Into the Breach
Character codes: R, P, Sisko
The Captain seemed agitated.
Trying hard to be subtle in his scrutiny, Riker watched the older man out of the corner of one eye as he negotiated the Bahre into position for proper docking. The procedure was simple one for an experienced shuttle pilot, and despite his preoccupation with Picard's state of mind, Riker executed it flawlessly. The docking clamps locked themselves in place with a metallic clang.
"Bahre, you are secured and cleared for disembark," a female voice informed them matter-of-factly. "Welcome to Deep Space Nine."
"Acknowledged, Deep Space Nine," Riker allowed. "Bahre out."
Picard sat without comment in the co-pilot's seat, his eyes fixed in the vista of space that lay beyond the main viewing plate, his spine as stiff as a Bortian accelerator rod.
"Sir?" Riker ventured cautiously.
Picard actually flinched. He recovered quickly, but a faint shadow of anger glimmered in his eyes when he turned. It was the anger of embarrassment, of being caught in thoughts not suited to a given moment or set of circumstances.
"Yes, Number One?"
The response was brittle, deflective. It invited Riker to defer, invited him to resume the companionable silence they'd maintained for nearly the full three hour journey.
Riker ignored the invitation. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked carefully.
"Yes." Picard glanced about as if only now realizing they were fully docked. "Well done, Number One. A smooth ride, as always."
The corner of Riker's mouth twitched. "Thank you for flying Riker Airway Express," he announced jauntily. "The stewardess will see you to the door."
Responding with a wan smile that barely reached his lips and not a millimeter deeper, Picard disengaged his safety harness and stood. Riker followed suit.
"You've been to DS9 before," Riker noted as they made their way to the docking collar. It was an observation made more to fill the awkward silence than for any other reason.
Picard nodded. "When it was first refitted after the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor. I believe you were in the Sitiri sector at the time, negotiating a labor agreement with the Treskeegie miners."
Riker snorted. "Negotiating is a generous interpretation -- playing referee is more accurate. Two solid months of foot stomping and name calling. If I'd realized O'Brien was planning to jump ship before I got back, I'd've tossed the whole lot of 'em in the penalty box and called it a draw." He shook his head. "Missing that going away party is one of the few regrets I have in my life," he went on. "From what I hear, Geordi and Worf really outdid themselves. And I would have paid money to see Beverly and Deanna doing the lampshade polka on Guinan's bar."
"I believe Mister O'Brien would prefer to think of his transfer to Deep Space Nine as an advancement, rather than 'jumping ship,'" Picard admonishment lightly as he keyed the proper access code into the shuttle's hatch. The door slid aside with a quiet hiss of slightly inequitable pressures compromising to middle ground. "After all, Chief of Operations is a rare opportunity, and a well-deserved one."
Picard stepped from the Bahre into the space station's corridor-like docking tube with Riker close behind. The echo of their footsteps rang eerily off the deeply curved walls of the metal connective tube. The remote collars designed to accommodate bigger, more powerful ships and those with weapons compliments posing potential eruptive hazards were some distance from the core station itself. While Starfleet might have viewed the connective corridors as part of the station, and therefore deserving of the same decorative considerations, the Cardassians obviously did not. More tunnels than corridors, the walls were unprimed, unpainted metal with visible joints that showed signs of corrosion. The gridwork flooring -- a specifically Cardassian architectural idiosyncracy -- rattled noisily as they walked.
"I don't begrudge him the promotion," Riker agreed. "But I still say the timing was a bit suspect. After all, he did owe me a little more than two weeks pay from our last poker game."
"A debt I'm sure is merely a colorful way of keeping score," Picard countered. "As we both know that any actual exchange of monies predicated on the outcome of a game of skill or chance would be in direct violation of Starfleet gaming directives."
"As we both know," Riker agreed wryly. He started to say more, but quelled the urge as they neared the far end of the docking tube and the welcome detail awaiting their arrival.
Of the three officers, Riker knew only one. Miles O'Brien's friendly Irish mug broke into a grin as soon as he spotted them; but the two remaining officers maintained expressions that balanced hostility with indifference. Riker frowned. Though Starfleet tradition dictated that arriving fleet officers of Commander's rank or better be welcomed aboard by the station brass, he'd seen more inviting receptions at shotgun weddings.
"Permission to come aboard," Picard announced formally, his voice cold and flat.
"Permission granted," the station commander allowed. "Welcome aboard, Captain. Commander."
Benjamin Sisko was a man Riker knew little about beyond the contents of his quarterly FPO reports. Concise and effective, those reports detailed his continuing efforts to manage the station and maintain a Federation presence in proximity of the Gamma quadrant wormhole. They did not, however, reveal anything of the man's personality; his sense of humor, if he had one; or what it was that had singled him out from the common ranks for this command assignment.
His face gave away no more than his reports; but his posture -- a reflection of Picard's tone: cold and rigid and inimical nearly to the point of open belligerence -- gave Riker the immediate impression that this wasn't a man he was going to like.
"My first officer," Sisko went on, his voice so cold it might not have registered on a standard thermo scan, "Major Kira Nyres."
The Bajoran national to Sisko's left stood the way most Bajorans Riker knew stood: as if she'd been birthed in a military school, weaned on vinegar and held hostage by a brutal race of commandants for the vast majority of her life. Unbroachably distant with both hands clasped firmly in the small of her back and feet panted shoulder width apart, it came as no surprise that her salutation consisted of little more than a small, tight inclination of her head. Less than an actual greeting, it was more an acknowledgement ... a grudgingacknowledgement.
"And I believe you know already know Chief O'Brien," Sisko finished.
O'Brien was as O'Brien had always been. "Good to see you again, sir," the chief offered warmly, looking as though he wanted to step forward and grab a hand in a good, old-fashioned handshake. Something about the dynamics of the situation held him back, though; and in lieu of the greeting in his posture, he settled for a respectful nod and a slightly dissatisfied cast to otherwise Irish eyes.
"And you as well, Miles," Picard returned.
Riker blinked, startled by Picard's unprecedented break with SOP. Though O'Brien served under Picard for more than seven years, Riker'd never heard the captain address him as anything other than "Chief". It was a distance Picard maintained from virtually all of his crew -- as much a part of the man's personality as it was his command style.
The unexpected familiarity stunned O'Brien as deeply as it did Riker, but he recovered quickly, standing a little taller at Sisko's side.
"Major Kira," Picard went on, returning the Bajoran first officer's indifference with a measured indifference of his own before turning back to Sisko. Staring through the bigger man with a blankly cold focus, seemingly ignominious to the station commander's openly confrontational gaze, he completed the welcome tradition of introductions by rote: "My first officer," he announced, his voice flatly indifferent, "Commander William Riker."
Riker wasn't sure whether to shake hands, nod, or spit at Sisko's feet. He was still considering his options when the station commander stepped forward, hand extended.
As cold as Sisko had been to Picard, he was equally warm to Riker. Eyes that a moment before were obsidian ice became direct and engaging and warmly accepting. "It's a pleasure, Commander," Sisko said to Riker and Riker alone. "I've heard a great deal about you. I hope your stay here at DS9 will be a pleasant one."
As much as it could have been a greeting for effect -- an artifice designed to accentuate the animosity already so glaringly obvious -- it was not. Sisko's welcome was genuine; his magnanimity, unaffected. Accepting the proffered handshake of a man he'd newly resolved to dislike, Riker found his inclinations shifting, mutating. "I'm sure it will be, Commander," he agreed carefully. "Thank you."
Sisko stepped back. His demeanor shifted again, though not as drastically as a moment before. His distance was specific and calculated as he spoke in a voice that directed itself almost flagrantly to Riker and only Riker. "I would offer you a tour of the station," he said, "but unfortunately, there are several fires at present that require my immediate attention. I'm sure, however, that Chief O'Brien will be happy to show you anything you care to see once you get settled in your quarters. The Odysseus is expected at oh six hundred hours tomorrow, and it is my understanding that you will join the Flavinoni arbitration delegation immediately upon their arrival and depart for the Gamma quadrant within the hour. So, Gentlemen," again, he was looking at Riker and only Riker, "if I don't see you again, good luck on your mission and enjoy your stay."
For the first time since greeting him by name, Sisko actually resumed direct eye contact with Picard. "Captain," he said by way of goodbye. Though Sisko's tone was utterly neutral, it nevertheless managed an inflection that shattered the single word with cold so vivid it brought a chill to Riker's spine.
"Commander," Picard responded, his voice as flat as Sisko's was cold.
Without another word, Benjamin Sisko turned on his heel and strode away.
Riker waited until they were alone to broach the incident with Picard. The captain had stowed his travel bag in a drawer without unpacking it, and he lay now with his hand folded behind his head in one of the two militaristic bunks.
"A bit Spartan, isn't it?" Riker ventured, looking around the quarters that had been assigned to them until their rendezvous with the Odysseus.
"A bed and a head," Picard answered quietly. "No doubt the Cardassians would view this as the lap of luxury."
Riker stuck his head through the doorway of an open levorotary situated off the main room. A dull cubical with grey walls and matching fixtures, it was anything but luxurious. "I suppose," he allowed, returning to the unoccupied bunk across the room. Soldered to the bulkhead at a ninety degree angle, it looked as comfortable as a metal slab. A quick field test later, Riker came to the conclusion that the bunk looked considerably more comfortable than it actually was.
"No wonder the Cardys are such grouches," he commented. "I know Klingons who'd consider this going overboard on the no-frills package."
Picard didn't answer. He didn't move. He in fact did nothing at all except lay on the bunk -- still in full uniform -- and stare at the ceiling above him. He hadn't said much during O'Brien's short tour of the station, just as he hadn't said much on the shuttle from the Enterprise to the station. Though Picard was never much for idle chatter, this seemed a bit extreme, even for him.
"It was a little cold at the docking collar, don't you think?" Riker commented casually.
This time, Picard responded. "Cold," he repeated, still staring at the ceiling. "In what way?"
"Cold in a freezer-burn sort of way." Watching his captain closely, Riker tried in vain to read a man who specialized in being unreadable. "Is there something you haven't told me, sir?"
Picard broke his eyes away from their point of focus and turned them slowly to meet Riker's. "Commander Sisko was on the Saratoga at Wolf 359," he stated without preamble. "His wife was killed in the battle."
Riker considered that for a moment. "And he blames you," he said finally, for lack of anything more enlightening to add.
"Yes," Picard allowed, turning his gaze back to the ceiling. "I suppose he does."
"The two of you've covered this ground before, I take it," Riker surmised after a long moment.
Picard shrugged, his shoulders rustling quietly on the sparse bedding. "I met Commander Sisko when he was assigned to this station," he verified. "He made his feelings about me quite clear at that time. I didn't expect them to have changed." Picard fell silent for a moment, then added, "Though in comparison to our last meeting, he was almost charming."
"Charming, like a cobra," Riker muttered.
"Indeed," Picard returned calmly. "But he's a good officer, and has proven himself an exceptional station commander. He's done fine work with both the Cardassians and the Bajoran provisional government, finding common ground where another would have found only war."
"That doesn't excuse insubordination," Riker insisted.
"He was hardly insubordinate, Number One. Perhaps a bit rude."
"Rude," Riker agreed. "Belligerent. Disrespectful. Down right hateful."
Picard sighed. For a long time, he didn't answer, and when he did, his voice was heavy with remorse. "He has good reason," he muttered. "Good reason indeed to hate me."
Riker thrust to his feet. "No," he argued. "He doesn't." Riker began to pace. "What happened at Wolf 359 was a travesty perpetrated by the Borg. You were no less a victim than any of the eleven thousand casualties."
"On the contrary, Number One," Picard countered quietly. "I survived."
"If you hadn't, we'd all be dead. Earth would be a lifeless asteroid. The whole damned quadrant would be a boneyard."
Picard smiled wryly. "I appreciate the support, Will," he started. "But --"
"It isn't support," Riker interrupted sharply. "It's fact. You and I both know that without your link to the collective mind, we couldn't have defeated them. They would have taken the Enterprise, then they would have taken Earth. The death toll would have been billions instead of thousands. Perhaps the Human race as a whole, wiped out if not for you."
Picard sighed. He didn't say anything more, resuming instead his interrupted vigil of the walls and ceiling. For several minutes, silence lay between the two men, a tangible presence in the room.
"Sisko can think whatever he likes," Riker said finally. "But he doesn't know what really happened."
"On the contrary, Number One," Picard corrected quietly. "He does knows what happened. He knows exactly what happened: He was there."
Riker entered Quark's casually, looking for all the world like a weary traveller seeking a place to relax, unwind and have a drink or three. Glancing around, he assessed the bar with the instinctive ease of a man seasoned by away teams to a thousand different locals. The place was crowded to near capacity. It pulsed with motion, with life, with energy. Several dozen races -- some humanoid, some startlingly alien to Riker's way of thinking -- stood shoulder to shoulder as if such proximity was natural habitat. The gaming tables were loud and raucous, as were many of the private tables scattered about. Booths lined the walls, intimately shrouded in discretely-placed shadows. The bar itself was shoulder to shoulder with Starfleet uniforms, Bajoran nationals and a dozen or more merchants. Above the main floor, a mezzanine level offered a more subdued, but equally crowded, atmosphere.
Though no two patrons seemed to share more than a passing similarity, a vague resemblance to one another in race and dress and manner, they all did possess one thing in common. Almost without exception, the people were drinking. Green, purple, yellow and brilliant blue ales. Synthahol and exotic liquors, flaming daiquiris and Sularian sunrises. Riker shook his head, grinning. The Ferengi who ran this place had to be in seventh heaven.
Making his way easily through the crowd, Riker did a flyby on the D'Abo tables and then cruised the bar. Spotting his conspicuous lack of refreshment, the Ferengi bartender scurried into action.
"What are you drinking?" Quark demanded between the heads of two Tellurites holding a heated debate on the validity of Klingon poetry as a galactic art form.
"I'm looking for Commander Sisko," Riker said. "Have you seen him?"
"I don't know how to make a Holvian Semen," the Quark shouted back over the Tellurite debate, "But we have the best Vulcan Orgasm in three quadrants."
"I said have you seen him," Riker repeated, enunciating more clearly.
"All right, fine," the Ferengi agreed. "If that's what you've got your heart set on. But you'll have to tell me what's in it."
"SEEN him," Riker shouted. "Have you seen Commander Sisko?"
"Oh. Commander Sisko. Why didn't you say so?" Quark waved a hand toward the upper mezzanine.
Riker followed the gesture and spotted Sisko near one of the elaborately camouflaged structural supports. He was sharing a table with a strikingly beautiful woman and nursing what looked like a Risan Boomerang Bang. Riker frowned. It wasn't how he'd pictured the man who welcomed them to the station with all the warmth of a Valdezian blizzard spending his free time.
"Thanks," Riker said, but the Ferengi bartender had already shifted his attentions to paying customers.
Sisko saw Riker coming from several meters away; but though the station commander's dark eyes took on a specific caste of brooding caution, there was surprisingly little hostility in the way he formed his greeting. "Commander Riker." He gestured to an empty chair. "Join us, please." Riker accepted the invitation, swinging one leg over the chair back and settling in like a cowboy to a saddle. "Jadzia Dax," Sisko said, indicating the woman who shared his company. "My science officer and a very, very old friend."
Grinning, Riker thrust one hand across the table. "Will Riker," he announced.
Dax's grip surprised him. It was uncommonly strong for such a delicate looking woman. "How very nice to meet you," she said, smiling serenely.
"And you," Riker agreed. His gaze took more than casual interest in the distinctive spotting along her face and neck. "You're Trill," he noted.
Dax's eyes sparkled. "You're well-traveled, Commander."
"Will," Riker corrected. "And I knew a Trill once. Nice fellow, but he could be a bit over-bearing at times."
Dax's smile deepened. "Humans were never intended to serve as hosts," she said, her tone walking a fine line between reprimand and rebuke. "You were quite lucky to have survived the encounter at all."
Riker blinked, surprised.
"Not to mention the fact," Dax went on, "that Odan is domineering under the best of circumstances. I can only imagine what he would be like under the worst."
"You know Odan," Riker surmised.
"We've ..." Dax's eyes flashed, " ... tangled."
Riker laughed. "We tangled, too," he said. "But I have to admit I'm surprised you've heard about it all the way out here."
"Actually, Will," she informed him, "your encounter with Odan during the treaty negotiations on Peliar Zel is quite ... infamous. And while Odan and I have had our differences in the past, I must admit to a great deal of admiration for the choices you made in that situation. They were, in their own way, quite heroic."
Riker tipped his head slightly in acceptance of the compliment. "I do my best."
"Excuse me," Sisko interrupted, tapping the base of his glass on the table to get attention. "Not to intrude, Old Man, but you don't happen to have a guidebook I might borrow to follow along in this conversation, do you?"
Riker glanced at the station commander. "I served as a host for a symbiont once," he said, distilling the event into a single sentence for the sake of expediency.
Sisko's eyebrow climbed. "Really." He looked to Dax. "That must have been interesting."
"I don't believe interesting is the word I would use," Riker corrected. "Exhausting, perhaps."
As if suddenly reminded of something, Dax glanced at the chronometer on her wrist and frowned. "Speaking of exhausting," she noted, rising from her chair with the grace of an iris unfurling in the summer sun. "I promised to meet Julian for dinner, and I'm afraid I'm quite late."
"Dinner? Exhausting?" Riker shot a curious glance at the slender Trill. "Julian wouldn't happen to be Klingon, would he?"
Even Sisko smiled at that.
"Hardly Klingon," Dax answered, "But exhausting nonetheless. I believe you'd have to know him to fully understand." She inclined her head. "Gentlemen."
"Enjoy yourself, Old Man," Sisko said.
"I'm sure I will."
Dax turned and walked away. Both Riker and Sisko followed her progress through the crowd, their gazes similar in the things they chose to watch.
"Old Man?" Riker questioned distractedly.
"I knew her previous host," Sisko allowed as Dax vanished into the throng of bar denizens. He turned to Riker, his eyes sharp with amusement. "Twenty years ago, she was a dirty old man."
"Twenty years ago," Riker countered with a roguish grin, "I was too young to care."
Sisko raised an eyebrow and favored him with a slightly disbelieving look.
Riker shrugged. "Twenty years, give or take a decade," he amended. Then, nodding to the station commander's nearly empty glass: "Buy you another?"
Sisko hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. "I really should be getting back to work," he demurred.
"Those fires burning out of control without you?" Riker asked quietly.
Sisko's eyes darkened. Without comment, he set his glass carefully aside and pushed to a stand.
"I think we should talk, Commander," Riker pressed, standing as well. "If not now, then before the Odysseus arrives."
Sisko met Riker's gaze squarely; so squarely in fact that his gaze was a challenge of sorts. "What's on your mind, Commander?" he asked, making no concessions to civility with his tone.
"Jean-Luc Picard," Riker returned directly.
"We have nothing to talk about."
"I think that we do."
"Then you think wrong." Without another word, Benjamin Sisko turned and walked away.
"He's a good man, Commander," Miles O'Brien told Riker as they walked. "As good a man as I've ever served under."
"He seems rather judgmental."
O'Brien snorted lightly.
"What?" Riker pressed.
O'Brien glanced at the bearded first officer. "Are you serious, sir? Sisko? Judgmental?"
"Perhaps judgmental isn't the right word," Riker allowed. "Inflexible might be better."
"Ooooh." O'Brien nodded as if suddenly understanding.
"Oh, what?" Riker demanded.
"You must have tried to talk to him about the captain."
"Yeah," Riker agreed cautiously. "So?"
O'Brien shrugged. "So he is inflexible about that. And judgmental."
Riker glanced at the operations chief curiously. "You don't have a problem with that?"
"Should I, sir?" O'Brien countered.
"Yes," Riker informed him. "You should. You were there, Miles. You know what happened at Wolf 359. You know Captain Picard wasn't to blame."
O'Brien smiled thinly. "What I know and what Commander Sisko knows are two different things. It's a matter of perspective, I suppose."
Riker shook his head. "No," he said grimly. "It's not a matter of perspective: it's black and white. You saw what the Borg did to him, Miles. You know none of us would have fared any better under similar circumstances."
O'Brien sighed. "We've had this discussion, the Commander and I. He doesn't see it that way."
"Then he doesn't have all the facts."
"Oh, he has all the facts," O'Brien corrected. "In fact, he has more than all the facts. He has this little thing he carries around from Wolf 359 that you and I don't: it's a picture of his wife dead on the floor of their cabin. It's engraved in his brain -- just sits there under his hair and makes him a wee bit irrational when it comes to the subject of Jean-Luc Picard." O'Brien shrugged. "He blames Picard for her death, pure and simple. Nothing you or I can say will change that. Nothing anybody can say will change it."
"That remains to be seen," Riker muttered.
O'Brien sighed. "Can I give you a piece of advice, Commander? Leave it alone. Sisko and Picard are on opposite sides of an enormous breach, and they're both happy with their respective positions. And as long as fate doesn't require them to share the same breathing space more than once a year, so is the rest of Starfleet. Don't build a bridge nobody wants, sir. Don't try to fix what can't be fixed."
"You don't leave a wound to fester, Chief," Riker said grimly. "You clean it out so it can heal."
"Wound's already healed," O'Brien countered. "And this scar runs deep enough without opening it up all over again."
Riker shook his head. "Nothing's healed as long as Sisko blames Picard for Wolf 359," he insisted grimly.
"What does it really matter, sir? In the larger scheme of things, what does it matter if one outpost station commander blames one Starfleet captain for something that's long done and over with?"
"It matters," Riker said, "because as long as Sisko blames Picard for Wolf 359, Picard will continue to blame himself. It isn't fair, it isn't right, and I'm not about to stand by and let it go on. Picard has suffered enough. It's time for this wound to heal so we can all get on with our lives."
"You don't know what you're getting into, sir," O'Brien warned grimly.
"You may be right, Chief," Riker agreed. "But I'm about to find out."
Sisko was considering whether to continue considering the ramifications of the increased power consumption requirements of Quark's newly re-configured holo-suites or take a break and pitch a game against the 2012 Red Sox champions when the door call to his private quarters chimed gently.
"Come," Sisko called, flipping through the consumption reports without much interest.
The door hissed open and on the other side of it stood Commander William T. Riker.
Sisko's mood changed. His benevolence on the day faded to a quiet fierceness that burned in his eyes when he met the other man's direct gaze.
"We never had that talk," Riker said quietly, keeping his distance across the threshold. "I thought now might be a good time."
"Once again," Sisko said grimly. "You thought wrong."
"Do you mind if I come in?"
Sisko waited a three beat. "Yes," he said finally. "I mind. But that doesn't seem to carry much weight with you."
"We can talk someplace else," Riker offered blandly.
Sisko set his reports aside and folded his hands in his lap. "If we have to talk," he said without expression. "It may as well be here."
"Thank you," Riker said, stepping across the threshold. The door swished shut behind him. He glanced around the cabin. "Nice place," he commented. His eyes found the baseball mitt Sisko kept on a peg near the door. "You play baseball?"
Sisko leaned forward on the couch, his eyes darkly intent. "You didn't come here for amenities," he said. "You came here to tell me about the wise and noble Jean-Luc Picard."
Riker took a seat in an empty chair. "Yes," he agreed. "I did."
"Then take your best shot, Commander. I haven't got all day."
Riker nodded. "I understand you were on the Saratoga at Wolf 359," he said.
"I was," Sisko agreed brusquely.
"And I understand that your wife was a casualty of the altercation."
Sisko snorted. He rose from the couch and crossed the cabin, his spine stiff with repressed rage. "Jennifer was not a casualty, Commander," he said, pouring himself a drink from a crystal and silver decanter. "She died. Her life ended. Her existence ceased. Would you like a drink?"
"No, thank you."
Re-corking the decanter, Sisko returned to his seat, the glass in his hand already half empty. "If you have a point, Commander," he said icily, "let's cut to it."
Riker leaned forward. "My point is," he said grimly, "you have a limited perspective on the role Jean-Luc Picard played in the battle at Wolf 359. You see it from only one viewpoint -- yourviewpoint -- and while I understand your loss and I empathize with it, as callous as it may sound, there were greater things at stake that day than individual lives."
For a long moment, Sisko didn't say a word. Though his eyes maintained a passive neutrality, as did his expression, there was a sense of rage that impressed itself upon his posture. Each moment that clicked by was heavy with the resentment conspicuously absent from his expression yet oddly dense in every line of his face.
"Have you ever been married, Riker?" Sisko asked finally.
"Then I submit to you that you don't know what in the hell you're talking about." He took a drink, rolled it around in his mouth before swallowing. "You don't understand my loss," he continued after a moment. "You can't. That you would assume yourself capable of comprehending what Locutus took from me that day is absurd."
"I've lost people I loved --" Riker started.
"It's not the same thing," Sisko interrupted coldly. "She was my wife, Riker. My very life. To say that there were greater things at stake that day than individual lives ..." He shook his head again. "There is no greater stake than the life of the one you intend to grow old with," he murmured. "No greater stake in the universe than the mother of your child."
"Captain Picard did not kill your wife," Riker said.
"No," Sisko agreed. "But Locutus did."
"Locutus was an abomination of the Borg," Riker countered angrily. "Picard had no more control over what he did than you or I."
"He may not have had control," Sisko returned grimly. "But he was there. He fired on the Saratoga. He killed Jennifer."
"What the Borg did to Picard was a travesty," Riker announced. "But what you're doing to him is an outrage."
"What I'm doing to him?" Sisko repeated. "And what would that be, Commander? What terrible wrong have I done the man who murdered more than ninety percent of my crew?"
"You've tried him, and found him guilty of a crime he did not commit."
Sisko laughed bitterly. "Someone had to do it," he said. "Starfleet sure as hell didn't. They gave him back his ship. Gave him a commendation for bravery."
"Starfleet exonerated him because he was innocent."
"He wasn't innocent," Sisko returned darkly. "I was there. I saw him give the orders."
"He was a victim. As much as you. As much as your wife."
"Victim or not, Jean-Luc Picard was responsible for the deaths of more than 11 thousand people. He and his cybernetic captors destroyed 39 ships, the Saratoga among them. With the exception of one man, I lost my entire bridge crew. I lost my wife. I lost my best friend. I lost every child in my son's class at school." Sisko stared into Will Riker's eyes. "If you think I'm going to forget that, Commander, then you are wrong. Whether Starfleet does or not, I hold Picard responsible for what he did that day."
"If you want accountability," Riker returned. "Then look to me."
Sisko blinked. "You?" he repeated as if the word tasted unfamiliar to his memory.
"Me," Riker repeated. "I engaged the Borg before they reached Wolf 359. I had a chance to stop them near Zeta Alpha II, and I failed; so if you must blame someone for those deaths, then blame me."
Sisko leaned back on the couch. "The whole fleet couldn't stop them at Wolf 359," he said slowly. "How can you possibly think you could stop them alone?"
"I did stop them alone," Riker countered. "But I stopped them after Wolf 359, not before. I stopped them eleven thousand lives too late."
For a long time, Benjamin Sisko said nothing at all. Then, quietly, he said, "You, of all people, hold no blame. Where the fleet failed, you succeeded. Because of you, Earth was saved."
"I didn't save Earth," Riker retorted. "Jean-Luc Picard did."
Sisko's eyes narrowed.
"He gave us the key to destroying the Borg," Riker continued. "His link with the collective mind was the only weapon we had. If Picard had been a lesser man, we all would have died. But he wasn't. He was Jean-Luc Picard. He saved the Enterprise. He saved Earth."
"He murdered my wife."
"Locutus murdered your wife," Riker countered. "Locutus of Borg, who died along with the collective mind when the Borg ship destroyed itself."
"You're asking me to forgive him."
"I'm asking you to understand that Jean-Luc Picard is not to blame."
"He is to blame," Sisko corrected, his voice dull and flat and heavy with emotion. "When I wake up, alone in my bed, he's to blame. When I have to comfort my son, who still, even years later, wakes screaming with the memories, he's to blame. Picard may be your friend, but Locutus of Borg haunts my memories. His face is in my dreams, and the sound of his voice rings through my bones every day of my life. I cannot forget; and I cannot forgive. I'm sorry, Commander. I wish that I could."
Riker stood. "I'm sorry, too," he said. "Picard is a good man. You both deserve to put this behind you."
Sisko stood as well. "Perhaps we will one day," he said. "But not today." He held out a hand. "And not tomorrow."
Riker took the extended hand. "Then the day after," he suggested.
"Or the day after that," Sisko allowed quietly.
"I'll look to the day."
"You can look," Sisko agreed. "But don't hold your breath."
Jake Sisko was running pel-mel along the promenade for no other reason than the sheer joy of running when he collided jarringly with Captain Jean-Luc Picard. They both stumbled, both caught their balance. Picard grabbed Jake's arm instinctively, pulling him away from the guardrail that edged the walkway and the ten meter drop beyond.
"I'm sorry," Jake began breathlessly. "Are you all right? I didn't break anything, did I?"
Picard smiled wryly. "I seem to be all in one piece, young man," he allowed. "No harm done."
"I didn't see you," Jake offered. "Guess I wasn't looking where I was going. I do that sometimes. Makes my dad nuts."
"I imagine that it does," Picard agreed.
"But I'll slow down, I promise." He grinned widely, a charming expression that no-doubt secured him safe passage through all manner of minor scrapes, scraps and other miscellaneous altercations. "I'm not supposed to run up here," he explained, "but its the only place on the station where you can get up any kind of speed. I usually try to stay close to the rail because most of the shoppers stay in by the shops, and that way I don't clunk into anyone the way I clunked into you. I really am sorry. You're not going to tell him, are you?"
Picard smiled again. "Since you've already made promise to change your ways, I see no need to bother your father with ancient history. This will be between you and I."
Jake's grin broadened. "Thanks." He stuck out his hand. Picard took it after a half-beat of surprise. "I appreciate it," Jake assured him. "Hey. Which ship are you with? Is the Odysseus in already? You're the captain, aren't you? Four pips means captain, right? I thought you guys weren't supposed to get in until tomorrow."
"The Odysseus won't be in until tomorrow," Picard agreed. "I'm here to rendezvous with them."
"Cool," Jake noted approvingly. "So which ship is your's then?"
Picard hesitated. "The Enterprise," he said after a moment.
Jake's face changed. His expression dropped and the high-octane animation of his young, elastic features ground to a somber, reflective calm.
"The Enterprise?" he muttered.
"Yes," Picard allowed, shifting uncomfortably. "The Enterprise. I'm afraid I must be going now, young man. I have several things to do before the rendezvous tomorrow."
Picard almost made good his escape. He was more than ten paces away when Jake Sisko spoke again.
"You're Picard, aren't you?"
The question cut Picard like a knife. It stopped him in his tracks, turned him to face the dark eyes that waited for an answer he did not want to give.
"Yes," he said quietly. "I am Jean-Luc Picard."
"I'm Jake," Jake said. "Jake Sisko."
"I thought perhaps that you were," Picard conceded.
Jake walked through the distance between them. "You know my dad?" he asked quietly.
"We've met," Picard agreed.
"We were on the Saratoga," Jake noted. "At Wolf 359."
"Yes," Picard said quietly. "I know."
Jake studied the Starfleet officer before him. His eyes seemed to evaluate, to take stock.
"Did it hurt, what they did to you?" he asked finally.
Picard blinked, surprised by the question. It was not what he expected the son of Benjamin Sisko to ask. "Yes," he said after a beat. "It hurt very much."
Jake nodded. "My dad said they made you like them. That they stuck metal parts on you and messed up your mind."
"Yes," Picard said again, lacking anything better to say.
"He says they made you do what you did. That it wasn't your fault."
Picard didn't move, didn't speak.
"When I was little," Jake said quietly, "I used to blame you. I used to hate you for killing my mother." He stared into Picard's eyes. "I'm sorry I thought that. I was just a kid, then. I didn't know any better."
Picard nodded, not trusting his voice.
"I'm glad you're better," Jake said quietly. "I'm glad they didn't kill you like they killed my mom."
"I'm sorry, Jake," Picard said finally. "I'm sorry your mother is dead."
"Yeah," Jake muttered. "Me, too." he stepped back. "I gotta go. My dad goes nuts if I'm late for dinner."
"You'd better go then," Picard agreed. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Jake Sisko."
"Yeah," Jake agreed. "You, too." Then he turned and ran off.
Picard stood on the promenade for a moment, staring after the boy. Then, slowly, almost gratefully, he turned and resumed his interrupted life.