Captain Janeway looked around the briefing room and continued pacing. T’Loran sat calmly with Vorik on her left and Torres on her right. The problem they had presented to the captain was a tricky one to unravel and T’Loran did not envy her the task. How did one negotiate with an emotion? Especially when that emotion was one of the most primal and necessary to long-term survival. For her part, T’Loran could see no easy way out of this conundrum. Their options seemed to be to leave one person permanently in stasis. However, that person would eventually age and die naturally even if Fear and the other members of his circus could restrain themselves from terrorizing their audience to a premature death. The next option would be to leave all of the current victims in stasis, return the units back to the planet, and leave. That option, while logical, had its own drawbacks. The third option was to figure out a way to revive the victims from stasis quickly enough that Fear would have no time to act and no foreknowledge of what was coming. Lastly, they could simply terminate the victim’s lives swiftly and painlessly. However, that would remain an option of last resort since it was not logical or ethical simply to kill sentient beings to make things easier for others. Finally, the captain stopped pacing and leaned over the conference table. Both palms were flat against the top of the table and she seemed to be staring down everyone seated around it. Next to T’Loran, B’Elanna shifted uncomfortably but met the captain’s gaze with her usual Klingon aplomb.
“Well, let’s start with the obvious question,” Janeway said briskly. “If they’re demanding to exist, can we find a way to let them exist in this artificial world of theirs?”
“Not unless you’re prepared to leave one person in stasis permanently,” Torres replied.
“I concur with Lieutenant Torres,” the EMH’s voice chimed in. The doctor, as usual, was attending via video-conference since he could not leave Sickbay. “The computer uses bio-neural feedback from the participant’s brains to create the environment.”
“Doctor,” Janeway said as she turned to address the video link, “is there a way to speed up resuscitation?”
“Only by a few minutes. Anything more, we’d be risking serious brain damage. Ten minutes would be about the best we could do.”
“Ten minutes and all the hostages could be killed,” Paris sighed.
“Then it seems to me,” Janeway said confidently, “our first order of business should be to reduce the number of hostages. All we have to do now is decide how to negotiate with an emotion. With a manifestation of Fear.”
“Fear is the most primitive, the most primordial of biological responses,” Tuvok said calmly. T’Loran and Vorik nodded in agreement of his assessment.
“The ability recognize danger, to fight it or run away from it,” Janeway mused, “that’s what fear gives us. But when fear holds you hostage, how do you make it let go?” That, T’Loran wondered privately, was a very good question. However, would it be possible to engage Fear without letting it take hold of you? She opened her mouth to speak but Neelix cut her off.
“Maybe we should try to make him laugh,” the Talaxian suggested. “A good joke just seems to make fear dissolve.” Blank stares met the self-proclaimed Morale Officer’s suggestion. “Well, it does in me, anyway,” he muttered.
“Captain,” T’Loran spoke up, “what about simply not responding to Fear? We could send in someone who would be immune to its effects. Or one of us,” she gestured between herself, Vorik, and Tuvok, “who have gained control over their emotions to the point where Fear cannot impact us.”
“There’s something to that,” Torres agreed. “T’Loran seemed to both excite him and make him angry. What was it he said to you? Something about you understood the trick?”
“Oh, that?” T’Loran replied. “I think he meant that I knew that the guillotine would not have any physical effect on my body. I also knew that it was the stark terror of the blade itself and the death that would follow that caused the others to die.”
“So, you mean that if a person could lay on that contraption calmly enough and have complete faith that the blade would have no effect on them, it wouldn’t work?” Janeway asked in surprise. This was an angle she had not considered. “If he put you in that device, you would have been able to get up and walk away from it?”
“I believe so,” T’Loran nodded. “I knew that the entire scenario was nothing more than a vivid dream. I knew it was nothing like the holodeck where, with the safeties removed, death could prove a true danger. He said that I was cheating,” she mused softly. “If he were to put me in the guillotine, then the others would see that it was their own fear, their own survival instinct and panic, that killed them.”
“Do you think you could return and negotiate for us?” Janeway asked suddenly.
“I’m willing to try,” T’Loran agreed.
“I do not believe that would be wise,” Vorik said before he could stop himself. He felt a small brush of panic when he realized he had spoken aloud. However, there was a logical reason that Fear would reject T’Loran as a negotiator. “Considering that this manifestation of fear knows he has no power over T’Loran but does have power over the others, if she were to return, he might kill all of his other captives in order to ensure that she could not escape. And, despite the fact that her training gives her considerable control over her emotions, eventually Fear and exhaustion would find a way to break her. It could happen to any of us,” he added for emphasis. “From what Ensign T’Loran and Lieutenant Torres described, Fear maintains a very intense, loud, and emotionally draining environment. It is chaotic, colorful, filled with incessant noise and music. The captives are never allowed suitable time to rest mentally from its onslaught. Over weeks and months, that would lead to a state of suggestibility even in the most highly-trained Vulcan to ever undergo Kohlinar.” When Tuvok nodded in agreement and gave him a look that said he had done well, Vorik relaxed slightly. He had been speaking truly, of course, but he had not told the entire truth. The entire truth included the fact that he did not think he would be able to remain calm and dispassionate if T’Loran found herself trapped in that environment for more than a few hours.
“I think we should come up with something a little more responsive to Fear’s demand, then,” the captain said with finality. “B’Elanna, maybe you can come up with a way to modify the system so it can run without bio-neural interaction?”
“I’m sorry but how do we negotiate without sending in another potential hostage?” Chakotay asked.
“Good question,” the captain sighed. “We have to come up with a safer method of communication.”
“Captain,” T’Loran said softly, “I have a few thoughts on that matter…”
“Well, let’s hear them,” Janeway said encouragingly. T’Loran shared a look with Torres and then began to lay out her plan.
Fear was nearly beside himself with joy. These Starfleets were interesting and so refreshing! Of course, dear Harry kept trying to come up with ways to escape but he’d stop that soon enough. Perhaps, Fear mused to himself, it was time to demonstrate just how complete his power over them was.
“Thinking about escape, are we, Harry?” Fear taunted. “Naughty, naughty. I don’t like those thoughts. We’re going to have to do something about them.”
“He’s new!” the woman seated next to Harry shouted. “He can’t help thinking about getting out!”
“He can!” Fear shouted right back. “You don’t think about it anymore. Oh, but he’s new and you’re old,” Fear mused. “New and old. Old and new. Well then, the answer is simply to make you old, Harry.” He waved his hand and Harry was instantly changed into an elderly man. “Are you afraid of growing old, Harry? Is that what you fear? Being cared for by nurses?” The other aspects of Fear took their place around the frail, elderly Harry Kim with caricatures of medicine and medical equipment. “You don’t like being helpless, do you, Harry?” Fear continued taunting him. “You like to take care of yourself. Yes, I know how you hate to feel like the baby on the crew.” Elderly Harry was suddenly replaced with an infant dressed in a Starfleet uniform. Fear picked the infant up from his crib and toyed with him. “Oh, what’s the matter, Harry? Does my costume frighten you? Oh, look at little Harry fly,” Fear laughed as he lightly tossed the infant up and down. Harry’s body might be infantilized but his mind was still very much aware of what was going on around him and angry at the changes Fear had forced on him. “All right, that’s enough,” Fear sighed as he set Harry down. Faster than an eyeblink, Harry was back to normal. Idly, Fear wondered if Harry would ever understand his world. That frosty T’Loran had. She had understood it too well. Fear had feared her — she could have easily unraveled all of his fun if she’d decided to stay!
“This is not reality,” Harry said with all of the conviction he could muster. Fear tasted it and found that it was not enough. Small seeds of doubt hung in it, keeping Harry from making the same realization that T’Loran had. “It’s an illusion.”
“When your only reality is an illusion, then illusion is reality,” Fear quipped.
“Like the man said,” Harry muttered with insufficient conviction, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Oh, I thought we were going to be friends,” Fear said with fake-grief. “I didn’t want to do this, Harry,” he lied. “No, I didn’t want to bring this up in front of the others but I know what really scares you. I know that when you were nine, your parents took you to that colony — the radiation disaster? — on a humanitarian mission. You visited a hospital, remember?”
“No,” Harry said hoarsely.
“You wandered off by yourself where you weren’t supposed to be,” Fear continued. Harry continued to chant his mantra about only fearing fear as the world around him changed at Fear’s command. “You saw people and things you weren’t supposed to see. Sick and dying. Keep repeating that,” Fear taunted. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The rest of his aspects picked up the mantra. “And how about ‘There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.’ Try clicking your heels together three times! Oh, but wait. You’re legs are restrained, aren’t they?” Fear laughed as Harry was strapped to an operating table. “Just like that little girl you saw on the operating table. The doctor called for a scalpel. She looked at you, her face filled with fear. Fear. Fear. Do you remember?”
“No!” Harry screamed as he writhed in his bonds. He wanted to get out of them, to get free, to keep the demented clown from cutting into him. “No!”
Just then, Fear felt something take his hand and pull it away from Harry. “Excuse me,” another Starfleet said. This one looked and felt different. He wore a blue uniform instead of yellow like the others. “You’re not holding that properly. Correct positioning of the index finger is necessary for optimal dexterity.” The Starfleet man in blue pulled the scalpel away from Fear and tossed it behind him.
“Who are you?” Fear demanded. This fellow must have just joined the system. Another few minutes and Fear would know everything about him.
“I’m Captain Janeway’s representative,” the man said coolly. “I’m here to negotiate with you. Are you well, Mr. Kim?” he asked Harry.
“Starting to feel better,” the ensign replied. Fear waited for the new one’s emotions and thoughts to register on the system. When they didn’t, he hissed.
“You’re different. I don’t know anything about you. You’re not on the system.”
“I would be pleased to tell you all about myself at a more appropriate time. For now, suffice it to say that I am here by a miracle of technology,” the man said pleasantly. “Now, let’s get down to the issues, shall we?”
“How am I supposed to negotiate if I don’t know what you’re thinking?” Fear demanded angrily.
“I have a very trustworthy face,” the man said calmly. “My captain is prepared to give you exactly what you asked for under the condition that you release all the hostages.”
“Release the hostages?” Fear said agahst.
“We would provide continuing input from a simulated brain. A computer model that would generate…”
“Simulated brain? Simulated?” Fear sputtered angrily.
“I, myself, have a comparable…” the man tried to explain.
“It won’t work!” Fear said adamantly. “It’s a lie. Tell him, Harry.”
“I don’t know that for sure,” Harry protested.
“Liar!” Fear growled. “Viosra, get over here! Tell him,” Fear ordered.
“It might require a recalibration of the optronic pathways…” the Kohl man named Viosra said carefully.
“Liar!” Fear roared. “After all this time, do you think I can’t tell when you lie?”
“The simulated brain…” the Starfleet in blue continued.
“Would leave me at your mercy,” Fear countered. “No! They stay.”
“The captain is prepared to risk the lives of the hostages rather than leave them under your control,” the man replied dryly.
“Who is she to tell me what I have to do?” Fear demanded.
“She’s the one with the off-switch in her hand.”
“She would never kill Harry,” Fear boasted.
“I’d rather die than spend my life in here with you. She knows that,” Harry retorted.
“I won’t let them go,” Fear said firmly.
“A compromise,” the man in blue argued. “Let some of them go.”
“We’ve studied your system. You only need one to survive.”
“And if that one gets sick and dies? No, I need them all. Now go away and tell your Captain Janeway that I’m disappointed. I expected more from her.
“If we could just…” the man said.
“Go away,” Fear ordered imperiously. The rest of his aspects picked up the chant.
“I’ll be back,” the man sighed as he left.
T’Loran sighed as they removed the body of one of the hostages from its bio-bed. Their attempt to use the EMH to keep Fear distracted while they disabled the program by taking down the optronic patheways had not been swift enough to work. Fear had begun killing his hostages, forcing them to stop their attempt immediately lest they lose all of them. Harry Kim, the woman, and the other man were still trapped in that hellish nightmare of a dreamscape and she wondered if there were any way to free them now.
She helped the others carry the corpse to Sickbay where the EMH could examine it further and see if there were any other alternatives they could try to keep the terror that Fear wielded from killing the rest of the hostages. The captain walked with them, muttering to herself about fear and its desires all the while. Once there, the EMH tried to console the captain.
“Your decision to capitulate saved the lives of the other hostages, Captain,” he said. “You should take some comfort in that.”
“I don’t,” Janeway said harshly. “Have I misjudged him somehow? Is there another way to reach him? Isn’t there more to fear than a simple demand to exist? Why do people enjoy dangerous sports or holodeck adventures with the safety off? Why, after all these centuries, do children still ride on roller coasters?” Something in the captain’s words sparked a thought in T’Loran’s mind.
“To seek fear,” she replied tonelessly, “is to see the boundaries of one’s sensory experience.”
“Yes, but what does fear seek at the end of the ride?” Janeway pressed.
“…to end,” T’Loran replied. “Fear seeks to end.”
“That’s it, then,” the captain nodded. “I know how to resolve this once and for all. Go down to the cargo bay and prepare one of the bio-beds for me. Doctor, you and I are going to help fear meet his end.”
Through a bit of ingenious and quick holo-programming, several modifications to the bio-bed, and the Captain’s strong will, they were able to trick Fear into releasing all of the hostages by making him think he had taken control of the captain. By the time the program realized his mistake, the others were free and the Captain was out of the bio-bed. Vorik, T’Loran, Lieutenant Torres, and Ensign Kim worked with the two Kohl survivors to take the system completely apart. Then, with that done, they sent the survivors back down to survey their planet and then decide what their next path would be.
Vorik sighed and stretched as he left the briefing room. It had been a long day. T’Loran fell into step next to him and the two had a quick telepathic conversation about whether they wanted to eat in the Mess Hall or if they wanted to just go straight to their respective quarters and rest. Knowing that he needed to discuss a pressing matter with T’Loran before he found himself called out for duty or overwhelmed with his own chemical imbalance, he suggested they head to the Mess Hall and find a dark, quiet corner where they could talk undisturbed. She nodded in agreement and they took the turbolift up.
“Did your parents on Vulcan attempt to arrange a marriage for you when you turned seven?” he asked softly once they were seated far from the others. T’Loran blinked in surprise but shook her head.
“They tried,” she explained, “but no other Vulcan family wanted to betroth their son to a human. Such mixed pairings are thought better left to those who are old enough and mature enough to choose them willingly. Also, my parents believed I might find a more…compatible mate…if I joined Starfleet.”
“I see,” Vorik sighed. “Then I would like to take this opportunity to declare koon-ut so’lik. Do you accept?”
“I accept,” she nodded. “I presume the time when your marriage would have taken place is quickly approaching and you believe that your intended has chosen another considering that she has sufficient reason to consider you lost?”
“Indeed,” he agreed. “I have studied the physiological differences between our biological races and believe that, with Lieutenant Tuvok’s assistance, we would be able to form the initial bond.”
“Then let us go speak with him once we have finished eating,” T’Loran replied.