This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.


AFTERMATH

A Star Trek: The Next Generation tale
by Jeff Morris




The top shelf of the bookcase was lined with a hodgepodge of knickknacks, mementos, and other various items that were related only in that the same two people had at some time picked them up, decided they liked them, and brought them home. Here was a chanítook from Haven, there was a horgon from Risa and over in the corner was a crystal figurine from Nerva. Though the main living area was lit only by the streams of passing starlight from the windows, the collection glittered and sparkled as if in reply.

Deanna Troi stared thoughtfully at the shelf, reaching out from time to time to pick up a piece and examine it carefully. She turned each item over in her hands, idly wishing that her touch would cause each trinket to tell its storyówhere it came from, how it was admired and haggled over before the inevitable purchase, and how it was set in its place of honor with loving care by one of its new owners. So many stories here, she thought, returning a tal-phee to the shelf. And now Iíll probably never get the chance to hear them.

From time to time she glanced behind her shoulder toward the bedroom door, wondering when Doctor Pulaski would finish her work and emerge. The painfully sharp emotions that radiated from that room jabbed at her head relentlessly, and the dark, oppressive shadows that filled the room she stood in didnít help her unease one bit. Troi wanted nothing more than to hurry out of here and bask in the warm, comforting corridors of the Enterprise ... but here she stayed. She was needed.

Her fingers wandered along the shelf and, finding a holodisk switched it on. Two figures flared into miniature three-dimensional life; the man, a tall, ruggedly handsome figure whose dark skin was set off by the bright yellow-green of his dress uniform, stood proudly beside a woman dressed in dazzling white silk that almost matched her pale tones. Wedding day holo, Troi realized. Such a lovely couple. Her fingers slipped over the embossed lettering on the base of the disk that proclaimed Matthias and Neysa Sutton were married on Stardate 41990.2. That would have been about a year ago, Troi mused. So short a time, and yet so long ago...

A soft rustle behind her made Troi jump; she hurriedly replaced the holodisk on the shelf and turned around just as Kate Pulaski came through the bedroom door. "How is he?" Troi asked quietly.

"I gave him something to help him sleep." The older woman sighed and leaned against the wall. "What about the baby?"

"The family next door are friends of the Suttons. They were more than happy to help out. I took the crib and some clothing over there." She carefully picked her way through the maze of furniture and crept into the bedroom, staring down at the sleeping man whoíd been smiling so brightly on the holodisk. Even sedated, his features were knotted in a painful grimace. "I would prefer he not get in the habit of needing medication to sleep," she said softly.

"Agreed," said Pulaski with a nod. She reached down and pulled the coverlet up so that the blanket enveloped Suttonís entire body. "Heíll sleep for twelve hours or so. Iíll call you in the morning, and we can come back together."

"All right." Troi followed the other woman back into the living area and returned to the bookcase, making sure that everything was in its proper place. Enough time had passed between dustings that a careful observer could tell whether something had been moved.

"Iím heading to the bridge," Pulaski said. "Time to give the captain my report."

Troiís eyes found the still-activated holodisk. "Iíll join you," she called, then gently shut the device off and headed toward the door.

Other than Pulaskiís declaration of destination, nothing had been said in the turbolift for some time. Troi noted that the physician looked utterly exhausted, which wasnít too surprising. It had been an excruciatingly arduous day for her; she wondered when Pulaski had last gotten something to eat much less rest.

"I made the correct decision," Pulaski said abruptly, jolting Troi from her reverie.

The counselor glanced over at the doctor, who was staring up at the ceiling. Since any reply Trio could make at that point could be construed as challenging, she decided to remain silent and let Pulaski talk.

"What could he have done down there?" she continued rhetorically. "Could he have performed triage on the injured? Could he have treated a single injury? Neysa saved six lives down there, you know."

"No, I didnít," Troi said neutrally.

"There were seventy-five people trapped down there, with injuries ranging from broken limbs to internal hemorrhaging. We needed every available doctor, nurse and med-tech."

Troi was spared from further comment by their arrival on the bridge. She watched Pulaski take a deep breath and throw her shoulders back, drawing on some inner source of resolve before emerging from the lift. They walked down the ramp toward the captainís ready room; Data, who was seated in the command chair, gave a nod of acknowledgement to Troi. Worf, at his usual position, did not even acknowledge her presence.

Even now, even after the initial pain had faded to a gentle ache, it was still so difficult for Troi to glance over at tactical and see Worf instead of Tasha Yar. Riker had once commented that it had taken some time for him to get used to the Klingon standing there. Troi wondered if sheíd ever grow accustomed to itóor what would happen on the day when a stranger took Worfís place.

She shoved the morbid thoughts back into the corner of her mind, hurrying to join Pulaski at the entrance to Picardís office. The sensor chimed softly, followed seconds later by a curt "Come."

Picard was sitting at his desk, studying something on his computer screen; his right hand was stroking his chin thoughtfully as his eyes studied the information intently. A cup of the ever-present Earl Grey tea was sitting within easy reach. At the very beginning of her tenure aboard the Enterprise, Troi had been mildly offended at the way Picard ignored peopleís entrances to his sanctum until they had seated themselves. Time and observation had shown her the truth; it was the only way the captain could accomplish his work and remain accessible to his crew.

Pulaski declined to sit down, which meant that Troi couldnít collapse in the other chair, much as she wanted to. Picard waited a moment for the women to make a final decision, then quickly tore his gaze from his terminal and gave them his full attention. "Yes, Doctor?"

She handed him a padd. "My status report on the Bohica mining accident, Captain," she said with brisk efficiency. "Of the seventy-five people trapped in the shaft, there were twenty-two that required no treatment, thirty that we were able to treat on-site, and eighteen are being kept in Sickbay for further treatment."

"Which means five people died," Picard finished. "Not including Doctor Sutton."

Pulaski started, then quickly recovered. "Yes, sir. That would be correct."

Picard nodded absently, glancing at the padd and setting it aside. "Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate the efforts you and your staff made in such a trying and dangerous situation." His attention drifted back to his terminal. Pulaski stood there for a moment, looking for all the world like a fighter whoíd prepared extensively for a big bout only to arrive at the ring and be told the match had been canceled. Finally she nodded tightly and hurried out the door.

Troi remained where she stood and watched the captain as he absently reached for the cup of tea and raised it to his lips. His face twisted with distaste as he swallowed, and he hurriedly set the cold contents over to one side. Glancing up, he saw Troi standing there and with a resigned shrug motioned for her to sit.

"I hate losing members of my crew," he commented tightly.

"Youíre tired," Troi said as she sat down.

"How is Lieutenant Sutton?" he asked, ignoring the comment.

Play the game, she reminded herself. Jean-Luc Picard had never quite accepted the notion of a shipís counselor, no matter how many times he praised her work or thanked her for her insights. She suspected that it would have been much easier to take had it not been made clear that he wasnít exempt from her practice. "I did what I could for him," she said. "Heís resting. Doctor Pulaski gave him a mild sedative." He nodded and glanced over at the terminal; Troi realized she was getting permission to leave a bit too quickly, and so added, "Their neighbors are taking rare of the baby tonight."

Picardís attention snapped back to Troi; despite his very-vocal protestations of not getting along with children, the captain had a reluctant soft spot in his heart for them. Beverly Crusher had once informed Troi that Picard personally welcomed aboard every newbornówhen he thought no one was around to see, of course. "Is there anything else we can do?" he asked.

"His normal support groupófriends, work associatesóare already falling into place. Iíll work with him as much as possible. But it will take him some time to get over this."

"Hmmm." His attention drifted back to the computer screen, but Troi remained, sensing his unease and wishing to help him resolve it. A comfortable silence passed until he at last sighed and said, "I wish she hadnít forced matters to a head."

"Doctor Pulaski is very determined and self-confident. She felt that all possible medical personnel would be needed down there, and saw no reason to consider other options. Saving lives is her primary purpose ... both in her duty to Starfleet and in her personal beliefs."

"Yes, but..." His voice trailed away softly as he caught himself from stating the phrase that had almost emerged so many times before "...Beverly Crusher would have done things differently." Crusher would have made the same assessment as Pulaski, pushed every bit as hard, but would have been more reasonable, more willing to compromise. How many times had he almost made statements like that, Troi wondered. How long would it take before he realized just how badly he missed Beverly Crusher, and for what reasons?

"Itís not the first time that this particular Starfleet regulation has caused a conflict on away team personnel selection," he continued as if this was the natural progression of his thoughts. "In fact, objectively speaking, the very enforcement of that rule has kept their child from being orphaned." He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Still..."

"Sir, youíre exhausted," Troi said, rising to her feet. "Why donít you go to your quarters and rest?"

"Iím afraid thereís a bit more to be done," he said, opening his eyes and smiling at her. "Iíve got to finish the mission debriefing..." His voice trailed off and his shoulders slumped just the barest inch. "And I have to write a letter of condolence to Doctor Suttonís parents."

"I understand. Good night, Captain." She turned and headed for the door that would return her to the bridge.

"Counselor." She paused at the portal and turned around, inquiring silently. He smiled at her paternally and cocked his head. "Could I ask you to look in on Commander Riker? He took the accident rather badly. Iíd appreciate it if you could."

"Of course, Captain." She turned so that Picard could not see her silent plea to heaven for strength; Will Riker in a state of depression was beyond the aid of ten counselors. She quickly exited and headed up the ramp toward the turbolift but was blocked by the sudden appearance of Worf. How such a large, hulking creature could move so silently and quickly was beyond her.

"Lieutenant Sutton?" he asked without preamble.

"Heís sleeping. Doctor Pulaski examined him and gave him a mild sedative. We plan to look in on him in the morning."

The Klingon nodded slightly, then frowned. "And the child?"

"Heís with their neighbors. Theyíve children of their own; heís in good hands, I assure you."

"Good." He started toward the tactical station, then paused and turned to face her again. "She died honorably," he said matter-of-factly.

Suddenly Troi wanted to scream in his face that there was no such thing as an honorable death, that death was a foul and horrible thing without any sense of justice or fairness, that there was no glory in it, only pain. But the rebellious thoughts remained imprisoned, and with only a slight effort she was able to nod to Worf and smile sanguinely before entering the turbolift.

A quick chat with the computer informed her that Riker was in Ten Forward, so Troi gave the turbolift instructions to take her there. A minute into the trip, however, it stopped and permitted Geordi LaForge to board. "Ten Forward," he called out, then nodded to Troi. "How are you, Counselor?"

"About as well as can be expected," she smiled tiredly. "And yourself?"

"Been a long day," he admitted, leaning against the lift wall, "but I promised Son...Ensign Gomez that Iíd join her and her roommate for awhile." He frowned and leaned forward. "Say, if you donít mind my asking, Counselor ... "

She shook her head, chuckling softly. "Heís resting, and the baby is with friends."

"Far from the first to ask, huh?" LaForge grinned. "Sorry."

"As you said, Itís been a long day." She tilted her head toward him. "Do you know Lieutenant Sutton?"

He bit his lip and sighed. "Well ... used to, anyway. Matt and I attended the Academy together, though he was two years ahead of me. We also served on the DeGaulle before getting together again here." He chuckled quietly. "We had some good times on shore leave, let me tell you. But..." he shrugged, "then he laid eyes on Neysa, and that was pretty much that. Oh, we still got together now and then, but you know how it is. Marrieds tend to hang around with marrieds. I havenít really talked to him in a while."

"He would probably appreciate it if you got back in touch, Geordi. Heís going to need his friends." She paused, wondering if she really wanted to know the answer to her next question. "Geordi, you were on the away team. What precisely happened?"

The turbolift doors opened, and LaForge gestured for her to exit first before replying. "Hard to say. See, I was at the opposite end of the shaft, trying to keep the portable force field generators goingóthe strain of keeping all that dirt from tumbling down on our heads was incredible." He smiled apologetically at Troi. "You might ask Commander Riker; I think he was right there when it happened." They entered the sprawling lounge, and LaForgeís face brightened as an eager young woman waved wildly about from a far corner. "Well, thereís Sonya. Iíll be sure and drop by Mattís quarters tomorrow, Counselor. Let me know if thereís anything else I can do. "

"I will, Geordi. Thank you." LaForge hurried off, and Troi bit her lip momentarily before heading for the main bar. As always, the enigmatic hostess of Ten Forward was there just as she arrived. "What can I do for you, Counselor?" asked Guinan.

"Where is he?" Troi was too tired for small talk. The elfin woman casually nodded her head toward the center of the lounge, where Will Riker sat by himself, an island in a sea of people. His eyes seemed locked upon the contents of his glass; as he walked past, LaForge began to make a gesture of greeting to him, but quickly abandoned the idea and hurried off toward his destination.

"Iíd like some tea, Guinan," Troi said quietly, then steeled herself and marched casually over to where he sat. She stood there for some time, quietly waiting for him to acknowledge her presence, but he was oblivious to all but his own private musings. After Guinan had set her drink down upon the table with a soft clink, Troi decided enough was enough and slid into the chair just to his left.

Sheíd seen this mood too many times before. The private court of William T. Riker was in session, Judge Will Riker presiding. At the moment, Prosecutor W.T. Riker was busy building his case against the accused, charging him with dereliction of duty in the highest degree. Unfortunately, the defense was unable to frame the slightest protest... unable, or perhaps unwilling. After all, Riker was guilty. Everybody knew it.

Her hand reached out and caressed his; startled, Riker jumped out of his reverie and stared at her momentarily before forcing a tired smile on his face. "Iím all right, Deanna," he tried to assure her.

"Youíre not all right," she said, shaking her head. "Talk to me, Will."

"Whatís there to say?" He took a hearty swig of his drink, then held the glass up to the light and studied the swirling liquid. "I shouldíve fought Pulaski on the away team selection. Matt Sutton was ranking rescue operations expert. He should have been down there, supervising and assessing the situation. But I let her have her way without an argument, told myself there wasnít time to make a big deal out of it..." A soft sigh slipped past his lips; he set his glass down and drifted back into his private thoughts.

But Troi wasnít willing to let him go so easily. "There was nothing you could do. It happened. It wasnít your fault."

A twisted smirk writhed across Rikerís features. "I was in charge of the Away Team. It was my responsibility, not Kateís, to choose the best team to get the job done in the safest way possible. And I let her override my better judgement. And because of that, someone died." He closed his eyes and shuddered; Deanna resisted the urge to wrap her arms around him and hold him close, settling for a tighter grip on his hand. "Tell me what happened, imzadi."

Rikerís eyes flashed opened. "Itís been a while since Iíve heard that word from you."

She smiled. "Shock value. Will, what happened down there?í

His eyes closed again, and a second shudder rippled through his body. "I was directing the operation," he said softly, a trace of horror whispering through every word. "Lieutenant Sutton was monitoring from the bridge and relaying advice. It was pure hell, Deanna... all those people, moaning, screaming, cursing ... Kateís people were running themselves ragged, trying to get to everyone. And I was trying to help out with coordinating medical supplies, and assist Geordi in keeping the force field generators going, and checking everything out..."

"Go on."

He bit his lip briefly, then took a deep breath. "I heard someone nearby calling for help, so I went to investigate... I think Kate and Data were behind me, but Iím not sure. Doctor Sutton had found someone partially buried in a recent landslide, and was trying to dig him out. It was in an area unsupported by the generators... you could-you could hear the earth moving, Deanna. She shouldnít have been there, technicallyóhell, I donít know how she was able to stay there. I felt so closed in, so claustrophobic that I wanted to scream and get the hell out of there. I took a step forward to join her, help her out..."

His eyes knit shut even more tightly. "It happened in an instant," he whispered raggedly. "I ... she never had a chance."

Troi wanted to cry, wanted to share his agony, but forced herself back into counselor mode. She waited until she knew heíd gotten his emotions under control, then gently squeezed his hand.

He nodded blindly. "Sorry."

"Itís all right."

"Yeah." The glass rose to his lips and the contents downed in one gulp. "Anyway, Data started digging and found her in no time ... but it was too late. She-she ... " He shook his head. "You could tell it was too late. Kate pronounced her dead, and Data moved her body over to where the others lay, then went right back to work." He shook his head, a sardonic smile on his lips. "And so did I."

She let the information sift through her mind for a time, her eyes never leaving him. Finally she exhaled and glanced at the lighted tabletop. "Will, what would have happened had you fought Kateís decision and won?"

"I donít know ... except that Neysa Sutton would still be alive."

"That is right. But who might have died in her place? Another miner? Kate? You?" She shook her head, her braided black hair dancing wildly with the motion. "Thereís no point in even asking, imzadi. Itís done, it canít be undone. You did everything you could, you did nothing wrong, but it happened. Accept it."

He set his glass down and nodded absently, "I know youíre right, Deanna. I really do. But still ... " His eyes stared off into nothing. "For the first time in my life, I envied Data. To be able to stare death in the face and not feel a damned thing. I really envied him."

And Troi thought back about another death that had hit them close to home, and how Data had reacted then, and how the android to this day never spoke about Tasha Yar willingly, and said nothing.

Riker rose to his feet and stretched. "I think Iím going to try and get some sleep."

"Rest well, imzadi."

He looked down at her, a soft tenderness breaking through his worn features. "Months without hearing it, now three times in one night."

Troi smiled back and shook her head. "Have to keep you on your toes, Commander."

"Now itís Commander. Definitely have to go, now. Good night." He moved with practiced grace through the crowded lounge without saying a word or sparing a nod to anyone else; Deanna watched him go, then sipped at her lukewarm tea and sighed.

It was with a heartfelt sigh of relief that Troi at long last entered her quarters and heard the door hiss shut behind her. She removed her headband and absently tossed it into a nearby chair, then ran her fingers through her hair, letting it fall where it willed.

She walked into her bedroom and with three quick motions peeled out of her uniform, savoring the pull of her muscles as she stretched catlike toward the ceiling. A quick check through her closet produced a suitable nightgown, which caressed her skin as she slipped into it. Troi yawned and pulled the bedcovers back, then fell gratefully into her bedís warm, secure embrace and called for the lights to dim. She closed her eyes and ordered her body to sleep.

Darkness. Alone in the darkness.

The air unbearably close and tight in the darkness.

Alone.

Had Neysa Sutton known what was happening? Or did life shift into death with the span of one heartbeat? Did she have time to cry out, or perhaps think of her family? Was there time for regrets, of things that should have been said, or done, or undone?

And now she lay somewhere within this ship, much like Troi herself, staring unseeing into eternal darkness. Alone.

Someday, a voice from nowhere whispered in her ear. Someday it will be you that lies in the morgue. All your hopes, dreams, efforts, accomplishments and regrets will lie there with you, and they will all have been for nothing. And the universe will go on as if Deanna Troi never existed. Or someday it will be someone you know ... Beverly, the captain, Geordi, Worf, Will... never again to hear his voice, to savor the warmth of his laughter, to never say the things which should have been said but werenít, to never get a second chance and know that had you done so ... had you but made the effort...

Rikerís yawn vanished the instant the door to his quarters opened. "Deanna?í he asked, his voice soft with concern. "Are you all right?"

She looked into his eyes with her question.

After a moment, he nodded and let her inside, the door closing quietly behind them.