The planet on the viewscreen looked desiccated and lifeless, little more than a husk of frigid rock. This would hardly be surprising – after all, many things in the galaxy are – except that Starfleet Command was under the impression that this was the homeworld of a warp-capable civilization that had recently initiated contact with the Federation.
It was a rather disconcerting sight, to say the least.
"Captain? I have to ask, are we in the right place?" First Officer Geordi La Forge's years of friendship with the captain had led to the unofficial position of first among the bridge crew to raise uncomfortable concerns.
However, the human trait of taking offense when questioned was something that Data, captain of the USS Regius, had decided long ago not to replicate. "I just checked the transmission from Starfleet again. The ship is at the precise coordinates the admiral gave me."
Geordi mentally reviewed what little he knew about the mission the Regius had been assigned, searching for something that could have led to the current situation. The only thing he came up with was that the lack of information itself was strange. "This whole mission is just… odd. You said the message they transmitted was audio-only?"
Data nodded. "Apparently so."
"I just don't get it. They wanted to introduce themselves, but without showing their faces? It's unusual, to say the least. We don't know if they're humanoid or sentient amoebas! And looking at that planet –" He shook his head. "I'd have to go with sentient amoebas."
The rest of the bridge crew chuckled, albeit nervously.
As usual, Data was the first to come up with a potential answer. "Could they be non-corporeal?"
Geordi paused, considering. "It's certainly possible – rare, but not unheard of. I guess we'll find out. Ensign Liu, scan for life signs."
"No sign of intelligent life, sir," said the ensign. "In fact, there's nothing at all – not even any primitive, single-celled organisms, let alone an entire civilization. And certainly no amoebas, for better or worse!"
Data stared at the image on the viewscreen. "Curiouser and curiouser."
"Captain?" Geordi realized that Data quoted human literature in an attempt to seem less alien to the crew he commanded, but the effect was typically the opposite.
"Lewis Carroll, from Alice in Wonderland, of course. I have been reading human children's literature, lately, since in many ways I am like a human child –"
Oh dear. That wouldn't do at all. Geordi coughed significantly as insignificantly as he could.
Data could read his first officer better than he could most humans, but subtle social cues could be incomprehensible even when verbally expressed. Geordi coughed again. The meaning dawned on Data. "And in others like a human adult! Like a captain, in fact."
Geordi smiled. Data had come so far since when they had first met, and it was a joy to watch even when the second-hand embarrassment was a bit too much.
Data stood up and faced the viewscreen. "We might as well hail them. Onscreen, if there is anything to display."
"Channel is open, sir."
There wasn't time to reply.
"Good day." The voice had a deep, grating quality that forced itself into every corner of the bridge.
Everyone jumped – everyone except Data, that is, who noted that at some point he would have to practice the human reflex of being startled by sudden, unexpected noises.
There still wasn't any video. It was all terribly mysterious, really, but Data had been instructed to initiate first contact, and he intended to follow his orders. He had to continue, even if the only thing to respond to was a disembodied voice that sounded distinctly unfriendly.
"I am Captain Data of the USS Regius, here on behalf of the United Federation of Planets and in response to the hail you transmitted two days ago. If I may ask, to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?"
"You may call me One, Counselor to the Tolgorth Assembly. My true name and title –" Now there was more than a hint of a sneer in the voice. "– are unpronounceable in your limited language. I have transmitted coordinates for you and your colleagues to transport to. We will speak more then. That is all."
Data had practiced for these early stages of contact until he had perfected a tone that was conversational and almost human. He was about to put more of his skills to the test – thank One, whoever or whatever he was, for the invitation – but the communication channel had already been closed.
The bridge was silent for a few long seconds as everyone stared at the each other and the viewscreen.
"Well, they're friendly." Geordi wanted to break the silence, but didn't know what to say.
Data's circuitry was more resilient to unexpected occurrences than the human nervous system. "On the contrary, their manner seems to lack all forms of cordiality, and – oh! That was sarcasm!"
"Yes indeed, Captain."
"Sir –" Lieutenant Atlee, the Regius's tactical officer, broke in. "Sir, I don't think it's safe to go down there. We know absolutely nothing about these people – except that they sound quite arrogant and consider themselves very advanced. We can't just send you, the ship's captain, into a situation like that – the risk is just too great. Especially since, looking at these coordinates on a map – they're underground. It explains why the planet looks dead on the surface, at least, but it's going to make any sort of attempt at extraction if things go wrong a whole lot more difficult."
"Lieutenant, I… value your opinion, that's the expression. But I was ordered here to begin diplomatic contact, and I intend to. I cannot simply turn around and fly back to Earth to await further instructions, and to send someone else would be… improper. It would be somewhat logical, but I believe my human superiors would consider it a poor end to my first major mission. I intend to transport to the planet, just as One requested."
"But Captain, you were specifically assigned to make contact with the Tolgorth because you wouldn't take an emotional, human approach to a potentially dangerous situation. And to be perfectly frank, it sounds like that's the sort of approach you're taking right now!"
The advice was sound – Data's positronic brain informed him that the most logical course of action would be to remain aboard the ship, at least at first. But something else was calling to him, beckoning him without words.
"The reason behind my decision to personally carry out the mission is not pride, but precedent, Lieutenant. The 23rd-century human James T. Kirk, probably the most famous Starfleet or even Federation captain, was known to lead away teams whenever possible. Therefore, I consider it important to be involved in these missions to the maximum possible extent."
"Captain, if I may – that was a different time and the galaxy was a much different place. Your own Captain Picard typically chose to remain on the ship."
Data looked as resolute as ever.
Atlee was becoming exasperated and was out of arguments to make, so she looked to Geordi for help. He wasn't sure what to say, either – this just wasn't like Data at all. "She's right. And something about this whole situation just doesn't feel right."
Data barely seemed to hear him. "I have made my decision. Geordi, you will accompany me." Atlee started to stand up. "No, Lieutenant, I think you need to stay aboard the ship. You are correct that we are about to transport into an unknown situation, and I want a capable and experienced officer such as yourself to lead the Regius if things go awry."
At least he hadn't entirely taken leave of his senses, she thought. "Yes, sir. I'll let the transporter room know you're ready. Good luck, Captain."
"Thank you." Data nodded and walked off the bridge, Geordi just behind him.
Once they were alone in the turbolift, Geordi sighed and looked at Data. "Data, what's going on? Since when have you wanted to be a latter-day James Kirk? Why, just a couple of weeks ago you were telling me all about how, despite Kirk's current legendary status, many of his contemporaries considered him to be too much of a maverick!"
"Geordi, I cannot explain it. But something is down there on that planet, something important, and it is…" He trailed off. "It is hard to put into words, but somehow it is calling me. I need to go down there."
The pull in back of Data's mind eased slightly, satisfied.
Geordi, on the other hand, was thoroughly unsatisfied. Something was wrong, very wrong. They were about to transport into the middle of it, whatever or whoever it might be, and Data simply wasn't himself.
"Data, you can't just –"
But the turbolift doors had opened and Data was already stepping onto the transporter pad.
Geordi hesitated, deciding, but then followed. If his friend's common sense had taken a leave of absence someone had to step up and take its place. For years now he had helped complement Data's logic with emotion, and now it looked like their roles were going to be reversed.
"Ready, sir." The ship's transporter chief was blissfully unaware of recent events. Geordi thought that he'd never envied someone more.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed the first chapter! I would love to promise regular updates, but real life is hectic and my muse is fickle. I will finish this, though, I promise! :)
Thanks for reading!
(And in case you're interested, this is technically a follow-up to my fic (Not So) Elementary, Dear Data. However, you don't need to read that story to understand this one.)