly and heard Beverly's name read aloud, thinking of her with a feeling utterly indefinable. First in her class. His pride in her was more than he could claim with any justice—he was nothing more than a lover of some three weeks standing, if, perhaps, more than a casual one. He was not what Jack had been to her; what Jack should have been to her. But he hoped to be.
Afterwards, he wandered alone through the throngs of people on the parade ground, past all the cadets and their proud parents, pausing here and there to speak with a fellow officer or a cadet whom he had tutored. For the most part, though, he simply observed the scene. Voices raised in excitement, embraces, friends comparing their new assignments… and, floating over all of it, like a haze in the clear blue sky, a sense of faint disbelief that student days had finally come to an end. These young people, new officers, Starfleet's best, would soon be dispersed through the universe, serving the ideals of the Federation with all the intelligence and fortitude that they possessed. And with their lives if necessary. Not that there was any reason to be thinking such thoughts on a day like today. Not that he could remember.
He did understand why Beverly had not wanted to come. In fact, he understood only too well; his own parents had not come to his graduation. Too much to do in the vineyard, his father had said tersely over the comm, but he had known very well that was not the reason. He had told his friends—with their own parents at their sides—that he didn't care, he would see his family before he shipped out. He had never been close to his father in any case. But he had cared. Of course he had cared.
In the end, he came upon Jack and his family gathered under a spreading oak tree at the edge of the parade grounds—his parents, grandparents, two brothers and a sister, all come out from Ohio for the day. Somehow, though, the gathering seemed incomplete: he could imagine Beverly there, standing in the centre of the group, at Jack's side. Jack's family would have taken her in, made much of her, treated her like one of their own. He could offer her nothing like that.
Picard stood at a distance, the sun beating down on him, and watched the family laughing and talking in the shade of the tree. They knew Picard well enough; he had visited Jack at home a few times during the course of the year. But as much as he had wanted to offer Jack his congratulations on the day, he had wanted still more to talk to him alone. To apologize. To make everything right. He would not now intrude. This was not his place.
For a while longer, he stood there, and thought once that Jack glanced in his direction. If he noticed Picard, though, he made no sign of it, turning back to his family with only a passing shadow on his face. They had nothing to say to one another.
"My blysse, my bale, ye han ben bothe…"
—Pearl, line 373.
Jack had not come to the wedding. It was not as if Picard had expected he would, not after the way they had parted. But still, he had insisted to Beverly that they make the invitation—one last gesture, whether or not Jack would see it that way, towards a friendship that his own actions had irrevocably destroyed.
Everything that he knew about the course of Jack's life now was gleaned from reports at second hand, from the occasional conversation with Walker Keel. Jack was now, so he heard, a Lieutenant Commander, serving aboard the Fearless. Married five years, to an astrophysicist named Nella Daren; they had two children, both girls. By all accounts, he was happy.
And what of Jack's once best friend? Sometimes, Picard wondered whether Jack had similarly followed his own career. Jack could have heard it from Walker, if he cared to know: Jean-Luc Picard was now Captain of the Stargazer, having taken promotion remarkably quickly. Beverly Howard was his CMO—and, of course, his wife. Would Jack think him lucky? Be jealous of the life he led with the woman that Jack had once loved? Would he ever realise the flaws that ran through even the most outwardly perfect of lives?
Picard should have been contented, he knew, but he was not. It wasn't Beverly; vivacious, restless, fragile Beverly. It was him. He could neither explain nor dispel his feeling of vague discontent, the sense of being trapped. The sense that he had not yet managed to outrun fate—what was it that he had been hoping to outrun?—and that nothing, nothing, was the way that it had been meant to be.
"I can't help thinking," he said slowly, "that things ought to be different."
"You say that over and over again," replied Beverly, with that tinge of bitterness that marked all their conversations these days. "But we can't go back, Jean-Luc. And nothing ever changes."
She sat on the couch in their quarters, under the windows, the stars rushing past behind her. She was uncomfortably positioned, twisted around to look at him, her knees pulled up to her chest. And her gaze was weary. It wrenched at his heart to think that he had put that look in her eyes. She had not used to look like that… she should not look like that. She was barely thirty.
Suddenly, Picard had a vision of a different Beverly, smiling radiantly, her arm around Jack's waist, standing with their small son… But it faded into insubstantiality as soon as he tried to focus his mind upon it. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. It was ridiculous. Jack and Beverly had barely been together long enough to conceive, let alone raise a child. These were the phantoms of a guilty conscience. Dream children.
"Jean-Luc?" came the voice of Beverly, his own Beverly. "Are you listening to me?"
"Yes. Of course." He dragged his mind back to the here and now, to the reality of the woman in front of him. She gave him a look both reproachful and resigned, as if she had expected nothing more from him.
"I've been thinking about this for quite a while," she said, carefully, as if she were discussing a particularly delicate piece of surgery. "And I don't know… I'm not sure if I can go on like this. I think maybe, maybe we ought to consider a separation." She swallowed—hard—and fell silent.
"Beverly, I hadn't realised—we've had our difficulties, I know, but I didn't…"
"Of course you didn't, Jean-Luc. I wouldn't expect you to be able to find the time."
Every instinct in his body told him to go and sit beside her, to touch her, even if it meant only that she would pull away again. Jack would have touched her. But he sat where he was, and clenched his hands so tightly that the joints cracked. A keen student of diplomacy, and he could not begin to express to his wife how he loved her.
"If this is about," he began awkwardly, "what we've been discussing… Perhaps I've been unreasonable. Although I'm uncomfortable with the idea of having children, I realise that it is something that is deeply important to you. Perhaps in a few years…"
"That isn't it," Beverly said sadly. She sighed. "At least, that isn't all. Yes, I want children, but even if we had them, it would be no cure. We argue—have you noticed how much we argue now? And when we aren't arguing, it's like you're a million miles away. Jean-Luc, I talk to you more as your CMO than I do as your wife. Your life is Starfleet and your ship. I can never compete with that."
"Beverly," he faltered, "mon cher… I'm sorry…"
"I am too. But it's too late now. I should have realised…"
"Jean-Luc, I love you, you know that I do. But… I don't know if it was meant to be…"
So this is how it ends, he thought, his mind fastening, absurdly distant, on some lines of Swinburne: I will say no word that a man might say/ Whose whole life's love goes down in a day/For this could never have been…
But Beverly, as practical as ever, was thinking differently, not willing to linger for long upon her feelings. "I would accept transfer off the Stargazer, of course. It would be too much to ask you to work with me…"
"Vigo to Captain Picard," came the voice over the comm.
Beverly bit her lip at the interruption, but gave him a tiny nod of her head—the barest gesture of acquiescence that she could make.
"Picard here," he said.
"Captain, we've received a distress signal from the Federation colony on Quetta V. We've diverted our course, and will make orbit in twenty-five minutes."
"Very well. Thank you." He closed the channel, and looked at Beverly. "Gilaad will be able to handle this. I'll tell him to take charge. This discussion… is more important to me." It was the most that he could offer her, the only way that he could show her what she meant to him.
"No," she said. "We'll go."
And, truth be told, she looked relieved at the interruption.
"Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of that pryuy perle withouten spot."
—Pearl, lines 7-12.
Quetta. The emergency was nothing that the Stargazer could not handle—unexpected seismic instability threatening the planet's capitol. But still, its very name sounded ominous to him, as if some shadow hung over it. At first, he could not think why, until his Kipling came back to him: Quetta, named after an Earth city in South Asia, a focus of the imperialistic wars of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Which, no doubt, explained the negative associations that he felt. Even so, knowing the reason, he still felt uneasy. Haunted.
In the transporter room, making preparations to beam down, he could almost forget the conversation that they had just had, lost in the rush of adrenalin that always came with command. Beverly was beside him but absorbed in her own concerns, preparing a medical team to render aid to the injured colonists.
"What is the current status on the planet?" he asked.
"Tectonic stresses indicate that the major quake activity has already passed," responded his first officer, Gilaad Ben Zoma. "But aftershocks are still continuing, and they may be considerable. The city wasn't built to withstand events of this magnitude; we may need to expect casualties on the order of several hundred people."
Picard could see Beverly take a quick indrawn breath at the scale of the devastation, and then set her jaw. Her parents, he knew, had died in a similar disaster on Arvada; he was amazed at her composure. He would have put a hand on her shoulder, all he could do, but he doubted that she would appreciate it.
"Our main concern," Ben Zoma continued, "is the fusion reactor that powers the city. Its containment field may have been affected by the earthquake, and the colonial authorities have been unable to get it shut down. That will have to be our priority. It could go critical at any moment."
"Agreed," said Picard. "Make it so."
"I've already given anti-radiation shots to all the away team members, sir," said Beverly, never anything less than completely professional. "And we've prepared enough doses to treat the colonists once they've been evacuated. But all we'll be able to do on the planet is triage—I simply don't have the resources…"
She was interrupted by the Ensign at the transporter controls. "Sir, we'll be within range of the planet in two minutes."
"Very well." Picard stepped up with the first team to take his place on the transporter platform; Beverly moved forward to join him, but he held up a hand. "The medical team will remain on the ship until the reactor has been secured."
She looked up at him, aghast, and immediately began to protest. "But— If this is because—"
"That's an order, Doctor."
And as the transporter beam took him, he felt a weight lifting off his shoulders; out of all the decisions that he had made, at least this was the right one.
Quetta City was in chaos, buildings half-demolished by the quake, people running. Salmon-coloured dust hung in the air, covering everything. The only building that seemed untouched was the round power plant that stood directly in front of them. But appearances could be deceptive.
Picard quickly reoriented himself, turned to his team. "Cohen, you and Routray into the power plant; get that reactor safed. The rest of you, start assessing the damage."
Even as the first team scattered, the swirling dust seemed to thicken and come alight, congealing into the next party from the Stargazer. And at the front of the group…Beverly, her hair tied back, medical kit slung over her shoulder.
"I told you to stay on the ship!" he said, feeling the situation begin to slide out of his control.
"Did you expect me to stay safe at home while people were dying?" she retorted. And then added, in a more conciliatory tone—"The rest of the team is still in reserve."
Heads turned, but only for a moment before the pressure of duty took over again. Picard said nothing more. Being a Starfleet doctor, Beverly's training and instinct both told her to run towards danger rather than away from it. This situation was no different. And he could hardly order her to beam up again, not when the Stargazer's transporters were stretched to capacity with the relief effort.
"Captain, the reactor…" said someone at his shoulder. Not a member of his crew. A woman in a maroon shalwar kameez, half-frantic, covered in dust.
"Who are you?" he interrupted.
"Shireen Mirza, Captain, the colonial governor. We have nine engineers still in the power plant. We can't raise them on the comm; they may be trapped, or incapacitated by the radiation."
"Martinez," said Picard, turning to a member of his team, "can we pull them out?"
"Negative, sir. The radiation is making it impossible for us to get a transporter lock."
"I have two officers in there now, Governor," said Picard, "but their priority is to get the reactor stabilized. Only then—"
That was when Beverly set off at a run for the power plant. She was sprinting; he could not have hoped to stop her.
A bare minute after she disappeared inside, the aftershock hit. Picard, standing outside under the open sky, felt the ground wavering beneath his feet, the terrible disorientation of solid crust moving like water. He had just barely gained his footing again, taken a breath, when he heard the groans and cracks from buildings around him, overstressed by this final quake. And then he, too, ran towards the power plant, all thoughts but one forgotten. Beverly, Beverly, dear God, please…
In the corridor, he was met by Routray, coming quickly out.
"Sir, we've shut down the reactor, and the containment field is intact. But a girder came down—it caught Cohen, and…" He let his words trail off.
In his arms was Beverly, unconscious, deathly pale. There was a gash in her forehead, streaming with blood. Picard could not see whether she was breathing. He took her from Routray, cradled her against his chest—she was so light that he scarcely believed he held all of her. Even as gently as it was done, he cringed at the thought of moving her. But he had no choice; he must take her away from the threat of the lingering radiation, and of further aftershocks.
Somehow, he got outside again, went to his knees on the ground, and laid her down in the soft dust. Fumbling with his tricorder, he got a perfunctory scan. The cut in her forehead, superficial; concussion; cracked ribs, broken arm—from where she had tried to ward off the falling beam. And massive internal injuries. Ruptured organs, haemorrhage…
She took one shallow breath, half-choked, then another. And then nothing. The tricorder keened a farewell. She was gone.
Jean-Luc took his wife's broken body in his arms, rocked her as if his touch could somehow soothe her soul. Beverly, don't leave me, not like this…
In front of everyone, uncaring, he began to cry. And then he remembered.
"Q!" cried Picard aloud, to the empty air. "This is not what I wanted! She doesn't deserve this. Take me back, please. I would rather have died. I would rather…"
And his tears blurred the world into nothingness.
"As glysnande golde that mon con schere
As schon that schene anvnder schere.
On lenghe, I loked to hyr there
The lenger, I knew hyr more and more."
—Pearl, lines 165-168
The floor was hard beneath him. The buzz of voices had stopped. And he was—he could not open his eyes. The pain in his chest was too much.
"Don't move the knife!" It was Beverly's voice. Very young, and very panicky—he had never heard her so panicky. "Cadet Howard to Starfleet Medical. We need an emergency transport… Hold on, Jean-Luc, just hold on. Just…"
She was holding his hand, he knew, but he could no longer feel it…
"Jean-Luc?" Her voice came again, but gentler this time, softer. "Jean-Luc, you're going to be all right."
His eyelids fluttered open. There was a pale white light, diffused, familiar—the soft illumination of sickbay. The lights haloed her auburn hair as she looked down at him, half-smiling. Beverly, older, the three pips of a commander at her collar. His Beverly. His afterlife. His angel. Alive. Alive.
"I nearly lost you," she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. He could see the tears still in her eyes, the way her hands were trembling with suppressed adrenalin.
"I nearly lost you," he murmured in reply.
"What did you say?"
"Never mind…" And he let his eyes drift closed again. All was as it should be.
"I rede the forsake the worlde wode
And porchace thy perle maskelles."
—Pearl, lines 743-744.