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"Can't say I have."
"Don't worry about it. Hardly anybody has."
"Real nice. But don't get me started. I'll get all mush-mouthed and teary-eyed."
A shrug, a laugh. "Okay, then, I won't."
"What about you? Where are you from?"
"Anywhere and everywhere. My dad was a career diplomat for the Federation-while he was alive, that is. We traveled around a lot when I was a kid-Beta Sargonus, Gamma Trilesias, half a dozen starbases. Like that."
"Wow. Must have been incredible."
"Sure, incredible. Hey, listen, Will, do me a favor? If I even think of going into the diplomatic corps-I mean, if I wake up one morning and mumble something about wanting to be an amba.s.sador-I want you to strangle me. Don't ask any questions. Just do it-okay?"
Now it was Will's turn to laugh. "Maybe after I know you a little better. I don't like to strangle people I hardly know. But tell me, just what is it about diplomacy that turns you off so much?"
Teller looked at him. "Ever meet an amba.s.sador? One who's been at it for a while?"
"I don't believe so, no. We don't get too many of them in Valdez; the Federation pretty much overlooks Alaska when it comes to diplomatic envoys."
"Trust me-if you b.u.mped into one, you wouldn't like him. They're chameleons, Will-faint imitations of whatever race they've been kowtowing to most recently. Empty beakers: you pour out one alien culture and pour in another. And whatever was them-the unique commingling of needs and desires that set out to be an amba.s.sador in the first place-is gone somehow. Evaporated."
Silence. "Well, Teller, don't beat around the bush. If you don't want to be a diplomat, just say so."
"I'm saying so. And I'm not kidding about the strangling stuff."
"So now you're wondering what I'm doing at the Academy. I mean, if I don't want to get involved with alien cultures, why Starfleet?"
"I hadn't gotten quite that far. But okay-why Starfleet?"
"Because we touch things when they're new-when they're bright and s.h.i.+ny and they've never been touched before. And then we leave them to the bureaucrats. That's what life is all about, Will-getting in and getting out. Stealing a taste and putting the rest back. Take too big a bite out of anything-person or place-and it ends up taking a bigger bite out of you."
"Hmm. Dorm-room philosophy."
"Get used to it, Will. I'm chock full of such stuff."
"Hey, speaking of bites-it's almost chow time."
"Right you are. Say, how's your sharash-di?"
"It could be better, I suppose. Why?"
"There's this redhead that I got friendly with on the way from Delta Ganymede. She's some sort of expert at sharash-di, and she wanted to know if I played-which I don't. But ..."
"But if I play her-say, after dinner-it'll give you a chance to get to know her better."
"Something like that."
He chuckled. "Fine-on one condition. Just don't laugh when she whips me."
"Absolutely not, Will. Absolutely not. Well, maybe a little."
"Come in," said Riker.
As the doors parted with a shussh, Data entered the first officer's quarters. He found Riker sitting in the center of the room, elbows resting on his knees, leaning over the low wooden table he was reputed to have made with his own hands. In the center of the table's glossy amber-colored surface there was a simple stoppered vase made of some gray-blue ceramic material. Riker seemed to be studying the vase, as if it held some special significance for him.
"Commander?" The android spoke softly, not wis.h.i.+ng to interrupt.
The human looked up at him. "Sorry, Data. I didn't mean to ignore you." He indicated the vase with a glance. "My friend's ashes. In his will, he requested that they be returned to Beta Sargonus Four. That's where he was born." Riker smiled to himself. "There's a mountain pool there-a place where young women like to go skinny-dipping. Sort of a tradition, I guess-no men allowed." He shook his head. "Teller asked that his ashes be scattered in the pool. That, apparently, was his idea of paradise."
The first officer stopped, noting Data's puzzlement. "You know what paradise is, don't you?"
The android nodded. "Paradise, yes. It is the term 'skinny-dipping' that I cannot seem to find a meaning for."
"Ah," said Data. "I see." And he did, for the most part, though he did not quite understand why swimming naked should be such a thrill.
Riker picked up the vase, rose, and placed it on a shelf built into the bulkhead. It sat next to a book called Baseball Compendium. Smiling again, be considered the vase.
"It's not going to be easy to get near that pool," he said, "much less dump Teller's remains in it." His expression became positively mischievous. "But I'm going to give it my best shot. After all, what are friends for?"
"Indeed," said the android.
The first officer gestured to the chair that stood opposite his. "Care to sit down?"
"Thank you," said Data. He sat. So did Riker.
"Now," he said, "enough of my friend's bizarre wishes. Unless I miss my guess, you're here to talk about that baseball game."
"That is true," said the android.
The human leaned back in his chair. "So? What did you think?"
Data regarded him. "I found it most intriguing," he said.
Riker looked a little disappointed. "I sort of hoped you would say you'd enjoyed it."
The android thought about it. "I suppose I did," he concluded, "to the extent that I am capable of such a response." A particular thought intruded and he brightened. "Especially one part."
"What part was that?"
"The part where I won the game."
Riker's eyebrows shot up. "You won the game?"
The android nodded. "Yes."
"That is unlikely," Data reminded him.
"Yes. Of course it is." Riker looked at him askance. "But how did you do it?"
"I hit a home run," said the android. "In the bottom of the ninth inning."
The human stared at him with undisguised admiration. "Why, Data-that's great! That's the kind of thing little boys used to dream about!"
"Yes," said the android. "Wesley has informed me of that fact."
Riker grinned. "You're full of surprises-you know that?"
Data didn't quite know what to say. And he still hadn't asked the question that had been bothering him.
Fortunately Riker picked that up. "You're wondering about something, aren't you? What is it?"
The android paused to collect his thoughts. "It appeared from your choice of persona that you identified with the Icebreakers. And with Bobo in particular."
"That's true," said the first officer. "The Icebreakers were the only Alaskan team in major league baseball. In fact, one of the few Alaskan teams in any professional sport." He shrugged. "When they made their run for the American League pennant, they made a fan of every Alaskan alive." He paused. "Of course, I was born hundreds of years after the last of those men had died. But when I read about them as a youngster, they struck a chord in me. They were my heroes. Particularly Bobo-I don't know why, exactly. Maybe because he was still a kid when they disbanded the Icebreakers-and since I was a kid, too, he was the easiest for me to identify with."
"But given your affinity for the Icebreakers," said Data, "why would you wish to experience their most crus.h.i.+ng defeat?"
Riker looked at him. "That's simple, Data. When they lost that playoff game by a single run, it cast a pall over the state for years to come. It always seemed to me that it was some kind of injustice, and I wished I could do something about it. Or at least try. I guess it was an exercise in"-he seemed to search for a phrase, and find it-"in the art of the possible. In short, a challenge. Humans thrive on them, you know."
"A challenge," repeated the android. He found yet another source of discomfort. "Then ... did I ruin the program for you? By finding a way to beat the Sunsets?" Riker shook his head. "Not at all. I'll just have to find a different way."
He would, too. Data could tell by the set of his jaw. Somehow Riker would give the Icebreakers a reason to celebrate again.
"If I may be present," said the android, "I would like to see that."
The first officer laughed. Reaching across the table, he clapped Data on the shoulder. "That's a promise, my friend. And from now on, Will Riker keeps all his promises."