Pulse of the Machine is Jean's Data/Tasha novel.  It is Pt. One of what was
originally intended to be a two-volume novel, but
the sequel never materialized, so only Pulse is actually available.

Contains mature themes, must be 18 or older
(or the age of majority in your area) to read.


Pulse of the Machine is long out of print, but you can now
get a PDF file of the zine + a MOBI file for e-readers as a download. including:

ALL of the original text
 ALL of the original illustrations
(plus newly-added illos) & toons,
PLUS a folio of previously unseen art and sketches.
Over 45 pieces of art in this version!


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(Preview —first chapter in its entirety—below.)




A
ndroid Blues


        Tasha Yar stopped in front of the main holodeck entrance and looked at the setting.
        Occupied, of course.  What program were they running, anyway?  And, more importantly, who was inside—and would they leave her the hell alone?  Last night's baseball game in a dusty field with twenty-bezillion kids running around had been enjoyable for all of about half an hour.  And that had been last night.
        She put a hand to the back of her neck, working out the kinks—the result of an overly-vigorous workout during yesterday's security muster—and punched in her access code.
        "Computer, tell me which setting is currently in use."
        "Earth-setting, baseball field.  At this time, there are no vacancies on either team, but spectator space availability is unlimited."
        "Who's playing?"  She wasn't about to go inside, but she was curious, anyway.
        "The team currently at bat is comprised of personnel from sciences and various medical departments.  The opposing team is comprised of their spouses.  Do you wish to request specific names?"
        "No thanks.  And I don't think I'll be going inside.  Maybe I'll go around to the middle one—is it occupied?"
        There was a small pause.  "Yes, Lieutenant Yar."
        She sighed.  Dammit.  "Who's in that one?"
        "Holodeck 2 is currently reserved by Lieutenant Commander Data for a period of one hour."
        Tasha considered.  Data wasn't boisterous and there was only one of him. Sometimes he talked too much, but he was fun to watch when he got wound up on a subject.
        Still . . . .
        The business with his home world, his double—the whole mess was only a week old, and she still felt somewhat uncomfortable about approaching him.  He had seemed a little . . . lost, somehow.  And he had been unusually quiet at his station.  She had meant to make an effort to spend some time around him, to establish that everything was status quo, but he hadn't been at the bridge poker game, and the rest of the time—she grimaced, wondering suddenly just how many of his friends had `meant to.'  Even Geordi had been reticent  around him, now that she thought about it.  In fact, she hadn't seen Geordi much in Data's company this past week.  She wondered who was avoiding whom. Or maybe it was mutual.
        Tasha hesitated, uncertain.  If Data wanted to be left alone . . . .  Under similar circumstances, she could see herself craving solitude for a while.  But who knew what Data felt or wanted.
        No.  He had seemed withdrawn.  She would go, and if he wanted privacy, he could say so.



        At the entrance to Holodeck 2, she once again entered her access code and checked for occupancy.  Data was the only person present, and she bet herself two million credits that the setting was the forest pattern.
        The doors opened onto a lush woodland, complete with the scents of old leaves in a carpet underfoot and the sounds of a gurgling stream.
        Should've made it ten million, she thought.
        Something whizzed by her head, and she pulled back, startled.  Dragonfly or something.
        She stood staring at the panorama before her, at the sunlight slanting in golden shafts through trees that were beginning to show autumnal hues . . . it was beautiful. Another of the dragonflies flew past with a sound that was more a faint trill than the buzz she usually associated with them.  Someone had obviously gotten creative with the programming.
        Now, where was Data?
        She listened for the sounds of tuneless whistling, badly imitated sneezes, throat clearing, or any one of an endless stream of `humanisms' that Data could often be found practicing—Data was so weird sometimes—but obviously he was either silent, or she was too far away to hear him.
        She started walking, and heard the doors close behind her.  After a moment, she came upon the stream that she had first heard.  It was a lovely thing, with water lilies floating atop the pool that had formed to one side, and vines hanging down in graceful curves over the clear water.  More of the dragonflies flew past—there was something puzzling about them, something not quite right—but she wasn't really looking at them. There was probably a trail around somewhere; most of the forest patterns had them.
        It didn't take long, and she smiled upon discovering it—it was carpeted with yellow leaves, and the branches curved overhead to produce an arched ceiling of dancing colors; red, yellow, orange and sienna all threaded through and lit from behind with golden sunshine.  She stopped in wonder and simply gazed in delight.  "Beautiful," she murmured softly.  "Just look at it."  It could be a marvelous spot for meditation. Reluctantly, she began moving down the trail.
        She had to hand it to Data, he had great taste in woodland patterns.  This was definitely better than baseball.  She climbed a low rise and looked down, finally spotting the android a few meters off, sitting at the base of a tree, his back to her.  The tree was so large that the roots rose up as high as his shoulders in thick gnarled ropes, and the limbs branched off far overhead.  She observed Data for a moment from her vantage point.  He was very still, and she wondered again if she should intrude.  Uncertain, she headed toward him slowly, and stopped as she drew closer, frowning.
        He had put his head down on his arms, which were crossed atop his updrawn knees, and there was something about his drooping posture so different from his usual controlled exuberance that it touched her.  He looked . . . forlorn.
        Tasha bit her lip absently.  Could Data feel loneliness?  Or hurt?  Or unhappiness?  Or was she simply anthropomorphizing?
        Anthropomorphizing, hell.  It didn't take any great empathic talents to see that Data's unusual reclusion for the past week signified one big misery.  She and misery were old companions.
        She held back and swatted at another of the pesky dragonflies as she slipped behind a tree.  Data  generally didn't seem very concerned with saving face, but it was a point of honor for her not to intrude on someone when they were vulnerable.  Not unless the relationship warranted it, and she didn't think theirs did, the events that had taken place during her bout with the Tsiolkovsky virus notwithstanding.
        She grimaced, as she always did when she thought about it.  Not that she could remember much of it, beyond a vague impression that it had been enjoyable.  It was just embarrassing.  If anything had constituted a loss of face . . . !
        Several more of the dragonflies swarmed around her, and she slapped at one, missing it by a centimeter, while another dove at her face . . . wait a minute.
        A hard tug on her hair coincided with her realization that it was fair payment for her stupidity.  Not dragonflies, she thought in amusement as she studied the delicate winged thing hovering before her.  Someone definitely had a sense of the whimsical.  Not dragonflies at all.
        Fairies.
        She grinned, reaching without conscious thought for the tiny thing, wondering who in the galaxy had programmed fairies, and sighed as the creature flitted away.  Her eyes followed it—her—to Data . . . and widened.  Not only was the fairy joined by a companion, but two tiny—perfect—dragons were coming to light on the roots and on Data's shoulder—one green, one golden as the sunshine.
        Without realizing it, she stepped out from behind the tree, drawn, enchanted. Data had given a start at the dragons' arrival, now he lifted his head and sat up carefully, dawning wonder  replacing the faint frown with a hint of a smile.  One hand rose ever so slightly—curious child—but the scientist won out, and he lowered it, content to look.
        The little green one walked along the root, sharp delicate claws gripping the bark, long tail lazily curling, and cocked its head to one side to stare at Data with equal curiosity, while the golden one first tried to climb into his hair, then skittered around to his other shoulder and peered up at him.  One of the fairies had lost interest and was now doing acrobatics on a nearby leaf, but the other one was fascinated with the android's hair, and was tugging on strands of it with the obvious intent of disheveling it as much as possible.
        Tasha drew closer, charmed by the scene, and by Data's reaction to it.  It was as though he had been presented with an embarrassment of riches—the focus of his attention shifted as rapidly as the fairies'.
        After a moment, both fairies flew off to play tag-and-tumble airborne, but the golden dragonet curled itself around Data's neck and grew heavy lidded; the green one did the same on its root perch.  It was then that Data slowly extended one hand to touch the green's scaly neck.  It lifted its head lazily and simultaneously emitted a red forked tongue and a token hiss.  Data froze but did not withdraw, and the dragonet settled back unconcerned, clearly allowing the contact.
        Tasha waited a few moments more, until both dragons seemed lulled into slumber, then took the few steps remaining between herself and Data, and leaned down to wrap one arm around his chest from behind to immobilize him.  She clamped her other hand over his eyes.
        "Guess who," she said, deepening her voice.
        Data had stiffened, his unoccupied hand coming up to close around her wrist, but at her words he relaxed.  The golden dragon stirred, but did not awaken, while the green one looked at her through slitted eyes.
        "Lieutenant Yar."
        Tasha removed her hand from his eyes and punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You cheated."
        The android twisted to look up at her.  "I did not cheat.  You are not very proficient at disguising your voice, Tasha."
        Tasha released him and grinned, then straightened up to gesture around them vaguely.  "This is wonderful.  Did you program it?"
        Data shook his head.  "Not all of it.  I did introduce the autumn phase, but someone else must have programmed the fantasy elements, and the forest pattern was already in the holodeck memory."
        She squatted down on her heels and indicated the green with a lift of her chin. "Think I could pet him?"
        Data considered it.  "Possibly.  It did not attempt to bite me when I did so."
        Tasha reached out, but the green reared up, wings spreading, and hissed in earnest.  She pulled back, disappointed.  "It doesn't seem to like me.  You try again."
        Data moved his hand toward it slowly, and it shifted, nervous, but again tolerated Data's touch.
        "Well, it obviously likes you better than me.  You live a charmed life, Data."
        His fingers stilled against the green scales, and Data looked at her.  "The phrase `charmed life' . . . I do not think my ability to touch one computer simulated creature warrants such an expression."  His voice was flat.
        Terminal Foot-in-Mouth Yar.  "Sorry."
        Data gazed at her for a moment longer, then looked back to the green dragon. "Perhaps you should try the gold one," he suggested helpfully.  "It seems less fearful than this one."
        "Maybe."  She shifted to her knees, and leaned partially across him, reaching, then pulled back.  "The question is, is dragonbite fatal?"  She grinned.
        Data gave her a `search me—could be interesting' look, and said, "I do not know. However, if you intend to set yourself up as an experimental subject, I would prefer to be at a safe distance."  He looked down meaningfully at the dragon curled around his neck.
        "Live dangerously," Tasha told him, leaning across him.
        "It seems I have little choice," he commented sotto voce.
        Tasha extended one finger to stroke the golden head with a feather-light touch. In a movement almost too quick for even Data to follow, the creature raked one claw along her wrist and sunk its teeth into her finger, then snapped back into its former sleeping pose as though nothing had happened.
        "Ouch!"  Tasha snatched her hand back, annoyance and sheepishness warring for dominance on her face.  The sheepishness won out.  "Live and learn, I guess."  She stuck her bleeding finger into her mouth and found Data watching her with a look of curiosity.
        "You are still bleeding," he pointed out after a moment.  "Are you all right?"
        Tasha nodded.  "Unless these are poisonous, which I seriously doubt, I'm okay. I'll put something on them when I get back to my quarters."
        "Are you leaving now?"
        "No. It's just a scratch—"
        "And a bite."
        Tasha rolled her eyes at him.  "Yes, technically, just a scratch, and a bite. They'll wait."
        He didn't push it, but merely nodded and centered his attention once more on the green dragon, watching it as it watched a fairy float in lazy circles overhead.  Tasha settled beside him tailor-fashion and absently sucked her finger.
        Data looked over at her and frowned as he noticed what she was doing.  "Would it not be more effective to care for that properly?"
        "Mm, probably.  But I'd rather stay than leave."
        Data scanned the scenery around them and nodded.  "It is pleasant here," he agreed.  "But you could go back to your quarters now, and return to this computer setting anytime the holodeck is available."
        "Data, are you trying to get rid of me, or are you arguing just for the sake of arguing?" Tasha demanded.
        Data looked surprised.  "Neither.  I am simply pointing out all of the options."
        "Fine.  Have we covered them all now?"
        "No.  There are—"
        "Never mind.  I don't feel like leaving.  Besides, you might not be here when I get back."
        His frown as he met her eyes was curiously vulnerable, his query hesitant.  "You came to the holodeck to see me?"  The answer obviously dawned on him.  "Ah.  Your shower is broken again."  He had fixed it for her two weeks earlier, and also a week prior to that.
        "Data," she reproached him.  "My shower is fine—well, actually, it could use some more adjustment—but that isn't why I came in here.  I hadn't seen much of you lately, so . . ."  Her shoulders lifted by way of explanation.
        She grinned, then.  "And I wanted you to fix my shower."
        His look was blank.  "That is a joke . . ." he ventured slowly.  He didn't sound too sure.
        Yar shook her head, still smiling.  "Yes, it's a joke."
        Data acknowledged that bit of information absently as the green dragonet flew off, then looked at Tasha innocently.  "I heard a joke the other day."
        "Oh, yeah?" she said before she thought.  Then it hit her: Data was going to tell her the joke.
        The dismay must have shown on her face, for the android's expression became positively predatory, and he hurriedly began delivering the setup.  "There was this man, and he was walking down the street, and he ran into his brother.  He said, `Hi, how are you?' and his brother said, `Fine.  Where are you going?', and the man said, `I'm going to the barber shop,' and his brother said, `I'm going to the barber shop, too.'  So the man said, `Let's go to the barber shop together.'"  Data looked expectant.
        So did Tasha.  "And?" she prompted.
        Data looked slightly puzzled.  "That is all," he informed her, shaking his head slightly.
        Tasha thought it over.  "I don't get it.  Are you sure you're telling it right?"
        Data considered it.  "I have not forgotten any of it, if that is what you mean."
        Both of them repeated the alleged joke mentally, identical looks of confusion on their faces.
        "`Let's go to the . . .'  I still don't get it," Tasha said, dismissing it.
        Data's expression brightened.  "I did not either, but I had assumed that it was my own lack of comprehension.  I still have much trouble with humor."
        The blonde shook her head.  "I think you try too hard.  That was an incredibly dumb joke.  Who told it to you?"
        "Geordi."
        "Uh-huh.  The plot thickens.  Motive: revenge."  Data smiled at the Holmesian terminology.  "Speaking of Geordi, I haven't seen you with him much lately.  What gives?"
        "Pardon?"
        "Is something the matter?  You've barely exchanged two words with him this week; it's been like a `what's wrong with this picture?' puzzle."
        Data frowned, his expression turning introspective.  He hesitated, then seemed to change his mind about answering altogether, getting to his feet abruptly and walking a short distance to gaze out over the landscape.  The golden dragon unwound itself from his neck and took flight, while two trilling fairies swooped down, tangled themselves briefly in his hair, then flew off.
        "I would like to explore this setting further," he said, as though her question had never been uttered.  He turned to look at her, absently raking his hair back into place. "Do you want to accompany me?"
        Tasha studied him for a second or two, wondering at his evasiveness, then shrugged.  "Sure."
        Data reached down to pull her to her feet before starting down the path. Absorbed in brushing leaves off her uniform, the security chief caught up with him in a couple of running strides, and impulsively reclaimed his hand, lacing her fingers through his and squeezing hard.  She couldn't for the life of her explain it; some instinct had prompted the gesture, had made it necessary that she offer this small human contact.
        Data did not halt, but he directed a bemused glance down at their clasped hands and then at her.  Unwilling to give an explanation, she pretended not to see his look, and peripheral vision showed him to be mulling over it as they walked, his expression almost comical in its perplexity.  After a moment, he seemed to dismiss it, then looked down at their hands again, too puzzled to let it go. 
        "Why are you holding my hand?"
        "Just because.  Do you mind?"
        The android shook his head.  "No.  But I do not understand the significance of the act."
        Tasha's shoulders lifted slightly in an attempt to shrug off the necessity of answering Data's query.  "Um, it's supposed to convey affection.  Friendship.  Depending on the situation, it can mean different things at different times."
        He pondered her words for a moment.  "As with much nonspecific nonverbal communication, it seems difficult to interpret."
        "Not necessarily.  Maybe you're just not used to it."  She swung their hands a little as they walked.  "You know, you don't have to answer my question if you don't feel like it."  The nice thing about Data was that she knew he wouldn't ask `what question?'. "You can just tell me to shut up and stay out of it."
       His eyes met hers and he looked mightily tempted.  Considering the number of times that that particular phrase had been directed his way, she wondered suddenly if `shut up' were two words he would give a vast fortune to utter.
        When it came, however, the reply reflected his usual polite demeanor.  "I have not spent much time with Geordi this week, that is true.  I believe that it is the consequence of a change in how we—in how I perceive myself."
        "Does . . ."  Tasha hesitated, unsure of just how much she could presume upon their friendship without overstepping.  "Does that mean you're not friends anymore?"
        Data stopped to look at her in surprise.  "I do not think so."  A thought seemed to occur to him.  "Could it be interpreted in that manner?"
        Tasha shrugged, uncertain.  "I don't know.  Have you been avoiding him, or have you both been avoiding each other?"
        With his usual restlessness, Data pulled his hand free and moved a few steps away to hunker down close to a tree root, leaning precariously to one side to look beneath it.
        "The latter seems a more accurate assessment of the situation."  Obviously, whatever was under the tree was completely fascinating, although Data also seemed to be giving due consideration to the matter under discussion.
        Tasha rolled her eyes behind his back at his reticence, then relented.  "So . . . what, did you have an argument?" she asked gently.
        Data looked up at her.  "I would not call it an argument, exactly."
        "What would you call it?"
        Data thought, obviously choosing his words with care.  "A discussion that was not resolved."
        Sounded like an argument.  "About?"
        He was looking under the tree again.  "It dealt primarily with Geordi's inability to accept my mechanical composition."
        Yar frowned.  That didn't sound like Geordi.  "But Data, Geordi has always known that you're an android; he's always accepted you for what you are."
        "He has always known, but now he has seen.  It has made him . . . uncomfortable, and, I believe, somewhat ambivalent about our friendship."
        Geordi??  Tasha frowned and knelt in the leaves beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder to get his attention.  "Are you sure?  Maybe you misinterpreted something he said.  Besides, I thought you said that you were still friends."
        Data nodded.  "I . . . the possibility of my having misconstrued some of Geordi's statements is fairly high, but . . . there were other things that he had said which . . . seemed to suggest confusion on his part as to my sentience—or lack of same."
        "And you called him on it—set him straight?"  It was almost a rhetorical question. Data was seldom hesitant about politely pointing out that he was indeed sentient.
        "Yes.  One might say that the majority of the disagreement was semantical."
        The light dawned.  Finally, something that she could address with some confidence.  "Geordi said some things that you didn't like, and you set the record straight, and now you've been avoiding each other," Tasha clarified.
        Data looked as though now he might want to argue semantics with her, but he settled for a skeptical frown and a dubious "Essentially."
        "Close enough," she amended, acknowledging his dissatisfaction with her wording.  He smiled slightly.  She took a deep breath—this wasn't so difficult.  "Maybe Geordi's afraid of saying anything else to, I don't know . . . hurt your feelings.  I think that's what I might do.  Maybe . . . he's waiting until he has a little more perspective—until he can be sure he's not going to put his foot in his mouth."  She raised her eyebrows and spread her hands in an invitation for input.
        He was silent for a moment, obviously contemplating her words.  He sat down on the ground and peered under the tree again, speaking slowly.  "I believe that I, too, have been attempting to acquire some . . . perspective."  He met her eyes with a level gaze.  "However, I had not met with much success until talking with you."
        Tasha smiled slowly, surprised and genuinely pleased at the admission.  "Really?" She seated herself on the low root before him.
        Data reached out for her hand, a pause giving her the opportunity to pull away and reject the contact if she so desired.  When she did not, he completed the movement, taking her hand in his and closing his fingers about it in a brief, careful squeeze before releasing it.  "Really."
        Tasha felt her smile broaden absurdly and tried to dampen it down somewhat, delighted by his use of the newfound gesture toward her, but a little embarrassed at just how appealing she found it.
        Counselor Tasha Yar—it had a nice ring to it.  She felt the ridiculously pleased smile become a wry grin, and felt much more at ease.
        "So, how's the perspective situation now?" she asked him lightly.
        He took the question seriously.  "Slightly better.  I am wondering now if . . . perhaps . . ."  He hesitated.
        "What?"
        He drew up one knee and rested his chin on it.  "If perhaps I should not have been so quick to make my views known, if I should have simply let Geordi's words pass and waited to see whether or not he repeated the ideas.  He seemed . . . unhappy as I spoke to him."
        "Why?  Did you jump down his throat?"
        Data looked as bewildered as she had ever seen him.  "Jump down his throat?" he queried incredulously.
        "A saying, Data.  It means to, um, reprimand someone in greater proportion than their transgression deserves."
        Data accepted the explanation without much comment.  "Ah.  Then I may have indeed done so," he said slowly.  "And, if so, I should not have.  In some ways, Geordi may have been correct."
        Tasha frowned.  "How so?"
        He shifted, bringing his other knee up and wrapping his arms around both.  "In his inference that I lack sentience.  In some—"
        "Hold on, hold on."  Tasha was indignant.  "Wait just one damned minute.  In the first place, if I'm catching the gist of this argument—discussion, whatever," she added hastily as he looked about to protest, "correctly, it sounds like Geordi didn't mean to imply that at all.  And in the second place, you passed a test of sentience, Data.  That kind of suggests to me that there's little room left for doubt on the subject."
        "Your reasoning puts much faith in tests which can be very subjective; however, I am not contesting my own sentience."  A blue dragonet landed on Tasha's shoulder, startling her, and he interrupted himself to say, "I wonder how many colors of them there are within this single species."
        Tasha beamed as the glistening blue wings folded and the tiny scaled head rubbed against her cheek.  "Look, Data, this one likes me."  She stroked its delicate, scaly neck without hesitation and was rewarded by complete, blissful immobility on the dragonet's part.
        Data turned to look at the trail ahead.  "We had intended to investigate the rest of this pattern," he reminded her.
        Tasha shook her head.  "Let's not go yet.  I want to play with this one for a while."  She smiled down at it, then looked back over at him, her expression growing serious.  "Besides, I want to hear what you were about to say."
        He didn't look particularly happy at the thought of resuming their former topic of conversation, but nodded.  Silence reigned for a time as Tasha petted the little dragon, but eventually Data said, "It is not sentience which concerns me, but an inability to comprehend the human equation.  In many ways, I was designed to emulate humans, yet numerous intrinsic human qualities are missing from my programming.  Geordi's words only served to emphasize that fact—a fact that had already been brought to my attention."
        Tasha stopped petting the dragonet and frowned.  "By Lore?"
        Data nodded.  "Yes."
        Tasha thought about it for a moment before asking, "But how much of what he said can you believe?  He lied about so much of the information he gave us—he might have said anything to you, true or not.  He was pretty sociopathic."
        The expression on Data's face proclaimed that to be the understatement of the year.  "I also believe that to have been the case, but that does not mean that he did not use the truth when it could be advantageous."
        "But how would telling you that you weren't programmed to be human serve his purpose?"
         Data hesitated.  "By . . . `hitting me where it hurts most' is, I believe, the phrase.  If he could distract me from what he was doing with something that would occupy my thoughts to a greater degree, then he would be free to continue with little danger of hindrance on my part—a ploy which was partially successful because I did not see it for what it was."
        Tasha looked at him closely.  Some indefinable note in his voice conveyed more clearly than words that he had been hurt, that some measure of trust had been taken from him and lost forever, and replaced with caution and uncertainty.  Tasha resented the thief; she wondered if Data resented him as well.  "How do you feel about him, about what he did?" she asked curiously.
        Data stared out into the woods as he replied slowly, "I have had many feelings concerning Lore.  So many of them conflict that they are difficult to verbalize.
        "I . . . regret the necessity of his destruction, as I regret the existence of whatever caused his aberrant behavior.  At the same time, knowing what he was, I am relieved that he is gone."  Data paused, frowning.  "He quite correctly accused me of jealousy, and I believe it was partially my attempts to eradicate those impulses which impaired my judgement of his true character.  He was understandably bitter about my having replaced him."
        "You don't feel responsible because of that, do you?"
        Data shook his head.  "No.  I had no part in my own construction, or in any decisions made by the colonists or Dr. Soong.  Lore's actions at the colony and here aboard the Enterprise were his own—I had no control over them.  I could only try to prevent them from bringing others to harm."
        "Which you did, but the next time I wish you'd call security first," she reminded him.  She thought for a moment, puzzled.  "Data, I don't understand.  What reason would you have to be jealous of Lore?"
        Data opened his mouth, then hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with the question. Finally, he said, "I believe that Lore was telling me the truth when he said that I had been designed with far fewer human qualities than he possessed."
        "But, Data, so much of that sort of thing—the things that Lore was supposedly so much better at—is social.  And social behavior is learned, not inherited or programmed into you.  He just got it the easy way, because programming could be a substitute for learning in his case."
        "I have little trouble with the acquisition of some social forms, but even human language presents some difficulty.  Humor, for the most part, continues to elude me, and your expression when I asked why you were holding my hand earlier suggested it was something you expected me to already know," the android pointed out.
        Tasha sighed.  This was getting more and more complicated.  "Okay, Data, I grant you that there are probably a lot of things that you don't know or don't understand about social interaction.  But there are a lot of things that you do know.  When we left the transporter room that day after beaming Lore out, remember what happened when Wes caught up with us in the turbolift?"
        "Of course."
        "So do I, but tell me anyway.  I want you to verbalize it."
        Data looked confused, but he complied.  "Wesley experienced a delayed reaction to the emergency situation."
        "And?  Describe it for me, okay?"
        He frowned.  "We had entered the turbolift.  Wesley called out for us to hold it for him—which you did—and he ran to get inside.  Once he was standing still, I noticed that he began shaking, and I asked him if he was all right.  He nodded, then shook his head . . ."  Data trailed off, getting her point.
        Tasha figured that hammering it home wouldn't hurt him any, and finished the incident herself.  "Exactly.  He turned around, threw his arms around you and burst into tears.  And you put your arms around him and held him until he was okay before you took him to Sickbay.  How did you know to hold him?"
        Data thought about it.  "I am uncertain.  I just knew."
        "Maybe you learned about it through a lot of unrelated observations.  You're a scientist, Data.  You know enough about learning to realize that it's accomplished mostly through observation and experience.  Maybe you're lacking in some areas because your experience in those areas is very limited.  Do you think that I knew how to act when I first left the colony?"
        "I do not know.  We were not yet acquainted at that—"
        "Rhetorical question.  Take my word for it, I didn't.  I had to learn.  I'm still learning."
        Data absorbed that information silently.  Finally, she said softly, "Data?"
        He looked at her, and he looked far from relieved, or convinced, or any of the other things she thought he might look.  "I may not be able to learn those concepts," he said quietly.  "I have been wondering if there is something in my programming to prevent me from acquiring an understanding of them—or if there is a limit to how much I can learn.  Difficult as it has been, I have continued to try—and I have continued to fail.  If I am inhibited from gaining an understanding of human nature by checks in my programming, there seems little point in attempting it."
        Tasha swallowed.  That was . . . she couldn't put a name to it.  It hurt.  She hurt for him.  He sounded so despondent.  She took a deep breath, absently fingering the sleeping dragonet's scaly whip of a tail.  "Data, I think you're wrong," she said carefully. "I don't think you should assume that you're predestined to fail.  Maybe some things were simply left out of your programming because it was felt that life experiences were better than instantaneous knowledge."
        She paused to think, warming to the debate.  "Or, let's assume the worst.  Those colonists were scared.  After seeing what Lore was capable of, I can't blame them.  So let's say that your programming does include inhibitors against your becoming `too' human.  If so, who's to say that you can't overcome them?  If they exist, then your social and emotional growth to date has been despite those so-called failsafes, which would probably operate most strongly on potentially dangerous urges, anyway."
        She was definitely on a roll.  She grinned slowly.  "Besides, who says you have to be a whiz at everything?  Everything else is a snap for you, Data.  You have to have difficulty with something, especially if you have a desire to be human.  Humans aren't perfect."
        Data had been listening to her intently, and now he looked . . . intrigued.  "You may be right," he conceded slowly.  One corner of his mouth tilted in a faint, lopsided smile.
        Her own smile turned relieved.  "I'm always right," she informed him. 
        He looked doubtful.  "You are exaggerating," he accused.
        She shook her head fondly.  No shit, Sherlock.  "You've never heard of discretion being the better part of valor, have you, Data?"
        "I have, but there seemed little point in applying the philosophy in this instance. Valor did not seem required," he said mildly.
        She smiled.  Gods, he was endearing . . . and the major part of his charm was that he was totally unaware of it.
        A rustling under the root on which she was seated distracted her, and she exchanged curious looks with her shipmate, then looked hastily down at her feet, wary of non-amicable dragonets in search of a snack.
        Nothing there.
        "What's that?" she hissed at Data.
        "I am not certain, but I believe it may be more of the fairies," he said, his hushed tone matching hers.  "When I looked earlier, I saw several small humanoid shapes scurrying back into a depression beneath the root, but it was too dark to make them out clearly."
        "Look again," Tasha suggested.  She swung her knees to one side to give him an unobstructed view.
        He leaned over, brow furrowing in concentration as he peered into the dark, cave-like space under the root, then shifted onto his hands and knees, moving in closer, and finally lay flat, his head and one hand halfway inside.  Withdrawing, he tapped her calf with his fingers, indicating that she should move.  Tasha pulled her feet up onto the root, and he looked again, pushing further into the cramped opening.
        "Do you see anything?" Tasha stage-whispered, leaning over to look.
        There was no reply, and she couldn't see anything but his body lying prone; his head and shoulders blocked her view of the recess.  She waited a moment before nudging his shoulder with her boot.
        "Data, what's under there?" she said, her volume increasing slightly.
        He pulled his head out, his upper half shifting to one side to look up at her, his face lit with fascination.  His hair was disheveled; there were pieces of bark and leaves clinging to it in the back.
        Tasha grinned and reached over to remove the flora.  "So, what did you see?"
        "There is a rather faint light coming from the depression in the back, and I saw several of the fairies leaping down into it with their wings spread.  I believe it must go down some distance before leveling off.  If we could get a periscope, we might be able to see where it leads."
        Tasha was torn between possibly jostling her blue dragon into flight and the desire to see the light for herself.  "Damn.  Scoot over—I want to look."
        The android obligingly made room for her, and she carefully slid off the root. The dragonet awoke with a start, flapped its wings nervously, and hopped back to the root.  Tasha looked at it in disappointment.
        "Don't fly off," she entreated, then got down flat on her stomach and wriggled as far under the root as she could.
        Which was further than her male companion had gotten, she realized as she ignored the rough bark digging into her back through her uniform, and gazed with delight down into the light which bathed a soaring fairy in a bright white-yellow nimbus.  The fairy caught sight of her and dove back down with an indignant squeak.
        It took some time for her eyes to adjust to the light, and the scene still seemed fluid, shifting—or what she could see of it before it sloped down beneath the earth which made up the opposite side of the slender access shaft.
        Fairyland.  Fairy kingdom.
        Small, willowy figures whirled and leapt in a dance of joyful abandon, gossamer wings of every size and shape catching the light and reflecting it onto tiny faces with huge fey eyes and miniature Vulcan ears, on perfect supple bodies and lengths of shining hair that whipped around them as they spun.  They were male and female, some wearing costumes of leaves and flowers, others clothed in their clouds of hair—and the colors!  Oh, gods, the colors were every hue of the autumn rainbow—golds, yellows, reds, oranges, browns.  Tasha drank it in, her face lit with wonder.
        Eventually, she sighed.  Data hadn't seen it yet.  She took a final, lingering look at the beauty of it, and squirmed back out of the opening to find him waiting patiently, but with a look of anticipation on his face that made her grin madly.  She rubbed absently at her back where the bark had scraped it on her way out, and said, "You've got to see this—it's incredible."
        "What was it?"
        "You were right about the fairies," she hinted, still grinning like an idiot.
        He waited for her to elaborate, his face open, eager.
        "It was . . . it was . . . wonderful.  It was breathtaking."
        A faint smile played about the corners of his mouth as he watched her, half caught up in her excitement, while puzzlement tried to tug his features into a frown.
        "What did you see?"
        "It was . . ."  She searched for words.  "It was a whole . . . multitude of fairies, all dancing, like some tiny magical kingdom."  It occurred to her that she sounded ridiculous, but this was fanciful stuff, and she was enjoying it.  Besides, she was safe. Data wouldn't razz her about it, and from the look on his face, he was enjoying it pretty much himself.
        "Like the `fairy hills' of the ancient Gaelic and Celtic folklore?"
        Tasha was intrigued.  "I don't know much of the actual folklore.  I take it you do?"
        He shook his head.  "Only fragments.  However, fairy hills were considered sites of fairy revelry by the people of the time—entrances to the magical kingdom of Faerie, if you will.  According to legend, one could spend a night of subjective time merrymaking with the `little people', and emerge years later in real time.  Or, if the human guest were imprudent enough to eat or drink with his or her hosts, that person would then be trapped in the kingdom of Faerie forever, often to be used as a slave.  Those on whom the fairies bestowed their good will left with spells of good luck and pockets full of gold."
        "Amazing.  It's like they had an entire cultural structure built around their fantasies."
        Data nodded.  "They did.  The legends were very detailed, although often contradictory, and many people of the time considered them fact rather than fiction."
        Tasha shook her head, fascinated.  "It's certainly easy to see why they would want to.  I'd like to pursue this a little bit—maybe you could help me locate some material in the computer."
        "Yes, of course—later.  Now, however . . ."  He indicated the small entryway blocked by her body.
        "Sorry."  She got to her feet and out of his way, resuming her place on the root and her acquaintance with the little blue dragon.
        "Don't get stuck," she advised as his head disappeared and one shoulder followed it — just barely.  It looked like a tight fit.  "You still haven't lived down the Chinese handcuffs."
        His muffled reply informed her that he would not get stuck, and she grinned.  He was hopeless.
        "Data . . ."  She paused and reconsidered, struck by visions of him telling the wrong person at the wrong time to take a stroll out an airlock.  "Never mind."
        Obviously, he wasn't paying any attention to her anyway.  She held up a finger for the dragonet to grasp.  "Let him look," she said softly, half to herself, half to the little scaled face gazing whimsically at her.  "He deserves it, after this week."  The tiny wedge-shaped head cocked to one side in curiosity at the sound of her voice, and two fairies came in for a landing on her thigh—one male, one female—and peered up at her, hand in hand.
        Caught up in watching them, she didn't hear the footsteps approaching until Geordi's voice hailed her, making her jump violently, and scaring all three creatures into flight.
         She watched him approach, her eyes narrowing and her arms folding themselves across her chest.  "Thank you so much, LaForge, you idiot."
        "What?" Geordi demanded, bewildered.
        "You scared them off."
        "Scared who off?"
        She simply waved him off in disgust.  "What do you want, anyway?" she grumbled.
        "Excuse me for liv—what is he doing?" Geordi was looking askance at the half-visible android.
        "Ask him.  I'm not talking to you, cretin."  She smiled despite herself.  The picture Data presented was rather . . . interesting.
        Geordi returned the grin, and squatted beside his friend.  "Data?"
        There was no response, and after a moment, LaForge quipped, "Looks like you're not the only one who's not talking to me."
        Tasha caught the faint note of resignation in his voice.
        "He's utterly engrossed in what's under there," she informed him.  "I had to kick him to get his attention."
        "Just what is under there?  Do you know?"
        "Yes, but it's better if you see for yourself."  She wondered how it would look to him through his VISOR.  "Have you noticed all of the interesting little creatures around?"
        "Mm.  Yeah.  I tracked a few of the flying ones with infra-red.  They're really strange.  Dragons, or something pretty similar."
        "They're incredible.  How about the fairies?" she asked.
        "Fairies?" Geordi repeated with good-natured cynicism.  "Who programmed this setting, the Brothers Grimm?"
        "Have you got something against fairies?" Tasha asked threateningly.
        "Not personally, no.  But why?"
        "You have no soul," Tasha said.  She leaned over to tap the android's spine. "Data."
        "No, don't . . ."  Geordi paused, obviously hesitant about seeing his friend. "Don't bother him if he's that involved.  It'll wait."
        But Data was easing himself out from under the root, finding it necessary to contort his arms and shoulders to free himself.
        He pulled his head clear and sat up.  "I did not get stuck," he stated for the record, then looked over at Geordi, who had retreated to give him room to move.  "My apologies for not answering you, Geordi.  I did not want to frighten them."
        Geordi looked like he was going to ask `frighten whom?', but Data had not finished.  "It was not my intention to suggest that we were not on speaking terms," he said earnestly.
        Geordi looked uncomfortable.  "I was just kidding about that," he replied quickly, but his grin was less than convincing as he dismissed Data's apology with a brush of his hand.
        Data frowned.  "Were you?"
        Geordi looked as though he were at a loss.  He thought for a second, then shrugged slowly.  "Maybe not entirely," he admitted carefully.
        Data nodded.  "Then the apology stands.  And I believe that I also need to make amends for `jumping down your throat', as Tasha put it, earlier this week.  I interpreted your words too hastily."
        Geordi was obviously taken aback.  His head turned toward Yar, who felt that at the moment invisibility would be a great asset.  She ignored his look and studied the ceiling of leaves above her.
        Geordi sounded a little muddled as he said, "Hey, it's okay.  You were justified. I said some pretty asinine things.  Um . . . I didn't mean 'em the way they sounded."
        Tasha wondered how long they were going to apologize to each other — and whether there was any way she could get the hell out of there without being noticed.
        "As you tried to tell me at the time.  I am sorry."  Data hesitated.  "Are we still friends?"
        Oh, gods.  Tasha dropped her pretense of watching the leaves overhead to see Geordi's reaction.
        LaForge stared.  "What?" he said softly.  "Of course we are.  Of course we are." He emphasized his words by gripping the android's shoulders, and releasing him with a hefty slap on the left one.
        Data smiled and put out his hand.  Geordi took it and grasped it in both of his own, holding on tight.  Slowly copying his friend, Data brought his other hand up to join them, and Geordi grinned, giving them one hard shake.  "Awright," he said with quiet warmth.
        Again wary of intruding, Tasha waited, hesitant to say anything, but when Geordi slapped Data on the shoulder again and said, "Listen, I came in here to ask you something," she saw her chances of getting Data's reaction to the spectacle beneath the tree dwindling.  She opened her mouth to interrupt, and Geordi turned to her.  "You, too. You're never gonna guess what Riker's got in mind."
        She let out the breath she had drawn and gave up.  "I don't know, a complete point-by-point check of all ship's systems."  That sounded like Riker.
        "No, no.  You're not even close.  This is recreational," Geordi clarified.
        "A battle simulation in competition with another starship?" Data guessed.
        "You're getting warmer."
        Data appeared puzzled.  "My body temperature is . . ."  He trailed off, catching the looks on their faces.  "No?"
        "It means you're getting closer to the answer, Data.  Spill it, Geordi," Tasha ordered.  "We're not getting any younger."
        "Okay.  I've gotta get back in a few minutes, anyway."  The blind man rubbed his hands together in excitement, grinning.  "Get this: a ball team from the bridge crew up against Medical.  We'll slaughter 'em with Worf and Data on our side.  Practice is starting right now in Main Holodeck."
        Tasha exchanged looks with Data — hers unimpressed, his mildly interested.
        She sighed.  It was always like this at World Series time — all the crew members from Earth started wearing baseball caps and getting argumentative about things like RBIs and Series records.
        "Fine," she said, without much enthusiasm.  "I'll catch up with you later.  I want to change first."
        "Data?"
        "I know how to play the game, Geordi.  I do not need to practice."
        "Hey, practice makes . . . you're right, you probably don't need to practice.  But come help me out.  I'm going to need the moral support."
        "All right.  However, I believe that I, too, shall join you later.  I have this setting for another eight minutes and fifty-six seconds."
        Geordi gave him the thumbs-up.  "Great.  See ya later."
        He took off toward the entrance, and Tasha watched him go, making no move to get up and fulfill her promise to change and hit the practice field.
        She leaned toward Data conspiratorially.  "I've seen Medical's team," she told him.  "They're pathetic.  A group of arthritic little old ladies in environmental suits could beat them with their hands tied behind their backs."
        The expression on his face was priceless in its confusion, and Tasha grinned. "It's not that I'm against playing, but we need to find a more challenging opponent."
        He was apparently still working on the `little old lady' crack and had not located his speech apparatus.
        "Never mind, Data.  What did you think of what you saw under the tree?"
        His face lit up.  "It . . ."  He halted, his expression turning thoughtful.  "I do not believe that my report would convey more than the observable, measurable phenomena. There was a quality to the experience which defies description."  He considered her request again.  "It was . . . beautiful," he ventured softly, then shook his head, at a loss, but seeming content for once to leave it at that.  Tasha grinned in friendly agreement.
        A comfortable silence ensued, during which Tasha laid her head on her knees and simply soaked in the tranquility around her, lazily watching two of the fairies tiptoe out for a peek at an oblivious Data, who was apparently lost in thought.  As her eyes began to drift shut, she heard him moving, and felt a touch on her shoulder.
        "Hm?" was the most energetic inquiry she could manage.
        "We must leave now, Tasha.  I believe that this holodeck is scheduled to house a tropical landscape for a birthday celebration in two minutes."
        She was instantly alert.  "All right."  She stood up and stretched, taking a last look around.  "I hate to leave, though."
        Data waited patiently for her a few steps down the path, and she moved to join him.  At the exit she sighed and grinned ruefully.  "Let's play ball," she said, deadpan.
        Data gave her the thumbs-up.  She started in the direction of her quarters and halted at the sound of her name, turning back.  "Hm?"
        His eyes met hers.  "Thank you," he said quietly.
        She smiled slowly.  "You're welcome."  She held his gaze long enough to see a faint answering smile, then turned and headed down the corridor.

End of Chapter One