Characters and places belong to Paramount, but since they don't feel the need to tell us what really happened in season two, I've been compelled to take Dr. Crusher, Captain Picard and Sloan out for a jaunt to soothe their fragile egos.
Much gratitude to Liz Logan for the beta and also for reminding me that no one gets into Section 31 by applying to a job posting that lists its qualifications as: 'Earthbound ensigns only. Others need not respond.' The Section 31 website: http://www.geocities.com/project_s31/
He told her over coffee and croissants on a Thursday morning.
"This is an excellent opportunity, Beverly," Picard said, breaking his croissant in half; light brown flakes of the delicate pastry fluttered to the white plate.
"It sounds like it," Beverly Crusher replied. She licked her lips. "For someone else."
Her nonchalant tone caught Picard's attention. "Why?"
"This would be a wonderful position for someone who wants to be chief medical officer at Starfleet Medical. I don't want it," Crusher said quietly. "Jean-Luc, we came aboard the Enterprise just a year ago. We're finally settling in, getting used to each other... It's not the right time to make changes."
Crusher tried to understand the expression Jean-Luc's face but failed. It was that infuriatingly impassive and cryptic thin-lipped frown of his, the one that told her he knew something that she didn't and that while he might hint, he would never come out and directly tell her what he was thinking. And after almost twenty years of friendship, it irked Beverly to know that Jean-Luc still didn't feel entirely comfortable around her.
"Wesley likes it here," Crusher continued. "You've been good to him, Jean-Luc. You've allowed him access to the Bridge, given him the opportunity to try different things... I don't want to take this experience away from him."
"I see," Picard said again in that infuriatingly calm voice of his.
Crusher set her spoon down and pushed her plate away. She leaned forward, the tips of her hair skimmed her shoulders and brushed her cheeks as she met Picard's gaze directly.
"Don't think I'm ungrateful," she said softly. "Chief of Starfleet Medical, it's an honor, and I appreciate it, but I can't accept."
"Beverly, perhaps I wasn't clear." Picard pushed his chair back and shifted his body to the left slightly, breaking off eye contact.
"What are you talking about?"
"This isn't an assignment you can turn down."
"I'm not looking for career advancement. I'm happy on the Enterprise."
"That's not what I mean," Picard said. He turned to face Crusher and she thought from the tightness of his expression that perhaps he was unhappy about what he had to say next. "Starfleet requested you specifically. The Saratoga will rendezvous with us tomorrow and Dr. Katherine Pulaski will replace you on the Enterprise as Chief Medical Officer. You will return with the Saratoga to begin your assignment in San Francisco." He spoke briskly, crisply, and even slightly faster than usual, perhaps to cover up the faint quiver underlying his usually strong voice.
"So it's a done deal," Crusher said softly. She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She lifted her head defiantly to meet Picard's gaze. "You didn't have anything to do with this, did you?"
"Believe me, no. I fought to keep you, but Medical insisted that it be you and only you. It's an honor to be chosen, Beverly." There was a slight hesitation and then Picard attempted a smile, thin-lipped, but the upward curve of lips was there. Barely. "You will gain valuable experience." This last sentence seemed unnecessary and Beverly wondered whom Picard was trying to convince.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?" Crusher reached for a hard roll; she was particularly hungry but she felt the need to tear into something.
"I would have but I only found out last night," Picard answered.
"'Last minute' isn't how Starfleet conducts business," she said. She swallowed hard. How would she tell Wesley? She thought of all the things she would have to pack, all of those belongings that she had only recently found the right places for. "You know that as well as I do."
"They were adamant."
"Do you know why?"
"No, only that they had a special project in mind for you because of your background in viruses. Your expertise in this area makes you the leading candidate for this position." Picard attempted another smile. "The only candidate, actually."
"I see," Crusher said. She pressed her lips together. There wasn't a lot of time left to get sickbay in order before Dr. Pulaski came aboard and Beverly wanted to leave written instructions for her replacement since it didn't look as if they would be able to sit down together to discuss the sickbay procedures Crusher had so recently implemented. And there were other minor duties she needed to resolve - evaluations of her medical staff which were pending, physicals which needed to be rescheduled to match Pulaski's schedule...
Crusher pushed her chair back and stood up.
"If you'll excuse me, Jean-Luc, I have some things to take care of." It was a struggle to keep the heat from rising in her cheeks, to keep her voice from cracking.
"One more thing, Doctor," the Captain cleared his throat. Now he looked distinctly uncomfortable. Crusher froze. "About Wesley...he won't be going with you."
Crusher stared. "What?"
"Wesley will remain on the Enterprise."
"That's ridiculous. I'm not leaving my son here."
"You said yourself that Wesley was learning a great deal. Why interrupt that education?"
"No," Crusher said fiercely. "He goes with me." She put one knee on the chair and leaned forward onto the table, putting all of weight on her palms. "I won't go without him."
"You don't have a choice in the matter."
Crusher blinked. Was this Jean-Luc Picard? She shook her head.
"What are you saying?" she asked. Her stomach shifted uncomfortably and suddenly, the uneaten fruit on her plate was endlessly fascinating. And then she answered her own question, because she knew it would hurt too much to hear Jean-Luc repeat those words again. "You're telling me to leave Wesley behind."
"I'll assume full responsibility for Wesley," the Captain said uneasily. Beverly bit her lip; Jean-Luc was not known for his warmth and she had the feeling that Picard would not know how to handle all the trials and tribulations of a teenager. "He will be fine, Beverly."
The firmness in Picard's tone emphasized to Beverly that she had no choice in the matter. And she knew, from the expression of Jean-Luc's face - no longer cryptic now - that he regretted having to tell her all of these things.
The passageway extended long and narrow. Silver walls, no artwork, and a distinct chill in the air. Beverly Crusher turned to her guide, an Ensign Barrows, and asked, "You're sure about this?"
"Mr. Sloan wanted me to bring you to his office immediately," Barrows said. Barrows was young, probably a recent graduate of the Academy; her cheeks were still round, touched with color and the tips of her brown hair hovering just above her shoulders. There was eagerness in her step, a youthful enthusiasm that Beverly envied.
"This isn't Starfleet Medical," Beverly said. She hated to sound so cold, but she couldn't help it. Since returning to Earth, she had felt as if she was fumbling her way through the dark. This was the last straw; they were in the cold basement of a building Beverly Crusher had never entered, not during all of her years at the Academy and certainly not during medical school. In fact, Beverly had never noticed it before at all; funny how a building could be so nondescript as to escape notice at all.
"I know," Barrows said. She quickened her step so that she was now ahead of the doctor. "This way. Mr. Sloan is waiting for you."
"Who is Mr. Sloan?" Crusher queried, matching her gait with Barrows'. "I've never heard of him before."
Barrows shrugged her thin shoulders, the material of her uniform shifting slightly. "He'll introduce himself."
"Does he have a title at least?"
"Most people call him Sloan."
"Right," Crusher said, realizing that Barrows had no intention of sharing anything all. The ensign turned a corner and then stopped in front of a door. She punched in a code and the doors slid open, revealing a large lab. A man in a white coat stood in front of a lab table, holding a vial up to the light. He turned to look at the two women.
"Ah, Barrows," the man said genially. "You found Dr. Crusher."
"I did, sir," Ensign Barrows replied. "Dr. Crusher, this is Mr. Sloan."
Beverly stepped forward, extending a hand. "Mr. Sloan," she said coolly.
"The lovely Beverly Crusher," Sloan said. He carefully placed the test tube he was holding into a metal rack, ignoring Crusher's outstretched hand. "I trust you had a pleasant enough journey back to Earth."
"The Saratoga was very comfortable," Crusher said, drawing back her hand and jamming her fists into the deep pockets of her blue coat.
"And Barrows here, she saw to your every need?"
Crusher glanced at Barrows out of the corner of her eye. "Yes, she did."
"Splendid," Sloan said, rubbing his hands together. Uncommonly large hands, Beverly noted, with long fingers. She wondered idly if Sloan had ever played the piano and unconsciously, she knit her own fingers together. "This, Doctor, is your personal lab. You won't be disturbed here."
"For the virus project?" Crusher asked. "When will I have the opportunity to meet the others on the team?"
"What team?" Sloan asked. His voice was smooth, almost silky.
"Captain Picard told me that as part of my responsibilities as head of Starfleet Medical would be to lead a special project dealing with viruses. He didn't give me more information than that. I assume you have the relevant details."
"Ah, so there was a misunderstanding. Happens all of the time," Sloan said. He grinned, his lips parting just a little to reveal teeth. "I can understand the confusion. You'll serve on the senior staff and will have responsibilities akin to that of head of Starfleet Medical while Dr. Reyes is off planet. Your office is on the top floor of the main medical building and as I understand it, it has a clear view of the city. You'll be able to see Alcatraz. However, the bulk of your work will take place in this lab."
Crusher shook her head. "This isn't what I was told. Being on the senior staff and serving as head of Starfleet Medical, those are two very different things," she said. "I agreed-"
"There was no agreement, Doctor," Sloan said in a cold voice. "I requested you specifically; Captain Picard had no choice in the matter, nor do you."
Crusher froze. The tone of Sloan's voice, earlier so smooth, now was cold, almost frightening and Beverly Crusher did not frighten easily.
"Captain Picard doesn't misunderstand," Crusher said quietly.
"In this case I think he did," Sloan responded. He leaned against the counter, his arms crossed against his chest and a tiny smiled played at the edges of mouth. "Of course, once I tell you what is involved, you'll understand why I could not be completely forthcoming with your captain."
"You misled the Captain."
"You seem to have a grasp for the basics, Doctor, and that I find comforting. You'll find that truth is often overrated; in fact, it can be quite boring on occasion. It is much better to obfuscate the issues on occasion to reach a conclusion. Don't you agree?"
Crusher narrowed her eyes.
"I could easily walk out of here. I don't like to play games, Mr. Sloan, and I certainly don't like to be deceived," Crusher said. She turned to look at Barrows. "I'm leaving. Please make the necessary arrangements for my return to the Enterprise."
"You would do that based on a misunderstanding?" Sloan laughed. "Come on, Doctor. I thought better of you."
"As I said before, this isn't what I agreed to." Crusher looked at Ensign Barrows. "Can you make my arrangements to rendezvous with the Enterprise? I'd like to leave in the morning."
"No," Sloan said slyly. "You don't mean that, Doctor."
"Oh yes I do."
"It would be ill-advised of you," Sloan said. He leaned back against a lab table, crossing his arms against his chest. "I know you're aware of the dangers in space travel. So many things that could happen out there... you wouldn't want something to befall the Enterprise now, would you?"
The hairs on the back of Crusher's neck stood up and her muscles froze. She looked at Sloan and then at Barrows, both of them looking uncommonly serene in the sterile confines of the lab. They had the upper hand and knew it. Crusher clenched her fists.
"I know you left your son behind," Sloan went on.
"Stop it," Crusher said in a low voice because she didn't trust herself to speak loudly without betraying some of her fears. "I understand."
"Good. I thought you would. Now, back to the lab tour," Sloan said easily, as if the last few minutes had never happened. He gestured around the lab and Crusher followed the sweep of his arm. "You'll find that the facility is uniquely equipped for the work you are responsible for, based on the recommendations from other doctors who have had experience in this area."
Crusher turned around slowly, not trusting herself to speak; already a lump had formed in her throat and she refused to let Sloan know he intimidated her on a level that she herself could not acknowledge.
On initial inspection, the lab appeared to be highly sophisticated, containing some of the most advanced equipment available in the Federation. Cabinets lined all four walls of the lab, providing valuable storage space. In addition, the lab was much more spacious than the tiny space she had to work in aboard the Enterprise.
"What is the project?" she asked, turning her focus back on Sloan.
"This," Sloan pointed to the test tube he had been examining earlier when Crusher and Barrows had first arrived. "Have you heard of the Ghasa virus?"
"I didn't think so. Not many people have," Sloan said. "We discovered it on Mezaphat a few years back. Several hundred people died in that epidemic. It doesn't like to leave Mezaphat very often, but occasionally, it will find a host to take it off world. In turn that host will infect a brand new population."
"Sounds like typical virus behavior."
"It kills quickly, within twelve to fifteen days of incubation. Symptoms, which manifest after seven days of gestation, include severe abdominal pain, headache, coughing and bleeding, internally and also through any open orifices, including the mouth and eyes. Organs begin to liquefy around the tenth day," Sloan said. He spoke mechanically enough, his gaze never wavering from Crusher's face. "By the twelfth day, it's common for victims to lapse into a semi-conscious state and by the fifteenth day, they are dead. We speculate that the virus is transmitted through the air and also by the exchange of any bodily fluids. Many of the people who have fallen prey to the virus had nursed other victims. As you can see, Doctor, this is an extremely dangerous virus and one we must have an antidote for as soon as possible."
Crusher glanced at the test tube and was relieved to notice that it was adequately sealed. Still, she thought, a virus this deadly requires special precautions. She glanced about, noting the vent in the far end of the lab and special filtration units installed against each of the four walls. A sink, with an eye rinse, was at the end of the lab table.
"Anything I didn't cover?" Sloan asked.
Crusher nodded. "Back to my original question, Mr. Sloan. Will I have a staff to assist in my efforts?"
"No," Sloan shook his head. "You must work alone."
"What you're asking for... I require a staff of some kind."
"Christy can help you with whatever you need," Sloan said. "You'll find that she is quite capable and has an extensive science background." He dragged those long fingers of his along the edge of the black lab table.
"I'm afraid Ensign Barrows, no matter how capable she is, may not provide as much help as I require," Crusher said evenly. In fact, the thought of an ensign, fresh out of the Academy and without a medical background embarking on research of this magnitude, was dismaying in itself. Without capable and experienced medical minds to bounce ideas off...
"I prefer you work alone in developing the antidote. You start immediately. Please let Christy know if there is something missing from the lab - we did our best to supply it prior to your arrival. Your lab office is that way." Sloan pointed to the left. A sheet of glass separated a fairly large office from the lab. "Make yourself at home."
Sloan stripped off his lab coat and dumped into the hamper near the door. He turned briefly. "By the way, you'll find protective clothing in the closet. I advise you use it. Ghasa is friendly to no one."
Sloan stepped out, the doors closing behind him. Beverly glanced at Ensign Barrows, who remained perfectly composed.
"You've heard all this before," Crusher said quietly.
Barrows nodded. "Mr. Sloan has been searching for a cure for a while. You're the fourth doctor he's requested. The other three didn't last very long, a few months at the most. One infected himself with the virus, another disappeared mysteriously and the third died in a shuttle accident last month."
Crusher shivered. "Sounds unlucky," she said, trying to force some humor into her tone.
"I hope you find the cure," Barrows said earnestly.
Crusher eyed the test tube carefully and inadvertently, her thoughts touched briefly on Wesley. She swallowed hard.
"That makes two of us," Crusher said.
Starfleet Medical - or Sloan, depending on point of view - had assigned Crusher quarters on the Officer's Row bordering the Bay. Lush green lawn, dark red geraniums sprinkled among colorful peonies, and tall evergreens added an air of serenity to the grounds. Peaceful, Crusher thought, as she walked along the gravel paths leading towards Golden Gate Park, a familiar setting, one rife with memories of the past; she and Jack had lived nearby when they were newlyweds. Later they had moved across the Bay to Sausalito, but would often come back for the occasional picnic, especially when Wesley was young.
Crusher turned, startled by the interruption.
"Ensign Barrows," she said.
Barrows walked toward the doctor quickly, a PADD in hand. "I thought you'd want this."
"What is it?"
"The research from the other doctors before you," Barrows said. She handed the PADD over. "It's all of their work so won't have to start from scratch. I downloaded the information after our meeting with Sloan and thought I'd bring it over so you could have some idea of where to start in the morning."
Crusher nodded. "Thank you."
"Have you settled in all right?" Barrows asked. She indicated the row house
Beverly had been assigned to. "You have everything you need?"
Crusher bit her lip. Everything but Wesley, she thought, but of course, she would not verbalize that sentiment. She put the PADD into the deep pocket of her blue lab coat.
"Yes," Crusher answered curtly. She didn't mention that she had taken one look at her belongings, assembled neatly in the center of the living room, and had promptly fled outside.
"Good. Unpacking is always difficult, but sometimes it's a relief too, you know? Once you find a place for everything, that is." Barrows shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "I'm sorry about the earlier confusion. I thought you knew the reason why you'd been brought here."
"You have nothing to apologize for," Crusher said. She clenched and unclenched her fists, remembering the rage that had temporarily rushed through her body when Sloan had first defined the parameters of her work. "It's not your fault that the scope of my duties was not properly conveyed."
"It happens every time," Barrows said. "Want to take a walk?"
Crusher shrugged. She supposed Sloan could have sent Barrows for nefarious purposes, but she decided to take the ensign at her word; after all, it looked as if the two of them would be spending a lot of time together in the near future. The women matched their strides as they made their way down to the pebbled shore edging the Bay. Across the choppy waters, they saw the hazy outlines of Marin County.
"What does Sloan do exactly?" Crusher asked. She kept her voice low, as if she expected Sloan to jump out of the shrubbery at any second. Crusher had to stifle a nervous little laugh. When and how had she become so paranoid?
Barrows shrugged. "Couldn't really tell you. I know he doesn't work for Starfleet directly, though I see Starfleet officers, mostly people with at least four pips on their collars, down in his offices all of the time. I think they're afraid of him." Barrows chuckled nervously, making Crusher think perhaps, despite the ensign's bravado, that Barrows was afraid of Sloan also.
"Is he a doctor?"
"Most definitely not, though he is a man of diverse talents," Barrows said. The two women stopped at the small strip of sand that separated them from the slate gray waters. "He's very secretive, Doctor, and I know him better than most, which is to say, not at all. He tells you what he wants you to know and has no qualms about telling you what you want to hear. I've learned not to take everything he says at face value. He's probably playing games with you."
"What about my son?" Crusher asked. She picked up a flat stone and flexed her wrist inward. She visualized the stone leaving her hand and skipping endlessly across the water in a perfect arc. Of course, she knew better; invariably her stones would sink after three or four skips. Jack, however, managed to get six or seven skips in each time he attempted the feat.
"As long as you do what Sloan asks, I'm sure Wesley will be fine."
"I'm starting to get that impression," Crusher said. She twisted her hand outward slightly, the force of her motion flinging the stone out into the water. The stone skipped across the surface four times before disappearing, water rippling outward in a circular pattern from the sinking point. "I suppose he leaves me with no options then."
"He only wants a cure for a terrible disease," Barrows said softly. "If you find it, you'll have a lot to be proud of. And the quicker you find it, the quicker you'll be reunited with your son."
"I don't like to be threatened."
"Most people don't," Barrows stated, her step quickening, probably out of anxiety. Crusher glanced about curiously and then quickly caught up to the younger woman. "But threats are a highly effective way of getting work done. Fear, you'll find, is a powerful motivator, and Mr. Sloan has discovered many ways to exploit that emotion."
"So I gather you've worked with him a lot," Crusher said. She pointed in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. "We used to walk across the Bridge on occasion when my son was younger. He loved watching the water splash up against the rocks below."
"I do too," Barrows said, her expression softening unexpectedly. "Dr. Crusher, I've worked with Mr. Sloan since I graduated from the Academy two years ago. I can tell you that he is not someone to fool with. He is a clever man and on occasion, I've seen his cruelty. I like you and that's the only reason I came to see you this evening. I wanted to make sure you understood what you were dealing with. The others, they didn't, no matter how many times I tried to explain."
"What happened to them?"
Barrows didn't answer the question and Crusher, noting the tightness of the ensign's jaw, didn't press the subject. All in good time, Crusher thought, but her stomach churned, as she remembered Sloan's earlier comments regarding the safety of the Enterprise.
The two women continued to walk along the shore and when the path looped around a fountain featuring four statues of water nymphs with flagons on their hips, their stone lips turned up in a perpetual pout, Crusher and Barrows headed back to the Officer's Row. By the time they reached Crusher's quarters, the sun had narrowed into a golden slit, cutting into the lavender gray of the sky.
Her days settled into a monotonous series of activities.
Crusher arrived at the lab around 0800 hours every morning. She would pull a new lab coat out of the closet in her office and settle down at her desk to review the research from the day before. She occasionally ran searches on the medical databases, attempting to find out if anything new had come up, either on the Ghasa virus or a virus similar to it.
She had grown intimately familiar with the protein structure of the virus from hours and hours of staring at it under various microscopes. She had painstakingly mapped its genetic structure, hoping to discover a weakness in its peptide links.
At one point, almost three months into the project, she had come tantalizingly close, yet within hours the virus had fortified itself against the antidote. In frustration, Crusher had knocked over the stack of PADDs at her elbow, wanting to scream, and knowing that no one would hear her if she did.
Strange as it sounded, Crusher wanted someone to hear her, someone who could come and rescue her from the basement in a building no one except for Starfleet brass visited.
Wesley sent letters once a week, detailing the normal activities on the Enterprise. Crusher knew, as she sipped tea in her living room, that Wesley probably left out those things that would cause her to worry excessively. But in general, he reported that he was doing well with his studies and had been spending more time on the Bridge. His tone assured her that he was doing fine but Crusher wished he missed her more.
The letters from Deanna Troi tended to be more gossipy, more salacious in nature, but never cruel. Will Riker wrote once in a while, mostly about Wesley, and not surprisingly, Crusher never heard from Worf, Data or LaForge.
Crusher had sent messages to Picard several times since her arrival in San Francisco and his responses to her were exactly in character for him: cool, curt, dignified. She didn't mention the misunderstanding or the fact that she wasn't actually serving as head of Starfleet Medical; somehow, she knew that Picard, always a gentleman, would not completely comprehend the situation as Sloan had laid it out her - that kind of duplicity had never been in Picard's nature.
Worse, she felt he might try to do something to extricate her from her obligations, thus putting Wesley in danger.
And so, when she replied to them, her letters were conversational in tone, filled with details about life in San Francisco, occasional tidbits concerning her research and of course, descriptions of the view from the top floor office in Starfleet Medical.
Crusher turned to see Ensign Barrows standing in the doorway to the lab, holding a steaming mug and a small basket.
"Thanks," Crusher said. She sighed. "What time is it?"
"Just after noon," Barrows said. "I brought you a sandwich. I decided to take the chance that you hadn't eaten yet."
"That was thoughtful of you." Crusher led the way out of the lab and into the adjoining office. "Come, sit down. It's been hours since I've seen anyone."
"It does get lonely down here, doesn't it?" Barrows asked, as she settled herself into the chair facing Crusher's desk.
"The quiet does get to me," Crusher admitted. She looked through the glass walls into the lab beyond. Her PADDs still lay scattered about, along with the various instruments she had been using. On the far wall, the giant view screen displayed the virus moving against the green background. "I haven't seen Mr. Sloan in weeks, it seems."
"He's been off planet," Barrows answered casually. She pushed the basket over to Crusher. "I hope you like ham and cheese. Unfortunately, I got to the mess hall a little too late and this was all that was left."
"It's fine, thanks," Crusher said. She sipped the coffee and then reached for the sandwich. She hadn't realized until this moment how hungry she was.
"Are you making any progress?"
"Some, but nothing significant."
"You can tell Mr. Sloan that the next time you see him."
Crusher arched an eyebrow. "No?"
"I don't report back to him on everything. You can trust me." Barrows laid emphasis on the word 'can' but Crusher chose to disregard it. While she liked Christy Barrows, Crusher knew that maintaining a professional distance was necessary; Wesley's safety depended on her discretion.
"Hmm," Crusher responded non-committedly. "Barrows, tell me about yourself."
"I want to get to know you," Crusher said. She reached for her cup of coffee and held it close, inhaling the deep rich roast. Not replicated, but the real stuff. "For instance, how did you end up working for Sloan?"
"That's an easy question," Barrows laughed. "My father is an old friend of his, so when Sloan was looking for an assistant, my father thought immediately of me. You see, I was among the few Academy graduates who did not want a posting on a starship."
"You didn't want to be on a starship?" Crusher frowned. "If that's the case, Starfleet seems to be an odd career choice."
"Not really. Have you heard of my father, Christopher Barrows? Oops, Admiral Christopher Barrows? He just got promoted and the new title still feels a little strange on my tongue."
"It happens to all of us," Crusher said. "And no, I haven't heard of him."
"He founded Deep Space Three," Barrows said. "We were out there for five years and then Starfleet promoted him. Right now he's negotiating with the Rydelins to join the Federation. You do know about that situation, right?"
Crusher nodded. Rydelin was a buffer world, situated in a strip of space between Romulus and the Federation. Capable of warp for almost one hundred years, Rydelin was the perfect candidate for admittance into the Federation; however, the Rydelin government proved to be highly independent and had also begun negotiations with the Romulans, a fact that disturbed the Federation greatly. Because of its location, Rydelin could serve as a launch point for any attacks the Romulans would wish to make on the nearby Federation worlds. Of course, Crusher reminded herself, that was in the worst-case scenario, providing that the Romulans possessed the gumption and firepower to break the uneasy peace with its old enemy, the Federation.
"So your father is the one who bears the responsibility of saving us from the Romulans," Crusher said, a teasing note slipping into her voice. "I certainly don't envy his task."
"He'd be disappointed to know you have never heard of him."
Barrows dismissed the comment with a wave of the hand and Crusher got the feeling that Barrows didn't necessarily have the patience to deal with her father's ego.
"Starfleet is in my father's blood and since I'm an only child, to Starfleet Academy I went. My father likes to live vicariously, experience the thrill of the Academy and Starfleet through me. So you see, I really had no choice and honestly, I didn't have an idea of something I'd rather do."
"Did you want to go to the Academy?"
"It's as good a place as any," Barrows shrugged. "I didn't really have a better idea of what to do with my life, so it was a logical choice. Besides, I like what I do now. The allure of the stars is for others, not for me. What about you?"
"Me?" Crusher asked.
"Did you always want to be in Starfleet?"
"I suppose," Crusher said. "I always wanted to be a doctor, I can tell you that."
"I read your file before you came," Barrows said. "I like to know everything about the people I'm working with. The curia vitae, that is. It's always more interesting to get to know people in person. You find out more interesting things that never get written down."
"I can understand that," Crusher said. She reached into her desk drawer for a napkin to wipe off her fingers. "Thank you again for lunch."
Crusher glanced back at the view screen. "I hate that virus."
Barrows chuckled lightly. "Most people do, but if there is an antidote, I know you can find it."
Crusher smiled at Barrows. There was a quality about this young woman that reminded her of Wesley; that same eagerness in the eye, the quirky upturn of the lips and the youthful enthusiasm that occasionally slipped into Barrows' otherwise crisp tone.
Crusher blinked. It would do no good to think of Wesley now; he was well and happy on the Enterprise and she needed to keep him that way.
The doctor pushed her chair back and nodded towards the lab. "I've got to get to work," she said.
They fell into a pattern with Barrows bringing lunch anytime between 1100 and 1300 hours. Lunch gradually became more elaborate as the two women got to know each other better; salads, fruit, cookies supplemented the main course, which tended to be anything from Chinese noodles to Andorian salads.
Crusher was always grateful for the interruption; by the time Barrows showed up, her neck ached with strain and her eyes were blurring. Worse, that damned virus kept intercepting her dreams and occasionally, she would wake up in a cold sweat, her chest heaving as she tried to push away the gory images of what this virus did to people. She would have nightmares of blood dripping from Wesley's mouth, eyes, nose, and in the morning, her heart still pounding, she would quicken her step to the lab.
"Tell me about Wesley," Barrows requested one day. She was sitting in her usual chair across from Crusher, one leg crossed over the other, her arms on the chair's armrests.
"I thought you told me you knew everything there was to know about me and my son," Crusher answered lightly. She finished off the last bit of the mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwich that Barrows had brought.
"I mean, other than what the words say. You know, what he's like."
Crusher frowned, trying to remember. Wesley's letters were rapidly growing more distant and she wondered if he was hiding something from her or more alarming, that her son simply had nothing to say to her. The stilted language Wesley used was curiously formal, giving credence to the fear that her son was growing up and away from her. She bit her lip, trying to stop the quiver which threatened to erupt into something much more visible any day now.
"Is he like you?" Barrows persisted.
"No," Crusher said finally. "He's like his father. In looks, temperament, everything."
"Does he want to be in Starfleet?"
"I think so. He hasn't come out and said anything definite about Starfleet, but I believe he wants to attend the Academy. He spends a lot of time on the bridge," Crusher said. "The Captain has been surprisingly lenient when it comes to Wesley. I suppose it's because Wes reminds him of Jack."
"Yes," Crusher responded flatly as that familiar ache in her chest flared up. After all of these years, she still had not gotten used to Jack's death. Time only helps you live with what might have been, she thought. Unexpectedly, her eyes watered and she leaned to look into the basket to hide her emotion from Barrows. A brief moment passed before her vision cleared and Crusher was pleased to discover a container of fresh fruit at the bottom. She opened the container and held it out to Barrows, who shook her head.
"I've heard a lot about Captain Picard," Barrows said. "When I graduated last year, everyone wanted to post for the Enterprise. One of my classmates, Aron Kellin, actually made it. He's a science officer."
"I know Ensign Kellin," Crusher said. She smiled. "He rescheduled his physical five times before I had to order him to Sickbay."
"That sounds like Aron," Barrows said.
Crusher popped a fresh strawberry into her mouth. "This is good. Did you get it on the Embarcadero?"
"Yes," Barrows said.
"We used to get fresh produce from there when we lived in San Francisco. It was nice. Those were good times."
"Would you ever remarry?" Barrows asked and then she clapped a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry. Sometimes I speak first, think later. The words just come out, you know? Anyway, that was personal, out of line, and I'm sorry."
Crusher focused her gaze on her fingers. Long fingers capped with short, stubby nails. How long had it been since she had painted them? In fact, how long had it been since she had done something completely indulgent? Deanna Troi often invited her to come soak in the mud baths on the holodeck or pay a visit to the tiny spa onboard the Enterprise, but something always came up and Bevely was unable to go.
Those are simply excuses, Beverly. It's okay to take treat yourself every now and then, Deanna had said. Don't you want to take some time for you?
"You're right, it is a personal question and I can't predict the future," Crusher said now. She pushed her chair back, the legs scrapping loudly against the floor. "Right now, I'm just concerned about finding the antidote for that damned virus."
Sloan came to visit one afternoon, his thin frame darkening the doorway.
"Dr. Crusher," he purred. The doctor looked up, narrowing her eyes at her visitor. Let him know that she wasn't happy to see him - Beverly Crusher simply didn't care. "How are you today? Anything new and exciting to report?"
"I'm working on a way to break the reproductive cycle of the virus," Crusher said coolly. "The best way to do that, in my opinion, would be to intercept the virus at the reverse transcriptase phase, before the viral RNA has a chance to create the complimentary DNA strand. Attacking the RNA itself prior to the transcriptase won't work; it automatically degrades after the complimentary DNA strand is created."
"What about attacking the DNA then?"
"If the first solution doesn't work then that will be my only other option," Crusher answered. "However, I want to destroy the virus prior to its insertion into the cell nucleus. If I wait that long, the DNA integrates itself into the host chromosome and forms a provirus, which creates a whole new battery of steps to contend with. It appears that there are sixteen steps to the actual cellular infection process, and disrupting any of them would cause the virus to lose its ability to propagate through the body. I want to be sure, however, that whatever I do, the antidote doesn't interfere with the patient's metabolism. In that case, the cure could be infinitely worse than the disease itself, and we'd end up losing the patient anyway."
"How close are you?"
Crusher considered. "Now that I've isolated a specific step and I've noted the exact processes involved, probably another few weeks before I come up with something that might work."
"I see," Sloan said. He slipped his hands deep into the pockets of his black pants. "Good work, Doctor. Keep it up."
She nodded and turned back to her microscope, keenly aware that Sloan continued to watch her.
"My mother died when I was eight years old. She was a pilot and it was a routine training exercise. Something went wrong, I don't know what exactly, but the shuttle exploded. We didn't even have a body to bring home."
Crusher put her fork down. A part of her wanted to round the desk and take Barrows into her arms. Prudence suggested keeping distance.
"I'm sorry," Crusher said evenly.
Barrows waved a hand, almost distractedly, as if dismissing her mother in the casual gesture. If Crusher hadn't seen the edge of Barrows' mouth quiver, she would have supposed from the flatness of the ensign's tone that Barrows no longer had any emotion at all regarding her mother's death.
"It's just me and my dad," Barrow said. "It's hard, you know, being the center of attention all of the time. Like everything I do matters so much more because I have to please him, to make up for the fact that my mom isn't here. I'm grateful too because he did so much for me."
Crusher settled back into her chair and dabbed at her lips. She wondered if Wesley felt the same, if he felt that he needed to make up for Jack's absence by being something other than... Wesley. The thought hit Beverly with an intensity that she found terrifying. She swallowed hard.
"Your father must be very proud," Crusher said.
"I'd like to think he is," Barrows said. "When he gets a chance to think of me. It's hard work, you know, negotiating with aliens."
"That's what I hear," Crusher said. She smiled. "We have our share of negotiating on the Enterprise. Thankfully, Captain Picard is very good at what he does. He almost always manages to come to a solution agreeable to both parties."
"He must be very clever."
"Yes," Crusher said. She thought of Picard in his quarters surrounded by his books with subjects such as archaeology and xenobiology next to the classics, such as Shakespeare's collected plays and the writings of Cicero, Plato and the other ancient philosophers. "He is very intelligent."
"I'd like to meet him one day."
"Maybe you will."
"Will you arrange it?"
"I can try," Crusher said. She dumped her paper plate and plastic utensils into the trash can just to the side of her desk. "One day."
"Is it hard for you?" Barrows asked.
"Hard?" Crusher blinked. Sometimes this girl could be so unpredictable.
"Working with Captain Picard knowing that he was responsible for your husband's death."
"Starfleet cleared Picard of any negligence," Crusher said evenly. "It was an away mission. Anything can happen. You can't - no matter how good a commander you are - you can never predict what the outcome will be."
"I suppose," Barrows said. She rested her forearms on the desk as a pensive expression crossed her face. "Still, you didn't answer my question. It must be hard for you. To have all of those memories, and for him too."
"Many things are difficult," Crusher said, standing up. "And maybe we, as parents, we try too hard because we don't want you to feel the same sense of loss as we do."
With that, Crusher left her office and went back into the lab.
***** Part V *****
"You said you've never thought about a posting on a starship," Crusher said one day. The two of them were seated, as usual, in Crusher's office. For once, Crusher had pulled dark blinds down over the glass separating her office from the lab; she refused to look at that room while she was eating.
"The romantic appeal isn't there," Barrows answered.
"There's nothing romantic about space once you're up there," Crusher grinned as she speared a cherry tomato at the end of her fork. "It's nothing but a vacuum and only titanium walls separate you from the sureness of death."
"Thanks," Barrows said dryly. "That makes me want to go."
Crusher's face softened. "I didn't mean to frighten you. I guess I'm fascinated by how close we truly are to suffocating out there and just how amazing the technology is. It really is a wonderful experience in some respects."
"You love it?"
Crusher shrugged. "'Love' is a strong word. It's a strong word for most things as a matter of face, just as hate is, but yes, I do think I like it. I've done both, Ensign, served on starships and also on terra firma. Both experiences had a lot of positives and negatives and until you've tried it, you can't be sure."
"Are you trying to persuade me to leave Earth?" Barrows asked teasingly. She reached for the last breadstick and put it in her mouth. "You're not doing a good job of it, Doctor."
"I wouldn't do it if your heart's not in it. It's a lot of responsibility, a big change."
"But you, you wouldn't change a thing?"
Crusher considered, tipping her head to the side. And then she shook her head.
"No," she said quietly. "There are things in my life I regret; venturing into space isn't one of them."
It came in the middle of the night, the exact formulation that she needed. Crusher threw off the bed covers and scrambled to her closet. She grabbed loose pants and a light shirt, tying her hair back into a ponytail. She hurried down the stairs and covered the distance between her quarters and the lab in record time.
Once in the lab, she assembled everything that she needed on the lab table in front of her.
"Come on," she whispered as she dropped the first drops into a test tube. A second later, she introduced the virus into the newly created antidote. She held her breath as she watched the reaction beneath the microscope. She watched the virus curl up, almost in self-defense. The console beeped, indicating that the virus had been rendered harmless.
When Crusher finally took a moment to look up from her work, she noticed Sloan watching her from the door.
"It's 0400, Doctor," he said. " What are you doing?"
"I found it," she said quietly.
Sloan came to look and Crusher moved to the left give him room. The man peered into the microscope and then looked up, nodding intelligently at Crusher, even though the Doctor was sure he didn't know what he was looking for. Hell with that, she thought, I'm not explaining a thing.
"It works?" Sloan asked.
She leaned against the lab table, resting all of her weight on the palm of one hand. Her eyes felt heavy and she felt an unfamiliar scratch at the back of her throat. She swallowed, trying to moisten the roughness in her mouth and throat.
"When can I go back to my ship?" Crusher asked.
She spent an additional three weeks testing the new cure, aware that both Barrows and Sloan were watching her. Both of them seemed to be unusually eager for a resolution to the testing.
"Is there an outbreak somewhere I should be aware of?" Crusher asked one day as Barrows took up her usual perch on a lab stool and Sloan stood against a wall, a smirk across his face, and arms folded against his chest.
"You can never be too prepared," Sloan said. "This virus attacks without warning."
"So you've said," Crusher said quietly. She stared down at the thin virus against the gray background of her slide. It looked like a translucent piece of string, so without form and shape it was. And not for the first time, Crusher wondered how something so little could cause so much pain.
"You better go," Barrows said quietly. It was just after dinner and the sun was setting over the Bay. Crusher leaned against the railing on the Golden Gate Bridge, watching the white water below crashing up against the large stones.
"How did you find me?" Crusher asked. "I left my communicator in my quarters for a reason."
The wind whipped Barrows' hair around her face and the ensign tucked several long brown strands behind her ears.
"He has what he wants," Barrows said. "You'd better go. I've already arranged transport for you."
"What are you talking about?"
"I could explain, but I'd rather not," Barrows said urgently. She placed her hand on Crusher's forearm. "Trust me, all right?"
And because Crusher remembered the three doctors who had preceded her, she turned around to walk back to her quarters.
They had been surprised by her arrival. Captain Picard had greeted Crusher in the transporter room with a few mumbled words to the effect of, "I didn't think you would be finished so quickly." And from the way her old friend's eyes darted back and forth, Crusher knew that Picard had known the truth all along. The Captain squeezed her arm and then she saw Wesley.
Her son looked almost exactly as she remembered, though he appeared taller and maybe a little stronger; she would examine him in closer detail when they were alone.
"The work went quicker than I thought," Crusher said lightly, as she looped her arm through her son's. She smiled at him and he offered a tentative smile back. Katherine Pulaski was still on-board; she would leave in the morning. Pulaski's delayed departure meant the Crusher had some time to unwind before resuming her Sickbay duties and she hoped to use that time to get to know her son better.
The corridors of the Enterprise felt warm and inviting after the sterile gray walls of her lab. She saw familiar faces and pleased smiles. Most of the crewmen didn't say much as Crusher, Picard and Wesley passed them by, but Beverly could tell by their expressions they were glad to have her back.
The quarters she shared with Wesley remained almost exactly the same as they had been when she left. Wesley had touched nothing, changed nothing - only a few modifications to his own bedroom.
"It looks good, Wes," Crusher said. Her throat tightened again and she quickly turned away.
"Thanks," Wesley said awkwardly. "If it's okay, if you're settled in, I promised Data and Geordi I'd meet them in Ten Forward."
Crusher bit her lip and without turning around, she nodded. So much for an evening with Wesley, she thought as she heard the doors close behind him.
She went into the bedroom and started to unpack.
"Computer, music," Crusher requested. "Tchaikovsky. Sleeping Beauty."
As she moved around the best, her feet tapped out the three-four pattern. For a moment, she forgot about unpacking and moved her feet in a traditional waltz pattern. And suddenly, feeling slightly foolish, Crusher stopped.
"Computer, play news reel," she requested.
The computer began with the top news stories of the day, including a new armistice between two perpetually warring worlds.
"We'll see how long that lasts," Crusher mumbled to herself as she folded some shirts into a drawer.
"In other news, an outbreak of the Ghasa virus has threatened the population of Rydelin-" Crusher jerked up. "According to local health authorities, nearly five thousand people have died since the virus was first reported two days ago and numbers are expected to climb. Admiral Christopher Barrows who has been heavily involved in the Federation-Rydelin negotiations has offered medical assistance to the area."
Crusher paused, her hand resting on a stack of shirts, the fabric smooth and soft beneath her palm.
"Computer," she said steadily. "Play a selection of music from... 2363."
The message arrived that night as she was lying in bed, reading Dr. Pulaski's incredibly detailed notes.
"Personal message for Beverly Crusher downloaded," the computer recited mechanically and Crusher sighed; she'd forgotten to turn off the notification system before settling in for the night and now, it was impossible for her to ignore the message. Crusher swung her legs around the side of the bed and pulled up the tiny viewscreen on her personal com system.
Oddly enough, the letter was in plain text format, rather than recorded vocals.
"'Dear Doctor Crusher,'" the letter began. Crusher scrolled to the end of the letter to check the name and routing patterns: Christy Barrows, Ensign.
'Dear Doctor Crusher, I suppose you've arrived back on your ship now. It's been three days, so I thought I'd check and see how you're doing - you looked tired when I saw you last. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising; you worked exceptionally hard during your time here. I thought you'd want to know that I've decided to leave HQ. I'm not entirely happy here and it's time for a change. My father is finished with the Rydelins, by the way, and he's on his way back to San Francisco. He mentioned something about a trip to DMZ for treaty negotiations with Cardassia. I thought I would join him since it'll give us a chance to spend some time together. Wish me luck, since this will be my first time in space, but at least I will have tried, right? I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet you. I hope you're happy to be back on the Enterprise and that you had a good reunion with your son. Please, keep in touch. Sincerely, Christy.'
Crusher stared at the letter for a few seconds. And then, without thinking, she turned off the com and returned to bed.
Some things never change, Crusher thought as she made her way down the corridor to Picard's quarters. The doors slid open and she entered.
"Looks delicious," Crusher called out as she surveyed the breakfast on the table. She was still dressed in civilian clothing - a light knit tan colored dressed. "Croissants, orange juice, fresh fruit, coffee... I can't think of anything else I'd want to eat first thing in the morning."
Picard emerged from his bedroom, nodding at Crusher.
"I'm glad. Have a seat," he said. Crusher obliged, sliding into her usual chair. She reached for some fresh fruit - cantaloupe and strawberries - and leaned back. "Did you listen to the news this morning?"
"No," Crusher said. She refrained from mentioning that she had put on some Strauss, much to Wesley's dismay.
"Rydelin has agreed to join the Federation," Picard said. He sat down opposite the doctor. "It's the top news story today. The Romulans must be furious."
"That's good news," Crusher said neutrally.
"Apparently, we supplied them with the cure for Ghasa and in gratitude, they agreed to join," Picard said. He stared intently at Crusher and she returned his gaze, steady and unflinching. "Seems rather convenient, doesn't it?"
Crusher cleared her throat. "I suppose so."
"I thought you would," Picard said. He smiled that tight thin-lipped smile. "Five thousand lives for a little space between us and the Romulans, it's not as costly as it may seem."
"I didn't know you'd feel that way," Crusher said. "Any loss of life, for whatever reason, doesn't seem forgivable to me."
"Then we have a difference of opinion."
Crusher stared at the man sitting in front of her. Watched as he carefully cut into the pastry on his dish and wondered if she had ever known him at all. And more importantly, after so many years, would she ever know him? The realization that Picard must have known all along about Sloan's motivations had occurred to her when she had first stepped off the transporter pad; now, Picard's confirmation of that knowledge disturbed Beverly greatly.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Picard glanced up.
"It's good to have you back with us, Beverly," he said as he resumed cutting into his pastry. He speared a piece of turnover with his fork and then looked at Crusher, as if waiting for her to start eating also.
"It's good to be back," Crusher responded. She managed a small smile, one that barely reached her eyes. She stabbed at a piece of cantaloupe, examined the fruit for a moment, and then bit into it, swallowing it along with the lump that had formed in her throat.
~ the end ~
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