Picard returned Riker's mischievous smile with an enigmatic expression. "No, Number One, not this time. I'm going to visit an archeology dig." He paused. "In the Salarian sector."
Riker's smile died on the vine. "The Salarian sector. Are you..." He hesitated, not wishing to press for more information than the captain was willing to give. "Never mind," he continued in a much softer tone. "Enjoy your leave, sir." With a slight bow, he turned and walked down the corridor. The captain watched him go for a moment, then shouldered his rucksack and entered the shuttlebay.
Six months had passed, yet his feelings were still as strong as if it had been yesterday. He hadn't felt like this since his first trip home after enrolling in Starfleet Academy. A mixture of excitement, fear and self-doubt ate at him; it was impossible to relax. He tried to rub some of the tension out of his neck and wondered for the umpteenth time if this was a good idea. Maybe not. But how could he not go?
An alert klaxon warned him of a stray comet that had wandered into the shuttlecraft's path half a light year ahead. He absent-mindedly adjusted his course to avoid it and leaned back in his chair. The four lights above the shuttlecraft's command console brought back the recent horrors inflicted on him by Gul Madred. Yet even the torture he had undergone could not dull the pangs of homesickness he felt for a place he had never visited.
Tired yet anxious, he rubbed his eyes. He might as well stay awake for the remaining six hours of the voyage. There was no way he'd be able to sleep. "Computer. Tea, Earl Grey, hot." Grabbing the cup from the shuttlecraft's replicator, he stared at the streaming stars outside and pensively hummed an ancient melody.
Six hours later, the shuttlecraft dropped out of warp. Before him lay a system of six planets. At one-half impulse power, he piloted the spacecraft to the fourth one. It was a barren rock now, but it had once been a Class M planet before its sun had gone nova a thousand years ago. Easing into orbit around the planet, he looked down at the surface below. Although no oceans separated the continents from the seabed any longer, the ancient sea floor was bleached a lighter shade of brown than the continental shelves, thus differentiating the two. Picard focused on the northern continent, searching for a familiar mountain chain. He soon found it -- and the newly built research outpost on its eastern edge.
His mission was an intensely private one, but the outpost's discoveries had been the genesis for this trip in the first place. He'd have to put his best face forward and hope that the scientists respected his privacy.
Reluctantly, he hailed the outpost. "This is the Federation Shuttlecraft Onizuka, requesting clearance for one to beam down."
The reply came almost immediately. They were expecting him. "Good afternoon, Captain," replied a graying, bespectacled man who appeared on the shuttlecraft's viewscreen. "It is a wonderful privilege to have you visit our humble research camp. I'm uploading the transporter coordinates now. We look forward to hosting you during your visit."
"Thank you. I will beam down shortly. Picard out." He shook his head regretfully. So much for a private vacation. "Computer. Engage autopilot subroutine Alpha. Authorization Picard delta epsilon five." Picking up his rucksack, he set the transporter to the assigned coordinates and beamed down to the surface.
"My name is Doctor Hiroki Shibuya. I am the director of this facility."
Picard had been on the planet's surface for only a few minutes, and had already been introduced to six researchers. He hoped that this person -- the man he had spoken to in the shuttlecraft -- was the last.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the--"
"--Starship Enterprise. Of course, we all know who you are. You're the reason we're all here." The old man put his arm around Picard in a sort of fatherly familiarity and led him down the hallway. "I'd like to show you some of our latest findings. I believe that the quality of the artifacts we've recovered will convince the Federation to upgrade our living environment." With his free arm, Doctor Shibuya made a contemptuous gesture at the outpost's walls. "We've just about reached the maximum usefulness of our current facility."
The research station was little more than a Level One exploratory habitat, mainly consisting of a crude metal framework covered with a plasteel shell. Picard noted the wear and tear on the walls. This habitat had been used before. A research team investigating the ruins of a long-extinct civilization deserved better accommodations than a used exploration tent.
"When I return to the Enterprise, I'll make a recommendation to the Federation that they send a team of engineers to construct a permanent facility here," promised Picard.
"Thank you, Captain," he replied with a gleam in his eye, "but in my experience with the Federation, I'll believe that when I see it." The two entered a large open area with tables piled high with dust-covered artifacts. In one corner sat a lone researcher, working at one of the counters. "Here is our laboratory. This is where we study and catalogue our finds."
Picard entered the room as if in a daze. His gaze wandered across the relics: pottery, tools, furniture fragments, even a few bones. He picked up a vase, cradled it as if it were a newborn. Moving on, he ran his hand around the rim of a dusty bowl, his mind flooding with memories of homemade soup. At the end of the table sat a pair of dilapidated shoes. Picard stopped and stared at these. Half-remembered admonishments that had faded with time leaped back up in living color as he reached out one tentative hand and touched the shoes. He steeled himself against his emotions and looked up at Doctor Shibuya. The archaeologist was in mid-sentence, oblivious to the storm raging in Picard's heart.
"...the only one we have found so far. But as you can see, we've uncovered many other treasures." Leading the captain over to the other end of the laboratory, he introduced him to a young Vulcan archaeologist who was cleaning a set of bones with a small brush. "This is one of our brightest young researchers, Daanik."
Despite his emotionless tone, the young Vulcan addressed Picard with the same discomforting veneration as the others. "It is a great honor to meet you, sir. Your experiences with this culture have been the impetus for my career."
The Vulcan's work, rather than his words, captured Picard's attention. A macabre chill ran through him as he wondered who the bones had belonged to. "What do you plan to do with these remains after you've finished studying them?"
In lieu of answering, the Vulcan looked to Doctor Shibuya for guidance. "We will catalogue them and send them on to Starbase 51 along with the other artifacts, of course," answered the older archaeologist.
Picard's face flushed with sudden anger. "I strongly suggest you give them a proper burial here, on this planet. After what the people of this planet endured, their remains deserve more respect than being put on display in some museum."
Doctor Shibuya was nonplussed. "I, um... I don't..."
The captain instantly regretted his acrimonious words. He interrupted the man. "No, forgive me. It was a long trip, perhaps I should rest."
The archaeologist, accustomed to dealing with antiquated objects rather than confrontational people, looked visibly relieved. "Certainly. I will show you to your quarters. This way, please."
Picard awoke with a start, disoriented. A look around the spartan room did not help much. His quarters consisted of the bed in which he lay, a small nightstand, a desk with a computer terminal, a portable replicator unit, and a partition separating the sanitary facilities from the small room. Still, after years of being in Starfleet, he was used to such austerity. It was the unsettling dream he had awoken from which caused his disorientation. He laid back down and tried to grab its dissipating strands.
He is with her again, the two of them standing on the porch. He gives her the gift she has so long desired, and she approaches him, love in her eyes. But when he reaches out to touch her, but she fades away into nothingness. The brightly painted walls crumble into dusty gray and brown ruins. He moves to the entryway, to go back inside, but the door falls off its track when he presses the button. On the other side, there is only open space, the walls having long since fallen down. He looks around, lost, alone in the wasteland of his heart.
Picard sat up, rubbed his eyes. He had to get busy; this idleness was giving his imagination full rein. Standing, he requested a cup of tea from the replicator and went to the computer terminal. Accessing the outpost's research findings from the last few months, he began reading about their discoveries and conclusions. With the data that he had provided to the Federation, the archaeologists had few problems finding the ruins. They found the community on their first away mission, and quickly set up the research outpost in the days following the discovery. Since then, not a single day had passed without an important discovery being made. Just two days before his arrival, a member of the team unearthed a small aerospace plant, where airplanes, rudimentary rockets and even a prototype spacecraft had apparently been under development.
Based on the remains discovered and catalogued to date, it appeared that the population of the town at the time of extinction had only been approximately five hundred. He rested his chin on his hand. It should have been closer to three thousand. The solar flares must have been much worse than he'd guessed near the end. The poor souls.
He rose from the desk and put on a pair of civilian coveralls. Pulling on his boots, he walked behind the partition and looked at himself in the mirror. It was time to see it with his own two eyes. Was he ready? He splashed some water in his face. As ready as he'd ever be.
The only person in the common room of the outpost when he walked in was Daanik. The Vulcan stood at the outpost's command console, next to the transporter pad Picard had transported down to.
"Good morning, Captain," Daanik greeted him. "I have just taken the liberty of checking the status of your shuttlecraft. Its autopilot subroutine is operating at a 99 percent efficiency."
"That's good to know," Picard responded distractedly. "Thank you. Where are the others?"
"Some of them are at the site, but most are in the laboratory listening to Doctor Shibuya's weekly lecture. Would you like to go listen in?"
"No, thank you. I think I'd like to go visit the site."
Daanik came around the console and walked toward a far door. "Very well. Come this way. I'll take you there."
Picard gave Daanik a diplomatic smile. "If you would just point me in the right direction, I'm sure I can find it myself."
"Doctor Shibuya has asked me to escort you until you become familiar with the hazards of this environment." Daanik opened the door, motioned for Picard to enter. "This way, please."
The captain hesitated. Objecting to a Vulcan who was following orders was as futile as asking the wind to stop blowing, and he didn't think it was worth interrupting the Doctor's lecture to press the issue. Reminding himself that he'd have other opportunities for private visits to the archaeological site, he followed Daanik through the door into the other room.
The two entered a staging area for excursions out onto the planet's surface. Rows of environmental suits lined one wall, and racks full of archaeological tools covered the other. An airlock door at the far end of the room led to the exterior.
"As you know, the environmental suits are a necessity because of the deadly ultraviolet rays," explained Daanik. "Direct exposure to sunlight would cause your skin to blister instantly, and permanent damage would occur after only a short exposure. What you may not know is that what's left of the atmosphere is breathable. It's very thin, however, akin to what you would experience on a mountaintop, so the suit supplements the oxygen in the air."
Daanik helped Picard don his suit and checked the seals. Putting his own suit on, he led the way into the airlock. As they waited for the pressure to equalize, Picard stared out through the suit's clear face shield. Environmental suits. Supplemental air tanks. It was a far cry from hats and skin protectant.
With a slight hiss, the exterior door slid open. The two men stepped out, and the captain got his first real look at the planet's surface.
They stood on a barren plain, near an ancient, bone-dry riverbed. His gaze followed the course of the riverbed toward the foothills of the far-off mountain range, where he saw the crumbling ruins of what had once been a proud, thriving community. The once white, colorfully decorated buildings were now hard to distinguish from the surrounding dusty brown hillside. The first pangs of sadness hit him on seeing what had become of this beautiful community.
Daanik's voice crackled over the suit-to-suit radio. "Captain, your suit has a built-in canteen of water. If you get thirsty, press the blue button on your sleeve, and a drinking tube will extend from the interior of your headpiece. The suit carries two liters, and will recycle water from your bodily secretions should you need more."
The Vulcan's matter-of-fact tone broke Picard's reverie. He looked back at the trail, and the two of them began walking up the hill toward the remains of the town. Daanik continued to drone on about trivialities such as average surface temperature, soil analyses and various mundane features of the environmental suits. He finally turned to a more philosophical topic. "As a Vulcan, what fascinates me most about this culture is the way in which they chose to be remembered. Logic would dictate preserving great works of art, literature and industry. But they abandoned those accomplishments in favor of a unique but illogical remembrance. And that is why I came here: to try to understand that choice."
The Vulcan had apparently not interpreted Picard's unresponsiveness as a desire for silence. By the time they had reached the village, the captain had had enough.
"Daanik, I look forward to debating the hypotheses your team has concluded about this culture, but for now, I'd like to proceed without distractions."
"Of course, Captain. My apologies."
"It's quite alright," replied Picard. "If you don't mind, I'll take the lead. I'd like to explore the ruins at my own pace."
After but a moment, he realized that the Vulcan's banal conversation had kept the full force of his feelings at bay. In the ensuing silence, he was able to take full notice of his surroundings, and the emotions came flooding in. In his mind's eye, the crumbled walls of buildings became whole again, and ghosts of long-dead inhabitants walked the streets. That pile of rock on the corner -- the bakery. Those two walls -- the administrator's office. That empty hole in the ground -- a well that contained the planet's most precious resource: water. He would write all this down at some point during his visit -- it would be invaluable information for the archaeologists -- but for now, it was his private homecoming.
He walked down the fractured avenues of the ghost town with a heavy heart. Every street, every alleyway, every alcove -- he knew them all, he had last walked them only six months ago. But these shattered streets had been empty for a thousand years. He was silently grateful for the environmental suit and its bulky headpiece. It hid his watery eyes from Daanik.
Turning a corner, he saw a sight that caught his breath. His heart raced as he looked at the wall on the other side of the open square. To anyone else, it was just an ordinary wall, ready to fall down at any moment like all the others. But not to him. He slowly walked over to it, put his hand out and touched it gingerly. He had sat here before. He had sat here and witnessed the launching of a rocket that would bring him here -- to the simple town of Ressik, on the planet of Kataan.
Picard sat on the bed in his quarters. He stared at the wall in front of him, but he saw Ressik again. He hadn't anticipated his feelings to be this strong. He had thought that seeing in real life the town where he had spent a lifetime in his mind would be a novelty, a pilgrimage of sorts, but not an obsession. He had come here for closure, but instead he had reopened old wounds. The pain of loss he had felt six months ago had come back in all its power. Eline, Meribor, Batai... they were all phantoms in his head, they had been dead for a thousand years, but they were as real to him as his family back on Earth, Robert, Marie and RenČ.
He reminded himself that they were implanted memories, that he had not lived through the experiences he remembered. But it was difficult to intellectualize the raw emotion of the remembrances. Starfleet psychologists had offered to erase the memories, but that would have violated the last wish of an entire civilization. No, he had to come to terms with the emotions, to learn to cherish the memories, not relive them.
Standing abruptly, he walked over to the computer terminal, hailed Doctor Shibuya. When the man's visage appeared onscreen, Picard skipped the formalities. "Tell me, Doctor. Ressik had a cemetery. A kilometer or so outside of town. Has your team located it?"
The archaeologist nodded, implicitly understanding the motive behind the question. "Yes, Captain. We found it the first week we were here, when we surveyed the surrounding area. You'll find the walls in ruins, but the headstones are mostly intact."
"Thank you. Picard out."
He immediately walked over to the replicator. "Roses, red, one dozen," he spoke aloud. The machine was too small for long stems, but the bouquet was beautiful nonetheless. He emptied his rucksack, carefully placed the flowers inside, slung it over his shoulder and walked out.
In his environmental suit once again, Picard faced the ruins of Ressik. Before him stood the remains of the porch from last night's dream, the same porch from the vision he had experienced six months ago. The same porch where he and Eline had decided to start a family. Young Batai had taken his first steps on that porch, years after the elder Batai had taken his last steps there.
He sat down in the shade of a wall and reached up to his head. With a sharp hiss, he vented the air from his suit and removed his headpiece. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. Beneath the acrid smell of the dead air, he detected a faint yet familiar scent. It was barely noticeable now, but it was there. He picked up a brick-sized chunk that had fallen from the wall behind him and held it up to his nose. Yes, there it was. The earthy smell of Kataanian dirt. Not a particularly strong nor fragrant smell, and not one that anyone else would notice. But, like the odor of an old pillow or a musty attic, it was a familiar scent: the smell of Home.
He could see Meribor again, digging in the far corner of the courtyard. While other girls were playing with their dolls or playing games, she was conducting research on the soil, trying to be just like her father. He should have stopped her. The knowledge that the science brought stole her innocence at an early age.
He put the headpiece of the suit back on, stood up and took a final look at the porch and courtyard. Putting the stone he had picked up into one of the suit's pockets, he continued on through the village.
It was right where he remembered it. The last time (although certainly not the first time) he had been here, he had laid Eline to rest. It was the most difficult day of his life, even though it had never happened in his real life. He even knew the number of steps from the cemetery entrance to her grave; counting them had been an exercise he used to keep his emotions from spiraling out of control during her funeral. Counting them now under his breath, he soon found himself standing at the foot of her grave. It took him a moment to muster up enough courage to look up at the headstone. The letters were marred, but still legible: "ELINE. LOVING WIFE AND MOTHER."
Picard fell to his knees. The counting had not helped this time. Tears rolled down his face. In some ways, he had lived more in those twenty-five minutes of pseudo-life than he had in his real life. He had experienced fatherhood, had become a respected member of his community, had basked in the love of a wonderful woman. As a starship captain, he had certainly accomplished more, seen much of the galaxy, but his emotional ties were few. He had never married, had never raised a child. The sting of loss seized him again. He barely noticed the rush of air from the suit's water reclamation system as it absorbed his tears.
Sighing as he composed himself a few moments later, he turned to look at the grave next to Eline's. Underneath the encrusted grime on the headstone, a name was barely visible: "KAMIN." The sight struck a deep chord. A new upwelling of conflicting emotions rose up within him.
Slowly standing, he looked down at Kamin's grave with a dawning realization. He folded his arms across his chest. Of course. It was much clearer now. Through the subjective gauze of his emotions, he had always thought of Eline as his wife, of Kamin's life as his own. He had thought of Kamin as a metaphoric construct, a narrative device built by the Kataanians to tell the story of their dying civilization. Thus, he had considered the lifetime of memories his own to keep, to cherish. It had never occurred to him that Kamin was an actual person who had lived and died in Ressik.
He stepped back a moment, looked at the two graves together. Suddenly, he felt a twinge of guilt for having such strong feelings for Eline. But then her last words to him came back in a rush, and it all made sense to him. If you remember what we were, and how we lived, then we will have found life again. Now we live in you. Tell them of us... my darling.
He was not Kamin, the simple ironweaver of Ressik. He was Kataan, the collective memory of an entire civilization. His love for Eline would not diminish. But millions of Kataanians had perished a thousand years ago, and they had chosen to be remembered in this way. Even young Daanik, with the clarity of an emotionless Vulcan, had seen that. He must honor their choice.
He crouched down, rubbed off some of the dirt. Underneath the name, the epitaph read: "A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME." He couldn't help but smile at the irony. Remembering the roses, he took them out of his rucksack. Pulling one of the flowers from the bouquet, he placed it at the head of Eline's grave. "I will remember you always, my darling," he said aloud. Moving over to Kamin's grave, he set down the rest of the roses underneath his headstone. "And you, my friend. Thank you for sharing your life with me. You have given me a gift beyond measure. I will do my best to live up to it."
He rose and looked behind him. The sun had gone down behind the mountains. Removing his headpiece and gloves, he reached into his rucksack again. Sitting down cross-legged in front of the two graves, he began playing a plaintive dirge on his Ressikan flute, a goodbye salute to his life on Kataan.
Five days later, Picard looked down on the planet from the cockpit of the shuttlecraft. He no longer felt the melancholy he had experienced when he first arrived. Instead, he was filled with a renewed sense of purpose. He understood at last what the Kataanians had given him. It wasn't just a lifetime of experiences beamed into him from a deep space probe. It was an intimate knowledge of Kataanian life that no archaeological dig could ever discover.
He would monitor the outpost from time to time, and would make sure the Federation did not forget the work they did here. And one day, when the adventure of space exploration no longer held the same attraction for him, he would retire to Kataan, to the life of archaeology that Professor Galen had always wanted him to pursue. But not yet. There was still so much to discover. So many more Kataans that needed to be remembered. So many more Kamins whose lives should not go unrecorded.
About the Author: A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Michael Strickland is an aspiring screenwriter currently making a living as a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.