Last Call at Dead Lazlow's
Character code: R, P
He smelled like the inside of a Deibretian breeding den. Or, at least as much like the inside of a Deibretian breeding den as it was possible for a Human being to smell. Jean-Luc Picard sat very still, his knees bunched up before him and his arms resting on those knees. These were not the circumstances he had envisioned when less than twelve hours ago he had sat in his ready room and contemplated his first shore leave in over nine months. It had been a mistake to agree to the commander's suggestion. He'd known it then, even as he knew it now. He should have taken the passing notion that Will Riker's idea of fun and his own were, at the very least, a universe apart far more seriously than he had.
Picard glanced at the first officer, noting with some concern that the younger man still hadn't moved. He lay now, as he had since their rather unceremonious arrival, face down on the foul-smelling cell floor.
"You were quite right, Number One," Picard grumbled as he shifted sore bones and muscles to move to the commander's side. "This is indeed most unlike anything I've ever experienced before." He didn't like the clammy feel to Riker's flesh as he felt for and found a pulse, but the rhythmic strength of the first officer's heartbeat was reassuring.
Riker shifted. He groaned quietly, and then again, a little louder. Nodding approval, Picard once again settled back against the wall.
"Singularly unique," he muttered, eyes circling the dank, foul, incredibly filthy room as he spoke. The near-darkness was a blessing of sorts. It served to hide at least a few of their abode's less endearing features in a moldy shadow. Even as he decided this, however, Jean-Luc Picard was forced to consider that, in all probability, those self-same shadows concealed all manner of things that would eventually choose to reveal themselves. "Charming."
Riker shifted again. "Captain?' he whispered dryly. There was an edge of disorientation to the inquiry. His voice sounded as if it had to work to find its way out.
Picard returned his gaze to the commander. He watched the younger man roil slowly, painfully, from his face, to his side, to his back.
"Your description did not do justice to Dead Lazlow's," he commented.
Riker grunted. Though he was working hard at sitting up, it took him several minutes to accomplish the task, and when he finally did, he was breathing hard and looking significantly green. "I don't seem to recall it being so colorful," he admitted ruefully.
Picard nodded, studying his first officer as the younger man settled against the wall to his left. Riker was pale...too pale...garish yellow-white pale like a wax figurine melting in what little ambient light reflected off the dank walls. Vivid streaks of dark beard finger-painted the ghastly fresh, erasing the line of his jaw until it faded and became part of the darkness. What remained of the first officer's face hovered without visual ties to the corporeal world decapitated, floating specter-like in the blackness.
Picard shook himself. "You look to have gotten the worst of the encounter," he observed after a moment.
The response on Riker's lips twisted to a grimace and emerged as a quiet groan. He winced reaching up with one hand to cautiously explore the smears of black that seeped out from under his hairline. Though Picard could not tell in the half-light if it was filth or blood, he assumed from the commander's pained expression that is was the latter.
"Yeah," Riker muttered as he pulled stained fingers from his head and stared at them like he wasn't quite sure whether or not they belonged to him. "But you should see the other guy."
"I did see the other guy," Picard reminded him.
Riker laughed. Then, immediately, he coughed. He tried to be subtle in the way he grabbed at his ribs. "Did you?" he grunted, wrapping both arms around his torso and pulling his knees up to reinforce the stabilizing pressure. He eased his skull back to the wall and let his eyes fall shut once again. "I never did."
"Probably very big," Riker commented.
"Actually," Picard countered, as much to keep Riker talking as to mask the rattle of the commander's labored breathing, "he was quite small."
For a long time, Riker didn't answer. Almost too long. "Small," the first officer modified finally, "But in a big way."
"He did have eight arms." Picard allowed.
"Felt like twelve."
"And there were two of them."
A slight smile shadowed Riker's expression. "How thoughtful," he muttered. "One for each of us."
"Two besides the one that had me," Picard corrected. "Two men. Eight arms each. Sixteen, in all."
"Sixteen arms?" Riker opened his eyes slowly. He pulled both hands close to his face and stared at them for a long time. Then he began to count. Taking great pains to touch a finger for each number he counted off, the first officer reached ten without a problem. He studied the dilemma for a moment and then continued on. The fact that he had to use one hand and one finger twice to reach sixteen didn't seem to bother him once he made the decision to do it. "And I still have..." his head swung ponderously toward Picard, "two, right?"
Picard smiled tiredly. "Last I checked," he agreed.
"That makes it..." Riker struggled to think. "...eight to one." His lips twitched into a half smile. "I didn't do so bad, then." His eyes closed and his hands dropped into place around his legs.
"No, Number One," Picard allowed. "You didn't do so bad." He sighed and studied their surroundings with a critical eye. "Not so bad at all. Of course," Picard reminded his first officer, "they did have only three fingers on each hand. And since you have five," he put more of his weight into an effort to budge the wooden door, to no avail, "I believe that eight to one is a slight overstatement of the odds."
Riker didn't answer. He was wedged into a corner now, eyes closed and head cradled gingerly between hunched shoulders and a dish-like depression on the slimy, stone wall.
Picard glanced back over his shoulder. With the first officer's normally animated features so slack, their expressive twist conspicuously drained of humor and life, it was difficult to tell whether he was conscious.
Picard set his thoughts stonily against their dark bent. "Number One?" he called out gently. He quit pushing against the door and merely leaned. His arms ached with exertion. His shoulder sockets were still strained from the twisting and pulling he had done against the third eight-armed creature's grip while Riker had battled the first two.
It was dangerous to allow a man with a head injury to sleep. Although the vast majority of his academy survival training had grown rusty with disuse, that much Picard remembered. He was in the process of pushing off the door when Will Riker finally responded.
"Yeah," the commander grunted. Shifting his bulky body, he readjusted the way his weight rested on the uneven stone floor. "Three fingers. Right."
"On each hand," Picard prompted gently. He abandoned the straight-on nature of his attack on the door and moved to examine its hinges. There weren't any. At least, not on this side of the door. "Two men. Eight hands each. You, of course, with two; but each having five fingers." Picard straightened and glared at the door. "So what do you suppose the real odds were?" he muttered.
Again, Riker didn't answer.
Picard half expected Riker's eyes to be closed when he turned to face them, but they weren't. Instead, they were watching him with a glint of humor in their blue depths.
"Where's Data when you need him?" the first officer quipped wryly.
Picard sighed. "Yes, Number One," he agreed, thinking of the ease with which the android would dismantle the door that was showing not even the slightest distress in response to his most fervent efforts. "Where indeed."
Picard opened his eyes slowly, realizing that what began as a brief rest period in deference to strained and complaining muscles was well on the way towards becoming a nap.
And that, he couldn't afford.
"Yes, Number One?" he grunted, shifting in the pool of muck in which he sat in an effort to find a less offensive way of sitting. The stench of decay wafted to his nostrils with the delicacy of a charging rhino.
"Where exactly are we?" Riker asked carefully.
Picard sighed. He glanced around the dim cell glumly, but it looked much the same as it had before he closed his eyes. Exactly the same, as a matter of fact. "Prison," Picard answered simply.
Riker sighed, leaning heavier into the wall. "That's what I was afraid of," he admitted. One hand reached up to feel. the blood along his hairline again. The fingers ran into his skull before he thought they would and they butted up against the wound. He grunted. "Sorry about this Captain," he offered suddenly. "I know you didn't intend to spend your shore-leave in the clink
"No need to apologize, Number One," Picard interrupted graciously. Truth be told, he harbored no ill will toward the commander for their present predicament. His irritation was at himself: at the fact that he had ignored his better judgement to accompany the gregarious first officer on one of his infamous, and usually somewhat ill-conceived, forays into the wild side of Starfleet-sanctioned shore-leave activities. Picard smiled suddenly. Actually, now that he thought about it, he had to admit that he'd rather been enjoying himself, up and until the very moment of last call. It was then -- last call at Dead Lazlow's -- that he found himself detained by one eight-armed creature while two more of the same began to interface with his first officer in a most hostile and confrontational manner. it was then that the boy's night out ceased to be fun.
But that could hardly be considered Will Riker's fault: He did nothing to provoke the fight. In fact, Picard was beginning to suspect that his first officer had been on his good behavior, in deference to his captain no doubt, when all hell had broken loose.
"You didn't start the altercation," he reminded Riker.
"I didn't do much to end it either."
"On the contrary," Picard corrected. "You ended it quite effectively."
Riker seemed surprised by that. His eyes swung up, looked for the captain, and settled a good one and a half meters to the left of where Picard actually sat. "I did?"
"Yes," Picard verified quietly. "You did."
Riker's eyes tracked the response and zeroed in on Picard's location. The captain resisted the urge to reach over and examine the wound himself. Medically, there wasn't a damn thing he could do for Riker. Their weapons, their communicators, everything but their very clothes had been stripped from them. The only thing their captors had left them was each other.
Keep him awake and talking, and hope that help comes soon, Picard told himself. That advice, while more common sense than medically specific, was the only thing he remembered from an otherwise inconsequential academy lecture on survival techniques under primitive conditions. If only it held its age as well as the first-year cadet who'd inadvertently absorbed it some twenty odd years before. "The altercation ended most abruptly," he informed Riker, "when one of your antagonist's eight arms introduced an Axturian brewery bottle to your skull."
Riker snorted. "Only one?" he queried dryly.
"His companion was somewhat occupied restraining you at the time," Picard reminded the commander.
"No," Riker corrected slowly. The look of concentration on the first officer's face would have been comical, had it not been so sincere. "One bottle. Only one bottle?"
Picard found his smile again. "Actually," he allowed. "Three. In rapid succession."
Riker thought about that. "Which one ended the alteration?" he asked finally. His eyes had fallen shut again. Although Picard had no doubt that the younger man was well aware of the intent of their game, it was equally obvious that he was having difficulties playing it.
Picard tried not to think about that.
"The last one," he answered.
Riker grinned. "Oh," he muttered. "That one. Weil, that makes sense, I suppose. I've always had trouble with that last one." Pain pulled the humor lines around his closed eyes tighter. "If I could only remember to stop at one before the last one.. .
Time lay heavy in the decaying air, nearly as heavy as the stench that clung piggyback to each molecule of oxygen. Each minute weighed on Picard's features and pressed Riker's expression closer to the laxness from which they struggled to hold at bay. Rats, or small rodents of their approximate equivalent. scurried in the dank, gravid stillness. The motion drew Picard's darkly intent scrutiny from his first officer to corners, until now, left unexplored.
The rats are coming in from somewhere, Picard mused. Perhaps the inky shadows lending the rodents their cloak of anonymity also concealed a way out.
And perhaps it didn't.
However, as the exploration of the possibility held more promise than a mere continuation of his present inactivity, Jean-Luc Picard pushed painfully to his feet and limped across the small enclosure.
The far corner looked very much like the one he'd just abandoned: stone, and sludge, and layers of filth that built themselves up year after year in the absence of light or fresh air. He imagined that it was not all that different from the Bastille of his forefather's day. Except, of course, that they were not on earth; nor were they likely to be any time in the near future.
Lost in his thoughts, Picard did not hear the quiet, hesitant inquiry. More accurately, he heard it; but it didn't register as the question it was meant to be. He continued to study the decaying stonework. The stench of rot was overpowering. That's good. Where there's rot, there's hope. He worked two fingers into a gap at the juncture where several stones came together. Though the slime-slick surface disintegrated under his probing, what lay beneath remained solid and resistant to his efforts. His fingers traced along the gutter of decay in search of a more promising weakness.
Picard glanced back to where he'd left the commander. Even through the dimness that separated them, he could see the same tension in Riker's features that was in his voice. "Right here, Will," he called.
Riker's head cocked slightly. His unfocused eyes pointed themselves more accurately in Picard's direction and the tense line of his expression made a studious effort to ease into something less concerned. "What are you doing, sir?" he asked, as if there had never been anything more than that simple inquiry on his mind.
But Picard knew better.
"Just pushing the envelope, Number One," he answered, turning back to his task. "Defining the boundaries of our limitation....
A black, beetle-like arachnid, the approximate size of a quarter, took offense to Picard's encroachment on it's territory. Much to the captain's dismay, it lunged forward and fastened sharp fangs into the flesh just behind his first knuckle. Picard cursed.
"Sir,?" Riker straightened slightly. His back repelled the support of the stone dungeon wall as he peered hard at the place he perceived his captain to be. "Are you all right?"
"Fine, Number One," Picard snapped. He tried to shake the spider-roach of, but the creature only clung more stubbornly. Tiny jaws sawed back and forth in a motion meant to dismember a much smaller prey.
Riker sank back against the wall. The slight effort it had taken to move left him green with nausea. He struggled to think of something to talk about. "Did you ever figure out what set them off?" he asked finally.
His voice seemed far away. The change in inflection managed to momentarily derail Picard's attention from the carnivorous fanged creature attached to his finger and draw it hack across the room.
If it was possible to look worse than he had a moment ago, Will Riker looked worse. Picard paused in his efforts to dislodge the spider-roach. For a long second, he forgot entirely about the gnawing creature's existence. Riker appeared oddly small, frail. The oversized stones that made up the wall managed to dwarf a man who was in the habit of dwarfing others. It was an appearance that was not only foreign to the commander; but to his captain as well.
Picard forced himself to turn back to the bead of pain that was gnawing a trail from his first knuckle to his third. Worrying about what he could not change would do neither of them any good. Riker needed medical attention. Until such time as an opportunity to secure said medical attention arose, the first officer needed to remain awake. That was their first order of business; the mission imperative; the prime directive, so to speak. All resources should be focused on that. Entirely. Drawing extrapolations in his imagination of what could happen was more than wasted thought, it was a distraction which Jean-Luc Picard had no intention of allowing himself to indulge in.
Jean-Luc Picard stopped worrying.
Or, at least, Jean-Luc Picard told himself he had stopped worrying.
He began to formulate stratagems to keep Will Riker awake. But first, he had to dislodge this damnable carnivorous creature from his knuckle. Between several well-aimed finger flicks and a shake or two of his entire hand, Picard somehow managed to loosen the spider-roach from its hold and knock it away. He eyed the creature warily as it gathered itself on the stone floor and shook vigorously, like a Klingon readjusting his armor and setting himself to re-enter a newly-abandoned foray.
"From what I could gather," he answered Riker's question finally, "it was the beard."
"The beard?" The first officer's hand reached instinctively to his face. Slime and other assorted filth coating the cell's floor had left the facial hair stiff and abrasive. His fingers ran through it once and then fell back to his lap.
The spider-roach glared at Picard. Picard glared back at the spider-roach.
"Yes," he verified distractedly. "The beard. It seems they have some sort of racial prejudice against excessive displays of hair. It offends them...intimidates them, even."
For a moment, Riker's eyes took on a sharpness they had earlier lacked. A glint of humor cut a hole in the fog of disorientation. He started to comment but, thought better of the urge and remained silent.
"I, obviously," Picard went on, watching with relief as the spider-roach hoisted it's butt, turned pointedly away, and began a slow, tottering, highly unsteady retreat that looked more like a planned withdrawal than an acquiescence to greater bulk, "was not a threat to them.
The snort came out despite Riker's best attempts to stifle it. Pain skated along the interior of his skull and made the small, dank cell swim in nauseating circles, but it eroded the lull that had invaded his features. He reached for his head with one hand, in an attempt to hold it on his shoulders.
Picard turned slowly. One eyebrow arched as he watched his first officer struggle against the urge to laugh. He did his 'captainly best' to appear disapproving; but inside, he was congratulating himself. The comment had accomplished its intent. Riker's expression no longer teetered on the brink between conscious and unconscious. On the contrary, it seemed more animated than it had since last call at Dead Lazlow's. Eyes that lacked the capability to focus fairly glinted with the desperate need to laugh.
"You find that amusing, Number One?" he inquired blandly.
"No, sir," Riker lied. "Not in the least." He changed the subject quickly. "What did you say you're doing, sir?"
Picard turned back to his exploration of the dark corner. His eyes searched each nook and cranny tor more of the excessively ferocious insectoid carnivores before venturing in again with his fingers. "Attempting to find a means of escape," he answered, giving a likely looking stone a healthy shove, just to see if it would move.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
A quiet scuttle of movement writhed around Picard's feet. He felt a negligible weight in possession of at least six small, clawed feet scramble up and over one of his boots. "I'm open to suggestions," Picard assured the younger man.
"I thought we might sit real still and wait for someone to bail us out," Riker suggested.
Picard frowned. He was getting nowhere fast. While the surface decay was as brittle as it appeared, the stone beneath it remained frustratingly solid. Not only that, there seemed to be no mortar between the stones. Each boulder fitted against its neighbors with such precision that they seemed to need nothing more than their ow to hold this place intact. Picard marveled at this feat of engineering even as he cursed it.
"That may take some time," Picard observed, stepping back to study his dilemma from another angle. He shot a quick glance at the commander. As he suspected, Riker was again leaning heavily against the wall, his eyes closed against the disorientation of not being able to focus them. "And you don't look to be in any condition to wait."
Riker's eyes struggled open. "I'm in more of a condition to wait," he reasoned quietly, "than I am to try and escape."
Picard blinked. He marveled at the commander's ability, considering his current condition, to cut so clearly to the point. "Point well taken," he agreed.
Slowly, grudgingly, Jean-Luc Picard abandoned his hopes for escape and crossed back from whence he had come, to await rescue or whatever else might come.
"We'll have been declared overdue by now," Picard commented. "Lieutenant Worf will be initiating a search." He secreted a glance at the man to his left, but he needn't have bothered with the attempt at discretion. Will Riker was well beyond the ability to see anything at all. His eyes no longer opened, even when he spoke. "He will have contacted the local authorities. It is only a matter of time before they trace us down."
"How familiar are you with the local customs of Tantamunt Felonius IV, sir," the commander inquired calmly.
Picard frowned. Although he never went planet-side without appraising himself of basic laws and regulations, the intricacies of local custom were well beyond what the casual shore leave required. Of course, he reminded himself, that assumption was based on his idea of shore leave, not Commander Riker's.
"I've never taken leave on this particular planet," he admitted cautiously. "Why?"
"Then you're not aware of their policies concerning infractions of their moral and penal codes."
Picard didn't like the sound of that. He picked back in his memory for everything he'd scanned (between engine efficiency reports, and personnel dispersement figures, and the recent geological survey updates, and this picky detail, and that picky detail...) on Tantamunt Felonius IV. He didn't remember much of it.
"Something about taking individual responsibility to extremes, as I recall," Picard fudged.
Riker's lips twisted wryly. "That's one way of putting it," he agreed. "The Felonian government doesn't believe in pandering to their citizens," he stated. The words slurred slightly into one another, but Picard pretended not to notice. "If a Felonian creates a disruption in the normal dally flow, they are jailed. No trial. No arguments. If two individuals are involved in the altercation, they are both jailed." Riker paused for a moment. "The Felonians do not believe in mitigating circumstances," he finished after a moment of breathing.
"Rather a black and white way of viewing things," Picard commented.
"That's not the half of it," the first officer assured him. "Unless someone shows up to claim you and unless that someone is willing to Pledge their own freedom as collateral against your future behavior, they never let you out."
Picard frowned. "Never?" he repeated.
Picard glanced at the commander. He wasn't sure how much the man's nearly-unconscious appearance was an attempt to conserve energy and how much of it was exactly what it appeared to be. "Not a place to be without friends," he observed wryly. "Which, fortunately, we are not."
Riker's eyes opened slowly. He roiled his head to face the captain. "As long as your friends know where you are," he returned quietly.
For several moments, Picard considered the statement without response. "I suppose," he ventured finally, "it would be considered 'pandering' to contact anyone and inform them of an incarcerated individual's predicament."
Riker let his head ease back into place in the shallow stone indentation and closed his eyes once again. "From the Felonian's point of view," he agreed.
Picard sighed. He gazed glumly at the shadow obscured far wall, wondering if it was really darker there than it had been hours before, or if it was just his imagination. "You sound as if you've dealt with the Felonian judicial system before," he observed after a moment of useless contemplation on the possible outcome of their ill-conceived excursion.
Riker laughed. It was a low, quiet sound that contained itself more due to lack of strength than fear of pain. "Last call at Dead Lazlow's," he allowed vaguely, "can be an enlightening experience."
"So I am beginning to see," Picard countered.
Again, they sat in silence. The shadows were getting longer. Of that, there was no doubt. He could barely make out Riker's features even though the man sat less than a meter to his left. Whatever ambient light they had enjoyed was fading. Picard wondered if that meant that night was once again settling like a blanket over the world outside. Had they only been here a day?
It seemed longer. It seemed an eternity.
"But this is a sanctioned Federation outpost world," Picard stated abruptly into the growing darkness. "There must be some consideration for Starfleet personnel."
"There is," Riker replied. Though there was a distinct effort to individualize each word, more of them slurred together, despite his efforts. "All major population centers have special instructions employed specifically for the purpose of extricating Starfleet personnel from potentially sticky domestic altercations." He let the sentence and its implications hung in the air.
"But we are not in a major population center," Picard finished thoughtfully . "We are, in fact, quite well off the beaten path, aren't we?"
"All the good bars are," Riker grunted.
"Yes," Picard sighed, "indeed they are. And our communicators?"
"Probably still back at Dead Lazlow's," Riker reasoned. "The Felonian peacekeepers routinely strip all technological devices off their charges before transport. Lowers the risk of inadvertently letting a weapon through."
"It could take the Enterprise weeks to locate us."
"Or longer," Riker agreed.
Both men sat in their respective silence for several minutes. Picard was the one who broke it. "Number One?" he asked.
"Tell me again why we went to Dead Lazlow's," he requested.
Riker didn't open his eyes. His expression didn't change, and his voice remained perfectly neutral. But somehow, Picard got the impression that the first officer was laughing in spite of it all. "Because Last call at Dead Lazlow's is unique," Riker offered. "Utterly unique."
Still no response.
Picard reached out one hand, groping in the darkness until he found Human flesh. He pushed impatiently at the arm. It was cold. Ungodly cold. "You still with me, Will? You can't go to sleep. You have to remain conscious."
He could hear slow, steady breathing. Too steady. Too slow. Riker was slipping...had slipped.
Frustration at his own helplessness to prevent what was happening wore Picard's patience thinner. "Number One," he snapped.
A slight movement: the sound of weight adjusting that was too heavy to be the scavenging of the rats.
"I'm awake," Riker grunted finally.
"You have to stay awake," Picard muttered. Although it was necessary to say it, he felt somewhat hypocritical making that admonishment to Riker when he was finding it so hard to accomplish the task himself. The darkness, and the lack of anything at all to do to occupy the endless minute after endless minute, made sleep an increasingly attractive alternative. He could only imagine that the disorientation and weakness stemming from the commander's head wound was making it nearly impossible.
Impossible or not, it had to be done. If Riker let himself sleep, he would lapse into unconsciousness; and from there, possibly into a coma.
They couldn't let that happen. HE couldn't let that happen. It was too difficult to train a good first officer.
Picard shook his head. He was more tired than he'd thought. Will Riker's worth went well beyond his capabilities as a first officer. Well beyond.
"You can't fall asleep," Picard repeated firmly. "We have to keep you awake."
"I said I'm awake, damn it," Riker snapped. He sounded genuinely peeved. "I'll get up in a minute."
"Get up in a minute?" Picard repeated as much to himself as to Riker. He smiled slowly. "Of course you will, Number One. And I'll have breakfast waiting for you."
His thoughts meandered around the statement. Though he'd said it in jest, the mention of food drove home the fact that they had been offered neither food nor water throughout the duration of their incarceration; and he had his doubts that such an offer would be forthcoming. The Felonians would, no doubt, consider it 'pandering'.
Of course, there was always the rodents. As unappetizing an alternative as it seemed, the small, six-legged creatures would have to possess some nutritional value.. enough to keep he and Will alive, if not well-fed. And the slime: rotting.. foul...but wet. Water was seeping in from somewhere, condensing on the stones, mixing with the refuse and filth. It would no doubt make them violently ill, but was there any other option? Perhaps not in the long run but, for now, just thinking the things he was thinking made him far less hungry and decidedly 'unthirsty'.
Riker still hadn't answered. Picard came to the conclusion that despite the snappish denial, his first officer was again slipping toward that dangerous precipice of sleep. He was preparing to reach out and shake the younger man again when Riker's heavy voice grated across the silence.
"I didn't know you cooked, sir," he commented rustily.
Picard smiled. He closed his eyes against the damp blackness that pressed against them, hoping for just a moment to forget it. "Oh you'd be surprised, Number One," he murmured. "I make a mean Fricassee of Spider-Roach."
"Sounds nutritious," Riker allowed dryly.
"Exceedingly," Picard agreed. "And delicious. A delight to the palette." He opened his eyes to combat the foothold he'd allowed the urge to sleep just by closing them in the first place. As he expected, it was still so dark that there was nothing to see. The mere fact that his eyes were open, however, seemed to be enough to bolster his determination to keep them that way. "It is the specialty of the house, you know."
Riker grunted. "I'm not sure I find that comforting," he informed his commanding officer.
Wondering how much longer it would be until last call at Dead Lazlow's marked the twenty-four hour anniversary of their incarceration, Jean-Luc Picard turned his face until it pointed in the direction of his first officer. Though he could make out nothing of the other man, Picard conjured up the image of the way Will Riker had last appeared. Concentrating on that memory was almost, in its own way, a substitute for the real thing. "I'm not sure you should, Number One," he answered. "I'm not sure that you should."
"Sir?" Riker ventured. His voice was dry, cracked. It flaked from his lips like dead skin, barely reaching over the rustle of rodents in the abysmal blackness.
"Why did you agree to come with me to Dead Lazlow's?"
The question caught Picard of-guard. He opened his eyes, but the blackness on this side of his eyelids was as complete as that on the other. "You didn't expect me to?" he countered finally.
"No, sir," The first officer whispered. His lips barely parted enough to allow the words to escape. "I merely asked out of courtesy.
Picard laughed quietly. He reached up and rubbed at the pulsing throb perched behind his eyes as the absurdity of it all settled squarely on the hunch of his shoulders.
"And I accepted," he informed his first officer wryly, "out of courtesy.
Along silence greeted the revelation. So long, in fact, that Picard began to worry.
"I'm glad you're here, sir," Riker murmured finally.
"Yes, Number One," Picard responded. He sighed, staring into darkness. "I am, too."
And he meant it.
"Will? You still with me?"
He didn't sound like it. The commander's voice was less than the rustle of paper on paper. Picard tried not to think about how much longer his first officer was going to be able to hold out, just as he tried not to think of the smell, and the feel, of slime rotting into his skin.
"I just wanted to tell you..." he started. And then he wasn't sure, exactly, what he'd wanted to tell him. What started out as an expression of thanks for four-and-a-half years of exceptional first-officering' ended up sounding too much like he thought it was over. Like he'd given up. So Picard changed the comment to an assurance that the Enterprise would be coming soon, but that sounded like he'd lost his grip on reality, or he thought that Riker had. So it changed again and became just a simple expression of friendship.
That sounded like a eulogy.
"Tell me what, sir?" Riker prompted after an inordinately long silence.
"I just wanted to tell you," Picard started again, having no idea what he was going to say until he actually formed the words and spoke them, "that I rather enjoyed myself at Dead Lazlow's." He hesitated. "After a fashion," he added.
Riker laughed. It was a low sound, nearly as weak as the brush of his voice on the night's blackness. "So did I, sir," he allowed. "After a fashion."
"Yes, Number One," Picard responded automatically. His back was cramped, and his flesh felt as if it was beginning to rot itself from sitting so long on the dank, slimy cell floor.
"What kind of wine would you serve with Fricassee of Spider-Roach?"
Picard blinked. He pulled his head of the wall to look over at Riker; but even less than a meter away, it was still too dark to make out more than a vague outline of the other man's hunched form. "Well," he broached the question slowly and with far more consideration for accuracy that it actually required, "Red would be appropriate for Spider, I should think; but Roach would most definitely demand a dry white." He smiled at the absurdity of the conversation and at the fact that he was even considering the question with as much concentration as he was. "So I would think a fine Chablis would be the optimum choice, wouldn't you agree?"
"That's what I figured," Riker answered. He didn't say anything else for a very long time. When he did, it was in a whisper that Picard had to strain to hear. "Sir?"
"I hope they get here soon," Riker breathed.
"Why is that, Will?"He asked it because even getting Riker to say the obvious would at least keep him talking. It was no less valid a question than what sort of wine one might serve with roasted insect.
"Because," Riker told him sincerely, "that Fricassee of Spider-roach is starting to sound good to me."
The flood of light was like a sword cutting through layers of dank, putrid air. Picard squinted, raising one hand to fend off the assault. He realized that the glare was little more than a small wattage bulb set well back in the corridor outside, but after endless hours of almost total darkness, it seemed more overpowering than a sun going nova.
The partially open door swung gruntingly in on rusted, ill kept hinges, and a shadow blocked out the new-found light. It filled the doorway like a mountain of black, taking on the shape and dimensions of an exceedingly large, exceedingly bulky, humanoid male.
"Sir?" a familiar voice grunted.
Picard never thought he'd see the day he considered a Klingon's coarse voice to be music, but that was exactly how it sounded. It was more welcome in the stagnant silence than an concerto could ever have been.
"Mister Worf," Picard managed through lips cracked dry with thirst. "A distinctive pleasure to hear your voice."
"We became worried when you failed to meet the appropriate check-in schedule," the Klingon responded. "It took us some time to locate you."
"I have no wonder;" Picard agreed. "This would not be the first place I would think you would look." He reached out a hand and shook Riker's arm. "Will! Wake up. Our ride's here."
Riker shifted slightly. He grumbled something unintelligible and settled into the wall once again.
Worf didn't wait to be asked for help. He stepped into the room, oversized boots making slurping sounds in the slime-encrusted floor and, with one hand on each man, lifted his commanding officers to their respective feet.
"Thank you, Mister Worf," Picard acknowledged. He established a shaky balance of his own and nodded to the security chief. Worf released him immediately.
Riker, however, made no attempt to establish independence from the Klingon's support. As he emerged into the fog of half-consciousness, he acknowledged it, eyes crinkling at the corners in an echo to the ghost of a smile on his lips; but other than that, the first officer didn't move.
Though eyes that wouldn't focus and kept slipping shut on him, Riker found enough coherency in his thoughts to identify the Klingon by his voice and his size. "Hello, Worf," he managed quietly.
"Commander," Worf responded. He shifted his grip to get a better one and then hoisted almost the entirety of Riker's weight onto one mammoth shoulder. Only the first officer's toes remained in contact with the floor, and then only barely. "You appear to have spent your shore leave in a most invigorating fashion."
The implication of Riker's grin cracked through his expression to reality. "I suppose you could say that," he muttered.
Worf turned and strode from the small cell, dragging Riker easily alongside and expecting the captain to follow. "I look forward to the details," he told the first officer as they navigated the turning, twisting, narrow corridor.
Without warning, the three Starfleet officers emerged into a room that was vaguely reminiscent of the Enterprise holodeck's recreation of a 1930 San Francisco police house. Except, of course that rather than the holodeck's array of flatfoots, fallen dames, and fedora-topped private dicks there were Alktergits, Ferengi, and several short creatures with eight arms. The latter began to mutter excitedly among themselves and point in agitation at Riker's slumped form.
"Let us be out of here, shall we?" Picard grunted. He was too sore to stand up straight, and too sore not to. Even his teeth felt like they'd been bruised and battered and left out in the rain for six days too long.
"You found them."
The relief in Beverly Crusher's voice was tangible, as was the disapproval in her green eyes as she rounded the big security chief and got a look at what was left of their captain and executive officer. She went to Picard first. He tolerated a preliminary scan with her tricorder because he knew he had no choice, but the concern in his eyes made her turn to Will even before she'd fully analyzed the broad-based readings.
"You look like an angel," Riker grunted. He was still fastened onto Worf's shoulder like some avant garde piece of decorative clothing.
"I wish I could say the same for you, Will," she retorted, twisting the dosage of her hypospray to it's limits. "But to be perfectly honest, you look like hell." She pressed the device to his throat and injected several different medications directly into his bloodstream. "And you smell worse."
Riker grinned, the lines of pain in his expression easing noticeably. "You should see the other guy," he muttered. His head lolled bonelessly on the line of his shoulders.
"You don't want to see the other guy, Commander," Crusher retorted. She reached up decisively and tapped the comm pin attached to her tunic. "Crusher to Enterprise. Lock onto my signal. Four to beam directly to Sickbay." Her eyes skated to Picard. "I really expected more out of you Jean-Luc," she reprimanded.
Picard watched his first officer's eyes slide shut and, for the first time in what seemed like forever, he didn't worry about whether or not they'd open again.
"I expected more out of the both of you."
Picard's gaze swung to the disgusted doctor. He noted the way her eyes flashed and the way her hair gleamed, even in this unflattering light. Riker was right. She did look like an angel. He smiled tiredly and listened to the comforting drone of pre-transport scans as they hummed around and through him. The subtle, almost imperceptible, vibrations in his bones and teeth were familiar and welcome sensations.
"I certainly hope you have a good explanation for all this," Crusher grumbled.
"Oh," Picard assured her as they both began to glimmer with the pre-effect of the transporter beam. "I do. I have a very good explanation."
Beverly crossed her arms expectantly, one eyebrow arching as if to say, "Well?"
"Dead Lazlow's," Picard told her.
Beverly Crusher looked at him blankly. "I beg your pardon?"
"Dead Lazlow's," Picard repeated. He smiled into the confusion he saw in the emerald sea of her gaze. "It's legendary, you know. We couldn't very well leave. Not with it drawing so close."
"Legendary?" she repeated. "What's legendary?"
"Why, last call at Dead Lazlow's, of course," Picard responded, as if it should have been self-evident. "it's a singularly unique experience: the only one of its kind in the whole of the universe. Unlike anything you have experienced before."
Crusher's eyes raked over his stained and torn uniform. "Judging from your appearance," she countered, "It would have to be."
Picard smiled enigmatically. "Perhaps you would care to join us the next time we're in this sector?" Of course, he was only asking out of courtesy, but then again....
Beverly Crusher started to respond, but it was too late. They'd gone too far in the break down to their elemental atoms. Her vocal cords no longer existed in a physical fashion. Consequently, she could do nothing more than watch the satisfaction in his eyes and the wry twist to his lips as the four of them dissolved into focused beams of light and energy.
On Tantamunt Felonius IV, however, the ring of Jean-Luc Picard's rich baritone voice lingered in the air. It remained behind when they vanished, the only evidence, other than a slightly dizzy and highly incensed spider-roach, that they had ever been there at all.