Chapter 1: Chapter I
[Original story formerly published in paper by the Star Trek Italian Club, which graciously granted permission to publish it digitally. Cover and drawings by Chiara Falchini.]
Commander William Riker walked the curving corridor of the Enterprise with a half-smile bending up the corner of his mouth, a joyful spark in his eyes, his steps fast and impatient, and he didn’t almost see the people coming across him, giving them just a distracted nod. He was absorbed in pleasant memories, never faded by the implacable flowing of time, and he was full of an almost devouring anticipation.
Therefore, around a corner he barely avoided to run over Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor, nearly slamming her against the wall.
“Hey!”, the young, beautiful brunette cried, “Where are you running? Is there a fire on board?”
Riker gazed at her bewildered, before abruptly coming back to reality.
“Oh… I beg your pardon, Deanna!”, he stuttered, embarrassed, “Did I hurt you?”
Deanna smoothed her uniform, which green colour showed her belonging to the scientific staff, and reassured him:
“No, no, absolutely. But where are you going in such a rush?”
“If you come with me, I’ll explain it”, Riker replied, inviting her with a gesture and setting off. Deanna hurried at his side, taking three steps each two of the Number One’s long legs, and glanced at him questioningly. Riker had an impulsive character, which he had learned to dominate for a long time now, and the excitation she perceived in him, with the clarity her empathic nature gave her, was therefore somewhat unusual, even if absolutely not alarming.
“Do you remember Viviana Morgante?”, Riker asked, stopping in front of the turboelevator. After a moment, the doors slid apart with a hydraulic hiss, revealing the car, and they entered.
“Transporter Room 1”, the first officer ordered the computer. The car moved while Deanna pondered:
“Wasn’t she your best friend during the Academy years?”
“Exactly she”, Riker confirmed smiling, “And she’s coming to the Enterprise.”
“Really?”, asked Deanna, puzzled, “If I don’t remember wrong, she didn’t finish the Academy… Or maybe she returned there later…?”
She left the interrogation suspended, and Riker shook his head:
“No, when she retired it was a final decision. She simply realised she wasn’t apt to military life and dedicated herself to a wholly different career.”
“Creator of holographic games, right?”
“Excellent memory!”, the Commander complimented her, beaming his contagious smile, “She’s become a true authority in this field, almost a kind of institution. There’s no game publishing company which wouldn’t pay a fortune to employ her permanently, but she’s very independent and prefers to sell her creations to whom she chooses, that is, someone who is willing to respect her ideas, rather than someone who pays the highest fee.”
The turboelevator stopped gently and the doors opened. The two of them exited and headed hastily to the transporter room.
“But didn’t you lost contact with her years ago?”, Deanna enquired, intrigued. During their romantic relationship, Riker had often talked about the deep friendship he shared with that girl, so that she had initially been a bit jealous. But then she realized that that bond was completely platonic, comparable to the one they developed after the end of their association, when they met again after a few years and built up a completely different relationship.
“Yep, that’s why, knowing she’s coming, I’m rushing to welcome her”, the man explained, “Let’s witness what a face she’ll make, seeing me!”
He beamed rascally and Deanna smiled, amused.
They arrived at the transporter room, where Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge stood behind the console, his large brown hands resting on the multi-coloured surface.
“Commander, Deanna…”, he greeted them with a nod, “Ready to beam on board Miss Morgante.”
Deanna wondered why the ship’s chief engineer himself had come to beam up personally the newcomer, but she had no time to ask for any explanations, because Riker ordered:
A column of sparks whirled on one of the transporter platforms, inside of which a human shape materialized. When the device’s effect ran out, on the dais there was a young woman, not very tall but nicely shaped, with short chestnut-brown hair; in her attractive face, two extraordinary green-blue eyes shone, surrounded by long black lashes. Those eyes gazed at all of them and when they focused on a very tall, bearded man with dark-brown hairs, they flashed with a sudden, blinding light, while her pretty features showed an unexpected, incredulous joy:
Riker approached her, beaming a smile so large, it seemed to open up his face in two. She jumped down from the platform and threw herself at him, planting an enthusiastic kiss on his mouth. He embraced and lifted her from the ground, reciprocating the kiss with the same enthusiasm.
Deanna perceived La Forge’s shocked stare, but she didn’t turn and continued watching the scene, smiling. She felt the bond between those two, and it was something rare and precious which only few people have the luck to find; there was a deep and passionate affection between them, but it was completely immune from sexual implications; it went beyond friendship but wasn’t love, meaning the sentiment bonding a couple.
The two friends broke off, shining eyes, bright smiles.
“I can’t believe it!”, the woman cried, “What are you doing here?”, her eyes fell on the collar of his uniform, red because he was in the operational section, where three black dots stood out, “Commander, no less!”
“Well, actually I’m the first officer of the Enterprise”, Riker explained, amused as usual by his friend’s exuberance. She stared at him for a moment, dazed, then she cleaned hastily the lipstick smear on his lower lip and took a step back.
“Damn, Will, I didn’t want to embarrass you”, she mumbled. Riker guffawed.
“No embarrassment at all, Viviana! After all, we didn’t see each other for twelve years, and a bit of enthusiasm is normal, between old friends..”
La Forge lifted an eyebrow behind his VISOR, the prosthesis that allowed him to see: if this was a bit of enthusiasm, he wondered what they meant with a lot of enthusiasm. Deanna, catching sight of his face, hold herself barely from laughing hard.
“Come, I introduce you to the other ones”, Riker was saying to Viviana, inviting her to approach the console, “This is Deanna Troi, the ship’s Counsellor. Deanna, my friend Viviana Morgante.”
The young woman’s face turned instantly to an ember-red.
“Oh my God, what a gaffe!”, she stammered, totally embarrassed, “Counsellor, I feel awful, I didn’t… I mean, it wasn’t my intention…”
“Don’t worry, Miss Morgante”, Deanna interrupted her gently, perceiving empathically the other one’s recognition, “Commander Riker and I are not together for years now.”
Viviana moved her gaze, in which had arisen a great perplexity, from the beautiful brown woman to the tall bearded man at her side.
“Ah”, she uttered. She remembered the letters of the former Lieutenant Riker, full of love for whom he described as a wonderful creature, and she found it hard to believe that it was over now; she would swear Deanna Troi would be the only woman in the world able to catch that womanizer of her friend. Life’s mysteries, she concluded, finally able to put on a controlled face.
“And this”, Riker went on, diplomatically ignoring the interlude and pointing to the man behind the console, with the ochre uniform of the technical staff, “is Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, chief engineer of the Enterprise.”
“Nice to meet you, Commander”, Viviana said smiling. La Forge smiled instinctively back, happy he had decided to come and welcome her personally on her arrival on board: now he was certain they would work together well.
“My pleasure, Miss Morgante”, he stated.
Riker glanced at the transporter platform, where an antigravity trolley still stood, motionless, a large bag on it.
“That’s all of your luggage?”, he enquired. Viviana nodded:
“Yeah, I travel always light.”
“Fine, then I take you to your quarters”, the first officer stated, “Shall we dine together?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world!”
They exited nodding a goodbye to the other two, followed by the trolley with the bag. La Forge reset the transporter controls with automatic gestures due to his long practice.
“Friends, eh?”, he muttered, looking doubtfully at Deanna. The Counsellor nodded, absolutely sure:
They exited together the transporter room, heading towards the turboelevator.
“If you say so, Deanna, I must believe it”, La Forge said, “But my impression is different.”
Deanna didn’t feel offended: after all, he wasn’t empathic and he was unable to see beyond the appearance, despite his VISOR could perceive light frequencies far beyond the human eye’s possibilities.
“Well, you’re not completely wrong”, she conceded therefore, “Calling them just friends is reductive. Their relationship is very deep and goes far beyond the common friendship. However they’re not in love with each other, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever be”, she smiled, “I envy them”, she concluded, emphatically, “Only few can experience such an intense and disinterested bond, in their lifetime.”
La Forge’s doubts had been greatly diminished by Deanna’s words.
“Yes, you’re right”, he admitted, “It’s nice to know it’s possible.”
Riker and Viviana stayed until very late in his quarters. They had so many things to tell each other, and it was wonderful for both finding again, intact, their mutual understanding, which during their Academy years got them the nickname of Siamese Twins. They laughed together about the amusing episodes, and mourned together about the sorrowful ones; Viviana learned bewildered about the existence of a double of her friend, created by a transporter malfunction, who had taken Riker’s second name, Thomas. Overcoming the initial shock, she commented wittily:
“For space’s sake, how can the galaxy now bear even two Rikers?!”
The first officer split his sides laughing.
At a certain point of their narrations, without her having asked for it, he explained her how and why his relationship with Deanna Troi had come to an end, and Viviana, with her usual frankness, asked him bluntly:
“Have you ever repented it?”
Riker was equally frank:
“For a long time, I was afraid I could, but finally we agreed both that, if maybe it wasn’t better this way, it has surely not been a mistake.”
When finally they were both too sleepy to go on, they parted and went to bed.
The next morning, La Forge, who, as the chief engineer, had to supervise the needed modifications on the holographic generator, picked up Viviana to show her her station. From here, she could introduce all the changings needed to improve the holographic programs and bring them to the interacting and realism levels of Dreamworld, the famous planet hosting an immense playground endowed with the most sophisticated hologames of the whole Federation, with which the young woman often worked together. Starfleet was constantly interested in giving its members the best, and if the experiment on the flagship would give good results, for Viviana it would mean the final consecration to the Olympus of the highest experts in the field of the holographic games programming. Not to speak about the astronomical fee they had offered her…
Chapter 2: Chapter II
[Original story formerly published in paper by the Star Trek Italian Club, which graciously granted permission to publish it digitally. Cover and drawings by Chiara Falchini.]
In the following days, Viviana was very busy, but she liked her job immensely and she didn’t bother to work on it even ten, twelve hours on the row, all the more so because a good part of it consisted in testing the improvements, that is, playing on the holodeck.
She spent most of her spare time with Riker, both chatting and doing some physical activity: among other things, both were excellent martial artists, and if Riker was certainly the stronger one, Viviana was surely the more agile one, hence their matches ended up very often in a tie. The very first days they preferred to stay alone, recalling times past and telling each other their adventures, but little by little Viviana met also Riker’s other friends and he witnessed with no surprise her immediate integration in the group: he remembered perfectly her exceptional communication skills at the time of the Academy, when everybody was falling over himself or herself to be her friend and she spent a gentle word with everyone, even if with no one else she has established a relationship even by far comparable to the one they shared. He remembered well also that many equivocated the nature of their friendship, but at that time, as today, they didn’t give a damn.
Viviana showed vivacious reactions to all: the Klingon Worf, chief of security, aroused her enthusiasm (“Lieutenant, you’re the perfect personification of the warrior, with your permission I’ll take you as a model for my next fantasy game”); the android Data, the ship’s second officer, thrilled her (“Commander, I’ve heard a lot about you, it’s a great honour to meet you”); doctor Beverly Crusher, the ship’s chief medical officer, stroke her (“Doctor, you inspire complete trust, I’m not surprised they consider you a formidable physician”); Captain Jean-Luc Picard, finally, fascinated her, but strangely enough, he also intimidated her, and it was therefore to Riker that she expressed her opinion (“Should I need to choose someone to entrust my life with, it would be him”). With La Forge she established a perfect work tandem (“Commander, I never met an engineer like you, meticulous and creative at the same time”); as for Deanna Troi, a kind of complicity arose quickly between them, and Riker ended up to be often their victim, being regularly the target of their jokes and gags. This didn’t bother him at all, because both of them were kind and polite, and none offended him, not in the least, ever.
About ten days passed, and finally Viviana announced she was happy with her work, with La Forge’s full approval.
“All we have to do now is testing the modifications in the field”, the woman smiled, already looking forward to it, “I have right here a new fantasy game to experiment before being released, and I had a mind to invite a small group of persons. What do you say, Geordi, would you like to try it?”
“Yeah, I’d like to, but someone must stay behind to monitor things from the outside, and I’d like to do it myself”, the chief engineer answered, “But you can count on me for the second test.”
“Fine, then I’ll ask Will and Deanna if they want to come with me, do you think Captain Picard would agree to it?”
“I don’t see why not, if he needs them on the bridge he can call them by intercom”, he tapped the golden pin he wore on his chest, “La Forge to Captain Picard.”
“Picard here, come in”, the captain’s voice answered.
“We’re ready for the first test, sir. If you agree, Miss Morgante would like to ask Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi to go with her, in order to have the final users’ point of view. She suggests a game of fantasy setting.”
“Certainly, if they have no commitments; please wait.”
On the bridge, Captain Picard addressed the two officers:
“I’ll do it gladly”, Riker answered, smiling. Deanna nodded:
Unexpectedly, Data, the golden-skinned android, intervened:
“I ask for permission to go with them, sir.”
Picard hesitated imperceptibly: it wasn’t usual to dismiss from the bridge both the first and the second officer at the same time, but after all they were well into Federal territory, and in case of emergency he could call for them in an instant.
“You can go, too, Commander”, he decided therefore, “Mr La Forge?”
“Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi will join you immediately in the engine room. Commander Data asks if he can join in the test.”
La Forge glanced at Viviana, who nodded enthusiastically, and answered:
“But sure, it’ll be a pleasure.”
“Fine. Picard, out.”
With a gesture, he dismissed his three officers, who left the bridge by the starboard turboelevator.
In the car, Deanna asked:
“Data, may I ask you the reason of your request? I know you usually prefer crime dramas, putting to the test your deductive and analytic abilities, while Viviana talked about a fictional adventure.”
The android nodded:
“True, but I would like to explore the imaginative side of the human recreational activity, in order to better understand some aspects which are still unclear to me.”
Riker smiled: Data was really tireless in his struggle to comprehend human nature, even if he was perfectly aware this struggle would never cease. He recalled their first encounter, when he had found him on the holodeck, concentrated on whistling, or at least to try to, and he had irresistibly reminded him of Collodi’s fable’s character, Pinocchio.
They arrived to the engine room, where Viviana had just agreed with La Forge about the tests to run during the time the holodeck would be operative with the enhanced generator. She saw them arriving and turned to meet them with a welcoming smile:
“Here you are! Come, you must enter the data of the character you’d like to perform: the game has an established plot, but the under-plots vary enormously depending on the number of players and the characteristics of the playing characters.”
Deanna felt confused and asked for explanation:
“Performing characters? What does that mean?”
“I see you don’t know role play games. Well, we have to dive into a world of fantasy, where only a very basic technology exists and magic does work”, Viviana explained, “The characters must be compatible with this world, you couldn’t therefore be astronauts, engineers or cybernetics experts. There, here’s a list of possible choices, but if you have other ideas, there’s no problem to add them.”
A sequence of descriptions appeared on the screen: knight, warrior, sorcerer, healer, shepherd, squire, rogue, monk, page, cook, hunter… Riker lifted his brow, baffled.
“Hum… and how do we choose?”, he asked.
“You select a category and examine the various characteristics. The best way is to choose a character who is as much as possible similar to your own personality… As an example, I’d see you well in the shoes of a knight”, she selected the entry and showed him the main characteristics of this character: strength, courage, moral rectitude, loyalty.
“I rely on you, you’re the expert”, said the first officer, and Viviana entered his character in the game as Lord Riker, knight.
“Choose for me, too”, said Deanna. Viviana smiled and typed Lady Deanna, sorceress; her characteristics were intelligence, sensitivity, strength of will, intuition.
At this point also Data relied on her:
“What do you suggest me, Miss Morgante?”
Viviana didn’t hesitate the slightest and entered Master Data, hunter; his character was deductive, agile, cunning and fast.
Finally she entered in the game database her own character as Sister Viviana, nun. Riker almost burst into laughter, but then stifled his hilarity as he glanced at the characteristics of this category: wisdom, psychophysical control, poise, formidable practice in martial arts.
There was nothing to say: Viviana was demonstrating a fine knowledge of each one’s personalities, as well as of herself.
“I’d say we’re a well-matched group”, the young woman commented, getting to her feet, “We have to dress adequately and then let’s plunge in the adventure.”
“Have fun”, La Forge wished them, having followed everything with a big smile, “Meanwhile I can use the break to go and welcome Lieutenant Saunders.”
“Is he back from his leave?”, Riker enquired.
“Yes, he’s immediately on duty.”
They parted, and half an hour later the four adventurers stood in front of the entrance to Holodeck 2. A casual observer would probably think he was hallucinating, but on the Enterprise it wasn’t unusual to see people wearing the most weird cloths, out of culture or fashion, thus nobody noticed it exceedingly.
Riker wore a light armour made of metal plaques, consisting in a coat, a shoulder protection and shin protections, and on his back hung a two-handed broadsword; Deanna sported a long purple dress, descending in soft waves around her lovely silhouette; Data wore a short tunic, breeches and light boots, all in camouflage green and brown colours, on his shoulder bow and quiver; finally, Viviana sported a red tunic, half her tight long, and large black pants, taking in at her ankles. All of them had a backpack containing rations of travel food, water and other equipment.
“Computer, load program Sword & Sorcery”, Viviana said to the external control panel, “Accomplish.”
“Program loaded and operating”, the computer answered after just a moment.
Viviana approached the large double door, which opened in front of her on a woodland panorama. She turned towards the others and smiled at them:
“May the adventure begin!”
They entered, and the doors closed behind them with a hydraulic sigh.
While the small group was preparing, La Forge went to receive his subordinate coming back from leave.
“Welcome back on board, Lieutenant Saunders”, he greeted him, as soon as he materialized on the transporter platform, “Did you have fun, on Risa?”
The man, about his age, was tall and lean, but had muscles of steel, as La Forge had discovered at his own cost during their wrestling matches; his short black hair emphasised his exotic features and his almond-shaped eyes spoke of recent Eskimo ancestors.
“Yes, thank you, Commander La Forge”, Saunders answered, getting off the transporter. The two men shook hands warmly: both had enormous respect for the other one, and they worked together very well. The most recent improvements in the energy supply of the warp engines had been the result of a profitable cooperation, and the chief engineer had had no hesitations to give Saunders his share of credit. Furthermore, it was Saunders’ brilliant idea to start a collaboration with the advanced Nanites. Originally, the Nanites where microscopic robots deriving from the atom, provided with gigabytes of memory in order to be programmed to enter in the damaged cells of an organism and to fix them; during a lab experiment, some of them escaped controls and installed themselves into the ship’s computer. Interacting among them, they developed a collective conscience and became sentient, to the point that they had the planet Kabin Alpha 4 assigned to them, in order to evolve with no external interference; but when they received the proposal to cooperate with other sentient beings of the Federation, they agreed and now some of them were on board, in special sealed containers where they lived undisturbed until they were called to the tasks they were appointed to. Like their relatives, the medical Nanites, they revealed themselves as very good repairers from the inside, except that instead of acting on an atomic level on living cells, they acted on microchips and memory components of a computer. The collaboration had still to be perfected, but had revealed big potentialities.
“How was engineering without me, sir?”, the Lieutenant asked cheerfully, while they walked along the curving corridor.
“It managed”, La Forge answered the same way, “When she’ll be back”, he added, “I want to introduce you to a person who maybe, given your love for hologames, you already know out of fame: Viviana Morgante.”
Saunders’ eyes widened:
“The famous role play games creator?”, he cried, struck, “And what did she come for, on the Enterprise?”
“Starfleet hired her to improve the holographic generator”, La Force explained, stopping at the turboelevator, “She did a great job, in these days, and right now she’s testing a game of hers with Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi and Commander Data.”
“Holy smoke, I’d have liked to be there”, Saunders declared, following him in the car, “I understand some holographic programming, and role play games: I could study better the topic.”
“Well, I think that Viviana will stay for some days more to develop perfectly her modifications to the holographic generator – we’re but at the first general test – therefore, if you like, you can work with us.”
“Thanks, it’ll be a pleasure, Commander.”
The car stopped at Deck 7, where Saunders had his quarters, and La Forge said:
“Meet you in the engine room. You can follow the test with me, okay?”
“Yes sir, see you in a few minutes.”
In that very moment, the four adventurers entered the holodeck.
Chapter 3: Chapter III
[Original story formerly published in paper by the Star Trek Italian Club, which graciously granted permission to publish it digitally. Cover and drawings by Chiara Falchini.]
Deanna looked around, ecstatic.
“It’s wonderful, Viviana”, she declared, “It reminds me of Betazed’s woods.”
“It reminds me instead of Normandy’s forests”, said Riker. Data, even if maintaining his usual neutral face, gave the clear impression to be frowning:
“To be precise, ladies, sir, in this wood I am able to distinguish five varieties of Terrestrial plants, eight Betazoids, seven Andorians, five Klingon…”, catching the impatient glances of the other ones he cut it off, “I mean, it is a contradiction.”
“Objectively you’re right, Data”, she admitted with no difficulty, “however, my aim isn’t to reproduce a surrounding in a realistic way, but to evoke a sense of familiarity and atavism. The plants we see belong all to planets at least one of us visited; if among us there would be a Vulcan, the program would create also plants from Vulcan, for a Deltan, plants from Delta, and so on, more or less at equal climatic conditions.”
A gigantic Andorian squirrel crossed bouncing the clearing opening in front of them, stopped for a moment to smell the air, then disappeared among the trees on the other side.
“Same for the animals”, Viviana added, “to which some fantastic creatures have been added, but I won’t anticipate anything in order not to spoil the surprise for you.”
They set forth through the clearing; the sun was lukewarm and the air smelled good, and the brook, flowing on the western side of the wood meadow, murmured its unchangeable song.
Deanna plunged one hand in the water and retrieved it dripping.
“It’s unbelievable!”, she cried, “Not only I see the drops, but I feel my skin like wet. It’s extraordinarily realistic.”
Riker did the same, then he took a sip.
“Hey, it really has the taste of water”, he stated, marvelled. Data intervened:
“Sir, I must point out that water has no taste.”
“On the contrary, my friend. Sometimes it has the sweetest of tastes.”
Again, perplexity passed on the android’s face.
“I give you an example: you are in the middle of a completely arid desert, about to die out of thirst, then you find a spring and drink your fill”, Riker tried to explain, “In that moment, I assure you that water, as flavourless it is, would seem to you more exquisite than any nectar.”
Data elaborated briefly the concept.
“Even if I cannot die out of water lack, sir, I think I understand”, he announced then, “It is like I could not change my lubricant fluids for a long time and then, unexpectedly, I would find a depot, allowing me to renew them. Yes, I think I would associate this fact to a sensation of pleasure.”
Viviana had followed the exchange only distractedly, focused on trying on herself the effects of the holographic water. She dipped a finger in it, drank a little, then surprisingly she throw herself in. At the noise of her dive, everybody turned.
“Viviana, what are you doing?”, Riker enquired, marching into the water to help her stand up. She was smiling out of satisfaction and accepted his help.
“I was testing the sensation of the wet clothes”, she explained, “I must say I feel like I’m really drenched.”
She exited the water along with the first officer, then she took off her tunic and squeezed it, put it on again and did the same with her breeches. She didn’t feel embarrassed by the others’ presence: Riker had her already seen even in more undressed way at the Academy times, Deanna was a woman like her and Data an emotionless android.
Riker asked her:
“Tell me one thing: if I’m a knight, where’s my horse?”
“Good question”, she replied, almost finished with dressing again, “To have a horse, you need money, and to have some, you must earn it. You and I could fight for money, for example; Deanna can use her magic arts to heal and divine; Data can kill some hunting game animal and sell it”, she tidied up somehow her garments, “Shall we go on?”
They set forth, venturing into the wood. Riker watched his friend’s wet clothes, worried.
“If the program is so realistic, won’t you catch a cold?”, he enquired, “Here there’s no Doctor Crusher, armed with her hypodermic syringe…”
Viviana shook her head:
“No, the protection subroutine does not allow it, and it doesn’t allow the simulation of other diseases, either. The adversaries can hit you, even kill you, but you wouldn’t feel pain nor see blood; simply, proportionally to the seriousness of the damage you suffer, you’d see your counterattack capability diminished. In any case, it’s always possible to heal oneself or to be healed – Deanna, being a sorceress, has already this capability, or the program makes you find some healing potion – or you can even be resuscitated by a high level sorcerer. The game is suspended and you must start it from the beginning only if all the players die. The adversaries we’ll meet are adequate to the player’s ability, which I set very low because you are all beginners. While your ability increases, the program will automatically adequate the difficulty level”, she smiled at him, “If we defeat our opponents too easily, there’s no fun, right?”
A hare crossed the path winding among the trees. Quick as a lightning, Data nocked an arrow and shot: the small animal fell, pierced, and the android went to take and put it in the game bag hanging from his belt. Riker and Deanna felt a little shaken: for over than two centuries now it wasn’t necessary anymore to kill animals in order to feed people, because the food synthesizers recreated perfectly all and every kind of food starting from its atomic components; the program was so realistic, that for a moment they forgot it was only a fiction.
Viviana instead, being used to the needs of a fantasy game, paid no mind to it.
“Nice shot, Master Data”, she complimented him, “You can make some money out of it, or we can eat it tonight for dinner”, she addressed the other two, “Of course, even food is a holographic illusion and we wouldn’t actually eat anything; however, if my modifications will prove effective, we’d feel sated like having really ingested food.”
They resumed walking, and after some time Deanna asked:
“Viviana, you didn’t explain yet how my character casts magic.”
“Spells”, Viviana corrected her, slowing down to allow her coming near, “There’s your Magic Book in your backpack: it explains how you must move your hands and what keyword to use for the spell you want to cast. Not all the spells the Book describes are within your power: as your experience level increases, you’ll be able to use more and more of them, until you’ll arrive to the most powerful ones. Remember also that each spell consumes a given energy quantity: your reserve will increase with experience, the computer will take care to estimate each time consumption and remaining.”
“And how can I recover the lost energy?”
“Food and rest”, Viviana answered synthetically, “In our backpacks there are also some high caloric travel rations, let’s say, an equivalent to the modern emergency rations.”
“Very well. Can we stop for a moment? So I can study my spells, you never know when you’d need them.”
“Of course, Lady Deanna. Lord Riker, Master Data?”, Viviana called for them, “We take a little rest, our sorceress would like to study.”
Deanna sat on a boulder, took out the Book from her backpack and began to study its contents. Following Viviana’s suggestion, Riker pulled out his broadsword and exercised in an imaginary duel. Data had no need of training to use his bow, having more than enough strength and aim for it, while Viviana busied herself in exploring the world created by her and the computer, tasting, smelling, touching, listening, watching intently the smallest details, marvelling at the precision and realism the modified holographic generator had been able to give to everything. She kept however her enthusiasm at bay: it was still too soon, and she aimed always at more than satisfactory results, therefore she had to verify a great number of details yet.
Deanna had an eidetic memory, which allowed her to memorize the spells within her reach in about ten minutes. She was about to put away the Book, when a loud noise of cracking branches and a female scream made her jump to her feet.
“Let me go, you nasty beast!”, Viviana was yelling. In an instant, Deanna, Riker and Data rushed to the place from where the shouts were coming, but the young woman had disappeared. A crash above their heads had them bolting in all directions, just in time to avoid being crushed by a big branch falling from an enormous sequoia. Lifting their eyes, they caught sight of a gigantic spider, black and hairy, holding Viviana in its monstrous mandible; it hadn’t enough strength to crush her, however she wasn’t able to break free, even if she was pounding her fists on the jaws closing around her body.
“Data, try to hit it with an arrow in a vital spot!”, Riker shouted, rushing to the base of the tree where the monstrous spider was perched, “Pay attention not to hit Viviana, I climb up to her.”
The android took the aim carefully, but Viviana was thrashing around furiously in the beast’s grip and he wasn’t able to get a safe shot. The protection subroutine wouldn’t allow him to hurt her for good, but it wouldn’t be realistic to shot it just for this reason. Riker would say it wouldn’t be funny. The close intertwining of fiction and realism was very confusing for Data: humans were very complex beings, an endless subject to study… and a goal perhaps unattainable, for him.
All this shot through his mind in a few nanoseconds. He found a safe shot and fired the arrow, which plunged exactly between the faceted eyes of the enormous spider, but it didn’t even shake. Maybe he had to hit it in an eye, Data thought, preparing to shoot again.
Meanwhile, Riker had reached the first branches, and Viviana was yelling curses and invectives to the monster.
Deanna extended one hand, traced a symbol in the air and whispered one word. The spider seemed to be stricken by a sudden paralysis.
Riker froze, lifting his eyes to check the cause of this unexpected stillness, and Viviana laughed, relieved:
“Good, Deanna, you used the right spell!”
Data lowered his bow and put the second arrow, now useless, back in his quiver. Viviana gave Riker a dirty look; he hadn’t moved from the lower branches:
“Well, Lord Riker, would you get your ass over here and help me?!”
Deanna burst into laughter at this, and also the first officer grinned. Labouring a little, because he wasn’t used to climb like an ape, he reached his friend and helped her to get off the spider’s mandibles. Gazing it crookedly, he shouted a question to Deanna:
“How long will the spell last, Lady Deanna?”
“About ten minutes more”, she reassured him from below, “You can take your time.”
When they finally got down on the ground, Viviana complimented the group:
“You behaved very well, at your first adventure: well done! Your experience has increased, the computer will notify the passage to the next level, letting you find a note or sending you a message or whatever will be compatible with the game and the situation”, she glanced at each one, “Did you have fun?”
“Like crazy!”, Deanna admitted laughing, “I wouldn’t have ever believed that playing a sorceress would be so exciting!”
Riker, too, was smiling:
“It’s been incredible, even if I wasn’t able to do almost anything.”
“Your moment will arrive, Will, don’t worry”, Viviana replied, “We’re just at the beginning.”
Data was trying to reorganise the experience in a logical scheme, but he wasn’t able to.
“I don’t understand”, he admitted, “The situation was, I think, appalling enough, with Miss Morgante… I mean, Sister Viviana… in the jaws of a monstrous being, however you affirm you had fun.”
“But sure, Data”, Deanna explained, “Until it’s a fiction, you have fun in the most unusual situations. If this would’ve been real, there wouldn’t be anything funny about it.”
Data assimilated the news and added it to the already enormous mass of information he had collected over the years on the most disparate behaviours, often obscure to him, of Mankind, a real compendium about human nature, from which he hoped that one day would originate the key to his own humanity.
He didn’t realize that, under certain points of view, he was more human than some human beings in flesh and blood.
“I think I understand, now”, he said therefore, “The fun is because it’s a game, and even in the frenzy of the moment, you never forget it.”
“Forgetting it”, said Riker, “would mean we are no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, what would signify serious psychic disorders.”
Data nodded, agreeing.
“Good, we better go now”, Viviana intervened, “before that beast recovers.”
They went back to pick up their backpacks, abandoned to run to the rescue of the nun, and then they set forth again.
Meanwhile, in the engine room, La Forge and Saunders were keeping an eye on the complex diagrams visualizing the efficiency of the running program.
“It’s working perfectly”, Saunders commented, “That girl is a true genius”, he checked another diagram, “I bet they’re having a big time, in there.”
“I think so, me too”, the chief engineer agreed, “Next time, we’ll make sure to be in it, too.”
The lieutenant nodded emphatically.
Chapter 4: Chapter IV
“The wood is coming to an end”, Data announced, returning from scouting, “There is a grassy plain in front of us, similar to England’s moorland, with low hills, small woods and streams.”
“Fine”, Viviana said, “I was getting bored with trees.”
Soon after they reached the forest’s margin and contemplated the wavy lowland extending in front of their eyes in the three directions. The sun was westering, almost straight in front of them, indicating it was already late in the afternoon.
“Which direction should we go?”, Riker asked, gazing at the horizon in search of hints for human settlements, but finding none.
“One direction’s good as any”, Viviana answered, “Southward?”
The others had no objections, so they set out toward that direction and ventured into the knee-high grass.
“There aren’t poisonous snakes, I hope?”, Deanna enquired.
“Only if useful to the game development”, Viviana answered, “but I never found one.”
They arrived at the roots of a low hill and Data pointed toward one side:
“Look, there is smoke.”
“Let’s go and see”, Riker suggested. They headed toward the place where the thin smoke spiral arose from, probably originated by a campfire, climbing diagonally up the hill. The smoke came from a sheltered hollow, where the remainders of a small fire were still burning. There were evident signs of a camping, but there was no soul around.
“They went away without extinguishing the fire”, Riker grumbled, “with the danger to set ablaze the whole surroundings, how irresponsible!”
He approached the fire and kicked earth on the dying embers, smothering them. A faint rustle of moving branches, coming from her right, alarmed Viviana; she jerked around, just in time to catch sight of a black clothed shape who was throwing itself toward her, brandishing a dagger. Instinctively, she took a step to her left to go out of his path, grabbed the aggressor’s stretched arm with both her hands, twisted it slightly downward and, using his own momentum, sent him tumbling violently on the ground.
At the same time, another dark figure jumped Data, throwing him a cutting blow on his hip, which the android parried with a simple movement of his arm: he grabbed his aggressor’s wrist and twisted it, forcing him to dump the dagger, then he knocked him out with a Vulcan nerve pinch. The aggressor collapse, unconscious.
Riker tried to pull out his broadsword, but while he was extracting the long blade from its sheath, a third black shape appeared from behind a bush and assailed him; his long dagger drew an arc and jabbed into the first officer’s shoulder. Riker gave off a roar of both pain and surprise.
At his shout, the other three adventurers froze. For an unending moment, the whole scene seemed perfectly still, like a holography. Data was the first to recover: with a lightning quick movement, he hurled the dagger he snatched from his opponent and, with superhuman precision, sent it hitting Riker’s attacker in the middle of his chest. The dark figure dropped to the ground with a gasp, dead.
Viviana’s assailant had vanished, nor did the young woman have a mind to pursue him. She jumped toward Riker, who had fallen on his knees and was compressing the wound on his shoulder.
“Let me see”, she ordered him, pushing away his bloody hand. A red, warm spurt gushed from the laceration and she widened her eyes, “It’s impossible!”, she screamed, “The program mustn’t generate visible injuries, let alone pain!”
Deanna rushed to the first officer’s side and examined the wound. She wasn’t a physician, but she had some practice in first aid.
“It’s quite deep, but not serious”, she asserted, “We need something to plug the bleeding…”
Viviana was out of her mind.
“It’s impossible, it’s impossible!”, she repeated under her breath, “What the hell just happened?”
She leaped to her feet and began to pace furiously back and forth. Data went to pick up some moss and brought it to Deanna.
“Once I heard Doctor Crusher praise the properties of moss, very good as a tampon. Her grandmother was an expert in therapeutic herbs, and she taught her many secrets.”
“Yes, I know”, Deanna answered, accepting the moss, “Thank you, Data.”
She plugged Riker’s injury, then she tore off the hem of her gown to make a bandage, in order to dress his shoulder.
Meantime Viviana had regained a semblance of calmness.
“Archway!”, she ordered brusquely, calling for the internal program control.
“Computer, archway!”, she repeated in a higher voice. The air in front of her flickered for a moment and they half-saw the archway, but nothing materialized. Data got to her side, looking carefully around.
“I cannot distinguish the holodeck’s outlines anymore”, he announced, and his voice was disquietingly tinged with concern, “Computer, exit!”
Deanna was helping Riker to get to his feet.
“What’s up?”, the first officer asked, wincing in pain: the wound hurt enough.
“Computer, here Lieutenant Commander Data, emergency: exit!”
The android addressed his superior.
“Sir, the computer refuses to produce the exit”, he answered. Riker frowned.
“Computer”, he said in a loud voice, “this is First Officer William Riker, security code Beta Two Alpha: end of program!”
The air all around them twitched, and behind the landscape surrounding them the imagine of the holodeck’s grid trembled. After this, everything returned apparently solid as the absolute real reality.
“Computer, general emergency status, end of program!”, Riker tried again in a stentorian voice.
“Sir, I cannot see the holodeck’s outlines”, Data repeated, “It had never occurred before.”
Riker stared at him, for a moment not understanding what he meant, then he remembered that the android, differently than humans, except La Forge with his VISOR, was able to see beyond the holographic illusion.
He tried other means:
“Riker to La Forge.”
The communicator, hidden under his armour, remained silent.
“Riker to Captain Picard!”
Again, no response.
“Here Commander Riker, is there anyone listening?!”
“What’s going on?”, he asked then, addressing Viviana.
The young woman was very pale and answered in a muffled voice:
“I’d wish I knew it.”
“What the hell…?”
Saunders’ cry stopped abruptly, while his hands flew on the controls. La Forge, who had gone off a moment to check the ongoing of a diagnostic program set up by a technician, turned towards him.
“What’s up, Lieutenant?”
“I’d wish I knew it”, Saunders answered, unaware he was repeating Viviana Morgante’s identical words, “Look, these frames report impossible data, the diagrams seem gone crazy!”
La Forge hurried to the control station. He needed only a glance to recognize something serious was going on.
“End the program!”, he ordered, “Go to manual control!”
The lieutenant tried several times.
“No way, it doesn’t end!”
The chief engineer didn’t lose heart.
“Computer, end program on Holodeck 2!”
“Impossible to end program”, the computer replied coolly in its sweet female voice. La Forge gaped, shocked.
“Identify cause”, he ordered sharply.
The computer answered after a moment:
“Impossible!”, Saunders snapped, “Maybe there’s a malfunctioning, an overload, a short circuit…”
“No malfunctioning, overload or short circuit”, the computer announced. Saunders threw his arms in the air:
“Then a bug or a virus in the software, an isolinear chip out of phase …
“Okay, okay, fine!”, La Forge interrupted, losing his temper, “Computer, if the cause is unknown, can you at least point out any possible causes?”
The computer needed some moments to answer, which demonstrated it was searching through its whole formidable memory.
La Forge and Saunders exchanged a concerned glance.
“Let them out of there”, said the chief engineer. Meanwhile the other technicians in the room had approached the control station.
“Let’s use the transporter”, suggested one of them, Lieutenant Reginald Barclay.
“Yeah”, Saunders agreed, thinking it was the simplest of solutions, and upon the chief engineer’s nod, he tapped the communicator on his chest, “Transporter!”
“Here Transporter”, answered the section chief, Lieutenant Carmen Colmenarez.
“Lieutenant Saunders here. Please lock down the signal of the persons on Holodeck 2 and transport them to the engine room.”
“Yes sir”, said the woman’s voice, “Sir, no signal reachable on Holodeck 2”, she announced a moment later in a perplexed tone. A bustle went through the engine room.
“Computer, internal analysis of Holodeck 2”, La Forge said, “Tell me what you detect.”
“Sensors do not detect anything in the named area.”
Incredulous, Saunders checked the data appearing on screen.
“Commander”, he called, “this is impossible… There’s nothing behind the holodeck’s bulkhead, absolutely nothing! Not even the interstellar vacuum, there would be at least hydrogen atoms… Simply the complete nothing !”
Again, he and La Forge exchanged a dismayed glance.
“Let’s go and take them off of there”, the chief engineer decided, tapping on his communicator, “Lieutenant Colmenarez, forget the transporter. La Forge to Lieutenant Worf, a security team at Holodeck 2!”
“Roger, sir”, the Klingon’s disembodied voice answered.
“Lieutenant Barclay, you have the engine room”, said La Force, “Lieutenant Saunders, come with me.”
Saunders grabbed a tool bag, then he ran after the chief engineer who was dashing along the corridor, heading toward the nearest turboelevator. Within minutes, they were standing in front of the entrance door of Holodeck 2. The control panel’s LEDs were blinking wildly, showing completely off the charts parameters.
“Computer, open”, La Forge ordered.
“Impossible to accomplish”, the computer replied, impassive. The chief engineer tried some commands on the panel, then he tried again:
“Computer, emergency access La Forge Gamma Four Six Two, open access door to Holodeck 2.”
“Yes, yes, impossible to accomplish!”, La Force snorted, losing his temper. Saunders set down his tool bag and pulled out a tricorder, switching it on. His disheartened facial expression told everything to La Forge even before he opened his mouth to speak:
“Sir, I have no survey of any biological trace”, he calibrated some commands on the device and paled under his suntan, “I have no survey whatsoever, exactly like from the engine room”, he lifted his dark eyes on his superior, “It’s like a rip in the space-time fabric, a gash which neither our senses, nor our devices are able to analyze.”
At that moment, the security team arrived running, a man and two women, lead by Worf. The tall Klingon addressed La Forge, whom he surpassed by the whole head:
“What’s going on, Commander?”
“Miss Morgante, together with Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi and Commander Data, are checking the modifications on the holographic generator”, La Forge explained, “but all of a sudden all control diagrams went crazy and the computer claims it impossible to open the door or to end the ongoing program. It’s not even possible to transport then out, because the devices are not able to detect them or anything else.”
Worf glanced at the hermetically closed door, like he wanted to bore into it with his gaze.
“So let’s transport ourselves in”, he said in an obvious tone. La Forge shook his head:
“No, no, without knowing what there is – or not is – in there? It’s an unacceptable risk, Lieutenant Worf.”
“We can try and force the door open”, Saunders suggested, “Let’s create a Level 3 containment field and program it to activate at the first crack, enlarging as we open up.”
La Forge nodded:
“Good idea, let’s get to work.”
Chapter 5: Chapter V
Meanwhile, inside the holodeck, or the dimension in which they had inadvertently slipped into, the four adventurers weren’t able to come to terms about what had just happened. Riker sat down, a little weakened by the pain in the shoulder, and Viviana frowned.
“Deanna”, she said slowly, approaching the Betazoid, “if Will has been really injured, would it be possible that you could really heal him with your magic?”
Deanna stared at her like she had gone mad, then she glanced at Riker, who was holding his arm.
“Well, the impossible already happened – Will’s wounding, I mean”, she reasoned, more by herself than talking to the other woman, “At this point, why not?”
She went to her friend, concentrated for a moment, then she laid her hand on his injured shoulder; he jumped involuntarily.
“Stay still, Will”, she said in a reassuring tone, then murmured a word and traced a hieroglyph on the wound, touching it with feather-light fingers. Riker suddenly made a stunned face:
“Hey, the pain’s gone!”
They unwrapped his shoulder and discovered the wound had disappeared, without leaving even the slightest trace of a scar, like the stabbing never occurred.
Viviana’s eyes almost popped out their sockets.
“Exactly as programmed in the game!”, she gasped, “When the sorcerer uses his thaumaturgy power on non-playing characters – of course, because the program does not allow injuries or illnesses of the playing characters – there is no trace left, no convalescence, no remaining weakness.”
Data achieved immediately the logic conclusion:
“It seems that fantasy has become reality through and through.”
The four of them stared at each other; Deanna was disquieted as she had been only a few other times in her life, and Riker and Viviana didn’t feel different.
“This means we are entrapped in this imaginary world?”, the Counsellor asked in a low voice. Viviana looked around, troubled.
“Yeah”, she confirmed in a grim tone, “and the worst thing is, it’s not only imaginary any longer.”
“Yet there has to be a way out!”, Riker snapped, “If only we could figure out what happened… Any idea, Data?”
“Not yet, sir”, the android answered, “I have no tricorder to examine the situation, nor did I notice useful evidences, so far. Except…”, he tilted his head sideward, as he did when he made some leap of imagination, what was contrary to his original, purely deductive programming, “Some microseconds before we would be assailed, I noticed a minuscule quantum fluctuation in the atoms composing the holograms, like… passing through a space-time tear. However, my inner sensors do not detect dimensional differentiations, neither in space, nor in time. Substantially, this brings me to the conclusion that we are still on board the Enterprise, but in some sort of reality bubble, different from the normal one we have set off from. We are not able to access our reality anymore, and probably those who remained there are not able to access this one.”
They stayed silent for a few moments; none knew what to say, not even what to think.
“I wonder”, said Deanna at a certain point, “if all this is objectively real, or just subjectively”, realizing the other ones did not understand what she meant, she tried to explain better, “If we are living an objective reality, Will’s wound, even if not visible any longer, has surely left some microscopic lesion at a cellular lever, measurable with a medical tricorder.”
“You mean, like when the Jarada used their long-range probes to analyse us and inadvertently disrupted the holodeck’s protections?”, Data enquired, “That time, Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher and myself were not able to do anything to impede Lieutenant Waylan’s injuring by a firearm, and the wound was real also outside the holodeck.”
“Exactly”, Deanna confirmed, “But if we are living a subjective reality, we are only imagining the wound, the blood, the pain and the following healing. In other words, the program is too perfect.”
“None of my modifications could do so much”, Viviana replied, knowing her homework, “The computer of the Enterprise is one of the most sophisticated in the Federation, but in the field of recreation it’s a thousand times less powerful than that on Dreamworld, on which I performed the preliminary tests. The results I got never even let suspect the possibility that reality could become subjectively real like reality.”
“Normally, preliminary tests are run singularly”, Riker observed, “Has this been, too, the case?”, at his friend’s nod he went on, “So maybe it’s the sum of each single modification which caused this situation.”
Viviana shook her head obstinately:
“It’s mathematically impossible, Will. I know what I did.”
“What you did, for sure”, the first officer agreed, “But what the computer put in of its own?”, she gazed at him, confused, “Once, Geordi asked the computer to take inspiration from the whole of literature about Sir Conan Doyle’s character, Sherlock Holmes, to create a character able to defeat Data. He didn’t give it any limitations, and as a result Doctor Moriarty’s hologram, Holmes’ chief enemy, became auto-conscious, at the point that, two years later, wanting to come out of the holographic world, he was able to take over the control of the Enterprise and to abduct Captain Picard and Data in order to force us to help him. We were able to beat him only by using another holographic illusion”, he paused, “What I want to know, Viviana, is if you gave the computer freedom of action with no precise limits, creating a situation somehow similar to that with Moriarty.”
Viviana opened her mouth to protest vehemently, then she shut it, turning pale.
“I ordered the computer to reproduce reality as accurately as possible”, she answered in a whisper, “using as a reference parameter the fantasy tradition. I didn’t… give it limits. But”, she added, heating up, “I can’t imagine anything jeopardising the efficiency of the protection subroutine.”
“Then the protections are still working”, Data concluded, “Only, we do not perceive it: the computer, which has the order to reproduce reality with the highest possible accuracy, reproduces also the physical consequences of accidents, such as injuries, contusions, fractures etcetera, as well as the related pain.”
Deanna grasped immediately the psychological implications:
“But in this case, if we receive a deathblow, we’d think we’re dead: even if it wouldn’t be objectively real, it’d be for us, subjectively, because we wouldn’t have anything convincing us of the contrary. The psychological damage deriving from the conviction to be dead would be very heavy, maybe even irreparable…”
“Well, then we must act in order no one has to be convinced about this”, said Riker, “We’ll be very cautious, we won’t look out for fights, and if we’ll be attacked, we possibly cut and run instead of fighting.”
Everybody nodded, except Viviana who objected:
“You didn’t consider one thing, Will: as we can’t save the game and exit it at our leisure, the only way out seems to be to carry it out, but if we don’t increase our level we won’t do it, and to increase level we must fight. It’s a vicious circle”, she concluded, shaking her head, the magnificent green-blue eyes clouded with concern. She felt terribly responsible, but she couldn’t do anything to remedy the situation.
The other ones glanced at each other. Deanna, who appeared to be the most fragile of the group, small, with a sweet face and a motherly figure, stood erect in her full height and showed a determined face:
“We may be novices in fantasy games, Viviana, but we are Starfleet officers, not helpless kids. Will, I’ve seen you fight hand-to-hand even with Worf, and you’re very strong; Data, you’re surely the one with less problems among us, both for physical strength and for resistance: your body is much less fragile than ours; Viviana, you’re an expert of the game, and also of martial arts. As for me, it’s been years now that I train with Worf in Klingon combat: it looks like time’s arrived to put into practice what I learnt. In conclusion: I think we have good chances to do it, don’t you agree?”
A circular glance was enough, and Riker nodded:
“Sure, we can do it. You can bet on it!”
Just a few meters away, or maybe light-years, Saunders and LaForge were bustling about precision instruments to build up the containment field suggested by the former. Barclay, in the engine room, was controlling the energy supply.
“I’m ready, Commander La Forge”, the chief engineer heard him say through the communicator, “You can begin whenever you like.”
“We need some minutes more”, La Forge replied, “I’ll call you as soon as we begin.”
Worf looked like a caged lion.
“What do you think could escape, to require a Level 3 containment field?”, he asked.
“Nothing, or anything”, Saunders replied, “Ignoring it, it’s stupid to take risks, don’t you agree?”
“Computers!”, the Klingon snorted, in a derogatory tone, “I’d really like to see what’s there, beyond this damn door!”
A moment later, they heard the captain’s voice:
“Picard to La Forge, what’s going on?”
La Forge straightened up from his crouched position, confused; he reported to the captain in the turboelevator, while he and Saunders were heading toward the laboratory to fetch the generators for the containment field.
“We’re still positioning the field, sir”, he answered, “Nothing’s going on.”
On the bridge, Picard was standing and looking bewildered at the images appearing on the large front screen.
“Well, go get a glance to the next computer monitor and then tell me what you think about it”, he said, “Picard, out.”
The captain of the Enterprise went back to sit, keeping his eyes focused on the screen, where a completely incredible scene was showing: Riker, Deanna, Data and Viviana, dressed up in very unusual outfits, went roaming an immense prairie, ridged with smooth hills.
“La Forge to Captain Picard.”
“I don’t understand how the computer manages to transmit these images on its own, but I think it’s the game Viviana chose to test her modifications on the holographic generator.”
“I apologize, sir”, Worf intervened, “I thinks it’s been me. Just now I inadvertently called the computer and expressed out loud my desire to see what’s going on beyond the blocked door.”
“Well, then all the better”, Saunders commented, “At least, now we know they’re alive and in good health.”
“The problem is, we don’t know where they are”, La Forge observed, scowling, “If we just could locate them, we could take them out in no time. Captain”, he called then, “are you able to cut the connection?”
Picard made a gesture towards the communications officer, Ensign Jinnah Ngura, who touched a few commands. The screen went black.
“Connection deactivated”, Picard informed La Forge.
“Here instead it’s continuing”, the chief engineer reported, “Fine, at least the computer doesn’t prevent us to use the monitors for other purposes. Sir, I recommend someone monitoring continuously our friends inside there, to see if they’re fine, while we go on with our job.”
“Alright, appoint security. Picard, out.”
Worf made a gesture toward an agent, who positioned herself in front of the monitor La Forge was still bending over.
“Lieutenant, you asked expressly to see what there is beyond the door, right?”, the chief engineer enquired.
“Exactly, sir”, the Klingon confirmed. La Forge beamed a sly smile:
“Computer, insert audio.”
All of a sudden, they heard their friend’s voices, speaking among them…
“I was considering another aspect of this false reality”, Viviana said, speaking to none in particular, “If we stay here for a long while, we’ll become hungry and thirsty, and we’ll need to eat and drink. When we’ll be out of the rations we brought from the real world, and the water, everything we'll find, as Data’s hare, will be just a holographic image, but the illusion would be perfect and we’ll feel alright. Basically, we could starve without even realising it.”
“We’ll die much earlier out of thirst, as for this”, Riker observed darkly, “With no water, the human body resists much less than with no food.”
“The problem is, we wouldn’t realise it”, Deanna pointed out, “Eating and drinking holographies we’ll feel good, but when we’ll walk out of here we could fall stone dead, if it doesn’t happen before: I think that not even the most perfect holographic illusion is able to reproduce life where there isn’t any.”
“Great!”, Viviana muttered, “In addition to be likely to come out mad as Vegan airdogs because convinced to be dead, we risk to die out of starvation and lack of water!”
Listening to their conversation, La Forge shook his head:
“I don’t understand, what are they talking about?”
Saunders, more expert than him in hologames programming, was having a hard time to realise what the players’ words suggested, but he wasn’t able to find alternative explanations.
“I’m afraid I’ve got it”, he finally said, slowly, “Somehow, the computer created a subjective reality, in which now the four of them are trapped. A reality so real, that should they, let’s say, be caught by an arrow in the heart, they would be convinced to be dead. I don’t know what psychical damage it would create, but I’m sure it’d be serious. Not to speak about the fact they’re risking to starve or, much earlier, to dehydrate.”
For a moment, into La Forge’s mind popped the thought that Saunders had gone crazy, but the paleness under his suntan convinced him he was talking damned seriously.
“La Forge to Doctor Crusher”, he called through the communicator.
“Crusher here, how can I help you, Commander?”, the chief medical officer of the Enterprise answered.
“How long can a human being endure complete deprivation of water?”, he asked straight away.
Back in sickbay, Beverly Crusher pulled aside from her brow a lock of her long red hair and frowned, perplexed.
“It depends on climate conditions”, she answered, “on physical conditions and on the individual level of water retention. In a moist environment, by good health and an average level of retention, a few days; in a dry environment, the same person would resist less than a half of that time”, she tilted her head sideways, her bright eyes concentrated, “Why do you ask me, Geordi?”
“Viviana, Deanna, Data and Commander Riker are entrapped into a subjective reality”, the chief engineer began, explaining then everything.
When he finished, Beverly was quite troubled.
“And the game considers many fights with possibilities of injuring or even death?”, she asked.
“Unfortunately yes, the purpose is to increase the players’ ability level to bring them toward the conclusion”, La Forge answered, “Regrettably, the more they grow in level, the more difficulties and dangers they have to face.”
Now Beverly felt extremely concerned.
“Do you have any idea how long it’ll take to take them out?”, she asked, not truly hoping in a concrete response.
“From a few hours to a few days”, La Forge answered sure enough, “Unfortunately, until we don’t know what caused the problem, only a lucky chance could help us to solve it.”
Beverly was pondering.
“Data has no need of food or water”, she considered, “and he can resist for a very long time with no maintenance. As for the other three, they’re all in good health, and some days with no food can weaken them a little, but surely not kill them. If you could find a way to transport in there at least some water…”
La Forge and Saunders exchanged glances, feeling very stupid.
“We’ll try immediately”, said La Forge, “And if water gets through, then also food can do it: better they have both, if they must face fights and dangers. La Forge, out.”
He watched intently the generators of the containment field, then he made a decision:
“La Forge to Barclay. Ready for the energy supply.”
“Ready”, the lieutenant confirmed from the engine room.
Worf and Saunders positioned themselves one in front of the other, slipping their fingertips in the crack between the two doors, and then at a mark they began to pull with all their strength. Worf, being a Klingon, found it less hard than the Human, and little by little a fissure opened between the two shutters, immediately filled by the containment field. When the opening was about thirty centimetres wide, La Forge gestured them to stop.
Beyond the glittering field, there was utter darkness.
La Forge, with little hope, activated his tricorder and examined closely the displays for a good half minute, then with an irritated jerk closed it again.
“I don’t get any damn record!”, he snapped, “Computer, use the internal sensors to analyse Holodeck 2, survey spectrum to maximum range.”
“Area of Holodeck 2 is not detectable by internal sensors”, the computer answered serenely. Worf let go a dull growl.
“Sir”, he said, addressing La Forge, “permission to enter.”
“Permission denied, Lieutenant Worf”, the chief engineer curtly replied, “Until we won’t know more about what’s there, none will set foot in it, is that clear?”
Worf made a visible effort to control himself, then nodded.
La Forge looked at Saunders, who was wiping his sweating forehead: hand-opening a hydraulic door isn’t exactly a piece of cake.
“Let’s focus on the way to transport in there some provisions”, he decided, “Maybe it’s not at all so difficult.”
Chapter 6: Chapter VI
Meanwhile, inside the game nightfall was coming.
“We’ll have to camp”, Viviana suggested, “Let’s brush up our Academy memories, when they forced us to bivouac in the most arduous spots!”
Her feeble attempt to be humorous had some positive effect, because both Deanna and Riker showed a faint smile. They searched for a suitable place nearby, finding some shelter under the fronds of a small poplar wood, growing on the side of a narrow stream.
“Let’s find some dry wood”, Riker said, beginning to do it himself. They found many dried branches – the game called for it, as Viviana well knew. Rummaging in a heap of fallen twigs, Data found a rolled up parchment and brought it to the other ones.
“Well, open it!”, Viviana exhorted him, already imagining what it was about. Data broke the seal, which had an elaborated emblem on it, portraying a flying griffon, and read aloud:
“We inform the players of the following: Lord Riker, second level; Lady Deanna, third level; Master Data, third level; Sister Viviana, unchanged level.”
Riker lifted his eyebrow, making a slightly offended face:
“Why have all been advanced to the third level and I only to the second?”
“Think about what you did, and confront it with what the other ones did.”
The first officer glowered: he must admit that he had actually done nothing, because during their encounter with the monstrous spider he just climbed on the tree, and when they had been assailed he couldn’t even draw his sword, while Deanna had cast two spells– paralysis on the spider and healing on him – and Data had killed a hare, shot the spider and knocked off one of the aggressors.
“But you didn’t improve level at all”, he observed, a mocking light in his bright blue eyes. Viviana reciprocated with a smile as much as mocking:
“At my level, a much higher score is required to improve.”
“Ha!”, he muttered, touché, “Why, what level are you?”
“In this game, the nineteenth.”
Riker burst into laughter:
“Serves me right, I forgot never to underestimate you!”
Deanna noticed something else:
“And what level are you, in other games?”
“I allow to publish a game only after I’ve finished it personally, and the levels go from at least 25 up to a maximum of 36. Sword & Sorcery has 25 levels”, she added, anticipating the next question.
Deanna nodded, and Data asked:
“How long does it take to finish the game?”
Viviana chewed at her lower lip:
“I evaluated a time of about 500 hours.”
“Twenty point eight-three periodic days”, Data immediately converted. Riker gaped:
“We’ll die out of thirst much before!”
Viviana was thinking about different issues:
“We are four players, even if you’re beginners, I think we can manage it in about a third of the time.”
“Now that’s a good thing!”, cried Deanna, “Not the best, but better than 20 days.”
Riker nodded, then he gestured to get busy with the fire. Viviana taught then how to use their flints, which were part of the gear in the backpacks and were stowed in waterproof bags, and soon after a cheerful fire lighted their camp.
They consumed a not much satisfactory meal with concentrated energy bars, rationing carefully the water. All around them, darkness became deeper and deeper; sounds and noises swept the prairie, unusual to Riker’s and Deanna’s unaccustomed ears, but not disquieting.
“It’d be better if someone stands guard”, said Viviana, “In normal conditions, sleep-time is safe, but now I can’t be sure.”
“I will guard the camp”, Data promptly offered, “I do not need sleep.”
One of the multiple advantages to be an android, thought Viviana with a tinge of envy; this surprised her: in this absurd situation, Data was the only one who had nothing to worry about.
They lingered some time awake, than weariness and tension asked their toll on the humans, and so they decided to lie down, wrapping themselves in the cloaks they were equipped with. Data positioned himself in a favourable point, from where he could watch both the camp and the adjacent ground, his golden eyes sweeping incessantly the surrounding obscurity, his ears on alert to perceive the noises of the night.
After a while, Viviana got up sitting and sighed. Riker, who was lying nearby, was still awake and heard her. He got up sitting as well and asked, in an undertone so to not disturb Deanna who was already asleep:
“You can’t sleep, can you?”
“Yeah”, she confirmed laconically. Riker stood up, cloak and all, and went to sit next to her.
“Me, too, to say the truth”, he admitted, glancing at Deanna and nodding towards her, “I always envied her capability to grow apart from the present situation to restore her strength.”
Viviana, too, glanced at the Betazoid.
“Well, there’s a reason why she’s a psychologist, counsellor of the flagship”, she observed in an obvious tone. Riker watched his old friend closely for a minute.
“Is there something wrong, Viv?”, he asked, using the nickname of the Academy times. She realised he wasn’t referring only to the present situation and smiled faintly.
“I feel guilty, Will”, she confided him, embracing her knees, “This absurd situation has been caused by my modifications on the holographic generator, and therefore I am responsible for it.”
Viviana, as Riker well remembered, had always been ready to take on her own responsibilities, and didn’t tolerate those who wouldn’t do the same. Once, at the Academy, she had fought bitterly against an elder cadet who had tried to pass the buck on her, and won. He tried to seek revenge, but she didn’t hesitate to let them find him pants down and the Disciplinary Board ended up expelling him with dishonourable discharge. Viviana was a tough cookie even at 16, let alone now, the first officer thought, affectionately.
“The responsibility is surely yours”, he said, not even trying to lie to her, “but you can’t surely speak about guilt. After all, Commander La Forge supervised your work from top to bottom and didn’t find anything to object to, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed the test.”
“Fine, but I’ve been inexcusably negligent not to give precise boundaries to the computer”, the young woman replied vehemently, “Something kicked off in that speedy idiot’s circuits, and it thought well to get us in this trouble!”
Riker grinned; he had never heard someone define the computer a speedy idiot, but technically speaking it was correct: no matter how sophisticated and powerful, a computer remains only the sum of its components, very far from being described as an intelligent entity.
“We’ll manage it, Viviana”, he said, forcefully, putting an arm around her shoulders, “Like Deanna pointed out, we’re no helpless children, but Starfleet officers, and we went through worse situations, while you’re an expert in hologames and martial arts. We’re no unwary team.”
Encouraged by his words, but even more by his tone and proximity, Viviana nodded, and Riker clutched her affectionately. For some time they stayed in silence, watching the fire, which was little by little extinguishing its flames.
“I wonder”, Riker murmured at a certain point, thoughtfully, “why you and me never had a romantic relationship.”
Surprised, Viviana turned her head and found Riker’s face very near to hers.
“I guess it’s because we’re not made for each other”, she answered jokingly. Riker didn’t move a millimetre, looking deeply into her eyes.
“Are you sure?”, he whispered, “We fit together well, like with no other. And then, don’t you think it’s curious we didn’t find our soul mates yet?”
Viviana felt speechless: she had never seriously thought that their relationship of deep friendship could evolve in something else. And suddenly, with the help of the odd situation they were in, sitting in front of a fire crackling in the sweet-scented night of a fantastic world, Riker’s closeness unsettled her like never before, and her throat went dry out of emotion. Strings which had never been touched in the depths of her soul vibrated, making her quiver.
Then her good sense prevailed abruptly, and Viviana turned her face, chuckling.
“Do you remember that time, throughout the second Academy year, when we got lost in the Gobi desert, during a training?”, she asked.
“Of course I remember”, Riker answered, not realising what she was getting at, “To warm up, we slept together in the same sleeping bag.”
Now she was smiling widely.
“Well, if we didn’t make love at that time, when we were 17 and our hormones were in a turmoil”, she concluded gaily, “why should we now, when we’re 35 and our hormones stable?”
Riker couldn’t help it and burst into laughter, stifling immediately his hilarity in order not to wake up Deanna.
“You’re completely right”, he admitted, “I don’t know what got into me! You’re not mad at me, are you…?”, he added, quite embarrassed.
“Not at all!”, his friend reassured him, “On the contrary, it has been a good think speaking of it, after all we never faced the topic. Now we know for certain that our friendship fears nothing… not even sex.”
They hugged, happy the issue got solved this way: it had been only a moment of bewilderment, due to the peculiar situation they were living, and their relationship wouldn’t be damaged by it; on the contrary, if anything, it had deepened even more.
Not realising it, they ended up falling asleep in each other’s arms, wrapped in their cloaks.
It was late at night on board the Enterprise, at least by the clock, because there wasn’t a sequence of light and darkness to mark the passing of days like on a planet. La Forge, Saunders and Barclay were exhausted.
“The only thing we can do is bypassing the computer’s control”, Barclay was saying, “Otherwise, with no arrival coordinates, the transporter will never work.”
“You’re right, Reg”, Saunders agreed, “But doing all the calculations in our heads…”
“We’re too tired for such a task”, La Forge decreed, “We ought all to sleep at least a couple of hours, let’s make it three.”
Saunders was about to protest, but the chief engineer hold up one hand:
“That’s an order, Lieutenant”, he cut him short, authoritatively. He too, would have liked to go on working but, in the conditions they were, they wouldn’t be able to put two and two together, let alone to solve the complex equations a transport required.
Barclay and Saunders took their leave; before he too went away, La Forge addressed the security agent who was monitoring the four people inside the holodeck:
“Call me immediately, should any uncommon event happen.”
The ensign, who relieved his colleague of the day shift and had been updated about the situation, nodded:
The chief engineer nodded back and left. In his quarters, he took off his VISOR and shoes, then flung himself on the bed with all his clothes on.
Sleep caught him almost immediately.
Chapter 7: Chapter VII
In the imaginary world, it was dawning. Data watched the eastern horizon becoming pink before the rising of the sun and checked his internal clock: nine hours and twelve minutes had passed since the sunset, a time interval adequate to the reproduced season.
The first beam of the rising sun hit Deanna’s face, and she stirred and awakened; yawning, she got up sitting, feeling perfectly rested.
Watching the surroundings, for a moment she felt lost, before remembering the events of the previous day; with a start, she searched for her companions, and spotted Riker and Viviana, still sleeping in each other’s arms. For a moment, she was puzzled: was it possible that, after so many years, friends had become lovers? Then she shook her head, laughing at herself: no, impossible for an empath like her to mistake the nature of the bond between the two of them; furthermore, it was quite unlikely they would choose such an inopportune moment, they were both persons used to think about the consequences of their conducts.
“Good morning, Counsellor”, Data greeted her, drawing near, “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thanks”, she answered, “and I’m quite amazed, given the everything-but-rosy situation we are in”, she pushed away her cloak, which had acted as a coverlet for the night, and stood up, stretching her stiffened limbs.
At that moment, Viviana opened her eyes, sat up and yawned, her hand in front of her mouth. She saw Deanna and nodded toward her, then she watched Riker, still peacefully sleeping. She elbowed him quite roughly:
“Stand up, cadet!”, she barked, in a voice worth their old Sergeant Instructor of the first Academy year. Riker sprang up in a sitting position like stung by a hornet, then he caught sight of Viviana laughing at him and brought his hand over his chest:
“Hey, are you insane, I almost got a heart attack!”
Deanna laughed hard at the two old friends’ jokes, funny demonstration of the understanding between them.
While his human companions ate, Data reported the night had been totally quiet, then they prepared to leave.
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge woke up with a start. After a moment of confusion, he realised he hadn’t been awakened by the alarm clock; hurriedly, he groped around for his VISOR and put it on, then he checked the clock quadrant. What he saw made him hiss a curse not much in style with his character and leap to his feet: he had overslept a good deal, but why didn’t he hear the alarm? Thinking again of the moment he had thrown himself on the bed, La Forge realised he was the only one to blame, because he completely forgot to order the computer to wake him up after a given time. Shaking his head to drive away the remnants of sleepiness, the chief engineer of the Enterprise headed quickly to the engine room, where he found Barclay and Saunders already at work.
“Why didn’t you wake me, sirs?”, he asked, in a slightly reprimanding tone.
“You were on duty for much longer than us, Commander”, Saunders pointed out, “When we didn’t see you, we thought you needed rest and therefore let you sleep. In the meantime, we got busy in calculating the arrival coordinates, and we might be not far from the goal.”
“Very well, go on”, La Forge approved, going to the replicator, “Computer, a good Jamaican coffee, hot, strong and sweet.”
In an instant, the computer replicated a seething coffee mug as requested, which La Forge took. He really needed it, he thought, beginning to sip at it.
In about one hour, the coordinates had been calculated with an approximation of about one centimetre, an absolutely exaggerated margin for a normal transport which allowed an approximation of less than one micron.
“Well, let’s hope we won’t materialize something inside a tree or a rock”, Barclay commented.
“No harm there”, Saunders replied, “in this case we’d materialize inside a hologram, which consistency is only apparent; therefore, at the worst we’d see its image fluctuate, while the ration box would be stabile. Better, it could work like a signal for our friends, who in this way won’t risk missing the casket.”
In the imaginary world, the adventurers got back to their track; the ground began immediately to become more rugged, and soon they entered a hilly area with quite steep slopes, dotted with thickets. They decided to climb he highest mound, in order to get a view on the surroundings and choose a direction to take.
They discovered almost immediately a path in the grass, not very large but well kept: it was plainly a frequented zone, and that sign of human life cheered them up, encouraging them to go on.
After a while, the path turned into a gorge, clambering along a ledge wide enough to allow them walking side by side; little by little, a chasm formed on their right hand, on the bottom of which they glimpsed a small river, its deep and not turbulent waters running in the same direction they were going.
Viviana approached the edge to look down; the slope was arduous, but not vertical, and the river glittered in the sunshine.
“It’s really nice, here”, she stated aloud. In that same moment, the ground collapsed under her feet and, with a scream, she precipitated down over the rim of the ledge.
The ground crumbled also under the other three, but Data, using his exceptional strength and speed, was able to grab Riker and Deanna by their clothes and jump away.
When the landslide died down, they looked over the edge: Viviana was gone.
“Commander La Forge!”, called out animatedly the security officer who was monitoring the imaginary world at that moment. La Forge ran at his station and watched the scene unfolding under his eyes, holding his breath.
Viviana was slipping down the slope along with sliding terrain, stone chippings and dust; breathless, she didn’t scream, concentrating every effort in not turning head-down and staying on her back. She didn’t feel any pain, too focused on surviving.
Finally, with a splash, she fell into water.
Stunned, she fought to return on the surface; she didn’t try to orientate, simply felt where the modest current was dragging her, and used it to go back on dry ground, swimming diagonally. The shore, luckily, was not steep and she could easily climb it. Shaken, she collapsed, sitting down and catching her breath, dripping water everywhere.
After a few minutes, shivering in her wet clothes, she got out of them and wringed them out as best as she could, but in that hill valley it was colder than in the wood the day before, so she decided to light a fire in order to dry her garment. Her backpack had endured some damage during the slip in the landslide, but the contents were intact and the waterproof bag had kept the flint and steel perfectly dry.
Viviana watched around looking for some kind of fuel, but in that spot there was no vegetation, hence she got to her feet, making a grimace because she felt bruised all over; anyway, except for some abrasions, she wasn’t injured, and she surely had no broken bone, neither real nor imaginary.
She gazed at the slope from which she had slid down and realised immediately she wouldn’t be able to climb it back: it wasn’t too steep, but she knew nothing about climbing techniques. She couldn’t spot her friends, nor did she expect it, having been probably pushed too far downstream by the river current. Therefore, she decided to look for firewood in the direction she had come from, so to meet the others; if she wouldn’t be able to see them, she could anyway drag their attention with the smoke of her fire.
After treading some fifty meters, she caught sight of the entrance of a cavern, from where was coming a wisp of smoke. Smoke meant fire, and fire meant people, Viviana concluded, but being an expert in roleplay games, as she couldn’t know if the inhabitants of the cave, whoever they might be, were friendly or hostile, she got near very prudently, silently and ready to all.
Or almost all.
With a roar that shook the valley, a large red creature leaped from the insides of the cavern, standing in Viviana’s way, who almost fainted out of fright. She jumped backwards, but having recognised the creature, she knew she had no chance: it was a red dragon, quite young judging from its relatively small size, but still terrifying, and virtually invincible for a single adventurer, no matter how much practised. Besides, her character was a nun, she fought with bare hands, she had no weapons nor could use them, both short-range such as swords or clubs, and mid- and long-range such as bows or crossbows; she even didn’t have magical powers, to use the few spells capable to affect that fantastic creature.
She was as good as dead.
“Computer, you’re not loyal”, she managed to say through clenched teeth.
“We have to find a way to go down, by any means”, said Riker, pacing back and forth like a caged lion. Deanna sensed his anguish and tried to calm him:
“Viviana thought the protection subroutine was still intact; nothing happened to her, you’ll see.”
“I’m sure of it”, he replied, “but nonetheless, should the fall imply a fracture, for instance, the computer is now simulating it, and she’s in pain like she would really be fractured. I assure you it’s not pleasurable at all.”
Data was watching closely the traces the landslide had left.
“Sir, I can state with a certain grade of certainty that Miss Morgante was not seriously hurt”, he said, “The rather soft terrain and the not excessively steep inclination suggest me she slipped down with no significant consequences, until she fell into the river, where she was probably dragged downstream”, a thought struck him, “I hope Miss Morgante knows how to swim.”
Riker smiled despite the troublesome situation: sometimes, Data’s behaviour was almost childlike.
“She’s a very good swimmer, for that matter”, he reassured him, “In the light of your analysis, Mr Data, I’d suggest to go on along the ledge and keep an eye on the two shores, then we’ll think about a way to go down, or to let Viviana climb back up.”
“Fine”, Deanna approved, and Data nodded, too.
They moved promptly; some two hundred metres forward, they heard a terrifying roar echoing throughout the valley. Deanna stopped abruptly, closed her eyes and extended her empathic perceptions: even if Viviana could apparently be very far, the space in the holodeck was actually small and she wouldn’t have any trouble to sense her.
“What the hell was that?!”, Riker asked, upset. Deanna perceived her friend’s terror.
“Viviana is in danger”, she said, “I don’t know who or what is threatening her, but her fear is great.”
Riker bolted and ran, but after a few strides he realised the futility of his impulse: he didn’t even know where to look for Viviana, let alone help her.
At La Forge’s horrified yell, Saunders and Barclay rushed to his side and saw the large red creature looming over Viviana. Saunders inhaled sharply:
“Damn, computer, how do you expect her to manage it alone?”, he ranted aloud, “Give her assistance… a high level non-player character, with powers over dragons!”
Chapter 8: Chapter VIII
The computer was loyal. The encounter with the red dragon had been devised for the entire group, who had good possibilities to manage it, and not just for a single member. Unfortunately, the landslide had taken only Sister Viviana and not all of them: Master Data had ruined the picture. Thus, the computer had only one option left, as they had just efficaciously suggested it: to create a non-player character, meaning a holography able to interact with the player characters, or adventurers, but non-influential to the overall development of the game.
With the terrific speed of its super sophisticated processors, the computer searched for a character, adequate as for personality and experience, in the database of the Enterprise, found it, extrapolated a holographic image apt to the context, gave it the character indicated in the profile, invented a story compatible with the game and inserted it in the imaginary world of Sword & Sorcery with the sole intent to get Sister Viviana out of the trouble in which it had, even if involuntarily, wound her up.
Viviana stared into the dragon’s incandescent eyes, knowing that the next moment she would be wrapped in the flames of his breath; fleeing would be useless, those big beasts were surprisingly agile and she would be caught in an instant with no effort whatsoever, without the creature even bothering to fly.
I won’t die for good, it’ll be just an illusion, I’ll be actually safe and sound and with no scratch, she tried to tell herself, repeating it continuously, like a litany, trying to create a shelter for her mind, in order to escape the insanity of a faked, but nonetheless terribly real, death.
The red dragon ogled her, malevolent and cruel, preparing to roast her in a blaze.
Suddenly, its appalling eyes – the colour of scorching lava – moved behind Viviana’s back.
“Look and subdue yourself, dragon!”, she heard a male voice shouting, a few metres behind her, “This is the Dragon Amulet, you can’t do anything against it.”
Viviana didn’t dare to take off her gaze from the great red creature; for a long moment, the dragon stayed perfectly still, his eyes staring at the one who had spoken, whoever it might be. Then, to her great marvel, Viviana saw him slowly lower his big triangular head, crowned with pointy bone scales, and take on a subdued demeanour, but his smug gaze contradicted it.
“Come behind me”, said the man at Viviana’s back, in a low voice so that only she could hear him, “Quick!”
The nun didn’t need to be called twice for it and a moment later she was watching the dragon from behind the wide back of a very tall man, clad in a scale coat and a large shield hanging from his shoulders; a helmet of vaguely Nippon shape covered his head, and under it showed a ponytail of long raven-black hair.
Barely in time: angered because his prey was escaping, the dragon opened his jaws and blew his lethal fiery breath. The flames wrapped around the two challengers, and Viviana screamed in fear. Then abruptly she stopped: the firestorm opened up a few centimetres in front of the man, surrounded them both and closed again behind them, without even touching them. She felt some heat, but nothing more. She had to stifle a hysterical laugh, due to relief: she had completely forgotten about the peculiar quality of the Dragon Amulet, which could protect from the specific magic of each dragon: in their case, being it a red dragon, from fire.
The flames extinguished, leaving behind a smell of ozone similar to that of phasers.
“What did you want to demonstrate, dragon?”, the warrior asked in a hard voice, “You see by yourself that your magic has no power on the Amulet.”
Even more angered, the dragon blew another, more deadly fire blow, which shattered against the invisible barrier of the Amulet. A third one followed, then a fourth, and finally the dragon ran out of his magic power. Black smoke rose from his nostrils while he ogled his adversary with terrible eyes, but the warrior seemed not impressed at all.
“Let us go, dragon”, he ordered firmly, “You already consumed your fire.”
The dragon roared in frustration. He would have liked to rush and crush them, but the sight of the Amulet, which had so much power on him and his similar, dissuaded him.
“So be it, human”, he said therefore in his cavernous voice, “But only if you show me your face, so that I can recognize it in the future.”
“I don’t see how you can demand it”, the warrior replied, in a slightly derisory tone, “nonetheless I’ll satisfy your request: you’ll have to remember very well Bryan Darksword, because, if one day we’d meet again, I won’t be so merciful with you. I don’t think I need to remind you that the Dragon Amulet absorbs dragon magic or returns it back to the sender at the owner’s wish.”
In saying so, the warrior took away the black leather mask covering the upper part of his face which Viviana, from behind, hadn’t noticed yet. He uncovered a proud, noble face, with an olive complexion, long eyes as dark as night, sharp nose, firm mouth framed by black beard and moustache.
The dragon had lost some of his arrogance.
“Because you had no fear to show me your face, nor to tell me your name”, he announced, “I’ll tell you mine: I’m Ruthork Firebane. You two can go undisturbed from my territory, but don’t you dare to set foot on it again, neither you nor the woman.”
“You can bet on it!”, Viviana grumbled through clenched teeth, turning and starting quickly toward the place she had come from; the warrior went on her heels, and they didn’t slow down until they were well out of sight of the dragon.
“Well done, computer”, Saunders said, and to La Forge and Barclay who were watching him confused, he explained, “The scene was probably designed for the whole group, not for Viviana alone, who had no chance. Hence, the computer created what in technical language is called a non-player character, who interacts with the players but does not influence the story as a whole, in order to help her”, he stared thoughtfully at the monitor, framing Viviana and Bryan from behind while they were walking away from Ruthork Firebane’s lair, “I don’t know, this character reminds me of someone…”
“Wait a moment, now she’s surprised”, Deanna said, referring to Viviana, “I feel her relief… Something, or someone, intervened to help her. There, now she’s safe, her fear is passing away. Hum…”, she broke off and opened her eyes, “I think she met somebody… fascinating”, she smiled. Riker, who had come back from his useless run, gazed at her perplexed:
“Fascinating?”, he enquired. Deanna nodded:
“At least, she thinks he is”, she confirmed, but didn’t add anything more, being discretion an essential part of her job, “On an unrelated note”, she added, “I sensed also the rest of the crew of the Enterprise. They’re working hard to help us, even if I have no idea how they think to proceed.”
“Well, if nothing else, now we know they noticed our situation”, Data commented, “I am sure Geordi is doing everything he can to let us out of here.”
Riker, who knew well the friendship between the android and the chief engineer of the Enterprise, nodded:
“You can be sure of that, Mr Data.”
A few moments later, they set forth again.
When finally Viviana felt enough safe, she halted and turned towards her unexpected rescuer.
“Whoever you are, Bryan Darksword, I thank you”, she said, “I owe you my life.”
“There’s nothing to thank for”, the warrior replied, very modestly, beaming at her; snow white teeth flashed in his dark beard, thicker than Riker’s, but equally well trimmed, “May I ask your name?”
“I’m Viviana, a nun”, she introduced herself, stretching out her hand. He took it and, surprisingly, kissed it gallantly, as it would be appropriate with a high ranked lady. Flattered, Viviana didn’t know what face to put on and finally just reciprocated his smile.
“Come”, said Bryan, “better put more distance between us and the beast.”
They walked in silence for a couple of kilometres; along the way, Viviana was able to observe easily and better her rescuer. He was about 1,90 m height, like Riker, but probably, taken away the flexible hauberk, he was thinner, even if his legs, tightly wrapped in black leather trousers, and his arms, bare except for two forearms coverings of studded hide, revealed a solid musculature; on his chest, hanging from a chain, he sported a large cupper medallion with an intricate engraving, of irrefutable magic manufacture; from his large belt hung a sword made of a strange dark metal, from which evidently came his nickname; he wore knee-high boots of soft black leather, as well as protections for his hands, in scaled leather like his armour.
However, it wasn’t his looks, even if attractive, to impress her particularly; no, it was something on a deeper level, some aura surrounding him, speaking about nobility, integrity, loyalty, sense of honour, courage and moral strength, an aura which fascinated her like it never happened before with anyone else. She had to make a big effort to remind herself he was only a hologram – she didn’t think someone had been able to sneak in the running game, not after the computer had them practically trapped inside of it.
A hologram… but whose magnetism made him more alive and real than any other man she ever met before.
Finally they halted for a rest, and Bryan started to cover his face.
“May I ask you why you wear a mask?”, Viviana asked. Bryan glanced at her, surprised by her question, and she raised her hands:
“Sorry, I didn’t want to be indiscreet.”
“O no, you aren’t, at all”, he reassured her, “It’s no secret, but if you don’t know what it means, you must come from very afar”, Viviana nodded to confirm and Bryan continued, “I belong to the No Face Clan. We’re a clan of mercenary warriors, men and women who make a living selling their swords. Our faithfulness to those who pay us is undoubtable… until those who pay us are faithful to us, or until they don’t reveal themselves as insane or traitors toward the Great King, whom we all give our supreme faithfulness”, he smiled at her, but his gaze was earnest, “As you’ve seen my face, I must ask you to make a solemn oath never to reveal my identity to anyone, for any reason whatsoever.”
“Absolutely”, Viviana said immediately, “You’ve got my word, the word of a nun. Or do you want something more formal?”
“No, I know your equals and your word is enough for me.”
Viviana imitated Bryan, who had stood up; she saw him staring at the boulder she was sitting on, on which a wet spot was clearly visible.
“I fell in the river”, she explained, “I was walking on that ledge, over there”, she pointed at it with her hand, “with my three friends, when a landslide had me slipping down and plunging into the water. When I found the dragon, I was looking for some wood to light a fire and dry up.”
“Then”, said Bryan, “before you catch a cold, it’d be better do it now, Sister.”
“Only Viviana, please”, she said, a bit uneasy for the appellation due to her character, “While walking, I don’t feel cold”, she added. Bryan thought her reluctance was because of the dragon:
“Don’t worry, Ruthork Firebane won’t bother us anymore, not after seeing the Amulet of the Dragons working.”
“No doubt about this”, Viviana explained then, “there’s another problem: I’ve got no spare clothes.”
Bryan stood stone still; under his mask, the young woman easily imagined him becoming red like a tomato.
“Forgive me, Viviana!”, he stuttered, “Sometimes I’ve got the tact of a charging bull…”, he shook his head, mortified, “Well, I can lend you my cloak, it should cover you from head to toe.”
He removed the shield from his shoulders, revealing a little backpack from which he took out a dark grey mantle neatly folded.
“You can change while I look for firewood”, he said, handing it over to her.
“Very well”, she said, accepting the garment.
Soon after, she was wrapped in the cloak and her clothes were laying on the rocks, while Bryan busied himself in lighting the fire with the dry branches he had picked up; then, the warrior took the wet garments and held them one by one in front of the flames, giving them over to Viviana as soon as each was enough dried. Meanwhile they chatted a little.
“What an unusual metal”, the young woman observed, referring to the sword. Bryan touched lightly the hilt with some kind of affection.
“It’s an ancient weapon”, he told her, “which is handed down in our clan from generation to generation, not necessarily from father to son. The legend tells that one night a star fell near the house of a No Face, who the day after found a clump of black metal; he made it forge into the sword you see now, and from that day on it always belonged to a member of the clan. There’s people who think it a magic weapon, but until now there’s no concrete proof to demonstrate it. I received it from an aunt of mine, and since then I received the nickname of Darksword, like all the preceding owners”, he handed her her dry tunic and smiled at her, “Where are you going, with your friends? If you need a guide, I’ll be glad to accompany you.”
Viviana was no inexperienced lass: something in Bryan’s attitude made her realise the warrior was eager to prolong their encounter and his offer was a way to do so. This presumed an interest from his side… but Sword & Sorcery didn’t consider romantic implications, let alone erotic ones. Again, it must have been the computer, which, out of love to realism, had inserted that option. Well, she had only to decline the offer, and the charming Bryan Darksword would go away, swallowed up in the processors attending to the game development. The attraction she felt for him – a hologram – wasn’t natural, and it was dangerous for her emotional balance to indulge it: one thing is the user choosing a sentimental/erotic game, like the ones for which the Ferengi Quark’s club on the space station Deep Space Nine was famous, and another thing is the game choosing for the user. Better to wrap it all up and stop it.
“I must find them before, my friends I mean”, she surprised herself by saying so, inviting him clearly to help her in the task.
“Sure”, Bryan accepted promptly, standing up. He turned away from Viviana in order to allow her to end donning her clothes and extinguished the fire using earth and gravel.
Viviana ascertained that her backpack, too, was enough dry, so she shouldered it again; a few moments later, they set forth.
Chapter 9: Chapter IX
The ledge Riker, Data and Deanna were marching on, at a certain point began to lower towards the valley-bottom and the river, which had become considerably wider. Looking down, Data’s sharp eyes spotted two shapes walking side by side along the shore, going in their same direction: by the garment colours of one of the two, he deduced correctly that they were Viviana and her mysterious rescuer.
“There they are”, he announced, pointing toward them. Riker and Deanna examined the landscape, but saw only two dark dots; however, they took the android’s statement as granted. They moved faster, and soon enough they were at earshot distance.
“Viviana!”, Riker called, “We’re here!”
The two shapes turned at the same time, and the smaller raised an arm in a salutation gesture. Soon after, Viviana was running towards them, followed in a calmer way by a very tall warrior in a dark outfit, whose face was concealed under a black mask. Deanna felt struck.
“Will!”, Viviana cried, throwing her arms around her friend’s neck and hugging him strongly; then she hugged also Deanna, and even the composed Data, who reciprocated with a certain awkwardness.
“Are you okay?”, Riker enquired immediately, “You’re clothes are in a bad shape…”
“And what did you expect, after a skid downhill and a dive in a river? But I’m fine, thanks… because of him, that is”, she turned toward the masked warrior and gestured him to come closer, “Bryan, these are the friends I told you about”, she began then to introduce them formally, “Lord Riker, knight; Lady Deanna, sorceress; Master Data, hunter. Friends, this is Sir Bryan Darksword, swordsman of the No Face Clan, that’s the reason he wears a mask.”
“I’m honoured to meet you, Milady, Milord, Master Data”, Bryan stated, addressing to each of them a slight bow; then he kissed Deanna’s hand, at which she smiled evidently flattered, and shook hands with Riker – Viviana could ascertain they were of the same height – and with Data.
“Our pleasure, Sir Bryan”, Deanna declared, “We are grateful to you for the help you gave to Sister Viviana.”
Bryan glanced at her, surprised:
“How can you… oh, right, you’re a sorceress”, he turned his head to look at Viviana, “I only did my duty.”
Because he was a holographic character, hence something not real, Deanna couldn’t read him empathically, but she was a psychologist, and even a very good one, therefore, despite the mask hiding his face, by the tone of his voice and by his whole demeanour, she could tell that Bryan was attracted by Viviana. She felt puzzled, because she hadn’t known that the game contemplated romantic situations.
“Don’t be silly”, Viviana replied vivaciously, “Even if you have the Dragon Amulet, nothing or no one forced you to confront that red monster to rescue a perfect stranger. And don’t tell me you didn’t risk anything, because if Ruthork Firebane would’ve been just a little older and had more blows at his disposal, you’d have been roasted along with me: even a Dragon Amulet has its limits.”
Uh oh, Deanna thought, she reciprocates the attraction.
“I see you know well dragons and their amulets”, Bryan observed, his curiosity arisen.
“There’s many of them, back at my home… dragons, I mean”, she answered quickly, with convincing nonchalance. Riker stifled a laugh, barely.
“Well, Sir Bryan, we owe you”, he said, “What can we do in return?”
“Nothing owed, Lord Riker, in spite what Viviana’s saying”, Bryan declared proudly, “I simply obeyed my honour code.”
Viviana rolled her eyes, exaggerating her exasperation, then she changed subject:
“Bryan offered to be our guide: I was planning to go to the closest village, and then decide what to do.”
Riker exchanged glances with the other ones and nodded:
“That’s fine, let’s go.”
They set forth, and walking Viviana told them of her encounter with the red dragon, Ruthork Firebane. Deanna found confirmation of her empathic readings, and watched thoughtfully the mysterious Bryan Darksword: there was something strangely familiar, in him…
In the real world, La Forge was very close to a nervous breakdown: all their attempts to insert manually the arrival coordinates for the transporter, had been regularly rejected by the computer.
“Damn”, he said through clenched teeth, “I can’t imagine other systems to make that pile of circuits accept the coordinates!”
“We tried everything”, Saunders agreed, “Reg, any idea?”
Barclay, brought into play, lifted his eyes from the diagram he was studying and, with his trademark dazed face, said:
“I was thinking about superimposing a three-dimensional pattern of the holodeck on the monitor image, and then calculating the transporter arrival point on the basis of the space coordinates known inside the deck… I mean, not the alpha, beta and gamma axis calculated in degrees, minutes and seconds, but simply in centimetres”, noticing that the other two were staring at him bewildered, he began to stammer, “Well… it’s like when you… hum, when you build a piece of furniture: length, width and height…”
“Reg, you’re a genius!”, La Forge cried, putting the protocol momentarily aside. The timid lieutenant blushed even more, but a smile lighted his face.
“Lieutenant Saunders, search for the three-dimensional graphic program and create a grid with the exact measures of the holodeck”, the chief engineer ordered, “Reg, transform the monitor image in a simulated image. When you’re both ready, transfer your data to my station.”
They worked for a couple of hours, while La Forge converted the transporter coordinates from degrees, minutes and seconds to more prosaic metres, centimetres and millimetres. Finally they were ready, and La Forge inserted the data holding unconsciously his breath.
On the monitor flashed the writing coordinates accepted.
“Yessssssss!”, Saunders exulted, punching around in the air like fighting an imaginary opponent. Barclay bounced all around like a grasshopper, and La Forge burst into loud laughter, relieved. Their reactions drew the perplexed and amused gazes of the other technicians who were in the engine room.
“Come on, let’s try immediately”, the chief engineer finally said, “Transporter room?”
“Yes, Commander La Forge?”, answered Lieutenant Carmen Colmenarez.
“I transfer to you new arrival coordinates for the transport on the holodeck of the ration box”, he informed her, “Done. Try now, please.”
They turned to look at the monitor, which showed the imaginary world of Sword & Sorcery, and waited.
“What do you say at stopping for lunch?”, Viviana suggested, feeling her stomach grumbling.
“I approve!”, Deanna cried, smiling.
“A little further from here there’s a good place to camp”, Bryan told them, “I’s a 5 minute walk, no more.”
By now, they had crossed the hills and poplars, willows and alders had appeared on the riverside. Bryan led them to a free space in the shadow of these trees, where they put down their backpacks, and their swords, shield, bow and quiver, too, then sat down in a circle. They took their rations and began to eat.
Bryan, needless to say, sat by Viviana; intrigued, he was now watching the energy bar she was munching at with not great enthusiasm.
“I’ve never seen such crackers”, he said in a casual tone, chewing his own with no more enthusiasm than Viviana. She confronted the appearance of the two travel rations and realised that in Bryan’s eyes those of the 24th century must seem quite unusual, indeed.
“Hum… this are Elven crackers”, she explained, “Many years ago, an injured Elf arrived at my chapter house, and the herbalist monk nursed and healed him; out of gratitude, the Elf revealed him the secret of his people’s crackers. They’re good, but in the long term you end up bored with them!”, she concluded in a jokingly tone.
Bryan nodded, then his gaze fell on Data, who was sitting by Deanna.
“Why is Mater Data not eating?”, he enquired, puzzled. Viviana found straightaway a plausible reason also for this:
“He made a vow to eat only by dark, and alone.”
Riker admired her talent to invent explanations compatible with the world in which they found themselves, sure he wouldn’t be able to. He didn’t consider that this was due simply to Viviana’s long familiarity with the fantasy genre, which had precise conventions and rules, codified centuries before by a multitude of enthusiastic fans.
“Unusual, as a vow”, Bryan commented, manifesting no further interest for the topic.
At that moment, they heard a strange modulated sound, clearly artificial, and near Deanna a purple box appeared. Everybody stared at it, amazed.
“Lady Deanna, you’re a very brilliant sorceress indeed!”, Bryan cried, admiringly, “I’ve never seen something like this in all my life, and apparently you made no effort!”
Deanna was able to recover quickly from her astonishment, having recognized a standard Starfleet box for emergency rations, and tried to play cool:
“Hum, yeah, I was exercising in… materializing objects”, she cleared her throat, “Actually I was thinking about food, maybe inside there’s some delicacy…”
She took the box and opened it, with no expectations about titbits or champagne. She was surprised to find not the standard rations, but water bottles and various supplies, such as bread, cheese, hardboiled eggs, smoked seafood, poached meat, and even chocolate bars. She smiled.
Data had given a glimpse at the box contents and came out with a question:
“It’s La Forge’s spell, isn’t it?”
Viviana almost toppled on the ground, but somehow she was able to control the hilarity attack, even if Deanna’s answer didn’t help her much:
“Sure, it’s a very difficult spell, but I’m exercising for a long time.”
“Well, it’s undoubtedly perfectly succeeded”, Riker commented, smiling, “Let’s put it to use!”
They divided equally the food, realising they were all hungry like wolves: the emergency rations give for sure all the necessary energetic supply, but they don’t fill up the stomach and therefore don’t give a sufficient fullness feeling.
Viviana watched Bryan from the corner of her eye while he bit into bread and cheese, and noticed with professional satisfaction how the computer provided the illusion to let the food disappear with perfect realism. The matter-antimatter interaction proceeded in both directions, and the computer was demonstrating a superb control over both.
“Good”, La Forge sighed, “now that the food problem is solved, we can go on more relaxed. We have two ways to go: either insist with the transporter, until we are able to find a way to take them out; or find a way to shut down the program.”
“Difficult to say which way is the quickest to a solution”, Saunders considered, “I’d suggest proceeding in parallel.”
“Lately I dealt often with the transporter”, said Barclay, “I can take care of that part.”
“Very good”, La Forge approved, “Saunders, you know hologames better than us, therefore I assign you the task to try and find a way to end the program. Let’s go to work.”
After having had lunch, the adventurers rested a little in the shadow of the trees, and then, when the sun went over the zenith and began its descending parabola, Bryan exhorted them to move.
“If we proceed at a good pace, we’ll arrive at Kwynagh in the late afternoon”, he informed them, “The castellan lady is an old acquaintance of mine, she’ll be happy to have us as her guests.”
They set forth; Bryan was at the vanguard with Viviana by his side, a few metres behind came Riker and Deanna, and finally Data at the rearguard.
“You know, Will”, said Deanna at a certain point, “I have the odd sensation I know this Bryan Darksword. I don’t know, there’s something in his voice, in his body…”
Riker looked at her askance, putting on his rascal face:
“In his body, he?”
“Oh, come on, Will! He surely has a very handsome body, but with you at disposal, why should I lose time running after a hologram…?”, she retorted his joke. Riker grinned, and Deanna thought it was nice to see how their old love relationship had evolved in the wonderful friendship they shared and which allowed them to joke about everything with complete easiness.
They went on for a few kilometres; the river valley widened and the hills sloped away into the flatland. Before they left the last mounds, Data suddenly unshouldered his bow, notched an arrow to the string, took the aim and shot it. Surprised, the company halted and looked in the direction where the arrow had been aimed, but didn’t see anything.
“Just a moment”, said Data, and bolted uphill. Soon after, he returned with a large animal across his shoulders, its throat pierced by the arrow; he unloaded it at their feet.
“Sir Bryan, do you think this will be enough to compensate you acquaintance’s hospitality?”, he asked. Bryan evaluated the animal, a young adult specimen.
“Definitely”, he confirmed, “You have an exceptional aim, for sure, Master Data, and also an incredibly sharp eye.”
Data shouldered the animal again, without any effort.
“I eat many carrots”, he declared. Riker, Viviana and Deanna exchanged amused glances, before the small company set forth again.
“There it is, Commander.”
La Forge examined the map onscreen, reproducing a small section, many times magnified, of an isolinear chip in the immense memory of the computer: some kind of spot or stain was visible, covering various nodal points. Barclay, who was standing by him, squinted his eyes, baffled:
“But what is it, exactly?”, he asked.
“In technical language it is described simply as an anomaly”, Saunders answered, “In our case, I’d call it input block caused by a generic order. This means the computer has received a non-specifically expressed order, something like give me a glass of water, not explaining if still or sparkling, cold, fresh or ambient temperature, and so on.”
La Forge’s face turned the colour of slate, that was his way to pale.
“Oh, no”, he murmured, “It’s like when I asked the computer to create an adversary able to defeat Data, without giving it specific limits! The result was a character who became self-conscious and gave us big trouble”, he shook his head, worried, “Evidently here happened the same thing, on a wider scale: in a certain way, the entire Sword & Sorcery world has become self-conscious…”, he paused, pondering, “Do we know what kind of order it is, and can we neutralize it?”
“No way to figure it out, but by the situation it created, I think it has been something very close to create a world so and so with the greatest realism possible. This would explain, among other things, even why we are not allowed access to the holodeck, nor to detect anything inside of it, and the difficulties we had to transport something in: they are all incompatible things with the game reality.”
“Hence our hands are tied”, the chief engineer concluded, disheartened.
“From the software point of view, yes”, Saunders confirmed, staring at the monitor showing the map, “If there would be a way to cancel that spot…”
“We’d need a cleaning service!”, Barclay joked. Saunders looked up and caught his bewildered colleague by the arm:
“What did you just say?!”
Alarmed, Barclay was barely able to stutter:
“Only that… we’d need a… cleaning service! But-but-but… it was just a joke!”
Saunders let immediately go of his arm and gestured apologetically, turning again to stare intensely at the monitor showing the map.
“A cleaning service…”, he said under his breath, “Or a maintenance team!”
La Forge was struck by the same intuition:
Saunders hands began to move quickly on his station’s commands.
“Exactly, the Nanites”, he confirmed. Barclay, too, realised what he meant: yes, the minuscule sentient robots were exactly what they needed.
In the imaginary world, the hours passed without any unusual event. At the beginning Viviana was a little puzzled about this, but later, considering it better, she realised it was simply another example of applied realism by the computer: it was indeed customary, in the hologames, to proceed at an accelerated rate, so that the player didn’t lose time with peaceful moments between one adventure and the following; this wasn’t of course plausible in reality, therefore the computer had slowed down the action.
Now they could only let him get its way.
Saunders snorted, annoyed; along with the Nanites, he had tried over twenty attacks to the block in the computer, with no appreciable effects: after a few moments, the Nanites lost their efficacy, and the stain in the memory continued undismayed to prevent their attempts to end the program.
“At this point, we made all the changes to the Nanites that we and they could think of”, Barclay said, downcast, “I can’t come up with anything new.”
La Forge shared his team’s feelings, and felt quite depressed. Damn, in the past he had resolved many apparently unsolvable problems, how was it that this one seemed more tough than the others?!
“Perhaps we just have to change out point of view”, he said slowly, “What if, instead of the Nanites, we change the way we direct them to attack the block?”, he brushed a few commands, “For instance, increasing their number, varying the inlet speed of the burst, shifting the direction…”
“…making them attack simultaneously from different direction, or sequentially, at ongoing waves…”, Barclay continued, encouraged, “But sure!”
“We’ll have to take into account a million of variables”, Saunders pointed out, with quiet realism, “Let’s get started.”
Chapter 10: Chapter X
The sun was by now westering as the small group of adventurers arrived at a large cluster of houses by the river; a small fortified castle rose up on a solitary mound beyond the village.
“Here we are at Kwynagh”, Bryan announced. They ventured among the stone-built houses; the general look of the village was clean and tidy, and its inhabitants were conformed to it. Some greeted Bryan heartedly, calling him by name, others just watched the passing group, intrigued.
“Hey, Bryan, are you going to the castle?”, asked a beautiful woman, blonde and curvy, standing in the threshold of a house; at his confirming nod, she went on in a mischievous tone, “If you like, later I’ll come and see you.”
“Not this time, Deirdre, thank you!”
Viviana felt annoyed by the underlying meanings of this short exchange, and it was useless her repeating to herself that she couldn’t allow, in any way, a hologram, a creation of the computer, a simulation, to have such an effect on her. She sighed: oh, if only Bryan would be real…
A few minutes later they were crossing the threshold of the castle’s large wood and iron gate; in the sentry boxes on both sides, the halberd-armed guards didn’t try to stop them, nor Bryan saluted them, respecting the universal custom by which the sentinels cannot speak nor move, except in case of danger.
They crossed the great courtyard, paved with large stone slabs; on one side there were the stables, on the other one the kitchens; a young damsel, surely still not sixteen years old, elegantly clothed and with a flaming red mane, ran toward them:
“Bryan Darksword, you’re back!”
She hugged him impetuously and he reciprocated with plain fondness.
“Nice to see you again, little Fiona”, he greeted her, “You’re grown up, you’re really a woman by now”, she strutted about a bit at this compliment, “How’s Alisander?”
“My brother’s very well”, Fiona answered, “And you? Will you stay for a long time? Please say yes!”
Her crush on Bryan was apparent as much as innocent. Viviana didn’t feel disappointed like earlier with Deirdre, but she realised she would have liked to be familiar enough with him to be allowed to hug him the same way. Damn, she had to get such feelings out of her system! Let’s hope Geordi can take us off quickly, she thought; but to be honest with herself, she was not at all sure she really wanted it.
Deanna felt more and more concerned. She perceived very clearly Viviana’s reactions, and she didn’t like to think at the consequences that could come out of a sentimental relationship with a hologram. There was the actual risk she would take shelter in fantasy, refusing reality, in order to stay with the object of her desire. Of course she was still very far away from this eventuality, but it was never too soon to prevent something psychologically harmful.
Riker was no psychologist, nor was he an empath, however he knew Viviana like himself, or maybe even better, because he stayed more objective. He, too, had realised that the young woman reacted strangely to Bryan, and now suddenly, watching the expressions which had followed one another on his old friend’s face, he realised the reason.
Nobody knew better than him the danger she was facing: he had to warn her as soon as possible.
Finally Fiona tore her adoring eyes from Bryan and gazed at his companions, intrigued. The warrior introduced her and they learnt the damsel was the daughter of Lady Gwyneth, the castellan.
“Come, come, my mother will be very happy to host you”, Fiona invited them cordially; Data, still with the deer on his shoulder, came forth:
“Milady, I would like to offer this animal, form the part of all of us, in exchange of your gracious hospitality. If you tell me where I can bring it…”
“You’re very kind, Master Data”, the maiden answered, “I thank you. Please, put it on the ground, I’ll send someone to pick it up.”
Data obeyed, adding to it also the hare he killed the day before, then along with the other ones, he followed Fiona who led them on. Someone must have already announced their arrival because, as soon as they set foot on the large entrance hall, they saw a middle aged, very elegant woman coming towards them, carrying herself nobly, her long hazel-brown hair up in an elaborate hairdo; a warm smile illuminated her chiselled, striking face.
“Bryan Darksword, dear friend!”, she greeted the warrior, “What happy chance brings you in my abode?”
“Lady Gwyneth…”, Bryan returned her welcome, bending to kiss her hand, “I’m here to ask for your kind hospitality for a few days, for me and this friends of mine.”
He introduced them to her; Riker and Data promptly emulated Bryan, kissing the lady’s hand, while Deanna and Viviana addressed her a curtsey.
“Bryan’s friends are always welcome”, Lady Gwyneth stated, addressing then her daughter, “Fiona, would you please give instructions to the servants in order to prepare lodgings for our guests? Tell them also to add five more places for dinner.”
The damsel got away quickly, while the castellan addressed again her guests:
“You’re all invited to my table, of course, at the toll of the evening bell. I think you’d like freshen up before: in your rooms you’ll find water for your ablutions, as well as clean clothes, of which I beg you to dispose freely, if you need it or even if you just fancy it.”
They stayed in the hall talking a few minutes more, then Fiona came back announcing the rooms were ready. A maid accompanied them to the upper floor, showing each of them their room, simply and functionally furnished; drapes, carpets and assorted types of ornaments soothed its austerity, creating a comfortable environment. A French door led to a covered balcony, crossing the whole façade of the castle and looking on the inner court.
A dressing table, made of a metal structure holding a mirror and a basin, with a jug full of lukewarm soaped water and a linen towel, allowed them to wash off the dust of the long march. In the closets they found a small array of garments, of different sizes and fashion, from which each one chose the outfit the most suitable to him or her. Viviana, whose clothes were a mess, was tempted by a long muslin dress, the colour of lavender, its cuffs embroidered with silvery threads, while Deanna chose a gown in light velvet of golden colour, with white lace adorning its neckline; as for the men, they found batiste shirts, satin or velvet coats and tunics, and linen or cotton trousers. The women put on light slippers, and Data and Riker soft moccasins; Bryan instead, whose feet were unusually big, didn’t find shoes of his size and therefore settled for just brushing his boots and donned them again.
Viviana was combing her short hazel-brown hair when she heard a knock on her door.
“Come on in”, she invited, setting down the comb and turning around. Riker appeared on the threshold, donning a wide sleeved white shirt, a dark blue waistcoat and tight matching trousers.
“You’re very attractive, Will”, Viviana declared smiling. He entered, closing the door behind him, and looked at her appreciatively:
“Thanks, you too. But I wonder… if Geordi would find right now the way to shut down the program, would we end up stark naked?”
“Exactly, that’s why I kept on my underwear”, Viviana answered. Riker made a funny face:
“Uh oh, better I’d do the same, and warn the others!”, he stepped forth, becoming earnest, “But it wasn’t this I wanted to discuss with you.”
Struck by his pretty serious tone, Viviana invited him with a gesture to take a seat and he sat on the bed.
“It’s about Bryan”, Riker began straight; Viviana lifted her eyebrows, confused, hence the explained better, “I’ve seen the way you look at him: you feel very attracted to him, don’t you?”
Immediately, Viviana’s bright eyes darkened, but Riker knew how much she was jealous of her feelings and quickly went on, not giving her time to reply:
“I’m not here to tell you you’re doing wrong or well, but only to warn you. Nobody better than me can understand you: a few years ago, I fell in love with a hologram, me too.”
This unexpected disclosure left her dumbfounded:
“You heard me”, Riker confirmed, nodding, “Do you know the Bynars?”, they were a race of beings perfectly integrated with computers, they even worked always in couples like the numbers of the binary system, hence their name, communicating among them through this language; Viviana nodded, “Because they weren’t sure we’d agree to help them, a few Bynars manipulated the computer of the Enterprise; in order to distract me from their plot, they created a hologram, a woman who corresponded exactly to all my dreams, beautiful, sensitive, sweet, strong, intelligent, witty, sexy, independent, generous… Her name was Minuette. I fell madly in love with her, I literally lost my head”, his bright blue eyes, normally as clear as mountain lakes, dimmed on this painful memory, “When the Bynars took away their control on the computer, Minuette wasn’t there anymore. I felt horribly for weeks, and still now, after years, sometimes an excruciating pain torments me, because I know I won’t see her ever again… for the simple reason she doesn’t exist, she never did”, he paused briefly to regain control, “I don’t want you to feel the same pain, Viv”, he concluded in a soft voice.
Viviana’s eyes were full of tears. She loved Riker like or even more than a brother, and his tale had moved her deeply. She got up and went to sit by him, took his hand and laid her head on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, my friend”, she reassured him, “It won’t happen. I’ll take care of myself”, she tried a jest, “But why, who says it’s not just sex?”
“Don’t try and give me that”, he reproached her in a harsher tone than he intended, “Should it be that way, I’d see it, I know you far too well.”
“Very well, you’re right”, she yielded, straightening her back but continuing to hold his hand, “True, I’m very attracted to Bryan. Rationally, I know he’s just a hologram, that there’s no future, but I can’t avoid to hope for it, against all logic. The simplest solution would be to cancel him from the game, but the computer doesn’t accept any instructions”, she shook her head, “If tomorrow morning we’re still here, I mean in the world of Sword & Sorcery, let’s go away and prevent Bryan to accompany us. Is that good, this way?”
Riker caressed her hair in a fond gesture.
“It’s perfect, Viv”, he approved, “As always, you know what’s the best thing to do.”
“But this time I needed you to remind me”, she replied, smiling a bit sadly. At this moment, they heard the toll of a bell, and a few moments later there was a knock on the door. It was the maid who escorted them, who had come to lead them to the dining room. In the hallway, Viviana informed Deanna under her breath about the clothes problem, but they couldn’t tarry to change, thus they just hoped Geordi wouldn’t choose exactly this moment to turn off the program. Viviana imagined the all too serious Captain Picard’s face if they’d find them Adam-and-Eve style, not to speak about shy Barclay, or prudish La Forge, and stifled a laugh.
In the dining room, the castellan was awaiting them alongside with her two children, Fiona, whom they had already met, and Alisander, a handsome boy around eighteen who looked very alike his mother and apparently fell instantly in love with Deanna.
“Where’s Master Data?”, asked Lady Gwyneth, “Won’t he dine with us?”
“Master Data apologises, Milady”, Riker answered, “but because of a vow he cannot eat with other people, nor during daylight.”
The noblewoman didn’t hide her surprise, but accepted easily this explanation:
“Very well, I’ll give instructions in order to bring him something to eat in his room. But please, sit down.”
They took their seats around the large oak-wood table, with Lady Gwyneth sitting at the head of it, Bryan to her right hand and Viviana to her left; near Bryan of course sat Fiona, then Riker, while near Viviana sat Alisander, very happy to have Deanna to his other side.
While they waited for dinner to be served, Lady Gwyneth addressed Riker:
“They tell me Master Data brought a magnificent deer as a gift, and a nice hare, too. Please express him my thanks, it was very kind of him, and I already ordered the cook to prepare them tomorrow for lunch.”
This could be the right moment to tell her that, instead, they planned to depart from there the day after, but the arrival of a multitude of servants prevented Viviana to say anything.
During dinner, Alisander, who stared at Deanna like charmed, proved himself a brilliant and clever talker, and also Fiona was very good at it while she tried everything to draw handsome Bryan’s attention, who instead had eyes only for Viviana, appealing in her lavender coloured gown. She tried to keep him at distance, treating him coldly, but this was completely against her character, and even her feelings, and therefore she had to make a big effort, also because Bryan was particularly attractive with no armour and his hair loosed. He was visibly disappointed by her conduct, but not enough to give up.
On Viviana’s recommendation, the three real human forced themselves not to eat much, in order to be not too sated at the presumable arrival of another ration package, which would allow them to eat some real food.
“We’re almost ready”, Saunders declared, his eye burning by weariness, “I must verify only these last variables, then, if everything’s fine as I think, I’ll input the Nanites’ charge.”
“Very good”, La Forge said, “but before you go on, take a break: it’s been sixteen hours in a row now, you risk not to be enough clear headed to notice possible errors.”
“I don’t want to mess up things for sure”, the lieutenant agreed, who actually felt like falling apart, “I’ll go and shower, then I’ll grab something to eat. Let’s say one hour?”
“Even two, my friend”, the chief engineer encouraged him, “Now they’re safe, what can change in one hour more, at this point?”
Saunders glanced at the monitor, which showed the scene going on in that very moment in the imaginary world of Sword & Sorcery, where the adventurers were sitting at a table full of food. Data was missing, as he had stayed in his room and wasn’t framed.
“Okay, I really need it”, he admitted, standing up, “See you later.”
“Let’s take a break, we too”, La Forge exhorted Barclay.
“That’s a good idea”, the lieutenant approved.
Chapter 11: Chapter XI
After dinner, Lady Gwyneth invited them to spend the evening in her sitting room, where a minstrel delighted their ears with music and tales. At a certain point Alisander, trying to impress Deanna, plonked away a few passages on a harpsichord, showing some ability; Fiona sang along a ballad with her beautiful voice.
Weary because of the long march of the day, soon enough the guests took their leave to go to bed, with many thanks to the castellan. Viviana waited the other ones to be gone, then she addressed the woman:
“Lady Gwyneth, your hospitality is exquisite, and we’d really like to enjoy it for some days more. Unfortunately, urgent obligations call us elsewhere, and we must depart tomorrow already.”
The castellan showed her regret:
“It’s a shame, having guests is a rare pleasure for us. Are you sure you cannot stay for at least another day, Sister Viviana?”
“Alas, this isn’t possible, Milady, and I say it with regret.”
“I see. Very well, in this case I’ll get you some travel provisions, and I’ll give you horses”, Viviana inhaled, preparing to protest, but the noblewoman prevented her with a gesture, “I’m sure you’ll find a way to repay or to return them: Bryan Darksword spoke very well of you all, but particularly of you, Sister Viviana”, she added with a smile. The young woman blushed as a child caught red-handed, but controlled herself:
“You’re very generous, Milady. Your trust is well placed.”
She took her leave with a curtsy and went upstairs to her room. She was tired, but she wasn’t sleepy at all, therefore she opened the French door and exited on the balcony. She leaned on the balustrade, lifting her eyes to the starry sky; she tried in vain to recognise the constellations, but the world of Sword & Sorcery was totally invented, including the stars shining upon it, which consequently didn’t resemble to any known configuration.
The soft sound of an opening door made her turn; Bryan’s tall shape appeared on the threshold of one of the rooms. Catching sight of her, he addressed her with a greeting gesture and joined her.
“Are you gazing at the stars?”, he asked in an amiable tone.
“Yeah”, she answered laconically, “It helps me to sleep”, she moved to go away, “I wish you a good night.”
Bryan stepped sideways and got in her way, so suddenly she almost bumped into him.
“Did I do something wrong?”, the warrior enquired.
“No, nothing…”, she answered, surprised, “Why do you ask?”
“So maybe I got the wrong picture?”, Bryan insisted. Viviana felt a little confused:
“I thought…”, Bryan stopped short, stepped aside and leaned on the balustrade, staring at the underlying courtyard with an empty gaze, “I’m not good at these things”, he went on, “I spend most of my time fighting for this or that cause, surely not in palaces, therefore I never learnt the art to speak to women. But… I like you, Viviana. I thought you felt the same for me. I never met a woman like you, and I’d like to get to know you better”, he turned his face toward her and, unexpectedly, took off his mask, “Will you allow it, or will you keep me at distance like tonight?”
Viviana felt lost in an emotional turmoil. Bryan’s declaration surely didn’t catch her by surprise, but the words he had chosen, so frank and straightforward, so charming in their openness, struck her deeply. He was only a hologram, but he acted in such a… real way! According to her character, she couldn’t help but answer with the same frankness:
“Me too, I like you, Bryan, I like you really much”, she confessed therefore, but she was aware she had to find a reason not to go beyond this point, “But… tomorrow we must away.”
“Then I’ll come with you”, the warrior declared, simply, “I know I've made the encounter of my life, and I won’t let you go easily away!”
His honest and passionate tone thrilled her deeply. Unable to control herself, she approached him and laid one hand on his arm. Consciously, she just wanted to show him her understanding, but it was what happened immediately after this to actually correspond to her true wish.
Her touch seemingly lighted a fuse inside of Bryan, who turned and, all of a sudden, wrapped her in his arms. Before Viviana could realise what was about to happen, he bent down his head and kissed her. For a moment, only for a moment, Viviana thought about to resist, but her feelings dragged her away in an irresistible vortex, so similar to her first kiss to have her knees bending. She held on Bryan’s wide shoulders, her mind clouded by a storm of elating sensations, and reciprocated the kiss passionately.
In the engine room, the security agent watched what was going on with professional distance: during his career, he had witnessed much more indecent scenes than a kiss, even as passionate as this one.
Meanwhile, La Forge and Barclay were helping Saunders in the preparation of the Nanites outburst, meant to dissolve the block in the computer.
“We’re almost done”, Saunders announced.
On the terrace of Kwynagh Castle, Viviana and Bryan were still holding tightly to each other, exchanging more and more fiery kisses. The young woman felt her head spinning; for her, time had stopped, nothing else existed except the two of them and the desire overwhelming her like a rising tide, a desire transcending flesh to perfuse heart and soul. The world could fall apart, and she wouldn’t notice it.
With an apparently effortless movement, Bryan lifted her in his arms and carried her in her room.
“Ready”, Saunders said.
“Execute”, La Forge ordered in a tense voice. The lieutenant pressed a single button, and the burst entered abruptly the computer circuits. In just a few moments, the Nanites arrived to the block, examined and attacked it. It was a matter of seconds, but to the three waiting by, it seemed half of eternity.
“The block’s gone!”, Barclay announced excitedly. Saunders lighted up like a Christmas tree, and La Forge smiled at him:
“You do the honours, Lieutenant.”
Saunders stood straight in his whole considerable height and articulated:
“Computer, end program Sword & Sorcery on Holodeck 2.”
“Accomplished”, the computer simply answered.
Laying on the bed, Viviana reciprocated Bryan’s kisses and caresses; her heart beat wildly, almost painfully, and she felt her soul tremble as well as her body.
In her mind, Bryan wasn’t just a hologram anymore – supposedly he had ever been – but had gained all the substance, dignity and stature of a human being in blood and flesh, and she was ready to love him with all she had. She had never become aware before of the cold and dark emptiness inside of her, banished in a remote corner of her soul, ignored, hidden. It was like all her life she had only been awaiting for Bryan; now finally she had met him, and she could call herself at last complete.
There was a sound like a long, soft hiss, then all of a sudden Viviana felt everything go missing around her. With a scream, she smacked on the ground, hitting it painfully with her back.
Everything had disappeared – Bryan, the room, the clothes.
Feeling like in a nightmare, she looked around, blindly, struggling to focus her gaze on the grating of yellow lines outlining the holodeck. Nearby, Deanna, Riker and Data, the first one lying, the others standing, were watching around , confused.
The first to recover was Data.
“The program has been turned off”, he announced. Riker and Deanna needed a few seconds to understand what he had said, so great was their surprise; realising they were half-naked, they quickly recovered their real garments to put on again. Data, who hadn’t changed his clothes, didn’t need it.
Viviana was frozen, unable to realise what had occurred. Her breath ragged, her limbs lacking any strength, her eyes wide open, she stared wildly around, desperately looking for what was no more… never had been.
Deanna felt all her torment, and was shocked. Only her considerable experience, having taught her the emotional distance indispensable to her profession, prevented her to scream out of anguish, however she couldn’t stop her tears: she had rarely felt such a great sorrow. How was it possible that a simple hologram had caused it? But so it was: she remembered Riker’s grief for having lost Minuette, a grief surfacing again now and then in spite of the passing time. Yearning for something, or someone, impossible to obtain is perhaps the worst existing form of soul torture.
She ran to embrace Viviana, who grabbed on to her like a shipwrecked person on a wooden board, and tried to project a tranquilizing sensation into her mind.
Viviana didn’t speak, fighting furiously to regain at least a semblance of clarity of mind. Luckily, she had a strong, balanced and determined personality, and Deanna realised relieved that, even if deeply hurt, her psyche wouldn’t suffer permanent damages.
Outside the access door to Holodeck 2, Worf was impatiently waiting La Forge to give entrance permission. At his side there were two security agents, but none brandished any weapon.
Finally the Klingon heard the chief engineer’s voice:
“La Forge to Lieutenant Worf, green light.”
Worf approached the double door, which had been closed after removing the useless containment field, and ordered curtly the computer to open it.
The scene appearing to his and his subordinates’ eyes was almost unbelievable: Riker, standing not far away, was wearing only his slacks; Deanna, kneeling on the floor, revealed bare feet under her long dress; Viviana, in the Betazoid’s arms, was half-naked and looked dishevelled. The only one who could be considered of normal appearance was the android Data.
Worf, who had been ready to swamp and crush whatever danger, seemed to freeze on the threshold while watching around, stunned. The facial expression of a stunned Klingon is very similar to that of a furious Klingon, and Riker decided to prevent a possible violent act by crying:
“Everything’s fine, Lieutenant, stay calm!”
Worf’s stance relaxed visibly, and Riker breathed better: he already had to deal with enraged Klingons, and it was an experience he didn’t like to remember. He realised he had been pointlessly worried as soon as Worf asked:
“How are you all?”
This wasn’t for sure a question he’d ask if he had just overcome a rage attack.
Riker looked toward Deanna and Viviana:
“Physically we’re all perfectly well, Worf”, he answered, “but I’m afraid it’d be better to take Viviana to sickbay.”
He put on the leather shirt he had worn under his armour, then he approached the two women.
“How is she?”, he asked to Deanna. The Counsellor was rocking Viviana back and forth like a little child.
“She’s shocked. Something happened, immediately before the program deactivation. Very probably, Bryan was involved. Better we take her to sickbay and give her a tranquiliser.”
“I carry her”, Riker said, bending on his friend. He lifted her in his arms and looked around, but Data had preceded him and arrived with Viviana’s cloak, which he had taken from her backpack. They covered her, not because of modesty, not existing particular taboos about more or less quantity of exposed skin, but much more simply to prevent her to catch cold, as the ship’s temperature was set for clothed and active persons, and not naked and still.
In sickbay, Doctor Beverly Crusher moved her medical scanner up and down the young woman’s body, finding her in a strong emotive stress, and injected her a sedative hypospray, which made her sleep almost immediately.
Riker felt guilty.
“I wasn’t able to prevent it”, he murmured. Deanna had no need for him to explain what he was referring to.
“You did your best, Will”, she reminded him, “but the heart wants what it wants. Viviana could simply not prevent herself to fall in love with Bryan.”
Beverly heard her:
“What to you mean, Deanna?”
The Counsellor told her summarily the sequence of events while the doctor examined her.
“You’re a little dehydrated”, Beverly said, giving her an adequate hypospray, “That’s nasty business”, she added, beginning to examine Riker, too, “Psychological damages?”
“Relevant, but not irreparable”, the Betazoid answered, “She has a very strong spirit, she’ll recover soon.”
“But the emotional scar will remain”, Riker observed in a bitter tone. Deanna gave no reply: to this, there was no remedy.
Chapter 12: Chapter XII
A few hours later, Viviana reopened her eyes; it was in the middle of the night, the suffused lights and the low vibration of the warp engines induced to sleep, thus the young woman fell asleep again.
When she opened her eyes once more, she found Beverly next to her bed.
“Well awakened, Viviana”, the Doctor greeted her, “How do you feel?”
Viviana swallowed and realised her throat was dry.
“Water”, she said hoarsely. Beverly went for a glass: no hypospray, no medicine in the world is more effective against thirst than a good sip of fresh water.
Glancing gratefully at the older woman, Viviana sat up with some difficulty and drank slowly, then she laid back again on the pillow.
“I feel completely dazed”, she finally answered Beverly’s previous question.
“It’s normal, after what you’ve been through”, the doctor stated in a reassuring tone, preparing at the same time an adequate remedy and then injecting it with the hypodermic syringe, “Better?”, she asked. Viviana nodded: the feeling of dizziness had disappeared.
“How are the other ones?”, she enquired.
“Perfectly well, they’ll go back to duty this very day. As for you, you’ll need a few days rest.”
“I’d rather not”, Viviana disagreed, “I don’t want to stay idle, turning what happened over and over in my mind. I prefer to go back at work, I want to find out how exactly I tripped out the computer.”
Beverly didn’t protest: she knew perfectly how much an occupation could be helpful, in a case like this. She too, sometimes had buried herself in work, in highly dramatic moments of her life.
“Very well”, she said therefore, “but only on condition that you take it with the greatest ease, okay? And if you don’t, I promise I will commit you to sickbay by my authority, is that clear?”
“Absolutely clear, Doctor.”
Fist thing first, Viviana went to her quarters to take a refreshing bath. She had just come out of the bathtub, when she heard the entrance buzzer ring.
“Come in”, she said, and the door slid sideways revealing Riker and Deanna, both back in their uniforms.
“We’ve come to see personally you’re well”, the Betazoid said, smiling. Viviana reciprocated her smile.
“I’m fine”, she confirmed, then, realising she couldn’t nor wouldn’t hide anything, she added, “…or quite so.”
“Bryan, right?”, Riker said in an undertone. She nodded:
“Yeah. You know, I can’t believe he was only a hologram, I felt him so… real, so alive”, she shook her head, disconsolate, “Loosing my head this way, for a dream… I must be insane.”
“No, you’re not insane, Viviana”, Deanna contradicted her gently, “You’ve only lived a dream, a wonderful dream, too intensely… If you yourself know it is but a dream, then you’re not insane.”
The young woman bit her lower lip, then nodded, agreeing with her.
“I was going to the engine room to see Geordi”, she said, “Care to come with me? So we can find out what exactly has happened.”
“We’re here precisely for this”, Riker stated, smiling.
Soon after they were entering the engine room. La Forge caught sight of them and came to them.
“Nice to see you, ladies, sir”, he said, a large smile contradicting the formality of his words.
“Nice to have come back”, Viviana replied, squeezing gratefully his arm, “Well, would you mind to explain us what’s gotten into the computer?”
La Forge described it in short.
“Holy smoke!”, Viviana muttered, “All because of a thoughtlessly expressed order… And how were you able to solve the problem?”
“It wasn’t because of me”, the chief engineer admitted, “It was Lieutenant Saunders who came up with the idea: a hard burst of Nanites specifically programmed to remove the block. Barclay, too, made a great job with the transporter. Anyway, once the obstacle had been removed, we switched off the program.”
Viviana was struck by a thought; for a moment, an absurd hope rose up in her mind:
“Did you save the game?”
“Hum… actually, no.”
Deanna perceived disappointment, but also a certain amount of relief, in Viviana’s mind. She realised by herself that, for her, it had been for the best.
“You did a great job”, Riker said, “Where are Barclay and Saunders? We’d like to thank them.”
“Barclay is not on duty at the moment, but you’ll find him later”, La Forge answered, then brushed his communicator, “La Forge to Saunders, can you come here, please?”
“Sure, on my way”, the lieutenant answered. At the sound of his voice, Viviana sharpened her ears: wasn’t it that of…? Then she shook slightly her head: she couldn’t delude herself, she couldn’t allow herself to.
A few moments later, Saunders showed up behind them.
“Here he is”, La Forge said, and the three of them turned. Viviana blanched abruptly.
“Nice to see you sound and safe, madam, sir”, Saunders declared, addressing the two officers, “Lieutenant Saunders, I’m glad to meet you, Miss Morgante”, he introduced himself, extending his hand to her, “I love hologames, and I’m a fan of yours.”
Viviana’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“Bryan…”, she gasped. It was the way she pronounced it: suddenly, also Deanna recognized Lieutenant Brian Saunders as the mysterious swordsman Bryan Darksword. He had no beard and his hair was short, but he was undoubtedly him. That’s why she thought he was familiar to her… the computer didn’t create the character out of nowhere, but it based upon a really existent person!
Viviana, shocked, swayed a little. Saunders quickly supported her, grasping her elbow.
“Are you feeling bad, Miss Morgante?”, he asked, worried. His touch, so concrete, real, convinced Viviana she wasn’t hallucinating, or going out of her mind. Somehow, she was able to recover.
“Everything’s fine, thanks”, she reassured him, “Just a passing malaise, due to stress”, she lifted her magnificent blue-green eyes on Saunders, who felt like drowning in them. He held her elbow much longer than needed.
“I can’t believe it”, Riker whispered to Deanna, having recognized him, he too.
Deanna smiled to herself, incredulous; during her life, she had witnessed the weirdest events, the most absurd coincidences, the most unusual cases, but this surpassed them all by far: a computer in the disguise of destiny serving as deus ex machina was almost too much.
She shook her head: now she knew it was really true that real life occurrences are often more fantastic than the most visionary of novels.
Viviana and Saunders were still staring at each other, like frozen.
“I’d like to know how exactly the bug has been discovered”, said the young woman, just to say something.
La Forge inhaled to answer, but the double glare he received from both Riker and Deanna persuaded him immediately to shut up. The blissful expression on Saunders’ face finally enlightened him about the situation, and the chief engineer didn’t hide a beam, but none of the two who had caused it did even notice.
“I was about to go to lunch”, said Saunders, “If you like to keep me company, I’d be more than happy to explain everything.”
“With great pleasure, Lieutenant.”
“Please, call me Brian.”
“And I’m Viviana”, she replied, accepting his arm. Suddenly she recalled her manners and addressed the others, “Would you join us, Will, Deanna… Geordi?”
“Uh, no, no! Thanks!”, Deanna said quickly.
“We’re on duty”, Riker explained, succeeding with a certain effort to made his voice sound normal, as well as to keep a straight face.
“Hum, I’m busy”, La Forge excused himself, “Thank you anyway.”
“Oh, fine”, Saunders slipped, “Hum, I mean… next time!”, he added, trying clumsily to fix his gaffe.
“Certainly”, Riker nodded, his poker face blatantly contradicted by the naughty light shining in his clear blue eyes. He exchanged a smiling gaze with Viviana, who winked conspiratorially to him. They didn’t need words to understand each other: he was telling her he was happy for her, and she was thanking him.
“Have you ever tried the Vulcan plomeek?”, Saunders asked, getting underway.
“Sure!”, Viviana answered, “Did you ever try bigoli co l’arna, instead? It’s a typical speciality of the place I was born…”
“Then I must absolutely try them…”
They went away, walking along the hallway.
“I never saw anything like this”, La Forge stated, “It’s like they were both hit in the head!”
Riker grimaced, abruptly stricken by an unpleasant thought:
“Will it last?”
Deanna was still watching in the direction where Viviana and Saunders had disappeared, reading in them with her Betazoid senses.
“I think the odds are good, Will”, she reassured him, “Really good.”
They exchanged a smile, while La Forge, who didn’t know the background, was gazing at them a little confused; he wasn’t able to ask questions, because he was called by a technician and had to go and mind his duties. Riker and Deanna did the same, returning to the bridge.
“Is everything well?”, Captain Picard asked.
“All’s well that ends well, sir”, Deanna stated, sitting on her seat to the left of the captain’s chair. Picard made a baffled face and looked at Riker for an explanation.
“The story had an unexpected epilogue, sir”, the first officer answered, sitting at his right hand, not realising he was being as cryptic as Deanna, “But everything’s well, thank you.”
Picard lifted his brows, moving his gaze back and forth between his two officers and trying in vain to guess the reason both had that satisfied and slightly idiotic smile on their faces.
He decided to investigate it later.
“Ensign Ro, set course to Star Base 12”, he ordered then, “Warp 4.”
“Yes sir”, answered the helmswoman, beautiful Bajoran Ro Laren, “Course set and entered, sir.”
“Engage”, the Captain ordered.
Swift and elegant, the Enterprise dashed forward and, in a flash of blinding light, leaped into hyperspace.