When the probe shuts down, Kataan is gone. Kamin is gone. For a moment, he's no one at all.
Then, once again, he's Picard.
It's late when the first officer comes by to report. Riker, Picard reminds himself as the cabin doors slide apart by themselves. Will Riker. Riker runs a weekly officer's poker night. He's from Earth – Alaska. Before the Enterprise, he served on the Hood. He plays an instrument; Picard can't remember which one.
"We were able to open the probe and examine it." Riker's words conjure up a mental picture of the cargo bay. Data and La Forge would have been there. Picard can easily remember the shape of the probe, both from the viewscreen and from Eline's favorite necklace. "Whatever locked on to you must have been self-terminating. It isn't functioning anymore."
Picard already knows the culture that sent it is a thousand years gone. Batai said the probe was sent to find someone to carry a record of their world into the future. Apparently it was only meant to tell its story once, making Picard the only surviving witness.
The trombone, he remembers. Riker plays jazz trombone.
Riker gives him a flute – the only object found inside the probe.
When he picks it up, it's his wife and his children and everyone he loved, but it's also just metal – just as much a dead relic as the probe itself. It feels strange to have tangible evidence of his other life here in this one, because he spent decades in the Ressik community with nothing of the Enterprise except his memories.
Picard brings the flute to his lips and plays it as well – or as poorly – as ever.
Doctor Crusher ordered him to rest for a full 24 hours before returning to duty to allow the neurotransmitter levels in his brain to return to normal, so he rests. She looked surprised when he didn't put up a fight, but he didn't have it in him – it was too strange seeing her again, no older than he remembered her.
His quarters are dark when he wakes, artificial lighting dimmed to nighttime settings. It feels sterile – the perfectly smooth Starfleet sheets, the air recycling system so advanced that there's no discernible breeze.
In Ressik, the sun was dangerously bright and the wind was dry. He could somehow still smell Eline in their bedroom, five years after her death.
Picard's quarters on the Enterprise have always been empty, because the stars outside the window were all the company he needed.
It's coming back to him: if not the details of their current mission, at least the weight of command. He's not sure it ever entirely left him. He was the same man in Ressik as he is here, just with a different name.
Picard reads every officer's log and status report for the past month to try and make the present feel less like it happened thirty-five years ago.
He asks Data to join him in the ready room. Picard knows Troi is hovering on the bridge, waiting for her turn. She'll get it, too; he might dislike the process, but his crew deserves a captain functioning at peak mental condition.
That said, there are things more important than his mental state. "Doctor Crusher has cleared me for full duty," he assures him, as if Data is someone who needs to be put at ease, "and my memories are intact, but I still feel it wise that I be thoroughly briefed."
Data nods. His movements are as crisp as ever. "Certainly, sir. Is there a particular area of information with which you would like me to begin?"
In the early days when Eline encouraged him to talk about his fever-dream of a life in space, she was the most fascinated by stories about Data. In her world, technology was mostly limited to household conveniences, and the idea of a mechanical man was wondrous. It's remarkable, she said, that your mind could have dreamed such a thing.
Picard doesn't have time to remember those things, not when there's so much to remember here, but it's hard to close the door on it entirely. He's out of practice with the strict mental discipline required of a captain. For more than thirty years, his work and home life mingled seamlessly, with children playing at his feet while he reinvented archaic science.
"Let's start with ship's status and operations," he says.
Beverly shows up at his door at 1900 wearing a blue dress. She's understanding when he tells her he forgot they had plans to attend the monthly Earth Classical concert together.
"How are you?" she asks. "Any headaches? Dizziness?"
"I'm fine. We'll be late."
She raises an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't like Shostakovich."
He vaguely remembers that when she invited him, he'd suggested he might prefer to only attend the second half of the program.
"Maybe my feelings will have changed."
As they walk, he steers her toward another topic. "Have you heard anything from Wesley?" He remembers Beverly's son well – bright, creative, as kind and dedicated as his father Jack.
"Yes, finally." Her expression is fond, even as she rolls her eyes. "I'm getting all my come-uppance for ignoring my grandmother the same way when I was at the Academy."
Kamin was lucky, Picard thinks, that Meribor never moved far from home. Batai traveled north after his mother died and spent a year apprenticing with musicians in Lirat. The suddenly empty house was-
Not that it mattered.
As it turns out, he still doesn't like Shostakovich. The string quartet is too frenetic, though he admires how expertly it's performed.
His musician son, if he were alive, would have enjoyed this.
"I wonder if they were real people."
"Does it matter?" Troi's eyes seem darker when they're focused on him. "They were real to you."
His children. His friends. His wife. If they were never more alive than holodeck characters, if they were merely generic citizens programmed by some long-dead Kataanan, everything he felt for them seems like a waste of time.
He'd rather they were real a thousand years ago, wife and children to some other Kamin. Then, at least, they lived.
He would know nothing about that man, though, could only hope he treated them at least as well. Thinking about a stranger raising his voice or his hand to Eline makes it hard to breathe.
He remembers Deanna's watchful Betazoid eyes and tries to feel less.
"It matters," he says.
There's no way he'll ever know.
He's dreaming of Eline. She's young, like she was when he first met her and at that last moment at the launch when the façade was stripped away.
She was so beautiful, and she waited so long with him giving her so little. He wasted so much of their time together. Of everything about her, he loved her patience best; she had a remarkable depth of calm in all circumstances. Her voice was his pole star in the unfamiliar landscape.
She called him Kamin and made it sound like his name.
Tears sting his eyes and he remembers that he's Picard. The woman he's missing probably never existed.
Eline was already dead. As Kamin, he took comfort in the way Batai had so much of Eline's kindness and how Meribor sounded just like her when she laughed. He held his grandson, his namesake, and it filled some of the space in his heart. He made the same stews he always made, but they never tasted right without Eline there to share them.
Picard rarely thinks of the universe as unfair. Everything – Starship propulsion, the death of the Kataan sun – is directed by natural laws that don't favor one soul over another.
It feels wrong, though, to ask a man to mourn his wife twice.
It would be best, for his sanity as a captain, if he forgot the Ressik community's way of life entirely, but he has a scientific duty to report everything he can about the alien culture he witnessed. Beyond that, he promised Eline and his friend Batai, who tasked him a teacher. Their world lives only in him now, and there are others in the Federation better able to make use of this information.
Lieutenant Morgan has been the Enterprise's anthropology and archaeology officer for two years, but Picard forgot her entirely until he saw her name on the personnel roster. He isn't a novice himself when it comes to archaeology. In his Academy studies with Professor Galen, he saw skilled scientists extrapolate an entire civilization from a ceramic bowl.
With this civilization, though, he knows too much. Good officers must be able to distill whole cultures into bullet points for Starfleet reports, but he worries the essence of Ressik – that small piece of Kataan where he lived – will be lost.
"I suggest we do this in sections," Morgan says. "We'll start with the political structure to create a context, and we'll work in toward daily life."
She has a topographical map taken by a Federation probe. The planet is dry and lifeless, but after a moment he recognizes the gross outlines of the elevated land masses. When Meribor was learning geography in school, she sketched all the continents out in the dry dirt outside their home and then taught her younger brother to "play explorer" by leaping from one continent to the next.
"The Ressik community was here," he points. The map centers on it and renders a closer image, but with a thousand years of wind erosion, Picard can't find any of the geographic landmarks he encountered when he explored the countryside.
He tells Morgan about the political structure and tries not to think of his people under a thousand years of sand.
"What kind of jam did you say this was again?"
"Takas," Beverly repeats. "It's a Vulcan fruit."
Picard takes another bite. "Interesting. They had something very much like this in Ressik." They, not we. He's getting better at that.
Beverly tops off their cups of tea. "Oh?"
"It makes sense to have similar plant life develop in desert conditions on disparate worlds, but I'm surprised the tastes are so similar."
His breakfast companion smiles. "I've often wondered about that myself. Have you ever tried Betazoid dew berries? If they weren't bright yellow, you would swear you're eating strawberries. The structures of the plants are wildly different. The strangest part is that to Betazoids, the two berries taste nothing alike."
"I've heard of something like that," he says, and then they're discussing comparative alien sensory depth and it feels easy, like he didn't take a thirty-five year break from having breakfasts with her.
It almost feels normal.
His report on the scientific data regarding Kataan's environmental decline is the easiest to write, because he spent so much of his life there cataloging it. The readings took decades to assemble, but he can recreate the charts now in just minutes. It feels strange to enter these numbers into a computer instead of writing them out by hand.
Up here, the data is detached from the fertile fields turned bone dry and the water rationing and how long their civilization had left. There are no people to worry about anymore, only information that might expand Federation knowledge about what happens to M-class planets when their stars go nova.
Meribor deserved the chance to do science on that grand a scale, Picard thinks. He smiles when he remembers how she'd wake him from sleep before dawn so they could gather samples before the day grew too hot and the way she'd pore over her detailed notes afterwards.
He could picture her here, on the Enterprise, if such a thing were possible. There are so many remarkable places he'd take her. Meribor would have flourished among the stars.
He returns to his report, grateful for all the effort his erstwhile daughter put in to help him gather this information. It gave her joy, discovering her world with her eyes and her hands and her mind, even though the conclusions were dire.
That, at least, is something Picard gave her.
Picard usually avoids the schoolroom section of the Enterprise, but he has an hour before the officers' briefing and something draws him there. He finds himself watching through the window at the primary class, some part of him waiting to see a tow-headed boy who isn't there.
He still thinks having children on a starship is dangerous, but with his new perspective, he understands why their parents don't want to have this adventure without them.
"Captain." He's not surprised to hear Deanna's voice; her duties bring her to all the family decks.
"Just looking," he says.
He lets her question hang there. Beyond the glass, a little girl is reading to a younger boy, pointing each word out as she goes. He doubts either of them spends much time thinking of Romulan warships or Cardassian borders or how vulnerable they are with only the Enterprise between them and all the dangers and wonders of space.
That's Picard's job.
He got used to the Ressikan cloth and straw hats, but this uniform was always here, in the back of his mind.
"Let's return to the Bridge."
She smiles. "Yes, sir."
Picard falls into step beside her.