"Computer, decrease light by twenty percent." The overhead lights dimmed, enhancing the romantic ambiance.
"And make the seats ten percent smaller." The rows of theater seats compressed slightly – just the right distance for snuggling without being forced to sit in the other person's lap.
The Doctor surveyed the final result of his new holodeck program and brandished a smug grin. It was perfect.
In all his months teaching Seven of Nine about social skills, he could not have imagined he would come to care for her so deeply. She was fitting in with the crew, she was learning. She was beautiful.
Her recent inquiries about human romance and pair bonding were becoming less generalized and more genuinely curious, forcing him to wonder if the human woman beneath those Borg implants might be seeking companionship. Why shouldn't Seven have someone to love and care for? Why shouldn't he?
When she'd asked for examples of human romance, he'd been tempted to direct her to a number of holostories, but then he'd realized it was an opportunity to tell her how he really felt. But how to express his interest?
It had taken a week to plan his perfect segue into confessing his feelings to her. Rather than develop an elaborate holodeck program based on one of the great romances from history, he'd decided to adopt a more subtle approach. Rather than directly participate in a holostory, they would watch one.
In his survey of bygone human courtship practices, he'd learned that before the advent of holodecks, people used to sit and watch stories in two dimensions. Movies, they were called. People would go to theaters and eat popcorn and hold hands. They would sometimes kiss. The combination of the dark theater and the right movie could set the mood for other physical explorations.
The scene before him in Holodeck 1 was a perfect replica of a movie theater from the year 2000. In truth, he only needed two seats, but he preferred authenticity, so he'd programmed 250 cushioned chairs facing a broad screen along the back wall.
He had taken great pains to select the optimal movie. His search for "most popular romance films of all time" had yielded a dizzying array of results, and after adding more parameters, he'd narrowed it down to Roman Holiday, Love Actually, Dirty Dancing, The Notebook, Pride and Prejudice, Titanic, and The Princess Bride. Each seemed an attractive option, so he'd decided to let Seven choose from his shortlist and hope for the best.
She was due in exactly ten minutes and he still had much to do. He had to replicate customary movie-going libations of the turn of the 21st century – popcorn and soda. He might not require nutritional supplements to function, but he was always encouraging Seven to expand her palate. He also wanted to research critical reviews of each of the film so that he could be prepared to answer any questions.
He heard the holodeck door slide open and wheeled around just in time to see Harry Kim and Neelix amble in. They were dressed in white shorts and polo shirts and they carried tennis rackets.
"Hello, Doctor," the Talaxian grinned. "We aren't interrupting, I hope?"
"Actually, you are," he replied. "I have reserved the holodeck for the next two hours."
"I just checked. You reserved Holodeck 2: this is Holodeck 1," Harry Kim responded. "Neelix and I have a tennis match scheduled in Holodeck 1."
"Yes, I see," the Doctor replied, gazing at their pretentious attire. "But I assure you – I am scheduled for Holodeck 1 between 1900 and 2100 hours. I arranged it a week ago."
"Computer, who's on the schedule for Holodeck 1 tonight at 1900 hours?" Harry sighed.
"Harry Kim," droned the monotone voice of the computer.
"There must be some mistake," the Doctor insisted. "Computer, who is scheduled for Holodeck 2?"
"The Emergency Medical Hologram is scheduled in Holodeck 2 from 1900 to 2100 hours."
"Told you," the young ensign replied, wagging his eyebrows and crossing his arms.
The Doctor frowned but was willing to concede the point. Perhaps those distractibility subroutines he'd added last month to enhance his humanity were more trouble than they were worth. He would simply have to save the program and transfer it to the other holodeck.
"What were you planning to do tonight, doctor?" Neelix asked, glancing around at the theater simulation.
"I planned to watch a classic film."
"Oh, that sounds like fun!" Neelix declared.
"Yes," he replied curtly, brushing past the Talaxian en route to Holodeck 2.
"Could we join you?" Neelix called after him.
"Neelix, what about our tennis match?" Harry sputtered.
"Well, to be honest, young Mr. Kim, I've been on my feet in the mess all day and the thought of sitting down and watching a story sounds really nice."
"Perhaps another time," the Doctor said as politely as he could manage. The last thing he needed was someone ruining his date.
"You don't even know what he's going to watch," Harry laughed. "It could be some boring medical show. Or worse, a cheesy romance story."
The holodeck door slid open again and Ensign Vorik appeared. "Good evening gentlemen."
"Can we help you?" the Doctor inquired, feeling annoyed at yet another interruption.
"Is this holodeck operating normally?"
"It appears to be," the Doctor replied. "Why?"
"Holodeck 2 is malfunctioning. I have performed a diagnostic but it will be out of service until the primary optronic emitter can be repaired."
"How long will that take?" the Doctor cried.
"I have assigned an engineering detail to attend to the matter, but the holodecks are a low priority. I estimate it will be fully operational within three days."
"Three days? I'm scheduled to be using it in five minutes!"
Ensign Vorik blinked. "I do not believe that will happen."
"Can't you fix it?"
"In four minutes, I will have been on duty for eighteen hours, which is the maximum amount of time an officer may work in non-emergency situations according to Starfleet regulation 1.2-"
"Yes, yes, you don't have to quote regulations to me," the Doctor interrupted. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Sorry about your luck, Doctor," Harry laughed, slapping him on the shoulder.
"Maybe we could share the holodeck," Neelix offered.
"And have you playing tennis while I watch a film? No thank you," the Doctor pouted.
"I was thinking we could all watch the movie," Neelix explained sheepishly. "Sorry Harry, but I'm just not really in the mood for tennis."
"And I don't feel like watching whatever mind-numbing movie the Doctor has picked out," Harry groaned.
The holodeck door glided open a third time, revealing Seven of Nine. She strode through the entry, her hands tucked neatly behind her back. "I am aware the film does not begin for another two minutes, but as I could not complete another task in that limited amount of time, I decided to report early."
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," the Doctor explained. "There was a mix-up with the holodeck scheduling and Holodeck 2 is offline for repairs."
"I see," Seven replied with a small nod. "Then I shall return to the astrometrics lab."
"Oh, you- you were going to watch the movie too?" Harry stammered.
"Yes, I am here at the Doctor's invitation," she explained.
"You know, I don't see why we couldn't share the holodeck," Harry shrugged.
"Come now, Ensign Kim," the Doctor murmured. "I don't wish to force you to watch the mind-numbing movie I've selected."
"Who said anything about mind-numbing?" Harry laughed nervously.
"I believe you did," Ensign Vorik replied. "Your exact words were-"
"Maybe I've given it some consideration and changed my mind," Harry interjected, glaring at the young Vulcan ensign. "So what are we watching?"
"This was intended to be a private viewing," the Doctor whined.
"Oh come on," Harry argued. "It's not like the two of you were on a date. Besides, it's my name on the holodeck schedule."
"I fail to see how their presence will detract from our lesson," Seven added, glancing at him. "And there appears to be an abundance of locations to sit."
She blinked several times at him. If he'd had a physical heart, it would have been going pitty pat right about then, until Ensign Vorik said, "If it is an open invitation, I am also interested in attending this presentation."
"You don't even know what we're going to watch," the Doctor grumbled, sensing he was fighting a losing battle.
"So why don't you tell us?" Neelix suggested.
The Doctor thought of the options he'd narrowed down. Perhaps if he selected the most feminine, romantic sounding one, Harry Kim would lose interest and the others might follow suit. "It is called The Princess Bride."
"Oh, I love a good love story," Neelix cried, clasping his hands together.
"Of course you do," the Doctor replied, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice.
Ten minutes later, they were all seated in the center of the theater. He had tried to get the others to spread out, but Neelix wanted to sit nearby to discuss the film, Harry Kim wanted to be wherever Seven of Nine was, and Ensign Vorik simply wanted to "follow the correct human protocols."
So there they were. Seven sat to his right, Ensign Vorik to his left. Harry Kim had parked himself to the right of Seven, and Neelix was to Harry's right. One big happy Voyager family.
Neelix was cheerfully slurping on a strawberry soda and Ensign Vorik was probing a large bucket of popcorn with a fork – Vulcans of course never touched food with their hands – and it took everything the Doctor had not to falsely diagnose them all with Andorian shingles and quarantine them in their quarters for the next three days just so he could have a few minutes alone with Seven.
The movie began and the Doctor tried to pay attention, but Neelix's frequent giggles and Harry Kim's constant distracting glances at Seven made it nearly impossible to focus. He was on the verge of ending his own program to escape the torment of going on a date with not just a third wheel, but a fourth and fifth wheel, when Ensign Vorik suddenly asked, "Why doesn't Princess Buttercup attempt to flee her captors?"
"Excuse me?" the Doctor barked.
"She is riding astride a lower life form which has already demonstrated speed superior to that of a human, yet she allows them subdue her."
"Well, there are three of them and only one of her," Neelix argued. "And one of them is a giant."
"That does not alter the fact that the likelihood of a successful escape was high," Vorik countered.
"Well, it- it moves the plot along," the Doctor sighed, crossing his arms.
Vorik raised an eyebrow and returned to watching the film. A short time after that, Neelix murmured, "But I thought the six fingered man killed Inigo's father because he wouldn't sell him the sword. So why does Inigo still have it?"
"A valid point," Vorik agreed.
"Wait, what?" the Doctor snapped, cringing at his disruption.
"I believe Neelix refers to the fact that the six fingered man commissioned a sword, demanded he sell it for a tenth of the price, used it to slay Inigo's father, and then allowed Inigo to retain it," Seven explained. "Why commit an act of murder to steal another's property and then fail to take possession of that property?"
"I- I don't know," the Doctor grumbled. "Can't we just watch the movie?"
And they did, until minutes later when Vorik asked, "If Vizzini is as wise as he claims, why would he propose a battle of wits with the Man in Black?"
"I don't know, but I have a feeling you're about to tell me why it was such a bad idea," the Doctor replied darkly.
"It is illogical," Vorik argued. "Vizzini already has a position of power. He has Princess Buttercup as a hostage. If he selects the poisoned cup, he dies. Given that the Man in Black obviously knows the location of the poison, if he is to be the one who receives the tainted drink, he could simply refuse to drink it. The Man in Black will lose nothing either way."
"Sure, but Vizzini just admitted he couldn't fight the Man in Black," Harry pointed out. "So Vizzini had nothing to lose either."
"Irrelevant," Seven countered. "The only reasonable option would be to negotiate if he could not physically overpower his opponent."
The Doctor watched Vizzini go from laughing to falling over dead on the ground and was beginning to wonder if this "date" could get any worse. His perfect evening with Seven was not only being co-opted, it was being completely ruined by idle commentary. He stole a glance at Seven, wondering what she was thinking. Moments later she turned her head to stare at him and asked, "Why would Westley wait to reveal his identity to Princess Buttercup?"
Somehow, a critical question didn't seem annoying coming from her lovely lips. "Well Seven, I-"
"That's true," Neelix interrupted. "He was captured by pirates but he just admitted he's been masquerading around as the Dread Pirate Roberts for two years after the old one retired. Why wait so long to come home if he really loved her?"
"The film does not specify when Buttercup met Prince Humperdink, but it is a possibility the entire plot of this story would be rendered void had Westley returned home at the earliest opportunity," Vorik added.
"Then I suppose the moral of the story is you should never wait to tell someone you love them," the Doctor said, making fleeting eye contact with Seven.
"But how much can they really love each other?" Neelix asked. "It sounds like he spent two years murdering and pillaging as a pirate while Buttercup grieved and thought he was dead. Then he turned around and deceived her about his true identity. You don't do that to someone you love."
"Not only that, but Buttercup just said she could never love a killer," Harry added. "Taking off his mask to reveal his true identity doesn't change the fact that he was still a pirate who was known for never taking prisoners."
"Can we just watch the movie, please?" the Doctor snarled.
For a time, they all sat and observed the events of Westley's capture and subsequent torture unfold. He was about to ask Neelix to chew with his mouth closed when Neelix asked, "How can Inigo possibly know the screams he's hearing come from the Man in Black?"
"It does seem kind of far-fetched," Harry shrugged.
"Neelix presents a valid point," Vorik argued. "Inigo tells Fezzik that the screams could only be made by the man whose true love is marrying another, but Westley never once mentioned Buttercup or any other potential mate during their duel."
The Doctor was preparing to tell Ensign Vorik to shut up or leave when Seven said, "Furthermore, Westley didn't even reveal his true identity to Inigo, nor does Inigo have any reason to believe the prince has captured him or is torturing him. Unless they are part of a collective and share each other's thoughts." She raised an eyebrow and stared at him.
"Was that an attempt at humor, Seven?"
He smiled warmly and was about to tell her how proud he was that she was progressing, but her head whipped back to the right to continue watching the film. He saw Harry Kim steal a look out of the corner of his eye and inch his arm forward near Seven's hand on the armrest. It was enough to make his photons boil with jealousy.
The rest of the movie was torture and when the screen faded to black and the lights came back on, the Doctor wondered at the possibility of reprogramming his mood subroutines. He was entirely too annoyed and frustrated.
"Well I liked it," Neelix declared.
"It was ok," Harry murmured.
"It was highly illogical," Vorik said. "But a fascinating case study in human interpersonal dynamics."
"Woah, woah, woah," Harry said, holding up his hand. "You can't judge all human relationships based on what we just saw. This was just a story – it's not real life."
"What I'm saying is, regular people don't act like that. Love isn't about sword fights and masks and villains getting in the way."
"But they sure do make for a fun story," Neelix replied. "I must say, this popcorn was delicious, but I could go for something a little more hearty. Anyone want to join me in the mess for an evening snack?"
"What do you say, Seven?" Harry asked, turning to grin at her.
"I think not," she replied, rising to her feet. "I am overdue for a regeneration cycle."
"Oh, yeah, sure," Harry muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Maybe some other time?"
As they all filed out of the holodeck, the Doctor said, "Computer, end program."
The movie theater he'd spent the past few days carefully crafting evaporated, leaving an empty room. Vorik and Neelix wandered down the hallway together toward the mess, discussing the movie in greater detail. Ensign Kim sulked off in the opposite direction, but Seven remained behind. Alone at last.
They walked down the hall in silence for a brief time until he asked, "So what did you think, Seven?"
"It was a passable form of entertainment," she acknowledged.
"Did you learn anything about humanity?"
"I made some interesting observations," she admitted. "I do not understand many of Princess Buttercup's actions."
"In the beginning of the film, she demands loyalty and service from Westley. She gives him little respect, yet she claims to love him."
"People love in different ways," the Doctor explained as they entered the turbolift.
"Aside from her futile aquatic escape attempt, she remains a passive participant throughout the film. She expects others to act on her behalf and rescue her. She informs Prince Humperdink on several occasions that 'Westley will come for me.' Why does she not leave of her own accord? She was not bound to a collective. Following her illegitimate wedding, she was willing to terminate her life rather than make an attempt to escape."
"Sometimes it is difficult to be brave where matters of the heart are concerned," the Doctor said.
"I wish to know what qualities Buttercup possesses that would cause Westley to desire to enter a pair bond with her," Seven asked. "I have been unable to develop an adequate algorithm for determining admirable qualities in a human mate."
The Doctor considered her question and was surprised to realize that he didn't know. "Well, she is very beautiful, and… I suppose one could argue loyal."
"She agreed to marry Prince Humperdink," Seven argued.
"Perhaps you're right, Seven. Perhaps there is little to Buttercup besides physical beauty."
"Doctor, I have observed that many crewmembers, males in particular, appear to admire my aesthetic qualities."
"You are beautiful, Seven." The Doctor was grateful he'd purged many of his autonomic subroutines to make room for more knowledge, otherwise he would be blushing.
"Physical qualities are temporary," she insisted. "Do you believe I possess qualities that members of my species, humans, that is, would find pleasant?"
It wasn't until they arrived at Seven's alcove that the Doctor realized he'd unintentionally followed her home, or the closest thing to a home Seven had.
"Are you asking if I think someone could fall in love with you?"
"Yes, Seven. I think that's entirely possible."
His nervousness gnawed at him. It was now or never. He should tell her how he felt before it was too late.
"Goodnight, Doctor." She stepped into her alcove and within seconds had entered a regeneration cycle.
He blinked several times and watched the slow rise and fall of her chest. It was inappropriate to just watch her sleep, but he wasn't ready to leave just yet. He reflected on her question, wondering if he had any qualities that others would love.
He was a hologram – he could be whoever or whatever Seven wanted him to be with a quick tweak of his programming. But deep down in his ethical and emotional subroutines, he knew that wasn't the answer.
The best love, the truest love, was to be loved for oneself. But who was he? He'd spent years since his initial activation trying to find out. As he watched Seven sleep, he realized she wanted the exact same thing – she wanted to know who she was.
Maybe they were both more human than they realized.