Chapter 1: Before Picard...
Year 2399. La Barre, France. Earth.
All is calm. The sun is setting. The vineyards stretch out towards the bleeding horizon. The usual sounds of nature lull Jean-Luc into a stupor. He sits in his worn-out armchair by the windows and stares at nothing in particular.
He walks a lonely path now. These days there are only books and bottles and cobwebs. Somehow it seems fair; it seems reasonable. The family he made among the stars was never meant to last; everything was temporary – everything but these vineyards, and this armchair, and this lazy summer sunset.
There is a flash of blinding white light. And then him, bringing chaos into an orderly life. Jean-Luc looks up, barely shaken. He looks at a face that has not aged, and he sees his own reflected in those alien eyes. Between them, the air grows thick with unspoken words.
“So will you tell me, Johnny?” Q says, “What was there before Picard?”
The question shouldn’t make sense, but it does. The sky is fading to black, millions and millions of worlds winking down at them as they sit, Jean-Luc leaning into his grandfather’s armchair, Q leaning against the wall. It reminds Jean-Luc of story times, a white Christmas long ago.
Q smiles softly. It looks different, this smile – not the menacing, alarming smirk he usually wears. Jean-Luc feels a sudden pull towards the entity; these days, Q feels like a relic from a past life. “Come closer,” Jean-Luc whispers.
Something shifts in Q’s expression. There is surprise, and something akin to pain, on his eternally young features. But he complies, leaning in so that they are face to face. Jean-Luc reaches out with tentative fingers and touches Q’s lips. “I will tell you,” he says.
And so he tells a story.
Chapter 2: Dreaming of the Stars
Years 2305 to 2323. La Barre, France. Earth.
The sky seemed a little bit closer from up here. Jean-Luc stretched his tiny arms towards the dome of flickering lights above him. He had memorized every constellation, every pattern of stars in the heavens. He would know his way through them blindfolded – better yet: he would carve a new path and draw new patterns, if given the chance.
“A chance at a quiet, simple life,” his father had told him, “that is what I’m giving you and your brother. In these chaotic times you can count that as a blessing.”
Jean-Luc was on the roof chasing dreams, and if his father knew he would be furious. “You will fall and break your neck, and then what will I tell your mother?”
But Jean-Luc would rather fall and break his neck than remain on the ground forever.
He and Robert tended to the garden every day after school. Maman promised them warm milk and madeleines, and father promised them his ever elusive approval. “Good job, boys,” he would sometimes say, and the boys would look at each other and smile.
As they grew older, the work grew more tedious: soon they were asked to enter the vineyards, and there was nothing Jean-Luc dreaded more – row after row of the same old thing, the same orderly display for hours, and he couldn’t run or jump or climb anything, he had to work, slowly, holding on to his straw hat as the wind teased his blond curls. When he turned to Robert and tried to talk to him, his brother shook his head and knitted his brows: “this is hard work, Jean-Luc, no time for chit-chat.”
Robert took the vineyards more seriously than anything in the world. At times like these, Jean-Luc felt strange and out of place. There was a gap between him and his brother, a missing puzzle piece that kept them apart.
It was Jean-Luc’s eighth spring, and there was a ferret in the garden. It came often, and Jean-Luc gave it bread crumbs and tried to lure it into the shed. When father found out, he wanted it killed. “Chaotic creatures,” he said, “they’ll ruin the garden.”
Jean-Luc had wanted to keep it – he was intent on becoming a zoologist at the time. But that dream faded the way most of his childhood endeavours did: with a frown and a disapproving glare from his father. Zoology, archaeology, crime-fighting, music… nothing was quite good enough for Maurice Picard, everything was too chaotic, void of meaning and structure. Order was the word he liked most; simplicity he praised above all else. Robert looked up at father and nodded solemnly. Jean-Luc looked up at the stars and sighed heavily.
It wasn’t until Jean-Luc was ten years old that he started speaking of Starfleet.
“I won’t have you spewing such nonsense,” maman told him as she slathered strawberry jam on his morning toast, “New life and new civilizations... c’est n’importe quoi ! What better civilization than this, here on Earth? And what better life than this, with your family?”
Jean-Luc tried to protest, but she cut him off. “You will wound your father if you speak of this in front of him. Everything he does, he does for you and your brother.”
Somehow, the looming threat of his father’s disappointment did not stop Jean-Luc from bringing home two large holo-pictures – colorful Starfleet posters that he hung just above his bed. Robert squinted at them as if they were not to be trusted. Father made a scene.
“Have I taught you nothing? Where did you get these, at school? Is this how they educate our children? Starfleet propaganda! It’s outrageous!”
Jean-Luc raised his chin stubbornly and waited for father to calm down. That night, he sat in bed staring at the holo-pictures, proud of his own tenacity in the face of his father’s rage. His heroes, dressed up in gold, stared back at him with unblinking eyes – Jonathan Archer, Philippa Georgiou, James Kirk. He longed to be like them.
One winter night, while stargazing on a tree branch, Jean-Luc caught sight of the ferret. He crawled down the tree and crouched in front of the animal, eyes wide with wonder. The ferret tilted its head to the side and whipped the ground with its tail. For a moment, there seemed to be a ripple in the air, as if everything around Jean-Luc were moving at the same time; as if the world were lapping at his ankles like water from a river, disturbed by the ferret’s movement. And then – utter silence. Snowflakes falling to the ground slowly, oh so slowly – the universe is slow-motion.
Jean-Luc extended his open palm towards the ferret, and his arm sliced through the lethargy in the air, bringing motion into a sluggish world. Even the wind had ceased its gentle whispering. The stars above did not blink, did not flicker, and the clouds remained where they were, painted blue by the moon. The ferret twitched, evidently unaffected by the languid state of the rest of creation. Jean-Luc felt the weight of his boots lift off the ground. It was almost like floating, and yet his feet still touched the earth. Still reaching towards the ferret, Jean-Luc wiggled his fingers. The animal took a single, graceful leap, and landed in Jean-Luc’s palm.
Boy and ferret stared at each other in silence.
What Jean-Luc remembered next were the snowflakes, falling now at a regular rhythm, and the wind caressing his cheeks once again. The world had recovered its normal speed.
The ferret was gone.
As the years went by, it started to become evident that Robert did most of the work tending to the vineyards. Jean-Luc would usually find a place in the shade and read.
“I wonder if Dixon Hill will do you any good the day you need to get off your arse and make something of yourself,” Robert would complain.
Jean-Luc would shrug and ignore him.
What he lacked in enthusiasm concerning the vineyards, Jean-Luc more than made up for with school results and athletic prowess. Maman was very proud – she would make him read his essays and dissertations after dinner, and she displayed all his medals and cups above the fireplace. To Jean-Luc, these were only trifles: in his mind an idea had begun to form, a dream that he hoped would take him to the stars.
Dreams alone, however, would never be enough. He needed to be the best at everything he did. The best – only then would he rest. Only then would he be good enough; if not for his father, then for Starfleet.
A few days before his thirteenth birthday, Jean-Luc walked home alone under the scorching July sun. Since their parents didn’t own a hovercar or anything resembling it, the boys usually walked home through the fields and meadows, basking in the peace and quiet of the French countryside. But Jean-Luc had waited for Robert after school, and his brother hadn’t been there.
Half an hour later, Jean-Luc arrived home to find his parents in a panic – his mother was pacing the front porch, and his father was sitting on the steps with his head in his hands. Grand-papa came to meet Jean-Luc before he could reach the door.
“It’s Robert,” the old man said feebly, “He’s been arrested. They say he got into a fight.”
“Robert?” Jean-Luc’s eyes widened in disbelief. His brother could be temperamental and hot-headed, but he would never have thought him capable of getting into an actual fight.
Grand-papa took Jean-Luc inside and watched as he built what would be the newest addition to his collection of starship models. It was past sunset when Jean-Luc looked away from his starships; Grand-papa had fallen asleep in his armchair, and the low hum of a hovercar had filled the air.
Jean-Luc took a tentative step outside his room. He heard two voices: his father’s, and a stranger’s. His brother’s name was mentioned; his father was apologizing. Then the humming of the hovercar subsided, and there was a terrible silence. Jean-Luc stepped into the living room, and at that very moment father’s hand struck Robert across the cheek with enough force to make the boy stumble a few steps backwards.
“To be a good-for-nothing parasite is one thing,” Maurice’s voice was a threatening rumble, “but to bring shame upon your family is inexcusable.”
Robert looked up, a single tear sliding down the blooming bruise on his cheek. He opened his mouth to speak, but father never gave him the chance. “Not a word out of you.”
And with that he stormed out of the house and into the garden, leaving the two boys alone in the dark living room. Jean-Luc stared at his shoes. Robert sniffled.
“Enjoyed that, did you?”
Jean-Luc looked up, shocked. His brother was glaring at him, trembling with rage and shame. “Robert…”
But he’d already left, slamming his bedroom door behind him.
It was a terrible summer. The heat, almost unbearable, finally drew the Picard family away from their fields. They spent a month by the sea, at their aunt’s house. For the first time in his life, Jean-Luc used a food replicator.
“I wish father would allow these at home,” he smiled at his brother as he ordered his third slice of chocolate cake.
“So we can be as decadent and depraved as Marie-Anne and Michelle?” Robert snapped, referring to their cousins, “No, thank you.”
Jean-Luc shrugged. “More cake for me, then,” he said.
In the evenings, a friend of their aunt’s would often stop by – with her son Paul, who was about the same age as Jean-Luc. They quickly became friends, bonding over starship models. They spent hours taking them apart and building them again, discussing battle manoeuvres, alien life forms and exoplanets. One evening, as he finished rebuilding his classic Constitution class Enterprise, Jean-Luc looked up to find Paul staring at him. “What is it?”
Paul smiled. “Nothing,” he whispered, but he leaned in ever so gently, and placed a soft kiss on Jean-Luc’s lips.
By the end of the summer, they had exchanged more kisses than they could count, and since Paul lived on Alpha Centauri IV, they parted with the promise that they’d talk through subspace.
Jean-Luc didn’t have the heart to tell Paul that his parents forbade modern technology.
Robert rarely spoke to Jean-Luc, and when he did, it was brief and unpleasant. Jean-Luc responded to this new, deeper gap between them by spending most of his time studying or working out.
He was still expected to tend to the vineyards, but he rarely did – there was always an excuse; practice, exams, his essays. Some days his father could be insistent, but he never said anything when he found Jean-Luc sitting in the shade and reading instead of working, while Robert’s sweat pearled at his temples.
Jean-Luc was successful, popular and loved by all. He was proud of himself for it, but he knew that success in his small village meant nothing. He was looking up, higher than the lazy country hills, higher than the old farm buildings, higher than the sky. Jean-Luc wanted nothing less than the stars.
This was the beginning, he often told himself. Only the beginning.
The meadow was full of the sweetness of their exchanged sighs. Her dress swayed in the breeze, and she smiled before she left. Jean-Luc grinned up at the sun as he leaned against a tree and buttoned up his shirt.
Eloise’s hair had smelled of peaches and grass. Eloise’s skin had tasted of warmth and desire. Eloise’s body had shown him secrets he didn’t have to keep.
Jean-Luc was fifteen, and summer was fading into autumn, and he was happy, deliriously happy.
He walked home in a daydream, humming to himself, holding his shoes in his hands so he could feel the earth beneath his feet. He didn’t miss Eloise; he would see her at school tomorrow, he could even see her now if he wanted to. He laughed at that, laughed out loud like an idiot because merde, he was young, he was strong, he was free; he could do whatever he wanted to!
The world was no longer quiet around him. Everything moved faster, faster, but he could keep up, he could run on thin air, he could catch the breeze in his palms and set it behind him, pushing him forward; he was flying, he truly was!
And he knew it might be the wine – although he was sure he’d only had a glass – or maybe it was the lack of sleep – although he was used to staying up till dawn – but right now he was flying, and he could make the world move faster.
As he reached the end of the path, he looked up to see the farm, the house, the vineyards. Something moved across the fields: the ferret, twirling a few inches above the ground, as if it too could fly. Jean-Luc chased it until he was out of breath, laughing the entire time. He lost his shoes and was too tired to look for them. He wanted to sleep, he wanted to dream. He walked inside and kissed maman on the cheek. The kitchen smelled like breakfast.
Jean-Luc knew his ecstatic dance would end when he stepped into his bedroom, but he couldn’t have known why.
In the brilliant light of the morning sun, his starship models looked like broken bones, strewn across the floor. Not a single one intact – some of them burned, others broken. Over his bed, his Starfleet holo-pictures blinked in and out of existence like dying candles.
Rage consumed him. It was immediate and intense. He stormed through the house, then out into the fields; the vineyards. He found his brother, hunched over, at work.
“Robert!” he barked, his voice commanding, authoritative, unyielding.
Robert did not look up from his work, so Jean-Luc grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him up roughly. “Regarde-moi, connard !”
Robert’s eyes were cold. “What do you want?” he said levelly.
Jean-Luc’s grip tightened on his brother’s shirt. His free hand, clenched into a fist, twitched with anger. “I know it was you,” he seethed.
Robert raised his eyebrows. “So what are you going to do?” Jean-Luc tensed, but he didn’t have the time to answer. Robert tilted his head to the side and said, “Are you going to hit me? Is that what you’re going to do?”
And between them there was the memory of father’s palm striking, the awful sound of it in the silence of that empty living room. Enjoyed that, did you?
Jean-Luc was no longer angry, but horrified. “I won’t hit you.”
For a moment, Robert almost looked disappointed. “No, you won’t.” Jean-Luc’s hand slowly let go of his brother’s shirt. “In fact, I don’t think you’ll do anything about it, will you? No, not you, not our own golden boy. Too good for that, eh? Is that what you like to believe?”
Jean-Luc frowned in confusion. Robert’s expression was that of disgust. “Listen to me, Jean-Luc,” he said, leaning in to look directly in his brother’s eyes, “You may be too good for that, but I am not. I think you’d better keep that in mind.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Try me and find out.”
When Jean-Luc failed to gain entry at the Academy, he told no one. Maman made him a straw hat for his seventeenth birthday. He never wore it: he did not tend to the vineyards that summer.
The next year, Grand-papa died and Jean-Luc gained entry to the Academy. Father watched him pack, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you’re leaving, after all I’ve done for you.”
Jean-Luc clenched his jaw but didn’t look up. “I can’t believe you thought I was staying, after all these years of hard work.”
“Hard work? You haven’t set foot in the garden for years!”
The room was mostly empty, the bed undone, the windows open. Outside, the trees shook – it was a windy evening. Out of the corner of his eye, Jean-Luc saw the creeping shape of the ferret, running across the fields. He straightened up and faced his father.
“Incredible,” he whispered, “All this time, everything I’ve done – it meant nothing to you. You thought I’d eventually give in and work at the vineyards. You never valued my achievements… or my dreams.”
Maurice Picard lifted his chin. “I thought you’d outgrow them.”
Jean-Luc looked down at his suitcase, at the Cadet’s uniform he had just placed there. The Starfleet insignia shone like silver. “It turns out I’ve outgrown you, father,” Jean-Luc said softly.
Two hours later, a hovercar was there for him. He kissed his mother goodbye; she did not kiss him back. Robert was nowhere to be seen. Father was standing at the door, wearing his disappointment on his face.
“Starfleet will bring you to a bad end,” he said.
“Better that than rotting away down here,” Jean-Luc shrugged.
Clouds had gathered in the sky, hiding the stars, and yet they had never felt this close before. As the hovercar took Jean-Luc Picard away from La Barre, he looked out the window, at the place he’d known all his life; the place he understood so little.
On a tree branch, the ferret stared right back at him.
For the last time.