"The Name of the Game"
a Data story by Pat Richoux

Time is before "Descent". Data and Riker are in personal conversation in Riker's quarters. Data was perplexed by a card game he had watched in the children's lounge.

"....In this apparently simple pastime the object was not to collect the most cards, but to discard them quickly. To do so, the young players were permitted to prevaricate."
"Prevaricate? Oh-- I Doubt It."
"As did I. But I observed closely for thirty-two minutes and that is what occurred. They told lies."
Riker smiled. "'I Doubt It' is the name of the game, and it's old. Kids have played it for hundreds of years, probably."
"I fail to understand the value of a game based on falsehood."
"Don't you play poker?"
"You know that I do. You taught me."
"Is bluffing falsehood?"
"In poker, concealing your strength or weakness is sound strategy. But in this so-called children's game, young people are encouraged to lay down twos and call them sevens. I ask you, what lesson is taught?"
Riker shrugged. "Things are seldom what they seem."
Data, who thought he had mastered rhetorical questions, flicked an up-eyebrow at this unexpected answer. Then the supporting references came promptly. "'Skim milk masquerades...all that glitters.' Do not believe everything that you hear. Question it, doubt it. Ah! It is not instruction in fooling others, but for suspicion when others are fooling you. Diplomatic skills are involved."
"There you go. Care for a taste of diplomacy?"
"I believe not. It might...contradict my programming."
"Oh, come on, a kids' game. The rules allow faking, the players expect it. You wouldn't blow a circuit, you'd have fun." "Must I remind you that I am unable to--"
"Like hell you're unable to. Fun or probability, you certainly get a kick out of poker."
Data grasped at the new idiom. "'Kick out' as to eject or expel?"
"Listen up, Pinoke. I said 'you get a kick out of poker.' A charge, a thrill during the pursuit of happiness. Kick-out-of, not kick-off,-back or -in."
"Or kick the bucket? I lack the connection between buckets and death. Would you mind explaining--"
"Hell's bells and buckets of blood!" Riker exploded, "and don't ask me to explain that either. Yes, I would mind. Do your own research. Look them both up."
Data rose from his chair. "I beg your pardon, Commander. You have been more than patient with my foolish questions. I will not impose further upon--"
Riker looked at him narrowly. "Sit down, Uriah Heep. Cool it."
"Sir?"
"The 'umble worm apology routine. With practice you'd pass for a first-year Academy cadet. Now will you --with all respect-- sit down!"
"Sir, yessir." Data squared the chair with precise motions and seated himself stiffly erect, heels together, taking care not to jog the table.
"That's enough, damn it, you almost saluted. From anybody else, all that sickening humility would be flat-out sarcasm. Can't you relax? I'll let it go if you will."
Good, Data thought, that game is finished and I believe the score is nearly even. He eased his formal stiffness and resumed the neutral expression that Will called his default face. "Sarcasm: a form of irony: To say one thing while meaning another. To me that behavior suggests more falsehood."
"It's just reverse exaggeration. You know, like saying 'Oh, thanks, that's a big help," to mean just the opposite, no help at all. But I would say it for emphasis, not intending to mislead you. Follow me?"
"Yes. When the words confuse me, your tone of voice explains much. Those bells and buckets seem quite clear now, thank you."
Riker gave him a baffled look. "You're incredible. I snap at you and you thank me--and I really think you mean it. You couldn't be sarcastic on a bet."
"You think not? I hoped you might teach me how."
"Heaven forfend. That's all we need around here, a sarcastic android. No, I'm sorry, that was ironic too. I meant-- I meant leave well enough alone. Be yourself."
"I cannot be otherwise. I am an android. No amount of sarcasm would alter that condition. I can theoretically discuss slang and irony and buckets of blood until I turn blue in the face--" Just too late he caught the incongruity, as Will turned aside fast to hide a smile. Since the damage was done, he might as well be first to report it. "So much for colloquial Galactic-English. Would blue be an improvement?"
"I - doubt it," Will managed to say before he cracked up laughing. Data tried on the tight smile that seemed to fit the situation. He had practiced before a mirror from time to time, but it always felt stiff and looked foolish. Will was laughing helplessly, his forehead pressed down against one arm as he slapped his free hand on the tabletop. Data thought-- his reaction is overdone. Must we begin a new game?
Will straightened up at last and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. So tears of laughter were a real phenomenon, then, not a mere figure of speech. Something warned him not to comment. To hang out with Will Riker was bewildering but educational. Little by little he learned when to keep his mouth shut.
"Blue? Green?" Will said thoughtfully. "Puce?" and choked again. "No improvement. Leave it alone. The date will go down in Starfleet history as Blue-in-the-Face Day. 'Captain's log, stardate 43342.7: We are leaving the Hocus-pocus Nebula where Lt Commander Data cracked his first intentional joke--'"
"Accidental, and one which you must not repeat, least of all to the Captain."
"But he'll love it."
"It was an ill-advised metaphor spoken in private, and I really would prefer--"
"Okay, okay. Between us. But when you become a great stand-up metaphorian I'll manage you for twenty percent, right?"
"You will starve. It was only a fluke, a...flash in the pan."
"Pans, buckets--You're cooking now, Pinoke. I'm proud of you."
"Thank you...sir." Even to his own ears, his words sounded wooden--which could count as another accidental joke if anyone were keeping score. But this game was going wrong. Will's private nickname for him had always held sympathetic understanding. Now he heard a new sharp edge. Sarcastic? The exaggerated reverse of "I'm proud of you" must be "I am disappointed in you; you are less entertaining than I expected. Go away, kid, you bore me."

--but Im trying honest Im trying to measure up tell me what Im doing wrong if I knew what pleases you I would try harder--

What? Where did that melodramatic thought originate? Surely not from me. If Counselor Troi heard it she would laugh too. Even she cannot read emotions when none exist. How could I feel such...
"I'm" trying?
Data thought very carefully. I do not feel emotions, but there is someone else in this room who does. Someone who uses contractions. Wesley? No, much younger than Wes, twelve or thirteen. Betrayed and frightened...a youth, a child...
This is impossible. If Will thinks sarcasm is difficult, let him try to deal with a schizoid android. Heaven forfend indeed. When Lore caused trouble he at least used his own body to do it--and to leave with afterward. Wherever Lore may have gone, we are well rid of him.
But this child...?
This child will be all right where it is.
Somehow he knew instinctively there was no problem of evil now. The visitor only wanted a safe place to...hide? be protected? feel at home? grow up? Where? Not inside my head, Data thought; my head is tight-packed circuitry. Down, lower, inside the chest where a heart ought to be. There is plenty of room. I would welcome a companion...
"Hey, wake up," Will said. "If you've run out of witty remarks, we might as well adjourn."
"As you wish, Commander."
"That sounded pretty far off. Are you feeling blue about your joke? I said I won't spread it around."

--you will though all your promises stink--

And which of us did that come from? Though it may be true, I would not have said it. So this... person ...child?...boy?...Yes, an adolescent boy whose voice breaks a little as Wesley's did when he was stressed or anxious. The boy talks to Will, but Will does not hear him. Yet I do, and I am not telepathic. Perhaps he wants to speak through me. If I were to tell Will-- No. I cannot do that. Then there would be three troubled people in this room.
But he is hurt. The boy's spirit is badly hurt and afraid of being hurt worse yet...
"...Data? Are you tuned in at all? If you have better things to do, go do them. It won't bother me; I have plans for the evening myself...

--you are full of shifty plans--

A previous engagement, nothing that would interest you." "You are quite correct." Data rose from his chair again, this time pretending no more respect than he felt...which was, at the moment, very little indeed. Will handled his personal affairs with great tactile enthusiasm and expected back-up support. "Good hunting, Commander."
Will blinked, then smiled. "Thanks. Data, are you...all right?"
"All right?"
"You sound-- well, maybe not blue, but sort of preoccupied."
"One might say that," Data said absently. When the literal meaning sank in, it was his turn to blink. Preoccupied? Yes, one might very well say that, but he would not. A disquieting thought.
"Is there something you want to talk about?"

--why should I you never listen--

"No, thank you."
"You sure? I've got time, my other date can wait."

--she might but you cant you dont wait for anything you want--

"I think I must deal with this...alone. Good night, Commander."
"If I can help, let me know." On their way to the door, Will gave him a light parting slap on the sleeve. Physically it meant nothing but the message was clear. You're my friend; I'm worried because you are worried. Perhaps he meant it--at the moment. Will could shift at warp speed from mockery to concern. He could slash through an arm with one cruel stroke, tenderly apply the bandages, then blab the tale all over the ship without turning a hair. No wonder his love affairs never lasted long. He was charming when he chose to be, but not the person to entrust with a secret.
What should he do? The first answer was obvious. In his personal quarters Data performed a Level Four Self-Diagnostic with more than usual care, giving it a full twenty seconds. He hoped he would find a simple malfunction in his brain circuitry, something that might produce out-or-range reception or auditory illusions. Nothing. His hearing, like all the other communication senses, was depressingly perfect.
He would need outside help, But whom could he trust? Geordi, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi? They would offer a dozen specialized answers, each more far-fetched than the last. Nervous breakdown, hallucination, demonic possession.
Ridiculous. Those problems were human, not mechanical.
If one substituted "alien life form" for "demon", what then? He had seen it happen to others and experienced it twice himself; a sudden mind and personality takeover, terrifying but temporary, leaving no ill-effects. But what had just now occurred was not a loss of identity. He simply knew that someone else had joined him, someone vulnerable who needed a safe place.

--where are you can you hear me--

He cannot hear you but I can. Could you talk to me instead?
Incredible. He was no longer just 'hearing voices.' Now he answered them.

--dont leave me alone Its dark in here Im scared--

Could it be the first stirring of his long-promised humanity, growing like an embryo inside him, machinery turning to flesh and blood? Inside his chest was the right place. He had a perfect brain.
Now he needed guts and a heart.

[End]

ŠPAT RICHOUX 2000