Who: LT JG Marcus Kallan and ENS Nikki Barclay
Where: Holodeck, USS Portland
When: Before the attack
"...and my uncle Reg, when he worked on the Pathfinder project, he used something like this to help him develop and refine his ideas. It really helped him focus his brilliance. Oh, the pathfinder project. Did I tell you about that? My uncle Reg was the first person to open communication with Voyager, tens of thousands of light-years away. He is just so brilliant! Anyways, I think this program will really help you with your work, and..."
Dragging Marcus by the hand through the corridors, Nikki came to a halt just outside holodeck two, which was fortunately not in use. "Computer," she called out, "Activate program Barclay Tango Four."
Nikki took a deep breath and straightened her uniform. "After you," she said, motioning for Marcus to enter.
Marcus looked briefly dubious. But, having heavily relied on advancements in holo-matrix technology since the start of his career, he knew the sometimes-unpredictable nature of holo-programs often allowed for strokes of insight. "All right." And he entered.
"The mess?" He asked Nikki, somewhat incredulously.
The second Nikki stepped through the holodeck doors, she was a totally different person. Cool, calm, and collected, she knew how to work a room, so long as the room was filled with holograms. "Good evening, everyone," she said, sauntering in.
"Nikki!" exclaimed what seemed like half the mess hall, all excited to see her, seemingly competing for the attention of their favourite friend and coworker.
"Ensign Barclay," called out the holographic Tim at a table with a few other senior officers as Nikki strolled by, with Marcus in tow. "We missed you at the poker game last night."
"Sorry, Tim," replied Nikki with a smirk, "but it just doesn't feel right taking all your money now that you're an expectant father. Too much like taking candy from a baby."
"She's got you there," joked Jason, the only one at the table not keeled over laughing at Nikki's little joke, as he gave Tim a gentle tap on the shoulder. "Listen, Nikki, some of us were planning on going white-water rafting on the holodeck a little later, and we've got room for one more."
Nikki sighed. "Oh, that's too bad. I already promised Dr. Silverton that I would be at the rehearsal for his play later today. We can't have Pinafore without Josephine," she said, trailing off.
"Oh, you accepted the role!" exclaimed Tolaran, clearly excited. "I must say, I'm looking forward to our big kiss..."
"Awwwww, Tolaran," replied Nikki, blushing slightly at the comment but clearly revelling in the attention. It was at that moment, however, that she was interrupted by a loud bird-call. Buzzing dangerously close to Marcus' head, Ko-ko perched herself on Nikki's shoulder and began nuzzling herself against Nikki's head affectionately. "Aww, Ko-ko, how are you?" she asked.
"She's fine," replied the holographic Captain, her stride quickening as she walked towards Nikki. "Ensign, I've been hearing a lot of good things about you from Lieutenant Williams. Keep it up and a promotion might be in the works."
The holographic captain smiled. "Well, nothing is official until it's official. But you might say a little birdie told me that you're being seriously considered. Keep it on the down-low though."
"What promotion?" asked Nikki, rhetorically, winking at Alenis.
"Exactly." The holographic Captain Alenis looked over at Marcus and tilted her head. "Who's your friend, Nikki?"
"Oh, this is..." Nikki froze for a second, remembering that she was the only one who would recognize Marcus. Her holographic crew members all had their own holographic Marcus that they all knew and, if not loved, barely tolerated. "This is my friend Mark. He's from the Daystrom institute."
"Pleasure to meet you, Mark," said the captain, extending her hand. "Any friend of Ensign Nikki Barclay is good in my books."
"Charmed," Marcus -- or 'Mark' -- replied. "Would you excuse us?" He took Nikki by the elbow back a few steps as to talk with her in hushed tones -- not that he was worried about offending a group of holograms, but it seemed the social thing to do. "What the heck, Nikki? I was expecting some sort of lab simulation or recorded cybernetics conference. This is... I don't know what this is."
"They help me with my work," protested Nikki, as she pulled her arm out of Marcus' grasp. "Look, Marcus," she explained, her voice trembling slightly at Marcus' harsh tone, "sometimes I find that when I'm stuck working on something, having people there to bounce ideas off of can help improve my productivity. And since holograms are easier to get along with sometimes, and are available whenever I need them, I created a little program in the holodeck to help with that." She looked down at her feet, her right foot pivoting around the ball of her foot anxiously. "I just thought it might help you with your work..." she added, trailing off.
Marcus sighed. He softened the edge that he was previously speaking with. "Look, holograms are designed by the computer to be exactly what you want them to be. Or, in this case, need them to be. I don't like people, and I especially wouldn't like sickly-sweet versions of the same people." He looked back towards the holographic representations of the crew. "But, I guess I can't say this is completely weird. I've talked problems through with holographic versions of specialists before. Just... not real people that I would meet in the real world."
"Okay, well, let's try it," replied Nikki. She turned and looked towards the gathered senior officers of the Portland before her. "Hey folks, me and Mark need your help with something..."
"Oh?" asked Alenis. "Well, I was going to go to the holodeck, but I suppose we could get the gang together... what's your problem."
"Well..." started Nikki, before trailing off
Marcus sighed again. "I'm doing some cryptoanalysis of Borg communication channels, specifically with those that deal with command pathways. I'm researching ways to covertly insert and intercept transmissions in the Borg vinculum, except that I can't quite get the algorithms fast enough. Simulations have been inconclusive." He glanced at Nikki for confirmation at the level of detail he was supplying.
"Hmmmmm, it sounds like this would be right up Protein Cube's alley," replied the holographic Alenis. She pressed her comm badge. "Captain to Protein Cube..."
While the holographic captain tried to contact her chief of ops, Nikki froze. Her neck muscles tightened up and her hands started shaking. A loud, high-pitched squeal emitted from her mouth, as the realization that Marcus would be meeting his holographic self sent her hurtling towards another meltdown.
"Here I am!" Came the jocular response of a character already on the set. A blockish caricature of Marcus came bounding into the mess hall. Looking a cross between a 16-bit animation of Marcus himself crossed with bumps of pastel greens and blues common to textured protein supplements, faux-Marcus bounded over to the holographic Alenis. "How can I help, Captain? You know, I'm **always** eager to help!"
The real Marcus folded his arms across his chest and scowled. He said nothing. Strangely enough, he continued to watch the interaction.
"I... ummmmm... errrrr..." shaking, Nikki stammered out a random jumble of words. "Borg... neural transmitters... protein cubes... creative liberties... holodeck... Queen..." Taking more than a few deep breaths before continuing, she was able to form a semi-coherent sentence. "Mark," she said, motioning towards the real Marcus, "friend needs help. With Borg stuff. To save the galaxy."
"But of *course*!" Protein Cube bounded over, thrusting his hand out in an exaggerated way to be shook by Marcus. "Anything I can do to help a friend of Nikki's!" Stage-whispering to Nikki, Protein Cube said, "And he's kind of cute, too!"
"Computer," Marcus said, already turning to leave, leaving Protein Cube hanging to his dismay. "End program."
As her fantasy world disappeared around her, Nikki returned to her old self. "I'm sorry!" she exclaimed, grabbing Marcus by the hand and preventing him from leaving. "I made this program a long time ago... before I got to know you... I know I probably shouldn't have downloaded so many personnel files... I just needed something to help me focus... and someone to bounce ideas off of... people are so scary... please... I'm so sorry..."
Marcus didn't pull his hand away, although it was stiff in Nikki's hand, the touch sending an uncomfortable sensation up his arm and through his spine. His own anxiety was welling up, but his means of dealing with it wasn't Nikki's way. He dealt with it his way. "You know what's funny?" He said, not facing Nikki, still looking at the exit doors. "The reason why the Borg hate us so much? Because we're so bloody inferior, and yet we've managed to stymie them time and time again. We are fraught with useless emotions and dalliances that distract us from being productive and purposeful. And somehow, they still lose to us." He was starting to shake. "Maybe we won't win. Maybe we shouldn't win."
Nikki moved in closer and placed another hand on Marcus' shoulder. "I don't think we're inferior," she said quietly. She too had been fascinated by the Borg, both because of her difficulties interacting with other people and because of the tales of Uncle Reg. "Those 'useless emotions and dalliances' are our strength. They give us the drive to explore, to invent, to create. If not for those, we wouldn't have journeyed to the stars, not to mention all the glorious cultural achievements we've produced. Not to mention the fact that in every engagement we've had with the Borg, it was our creative abilities -- abilities which the Borg lack -- which turned the tide in our favour. The Borg don't think, they just assimilate knowledge. And if we were so inferior, they wouldn't bother sending cubes halfway across the galaxy to assimilate us."
"Besides, even an uptight protein-cube eating conformist enjoys a dalliance or two from time to time, right?" asked Nikki, leaning in closer.
Exhaling a hmph, Marcus peered down at Nikki. He didn't know whether to continue to be angry or not. But the closeness began to disarm him. "Resistance is futile, huh?" He said, turning to face her, trying not to smirk. It was pretty funny, in retrospect. "You're a jerk, by the way."
"And you're the biggest punctilious doofus I've ever met," replied Nikki, leaning forward and kissing Marcus on the cheek. "...Mr. Protein Cube."
Chief Operations Officer