[recap: Three strangers-- writer, photographer, publicist-- rescued Brent from a charity benefit and charmed him with free drinks and talk of movie remake roles--circus agent? Music Man? In his Paramount trailer at midnight they outfitted him in Fifth Ave finery--paisley vest, top-hat and tails.
        "What time is the parade? Or, uh, wedding?"]

      The girl--whoever she was; he felt sure they had been introduced-- the girl gave him a long thoughtful up-and-down stare, the look of "What merchandise have they delivered us? Any rotten apples in this barrel?" She wore the same dark top and short skirt as before. He seemed to be the only one going formal. But he was the actor and she was the agent, not a performer nor a bride and certainly not an overwrought Trekkie in spandex. When she asked him to sign his name it would be on a binding contract, not a souvenir program.
        Better or worse. Her name? Lore, no, Loree McSomething.
        She rotated her upraised forefinger; he turned carefully. Maybe she knew he couldn't do quick twirls even when cold sober. It had been the Fourth Season joke--Data can dance but Spiner doesn't spin.
        She removed his glasses, rumpled his hair, reset the hat with a more rakish leftward tilt and turned toward Jon. "Can we leave the collar open and the tie loose? It's a nice casual flair."
        Jon made a framing gesture. "Nonconformist. Impudent. Saucy."
        "Hey," Brent said. He was not directing this scene; events were just flowing along. He could go with the flow, or make waves, or drown. His mouth felt dry again but one more drink could put him flat on the floor. He cleared his throat. "Will I do?"
        "A touch of the arcane," Jon said past him to Loree. "Such flamboyant frippery amid incongruous surroundings. Questions with no obvious answers, only the aura of..."
        What the hell was flippery? He cleared his throat again and nudged up the volume. "Will I do?"
        Jon finally seemed to realize the dummy could talk. "Do what?"
        He was Brent in Wonderland with conundrums and artistic gibberish. Although costumed for the Hatter he felt like the Dormouse dozing with his head in the teapot. "Exactly my question. What do I do?"
        But Jon was adrift in the clouds. Loree seemed to expect a decision. Hank had been roaming the trailer with restless curiosity, glancing at pictures, flipping through book pages, definitely making himself at home. Now he looked up.
        "You have a problem, Mister Spider?"
        Spiner, you jackass, Brent said barely under his breath. I never heard of you either. "Listen, it's been a full day. I don't argue nonconformist applesauce with arcade artists. Tell me the bottom line now or call my business agent next month."
        "If you skip the theatrics and cooperate we'll all be home before morning."
        He gave them Mr Pickett's drama-class move for barely suppressed irritation, shoulders flicked up and hands slapped down against thighs with a quick puff of breath out, the wordless message 'Don't push me once more, you'll be sorry.'
        Loree caught it with a clear touch of alarm. "We're ready, Brent. The outfit reflects your character concept perfectly."
        "Which character? Who in hell am I?"
        "The advance man, B.D. Bismark."
        "Yes, Bixby, the fast-talking liar. I couldn't find a circus poster and you'll have to imagine your horse offstage, but the clothes look great. You'll do it so much better when you're relaxed and comfortable."
        Do what better, he wondered. He hoped he might be allowed to keep most of the clothes on. He slid his hand down the front of the resplendent vest and heard the glitter of gold trombones. It was not an impossible jump from the Erie Canal circus to River City, Iowa. Bisbee was a circus salesman; Professor Harold Hill sold invisible boys' bands, and both stretched the truth. Only one man here didn't know the territory.
        Hank gestured with the pocket flask. "One more for the road?"
        "The road's closed till you say the magic word."
        "'Money?' 'Please?'"
        "Location. Coordinates. Where!"
        Hank nudged Jon in the ribs. "We have to spell it out. Stage Eighta, Mr Data. We're gonna go play on the bridge."


        Well, at last, familiar territory. He knew the back way in and how to switch on lights. In the last seven years he had almost lived aboard "Enterprise 1701-D," going home merely to sleep, watch TV and study tomorrow's lines, to move strings of unlikely words from the page via his brain to his tongue. At times he woke up shouting them to the empty room. "Captain! Sensors report twenty-seven humanoid life forms concentrated twelve meters below the north polar region!"
        Certain aspects he would not mind leaving behind, techno-babble for one, and thick gold makeup at dawn. But he would miss the blue-screen world on zany days when everyone wisecracked with borrowed voices and mannerisms. Make it so, Number One...
        "What are you grinning about?" Hank sounded fairly friendly now. Maybe he dug science fiction played against streamlined, purified, dust-free backgrounds. Short of a trip to Canaveral this was the best starship available. There'd be no harm sharing a few inside stories.
        "...And Patrick looms up in his assimilated Borg gear, a cross between a giant beetle and a deep-sea diver, absolutely horrible. We're quivering, waiting to be shrivelled into dust. Then... he speaks. 'I am... Locutus...of Borg. Resistance is fu-tile. Have you considered buying a Pontiac?'"
        Loree was impressed. "How can you do his voice so exactly? You really floored them at the benefit."
        "Oh, I say now, mad'm, culchahd British accents are so easily mahstahd. Alternate sentences begin with 'indeed.' When I left his messages on people's ahnswering machines, he got baffling replies."
        "Aha! Are you the telephone jokester who ordered me a super-giant hand-tossed pizza at midnight last week?"
        "What flavor?"
        "Domino's pepperoni."
        "Not me. Mine are onion-and-olive and I don't know your address."
        "Thank god. Now can we get on with the guided tour?"
        "Is that what this is? Paramount runs them regularly. Why sneak in at midnight?"
        Loree shot a look at Hank, who shrugged. Jon was off wandering beside the horseshoe eyeing the science and tactical stations. Brent counted the players and tried to focus the scene. One writer, one photographer, one publicist and one foggy major actor, ill-met on the bridge by moonlight. Skullduggery afoot. X marks the spot where the body is buried.. or the treasure...
        "Hey, now I think I begin to understand this."
        "About time," Hank muttered.
        "It's 'Generations,' isn't it? You want to see the script."
        "The new movie? Why should we want that?"
        "Nobody has the finished version and I couldn't show you if I did. Paramount would wipe my circuits and sell me for scrap. I'd wind up as the rear end of a Pontiac."
        "Wow. With dual pipes?
        "They'd scrape off my paint and bang me with sledgehammers. You might buy a bootleg script somewhere else but not from me."
        "Oh, how brave and loyal. This from the Boy Scout who gets his kicks microwaving dogs?"
        "What?" Loree looked shocked. "I never heard that story."
        "Hey, listen, it absolutely never happened! It was just a dumb joke Marina invented and I think Gates added the punchline. You can't believe I really-- It's criminal the rumors that circulate."
        "So all the stories about you are lies?"
        "Yes, no, well, maybe not all. Sometimes at Cons I say silly things that are picked up and exaggerated."
        "And even the Captain plays Pontiac jokes?"
        "Occasionally. He's very witty but not a clown, and he gets testy if anyone wastes time or spoils a scene. As a commanding officer he is rather on the crisp side."
        "Domineering like Captain Bligh or Captain Queeg?"
        "Try the Captain of the "Pinafore.' We're a right good crew and he has only one little idiosyncrasy."

Part 3