Data had never liked being transported. He thought it would seem thoroughly irrational to others, and so had never so much as mentioned it, but something about the whole process just made him feel topsy-turvy. Perhaps the process affected his electronic components differently than his colleagues' biological parts. It wasn't like anyone had ever researched the effects of transportation on androids – such was the lot, he supposed, of any creature lucky or unlucky enough to be a rare sight in the galaxy.
However, his matter stream's journey down to planet, uncomfortable as it might be, paled in comparison to what stood in front of him once he materialized.
His first thought was that it was terribly ironic that he had been contemplating the relative scarcity of his kind only seconds before.
His second thought was happiness at having identified an instance of irony.
His third was interrupted by the lifeform known as One.
"Welcome to Tolgorth, Captain. We've been waiting for you."
In front of Data and Geordi stood something that at first glance looked like just a pile of metal boxes and tubes, arranged in a fashion that evoked the human form but hardly mimicked it. It looked crude – almost childish – but Data's acute eyes quickly zoomed into the delicate electronics visible through the seams of the outer metal shell.
The whole creature was a bundle of contradictions, both ready for a scrap heap and a museum. It? – he? – they? – rested on a single, wide track, not unlike the type used on primitive 21st century Earth construction vehicles. The hands, though, were a marvel – more fingers than the human hand, each appearing to have a different function. Some looked like plugs for cables like those on human computers, others like fine tweezers or screwdrivers, and all were rendered in shining silver.
Data tried to gather his thoughts. Whatever had compelled him to join the away team was steadily weakening, as apparently its purpose had been fulfilled now that Data was on the surface of the planet and speaking to One. In its place was an increasing sense of having been lead astray and being uncomfortably out of control.
Well, he had to start somewhere. It might as well be with what he was going to say back on the Regius before One cut him off and all this happened. "Thank you for the invitation. The Federation Council sends its regards and appreciation for your decision to make contact. I am sure we would all find it most… intriguing… to learn more about our respective cultures."
"I'm sure you would, given your limited previous exposure to android species, and your own rather personal interest in the matter."
Data wanted to deny any personal interest, as One called it. If he could, he would remain thoroughly unbiased – take only academic interest in One and his seemingly android kind – but most of all shut away the overwhelmed little ball of nearly human emotions building inside him.
But he couldn't.
Instead, left without any scripted reply, he paused and registered an uncomfortable overheating of his positronic brain, and hoped that his mind wasn't literally going to blow. Figuratively speaking, it already had – here he was, making contact with an entire civilization of lifeforms that called themselves androids.
Geordi had watched his friend's expression as it changed from shock to confusion to wonder, and could hardly blame him. But someone had to step in and ask some important questions.
"I'm sorry to interrupt – I'm Commander LaForge, by the way. But how exactly is it that you know we haven't encountered many androids before?"
"Oh, Mr. LaForge, that was a simple matter of accessing all of Starfleet's computer systems to learn more about you."
Geordi stared at him. "You did what? You – you can't just waltz into our databases uninvited!" He shook his head. "And how did you even get past the most recent security upgrade?"
One seemed almost amused by Geordi's obvious outrage. "We 'waltzed' in, as you put it, several of your years ago, actually. We've simply been waiting for the right time to make contact, and once we heard that an android captain was in the vicinity – well, it seemed appropriate. I can assure you we have no intention of using the information we gained, classified or otherwise, for any nefarious purposes. You have absolutely nothing to worry about."
"Classified or otherwise? We'll decide for ourselves whether we have anything to worry about, thank you very much," Geordi muttered.
This interruption and subsequent revelation had given Data some time to figure out what to do next. "One, you must then well versed already in many aspects of the Federation. Since we have not had the benefit of unimpeded access to your databases, how about you tell us about yourselves?"
"And we will also have to discuss your breaches of security and diplomatic protocols." Data was careful to increase the edge in his voice.
One seemed to hardly notice. "All in good time, I'm sure. For now, let's focus on getting to know each other a bit more, shall we?"
That was hardly a satisfactory answer, but Data supposed there was value in learning more about whom they were dealing with first. "Yes. How did you come to live here? Who designed and built you?"
One noticeably stiffened. "No one built us. Your humans evolved on Earth as biological creatures, while we evolved as mechanical beings."
"I am sorry, One, I did not mean to insult you. I was just not aware that such a form of evolution was possible."
"Hardly surprising. You're not aware of many things."
An advantage of being an android, Data thought, was the ability to simply ignore emotional responses to snide remarks. Especially since One didn't seem to be trying to be rude – just stating the facts as he saw them. "Your technology is indeed impressive," Data allowed.
"Our superior functionality is in part enabled by the simple fact that we're not constrained to mimicry of the human image like you are. For example, our hands, as you call them, must be extremely dexterous in order to maintain and modify the rest of our bodies. Our locomotory system is a different matter. As I'm sure you're aware, there are approximately 60 pairs of muscles in the lower limbs of humans, not including other miscellaneous contraptions such as tendons, ligaments, bones, and the like. Since the myriad tunnels this planet contains are almost universally smooth and gently graded, we have no need for such complex machinery as you have. We can rely on an elementary motor system that requires only rudimentary maintenance."
"It is a fascinating adaptation to your environment, certainly, but it does not seem like it would be–"
"Ah, Captain. You've been so long among these humans that now you too have been conditioned to view the universe from their paradigm."
"I may serve on a human ship, sir, but I am also a captain of the Federation. It is that capacity that I am speaking to you now."
"Of course. My mistake. If you'll be so kind as to tolerate a brief tangent… The Federation brings to mind an old human organization – the United Nations, I believe? A noble idea, certainly, but constrained to the point of failure by the simple fact that each representative remained, first and foremost, a citizen of their individual nation, and not of Earth. Isn't this also the case with your Federation?"
"Naturally we remain members of our respective species – aside from simple biology, we come from diverse worlds and differing viewpoints. However, we believe that is a strength, not a failure that hinders our ability to act as one."
One chuckled. "'To act as One.' No pun intended, I assume."
"I am sorry, I do not – oh! Humor. Yes indeed."
"My, my. You are terribly primitive. I've also noted infrequent use of contractions – I only started actually speaking your language when your ship arrived and I'm already more fluent than you will ever be. But I digress. We were discussing the unity or lack thereof in your Federation, and your own rather human-centric point of view."
"I believe we were."
"So you'd say, for example, that the various species that make up the Federation are on equal footing? Or that, for example, the Vulcans or Andorians or Humans aren't the rulers of this organization?"
"That is correct."
"How is it, then, if all member species are created equal, that everyone and everything that has four limbs, walks on two, and has an odd little ball called a head on top is labeled a humanoid? Why not a Vulcanite? Andoric? It seems rather presumptive, don't you think? That the human species, of which quite frankly you might as well be a part, describes all species that share certain characteristics as derivatives of the right honorable Homo sapiens?"
Data paused to formulate an explanation. "Well, it is –"
"It is clear that you have a rather human perspective. A pity."
Geordi had enough. "And yet, you've been monologuing pretty much since we got here. We've hardly gotten a word in, but we're still the egotistical species here?"
"Touché, Mr. La Forge."
Data broke in. "We are here to trade more positive aspects of our respective cultures, not barbs."
One inclined what passed for his head. "Naturally. My most sincere apologies. Let's continue, shall we? I'm sure you're eager to meet more of my kind."
The alien android turned and gestured at them to follow. They were in a long, dimly lit hallway seemingly carved from light brown sandstone. It lacked any sort of decoration – however, its grandeur showed in the perfectly smooth walls and high ceiling that lay somewhere in the blackness above them. At the end of the passage was an opening into another room. One led Data and Geordi inside.
This chamber was occupied by a number of androids of varying sizes, but generally similar in appearance to One. Each was intent on one of the many processors and displays that lined the room, but turned at the same instant to face the visitors as they stepped inside.
One turned to Data and Geordi. "As you know, I am Counselor to the Tolgorth Assembly. To explain further – we call our planet, and ourselves –" He emitted a completely irreproducible collection of squeaks, groans, nearly complete syllables, and something that sounded suspiciously like a sneeze. "Given the very limited linguistics of your language, you may use the extremely simplified version, Tolgorth, instead. The Assembly, which perhaps akin to what you would call a governing body, is composed of the fine androids you see before you."
The group nodded in agreement, and tried out various human expressions.
Data looked around the room. "Thank you. I would introduce myself, but from what I have heard that would be unnecessary."
One at least attempted a regretful tone this time. "Ah, yes. I'm terribly sorry to have offended you, but the Assembly felt it was necessary. There's a bit more we need to discuss about that, but before then why don't we –"
"Why don't we discuss whatever this 'bit more' about your violations now? You do not appear to comprehend the severity of your intrusion!" Data was getting flustered. It was too much, really – meeting a whole civilization of androids, and then finding out that these sort-of-his-own-kind seemed downright amoral. He asked himself yet again what he had possibly been thinking when he decided to beam down to the planet right away.
"Well, I suppose now is a good a time as any, since I'm sure you've been noticing the effects – we also transmitted a… program of sorts to your positronic brain. We were worried that you would not personally join us, and wanted to make sure you would... want to participate. I assure you that only your decision to come directly to the planet was effected by this program, and nothing else."
Oh, thought Data, shocked into a sort of calmness. That was what I was thinking. Or, what the Tolgorth Assembly was thinking for me.
Geordi, on the other hand, had had more than enough. "Excuse us for a moment," he said sharply, and pulled Data back into the hallway. "Data, we have to go back to the ship. Right now. Their technology is clearly far more advanced than ours, and they've already put it to work hacking into Starfleet, and, well, you. It's too dangerous."
"Those are all reasonable points, Geordi. But we cannot just run away, especially not now. Their technological superiority only makes it still more important that we continue – if we were to leave them, they would likely continue their present activities, or even increase them. The results could be disastrous."
"I…" Geordi sighed. "I hear what you're saying, but how do I know that's you and not more of the Tolgorth?"
"It is me, Geordi. I know it and I promise it. I was not conscious of their meddling at the time, certainly, but once we came to the planet I could feel it leave me. It is gone. Not because of any beneficence on the part of the Assembly, I am sure, but they seem to think its purpose has been fulfilled, now that I am here. It is gone."
"Okay. Okay – if you're sure that's true, then I have to agree that the only way forward is, unfortunately, forward."
"Thank you, Geordi."
"For what, exactly?"
"For still trusting me."
"This wasn't your fault. You do know that, right?"
Data searched for the right words. "I do know that, but I also do not. I am sorry. I am not making sense."
"No, I know exactly what you mean – but just know that you're doing your best in a really tough situation."
"I am glad you think so. Thank you, again."
Geordi smiled. "That's what I'm here for. But they're waiting on us right now – what specifically are you going to try to do?"
"Despite their advanced technology, they clearly need something or have a purpose in contacting the Federation. Otherwise, why would they bother? Let us start by trying to find out what that is. With that information, we may be able to work towards some kind of exchange that may benefit us both and convince the Tolgorth to trust us."
"That makes sense. Should we update the Regius?"
"The Tolgorth are probably monitoring our communications. I would rather wait until we can speak frankly."
"Okay. I guess that's about it, then – ready to recommence negotiations, Captain?"
Data could see the One and the Tolgorth Assembly through the doorway, clearly also discussing strategy. He calmed his circuits and stood up straight.
"Yes. I am ready."
A/N: I'm sorry this is late! Life has been annoyingly busy. I hope it was worth the wait, and thanks so much for reading! :)