"Incoming hail, Captain," said Worf.
"From whom?" asked Picard, turning his head to one side to address Worf at tactical behind him. Not for the first time he wondered whose bright idea it was, a captain's chair that didn't pivot.
"The origin of the signal is the planet Gamma Trianguli VI," said Worf.
"Gamma Trianguli VI?" Picard said. "Why does that sound familiar?"
"Gamma Trianguli VI," Data began expounding, already finished perusing Starfleet's entire file on the planet. "Under a class five Prime Directive quarantine since Stardate 3715.3 when first contacted by the Federation."
"'No subsequent contact unless contacted first'," Picard quoted. "Well, we're in the clear. They contacted us."
Riker snapped his fingers. "James T. Kirk's deus ex machina."
This pronouncement caused silence to descend onto the bridge, until Troi asked, "Which one?"
"The one on the paradise planet," Riker said.
There followed another short silence while everyone else correlated Kirk's dei ex machina with Kirk's paradise planets.
"Oh yes," Picard said finally, "the one he reactivated at the natives' request."
"After being ordered to learn their preference and act on it," Worf observed.
"He'd already offered before the order came through!" Kirk was one of Wesley's heroes.
"Chekov's memoirs suggest that Kirk didn't expect the natives to accept," Troi said.
Picard mused. "It would be a feather in our cap if we could bring them into the Federation, where Kirk failed, wouldn't it?"
"Their hail," said Data, "has now gone unanswered for seventy three seconds."
"Onscreen, Mr. Worf," Picard ordered.
The man who appeared on the main screen had fair, even white hair. Markings on his face may have been natural coloration or cosmetic. Behind each ear he had a small antenna that stuck straight out and then curved upwards, like a coathook. He was standing against a background of lush green vegetation. "I am Akuta, of the People of Vaal."
"I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise."
"Starship Enterprise?" Akuta repeated. "Is Kirk there?"
"Not," said Picard, nonplussed, "for some time. Can I help you?"
"I have a message from Vaal for the Federation," said Akuta.
"Vaal," said Data, "is the name of the supercomuter that rules the people and physical conditions of Gamma Trianguli VI. During the initial contact Vaal treated the Enterprise landing party and the Enterprise itself as hostiles, killing several crewmembers on the planet and attempting to cause the Enterprise to crash on the planet's surface. The contact reports use the anology of antibodies protecting a life form from a foreign substance -"
"Data," Picard cut him off. He said to Akuta, "What is Vaal's message?"
"Vaal wishes to join the Federation," said Akuta.
"But I am the eyes and ears of Vaal," objected Akuta.
On diplomatic grounds Picard had overriden Riker's predictable if sincere objections to the captain's leading the Away Team, which consisted of Picard, Data, Troi and Worf. They met, inside the dragon's-mouth-carven cave where Vaal was housed, with Akuta and the other three dozen or so People of Vaal who were the entire sentient population of the planet. Data, comparing the present group with visual files from the previous contact mission, confirmed that they were all the same unaging individuals now as then.
"I am a constructed being, like Vaal," Data answered Akuta's objection. "I can interface with Vaal more efficiently than an organic being, assuming Vaal permits it."
"You did say Vaal is in something of a hurry," Picard reminded Akuta.
"Vaal agrees," said Akuta almost immediately, though he appeared to still have reservations. For that instant he reminded Picard of Riker.
"Will you be able to do it safely, Data?" Picard asked.
"I have a complete schematic and full operational notes on Vaal from the previous contact report," said Data. As if to substantiate his claim he moved to an area of the cave no different to Picard's eye than any other and swung it down on a hinge to reveal a service console.
"All that, from one contact mission?"
"Spock did spend nearly an hour on his investigations."
"Proceed," Picard nodded, and Data went to work at the console. Nevertheless Picard asked Troi, "Do you sense any hostility from Akuta, anything that could indicate that Vaal has set some sort of trap for us?"
"No," said Troi. "Akuta is as confused by Vaal's behavior as we are, and understandably concerned and upset as well. If Vaal has any emnity toward us Akuta isn't aware of it."
"Which would not be inconsistent with Vaal's M.O. as we know it," Worf insisted. "We must keep our guard up."
Data turned from the console. "I am ready to initiate subspace interface, Captain."
Worf drew his phaser and trained it on Data. Just as a precaution of course.
"Go ahead," said Picard.
Data blinked. Without moving - in fact, because of a sudden rigidity - his body made it obvious that it was now host to some other entity. "I am Vaal," he said.
"I am Captain Picard," said Picard.
"I wish to join the United Federation of Planets immediately," said Data/Vaal in an inflectionless monotone.
"First of all," said Picard, "the ratification process does take some time. At present, however, Gamma Trianguli VI is not eligible for membership because your autocratic rule of its people is inconsistent with the Federation's standards and values."
"What Vaal wants must be right for us," one of the People of Vaal volunteered.
"You are saying I cannot join," Data/Vaal said.
"You alone cannot. You're not the whole planet." Picard paused for effect. "I propose a probationary period of friendly relations between you and us, during which you would be required to reform your rule and educate your people so that they are informed enough to participate in it. Or not; as they wish - beyond certain basics your internal affairs are your own concern. But only when you can request membership as a true representative of your entire people will the request be considered."
The unconditional agreement startled Picard. "Akuta spoke earlier of negotiations. What did you wish to negotiate?"
"There are considerations I must have," said Data/Vaal.
Not I ask, not I wish; "I must have" - not a threat, a mere statement of fact. Why? And what happens otherwise? "And they are?" Picard asked.
"In the long term, technological training for my people. In the short term, replacement parts and immediate maintenance assistance," said Data/Vaal, just as the service console exploded in a shower of sparks and went dead, and Data came back to himself with a shudder.
"Vaal may be a passionless autocrat," said LaForge, Picard and Riker looking with him at the workings in an access corridor behind the cave wall, "but he's smart enough to call for help when he needs it. Near thing though; he's lucky we didn't take any longer to get here."
"What do you think?" Riker asked.
LaForge nodded. "I can fix that."
"Make it so." Picard and Riker made their way back out to and through the cave, there passing through the People of Vaal who milled about like an Earth person while the plumber was in the house.
Once outside in the sun and the green Picard said, "Well, perhaps Vaal and his people have finally learned the concept that the Federation is founded on."
"And its relation to enlightened self-interest," Riker grinned.
"I can't win," said Picard.
[There's a T*R*E*K version of Half A Worm too.]
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