September 20, 1998
The Home for Wayward Stories, Pt. II 
Again, we turn this column over to a bit of short fiction which really has no other home.  Like most of the stories I've written, this one has a very personal origin.  And, it's a Star Trek story -- so those of you who hate that kind of thing, see you next week.  Onward.

This Good Lesson

The Mark VII Pneumatic Auto-Sensor door represented the cutting edge in Starfleet technology.  The door was equipped with a high-speed duotronic logic chip, allowing it to make independent decisions about when to open, or when remain closed.  They said you could actually lean up against a Mark VII, and it wouldnít open, because it knew you werenít yet ready to leave a room.  When Starfleet issued the upgrade order fleetwide, it was generally agreed that the Mark VII was a significant advance over the Mark VI.  Its "whoosh" was fifteen percent quieter; its dual doors split open seven point five percent faster.  The Mark VII truly was the state of the art in automatic sliding door technology.

That, of course, didnít prevent Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Jean-Luc Picard from running smack into the Mark VII door which led to his quarters.  Even with its real-time variable logic programming, the door simply couldnít open fast enough to prevent Picard from bashing his head against one of the leaves as it hissingly slid in to the wall.

As he fell to the floor, Jean-Luc Picard was mad.  Not at the door, although that certainly hadnít helped his situation.  More than mad, really.  Heíd reached a state beyond anger, long before his close encounter with the door.  And as any of his classmates could tell you, that was a very, very unusual state for Picard.

Ranked near the top of his class at Starfleet Academy Command School, the young Picard was known for his calm, measured approach to problem solving.  Nothing seemed to ruffle this young Frenchman.   At least, not until today ...

The only thing worse than having to report to the infirmary was his reason for doing so.

"You knocked your head on what?" the nurse on duty said.

"I had ... a slight accident," Picard responded, both frustrated and embarrassed.  The nurse ran a regeneration tool over the black eye which discolored much of Picardís face.

"Well, you should be all right now.  Just slow down a bit, okay?"

"Thank you," said Picard, "I shall."

Hopping off the exam table, Jean-Luc Picard decided to go for a walk.  A long walk.

Even though his injury had been repaired, Picardís pride was still smarting.  He couldnít help but think about why heíd become so mad in the first place ...

The smoke had started to pour from the helm console in front of him, a thick black, electrical smoke which caused his hair to stand on end.  "Damage report," Picard called out from the captainís chair.  No answer.  "Computer, damage report."  Again, nothing.  In the darkened bridge, only sparking wires and static-covered monitors provided light, casting demonic shadows across the lifeless room.  Laying on the deck were the motionless bodies of his crew.

Picard leapt from the command chair to the helm, determined not to go down without a fight.  But the buttons wouldnít respond to his command.  By looking at the viewscreen, it was obvious his ship was badly damaged, with no attitude control.  As it drifted further along its Z-axis, he could see the Romulan Warbirds again come in to view.  Six of them, in perfect flight formation, discharging an unreal line of torpedoes toward Picardís soon to be dead ship.  "No, no, no, no!" Picard said, teeth clenched as he worked the helm panel, desperately trying to restart the weapons systems, or the shields, or the engines.  Then the bridge shook, all the lights went out, and Picard slumped over his console, defeated.

The black smoke hung in the air, burning Picardís lungs, when the fans turned on, pushing it out of the way.  Then, his "crew" sprung to their feet.  The lights turned on.  And the main viewscreen slid aside, opening up the exit to this sophisticated Starship bridge simulation.

Cadet Picard had just completed the most severe test of his command skills to date.  And he found himself lacking.

"Not too bad, Picard," said Captain Demora Sulu, as she walked in to the smoky remains of what once was a near-perfect bridge duplicate.  "Your crew, dead, your ship, destroyed, and the Kobayashi Maru ... well, was it ever really there?"

Through clenched teeth, Picard answered, "Iím not sure.  It seemed as such."

"And so you risked your ship on a Neutral Zone rescue mission, just to see if a ship that "seemed" like it was in trouble really was?"

"Captain Sulu, I made the best decisions I could."

"Yes, well, weíve seen the results of your decisions, havenít we?"  Sulu, the daughter of the legendary Enterprise helmsman, seemed to have totally missed on inheriting her fatherís good nature.  Or at least, thatís how it appeared to Picard.  In his anger over his "failure," he didnít notice the gleam in her eye.  "Report to my office, fifteen-hundred hours tomorrow.  Weíll talk about your future in Starfleet."

As Picard left the simulator, he couldnít make the thought go away.  "Thatís if I have a future in Starfleet."  It was by far the gloomiest thought of his young life.

But that was earlier today.  One black eye later, Picard now strolled the grounds of Starfleet Academy, hoping to find solitude, or, barring that, some answer to why he felt so down.

Instead, he found Boothby.

The grounds of Starfleet Academy were impeccably well kept, in no small part due to the efforts of the man called Boothby.  They said heíd been the chief groundskeeper there for decades, with some cadets whispering that he had actually started at the Academy around Starfleetís first legendary era of exploration.  And while the stories of Boothby spending time with Starfleet legends like James Kirk and Rachel Garrett seemed like they must be fantasy, they did have a tendency to persist.

Boothby was tending to a particularly interesting shrub formation when Picard approached.

"Hello," Picard said.

"Humph," the old man replied.  "See they fixed that shiner of yours."

"What?" asked Picard, startled.

"Command School cadet runs headfirst into a door, news gets around fast."

"I see," said Picard.  "And what else have you heard?"

"That youíre considering leaving the Academy.  Itís not true, but thatís what I hear."

Picard slowly, deliberately sat himself down on a nearby bench.  It was several moments before he spoke again.

"And how did you come to hear that?"

"Youíd be surprised what you can hear when youíre tending to bushes," Boothby said, continuing to trim away on the hedge.

"And why do you say itís not true?"

Boothby laughed, a wizened old cackle.  "You?  Drop out of command school?  I donít know if youíve been paying attention in those classes youíre supposedly taking, but they donít give out Starship commands to people who donít finish command school."

"And you think this is necessary?  That Starfleet is my only option?"  Picard stood, moving toward Boothby.  "Who are you to say where my destiny lies?"

"Itís the test, isnít it?  You couldnít pass the test, now youíre pouting," said Boothby.  "Itís not very command-like, you know.  Thatís what theyíre looking for."

Picard stood silently.  How did this man know so much about him?  "My performance on the Kobayashi Maru exam was less that satisfactory.  My crew died.  I failed them."  Picard paused a moment.  "I failed everyone."

Boothby stopped working on the hedge, standing and facing Picard.  "You think because you couldnít beat the simulation, youíve failed?  You do have a lot to learn."  Boothby picked up a rake, and started clearing some leaves.  "Okay, the Kobayashi Maru, thatís one test, and you wished youíd done better.  But thereís only one cadet ever who beat that damn machine, and he had to cheat to do it."

"Kirk," Picard said quietly.

"Kirk," agreed Boothby.  "Reprogrammed the simulation so he could pass.  But thatís not the purpose of the test.  Itís not about passing, or not passing.  You canít win.  The damn thing just keeps adding Warbirds until your ship is destroyed."

"As I discovered today," Picard noted wryly.

"So the real test isnít whether or not you lose your ship, or your crew, itís how you deal with it.  A no-win scenario is something we all must face some day.  You ever think of that?"

Picard remained quiet, contemplating the gardenerís words.  Boothby set down his rake, and picked up a pair of old fashioned hedge trimmers.  As the old man continued his work, Picard finally spoke.  "I shall thíeffect of this good lesson keep, as watchman to my heart."

"Oh, and enough with the damn Shakespeare already," Boothby said.  "You think youíre the only one whoís read ĎHamlet?í"

Picard could only laugh quietly to himself, as he walked back toward his quarters.

Five minutes before he was to meet with Captain Sulu, Picard had a revelation.  He would leave Starfleet.

Four minutes before the meeting, he realized couldnít do so.

Three minutes, and he had mentally resigned himself to service on an Orion trading ship.

Two minutes, and his Starfleet dream returned, stronger than ever.

One minute, and he realized he had no idea what this meeting was about.

"Sheís ready for you now," Suluís assistant said, motioning Picard into the Captainís office.

"Thank you," said Picard, standing, tugging on the bottom of his uniform tunic, and moving forward.

When he entered, Sulu was looking out her window, surveying the Academy grounds.  "Thatís a nice view, right Cadet?"

Picard shifted uncomfortably.  "Um, yes Captain."

"Sit down, Cadet."  Picard did so, as Sulu moved over to the replicator in her wall.  "Herbal tea, Sulu blend number six.  And for you?" she called back to Picard.

"No thank you," said Picard.  Demora Sulu turned to the young cadet with a very serious look on her face.

"Let me give you some free advice, Cadet.  When a captain offers you a beverage, you take it.  Coffee is acceptable.  But tea is better.  Tea speaks of a sophistication.  Coffee is a workingmanís drink.  Nothing wrong with it, but tea is the right drink for Captains.  So if you want to be a Captain someday, and Iím guessing thatís why youíre here at Command School, youíd better pick out a tea now and make it yours."

"Um, in that case," Picard stuttered, "how about, something like, I donít know, Earl Gray?"

"Fantastic," said Sulu.  "Stick with it.  Goes with the accent.  And see?  It turns out you can make a command decision."  She instructed the machine to produce Picardís tea.

Meanwhile, Picard flushed red with embarrassment.  "If youíre referring to my performance yesterday on the Kobayashi Maru ..."

"I am," said Sulu.

"Well, Iíve had some time to think about it."

"And what conclusions have you reached, Cadet?"

"First, I should have acted in the best interests of my crew.  I never gave the order to abandon ship.  I was so fixated on solving the problem myself, I simply forgot to do so.  That, to my mind, is an unforgivable lapse."

Sulu smiled.  "One Iím guessing Starfleet is happy you made in a simulator, not in deep space.  And how likely is that to happen again?"

"Not very," Picard said, and found himself smiling, as well.  "Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I learned something about myself.  That test pushed me to limits of my ability.  And that can be a very scary place."

"Agreed," Sulu said.  "Most people donít make it that far.  They prefer to remain well within their comfort zone.  But thereís something about pushing yourself past your limits thatís both exhilarating and petrifying."

"Itís an area that I think ... I think deserves further exploration," Picard said.

"You do have the heart of an explorer, Picard," Sulu smiled.  "Discovering yourself is a large part of the Command School experience.  Once youíve done that, charting the galaxy, flying through the stars, and facing the true unknown is easy, by comparison."

"Easy?  Oh, no, no, I wouldnít say that," Picard shook his head.  He was silent for a moment.  Then, softly, he spoke again.  "But it is possible.  I do have it within me.  I want to reach beyond my boundaries.  Captain, I know I failed the test, but ..."

"Failed?  Not exactly, Picard.  You did just fine.  Youíll make a fine captain someday."  Again, Picard flushed red, speechless.  Captain Demora Sulu, whoíd known a few legends in her day, continued.  "Just donít give up.  Thereís nothing you canít do, Picard.  Nothing."

As Picard walked out of the Starfleet Command building, the sun seemed a little brighter, the air a little clearer.  The acrid smoke of the bridge simulator would always be there in his past, he thought, but it now seemed so far away.  The experience had opened his eyes to the possibilities of tomorrow.  No doubt, great challenges still were ahead for this remarkable cadet.  He now saw how failure and success were intertwined inexorably.  And for the first time since Picard had entered Command School, he finally felt ready to handle both of them.

Jean-Luc Picard wasnít the whistling type.  But on this day, as he surveyed the lush green grounds of Starfleet Academy, he whistled a little melody to himself.

From his spot fifty meters away, hidden behind bushes and shrubs and trees and cadets  who had for years soaked up his wisdom and care, Boothby smiled, and whistled too.

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Colin Campbell - jenolen@earthlink.net
Last updated September 20, 1998