N.B. The time period for this story is indeterminate and please don’t worry about it. If you feel at all uncomfortable continuity-wise, assume it’s just a different leg of the Trousers of Time. In fact, yes, yes it is, because Generations didn’t happen. I don’t like that movie, even if it does have dramatic lighting and Siddig El Fadil’s Uncle Malcolm.
The Enterprise approached Deep Space Nine gracefully, gliding in to just kiss the docking pylon. O’Brien watched on the Ops viewscreen with a faint ache of nostalgia that was almost homesickness. He didn’t think he’d go back, given the choice now, but she was so beautiful and so full of memories, he thought he’d always be soppy about that ship. Ah, well, just so long as he didn’t visibly mist up in front of his team.
At the end of his shift he hurried home, where he found the table all set for dinner with guests and Keiko sitting on the couch with Molly in front of her, putting her hair into buns with ponytails hanging from them.
‘Look at my hair, Daddy!’ Molly said. ‘It’s a reward in advance, cause I’m going to be really really good.’
‘Looks great, darlin’,’ he told her, bending to kiss the parting in her hair before kissing Keiko’s cheek. ‘Looks like everything’s ready, then!’
‘Just waiting on Data and Geordi,’ she said, nodding with a pleased smile. ‘Oh, and I ran into Julian on the promenade coming home, and I’ve invited him too.’
‘What did you go and do that for?’ he aske in dismay, straightening up.
‘What do you mean?’ Keiko slid a bobby-pin into Molly’s hair and studied the effect. ‘He’s your best friend. Don’t pout, you know he is.’
‘Well it’s not that I don’t like him, but you know how he is.’ O’Brien sat down on the floor beside Molly and fiddled with the hairbrush on the coffee table.
‘Pretend I don’t,’ Keiko said, giving him the wifely side-eye. ‘How is he?’
‘He’ll talk and talk and talk and he’ll take over. My friends, who I haven’t seen in ages, he’ll take them over.’
‘Aww, Daddy!’ Molly twisted away from her mother’s final adjustments and hugged him around the neck. ‘You can all be friends.’
‘Besides which,’ Keiko pointed out, ‘he’s friendly with them already. That’s why I invited him; when he heard we were having Data and Geordi over, his face just lit up.’
‘He uses that face, you know,’ O’Brien grumbled. He was playing it up a little bit, he’d have to admit. ‘Big bloody eyes like - there, like that!’ He tapped the page of the antique comic book, open on the coffee table, that Keiko was using as a model for Molly’s hairstyle.
‘That’s true,’ said Keiko, laughing. ‘Maybe that’s why it works so well on me; I’ve been programmed for it since childhood. Okay, Molly-moo, I think your hair is done. It should stay up as long as you don’t pull on it or fiddle with the pins.’
‘Do I look like a moon princess?’ Molly asked her father, hanging on around his neck and depositing her bottom in his lap.
‘You look exactly like a moon princess. I came in and thought where’s my daughter? and what’s that moon princess doing wearing her clothes?’
‘Well that’s just silly,’ she said severely. At this point there was a chime at their door, and he got up with a grunt, handing her off to her mother.
‘Hello! Come in!’ The door slid back and their guests stepped through, Geordi smiling broadly and Data looking around, inquisitive as a bird.
‘Chief!’ Geordi stepped in and hugged O’Brien around the shoulders, clapping him on the back. ‘Man, it’s good to see you!’
‘You too, you too. How’ve you been?’ He held Geordi back at arm’s length to get a good look at him. ‘You look weird without your visor.’
‘Gee, thanks,’ Geordi said, laughing and blinking his silvery artificial eyes.
‘No, I mean, it was like part of your face, I was so used to it. I swear I could see when you gave someone a dirty look through it.’
‘Well, now I can give people dirty looks without any barrier.’
‘And Data!’ O’Brien exclaimed, letting Geordi go and turning towards him. ‘How are you?’
‘I am well.’ Data stepped forward and, probably in imitation of Geordi, hugged O’Brien, a little stiffly. There was always a carefulness when Data touched you, O’Brien thought; you could just slightly feel him taking care not to hurt you, being so strong. ‘I trust that you and your family are too.’
‘Oh yeah, they’re great.’ O’Brien stepped back and waved them over. ‘Keiko’s been educating the masses and look how much Molly’s grown.’
Keiko hugged Geordi warmly while Molly hung back, holding onto a pinch of her father’s trouser leg and looking doubtfully up at Data.
‘Remember Mister Data?’ O’Brien said encouragingly. He bobbed down to crouch beside Molly and talk at her level. ‘You were really little, but maybe you can remember he used to baby-sit you sometimes when we lived on the Enterprise?’
Molly shook her head and put her forefinger in her mouth.
‘Now come on, even if you don’t remember you can say hello like a big girl.’
Data crouched down too. ‘Good evening, Molly. Baby-sitting for you was an intriguing experience. I had first to persuade your parents that I was competent to do it.’
‘Well, to be fair,’ O’Brien said, ‘pointing out that you knew how to take care of a cat didn’t really convince us you could handle a human baby.’
‘Many of the same principles apply.’
‘She did enjoy crawling around after a ball of paper on a string,’ Keiko said.
‘Which developed both her gross motor skills and her hand-eye co-ordination,’ Data said with a trace of pride.
‘Did I really?’ Molly asked.
‘Yes,’ Data told her. ‘You also enjoyed games of peek-a-boo, and bath-time.’
‘I still sometimes play I’m a cat,’ Molly volunteered. ‘I have a headband with ears and I pin a tail on my butt and I drink out of a bowl on the floor.’
‘That must be enjoyable,’ Data said politely. He looked up as the door chimed again.
‘We have another guest tonight,’ Keiko said. ‘You remember Julian Bashir. Come in, Julian!’ The door opened to reveal Julian with an eager smile and a bottle of wine.
‘Doctor Bashir,’ said Data, rising. ‘This is a pleasant surprise.’
‘It’s so good to see you again,’ Julian said, stepping forward and shaking his hand effusively. O’Brien thought, a trifle gruffly, that if he hadn’t been holding the bottle he would have gone for a double-hander. ‘And Commander LaForge! How are you? I promise not to zap your friend with any alien devices this time.’
‘Although alarming at the time,’ Data put in, ‘that experience has proved immensely rewarding. I would like to tell you more about it.’
As the evening went on, it wasn’t so much that Julian took over Geordi and Data as that he and Data took each other over and conducted a long, detailed, highly technical and enthusiastic conversation while everyone else had dinner and caught up around them. Nobody expected Data to eat dinner, but Julian kept forgetting his food and needing gentle reminders to finish it.
‘I’m sorry, Keiko,’ he said as she politely coughed to let him know she was ready to take away his soup bowl. ‘But this is so interesting! Were you at all conscious of “being” the other characters in the Deadwood holo-drama?’ he went on, turning back to Data.
During the post-dessert tea-and-coffee phase, when Keiko went to put Molly to bed and the adults relocated to the couch, the two of them stayed at the table chattering away, having borrowed one of O’Brien’s engineering padds the better to explain things to each other, with diagrams and animations.
At length, Geordi announced that he thought he’d head home now, and looked expectantly over at Data.
‘It looks as if I have to let you go,’ Julian said, smiling ruefully.
‘Geordi, if you would not mind, I would like to remain a little longer,’ said Data.
‘It’s not that I mind,’ Geordi said, ‘but is it fair to the O’Briens? It’s getting late.’
‘We can certainly take our conversation elsewhere,’ Julian offered. ‘Perhaps to Quark’s?’
‘Or perhaps,’ said Data, ‘you would accompany me to my quarters, and I could show you some of the art I have created based on my dreams.’
‘What a good idea,’ Keiko said quickly.
Julian thought he had probably been a pretty bad guest this evening, but he was enjoying himself so much that it was hard to feel particularly remorseful. Data was just so delightful, and so interesting, both for what he was and for the way he thought, the things he said, the oddity and charm of his perspective. He could easily have spent twenty-four hours a day with him for a week, he thought, and only have found more to delight him. At the door to his quarters on the Enterprise, he stopped and turned to Julian, his expression apprehensive.
‘I must warn you,’ he said, ‘that my cat, Spot, is sometimes... hostile towards unfamiliar visitors. She is a good cat, but she does not easily trust new people.’
‘It’s all right,’ Julian said, amused at how concerned Data was that he should not think ill of his cat. ‘I’ve known a few cats like that. Actually, I’ve known a few people like that, too. Major Kira springs to mind. I promise not to make any sudden movements or tactless comments.’
‘That would be best,’ Data said earnestly. He led the way into the main room, where a marmalade cat was lying curled up on the top layer of a tiered cat tree. At the sound of the door, she hastily uncoiled herself and jumped down with a thump, trotting over to Data with her loose underbelly swaying from side to side, uttering little chirrups of welcome.
‘Hello, Spot!’ said Data, and the pronunciation of the first word swung close to ‘hewwo.’ He bent down and picked up the cat, which twisted around immediately to put her front paws on his chest and rub her face against his nose and chin in adoration.
‘What a little sweetie,’ Julian exclaimed, thinking Data must have been exaggerating her ‘hostility.’ He held out a hand for Spot to sniff, and was rewarded with a flat-eared glare and a hiss like tearing paper. She made a feint at scratching his hand, too, and smacked his knuckles quite hard, albeit with claws retracted.
‘I did warn you,’ Data said apologetically. Spot had gone stiff in his arms and was whipping her tail around, staring at Julian as indignantly as if he had walked in and pissed on the carpet. ‘Calm down, Spot. Dr Bashir is a friend. He will not harm either of us. There now, there now.’
‘That is one very angry cat,’ Julian said, astonished.
‘I think she may have had an unhappy childhood,’ Data explained. ‘I adopted her from a shelter on a starbase that we visited. She was already nine months old and had been misidentified as a male. When I first brought her home she often scratched and bit me, but in time I gained her trust.’ He had managed to soothe Spot a little, and was smoothing down the puffy fur of her cheeks with the side of his forefinger.
‘That’s another thing that fascinates me. What made you decide to adopt a pet?’
Data looked at the cat thoughtfully. ‘The care of a pet is recommended for human children, in order to help them develop nurturing qualities and compassion, as well as a sense of responsibility. I wished to see if it would do the same for me.’
‘I doubt you were all that irresponsible before.’
‘I was more interested in compassion,’ Data agreed. ‘Besides that, I experienced a degree of identification with Spot when I saw her in the adoption display. She was, like me, an orphan. I wished to do for her what others had done for me, and give her a home.’
‘Then it doesn’t sound as if you needed to learn compassion,’ Julian said, inwardly curling up like a prawn at the cuteness of his mental image of Data peering in through the display window.
Data looked at him curiously. ‘Even without emotion?’ he asked.
Julian shrugged. ‘I see no reason to think it can’t exist independently. Anyway, you were going to show me your dream art.’
‘Yes!’ Data bent and set Spot down; she gave a little huffing sound and scampered off to a corner where she sat down to wash herself. Her owner hurried off and opened a drawer in the wall from which he took a large portfolio. Opening it out on a tabletop, he waved Julian over to inspect it. ‘Each time I dream I make a series of sketches of the images which made the strongest impression on me. I have arranged them in chronological order, but have also employed a system of cross-referencing to identify recurring elements. Certain images occur so often that I have tentatively identified them as archetypes, though perhaps not quite in the Jungian sense. I question whether I can be said to share in the human collective unconscious.’
‘Such as?’ Julian asked.
‘Here.’ Data flipped rapidly through the pages, stopping precisely on each one he wished to display. ‘Blacksmith’s tools appear frequently and are associated with my father and his work, although he seldom appears directly. I have told you already about the bird, which I sometimes see as a being distinct from myself, and with which at other times I identify completely, inhabiting its body. It is a large corvid, but its precise characteristics vary from dream to dream.’
‘Crows are highly intelligent birds, so it’s a rather apt one for you,’ Julian said, nodding appreciatively. ‘You do draw well, Data. You’ve managed to convey the impression of the wings flapping, here, although it’s a still picture. I’ve never been much good at art; I wish I could get a picture out of my head and onto the page like that. Have I been in any of your dreams?’ He rather hoped so.
‘Four,’ Data replied promptly. ‘In the first and second, you were present in a group of people who had gathered for some unclear purpose. In the third, you appeared to live in my quarters, although I did not know why or for how long you had been there.’
‘Was I a welcome presence?’ Julian asked, amused.
‘Yes. You were agreeable company. In the fourth dream, which occurred last night, you appeared with an old-fashioned hypodermic needle and drew apparently real blood from my arm. Here is the drawing.’
‘That’s a bit weird. I suppose the timing makes sense; you anticipated you might see me again, and I flatter myself you looked forward to it a bit. I don’t know what the blood might mean, though - or that hypodermic, which looks like something out of a medical museum.’ He hoped that wasn’t a sinister element; more and more he found he wanted Data to think of him in only the most positive terms.
‘As with the blacksmith’s tools, antiquated technology often appears in my dreams. I do not understand it, but it may be attributable to my interest in Sherlock Holmes. The settings of my dreams are sometimes the interior of this ship, but at other times resemble Victorian London, or a variety of other locations distant in both time and space.’
‘And what was your response to this?’ Julian asked, examining the drawing. It was a good likeness, showing him with his head slightly bent forward, evidently concentrating as the syringe filled with liquid, shaded dark grey in Data’s pencil sketch. He found it rather remarkable that Data could draw him so accurately based on a dream, when they hadn’t seen each other for over a year - but then, Data’s visual memory was very different from a human one, far more like a holographic recording in which, as he thought back on a past event, he could pause at any time and zoom in to observe any detail. The only limitation would be point of view; he couldn’t remember things at angles from which he had not seen them. It didn’t mean anything special that he remembered Julian so well.
‘Satisfaction,’ Data said, after a judicious pause. ‘I cannot explain why, but I found it a very satisfactory sight.’
‘Any idea what I wanted with your blood?’
‘None; though I presume you had some medical test in mind.’
‘I have to admit, if I had more time with you I would always be fiddling away at one thing or another, trying to find out more about how you work. But only with your permission, of course. I hope dream me asked politely before taking your blood.’
‘I do not have a distinct memory of that, but I do not remember having any objection to his doing so.’ Data brushed away a crumb of eraser dust from the drawing with his thumb. ‘This is one of the particularly strange elements of my dreams. I do not remember all their events in a linear manner. Their narratives do not have distinct beginnings, middles and ends. Then there is the odd perception of time, of which I have already informed you. Though I can set the length of time for which I will remain in my sleep mode, this bears no relationship to the passage of time which I subjectively experience within the dream. When I wake I often experience a brief disorientation as I reconcile reality with my impression that several days, or in some cases, only a few minutes, have passed.’
‘I realise it’s strange to experience it, but you do know, don’t you, that that’s exactly like human dreaming? In that respect it’s not strange at all.’
‘What do you dream about?’ Data asked.
‘All sorts of things,’ Julian said, unprepared for the investigative spotlight to move to himself. ‘Er, anxiety dreams, sex dreams, dreams that just flat-out don’t make any sense. Last night I dreamed I was growing a tail. It itched terribly just at the base of my spine, and I kept scratching it surreptitiously, and suddenly it burst through and sort of wormed its way out to full length... it was really quite disgusting. But after that,’ he went on, brightening, ‘I discovered it was prehensile and awfully useful.’ He noticed Data’s baffled expression and patted him on the shoulder, reassuringly. ‘I did say it didn’t make any sense.’
‘I have had bizarre dreams myself. Look at this one,’ Data said, flipping back the pages to one of fragmentary sketches.
‘Is that woman a cake? Wait, is she drinking out of his head?’
‘Yet the imagery of this dream represented something which was happening in reality, and which I had perceived subconsciously.’
‘Is this you with a phone in your tummy? I had no idea you were such a surrealist.’
‘Geordi and Captain Picard were able to discover the meaning of my dreams by entering them via the holodeck.’
‘Now that’s something I’d like to try! Or better - not in the holodeck, but entering your dream directly. An interface should be possible - I’ve been researching this device, a multitronic - ‘
‘- engrammatic interpreter?’ Data finished in time with him.
‘Exactly! Do you have one? I’ve been trying to get hold of one.’
‘There is one in the engineering lab.’
‘Then let’s get it and try it!’
Data hesitated. ‘Are you sure you wish to attempt it tonight? It is getting late.’
‘Firstly, I don’t need a lot of sleep. Secondly, I’ll be getting some sleep, I’ll just be getting to have an amazing and quite groundbreaking adventure at the same time. Come on!’ He took Data’s arm and hurried him out.
‘Where would you rather do this?’ Julian asked. They had removed the MEI from the engineering lab without anyone seeing them, and while there was technically nothing wrong with a science officer and a doctor borrowing a piece of equipment for a personal experiment, the whole thing felt a bit sneaky and midnight-feast-ish. If he had been wearing a two-part uniform like Data’s he would have been tempted to hide the MEI up under his top on the way back.
‘I believe one’s bed is customary. That is where I normally dream. Spot appears to approve of this behaviour, and sleeps on my chest.’
‘All right, then.’ It was the work of a few minutes to modify the MEI with cables that could connect to the inputs in the side of Data’s head. Julian realised as he did so that the cables weren’t very long; rather than sitting in a chair beside the bed, he would need to lie down beside Data. Well, that didn’t bother him if it didn’t bother Data, and he was so keen to get on with the experiment that he couldn’t be bothered to go and find or replicate longer ones. Spot watched them with a miffed expression as they lay down.
‘How do you control when you’ll wake up?’ Julian asked.
‘Although I have been told it is not amusing, I like to refer to it as an android alarm clock,’ Data said. He rolled onto his side and hitched up the back of his uniform top, showing an expanse of pale skin with an odd little indentation in it, off to the right of his spine. ‘This is an external control which can render me unconscious and set a time at which I will wake. It is also, I suppose, a failsafe. If it is necessary for the safety of the ship or the crew to knock me out, it can be done.’
‘Do you mind if I examine it?’ There was something very vulnerable-looking about that indentation, and he didn’t want to go poking his fingers where they weren’t welcome, but he did want to touch and explore.
‘Not at all. I do request that you do not speak of it to others. The senior staff of the Enterprise are aware of it, as I said, for safety reasons, but otherwise, I prefer to keep it private.’
‘Of course. Thank you for trusting me with it.’ Julian touched it lightly, then pressed a little more firmly to investigate the texture. ‘I can feel two little nubs under the skin.’
‘Hours and minutes,’ Data said, nodding. ‘I can also activate the alarm clock internally without touching it, but as we are performing this experiment together, I thought it would be useful for you to know.’
‘Thank you,’ Julian said again. His face felt slightly warm and he told himself not to be ridiculous.
‘The slightly larger nub controls hours, the smaller minutes,’ Data was saying. ‘If you depress one until you feel a click, that will add one of that unit to the count of sleep time. When you are ready to make me sleep, press both simultaneously. I can also be awoken ahead of time by pressing both simultaneously.’
‘It shouldn’t seem so strange to me,’ Julian said, hoping to dispel the sense of strangeness by saying it out loud. ‘After all, I have pressure points on my body that could render me unconscious with the right technique. Actually, can you do that? I think I heard somewhere that you could do the Vulcan nerve pinch.’
‘You must have tremendous dexterity. I tried to learn it in medical school, as a sort of emergency anaesthetic, but I can only get it right about twenty percent of the time.’ Stop touching his back, he told himself sensibly, and pulled the waistband of the top back into line. It might help if you stopped babbling too. ‘But you don’t need to pinch me for this. The MEI will take me under quite nicely.’
‘Good.’ Data settled on his back, giving Julian what he thought was an odd look. ‘Are you comfortable with this procedure, Doctor?’
‘Oh. I apologise - I may have misinterpreted your tone.’
‘Not to worry. Well then. I suppose we may as well begin.’
‘Then I will enter my sleep state, and you may follow me in one minute’s time.’ Data closed his eyes and went still. After watching him closely for a moment, Julian detected that he was still breathing, his chest rising and falling slightly. It reminded him of how still cats went when sleeping, so that you had to poke them or blow in their ears to make sure they were still alive. Speaking of cats, Spot jumped up on the bed suddenly, startling him, and after giving him a filthy look, made herself comfortable on Data’s chest, turning around until she nestled down into a doughnut shape.
Julian took a deep breath and let it out gently, positioned the MEI on his forehead, made himself comfortable and activated the device. He quickly became drowsy. His last conscious thought was ‘Same to you, cat.’
He was in a hallway somewhere on the Enterprise, one with windows along one wall, and Data was standing looking out at the stars.
‘Hello,’ Julian said, wondering how one began a conversation in a dream. Data turned and looked at him, and his face brightened.
‘Excellent. I had hoped that this would be a lucid dream.’
‘It would be awkward if it wasn’t. But how wonderful that it’s really worked!’ Julian looked around him, beaming. ‘And it all seems real. I can see, hear, feel - I don’t notice any smells, but I don’t think I can remember ever smelling in my dreams anyway.’ He ran his hand over the wall to make sure it felt solid. As his hand passed from the wall to what should have been the transparent aluminium of the window, it suddenly popped through, meeting no resistance. There was no window pane; his hand was sticking out into space. Hesitantly, he leaned forward and poked his head out, finding that either he could still breathe, or breathing didn’t matter in this dream. Nor, apparently, did being exposed to a vacuum. Well, it didn’t matter for Data, did it? Therefore, perhaps, it didn’t matter as long as you were in his dream.
The view was jaw-droppingly beautiful, a vast, whirling starfield, and he felt both surrounded by it and exposed to it in a way that he couldn’t remember feeling in his life. Even when he had taken space-walks during Academy training, naturally he had been protected by a suit. Here he was simply hanging his bare head out of the side of a Galaxy-class starship travelling at impulse speed. His mouth felt dry and his eyes wet, and when he blinked, minuscule teardrops drifted from his eyelashes and out into the shining dark. It was too much, and he ducked back inside.
‘Do you like it?’ Data asked, sounding almost shy.
Julian began to speak, found his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, swallowed hard and tried again. ‘Like is far too small a word. That... out there... it’s astonishing. Incredible. My God!’
‘Would you like a better view?’ Data suddenly disappeared in a confusion of dark feathers; there was now a large, bright-eyed crow sitting on the windowsill, looking at him with its head tilted in a way that was pure Data.
‘I’m not sure I can do that,’ Julian admitted with a nervous laugh.
‘Try,’ the bird said, without moving its beak. ‘Perhaps if you visualise a type of bird with which you can identify, that will work. My father told me that I was this bird.’
‘All right, then... what about a falcon? A peregrine falcon, that sounds good.’ He closed his eyes and visualised the bird as thoroughly as he could, tried to imagine his own body sort of folding up and collapsing inward as Data’s had appeared to, feathers materialising around him and closing in to cover him, but he remained obstinately the same shape. ‘Not working. Can you change me?’
The bird cocked its head to a different angle and stared at him intently, but nothing happened. ‘I believe I have an alternative.’ What happened next was confusing, since it was not clear to Julian whether the bird grew or he shrank, but at the end of it the bird was much larger than he was. ‘You may ride on my back.’
‘Do you think that will work? I’ve never ridden a bird, I have to admit... except an ostrich in holo-Joust... and I suspect that isn’t very realistic. Can I hold onto your feathers, or will they pull out?’ He reached out hesitantly and touched the glossy feathers of the bird’s shoulder.
‘I believe they will not, and in any case, it is only a dream.’ The bird crouched down obligingly.
‘I hope we don’t wake up to find I’ve pulled out handfuls of your hair.’ Still, he slid his hand in amongst the feathers, grasped the shafts of a couple that seemed firmly rooted, and swung his leg up and over the bird’s back. It wasn’t highly comfortable, but it wasn’t too bad, and he felt fairly secure once he had shifted his position a little and made sure of his balance. ‘All right -’
Before he could finish, the bird had leapt from the window and was gliding out into space. From that point he could only hold on as they swooped through the night, feeling absurdly like an illustration in a children’s book. Scale and space stretched and squashed; they slalomed between planets and stars, dove down through the canopies of forested worlds and shot through the arching loops of solar flares. At first Julian cowered down between the bird’s shoulder-blades, but as he got used to it he sat up a little straighter, then a little higher, until he was holding on with his knees and waving his arms in the air shouting ‘Whee!’
At last the bird flew down among the chimneypots and spires of a smoky city and darted in through an open window. Julian rolled off its back onto the carpeted floor and lay there gasping and laughing while the ceiling spun above him.
‘Are you all right, my dear fellow?’ asked a voice with a distinctly strange accent, sort of plummy and nasal at the same time. Data bent over him, no longer a bird, wearing a magnificent dressing-gown.
‘You! You, haha, you’re Sherlock Holmes,’ Julian said, waving an unsteady finger at him.
‘Quite.’ Data helped him to his feet, steadying him as he swayed.
‘Are we in Baker Street? I’m really not dressed for this...’
‘Perhaps you could be. It would appear easier than transforming into a bird,’ Data said, dropping back into his normal voice, which Julian found far more agreeable.
‘All right... let me try...’ He concentrated fiercely, and this time it worked, his uniform changing into a quite respectable brown tweed suit. ‘I suppose that’s because I know what it feels like to wear a suit... just not to be a bird.’
‘Clearly I failed to describe it in terms that you could understand,’ Data said ruefully.
‘Don’t worry about it. That was absolutely marvellous. I had no idea we could do anything like that. Thank you, Data, thank you so much! I suppose I’d thought it would just be like a holodeck, and certainly, they can do wonderful things, but this was... well, it was something else entirely, it was... I don’t know why it was so wonderful... and I’m not really making sense. But thank you!’
‘It is... not what I expected,’ Data said, sounding as if he was choosing his words carefully. ‘Perhaps because we are directly sharing our perceptions, I find the experience... intimate?’ He said that last word so timidly, it was as if he thought Julian would be offended.
‘Well, of course it is. Mind to mind.’ Julian touched his own forehead, then Data’s. ‘Just think how annoyed the Vulcans would be by us doing with technology what they spend years meditating and training to do psychically.’
‘I think... and I am not certain, but it is difficult to think of any other way to express it... that I am having what might be termed a psychic experience. A form of empathy or sympathy. I believe I am perceiving your emotions.’
‘Directly, you mean? As I experience them? All the exhilaration I felt on that magic bird ride? But Data, that’s marvellous!’ Without really thinking about it, he was touching Data again, grasping his upper arms.
‘It is confusing,’ Data said. He backed away and sat down in one of the wing-backed armchairs flanking the fireplace. ‘The only prior experience with which I can compare this is the time when my brother, Lore, attempted to control me by sharing his emotions with me. I wanted them so much that I compromised my own ethical standards in order to continue receiving them. That is, I think, the worst thing I have ever done.’
‘I can’t speak for that,’ Julian said, kneeling beside him. ‘But this clearly isn’t the same. He must have been sending you emotions on purpose; I had no idea it was possible. And I don’t want you to do anything unethical, far from it. I don’t ask anything in return for the feelings - I just want you to enjoy yourself. Please don’t worry about it.’ He paused, looking carefully at Data’s face. He looked miserable. ‘You are worrying about it.’
‘I cannot help it.’
‘Think about that very carefully, Data. You’re worrying. You feel guilty, don’t you?’
Data’s eyes widened very slightly. ‘I feel guilty,’ he repeated slowly.
‘You’re not feeling my emotions. That’s your own feeling. You’re - you’re somehow sharing my capacity for emotion, through the neural link. At least, that’s what it sounds like - we have to test this!’
‘Tell me a joke,’ Data suggested, his eyes wider still.
‘I can’t think of any! Oh, damn it... no, wait! What’s invisible and smells like carrots?’
‘I do not know. What is invisible and smells like carrots?’
Data looked sincerely baffled.
‘All right, all right, that’s not one of my better ones. I’m not good at jokes.’
‘No! I see it! The rabbits eat carrots, therefore the farts - that is funny!’ The look of bafflement had changed to one of shock and astonishment.
‘You’re not laughing, though.’
‘But it is funny! I can see that! Tell me another one.’ He leaned forward avidly.
‘I can’t believe I had the opportunity to introduce the joys of humour to a superintelligent artificial life-form and I told a fart joke I learned in the second grade. Er, um, all right. What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?’
The reaction to this ancient joke was far more lavish than it had ever deserved; Data doubled over laughing and could not stop for almost a minute. He would attempt it, catch his breath for a moment and then begin laughing again. Julian went from worrying slightly to laughing helplessly with him, rocking back on his heels as he knelt before the chair.
At length, Data managed to straighten up, wiped some yellowish fluid from the corners of his eyes, and said in a weak voice ‘I have laughed like that once in my life, and that was a gift from Q, an experience which I could never recapture. But if your hypothesis is correct, as long as we remain linked I can laugh at as many jokes as I wish.’
‘I envy you, then; I met Q once, didn’t know who he was, and he put some sort of sleep spell on me because he thought I was trying to steal his girlfriend.’
‘That is funny too,’ Data pointed out, giggling slightly.
‘Me not recognising him, or Q having a girlfriend? He did seem a bit of a pillock, I have to say.’
‘And pillock is a funny word.’ Abruptly, Data gasped. ‘He was right! Words that end in K!’ Before Julian could work out what that meant, he had changed the subject. ‘We must investigate whether I am capable of a full range of emotions. Do you think you could frighten me?’
‘I don’t want to - I like this being a nice lucid dream, not a nightmare.’
Data’s eyes widened again. ‘There is also the question of whether this emotional capacity exists only while you and I are connected in this way, or whether, after disconnecting, I will retain it. What if you have unintentionally activated a previously unknown aspect of my programming, again?’
‘That would be amazing.’ Julian felt a shiver run from his tailbone to the nape of his neck at the thought of it.
‘And now - now I believe I am frightened,’ Data said. He had an inward-looking expression on his face now, as if he was not wholly aware of what was in front of him.
‘Why? Of what?’ Julian took his hand and gave it a little squeeze.
‘Of disconnecting and discovering the answer to that question.’
‘But the answer could be absolutely wonderful.’
‘Even if the answer is that the capacity remains, that is still quite intimidating,’ Data said, turning his hand slightly in Julian’s grasp and holding it, properly, in return. ‘It will change my life. I would ordinarily approach this change with nothing but eager curiosity, but as I contemplate it now...’
‘It’s okay to be nervous, Data. But we will have to find out sooner or later; you’ll wake up on your timer, and then I will too.’
‘And there is no way of knowing, from within the dream, when that will be.’
Data looked so scared now, his eyes huge and his mouth small and pinched, that Julian put his arms around him. ‘It will be all right. You’ll be all right.’ He felt Data stiffen up for a moment, and regretted being so handsy, but before he had time to pull away the hug was returned, hesitantly at first, but soon more definitely. In fact, Data bent forward and put his head down on his shoulder, and his heart bumped a little bit at how trusting that felt.
‘Will you promise me that if this is only possible when we are connected via the MEI, we will do it again?’ Data asked, his voice slightly muffled.
‘Of course I will. I promise. As much as you want.’
‘But the Enterprise will stay at your station for only six more days. You cannot guarantee that last part.’
‘True. All right. As much as possible, in the time we have... and allowing for the demands of both of our jobs, of course.’ After a moment’s hesitation, he tried stroking Data’s hair, hoping it would feel soothing. ‘Better?’
‘Yes. Please continue.’
‘Yes. It is comforting. This, too, is a new experience, to have an emotional response to physical contact. I am able to elicit such responses in others, but now I feel it for myself.’
‘Well, I suppose now you know how your cat feels when you cuddle her and stroke her.’
‘Perhaps.’ Data was quiet for a while; Julian could feel him gently, steadily breathing, his hands still on his own back. He made a small but conscious effort to keep his own breathing steady. He was feeling increasingly cross with himself for impulsively going further and further into physical contact with someone who couldn’t be expected to reciprocate what he was beginning to feel (goodness knew Data had enough to process emotionally without that), and for not being more conscious of those feelings from the beginning. He could excuse himself by saying that he didn’t normally feel this way about other men, that Garak had been a first, and Data was so unlike him that it wasn’t as if he should have seen it coming, but he was an adult and surely ought to be more astute than that. So here he was with a burgeoning crush on someone very special and unusual who urgently needed him to be reliable and helpful and wise, not distracted by how very much he’d like to try kissing him.
I was attracted to him from the beginning; I was so excited about meeting him and so fascinated by him... idiot, idiot, idiot. At least I can say that some sort of rule is emerging here; with women I’m physically attracted at once, while with men the sexual attraction emerges as I get to know them. And I want to take care of him, which is both part of the attraction and part of why it could be a mistake to act on the attraction... aargh. He smells good. I am smelling in a dream, and he smells really good.
‘All right now?’ he murmured.
‘Thank you, but I am still anxious. May I remain in your arms a while longer?’
‘Of course,’ Julian said, ‘although we might need to rearrange ourselves a bit, because my knees are getting sore.’
‘Even in a dream?’
‘In some ways this is a very realistic dream.’
‘What if I altered this armchair to be a sofa, so that we could sit side by side?’
‘Good idea.’ He had hoped to be able to disengage without making Data feel rejected, not to snuggle up on a Chesterfield, but the transition took place seamlessly, just as he would expect of a dream, and he couldn’t pretend that he didn’t like it.
‘Is this all right?’ Data asked him, settling again with his head on Julian’s shoulder and his arms around his waist.
‘Of course. Nothing wrong with a cuddle between friends.’
‘True.’ Data was quiet again for a while. ‘May I ask a personal question? Perhaps complicated by the fact that this is a dream?’
‘You have commented in the past that I appear remarkably “real,” because of my respiratory and circulatory functions. Do I still seem “real” in close contact?’
‘Yes, you do. You feel warm, and... nice.’ He cleared his throat, and shifted his seat.
‘Am I making you uncomfortable?’
‘Not at all.’
‘I suspect that I am.’ Data sat up and scooted forward to the edge of the seat. ‘In which case I appreciate your willingness to tolerate discomfort for my sake, but am unwilling to subject you to more of it. My behaviour has been inappropriate, my advances unwelcome, and I apologise.’
‘Your advances,’ Julian repeated. ‘Come back here and explain that.’ He hooked an arm around Data’s waist and pulled him back.
‘I find you attractive and was attempting to express that through physical proximity,’ Data said in a small voice, looking down. ‘But you seemed uncomfortable.’
‘This isn’t just happening because it’s a dream and I would like you to feel this way, I hope,’ Julian said. ‘That would be awful.’
‘Then you are also attracted to me?’
‘I should say so.’
‘In that case, may I kiss you?’ It was said so eagerly, so sweetly, with such an openly hopeful expression on Data’s gentle face that Julian had to bite the inside of his cheek not to laugh.
‘I wish you would.’ He closed his eyes, half-smiling, and pulled Data closer. He felt a soft hand on his cheek, and then warm lips against his. He was just melting into it when it melted away.
He woke, on his side when he had fallen asleep on his back, twisted towards Data, who was still on his back, but had turned his head to gaze over at him, looking astonished, his mouth half-open.
‘Shh,’ Julian said, though Data didn’t seem to have anything to say, rolled in and kissed him deeply. Oh, please let him still feel it. After a moment he got what felt like an avid response, and the next moment he was shocked but thrilled by the way Data was evidently prepared to use his tongue. He needed to check, though, to make sure this wasn’t just Data trying.
‘Are you still-’
‘Good.’ Julian pulled him closer, wrapped one leg over his thigh as Data’s arms closed around him and their mouths found each other again. I don’t care how silly or ill-advised this is, it feels wonderful and I want it. He slid his hand up under Data’s uniform top, stroking his smooth back, and felt him stiffen up. ‘Sorry. Sorry, no, didn’t mean it like that... I just wanted to touch you, I won’t...’
‘Please be careful. The thought of being deactivated during intimacy distresses me greatly.’
‘I don’t blame you.’
‘To have attention called so blatantly to my artificiality...’ Data stopped, closing his eyes for a moment.
‘Here.’ Julian reached up and gently detached the wires from the side of Data’s head, smoothing back the flap of his scalp. He pushed back the MEI from his own forehead with the other hand. ‘There, we can feel just as real as you want.’
Data blinked rapidly, and his expression went blank. ‘It is gone,’ he said. ‘The emotion is gone.’ He lifted himself on one arm, looking down at Julian’s flushed face. ‘How unfair.’
‘Well, don’t worry. We can put them back on. We can go back into the dream, if you like. There’s no need to stop. I really don’t want to stop.’
‘I had hoped it would be permanent,’ Data said. ‘Not dependent on the connection. Now, even though I can experience emotion with you, I will lose it again when we have to depart. I could almost wish that this had not happened, so that I would be unaware of what I was missing.’
‘Don’t think about that now... let’s just enjoy this while we can.’
‘I cannot choose not to think,’ Data said plaintively. He tilted his head, his eyes darting away briefly. ‘There is something we should try.’
‘I’m game for just about anything,’ Julian said hopefully, although the likelihood of this ending in an afterglow seemed to be dwindling. Data rolled away from him, once more hitching up the back of his top.
‘If you will press the buttons and hold them down for a count of ten, wait one minute and press them again -’
‘The old turn-it-off-and-turn-it-on-again routine?’ Julian asked doubtfully. ‘I suppose Miles does swear by it... but won’t this be uncomfortable for you? With what you said just now...’
‘It will be worth setting aside my aversion if my emotions are restored. Please do it.’
‘All right... although I do feel a bit strange about it.’ Julian slipped his fingers into the indentation, feeling for the two small nubs. ‘Data... I do hope this works the way you want it to, but if it shouldn’t, I hope you know you are absolutely marvellous just as you are.’
‘Even if the way I am precludes my reciprocating your affection?’
‘Even then.’ Julian kissed the nape of Data’s neck. ‘You are wonderful, and whatever relationship you are able to have with me, I’ll be glad and grateful for it. Now. Fingers crossed, eh?’
Julian pressed in and felt the mechanism click. Data went completely still, not the cat-stillness of his sleep. Julian counted aloud to distract himself from the eeriness of that. ‘One Mississippi, two Mississippi...’
Spot wandered back into the room from wherever she had been, jumped up on the bed and gave him an accusing glare.
‘Yes, all right, I’m not actually killing your daddy,’ Julian muttered. ‘I’m just trying to... well, I suppose I’m trying to reboot his consciousness in the hope that he’ll want to make out some more.’ It was the sort of thing you could only really verbalise to a cat. Spot stared at him blankly, swivelled her ears uncertainly, and jumped down from the bed again, padding off into the bathroom.
‘Ten,’ Julian concluded. He released the pressure and began a very long-feeling minute’s wait. Although Spot was probably not listening to him any more, he asked the air ‘What do you suppose it is that makes me so attracted to such odd people? Here’s a beautiful lady with a worm in her tummy. Here’s a sexy exiled spy with a wire in his head. Here’s an adorable android who... goodness even knows what the deal is with him. He doesn’t know what the deal is with him. Which is both endearing and completely fascinating, but leads to situations like this, where I sit here with a recalcitrant semi wondering whether he’ll even wake up with all his mental faculties intact.’ He could hear Spot scratching about in a litter-box. ‘Sorry for telling you about my semi. He is a very good kisser, though. I bet you don’t want to hear about that, either, do you? Well, it’s been a minute, so I’ll shut up and see what happens when I press these little bumps again.’
He lined up his fingers, pressed and felt the click. A moment later, he felt the life, for lack of a better word, come back to Data’s body; it hadn’t moved yet, but was no longer an inert thing. Data stirred slightly, then rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling and blinking.
‘Data? How do you feel?’ Julian asked.
‘I... am operating within established parameters... and beyond them, too.’
Spot came pattering back out of the bathroom and hopped up onto the bed, pushing her head insistently under Data’s hand. He lifted it and petted her, looking at her as if amazed.
‘Spot... my good, pretty cat... I love you.’ His voice trembled very faintly, and he sat up, taking the cat into his arms and kissing the top of her head. ‘I love you. I love you very much.’ Spot mewed and head-butted his chin.
Julian sat up, realising that he shouldn’t look for any continuation of the earlier fit of passion. ‘That’s wonderful. Congratulations!’
Data raised his head. ‘I am sorry, Julian. I did not mean to ignore you. I am immensely grateful to you.’ There were yellowish tears gleaming in the corners of his eyes. ‘You have changed my life again.’
‘I seem to keep stumbling into doing that.’
‘While I was unconscious I dreamed again,’ Data said. He had a sort of radiant look, like one trying to describe a vision. ‘I spoke with my father. He explained that he had always intended me to feel emotion, but because of what happened with Lore, he had developed a hypothesis that emotion was dangerous to androids in the early stages of development. For safety’s sake, my emotions must be almost entirely muted until I was ready for them. My own experiments appear to confirm this. Lore became obsessed with a sense of his own superiority, resentful of humans and willing to harm anyone to achieve his own ends. My daughter, Lal, was gentle and good but could not withstand the stress of intense emotion. I, however, am more mature, and of the three of us have the best chance of successfully integrating emotion into my psyche.’
‘So, like the dream program, the emotions were supposed to come online when you were ready, and we’ve hastened that a bit with our messing around? Wait a moment, though. What about that emotion chip, the thing your brother stole?’
‘I asked my father the same thing. Remember that this is not actually my father of whom we are speaking now, but a simulacrum of him, not unlike a holographic recreation of a once living person. He could not tell why he might, late in life, develop such a device, but suggested that perhaps, in his advanced age, he had become somewhat senile and forgot his plans for my emotional development. Thus, he attempted to create a patch for what was not really a hole.’ Spot butted his chin again and he kissed her on the nose.
‘How absolutely extraordinary.’
‘I intend to request leave from my duties, while we are here at the station, in order to explore the new possibilities of my condition. Perhaps you will join me for some of that time?’
‘Certainly. I could even arrange cover for some of my duties, if it comes to that. What did you have in mind?’
‘Down, please, Spot. I will play with you later.’ Gently, he deposited Spot on the floor before turning towards Julian, framing his face with his hands. ‘May I try again?’
‘I still wish you would.’
A deep, sweet kiss, and Julian sighed contentedly. ‘You are just lovely. Who taught you that?’
‘It is part of my programming. I have always known these techniques; a broad variety of pleasuring.’
‘Isn’t that strange... that emotions would be muted, but you’d know how to kiss and so forth?’
‘I do not understand it, but perhaps my father felt emotions were not necessary for sexual relationships. This is not a unique viewpoint.’
‘Well, I disagree. Tell me, though, is that what you want? A sexual relationship?’ Say yes say yes say yes.
‘I would like to try, but now is not the right time.’
‘Because this is so new to you, and you’re only staying a week,’ Julian said, resigning himself to it.
‘Because it is 0800 hours and you will soon have to report for duty, will you not?’
‘Oh God. You’re right. Damn it! I’d better go. Come and meet me right after my shift, though, all right? I’ll be finished at 1700, half past at the latest. Think about what you want to do and we’ll do whatever it is. You’re so, so lovely. Goodbye!’