Author: Anthony Butler
“You with us, Ariel?” Lt. Commander Megan Hartley asked, waving her hand in front of Tilleran’s face.
She sat up in the chair next to Hartley in the cockpit of the runabout Passaic. “How long was I napping?”
“About an hour. And I think you were humming.”
“Hope it was something pleasant, at least,” Tilleran said, shifting in her seat and checking the navigational computer.
“It sounded like ‘Aint That a Kick in the Head.’” Hartley mused.
“I assure you, it wasn’t. Given a choice of Earth musicians, I’ll take Frank Black over Frank Sinatra any day.” Tilleran rubbed her eyes as she looked over the console. “Wow, only another three hours to Betazed.”
“Yes,” Hartley said, turning to her own panel. “Looks like.”
“Anything from the Explorer?”
“Nope. Guess things are pretty quiet over there.” Hartley plunked at her controls.
“If I haven’t already said so, thank you for doing this,” Tilleran said, leaning forward on her knees. “I realize everyone’s mad at me. With good reason.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve been reading up. Apparently teladdiction is more common among Betazoids than one might think.”
Tilleran drew her legs up to her chin and hugged them. “It’s not something we like to talk about with outsiders.”
“You think of me as an outsider?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Well, the important thing is you’re getting help.”
Tilleran nodded. “Yeah. I’m not sure Counselor Peterman understood that. She seemed more interested in…I don’t know…getting back at me.”
“Her heart was in the right place,” Hartley said. “She just went about it the wrong way.”
“You’ve calmed down since Peterman first locked me up.”
“Hey, it’s not going to do any good to dwell on things, right? I think Kelly realized what she was doing was wrong. That’s why she approved this trip.”
“Peterman approved this trip?”
“They wouldn’t have accepted you at the Elbrun Center without her referral,” Hartley said. “So go easy on her, okay?”
Tilleran narrowed her eyes at Hartley. “Are you all right, Megan?”
Hartley turned to Tilleran. “Are you probing me?”
“Of…course not. No telepathy until I confront my addiction,” Tilleran said. “I’m holding back. Without the nasty chemicals.”
“Good,” Hartley said. “I figure you can get information from me like everyone else does, for a change. Just ask.”
“So you’re sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah,” Hartley said. “It’s just…been a long trip.”
“Want me to take over so you can sleep?”
Hartley smiled at Tilleran. “No, I’ve got it. You can head back to the bunk room if you want, though.”
“Yeah, not a bad idea,” Tilleran said, and ducked into the aft compartment.
Hartley watched her go, then turned back to face the foreward viewports. She glanced back at the door to the aft compartment. “Hey Ariel…”
Tilleran ducked back into the cockpit. “Yes?”
“Nevermind, it’s nothing.”
BETAZED TAM ELBRUN CENTER FOR TROUBLED TELEPATHS
“And how many are checking in?” the demure woman in a pressed baby blue uniform said from behind the front desk as Tilleran and Hartley stood, glancing around at the shiny floors and whitewashed walls of the Elbrun Center.
“Look at my eyes,” Hartley said. “The lack of dark, mysterious retinas should be your first clue. Just the one Betazoid.”
“We see telepaths from a dozen species, not just Betazoids. No need to be snarky,” the woman replied, glancing up at Hartley, and slid a padd across her desk toward Tilleran. “Please complete this.”
“I’ll show you snarky,” Hartley muttered and ambled over to the waiting area. Tilleran sat beside her, silently tapping on the padd.
“Nice place,” Hartley said, glancing around. “Who’s Tam Elbrun anyway?”
“A…somewhat disturbed telepath of some note,” Tilleran said distractedly as she worked on the padd. “His family founded this center, hoping that other telepaths won’t end up like he did…”
“Which is?” Hartley asked.
Tilleran shrugged. “Stranded in deep space living inside a huge, telepathic, spacefaring almond.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call you ‘disturbed,’” Hartley said thoughtfully.
“That’s debatable,” Tilleran said with a small grin. “There, all done.” She got up and headed over to the front desk as Hartley glanced around.
Beside her, a Betazoid boy, no more than twelve, sat staring at her with deep, dark, penetrating eyes. “You’re pretty,” he said softly.
Hartley rubbed her eyes, trying her best not to think of anything that the apparently telepathic kid could pick up on. She shoved a padd in the boy’s hand. “Nobody. Here’s a magazine, kid. Read up. Ariel, we almost ready to go?”
After speaking for another moment with the receptionist, Tilleran turned back to Hartley. “I have group therapy in fifteen minutes. You might as well head over to the hotel.”
“Any sights you’d recommend me seeing while on Betazed?”
“I imagine this support group is going to be quite a sight,” Tilleran said, taking a deep breath. “But if you must know, the Gethani valley is beautiful this time of year, and it’s not far by shuttle.”
“I’ll check it out,” Hartley said, standing and heading for the door. “You’ll contact me when you get some free time? Tell me how it’s going?”
“Of course,” Tilleran nodded, and watched Hartley go.
“This way, Ms. Tilleran,” the receptionist said, now out from behind her desk and gently touching Tilleran’s arm.
“It’s Commander Tilleran,” Tilleran said, turning and gently pulling her arm free, walking purposefully down the hallway.
“So you just left her there?” Mirk asked, leaning forward on the small viewscreen on Hartley’s desk in her hotel room, in the plush Beds on ‘Zed hotel. Behind Mirk, Hartley could see the typical Thursday night hustle-bustle at the Constellation Club. Crewmembers, plied with synthehol, writing against each other on the dance floor.
“It’s not like that,” Hartley said, leaning back in her chair and glancing at the bed, where her as-yet unpacked duffel sat. “She’s got to spend some time with her group, and meet with some of the doctors, is my guess.”
“But she can leave, right? Whenever she wants?”
“She comes back here at the end of the day, yeah,” Hartley said. She scrolled a padd that listed the amenities at Beds on ‘Zed. “And if she gets back by sixteen hundred, we can still get the early bird special at the hotel restaurant.”
“Small miracles,” Mirk said with a laugh. “How are you doing?”
“You know, Tilleran kept asking that same thing.”
“It must be hard, trying to quit reading minds, when you’ve had that power all your life, like second nature.”
“I guess you’d know, huh,” Hartley said.
Mirk nodded. “You know how many times I get the urge to lock certain patrons in a subspace pocket when they’ve misbehaved in my Club?”
“You can really do that?”
“Sure, but I’m pretty sure they’d suffocate instantly.”
“Well, yeah, then don’t do that.”
“It’s all about discipline. As I’m sure Commander Tilleran will be learning.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll be sightseeing,” Hartley said, leaning her chin on her fist. “Damn. I should be back on the Explorer refitting the phase decouplers, something to make myself useful.”
“THIS is useful, kumquat. Ariel needs you now more than ever. You know that you’re the only one on board who could have gone through this with her. Nobody’s closer to her than you are.”
Hartley sighed. “One person is.”
“Yes, well I guess there’s such a thing as…too close.”
“When we…if we…ever have kids, is there a chance one of them will end up telepathic?”
Mirk shrugged. “I’ve never had any telepathic abilities, per se…but I suppose it’s not out of the question. Why?”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes!” Hartley snapped. “Stop asking. Tell me what’s going on aboard the ship. I feel out of the loop…”
“Well, where to start,” Mirk said, stroking his chin. “Cadet Sparks tried to sneak Plato into the club on couples’ night. That didn’t go over too well with Doctor Browning, or the captain…”
“At least he’s not still chasing after me,” Hartley muttered.
“Ever since J’hana woke up, she and Richards are inseparable. They’re everywhere together.”
“Who’d have thought?”
“Surely not me, but then again, I’m just the bartender.”
Hartley touched her screen. “You’re much more than just the bartender.”
“Why, Commander Hartley…”
“You’re also my number one cabana boy.”
“And don’t you forget it. Ready to oil you up as soon as you get back…”
“And as I digest that thought, I’m off to dinner by myself…”
Mirk nodded. “Okay, meanwhile I’m…” He glanced to the side. “Yes, I’m off to clean up some vomit. Have a great night, kiwi. I love you…”
“Love you too, Mirkles,” Hartley said, wrinkling her nose. No other time I her life would she be caught dead uttering such a drippingly affectionate phrase, but that’s just what Mirk did to her.
She pushed out of her chair and headed out of her hotel room, determined to have a good time on Betazed by herself. After a nice dinner and a walk, she’d return to the room, Tilleran would come back, and she’d hear all about life at the Elbrun Center.
“Excuse me,” Tilleran said, stepping back out to the front desk.
“Yes, ma’am,” the same woman from before, with the baby blue uniform, said.
“I think you have me in the wrong group, Miss…”
“Mrs. Ziad. I’m sorry, I should have asked your name earlier.”
“It’s on my shirt. See?”
“Right. Well, Mrs. Ziad, as I say, I’m in the wrong group.”
“Your name again?”
Ziad looked tilleran up in the database and shook her head. “Tilleran, from the Explorer. Group Six. Teladicction recovery. You’re in the right group all right.”
“But those people,” Tilleran said, her voice dropping low. “I mean, I realize I have a problem. But they’re…”
Ziad narrowed her eyes at Tilleran. “They’re…what?”
“As I said, you’re in the right group.”
“Now, wait one…”
“It’s painful sometimes to look in the mirror, I realize…”
“But I’m not looking at the mirror,” Tilleran said, her voice growing louder and her pulse pounding in her ears more by the second. “These people need serious help. They’re…dangerous.”
“You are too,” Ziad said, with an air of detached medical concern. “And trust me, you do need help. And according to your itenerary, you have a one-on-one with Doctor Colthoi in five minutes. I suggest you don’t miss it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have people waiting to check in.”
“Yes,” a voice said from behind Tilleran. “Excuse me…”
Tilleran turned. “Just wait your…” Her eyes bugged. “Crellus?”
Crellus Risello stared back at her, his eyes impassive. “What do you know. And you’re here for teladdiction too, I take it?”
Tilleran gritted her teeth. “You read my mind.”
After a sumptuous meal in the Diner Troi, Lwaxana’s surprisingly successful…and surprisingly affordable…neighborhood eatery franchise, Hartley headed off to check out the Gethani Valley Tilleran had mentioned. She consulted her padd as the setting sun began to sink behind the distant mountains. The map outlined several interconnecting footpaths that would lead her down into the valley, and past some truly breathtaking views.
As she descended, the terrain inclined at a manageable grade, the greenery around Hartley thickened. Sparse plants gave way to large, thick- rooted, expansive trees that cast impressive shadows along the footpath. The shadows were augmented by the long, orange light of the setting sun.
A light breeze passed through the trees and Hartley took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet, pleasant air.
Twigs snapped behind her.
Hartley froze in her tracks. She knew when she was being followed. Certainly didn’t have to be a telepath to figure that out.
She whirled quickly, determined to catch her pursuer in mid-stalk, and ask him what exactly his plans were. She was reasonably confident she could quite handily beat up the average Betazoid, if it came to that.
But there was nothing behind her. Just the wind whistling through the trees.
Hartley shrugged and continued on her way down the footpath. Perhaps she was just hearing things. Maybe she was on edge for other reasons.
To think, that someone would follow her, of all people. What would anyone have to gain by following…
More twigs cracked behind her and Hartley whirled again.
And came face to face with Lt. Commander Tilleran.
“AHHHH!” Hartley shrieked, balling her fists and putting them in front of her.
Tilleran stepped back. “Megan?”
“Sorry,” Hartley said, lowering her shoulders. She took a deep breath. “You scared the crap out of me. Why’d you sneak up on me like that?”
“I wasn’t sneaking. I was just enjoying the path.”
“Uh-huh,” Hartley said. “Well, did you enjoy your session?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Tilleran said. “Not, I mean…until I have time to process everything. Figure it out for myself, you know.”
“Yeah, sure,” Hartley said. “Take your time. We’re not going anywhere until you’re back on the right track, whatever that means.”
“When I figure it out, you’ll be the next to know,” Tilleran said, picking up step next to Hartley.
“Did you meet anyone interesting?” Hartley asked in a feeble attempt to make conversation.
“Actually, yeah…Crellus Risello.”
“Crellus? That guy who you were sworn to marry when you were both two?”
“Promised, but yes, that’s the gist of it. Same Crellus, too. Arrogant previk.”
“What’s he in there for?” Hartley asked.
“The same reason I’m there,” Tilleran said, glancing around as the surrounding shrubbery gave way to the broad, dipping Gethani Valley.
“Weird,” said Hartley. “What are the odds?”
“Apparently, pretty good, I guess,” Tilleran said. “Anyway, Crellus had begun using his telepathy to alter business transactions. To convince buyers that they were getting more for their money than they really were, or to get sellers to lower their price.”
“I take it they don’t approve of that sort of thing on Betazed.”
“Obviously. Century Twenty-Five has been suspended from doing business until a full investigation can be launched. Crellus’ board of directors ordered him to the Elbrun Center. He checked in today, same day I did.”
“Sounds a little too convenient if you ask me.”
“Well, regardless, this just became a whole other thing.”
“How are you going to deal with it?”
“With a renewed sense of vigor and an eagerness to get healthy and get out of this place.”
“That’s the spirit. So did you get a chance to meet one on one with one of the doctors?”
“No. I kind of…skipped…that meeting.”
“Ariel! How are you ever going to get better if you don’t do what people tell you to?”
“Because I generally don’t like doing that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to change that in a hurry.”
“Easier said than done.”
“How do we want to start today?” Doctor Colthoi said, looking around the circle of troubled telepaths, hugging his padd to his chest.
“By ramming a spike through your skull?” said Gol Serani, who in Tilleran’s judgment was by far the most disturbed of those in her group.
“Thank you for saying it without telepathically making me think I actually have a spike in my head,” Colthoi said, then his eyes widened and he lurched backward, dropping his padd. “URK! Oh…there it is.”
Two baby-blue clad orderlies hurried up to Serani and stared at him.
“Calm,” one orderly said.
“Calm,” the other one repeated.
Serani’s angry eyes suddenly softened.
“That was silly of me,” he said, trailing off and glancing toward the windows. “It’s a pretty day out there.”
“Excuse me,” Tilleran said, leaning forward. “But can I just make an observation?”
“Of course,” Colthoi said distractedly, rubbing his forehead. “This is an open forum.”
“What are we learning if you just use telepaths to subdue us everytime we let our powers get out of hand?”
“There has to be some method of control,” Colthoi said cooly. “This way seemed to make the most sense.”
“Isn’t it like curing overeating by hitting someone over the head with a sandwich?” An image of Doctor Browning leapt unbidden into Tilleran’s mind, but she shoved it away.
“We’re not here because of overeating. We’re here because we overuse our telepathy,” Colthoi said. “We use it rashly, for selfish reasons, and in an irresponsible way.”
“I don’t believe ‘rashly’ is a word,” Crellus Risello spoke up from the other side of the circle, nodding at Tilleran and giving her a small smile.
“Well,” Tilleran said, looking askance at Crellus. “I just think we would all handle this a lot better if none of us resorted to telepathy. Teach these people that nobody has to rely on it as some sort of…crutch…”
“You bring up an interesting point,” Colthoi said, “although I’m hard pressed to recall any formal counseling training you may have had?”
“They tried to shove that down my throat when I enrolled in Starfleet Academy, but I chose the sciences.”
“Well done,” Colthoi said. “Still, please leave the counseling to the experts.”
“Now just you wait…”
“Now then, since you have chosen to speak up, let’s discuss your case.”
“Let’s really not,” Tilleran said, feeling her anger spike a bit.
“What brings you here, Ariel?”
Tilleran looked around at the suddenly eager, dark eyes in the group. “You’ve seen my case file.”
“Let’s talk about it.” Colthoi consulted his padd. “You’re Chief Science Officer on the Explorer.”
“For seven years,” Tilleran said flatly.
“Brilliant. And recently, in the last few months, you began to abuse your powers.”
“I began to use them. Extensively.” Tilleran glared at Colthoi. “Actually, it felt good.”
“No doubt it did,” Colthoi replied. “And that’s the problem. Can anyone tell Lieutenant Commander Tilleran what she did wrong?”
“Ooh! Ooh!” piped up Lin Sarzhad, the gold-skinned Freesian, who seemed determined to impress the doctors…either to help her get out of the rehabilitation program early, or because she was just naturally a suck-up. Tilleran really wanted to use her telepathy again so she could know for sure. She glanced ruefully at the big sign on the wall that said: “No mind reading…just good feelings!”
“Yes, Lin,” Colthoi said with a dripping smile.
The middle-aged mom of three folded her hands in her lap. “Lieutenant Commander Tilleran violated the free will of others by infringing on their right to do things as they wish.”
“And in doing so, she devalued herself and all Betazoids…all telepaths, everywhere. Very good. What do you have to say about that, Commander?”
Tilleran stared daggers at Colthoi, but she held her powers at bay. “I think you exaggerate a bit, but that’s about the size of it. I would add that I believed in each case that my telepathy was helping people. Countless times I’ve used my telepathy to get us out of dangerous situations or help the Explorer somehow accomplish her mission. My telepathy has literally saved my life and the lives of my crewmates dozens of times. That should count for something.”
“It does, up to, but not including, the moment that you strayed. The moment you used your powers for petty reasons. For personal gain.”
Tilleran stood up. “Is this therapy or a lecture from my father?”
“It’s a way for you to realize the scope of what you’ve done. The depth and breadth of your actions.”
Tilleran’s words were like ice. “I’ve dealt with what I’ve done. I apologized. And now I’m here to try to do something about it. What more do you want from me?”
“You’ve committed an act against humanity. Where does it end? Making someone love you instead of someone else…getting the captain to promote you to first officer? Convincing your mother you didn’t forget her birthday?”
“It ends when I say it does.”
“Yes, because you are in control.”
“Damn right I am.”
“Which is why you blew off our appointment yesterday. YOU didn’t feel it was necessary.”
“Maybe I thought this was all a bit of a joke.”
“Do you still think that?” Colthoi asked.
“I…I don’t need to sit here and get berated by you or anyone else.”
“Maybe it’s because nobody has explained how close you came to the point of no return. To losing total self control.”
“I don’t need you to teach me self control. I have that.”
Colthoi stood up. “Do you?” He walked toward her. “Do you?”
Tilleran stared at him.
“You want to use your powers right now. You want to strike me down. Make me mute. Make me forget we ever had this conversation. Make everyone in the room forget they’ve ever had this conversation. You can do it. You can do that if you like…but it will undo any progress you’ve made here and…it will prove my point.”
Tilleran stared long and hard at Colthoi, then sat down. She leaned back, crossed her legs. “Well. That’s food for thought.”
Colthoi blinked. “Really?”
Tilleran gritted her teeth. “I suppose.”
The room was silent. Colthoi looked around at the other faces around the circle. Crellus Risello’s eyes were fixed on Tilleran, a broad smile on his face.
Colthoi smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Lt. Commander Hartley sat out on the veranda of the Beds on ‘Zed hotel, sipping kava juice and flipping through the latest Corps of Engineers Monthly. The cover story on Lieutenant Ross of the U.S.S. Kiev was especially captivating. The things people were doing with polymer induction nodules these days!
In the midst of her reading, Hartley took a moment to look up and take in lush, sylvan hills of the Gethani Valley, which the back side of Beds on ‘Zed overlooked. The view was panoramic, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring.
The world was silent, peaceful, with a light breeze that teased at Hartley’s hair.
Which is why the rattle of the door behind her was so noticeable.
Hartley turned in her chair to see who was joining her on the empty veranda. Nobody there.
She shook her head and returned to her padd.
Footsteps, coming toward her.
Hartley stood up and turned, looking around the veranda. “Whoever you are, come out here. Starfleet spent four years teaching me to kick ass, and I’m an engineer so I rarely get to put that training to good use!”
The veranda was silent, empty.
Hartley backed against the stone railing that overlooked the valley far below.
<Megan Hartley,> a deep, reassuring voice boomed in her ears.
“What?” She looked around.
<Megan Hartley. You want to jump over that railing, don’t you?>
The voice wasn’t coming from the veranda, or within the hotel. It was coming from inside her head. She reached for her communicator badge.
<Don’t do that. Don’t call for help. Turn around, climb on top of the railing and jump. Just jump. End it!>
Hartley stared straight ahead incredulously. “Who the hell are you? Get out of my head!”
<You know it’s for the best.>
Hartley glanced back at the railing. Slowly, surely, she climbed on top of it, as if her limbs were doing someone else’s bidding. She looked out over the valley, the expansive underbrush, a hundred meters at least, far below.
Hartley turned, stood on her tiptoes, and…
“Megan!” Tilleran called out, bursting onto the veranda.
The excitement caused Hartley to teeter, then lose her footing. She tipped, arms spinning…
And Tilleran grabbed her hand, yanking her down hard to the floor of the veranda. They fell in a tangle of limbs.
“What the hell were you doing?” Tilleran asked incredulously.
“I was about to jump,” Hartley said slowly, though she didn’t believe it. “Where’d you come from?”
“I’m here on a break. Wait…jump? What would possess you to do something like that?”
Hartley stared at Tilleran, her eyes growing hard. “That’s what I’d like to know.” She stood up and walked back into the hotel, not looking back.
Tilleran was late getting back to the Elbrun Center, as she’d gone with Hartley to the authorities. Megan had been thoughtful enough to come along with Tilleran on this journey, and the last thing she wanted was for her to suffer because of it. Her family was one of the more noteworthy houses on Betazed, so her clout was helpful in getting Hartley through to see an inspector general.
After hearing her story, the inspector general promised to investigate, but assured Hartley that a Betazoid acting with murderous intent was highly irregular, and suggested there might be another explanation. Hartley hadn’t taken well to that, and didn’t say much to Tilleran on the way there, or the way back, for that matter.
“You’re late,” a voice said as Tilleran dashed past the front gate of the Center’s main building. She turned to find Crellus there, reclined against a sprawling lurva tree, arms folded.
“What does it matter to you?” Tilleran asked, turning to face Crellus.
“It matters a great deal. You’re my future wife, after all.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of that routine?” Tilleran shook her head. “Didn’t you ever think that maybe if you didn’t spend so much time trying to get me to marry you, you might have met someone who’s actually interested in marrying you?”
“The thought never crossed my mind,” Crellus said, and leaned forward with a sigh. “But then again, you know that.”
“I’m not using my powers for the duration of this trip,” Tilleran said flatly.
“You don’t need to use them. We have a connection, you and I, and it goes far beyond telepathy.”
“I’d double check your sources on that one, Crellus. I’m very happy with my life on the Explorer, which I’m sure you’d be all to happy to whisk me away from, if I gave you the chance.”
“True,” Crellus said. “A starship is no place for a beautiful Betazoid with limitless potential. You should be your own master. You should build your own house.”
“There’s nothing my potential likes doing more than serving on the Explorer,” Tilleran said. “That’s my house…it’s my home.”
“And you’re perfectly content there.”
“Funny, but I’d think you wouldn’t be here right now if you were perfectly content there. Something had to drive you to abuse your powers the way you did.”
“This isn’t group,” Tilleran said. “More like your weakest attempt yet at winning me over.”
“Hey, we’re all just trying to get better,” Crellus said, with a smile. “I’ll see you inside.”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said, and ducked into the building, casting a curious glance back at the Betazoid entrepreneur.
“I’m honored you would contact me, Commander Hartley, considering there has been no lost love between the two of us.”
Hartley shifted uncomfortably in the pilot’s chair of the runabout. She’d returned to the Passaic once she ‘d determined that the Betazoid authorities had no intention of helping her. It was embarrassing for them to even think that one of their own could resort to murder. It was especially absurd to them, Hartley reasoned, since murder was near impossible on Betazed. Your victim, if at all telepathic, would sense you coming as soon as you got within fifty meters. That pretty much spoiled any element of surprise.
“This isn’t about us. It’s about Ariel,” Hartley said, leaning toward the small viewscreen.
“You have my attention,” J’hana said, straightening. “Although, to be honest, you had my attention from the beginning. Because of the tanktop.”
Hartley folded her arms across her chest, suddenly feeling very self- conscious. “Are you going to help me, or what?”
“What is it you ask?”
“Is Ariel…is she capable of violence?”
“If asked to defend her ship, of course she is. But I should point out that her roundhouse kicks are sloppy at best.”
“That’s not what I mean. Do you think she could…snap? Could she hurt someone she loves?”
“She’s already done that,” J’hana said tersely. She looked down a moment, her antennae wilting slightly. “You should be discussing this with Counselor Peterman.”
“I’m asking you. Nobody knows her better.”
J’hana looked up, locking eyes with Hartley. “Ariel Tilleran is capable of many things, but attacking one of her own crew, a friend…no, that is something that she would never do.”
“She’s already attacked us, J’hana. And if you weren’t still wildly in love with her, you wouldn’t be giving her a free pass!”
“Everything is a matter of degrees,” J’hana said. “We all have our dark side, Commander. Each of us hides such darkness, best we can. But deep down, we are all capable of the unthinkable.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Hartley said. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want to hear.”
“Are you in danger?” J’hana asked, her antennae perking.
“I…don’t know,” Hartley said. “But I’m sure as hell going to find out.”
J’hana’s eyes bored into Hartley’s. “Is there something I should know about?”
“I’ll let you know.” Hartley cut the channel and shoved out of her seat, heading back to the transporter pad. Before she reached the pad, she knelt and flipped open a side panel. She reached in and grabbed a phaser, stared at it for a few moments, as if considering its purpose, then stuffed it into its holster.
“We’re nowhere,” Lin Sarzhad said, drawing her knees up to her chest. “None of you understand what it’s like. The darkness that closes in on every corner of my mind!”
Tilleran leaned her head back and rolled her eyes. “Please. You think you’re the only one with problems?”
“This is what this forum is for,” Dr. Colthoi said. “I’m trying to get at the reason why you all resort to telepathy to try and fix your problems.”
“Because it’s convenient?” Gol Serani said, eyes wild and bright.
“Because it’s fulfilling,” Crellus said, looking to Tilleran. “Because you get a high from it, that you can’t get any other way. Isn’t that right, Ariel?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tilleran said, staring at the floor.
“I think we’ve hit a nerve,” Colthoi said. “Let’s all agree that telepathy is a useful power. We’re unique in that we all possess this power, and in galactic terms, we’re in the minority. Others envy us for our ability, while they never really think about the toll it takes on us, each and every time we use it.”
“Every time, living on the edge, looking over it into a lovely abyss,” Serani said, trancelike.
“Droning voices in your head, each and every one with different wants and needs. Thought after delectable thought sliding down your gullet…” Sarzhad said, stretching out luxuriously.
“You all are quite bent,” Tilleran said, and shifted in her chair. “I still think I’m in the wrong group.”
“You have trouble belonging,” Crellus said.
“Good observation, Crellus,” Colthoi said, turning to Tilleran. “Do you have a rebuttal for him?”
“That and so much more,” Tilleran said darkly.
“You’re afraid to admit it,” Serani said. “What it does to you…the beautiful taste of other thoughts…swallowing each one…” He turned to Sarzhad, who beamed as she stared back at him. The two leapt at each other, falling to the floor in a mass of flailing, passionate limbs.
Colthoi cleared his throat. “Hrm. Well, that’s not exactly what I had in mind for this session.”
“Glad to see one couple is rising to the occasion,” Crellus said, taking in the scene with detached amusement, as orderlies plucked the pair apart.
“Calm,” one orderly told Serani, as the other talked to Sarzhad.
“It’s important we don’t fall prey to instinct,” said Colthoi. “We have inhibitions for a reason. Sometimes inhibition is a good thing, wouldn’t you say, Commander Tilleran?”
“By now you surely must realize I could care less what you have to say,” Tilleran said.
“I’d think you of all people would welcome this opportunity,” Colthoi replied. “You’re Starfleet. You’re supposed to hold yourself to a higher standard.”
“Which is why I don’t understand why I’ve been lumped in with people who are so obviously…bent.” Tilleran shook her head. “Everything is a matter of degrees. I don’t need this kind of help. I just need to…find center.”
“Yes, center,” Serani said in a daze. “That sounds good.”
“Then it sounds like our goals are aligned, after all,” Colthoi said cooly.
“Yes, it does,” Crellus said, looking at Tilleran.
Coltohi slapped his legs and stood up. “Well then, time for afternoon tea and florpox. Let’s meet back in fifteen minutes, shall we? I’m really excited about the progress we’re making here.”
Hartley smiled to herself as she looked both ways in the empty janitorial access corridor of the Elbrun Center and then climbed up the ladder into the maintenance duct above. Engineering was pretty much the same everywhere, be it starship or mental rehabilitation facility. You just had to know where to look to find a duct to crawl into.
As she shimmied along the duct, twisting to withdraw her tricorder, she wondered about the wisdom of her actions. What other choice did she have, really? The authorities had already shown an unwillingness to help her. Tilleran had problems of her own. And she wasn’t even sure if she trusted Tilleran, in her current state. And that was hard to swallow.
Her plan was simple: Get hard proof that someone in the Elbrun facility was acting abnormally, even dangerously, and give it to the inspector general. Then…whoever it was… could get the help that she (or he) truly needed. Talking was all well and good, but maybe it was time to up the ante. Maybe it was time that Betazoids admitted that guy Elbrun wasn’t an isolated case. There were some in their ranks who just couldn’t take the responsibility that came along with telepathy. Couldn’t handle it. And someone had to do something about it. Yeah, Betazed had pretty waterfalls, but what good were pretty waterfalls when there were crazed telepaths trying to shove you over the edge of them?
Hartley was stirred from her thoughts when she saw a blip on her tricorder. Someone directly beneath her, in an (until recently) empty activity room.
The readings were Betazoid, for sure. Hartley turned up the gain on the tricorder and aimed its sensors down into the room. She got a perfect overhead image of the room and its occupant. Dark haired. Female. If she could only get a look at the…face.
On the tricorder’s screen, suddenly, Ariel Tilleran glanced up at her.
<Come down from there,> a voice said in her mind.
“No!” Hartley replied audibly, shutting her tricorder and moving through the duct. There was an access hatch five meters ahead. She had to make sure it was locked, or…
The hatch flipped open. Tilleran’s head emerged, and she turned to look at Hartley impassively. “What are you doing in here?”
“Looking for clues,” Hartley said, reaching down to her hip, fumbling for her phaser.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’m trying to get answers, figure out who’s trying to kill me.”
“You’re being paranoid, Megan. Nobody is trying to kill you. Come down here so we can talk about this like civilized people. Like friends.”
Hartley stared at Tilleran.
“We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Of…course.” Hartley worked her fist around the phaser’s handle.
“Then why are you thinking about pulling out that phaser?”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to be using your powers.”
Tilleran’s eyes turned cold. “You’re not supposed to be crawling around these ducts spying on us either. That’s not stopping you, is it?”
“You need help.”
“You need to come here.”
“No!” Hartley shouted, scooting backward in the duct, reaching for the phaser.
Suddenly Hartley felt herself stop, then begin to inch forward. Her limbs were moving, but she wasn’t controlling them.
“No,” she said. “Ariel, you can’t do this.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Tilleran said, withdrawing from the hatch, giving Hartley room to climb out behind her.
Hartley felt herself climb down from the hatch and leap to the floor, standing opposite Tilleran in the dim activity room, but she wasn’t at the controls anymore. She could feel another mind, like a fist, wrapped around her mind, controlling her every move.
“Ariel, what do you think you’re doing?” Hartley’s hand shook as she tried to grab the phaser. “You can’t seriously think…you wouldn’t…”
“Wouldn’t what?” Tilleran said. “Just what do you think I’m capable of?”
“I…” Hartley shook her head. “I don’t know anymore.”
Suddenly a hand slapped her face. Hartley was alarmed to discover it was her own.
“You shouldn’t hit yourself. Not good!” Tilleran said, circling her.
Hartley gritted her teeth as her arms flailed with a will of their own, smacking her left, then right. “Don’t DO this, Ariel!”
“Why not? It’s quite a bit of fun.”
“This isn’t you. It’s not you!”
“Then who is it?”
“You need HELP, Ariel! Let these people help you.”
“Help me what? Be a better Betazoid? What I’m doing now is what we’re born and bred to do. Do you know the kind of control it takes to take over another person’s mind? Erase their free will? It takes years of practice. Only the high-end telepaths can do it! Is it any wonder such power drives us mad?”
Hartley stared hard at Tilleran. “Fine then. Just finish me off. Forget our friendship, your life back on the Explorer. Everything you’ve ever worked for.”
Suddenly the door to the activity room busted open, and a tall, lean silhouette appeared in the doorway.
“STOP!” a voice called out.
And Ariel Tilleran stepped out of the shadows, reached down, grabbed a lunch tray off a nearby table, and slammed it hard upside the head of the other Ariel Tilleran, who fell like a sack of fresh florpox to the ground.
Hartley trembled there, staring in disbelief at the newly-arrived Tilleran, and glanced down to find a gold skinned woman lying insensate on the floor, right where the murderous other Tilleran should have been.
“Megan…” Tilleran said, reaching out a hand and moving toward the engineer, whose knees shook.
Hartley’s eyes rolled back, and she pitched to the ground in a dead faint.
Foggy reality blossomed in front of Hartley’s eyes; quite suddenly after that, as a Betazoid male ran a sensor over her forehead and jotted something down on a padd.
“She’s fine. Just a little extra nerosensor activity, which is quite common after an intense telepathic attack.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” a voice said, and Hartley leaned up on her biobed, to see the gold-skinned woman sitting on the biobed next to her, glowing restraining bands around her wrists and ankles. “I get that way sometimes.”
“Thank you, Doctor Colthoi,” Tilleran said, standing beside Hartley and peering at her with concern. “You’ll administer fleranin and monitor for a few more hours?”
“Yes,” Colthoi said, and turned to Tilleran. “All in all, your friend’s quite lucky.”
“How do you figure?” Hartley asked groggily, rubbing her head.
“Telepathic impression is rather rare, but usually, when the subject is channeling such intense emotions, the results are somewhat…deadly.”
“I don’t understand even half of anything you just said,” Hartley muttered.
Tilleran looked from Hartley to the gold-skinned woman. “Sometimes high-end telepaths, especially those with emotional problems, can ‘channel’ the emotions of others. Usually these emotions must be very strong in order for such a thing to happen. They have to be strong emotions. Passion, jealousy…anger.” She glanced at the floor a moment, then looked back up at Hartley. “As near as we can figure, Ms. Sarzhad here picked up on some very strong violent intent from someone within reach of her telepathic capabilities.”
“In Lin’s case, her telepathic reach is rather large. She was in another part of the complex when you arrived here with Commander Tilleran. She must have picked up on your repressed anger then, and…telepathically…stalked you…thereafter,” Colthoi said. “Fascinating, really. Someone should write a paper…”
“Yes, ‘How a Crazed Telepath Nearly Killed My Best Friend,’ by Ariel Tilleran. A best seller in the making,” Tilleran said wryly.
“I was thinking I’d write it, actually,” Colthoi replied with a grin.
“So…wait a minute,” Hartley said, sitting up. “Are you telling me that…*I* caused this to happen?”
“Oh yes. It’s most definitely your fault,” Colthoi said. “You should be more careful with your emotions.”
“SHE nearly killed ME!” Hartley said, pointing at Sarzhad.
“Hey, I said I’m sorry,” Sarzhad said sheepishly.
“When you broke into the Elbrun Center, your proximity must have set her off,” Tilleran said. “She came to find you to…um…finish the job.”
“Lovely,” Hartley said. “And she used mind control to convince me she was you. And then, as you, she’d, what, kill me?”
“Oh, no,” Colthoi said, shaking his head. “Quite the opposite. She was going to force YOU to kill HER. As I said, she was channeling your desire to kill…” He pointed dismissively at Tilleran. “Your friend here.”
“I don’t want to kill her!” Hartley snapped.
“Maybe not literally,” Tilleran said. “But I get the feeling you’re a lot more pissed at me than you’ve let on.”
“What gave you that idea?” Hartley asked.
Tilleran’s eyes darted over to Sarzhad, who held out her bound wrists and made a stabbing motion with her fists. “That,” Tilleran said flatly.
“As I said, your emotions would have had to be quite strong to elicit Sarzhad’s response,” Colthoi said. “You should be glad that Ariel heard the commotion and came in to help.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Tilleran said, turning to Colthoi. “I sensed Megan’s fear and terror from the other side of the building and I came running.”
Colthoi gave a disapproving frown. “I thought we agreed you’d stop using your emotions for now.”
“WE didn’t agree to anything,” Tilleran said. “You’ve told all of us to stop using our emotions because you mistakenly think that’s the key to curing us. Your first mistake is that there’s nothing to cure. We just need someone to talk to. And we need to understand that our abilities aren’t evil. They are only what we make of them. In this case, my abilities saved Megan’s life!”
“Yes, but you have to learn how to use them, not abuse them. That’s what we’re trying to do here…” Colthoi sputtered in reply.
“No,” Tilleran said. “You somehow want us to feel guilty for our telepathy. Maybe if Sarzhad here wasn’t trying so hard to subdue her abilities, she wouldn’t have flipped out on Megan like that.”
“Still, you have no psychological training to back that claim.”
“I don’t need any. And I don’t need to hide behind my telepathy. I need to accept responsibility for what I did. I was wrong.” She turned to Hartley. “I was wrong, using my powers like that. Plain and simple. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Yeah, well…” Hartley patted Tilleran on the shoulder. “Don’t let it happen again.”
Tilleran took Hartley’s hand as the engineer scooted off the biobed. “I don’t intend to.”
“Where are you going?” Colthoi asked.
“I checked myself in here voluntarily, and I’ll check myself out voluntarily. See you around, Doctor.”
“But you can’t just leave!”
“Sure she can,” Hartley said. “Back to the runabout, Ariel?”
“You read my mind,” Tilleran said, staring at Colthoi as she and Hartley walked out of the room.
The two walked down the corridor in shared silence, until Tilleran broke the silence.
“The telepathic imprinting provoked Sarzhad into a murderous rampage.”
“Yeah,” Hartley said with a nod.
“So does that mean you felt…murderously mad at me?”
“No, but I was pissed. Still am.”
As they approached the end of the corridor, they came face to face with an expectant Crellus Risello.
“I heard what happened!” he said, looking to Tilleran, taking her arm. “Are you all right?”
“Um, I’m the one who was telepathically stalked and nearly killed,” Hartley pointed out.
“And I’m fine,” Tilleran said flatly. “I wish I had time to talk. But we have a runabout to catch.”
“You’re leaving?” Crellus asked.
“Yeah. It’s…” she sighed. “It’s just time. I got what I needed here, and the things I need to work on, I’ve got to do alone.”
“I see,” Crellus said. “I can understand that.”
“Nothing personal,” Tilleran said. “Good luck with your rehabilitation.”
“Thanks. See you around, I guess.”
“Not so much,” Tilleran said. “You ready to go Megan?”
“Yeah…” Hartley said, watching Crellus as she and Tilleran walked off.
“We still have a week of administrative leave left,” Hartley said, looking at the controls of the Irawadi as she steered it out of Betazed’s orbit. “Want to take a little vacation?”
“I guess we both could use one,” Tilleran said. “But do you think it’s appropriate given the circumstances?”
“I think it’s appropriate especially given these circumstances.” She checked her panel. “Corsica’s not far from here.”
“I’ll lay in the course,” Tilleran said, a small smile spreading across her face.
After a few moments of silence, broken only by the Irawadi’s beeping consoles and humming engine, Tilleran spoke up. Crellus had interrupted them before they’d had a chance to finish their conversation.
“You really were mad at me.”
“Yeah,” Hartley said, looking ahead at the viewport at the starfield ahead.
“And as mad as you were, you still wanted to help me.”
“Well, yeah. That’s what friends are for. I guess you’re lucky to have someone like me, eh?”
“Sure am,” Tilleran said. “Look, as far as my…treatment…”
“I’m prescribing you a week of relaxation with a close friend. You’re still going to talk about your problems, but to your best friend instead of some support group of strangers.”
“They weren’t all strangers,” Tilleran said thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” Hartley said. “What about Crellus? Don’t you think he might need someone to talk to, same as you? I mean, besides the support group?”
“He’s a nuisance. I don’t wish him ill, but I don’t need the complication of him coming back into my life. I’ve gotten along just fine without him for some time now.”
“Are you sure? He seemed….I dunno, he seemed truly concerned about you. I’d think you can use as many people like that as you can find.”
“He wants me to marry him, and that’s never going to happen. So I don’t see the point in communicating with him.”
Hartley shifted in her seat to face Tilleran. “He’s going through a problem not so different from the one you’re dealing with. He knows you reasonably well and cares about you to some extent…and you don’t see the point in communicating with him?”
Tilleran sighed. “You’re a pain in the ass when you’re right. But…even if I did occasionally talk to him…that doesn’t mean I have to marry him, right?”
“Of course not.”
“Something else I’ve been wondering. What happens when we get back to the ship?”
Hartley shrugged. “It’ll be different for a while. But gradually, things will return to normal.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because they always do,” Hartley said with a small smile. “Some things you can just count on.” She punched a control and the Irawadi shot off to warp.
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. “Excuse me for a sec.” She slid out of her seat and ducked into the aft cockpit.
She sat down at the small desk beside her bunk and activated the desktop terminal. She tapped on the screen a few times, then tapped some more.
“Dear Crellus,” she wrote. “I’m sorry I was a little cold the last time we talked. As I indicated, the Elbrun Center just wasn’t the right place for me. I hope that you get the help you need, though. But just in case you don’t get what you need there, in case you find you have no one else to turn to, know that you can contact me anytime. While I don’t intend to marry you, I do understand what you’re going through, and that counts for something. It counts for a lot. And I want you to know…I just want you to know…that you can count on me.”
In the history of Star Trek, no adversary has been as powerful or threatening as the Borg. On the other hand, in the history of Star Traks, no adversary has been as mind-shatteringly absurd as the Dawg. So why would they return? Would it have something to do with the survivor of a destroyed colony, rescued by the Explorer? Will they succeed in capturing this golden creature? Not if Counselor Peterman has anything to do with it.