"APPROVAL PROCESS"

By William Leisner

It may seem odd to find a Dr. Beverly Crusher story among a collection of Holodoctor fanfiction, but you'll quickly see why this story is of interest to Holodoctor fans. William Leisner originally submitted "Approval Process" to Pocket Books first Star Trek: Strange New Worlds short story contest. For reasons far from obvious, this story wasn't chosen. But Bill was undeterred, and his marvelous new Star Trek: The Next Generation story, "Gods, Fate, and Fractals," appears in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II anthology.


Looking into the dark void stretched out before her, Beverly Crusher wondered whether she had made the worst mistake of her entire life.

It had only been six weeks since she assumed her position as head of Starfleet Medical, and she had been stricken with melancholy from the start. At first, she thought it was the separation from Wesley, meant to be temporary, and now more or less permanent. However, when she decided the best way to deal with her son's absence was to throw herself into her work, she found it was the work itself that was getting her down. She had gone from being a doctor to being an administrator, a bureaucrat. She spent all her time visiting hospitals and laboratories, reading grant proposals, approving this policy or rejecting that project. It seemed to her to be soulless work.

And this place seemed particularly soulless.

From the viewport of Jupiter Station's Dock 4, all she could see was the spaceward, unlit surface of Europa. If she craned her neck, she could see a smattering of stars past the surface of the moon off to the left, and to the right, a few dull flashes of lightning in Jupiter's upper atmosphere. But her gaze kept sliding back to the void in front of her, as if expecting to find something there.

Finally, she pulled her eyes away. She had work to do here. She turned and boarded the closest turbolift, and ordered it to take her to her next appointment, where she was going to be asked to give her stamp of approval to the most soulless proposal she'd yet seen.

* * * * *

The turbolift deposited her right at the door to the Holographic Imaging and Programming Laboratory. She walked into the outer office, and found it deserted. "Hello?" she called out.

Suddenly, the air in front of her started to ripple. She jumped back as the area of undulation suddenly took the shape of a woman, holding a small padd. "Hello," the woman-shape chirped pleasantly. "Do you have an appointment?"

Crusher quickly recovered from her initial surprise. She should have suspected Zimmerman would have a holographic receptionist. Considering what he was proposing, having a hologram greet visitors and keep his appointment book was small potatoes. "Yes, I'm Doctor Beverly Crusher."

The hologram made a show of looking at her padd, even though Crusher knew full well it was a superfluous act for the controlling program. But it was a nice touch of realism; admittedly, Zimmerman was good at what he did. Crusher studied the software-based woman as she ran a finger down the padd's screen, then said, "Yes, Doctor Crusher, Starfleet Medical. You've been expected. Can I get you anything while you're waiting?"

"No, thank you," Crusher said as she continued to study the holo image. She was no stranger to the technology, of course, but she'd never truly studied a hologram▄with the exception of her cadaver in Gross Human Anatomy, which was a study of a completely different sort. The receptionist stood silent and still, as if she was gawked at by every visitor to the lab, which, Crusher supposed, she very well may be.

"You know, this may sound silly...." Crusher started to say, then paused, wondering if feeling silly about asking an odd question of a hologram wasn't, itself, silly. "But... you look somewhat familiar to me."

The hologram, naturally, was not at all fazed. "It's possible you've encountered my image before, in one of several other holographic programs that have been developed at Jupiter Station."

Crusher nodded. Most of the instructional and recreational programs in use on ships and bases throughout the Federation had been created right here, by this same team of programmers. Still, Crusher studied the receptionist, trying to place its image. The receptionist apparently misinterpreted her continued stare, because she offered an alternative explanation. "Or, perhaps you've met the model for this image, Chandra Hildor-Zimmerman."

Crusher had just realized that she had previously seen this woman as another secretary, Madeline, in Jean-Luc's Dixon Hill program. That fact, though, paled against this new revelation. "Lewis Zimmerman's wife?" she asked, with one eyebrow lifted up toward her hairline.

"Ex-wife," the hologram explained. "She left him five years ago. She couldn't bear to share him with his work. She never understood Lewis; couldn't understand his genius. He was a good husband; he gave her all he could...." The hologram's prattling monologue became more impassioned, while all Crusher could do was stare agape at it, absorbing this odd perspective of the man she had come calling on.

Suddenly, a door on the opposite end of the room opened, and a harsh looking man in a gold-trimmed jumpsuit uniform entered the reception area. "Computer, end R-Alpha program," he called, and Chandra's image disappeared in mid-sentence.

If he was even slightly embarrassed by what he knew his visitor had heard, he showed no signs of it. He simply extended his hand to her and said, "Welcome to Jupiter Station, Doctor Crusher. I'm Lewis Zimmerman."

Crusher took his hand. "Thank you, Lieutenant. I...."

"Doctor."

"Yes?"

"Uh, no..."

"What?"

Zimmerman let out a short, exasperated sigh. "It's Doctor Zimmerman. Not Lieutenant. My identity, as I imagine yours does, stems from my vocation, not my rank."

Crusher just stared at Zimmerman. The speech he'd put in the mouth of his ex-wife's image hadn't provided a very good first impression of the man, and he was doing little to make the second any better. "Doctor Zimmerman," she corrected herself. "Are you ready to give your demonstration?"

"Of course I'm ready," Zimmerman huffed, and then turned, leading Crusher into the programming lab itself. "I've been ready for three months. Are you, Doctor Crusher, ready?"

"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," Crusher replied, giving as good as she got.

Doctor Zimmerman and Doctor Crusher with the EMH

Zimmerman acknowledged with a small nod as they entered a small holosuite, empty but for a table covered with medical equipment. With a tiny smirk cracking across his lips, Zimmerman called out, "Computer, activate the Emergency Medical Holographic Prototype."

Again, there was the familiar rippling effect, as a man in a blue medical uniform appeared in the middle of the room. "Please state the nature of the medical emergency," he said in a no-nonsense voice.

Beverly Crusher looked archly from the hologram to its creator. How predictable, she thought, that a man who used his ex-wife's image as a servant would use his own image as a lifesaver. She did note, however, that the holographic image didn't attempt any improvement upon the original's appearance.

Zimmerman didn't notice Crusher's reaction at all. Instead, he spoke to the computer again. "Run EMH Demo Program." A bio-bed appeared in front of the holographic doctor, with an apparently injured man lying atop it. The Emergency Medical Hologram quickly grabbed a tricorder and scanned his patient. "Disrupter burns to the chest, pulmonary and respiratory damage." Without glancing away, the hologram picked up a hypospray. "Ten c.c.'s of tricordazine," he announced, obviously for Crusher's benefit, as he administered the drug.

Crusher watched the rest of the demonstration with only feigned interest. She stole an occasional glance at Zimmerman, who smiled and nodded as the holographic doctor continued to perform. He was totally wrapped up in the demonstration, enraptured by the performance of his creation.

All her worst concerns about this project were growing larger inside her. She wondered how this Zimmerman had even gotten preliminary approval. Granted, the previous head of Starfleet Medical, Doctor Sylok, might have been intrigued by the project from a purely scientific point of view. But even a Vulcan doctor should have considered the person submitting a project proposal along with the merits of the project itself.

The hologram continued to work valiantly to save his patient, and, not too surprisingly, he was successful. Zimmerman beamed as he finally turned to the head of Starfleet Medical to gauge her reaction.

"Thank you, Doctor," she said neutrally. "You'll be hearing back from me by next week."

Zimmerman was obviously shocked that Crusher was nowhere near as impressed as he had been. Crusher turned on a heel and exited the holosuite, and Zimmerman quickly fell in step beside her. "Don't you have any questions? Anything you need clarified?"

"Everything was quite clear, thank you," Crusher answered, not bothering to keep the resentment out of her voice.

"Not to imply that you might have any trouble understanding any of what I just showed you, of course," Zimmerman quickly amended. "But, I do get the feeling that you are not properly impressed by what a major advancement the EMH represents...."

Crusher stopped as she reached the outer office to face Zimmerman. "Did you honestly expect to impress me with this little Ben Casey re-enactment?"

"Ben who?" Zimmerman asked blankly.

"What you showed me in there was nothing more than another holodeck program," Crusher said. "A poorly-scripted melodrama performed by computer-generated actors."

Zimmerman looked utterly offended. "Doctor Crusher, I assure you, the test program was totally randomized. The patient's capillary collapse, for instance, was totally unexpected."

"Mmm-hmm," Crusher answered.

"I originally intended to have the EMH interact with a real human patient during my presentation," Zimmerman explained. "My former assistant was something of a hypochondriac, and he presented the EMH with several interesting medical scenarios during dry runs. Unfortunately, he was transferred to the U.S.S. Zhukov just last week. If Starfleet Medical had done its evaluation of my project three months ago, as planned...."

"I'm very sorry that my predecessor's death inconvenienced you so," Crusher countered dryly.

Zimmerman gave her a look to wither Bolian snowflowers. "I resent that, Doctor Crusher. Doctor Sylok was a good man...."

"You're right," Crusher said quickly. "That was out of line. I apologize."

Zimmerman nodded slightly, acknowledging that, although he still wore the same sour expression on his face. After an uncomfortable couple of seconds, Crusher quietly blew out a mouthful of air, and said, "Good day, Lieutenant," before turning toward the door.

Doctor Zimmerman and Doctor Crusher

She spun back when she heard a growl of outrage behind her, in time to see Zimmerman grab at the collar of his uniform and tear the two rank pips off. He slammed them down on the receptionist's desk, glowering at Crusher. "I can accept the fact that you don't trust holograms. I can accept that you resent a programmer having made a medical breakthrough rather than an M.D. But I have earned Ph.D.'s in both cybernetics and holographic technologies from the Daystrom Institute, and I demand you respect that by addressing me as 'Doctor'!"

Crusher stared at him a long time, passively, silent, watching a small blood vessel in his temple throb furiously. Then, when she noticed his pulse start to slow, she asked, "Do you feel better now, Doctor Zimmerman?"

Zimmerman straightened up, trying to resume his air of dignity. "Yes," he said, as he brought a pair of fingers to his collar to check for loose threads. "Thank you, Doctor."

"You're welcome," Crusher said. "Now, I ask that you respect something."

Zimmerman looked at her expectantly, apparently willing to consider her request.

"I ask that you respect the medical profession."

Zimmerman shook his head wearily. "Doctor Crusher, the EMH is in no way, shape or form intended to replace 'real' physicians. It's merely...."

"That's not what I'm talking about," Crusher interrupted. "I know what the EMH is intended to do. And being somewhat familiar with constructed beings operating in the place of humanoids, I tend to believe your hologram could perform adequately in emergency situations, as intended. But what I'm concerned with is what it isn't intended to do."

"And what is that?"

"To care." Crusher paused a second to gauge Zimmerman's reaction. For the first time, he seemed to have no response. Crusher took advantage of this. "Your hologram, I'm sure, can recite the Hippocratic Oath forwards and backwards. But can it understand the meaning behind the words? What it means to be a healer, to dedicate one's life to the well-being of other people, even perfect strangers? Can your hologram care about its patients?"

Zimmerman offered no answer for a long time. Sensing he wasn't going to, she gently shrugged her shoulders, and turned to exit.

"I care."

His voice was soft, almost a whisper, but clear. Crusher turned around to face him, and saw the softening in his expression. "Do you know what my last project was, Doctor Crusher? It was a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. I spent six months studying the Victorian era, poring over details of fashion, language, social customs and mores, et cetera, to make it as realistic as possible. And do you know what I had when I finished? Just another diversion, a piece of mind candy. I'm an incredibly brilliant man, Doctor Crusher. I can give so much more to the universe."

"Yes, I have no doubt that you can," Crusher replied, deciding to ignore his immodesty. "But, Doctor Zimmerman, despite your title, you do not know what it is to be a doctor, a healer."

"All right," Zimmerman admitted. "What is it?"

Crusher couldn't help but give a small chuckle. "There's no simple answer to that question. You could probably ask fifty different doctors and get fifty different answers. But if you put so much effort into recreating Victorian England for a piece of mind candy, shouldn't you make some greater investment in a project of this scope? This gift to the world that you care so much about?"

Zimmerman considered that silently for a moment. "I suppose you have a point," he allowed finally. "To make the EMH care... he would need greater cognizance of the world outside himself and his environment... real life experiences of other physicians..." Crusher thought she could almost hear the gears turning inside his head. After a minute or two of these musings, Zimmerman realized Crusher was still watching him. "Any further development, of course, depends on Starfleet Medical's approval, plus perhaps a small grant..."

"Send me a proposal," Crusher said, "and we'll work from there."

Zimmerman nodded. "You'll have it by next week." Cracking a small grin, he added, "I hope you'll be so kind, after reviewing my proposal, to share any insights into the medical practice you yourself may have, Doctor."

Crusher smiled. "It would be my pleasure, Doctor."

* * * * *

Crusher settled into the window seat of the commuter ship, and looked out toward the stars, considering the task Zimmerman had undertaken. What is it to be a healer?

Her thoughts turned to her grandmother. Watching her care for the survivors of the Arvada III tragedy was what had set her off on her own medical career. She recalled the pride on the old woman's face the day she graduated from Starfleet Medical. "I have only so many years left, Bev. It's good to know I've brought another healer into the universe, to carry on after I'm gone."

Crusher considered that a holographic doctor, in theory, could go on caring indefinitely. Not to mention the fact that it could be on hundreds of ships and starbases at once. And she could take pride in the fact that she had some responsibility for any lives it would save. What a legacy that was! It didn't fill the void she felt by not caring directly for patients, but her work seemed to have a little more meaning now.

As the ship undocked and turned toward the inner solar system, she activated the computer console in the back of the seat in front of her. She composed a quick letter to her grandmother, asking her if she wouldn't get in touch with Zimmerman, and offer her perspective on the healing arts. Once she finished, she accessed her personal files, and found a letter waiting for her, from Wesley. She grinned as she pressed the tab that played his message.

"Hi, Mom, it's me. Everything's going fine. I'm pulling two shifts a week on the bridge now... and still keeping up with my studies of course. I got an 'A' on my last calculus test and a B+ on my Vulcan History exam▄I mixed up ShirKahr and K'Shir. I sprained my ankle in the gym the other day and went to sickbay, which was a little weird. It was the first time I've seen Doctor Pulaski in your office... her office now, I guess. She seems like an okay doctor, I guess. I don't think she likes Data very much, though.... Oh, did you hear about what happened to Data's Sherlock Holmes holodeck program? Oh, boy.... Well, I guess the program was too easy for Data, so Geordi told the computer to...."

Beverly Crusher sank in her seat as she listened to her son, as he related the story of how a holographic character in a Victorian-era diversionary program had grown outside itself and its environment. She squeezed her eyes shut, telling herself it was an aberration, a user error, easily fixable.

But if it wasn't....

The head of Starfleet Medical threw her neck back and wished to the heavens for her old job back.

THE END

Story © 1997 by William Leisner. Drawings © 1999 by Janet D'Airo. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author and artist.

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