Page 1


This novel is a fan written work and is not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of Paramount Pictures, CBS Corporation, or Pocket Book. It is provided free of charge to all fans for your enjoyment. Unauthorized copying or reproduction is prohibited. "Star Trek" is a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures and CBS Corporation." Story and original characters ŠT.L. Shull, all rights reserved. A ShadowKnight Production.


STAR TREK

HERITAGE

BOOK ONE: A BREAK WITH TRADITION

T.L. Shull


To Allen: I love you more.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I must acknowledge all of the Star Trek creative minds of the past and present, whether they be “officially sanctioned” or from the rich dimensions of the fan production realms. I also thank Michael Martin, Andy Mangels, Christopher Bennett, and Geoffrey Thorne for the first four Pocket Books novels in the Star Trek: Titan series. I relied heavily upon their visions of a world of tolerance, acceptance and diversity; allowing me to explore how incredible it might have been to grow up on the USS Titan. To every person from the TrekUnited forums and the Omega Sector BBS for your support, feedback and laughter; but two people need to be mentioned specifically: CptnKrunch – the first person outside my inner circle to ever read one word that I had written and cared enough not only to say that it didn’t suck, but encouraged me to share it and write more. I never would have taken that first step without him. Also to Stephanie Watson, whose own remarkable work paved the way to our online friendship; she willingly took on the horrendous job of editing and converting this error-infected tome into a more readable format. The word Goddess does not do her justice. To the amalgamation that is the author Timothy James Beck: When You Can’t See Me became my inspiration on dealing with everything from what it might be like to be a twin to grappling with fear of failure, love, despair, and ultimately hope. While Dryden and Griffin became my first openly gay characters thanks to your books, Beth is my terribly feeble attempt to pay tribute to Nick. To all my friends and family: Thanks for smiling and nodding and being supportive, even when you have no clue what a Bajoran or gagh is. Finally, to Mr. Gene Roddenberry…a man who had a simple yet extraordinary vision of a better future. I can only hope that my interpretation of that future would have been looked upon favorably by him.


I know this super highway This bright familiar sun I guess that I'm the lucky one Who wrote that tired sea song Set on this peaceful shore You think you've heard this one before Well the danger on the rocks is surely past Still I remain tied to the mast Could it be that I have found my home at last Home at last She serves the smooth retsina She keeps me safe and warm It's just the calm before the storm Call in my reservation So long hey thanks my friend I guess I'll try my luck again Well the danger on the rocks is surely past Still I remain tied to the mast Could it be that I have found my home at last Home at last Home at Last; Steely Dan

"To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond" Hypatia


Prologue Stardate 91921.7 Japori/Onias Sector Border Independent Supply Frigate Kestrel

Chaina hated the stretch between Adelphous IV and Earth. Captain Spencer would start to tap his ring on the command chair soon and he wouldn't stop it until they reached the Sol System. Chaina knew that it was really his only bad habit but it was still enough to drive her crazy. She wished she could find a way to listen to music without having to resort to breaching regs and covering her ears. This was the longest and loneliest stretch they would have to pass. Their delivery to Adelphous IV had gone well and the payment was received. At least Spencer was in a great mood. That meant his ring tapping would have rhythm. She could make up her own songs in her mind to go with it. She sat at the flight control panel and watched the main viewscreen and the star trails at they passed. She glanced over her shoulder at the Captain in his chair. He was smiling; not broadly, but his smile reflected his satisfaction with the ease of their last delivery and the fact that the recipient was so pleased by the shipment's condition that he practically begged to enter into a solid and pre-paid five delivery deal with him. Spencer was a short, human man. She towered over him as a 1


matter of fact. She had inherited her height from her Daliwakan father. Spencer on the other hand was all human and always on the edge of annoying. The tapping had begun. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Taptap. Tap. Great. She already knew‌he would repeat this pattern interminably until she brought the Kestrel out of warp just outside Sector 001. She began to quietly hum notes with the pattern his ring made as it banged the arm of his command chair. A nice, rounded dent had already been worn in where he flicked his hand. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Taptap. Tap. She began to hum, trying to accept the tapping for the happy noise he intended it to be. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Taptap. Tap. She smiled. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Taptap. Tap. She began to bounce her head slowly with the beat. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Taptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptaptaptap‌ What the hell? Annoyed, Chaina turned her head to glare at Spencer when she noticed his face. His hand was banging heavily on the arm of the chair. His face was puffed and swollen, his eyes were shut and the skin around his eyes looked wrinkled up near his nose but was flattened out at his cheek. His throat looked pasty and he was making the most vulgar sounds, but suddenly the sound ceased. Chaina's three hearts flew into a frenzy. "Spence! Spence! What's wrong?!" she yelled as she turned and stood from her chair at the conn. His arms were flailing and there was an awful snap-crunch noise as his head turned in a direction that Chaina knew was not physically possible for a human. She ran to him. There was a foul, horrible stench and Chaina fell to the floor before reaching the command chair, her eyes losing focus on Spencer's limp foot.

2


Prologue II Stardate 91921.9 Earth Calendar July 23, 2413 Carlaeli System, Carlaeli Prime Daystrom Institute Archaeological Council Dig Site #227-B

Digging in wet soil was much more complicated than flicking sand off of pottery but it was also much more fun. It was intricate to sieve through and the results were usually disappointing and if the relic had any organic material, it would never have survived this layer, but he wasn't solely looking for organic material. He was looking for ceramic – and not just any ceramic, but a form of glass-porcelain that would have shamed the ancient artisans of Venice on Earth. He only had one more day of this humidity and damp and then he could head home to the San Francisco Annex and soak in the sight of it all and share it with the others. When the real fun begins! This had been his best dig yet. He and his small team had made incredible discoveries that revealed the secrets of this utterly amazing and sadly, dead society from thirty Earth millennia in the past. It was a society rooted strongly in the pure belief of‌nothing. Atheism worshipped. Rejection of deities honored. Not even the rulers of this unique civilization thought of themselves as deities as so many on countless other worlds had. They found strength in each other and their arts - pure expressions of 3


freedom, love, hatred and the rejection of technology. He was most amazed that this culture of the godless was also a culture that didn't subscribe to the need for the knowledge of how everything around them worked. They just created for the pure joy of it. If something didn't work, they just tried again. They were agrarian and vegetarian. They plowed and tilled to feed themselves but appeared to have spent the remainder of their peaceful days in the creation of everything beautiful. It was a huge empire of artisans – painters, musicians, actors, dancers, sculptors, potters, glassworkers…Jean-Luc would have loved this! His scanner revealed a potential area for examination and he squatted back into the mire and ran his fingers through the mud until his hand hit a peat-like layer ahead of him. He smiled to himself. This is where objects survive. In the peat. Organic material can survive here… He moved his body to the edge of the mud layer and sank down like a baseball catcher. He pulled his cut-dig tool from his back pocket and began to slice through the peat-like layer with great tenderness and care. The green laser marked the edge of his cut with a fluorescent green numeral to assure the cataloguing of any potential finds. He heard someone approaching from behind him…quickly. Their feet were getting caught in the mud and the sound they made as they squished and sucked was almost enough to make him a little sick to his stomach. The pace of the footsteps quickened and he heard rattled and heavy breathing associated with the rapidly advancing individual. "Bill!" Her voice sounded panicked and she was completely out of breath. He stopped the cut into the peat-like layer and pushed on his own knees to help hoist himself to the full and impressive height of his standing position and he turned to see Laura, a human woman with black hair, running through the mud with a look of great concern on her face. "Bill!" she huffed. "Hurry…." She stopped, rested her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. "You…forgot your...combadge…again." She glared at him. The base camp was almost two kilometers from his dig area and it was clear she had run the entire distance. He now started to sense her feelings of fear and urgency and his heart-rate shot up. "What is it? What's wrong Laura?" He moved in to help her stand and his perceptions of her fear were now palpable. 4


"Call…" she breathed. "You have a call….emergency….from the Panther." She looked to his eyes with dread. Bill's stomach turned and he was hit with a shot of adrenaline. Oh Four Deities! No! Please no! Not again! He shot off, leaving Laura behind to recuperate. It was at times like this he was grateful for his height. His long legs provided him with an enormous stride and the distance to the base would be nothing for him – he ran every day, but he had never run with such fear before. Bill cleared the mud and found the hard ground and he picked up his pace. He passed the town center where the Carlaelii of this millennium lived in homes that faintly resembled quaint English Earth cottages of the 16th through 20th Century. He leaped the low limestone wall that impeded his last twenty meters before he could reach the tech center of the base camp. He thrust himself into the geodesic tent and almost tripped directly over Gordon, his Choblik Assistant. Gordon's implanted cyborg arms raised high from his diminutive ostrich-shaped body and quickly caught Bill at the waist and kept him from falling directly onto the table where the comm rested. Bill looked down to his friend's large eyes and his deer-like face and breathlessly thanked him with a nod. Gordon flicked the cybernetic claw attached to the tip of his long prehensile tail that protruded in an elegant line from the rear of his body. He released Bill after he was sure he was steadied. Bill made for the comm and looked at the screen with the Starfleet logo and the dread sat hard upon him. He sat down in the chair that faced the table, trying to catch his breath. His heart was racing and not just from the run. He put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes, trying to pace his breathing and to calm his fear. He thought twice about hitting the button to begin the transmission and then thought about it once more when Gordon left the tent, presumably so Bill could be left alone to hear the news. No…please. His hand slowly reached up for the singular button he would have to press. With trepidation and fright, he touched it. To his great shock, surprise and almost disbelief the face of his sister appeared on the screen. Her beautiful long, thick, wavy dark brown hair and stunning black eyes turned to him when she realized he had 5


appeared on her monitor. She was wearing a black Starfleet uniform that had thin, dark grey stripes at the shoulder and deep red piping at the collar and neck line. Four small, round gold pips were plainly visible at her neck. His heart almost broke when she smiled at him and it was only then that she was able to comprehend the look on his face and her smile evaporated. "Oh…Bill…I'm so sorry. It's okay. I'm okay. I'm here." Her voice calmed him and her expression of sorrow covered her face. Still out of breath, Bill nodded and freed a nervous laugh in an emotional release and with heartbroken joy he reached out and touched the screen to his comm, wishing he could touch her face and hug her and show her how happy he was to know she was still alive. He saw her reach for her screen as well. "What's the emergency?" he hoarsely breathed out, now worried about their parents. "Mom and Dad?" "No Bill…they're fine as far as I know…" He saw his sister's smile rupture across her face and for once Bill could see that the emergency was actually good news. "What?! What is it Beth?!" he demanded. "Bill…when can you make it back to Earth?" she asked. Bill thought quickly, still trying to catch his breath. "My last day here is tomorrow. I was going to go to Rigel III first but if there's something wrong I can make it to Earth in under two weeks…what's up? Tell me Beth!" he roared. His sister was unable to control her beaming smile and her laugh. "Bill…you are never going to believe this!"

6


PART ONE

C

7


8


Stardate 91941.1 Earth Calendar September 13, 2413 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise - NCC-1701-G Bridge

The Briar Patch. It was the nasty, swirling cloud of deadly gas and star matter that had made the USS Enterprise-E even more famous than she already had been. It now engulfed the USS Enterprise-G. It meant two days of concentration on the helm. It was tiring, boring and tediously slow going and Beth was losing what little patience she had left. She was anxious to get to Ba'ku, the ringed planet that lay inside. She sat in the comfort of the command chair and looked around the bridge once more in awe. She had been captain of the newly commissioned USS Enterprise-G for just over six weeks and the ship had launched just under two weeks before. She thought that her crew might be beginning to get used to her style. Now? She just had to get used to them. The crossing over to the Briar Patch from Earth had been wonderfully non-eventful. Glitches in the ship's engineering seemed to be smoothed out by day five. The new propulsion and navigation systems' 9


bugs had all been worked out by the Enterprise's sister-ship, the USS Determination and Elieth, a Vulcan male and her Chief of Engineering was able to locate the resolutions easily. Beth had even taken the time to run a surprise battle simulation to get a feel for hull stress limits, helm, engineering and team efficiency. While there were a few serious communication problems, secretly she was ecstatic with the crew's performance. As with any new launch, there were other problems that required a more delicate touch. A crisis arose with the programming of the food replicators that wasn't ultimately corrected until day six. The Bolians, Choblik, Pahkwa-thanh, Klingons, Cardassians, Irriol and Ferengi were having fits and Beth was forced to test her "people skills" to navigate through the political nightmare that lack of desired menus wrought upon otherwise rational individuals. I used to be such a nice person. Battle has made me much less tolerant of minutiae, she thought with sick disappointment. She was raised in an environment of enduring tolerance and the thought that she was somehow losing that side of herself was devastating to her. She glanced to her right and rested her eyes upon her new First Officer. She had asked him to monitor them through this portion of the Patch, not only to get a feel for his style but also his capabilities at the conn. His Starfleet record reflected excellent piloting skills but his true talent seemed to lie in diplomacy and communication - something she knew she desperately needed help with. His name was Paul Dryden. A human of ancient African descent, Beth knew he had been born and raised on starships. He had been cordial, professional and respectful at their first meeting the week after she took the command of the Enterprise. She chose him as her Exec Officer because he appeared to be the complete package. He had the style and charisma that an XO needed to rally the team and the intense intelligence required for the away missions. Yet it wasn't until his second day on board the Enterprise, three weeks before their launch, that she knew she had nailed it. She had been in her ready room desperately trying to overcome her telecom discussion with her CO, Admiral Janeway, who had steadfastly refused to let her know what their first mission would be. Dryden had 10


walked in and immediately knew the source of her frustration. "Screw'em." he said and it startled her. "What?" she had responded with a smile and no small amount of shock at his choice of words, although she would have used them herself. "Screw'em. We'll be great no matter what the first mission is, whether it's cleaning up Shentarian subspace messes, tackling the Thraiin Militia or finally getting out to sectors in the Crux Arm to explore." the laugh that followed was constructed with pure satire, for he knew as well as she that exploration would not be the Enterprise's first mission. It was then that she realized that they shared a precisely honed view of their organization, brought on not just by being in it but rather by growing up in it. It was the fact that he had made her laugh that she appreciated. His comment had eased her tension about the unknown. It was at that precise moment she knew she had made the right choice. Beth breathed in. Dryden was actually doing very well at the conn and she decided to retreat to her ready room in order to break away from the monotony and to give Dryden a break from her. The ready room was spacious and empty and she thought, perhaps a little sterile looking. She had not even started to think about how she might personalize it. She knew that would come with time. Beth idled to her desk and before she sat, she looked to the food replicator and ordered a cup of black coffee. French roast, of course. It was a habit she happily blamed on her CO, although in reality their shared affection for the beverage was pure coincidence. She sat in her chair, setting the coffee down after taking a sip. She thought about Jean-Luc's office and smiled when she remembered that it had been crowded with mementos he had gathered over a life-time of adventure. She saddened when she realized how much she missed him. She stood once more and strolled over to a table on the opposite side of the office and looked to the old leather scrapbook on a book rest. Besides a photograph of her own family that hung on the bulkhead near the door, it was the only decoration in her ready room. The scrapbook lay open to reveal a photograph. The picture showed a fit and handsome Captain Jean-Luc Picard in a red and black Starfleet uniform, standing in a vineyard with his brother Robert and his young nephew RenĂŠ. She 11


remembered Jean-Luc telling her it was the most important picture he had in the book – they were the last of the Picards. She was still honored he trusted her enough to assure they would never be forgotten. Beth softly touched the edge of the picture. Family is strange that way, she thought and she glanced to the two dimensional photo of her family near the ready room door. It was a photograph of her and her twin brother along with her parents taken just a few weeks prior to her undertaking her last assignment aboard the USS Panther. Beth grimaced, realizing the photo lacked the image of her younger sister. She sighed heavily and turned to look back at the Picard family photos, wondering if any of those photos were missing faces of family members she may never know existed. She tried to shake the sick feeling in her stomach. She yawned and stretched her neck when the bell to her readyroom chirped‌

K'Reeg, son of Ch'Targh, had watched his new captain exit the bridge. She looked frustrated and bored like he was. Warriors hate to wait he thought with satisfaction. Impatience is a virtue. He glanced around the bridge of this clean, sanitary ship and still knew he had made the right decision. Many Klingons had joined Starfleet now and he was just one of hundreds, but there were still matters of honor to attend to on Qo'noS to assure that the family name would hold firm on the home-world. K'Reeg's actions at Isla Deneb had solidified his own honor and he took comfort in the fact that his father could now rest easier with his choice to join Starfleet instead of remaining with the Klingon Defense Force. His father, who had served in the KDF long ago with both Ambassador Rozhenko and Emissary Worf, now held a position of high esteem and K'Reeg did not wish to sully his reputation in any way. Ch'Targh was a well-respected General and commanded the mighty IKS Klag and the feared KDF Fourth Fleet. K'Reeg proudly remembered fighting alongside his father at Isla Deneb and looked forward to the next opportunity 12


to do so. K'Reeg knew the Enterprise was the elite ship of the Federation fleet and was glad to hear of his father's satisfaction when K'Reeg was promoted to her. His thoughts returned to his new captain. She was young. She may have been young but she was fierce. Her last command of a DIvI'may'Duj had produced more kills than a quarter of the of the Klingon forces combined. He would never point that statistic out to any of them of course, unless provoked. She had received two commendations from the Klingon High Council and Chancellor K'Nagh for her deeds at Isla Deneb. She also had no problems kicking her crew into high gear. He was ecstatic that she threw a surprise battle simulation in their first week after launch. K'Reeg was glad for the simulation. He kept his tactical skills honed and it gave him an opportunity to become more familiar with and work out some of the bugs with the new weaponry systems. During the simulation K'Reeg thought that the ensign at the conn station would fall over from panic, but surprisingly she found her footing and his faith in her increased substantially. He thought she performed very well for being half-Ferengi. He glanced down to the new First Officer who was now sitting in the command chair. He was dark-skinned human who exhibited a serious character but when the captain wasn't on the bridge, he would ease his demeanor and joke with the crew. K'Reeg actually liked his humor, it was acerbic and dry. The XO also had a valiant battle history, if not as long as his captain's, but that made sense – Dryden had served aboard a large ship, meant for exploration and diplomacy, not on a battle ship like the captain. K'Reeg would work well for him he thought, it just might take a little more time to understand him. His eyes moved towards the Chief Science Officer. His skin prickled but he ignored it. She was half-Romulan and the Romulan profile, no matter how long they had been peaceful with them, would still make one think twice about trusting them. He had to admit she was an exemplary officer but she would still take a lot of getting used to. It was something his father had warned him about – the Federation's acceptance of any and all species. Before K'Reeg entered 13


the Academy, Ch'Targh had warned him that Federation ships would be filled with all manner of strange animals. He also told him to check twice before eating his meals to make sure he wouldn't be devouring a fellow cadet. While it was a joke, when he arrived on Earth and sat down in the Academy mess hall, he found his appetite whetted by at least three of his classmates. He laughed internally. The Choblik would make a nice snack, if it weren't for their cyborg implants… His thoughts returned once more to his captain. He had been two years ahead of her at the Academy. He remembered her treatment there as well. Few were kind to her. Her professors hounded her and she had only a handful of friends. He did recall that the friends she did have were very, very loyal. He thought she had responded to her treatment like a Klingon. She took it, molded it as her own and used it to her advantage. By the time he graduated and moved on to Command School she was already developing into a leader. He found it odd that so many from Starfleet looked askew at his captain. Yes, for a human she was very young to have such a command, but he thought she was wise for her age – for she, like many Klingons, took advice from her elders to heart and used that advice to her and her crew's advantage. He understood that. It was simple. His father and honored elders were wise and he always took their advice to heart and in doing so, he gained a place of respect and honor. Her actions were nothing different from that. He walked across the bridge to the ready-room door. There was one small matter to attend to. Something he learned that humans needed to hear. A trick his elders taught him so he would fit in with the humans better. He rang the bell.

"…Come," she stated calmly. Her Second Officer and Security/Tactical Chief walked in. He was an extraordinarily large Klingon, tall and ruddy and his brown hair was pulled back into a traditionally tied ponytail which reached below his 14


shoulder blades. Beth knew Lieutenant Commander K'Reeg from the Academy as well as through his well-known valor in the Battle of Isla Deneb. When she was First Officer of the USS Panther she had once attempted to have K'Reeg transferred to her ship but his CO on the USS Helsinki refused to part with him. It had been a wise move, as it was largely due to K'Reeg's efforts that the Helsinki had even survived the battle. That was two years ago. Beth turned to address him. "yaS cha'DIchwI'…what can I do for you?" She smiled. K'Reeg's head pulled slightly at her use of the possessive Klingon term for Second Officer and he bowed his head slightly. He knew that she had once served under a Klingon, he just didn't realize that she was so comfortable with the Klingon language. "Captain, I was hoping you had a moment." Beth took on a look of serious concern. "Of course I do Mister K'Reeg, the Briar Patch has given me nothing but time." Beth's voice echoed her annoyance and his smirk demonstrated to her that he shared the sentiment. "Please, have a seat." She motioned for him to sit on the sofa on the edge of the room but he moved towards a chair on the other side of her desk. She internally chastised herself for forgetting that Klingons preferred a more formal structure and she stood by her chair as he also remained standing. "Is there anything wrong K'Reeg?" K'Reeg's half smile showed his craggy teeth and Beth knew the discussion would be more positive than she had first thought. "No Captain." K'Reeg's voice was deep and resonating, "It's just that this is the first moment I have had since coming on board the Enterprise to express to you how honored I am at having been selected by you and being able to serve with you." His voice was almost gentle and for a moment Beth was reminded of Worf. Beth smiled broadly and almost laughed. A Klingon expression of gratitude. Well my, my. Ch'Targh taught you well! "Well Mister K'Reeg, you should know that I understand what that means coming from a Klingon. I will do my best to live up to your standards." He shook his head fiercely, confused by her seeming humility. "My standards Captain? You are already known to be honorable and you 15


carry a place of distinction within the Klingon Empire. Your skills in battle are well known." She laughed a little. "Maybe so K'Reeg but you need to know I may have to look to you to find my spine every so often. Please do not think less of me when I do." K'Reeg stood at attention with a look of determination. "Captain – I will be there when you need me." Beth walked around the desk and looked up to the enormity of him. His metal Klingon sash gave his look of ferocity a nobler air. She grabbed his upper arms and shook him hard. "I thank you in advance!" K'Reeg backed from her then started to walk to the door. "Mister K'Reeg – was that all?" She seemed almost surprised. "Yes, Captain. That was all." "yajchu'." Beth confirmed her understanding and immediately lost her grin to an expression of discomfort. "How much longer do we have in this damned cloud?" "About three hours Captain." "Good. I'm going stir-crazy." K'Reeg nodded in agreement and exited the ready room. Alone again, Beth returned to her seat at her desk, smiling broadly. She sipped at her coffee once more as she picked up a PADD to yet again explore the personnel roster. It had been just under two weeks and she still had to familiarize herself with hundreds of people. The Panther only had a crew of two hundred and twenty five. The Enterprise had just over eight hundred. It was daunting. It was a little disappointing. A full twenty percent of her crew was human and seventy two percent were humanoid. She was hoping for a more species-diverse crew but assignments were assignments. The Enterprise-G had 32 decks, a tightened design and a mean look to boot. Her hull was shaped more like a rounded spearhead than the previous starship designs. War had been a main focus of the Federation for the past five years and starship design was made to fit the agenda. The ship had been outfitted with the new shielding technology that they hoped would outlast any new advances the Shentarians had made since Telanus. She was also 16


rigged with two more torpedo bays than her predecessor. The Federation had high hopes that exploration would begin again, with an emphasis on sectors toward the Crux Arm of the galaxy but the Enterprise-G was built knowing that exploration was on the back-burner‌for now. Beth thought of the Enterprise like she did the Panther, like a Cat. She was a very big Cat - but a Cat nonetheless. The Enterprise was the second starship to be rigged with the new Federation navigation and propulsion systems that had only previously existed on the PantheraClass defense ships. Her experience on the Panther gave her the skills necessary to command the massive starship and she knew that the Enterprise had remarkable maneuverability in rough situations. Her recent battle sim had given her a feel for her new ship and it also gave her crew a taste of her battle and command techniques. She secretly nicknamed the Enterprise "Tiger" to acknowledge those capabilities. She also knew it was a large reason that Starfleet chose her over her older counterparts. There wasn't a member of her senior staff that wasn't older than her but she was used to that. She knew that Starfleet chose her because they needed a pilot who understood battle and the intricacies of the new navprop system, not a politician. Battle had been in the forefront of everyone's minds. The current war with the Shentarians was the result of what her Interspecies Protocol Professor would have clinically and nasally dubbed a bad result from a poorly planned observation mission. Personally, Beth thought war with Shentarians would have been inevitable. She found them to be an exceptionally emotionless species with a manifest destiny mentality. They had stumbled across the knowledge that there was so much more for them to plunder in the Alpha Quadrant. The Shentarians were hard-shelled beings that some had called a strange blend of humanoid-insectoid and they weakly resembled Terran crustaceans. While they were tall, their arms were longer than their bodies. Their green exoskeletons were mottled brown and Beth thought their coloration was remarkably like that of uncooked lobster shell. For being so large, they were almost delicate in their forms. Their long, thin arms could easily span three meters from the tip of one of their four spindle-like fingers to the other. Their heads were round and wide and smooth. Their eyes were bright yellow and the irises were crescent-shaped slits. But it 17


was their mandibles that everyone feared. Large, razor sharp and hidden, they only appeared when a meal was to be consumed or slaughter was on the agenda. Beth pushed the memories of the bloodshed out of her mind. When the Federation first set out towards the Gamma Quadrant to observe the Shentarians, they had been under the unfortunate and mistaken assumption that the planet to be observed was a progressive culture that was on the verge of warp capability. What the Federation observation teams had actually stumbled onto was a penal colony of Shentarians being held by their far more technologically advanced homeworld. The home-world ships discovered the Federation duck-blind teams just beginning to arrive on the penal colony and in distant orbit and believed invasion/escape plans were underway. The ensuing massacre wiped out over seven million captive Shentarians and four Federation ships in the area. It was the discovery of the Federation ships that led the Shentarians directly to the Alpha Quadrant. All attempts at diplomacy had failed as the Shentarians' only objective was to conquer. Beth compared the Shentarians' unnerving drive to that of the Borg, but where the Borg wanted to assimilate, Shentarians just wanted lunch. Beth knew they carried a deeper need to rule but it just seemed like everything about them was hunger driven; their hunger for food, their hunger for power and their hunger for suitable living space. Their home world, sixteen colony planets and two remaining penal colonies were severely over-populated and all their hungers merged and became the driving force of the species. Beth knew that Cardassia had a similar history and that they were able to find the courage to overcome those hungers, yet only after the Dominion killed over 800 million of them. Cardassia had become strong allies indeed, but she didn't hold out any hope the Shentarians would ever find that courage. The first Shentarian attacks came upon Federation colonies on the edges of the Gamma Quadrant five years before. The utter destruction and subsequent capture of the planets thrust the Federation headlong into a defensive war it had not anticipated. While the bulk of the Shentarian forces carried technology that was comparable to that of the Federation, they held a few advantages and the seldom seen but dreadfully feared whales were a distinct 18


advantage. The Federation believed that the Shentarians didn't have many of the colossal vessels for they must have drained the military resources to build. They had developed the technology to create and master the use of subspace bubbles, subtle in form, they were difficult to locate and deadly. If a ship or even its shields touched one of them, there would be no recovery. The whales themselves were almost ten kilometers in diameter and they spun the bubbles from the edges of their bowl-shaped forms. The bubbles would spring forth from the ship and encase everything inside a finely woven cone-shaped net that exuded from the ship. The tactic was incredibly similar to that of the Terran humpback whale feeding technique and was exactly what had given rise to the use of the term whale. To date, there was only one known defense against them and it meant certain death for the ship or ships that had to undertake it. Most, however believed that the two forces were fairly evenly matched. Isla Deneb became the most blatant proof of that theory. At the outset of the conflict, the Federation had propelled itself into a period of shipbuilding at a pace to match the efforts that occurred after the massacre at Wolf-359, a battle that happened more than four decades before and almost fifteen years before Beth had even been born. Three years into the strife, Isla Deneb, a planet that orbits the star Deneb Algiedi, became the site of the largest Federation clash since the Battle of Deep Space Nine which ended the Dominion War. At Isla Deneb, the Federation and its allies took on a formidable Shentarian force and the battle remained undecided. Isla Deneb was unambiguously devastating to the Federation. The self-sacrificial loss of the Enterprise-F in the battle had buckled everyone's morale. While their valiance helped end the battle before mutual annihilation was achieved, it was always just a strange given that the Enterprise survives its battles. It was then that the Starfleet promised that one of the new Determination-Class ships would be designated Enterprise and the strength would arise anew. At the time, Beth was XO of the Panther and her CO was Captain Esteven Gallegos. She respected Gallegos more than any other of her Commanding Officers during her meteoric career. It was during the battle 19


at Isla Deneb that Gallegos was killed. Beth was field promoted to Captain. To everyone's surprise, especially hers, the promotion held. It was almost unheard of as she was only twenty-eight years old at the time. Beth's performance as Captain on the Panther and her ability to use her piloting and tactical proficiency impressed everyone in Starfleet Command and they quickly utilized her skills to their best interest. She was given lead of the Panthera-Class ships on numerous missions against Shentarian forces over the past year and a half, every single one of which had been successful and many believed that it was due to these recent missions that Shentarian contacts had decreased in frequency in recent months. There were five ships in the class and they were commonly referred to as "The Cats." The USS Panther, Cougar, Puma, Jaguar and Leopard were all developed as modern generation and much larger versions of the old Defiant-Class attack vessels. They were medium-sized and exceptionally heavily laden with firepower. The five of them together were formidable against every opponent they had yet to face. Beth had been offered the command of the Enterprise six weeks before. No one needed to ask her twice. She was not about to turn down a dream over false humility. Everything had always been about the Enterprise. Beth's mind hit upon the ironic thought that exploration was even being considered by the Federation and she laughed to herself. Her dream, to take the Enterprise to an uncharted area of the galaxy and to discover something new, something wonderful, seemed like a complete fantasy now. Jean-Luc would have hated this. She had been raised to explore, then retrained to fight. She had no idea the fighting would come so easily to her and sometimes it concerned her deeply. Jean-Luc would have hated that too. Who knew I would be chosen to take the Enterprise because I could kill so easily? Beth shut her mind to the thoughts. Skirmishes with Shentarians had dwindled over the last six months but the proverbial lull in fighting began approximately two months before. The Federation did not believe by any means the war was over. It was just suspended while both sides licked their wounds. Underneath the priority of the Shentarian confrontations, Starfleet's 20


attentions had been frequently pulled towards the Beta Quadrant and the "problem" of the Thraiin militia – a highly organized and well-funded group of mercenaries that had banded together in order to thwart any potential political gains between Romulus and Remus. While the militia had been in existence long before Beth had even entered the Academy, they had gained strength and courage over the past few years and were beginning to make life very difficult for the peacemakers of the Romulan Star Empire. The Federation had only marginally tolerated attacks by the Thraiin due to its preoccupation with the Shentarian threat, but the Thraiin had gained new technology and with it, an upper hand on many of the most recent confrontations with Starfleet. It was only recently that Starfleet started to take them more seriously and now saw them as a real threat to any peace efforts in that region. Beth's eyes fell to her family photo once more and let her heart tug hard. Her coffee was finished and she had scanned through another fifty personnel files when she set her PADD down. She reached for her combadge and clicked it. "Captain to Dryden. Please report to the ready room." "Yes sir" is all she heard. A moment later her door opened and her Executive Officer walked in. She smiled and he returned it. "I just finished going over the duty rosters for the first shift. I think you've done an amazing job." "Thank you Captain." Beth looked him over quietly. He was tall and had closely trimmed hair and a shaven face. His eyes were dark brown towards the center of his iris and they faded to light brown at the edges. He looked proud in his uniform with the command red at his collar and neck. The uniforms themselves were basic black, but the thin lines down the shoulders, sleeves and legs were dark smoke grey. They reminded Beth of the uniforms she remembered as a child, distinguished and not over-embellished. "Now, are we all set for when we reach Ba'ku?" she asked him. Dryden finally broke a smile. "Yes, Captain. I know what to do." Beth smiled. "Thanks Number One." And then she realized it was 21


the first time she had used the familiar term with him and she was about to apologize but he shook his head. "No Captain – I like it." He grinned. "Good. For some reason, it just fits with you I think." Dryden seemed pleased and took it as the compliment it was intended. "I am going to head to my quarters until we reach Ba'ku. I will then come back to the bridge when our guests come on board and you can greet them like we planned." "Excellent Captain. I will contact you when we enter orbit." "Thanks." Beth smiled. "For everything." She followed Dryden out and looked at her bridge crew at their posts. She smiled and nodded to all of them and then turned and entered the turbolift. She called for deck eleven and when the door opened a moment later she moved out and around a slight arc in the corridor. She moved into her quarters and smiled. The decadence of its size overwhelmed her every time she walked in. She laughed when she realized that her quarters on the Enterprise were almost as large as the bridge itself and larger by far than the bridge of the Panther. The clouds of colors of the Briar Patch swirled, danced and floated across her windows. It was beautiful. It was dangerous - but beautiful. Beth moved all the way into her quarters and to her dressing room. She began to prepare for the arrival of the four guests from Ba'ku.

Dryden expertly monitored the Enterprise through the tail end of the gaseous Briar Patch and into the expanse that opened and led to the planet Ba'ku. He turned the conn over to K'Reeg and then went to his quarters to ready himself for their visitors. He was looking forward to this. He was one of the few who knew that the metaphasic radiation from Ba'ku's rings kept its inhabitants from aging and in all cases those who were allowed to visit showed amazing reversals of their own aging process. For these reasons, the Federation kept Ba'ku a closely guarded secret. The Federation had a very short list of those who were allowed to visit and even they were limited to stays of no more than eight weeks at a 22


time. A diplomatic quarantine was placed on the planet and access to the planet was intensely scrutinized. Paul knew that the Enterprise herself would be in orbit for less than eight hours before turning around and heading back through the Briar Patch. The Federation's last treaty with the Ba'ku and their surviving Ba'kuSon'a descendants was on the edge of expiring and the Ba'ku inhabitants had invited their dear friends, Admiral William T. Riker and his wife, Ambassador Deanna Troi to accompany another Federation Ambassador to hammer out the terms of the new treaty to ensure Ba'Ku's safety for the next thirty years. Admiral Riker and Ambassador Troi had made at least ten trips to Ba'Ku over the course of the last thirty five years and even though they were both in their mid-to-late seventies, they looked remarkable. It was usually an accepted practice that visitors would travel to Ba'ku with their spouses so any effects from the planet's rings would be shared. Dryden understood that this visit had been a little different than most had been. They had been there for the entire eight week duration and negotiations were not expected to be an issue. They never were with the Ba'ku. It was always in the Federation's best interest to assure Ba'ku's safety for if it were to fall into to the hands of an enemy there may be no recovery. Ugh, immortal Shentarians‌that would be bad. Very, very bad, he thought to himself as he straightened his tunic and double checked to make sure all three pips were on his collar. No, the difference on this trip was the presence of Ambassador Rozhenko and his wife. Alexander Rozhenko, a Klingon and the son of Emissary Worf of the Klingon Empire, had been a Federation Ambassador for many years. He had proven himself to be a valued asset to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. His human wife, Tatiana, and he had met while she had been traveling to Qo'noS on a diplomatic mission. She had been born and raised in St. Petersburg on Earth. It was there that she and Alexander made a home and she gave birth to two sons. It was a known fact throughout the Federation and the Klingon Empire that Worf spoiled these two children like no others in the galaxy. Dryden looked himself once more in the mirror. Formal dress uniforms were in order for the arrival of the Admiral and the Ambassador. 23


The white and gold-gilded jacket was form-fitting and regal. He was pleased with what he saw. He was extremely pleased with his new position. He had always thought of the First Officer's position on the Enterprise as being the trophy. I get to command her at times but I always get the away missions! Dryden felt strong arms encircle his waist from behind and his smile widened when he saw Clark's gorgeous face in the mirror over his shoulder. His blonde hair and cocoa colored eyes made him melt every time he looked at him. "I love you in this uniform." Clark's deep voice purred and he snuggled into Paul. "Well then don't crease it. I'm meeting the Admiral and the Ambassadors and I'm already late," Paul teased as he turned. He lifted his hand to his husband's face and caressed it softly then leaned to kiss him gently. He let his smile beam wide and turned to walk for the door of their quarters. Clark could see the excitement in Paul's face and waved. "Go then!" Paul blew him another kiss and Clark shooed him with his hand. Paul jogged to the turbolift, entered, called for deck seven and leaned against the side of the lift. His smile had not yet waned. One of his heroes was boarding the ship and he would be the first to greet him. Admiral Riker always let people know that he had a hard time deciding whether his favorite position had been that of First Officer of the Enterprise or Captain of the Titan. When Dryden heard Riker speak at his tenth Academy class reunion, he was inspired to hear that he had passed on several promotions in order to stay on the ship he loved, performing the duties he loved until he finally took a promotion to become the Captain of the USS Titan, a vessel that eventually became as famous as the Enterprise. Paul wanted that kind of legacy. Learn everything about anything, then apply it and make it your own. The doors opened and he made headway for transporter room four. There, he met up with Transporter Chief Carlos Vega, a thin but athletically built human male. His South American accent was faint. "The Admiral and Ambassadors have just reported as ready, sir." Dryden nodded. "Excellent. I would have hated to have been late 24


for this, Vega," he admitted to the Chief and realized he was glad he remembered his name. Vega nodded in agreement. "No doubt, sir." Vega pressed a short series of commands into the transporter panel and moved his hand up the panel. Four transporter beams began to glisten. Within moments the bodies of the four guests materialized before them. Dryden was immediately taken by how wonderful Riker looked. His hair and beard were still grey and had thinned over his years but he stood tall, rugged and his strength was irrefutable. He was wearing his red standardAdmiral's uniform. His wife, Deanna Troi looked radiant, beautiful and very happy. Her once dark hair was now heavily tinged with salt grey but her skin was smooth and glowing. The Admiral moved forward first off the transporter pad, his beaming smile widened when he saw Dryden. He extended his hand and then momentarily caught sight of Dryden's collar. He had noticed that he was not the captain. Dryden moved forward, shaking the Admiral's hand. He was shocked by the strength in the Admiral's grip. "Admiral, Ambassadors, I am Commander Paul Dryden, First Officer of the USS Enterprise." Dryden smiled when he heard his own words. "I welcome you to our new home." Riker was still smiling but Dryden could tell he was expecting something else. Riker moved on with formalities. "Commander, it's a pleasure to meet you. To say the least we were shocked when we found out that the new Enterprise was sent to greet us instead of the Persephone. Is there anything that I need to be concerned about?" he asked. Dryden shook his head firmly. "No Admiral. Your command ship had been summoned to San Francisco upon our commissioning. She's undergoing some repairs and some refits. She was involved in a slight altercation with a Thraiin vessel, but suffered no casualties. Captain Ryan was granted a few weeks shore leave and Admiral Janeway thought it would be a nice way for us to shakedown," Dryden responded. Riker seemed to relax. "I'm glad to hear that Captain Ryan and the Persephone are safe‌" his eyes took in the newness of the transporter room, "‌and I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the Enterprise." 25


Riker moved in to allow Deanna, Alexander and Tatiana forward to greet Dryden. Riker's smile turned into a questioning scowl. "But tell me…is your captain unaware of protocol when meeting dignitaries?" His voice was low, gruff and serious. "No sir. However I was ordered to greet you here. The captain felt that introductions would be more appropriate on the bridge. I am to escort all four of you there now." Riker grimaced. NOT a good start! He thought to himself. He knew that he was never one for strict military protocol when he was captain, but this captain's actions were beyond presumptive. He would have damn well been in the transporter room when an Admiral and especially two Ambassadors visited his ship. Deanna lowered her head. Will, watch the temper…please! He heard Deanna's voice clearly in his head and realized that she had sensed his thoughts and Riker realized how intense his anger was. Deanna was only able to hear him when his emotions shot off the charts. She reached for his hand and he gripped it tightly. Riker's look of extreme disapproval was evident to Tatiana and Alexander as well. Riker was now flat-out embarrassed by the lack of protocol and he shook his head apologetically to the Ambassador and his wife. It's the Enterprise Deanna! Expectations should be high! Dryden could see Riker's displeasure and his face heated through. He quickly turned, leading them out the door and to the turbolift. Dryden then addressed Alexander. "Ambassador, did you enjoy your first visit to Ba'ku?" Tatiana was a beautiful woman and it was obvious the trip had done her wonders, but Alexander grimaced a little and tried to smile but it was a complete failure. "It was…interesting," he responded in a deep, almost annoyed voice. It was only then that Dryden noticed a series of large pustules on the Ambassador's face. Understanding the Klingon's response to the rings' effects a little more, he wisely chose not to pursue the line of conversation any further. Deanna smiled politely to Dryden. Well, at least he's not foolish. She looked to her husband and Riker broke a small smile within a snarl.

26


He's the First Officer of the Enterprise Deanna. He thought, his anger still brewing. He's not a complete idiot! The doors of the turbolift opened and Dryden stepped forward briskly. "Admiral on the bridge!" he announced loudly and thrust himself to attention at the height of the bridge. Riker immediately moved forward out of the turbolift and blindly, almost half-way down the bridge ramp. "Captain‌" his voice grumbled. Beth saw the Admiral's eyes and cringed. Oh shit, he's pissed! Riker slowed almost to a stop, forcing himself to remember his own trick to subdue his anger and he tightened his lower abdominal muscles and breathed in deeply. It was then he noticed the senior staff standing at attention in their blazing white, formal uniforms. He quickly gazed around the bridge. It was tight looking – streamlined. The dark surfaces and subdued lighting were more reminiscent of the old Enterprise-D's battle bridge than of her saucer section. The formal white uniforms of the bridge officers were a stark contrast to the blacks, grays and dark browns of the bridge. A woman stepped forward at attention from in front of the command chair. She was tall, slender and her long, thick, dark brown hair rested in gentle waves below her shoulders. The woman had intense black eyes. Her bright teeth shone when her smile broke wide. Riker stopped cold in his tracks. For a fleeting moment his thought was Deanna. She cleared her throat quickly. "Admiral Riker. The USS Enterprise welcomes you home, sir," she said calmly. The remaining bridge crew all smiled while they remained at attention. Riker's anger deflated into pure confusion. "Elizabeth...?" he whispered. "Elizabeth?" Deanna asked in a hard question and moved from behind her husband to see the floor of the bridge. Riker, quickly followed by Deanna, walked down to the main level of the bridge and stood directly in front of Beth. She remained smiling and at attention. Riker's fury was now gone, but his scowl was replaced with a vacuous expression. "What are you doing here?" he asked. His blue eyes met her dark ones and he looked to her collar. The four pips 27


were still there. "She's mine, Admiral," she said softly and then laughed slightly. "What?" Riker stammered, utterly confused. "What do you mean she's yours?" He looked around the bridge, trying to find his center. "Dad." She made him look her directly in the eye. "I mean, she's mine. I'm the captain." She stretched to whisper in his ear. "I'm the captain of the Enterprise."

Deanna's hands moved directly to her mouth to cover her audible gasp. Riker stepped back and found her black eyes again. He still couldn't believe it. Beth however, was not going to continue to be rude. "Welcome to the USS Enterprise Ambassador Rozhenko! Mrs. Rozhenko, it's very good to see you both again." Alexander's deep Klingon laugh slowly but steadily brewed from the bottom of his gut and with the strength of a locomotive quickly boiled over. He had never seen Will Riker dazed before and he was going to enjoy every moment of it. He shook Beth's hands with great vigor and Beth reached over and kissed Tatiana once on each cheek. "Admiral!" Beth called and Riker's face turned to her once again, the blank expression still painted on it. "Let me introduce my fine crew!" Riker nodded slightly and Deanna moved in to take his hand. She too bore an expression of wonder and disbelief. Beth looked to her bridge crew. "Staff – please forgive Admiral Riker if he doesn't remember your names later on. I've seen this look only once before. It took him a few days to lose." She smirked and Deanna suddenly burst forward and hugged her. Beth laughed out loud. "I should have seen that one coming!" Beth tried again after Deanna let go. "Admiral and guests, you have already met my First Officer, Commander Paul Dryden. I hope my father didn't give you too much grief for my failure at greeting protocol, Commander." Dryden laughed, "He was upset at first but I think you've been forgiven." Paul focused on Riker. "Congratulations Admiral." Beth charged ahead as she saw that her father was at least trying to pay attention. "Admiral, my Second Officer is also my Security Chief 28


and Tactical Officer. Lieutenant Commander K'Reeg." It was Alexander who spoke up loudly. "K'Reeg! You honor the Empire!" K'Reeg was certainly taken by the Ambassador's comment and he could do nothing but nod in acknowledgement. "Next, my Chief Science Officer, Lieutenant Commander Jaden Revaik." Riker finally took notice and his head popped up hard. "Revaik. Yes, I know of you. It is a great pleasure to finally meet you in person," he acknowledged her sincerely. Deanna also found her voice and smiled to Revaik, "As it is with me, Lieutenant Commander." Revaik was visibly pleased with their response. She was a half Human – half Romulan woman and one of the first three individuals of Romulan descent to be allowed to openly enter into the Academy. Her jet-black hair was cut to the typical Romulan style but not as sharply. Her ears came to a soft point and her forehead ridges were only slightly pronounced and her smile was soft. She nodded graciously to her mentors. "Admiral Riker, Ambassador Troi, I am honored to finally meet the people I consider responsible for allowing my entrance to the Academy. I will serve to make you proud." Riker lifted his hand and placed it over his heart and looked to Beth. He was beginning to believe it and his smile couldn't be contained. He looked to Deanna whose face reflected her own sheer lapse of understanding of the entire situation. Are we dreaming this? His eyes turned to Deanna. Deanna's head showed an almost imperceptible shake. Her mouth was slightly agape and her eyes were once again locked onto Beth's face. Beth glanced at her mother and realized that she was as shocked as her father. Now, this is fun! Beth continued, "Ship's Counselor, Lieutenant Commander Enya Priest, from Betazed." She looked up to her father who appeared to be back in form and had graciously nodded to Enya. Enya had short, sandy-colored hair and the typical black Betazoid eyes. She was shorter than Beth by about ten centimeters and she could not stop staring at Deanna. It was obvious that she held Deanna in high esteem. 29


"My Chief of Engineering, Commander Elieth." Riker's face lit into a genuine grin. "Elieth! I am very pleased to see you Commander." Commander Elieth was a Vulcan man with dark skin. While he appeared young, Beth knew he was eldest member of her crew. Elieth had served under her father on the Engineering team while Riker was Captain of the USS Titan. Elieth's father, Vulcan Ambassador Tuvok, was well-known to all of Starfleet and the Federation.After serving Starfleet for decades including a long stint as XO on the Titan with Riker, Tuvok pursued a new career in diplomacy in the traditions of the Vulcan people. After the Titan's decommissioning, Elieth transferred to the USS Leopard where he served with distinction under Captain T'Vyn, another Vulcan. Two years before, Elieth had been set to be transferred to the Enterprise-F but the push for the battle at Isla Deneb caused the cancellation of his transport to the ship. He remained on the Leopard and earned his promotion to Commander and Chief of Engineering until Beth requested his presence on the Enterprise-G. "Thank you Admiral. It is agreeable to see you as well," he replied calmly. Beth nodded quickly. "Admiral and Ambassador, this is my Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Kenneth Richardson." Richardson was Nordic. He was a tall man and his blonde hair was cream-straw in hue. He had pale blue eyes and a chiseled dimple at the base of his chin. He was the epitome of Northern European sculpture. "Admiral," he acknowledged Riker with a professional smile and a slight Norwegian accent. Riker nodded to him in return. "Doctor." Beth turned to the Ops station and smiled. "Admiral. I'm lucky indeed to have a familiar face as my Third in Command and Chief Operations Officer, Lieutenant Commander Llewellyn." Michael Llewellyn stood upright and proud next to his chair at Ops. He was a short human male with a stocky and athletic build. He had black hair and dark brown eyes. Riker recognized him immediately and smiled. "Mike it's very good 30


to see you." "Admiral, Ambassador. I am also glad to see you again and looking so well," Llewellyn replied, his deep voice held low. Beth looked to her Flight Controller and smiled proudly. "Finally Admiral, my Lead Flight Controller, Ensign Phinod Canrella." Canrella was an amazing mix of Ferengi and Bajoran. While her earlobes were very distinctive and broad, they were beautiful and graceful and the ridge of the top of her ears swooped like an artful line over her eyebrows and broke into the typical Bajoran ridges over her nose. Her smile of almost perfect teeth only heightened the grace of her face and her Bajoran earring glittered and gave her an appearance of glamour. Riker turned to look at her. "Ensign Phinod," Riker addressed her in the traditional Bajoran way, the use of the surname always came first, "I have heard of you as well. LaForge hasn't stopped talking about you since you graduated from the Academy. Congratulations on this assignment." "Thank you Admiral." She seemed embarrassed and the upper lobes of her ears flushed with color. Beth looked to her father. His eyes still seemed wide. She hadn't seen him like this since she told him she was admitted to the Academy, when she was fifteen. She had lied to her parents told them she was going with some friends to meet Worf and Alexander on Earth during the school break. While Worf and Alexander covered for her, she had actually taken a transport to Starbase 112 to secretly take the Academy entrance exam. She entered the Academy just after her sixteenth birthday. She remembered it took her father a full day to comprehend her admission, a full day to get over his anger with her for lying to him and a full day to forgive Worf for his help in the deception. By day four he couldn't contain his pride. "Why don't we move into the ready-room Admiral? I think you need to sit." She turned and secretly looked to Dryden and smiled. He gave her a slight "thumbs-up" sign and she began to push the group into her ready-room. She turned to her XO. "Number One, you have the bridge. After the away team has returned, please move back through the Patch at one-quarter impulse." "Aye, sir," he responded. 31


When the door closed behind her she began to cordially show her guests to seats in the room but she found herself being hoisted in the air and squeezed so hard she thought her lungs had deflated. "Dad…" she hoarsely whispered, "Dad – too tight…." He dropped her suddenly, which freed her arms and she responded to him by throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him. "I can't believe it! CAPTAIN OF THE ENTERPRISE!" he roared. "Does Bill know?!" asked Deanna excitedly. Riker set her down and almost instantaneously Beth turned and hugged her mother. Beth resembled Deanna. She had the same dark brown hair and the same black eyes, but Beth was noticeably taller than her mother. There was no doubt she inherited her height from her father. Beth's beauty was unquestionable. "Yes! Bill was there for the commissioning ceremonies. He said he'll catch up with you on Earth. He plans on being there for almost the next year. His finds at the ruins of Carlaeli were amazing I guess and he's going to enlist some doctoral students to help him." Beth smiled when she thought of her twin brother leaning over a lit table with a bunch of dusty relics laying on it. He always got so excited about that stuff. "I wish we had been there!" yelped Deanna disappointedly. "It's okay Mom, this was much more fun!" admitted Beth. "Now, everyone have a seat, please." Before Alexander could sit, Beth grabbed him and hugged him tightly and he returned it with great pleasure. She whispered in his ear. "Remember I told you about the look Dad got when I passed the exam?" He nodded with a smile. "That's the look!" She smiled and Alexander sat on the couch, holding Tatiana's hand tightly. Tatiana leaned and rested her head on Alexander's shoulder. They were enjoying themselves. Riker and Deanna sat in chairs across from the desk and Beth took her chair behind the desk. Riker leaned forward, his grin splitting his face. "Tell me everything young lady!" Beth rolled her eyes and looked at her mother. "He still thinks I'm sixteen." You are to me too, Elizabeth. Beth heard her mother's words crack clearly in her head. They 32


were loud and painful and they ricocheted open a door that let in the noise. "Mother….." she scorned. "You know I hate that. Warn me ahead of time." Her voice was clear and scathing. Beth pushed the noise down, hoping her face wasn't revealing her efforts, using the only trick she knew her mother wouldn't detect and she began to play music in her mind, loudly. "Fine." Deanna pouted but realized she used to hate when her mother spoke to her telepathically in front of others as well. The problem was? Beth didn't like to use her empathic abilities at all. Deanna had always been more than disappointed by it. Beth had turned her attentions back to her father. He sat in his chair upright and strong and she found herself jealous that the two of them got to spend so much time with the Ba'ku. She reprimanded herself and realized that the more time they spent with the Ba'ku the more time she would have with them. She smiled. "You all look great. I take it things went well on Ba'ku? How's Anij?" "Beautiful as always." He looked frustrated. "Damn! I wish there was a way I could tell her!" "There is." Beth dropped her head to a nod. "What?" Riker questioned. He then recalled Beth's orders to Dryden on the bridge. "Wait – away team? Who's on the Ba'ku surface?" He was immediately alarmed and feared for any potential breach of confidence. Beth held up her hand to reassure him. "My Communications Team, Admiral. The Ba'ku are being left with a new communication station. This will replace the one they already had but it's there in case they want to use it. Its signals can actually just barely penetrate the Briar Patch. It can be used to send and receive messages with similarly equipped Federation starships. Since we have regular patrols in this area now any call for help should be heard." Riker smiled again, relieved that Ba'ku would still be kept in the pocket of the Federation. "Good, I would like to contact…" his voice seemed to trail off momentarily, with almost a hint of disappointment, "…her." "I thought you would." Her face illustrated a slight smile as she cut in. "When you get to the VIP quarters, contact my Communications Chief. 33


Feel free to beam back to the surface if you would like. If not, he's been told to make his combadge available to you while they set up the station." Beth's voice reflected a deference that was not there before. Beth stood from curvature of the desk and turned to the replicator behind her desk. "Champagne for five." Five glasses of bubbling champagne appeared in delicate flutes. The other four stood from their seats and she handed Alexander and Tatiana stems. Beth walked around her desk to join the others in the open portion of the room. Riker brought his arm around Deanna's shoulder as he stared at his daughter's smiling and beautiful face. Jean-Luc would be beside himself. His thought was purely his own and he wasn't sure if Deanna would hear it or not. He smiled wistfully and held out his hand to receive a glass from Beth and momentarily he thought she might be in pain. Her fleeting grimace morphed into a gentle smile as she looked to her parents and friends. "It's all I have ever wanted." Beth's eyes met her father's. "For you, for him‌and for me." Riker's eyes widened into huge saucers. "You heard me?" He was stunned once more and Deanna perked her head up with confusion. Beth gave him half-nod. She turned and graciously smiled as Alexander and Tatiana were now expecting a toast. She raised her glass and said, "To Jean-Luc." "Jean-Luc," the rest quietly repeated and they all sipped. Beth moved across the room to set her glass down next to the old leather scrapbook and moved back to her father. He drew her into his broad arms and hugged her once more. Beth then moved to her mother and hugged her again as well. "Now – I will take you on a tour after you've settled. We still have more than two days to get through the Briar Patch. No new advances have been made on that end. As a matter of fact it will take a little longer for us as the new plasma impulse manifolds of this new ship are more sensitive to the cloud matter than the old ones were." Beth stated with no small amount of frustration. Technological advancements always seemed to bring backward steps in other ways. There was a consensus that assignment of quarters was due. Beth showed her guests to the door and asked Dryden to escort them to their 34


rooms. Just as Riker was to follow them, Beth touched his arm softly. "Admiral. I need to talk with you…alone." Deanna turned and realized that Beth had to talk about Starfleet matters. She kissed Beth on her cheek and followed Dryden and the Rozhenkos to the turbo lift and she seemed disheartened that she was no longer a part of that world. Riker backed into the ready-room. He saw the look in his daughter's eyes. It was business time. "What is it Captain?" he said to her as he sat in the chair across from her at the desk again. "Admiral." She was formal. "The Federation President has requested you to contact him on a secure channel as soon as you make yourself comfortable on board the Enterprise. This communication can be made from within the Briar Patch to the USS Puma, who is awaiting our arrival on the other side. They will act as relay to the Council." "The Puma's here?" His concern evident. "Yes sir and the Jag will be with her by the time we get through. They're to escort us all the way to Lambda Hydrae system, to Iolus Prime." "What?" Riker was heavily troubled. "Iolus Prime? Why are we heading for the Romulan Neutral Zone?" "That I don't know Admiral. My orders are to take you there and wait for you as well as the arrival of the other three Cats. I am to receive new orders from there." "The other Cats are meeting us at Iolus Prime?" He stood and the gravity of his demeanor changed. Riker felt a weight fall back upon him that he had not felt since he arrived at Ba'ku. "Yes, sir." Beth closed her eyes and raised her face towards the ceiling. "Nice parties always happen when the Cats get together." She was being facetious and he knew it. The Cats only got together when battle was anticipated. "Thraiin," he stated as if exhaling. Beth shook her head. "Believe it or not sir, the Thraiin are not suspected." Riker looked shocked. "It can't be Romulus can it? Is it the Shentarians?" he asked. Suddenly Beth thought he looked tired. "Neither sir. It's something 35


else entirely. We're not sure what to make of the reports we're getting on the edges of the Onias and Japori sectors. Three freighters have been attacked. We don't know the cause of the attacks or the species involved." "What?" his voice was hushed and he sat again. His eyes darted and met hers intensely. "What have you heard?" "To tell you the truth? Not much. Only that there are reports of strange activity near the outlining edges of the congruence of the Onias sector and the Neutral Zone." She sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Well, there have been rumors." "Rumors, Beth?" His eyebrows lifted. She smirked. "Yes Admiral. You know, those rumors that always end up having some element of truth about them?" He laughed a little. "Yes…what are they saying?" "That the three freighters all lost their captains on the bridge. Whoever or whatever attacked them, sliced through their shields like butter and directly attacked the commanders of the vessels. All three died from what their crew believed were ghosts. Once they were dead, the attacks on the ships stopped." Riker saw the look of disbelief in his daughter's eyes, the same look he used to get when the stories got ridiculous. "Ghosts." Beth laughed, "Yes, Admiral. I know there's more going on here. I just haven't been make privy to any formal reports yet." Riker nodded with understanding. "Command hasn't finished their investigation yet. When did the attacks start?" "They started just after you left - about eight weeks ago," she confirmed. "You should also know that last week, outposts along the reaches of the Delta Quadrant picked up an unusual subspace communication signal. It has yet to be identified." Riker's eyes closed. "Shentaria. Thraiin. Ghosts and now the Borg?" It will never end. "We're not sure Admiral. I look forward to talking more about this but I think I've delayed your communication to the Council long enough." Riker stood once more and she knew to follow him. Before he got to the door he turned to her. He pulled her close with one arm and he raised his other arm and drew his hand over her hair and smiled. He was disappointed he wasn't at Command to hear the news of her selection and 36


wondered when she had received the offer. "When did you know?" "When I was five," she replied. "Excuse me?" he questioned, her answer was not what he had been expecting. "When Bill and I were five you took the family on the Armstrong to Betazed to visit Grandmother. You sat me on your lap as you piloted the shuttle. That's when I knew." Her eyes met his in sincerity. Riker closed his eyes as the memory of her small body on his lap, his arms surrounding her and the sweet smell of her hair came flooding forward. She had asked a litany of questions and he had been having fun answering every one of them. They had turned the entire flight into a game. At the time, he just assumed she'd forget everything, but later that night as they relaxed in their room on Betazed, he found her playing on the floor with a mock-up she had made of the flight panel. She was touching the areas of her pretend panel exactly as she should have if it had been real. Not only had she remembered every single one of his answers, she had put them into practice. He sat on the floor behind her and pretended to be her passenger and watched her with amazement. Deanna looked on, amused from her chair with four year old Cassidy sitting on her lap, while Bill practiced scales on his portable keyboard. Riker remembered telling Deanna as they lay in bed that night that he believed Beth could have flown them back to the Titan by herself. "You know I've always been proud of you," he whispered to his daughter. Beth nodded. "You have always told me so." Riker smiled and drew her close. "But I've never been so proud you have accomplished what I never could." His awe, regret and pride were all evident in his voice. "Dad‌." Riker cut her off with another bear hug and left her ready room. Beth turned back into the room and quickly wiped a tear from her eye. She went to her desk and sat.

It was several hours before the Enterprise was able to make headway back into the Briar Patch. Riker had completed his communiquĂŠs 37


and Deanna had settled their belongings in their VIP quarters. Deanna was slowly and gently gliding from one end of the room to the other, her eyes, scarcely parting from the windows and the swirls of color roiling over them. Riker knew she was bothered. "Deanna, what's wrong?" He looked up to her from the desk where he was sitting. "You're pacing." Deanna looked perturbed. "Will, she's only thirty." Riker's eyes went alight and his chest puffed like an eagle. "She's thirty-one now Deanna. Hell of a birthday gift, isn't it great?!" It was then he realized that this was not what his wife wanted to hear. He shook his head with a laugh, "Deanna. What are you going to do about it? She made captain of the Enterprise at thirty. She's didn't beat the record, but she came close, just like she told you she would." Deanna's head spun. "I still think she's too young." Riker's eyes smiled and he stood and tenderly went to his wife. He enveloped her in his arms. "They always are." His voice was gentle and soft. "You were upset when Bill went to the Enterprise-E when he was ten. You were upset when Beth entered the Academy at sixteen. You were upset when Bill left for his first dig at seventeen. You were upset when Cassidy entered the Academy early. You were upset when we found out about Beth's field promotion..." Deanna started to pull away, "I wasn't upset about the field promotion Will, I was upset she didn't tell us!" she barked. She just wanted something to be mad at and Riker knew it. He brought his wife back into his nest. "She didn't tell us because she's Starfleet, Deanna – you know that. Field promotions are rarely something to celebrate." Deanna remembered how heartbroken Beth had been after Isla Deneb and she nodded. Her anger evaporated and Riker could see it. "They're why we worked so hard to have children, right? We wanted to show ourselves we could do it and do it well?" He beamed. "Damn Deanna, we should have had more! The galaxy would be so much better with more of our children in it!" "Except Cassidy." Deanna grimaced. Riker scowled and huffed. His sadness moved across his face and he drew her close and touched her hair gently and looked into darkness 38


of her eyes. He bent a little and kissed her. He wrapped his arms around her fully and his dropped his voice, it was supple and deep as he looked into his Imzadi's black eyes. "Strange how the Enterprise, no matter what version we're on, feels like home." Deanna knew exactly what he meant. "Yes." She rested her head on his chest and her hand roamed down his back. Her worry was still obvious. "Beth will be great Deanna. She has a great crew and you know she's got a good head on her shoulders." He caressed her back gently. "God knows she's been in battle more than we have now‌" Deanna pulled her head back and her face soured. Will ignored it. "She has us and Bill and Worf and Alexander and Geordi and Shenti and Christine and Kathryn and Tuvok and Ranul..." "I get it!" Deanna laughed. "Yes! You're right! She has a great support system. I get it Will." "So what's the real problem Deanna?" Thirty-three years of marriage to an empath had made him as intuitive about her as she was with him. Deanna wasn't sure she liked that so much. He had called her on it and she had to relent. Fair is fair. "She still shuns her heritage." She sounded hurt. "She won't use her skills." Riker knew he had to tread lightly on this subject. He exhaled. "I know Deanna. You also know I'm the last person who can talk to her about that. That has to come from you." "I've tried and you know it." Her voice was indignant. "Don't pester her Deanna – you'll just push her away," he warned. Deanna pulled herself back to her husband's chest. "I know. I can't afford to do that with another one." Riker shook his head in defiance. "Cassidy pushed you away Dee, not the other way around." "Only after I started." Riker shook her comment off, not wanting to delve into the subject. It was a subject he always tried to avoid. He caressed Deanna's back softly. "Come on Deanna, we have to get ready for our tour. Our little girl 39


is going to show us her shiny, new ship." Deanna laughed. Gotcha!

Long after the ship's tour Beth, Riker and Deanna gathered in Beth's quarters for dinner together. The only thing that could have made Beth happier would have been the presence of her brother. The gathering wasn't one of Admiral, Captain and Counselor but of parents and a child. They were sitting comfortably at the table, enjoying their food and a bottle of wine. Riker and Deanna told stories of Ba'ku and how nothing but the children had changed since their last visit. Deanna told her about how the weaving apprentice that she had met on her very first visit had just become an independent artisan after fifty years of study. Beth shook her head and knew she would never have the patience. Riker chortled, she was his daughter there was no doubt. Riker looked over the familiar scene with great pleasure. He too, missed his son. Dr. William T. Riker, Jr. had been bitten by the archaeology and anthropology bugs when he was a youngster. When Bill was twenty, JeanLuc Picard had given him a Ressikan flute and a detailed memoir of his life as a Ressikan amateur scientist on the long-dead planet Kataan. Riker recalled that when he was Jean-Luc's First Officer, he had witnessed a strange probe strike down Jean-Luc. It had implanted in him a life-time's worth of memories from a people and a planet that knew they were doomed. In that life, Jean-Luc learned to play a traditional flute. When Riker and Geordi LaForge brought the probe on board the Enterprise-D, they found a flute stored inside and Picard considered it to be one of his finest possessions. It was this flute Riker's son now owned. Riker knew then that Bill would be a champion of history. Bill was Deanna's son. He had no problem honing his Betazoid capabilities. He was emotional, patient, gentle and very, very handsome. He shared his mother's dark hair and features but like his sister, shared his 40


father's height. With some certain amount of pride-regret Riker knew that Bill was every bit the player in love he had tried to be in his youth. Every time they caught up with Bill, he was dating someone new. She was always pretty and always nice but never the right fit. Riker knew that if Bill ever came across someone like Deanna it might click, someone who wise, smart and strong. That just hadn't happened yet. Bill was also the only one of their children to take up a musical instrument. Bill played the trombone like Riker but soon developed a love for the saxophone, piano and oboe, all three of which Bill thought were sexier than the trombone and he found he could pick up girls much easier by playing one of them. The girls on the other hand, loved listening to music. Riker often found them in their rooms with music playing. It didn't matter what kind, classical or contemporary but often he was happy to hear jazz. While both of them seemed to have an affinity for hard-bop and big band, Beth adored loud music. Deanna had often commented that Beth frequently played music in her mind, a trait that very few Betazoids had the aptitude of handling and still being capable of concentration on outside matters. Deanna felt that it was a positive trait nonetheless. Beth flat-out refused to learn to play an instrument. She just couldn't sit still for the lessons. When it came time for her piano lessons, Riker usually found her in the holodeck flight simulators with hellacious noise blaring. He knew he was the only unfortunate individual who knew about her secret passion for what she called heavy metal music and something else she called punk. Whatever it was, it was loud, screeching, yelling, pounding, horrible stuff he never could understand. Where she got that from, he would never know. He figured it must have been her Betazoid grandmother, Lwaxana. While she was alive, she had always been an instigator. Riker's thoughts turned to Deanna. Deanna had always been hurt that Beth shunned her empathic abilities. Especially since the youngest, Cassidy, had no empathic ability whatsoever it was painful for Deanna to see Beth squelch that side of herself. She had been doing so since she first started to exhibit the signs of the abilities in her early adolescence – when Beth would be found more often alone in her room, with music blaring and 41


studying. Riker was always grateful for the soundproof rooms. The girls' early teen years were definitely not easy to get through. Deanna had tried to warn him that teenage girls and their mothers rarely got along but he didn't anticipate the intensity of their emotions. She and her brother both carried a weakened ability to sense the presence and emotions of certain species but not as strongly as their mother. Beth had always been extremely sensitive about the subject and rarely spoke of it. It was as if Beth found her own abilities offensive but he never knew why. He looked to his daughter's ebony eyes. Everything was Deanna – the dark hair, the grace and the beauty, but Beth carried herself differently than Deanna. She was confident almost to a fault. While all of the children had inherited his temper, Deanna had once described Beth's as being industrial strength compared to his. He fondly recalled a day when Beth was fourteen and her temper had flared so badly he told Deanna he wasn't sure she hadn't had an affair with Worf and that Beth was really the product of the tryst. Beth's temper got her in trouble on more than one occasion. She lost so many points in the Academy in the week before graduation that her rank fell from second to seventh because she couldn't keep her fury in check and she had verbally attacked her Interspecies Protocol Professor – over what subject he never knew. The insubordination had cost her dearly. It was a very hard lesson for her. Riker still had to laugh, even with her last-minute screw-up she still ranked higher than he did. "What?" asked Beth, seeing her father's internal laughter. Riker shook his head. "You." "What, me? What does that mean?" Beth quizzed. "Did you get the competitiveness from me?" It was Deanna who laughed loudest. Beth immediately joined in the laughter before taking a sip of her wine. Beth sat back in her chair with a heavy smile and then, with the most sarcastic wit she could muster, she rolled her eyes and pressed her lips and said, "No, I got it from mother. She was always challenging me, always pushing me and always hounding me." she rolled her eyes again, amazed. "Of course I got it from you, 42


Dad!" Beth shook her head flippantly. It was then she noticed that Riker looked bothered. She quickly realized the foundation of his worry, furrowed her brow and reached for his arm that was resting on the table. "Dad, you were never anything like your father...trust me." He connected his blue eyes to her black ones. Beth's voice was strong, sincere and worried. "You made it fun to want to do better - at everything. Not to beat you, just to be better for myself." She snorted, "Of course, you are the yardstick by which I measure everything‌" Riker's eyes caught hers again in a mix of worry and pride and Beth let loose a laugh. "You and mom have always been supportive. I push myself because I feel the need to push myself. No other reason. It's who I am, that's all." Riker finally laughed with her. Beth looked to her parents. "So what do you think of my crew?" she inquired. "I think you're going to have trouble with that doctor." warned Deanna. Both Riker and Beth looked at her inquisitively. Every move they make is identical,Deanna thought and she sighed with disappointment, "If you would use your empathic abilities Beth, you would know." Oh here we go! Riker thought regretfully. Beth growled at her. "Don't start with me!" But before Deanna could interrupt Beth continued, "Yes. I am aware that Dr. Richardson is a self-important, egocentric‌ladies man." Riker's head perked as Beth smiled. "He's pretty obvious." "You're not worried?" Deanna said. "That can be distracting." Beth laughed. "Obvious is easy to deal with. I can handle Richardson. Besides, I think it's kind of funny." Riker smiled. "He's come on to you? Already?" Oh what I would give to be here when he tries! She'll flatten him! Beth shook her head. "Not just me Dad, he's come onto almost every woman on board now." She looked to her mother again. "I'm not worried about his sexual endeavors but I will tell you I am concerned about his ability to get along with our Counselor. He's pretty hard science if you know what I mean and I think he thinks the Counselor is...fluff." Deanna sensed something more here. "You're not just worried 43


about Richardson and your Counselor either. You're worried about your ability to get along with her!" Beth was struck. She never could get away with it and why she thought she could now made her laugh. "Yes, I am." She looked to her father. "I let Command assign those two positions for me. I didn't care. We never had a Counselor on the Panther." "But‌?" Riker egged her on. "I didn't expect a Betazoid." Deanna scowled. "What's wrong with that?" Beth shifted in her seat. "Let's just say the first couple of days did not go well." Deanna leaned forward over the table. "What happened?" Beth rubbed her eyes and looked to her mother. Her advice would be invaluable and she knew it. "Well, Enya is a typical Betazoid." Riker quickly raised his hand to hide his smile by faking the need to straighten his beard. "What does that mean?" Deanna sniped and glared at Will. "It means that there is an automatic assumption that telepathy is to be used when you find out there is another Betazoid in the room." Deanna cringed. "What did she do?" "She wouldn't shut up! She's the chattiest, incessantly telepathically verbal and annoying Betazoid I have ever come across and that includes grandmother on a bad day." Her anger was hard to hide. Deanna sat back. She could feel how assaulted Beth had felt. "She's a telepath who's used to communicating that way Beth, you can't blame her." "Yes I can, Mother. I asked her politely to stop. I asked her point blank to stop. I finally had to bring her into my ready room and literally yell at her to stop. Trust me when I say it wasn't pretty." Beth looked down, maybe feeling a little guilty. "I have hardly spoken to her since." Riker cringed now. "You've got to forgive her Beth. She just assumed." "Excuse me?" Beth was incensed. "She violates me and I have to forgive her?" 44


"Violates?!" Deanna roared. "Is that what you think? That basic telepathic communication is a violation?" "Most of the time? Yes." Beth glared at her mother. Riker stood, he knew better than to get caught in the middle of the conversation. He knew it was brewing from the moment Deanna brought it up. This was between Beth and Deanna now. He sat on the settee on the edge of the room. "I can't believe you feel that way Elizabeth!" Deanna was devastated. Beth's voice turned hard and she started to snarl and Deanna was swept back by the flash of anger that her daughter had projected. It wasn't just anger, it was fury. Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. "I despise the noise! It's tenacious. It finds me at the bottoms of my feet and unnerves me to the core. If I push it away it quiets. When another Betazoid is near me the hum is always there. When another Betazoid opens the door it takes me hours to get myself back to baseline." Beth's rage was contained but so obvious that Riker began to lift himself from the settee. Deanna was quieted. "I never knew it was so bad for you." Riker watched in horror as he recognized the expression of torture in Beth's face. She's never been like this before. Her expression was direct reminder of certain times he would catch Jean-Luc in his ready room, his pained eyes focused on…nothing. Beth shook her head. "I've never been able to control it like Bill has. I don't know how he does it." She tried to laugh. "He's a god-damned master," she hissed with bitterness. At that moment Deanna felt something emit from her daughter she did not expect, a hidden animosity about her brother - but just as quickly as the emotion had appeared Beth had squelched it. Deanna sat quietly. She wanted to ask Beth about their argument but knew she would be touching a raw nerve. She looked to her husband who she thought might also be on the same train of the thought but Will's face held a different worry and Deanna couldn't quite make it out. Deanna recalled when Beth and Bill were sixteen and in the family quarters on the USS Titan, right before Beth left for the Academy, the two of them had a huge argument. The pain and anger that arose caused 45


Beth to refuse to speak to her brother for over five years. Beth rebuffed any idea of coming home to the Titan or even to their new home in Sausalito on her breaks unless she was sure Bill would not be there. Deanna and Riker had tried desperately to reunite the two but to no avail. Both of them refused to tell their parents about the nature of the argument and to this day they refuse to speak of it. Deanna's mother died a few weeks after Beth graduated from Command School. It was only then that Beth and Bill had made amends but even that was a scene Deanna and Riker had only heard about through the rumor mill on Betazed. Deanna remembered that Beth and Bill had disappeared after the funeral. They had been seen in a local bar and both of them had been drinking heavily. Their argument had been reported as being loud and ferocious at first and then turned quiet and insidious. The two of them left the bar and fought physically in the street. The bar matron contacted Deanna and when Riker finally showed up, he found the two of them laying near the edge of a fountain drunk out of their minds, bloodied, beaten and bruised. The two of them had been almost inseparable since. Deanna knew that Bill and Beth communicated constantly and that Beth relied on Bill's advice more than her own. She was so happy the two of them had reunited that she didn't question them about the reasons for the division to begin with. "Beth." Deanna's voice was soft. Beth looked to her suspiciously. "I don't know why you find the emotional noise so hard to deal with. It's not healthy." I pray to the Four Deities she's not like Tam. Beth scowled and Deanna's caring tone returned. "I know you find it easier to push it away but I fear that it will only get worse with time. You're going to have to find a way to deal with that side of yourself." "Not if I can help it," Beth stated. It was a hard statement and Deanna flinched. Riker shook his head. He knew that Beth had always loathed her Betazoid abilities. She had told him once that they weren't abilities, that they had been faults. He had never told Deanna, it would have crushed her. "Beth‌." Riker spoke up in his best fatherly tone. It was tender and soothing. "Just do us a favor?" 46


Deanna sighed a bit of relief. Beth would listen to her father and she was grateful for his input now. "What?" Beth's face softened. "Don't be afraid to ask for help if it gets too bad. Okay?" His eyes were locked onto hers. "Don't put yourself in a position to lose everything you have gained because you're too proud to ask for help." Beth was stung. Damn him! She broke her gaze from her father and dropped her head. The room was silent. Why is he always right? Always! Beth's eyes were glazing and she lifted her head and looked to her father and all he saw was suffering. "It's worse than I have led both of you to believe." "What?" Riker whispered harshly. He moved towards her. Deanna leaned forward. Beth continued, "Bill has been trying to help but it hasn't been easy." Beth swirled the last of the wine in her glass and drank it as a tear fell from her eye. "Remember how Jean-Luc told you that he never was able to rid himself of the voices of the Borg collective?" I was right! Riker thought and his eyes latched on to Deanna's and fear crept into their faces. "That's what it's like." Her admission was subdued. "What?" Deanna's heart thumped madly in her chest. "I can't make it stop. It's getting pretty tiring. If I'm physically near a Betazoid, especially a full-blooded Betazoid, it's difficult for me to ignore. I hear what the Betazoid hears – even when the Betazoid doesn't!" Beth's anger flowed up and she glared at her mother. "I can't sit near you or especially Enya without that door being open." Beth stood and looked at her mother's black eyes and opened the door in her own mind. The noise began to rush in. Beth's voice was almost a grunt, a mix of pain and sorrow mixed with acid as the cacophony entered in. Beth fielded through the thickness of it with mental arms outstretched, pushing back the sounds and the emotions as if they were curtains or foliage. "There's an ensign on deck fourteen who's angry that she just stained her uniform." She pulled back another curtain. "Dryden has the conn and he's ecstatic that Dad's on board." Another layer was 47


revealed. "A Pak'shree exobiologist in the lab is pissed that the male Cardassian is even in the room with her." But now Beth felt the layers beginning press down upon her. "Richardson is lusting after a woman in Ten Forward. The Assistant Chief of Engineering is panicked because he can't find the reason for the point zero five percent variance in engine injection fraction. There's a woman in stellar cartography crying because she misses her husband who was killed at Isla Deneb…on the Cougar." The woman's intense sorrow kicked Beth hard and she wanted to weep with her. She found the noise taking over, filling her head and she reached for the doors to shut them but she was having a hard time finding them and just before the eight hundred and eighteen voices all found their way in, Beth slammed the door but the door only muffled the noise now. Beth's eyes were full of fury and she leaned to her mother's face and her voice became even more deep and guttural. "I….hear….everything! I hear it through you. I hear it through Bill and I especially hear it through Enya." She turned, walked around in a circle and sat back at the table, broken. "Betazoids are my Borg. They always have been." Beth stood slowly once more, cracked her neck, swallowed hard to hold down the nausea and walked around the room slowly - slowly beginning to use the only trick she knew would help get her back to baseline…Back in black! I hit the sack. I've been too long I'm glad to be back, Yes, I'm let loose - from the noose, that's kept me hanging… Deanna started to shake. Riker retook his seat at the table near his wife, his eyes wide with anxiety. The loud music still in her mind, Beth took her seat and reconnected her eyes with her father's. "Okay Dad? I'm over my pride! I don't know what can be done. It's been like this since I was ten." Her anger returned. "Now you know why I push it away. Now you know why I don't use it." Beth's head jerked towards Deanna once more, guilt traversed her face. "I never told you because I didn't want you to think…to think I didn't want you around. I do. I put up with the noise so I can be around you." Cause I'm back! Yes I'm back! Yes I'm back in black! Beth breathed in with Zen precision. "If you know of, or have heard of any exercise or cure, or treatment for this that Bill may not have looked at – I would love to try it. We just haven't found anything yet. In 48


the meantime, I have to push it away! I have a ship to command and not just any ship – I command the Enterprise!" Beth's spiteful tone had returned once more, "And if it means I have to be curt with a Counselor and ignore my heritage in order to do so? So be it." Beth couldn't have spit the last three words any further. Deanna and Riker were silenced. Beth shook her head slightly. Silence filled the room for Deanna and Will - but Beth continued to concentrate on dimming the noise behind the door in her mind. Back in the back of a Cadillac - Number one with a bullet, I'm a power pack! Deanna's comprehension was clarified. Anger was displaced by understanding and offense gave into deep concern. Riker looked to his wife. His worry had turned to fear and he decided he had to verbalize what Deanna could not. He faced Deanna when he spoke. "Is this what Tam Elbrun had?" Riker mentioned the infamous Betazoid whose telepathic abilities drove him to the brink of mental instability. He was in involved in two notorious first contact missions. The first resulted in the deaths of fortyseven Starfleet crew members aboard the USS Adelphi, two of whom were Riker's close friends from the Academy. The second resulted in the destruction of a Romulan warbird and placed the Enterprise-D into grave danger before Tam manipulated his way onto the organic starship nicknamed Tin Man and then chose to remain aboard the entity to relieve his own suffering. Deanna's head shook slightly. "No. I don't think so." Beth kept her eyes closed when she spoke, "No. It isn't. I researched that when I was fourteen when I overheard you two talking about him. My problems started in adolescence. Tam suffered from the moment he was born and he suffered all the time. My problems only arise when Betazoids are near me. I have yet to be affected by any other telepathic race." Deanna stood and calmly walked to her daughter and laid her hand on her shoulder. Beth reached up for it immediately. Deanna nodded. "We'll find a way to help," Deanna promised. Beth nodded and leaned her head on her mother's hand. "Thanks." Yes I'm back in black!

49


Interlude I Stardate 75142.8 Earth Calendar February 8th, 2397 Federation Starship – USS Enterprise - NCC-1701-E San Francisco Fleet Yard – Decommission Bay 12 Captain's Ready Room Beth looked at him with awe and wonder. She brought her knees up to her chin and leaned back on the settee and wrapped her arms around her legs. He was sitting at his desk in his ready room. He rubbed his bald head and exhaled deeply. She had been in there for over an hour, just watching him and listening to him, trying desperately to focus on him as she pushed away the increasing din of the Enterprise's large crew in her head. He was analyzing the events of the day and she needed to know. She needed to know…why. He was still dressed in his finery – the wonderful white formal uniform that made him appear so regal. She looked out the window to the planet below her. It was the dark side of Earth. The sparkle of the cities from the planet's surface made it appear as though it was a galaxy in a globe that Beth could just reach out and shake. Her parents were taking one long last tour of the ship with Bill and her Grandmother was holding court on the deck below. She just wanted to be with him as he took in the finality of the day and he 50


seemed to be comforted by her presence in the quiet. Her Grandmother's exceptional ability to be a conduit even from another deck allowed her to hear his thoughts clearly and it surprised her because he was hearing someone else's voice speak words in his mind. "‌don't let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship because while you're there, you can make a difference." He was filled with sadness. She would risk it. She had to know. "Grampa?" she asked quietly. He raised his soft and tired eyes to her without words. Why are you retiring?" she asked him bluntly. Picard breathed in deeply then stood and crossed the room and joined her on the settee. He leaned back heavily. James T. Kirk's words split him. He was tired. Retirement in France just felt like the right thing to do now. Would he still feel the same a year from now? He wasn't sure. "Because it's time for Brint to pick up where I left off Elizabeth. I'm tired now. I don't have the energy any more." He looked upon her beautiful shining face. "‌besides, I'd like to be alive when you accept command of the Enterprise from him." Beth wasn't able to control her grin. "I will you know. That ship will be mine." Picard nodded. "I know it will, Elizabeth. I have no doubt you will command the Enterprise one day." He meant it. He truly believed she would wear the red and direct the new Enterprise to the galaxy beyond where he had been. She would travel farther and experience the wonder and the magic like he had. She had the gift, she had the potential and she had the drive. He saw the future in front of him and she had beautiful, pitch black eyes. The Enterprise would be in good hands. "So you see Elizabeth. You're my adopted granddaughter. So when you take command, I'll still be on the bridge, won't I?" Beth smiled. "Yes sir. You always will. The captains never really leave do they?" Picard touched the hair of the wise fourteen-year old and then his eyes fell to the chair behind the desk. The Enterprise-E had 51


been decommissioned and where she would end up he didn't want to know. A museum? Doubtful. Stripped? Probably. It didn't matter. He thought about Beth's question. He thought of Archer and Kirk. He thought of Spock. He thought of Harriman and Garrett. He thought of himself on the bridge. Now? Brint would be moving forward for him. Then Beth would be after him. He was sure of it. He saw Will in her and Deanna. He saw himself in her. He saw Kirk in her as well as Spock and the others. "No Elizabeth. They never really leave. The captains are always there. In every new captain, the old ones are with them. Always." Beth smiled and leaned her head on his shoulder and he held the future captain in his embrace. He kissed the top of her head. "My Elizabeth. You are the sum of those before you."

52


Interlude II Stardate 76687.1 Earth Calendar February 8th, 2398 Federation Starship – USS Titan – NCC-80102 In Orbit of Remus Captain's Ready Room

Beth looked at him with awe and wonder. She brought her knees up to her chin and leaned back on the settee and wrapped her arms around her legs. He was sitting at his desk in his ready room, stroking his beard and thinking. She had been in there for over an hour, just watching him and listening to him and his always thorough internal analysis of the day. He was still dressed in his finery – the wonderful white formal uniform that made him appear so regal. She looked out the window to the planet above her. It was the dark side of Remus. The sparkle of the cities from the planet's surface made it appear as though it was a galaxy in a globe that Beth could just reach out and shake. Beth knew that she could sit in here as long as she remained silent. Bill had left to attend his music lessons and Cassidy was on the holodeck for a scheduled white river run with Ensign Noah Powell, who had just been assigned to the Titan in the exobiology team.

53


Her eyes turned back to the planet above her head. She knew the Remans lived in the dark and that they couldn't live on the other side of their planet because it was too hot. She had been taught that they had been treated so poorly by the Romulans for so long that they had a hard time trusting them. She also knew that particular knife cut both ways. The Remans had a violent history and just two years before she was born they had destroyed the entire Romulan Senate, leading not just Romulus but Remus itself into a long stretch of political upheavals, strife, starvation and conflict. Beth was told that in between those stretches of strife there were enormous strides of trust, understanding and cooperation. She remembered her mother saying that when it came to Romulus and Remus, for every step back, they would find a way to take two steps forward. It was a hopeful time. The last peace treaty had just been agreed to that day. Her mother was exhausted but had reports to finish and remained at her station on the bridge. Her mom knew that her dad liked to be quiet after long days like today. Her father had told her that if it weren't for her mother, instead of a peace agreement, another battle may have ensued. She understood her mother's gift of reason and persuasion and was enormously proud of it. She was actually a little jealous of it. Her mother always had more patience than she did. But it was at times like this her father fascinated her. He didn't know she was there to listen. She was just glad her mother was near enough so she could wade through the noise to hear him. He had spent the last hour going over every move, every detail and every sentence spoken to help him learn how to do it better the next time, for the next challenge. He questioned everything he had done. In one moment he was filled with relief and yet there was a still level of mistrust, like he didn't believe the treaty would hold and that it would all just fall apart tomorrow. He had analyzed what could go wrong and how the Federation might be able to approach

54


them again if it did. Beth felt him as he was quickly overrun with a wave of total self-doubt and his confidence evaporated, convinced he had just screwed things up for eternity. She dropped her head down behind her knees so he would not see her smile. Just as quickly, his heart was filled with joy once more and a huge upwelling of pride in their accomplishments. His thoughts turned to her mother and she began to feel his complete sense of bliss in loving her and Beth began to pull back from her father's mind, knowing that there were many thoughts that were just too private. His analysis of the treaty was done, as they always were when his thoughts turned to her mother. Beth rubbed her cheek against her knee and her eyes returned to the planet's glittering surface once more. Her stomach tied itself into knots. She was set to head for SB 112 the following morning to take the entrance exam. He didn't know. She didn't want him to know. First, in case she failed and second in case she didn't. She had done nothing but study for a year. It was rare that she even saw her parents. She was glad Uncle Worf and Alexander were helping her out. Uncle Worf seemed to take the project on like a practical joke against her father and she was all right with that. She felt prepared for the challenge. She felt like she was ready to take the bull by the horns and show them…show them she was ready to move forward. Again, her eyes were drawn to the lights on the planet above and her thoughts were drawn back to the plight of the Remans. For centuries they were repressed by those on their so-called sister planet and forced into slavery and torture and pain. The hatred gave rise to a coup led by a clone of Jean-Luc, a human who had somehow become the personification of Reman rage. They said they wanted equality but what they really wanted was revenge and the ability to subjugate those who hurt them. It was her parent's first mission on the Titan. To try to find a thread, any thread of commonality to slow the downward spiral of 55


violence, first on Romulus and then assuring that Remus was not ignored. Her father used an unorthodox but effective tactic, since the Federation could not intervene without Prime Directive repercussions, he had manipulated an arrangement wherein the Klingon Empire listed Remus as its protectorate, thereby ensuring a Klingon presence in Romulan space and assuring that Romulus would focus on stabilizing its own government, without disregarding the needs of Remus. Sixteen years later, here sat the Titan once again, looking upon Remus and its new status as a peaceful neighbor of Romulus. They had actually fought together in a scuffle with the Breen which was quickly squelched. It was this opportunity her parents had seized upon to show the two sides what an effective alliance they could have for the benefit of the quadrant. Suddenly, Beth's eyes were filled with the vision of the enormous hull of the year-old Enterprise-F as it eclipsed her view of the planet's surface. It almost looked like it was too close but Beth knew it was more than five hundred meters away and wouldn't come near to striking the Titan. She smiled without realizing it as her head lifted to watch her dream gracefully glide into view. The saucer section was lit by the Romulan star and slowly and gently the giant nacelles appeared and the ship took up a relative position next to them. She didn't even hear her father stand. She didn't hear him move toward her. She just felt his hand on her shoulder as he joined her in viewing the colossal ship that had maneuvered in alongside them. "She's so beautiful," Beth whispered and she imagined herself in a bright, red -collared uniform on the bridge. She looked to and found the names as written on the hull. First, the name Enterprise NCC-1701-F emblazoned on the underside of her bow and then in much smaller letters, the words Thy'lek Shran, written on the underside of the Captain's skiff recessed into the hull. Captain Brint named the yacht after an historical Andorian General-turned explorer in the early days of the Federation. "Yes she is Elizabeth," he quietly answered back. "Why is she here? Aren't we done?" she asked. 56


She could see Riker's reflection in the window as they looked upon the flagship in front of them. She thought that the grey in his hair had become even more pronounced but she liked it. It made him look as wise as she knew he was. "Brint is bringing the Federation Ambassador here to tie up the loose ends." Beth understood this. Any treaty would need some fine-tuning. The doors to the ready room opened and Beth saw her mother's reflection. She looked beautiful in her white uniform. Her smile was genuine and happy and Beth knew it was because she saw her father with his hand on her shoulder. Deanna moved in and Riker drew her into the crevice of his other arm and Deanna brought her arm around his back and she soaked in the sight of the monstrous new ship. He kissed the top of her head like he always does. He addressed his daughter in the reflection of the window, "Are you sure you don't want to come with us to Betazed? We haven't had a family outing in a long time Beth." Beth tried desperately to hold down her emotions and her mind raced for something honest she could say which might throw her mother off the scent. "Thanks any way but I miss Uncle Worf. I want to see him." It was an honest statement but she knew that her mother might have caught wind of her ulterior motives. "Fine then." Riker could not hide his disappointment. "He seems awfully excited about your visit as well," he grumbled. Beth allowed herself to feel the joy of her father's statement, knowing that it might throw her mother off once more. "We'll just miss you," he said. "Hell, we miss you now Beth. You've been locked up in your room for so damned long‌" "Will‌"Deanna warned. Beth smiled, laughed quietly and shook her head. She reached up to her father's hand that was still resting on her shoulder and he held her hand tightly. "It's okay Mom. I miss you both too," she answered honestly. "But I haven't been off the Titan in a long time and I really do want to see Uncle Worf and Alexander. I haven't seen the boys in so long." She was scrambling once again to find words that weren't lies but wouldn't reveal her secret. 57


She sighed heavily as her eyes fell once more to the underside of her dream‌her goal, her objective and ambition‌the magnificent USS Enterprise. "Besides‌I've had these plans for a long time."

58


PART TWO

C

59


60


Stardate 91941.2 Earth Calendar September 14, 2413 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise NCC-1701-G Bridge The following morning Beth was on the bridge, monitoring the slow progress back through the Briar Patch. Her parents and the Ambassador were meeting together on their own and Dryden was off duty. Beth found herself sitting next to Enya who was, not unexpectedly, very tense and wouldn't make eye contact with her. Beth was beginning to feel horribly guilty. She knew she would have to talk to Enya and tell her what was going on, but she was still too annoyed. Yes, but who am I more annoyed with, me or her? She would address it at another time and in private. Beth was also beginning to feel the start of the anxiety - the tense knot in her abdomen that she would feel when she knew that a battle might be on the horizon. She was glad that the Cats would be with her if she was to face some unknown threat, especially in the Neutral Zone. She trusted the captains of the Cats more than any others in Starfleet and she knew they would not let her down. She also knew that the Enterprise was untested in battle and while she trusted her crew, she was hopeful they trusted her. 61


"Revaik?" Beth called to her Science Officer. "Yes Captain." Jaden's tranquil voice soothed Beth. "Have you been able to complete the scans of the Briar Patch that Command requested?" "I have Captain. The analyses are already underway. I am hopeful that we will be able to forward the data to Command upon our exit from the Briar Patch." Beth smiled to herself. This would be a full 48 hours before Command had hoped to have them. Revaik was a very determined officer. She was pleased. "Very good," she replied. Beth watched Phinod at the conn from behind. Canrella was also going to be an asset. She was fresh from her first assignment out of the Academy. She was initially assigned to the USS Io, another Luna-Class starship like the Titan. The Io's recent decommissioning was a heart-tug for all of Starfleet. After thirty-two years, she had been the last Luna-Class ship still in service. Phinod's CO, Captain Genormin Grieg was immediately offered command of the yet-to-be-completed USS Fortitude, another Determination-Class ship like the Enterprise. He wasn't so sure he wanted to part with Canrella, a good sign in Beth's book, but he knew her career would benefit from being assigned to the Federation flagship. "Sir." K'Reeg's deep voice startled her. "Incoming secure transmission for the Admiral is being relayed from the USS Puma." Beth nodded and hit her combadge. "Captain to Admiral Riker." "Riker here," the voice on the comm replied. "Sir, you have an incoming secure transmission from Starfleet Command." "Very good Captain, I'll take it in my quarters." His voice sounded serious. "Aye, sir," said Beth and K'Reeg followed the order and channeled it to the VIP quarters where Riker was assigned.

Riker had broken away from the group gathered in the living area of the VIP quarters and moved into the separate room and swiveled the 62


com on the bed stand towards him. The Starfleet secure channel logo appeared he verbally entered his clearance codes and Admiral Janeway's face appeared. Her hair was almost pure white and was neatly coifed into a soft lilting cut at the mid-line of her neck. "Admiral," Riker acknowledged. "Good day Admiral," Janeway replied. "I take it you were surprised?" Riker laughed. "Kathryn – I should have known you had something to do with it. Of course we were surprised. I still am." "Actually Will, you know I only had final approval. I was thrilled with Starfleet's decision. I am glad that Beth will remain under my command." She smiled. "She feels the same," Riker confirmed. "What did you think of the dedication plaque?" Janeway's smile broadened. Riker was confused. He couldn't believe it. He was so overwhelmed by the fact his daughter had been given command of the Enterprise, he never thought to look at the plaque. It was tradition that Captains and the XOs were allowed to chose the mission statement or quote for a new launch. He recalled it took him and Christine Vale over two weeks after the actual launch of the Titan to finally agree on "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." They held an impromptu ceremony on the bridge after their first mission to Romulus, but he didn't even bother to look because the motto for the Enterprise would always be the same… "…to boldly go where no one has gone before." he looked at Janeway and shrugged. "I haven't seen it Kathryn… I've been in shock for the past twenty four hours." Janeway released her perfect smirk-smile and she nodded. "Well then Will, I suggest you look at it the next time you're on the bridge. There was a slight break with tradition that should interest you." "I will Kathryn." His interest was now piqued but as usual with his communications of late, his tenor dropped. "What's brewing on the Iolus Prime? Has anything changed?" "Yes and no. You and Ambassador Rozhenko are still to meet me on Iolus Prime but the timing has changed a little. We will require your presence two days earlier. The meetings will begin then." 63


"Fine. We still have another day to move through the Briar Patch. After we're out, I will have the Enterprise step up to warp seven to meet the deadline." "Thank you Admiral." She smiled. "I look forward to seeing you. This will be a most interesting gathering." "I agree. We've waited a long time for this." He smiled. "Yes. We have." Janeway nodded. "Goodbye Admiral." "Admiral." Riker ended the transmission and rejoined his friends.

Later in the day, Richardson appeared on the bridge. His thick blonde hair was perfectly styled and the blue in his uniform highlighted the steel blue-white of his eyes. "Captain. Do you have a moment?" he addressed Beth in her chair. Beth stood and nodded, "Yes Doctor. K'Reeg, you have the conn," and she entered her ready room and the Doctor followed. As they entered, Beth could feel him close in on her and she rolled her eyes to herself. He's almost pathetic, she thought with amusement. The door closed behind her. She turned to face her Chief Medical Officer. "What can I do for you Doctor?" His smile appeared wicked. She knew that he wanted to come back with a smart remark but he wasn't that stupid and she found it even funnier. "A physical." His eyebrow rose. "Excuse me Doctor?" She almost went on the defense. His voice became serious and Beth eased. "Captain. You owe me a physical. Starfleet regulations require that all senior staff complete a physical within the first two weeks of being assigned to a new ship. You are overdue. I thought that while we had time in this hideous cloud, we would finally have time to‌complete those requirements." There was just the slightest hint of innuendo in his voice. Under any other circumstance, Beth would have verbally flattened him but she didn't feel any threat from him. It was more of a game. She was actually quite amused. If she had been any other rank, she might have actually played along. The bell to her door rang. "Enter," she said. 64


The door opened and Enya walked in, a look of concern and almost anger was apparent on her face. Beth knew that she had been sensing Richardson's emotions. She was dumbfounded. Richardson was confused by Beth's reaction but straightened himself when he realized why Enya was there. He became angry, then flustered. "As I was saying Captain, I will expect you to report to sickbay this afternoon. I would like to send the completed reports to Command as soon as we break through the Briar Patch." His glare to Enya was filled with venom. "I will let the Counselor finish her discussion with you." Beth acknowledged his request and he stormed out of the office. Beth's laughter erupted. She actually appreciated him. She didn't know why she did but she did. Enya stepped forward, anger filling her tone, "Captain! I cannot believe you find that funny in any way. He's completely out of line! He's out of control and needs to be reprimanded!" Beth turned on her. "Counselor Priest!" Fire lit in Beth's eyes and she found the fury welling up and she pulled her stomach muscles tight to keep from losing control, just the way her father taught her. Her voice dropped an octave. "What you did was out of line! What I find funny is my business. While I appreciate your intent Enya, my honor does not need protecting by you or by anyone. You have got to learn to keep your nose out of other people's business!" Beth backed off when she saw the terror in Enya's eyes. "So help me, I will get you to learn that lesson yet!" Beth breathed in so she could relax a little. "I expect you to apologize to Dr. Richardson." "Apologize?!" Enya was incensed. "You want me to apologize?! To him?" Beth threw her hands up in the air and shook her head. "You don't get it, do you?" Beth was astounded. "What you did was a complete invasion of privacy Enya!" Enya was frightened. "But‌.he was‌.." "I don't care Counselor! That was for me to take care of, not you!" Beth realized that this was somehow new to her. "Your previous commanding officers may have relied on you for spying but I think it's wrong and I can't believe you were taught anything less. You have no right to spy on your coworkers so you can report to me. Richardson deserves 65


an apology. I expect you to do so - now, Counselor. Dismissed." Beth was curt and biting. Enya was devastated and left the ready room. Beth immediately hit her combadge. "Captain to Counselor Troi." Her mother's voice sounded just a little worried. "Troi here Captain." "Will you come to my ready room please? I need to talk to you." "I'll be right there," Deanna answered. Beth paced her ready room. She was horrified about how hurt Enya looked after she left but she was adamant that she had been right to reprimand her. The last thing she needed was a personnel conflict, right when she needed everyone to be at their peak. I should have picked them myself! I shouldn't have trusted Command! She walked over to the food replicator. "Coffee, French roast, black." She took the coffee from the dispenser, took a deep breath and sat at her desk. She rubbed her face with both of her hands and then slid them back through her long hair. She laughed to herself when she thought that maybe Jean-Luc hadn't actually been bald. Maybe he just rubbed all the hair off his head out of frustration! The bell to the door rang. "Enter." Her voice was tired. Her mother walked in, looking worried. Beth smiled. "Thanks. I need your advice." "Of course." Deanna's expression lightened. Beth stood from her chair and motioned for Deanna to sit on the couch. Beth sat next to her. She looked to her mother's black eyes. Although the color was black, the shape and softness of her eyes reminded Beth of the pictures of her grandfather Ian. Beth would have liked to have known him. "I had another run in with Enya." Beth grimaced. "I know I did the right thing, but I think Enya has been led astray by her former COs." "What?" Deanna was concerned. Beth relayed the story about what had occurred between her and Richardson and Enya's interruption. Deanna seemed shocked. "You're right Beth. Enya had no right listen in." "I happen to think that her former COs used her skills to their advantage and she's just under the assumption that it's appropriate." Beth sighed, "If she does it again, my reprimand will be formal." 66


"As it should be," Deanna confirmed. "What do you want from me?" "I'd like her to have an opportunity to work this out before that ever becomes necessary. After my initial reaction to her, however fair or unfair that may have been, she deserves to hear a different point of view." Bull, the real problem is that my Counselor needs a Counselor! Beth looked to her mother in the eyes again and she saw that her mother had heard her. Especially another Betazoid. Beth wondered whether her request was appropriate. "Will you talk to her? I'm not asking you to do anything but what you are comfortable with." Beth sipped her coffee. "I just know her confidence is shot now and I need her to be ready to participate as a full-tilt team member in a matter of days. I think she just needs a friend and I can't be that for her." Deanna thought about this to herself for a few moments then touched her daughter's hair. Beth smiled. "I will be happy to talk with her." Beth nodded slightly. "Thanks Counselor." Deanna laughed quietly.

Enya was shattered. She found herself walking from the turbolift and slowly towards Sickbay. She felt nauseous. She was confused and hurt and terrified. She had been so thrilled to be assigned to the Enterprise but was now feeling like it was the biggest mistake in her life. She had only been assigned to two previous ships and both of those Captains had expected her to use her abilities for them all the time. Her heart was breaking. She knew that Captain Riker had been right and she was just now beginning to see that she had been breaking the most sacred of rules all along. She had never breached confidentiality of her individual sessions but outside of the counseling room, she had always placed the perceived idea of the Captain's need to know over that of any subordinate. Williams and Sahmed never seemed to have a problem with it and she was feeling foolish that she let herself be led in that direction. Now she had to apologize‌to the letch. She was ill. Enya turned into Sickbay. It was quiet. Someone was receiving treatment from the Vulcan nurse, T'Sau, in the back but Richardson was not in the treatment ward. He would most likely be in his office. Enya 67


breathed in and moved to the office. There she found Richardson sitting at his desk, reviewing his comm. He looked up when he saw her but he did not speak or smile. Enya knocked on the steelplast door jam. "Doctor. May I speak with you?" Richardson's face flooded. "Why don't you just read my mind Counselor? My thoughts should be pretty clear to you right now." His spite and bitterness were obvious. Enya knew she deserved it but she hated how egocentric he was. She bit her tongue. "I have come to apologize for my behavior." Richardson stood from his desk. Enya thought he was about to lay into her and she expected the worst but he didn't attack. His face showed the fury and she knew he was feeling it but he withheld the verbal tirade. "Counselor. You already know how I feel about your‌profession. I will also not lie to you and tell you that you are totally forgiven for your intrusion on my person." He snarled his upper lip and she thought he was going to spit. "But it took courage to come into my office and apologize. I accept your apology. Please don't do it again. My thoughts and feelings are my own..." "I know I'm so sorry‌." "Do not interrupt!" he flared. "You are going to have to earn trust Lieutenant Commander. I do not dole it out easily." Enya waited to assure that Richardson was done talking. "I understand. Thank you Doctor." Richardson sat at his desk and began looking at his comm again. It was only then that Enya realized that the conversation had been terminated at his whim. She turned and walked out of his office and back into the corridor. "Well, that could have been worse," she whispered to herself and she realized how true the statement had been. She walked away slowly toward the turbolift. When the door to the lift opened, Deanna Troi walked out. She appeared happy to see Enya and guided her along with her. "Counselor!" Deanna smiled. "Do you have a moment?" Enya smiled to her. "Why of course I do Ambassador Troi." Deanna smiled. "Call me Deanna. I'm technically retired now." To Enya this seemed like it was too gracious a request but Deanna 68


shook her head. "Will you have breakfast with me tomorrow morning? My husband and the Captain will be busy and I will be alone. I would like your company if that's all right?" "I would love to‌Deanna." And Enya realized that Captain Riker may have put her up to it. "Did the Captain ask you?" She was beyond embarrassed. Deanna smiled. "And what if she had? It only means she cares Enya. She doesn't want to lose you and she fears that you may want to leave." "She fears my departure?" Enya was suspicious. "I think she'd be thrilled." Deanna knew that breakfast would be too late. She wrapped her arm in Enya's, turned her back toward the turbo lift and she ushered her into it. She then called for deck ten. "Deck ten?" Enya questioned. "Yes. I think you and I need sundaes." Deanna smiled when she saw the look of confusion on Enya's face. You and I have a lot to discuss. Deanna's telepathic voice seemed to ease Enya.

K'Reeg and Beth had just gone over a list of the weaponry that the Enterprise had on board and it appeared that they had been appropriately stocked. She was pleased that the new generation of quantum torpedoes and the newly devised subspace bubble dispersal nets had been supplied to them. Only the Cats and the USS Determination had been supplied with them to this point. The torpedo bays on older ships had to be specially lined to handle them and the Federation was just beginning the retrofits. "Captain." K'Reeg was curious. "Are we expecting battle?" "K'Reeg." Beth smiled. "I am always expecting battle. The Shentarians trained me well." she looked to her Klingon counterpart. "I expect to have this ship fully stocked and ready to take on any opponent at any time. I know you expect the same. I will stand for no less."

69


"Understood Captain." And K'Reeg's warrior spirit was inflated. "Now K'Reeg. Our shifts are almost done. Tomorrow I would like to discuss with you the possibility of your creation of calisthenics programs for me and the other Senior Staff. I have not had an opportunity to practice my hand-to-hand combat in over a month and I prefer Klingon programs. There are also a few on the bridge who will need to be trained at a more…subdued level." Beth smirked. K'Reeg was thrilled. "I would be most honored Captain." "Thank you K'Reeg. I knew I could count on you for this. But wait until tomorrow. You've earned your personal time tonight!" She smiled. The door to her room rang. "Enter!" Dryden walked in looking refreshed and smiling. "Captain." "Number One! You look well. All ready to take over?" "Yes sir." "Wonderful. I have an appointment with the Admiral and I have every intention of keeping it." "Have a good night Captain." Dryden smiled. It was the first time that Beth felt like she was beginning to develop some sort of camaraderie with him. "Thanks, Paul. I will." She left her ready room and walked down to her quarters to change. The uniform would not be worn tonight. After dressing down, she made headway to the VIP quarters and rang the bell, the door opened momentarily after that. When she walked in she found Riker sitting at his desk, reading the comm. He was still in uniform. "Admiral. I am sorry if I'm interrupting." She stood at attention. Riker stood, laughing and Beth eased. "Beth! Shift over already? I lost track of the time! I'll get ready!" He quickly shot into the dressing area. "I got caught up in reading….sorry about that." Beth casually strolled over to the comm. There she saw a page of data on the reports on the freighter attacks. "Five attacks?!" Riker's head appeared in the doorway. "Snooping?" She rolled her eyes. "If you didn't want me to see…." "Yes, yes. I should have erased the screen. Home rules still apply. 70


It's just been awhile." He smiled and his head disappeared again. "I'm actually glad you saw those. I was going to brief you on them any way. Ever since you told me about the reports that came up while Deanna and I were on Ba'ku, I've been interested. It looks like there've been sporadic and strange attacks, mostly against passing freighters and transports, along these borders for years, longer than the Federation has been in existence‌but there had been no reports of any attacks in well over sixty years. Then, two months ago reports started to come in from almost every freighter or transport ship that has tried to pass near the sector." His voice was a little muffled in the other room and Beth found herself sitting at the desk, looking over the data on the screen. "No Starfleet ship has yet to be attacked but then again, none have really passed by that area since the reports began." Beth's neck hairs started to stand on end. He had stopped talking and Beth could tell he was straightening the hair of his beard in the mirror. She snorted to herself. He never could talk and do that at the same time. Her father's voice was heard once more. "But we don't know anything about them. Well, virtually nothing. Nothing about their physical make-up nothing about their technology‌" Riker appeared from his room, he was now dressed casually. "So, are you ready for dinner?" Riker then looked around the room. "Where's your mother?" Beth stood, dropping the concerned look on her face. "Mother's probably doing me a little favor. She promised she would meet us there if she got hung up." "Great – let's go." Beth wasn't going to let her father's discussion end. As they walked out the door together she grabbed his arm and he smiled, leading her down the hall. "What did you mean that we don't know anything about their physical make-up?" Riker fell right back into his original train of thought. "Not one has ever been captured or taken alive. We simply don't know what they look like." "What?" It seemed impossible to Beth. 71


"The logs show that there are stories about them looking like reptiles or fish or even Cardassians - but there are no confirmed eyewitness accounts." He shrugged. "At the time of the attacks the only witnesses can't even describe what happened really." He stopped in the hall and looked to Beth. "I want to do some more research tomorrow. Can you join me in the library?" Beth smiled. "Of course. We'll still be plugging away in the Patch." "Good. This information will be useful for you too, I think. We need to be well versed for any potential‌.encounter." "Are you warning me Dad?" Beth tilted her head. "What did I tell you? Make use of‌." "...any advantage presented to you. Yes, sir. I won't forget." Beth smiled and she walked with her father to the holodeck. There she pressed a few commands into the panel. "I think you'll like this one Dad. It's wellstocked." "I'm sure I will." When the doors opened the holodeck revealed a small professional kitchen. It was in a rustic restaurant. It had log walls with plaster that filled the spaces between the logs. Dark wood trimmed the doorways. There was a wooden table in the kitchen where one could tell the special guests would be invited to dine with the chef. The main restaurant was behind a door but it appeared closed. Riker smiled. "It's Molly's in Ketchikan." Beth nodded in return. "I only got there once when I was in the Academy. A few of my cohorts and I decided to hunt it down when we were on break one year. We weren't disappointed." "This is great! I've always wanted to cook at Molly's!" He smiled and walked over to the kitchen, finding a chef's smock, he put it on and began to wrap an apron around his waist. Beth made for the wine rack and pulled a bottle and three glasses.

Enya sat across from Deanna in Ten Forward, the crew lounge. She was nervous. Deanna had ordered two small chocolate sundaes. Deanna tried to start off slow, but realized there was no possibility of 72


doing so without insulting Enya. "I know about everything Enya." Deanna's voice was consoling yet honest. She spooned ice cream into her mouth and relished the chocolate. Enya knew it but she was still crushed. "I am such an idiot." Enya's eyes filled with tears. "I can't believe I broke the only rule. The first and only rule." Deanna felt for her. "You weren't helped by your former CO's Enya. They abused you." "No. I let them use me. I knew better‌.or I should have known better. I was just being treated so well, I allowed myself to think I was doing the right thing." "How did Richardson react to your apology?" asked Deanna. "All in all? Better than he should have. He won't trust me and I don't blame him. He doesn't trust psychology any way. I am afraid I only gave him more evidence to prove his theory that it's a useless science." "You will have a lot of work ahead of you to fix that." Deanna nodded. "Don't be afraid to take your lumps now Enya. We've all made some huge mistakes in our lives and careers. The hard part is learning from them and moving forward." "Like you've made a mistake..." Enya laughed at the thought. Deanna laughed, "Of course I have! I've put myself in danger before because I let myself think my Betazoid abilities are foolproof‌but they're not. And if you don't watch them, they can become a disability." Deanna's thoughts clicked to her daughter and her mood sank but she quickly had to change her train of thought as she knew that Enya could hear. True Betazoids always kept the doors open. "I'm just not sure that Captain Riker can forgive me. She warned me once when we first met. I don't know why it didn't sink in then." Enya's voice refocused Deanna. "The Captain will be fine. She's the one who wanted me to talk with you, right? She knows that you're a talented Counselor. You would never have been assigned to the Enterprise otherwise. But as with Dr. Richardson, that personal trust will have to be earned again." Deanna smiled as she took another bite of her sundae. "Now, tell me it doesn't help ease the pain." Enya smiled and took up her spoon once more. "Thanks for talking 73


to me, even though the Captain asked you to." Deanna waited until her bite of ice cream was eaten. "Enya. That doesn't matter. I'm not here only at my daughter's request. I care that you don't throw away an amazing career over a mistake. The Federation needs you. The Enterprise needs you. And yes, you will come to find that Dr. Richardson will need you. Just give it time and give him reason to trust you." "How do I do that?" Enya pressed her lips after she took a bite of her dessert. Deanna smiled. "Well, you'll know when it comes around. He's pretty self-absorbed. Play to that." "What? You mean let him come on to me?" Enya's eyes looked shocked. Deanna shook her head. "No – of course not. But you might want to think about not letting it bother you when he does or just telling him it offends you personally." Deanna shrugged and smiled. "If there's no challenge – he'll stop." Enya nodded. "You're right. He just wants someone to tease." "Exactly." Deanna laughed, "Who knows – you might find something in him you like." "Now that I doubt," Enya laughed. They both looked down at the empty sundae cups. "You're right. They do help." "Told you." Deanna smiled. "Thank you Counselor. I'll prove to you I can do this." Deanna shook her head. "You don't have to prove it to me or to your Captain. Work for yourself first, the rest will follow." They both stood from the table and Deanna leaned and hugged Enya. "Don't be afraid to contact me if you ever need me Enya. I'm your friend now." Enya was taken with this. "I don't know what to say." Just say thank you and contact me when you need me. Enya nodded. I promise I will. Thank you.

The door to the holodeck opened and Deanna walked in. Beth beamed a smile and greeted her with a kiss and a hug. 74


"You have a wonderful Counselor, Beth. She'll be just fine. Just give her a few days to ground herself again. She's had a rough day." Beth only nodded. Riker was in his element. He was sitting at the table with his glass of wine, his dinner was in the oven and his two favorite women were now sitting across from him. "Damn, I'm lucky." "Lasagna?" Deanna smiled as the aroma overtook her. Beth nodded. "I know. He must think we're pretty special." Riker laughed. "Who said you were getting any?" Beth and Deanna both yelled at him and he laughed vigorously.

The following morning, upon entering the library, she found her father at a comm. A concerned look crossed his face. He didn't even notice her enter. "Admiral?" she quietly acknowledged him. He looked up and smiled when he saw her but his smile quickly faded. "What is it? More information on the...are we really going to call them ghosts?" Riker tried to smile but was preoccupied. Beth took a chair and pulled it along side of him, pursing her lips. "I don't get it. What am I missing? The Federation hasn't just been passing by this sector for hundreds of years – they've been passing through it." Beth's hackles rose. "Species 8472?" she whispered, speaking of a species known to exist in a fluid form of subspace and mostly in the distant Delta Quadrant. They were known to be a devastatingly lethal species and could appear almost transparent in normal space. Riker shook his head. "We don't think so. That treaty has held tight and we've detected no breaches into fluidic space anywhere near the sector or the surrounding sectors." he looked her in the eye. "But it was a very good thought..." he grimaced. "...and one that we should keep in the backs of our minds I think." He nodded. "But this species' tactics are maddening and non-lethal‌until now of course." "Non-lethal?" She pulled her head back in surprise. "You mean no one has ever died before?" 75


"No," he stated. "Even the attacks were shield breaches and reports of …get this…strange smells and incapacitation of bridge crew." he sighed "Then they just disappeared again? Until now?" She groaned. Riker nodded. "There hasn't been a reported attack since then. But look at the timeline…" He urged her to look further. Beth moved her eyes back to the comm. There she reviewed a list of information of the attacks on the border of Onias Sector, all of which occurred over a century beforehand with the exception of a very short but intense period of strange attacks which broke out when her father was nine years old. In 2344, there were seven reported incursions on various ships in the ten days after the USS Enterprise-C had responded to a Klingon distress signal at Narendra III. The Klingon outpost was under attack by four Romulan warbirds and the Enterprise-C came to the aid of the outpost. Unfortunately both the outpost and the EnterpriseC were destroyed but their sacrifice was considered to be an act of honor by the Klingons and eventually gave rise to a renewed peace treaty and an eventual alliance with the Klingons and is celebrated to this day. "That's odd. Those attacks occurred right after the attacks at Narendra III," said Beth. Riker stroked his grey beard and he nodded in return. "I know." "But what could that have to do with the ghosts?" she grumbled with the use of the term. Riker shrugged. "I don't really know. But it's not sitting right with me Beth. We're missing something. Look at the previous reports." Beth reviewed the material again. "Reports of shield breaches. Reports of strange smells, reports of intruder alert sensor….blips!?" She tilted her head in frustration. "Blips." Riker smiled. "Yeah, blips." Beth huffed. "Did they think to look for a magnetic field distortion in the area?" She sarcastically groaned, "Or maybe just tapping the panels?" But something caught her attention and Riker saw it sink in and he smiled. She brought her hand to the panel and pointed at specific report dates. "That report came in after the signing of the Treaty of Algeron in 2311." Her eyes moved down the reports, "That report came in after the First Khitomer Accord was signed in 2293. That report came in 2161…after 76


the Federation Charter was signed?" "I see you haven't forgotten your history." Beth smirked and pointed to the panel once more and then raised an eyebrow. "The Romulan-Klingon alliance in 2267. There were five reports that week. They seemed to focus their incursions right after treaties were signed?" Riker nodded. "Yes." He sat back in his chair. "But why?" "Balance of power? To test us," Beth stated. "I think so too," he confirmed. "I think they may have been testing our technical capabilities from time to time and always right after a new treaty was signed." "You think that they just wanted to test our shields every so often? No offense…but that's odd. Even for you." Riker seemed to take offense. "No, I just think they like to see things on even playing field so to speak." Beth rolled her eyes. "But we haven't signed any treaty recently and I know we're not going to making friends with the Shentarians any time soon. So it doesn't explain their recent attacks or their increased mortality." Riker concurred. "I know," he breathed out. "Why are they so angry now?" She looked down at the bottom of the screen. "What's that?" Riker looked to where Beth was pointing. A small tab at the bottom of the screen read Onias Ghost Species Mythology. Riker shrugged and pressed it. "It's the accounts of those who have said they've seen them." Beth leaned forward. "This, I want to read." Her curiosity was piqued. "It's not written. There are two verbal histories," Riker said. He touched the comm again. A video transmission began. An elderly man in a 23rd Century, red Starfleet uniform with a white-ribbed collar and a white shoulder sash was sitting in a chair. He had a determined look on his face and his fists were clenched on the arms of his chair. His rank was Lieutenant Commander. It was obvious that he wore his uniform out of pride and that he had served 77


a long time beforehand. His voice was hoarse and almost angry. "They were ghosts, I tell you. Ghosts! They had lizard skin and they stunk. Big too! But they made the whole shuttle smell. They just disappeared." A voice from off camera was heard. "They transported off the shuttle you mean?" The old Lieutenant Commander hissed, "No you fool. I mean they disappeared!" "You couldn't see them?" "No," he barked. "But you knew that they had lizard skin?" the voice asked again. The old man's face paled and he looked trapped. "Yes. Well, at least I think they had lizard skin." "You passed out didn't you?" "Well‌..yes but‌" The old man grimaced and pounded the arm of his chair. "Ghosts! They were ghosts I tell you!" The transmission ended and was replaced with another. This time a little human girl was being interviewed. She was no more than ten years old and her long blonde hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail. She was holding a model of a Tyrannosaurus rex in her hands and she was petting it like a child would pet a cat or a dog. Beth and Riker's eyes met briefly and they smiled, knowing that the little girl's model had reminded them both fondly of Dr. Shenti Yisec Eres Ree. Dr. Ree was a Pahkwa-thanh physician assigned to the Titan during Riker's tenure as Captain. Pahkwa-thanhs looked remarkably similar to the raptors of prehistoric Earth. He delivered all three Riker children and had been Beth's only physician until she went to the Academy. "What did you call them?" asked the off-camera voice. "Dinosaurs," she said excitedly. "Ah. Dinosaurs. Why's that?" "Because they kinda looked like Teddy!" And she held her model up happily. "Except that they were prettier and they had longer arms and a weird looking thing here!" She pointed to the lower neck and 78


upper chest of her model. "Where did you see them?" "They were in my room. Uh huh. Real fast they were in my room and then they were gone." She nodded. "What else do you remember about them?" "Ummm‌nothing." "Where was your room?" "Where?" "On the USS Brighton. On the ship your parents were on? Where was your room?" the voice kindly asked her. "Uh huh." She nodded again. "Umm, it was near the kitchen." The video stopped but the off-camera voice was heard again. "It should be noted that the USS Brighton never came in contact with any vessel and at its closest pass-by of the Japori Onias Sector border, the ship's sensors did not track any other vessel of any type. Ms. Addison was six years old at the time she reported dinosaurs in her room. We therefore surmise that her account is purely coincidental with the internal sensor blip of an intruder alarm aboard the Brighton. Ms. Addison's room was also four decks above and on the opposite side of the ship's galley. Ms. Addison does believe what she's saying, but these memories are now four years old." There were no further entries. Riker looked to Beth and Beth shrugged. "Now I know why they listed the accounts under Mythology. They're completely unreliable sources," she said. Riker smiled. "Nice dinosaur though." Beth knew he was referring to a period in time when she refused to part with a plush toy targ that was given to her by Worf. "Be careful where you tread there, Dad. I still have that targ," she admitted. "And it can still take you down!" Riker laughed, "You still have the targ?" "Of course I do. I wouldn't get rid of my only true friend now, would I?" She smiled. "He's in my room. He guards my‌.well, you don't need to know." She looked back to the comm and her father jokingly 79


pushed her head. "Hey!" She made him focus on the comm. "What else does this thing say?" Riker was at an end and he leaned back in his chair. "Nothing. There's nothing else in the database." Beth refused to believe it. "You're kidding right? The Federation had been attacked on multiple occasions by this species and they don't know anything but their basic tactics and the fact that they attack a few ships and then disappear?" "That's appears to be it," he confirmed. "Nothing in the last sixtyeight years. No attacks, no contact – nothing." Riker sighed, "Everyone who may have had some sort of contact with them is most likely dead by now." "Or is seventy five years old and she still keeps her dinosaur in her room." Beth smiled and Riker laughed.

Dr. Kenneth Richardson sat at his desk in the newly minted Enterprise Sickbay. He was reading the previous week's journal releases from Starfleet Medical and looked forward to when he could get the fresh ones when they broke though the Briar Patch. He looked up as T'Sau crossed his sightline. She was an excellent nurse – clinical, curt and clear. She was also very beautiful. A lot of females on this ship were beautiful and a lot of them were happily single. He was glad he was no longer married. A mistake he was relieved he was able to rectify within the first year. He found it hard to believe he was ever married…and to a Bajoran no less. She was deeply spiritual and he was deeply atheist. They were doomed from the outset. She was just so remarkable in the art of love he was drawn into her life. But when he woke up one morning to find himself wondering why he would lie to himself and the others in his life and fallaciously enter into the Bajoran temples…he knew he had to get out. He loved her but not her life. She let him go and for that reason, she would always hold a special place in his heart. He finished the reports and his thoughts turned back to his new ship…and his new Captain. She wasn't just beautiful, she was flat-out 80


gorgeous. She was also a ball-buster. He knew better than to step over that line although he thought that maybe she might have a fairly decent sense of humor. She was ten years younger than he was. It was not the first time his Captain was younger than him but it was the first time he had a female Captain younger than him. Still, he respected her. She commanded that respect, probably more so than any of his previous COs. She wouldn't accept anything less. He liked that about her. She was a true…spitfire. Beth made headway to Sickbay. She had put off the Doctor until then. She wasn't looking forward to it but he had been right, she had to get it over with. She rounded the corridor and entered the Sickbay and moved directly to Richardson's office. He was startled by her entry, he stood immediately to attention. Beth was pleased to see that he wasn't anything but professional. "Okay Doctor, no more complaining. Let's get this physical completed so I can return to the bridge. We'll be out of the Briar Patch in less than four hours," she ordered. "Yes sir." He nodded and smiled. "Please, this way." He ushered her to the main sickbay treatment ward. There, she was greeted by T'Sau and the doctor instructed Beth to sit on one of the biobeds. The rest of sickbay was empty and Beth was grateful. T'Sau left the room as Richardson began to use the medical tricorder to begin a scan of his Captain. He nodded. "I want to thank you for telling the Counselor about her error." Beth smiled. "I want to thank you for respecting her enough to accept her apology." "I did that for you, not for her, Captain." His anger with Enya was still evident. "Be that as it may, I think she has learned her lesson." He nodded. "Maybe. I will reserve judgment on that though." "That is your right Doctor." He put the scanning tool back into the tricorder and asked her to lie down on the biobed. She did so. He leaned over her and then placed the scanning bridge over her. Beth hated this part. She always felt a little trapped in this position. Richardson began a series of scans. The nurse was still in the 81


other room. He dropped his voice. "Captain, do you mind if I ask you a question. It's partly medical, yet partly personal." Beth was immediately alerted but she decided to trust him. "Go ahead Doctor." "How empathic are you?" Beth eased. "I am partially empathic. I can sense emotions from a few but not all species. My mother is much more capable than I." Except when I'm around her, Beth thought. "Why?" The Doctor straightened his stance and dropped his voice. "Then it is my turn to apologize to you. I just assumed you were not until I began to read your records‌" Beth knew where his apology was coming from and she smiled as she looked up to him. "Doctor, if I had been offended, or if I felt that you were truly being out of line, you would have known." Her eyes carried a serious but tempered threat. Richardson smiled. "Thank you Captain." Beth was getting agitated on the table. "I really hate this thing. Hurry up." "Yes Captain," he laughed.

There was a collective exhale on the bridge as the Enterprise eased its way through the outer edge of the Briar Patch. Beth laughed at the realization that her crew was just as annoyed with the passage as she was. "Yes, we're out!" she confirmed. The crew all joined her laughter. "Please hail the Puma and the Jaguar!" she ordered. "They are responding, sir," K'Reeg answered. "Onscreen." The main view screen split and showed the two corresponding Captains. The first was an olive-complexioned Human-Ktarian woman with pale yellow eyes and long, light brown hair. She was sitting in a small battle bridge and she was smiling. Her teeth were stellar white and her bony forehead prominences were startling yet still beautiful. The second was a human man, his auburn hair was short and spiky and his eyes were 82


large and green and his freckles were faint, but noticeable. He was also smiling, but his eyes were almost wild looking. The bridge looked identical to that of the other. "Captains!" Beth greeted them. "We are all happy to see you! That Briar Patch is pure tedium!" The faces on the view screen both laughed. The woman spoke first. "Captain Riker, it's good to see you too. The Puma has had just as much fun sitting here waiting for you as you have had in the Briar Patch!" Beth laughed, "I bet you have Farhadian!" Beth turned to the man. "Tell me Shaughnessy, did the Jag just arrive?" Beth cast her eyes to her counterpart and her best friend on the USS Jaguar. She thought he even resembled one. If his eyes had been yellow, Captain Brian Shaughnessy would have looked just like a jaguar. His voice carried a noticeable Irish brogue. "Ay Captain Riker, we've been on the other edge of the quadrant when we got the order to meet you and the Puma. Have any idea what we're up against?" His eyes almost gleamed with anticipation. Brian could have been Klingon for all Beth knew, he was always up for a fight. "Easy Brian, we're heading to Iolus Prime, not Shentaria." Farhadian shook her head. "Fine Carrie. Iolus Prime it is, but it's in the neutral zone and the other Cats are coming to play!" He turned his eyes back to Beth. "Captain of the Enterprise, ay Riker?" He was teasing her. "Your family had nuttin' to do with that one now did it?" Beth shook her head with a grin. "Excuse me Captain?" She warned him with her voice but he could see her hidden smile. "Brian..." Farhadian's voice also contained a frustrated warning. "What?" He feigned ignorance. "Can't I have any fun?" Beth heard a annoyed grumble roll out from behind her. It was K'Reeg. He had taken offense for her. Beth smiled and shook her head. "Careful when you come on board the Enterprise Shaughnessy, you'll have to deal with my crew." she retorted and she stole a look to K'Reeg. He sniffed his approval of her threat. She was really beginning to like K'Reeg now. Brian laughed and knew he was pushing the limit. 83


Beth addressed them again, "Admiral Riker has informed me that we are to proceed straight away to Iolus Prime at warp seven. Shall we?" Beth asked. "Warp seven?" Carrie asked. "What's the rush?" "I have no idea," Beth admitted. Brian however, looked psyched. "Good, the faster we get there, the faster we'll find out!"

Riker sat back in his chair as the Enterprise clipped into warp speed. He exhaled deeply. Now he felt like he was at home. Starships were meant to travel fast and this ship felt like ice. She was smoother, quieter and more solid than anything he had ever been on before. His feet couldn't feel any discernable vibration through the deckplate like he could on the Titan. She's yare. He wanted to be on the bridge. He smiled, stood and made headway for the turbolifts. Deanna watched him then smiled, knowing he couldn't keep himself away.

"Admiral on the bridge!" Jaden's voice was sharp. Beth and Enya stood at attention. "At ease." Riker's voice was calm but internally he questioned the formality that seemed to be shown on Beth's bridge. Beth caught his gaze and noticed a slight smile. She knew that it was a personal visit and she relaxed. "Admiral?" She walked toward him. Riker stopped in front of her but he broke his eye contact and looked around the bridge. Beth now knew why he was there and she smiled. "Admiral. I would be honored if you would take the conn." He smiled back.. "I would like that very much. You stand relieved." "Aye sir," Beth said. "Crew? I will be in my quarters if you need me." She turned directly to K'Reeg. "Oh and K'Reeg‌?" "Yes, Captain?" "Don't let him scratch her, understood?" she warned sternly. "He 84


has a history." "Yes Captain." K'Reeg sounded serious but his eyes showed the smile. Riker shot her a glare. "What do you mean I have a history?" he growled. Beth folded her arms, pursed her lips and furrowed her brow as she stood in front of him. "Hmmm, let me see. The EnterpriseD...destroyed. The Enterprise-E…the Riker Maneuver notwithstanding, the bridge and twelve decks had to be completely overhauled. The Calypso II…wracked up on your honeymoon. The Armstrong…disabled and had to be towed back from Ovelden VII. The Beiderbecke…bilateral crushed nacelles and a cracked deckplate and after crash landing on Ranitha. The Gillespie…warp plasma conduits had to be re-lined after an unconventional exercise in the Colaran system. The Holiday…had to have all of her vylon upholstery and carpeting replaced and had to have a level four biofumigation sweep. The Marsalis…well, we won't even talk about the Marsalis! Do you really want me to start talking about how many times the Titan needed repair?" Her eyebrows lifted as her father raised his hands in surrender and chortles from her bridge crew were heard. "All right, all right! Fine! I promise I won't scratch her!" He grunted a half-smile which reflected the no small amount of discomfort of having some of his foibles listed off so easily. "But your mother was driving the D and the Marsalis was your fault, not mine!" "I beg to differ, Admiral," she retorted and smiled. She leaned to her father and he leaned forward to her. She put her lips close to his ear and said, "And no Perniski rolls either." Riker rolled his eyes. "Gah - you're no fun at all!" Laughing, Beth bowed from her father and entered the turbolift. Riker sat in the command chair. His smile widened noticeably. He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, looking at the controls on the arms of the chair and cleared his throat. "Now where is that roll button? Perniskis haven't been tried at warp seven yet have they?" he said out loud to the crew and there was laughter from all around him and he knew that their tension had eased. "A level four bio-fumigation sweep, sir?" K'Reeg asked deeply 85


with a raised eyebrow. Riker smiled wide, stroked his beard, kept his eyes on the viewscreen and nodded. "Prynethian king beetles." There was a startled laugh from Revaik and she saw the look of confusion on K'Reeg's face. "They eat many different forms of synthetic polymers." She laughed again, not sure she really wanted to know how Riker got his shuttle infested with the small, voracious and venomous beetles. Dryden appeared on the bridge and he was startled by Riker's presence in the command chair. "Admiral." "Commander." Riker stayed in the chair. "Don't worry I don't plan on keeping her for too long." Dryden smiled and took his seat to the right of the command chair. "I understand how you feel Admiral." Riker suddenly remembered Janeway's reminder for him to review the dedication plaque.As Dryden watched, Riker stood from the command chair and scanned the bridge. The dedication plaque was set into the aft bulkhead, the traditional spot. He slowly moved toward the plaque and Dryden could see where he was heading and he let a smile break across his face. Dryden stood so he could see Riker's face as he read the plaque. Riker stopped and as he examined the plaque, the rest of the bridge crew watched intently and quietly. His eyes glazed as he read the words. U.S.S. ENTERPRISE DETERMINATION CLASS STARFLEET REGISTRY NCC-1701-G UTOPIA PLANITIA FLEET YARDS, MARS EIGHTH STARSHIP TO BEAR THE NAME - LAUNCHED STARDATE 91939.2 UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS As usual, the traditional mission statement for the USS Enterprise appeared but oddly it was engraved above the list of dignitaries. It stood out from the bronze proudly and in a very large font. 86


"‌TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE." There followed a long list of dignitaries and personnel responsible for the ship's design, development and construction but below that and in a shattering break with tradition, there was a secondary dedication plaque set in just below and it took Riker's breath away. He found it hard to hear around him and he was overwhelmed. His hands turned to ice and he looked to Dryden and he realized the rest of the crew was all watching him. He had to fight back the rising emotion and he had to fight hard, for the words on the plaque were not those of a famous philosopher or poet‌they were his. "FORWARD. ALWAYS FORWARD." Captain William T. Riker Riker nodded and looked over to Dryden. Dryden could feel the stare and lifted his head to meet the Admiral's gaze. Dryden spoke softly to him, "Admiral. We all felt that while you only got to command her for a very short period, your presence would always be felt on her bridge." Riker's throat caught and he closed his eyes and opened them again to see his own words sculpted in the bronze, the words he used at the end of every mission, the words that gave him strength to move on after good times and bad. They were the words that gave him the strength to leave the Enterprise to take command of the Titan and again to say good-bye to Titan and take command of an entire fleet. He then looked to Dryden once more and Dryden thought Riker's eyes looked almost melancholy. "I envy you," Riker said in hoarse whisper. Paul was stunned. He didn't know how to respond. He took a few seconds and then quietly smiled and said, "Thank you, sir."

87


Interlude III Stardate 89173.7 Earth Calendar May 21st, 2411 USS Persephone – Medusa Class, Reg. No: NCC-90002 Isla Deneb Bridge

"FIRE!" Captain Ryan yelled at his Vulcan First Officer, Commander Juvek, who was manning the tactical station. Admiral Riker's eyes were torn between the readouts at his chair next to the captain's and the viewscreen. His fleet was already in full combat and he was begrudgingly latched into the secondary chair of his command vessel. Ryan had ordered the helmsman to hard port roll. The ventral torpedoes shot off and made direct hits on the three-finned, Shentarian vessel's dorsal hub. "Their shields are down Captain!" cried Juvek. "Finish it off!" Ryan yelled in fury. "I'll take Ops!" screamed Riker and he violently tugged at his restraints, finally finding the clasp and unlatching it. Juvek's hands flew over the weapons panel as Riker stood and stumbled over to the Ops console, unlatching the body of Lieutenant Commander Nesedra from her chair, laying her onto the floor and then taking her seat. He wiped her blue Andorian blood off the panel with his sleeve so he could read it better. He tried to see the viewscreen through the smoke 88


and looked to the Ops panel and pressed commands for the environmental system to clear the air. Quickly, the smoke began to ease away. He looked up to the viewscreen once more as it shorted in and out and watched Juvek's volley of torpedoes strike their target. The great, tri-finned, rust-colored vessel exploded with orange light then quickly faded as its remnants filled the viewscreen. Riker breathed in then exhaled hard. Once. He then turned to look at Juvek and nodded his head in approval. "What's next?!" he yelled at him. Juvek looked to his panel. "The Katavi is asking for assistance! She's dead in the water but has some of her shields!" Riker looked to his captain and gave him a look of determination with his command. "Let's go!" he ordered. He looked to his Ops panel once more. "Shields are down to sixty percent captain!" Engineering was trying to get them back and he hoped the distance between them and the Katavi would grant them enough time. "Sir! We just lost the Martin Luther King!" cried Commander Xani from his post overseeing Riker's fleet. "And two Shentarian vessels are closing on the Katavi!" "Damn! We'll need help to get 'em both!" Ryan grunted. "Who can assist?" "I have called for a Cat Sir! The Puma has acknowledged!" Juvek's deep voice resonated through the dissonance on the bridge. "Sir! The Panther and the Cougar have reported losses on the bridge! They have both taken direct hits!" Riker's heart tugged hard. Beth. He refocused himself and heard Commander Xani's mellow voice from a support station behind the captain. His black Betzaoid eyes were focused and steely. "Sir, the Panther has regained control and she's moving into assist the IKS Dakkt which is being pummeled by a tri-fin!" Riker listened as his eyes monitored their movement toward the disabled Katavi, trying to race towards her before the two tri-fins reached her. His thoughts returned back to his own fleet. "How are the Serengeti and the Susan B.?" "Holding their own sir! They're taking down a quad-fin as we speak!" Xani confirmed, "And both the Boole and the Chief Moses have regained their shields!" "Good!" Riker responded. 89


"The Cougar's back too sir!" Xani smiled. "She's moving to assist the Panther take out the tri-fin that was bearing down on the Dakkt!" "What the Puma's ETA?!" demanded Ryan. There was a moment of strange silence. "Well?!" Ryan yelled. Again, there was quiet and Riker spun his head and noticed the expression on Xani's face. He even thought Juvek bore the same expression. "What is it!" Ryan barked. "WHALE!" Xani screamed. Riker tried to shake the dread away. "SHIT!" he bellowed. "Where are we in the cone?!" His eyes captured Ryan's and the look of sickened dismay was easily seen on the young captain's face. "Don't know yet sir! The first bubble just arrived." Juvek stated coolly as his eyes scanned the panel. Riker found himself wishing for very specific words. His heart thumped hard as Juvek's hands flew across the board and he suddenly gave a half nod. "We'll be at the wide end sir!" he confirmed. "And the two Shentarian craft that were heading towards the Katavi have disengaged and have departed the zone!" Riker was only partially relieved. The enormous ship had begun to spin its dangerous subspace bubbles from around the lip of its bowl. To be near the wide end of the developing cone made escape much easier. Once the bubbles had moved into a relative cone-like form, the whale would move forward and mercilessly bombard what was caught in the net with a barrage of torpedoes and more bubbles. Ships had to avoid not only the ammunition coming from the whale but the bubbles themselves plus any bubble that may have come in contact with the ammunition that may have missed the ships. It was an almost impossible task and the smaller the ship, the more chance one had. "Can we drag the Katavi out with us?" Ryan asked the entire crew. Riker knew they had to try to move towards the open end of the cone if they were to have a chance at bringing the Katavi out with them. It would be impossible to try to dodge through the net with the Katavi in tow. "I think so sir!" said the Bolian helmsman, Teg. "Then do it!" Ryan yelled. 90


Riker looked to the viewscreen once more and saw the first of what would become innumerate subspace bubbles floating by the ship. "Who's near the base of the cone?!" he screamed, knowing that it was harder for those closer to the whale to know it was there as their scans wouldn't pick up the disturbance until it was almost on top of them. "The Panther, the Cougar, the Dakkt...!" Xani yelled as the ship swung hard starboard to align itself with the ailing Katavi, "and the Enterprise!" "Where's the Sojourner?!" Knowing that Janeway was in charge of the group, Riker wanted to make sure she was still there. "She's there sir! Just outside the cone!" responded Xani. Riker looked down to the panel in front of him. Engineering had worked their usual miracles and brought their shields back to full strength. Unfortunately, it was too late. The shields would only make them a bigger target now. The Persephone was now next to the Katavi and without needing further orders Teg engaged the tractor beam and began to move, hauling the Katavi out towards the open end of the developing bubble cone, carefully and expertly avoiding the expanding bubbles as they passed. "How many ships are in the bubble zone?!" Riker screamed. "Too many sir!" Xani confirmed. "At least thirty!" Riker was ill. "Thirty?" he whispered to himself. Thirty ships would be wiped out at once unless something could be done about the whale. But the Persephone wasn't close enough. Their attempt would be futile. He looked to Teg whose blue face had paled significantly and kept peering to the body that lay at Riker's feet. "Get us out of here Teg." Riker looked to him and he saw Teg refocus. Xani's voice was heard once more. "The Panther and the Cougar have finished off that tri-fin." He looked astounded. "Damn they're close to the cone!" Riker watched as Teg skillfully and quickly moved toward open space. "And‌" Xani's voice thinned. "And‌" It became hard and calm and Riker knew more bad news was on the way. Riker saw the look of devastation in Xani's Betazoid eyes. "And what Commander?!" Riker's thoughts were of his daughter. 91


"The Enterprise has just gone Jonah..." Ryan stood from his chair instinctively. "What?" he whispered. "The Enterprise?" "Yes sir…" Xani confirmed. Riker's eyes shut with his devastation. The Enterprise had just dropped its warp core into the mouth of the colossal bowl-shaped craft. There would be no recovery. There would be no way to drag her from the base of the bubble cone in time to prevent her own destruction once she detonated the core. Once the whale went, everything close to its mouth or the surrounding subspace bubbles would go with it. Brint….Brint my friend, goodbye... "Teg…" Ryan jolted a whispered and panicked plea to his helmsman. "I know sir! I don't want to be anywhere near here!" he roared. Teg brought the Persephone and the disabled Katavi out of the edge of the developing bubble cone and to a safe distance from the impending catastrophe and raised their shields. Riker could see that ships were beginning to appear, some from the open end and others from between the bubbles that formed the sides of the emergent cone. He knew that some might not make it through. He also knew that those close to the narrow end of the cone would move as close to the wide end of the net as they could. Their survival chances increased proportionately the further away they could get from the whale's mouth. "The Cougar and the Dakkt have moved out sir!" Xani smiled. "They're out of the net!" Riker's thoughts turned once more to his daughter…What about the Panther? Don't tell me he's trying to bring out the Enterprise! Gallegos…are you crazy? "There she is! There's the Panther! She's out sir! The Panther's…" There was a flash of brilliant blue-white that filled the viewscreen so brightly Riker had to avert his eyes. No one spoke. The Enterprise was gone. Who knew how many others would survive. Suddenly the Persephone lurched hard from a torpedo blast. "QUAD-FIN!" yelled Juvek. Riker's eyes shot back to the Ops panel. "Shields are holding steady Captain but we've only got a few torpedoes left!" 92


Ryan nodded with comprehension, "Fire at will Juvek! Give'em the rest!" he screamed. Riker connected to Xani. "Who can assist?!" "Puma's on her way!" he yelled as Juvek fired his last spread of torpedoes. They hit the quad-fin hard but two of the torpedoes hit the fins and they would have been more effective in the hub of the vessel. The ship lurched hard again and Riker looked to the panel he heard the young captain's voice once more from behind him, "Come on Persephone! Hold on!" Riker's hands moved to increase the power to the shields. He had to take some power away from the environmental systems causing the bridge to slowly start filling with smoke once more. "We're being hailed Captain!" Riker smiled and noticed that Ryan's grin broadened as well. "Onscreen!" A lovely face with four small bony protuberances that rose up her forehead from between her eyes appeared in the lower right corner of the viewscreen. "Admiral Riker. Admiral Janeway said you're not allowed to leave yet sir!" She smiled. "She says you've got too much work on your desk and she has no intention of finishing it for you." Riker shook his head but smiled any way. "Are you always such smart–asses?" he asked. "Especially in battle sir." She nodded. "Now, if you'll excuse me, sir. I have a quad-fin to blow out of space for you." Her face disappeared from the viewscreen and a volley of pale yellow torpedoes sprang from the bow of the Puma hitting the large, four-finned vessel precisely in the center hub of the ship. The Puma rolled hard to port, turned and moved in around the quad-fin, dodging the spread of phaser blasts emitting from the brick-colored ship's stern. The Puma lifted gracefully, firing another surgical spread at the hub of the ship once more. That was all it took. Direct hits. All of them. The quad-fin began to rupture from the inside out. Riker breathed out. "Hail the Puma," he said. Once again the lovely face appeared on the viewscreen and she smiled. "Thanks Farhadian." He nodded. "Yeah, thanks Carrie," Ryan concurred. She nodded once. "Any time Admiral. Any time Greg. Now 93


get the Katavi home. I've got some clean-up to do with the other Cats." Her face disappeared once more. Riker looked around. They were done. They were out of ammunition and needed to get the Katavi out of the remaining fight zone. He looked to Ryan then to Xani, Juvek and finally to Ensign Teg. Ryan addressed his helmsman as he turned to take a seat in his command chair once more, "You heard the lady Teg…take us out of here." Teg nodded and set a course for the Sol System. "Admiral..." Xani smiled. Riker looked to him, hoping for some good news for once. "Yes?" "You should know…the Panther has had four kills since she exited the net." Riker's relief was apparent. The Panther had survived the explosion. He was struck. "Four?" He was amazed. "Damn!" He smiled. "Gallegos is pissed." Xani shook his head. "No sir. It's Commander Riker. Gallegos is dead." Riker didn't know if he was stunned or just wiped. He nodded and looked to Ryan who seemed to understand his look of relief. Beth's alive…for now. Riker looked down to the broken and bloodied body of the Operations Chief and he groaned. "Captain, I'll be in Sickbay," he said, standing. "Aye sir." Ryan's gentle eyes closed in comprehension as the ships moved into warp. They were only thirty nine light years from the Sol System, they would be home soon. Ryan watched his Admiral lean down to lift Nesedra's limp body from the floor of the bridge. Blue blood began to mottle his red uniform. Her antennae sagged by her temples. Riker turned and carried her to the turbolift. Ryan knew that he would be taking her body to Sickbay so a vial of her blood could be preserved for the trip home to the ice of Andoria where he would be responsible for placing it at the Wall of Heroes. He had promised her.

94


PART THREE

C

95


96


Stardate 91943.2 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise NCC-1701-G Personal Quarters: Capt., Riker, Elizabeth L.

Beth found herself on her comm trying to research further into the ghost species but like her father, she was having little success. She found it extraordinarily frustrating. She stood and walked into her dressing area. The video of the little girl with the dinosaur wouldn't leave her mind. It bothered Beth but she didn't know why. Beth opened a drawer in her bureau. Inside the drawer there was a plush toy targ. She smiled as she drew her hand over the stuffed spikes on his back. He was resting on a small box that had a label printed on it. The label was handwritten, poorly, in child-like writing. The label read, The Collected Works of Elizabeth Lwaxana Riker. Beth knew that all of her silly drawings of starships and shuttles and poems and trinkets from her youth that were small enough and important enough, found their way into this box. It also contained something else. She reached for the box and opened the top. Resting on a jumble of bric-a-brac was an Andorian picture case of the kind that were traditionally given by Andorians to their young female relatives as mementos. It resembled a very large locket. She opened the silver-toned, 97


rectangular case and revealed a photo on one side and an engraving on the other. The photo was of her and an Andorian man. His blue skin and silver-white hair were a stark contrast to his black Starfleet uniform. Four pips shown brightly from his collar. His two antennae stood high in the air and his grin was genuine and happy. She was also wearing a Starfleet uniform and her collar reflected two shiny pips. She had been a Lieutenant when the picture was taken. They were standing in front of a beautiful sculpture in the huge atrium of Lya Station Alpha. The sculpture represented the trails of the travelers who visited the base and it was a custom to have a photo taken there with a fellow traveler to mark the crossing of their paths. The engraving on the other side of the case read, To Elizabeth, my pink niece. Love, Uncle Blue. Beth closed the metal case and held it in her hand briefly before resting it back in the box. She solemnly closed the box and placed the toy Klingon pig back on top. She looked to her targ. "Keep it safe, Teddy." Teddy. That had been the name of the girl's dinosaur too. Beth smiled and looked at the tiny synthetic eyes of the targ in her drawer. Surely Teddy the tyrannosaurus and Teddy the targ had very important jobs. Beth walked back to her comm after getting herself another cup of coffee. Okay, round four. Let's begin this session with Cardassia. "Computer." There was an acknowledging tone. "Please research and correlate any known contacts between the Cardassian Union and the Onias Ghost Species." A few moments passed and the computer's male voice said calmly, "There are no instances of contact between Cardassian Union and the Onias Ghost Species listed in the Federation databanks." Beth sighed. This is going nowhere! Her frustration blew. "Computer, are there any known instances of contact between the Onias Ghost Species and any governmental entity other than the Federation?" Another few moments passed and then a few more. Beth knew she had given the computer a heavy question but she would be patient. "There is one unsubstantiated report of potential contact of the Romulan Star Empire and the Onias Ghost Species in the Earth year 2160." "Romulans?" Beth asked to herself. "Computer. Who made this 98


report?" The gentle male computer voice responded, "The report was made by Jonathan Archer, Captain of the Earth Starfleet vessel Enterprise NX-01, as part of his personal log." Beth was enthralled. Archer. The first captain of the Enterprise! "Computer, replay that log entry." Beth knew it would take a few moments and she couldn't sit. She stood near her desk with her coffee at her lips; she sipped and then heard a voice. "Captain's starlog, June ninth, 2160. I have heard unusual news regarding a recent occurrence in our conflict with the Romulans. Apparently one of the Romulan vessels broke from an unexpected encounter with the Andorians in the Hyralan sector, a significant distance from the battles previously encountered with them. The vessel appeared to make headway towards the Onias Sector, where three small freighters have reported being attacked in the last few days. We believe these attacks were undertaken by a species other than the Romulans. We don't know much about the potential new species, only vague witness descriptions of their ghost-like behavior. Two Andorian ships attempted to follow the Romulan vessel but it dropped from their sensors before any further engagement could be undertaken. Although it's impossible to tell if the Romulan vessel was actually heading for the Onias sector, I am of the personal belief that it was." Beth could hear fatigue in his voice and wondered what he had been through. She knew that the Romulan Neutral Zone was created soon after Archer's recording and that the following year the NX-01 was decommissioned and the Federation was born. Archer's voice continued, "We know so little about either species. I wonder what they might know about each other and how that might affect Earth. Archer out." A quick tone informed Beth that his log entry had ended. She sat back at her desk. "Well that was useless," she surmised. "Interesting yes, but useless." She set her coffee on her desk and left her quarters. She decided to visit Engineering.

Beth arrived in Engineering. It was relatively quiet except for the soft thrumming of the warp core. Elieth was standing near the main 99


Engineering panel. He stood taller still when he saw her. "Captain," he acknowledged. "Commander." She smiled. "How is everything down here?" "Running efficiently Captain." He bowed his head a little. "I was hoping that you would join me for lunch Elieth. Can you free yourself?" "I would be most agreeable, Captain." He nodded. Beth looked forward to a quiet lunch. "Good. I need your perspective on something." The two of them walked from Engineering and she guided him to the turbolift. "I assume then that you require a Vulcan perspective Captain?" His voice was soft and calm. Beth loved how reassuring it was to her. "Yes Elieth." "I will endeavor to assist." "I know you will." Beth smiled to him. "Let's eat in my quarters." "Yes Captain." They walked together back to Beth's quarters and they ordered lunch from the replicator. Elieth sat across from Beth at the table. As he readied himself to eat, he looked to her with interest. "You seemed troubled Captain." "I do?" Beth asked, not realizing she was giving off any type of airs. "You have the same crease in the middle of your forehead that your father does when he analyzes," Elieth deduced. Beth smiled. I'll store away that little fact for poker. "Fine. I'm not troubled Elieth. I'm stumped." "Stumped?" he asked. "Is that technical term?" "And they say Vulcans aren't funny." Beth laughed and she took a bite of her oskoid salad. Elieth's eyebrows lifted gently. "I don't believe we are Captain." Again Beth laughed and after she swallowed her food she continued. "Elieth. I have reason to believe that this ship may soon find 100


itself either close to or directly involved with an encounter with the socalled ghost species, a species I cannot seem to locate much information on." "They are a species that the Vulcans have also had very little contact with. I am not sure how helpful I can be," he admitted. Beth nodded. "I know. I already searched the databases. What I was hoping for was more of your input on why there might be activity near the sector border, after so long a period of inactivity." "I would require more information on which to base an opinion Captain. Their reasons could be numerous. Movement of colonies, preparation for war, fears of invasion or just a realignment of patrols along their borders." Beth knew he was right and she sighed, "We don't even know what they look like, Elieth." "You're not even sure we're going to be meeting them, Captain." Beth laughed. "You're right." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Are you satisfied with your position on the Enterprise Elieth? This is really the first chance I've had to talk to you individually since we launched and I want to make sure you are being given every appropriate tool to assure your efficiency." Elieth sat up a bit in his chair. "I am most satisfied Captain. The Engineering staff appears to be adapting to Vulcan supervision quite rapidly." "I know that can be difficult for some, even to this day Elieth. Your…patience is appreciated, especially by me. Have you had any difficulties that I should know about that I might be able to help rectify?" "Not at this time, Captain. We did have a slight engine injection fraction variance two days ago but Lieutenant Yoshida was able to correct it. It had been manually adjusted while we were in orbit around Ba'ku due to the rings' radiation." "Ah, very good." Beth laughed to herself when she realized she knew exactly how panicked Yoshida had been. Elieth must be running a tight team. "Please give Yoshida my compliments on finding and correcting the error." "I will Captain. I am sure he will be pleased to hear of your words." Elieth's gaze did not break from hers. "You are still worried Captain." 101


Beth rubbed the crease in her forehead. "Damn!" she groaned. "Fine. I'll admit it Elieth. I am worried. I have a feeling the Enterprise will be in battle sooner than we had feared. Starfleet has placed this ship in a position of having very little shakedown time and I am curious as to how you measure your team's ability to handle that type of pressure so soon in our assignments." Elieth understood now. "Captain. I am confident in the crew's ability to handle their positions even in battle. Most of the Engineering crew was at the battle of Isla Deneb in one form or another. While they may not have faced battle on the same ship together, they faced battle together on different ships. They will be ready," he advised her. "Thank you Elieth. The Enterprise is a much bigger target than I'm used to. I will rely on your team heavily as I'm sure you know." Her voice was calm and her mind was quiet. "I appreciate your input on all things." "You have a similar style to that of your father," he advised her. "I hope that is acceptable to you." "It is indeed. Admiral Riker was also cognizant and respectful of the many different species on board the Titan." "To this day the Titan still holds the record for being the most species diverse ship while it was under my father's command. I was raised this way," she responded. "Also Elieth, you should know. I am very fond of Vulcans for a very self-indulgent reason." She looked to him. "I thought maybe Tuvok might have told you." "Captain?" He was perplexed. "Vulcan's minds are quiet of emotion. I find it very relaxing to be around you and members of your species," she admitted. "May I make a personal inquiry then, Captain?" "Of course Elieth." She smiled. "Do your empathic abilities cause you problems?" he inquired. "Not usually," she admitted. "There can be times when they are less than comfortable. Like when Enya's within two hundred meters of me. Don't be surprised if I seek out your company when that occurs," she warned him. 102


"I will be at your service Captain." "Again, thank you Elieth."

Riker was happy. It had been a long time since he had been able to comfortably take the bridge of any ship besides the Persephone. Captains in the fleet under his command usually became nervous that he was testing them. At least Beth understood it was just because he wanted to be on the bridge. He was also very happy with her choices in her senior staff. Dryden worked diligently and seemed to have an excellent rapport with the bridge crew. K'Reeg was busy programming at his station. Revaik was working on additional analyses of the scans she had run for Command. Priest was in at her seat and seemed to be preoccupied with a padd containing crewmember records. He heard a faint chime on K'Reeg's panel. "We are being hailed by the Jaguar, Admiral." K'Reeg's displeasure was apparent. "It's Captain Shaughnessy." Riker had no idea why K'Reeg sounded so annoyed. "Onscreen." Shaughnessy was laughing and when he looked to his comscreen he froze. "Uh‌..Admiral!" He was horrified. "I thought that Captain Riker would be on duty." "No Shaughnessy. I requested the conn." He was factual and stern, "Is there something I can do for you, Captain?" Riker knew that Shaughnessy was just calling to give Beth grief. It was his pastime. "Uhhhhh, no Admiral. Please let Captain Riker know I contacted her about our arrival at Iolus Prime." Shaughnessy's already fair complexion lightened considerably. "Thank you, Captain." Riker stared him in the eye. "Sorry to bother you, Admiral." The transmission ended. Riker could hear a deep but quiet laugh from K'Reeg behind him. Whatever Riker had done had pleased K'Reeg to no end. Riker stood from the chair and walked around a bit. He was mostly pleased with the fact the crew did not seem in the least bit nervous around him. He felt like he was welcome there. 103


Beth appeared from the forward turbolift. She smiled when she saw Riker, but was very glad to see Dryden in his chair and he instinctively stood when he saw her and announced her presence. I can't believe she has such a formality on her bridge! I was never like that! He then remembered that if an Admiral were on board his ship, he might step up the formalities as well. It might also have been Beth's way to prove to her staff that there was a separation of the familial ties and he let it go. "Admiral‌Number One! Glad to see you." She turned to her father and smiled, then walked towards her ready-room. She walked in and sat at her desk. She turned on the comm and started to work immediately. She wasn't too surprised when the bell chimed and Riker walked in. She stood. "Admiral." He waved her to sit. "You have a great crew Beth. Not one of them got flustered." She nodded briefly. "They like you. Very much." "They like you, too." He smiled. "I saw the plaque." Beth smiled in return. "Believe it or not, it was Paul's idea. I just happily pushed it through." "How did Starfleet agree?" Riker asked, knowing that such breaks with tradition were usually hard-fought. Beth's head dipped a little. "Let's just say they owed me a favor." They owe me a hell of a lot more than one favor, that's for sure! She smiled and looked to him in the smart-ass way she would when she wanted to get the dig in on him. "Besides, I really wanted Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. on the plaque but Paul wouldn't agree," she snickered and then she and Riker both laughed loudly when they noticed that the replicator behind Beth's desk had developed the drink for her. She took it gladly from the device and sipped from it. "I'm still overwhelmed by it and I am surprised you didn't use one of Jean-Luc's quotes." He was humbled and she could see it. "Well, we thought about it...I even thought about naming the skiff after him but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. It just didn't seem right." She smiled and Riker's eyes widened. "I forgot about the yacht‌you didn't break with tradition on that 104


now did you?" He looked at her almost sternly. "They're usually named after explorers." Beth smiled. "Yeah, I have to admit that one took me while. I think I got it right. She was an explorer…but not in the traditional sense." "What did you name it Beth?" he asked suspiciously, knowing his daughter's propensity for twisting Starfleet tradition. "I named her Hypatia." Relieved, Riker smiled and nodded. "She was an explorer of truth." "Yes." Beth nodded vigorously. She was glad he understood her intention with the selection. "Exactly." "What quote did you use on the plaque?" he inquired. Beth brought her hand up and rested her head as she leaned into the arm of her chair. "Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel…" Her father finished the sentence with her, "…the more truth we can comprehend." Riker smiled and walked closer to her desk. Beth stood as her father leaned to kiss her on the forehead. "Jean-Luc would have approved." He turned to leave once more and quickly stopped and looked to her before he departed. "Oh, by the way, Brian called, wants you to call him back." Beth sat back down in her chair with a broad grin. "Oh, he must have wet his pants when he saw you!" She could easily imagine the look of shock on Shaughnessy's face. Riker nodded. "K'Reeg doesn't like him very much. What happened there?" "This morning Brian made a comment that I got the Enterprise because of my family." Beth smiled. "You know Brian, anything to get a rise out of me. Problem was? K'Reeg took exception to his statement. I think K'Reeg wanted to defend my honor right then." she laughed. "You did very well for yourself. I'll probably take the conn off and on while I can, if that's okay, Captain." "We're here for you Admiral." She grinned and watched him leave the room. She then laughed out loud as she moved her comm to contact the 105


Jaguar. She waited a few moments and Shaughnessy's face appeared. She could immediately tell he was in his ready room. The Cats all looked alike. His face was red and Beth knew that he was just now regaining color from what was most likely a very pale shade indeed. "Got what you deserved Brian." "Damn Beth! Scared the crap out of me!" he chortled. "He looks great!" Beth laughed out loud. "I know! You should see my mother!" Brian's eyebrows moved up and down to Beth's delight. "Ah‌your mother! Beauty and grace incarnate. You know I've always had a thing for your mom‌please tell me that she's finally come to her senses and she's ready to leave your father!" He was laughing now. She adored Brian. They had been very close friends since her first assignment out of Command School on Titan's sister ship, the USS Oberon. He was her counterpart on the beta shift and she believed he helped her through the rougher spots with their Captain, Nathaniel Jerbin. Jerbin was never kind to her and he always went out of his way to make her life difficult, but Brian was the one who helped her maintain her temper so she never made the mistake of flaring at him. No matter how hard Jerbin tried to get her to be insubordinate, Beth never broke. It was something she had dealt with since she entered the Academy; a two-fold hurdle she had to climb with most of her superiors. The first was simply being Riker's Daughter. The second was being The Defector's Sister. Most people either thought she had been granted special favors for being the Admiral's daughter, or flatly didn't trust her because her sister had turned her back on them all. Captain Jerbin was one those who believed both of them. He assumed Beth had been coddled at the Academy and he believed she was only one step from snapping, just like her sister. Brian and she helped each other through everything, Starfleet problems, shift coverage and tactical testing. Their friendship deepened and they would help each other through emotional traumas, love issues and most importantly, just being a true friend. She had never relied on someone so heavily outside of her family and she was only too happy to know that he relied on her in the same fashion. She knew that it was part of the reason their careers developed 106


so quickly. They were able to help each other along the way. She also thought he was the funniest man alive. "So, do you want me to call my mom in here? I'm sure she'd love to talk to you!" she finished. Brian's eyebrows wriggled. "Yes! Please tell Ambassador Troi to divorce your sorry-arse father and meet me on the Jag! I'll show her the life she missed!" Beth couldn't stop laughing. "What did you really want Brian?" "I wanted to ask you if we could use one of the recreation rooms on the Enterprise love. The Cats wanna play and the Enterprise has more room," he whined. She stopped laughing with a jolt. "We'll be in the Neutral Zone, Brian. Don't you think that's pushing it just a little?" she asked sarcastically. Shaughnessy's face reflected the expression Beth had come to know as the I have inside information smirk. "I don't think we'll be expecting any battle at Iolus Prime love." Beth let her eyebrow perk up. "Oh? How can you be so sure Brian?" "I have my reasons‌" Beth shook her head. "You're crazy Shaughnessy!" "Don't worry love!" he interrupted. "You're always so by-thebook!" "By-the-book? The Enterprise and all five Cats will be sitting in the Neutral Zone and you're not the least bit worried?" "Nope! Poker's that important love!" He grinned. "Or didn't your father teach you that?" Beth almost growled. "Brian, you can't be serious!" "I am serious! But I guess you should know that Issa contacted me and told me he's bringing Janeway with him to Iolus Prime. She's already okayed the meeting." Beth calmed herself. "Janeway's coming? Really? What's going on Brian? What have you heard?" "Only that Janeway's meeting your Dad and others on Iolus Prime. I don't know who else will be there or why. Issa seemed to think that the Romulans may also be involved but Janeway's being 107


tight-lipped about it." Beth shook her head. "Damn! I hate this. I hate not knowing what's going on! I've got a new crew and a new ship and my first mission is everything that Brint warned me about!" "I know Beth. Try to be patient. I guess we'll find out when we get there." "Okay, I'll reserve a room…but it's your ass, Brian. When?" "Eighteen hundred the eve we arrive at Iolus Prime." He smiled. "I'm getting edgy. We haven't played together since before the battle at Shentik! You owe me Riker!" he growled. "Besides, we have to break in that new lout on the Panther…what's his name again?" Beth allowed herself to laugh once more. Brian rolled on with artificial offense in his voice, "Oh yeah – McGregor. The Scotsman! The bloody Scotsman takes over your ship and you allowed it Beth! How could you do that to me? Worse yet? He was your XO! Bloody Scotsman's a newbie too!" Beth knew that Brian had known McGregor since they were in the Academy and served in the Red Squadron together; they were actually very close friends. "Well, beat him in poker Brian, you'll feel better." She wished he was on board. "You bet I will," he sniped. "Brian." Beth stopped laughing briefly. "What, love?" "Just so you're well warned…" "Yes…?" His eyebrows furrowed and he leaned to his comm. "K'Reeg wants to kill you," She laughed. "He thought you meant that bit about my parents getting me the Enterprise and he no longer likes you." Brian's eyes widened. "Eeech," he said. "I will talk with your Klingon friend and get him to understand that I was only joshing. I don't want him on my bad side when and if he needs to cover me!" Beth nodded. "Good call Brian." "See you at Iolus Prime love?" he asked. "Yes, Brian." She smiled. 108


"G'night Elizabeth!" "Good night Brian." And she blew him a kiss.

Beth was sitting in the command chair, Iolus Prime was in view. Its green hue brightened the viewscreen and the bridge. They had come out of warp and the conn officer was bringing the Enterprise into standard orbit. The Puma and the Jaguar took up adjacent positions. Riker had taken the conn three more times and on different shifts while the Enterprise made its way to the planet. Beth was glad he was getting to know so many of her crew. She found it useful to take the shifts opposing her father and it allowed her to do the same. Standard orbit had been achieved and Beth stood from her chair. She would send off the guests herself. "Number One I'll be in transporter room four." "Yes sir," Dryden responded. Beth entered the turbolift. She was finally beginning to feel a sense of rhythm to her ship. The pulse and the pace of it were beginning to flow and she found comfort in it. Dryden was exceptional. Beth had yet to worry about the personnel or the general operations. She was beginning to rely on him heavily and he seemed pleased with it. Enya had even started to calm down after her initial meltdown and Beth was finding it easier to close her mind's door to her. Enya looked like she had begun to develop a friendship with Jaden Revaik. Beth was even happy to hear that K'Reeg and Jaden had been heard trading goodnatured barbs, Klingon versus Romulan of course, when Beth was off the bridge. Dryden agreed with Beth that these were all good signs. Beth walked to the transporter room and Chief Vega was waiting there. She knew Vega from the Panther. "Hi Carlos! Good to see you." "Captain. It's good to see you too." He proudly stood by the panel. "Are you enjoying your new assignment?" she joked. Vega laughed. "Are you kidding Captain? I'm still punching myself 109


to make sure it's real." Beth nodded. "I know how you feel Chief." But it was lie. When Beth first stepped inside the Enterprise, she realized it was the first time she had felt at home since the Titan. But this ship seemed even more substantial to her, more real. Beth loved the Panther but it was never really hers. She had always felt that she was just holding the Panther in trust until Estevan's real replacement could be found. She smiled happily knowing that Starfleet had also felt that the real replacement was McGregor. He was made for that ship and it was made for him. The Panther was more a familiar to McGregor than she might have been to Gallegos and that thought contented Beth. Her heart fluttered momentarily when she realized she would be seeing him soon and that thought was actually more shocking than anything. Her attentions were drawn to the transporter room door as it opened and Riker and Alexander walked in. Her father was wearing his dress formal uniform. Something she did not expect. The white from the uniform highlighted the grey of his hair and his blue eyes looked even icier than ever before. She thought he looked like representations of the Terran King Arthur myth. Alexander was wearing the Klingon version of diplomatic robes. He looked fierce and noble. "Admiral." Beth was visibly taken by her father's appearance. She had no idea he was going to any type of diplomatic function on Iolus Prime and her curiosity spiked. "Elizabeth. Alexander and I will be using the Enterprise as a home base for the next two days. Deanna and Tatiana will stay here. Admiral Janeway will also be returning with us to the Enterprise on occasion." The knot in her abdomen squeezed tighter and her anxiety level shot up. Beth now knew that there was something very important occurring on the planet's surface. Although her curiosity was concentrated, she knew that she would never be given any more information than any other Captain in her position would be. "Admiral, the Enterprise is ready for any assistance we can provide, for whatever your mission may be." She was formal; still, Riker could hear the growing frustration in her voice.

110


"I know, Captain. Again, this will take a couple of days. Your new orders will be forthcoming, most likely from Janeway." "Understood, sir." Riker's tone found its formality. "In the meantime, you will notice that the Vulcan flagship T'Naari and a Klingon bird-of-prey will enter into orbit in the near future. They will be escorted by several other ships as well. You are ordered to refrain from hailing them." He was now in full Admiral mode. Beth's throat tightened and her mind raced a bit. She quieted her voice and leaned slightly to Riker. "Starfleet, Vulcan and Klingon ships in the Neutral Zone, sir?" Riker's smile eased her greatly. "I can't say why Captain, but rest assured it's not aggression." "Do the Romulans know that sir?" she whispered to him bluntly. Riker smiled once more and gave her a slight nod and she eased once more. "What about the Cats,Admiral? Am I allowed to speak with them?" Riker nodded. "You are allowed to but we're asking you all to keep intervessel transmissions to an extreme minimum. Janeway has already sent the orders to the Captains of the Cats." This, Beth understood. "Yes sir." Alexander walked up to Beth. Beth smiled to him. "Captain. You have made us all very proud." His voice was graveled and Beth had noticed that his face had cleared significantly. "Ambassador, we wish you the best in your endeavors." she replied. Alexander turned and stood atop the transporter platform. Riker set his hands on Beth's shoulders. His smile was different. He was proud and excited and Beth knew he wanted to share something with her. He was just unable to do so. He looked her in the eyes. "Wish us all luck." "Good luck Admiral." Beth meant it. Riker leaned forward to whisper in her ear. "I love you Beth." Beth slowly tilted her head up to his ear and returned the whisper, "I love you too, Dad. Come home safe." 111


Riker straightened himself and nodded to her, turned and stood next to Alexander on the platform. "Energize." Beth commanded and the glistening streams appeared and took her father to Iolus Prime. When the platform was empty, she nodded to Vega, turned and walked out of the room.

Beth returned to the bridge. "Number One‌" She made eye contact with Dryden. He knew to follow her to the ready room. Beth sat at her desk and she invited him to sit. "Captain?" He leaned a little in his chair. He was ready for orders and she could see it. She too, could feel that finally, finally things were starting to move and she loved the focus it gave her. "Number One, we will be in orbit around Iolus Prime for the next couple of days. I have been informed that Admiral Janeway will be making intermittent visits to the Enterprise." Paul nodded and Beth continued, "I have also been told to expect the company of both Vulcan and Klingon ships with their compliments as well. We are under strict orders to maintain communication silence with them. Understood?" "Yes sir," Dryden confirmed with a raised eyebrow. Beth smiled. "Now. We are also to keep our electronic communications with the Cats to a minimum. However, there is one message I need you to send them when they arrive." "Of course." He was serious "Please inform the captains that they are to beam aboard the Enterprise at 1800 hours and the meeting will begin promptly upon their arrival." "Yes, Captain." Beth smiled. "Thanks Paul. I only know what you know. I have no idea what's going on down on the surface. I guess we'll all find out soon enough." Dryden knew that the formal orders were done and he stood. Beth reached for her comm but before she began to focus on work, she caught Dryden's eyes once more. "Tell me Number One‌do you play poker?" 112


"Sir?" He was caught off guard by her question. "Yes, I do." "Good. When you find the time, why don't you join us in recreation room seven? I like a full table." She smiled. "And if Clark isn't doing anything, bring him along." His grin filled his face but suddenly his eyes narrowed. "How do I know you won't read me?" Beth laughed and nodded. "I know. You're going to have to trust that I ignore the empathic abilities." Her smile broke and she became serious. "Paul, you'll find out I use them less than you think I do." He was confused. "Captain?" "They bug me. I don't use them if I don't have to." She looked him in the eyes and invited him to sit again. She took a deep breath in. "This is purely between you and me but as my XO you need to know in case..." Beth broke off. Enya's presence next to her on the bridge was making her rethink many things, "‌in case something occurs." "What?" Dryden was perplexed. Beth calmly and quietly explained to him the problems that she had when she was near another Betazoid and the reasons she shuts her mind off to the empathic powers. He was concerned for her and understood her fears that the information could be used against her. Certain members of Starfleet might consider it an affliction and they might finally have a tool to use against her. He knew he would support her. She had placed an enormous amount of trust in him and he would not let her down now. Beth's voice was wary. She had never had the need to tell anyone else before. She had never been faced with being near a Betazoid on the bridge before. Dryden needed to know but he now held an advantage over her and she knew it, but Beth felt the safety of the Enterprise required her keeping him informed, of everything. "So now you know." "Captain. Thank you for telling me. I will keep your confidence." His brow furrowed a bit. "You seem to miss that you could use it as a tool as well." Beth sniffed an ironic laugh. "I have yet to find it an advantage Paul. I don't spy on my crew." He nodded with comprehension. "Understood." "So, join us will you?" Beth lightened her tone. "The captains of 113


the Cats are good people to know and I want you to develop a rapport with them as well. They can save your butt when it's in a bind." "That, Captain, is one thing I do know. I'll never forget Telanus." He looked her in the eye and Beth nodded her head with understanding. "And thanks for trusting me." Beth laughed nervously. "We're a team Paul. If I can't rely on you, who can I trust? The Enterprise needs us both." He smiled, nodded and left the ready room. Beth turned to her comm and began to review the reports of the day. Her mood was beginning to settle again.

Deanna and Tatiana joined each other for lunch in the arboretum. Tatiana sat across from Deanna at a small table in one of several alcoves surrounded by thick vegetation. Tatiana had noticed Deanna's subdued expression. She leaned over the table toward her older friend and quizzed in a thick Russian accent, "Deanna? Are you all right?" Deanna's eyes met Tatiana's once more, realizing that she hadn't been paying attention to anything Tatiana had been saying and she was embarrassed. "I'm sorry Tatiana, I'm just worried about Will. He's been under such stress…and he's been throwing off some pretty big emotions since his first secure channel communication from inside the Briar Patch." Tatiana looked to her friend with a reassuring smile. "He'll be okay Deanna, Alexander is watching over him." Deanna smiled but the smile vanished when she heard unknown voices from two alcoves down. She had heard them mention Beth's name and she found herself unable to keep from eavesdropping. Her eyes met Tatiana's who was also interested and she refrained from speaking so they could both hear. "I think you're dead wrong Jackson." It was a deep male voice but of what species Deanna couldn't tell. "The Captain's got more guts than most others twice her age." "Maybe. But guts can't get you the captaincy of the Enterprise at thirty. You can't tell me they promoted her without at least some help from the family. I bet she'll break like a twig under the pressure when she realizes 114


the size of this ship and the amount of responsibility she has." Jackson's voice was also male and had the sound of age with it. Deanna and Tatiana's eyes met once more, surprised by the intensity of the man's doubt about Beth's capabilities. "So, you think her command on the Panther was a fluke?" Jackson grunted. "No. But the Panther's not even a quarter of the size of this ship! Having commanded a defense ship or not, the Enterprise is no ordinary command, and I think she's going to crack! Hell, Dryden's got more experience with a large vessel than she does!" "Oh no, you are wrong Jackson, I went to the Academy with her and I know what she'd do." "What do you mean by that?" the man named Jackson hissed. "What? You didn't hear about what they did to her at Command School?" Deanna's heart skipped a beat. "What did they do? Give her more special treatment?" His voice sounded disgusted and Deanna was truly beginning to feel herself not liking this Jackson. The first man growled again, "Jackson – you're a jerk, you know that?" He waited a beat and Deanna guessed Jackson had taken offense. Good. You are a jerk. Deanna was pleased with her own defensive posture over her daughter. The first man continued, "No. She was forced to take three separate bridge officer's exams. All three were specially programmed just for her and if she failed any one of them…just one of them…she would have been cut from consideration." "Sounds like special treatment to me." "Special my ass! No one has ever had to undergo the test more than once. I understand the first two were bad enough, but that the third one was flat-out cruel," the first voice stated succinctly. The hair on Deanna's neck began to prick up. Tatiana's face looked like it was paling. Jackson's voice calmed a bit. "Why? What was so cruel about having to order someone to take one for the team? They're always like 115


that." Deanna knew this to be the truth, she had to pass the same exam herself and she found it to be one of the most challenging, realistic and difficult things she had ever had to do. "Not in this one. They programmed it to where she had to kill her family. And not just order someone to do it. She was forced to pull the trigger on them, herself..." The first voice chilled, "…and not just the Admiral and the Counselor but her brother too! She was forced to kill her entire family to save her ship." "What, why not her traitor sister?" Jackson sharply joked, "Well, that might have been too easy I guess." He grunted again with a vicious laugh. Deanna felt like she had been hit in the stomach. "Well no, you're right about that, I heard the sister was not a part of the test...but still Jackson, she had to off the good ones. You tell me you still don't want to serve under her, and I will tell you that you are a fool." Jackson was finally silenced. "That's why she has the Enterprise, Jackson. Because she's the best one out there." The first voice sounded like his point was made. "Come on, we've got to get back." and the two stood from their table and left. Deanna's face and hands went numb and she felt Tatiana's hand slowly wrap around hers on the table. She didn't know how to react, her shock and her horror had encased her and her hands began to tremble in Tatiana's.

The day passed slowly. More slowly than Beth would have liked. The Vulcan and the Klingon vessels made their appearances less than an hour after her discussion with Dryden. They took up relative orbits around the planet. The Vulcan ship was escorted by seven smaller support ships and the Klingon bird-of-prey was accompanied by two heavily armored attack vessels. Beth was beyond curious and she found herself actually quiet nervous about the activities on the planet. She pushed the anxiety away. 116


The remaining three Cats arrived over the course of the next six hours. The last to arrive was the Panther. Beth received a data only message from the ship upon its arrival. The message read simply: "Confirm meeting at 1800 hrs. TIM." Beth knew that the signoff did not stand for Timothy but for Tristan Ian McGregor, the new Captain of the USS Panther and her former First Officer. They would be celebrating their promotions together tonight. A tone rang and Dryden's voice was heard. "Captain, you have an incoming message from Earth." Beth smiled. Bill. "Please send it in here Number One. Thank you." Beth was thankful that there was no limit on personal communiquÊs. She swiveled her comm back towards her and her brother's face appeared and her mood soared. "Bill!" She beamed. "Hi Sis! How did it go?" His black eyes matched hers and his dark brown hair was neatly trimmed. He was very tall, at least five centimeters taller than their father. He was lean and incredibly handsome. "It took Dad a couple of days before it sank in," she laughed. "I'm not surprised. How did Mom do?" Bill knew that Deanna would be more apt to show apprehension than their father. "You know Bill? I think she's handled this better than anything yet." Beth leaned her head on her hand and her elbow on the desk. "You should contact her. She's here on the ship and Dad's on assignment. I'm sure she'd like to talk to you. Besides, I told her about my little‌problem and I'm sure she'll want to help you with your research for me." Bill's face lit. "You told her! Beth that's fantastic! I'm very proud of you!" Beth rolled her eyes. "Don't be. It wasn't because I wanted to, trust me. I told them because Dad called me on the whole pride thing." "Oooh." Bill cringed. He understood that when their father pulled the pride card it was usually because he could sense when things were getting close to fraying. Bill now knew his sister's problems were on the verge of becoming more than just a nuisance. "So he prided you into asking for help?" "Yep," Beth admitted. "But as always, he was right." She sounded 117


defeated and Bill could see it. His smiled softened. "It's okay Beth, Mom and I will find something for you, I know we will." He was reassuring and kind. Beth laughed a little. "I know you will. Believe me when I say I hope you find something sooner rather than later." "Are things getting worse?" The concern in his voice rose. Beth shook her head coarsely. "No. Actually Enya's calming down and it's allowed me to close her off more easily, so things are actually better than they have been since I took The Chair." "Good. Hopefully that will buy us some more time," he admitted. Beth looked at her brother's face closely. His eyes were alight and she laughed knowingly. "Okay Bill‌.what's her name?" Bill roared with laughter. "And you say you don't use your empathic abilities." Beth shook her head. "No Bill, let's just say I've seen the look a million times before!" It was the verbal slam he had been waiting for. "I'm in love Beth!" His face was joyful. Beth had seen and heard it all before. Her sarcasm was impossible to hide. "Uh huh. What's her name Bill?" Still smiling, he leaned under his desk. "His name is Strider." Beth was utterly confused. "What?" she asked. Bill reached under his desk and lifted up a small puppy. Beth couldn't control her yelp of surprise and joy. It was a dark brown Labrador Retriever and he had the softest color brown eyes. His tail wagged floppily as Bill brought him back down to the top of the desk. "Bill! He's beautiful!" Beth cried. "But who's going to take care of him when you're on your digs?" "What do you mean? He's coming with me!" His excitement was unable to be contained. The puppy turned on him and began to lick his face. Beth smiled when she realized she was now witness to the beginning of what might be Bill's first real, long-term relationship and she found the thought hilarious. Her laughter found its way out and Bill was happy to see it. Beth knew that Bill had always wanted a dog but since they had 118


lived most of their life on a starship it had been impossible. Beth realized then that Bill needed to have soil under his feet to feel at home. She hated real gravity. It was the truly defining difference between them. "I'm so happy for you Bill. I really am. I can't wait to meet him in person!" Bill lifted Strider from his desk and set him back on the floor at his feet. "Well, I should contact Mom now. Do you know when you might be back to Earth?" Beth shook her head solemnly. "No. I don't yet." She sounded sad. She wanted to hug her brother again, soon. "I will let you know the moment I find out, okay?" Bill nodded. "Okay." His eyes hardened. "Be careful Beth." He smiled and rolled his eyes… "And if you can't be careful..." Beth smiled and joined him in finishing his sentence. "…be victorious!" She reached for the comm and touched it. "Love brother." Bill reached his hand out, "Love sister," and the transmission ended.

Beth sat alone in the observation lounge, staring out the window to the planet that filled her vision. Something still wasn't right. There were huge gaps in the puzzle. Who were they? Where did they come from? She knew the Federation and others had been in and around this sector for hundreds of years. Where were they…hiding? Hiding. Her heart sank. What home planet? Where? They've been hiding all along? For centuries? Maybe millennia. Have they been right next to us this whole time? They were too hard to see so we just stopped looking? Or can it be Species 8472? Command doesn't think so. They thought the treaty with them would hold…but treaties have been broken before. But 8472's style is much more violent that this…ghost species'. The tactics are different. Maybe Janeway's right. I just wish I had more information. She found that anger was starting to creep in. Beth glanced across 119


the table and her eyes fell upon the pride wall and her eyes moved directly to a model of the Enterprise-F. Memories of Captain Brint, the first fully non-human Captain of the Enterprise and a close friend of her entire family, fondly entered Beth's mind. He had served aboard the Titan for a brief period before moving on to other opportunities and eventually ended up in command of the USS Ngorongoro, another Veldt-class vessel. He built such a solid reputation that upon the decommissioning of the Enterprise-E, Brint was offered her successor. Beth remembered the commissioning ceremony as if it had been yesterday. Captain Brint stood proudly alongside the Federation President, Admiral Janeway and numerous other dignitaries and was genuinely pleased to be surrounded by Jean-Luc, Beverly Crusher, Riker and Deanna, as well as most every officer still alive that had ever served on an Enterprise vessel. It was a grand parade. Beth's grandmother happily sat with her and Cassidy and Bill in the crowd of the Utopia Planitia space dock and would fill in the names of the dignitaries that they didn't know. Brint appeared especially majestic in his white uniform. Beth remembered how bright his blue skin looked and the way his Andorian antennae seemed to stand up straighter than she had ever seen them before. She remembered wanting to feel that proud one day and she warmly recalled that it was on that day she had decided to focus on getting into the Academy as soon as possible. Beth's heart grew bittersweet when she remembered Brint making eye contact with her during the ceremony then slowly turning his right antenna and waving it at her with a huge grin as he passed by the row in which she and her siblngs sat. Beth quickly wiped a tear from her cheek and was swept up by another memory of Brint as her eyes continued to stare at the structured lines and graceful arcs of the model of the Enterprise-F. She saw Brint as he walked across the Academy parade grounds and her heart jumped. She ran across to meet him and his bright smile bloomed from his sapphire face. "Uncle Blue!" She breathed out when she reached him and he hugged her hard and lifted her slightly from the ground. "What are 120


you doing here?!" she asked. "I've come to see you Beth! I wanted to say hello and give you a congratulatory kiss before graduation. I won't be able to be here for the ceremony and didn't want to miss you." He threw his arm around her shoulders as they walked back toward the paths that traversed the grounds. Beth beamed. "I'm so glad you did. Can you stay for lunch?" He nodded with a smile. "I'd love to Cadet Riker. It's been too long since I've been with someone who will eat Andorian cabbage soup with me!" He squeezed her hard and she laughed out loud. "Sounds good to me!" she agreed excitedly and they walked to the mess hall. As he sat down at the table with his soup he looked to her and grinned. Beth was curious and raised her eyebrows. "What?" she asked. Brint shook his head slightly, his wonderful antennae waved independently. "I just knew you'd be in a Starfleet uniform," he laughed slightly. "Very few are actually bred for Starfleet but Elizabeth…I think you truly were." Beth grinned and nodded. "I've never known a time in my life I wanted to do something else," she admitted. "Commander of the Red Squad no less! Will must be very proud of you Elizabeth. I know I am," he said, looking to her red and gray uniform and then to her stunning black eyes. Beth smiled confidently. There were only eight days before graduation and she was beginning to feel the excitement of moving on. The heartaches that had plagued her at the beginning of the year had finally seemed to wash away. The Academy had been only one of many steep hurdles she knew she would have to scale before getting to move forward. "I think Dad was shocked by my appointment to the Red Squad. I know Mom was. She hated it as a matter of fact. But I figured, if you could do it…" She smirked and Brint's smile appeared once more with the poke. "Ah…I see you've been developing the Red Squadron's 121


proclivity for the verbal spar." He grinned and leaned back in his chair, his eyes never leaving hers. "They will be your best professional resource Beth. Until the day you die, the Red Squadron will be there for you." "I know that. I'm lucky to have them as friends." Her voice was filled with reverence as she thought of her team members, the only real friends she ever had at Academy. "It's strange to think that it's finally all coming to an end." She looked to the tables beyond and saw that several people were staring at her. It happened every time a friend came to visit. The murmurs and the mumbles, the whispers and the low voices could be heard. Beth was used to it now. It bothered her a little during first year but now it was old hat. She knew they were just jealous and they were too afraid to think of her family and friends as real people. They had held them in such high esteem they forgot to remember that they were just the same as them – subject to the same foibles and follies as everyone else. It was a lesson her grandmother taught her when she was very young. So, if the Captain of the Enterprise wanted to have lunch with her, it was because he was hungry and just happened to be in the neighborhood. No different from any other friend. She smiled wryly. She knew that many of her and her family's friends were the best of the best of Starfleet. She also felt that they were infinitely better teachers than some of the illusionists that worked at the Academy, especially her Interspecies Protocol Professor. He hadn't lived with a quarter of the species Beth had‌ She also knew that most believed it was because of her relationships with these people that she was receiving special treatment. A majority of the school thought she was granted the Red Squad Leader position because of that special treatment. None of them knew what she really had to go through; special testing, special assignments, extra time, extra proof. From the moment she entered the Academy, every single teacher had something extra for her to do so they could prove to the Administrator that they hadn't given her "special" treatment. Beth caught the eye of her IP Professor, Jaqu'ald, who was sitting at a table on the other end of the room. His huge, pale Arcadian 122


head turned ever-so-slightly toward her. While most of his smooth head was bald, hair grew from two, long, opposing rows at the top of his head and was drawn back into plated ropes that hung down his back. Although he had no eyebrows, Beth had become accustomed to his slight facial changes and knew that he was expressing his disgust of her. Of all the people Beth had ever known, Jaqu'ald hated her the most. That feeling went both ways. Brint noticed her look past him and he saw the whispering group at the table behind him. "I take it you get that a lot," he stated. Beth looked back to him with a slight nod. "Yeah, I do. But I'm used to it." She smiled and took a spoonful of cabbage soup to her mouth. Brint's eyes saddened and his smile was lost and Beth couldn't understand why. He had hardly eaten any of his soup since he sat down and she could tell that things on the Enterprise were stressful for him. "Look, I know I'm not the only reason you came all the way from Mars. What's wrong at Command?" she asked him point blank. He tried to smile once more. "You're just like your mother, you know that?" Beth smiled with some surprise. "You are the very first person to tell me so." Brint moved his hand across the table towards her and Beth became concerned. She let him take her hand in his and he held it softly. She could feel Jaqu'ald's eyes burning through her but she turned her attentions back to Brint. "What's wrong?" she whispered. "Are you all right? What happened at Command?" she begged him but Beth knew from his grimace that he would not be answering that question. He looked her in the eyes and he squeezed her hand tightly. He shook his head quickly and his antennae seemed to twist with the motion. He quietly yet angrily said, "Beth. When you move into your own command, I only want you to remember this one thing‌" Beth's heart filled with dread. Brint's anger was more than apparent. "What is that Uncle?" 123


He smiled at her. Riker and Deanna had the children call everyone Aunt or Uncle while they were growing up...and he liked it. Riker and Deanna understood the importance of family and that family can extend beyond one's own blood. He drew Beth's hand across the table a little more. "Just remember to get all the information about every mission you can. Going in blind can kill you and your crew. Never. Never go in blind Beth and never let them put you in that position." He lifted his other hand and took hers softly into both of his, holding her hand with great care. "Having only part of the information is deadly…and having no information? Well, no information is as good as a suicide mission." He drew her hand up to his lips and kissed it softly then returned it to the table but did not let go. Beth had never seen him so worried or anxious. "I promise I'll remember Uncle." She caressed his hand and he nodded. "Good." Beth wiped two more quickly released tears and she turned her chair trying desperately to shove the memories of the F's explosion out of her mind. "Perplexing and frustrating isn't Riker?" She heard a familiar voice from behind her. While it should have startled her, it didn't. She had been waiting for it. She smiled broadly. Q. "A species that no one knows anything about…except the fact that they kill?" Beth did not turn to look at him. She returned her eyes to the model of the Enterprise-F. "You're late." She held in a monotone drone, "I expected you at least a week ago." She heard a slight sigh. "Gah…you're just like your parents – attitude to spare and no gift for patience." Beth rolled her eyes. "At least I speak to you Q. The rest of Starfleet ignores you now." She finally turned her chair to face him and she let out a laugh when she saw his tall figure in a Starfleet uniform. "Oh, that's rich," her laugh had turned into a snide giggle. 124


Q seemed somewhat offended by her outburst and looked down at his uniform. "What? It's what I always wear when I'm on the Enterprise..." He was leaning up against one of the plexi windows that overlooked Iolus Prime, his face soured. "A new Captain, a new ship, a brand new design…one that seems meant more for killing than exploration I might add…and what do you mean, I'm late?" Beth laughed once more and shook her head. "I seriously expected you right after the launch." Q's eyebrows furrowed. "Expected me? You haven't seen me in several of your puny months and you're telling me you were expecting to see me?" His grimace turned into a smirk and he raised his eyebrow with interest. "You may have potential. Besides, I am never late. I arrive precisely when I intend to arrive." Beth wasn't even letting him get to her. "So…Q…is this mission my challenge? Is it my trial?" Q's eyes brightened and his smile seemed genuine and he stood up straight from his leaning position. "What do we have here? You're not annoyed? You're not pestered? You're not in the least bit…afraid?" Beth sighed. "Q…" she started to speak in frustration but held her tongue for just a moment. She inhaled and smiled and when Q looked like he was actually waiting to hear what she had to say she said, "Get me a cup of coffee…please." Q's eyes widened. "Why you little…." he said with offense. Beth's eyebrows rose with his potential insult. "What Q? Bitch? Impertinent fool? Microbrain? Veruul? petaQ? What? What name could you possibly call me that I haven't already been called in one form or another?" Q smiled and a cup of coffee appeared on the table in front of Beth. She nodded her head and took the coffee in her hands and sipped it. She smiled. "Nice. Sumatran. Thank you Q." "You're welcome." And he grimaced once more. "So what if this is your trial? As the new Captain of the USS Enterprise you are now humanity's representative and you're about to testify." Beth shrugged. "Then what can I do about it? You standing here trying to get me all flustered is going to work." She stretched her neck. 125


"Besides, it really is a nice warning to help me keep my guard up isn't it?" Q moved in on her, lowered himself and pushed his face right into hers. "You've actually been listening haven't you Riker?" He seemed almost surprised and indignant. "Disappointed?" She smiled and moved her face back into his. "It's how I learn, Q." Q pulled back. "Well, haven't you gotten snippy since the Academy," he whined. "I'm not so sure I like it." Beth laughed. "Q," she sighed. "You obviously have something to say. So why not just say it, wave your hand and disappear like you've done with everyone before me?" Q walked around the table quietly, looking at her intently. "You're not in the least bit frightened?" Beth laughed and shook her head. "I never said that Q. I said that there was nothing I could do to change whatever you have planned." She sighed. "Now that you're here, it means that there's something more…something deeper than may appear on the surface and I'll need to keep my eyes open, that's all." Q's smile widened. "Jean-Luc taught you very well Riker." Beth scowled heavily. "Hmmm. Not just Jean-Luc but my parents, Christine Vale, Janeway, Brint…" "Brint was a bore." Q sniffed, flicking his hand dismissively. "No potential whatsoever! His blue head was never as much fun as Jean-Luc's bald one." Beth was hurt. "He was a good man and a very good friend." Q threw his arms up in the air. "Be that as it may Riker..." "Call me Beth, would you? Riker's my Dad," she barked. Q smiled once more then sat across the table from her. "Be that as it may…Riker…you are now the one at the crossroads. As the Captain of the Enterprise you are my new…defendant." "Great. I'm you're defendant? You must be bored," she groaned. Q rolled his eyes. "You have no idea…" Beth laughed and Q nodded. "You might actually be fun Riker…we'll see. This won't be easy…but we'll see." 126


"Oh Q…before you leave." She peered up to him. Q's brows furrowed. "How did you know I was leaving?" "Oh please…the dramatic we'll see? Come on…" Q stood from his chair, seemingly insulted although Beth knew she could hardly do such a thing to him. "Yes…?" "I just wanted to say thanks." Q stood silently and looked to her suspiciously. "For what?" "Thank you for your visits, especially in the Academy. I learned a lot." "You got knocked back five notches and you're thanking me?" Beth nodded. "Yes." She smiled. "And I would have happily taken the expulsion if that's what had happened." Q smiled. "I think this is the beginning of …" "Oh please! Don't!" Beth shook her head and held up her hand. "No. Not Casablanca. Overdone." Q smirked again and disappeared. Beth took a deep breath and struck her combadge. "Captain to Dryden." "Dryden here sir." "Please have Senior Staff gather in the Observation Lounge," she ordered. "Aye sir."

A few minutes later Dryden, Revaik, K'Reeg, Llewellyn, Priest, Elieth and Richardson all entered the ready room together. She stood and greeted them and asked them all to sit. "Thank you all," she said as she took her seat at the head of the table. "I wanted to bring all of you in here in the hopes you might be able to help me with a little research." They all looked happy to have a new job and Beth was pleased. "As you know we've just been greeted by the other three Cats. I won't insult you by telling you what I think that means. You should already 127


know as well." "Battle," said K'Reeg. Beth nodded. "I believe so." She leaned back in her chair. "However, I don't know who the potential battle might be with." Dryden spoke next. "You think it might have something to do with the ghost species?" he asked. Revaik frowned. "I read the reports this morning Captain. Five commanders killed?" Richardson cut in, "As of this morning, that's now up to six, Lieutenant Commander." Beth frowned and her brows furrowed and she imagined that the crease in her forehead that Elieth talked about was very apparent. "That's precisely why I wanted to talk to you. Revaik, now that the analyses of the Briar Patch are done, I want you and K'Reeg to go over every single one of the reports on the attacks to see if you can provide us with a breakdown of them. Were the attacks all similar? How were they killed?" Her eyes fell to her CMO. "Doctor, please provide your input on the medical issues and cause of death of each of these commanders." Richardson nodded. "Yes sir." Beth looked back to K'Reeg. "You know, K'Reeg, let's look at everything and anything that we might be able to find useful to defend ourselves if we're faced with having to meet them. I heard that they breached shields. I understand that the shielding technology on the supply ships is nothing compared to what we have but let's look into it." She smiled when K'Reeg nodded in full agreement. She turned to Dryden and Llewellyn. "I need the two of you to work with them and make yourself readily familiar with everything as well." She sighed, "I'm not sure if we'll be put into a situation or not but I've been receiving…hints and it can never hurt to be as prepared as possible." Dryden nodded. "The Shentarians still remain a possibility as well Captain." She nodded. "Yes Number One. I have to admit, I've been becoming more wary of their absence for weeks now. We've never gone this long without an attack of some sort from them and I don't want to be caught off-guard." 128


She rubbed her face and looked to her First Officer. "You and Mike need to prepare the crew for the possibilities of battle and their anticipated roles. I want to switch to a four shift rotation. You have a day and half to make that happen." "Easy enough," said Dryden with a wry smile. "Mike. I want you to back up Elieth with anything Engineering might need. Elieth and I have already spoken and he feels the team down there will be prepared but you're my ears to them." She smiled. "I know how you work and I will rely on that." "Yes Captain," Llewellyn replied and Elieth nodded to him. "Enya." She looked to her Counselor. "Morale is everything." Enya nodded with complete understanding and seemed pleased that the Captain was lacking animosity towards her she was also pleased that she would have a chance to prove herself to the Captain and the Senior Staff. "It will be difficult for some of the crew to understand the importance of these preparations without knowing the reasons why. Please try to reassure them that I'm just being cautious and that I will get them information as it becomes available. I'm asking them to trust me for now." She grimaced. "But I would also like you to monitor what K'Reeg and Revaik find in their research. Attacks that occurred in past never seemed very…lethal. That has changed and I would like some opinions on why it may have changed." "What did we do to piss ‘em off you mean?" asked Dryden and there was a rumble of laughter at the table, including Beth. He's my perfect XO! "Yes Number One, what did we do to piss them off." Beth stood. "I have no clue what this species is about or why they've attacked so many freighters in the past few weeks. They're tactics are odd at best and sinister at worst. The Federation doesn't seem to have any answers either. I also have no idea what's occurring down on the planet's surface right now." She took a deep breath and exhaled deeply. "Only a couple of you have worked with me before and understand how I feel about missions wherein I have been given no information…" "Suicide," said Llewellyn. Beth smiled. "Yep. That's pretty much how I see it. But I think we're going to find that information together. Some of it's being withheld

129


and I can deal with that, but this…this…ghost species is driving me nuts." she laughed a little. "Let's see what we can find out together shall we?" She looked to her staff and then to Dryden who nodded once. "Good. Dismissed…Number One? Stay for a moment." Dryden stood and walked over to her after the rest of the staff left and the door closed. "What is it Captain?" "I thought you should know that before I called for the meeting, I received a visit from Q." Paul's eyes widened. He had never met the entity before and he had heard many, many stories. He was warned by Beth before he boarded the Enterprise to read everything and anything he could beforehand so he could be as prepared as possible. Although he knew the Q entity had always made the Enterprise his particular interest, he never really understood the potential ramifications of his appearance…until now. "What did he say?" he asked. Beth breathed out and crossed her arms. "Well, Q said enough. He confirmed that this is just our first trial. To me that means that this mission has just taken on a new layer. A layer which hopefully will reveal itself before everything is shot." "You spoke to him? Starfleet protocols in regards to the Q entity advise that the best way to deal with him is to ignore…" Beth rolled her eyes. "I know what the protocols say Paul and I want you to inform the crew that if he does approach them that they are to use those protocols." She shook her head. "But it's different with me." "I don't understand sir…" He was carrying a deeply concerned look on his face. "I met him in the Academy Paul. I've talked to him before and I will keep talking to him," she stated clearly. "I just wanted you to know that he was here and that his appearance means we have to watch ourselves." "You trust him?" He was clearly concerned now. "Number One…it's really not about trust…but…you've read everything I assume?" Dryden nodded. "Then you know that while his methods are sometimes cruel and dangerous and they're always frustrating, we have always taken away some sort of lesson. Picard and Janeway 130


have always told me so…and I have to admit I've experienced that myself." she sighed. "So while he's a severe pain the ass, I will talk to him and I will try to listen...as hard as I can." "Listen to her, Dryden." Q's voice entered the room and Dryden's head spun. They were still alone in the observation lounge. Beth smiled. "Cute Q." She looked to the ceiling because it was the only place that felt…right. "Like that whole God thing hasn't been done before…" Q appeared immediately, again dressed in a Starfleet Captain's uniform, standing next to both of them and Dryden's eyes met his. "Ah! Look. A new Number One. How wonderful!" Q looked to Beth. "His eyes are sharper than your father's though." Beth rolled her eyes. "Dryden. Q. Q. Dryden." Q held out his hand and Dryden looked to Beth, questioning whether or not he should actually shake Q's hand. Beth shrugged. "I don't know. He'll either shake it or he'll transport you someplace and speak endlessly about himself. Or he'll drop you in the middle of some stupid battle with weird creatures so he can entertain himself or he'll send us another million light years away so we can face an enemy that we aren't supposed to meet yet…it's a crap shoot." Dryden held out his hand and Q, peering to Beth and looking insulted once more, shook his hand. Dryden addressed him, "I suppose it would be too much to ask if you would just tell us specifically what to look for and how to handle it?" Beth held her hand up to her face to hide her smile and quiet laugh. Q's eyes widened and he glared at Beth. "Why of all the impertinent…." "Hey, it was worth a shot." Dryden shrugged. "I would hate to think that we are all about to go through some sort of hell just to have you say at the end of it all… Why didn't you just ask…?" Q's smile broke wide and he leaned against the table. "Oh yes. Yes. See? Two of you. This might actually be amusing. Good. Good Dryden and yes, now I won't be able to say that. Well done indeed." "Q…" Beth's frustration level had just moved up a notch. "You're 131


starting to get real annoying now and just when I thought things were moving in the right direction." Q smirked. "You know? You're right." And he disappeared. Beth leaned against the table and Dryden looked to her with a smile. "So. That was Q?" "Yes," she said. "That was Q." She turned her eyes to her XO and breathed in heavily and exhaled. "And so it begins‌"

132


Interlude IV Stardate 89173.7 Earth Calendar May 21st, 2411 Federation Defense Ship - USS Panther NX-90261 Isla Deneb Bridge

"He's dead Commander!" reported Llewellyn who returned to the Ops station and immediately sat back in his chair. He limped generously on his left leg. Beth heard him but she lifted herself from her chair and glared at McGregor who was also beginning to stand back at his station at Tactical. "Report the loss to the Sojourner!" she cried and her head spun to see that her Flight Controller was still handling the Panther through a curtain of phaser fire issued from the tri-fin. "Fire full phasers!" she commanded to McGregor, who let the torrent fly. Beth froze and watched the screen so she could watch the ship take their most recent volley. "Direct hit Commander!" cried McGregor from the tactical station. "What's the status of the Enterprise?!" She spun to look at McGregor. His face was scratched and dirtied but she supposed hers was too. There was a warm and intense pain in her lower lip and jaw. 133


"She's beat to hell Commander. Her shields are weak and they're reporting that her arsenal is almost depleted!" replied McGregor as the Panther shuddered hard taking another round of phaser fire from the tri-fin. Beth grabbed the back of the helmsman's chair. She growled hard. "What about the Dakkt?!" "They're still fighting but their shields are down!" McGregor informed her loudly and with a smile – there was no doubt it was a Klingon vessel. "And the tri-fin is going after it!" he roared. "Let's see if we can put this one away!" she commanded and turned again. "Ensign! Put us between that tri-fin and the Dakkt! McGregor – hold for my mark." "Aye sir," they both responded. "Our shields are back up to seventy percent!" said Llewellyn from the Ops console. His face was also scratched and his left leg was bleeding from shrapnel blown from the explosion that had killed Gallegos, whose body lay on the bridge floor behind the Ops console. 'Good," said Beth, her eyes still on the viewscreen watching the tri-fin pound the Dakkt and the Dakkt returning fire robustly. "See what you can do about clearing this air!" She coughed from the acrid smoke. "Aye sir!" The Panther moved in quickly and Beth could see the glowing center of the hub of the three-finned ship, the very heart of its power source laid inside. The ship's red color glowed against the black of the space behind it. The star Deneb Algiedi brightened its appearance from behind the Panther. The Panther shuddered under a volley of phasers fired by the tri-fin as it tried to move and finish off the Dakkt. "The tri-fin's shields are down sir…we have a better chance on the base of their dorsal fin!" McGregor informed her and Beth smiled at him. Beth's concentration on this last tri-fin was difficult to maintain. The Panther and the Cougar had just worked to destroy two other trifins that were preying upon the Enterprise and the Dakkt when they were both hit hard by torpedoes launched by the incoming third ship. The Enterprise and the Dakkt had fought courageously and they were 134


able to bring down the shields on the Shentarian craft before Beth was able to recover and she began to move in on it once more. "FIRE!" she howled and her eyes sparked. McGregor set off the rounds and he attempted to smile. "Cougar's with us Commander, he's putting an extra torpedo in on the tri-fin!" he yelled. "Good for him!" she snuffed. "Teach him Issa!" she yelled and realized that blood had come with it. She had hit her head on the XO console when they took the hit from the third tri-fin. She didn't lose any teeth, but they had cut the inside of her lip and cheek when she took the blow. Beth noticed a strange silence on the bridge. Her eyes closed. It was a silence that only meant one thing‌ "WHALE!!!" McGregor's voice pierced the din. Beth's psyche was almost defeated and she flopped herself into the command chair to look at the panel on the arm of the chair. It was the only panel still working besides tactical that showed the positions of the ships in her fleet. She waited for the call to let her know where they would be in the developing cone. Reading the exact location of whales was difficult due to the surrounding reflection of their scans caused by the bubbles. When McGregor spoke, her feelings of defeat raged forward. "We're near the base of the cone!" McGregor stated. "Our shields are back to full strength Commander!" yelled a deep-voiced Llewellyn from the Ops station. "Not that it matters now." The Panther trembled as she received another volley of phaser fire from the tri-fin. "Well that figures." She spun once more and looked to McGregor. "Finish that damn thing off!" she screamed. "Fire at will!" McGregor let the torpedoes fly and they hit the center of the hub and the ship began to lighten in its center. It exploded and darkened immediately. Beth didn't even watch. She stood and moved towards the Flight Controller. They were near the whale. But how near? Beth shook her head and her eyes were drawn to the body at her feet. Estevan laid there motionless and bloody. The medical teams were busy attending to survivors. Her Flight Controller was bleeding 135


profusely from his arm. Beth felt something strange happen. Something that hadn't happened since Command School. The rage had returned…and it gave her focus. "How many will be in the cone?!" she demanded. "Over thirty sir!" Beth was furious. Thirty? Over thirty ships…half of which are Walesa and Tesla-class and carry over fourteen hundred each? Hell no! Not while I'm down here! "How close are we?" She looked to McGregor. "Do we have shot of taking this thing down?" McGregor knew what she meant. Jonah. He breathed in and nodded. Save thirty ships and possibly end this battle? Yes. "Yes Commander, we can disable it with a perfect strike, but we won't destroy it – our core isn't big enough to take it out alone." Beth sucked her breath in and her rage settled into determination. "Disabling will work just as well! Let's go then!" she screamed. "Commander!" McGregor yelled. "What is it?" she fired back with fury but when she turned her head she could see McGregor's eyes. He was afraid to tell her. She moved toward him. "What is it Tristan?!" "The Enterprise has already dropped its core." Beth's eyes flew wide and without missing a beat she screamed, "HAIL THE ENTERPRISE!" Within a moment she saw Captain Brint's beautiful, blue Andorian face in the lower left corner of the viewscreen. It was covered in smoke stains and blood of three different colors. Through the haze of the smoke, she could see that the bridge was in shambles and bodies were strewn across the deck. Brint looked her square in the eyes. "Get out of here Panther!" he yelled at her. Beth couldn't believe it and she wouldn't answer him. "Can we tow them after they detonate the core?" she asked McGregor but she already knew the answer. Before McGregor could shake his head Brint answered for him. "No you can't Beth." "Transport as many as you can!" she screamed. "Commander we're being hailed by the Cougar." Without 136


waiting, McGregor opened the channel and Captain Issa's face appeared in the lower right of the viewscreen. Issa was yelling at her. "Panther! Get out of there!" Issa's face was deep red and mottled with splatters of many different substances. Beth ignored Issa. "Brint." She looked to her long time mentor. "It's okay Beth. We didn't go in blind. It was the right thing to do." Brint's eyes told her he was telling the truth. Issa's yelling at her had continued. "Panther! Riker are you listening to me? Get out! GET OUT!" Beth's anguish and anger caught her throat. "Brint..." Brint smiled. "Get out Beth. Go finish them off for us‌and find a way to take me home." Beth nodded. She steeled herself and looked to him in the eyes. "I promise." She then looked to her Flight Controller and patted him on the shoulder. "I've got the helm Ensign. You get your arm treated. I'll get us out of here. " As she sat at the helm, Beth watched the view screen as she maneuvered her ship around the forming bubbles, towards the open end of the cone. She glanced to the view of Brint's face as he turned his attention to the matter of exploding their massive warp core as it drifted towards the mouth of the bowl-like ship. The Panther dodged and weaved as bubbles began to surround them. Beth wasn't sure she was going to make it through the growing net, but she began to play the music in her mind, helping her concentrate on the helm and keeping the agony of watching another of her mentors die from consuming her. She dipped the Panther hard and nearly scuffed a bubble that had floated past on their starboard side and Beth heard two of her bridge crew fall over. She looked again to Captain Brint whose face remained on the viewscreen. The sound was lost but Beth couldn't hear anything any way, she could only hear the pulsing of the music in her head. "WE'RE OUT!!" cried McGregor. Beth still couldn't hear him. She could only see Brint's face on the viewscreen and his lips move to form the word‌ "Fire." A brilliant blue-white light filled the viewscreen. Beth couldn't look away. 137


Before the light on the screen had even dimmed, her fury returned and with it…the focus. "WHAT'S NEXT?!" she screamed. McGregor seemed shocked by her words. Beth turned to him. "What's next?! We need to move…NOW!" she shouted at him. McGregor understood. They would have tactical advantage now but only for a few moments while the majority of them would be watching the explosion. This was good. "Tri-fin! Heading 175 mark 8!" "Llewellyn! Load those bays and raise those shields!" she yelled. The tri-fin put up no defense and they finished it off quickly. The next quad-fin sent a few volleys but they missed the Panther badly. Its shields were weakened and the Panther shoved five quantums into the hub and turned to find a new target without watching the last one blow. A single scout ship became a passing victim as they went for the quad-fin that was now bearing down on the Sojourner. "Oh no you don't!" Beth yelled in rage and moved the Panther into a deep starboard roll. She glanced at McGregor. "McGregor!" She looked to him and she started to break a smile. "You ready for this one?" McGregor nodded and his eyes were alight. "Hell yes I am!" "Good." She moved her hand up to the panel in front of her. The Panther took two hits from the quad-fin on her port bow. "Shields are holding Commander!" Llewellyn confirmed and Beth moved her hands across the panel without even looking at it, she knew it as if it had been her own skin. The ship rolled softly and McGregor waited…waited for Beth to feel for the precise moment when she knew he could hit the hub. Beth's eyes remained glued to the viewscreen. Five viewpoints from the ship were simultaneously shown and the one she wanted to watch was the ventral shot. She looked to McGregor with a nod. "FIRE!" McGregor released a full spread of torpedoes. Their bright yellow lights flickered as they moved away towards the hub of the red Shentarian ship. They made perfect linear strikes and Beth watched 138


the fires from inside the vessel glow bright. "Where to next!?" McGregor was still watching the monitor as the quad-fin began to explode. "McGregor!" She pulled his attention away from the screen. "Are there more?!" McGregor quickly looked to his panel and he was amazed. Nothing. Well, at least nothing near by and nothing worth chasing. Other starships were closer as were other Cats. "No sir." There was a faint chirp at his panel. "We're being hailed by the Sojourner Commander!" he said. Beth turned to face the screen. "Onscreen," she said bluntly. Janeway's face appeared. She looked tired. "Thank you, Riker." she said. "We were low on torpedoes and I don't think we could have taken that last one down." Beth cracked a smile and a tired laugh. "Don't mention it Admiral." She caught her eyes. "How many bubbles are left?" Janeway shook her head. "The Puma, Jag and Leopard are already on it. They'll have the rest mopped up here shortly. You and Issa have other matters to deal with." Beth nodded. "Yes Admiral." She moved her hands up to her face and realized blood was dripping from her mouth. She wiped it off with her sleeve and she looked down to her feet. She had forgotten Gallegos was there and she caught her cry in her throat. Janeway saw the source of Beth's pain and her eyes closed. "Get the ship in order and head back to the Sol System, Riker." Beth appreciated the order and its detached tone. It helped her pull back just enough to finish her job. She connected her eyes to her Admiral's once more and nodded her head with acceptance. "Yes Admiral." she said and the transmission ended. She stood and looked over to the Tactical Station. "McGregor‌take the helm." "Aye sir," he replied and moved toward the conn. She noticed that McGregor was holding his arm strangely. His shoulder had been injured.

All was quiet. The red flashing of the klaxon lights had not waned. No one spoke to each other as they all watched the few 139


remaining Shentarian vessels in the far off distance leave the battle zone for sectors back toward the Gamma Quadrant. She stared at Gallegos' body on the floor. A med team was now moving him and would transport his body directly to the morgue. "Wait," said Beth said quietly to the Cardassian physician, Dr. Lio. Beth slowly moved toward him and touched Estevan's bruised and battered face and leaned over him. His soft, dark brown eyes no longer held the light. She leaned to kiss his cheek, closed his eyes and said good-bye to him. The team called for transport and Dr. Lio, along with Gallegos' body, disappeared with a quick shimmering light. Beth gradually moved to and slid into the command chair as her eyes returned to the viewscreen, fragments of the Enterprise and the Shentarian whale were glimmering in front of them. A nurse approached her and he reached over to her mouth with the scanner from his medical tricorder but she pushed him away gently. "Get Llewellyn first. He's worse off," she said and the nurse obeyed her order. She touched her combadge. "Riker to Chief Vega." "Vega here Commander." His voice eased her. "Is there a way we can discern the fragments of the Enterprise from that of the whale?" she asked, knowing it was likely. "Absolutely," he said. "Good," she said sternly. "Beam a small fragment of the Enterprise directly onto the bridge." "Yes sir." A few moments later a small piece of metal appeared at her feet. She reached down and picked it up. The metal had been superheated and it gave the silvery object a semi-polished appearance. She held the fragment in her hand and closed her fist over it tightly. "McGregor. Lay in a course for the Sol System and engage at warp four." "Aye sir," McGregor responded and moved his hands across the panel in front of him. As the star trails began to appear in front of them, Beth leaned back in the command chair and watched them pass.

140


PART FOUR

C

141


142


Stardate 91943.3 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-G Recreation Room Seven

"I'll raise two hundred." Shaughnessy's brogue thickened. Beth shook her head and threw her cards in. "No thank you." Carrie Farhadian's yellow eyes thinned into slits and she stared Shaughnessy directly in the face. "I'll call," she responded coolly. "So will I." Tristan McGregor smirked. "Shaughnessy can't bluff to save his soul." He laughed and he was joined by a few others at the table. McGregor was a tall man and his light brown hair and medium complexion gave him a gentle look, but Beth knew that he had a temper that could match her own. He was incredibly handsome and his voice contained a discernable Scottish lilt. "I'm out," said T'Vyn, a Vulcan female and Captain of the USS Leopard. Her black hair was cut short but in a nontraditional style. She would have been considered a maverick by Vulcan standards. Her features were sharp and beautiful. She tossed her cards to Carrie who mucked them. "Oh no, I made the initial bet. I'm in." The man's voice was mellow and almost soothing. Captain Issa Jerry, a half human-half Bajoran male, 143


was shaking his head vigorously and his draping Bajoran earring shook along with it. He had a darker complexion and his eyes were dark brown. The bridge of his nose bore only two distinct ridges. His full head of thick, dark brown hair was cut short. He had been Captain of the USS Cougar since it was commissioned and there was a private joke amongst the group that he had actually been created with the Cougar and made a part of her and that he was so in tune with the ship he could fly it without using the controls. Issa was leaning forward, intent on the game. Beth leaned back in her chair, glad to be out of the hand. The door opened behind her and Dryden walked in. She smiled and motioned for him to grab a chair and sit next to her. "Clark's on his way," Dryden said to her as he began to set his chair next to Beth's. "Everyone! This is Commander Paul Dryden, our XO." Beth casually introduced him. "Uh, I don't think so," said McGregor, looking at Dryden. "Sorry?" Beth said, confused and ready to defend him. "He doesn't sit next to you," McGregor commanded. "I know how you work with your First Officers." His tone was jokingly accusatory and he used a rather rude hand gesture as he spoke. "You'd show him your cards if you know what I mean." There was a vocal response from those at the table, acknowledging his insult. Beth laughed, smirked and nodded. "Fine, make room then Captain." "Jealous McGregor?" asked Shaughnessy. "Or just marking your territory?" There was another verbal response from those at the table. Beth shot Shaughnessy a glare and McGregor smirked and raised his eyebrows without speaking. T'Vyn and McGregor moved aside to open a spot and Dryden carried his chair over. He was grinning, relieved that he was welcomed. He looked around the table knowing a hand was in play. The door opened again and Clark walked in. He was wearing a Starfleet uniform with blue at his neck and collar. He smiled and caught 144


Paul's eyes and Paul motioned for him to sit behind him. Beth perked up. "Clark, you're welcome to play!" She smiled. Clark shook his head. "No thanks, Captain. I play chess…not poker." He walked over to Paul, leaned over and kissed him, then sat on a bar stool behind him. McGregor looked to Dryden and smiled, then lowered his head from embarrassment. Dryden let loose an evil smirk, leaned over to McGregor and using the same rude hand gesture McGregor had, he whispered loudly, "So, you got any cards you want to show me?" The eruption of laughter at the table was uncontainable. McGregor's head fell forward onto the table, knowing he deserved the insult. He held out his hand to Paul who shook it strongly. Through the tears of her laughter, Beth spoke up. "Everyone, this is Lieutenant Commander Clark Griffin, our Chief of Stellar Cartography…and Paul Dryden's husband...if you haven't figured it out by now. Clark – this is...everyone." She laughed. "Don't worry – they'll let you know who they are." There were greetings from all around and Clark waved, smiling. McGregor dropped his head and caught Beth's eyes and she looked back at him, quizzed. He smiled to her and she shook her head with a smart smile. "You deserved it Tristan. Tell me that I'll show my cards…" she mumbled loudly and McGregor grinned apologetically. Carrie dealt the final card down. The game was seven-card stud. The four remaining players looked at their cards. There was intense silence. Issa reached for chips. He had a pair of Queens showing. "I bet two hundred." His expression was stone an immovable. Shaughnessy glared at him. "I raise again - another two hundred." He tossed the chips in nonchalantly. Carrie studied the hands in front of her. As she tossed her cards to the muck pile, the door to the recreation room opened once more and the sound of Riker's booming voice filled the room. "Attention!" Everyone in the room shot up to attention simultaneously. Janeway and Riker walked in together. They were still dressed in their formal white uniforms. "Oh my, there's an awful lot of command red in this room." 145


Janeway's voice was resonant and stern. "Right, Admiral Riker?" "Yes Admiral." Riker was stoic. He walked slowly around the room, gazing at the table, studying the hands. Beth glared at Shaughnessy and mouthed the words "your ass" to him. She then watched her father as he slowly surveyed the table. Janeway continued, "I understood that the only communications between your ships has been a discussion of a meeting at eighteen hundred." She was critical and snide. "What meeting would be so necessary as to simultaneously remove the Captains off of five Federation vessels and in the Romulan Neutral Zone?" Janeway pushed her face into Beth's profile. "Without the need of their Commanding Officer?" Beth smiled but remained at attention. She watched her father lean over to look at Shaughnessy's hole cards. Shaughnessy did not move. Riker stood back up, walked over to Issa, leaned over and looked at Issa's hole cards. He did the same with McGregor's cards and shook his head. McGregor smiled. Riker then breathed into Issa's profile. "Whatever it was he was raising you, call it." There was the slightest vocalization of protest from Shaughnessy. Beth finally made eye contact with Janeway. "Admirals. We'd be honored if you joined us." There was a loud murmur of assent from the others. Janeway nodded briskly and Riker also reached for a chair. Beth smiled as Issa took the pot as McGregor knew his hand was dead and he tossed his cards. Carrie passed the cards to McGregor then looked over to Dryden, her beaming smile radiating from her face. "The game is now Hold'em. Welcome Commander Dryden! This is what we used call the ‘Cat Club' but since your CO left the Cats, we have to find a different name." "Why?" Beth asked as McGregor shuffled. She watched Paul and T'Vyn place out the small and big blinds. Riker and Janeway had made themselves comfortable. "Because‌you're no longer on a Cat." Carrie's look of duh! was not lost on anyone at the table. "I disagree." Beth sounded adamant. "I'm just on a really big Cat." she said with a grin, knowing that the others at the table would understand. 146


Janeway laughed, "I like that. The Enterprise is just a really big Cat?" "Yes. I call her Tiger," she admitted. The others at the table laughed and simultaneously looked at their hole cards. Riker was first to act and he appeared annoyed. "Fold," he grunted as he flicked his cards to McGregor. He looked to Dryden and smiled. "You're Margana's son aren't you?" Dryden nodded. "Yes, sir. She's my mother all right." He smiled proudly, however Beth could tell that he was almost on the edge of being annoyed by the question. It was always a little difficult to have one's parents being famous. Paul's mother, Margana Dryden, had been the noted Captain of the Veldtclass USS Okavango over the last fifteen years and had only recently been promoted to Admiral herself. Dryden's father, Captain Mark Dryden was the CO of the USS Chief Joseph, a Cascade-class starship and Paul grew up sharing his time between the two vessels. Both of his parents received commendations for their heroism during the battle of Isla Deneb. Beth knew exactly how Paul felt. There was seemingly nothing worse than being referred to by the parent first. While at the Academy, if she overheard one of her professors mention her, it was always as Riker's daughter. Of course unless she was on Betazed for any reason then Troi's daughter or even Lwaxana's granddaughter became her moniker. She assumed that Paul must have dealt with the same problems. Beth had to laugh to herself when she recalled that the first time any one of her professors actually called her by her name to one of his counterparts was when Geordi LaForge joined the Academy teaching staff when she was in her third year. She actually overheard him have to explain to her Interspecies Protocol Professor that her name was really Elizabeth. Paul Dryden had been the XO on the USS Walesa before Beth requested his presence on the Enterprise. The Walesa, like all of her sister ships in the Walesa-class, was a much larger ship than the Enterprise and her crew of over 1400 was another reason Beth thought Dryden would be the right choice. The Enterprise's crew of 818 would seem like a cake-walk to him. His organizational skills and his good humor were not the only reasons she selected him however. His CO on the Walesa, Captain Hili'ina, 147


a Ktarian male, had informed Beth that Dryden's actions during the battle at Telanus likely saved his ship. Beth remembered the battle as being the bloodiest one she had been through as the Shentarians had discovered an ability to breach Federation and Cardassian shielding and they mounted multiple incursions on the ships themselves. Paul was able to modify his ship's dorsal shield modulations quickly enough and without order from the Captain, pitched her sidelong and provided cover to Beth and to Issa who were then able to make quick work of the two Shentarian vessels that had attacked the Walesa. Beth and Issa had both commented to each other that the move was almost as if he had read their minds. Beth recalled being shocked when she was informed that the Captain had not been responsible for the move and when she found out it was the XO, she stored the little fact away. When she took command of the Enterprise, she contacted Captain Hili'ina immediately. Beth now looked to Dryden who seemed to be fitting in very nicely. Issa reached for his chips. "Call." Shaughnessy folded with disappointment and the rest of the table all called. McGregor burned a card and turned over the three card flop. "Queen of hearts, three of spades, Queen of diamonds." He looked to Dryden. "Your bet Commander." Paul nodded. "Check." T'Vyn nodded slightly. "Check." Issa looked at Paul carefully. "Fifty." And he set the corresponding chips in front of him. Janeway and Beth both folded, looks of disgust with the flop were apparent on their faces. "Call." Carrie moved her chips forward. "Fold." McGregor turned his cards with those from Janeway and Beth into the muck pile. He rolled his eyes and Beth laughed with him. "Raise." Dryden looked Issa directly in the eyes. "Make it two hundred." There was a slight murmur at the table. "Check-raise by the First Officer! A commanding move!" barked Shaughnessy. "Bad pun Irish." groaned McGregor. "You have got to get more 148


creative." T'Vyn's eyebrow rose and Riker was immediately reminded of Spock. "Fold," she said, her tone unwavering. Issa didn't flinch. "Call." And he moved his chips forward. Carrie shook her head and tossed her cards and the staged chips into the pot. "I'm staying out of this one," she said. McGregor smiled. "Head's up." He burned one more card and revealed the turn. "Ace of diamonds." "All in." Dryden slid his remaining chips forward. Beth smiled to herself. Issa's eyes narrowed and he grumbled, "You..." And he tossed his cards to McGregor. Paul smiled and reached for the pot as the noise level at the table erupted. Beth smiled and nodded to him. McGregor leaned forward. "Riker..." and he quickly remembered that there were two of them at the table. "Oh, sorry Admiral, I meant Beth." Riker just shrugged. Beth looked to McGregor. "What?" "Dryden's official," he laughed. "Yeah, I thought so." She nodded. Dryden looked to Beth, quizzed, "What did I do?" "You took on Issa on the first hand," she said. "Everyone hates Issa." "Hey," Issa barked. The remainder of the table laughed. Janeway touched Beth's arm. "Captain, can I speak with you?" Beth nodded and looked to Dryden who was now handed the deck. "Deal me and the Admiral out Paul." She stood with Janeway and the two walked out the door. As they walked into the hall Beth addressed her CO. "Admiral. Do we need privacy?" Janeway shook her head. "It's not necessary Captain." She smiled. "I just wanted to confirm a couple of things about the Enterprise." Beth pulled her head back a bit. "What about her?" she inquired. "I still haven't been as diligent lately with reading schematics of the new ships, so I need to ask you about the quarters you have available on 149


board, for large party of dignitaries." Beth knew plans were ahead. "We have two of the ten VIP quarters on deck eight already assigned to Admiral Riker and Ambassador Rozhenko. We also have the ability to convert ten rooms on deck nine into VIP areas that have access to central meeting rooms, in case negotiations are required." "Excellent." Janeway smiled. "That's all I needed to know Captain." Beth nodded but before Janeway started to head back into the room she touched her Admiral's arm and stopped her. "Admiral," she said softly. "I thought you should know I had a little visit from Q this afternoon." Janeway tried to hide her concern and an annoyed smile appeared on her face. She leaned against the corridor wall. "I was wondering when he'd show up." "So was I," admitted Beth. "Seems that I'm the one on trial now." Beth smirked. "So this mission means something." Janeway smiled. Beth nodded. "Yes. I only hope I can figure out what that is before‌everything goes to hell." Janeway laughed, "You will Beth. Knowing Q, it won't be easy. Trust in yourself. It's the only advice I can give you." Beth breathed in deeply. She looked to Janeway in the eye. "I'll try my best Admiral." She laughed a little. "Now the hard part will be telling Dad. He doesn't like Q so much." Janeway laughed. "You're right about that. Keep me informed." "I willAdmiral." And she led Janeway back to the recreation room. When the door opened the room was silent. Beth and Janeway quietly approached the table. Beth looked at the table. The flop was out. King of clubs, Ace of clubs, Ace of hearts. Beth looked to Janeway, leaned and whispered. "That's a hell of a flop." Janeway nodded in agreement and whispered back into Beth's ear. "Look who's still in." She smiled. Beth glanced to the table once more. There were three still in the game. Riker, McGregor and Shaughnessy. Beth smiled as she took her seat. 150


"Two hundred," Riker stated and he pushed chips forward and turned his attention to Shaughnessy. "…and I hear you're after my wife Brian." Shaughnessy's eyes widened with fear and shot a horrible glare at Beth. When he returned to look at Riker, he could see the mischievous grin and knew that Riker would play along. Beth watched him closely, laughing. Shaughnessy closed his eyes and tossed his cards without saying a word. He then turned his face to Riker and said, "I still love her Admiral." He smiled back "Whenever she wants to leave you, I am ready." Riker laughed loudly. "At least you're consistent, Shaughnessy!" Beth held her hands up to her eyes and then turned her attention to McGregor with everyone else. Without hesitation, he pushed his chips forward. "All in." Riker smirked. "Call." Beth closed her eyes when she recognized the look her father had just laid on McGregor. She didn't want to look. There was a huge burst from the table, including Janeway. Beth opened her eyes to see Riker smiling. An Ace and a King lay before him. McGregor was stricken. A pair of Kings lay in front of him. The last two cards were moot. Riker's full house had beaten McGregor's. Beth felt for Tristan, it was a bad beat indeed. Tristan sat back; he was now out of the game. Tristan's eyes caught Beth's and she smiled to him softly as the strident conversations of those at the table filled the room.

Deanna, Alexander and Tatiana showed up an hour later and watched the game with Clark. Upon seeing Deanna, Shaughnessy stood from the table, went to her, took her hand and kissed the back of it. Riker watched him with humor and Deanna graciously smiled to him, not really understanding why he was being so forward. Shaughnessy then moved Deanna to one side, whispered in her ear and to Riker's shock and apparent dismay, she actually giggled. Riker stood and shooed Shaughnessy back to his seat while others around the table laughed. It was two hours later when Riker and Issa, being the only two players remaining, decided to call it a draw. 151


Janeway said her goodbyes, rambling on about making sure everyone would be on report then made way to the transporter. Riker and Deanna left together and kissed Beth on the cheek on the way out the door. Beth felt her mother squeeze her shoulder and she could see her expression was one of deep concern. She didn't know why that was and it made her nervous. I hope Dad's okay. Dryden, who had enjoyed himself and as Beth had hoped, appeared to have developed a true rapport with the group, took Clark by the hand and they left for their quarters. Farhadian, Issa and T'Vyn departed together. Shaughnessy and McGregor stood from their chairs simultaneously but Shaughnessy made it to Beth first. "Captain, you have a right-fine ship here. It'll be fun to run along side." He held his hand out to her but she grabbed his hand and drew him close to hug him. His arms wrapped around her and he squeezed her tightly. When he let her go he looked her in the eyes. "See you tomorrow Captain." Beth looked to her long-time friend and kissed him on the cheek. "Captain." Shaughnessy looked to McGregor. McGregor was standing and smiling. "I'll catch up later Brian. I need to talk to Beth." Shaughnessy's eyebrows rose but he nodded. He was going to say something rude and had stopped himself. Beth saw his intention and laughed, "Good night, Brian. See you tomorrow." Brian walked out the door and the doors shut. McGregor smiled. "He's such an amazing pilot, too bad he's such an ass." Beth knew he was only joking but she shook her head, smiling. "He's a great person and he's a very good friend. To both of us, you know that." "I do. He's a very good friend and an ass." McGregor snorted with a smile. He turned his face to hers. He lost his smile and became very quiet. He tilted his head as he looked at the door to the recreation room and grimaced, placing his hand up to his eyes and rubbing them. "Beth, is there someplace private we can talk?" She nodded softly. "You have your choice‌my quarters or my 152


ready room?" "Anywhere but the bridge." He seemed serious. Beth nodded and the door to the recreation room opened. She turned her head to see Shaughnessy poking his head through with a gleam in his eyes. When he saw the two talking, he seemed disappointed. "Damn!" Beth rolled her eyes. "Brian, go home!" she yelled at him. Brian turned quickly and left. The door shut once more. Tristan smiled to Beth. "Ass, I tell you." "Come on." Beth shook her head. "This way." Beth led him out the door and turned to her left, heading for the turbo lift. When they walked into the hall, Shaughnessy was still there, talking with Issa in the corridor. McGregor made a rude gesture to Shaughnessy who returned it with a smile. Tristan finally laughed. Beth shook her head. "Geez, you two are like children!" she chided and Tristan looked offended. Beth ordered the turbo lift, "Deck eleven." The lift moved. She glanced directly to Tristan who leaned against the wall of the lift, he was staring at her. "Is everything okay Tristan?" His hazel eyes matched the light brown of his hair. He saw the worry in her face and he smiled. "Everything is fine Beth. I just need to talk to you," he admitted. Reassured, she nodded. "Okay." She knew that Tristan had always been a very private individual and while he was her XO on the Panther, he would usually wait to discuss anything that might be deemed remotely personal with her in the ready room or their quarters and in many cases the holodeck fight programs. The turbo lift doors opened and she led him down the hall. The doors to her quarters opened and McGregor spoke immediately. "You're kidding, right?" he laughed, seeing the size of the room. Beth's faced reddened from embarrassment. "No. These are my quarters," she confessed. "Mother of‌" he sighed. "This is huge Beth!" "I know. I'm still embarrassed by them." "Embarrassed?" he questioned."Why would you be embarrassed? You earned these quarters. You busted your butt to get here. Enjoy them!" 153


He smiled. Beth dropped her head a little with a wry smile. She wasn't used to being chastised by him. She watched as McGregor toured around the room slowly. He recognized Beth's personal items that she had with her on the Panther. He walked to the expanse of windows and stopped, his eyes looked down to the planet's surface and his facial expression changed. He appeared pensive and Beth was concerned. "Tristan‌" she said. "What's bothering you?" McGregor took a breath in and turned to Beth. He slowly walked over to her and stood directly in front of her. His eyes looked openly into hers. She now understood why he was there and she was grateful. He moved in a step closer to her and she could see the look of pure trepidation on his face. His voice was quiet and sincere. "Beth. I need to tell you something that's been on my mind for a very long time and I've never felt I've had the chance until now." Beth smiled as she looked into his brown-green eyes. "What is it?" Without saying another word Tristan slowly reached his hand up and softly touched her hair and her cheek. He gently moved his other arm around her. Beth had been waiting for over a year to have him touch her like this. She did not resist. She moved her head into his hand and let his fingers run into her hair. She moved her arms up his chest and she smiled when his face reflected great relief. He lowered his head and kissed her softly. She moved her arms up and around his neck and returned his kiss deeply. He lifted her and carried her to her bedroom.

"What?" Riker was incredulous. He was sitting on the couch in the VIP room. Deanna was beginning to second guess her decision to tell him what she and Tatiana had overheard in the arboretum. He was already under enough stress. Too late now. "Can you believe they did that to her?" She was still stung by the injustice of it all. Riker had hoped that he would be given something else to mentally 154


chew on besides the revelations on Iolus Prime when he returned to the Enterprise, but this was not what he had envisioned. He found himself feeling betrayed by Starfleet. He recalled the officer's exam from his past and he knew how realistic it had been then. He understood they had only made them more so over the last five decades. He couldn't imagine what his daughter was forced to endure. "Are you sure Deanna? Three of them?" Deanna was in the dressing room. "Yes Will. Three." The anger in her voice could have cut through a force field. "And then she was forced to kill us - even Bill." She flipped through clothing on the rail, not even looking at them closely enough to have found what she was looking for. "I can't believe they could have been so…evil to her." She found her dressing gown and drew it over herself and walked back towards Will and sat next to him. He leaned back on the couch and drew her close and she rested her head in the crevice of his shoulder. Riker had never heard anything like it before. He wasn't sure if he was more amazed by Starfleet's apparent lack of sense of fair play or by his daughter's apparent ability to kill to save her ship. His heart sank as the reason for it became clear. "It was because of us, Deanna." Deanna raised her head to look at him. She was going to argue with him but she knew it too. Deep down, Deanna knew it to be true. "Because we served together?" Riker nodded. "Partially, maybe. But mostly because of Cass." He scowled. "Think about it. Parents served together on senior staff and sister becomes one of the most infamous Thraiin commanders? They knew Beth was command material and that she was destined to captain a starship…it's very possible she'll run into Cassidy…Starfleet had to have Beth prove it to them before she took a post." Deanna's face paled. "They wanted to make sure she could kill her own family member…" Riker didn't answer her, he just nodded weakly. "Still didn't make it right." She was still bitter. "But why three times?" Deanna asked. "I don't know. I don't know what the other two tests entailed. They had to use the third as a sucker-punch." He cringed, wondering what Beth must have done when she was forced to annihilate her family. Deanna was not about to let this conversation die just yet. He rubbed her 155


shoulder once more. "If it makes you feel better, let's contact Geordi," he said and Deanna brightened and nodded eagerly. Riker stood and walked over to the desk, swiveled the com and requested a secure channel to Geordi LaForge. Geordi was his former Chief of Engineering on the Enterprise-D and -E and remained with JeanLuc after Will took command of the Titan. He was now a respected professor at the Academy, teaching warp design and theory. Geordi's face appeared on the screen, smiling. His eyes still had the light blue implants which granted him sight. His hair was salt and pepper gray and closely trimmed to his head. "Admiral and Ambassador! Greetings! You must be thrilled with Beth's assignment! I know I am!" He did in fact, appear genuinely happy. Riker and Deanna both smiled. "Geordi," Deanna spoke first. "We were shocked to say the least! Did you go to the commissioning?" Geordi nodded. "I'll say. Everyone from Earth was there. We thought it was hilarious that you two were the only ones missing!" Riker shook his head. "Figures, Beth got a family reunion out of it." "Seriously, what's on your mind Admiral?" Geordi knew that communiquÊs, even from Admirals who were friends, were rarely fraught with good news. "Geordi. Deanna and I have just come to learn about a certain rumor about Beth. We know you'd never lie to us‌" Riker led his voice and could see that Geordi was beginning to lean back in his chair. Immediately Geordi knew why they had contacted him. It was as if he had been waiting for it, anticipating it. "Wow. I was wondering how long it would take before you found out." He shook his head slightly. "You knew?" Deanna said. "Why didn't you tell us Geordi?" She sounded hurt. "Frankly? Because Beth asked me not to." It was an obvious answer. "Did they really test her three times?" Riker asked. "That just seems so ludicrous to me." Geordi took a deep breathe in. "Yes Will, they did. And they were three of the ugliest, most gut-wrenching programs I had ever 156


seen." Riker's stomach started to churn like a bowl of gagh. "We know about the one that Beth was required to kill us to save her ship, what were the other two?" Riker wasn't sure he wanted to know now. "The first was a twist on the standard order a close subordinate to their death." Geordi seemed all right with this. "But the second…let's just say the second involved an unusual Prime Directive dilemma where Beth had to allow the destruction of an entire species due to the appropriate use of…inaction." "Why? Why just her?" Deanna was infuriated. Geordi shrugged. "Deanna, I don't know. I wasn't involved with the testing, I found out about it right before she was tested when Councilmember Ritha spoke of it." "Ritha?" Riker sat forward his interest was now thoroughly piqued. "You mean it wasn't just Starfleet who wanted her tested? It was the Council itself?" Geordi nodded. "Yes, Will," he sighed loudly. "I don't think they trusted her at all." Geordi could see the look of anger and disappointment in his friends' eyes. "Will. Deanna." His voice was reassuring. "You have to understand how she was perceived down here, especially after Cassidy's departure. There were a lot of people who just couldn't believe she was as good as she was. Professor Jaqu'ald went out of his way to make sure the Prime Directive test was on there." Riker and Deanna both looked surprised. "Do we know what happened there Geordi? Why did he have it out for her? What did she say to him before graduation?" Geordi shrugged, shook his head and sighed. "No one really knows except Administrator J'Nil, Beth and Jaqu'ald. I only heard that Beth's tirade was…personal. But Deanna, Will, look…you have to understand that Beth's performance on those tests was remarkable. No one had ever seen grace under pressure like Beth before. She went from a Federation pariah to its brightest star overnight and she has continued to prove it in every battle and in every position she's held since graduation. She didn't just do well on those tests Will, she nailed them." "What do you mean?" Riker said 157


Geordi started to laugh with a certain amount of pride. "Ritha said she never even flinched when she torpedoed you." Riker laughed but Deanna was incensed and Geordi could see it. "Don't get me wrong Deanna, Beth was devastated by it. Hell, I was appalled when I found out. I yelled at Ritha and J'Nil!" Riker was visibly pleased to hear this. "Beth immediately requested three days leave and they granted it. She spent the next three nights at my house crying over it. Believe it or not, I think that's what the Federation really wanted to hear," Geordi admitted. "They didn't want her to be a cold-blooded killer but they wanted to be damned sure her loyalties were with Starfleet and no offense Will, I can understand why." "Cassidy," he grunted. "Yes," answered LaForge. "Nothing has been the same here since she left Will. Every cadet is scrutinized and pushed. Beth just became the obvious first guinea pig." Riker knew then that Beth had been made to suffer due to his career choices as well as the choices of her younger sibling. "They knew that she was good. They knew she would catch promotions on her own. They needed proof that they could show others and say, see? We did everything possible to cut her down!" Geordi was solemn. "Possibly." His attitude changed to reflect an upbeat smile. "But look where she's at Admiral! The Enterprise! At thirty!" He said it with a hush of pride and he raised a clenched fist. "She got it on her own. No one can question it now and it's making the Federation very comfortable. The value of that can't be underestimated as you well know!" Geordi smiled. "She is the best one out there and has been since she graduated from Command School." "Deanna heard a crewman say the same thing today." Riker smiled to his wife who still looked sad but she mustered a smile back to him. "I've never been so sure myself until now." his admission surprised even himself. Geordi nodded. "Yes Will. She is." "Thanks Geordi. We'll see you when we get back to Sausalito." "Safe journeys until then Admiral." And the screen darkened. Deanna sighed and Riker reached across the desk and softly 158


touched her face. "Deanna…she's fine now. Those tests were a long time ago. No use worrying about it." His words made sense as they came out of his mouth but he now had a feeling of guilt that he had never had to bear before. It was then he knew why Beth had kept it secret for so long. He could see that Deanna was having an identical reaction and he stood to lean over and kiss her softly.

Tristan drew the back of his hand gently down the side of Beth's face. She smiled at him with her black eyes and kissed his fingers as his hand passed her lips. His hand drifted down to her neck and he caressed it gently. She smiled and she whispered, "You won't find a scar." Tristan smiled. "I'm just glad you're here." "Me too." Beth reached her hand up to his face. He was standing over her as she lay in her bed. He had finished dressing and was preparing to leave to return to the Panther. "You're sure you remember how to get to the transporter room?" Beth asked in a half-joking manner. Tristan smiled. "Yes." He remained leaning over her. "I will see you tomorrow Beth, okay?" Beth smiled and nodded. Tristan moved in and kissed her tenderly and Beth reached for and found the softness of his hair. He pulled back and stood, keeping eye contact with her. He slightly bowed his head then walked from her quarters. Beth smiled broadly to herself, stretched and rubbed her face in her pillow. She closed her eyes and quickly drifted to sleep.

Beth had wakened very early and readied herself. She sat at her desk and began to read reports from the last shift. She was startled by her door bell. Surprised, she spoke, "Enter." "Captain." Beth saw her father walk in, in his formals once again. "Admiral?" She was immediately concerned. Riker walked in and quickly scanned 159


her room. Before Beth could inquire further, Riker spoke. "I was hoping to catch you. I'm glad you're up already." "Please." Beth stood from her desk and invited him to sit at the table. As he walked in and sat down, Beth walked towards the food dispenser. "Do you want something?" she offered. "No, thanks." He nodded as if to tell her to get something for herself. Beth ordered coffee and then sat at the table with him. "What's on your mind,Admiral?" Beth was actually a little nervous, he could come from any direction and she knew it. Riker smiled. "I just wanted some place to sit before I went back to the surface and your mother was still sleeping. I'd rather come here than sit in Ten Forward." Beth nodded. He had always been like this. He knew that Beth understood the pressures of Starfleet and that she would never needle him for information. He needed to feel support without questions. She relaxed and sipped her coffee. She smiled softly as she looked out the window. They didn't speak for a long time. "Tristan's a very good man Beth." Beth's head spun, her eyes flew wide. "What?" she whispered hard. Riker smiled wisely. "Your smile gave you away." He laughed a little. "Well, that and the fact that he hasn't been able to keep his eyes off you since Telanus." Beth's heart sank. "Is he that obvious?" Riker shook his head. "Only to me and your mother‌I think." Beth rubbed her eyes and sipped her coffee once more. "I didn't start up the relationship until I left the Panther, if you're curious." Riker grimaced. "You don't have to worry about that with me of all people Beth, you know that." Does she ever break the rules? Riker's thoughts were quickly jumbled when he realized that she might not ever be able to. Her life was more scrutinized than any other member of Starfleet had been. "Are you worried that I'll be too emotionally involved with him 160


during missions?" she asked quietly. Riker was struck. "God, Beth," he breathed. "It's been damned awful for you hasn't it? You're even afraid that I would ding you for falling in love? Me?" His heart was now saddened and he saw her life as running a path more like that of Jean-Luc's than himself and that thought was breaking him. Where is this coming from? Beth withdrew from the table. "What is it Admiral?" "Admiral." Riker caught her eyes and shook his head. "Beth, I'm talking to you as your father." He could see her relax a little. "Shit Beth, I just wanted you to know that I like him. That's all. No warnings, no fatherly advice. No nothing. Well‌" He seemed to be backing off his thoughts. "Maybe I do have some advice for you." Beth's heart sank. "What's that?" "Don't make up excuses to stay away from him, if what you really want is to be close." His tone was serious and almost regretful. "That's my advice regardless if it's Tristan or anyone else." His voice picked up anger from somewhere and Beth wasn't sure where it originated. "Screw Starfleet Beth. They can handle it. They learned to deal with it with me and your mother. Don't let them suck you dry." "Dad?" "Deanna and I wasted a lot of time. If there's one mistake we can help our children keep from making, this is the one that's important to us." He was dead serious. "I don't regret the way Deanna and I worked together but I am sorry for what that has done to you." "What do you mean?" Beth was utterly confused now and she felt that he needed to say something more and she wasn't about to let him go to the surface with some personal bull hanging around his neck impeding his mission. "What's wrong Dad?" Her voice dropped in tone. Riker wasn't sure he really wanted to say but he knew it would come out soon so this was as good a time as any. "Deanna and I found out what Starfleet and the Council did to you in Command School." He dropped his head. "I'm sorry your career has been so difficult because of us." Beth stood. Fury swept over her but it was quickly replaced by 161


dread. She whispered, "I never wanted you to know." "Geordi didn't tell us, Beth. Deanna overheard one of your crewmen speaking of it. I guess he had gone to the Academy with you and picked up the story from there." Beth was relieved to know Geordi hadn't breached her confidence, although she knew he never really would have. She rubbed her eyes, turned and to Riker's surprise, she started to laugh…heartily. "Dad. Get over it." Riker snapped his head to hers. "What?" "You don't get it do you?" She smiled. "That's how I got through all of it!" She ran her fingers through her hair and Riker was immediately taken by how much the motion reminded him of Picard. "You're right! Screw Starfleet!" She was laughing at the fact her father used Paul's words. "I had no choice but to become their guinea pig. But for the most part, it didn't bother me Dad! I got high off it! The bigger the problem they threw at me, the easier it all seemed to come. The bastards didn't get it at all. They actually thought they could break me. They were fools. I got what I wanted and they got to feel good about it." She stopped laughing, sniffed and shook her head. "I will admit, they came real close to breaking me a couple of times, especially after Cassidy's stunt…" she growled and Riker nodded his head with understanding, "…but I watched them mess with you and Mom my whole life. I knew what I was in for from the moment I took that entrance exam." Riker was blown away. "Now where did that attitude come from?" Riker thought he saw Beth's ebony eyes light on fire. "You, Dad." She sat at the table once more and picked up her coffee cup. "I got the endurance and the tenacity from Mom. I got the ability to see things with an open mind from Jean-Luc. I got the passion from Brint. I got the energy from Geordi. I got the ability think like a clinician from Beverly. I learned how to handle the pressure from Christine…but everything else? The stubbornness, the attitude and the ability to take all of it and use it as an effective tool? I got all that from you." She reached out to touch his arm on the table. "I read you a lot more than you will ever know," she confessed. His eyes widened with the realization. He had never known how acute Beth's telepathic abilities around other Betazoids had been until she had admitted the problem on the Enterprise. "You are very good at keeping 162


secrets Beth…maybe too good. Careful – they might ask you to join Starfleet Intelligence." The thought was a joke but the sudden comprehension for its potential for it frightened him. She would be very dangerous indeed. Beth smiled and sighed heavily. "I already turned them down..." she waited, knowing his eyes would connect to hers and once they did she confirmed, "…three times." The look of relief on her father's face was better than any I love you he could have offered her. She smiled and watched as the look of worry on her father's face morph. Whatever he was dealing with now, wasn't about her and that made her feel better. "So what about Tristan?" he verbally poked her. Beth knew it was a tool for him to keep from thinking about his mission and she laughed out loud, "I know Dad." She stood and walked back over to the windows. "I don't know what I want from Tristan yet. I only know I'm attracted to him and yes…I love him," she admitted. She turned back to face Riker and walked back to the table. "But my first priority is the Enterprise." Riker heard the clarity of purpose in her voice. "The beauty is Dad? Tristan's first priority is the Panther." She pivoted in her spot and looked to the window with the same wistful smile she bore earlier. "I really like knowing that we have that in common." "I just want you to be happy," he said simply. "I know." Beth nodded. She then took a deep breath in and sat back down at the table. "Dad…" Riker looked to her with concern, knowing the tone in her voice meant that she was going to be giving him some unpleasant news. "Yes…?" "Q stopped by yesterday." Riker put his head in his hands and rubbed his face. "Can this mission get any more difficult?" Beth scowled. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you." Riker shook his head. "No. No. You should have. I'm just not happy about it." "Well you never are Riker, are you?" Q's voice drifted over from the doorway.

163


Riker and Beth both rolled their eyes but Beth spoke first. "What? Were you just waiting to hear your name so you could appear more dramatic?" Riker cracked a half-smile and looked to Beth. "That's his MO," he sighed heavily. "Q. What do you want? Why are you bothering us?" Riker's voice couldn't hide his exhaustion. Q moved from the door where he had been standing behind them and sat at the table. He was wearing a Starfleet uniform as he had before, but this one was finer and his collar and left sleeve bore five-pip gold bars, the insignia for a FleetAdmiral. Beth smiled. "Can't handle being outranked Q?" Q ignored her and looked to Riker. "You must be very proud Riker. Your little girl is now in charge of the Enterprise." "Q…" rumbled Riker, his low tolerance of Q was apparent. "Don't worry old man. I was really here to see Riker." Q looked to Beth. Beth's eyebrow cocked slightly. "Are we going to use Riker interchangeably now? Like Q? That's fine. It makes things easier for those of you who can't remember names." Q pulled his chin in with the insult. "You really have gotten snippy since the Academy. Maybe I'll just bring that Tristan fellow back here for you so you can work off that attitude. You seemed to be in a great mood while he was here with you. You know, I never will understand humanoid sexu…" "Q!" Riker barked. Beth smiled. "He's not an idiot Q. You won't be shocking him." Riker's head lifted. He didn't know whether he was more shocked by Q's attempt to embarrass Beth, Beth's apparent inability to be embarrassed or by the fact that he just found out that they had met before. "Academy?" Riker questioned. "You mean you've talked with him before?" Beth sighed in frustration. Q smirked and tilted his head with a faux, leering expression and then he batted his eyes. "I've been seeing her behind your back, Daddy." Beth's brows furrowed sharply. "You can be such an…" 164


"What…?" Q leaned in across the table. "Enough you two!" Riker snorted and Beth and Q shut their mouths and looked to Riker and then looked to each other – both surprised that they were talked to in such fashion. "Aw, Q, now you've pissed him off." "Beth…" Riker grumbled and then turned his attentions to Q. "Q. Why are you here?!" Q sighed. "Yes. Enough games Riker. I agree. I'm here to ask you. No I'm here warn you. No I'm here to beg you…" "Q." Beth looked at him and waved her hand in front of her and she whispered, "You're kind of overdoing it." Riker looked to Beth. "You're not helping matters either, Captain." "You're always so...serious Riker, ever since your hair went grey so did your demeanor. You used to be fun. Well. Sort of." Riker ignored his insult. "What are you asking us to do Q?" Riker asked. His fatigue was now even more apparent and Beth looked to his face with concern. "I'm asking you to please bypass the…" He looked to Beth inquisitively. "Why do you name and number them? Humans…always classifying…marking territory but never really looking to see what's there. Just marking, numbering and classifying…Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Quadrant, System, feces…" "Q…" Riker's deep growl let them both know his patience was melting but Beth smiled. Q caught her eyes. "You actually heard something didn't you Riker?" Q quizzed her. Riker was about to snap at him when he realized that Q was talking to Beth, not him. Beth's smile had not waned and her gaze had not left Q's face. "What did you hear Riker?" Q asked her. Beth didn't answer him. "Don't stop on my behalf Q. Keep prattling on." She smiled and waved at him to continue speaking to her father. "Please." Q remained quiet for a moment and then looked to Riker once more. "As I was saying…I was going to ask you to stay away from the 165


Onias and Japori sectors and tell you that there are dangers there that you do not comprehend and that the fate of not just humanity but of all forms of life in the galaxy are at staaa…but... " Q broke his glance once more and he stood from his chair and slowly walked around the table and looked down upon Beth. "We're over that now…aren't we?" He looked to Beth. "Yes Q," she answered, "we are." Riker looked to the two of them, not really comprehending their conversation. Q smiled. "Good. Makes things easier," he laughed. "On me of course. Not you. No. Things will be very, very difficult for you I think." Q backed away from the table. "Riker." They both looked up to him and he rolled his eyes in frustration. "Beth," Q clarified. "Yes?" "I will have to watch you…very, very closely," he said with no attempt to veil a threat. "Great. You do that Q. Just stay out of my bedroom…please? Tristan's shy." She smiled. "Well not last night he wasn't" Q retorted. Beth's smile beamed wide and her eyebrows rose and her head tilted. "Well, no, I guess not…" "Do you mind?!" Riker snarled, his face broken with confusion mixed with incredulity. Beth sighed and shrugged, looking to Q who scowled. "When did he become such a prude?" He started to move in closer to Beth, "Oh, that's right, it's always different when it's about their daughters…" Riker's growl started to turn and Beth knew he was on the edge of blowing and Beth reached out and touched his arm and he spun his head to her. She could see the fury in his light blue eyes. His eyes were drawn from her face and they rested back onto Q's. "Q. Please leave." Q's demeanor changed and Beth could feel it. The light edge was gone and in its place, he carried a look both serious and sinister. He lowered his voice and leaned over and placed his face directly into Beth's. She stood and met his stare, eye to eye. "Humanity's and the galaxy's fate are now in your hands Captain." He leaned into her face. Q smiled then disappeared. 166


Beth slowly sat back down at the table. She turned her head to Riker, took a deep breath in and exhaled out just as deeply. "So…we're heading to the Onias sector," she stated, knowing full well Riker wouldn't answer her. His silence was actually beginning to annoy her. No information… Riker looked overwhelmed. He had so many questions to ask her. He had so much he wanted to tell her…but he couldn't. He stayed silent. Beth nodded and patted his shoulder but she let the tone of her voice reflect her increasing agitation. "Fine, Admiral. I understand. I got some of the information I needed from Q. Funny that I have to get it from him instead of the organization I supposedly work for." "How? What?" Riker asked her. "How long have you known him Beth?" He was actually mad at her. Beth's looks of anger and sorrow were not lost on him. "Final year at the Academy. He showed up every-so-often. I have only seen him once since I graduated." She glanced into his eyes and tried to smile but it the attempt failed miserably. "You certainly seem to have an unusual rapport with him." Beth could tell that he was not happy about it either. "Dad. I just relate to him on a different level. You get angry at him. I don't. Don't get angry with me because I find him humorous." "There is nothing humorous about him Beth!" Riker snarled. "His actions have killed several crewmembers on several ships. He plays with us as if we were toys and Beth…he brought us to the Borg. Thousands died because of him." Beth looked away. She knew arguing with him wouldn't help and it would only bring up the horrible memories stored away in her father's psyche. She wouldn't be telling him that she thought Q's actions probably prepared them for many things. She wouldn't be telling him that she thought Q's intentions were for the most part benevolent, and she definitely wouldn't be telling him that Q had once saved her…from herself. She was thankful when her father spoke once more. "Why didn't you tell us Beth?" "When he first showed up, it was right after…Jean-Luc and Cassidy 167


left…" she closed her eyes. "…and then you were promoted and the Titan was decommissioned…I just thought you didn't need another thing on your plate," she said. "But the real truth is…I didn't want you to know. It was between me and him. That's all." Again, silence passed between them then Riker pressed forward. "What did you hear Beth?" he asked. "Look. Everyone I know who has dealt with him before has said the same thing. That when he shows up it's because we're always right on the edge of finding something ourselves and he just tips us over that edge?" "Shoves is a better term." Riker retorted bitterly. "Maybe. All I heard was that we weren't looking hard enough. A fact that was bothering me long before Q showed up. He just confirmed it for me." Riker nodded. "I agree," he sighed. "Although now I'm not so sure we'll want to find what's hidden." Beth turned to her father and she could see the trace of fear in his eyes, knowing the first time Q exposed them to something hidden, the Borg entered their lives. The thought that Q might be leading her down a similar path began to sink in and the trepidation took root. "Janeway know?" he asked and Beth nodded. Riker nodded in return, his face still held the scowl of anger that Q had brought up in him. "Good." Riker's scowl softened and his face now carried a worry and a sadness that she couldn't define. "I know you can't talk about your assignment Dad and I'm not asking you to divulge. But…are you okay?" Riker's eyes shut and it was the first time Beth saw the depth of his fatigue. She realized he hadn't slept well all night. He tried to force a smile and he nodded. "I won't say this hasn't been difficult." He made eye contact with her again. "And Q's presence has now made things even more so. But I can only say that I will be very glad when this is all over." Beth knew it to be the truth and she nodded supportively. She clicked her combadge and Riker raised his head. "Captain to Dryden." "A little early in the morning isn't it Captain?" Riker asked. She only shrugged. "Like Jean-Luc didn't wake you up a few 168


times‌" "Dryden here Captain." Dryden's voice sounded a little panicked and still carried the sleep that he had not yet shaken off. Beth could tell he had to reach for his comm. "Number One. Would you and Lieutenant Commander Griffin meet me in Stellar Cartography in one hour?" "Aye sir," Dryden's tired voice replied. "See? At least I gave him an hour." She smiled and stood and walked to the replicator and ordered yet another cup of coffee. "You drink too much coffee," Riker commented. "Tell me about it," Beth replied.

Something didn't feel‌right about it. She stood at the edge of the observation platform as the stars whizzed past her head. Along the Sagittarius Arm and then down the offshoot into the Orion Arm she glided. She slowed the speed of the passing stars and expanded the view so she could make out individual systems as she soared past them. But something still didn't feel right about it. She tried lifting her hands from the railing but it only intensified her feeling of being grounded. The lab's size wasn't helping matters either. The spherical holotank on the Enterprise was enormous, twice as large as the lab on the Titan had been, but it only made her feel the need to float that much more. She slowly looked up to the passing stars as they drifted by her head or seemingly through her body and she slowly extended her arms up and out, hoping it would help add to the feeling of weightlessness but it didn't help. "Captain?" She heard Dryden's questioning tone and she smiled. "Number One." She turned to see Dryden behind her on the extension walk from the entrance to the lab and the round platform in the center of the grand sphere where she stood. Clark Griffin's smile was splayed wide across his face and Beth felt a twinge of embarrassment and she laughed a little. "Lieutenant Commander," she addressed Clark. 169


"It's okay Captain, it's normal that we see the explorers come in here to fly," he said. Beth grinned. Explorer…wouldn't that be great? "Well, to tell you the truth, I was having a hard time…relating to this lab Griffin." Griffin and Dryden had now moved fully out and onto the extended round platform where their Captain stood, holographic stars were still moving past them and through them. Clark seemed concerned now. "What's wrong with the lab?" he asked in all seriousness. Beth sighed. "Nothing's wrong with the lab…I'm just not used to the one-g environment." Griffin nodded his head with understanding but Dryden only looked more puzzled. Griffin turned to him. "She grew up on the Titan. Dr. Melora Pazlar was their CSC. She was an Elaysian and required a low-g environment to work in." He turned to Beth. "So you really are used to floating among the stars…must have made your EVA training in the Academy easier." Beth smiled and nodded. "Yes it did. I was one of only two others who didn't get sick to their stomach in zero-g. I'm still not accustomed to having my feet set while I'm in a cartography lab." Griffin could feel her disappointment and he shrugged. "Sorry Captain." Beth grinned, again feeling embarrassed. "It's okay Griffin." Her eyes moved over to her XO. "I need to thank both of you for waking so early." She reached down as she looked into the expanse of the Orion Arm once more, knowing that the Sol System would be approaching, her hand hit the controls to slow the stars' progress once more. Again Griffin smiled. "You really do know your way around the galaxy Captain," he chuckled. "It took me a year to learn how to slow down at Sirius." Beth grinned happily. "Pazlar was a good teacher," she said and then looked to Clark. "I hope one day we will have a completely unfamiliar set of stars upon which to gaze. Wouldn't that be great?" Griffin's and Dryden's eyes sparked brightly. "Wouldn't it though?" agreed Griffin. "It's why I'm even here Captain." Beth smiled and looked to Dryden. "See? I'm not the only 170


squelched explorer in this room. Looks like all three of us are in need of something new." Both men nodded in complete agreement but Dryden's attention turned. "Captain. What did you call us in here for? Is something wrong?" Beth focused herself and then moved her body away from the control to let Griffin in. He understood her body language and took his position at the lab control desk on the extended platform. "The Onias sector please," she stated. Clark's eyes met Paul's briefly. "Yes sir," Griffin said. His hands moved across the control panel as if he built the panel himself and it made Beth smile. The stars of the Orion Arm stopped suddenly, then turned sharply and began to blaze by them in a blinding flurry then they slowed down hard, so individual stars could be seen once more. With a few of Griffin's deft manipulations of the panel, the stars slowed significantly then expanded apart. The sector she had requested now filled the sphere. Beth moved to the rail of the platform and looked over the edge, hating the fact that she couldn't simply float down there to see what she wanted to see. "The Japori sector would be just beyond the sector border down there, right?" she asked, her head still looking over the railing. "No sir. That's the Adelphous sector down there, the Japori sector is over one more," confirmed Griffin. Beth nodded. "Okay. Now I have my bearings." She turned to look at the stars systems of the Onias sector. Two bright red, bold and parallel lines appeared to sweep from the lab wall at their left and dipped low, under the platform and seemed to disappear through the floor of the lab. It was the Neutral Zone border. The schematics revealed that the majority of the sector lay well within Romulan Territory. "How many planets in this Sector?" Without missing a beat Griffin responded. "Sixty-four stars in fortyseven star systems, two hundred and twelve planets," he replied. "None are inhabited?" she asked. "Not even in Romulan Territory?" "Just two are capable of it, sir. Unroth III is home to a longstanding Romulan Colony that took heavy damage in the Dominion War. They're still trying to recover. And then Alpha Onias III‌" "Well, I'm familiar with that one Griffin – my father told me stories 171


about being abducted there – it remains uninhabited. No others?" "No sir, there are no other Class-M's, just uninhabitable rocks and gas giants," Griffin confirmed. Beth sighed and looked around the vast stretches between stars. "We're missing something here. Something large." "Sir?" they both asked at once. "The ghost species is here. I know it," she said. "But where in this sector could they be hiding?" She turned to Clark. "I want you in here trying to work on this puzzle from the other side of it Griffin." "I'd be happy to sir…if I knew was I was looking for," he replied. Beth smiled. "Well, if I knew that…" she held her hand up to apologize, "Just look for inconsistencies Clark. Bring Jaden's team to join with yours to look at this entire sector as if you had never seen it before. Forget what you already know and pick through it and I mean it when I say, leave no stone unturned." "Aye sir," he responded. Beth turned to Dryden. "Q dropped by again this morning Number One." Dryden scowled. "We really are in for something aren't we?" He looked to Griffin who was listening and Beth turned to assure he was included in the conversation. "I have no doubt. He told me that we weren't looking hard enough. I have to agree. He also told us to stay away from the Onias sector because the fate of the galaxy rested there." Dryden shifted in his stance. "That means that's exactly where we're heading." Beth smiled. "Although the Admiral wouldn't confirm it, I know it to be the truth Number One." "Do we always do the opposite of what Q asks?" Griffin inquired. Beth smiled and looked to Dryden. They both turned to Griffin and simultaneously answered, "Yes."

172


Interlude V Stardate 68533.6 Earth Calendar October 14th, 2389 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E San Francisco Fleet Yard Orbital Station

"And what do we have here? A stowaway?" His smile beamed from his usually stoic face. He reached under his desk in the ready room and pulled the giggling mass of child from underneath it and raised it to his lap. "How did you get in here?" But she wasn't about to answer and Picard knew he'd have to resort to more stringent forms of torture to elicit the information that he wanted. His hands crept to her sides and the tickling commenced. She squealed with delight and her giggles erupted into loud, unquenchable laughter. "Tell me…tell me…how did you get in here Elizabeth?!" His laughs were beginning to equal hers in strength and vigor as he held her wriggling body tight to his own. "Uh uh!" she refused him through her continued mirth. "Tell me…that's an order Cadet Riker!" He continued to tickle her sides and she stopped laughing but held her smile and looked to him straight in the eyes. Picard was taken by her sudden halt and 173


pulled his head back. "Is it really an order Grampa?" she said with unadulterated wonder and glee. Picard's smile beamed even more brightly. He loved it when she called him that. She and Bill were as close to being grandchildren as he would ever have and sometimes he actually wondered if it wasn't just the best possible arrangement. He put on his best pretend Captain Grampa face and nodded. "Of course it is Cadet. I order you to tell me how you got in here!" He touched his combadge briefly. "Worf…she's in here." And he returned his Grampa face back to her. He might have thought it was funny if he already knew how, but his curiosity was killing him. Riker and Deanna had been beside themselves looking for her all over the San Francisco Fleet Yard Station. She had become an expert in evading the computer so she couldn't be found, but how she had evaded an entire security force and still found a way onto the Enterprise was shocking, even to him. Beth leaned her small body forward and her eyes squinted with delight and she wrapped her arms around her surrogate grandfather's neck. "I changed the computer." Picard was awestruck but he knew that he needed to get more information and kept his cool. "How did you change the computer Cadet Riker?" "I used yours and Daddy's security codes and input them manually so the computer wouldn't recognize me." She spoke as if she was telling him a secret of utmost importance. Picard leaned back in his chair with her still on his lap. His anger was only tempered by his overwhelming shock and strange sense of pride in her abilities. "Elizabeth. You're only seven. How did you get my security code?" He sat her on his lap upright. "How did you get your father's code?" He had the most serious and concerned look on his face. Beth started to become afraid - afraid that she would get in trouble. She just wanted to go with Grampa. She didn't want to go back to Romulus. They were always fighting. They were always mad. They always made her parents mad and tired. She wanted to go with Grampa to a different place. If she were to get in trouble she'd never 174


be able to go with him. Picard noticed the fear starting to cross her face and he took a deep breath in and relaxed his facial expression. Once he did, and Beth noticed that the anger had gone, she started to ease once more. It was a trick Deanna had taught him and a trick that he would never forget. Beth needed to feel a part of the team. She needed to know – she needed to know everything; but most importantly, she needed to know the reasons why things had to happen. Once she had analyzed her options and was satisfied with the appropriateness of the reason, she would move forward from there, but Deanna had reminded him that Beth was especially acute at seeing though lies‌and she didn't tolerate lies. "Promise I won't get in trouble." She locked onto his eyes. Picard returned his gaze in to her inky black eyes. "I promise my Elizabeth. But it's important for us to know." He already knew what was coming next. She peered at him suspiciously. "Why?" Picard took a deep breath in and settled her a little more firmly on his lap. "Because the safety of the ship is at issue. You can help me find out where that security breach happened in my ship's computer and keep it from being used by the bad guys." Beth smiled with defeat. "Yeah. But it also means I won't be able to use it again." Picard smiled and laughed a little. "Elizabeth. It's important." She saw the factually serious look in her grandfather's eyes and wanted to help. "Okay Grampa," she relented and moved into his ear and whispered as she rubbed her hands on his bald head. "I got on to the central computer and looked into the personnel files. Then I looked up the codes and used them to tell the biodetection unit that I was okay." At that moment, Riker beamed straight into Picard's ready room and the glistening blue light made Beth turn to see his face. Riker's facial expression reflected a blend of pure relief and fury when he saw his small daughter sitting on his former CO's lap. Picard immediately raised his hand to let Will know that he didn't 175


want him speaking and Will's face contorted with confusion. "Ah, Captain Riker!" Picard said with such light affect Will was left trying to understand the ease of Picard's demeanor. "Cadet Riker was just about to tell us how we will be able to correct a slight oversight in the central computer's security system." Will was struck and he stood tall and realized that Picard was in "Captain Grampa" mode and he would need "Captain Daddy" to assist. Will walked forward and took a seat across from Picard at the desk. Beth's smile broke wide once more, knowing that she was now an essential part of the team. "The fleet yard central computer?" Will knew the answer…at least he thought so until Beth spoke. "Oh no." Beth scowled. "Those are stupid. I just used them to enter into the system down at San Francisco Command." Riker's hands moved directly to his eyes and he leaned his elbows forward onto his knees. Once he opened his eyes he could see the expression of shock on Picard's face and he thought that it must look a lot like his. "Yes Captain Riker." said Picard stately. "Seems as though Cadet Riker was able to ascertain both of our security codes and then used them to alter the biodetection unit to delete her signature." Riker was dumbfounded. "What?!" he whispered. He didn't know how to feel. Anger was definitely the first thing he felt, followed by extreme embarrassment and then, strangely, he was rear-ended by pride. It was only then that he realized that Beth held such intensely vital and critical data in her seven-year old brain that he began to understand Picard's sensitive approach with his daughter. They really did need to find out how she did this. He took a deep breath in and addressed his daughter. "Cadet..." he trailed. "Yes Captain?" she responded as any of his subordinates would have and Riker had to allow himself the smile. She always found a way to make him smile. He was glad to see that Picard was also smiling and repositioned Beth on his lap so she could address both her superiors with ease. 176


"It's imperative that you assist Captain Picard, Commander LaForge and me in recreating the way in which you performed your task." Beth thought about his request. She pursed her lips with a slight pout and grimace. "You're still going to make me go to Romulus aren't you?" Riker knew that this was a trap but he also knew the way out of it. "Those are our orders Cadet. We have to follow orders, even if we don't like them all the time." Beth sighed, "I just wanted to go somewhere where they're not arguing all the time." Picard nodded, now understanding Beth's desire to stowaway on the Enterprise. "Cadet‌" She turned her head to her Grampa's face with curiosity. "The Titan has the most important job in all of Starfleet right now. Captain Riker is helping them to learn how not to argue any more. It can be a very tough thing to learn when all you're used to is arguing." Beth thought about what Picard had said and looked to her father's eyes. He held of look of agreeing with her Grampa but the look on her face changed to one of consternation. "Captain Riker?" she addressed her father. His eyebrows rose with his feigned serious response. "Yes Cadet Riker?" "Are they really learning? Are they ever going to stop arguing?" Riker smiled and stood. He reached for her and Picard lifted her to her father's arms. Riker sat back down in the chair with his skeptical daughter in his lap. "Well Cadet. The first thing you have to know is that peace is a very hard process for some." Beth thought this was just about the dumbest thing she had ever heard and her head spun back to Grampa Picard whose face reflected that what her father had said was actually true. She was wholly disturbed by this thought. "But peace should be easy." "Yes Beth it should be‌but it's not." Riker kissed her forehead. "Well, when I'm Captain of the Enterprise, I'll make sure that 177


peace is easy. I won't let people argue all the time." Riker's eyebrows lifted once more as his daughter started to play with his beard. "Well, when you're Captain of the Enterprise you can make sure that happens and the galaxy will be a better place for it…but now young Cadet…you are under direct orders…" He connected his blue eyes to black ones, "How easy was it for you to break into the central computer at Command? Starfleet needs to know how to keep the bad guys away." Beth beamed with pride, knowing she'd be helping Starfleet but her face broke into disappointment once more. "Easier than peace I guess." Picard laughed aloud, "Cadet Riker. You amaze me." Beth turned to him with a smile. "Do I get to see Uncle Geordi now?!" "Uh huh," Riker confirmed. Beth was giddy once more. "Cool. Wanna see how I did it Grampa? It was really fun!" Riker shook his head and stood. She dropped herself from her father's arms and made him turn so she could lift herself onto him piggy-back style. Picard laughed heartily, thoroughly smitten with his best friend's child. "Yes my Elizabeth. I would love to see," he said then patted Riker's shoulder as he lifted Beth onto his back. "And so will Command." Riker sighed heavily, shaking his head and Picard followed the pair out of the ready room to head for Engineering.

178


PART FIVE

C

179


180


Stardate 91943.3 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise NCC-1701-G Observation Lounge

At Janeway's request, all available VIP rooms had been prepared. Beth was beginning to feel anxious. Who was coming aboard? How many? Where were they going? Why? Beth hated being uninformed but she also understood the need for silence at times. Her COs had never led her down the wrong path‌yet. No information is as good as a suicide mission. Beth was in the observation lounge now. No one else had arrived from the Cats. Unlike the observation lounges Beth remembered as a child, this lounge was larger and wider. The table was a shaped more like a rounded spearhead, matching the shape of the Enterprise's hull. Beth liked it because it allowed her to see her staff clearly. Like most of her namesakes before her, it had a wall that contained a stylized replica of every ship named Enterprise dating all the way back to ancient Earth when ships had sails and skimmed the surface of the planet's waters. Only one ship represented on the wall was not named Enterprise. It was the Phoenix, Zefram Cochrane's first warp ship. Beth smiled when she thought about her brother. He guards the 181


history of many different worlds. I guard the history of the Enterprise. Thoughts of her sister crossed her mind and she shoved the memories back down, fighting the rush of pain once more. The door opened and Tristan entered. He was alone and when he saw her his eyes brightened with his smile. Beth smiled in return and she was surprised that her heart had fluttered momentarily but hard. He gently bowed his head. "Captain." "Captain," Beth returned the greeting. Tristan looked to the door. "Shaughnessy's right behind me." Beth nodded in understanding and Tristan moved to the other side of the table. Beth looked at him more closely. He seemed genuinely happy. "The four pips agree with you Captain," she said. He smiled broadly. "The Panther agrees with me Captain." Beth knew exactly what he meant and she nodded. The Panther was his now. She felt the same way about the Enterprise. The door opened and Shaughnessy jumped into the room, believing he would be surprising them but when he realized the two were on opposite sides of the room, he seemed disappointed. Beth laughed out loud and Tristan sneered at him. "What were you expecting Shaughnessy?" McGregor asked him. "Something more fun than this," Shaughnessy replied. He lightly stepped around the table and sat next to Tristan. He swiveled his chair around toward McGregor, leaned his elbows on his knees and whispered to him. Beth couldn't hear what he said but Tristan smiled and looked up. "Why don't you ask her yourself Brian? She's sittin' right across from you," Tristan said with a twisted smile. Shaughnessy appeared stricken and his face flushed bright pink. He sat up in his seat and turned it toward the table. "Ask me what Brian?" Beth inquired and raised her eyebrows. Shaughnessy was beginning to stammer when the door opened and T'Vyn, Farhadian and Issa walked in. Shaughnessy's relief was apparent. Tristan laughed out loud. "The Irishman is silenced!" he roared with laughter. "Wow, looks like we missed something good." Carrie shook her head. 182


"Doubtful," T'Vyn commented and Issa laughed. They took seats at the table as well. "Where's Janeway?" asked Farhadian. "I was worried I was late." Beth shook her head. "I have no idea." Her frustration was beginning to show and the rest could see it. "What's up Riker?" Issa said. "I know as much as you do," Beth admitted with frustration. "I don't know what we're up against and you know me..." "No information is as good as a suicide mission," Shaughnessy said. Beth nodded and could see the consensus in the room. "However, you should all know that I have had three visits from Q over the last twenty four hours," Beth stated. There was a long silence at the table. Tristan's eyes widened as he looked to her with worry. Beth gazed to him calmly and tried to reassure him with her eyes. "What did he have to say?" he asked. "That he wanted us to stay away from the Onias sector," she said, knowing that her counterparts would know exactly what that meant. As she glanced around the table she could see the look of resolve set into their expressions. Beth leaned her head back in the chair and closed her eyes. "Has anyone researched that ghost species?" she asked. Every one of them nodded with a murmur. "Yes," T'Vyn answered. "We've all come across the same lack of information about them." Beth sniffed a laugh. "Good. I'm glad I'm not the only one." Shaughnessy's mood changed. "Hell no, you're not the only one. I have put so much time into trying to find some information about their technology or biology to give us some clue, my bridge crew forgot who I was." McGregor snorted a laugh but before he could get his slam in on Shaughnessy, Farhadian spoke up, "I heard the Zenith was set to head towards the Onias-Japori sector border from Starbase 23 but that the mission was scrubbed." Beth's head popped up. "Really?" Issa confirmed, "The Zenith was tentatively set for an observation mission near the sector border but they scrubbed it. The Zenith remains 183


at the Quebec III Outpost. We're not sure why, we can only assume that maybe they didn't want to risk it." "Didn't want to risk it?" McGregor inquired. "That's awfully unStarfleet like," he snarled. "How many dead freighter and supply ship captains now? Five?" "Six," answered Beth and her team members all took on the same agitated expressions. "What other kind of reports are there?" asked Carrie. "Technology breaches?" Issa moved forward and rested his elbows on the table. "I heard the reports revolved around technology failures, sensor failures and shield breaches and that the supply ship captains believed the Tzenkethi were involved." "Are you kidding me?" Beth griped. "Tzenkethi? That's ridiculous. No one has actually seen any of the members of this so-called ghost species, or a ship. Freighter captains are being murdered and no one knows why? No way it's Tzenkethi." She smirked. "They're too sloppy. Not the least of which, they're in a completely quadrant!" She shook her head. "No, this is new and different." "I agree but you gotta love the rumor mill," Carrie contributed. "What about Species 8472?" asked Issa. "I have been assured that it's not Species 8472," said Shaughnessy. "Janeway and my two connections at Command are confident that it is not. They haven't detected any breach into fluidic space." Beth nodded. "Again, different tactics. If it was Species 8472, no one would have survived those attacks‌ever," she sighed heavily. "I have my CSO, Stellar Cartography and everyone else on it, hoping they might be able to give us some insight as to why the attacks in the last eight weeks have all been lethal when they weren't so beforehand," Beth added. "Good. Must be nice to have a CSO," said Issa with a smile. "And Stellar Cartography," said Farhadian. Beth knew the Cats weren't assigned science officers per se as they were strictly defense ships. The science officers on board the Cats were finely tuned to the battle situation and didn't have the depth of scientific data or personnel that Beth now had readily at hand on the Enterprise. Beth nodded, knowing that one day she might actually start to explore in 184


this ship. She hoped that day would come soon. "It is," Beth agreed as she breathed out. "When their analyses are complete, I will have them forwarded to every one of you." There were nods of gratitude from all. Shaughnessy shook his head. "The Federation isn't taking any chances with this mission, why bring all of us together if there isn't some need?" He was serious. There was a consensus again. "You're right Brian. They must fear something‌" Issa said. "I agree," said T'Vyn in her factual tone. "Whatever we may be facing, the Federation's concerns are real enough." "They are indeed," Admiral Riker's voice boomed from the doorway. The captains instinctively stood. "At ease." said Riker and the captains took their seats once more. "Admiral Janeway will return to the Enterprise in approximately two hours." He stood at the head of the table. Beth had rarely seen him this way. He was exhausted, he was worried and his eyes were drawn. "I will transport back before then. Admiral Janeway will be taking a Vulcan shuttle from the planet's surface. This shuttle will be bringing the most important cargo that this or any other Federation starship has held since the Khitomer accords." There was silence in the room. Riker continued, "Praetor Vreen and other representatives of the Romulan Star Empire along with diplomatic representatives from the Federation, the Klingon Emissary and the Cardassian President will board the Enterprise and be transported to Earth. There they will meet with the leaders from the Klingon High Council and the Federation Council where a four-way formal alliance will be signed at Federation Headquarters."

The thought was shattering. Beth was stunned and she swallowed hard. Her father's greatest dream was on the edge of coming to fruition. He had worked his entire life from the moment he took the chair of the USS Titan to bring the Federation and Romulus closer together. The room was silent. No one knew what to say. They were all overwhelmed. Riker continued, "Additional negotiations will be handled on board the Enterprise and we expect those final details to be hammered out long before we get to Earth." Riker breathed in. 185


Shaughnessy spoke first, "What's the catch?" Beth laughed. Brian was never one to beat around the bush. Riker smiled. "As Shaughnessy has so succinctly said it, we're worried about the safety of our passage back to Earth." "We pass through the Onias Sector," T'Vyn said. "Yes," Riker confirmed. "Why would we be worried about an enemy we're not even sure is amassing?" Issa questioned. "The crossing through Federation space should be easy enough." "I know why." Beth drew a hand up to her forehead and leaned into it, her voice was hard and on the edge of being curt. She closed her eyes, shook her head and spoke loudly and with some agitation, "Because Romulus has, or should I say had, a formal alliance with the ghost species, right Admiral?" Her eyes opened and she looked to Riker. Riker's eyes shot wide. "How did you know? I only found out yesterday morning!" He sat down with dread. "Romulus has a name for them. They're called Aehallh'alha." "That's a Rihannsu word‌ghost masters?" Beth inquired. Riker nodded, proud that she had not forgotten her Romulan language lessons from when she was younger, "Or nightmare owners," he added. "Computer." Beth's harsh voice cleared and she heard the acknowledging tone. "Please replay personal log of Jonathan Archer, Earth Starfleet Captain, Enterprise NX-01 from June ninth, Earth year 2160‌" Everyone at the table glanced at her. "I heard it a couple of days ago and it meant nothing until now." she said. The computer tone was heard and Archer's voice filled the room. "Captain's Starlog, June ninth, 2160. I have heard unusual news regarding a recent occurrence in our conflict with the Romulans. Apparently one of the Romulan vessels broke from an unexpected encounter with the Andorians in the Hyralan sector, a significant distance from the battles previously encountered with them. The vessel appeared to make headway towards the Onias Sector, where three small freighters have reported being attacked in the last few days. We believe these attacks were undertaken by a species other than the Romulans. We don't know much about the potential new species, only 186


vague witness descriptions of their ghost-like behavior. Two Andorian ships attempted to follow the Romulan vessel but it dropped from their sensors before any further engagement could be undertaken. Although it's impossible to tell if the Romulan vessel was actually heading for the Onias sector, I am of the personal belief that it was. We know so little about either species. I wonder what they might know about each other and how that might affect Earth. Archer out." Again, silence filled the room. "How long did the Romulan treaty with the Aehallh'alha last Admiral?" Beth asked him point blank. Riker looked stricken. "One thousand fvheisn." He swallowed. "It expired roughly six Earth months ago and Romulus is desperate to assure its safety. They believe, as do we, that this new alliance would be most beneficial for all of us." "It's where Romulus first received cloaking technology, isn't it?" T'Vyn asked. Riker nodded and she continued, "Did the treaty include a promise not to share the technology?" "Yes. Romulus exchanged their alliance with the Aehallh'alha for the one thousand fvheisn period in order to obtain the cloaking technology." Beth's eyes met Riker's. "They weren't testing us all those times they were testing Romulus to make sure they hadn't coughed up the technology?" Riker nodded. "Or in certain circumstances we believe they might have been acting in support of Romulus. Like the attacks that occurred after Narendra III." Beth's eyes closed. "Now we know why the Aehallh'alha will stop us if they can. Romulus must have broken that agreement when they lent the Federation cloaking technology for the Defiant during the Dominion War. If the Aehallh'alha found out about the breach, they could perceive it as an act of war." T'Vyn added, "They might also perceive Romulus' entry into a new four-way alliance as such. A Klingon-Cardassian-Romulan-Federation Alliance would shift the balance of power in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants substantially." "It's also why no one has actually seen an Aehallh'alhan ship," Tristan offered. "Or an Aehallh'alhan," Riker added. 187


The captains' eyes all shot up to him. "What?" Beth asked. "The Romulans believe that they were given outdated technology at the time." He stated. "Under the treaty, Romulus was allowed to independently advance the technology but we have reason to believe that their technology is far more advanced than we might be able to comprehend at this time." "Ghosts‌" Shaughnessy said. "The old man said they were ghosts." Beth could tell that every single captain in the room had viewed the same testimonials that she and her father had in the library. "We'll be fighting an enemy we really can't see," Carrie said. Again, the room filled with silence. "Don't tell me Admiral. The Romulans haven't seen them either?" her voice was filled with anticipatory sarcasm. Riker almost laughed. "You guessed it. They have had no visual contact with them since long before the time of Captain Archer's personal log entry. The Romulan vessel he mentioned entered into Aehallh'alhan territory under the terms of the treaty and was granted safe passage but there was no contact between the crew of the warbird and the Aehallh'alha." "What about the original signing of the treaty?" Shaughnessy asked. Riker shrugged. "They have the document as written in Rihannsu but there was no other recording of its signing or evidence that there was any ceremony to go with it. There was a small contingent from Romulus who we understand went to the area near the Onias-Hyralan sector border and the treaty was signed on the Romulan ship. They then returned to Romulus with the original cloaking device. All who attended the ceremony refused to speak of their encounter under the terms of the treaty. They all died, keeping those secrets." T'Vyn's monotone voice broke through again, "What did the Aehallh'alha get in return for the technology?" Riker's face paled and Beth sat up, concerned for him. His voice was almost a whisper. "Slaves." he looked towards the windows. Once again, the room silenced. It was Issa who spoke first and Beth could see that his family's history of being subjected to Cardassia's cruelty in their past weighed heavily upon him. "Slaves. Well, that explains the existence of the Tal 188


Shiar." He spoke of Romulus' notorious oppression wing of the Romulan government. Riker nodded. "Over five and a half million Remans and Romulans. The treaty called for a half million per one hundred fvheisn period with additional slaves if deliveries were late." Carrie looked ill. "How could they?" Her anger rose up and she brought her hands up to her face. "How could they have sacrificed their own for technology?" T'Vyn's voice cut through again, "Romulus was ruled differently then. To the leaders of the time, sacrificing those of future generations would have seemed like a worthy price to pay to gain any advantage." She looked to Beth coldly. "Technically, they weren't wrong. Obtaining that technology gave Romulus the ability to survive and thrive in the quadrant and ward off every foe except Shinzon." Riker agreed, "But there's another layer to this. Romulus failed to make the last delivery. It was due about ten years after Shinzon struck. Romulus is convinced the Aehallh'alha are now beginning to retaliate for their failure in providing them with the last delivery before the expiration of the treaty." "But that was over twenty years ago Admiral, why would they delay the attacks until now?" asked McGregor. "According to Romulus, there was a long grace period." He could see the look of anger rising in Beth's eyes, as well as others in the room. "Admittedly, that grace period ended over five years ago. Look, the leaders from a thousand years ago didn't realize the weak state Romulus would be left in when the treaty ended." T'Vyn shook her head. "I disagree, Admiral. They just assumed their descendents would renew the treaty, obtain new technology and keep the advantage at the cost of more of their own. Those leaders did not anticipate the evolution of the Romulan psyche to see slavery as a moral injustice." Riker looked to T'Vyn. "Tuvok said the same thing." "No wonder they wanted out of the treaty," Issa said. Riker added, "It could also explain why Romulus was so fearful to enter into any other formal alliance. They feared making a mistake like they did with the Aehallh'alha and they still fear their anger for not renewing 189


those ties. They were beholden to them for more than the last millenia. Romulus took a huge risk to help the Federation by breaching this treaty to win over the Dominion." "The Federation also has much to gain with a formal four-way alliance," T'Vyn stated. "It could make the Shentarian hostilities virtually end and place this quadrant into a better defensive posture for any future Borg incursions." Riker nodded. "Yes. The Federation is anxious to finalize this." "But as we gain a new alliance, are we taking on a new enemy?" asked Tristan. "We've barely been able to hold off Shentaria, the threat from the Thraiin is exploding by the minute…now we're looking at taking on a new enemy that frankly sounds even more dangerous than maybe even the Borg. Hell, at least we can see them…" "The Federation, Cardassia, and Klingons all believe that an alliance with Romulus is worth that risk," Riker stated. "We may end up with that enemy regardless of alliance," Beth responded. "We have strength together that we would never have apart." Riker nodded steadfastly. Again, silence filled the room. Shaughnessy's eyes lit and he clapped his hands together loudly. "Well, I have my reason!" He smiled broadly. "Nothing like a little galactic peace to inspire one's pride, I say!" Beth laughed, "Oh, here we go…Shaughnessy's fired up!" Shaughnessy nodded fiercely. "All we have to do is defend ourselves from a bunch of ghosts, protect every important individual from four different governments, race them across the quadrant and get them to Earth before the bad guys get us and all will be right as rain!" "Stinky ghosts! Don't forget that one. The old man said they were stinky." Carrie frowned. "I hate stinky." "Stinky is good in this case. Aim for what smells!" Issa laughed. "Careful what you say there Issa! We might all hit Shaughnessy!" Tristan poked and there was a burst of laughter from the table. "Hey. I thought it was Issa we hated!" Shaughnessy defended. "I think you're all odd," T'Vyn droned. "Maybe T'Vyn – but we'll back you anyway!" Carrie laughed. 190


Riker was astounded. The captains all just started talking over one another, bravado pouring out them. He assumed this is how they psyched themselves up before any battle and he was mostly astounded by the fire and eagerness in Beth's eyes as she watched her counterparts. They were a team, beginning to prepare themselves, ready to take on anything. He remembered himself at the helm of the Enterprise and the Titan, feeling the same way. He had just never witnessed the same look in his daughter's eyes. "Captains." He cleared his throat and the room silenced once more. "Whatever additional information we get we will forward on. Clearance of this information is for your senior staff only until there is an indication otherwise. Understood?" He stood with authority. "Yes sir." the captains all stood with the Admiral. He looked around the table more seriously than he ever had and Beth knew the big guns were coming out. "Captain Riker, the Cats are under your command for this mission." The order fell off his tongue strangely. He had never been placed in a position of having to give her orders like this before but he also knew this was not the first time she would be responsible for a mission involving the Cats. She's been in battle more than I have and she's only thirty-one. The thought sat upon him like a stone. Beth nodded. "Yes sir." Riker looked to the others. "Captains, the Enterprise is key. She is the reason we are here and the only thing that matters is making sure she makes it to Earth safely. It is the only objective. Is that understood?" The captains all stood, smiling and with fire in their eyes. "Understood, sir!" they all barked. Riker smiled. Damn, I wish they were under my command all the time! I envy you Kathryn! He saw them all at attention and looked to them individually. "Be careful captains." Issa roared, "And if you can't be careful?!" "Be victorious!" they responded loudly and in unison. Riker was stunned. He had never heard it before. Janeway had warned him of their camaraderie but he had no idea it ran this deep. They're like the Red Squadron…always acting as one cohesive group. "Janeway and I will be with the dignitaries while we move towards Earth." 191


"Aye sir," Beth answered, still at attention. He smiled, turned and left the observation lounge. The captains all exhaled. No one said a word. Issa extended his hand over the middle of the table. The remaining captains all did the same and touched each others' hands quickly. They looked each other in the eyes and then quickly began to file out of the lounge. Tristan caught Beth's eyes and she held herself back from the group. The door closed behind Shaughnessy and Beth walked up to Tristan directly. He reached for her hair and touched it, feeling its silk and without speaking, he leaned to kiss her softly. They didn't even hear the door reopen. "Bloody Scotsman!" Shaughnessy laughed. Beth and Tristan jumped apart, startled. Shaughnessy roared with laughter, "Nah that was all I wanted to do!" and he turned and left the room once more. Beth shook her head but found she had to laugh. Tristan appeared annoyed and shook his head. "Bastard." He smiled. He again reached for Beth and took her fully in his arms. "I only want to say three things to you before we go forward." Beth smiled and peered into his soft eyes once more. "What's that?" "One, you're the most beautiful, wonderful, amazing thing that's happened in my life and I am glad I found the courage to make love to you." He swept his hand across her hair once more. "Two‌I am honored to serve with you Captain." He smiled. Beth knew what he meant. He wasn't being fatalistic, just realistic. "You should know that I'm also very glad we found that courage. I am also extremely honored to serve with you, Captain." He kissed her deeply and then whispered: "Three. I love you Beth." Beth's joy was evident on her face and once again Tristan seemed to relax. "I love you too Tristan." Her hand caressed his face softly and he held her closely. "Be victorious." "You too." She smiled, kissed him softly again then watched him leave. She walked over to the windows of the observation lounge and could see that the Puma and the Cougar were already beginning to move 192


into an escort formation around the Enterprise. She turned back and glimpsed the dedication wall again. Her eyes immediately fell to the Enterprise-F. Her joy was eclipsed and she took in a deep breath and clicked her combadge. "Number One. Please call all Senior Staff to the observation lounge for briefing." "Yes sir." Dryden replied.

"Are you kidding?!" Jaden's voice was jubilant and terrified at the same time. Beth smiled. Besides herself, Jaden Revaik had the most to be excited about. Revaik's father was one of three Romulan officials who risked his life to defect to the Federation while Beth's parents were still on the Enterprise-D. It was Beth's mother Deanna who took part in the undercover operation to help ensure the successful completion of those defections. "No, I'm not kidding;" Beth replied. "However, this will be no ordinary transport mission. We are anticipating resistance along the way." Beth relayed the information about the former Romulan alliance with the Aehallh'alha and its cost to both Romulus and Remus. The senior officers were stunned. Revaik's tears were hard for her to hide. Enya, seated next to her, reached for Revaik's hand. Beth looked to Enya who nodded reassuringly – Jaden would be okay. "Have you any thoughts on the reports you looked at today?" Beth asked, partly to Jaden in the hopes she could refocus herself and partly to Richardson whose face was telling her that he had definite opinions about matters. Richardson responded first, "All six ship commanders were killed by either asphyxiation or cervical spine fractures." And seeing the look of surprise on his Captain's face he nodded to confirm it, "Yes, Captain but all of them also had severe damage to the occipital lobe of the brain." "They were all human?" she asked. Richardson smiled at her. "It just so happens, they were all human." "And their occipital lobes were damaged‌meaning their visual cortex?" Richardson beamed once more. "Yes Captain. However the deaths 193


themselves were the direct result of asphyxiation or neck fractures caused by strangulation." Beth's eyes widened. "They were physically choked to death or their necks were broken on their own bridges?" She was horrified. "So far as we can tell," answered Richardson. "You should also know that there were contusions that appeared postmortem to their faces and heads." Beth shuddered. "Don't tell me‌their eyes, right?" Richardson dipped his head. "Mostly around the forehead, temples and around to the anterior of the skull." K'Reeg entered the conversation, "Bridge crew on all of these ships are minimal at best, the largest ship had four on the bridge. Four ships had only one crewman other than the CO. One ship had a total of three on the bridge." He looked to Llewellyn who nodded in agreement. "They were only small supply ships after all," Llewellyn concurred. "The reports reflected that on the two largest ships, crewmen tried to assist their Commander only to be pushed back by some unknown force." "The entity itself I believe," Jaden's strong and mellow voice filled the room and Beth smiled without looking at her. "We don't know that for sure, Revaik." K'Reeg warned, "however I tend to agree with your analysis. I also believe that there were direct incursions by some alien life-form onto the bridges of these ships; they were just able to avoid detection. The intruder sensors were not triggered." Beth nodded her head. "Which makes sense now with the new information we have received from the Admiral – that Romulus may have received outdated cloaking technology a thousand years ago. What about the other ships K'Reeg?" K'Reeg resumed his previous train of thought. "The other ships' crewmen all appeared too terrified to assist or were rendered unable to assist." Beth's scowl returned but her look to Dryden confirmed K'Reeg's analysis. Dryden addressed her, "Yes Captain. Three reported fainting but the others all reported a strange smell before losing consciousness. "Great," Beth moaned. "They were gassed?" Stinky ghosts?! "We don't know that for sure, there're no records available from the environmental systems on board the ships yet." Dryden confirmed, 194


"But something comparable likely occurred. I can't imagine that every single one of these individuals fell over from fright." Beth smiled and shook her head slightly. "No. I've met my share of supply ship captains and crew. They're not a soft bunch." She grinned, thinking of a time that she and her father became stranded on Ovelden VII. She was twelve years old at the time and he brought her into a very seedy bar to negotiate transport back to Deep Space Nine before her mother found out he had taken her with him on his jaunt. They ended up catching a ride on a Tyrellian frigate and the captain of that vessel had become so enthralled with Beth's piloting skills he let her navigate a third of the way. Deanna ended up finding out about it any way. She sensed Riker's deception the moment she walked into their quarters. She didn't speak to him for a week. To this day, it was one of Beth's favorite memories of her father. She focused herself once more. "Revaik, when those environmental system reports are made available, see what you can find. I don't want to be caught off guard and if we can determine what they passed out from, I want to assure our environmental system can address it quickly." She saw Jaden nod and she addressed Priest directly. "What are your thoughts Priest, on the reasons behind the severity and mortality?" Enya took a deep breathe and looked at her captain. Richardson smirked as he sat back, sarcastically waiting to hear her revelations. "First Captain, the reports from the previous three sets of attacks, including the attacks that occurred after Narendra III were all extremely passive compared to the attacks that have occurred over the last eight weeks. Of the twenty-two attacks in the last three reported groupings, no deaths were reported." "None?" Beth inquired. "Correct Captain." Priest could see her Beth's scowl deepening. "Stranger still‌not one shot was ever fired." Beth looked of confusion matched that of others at the table. "So the attacks themselves are similar to the attacks of late – shield breaches and personal attacks." "No Captain. There were no personal attacks." "No one was even touched before?" Beth was stunned. "No sir." confirmed Priest. "A change in tactic like this could mean 195


a few things. Desperation in conditions of living, perceived intrusion on their borders, a perceived advantage of a tactical situation..." "Which they have," K'Reeg added sternly. Enya nodded. "And self-preservation." K'Reeg groaned and Richardson smiled. Elieth however nodded slightly. Beth noted all of their reactions mentally. "Why don't you feel that self-preservation might lead them to kill Richardson?" she asked him "No offense Captain but if they were trying to merely survive, they wouldn't have the tactical advantage on us, would they?" K'Reeg grunted his assent with Richardson's opinion. "And they do have an amazing tactical advantage, don't' they? We can't even see them or their ships…or even if they have any ships!" Beth sighed, "Be that as it may Doctor, I asked Counselor Priest for reasons a species might be forced to kill. That's one of them and a strong one I might add." "Agreed Captain," said Elieth who turned to K'Reeg. "Many species may have tactical and strategic advantage over another but it is their sense of self-preservation that can be used and manipulated to turn into a conqueror's song. History is replete with aggressors who were fearful of losing their sense of self-identity and preemptively struck out at those they believed were threatening that way of life." Beth smiled. "Exactly, Elieth. Thank you." She looked to K'Reeg. "Cardassia is a prime example of a species that felt so threatened by those around them that subjugation became their prime goal." "The Shentarians as well Captain," said Priest. "Yes," Beth replied and nodded to Enya. "Thank you Counselor." She glanced around the table once more. "Do we know anything about the shield breaches?" Llewellyn spoke up. "Pinpoint breaches Captain. We're unable to determine the actual method used but as you suspected, the shielding on these supply ships wasn't meant to thwart off quantum torpedoes, just space dust and phaser blasts." "Captain." Elieth's cool and calm voice rose like velvet, "I would suggest that Lieutenant Commander Llewellyn and I proceed to research these pinpoint breaches even further in the hopes we can avoid similar intrusions. While supply ships aren't known for strength in their shielding 196


technology, I know of few supply ship commanders that don't alter their shield technology and weaponry on their own." Beth nodded heartily. "Agreed Elieth. Like I said, they're not a soft bunch and they will not hesitate to barter or trade for technological strength. Mike? See what strategies you and Elieth can arrange." Llewellyn smiled and nodded. Beth stood from her chair, pleased with their work. "Excellent. Number One, please assure that all of your reports are transmitted immediately to the Cats. They'll need this info as well." He acknowledged the order. She looked around the room once more. "I have been ordered to remind you that all of this information is for your ears only. Prepare what you can without divulging the true identity of our guests for now. Admiral Janeway will let us know when it's all right to divulge. Their safety is paramount." The staff all acknowledged her and she continued, "Doctor. Please make sure that we are prepared for potential battle injured. I want two teams designated solely for the VIPs in case they are required on decks eight and nine." Richardson smiled. "Excellent, Captain." Beth turned to Enya. "Counselor. You can expect to be utilized by Admirals Janeway and Riker for any diplomatic assistance they may require." Enya seemed buoyed and Beth smiled at her in return. "Commander?" She smiled broadly at Dryden. "I'd like everyone to be fully reminded about the proper use of restraints during battle. This ship will tear the fabric off of time and I don't want any inexcusable injuries for not being strapped in if we get into a jam." She snickered and looked to K'Reeg, "Because I was being nice during that simulation." Her eyes lit. "And please assure that the VIPs all receive instruction on emergency seating. The last thing I need is a Romulan with a broken spine. Oh‌ and Number One? You will have to remind Admiral Riker twice‌maybe three times." Paul smiled back at her, dutifully reminded of her battle simulation in the first week after launch and the fact that twelve people ended up in Sickbay with fractures due to their refusal to wear their restraints. "I will remain on the bridge and try to come up with additional 197


strategies." "Aye sir." Dryden replied. Beth looked to her crew. "Look, I'm really not the best when it comes time for the pep talk but I've had a lot of time to think about things." She smiled. "We've never been so close to something so amazing before. As its flagship, you already know the Enterprise is the most respected ship of the Federation. Yes, it's the most technologically advanced starship to date, but it's the crew that makes the name. It always has been. Every ship with the name Enterprise that has preceded us…" Beth looked to the dedication wall, "…has made an indelible mark on the history of a planet, a star system, the quadrant and the galaxy." She smiled as her thoughts turned to Picard. "This ship is about to earn her own place in that history." She looked to the wall again. "Every one of those vessels was filled with a crew who believed in their mission. Too many paid for that honor with their lives. We are living testament to their sacrifices and successes. We owe the same dedication to any future crew of a vessel that will bear the name. I want them to look at their pride wall and have the Enterprise-G be the first ship they look at with honor and with envy." Her eyes were drawn back the Enterprise-F when she spoke. She returned her gaze to the staff and laughed a little. "The captains of the Cats have a saying that goes, if you can't be careful, be victorious." She made eye contact with each of her crew. "It's not appropriate for us. The Cats were made for war. While we do not fear battle, our purpose is to prevent war and to explore every opportunity for peace. We are now on the brink of finalizing the greatest alliance this region of the galaxy has ever known. It is exactly why this ship was built and why you were chosen to be here." She dropped her head a little. "You, as her crew - the lifeblood that gives her the name - will find your own motto in time. It is not for me to choose. I am honored to serve with you. I know that you will proudly take your place in history alongside all those who were before you - all of you make her…Enterprise." Beth smiled. "Dismissed."

This time Beth wasn't going to be messing with anyone's head. Dress formals and a very small receiving line in Shuttle Bay Three that included Dryden, Riker, Deanna, Tatiana and herself. Llewellyn had the conn and K'Reeg manned the shuttle bay doors and landing procedures 198


as no others were yet aware of the identities of their visitors. He had also arranged for a very discreet move into the main area of the ship and then to the VIP sections on deck nine. Paul had finalized the preparations of the VIP rooms and Beth guaranteed they were splendidly set. It would be a very dignified reception. It's going to be old home week any way, she thought with a wry smile. The sirens of the shuttle bay began to blare as the bay door eased open and the large Vulcan shuttle glided in through the retention force field with a beautiful blue sparkle and gently came to rest in the center of the shuttle bay. Before the doors of the shuttle opened, Riker quickly touched his daughter's shoulder. "Captain." She caught his eyes. "Yes Admiral?" "Nothing to be nervous about‌really." He shot her a devious smile. It was at times like this Beth wished she could just hit him. "Thank you Admiral, appreciate that." She glared at her father briefly and dropped her voice so her mother wouldn't hear her very off-color remark, "And they wondered why I didn't flinch." Riker closed his eyes and pursed his lips as if she had struck him. It was an artificial hit but it felt just as good as the real thing to Beth. The doors to the large shuttle hummed open and Admiral Janeway stepped forward first to stand at the base of the shuttle and watch as the dignitaries walked out. Beth caught Janeway's eyes. Beth and Riker stepped forward together. Beth knew that it was her ship, she would be first to greet. "Praetor Vreen, Senator Jerbin, Senator Linias. I am Captain Elizabeth Riker. Welcome aboard the USS Enterprise," Beth solemnly greeted the three robed individuals from Romulus. Their sharp haircuts emphasized their very distinct brow ridges. They smiled kindly when the Praetor stopped in front of her. He carried a quizzed expression. "Captain Riker?" The Praetor looked at her with growing recognition and he smiled at her. "It is very good to see you again Captain." Beth recalled meeting him on the Titan while on break during her second year at the Academy. He was Senator Vreen then. He spoke again to Riker, "Ah, you must be very proud Admiral." He was gracious and cool. 199


Riker led them down the remaining line and introduced them to Paul, Deanna and Tatiana. Two tall, rather grotesque-looking and pale individuals followed. Beth's heart sank. Remans?! She realized how stupid she had been not to think they wouldn't also be a part of any Romulan Star Empire alliance. Though the two planets were not technically reunited – they did have solid alliances of their own, thanks to Mom, Dad, Jean-Luc and Brint. Beth's head spun…What are their names?! Her mind raced through the last reports on Remus she read…days ago. Panic was beginning to set in and in her peripheral vision she could see her mother leaning over from behind Riker ready to intervene telepathically but the names suddenly came to her without having to resort to the noise. Bikinian and Melkit. The thought of relief made her smile brightly, which was a good thing for the Remans to see, for they also splayed almost frightening grins with sharp fangs. Beth was able to refocus herself quickly enough to recognize the Remans individually from the reports. They wore black, straight and very simple robes. Beth smiled and bowed her head graciously. "Ambassador Bikinian and Ambassador Melkit, I am Captain Elizabeth Riker. Welcome aboard the Enterprise." The Remans bowed to her. "It's an honor Captain. We thank you for your hospitality." They seemed to glide over to the Admiral. Riker caught her eyes with a look saying, nicely done. She smiled back as if to say…ah, it was nothing. Beth looked up. An enormous Klingon in layers of thick robes and a floor length vest which must have weighed fifty kilos for all the medals that clung to it, Worf towered over her. His beautiful gray and brown streaked hair was pulled back and was held by the ties of the Klingon traditional threads. Uncle Worf! Her heart sang and she had to hold herself back from throwing her arms around the great Klingon. His own son stood by his side. "Emissary Worf." She smiled so broadly she thought her face would cramp. "Welcome to the USS Enterprise. Ambassador Rozhenko, welcome back." Beth held out her hand fully expecting him to pull her arm clean out of its socket but it was only then she realized he had not responded. Beth let loose her gaze from Worf's now utterly confused face 200


and caught her father's appearance. His eyes were resting solely on Worf and he bore a very familiar expression. It was the look that he got only when he revealed he had held the nuts all along. A wizened smile, slightly pursed lips and a smart-aleck squint of the eyes‌it was the same look he laid on Tristan the night before. They lied to him! They didn't tell him I was here! Beth cleared her throat once more and looked into the fiercely gentle eyes of her mentor. "Emissary?" Beth's hand remained extended, in perfect protocol. That's when it started. A low rumble began deep in Worf's gut and Beth could feel the tremor reverberate the air between them. Her eyes hadn't left his and she could see the fire begin to build as the laugh finally found its way out of his warrior grin. It was at times like this that Beth never understood her parents' stories about how Worf never laughed, she only knew him when he did and it was one of her favorite sounds. "Captain Riker!!" His roar was so loud and so striking the Romulans standing near Tatiana turned quickly to assure they were not an intended target of the Klingon's percussive joviality. "Beth! You have the Enterprise?!" Beth finally smiled wide. "Yes Emissary. I command the Enterprise." "HA! I have much to say to you!" He bent down and she could feel his intense purr. "I will see you on the bridge‌yes?!" They ALL want to be on the bridge! "Of course Emissary." Worf moved quickly to Riker who shook his hand violently and Riker's laugh could now be heard under Worf's. Riker's arm grabbed Worf's upper shoulders and back and he patted him hard. "You dirty‌" was all Beth heard grumbling from Worf's mouth before she directed her attention back to her duties. Another very tall man in green-grey attire stood in from of her. The color of his diplomatic robes matched the color of his skin. His black hair looked like it had been shellacked. He had huge neck tendons that resembled cables that extended from his ears to his shoulder tips. Large, graceful arcs of ridges encircled his scaled face and eyes. Beth knew him to be President Vadine, the current leader of the New Cardassian Union. Cardassia had allied itself with the Federation before Beth was born. Their 201


alliance with the Klingons took much more time. Now they, along with the Klingons and the Federation, would be laying down their differences with Romulus. It had been her parents' life work. Beth felt a pang of jealousy. I want something more than war. "President Vadine. I am Captain Elizabeth Riker, I welcome you, sir, with honor to the Enterprise." She bowed her head respectfully. "I am honored to meet you too, Captain Riker. Your deeds at Isla Deneb, Shentik IV and especially Telanus are well known to me. Congratulations on your assignment." Beth was overwhelmed. "Thank you Mr. President." She bowed her head a little more deeply and when she straightened herself and watched the stately Cardassian shake her father's hand. Her eyes then came to rest on a comforting face. "Ambassador Tuvok. Welcome to the Enterprise." If Beth didn't know better she could have sworn she saw the Vulcan smile. But of course, I must be seeing things. Tuvok, another mentor who also served with Riker on the Titan looked especially well. His stoic face and his calm demeanor were always reassuring to her. He tilted his head forward in acknowledgement. "It is also most agreeable to see you Captain. Elieth informed me of your assignment when he communicated to me about his transfer." His eyes moved to Worf and Beth knew that Riker had him agree to keep Worf out of the loop regarding her command. She smiled and he moved forward to greet Riker. Beth moved in behind Tuvok and caught her Admiral's eyes once more. Janeway slowly moved forward and Beth extended her hand. "Welcome back Admiral." "Nicely done with the Remans, Beth." Janeway smiled and shook Beth's hand firmly. "I almost had to cheat," Beth admitted quietly and she stole a look to her mother who looked back to them with a proud smile. Janeway nodded with a quiet laugh. "I think your father did that more often than he'd care to admit," she said, just loudly enough for Riker to hear her. Riker shot her a glare and then winked. Beth walked at Janeway's side as they followed behind the throng. Beth calmly but slowly pulled Janeway to a stop and Janeway looked to her puzzled. "What is it Captain?" 202


Beth glanced to Janeway without a smile. "Admiral. I need permission to inform secondary personnel as soon as possible." Janeway scowled. "Why Captain?" "I want my crew to be prepared Admiral. They deserve to have all the information so they can act as they were trained to act." Beth continued before Janeway could interrupt. "They deserve to know what we're doing here." she looked to her CO coldly. Janeway was used to this. Beth wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade but safety was still a concern. No one wanted a repeat of the Enterprise A's crew involvement in the murder of VIPs before the first Khitomer accords. Janeway looked back to Beth. "Captain‌" "Come on Admiral!" she grumbled. "I trust this crew, but the crew needs to trust me too. K'Reeg has got this under control. My crew needs to know Admiral. It's only fair to give them the sense of honor that I have right now." She was soft-spoken but fierce-hearted and Janeway could see that she had strong feelings about this. Janeway was hesitant and Beth could see it. "Admiral. My senior staff knows – the Cat's senior staff knows. I know you must be fearing the security breaches that the A was involved with, but I feel that real key to this ship's safety is honesty Admiral. Don't make me lie to my crew," she pressed. "Please!" Janeway smiled. "Agreed Captain. Go ahead." "Thank you." Beth exhaled. "Thank you very, very much." She turned to watch the sight in front of her. Romulans, Cardassians, Remans, Klingons, Vulcans, Humans, and Betazoids. Beth reconnected her eyes to Janeway's who seemed to be feeling the same thing. Beth spoke to her seriously, "All were former mortal enemies in one way or another, and now they move forward together. Some are as close as family." Beth seemed a little dismayed. "Was it really as tough with them then as it is with the Shentarians now?" Janeway could see that Beth had need of hope. "Yes." She nodded concretely, remembering the horrible battles with Cardassia and Romulus and even ruptured skirmishes with the Klingon Empire. Her smile broke free and she put her arm into Beth's. "I believe that anything is possible Captain." Beth smiled gently, soaking in her CO's hopeful words and her 203


supportive hug from her arm. Beth was overcome by the memory of sitting on her mother's lap on the bridge of the Titan. The Titan's First Officer, Christine Vale, had just accepted her own command and Deanna was consoling Beth because she had become tearful and angry at Vale for leaving them. Tuvok had become the new XO. Beth was six years old and it was the first time she had ever experienced a member of her father's crew actually choosing to leave the Titan. Her parents and the Titan crew had just finished another grueling mission on Remus, working yet again to try to bring some semblance of order to the tumultuous relationship shared with their sister planet Romulus. As they prepared to leave Christine behind at Starbase 718, through her sobs Beth heard the Flight Controller ask her father if he wanted to return to Sector 001. Riker smiled and he lifted Beth from her mother's lap and set her on his, wiping her tears from her cheeks. He held her face in his strong hands and shook his head vigorously. "No." he said succinctly, "…and why is that Beth?" he coaxed her gently with his hands for her to look him in the eyes and asked her directly and seriously. Beth tried to breathe through her broken sobs and she looked to her father's persuading eyes, "Because we go forward?" she whimpered. He nodded with a supportive smile and then brought her head to his lips and he kissed her forehead. He then drew her small body close to his chest, held her tight and stroked her hair. Her father's own words rang through her head once more as she watched the contingent of diplomats walk side by side ahead of her. "That's right, Beth. Always forward."

204


Interlude VI Stardate 89177.3 Earth Calendar May 26th, 2411 Andoria Wall of Heroes "Lieutenant Commander Nesedra," he spoke clearly. Riker advanced, opened the vial and poured the thin and dark blue blood into the tiny trough built into the base of the pristine, icecovered stone wall meant for its collection. A beautifully robed Andorian woman quietly stepped up to him and took the empty vial from his hand. Her antennae dipped softly, in reverence. Riker stepped back and he felt Deanna's hand encompass his. He cleared his throat as quietly as possible. The Andorian woman bowed her head and slowly and elegantly turned to the memorial hall and the throng of people of all species that were either waiting to bring lost Andorians home or were grieving with those who did. Internments had been numerous as many Andorians had fallen at Isla Deneb. "Admiral William T. Riker brings Nesedra home as promised and we acknowledge that promise as being fulfilled. We welcome Nesedra home and add her name with honor to the Wall of Heroes," the blue woman's clear voice announced. Deanna heard a strangely familiar sigh from behind her. She 205


slowly turned her head to see her daughter's face in the group behind them. Deanna tried to make eye contact with her but Beth's eyes were focused on the enormous wall. Her presence, not only on Andoria but at the Wall of Heroes, was a complete surprise. Deanna never knew that Beth had been acquainted with Nesedra. She tugged on Riker's arm and he looked down to her. By the time he realized Deanna wanted him to look to the gallery he had already caught sight of Beth. He was shocked to see her there. He too didn't know that Beth and Nesedra had known each other but suddenly that didn't seem right. Surely Beth would have traveled with them there if they had shared the same loss. The brilliantly hued Andorian woman solemnly sang a heartrending lament to Nesedra. Her voice was mournful and lilting and reminded Riker of ancient Celtic laments of Earth. His promise to Nesedra had been fulfilled, a promise that he had made and kept for far too many of his shipmates over the duration of his life. He and Deanna had been to funeral rites on more ships and planets than he cared to remember but Andoria would always seem the most somber to him. It was tradition that Andorians who died far from home would have a piece of them brought back to Andoria and placed here at the Wall of Heroes. It was the responsibility of a companion of the fallen to bring it home to the Wall. The wall was imposing and cold. Its frozen mass kept the length of the mammoth hall well below freezing and Riker could feel it starting to make the joints in his fingers ache. His heart lagged. Nesedra was such a wonderful young life. Spirited and funny, she had never let Riker down. She was loyal and exceptional in her position. He had selected her when he was given the Persephone as his command vessel. He remembered how proud she was to be assigned to the ship. His eyes closed as he heard the bittersweet song echo through the cavern. He remembered one of the good days. Nesedra was in a particularly pithy mood and she kept referring to herself and the Bolian Flight Controller, Ensign Teg, as "the bookends" due to the blue color of their skin. Teg had thought it was funny and Riker saw the birth of a friendship bloom right on the spot. Riker's heart ached 206


once more when he remembered the look on Teg's face as he focused on her lifeless body on the bridge of the Persephone. Riker's attentions were brought forward when the crystalline voice that penetrated the iced halls ceased. Nesedra's lament had ended and she had been welcomed home. Riker and Deanna bowed to the woman who bowed in return. Riker and Deanna stepped aside and they turned, half-expecting to see Beth turn as well. He looked to her so he could talk with her but Beth had remained standing at the front of the crowd. Riker held Deanna's hand and they both stood still, realizing that Beth was there to keep her own promise. He never realized that she had an Andorian on her crew on the Panther. His heart saddened more when he realized that her life would be filled with experiences like this‌like his life had been. There will be too many funerals. There have already been too many funerals for her. He waited to pay respects to Beth's fallen companion. The Andorian woman seemed to float across the wide area that was staged with a tall podium sculpted from pure ice. Two long, flaming torches stood on either side of the podium where the Andorian woman would stand to sing her songs. Each melody personalized to the decedent, a work of art that would only be heard once and then never again. She moved back in front of the wall near the tiny trough where blood would be poured. Next to it was a small receptacle meant for the receipt of ashes. Beth quietly stepped forward and stood in front of her. The woman's incredibly mellow and rich voice filled the hall. "Who brings a fallen Andorian home?" "Captain Elizabeth L. Riker," she responded. Riker's eyes shot straight to her collar‌Four pips. She's wearing four pips. He returned the tightened grip of his wife's hand. His heart raced and he forced himself to concentrate on the ritual, one he never thought he'd see his own daughter participate in. The Andorian woman's voice filled the hall once more. "Who do you bring home?" Beth's voice deepened. "Captain Brint." Riker's heart raged and Deanna's hand squeezed his hard. Brint? How? What? Then Riker remembered that the Panther was the 207


last ship out of the bubble cone before the Enterprise exploded with the whale. He now knew she was likely the last friend to see him alive. Riker was also surprised to see the look of shock on the Andorian woman's face. "You bring home Brint?" "I do." Beth stated and she slowly opened her hand to reveal a piece of silver-toned metal. Its surface was blended from shiny to buff. She held it up and out to the woman and looked her in the eye. The woman's face bore an expression of confusion and she began to scowl. "No, please‌I promised him." Beth shook her head fiercely. "Brint was the Enterprise," she stated with authority, challenging the woman to turn down her request to bring Brint home. "They all were." Riker's throat caught and Deanna broke and he could see her bring her hand to her face as she leaned her head on his arm. He moved his arm around her to hold her and console her. Riker found himself filled with pride. No one else had thought to do this. No one else had thought to bring Brint and the others home, except Beth. Beth had remembered. The Andorian woman's bottom lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears. She reached up to Beth's outstretched hand and gently lifted the shard from her palm but what she did next shocked everyone... She held the widest end of the metal shard over a lit torch near her lament podium. The shard heated. She moved to the Wall that towered over them and pressed the heated end of the shard into the sheet of crystal-clear ice that caked the stone. The shard slid into the ice with a slight hiss. When she removed her hand everyone in the hall could see the shard as it jutted out from the ice and held firm. Her voice resonated once more. "Captain Elizabeth L. Riker brings Brint home as promised and we acknowledge that promise as being fulfilled! We welcome Brint home and add his name with honor to the Wall of Heroes!" Her voice cleared and she sang a piercing song as Beth stood at attention, alone, facing the magnificent iced wall. Deanna's tears flowed and Riker's eyes focused on the shard, still not believing that Brint‌or the Enterprise, were gone.

208


PART SIX

C

209


210


Stardate 91943.9 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise - NCC-1701-G Bridge

Jaden Revaik was waiting for the captain to return to the bridge. She knew that she was greeting their guests and assuring their comfort in the VIP areas. Jaden was anxious – Dryden had called her down to the Cartography Lab early in the day and she was perplexed by the Captain's orders to look at the Onias sector as if she had never seen it before. She thought she'd be wasting her and her team's time and time was one thing she had in short supply. All science divisions reported to her and there were still many things that she wanted to address before she would feel that they were ready to take on new challenges. Three weeks of shakedown for a multitude of scientists was definitely not enough. As scientists will, they argued constantly with each other. Only politicians argue more than scientists, she thought with no small amount of humor. Yet looking at things with a fresh perspective had brought up questions and Revaik's respect for her young captain had increased. Captain Riker knew something was wrong with the sector, she had the feeling. Jaden didn't believe her and now she was being proven wrong. She liked it. It was real science. 211


Revaik peered down the bridge to K'Reeg who had just returned from the shuttle bay and whose presence in the command chair was a little unsettling. It wasn't that she didn't like him - to the contrary, she thought very highly of him. She just knew that he would have more a problem with her. All Klingons did. She was used to it. Her father had warned her of the Klingon's propensity for mistrust of Romulans and the reasons behind it. She understood it and accepted it and throughout her career she was exposed to all manner of Klingon prejudice, but K'Reeg seemed to be more of an enigma than other Klingons she had met. He worked very hard, on his own, to open to the doors of camaraderie with her and she knew he had issues with her heritage. She respected that about him. With the recent news of the impending alliance she felt that if K'Reeg was an example of the Klingon evolution in trust, the alliance may actually have a shot at holding tight. Her eyes drifted to Llewellyn sitting at the Ops station. She knew little about him, only that he had served aboard the Panther with Captain Riker and that she trusted him implicitly. He and Dryden seemed to be getting along very well. Since Dryden actually had an acute sense of humor and Llewellyn shared it, the staff seemed to really enjoy being on the bridge. She looked to Llewellyn's left hand where his wedding ring shone brightly. Besides Dryden, Llewellyn was the only other member of the senior staff who was married, but she didn't know much about his partner or even if he had any children. She set her mind to trying to find out more about him. The aft turbolift opened and Enya Priest walked in and smiled at her. She was glad to see that Enya was doing better. Priest had confided in her about her recent troubles with the captain. Enya's dilemma had given her a little more insight to her new captain as well. Enya approached her at the science station. "Hi Jaden. Captain's got you working hard. Analyses on the sector plus continued research in to the attacks?" She was smiling. "Is there anything I can assist you with?" Jaden smiled back. "It's been hectic but interesting, I have to admit." She looked down to Enya's supportive face. "Thank you Counselor, if there is something you can do, I won't hesitate to ask." Priest smiled even more broadly. "Good." "Have you met our dignitaries yet?" Revaik asked. 212


Enya nodded her head vigorously. "I have. There's quite the group down there. The Remans are especially interesting. They have an acute telepathic ability. I have always known that but since I had never met one before‌" Jaden nodded with understanding. "They can be intimidating can't they? The first time I met one I was ten and had unfortunately just read the Earth tales of Count Dracula. I was convinced he was going to bite my neck." Enya laughed with a quick nod, "Betazed had similar tales in their folklore as well. It was a little disturbing at first and it's rather sad knowing that they can sense that in the new people that they meet. Must be strange, knowing that a majority of the people you meet initially fear you because of how you look." She thought with sadness and empathy. "But the Captain, Admiral Riker and Ambassador Troi all seem to have an excellent rapport with them. It helped a lot." Revaik beamed. "I understand that Admiral Riker andAmbassador Troi have had a long working history with the Remans. They took part in negotiating at least three treaties between Remus and Romulus, right?" "Yes." She nodded and then shifted herself and then patted Jaden's arm. She turned to address K'Reeg in the Command Chair. "Lieutenant Commander, I just wanted to let you know to expect visitors on the bridge. Seems as though a few of them want to see it for themselves." K'Reeg turned slightly in the chair. "Thank you Counselor." Enya smiled and bowed slightly, then walked back to the turbolift.

Beth turned from Dryden to join the Admiral and her mother who were standing with the Praetor when she felt a large hand on her shoulder. She turned and found the familiar comfort of Worf's great, dark eyes, except his expression was not one of joy – it was built of great concern. "Your father has told me that you have already received a visit from Q." Worf's deep voice was difficult for him to keep low in the room filled with the large group. "I have," she said quietly. "He also tells me that you and he have an unusual relationship. 213


That you actually appear to like him?" His voice was gruff and she could easily sense his disapproval. Beth shifted uncomfortably. "Emissary. I do not deny that I have a different relationship with Q. There are reasons for it which I don't feel I need to explain to you or to the Admiral." Worf's eyebrows rose with her words. "Captain. Q's presence at this time is of deepest concern. His history of leading the Enterprise and her crew into matters of great danger can't be lost on you can it?" Beth stood tall and looked to the Emissary square in the eye – warrior to warrior – just like he taught her. "Of course not Emissary. I am fully aware of the danger his presence represents. I am also aware that we will be passing by the Onias Sector where an unknown species has killed six people over the last two months. I am convinced that Q's presence is directly related to it, but I will not purposefully make him an adversary when there is no basis for it." Worf growled loudly causing Riker to turn his head from the discussion he and Deanna were having with the Romulan Praetor. He politely excused himself from the conversation and moved towards Beth and Worf. He could see them squaring off and he could hear Worf more clearly. "No basis for it? He is directly responsible for the Borg, Captain. I'd say that's basis enough to make anyone an adversary." Beth caught the look of displeasure in the Admiral's face and she tightened her abdominal muscles. "Emissary…Admiral. Why don't you join me for a private tour of the bridge…and my ready room?" She grumbled as quietly as possible, "I would like to get the ship underway." Riker nodded and Worf growled yet again and they both followed Beth from the VIP room. When they entered the turbolift, Worf turned to Beth once more grimacing. "I find your tolerance of Q unacceptable!" Beth's anger started to flow and Riker could see it and he held up his hand. "Captain. Worf is just concerned, as am I." The turbolift doors opened and Jaden made eye contact with Beth and Beth knew immediately that Jaden had news for her. She was grateful that she might be able to draw Worf off the subject of Q. Revaik announced her presence. "Captain and Admiral on the bridge!" Again, Riker wondered why Beth had such military formality on 214


the bridge. It was actually beginning to piss him off. Beth half-smirked, looked to K'Reeg and nodded to him once as she made direct headway for her ready room, followed closely by Worf and Riker. Worf slowed down momentarily as his eyes drew in the bridge. He saw K'Reeg in front of the command chair and acknowledged him with a nod. Hmm…K'Reeg, son of Ch'Targh. Beth made an excellent choice. He will serve her well. K'Reeg was standing at full attention as he watched the Emissary cross through the bridge. K'Reeg thought his Captain looked angry and wondered what had set her off. Beth waited for Worf to enter into her ready room and when the door closed she spun on him. "Thank you for making your feelings known Emissary. I will be sure to remember them the next time Q makes an appearance!" Worf was surprised by Beth's reluctance to listen to his advice. "Yet you will continue to speak with him?!" "Yes," she said bluntly. "Now, Emissary, I think there might be some news from my CSO. You are welcome to stay for her report if you'd like." Riker was surprised by Beth's abrupt ending of the topic of conversation about Q and he watched her click her combadge. "Captain to Revaik, please report to the ready room." "Associate Pro-counsul Revaik's daughter?" Worf asked. "Yes Emissary," Beth confirmed and he actually looked impressed. Within moments Revaik entered the room. "Captain." "I take it you have found something?" Beth asked bluntly. Jaden breathed in. "I have two reports for you sir. First, as you suspected Captain, there was something…amiss…in the areas surrounding the Onias sector." "And what's that?" "A statistical improbability," Revaik replied. Riker scowled. After spending years in the vastness of space with the scientists he knew that statistical improbabilities were always the biggest 215


problem makers. "How big of an improbability?" he asked and Beth glanced to him. Jaden continued to look at Beth. "Besides the Romulan Colony Unroth, it's statistically improbable that of all of the remaining planets in the sector, none of them had any materials which could be mined." Beth quietly moved around her desk as Riker slowly took a seat. Worf was agitated, not in the least of which by Beth's dismissal of his concerns about Q. "Why would that be such a problem? What does mining have to do with anything?" he grumbled. Beth smiled. "I asked the team to find an inconsistency. They found one…and a big one I might add." "Yes sir," added Jaden. "Improbability is the scientific word to use but in reality, the word to use would be impossibility. This entire sector is devoid of any useful material? Not one planet would support life, not one planet has anything of interest to the Federation or even to Romulus? It's the most boring sector I have ever seen." Beth allowed a smile to burst forth. "Boring is abnormal." "Yes Captain." Jaden smiled as well. "But there's more." "Yes?" Beth asked. "Several planets are identical." "What?" Beth was astounded. "Identical? How?" "Atmospheric content, geological make-up – they're identical. Right down to the percentage of mineral content. The only difference is their actual physical appearance. They just look different from each other," Jaden replied. "Two planets might be a coincidence, three is a statistical improbability…but five? Five out of two hundred and twelve? That sir…is impossible." "Why didn't we notice this before?" Beth seemed stymied. "Well Captain, most of the Onias sector lies within Romulan Territory. We never really looked at the sector as a whole before, only at what lied in UFP territory. We looked at solar systems and we looked at planets individually, but…" Beth tried to take it all in and she invited everyone to sit. As they took seats, she rested in her own chair, her mind reeling. "We were too busy cataloging and didn't see the forest through the trees." 216


Q's words were not lost on Riker. "What are you thinking Captain?" he asked. "I think that they're hiding Admiral," she replied. "And what better way to hide than to assure your home is of no interest to outsiders." "But we don't know where they might be hiding in that sector captain," Jaden added. "Not the least of which, most of the sector lies beyond Federation territory." "Well, keep looking Revaik. You're on the right track‌I know it. You've got five prime suspects I'd say," she said. "I'll look into working with the Praetor to see if we can gain permission to seek additional information." She looked to the Admiral whose face reflected that he would be moving forward with that task and she thanked him with her eyes. She returned her glance to Revaik. "What's the second report? "We received the environmental reports from four of the six freighters involved in the incursions along the sector border. All four systems logs reflected the faint presence of form a halogenated ether." "Ether?" asked Riker. "They were gassed?" "Sort of, Admiral," replied Jaden. "The form of gas issued was similar to an ancient compound called isoflurane, except that chemical characteristics of this form show that it was organic in nature. This organic form is highly effective in knocking out forms of life that use aerobic respiration. It is short lived and it's highly pungent." Beth scowled with confusion. "Organically developed? What do you mean?" "Captain, I can only guess but the gas appears to have been issued into the bridge environment organically." "Organically. Meaning it came from their own bodies?" Revaik nodded. "It's the most likely explanation." "Like a skunk?" Riker asked. Jaden had to smile. "If you want to use that analogy Admiral‌" "Stinky ghosts," Worf rumbled and Beth hid her smile. Beth's mixed amusement and distaste for the whole conversation was beginning to erupt. "Is there anything we can do to prevent the efficacy of this gas on the bridge if we were to be attacked?" 217


Revaik smiled brightly. "Already done Captain. The moment Griffin and I got the reports I ordered the environmental system to be programmed to assure quick release of the antidote and clearing of any affected areas." Beth grinned and looked to her father whose looked of approval was apparent. "Send your findings to the Cats. I want them aware of everything. Excellent work Revaik. Thank Griffin and your team for me." "Aye sir," said Jaden and she left the ready room. Beth clicked her combadge. "Captain to K'Reeg." "K'Reeg here sir," he responded. "Lay in a course for Earth and proceed at warp four and order the Cats into standard escort formation." "Aye sir."Beth turned her attentions back to Worf and from the look on his face she knew he was not going to drop his concerns about Q. "Captain, about Q‌" He leaned aggressively towards her desk. She sighed heavily. "Emissary. I know how you and the Admiral both feel about Q. You have good reason to mistrust him considering his past actions. I am not denying the fact that he brought the Borg upon the quadrant. I might argue as to how early that move really was. The fact of the matter is what's done is done. We can't change it now and we've learned an extraordinary amount about ourselves in the process." Worf was starting to growl again and Riker spoke up, "Beth. You can't actually believe that we were meant to fight the Borg when we did." Beth leaned back in her chair. "That's precisely what I believe Admiral. I honestly believe that without the experience of fighting the Borg that the Federation would not be in the position it is in today. Fighting the Borg brought us technological advances both in both exploration and warfare. I also believe that we wouldn't have been near as successful against the Dominion or the Shentarians without that experience." Beth softened a bit when she saw Worf's lips tighten. "Look‌I'm not saying that we have to be grateful to Q for bringing us pain and suffering, I'm just saying that I have to acknowledge where we're at now. The world I deal with now is replete with the strides we have made because of the struggle with the Borg. It's because of the sacrifices made by your generation that has allowed my generation to be so successful now. Don't think I'm not aware of it Emissary." 218


Beth automatically looked to the windows as the Enterprise ticked into warp. She noticed that Worf and her father both exhaled in the same fashion and she smiled. "Worf‌Dad." She brought down her formal tone. "I have my own reasons for trusting him and that's all I will say. You're just going to have to understand that and you're going to have to deal with it." Riker leaned heavily into the arm of his chair, staring at his daughter. Worf's growl was still a low rumble and Riker knew that Worf felt even more stringently about Q than he did – but then again he always had. Somewhere in his depths Riker could understand Beth's point of view and he thought that he might feel the same way if he were in her shoes but she wasn't alive for the massacre at Wolf-359. She was alive for Isla Deneb. She was alive at Shentik. She was alive for Telanus‌and barely survived. Telanus. A battle that he didn't even see. He only heard about it and read the reports and he was grateful he had missed it. It was the bloodiest battle in anyone's memory. Maybe even more so than any previous battle with the Borg. The Borg assimilated crew, the Shentarians slaughtered them. He remembered her as she laid in her bed at Starfleet Medical. Deanna was ever present at her side. Beth had been held in stasis for days in order for her to make it back to Earth and then to heal. Dr. Lio was able to work a small miracle on the Panther just to get her stabilized but the real work had to be done in San Francisco. The Panther lost over forty crewmembers in that battle. It was almost twenty percent of her crew. Maybe she really does understand. "Beth." Worf's deep yet tender voice rose through the quiet and Riker's attention was brought forward once more. Beth nodded her head. "I know Uncle Worf. Look, I'm not asking you to trust Q. I am asking you to trust me." Riker's head lifted slightly and his eyes peered over to that of his oldest Klingon friend. "Worf," he said and Worf's eyes moved toward him. "Jean-Luc saw things in Q that we did not. I think Beth sees that part of him as well. Q must see something in Beth, something like he did with Jean-Luc. We have to focus on what's important here and that's the safety of those who are about to usher in a new chapter of peace into the quadrant. Q says there's more here than meets the eye and you and I both know that 219


means there's more here than meets the eye." Riker's gaze fell back upon Beth. "I trust that Beth is fully capable of handling whatever test Q is about to pop on her." he smiled. "I trust her to do what's right." Worf breathed in heavily and exhaled the same way. He nodded slightly. "I do not like Q's tactics. They are never honorable." Beth smiled and leaned her head in her hand and gazed to her father. "Thanks." She then turned to Worf. "Yes Worf, he is never aboveboard and he is always a challenge." Worf snorted, "That, Captain, is an understatement."

Beth was exhausted. She had just begun to brush her hair when her comm chirped. She turned to look at the comm on her bedside stand as the screen rose automatically. The logo revealed an incoming transmission from the Jaguar. Her smile erupted. She would talk to Shaughnessy, even in her pajamas. Brian was also in his quarters as she could see the model of the Irish harp hanging from the bulkhead in his room. His mother had been a gifted harpist and he listened to her recordings frequently. "Hi Brian." She grinned happily. "So I only need to know one thing love," he said as he stretched out his arms and she could tell that he had just finished his calisthenics. "What's that Brian?" She smiled as she sat on her bed and crossed her legs. She missed her late night conversations with Brian. When they were on the Oberon together they would talk almost every night before she went to bed. "Why would five planets be identical?" Beth shook her head. "Got me," she sighed as she reached for her coffee and pulled the mug up to her lips. "And not just similar Brian‌identical. Same geological make-up? Same chemical composition? It makes no sense." "No it doesn't." He seemed perturbed. "You think they're hiding in there?" Beth nodded. She didn't even need to speak. Beth sensed that 220


Brian was bothered by something else. It had been so long that she had been near enough to him to sense his emotions and since she had been so close to Enya she hadn't been opening that door but in her room the noise was very faint and it allowed her to feel Brian's sadness. "What else is bothering you Brian?" she asked. Brian's face reddened and he shifted uncomfortably. He looked to his best friend on the comm and then smiled. "Sometimes Beth that Betazoid thing can be a little intrusive…" "I know Brian but I only call you on it when it's obvious," she stated. Brian nodded and sighed, "Seeing you and McGregor…" he trailed off. Beth's eyes widened. "Does it bother you?" She seemed stunned by the possibility. He had always been her confidant in matters of the heart. "No – you misunderstand Beth." He smiled. "No. Seeing you and Tristan has made me think…about a lot of things." Beth understood now. "Ah. Kayla." Brian nodded. "Yeah. I miss her Beth. Think she'll take me back?" Beth laughed, "I don't know Brian, only Kayla can answer that question. I know she loved you but…" She stalled for a moment, trying to find a way to find a delicate way to phrase her next sentence but Brian cut her thought off. "But I blew it," he said and she watched him lean out on his bed. "I wouldn't be surprised if she took you back though," she added. "Really? You think so?" he asked, hope was beginning to fill his eyes. "Only one way to find out Brian." She smiled. "Contact her and tell her how you feel. And don't be afraid to suck it up." Brian smiled. "I'll call her tomorrow…" "No Brian. Call now. While you're thinking about it. For Pete's sake Brian – she's on the Leopard! I know you. You'll procrastinate tomorrow and then the next day. And then a month from now when you 221


finally get enough guts, she really will tell you to fly off." Brian smiled. "You're right. I'll call now." "Good." Her comm chirped once more. She looked to the panel which reflected an incoming transmission from the Panther. Her smile beamed wider than ever. "Call Kayla, Brian. I'm going to talk to Tristan." Brian nodded. "G'night Elizabeth." "Good night Brian." Beth touched the comm and Tristan's face appeared. He also looked like he was readying himself for some rest. She was thrilled to see his handsome face. "Hi," was all she said, almost shyly. "Hi Beth. You look like you've already brushed you hair." He seemed disappointed. She smiled even more broadly as she remembered only now that he would always seem to find a way to stop by her quarters on the Panther right when she was about to ready herself for bed. It made her laugh. "I haven't finished." She reached for her brush on her bureau. "Brian called right after I started." She began to brush her hair once more. Tristan smiled. "You know, I always loved watching you brush your hair." He leaned his head onto his raised elbow. "I see that you have already finished with your mok'bara exercises." She really just wanted to transport over to the Panther and remove his keikogi which he was still wearing. She continued to brush her hair. "I have. It's not the same without you here though. Commander Baxica is nowhere near as nice to watch." He grinned as he referenced his new XO, an Arbazan male who he had selected from the USS Boole, another Tesla-Class vessel. "And he has the damnedest throw posture I have ever experienced." Beth giggled when she realized that Baxica must have taken Tristan down a notch or two during their exercise program. "Good. He'll keep you on your toes." Tristan remained quiet and Beth watched his eyes as he watched her finish brushing her hair. When she set her brush down he sighed, "Now all I want to do is run my hand through it." Beth smiled. "I wish you were here too Tristan. I've always wanted to undo that keikogi, you know."

222


Tristan's grin widened. "Ah…like that thought didn't run both ways." Beth leaned over on her bed, looking at her lover's handsome face on the screen. Her father's words rushed through her mind. "Why did we wait Tristan? What were we afraid of?" Tristan shrugged. "I don't know Beth. I know I didn't want any more Starfleet grief to come down on you. After everything they've put you through, I couldn't bear to be the cause of any more of it." Beth nodded slightly. "I know. I was just as guilty about that but it shouldn't have mattered. Now I feel like we've wasted a year." Tristan smiled. "A year? – more like two." He sat back more comfortably on his own bed. Beth blushed. "Two?" Tristan smiled. "I fell in love with you before Isla Deneb, Beth." His expression turned slightly as he looked to her eyes. "I should have told you before Telanus." Beth's eyes started to fill slightly. "Tristan. It was then I realized how much I loved you." Tristan's face filled with the same joy that Beth knew she had felt. "I should have told you the moment I woke back up on Earth." She seemed embarrassed. "I'm sorry." Tristan laughed and his laugh grew into a giddy roar. "We're idiots!" Beth started to laugh with him. "Yes. I think we are…but now I'm worried." Tristan sat up on his bed and looked to her with concern. "What are you worried about Beth?" "I'm worried about how this relationship will hold. I know I can deal with the separation, especially if we're ever assigned to explore…but I'm not…" Tristan grinned. "Beth…" He leaned a little towards the comm. "I'm not going anywhere Beth. What're a few thousand parsecs when love is there? My parents did it. I can too." Beth smiled. "Fine then. Just give me some heads up when you get sick of waiting, all right?" "That promise has to be made both ways Beth," he said seriously. 223


"But I'd rather not think about how to break up when we just found a way to be together all right?" His eyes showed his intent and Beth was frustrated already. His ship was right next to hers and they couldn't beam over to touch each other. How would months or years treat them? She didn't want to think about it. She looked back to his wonderful soft eyes. "I do love you Beth." "And I love you Tristan," she said softly in return. Tristan kissed his hand and touched his screen. Beth did the same. "Good night Beth." "Good night Tristan." The comscreen went dark and Beth sat on her bed in total amazement. She really was in love. The thought thrilled her and she found herself giggling as she crawled into her bed and rested her head on her pillow. She had remembered to feel the joy and it felt right.

224


Interlude VII Stardate 80932.5 Earth Calendar December 22, 2401 Starfleet Academy Residential Building A-2 Riker/Leseti Quarters

She was done now. She was too tired to take any more of their incessant hounding. Too tired of their constant barrages of insults. Too tired of their biting insinuations that she cheated or lied or even that she had bartered sex to achieve her goals. Too tired to think any one would care. She was just tired of it, all of it - the extra work, the extra studying, the inability to see what few friends she had left because she had so much‌extra‌she had to do to prove herself to them. Cassidy had broken her heart. She had betrayed everyone‌not just her, not just the family but worse, she had betrayed the Federation. The interrogations were surreal. To her chagrin, her father was still in utter denial about Cassidy's departure. He had been the only witness to her intentions and yet he still refused to believe his own eyes. He also had to endure the interrogations but thankfully, they didn't hold Cassidy's departure 225


against them. Despite Cassidy's treachery, her father received the promotion he had been under consideration for before she had left. Unfortunately, that meant that all of his time was now occupied by learning how to be an Admiral. He was never around and was too busy to take her communiqués. While her mother had been devastated by Cassidy's duplicity, strangely, she had accepted it with greater ease than her father. She was still busy being an Ambassador and was spending all of her time with the Romulans and Remans. Beth would receive weekly recorded messages from her, but she was too hard to reach. Then there was Bill. The pain and the anger had whittled their way down into her and she didn't know if she could ever forgive him…or herself. She knew that there was little chance for them to ever patch things up. She didn't even know how Cassidy's disloyalty had affected him because she still couldn't bring herself to be in the same room with him, let alone speak to him. Her family, or what was left of it, had literally fallen apart. Jean-Luc was gone. So was Beverly. Brint and Christine were away exploring and LaForge was a teacher now. Grandmother would never understand. Her friends all left to go home for break. There was just no one left to talk to. She was convinced they wouldn't care even if they were there. Cassidy had been her only true friend anyway…and she had stuck the knife in so deep Beth was sure the wound would never heal. She just wanted to go home, but there was no longer a home to go back to. They had taken her home and pulled it apart. First by splitting up the family and dispersing them as if they were seeds on the wind and second by actually dismantling her home's hull piece by piece – an uncaring and clinical dissection of everything she had ever known as being a center in her life. Earth was not her home. Betazed was not her home. Her parents had come from planets. She came from a ship. A ship that was no more. She had refused to go to the decommissioning ceremony because she couldn't bear the thought of saying goodbye. She had never felt so alone or so…tired. It had never gotten 226


to her before but it had all come crashing down. In the slightest fraction of a moment and with just one more accusatory leer from Jaqu'ald, it had became too much to take and she broke. She was once convinced that she was meant for something more – something greater, but now she was sickened by her own selfabsorption, her own audacity to think so highly of herself. She was nothing more than a façade, a fool. She had been a complete and utter waste of time. She sat on her bunk and stared out at the parade grounds. Her heart was vacant. There was nothing left. No home. No anger. No joy. No hate. No meaning. No feeling. No hope – nothing. The vast emptiness utterly consumed her. She only felt a single, driving and desperate need to make things…dark. Her eyes drifted to the phaser she had stolen from the armory. It rested at the end of her bunk. Her heart had shattered when she realized that they had been right all along. She wasn't cut out for it. She was crumbling like a house of cards. She was just a wannabe. She was worthless. She was a failure. She was done now. Slowly she reached for the phaser. Her heart lightened and calm acceptance moved in when she realized it would be dark soon. The sense of relief was intense. She smiled as her hand reached for its handle but before she touched it, it disappeared. Her heart flew into a rampage and she looked around her tiny room. Her room was gone. There was no one there. She wondered if she had already pressed the trigger. Yet strangely, she remained on her bunk, but her bunk was now sitting in an infinite white void. She wasn't afraid, just confused. Her heart continued to beat with a patter and her head spun, looking for something – anything – but the white was all there was. Her eyes flew back to the foot of her bed. Where the phaser had once lain there now appeared a tiny, floating, pale green orb of 227


light. It was so bright it seared spots into her retinas. She was fascinated by it. Without realizing it, her smile burst forth as her hand slowly reached out to touch it and the orb lifted gently and she held it in her hand. It seemed to hover just above her skin. It gave off a warm heat but it did not burn. Her hand held it gently so she wouldn't break it, or hurt it. She just wanted to know what it was. Was it a life-form? Was it a probe? Was it a star? Was it real? Could it speak? Would it hear her? Could she hear it? She opened the door in her mind and sensed a plethora of emotions from it. Every imaginable emotion exuded from its intense light but it did not overwhelm her – it fascinated her even more. A stranger's voice came from behind her but she was not startled. It soothed her broken heart. "What? No tricorder? No computer analysis? No probing or prodding?" the man's voice asked flippantly. It was the first time Beth had felt delight in years and it cracked her in a new direction, jolting her to her core. "Are you Q?" she whispered, her eyes never leaving the beautiful and blazing pale, green light of the tiny orb in her hand. "I am," his voice answered. "It's beautiful," she said. "I'm not hurting it am I?" "And why would you be concerned if you were? You were about to hurt yourself anyway. If you hurt that, you'd only be doing the same." He held his detached tone. Beth felt a pang of revulsion. "This represents me?" "Not just represents you Riker‌it is you. Go ahead! Snuff it! Squash it like the bug you think you are!" he said flippantly. "It's obvious that you're just another one of the countless slobs that take up space in the universe. Trust me when I say you'd be no loss." Beth brought the brilliant orb closer to her eyes. While it was still gloriously bright, she looked closer and deeper into it. Shades of every color swirled in its mass. It continued to enthrall her. "I want to know what part of this holds the black," she said seriously. "The interior? The center?" 228


There was a long, strange silence. "Unexpected question." He said coolly, "Yes." "How do I scrape that out?" she asked. "You can't. Not without damaging the exterior," he said softly. "The pain is always there. Without it there would be nothing to support the joy." Beth nodded as she brought the orb to both hands. "You're not afraid of me?" he asked. "Should I be?" she asked in return. "Debatable," he replied dryly. "You're not perturbed by my presence? Annoyed? Pestered?" "No." There was another long pause. "What do you fear?" he asked. "Obviously‌failure," she answered honestly. "What else?" he asked seriously. Beth breathed in and exhaled. "I'm not sure yet." "You don't fear your death then?" Beth smirked. "I welcomed it didn't I?" She felt his presence close in on her, his voice breathed into her ear. "Your curiosity is limitless. Your ability to comprehend is vast," he said. "It surprises even me." Again, there was a stretch of silence. Beth was fascinated by the orb and its warmth. She reveled in the elation it brought her. She had forgotten what it was like to feel joy and to be reminded of it only doubled its intensity. "Thank you Q," she whispered. "For what?" he sounded confused. "For reminding me why I live." "And why is that?" he asked curiously. "To learn." Again there was a stretch of silence and she turned to look at him. He was standing in the white void, wearing white robes. She laughed at him and he scowled. "Jean-Luc told me about your fascination with wanting to be a god." She grinned. "You should try 229


Vishnu. Or perhaps The Buddha? Maybe the Betazoid Deities or the Bajoran Prophets?" "I am omnipotent like a god," he boasted. "You might be close," she said. "But you're really just a member of another wonderful species in this universe that I know so little about…except that you try to use fear and intimidation to play with other species like a child plays with toys. You used the Borg as the bully to watch your toy soldiers fall. But you also taught lessons to those who were willing to learn; like Jean-Luc, Aunt Kathryn, my parents…" She smiled slightly and her eyes met his. She could feel her broken heart pound in her chest and her eyes returned to the orb in her hands, "…and now me." He moved in closer to her and moved his face directly across from hers as she held the orb up to her eyes. "You are different. You're unique." She smiled as her eyes found and latched on to the color of the hope in the tiny and bright little orb - remembering Picard's words of support long before she had been admitted to the Academy - but it was the first time she really understood or believed them…"I am the sum of those before me." And her heart mended. Q's eyes widened and he smiled broadly. "I was right!" he whispered harshly. "I was right to remind you!" he looked to the blazing light in her hands and then to her face. "But then again, I'm always right." He grinned and snapped his fingers. Beth's room rematerialized and the beautiful little orb was missing from her hands. Yet she now felt its warmth inside her. Q and the phaser were gone. Beth tried to smile, but her lips trembled. Her hands began to shake and she fell back onto her bed and cried like she had never cried before.

230


Interlude VIII Stardate 90143.7 Earth Calendar September 4th, 2412 Telanus System USS Panther – NX-90261 Bridge

Llewellyn wasn't sure if he was more in shock or just awed by the amount of blood that was flowing from his chest and darkening his already black uniform. He only felt its warmth as the liquid ran down his abdomen and back. The attack had come from the side and the mandibles of the creature picked him up wholly and pierced him from both sides. His left arm was crushed. The Captain had killed the Shentarian but she had to rip off its arm in order to get to its head. She and McGregor then pulled the mandibles from his chest and laid him on the bridge floor. Riker's face was covered in his blood and the strange orangeyellow blood of the Shentarian. He was beginning to lose focus on her intense black eyes. "Mike!" she screamed. "Hang on!" she cried and he nodded to her but he was now beginning to feel cold. She had called for sickbay to beam him directly to trauma. The shimmering blue light appeared as the bloodied face of Riker disappeared from his sight. 231


The next thing he saw was the developing view of their CMO, Dr. Lio and his Cardassian neck tendons as they stretched out to his shoulders under the blue and split collar of his Starfleet uniform. Lio's eyes widened when he saw him and Mike knew he was bad off. "Well Mike…looks like you were almost dinner for that bastard!" Lio said as he ripped off Mike's uniform and Mike could feel the cool air against the pulsing of the blood. It made him feel that much colder. Mike tried to answer Lio with the smart-ass comment he wanted to hear, namely that the attacker was really one of the larger females that he had seen, and she was really looking for a mate and that he was going to send her in Lio's direction because he needed a little love, but Mike found that his voice wasn't working quite right. It was then he thought of Janine. Visions of her beautiful blonde hair and luscious green eyes, her incredible body and her sweet, soft kisses began to seep into his thoughts. He would miss her and he was sorry he wouldn't be able to say good-bye to her. The boys would be all right. He knew it. They were old enough now to understand the reason behind the loss. He was just sorry he wouldn't live long enough to see them enter and graduate from the Academy; they had both made him very proud. But Janine? Janine would be angry. Her and her stupid superstitions…why of all the times for him to get nailed by a Shentarian would it have to come after they had an argument? They always expressed their love before they ended transmissions…always. Except this last time. He was too angry at her. She told him that she wanted to stay on the Ada Byron and he wanted her to consider the offer of transfer to the new Chickasaw-class exploratory, the USS Congaree that was due to launch in two months. She told him she liked the big Tesla-class ship. He wanted her out of battle for the next few months. Things were getting worse again and he didn't want them to have any increased chance that both of them would be killed, leaving the boys alone. He had been more than disappointed, he ended the transmission angry and he didn't tell her. He didn't tell her that he loved her…and he did. He loved her with every molecule, every atom of himself. He was mad that he didn't tell her. He was mad that her stupid, stupid superstition had been right. He was mad that he was 232


going to die and leave her. He felt a strange tugging at his chest. The dark started to enter in. He hoped Janine could forgive him.

"Oh no you don't Llewellyn!" cried Lio. "Stasis unit!" He turned to another physician who assisted him with lifting Llewellyn's body into the coffin-like unit which would hold his blood, his organs and everything else in medical limbo while or until the surgery could be performed. The Panther jilted hard and Lio knew that they had taken another round of heavy phaser fire. The shields felt like they were back in place but they were definitely weak. The Shentarians that had boarded had all been killed, but they had taken many of the Panther's crew with them. Lio did not want to lose Llewellyn. He liked his humor; Mike had a sarcastic wit that he appreciated. He and his counterpart, Dr. Traza, lifted Llewellyn into the stasis unit. The initial scans revealed how thready he really was. Mike would make it but it was going to take a lot of work to repair the damage to his chest and arm. He looked to the rest of Sickbay. All patients were being handled or were stable. He could begin work on Mike right away. He looked to Traza, who reached for the surgical tray. Lio liked the fact that Traza already knew what he wanted. Verbal orders to the experienced physician were rarely needed. Lio began to repair the extensive laceration to Mike's aorta and lungs as the Panther moved incessantly from side to side, trying to avoid the firing quad-fin that Lio knew had been preying upon the Walesa. It was difficult enough to try to work on such delicate tissue without having to rebalance all the time. He knew they'd all be lucky to get out of this particular battle alive. He had never seen anything like it before and he had seen some bad ones, but Lio also knew that if they survived this battle, their ship would be honored by Cardassia – for it was the Panther that was directly responsible for saving two of their ships. Lio was able to have numerous Cardassians transported to the Panther for treatment as their physicians were overwhelmed with casualties. He was glad 233


to see the looks of surprise and relief on the faces of the Cardassian patients when they realized that their Starfleet physician was also Cardassian. It was just one of many times he loved the fact that he had joined Starfleet instead of remaining with the NCU Forces. The Cardassian battle ships were the first to have been attacked and the first to have their shields destroyed by the Shentarian vessels. They fought hard until the reinforcements arrived and the Panther was the first to get there. Riker gave them a pounding until the ambush occurred. Four more Shentarian ships were waiting behind the third planet to attack. Even with Shentarians boarding the Panther, Riker was able to give them a run for their credits. The Cougar showed up shortly afterward and the Walesa behind them. That's when two more Shentarian ships appeared from behind Telanus III. It took even longer for the remaining Cardassian vessels to arrive and then the rest of the Cats. Then all hell really broke loose. Shentarians appeared on every ship. Blood flowed from every deck. Phaser burns, lacerations, puncture wounds and limb loss filled the sickbay. Decapitations, bisections and death were rampant. Lio especially hated the smell the phasers caused on the Shentarians' exoskeletons. The foul odor lingered and permeated the corridors. The Walesa was able to alter its shields and gave the Panther and the Cougar cover while they put forth an intense quantum torpedo volley against the Shentarian ship that had focused a well-run attack on the Walesa. It was only after getting the Walesa back on its own that the Panther picked up more Shentarians – but this time they found the bridge. He looked to Traza once more who handed him the cauterizing tool, again, without the need for the order. He turned it and used it on the inside of the gaping open wound in Mike's chest. Blood leakage would cease now. He turned his attentions to the ragged edges of the descending aorta that had been mauled by the Shentarian claw. Traza slapped a cutting tool into his hand and he tried to stabilize his stance once more as he pointed it towards the edges of the arterial tissue in an effort to cut away the ragged edges, revealing the straight lines of healthier tissue in order to receive what would eventually be a lengthy arterial implant. He would certainly need additional work back at 234


Starfleet Medical‌if they could reach them in time. Stasis units were still ill-recommended for more than three days and they were at least five from Earth. The Panther lurched hard and Lio could feel the inertial dampeners fluctuate. Lio knew that had been hit by a large torpedo. More casualties would come in and he turned his head to the lead nurse. "Open those biobeds," he said, looking to the two biobeds where dead crewmen lay. "We'll need them" He then turned his attention back to Mike "Yes Doctor," said the Bajoran female nurse who simultaneously transported them directly to the morgue. Lio heard an electronic chirp. "Captain's coming in!" he heard a nurse yell. "Damn!" Lio's heart fell momentarily. He didn't want to lose another Captain. He liked Riker. He thought she could have been Cardassian for as fierce as she was and like Mike, she could be funny too. When she materialized, he was shocked to see her standing. She looked irate. Her face was covered in blood and her eyes appeared like those of a wild Cardassian riding hound. He stopped the arterial repair on Mike as soon as he saw the shard of tritanium protruding from the Captain's neck. He handed Traza the arterial tool and without missing a beat, Traza continued to work on Mike's chest as Lio moved toward his Captain who was slowly sinking to her knees. Mila Syran, the Bajoran nurse made it to the Captain first and she helped him lift Riker to the biobed. He knew she wanted to talk but it was impossible. "Shut up Captain. We'll have that thorn out in no time," he said and she smiled, but Lio was worried. The Captain grabbed his arm tightly and her eyes focused on Llewellyn. He realized she was more worried about Mike than herself. "We got him into stasis, Captain," he told her. Her eyes softened and then closed. "Let's get to work Mila," Lio said and Mila handed him the medical tricorder and he moved the Captain onto her side so the protruding piece of metal could be easily seen as it exited out the back of her neck. It was in this direction where her blood was flowing. 235


Lio's eyes met Lieutenant Mila's. She returned his gaze with a defeated frown. "Luckily we have more stasis units. Let's go," he said.

She felt a strange sense of awareness. Sound could be heard but none of it made sense. Slowly the sounds started to focus. She heard electronic noises, beeps and chirps. She heard muffled voices. She recognized one of them. It was McGregor. "Thank you Doctor," he said. "We're on our way back to Earth now." She didn't know what that meant. Why were they going back to Earth? What did they have to do there? She didn't order them back to Earth! Hey! Tristan! What's going on here?! She tried to move but her body wouldn't respond to her wishes. She felt an odd sensation in her throat. Then she remembered – the bulkhead near the ready room door blew. The torpedo struck right below them and she got hit by something – something weird. She remembered that it pissed her off. She remembered the look on McGregor's face. He looked horrified. Mike. She remembered that Shentarians had appeared on the bridge and one was just about to grab her when Mike had stepped up and pushed her out of the way. He took a full force bite and ended up with a big hole in his chest. Janine will never forgive me if Mike died. Her thoughts were beginning to spin as she remembered the battle – the blood and the screams - including her own. She felt something on her hand…something she did not expect. A large, yet soft and gentle hand slowly took hers. A thumb caressed the back of it. She heard his voice again. He was whispering in her ear. "Please don't leave me Beth…please." It was Tristan. The memories of the battle evaporated from her mind. She tried to tighten her hand on his but she couldn't tell if it had worked. The strange sense of awareness was leaving her. Dark started to enter in. "Her levels are dropping!" Beth heard Lio's smooth and calming voice fill with concern. Tristan pulled his hand from hers quickly. 236


Everything went silent yet again.

Once more the white void appeared. This time she knew what to expect – or at least she thought she did. "Q?" she asked the white void. There was no answer. She was puzzled. "Q?" she whispered. "Where are you?" Silence. She brought her hand up to her throat. Peculiarly, she felt a long jagged piece of metal sticking out of it. "Oh that's just gross Q," she said, faintly trying to understand how she could speak at all, and she noticed an odd wheeze-whistle as the air passed by a bizarrely divided spike of the metal that cut into a portion of her trachea. "Did you make Jean-Luc look at the Nausicaan sword this way?" She couldn't stop touching it. She brought her other hand up and took in the hardness of the thing. It was strange to feel the sharp end protrude from the back of her neck. She knew immediately. Her right internal jugular was gone – decimated – but it missed the common carotid artery. How it missed she didn't know but she knew it just the same. In the same way, she assumed that the metal found a way around the vertebral articular processes or they themselves had provided some sort of deflection away from the spinal cord. Death? Probably eminent depending on blood loss. She smiled when she realized Aunt Beverly would have been proud of her selfdiagnosis…although I'm not so sure she would have been so happy with the big piece of metal sticking out my neck. She sighed with frustration. "Q! If you're trying to make me believe I'm dead, you're doing a pretty lousy job of it." Again, there was no response but now Beth thought she could hear something. It was a strange noise and very, very faint. She quieted her own breathing so she could hear it better. A hammer? No. A bell? No. A klaxon beacon? No, but close. It was still too faint to pinpoint. She tried to turn her head in order to try to find a direction and realized how ridiculous the thought had been – first because the shard in her neck prevented movement and second because there was no direction in the void. She laughed a 237


little and closed her eyes, trying to hear the sound again. "What am I supposed to hear Q?" she wheezed. Slowly the sound returned as faintly as it had before. It was high pitched and on the verge of feeling subliminal. Again, she tried to turn her head but the chunk of shrapnel in her neck wouldn't let her and she rolled her eyes in aggravation. She closed them once more. She exhaled and begrudgingly relented and allowed herself to open the door in her mind. It had been a long time since she opened that door on her own. [FEAR! TERROR!] It struck her hard and shook her wholly, sucking the air out of her lungs. Beth screamed out as if the ends of every one of her nerves had exploded at once. She was overcome by a desire to flee. Flee where? Where do I run? There's nowhere to go! [Desperation! PANIC! Loss!] Her throat was caught and the shrapnel pressed down, down into her. Her airway had been cut off. She could no longer breathe. The sound was deafening, shrill and pulsing. [HORROR! Alarm! Dismay! Need!] Her limbs began to shudder. Beth tried to close the doors in her mind once more and her tears began to drip from her widened, terrorized eyes. Stop! Please stop! Please make it stop Q! You wanted to show me real fear…you've done it! Make it stop Q! PLEASE! But the horror kept coming in waves. With each beat of the shrill noise the panic pulsed with it. She mouthed for a breath desperately. [LOSS! Death! DEATH!] The emotion was paralyzing her. Please…Q…make it stop. She heard something more. Finally. It was his voice. "Did you hear it?" he asked calmly. Her throat was still closed over and her breathing remained cut off. She still couldn't talk and she heard her own throat gasping, grabbing and kissing for air. Why? Why are you doing this Q?! She kept trying to pull in a breath. She turned to see him standing in front of her. He was not smiling. He looked angry. "I asked…did you hear it?" he demanded coldly. Beth sank to her knees in front of his robed personage. He 238


looked down upon her like a malevolent ruler over his sacrificial subject. His expression had not changed. Beth tried to nod but again the metal in her neck impeded her. She let the anger enter in. She still could not speak…Yes Q. I heard it loud and clear! I can't stop hearing it! Make it stop! "You've never experienced real fear Riker…" he said, "…have you?" Beth was losing concentration - her inability to breathe was causing her to fade. His question seemed ridiculous considering he already knew the answer. "Are you sure you don't fear Death?" he asked. She looked up to him as her throat tried to find air. Q bent down, keeping his condescending eyes connected to her pleading ones. "I asked…do you fear Death?" He reached for the metal protruding from her throat and yanked it out of her neck callously. Pain shot through her yet she could not scream. She felt the blood pour down her back and her front. Q held the metallic shard up to her eyes. It was the first time she had seen the offending piece. It was bigger than she thought; it was wide and obtuse on one end but curved and split into two slender blades with offset, pointed ends. Beth could see that the shorter blade had entered her trachea and the other arced away and destroyed the vein. Air had entered her lungs and she sucked it in. "No Q. I do not fear my death." She had found her voice as her blood left her. Q scowled. "That was not my question." Confused, Beth tried to think but thinking was getting more difficult as her life was leaving her. "I don't understand!" she gasped. The once deafening noise and emotion started to fade and Beth began to comprehend that the fear she had been feeling was not her own. It was the fear of many – many of several different kinds. Her eyes turned up to Q and she began to lose focus on him. Who are they? Where are they from? Why are they so afraid? How can I help? Oh wait…I'm dying now, aren't I? Well…that's a bother. Why would you show me and then allow me to do nothing to help? Q took a step back with a skeptical grimace. He stepped forward once more and bent to her as her rear had slumped to her 239


feet and then her hips slid to the floorless floor of the void. He flung the metal projectile at her knees. Beth smiled as she felt her body melt to the ground, her exhaustion taking over. Then I did the best I could…they'd still be proud of me. All in all? I didn't fail. She thought happily. "You have NO regrets?" he asked incredulously. "Don't you wish you had acted on your feelings for McGregor? Aren't you even the slightest bit angry you never made it to the Enterprise? After everything you worked for, it was your only wish…your only real goal and it's all going to go to waste! Aren't you in the least bit furious?" Beth knew where this was heading and it made her smile wider. Picard had told her about Q's gift to him in allowing him to change his life and in doing so, he realized that the life he had already lived was inevitably, true to himself. He had told her that some regrets were unavoidable but that as long as you lived your life being true to yourself, they would be minimal. Beth thought as quickly as she could. Had she lived her life being true to herself? She started to laugh. Her laugh grew in strength as her shoulders rested level with her dying body. Hell, I was lucky to have made it this far Q. Without you, I wouldn't have. Every day has been a gift since then. Tristan will move on and the new Enterprise will have a fine new captain that you can annoy. "You're laughing Riker," Q stated, his disappointment visible as he watched Beth's head reach the unseen and unreal floor of the white void. She was surrounded by a pool of dark red blood. The white void disappeared and everything became dark and silent once more…and peaceful.

She opened her eyes. A single bright light made it difficult to focus so she closed her eyes again. She was beginning to hear sound once more; again faint, gentle electronic chirps – more in her right ear than left. Three men were speaking… "Why is it taking so long Doctor?" It was her father. He sounded tired. He sounded worried. He sounded sad. She hated when he sounded like that. 240


"Could be a number of factors Admiral," the new man's voice said. Beth assumed it was the physician. "Stasis or not, she lost an enormous amount of blood and the tissue damage was severe. Regen can only do much so fast with deoxygenated tissue. Her body is going to have to deal with that in its own way." Beth realized she was alive and it made her happy. Q was just curious…again. He's always so damn curious! "But she was in stasis for well over five days Doctor..." Beth heard Tristan's voice and her heart leapt, "…and it's been over four days since the vein was implanted." "And it is a deep concern Commander," said the Doctor. "But we have nothing from the most recent scans which gives us reason to believe she won't recover fully once she comes out of the coma." Coma? Beth thought. I wasn't in a coma. I was just in Q's stupid white room! She was annoyed…and hungry. I want a bowl of uttaberries. She tried to swallow but her throat was too dry. It was then she grasped that she was thirsty too. "Dr. Lio did an amazing job Admiral. We've never seen such fast work. If it wasn't for him, Captain Riker would never have survived." The physician's voice carried a deep reverence. "He was worried that the length in stasis was going to be a problem," McGregor's voice said coolly. "It was Commander. The Telanus system is not close to Starfleet Medical. You deserve some of the credit too. You saved not just the Captain but many of your other crewmates as well by getting them here so quickly." Beth smiled internally but was struck by a horrible thought. What about Mike? She needed to know. She tried to find a way to speak through the arid desert of her throat. "Mike..." she whispered and it hurt terribly. It felt like her throat was being ripped from the inside out. There was quiet in the room and then she heard a strange clambering of footsteps. That was not what Beth wanted to hear. Damn! Don't tell me he's dead! "Mike…okay?" she forced the question over the cracked parchment of her vocal chords. "Janine…angry?" "Captain," she heard the physician's voice in her right ear. Beth could tell that he was leaning towards her and must have been 241


scanning her with some kind of hand-held device. "You need to be quiet for a moment," he stated calmly. Beth found herself becoming furious with the doctor and she let herself growl at him. "Mike…" she barked. "Beth." Tristan's large, strong hand grabbed hers. His voice was soft and sullen and she calmed immediately. She could take the bad news from him, not some unknown, unseen physician. "Mike's okay. He's in the room next to us. Mike will be fine." She breathed out in relief and she let out a half-cry and her voice whined. "He had…big hole." There was quiet laughter. She felt another hand on her right hand. "Elizabeth." It was her father. His whisper sounded so, so sad…she didn't know why. She felt her father's hand touch her cheek and then her hair. Tristan's hand started to pull away but she tightened her grip and he stayed. She started to open her eyes once more but the bright light over her head made it uncomfortable. "Light." She heard a faint electronic chirp and felt the dimming of the light and she opened her eyes. His hazel eyes were smiling at her. He turned his handsome face away from her as another voice was heard. He pulled his hand away from hers…hard. She didn't want him to, but she didn't have the strength to hold on. "Elizabeth!?" Her mother's voice carried the same sadness that her father's had. Why are they so sad? She turned her head to see her father's face. She was relieved that his blue eyes had found a smile, but she could see that he had actually been crying. Her eyes moved to her mother whose deep black irises reflected relief and joy and Beth knew then that her father's tears had been shared. Finally another voice was heard from the hall as it entered the room. "Elizabutt!" Bill's great voice boomed as he moved in at the foot of her biobed and touched her foot. "I am so glad to see you," he said softly. "Willyass," she hoarsely whispered with a broken smile. Her eyes searched the room. Tristan was at the door and had turned to look at her. She tried to plead with her eyes for him to stay but he turned and walked out the door and she couldn't find the strength to yell for him. 242


PART SEVEN

C

243


244


Stardate 91943.9 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise - NCC-1701-G Bridge The command chair was finally beginning to loosen in its swivel. It had been so new, it was too stiff the first couple of weeks but the constant use of it had broken it in and it could now be turned with just the slightest touch of a toe to the deckplate. She was sure that K'Reeg, Dryden and Llewellyn's forceful use of it helped matters along. She glanced around her bridge. Mike was at Ops and Phinod was at the helm. K'Reeg was busy down in the VIP sections assuring his teams were in place. Dryden was sitting at his position, still going over rosters and logs to perfect the rotation. Jaden was down in the Cartography with Griffin, trying to surmise the reasons behind the similarities in the five planets in question. Beth had to agree with their most recent assessment, that being, it would be a lot better to get new scans of the area. The old data they were relying on was just that - old. Enya was making herself useful by remaining available as her liaison and assisting with the VIP's needs. She had definitely started to make an impact on the team and Beth was only too relieved to have her active and off the bridge. Richardson had decided after her physical that he needed to know 245


more about her jugular implant and her empathic abilities so he had gone the extra mile to review the entire op report from Starfleet Medical as well as records pertaining to her treatment while on the Titan. Dr. Ree had earned his reputation as a specialist in psi-medicine while he was on the Titan due to the fact he had to treat numerous species with the abilities. Richardson knew the Enterprise also had several members who exhibited telepathic or empathic abilities but it really wasn't until Beth had told him the story of her parents' encounters in the Gum Nebula with the species known fondly as the Star Jellies that he began to understand the depth of information he would need to have readily available on board. So he set his mind about reading. Beth noticed he read a lot. Considering there were now two highly important Remans on board, she assumed that Richardson was reading everything he could on the subject. The star trails lit the viewscreen. They wouldn't be near the Onias sector border until the following afternoon. Today hopefully, she would have the opportunity to prepare herself mentally for the challenge that lay ahead – and whatever it was that Q was trying to warn her about. The aft turbolift doors opened and Dryden announced her father's presence. "Admiral on the bridge!" Beth tried to hide her smile when she saw the look of annoyance on his face. He hated the formality and she knew it. She stood and his eyes reflected that he wanted to talk with her. She moved towards the ready room and she ordered Dryden to the command chair with her eyes. She moved into her office and he followed. He had a serious look on his face and almost one of panic. She felt her heart throb in her chest. "What is it Admiral?" "I can't believe I'm asking this‌but you don't happen to have any non-replicated alcoholic beverages on board do you Captain? President Vadine has very particular tastes and we're going to be serving formal lunch soon. When he brought it up, the Remans agreed with his reluctance to drink replicated Romulan Ale." Beth let loose a laugh of relief. "Is that all? Of course I do." She grinned. "You, Brint and Jean-Luc always kept a store. When I moved in, I made sure I had one too." Riker looked relieved. "What do you have available?" Beth moved to the cabinet under the bureau in the office. "Wine, 246


ale or the hard stuff?" she offered. "You have them all?" He was taken aback. "Yes. And more in a secret cabinet in Ten Forward. If they can replicate it, we probably have the original hidden somewhere." She giggled. "Wine definitely and red preferably. The side dish is Romulan mollusks," he sighed. Beth knew that the wine was for her father. He had obtained his fill of the mollusks while working with Romulus over the years and the wine was the only thing that helped him ease them down. She laughed, only because she found them delicious. "I have kanar. Will that help too?" She referred to the Cardassian liquor. "You have a bottle of kanar? Unreplicated?" He was amazed. The liquor was not easily come by since the Dominion War as the producers of it were nearly annihilated in the ensuing massacre by the Dominion. There were only three known producers of the fine drink and they commanded a heavy price for their merchandise, more than anyone in Starfleet would ever have in Federation Credits. Beth laughed with a nod. "I have three cases," she boasted. Riker was flabbergasted. "How‌?" "Having a Cardassian physician on the Panther and saving a couple of their ships might have had something to do with it." She reached into the bureau and pulled out a bottle of wine then stood up. "Lio was also given a gift of three cases. We both hid them," she laughed as she handed the wine bottle to her father. "And this? I have ten cases of." Riker looked down to the bottle. The label read Chateau Picard. Riker's smile filled her heart. "Now this really does surprise me." "That should help you choke down those mollusks." She grinned. "Ten cases?!" he asked, still astonished with the bottle in his hand. She grinned from ear to ear. "They were in my quarters the morning I took command at the fleet yard. At the commissioning, Uncle Geordi said something about the delivery having been arranged a long time ago." she shuffled a bit. "There was a letter as well." Riker smiled then shook his head. "You know, he always believed 247


you would have the Enterprise, Beth." And he looked lovingly at the bottle in his hands. He hated to break it open. If there was one thing he needed, it was to savor it, not use it as a means to hide mollusk. He handed the bottle back to Beth. "We'll drink this together when the alliance is signed. Not before." Beth understood and took the bottle from her father's hand and placed it back in its special spot in her bureau. She pulled on another bottle, this from a decent vintner in Italy. He took the bottle with pleasure. "Perfect. A Brunello. This will help enormously." "Nopli'tik in Ten Forward has my kanar and Romulan ale locked up. You tell her that it's for Vadine and she'll give you what you need," she referred to the Arkenite bartender in Ten Forward. He nodded and started to turn in his place to head for Ten Forward, when he stopped suddenly, surprising Beth in the midst of her steps behind him. His face bore a scowl and it surprised her even more. "By the way‌" he growled, "‌when did you get all Jellico on me? What's with the formality on the bridge Captain?" Beth almost screamed in delight and before Riker could register her reaction Beth struck her combadge. "Captain to Dryden!" "Dryden here," he replied. "Mark the time Paul! We have Jellico!" she laughed brightly. "Mark set! Thank you Captain! We'll have the winners up shortly!" His voice contained the lighthearted joy he was experiencing and Riker could definitely hear loud roars of laughter seeping in from behind him. He was stymied. Beth's laughter could not be contained and she reached up to hug her father with glee. "I can't believe it took you this long! I would have lost the bet on day two!" she roared. "What bet? What's going on?" He was baffled. Before she could answer her com beeped. "Captain‌Lieutenant J. G. Flint and Ensign Torgrid have been summoned." "Excellent Number One! Excellent!" She was truly thrilled. She turned to her father. "The moment we found out our first mission was to pick you up at Ba'ku, Dryden and I arranged a pool. I knew that if we hiked up the formality on the bridge you would inevitably compare me to 248


Admiral Jellico‌it was only a matter of time!" Her laughter let loose, referring to a retired Admiral that when he was temporarily Captain of the Enterprise-D, had made her father's life a virtual living hell. "The winner of the bet gets to have dinner of their choice made by me and the other members of the senior crew." Riker's smiled burst forth once more. It was a tradition that Deanna had started on the Titan. Get to know your crew by eating with them. On the Titan, he ate most of his meals with the crew in the mess hall. The Enterprise didn't actually have a mess, they had dining halls – a much more sophisticated way of eating but Riker knew it also meant that there was a separation of personnel that could interfere with tolerance, acceptance and ultimately, trust. He was happy that she and her crew had found a way to overcome the obstacle. "When will this happen?" He smiled. "Tonight I hope," answered Beth. "We don't have any VIP plans do we?" Riker thought about it. "I do with your mother and the Praetor, but we'll bring him if you'd like." Beth nodded. "Perfect. Absolutely perfect. The Praetor will understand I think." Beth remembered how then Senator Vreen loved eating in the mess when he visited the Titan. "Yes. I think so." Riker smiled. "Besides, you can't cook." Beth was insulted. "Yes I can! I can cook everything but Terran cuisine," she argued. "You were just a food snob." "I was a food snob?" He pulled back with the insult. "I was the first person to feed you gagh!" "Yes." She smiled. "But when offered a choice, you always ate Terran food. I actually prefer other cuisines you know." Riker laughed. "You did eat everything." He frowned. "Sometimes it was surprising to me." Beth nodded. "Food snob." The bell to her ready room rang and it elicited a great smile from her face. She crossed her fingers and whispered "Please don't be Terran," to her father who smiled broadly. "Come!" she said and the door to her office slid open silently. Dryden walked in, a wide smile set upon his face and Beth turned to face him. Behind him, almost timidly, walked two subordinates. "Captain, 249


Admiral this is Ensign Morvuk Torgrid and Lieutenant Junior Grade Vickie Flint." Ensign Torgrid was a Choblik male and Beth smiled wide and extended her hand down to him. His face resembled that of a small Terran antelope but his body was shaped more like a two-legged bird. He had no arms of his own, but his cyborg implants more than compensated. His specially designed Starfleet uniform showed the blue of his science advocacy and Beth knew that members of his species that had served in Starfleet tended to steer themselves towards the sciences. They were a species of intense scientific curiosity. Beth had grown up with Choblik. They looked no different to her than any other species she had known. He lifted his tail and swished his cyborg claw attached at its end, as most Choblik did as a sign of respect. He extended his right claw towards his captain and she took it in her own soft hand without hesitation. "Ensign. A pleasure to meet you. Congratulations." "Thank you Captain." His synthetic voice heightened the solemn and mechanical stare emitting from his cyber-enhanced eyes. Riker moved the wine bottle to his other hand and then moved forward to shake the Ensign's claw. "Ensign. A pleasure." Lieutenant Flint was a human female. Her short blonde hair and her green eyes reflected the slight amount of hesitation she exhibited. She was definitely not expecting to have been summoned to the Captain's ready room to meet her, let alone be faced with an Admiral when she got there. She wore a uniform of yellow. Beth knew immediately that she worked in the Security detail, mostly in the stardrive section of the ship. She remembered her personnel profile from the padds she had reviewed while they slogged along in the Briar Patch. Beth shook her hand. "Lieutenant. Welcome." Riker moved forward with a smile. "Congratulations Lieutenant." "Thank you Admiral, Captain." She smiled weakly. Beth looked to Dryden. "Number One. I hate to break it to you, but our dinner party just got larger." The two contest winners looked to her, their eyes widening. "How many more seats should I arrange Captain?" he asked her. "Three. The Admiral, Counselor Troi and Praetor Vreen will be 250


joining us. And‌" she looked to Riker, "Will the Praetor want to cook as wellAdmiral?" Riker let his smile widen. "I'm sure of it Captain." "Fine. A feast it will be then. Ensign." She looked to the Choblik scientist. "Have you decided what I will be cooking?" "Yes sir," he responded with enthusiasm. "I haven't had homecooked green-billetug since I left home. Can you?" His voice, even as synthesized as it was, reflected a true hope. Beth grinned with a smile that made her laugh. She turned to her father with a victorious face. "That I can do Ensign. I haven't had billetug in over six months. I would love to prepare it for you!" The young Ensign's doe-like face split with a beautiful grin. "What about you Lieutenant?" Beth asked. The Lieutenant smiled wryly. "I would do almost anything to have a decent bowl of jambalaya." Before Beth could answer, Riker spoke up. "That, Lieutenant, happens to be my area of expertise. You don't want the Captain cooking Terran food. She's much better at other things." Beth laughed and shook her head in defeat. "Thanks a lot," she addressed the Lieutenant. "However, he's right. When it comes to Terran food, I can make pancakes and that's about it. He's the pro." She looked to Dryden once more. "And Number One, I know that Jaden can help with making sure the Romulan ingredients are made available. Only one thing. Tell her that we are not to have any mollusks. Understood?" Dryden smiled. "Understood sir." "Great. I will see both of you at dinner. Dining Room Twelve at eighteen hundred hours." The pool winners politely smiled and exited the ready room and Dryden was about to follow them when Beth turned to her father. His look of pride couldn't be assuaged. He also had a look of particular mischievousness about him and Beth could see that the wheels were turning. "Dryden, wait," she said and he stopped to turn to her. Her eyes met her father's and she started to laugh. "How many more chairs should we set Admiral?" Riker nodded. "This will be perfect. The Remans are still a little 251


cranky about a concession that they should make. President Vadine is feeling like he can't get through to them. Cooking it out will help." Beth understood. Her father resolved more minor disputes over a stove than he did in a conference room. Something about food and a relaxed atmosphere did more to bring people together than a big formal table with chairs around it. "Fine. Number One?" "I'm already on it Captain. Dining Room Twelve will now be too small. I will assure the pool winners are told to meet us in the holodeck." "No," said Riker. "The real galley. A big kitchen. That's where this has to be. Work with K'Reeg to assure the galley is secured. We'll have them cook there." Dryden nodded his head. "Yes sir!" And he left the ready room, followed closely by Beth and her father with the wine bottle in his hand. "See you in the kitchen!" she said as Riker followed her out and made his way to the aft turbolift. He raised the bottle as a toast and moved into the turbolift. When the doors shut, she loudly proclaimed that formal announcements of senior command were no longer required and a small burst of applause erupted from the crew. She laughed as she sat in the command chair. As strange as it was, the chair felt even more comfortable than it had when she last sat in it. An extraordinary feeling of belonging, of being at home swept over her and she set herself into the chair even more.

252


Interlude IX Stardate 72127.9 Earth Calendar September 19, 2393 Federation Starship – USS Titan- NCC-80102 Riker/Troi Family Quarters

She found her sister sitting crossed-legged on the floor of her own room. Her hands were twisting something with agitation and Beth knew immediately that she must have had another argument with their mother. Beth was getting real tired of them; they were occurring more and more frequently over the course of the last few months, ever since Cassidy's tenth birthday… In an attempt to avoid the conflicts, Cassidy did what Beth had done – she had thrown herself into her studies, but whereas Beth had done so as means to achieve a goal, Cassidy did it as a means to escape their mother. As long as she was in her room studying, Cassidy knew her mother wouldn't bother her. Beth knew that Cassidy would calm down once they talked it out. She approached her with some noise so she wouldn't startle her. Since Cassidy couldn't sense people like Beth could, she always did it as a courtesy, just like she did when she approached her father from behind. Cassidy's head lifted only slightly when she heard her sister 253


enter the room. "What are you doing?" Beth asked. "Thinking of ways to kill her," Cassidy groaned though what was obviously a voice that was trying to hold back sobs. Beth allowed the grimace to contort her face. She may not have been able to feel her sister's spite and sadness, but she could definitely hear it. "Why? What happened?" she offered as she sat on the floor across from her and crossed her legs in the same fashion. She could see that Cassidy had been twisting a small piece of cloth in her hands. She would twist it so tightly it became bound into a small ball, and then she would release it, flatten it and begin the process once more. Cassidy was always moving, even at rest. Her sister lifted her face slightly so Beth could view her iceblue eyes pierce coldly from beneath the silken strands of her razorstraight, pitch-black hair. Cassidy was built of extremes. Her hair was darker and straighter than Beth's. Her eyes were the same color as their father's. She wasn't going to be as tall as Beth, but her skin was fairer. Beth thought that Cassidy was the prettiest girl she had ever seen. Beth also thought Cassidy may have only been capable of three emotions‌joy, sadness and anger. They were the only emotions she ever seemed to see from her. When Cassidy smiled or was happy, the whole universe seemed to be in alignment. Her joy was infectious and the family would feel whole, cohesive. But when Cassidy was angry or sad, the whole universe felt like it would fall apart and no one in the family was happy. It tore at the fabric that held them together‌and that fabric always tore right at the seam between Cassidy and their mother. "She made me go to the doctor again." Cassidy twisted the material in between her fingers with such practiced dexterity it was wound into a ball with one motion. "For no reason‌again," she hissed. "Stupid Betazoid medical people." Beth's heart sank. Her mother had heard that there may have been a new treatment available for Cassidy's Xenon Syndrome, but Cassidy wanted none of it. Beth had always been a little repulsed by her mother's insistence that Cassidy seek treatment for her condition 254


– a condition she wasn't so sure she understood as being a bad thing. Cassidy had been diagnosed with Xenon when her mother was still pregnant with her. Xenon Syndrome was an uncommon genetic disorder in children of mixed-species Betazoid relationships, like her parents. People with Xenon lacked any telepathic ability, but more so than that, they lacked the ability to be sensed by those with telepathic ability. While Cassidy couldn't sense the presence or emotions of others like Beth could, the reverse was also true. Beth, their brother, their mother or anyone else with telepathy couldn't even sense that Cassidy was in the room with them. Beth had grown up with it, so she was used to it‌her mother was a different story. Their mother had always found it difficult to relate to Cassidy, even on a base level. Beth understood why, it was instinctual. To telepaths, their whole world had a palpable extra dimension to it and Betazoids always determined their own place within that dimension by knowing precisely where everyone was, emotionally, around them. So while Cassidy also lived in that dimension, her actual presence was always like a built in surprise. Telepaths never knew Cassidy was there until she was physically seen or heard. It could be disconcerting at times. Not even Beth's secret ability to hear everyone's thoughts through other Betazoids enabled her to hear or feel her sister. She was a flat as a piece of paper to her. No depth, no feeling, no structure. Beth knew it was exactly why Cassidy and her father were so close. Because he wasn't telepathic, Cassidy was no different to him than Beth was. Beth knew it. She had felt it and she had seen it from her father. Beth knew her mother loved Cassidy. She could feel and hear her mother's pain every day. Her mother sought counseling and participated in the Xenon parents' support group by telecomm once a month, but somehow she never really just accepted Cassidy's disease and always somehow blamed herself for it. She was always studying, trying to research any new potential treatment for her instead of just learning how to live with it. Beth could see both sides of the problem. Her mother loved 255


Cassidy but wanted her to be healed of the disease caused by her Betazoid genetics. Cassidy just wanted to be left alone and accepted for the way she was. It was and always had been the single-most divisive issue the family ever had to suffer. Beth looked upon her sister's sad and angry azure eyes and knew better than to patronize her. Cassidy needed to feel like she was understood more than anything. "I'm sorry," Beth said. Cassidy's eyes closed and tears fell from her cheeks onto the carpet of the floor. "I'm so sick of it Beth. I'm so sick and tired of the poking and the prodding. Why can't she just leave me alone?" Beth's heart was ripping in two. "I don't know," she whispered. "Dr. Ree wasn't mean was he?" Cassidy released a slight giggle. "No, of course not. He's sweet." Beth eased her hand to her sister's knee and she watched the fingers twist the small piece of fabric. "Cass, will you come play with me?" Cassidy lifted her puffed eyes once more, allowing a small smile to break across her lips. "Did you get it?" Beth nodded with a grand smile. "It came this morning." "Does Dad know?" Cassidy released a mischievous light in her stellar blue eyes. Beth's grin widened and shook her head. "No!" she giggled. "He doesn't. Come on Cass‌I've already uploaded it into the matrix‌" Cassidy's eyes widened with glee, her anger had evaporated and her focus had been turned with the delight of the idea. "Let's go!" Cassidy shot up from the floor and threw the small piece of fabric on her bed as they ran out to the living area of their quarters. Their father was at his desk and his head lifted when he saw them. "Where are you two off to?" he asked inquisitively. "The holodeck," said Beth. Riker's eyebrow lifted. "What program are you going to run?" 256


Beth's heart skipped a beat as she tried to come up with a response, but Cassidy spoke up, "Denali Twelve," she said. Beth was awestruck. Cassidy could lie straight to anyone's face and they'd believe her. "Okay then…" he smiled, "but don't let me catch you running Riker Four…" Cassidy smiled. The ground rules were laid out. Riker Four was not on their agenda. "Promise Dad!" She grinned and looked to Beth, who was still trying to come to terms with the ease with which Cassidy could lie. She was always so jealous of her about that. While her father never knew if Beth was lying, her mother could tell in an instant. She vowed right then and there to seek Vulcan help in controlling her emotions…just so she could lie to her mother. The girls ran to every spot, first to the turbolift, then to the holodeck. Beth was taller than Cassidy so she was able to reach the control panel. Her fingers flew across it with precision and Cassidy began to giggle infectiously. "Where did you get it?" Cassidy whispered. Beth grinned and turned, "Mike Llewellyn transmitted it to me this morning. He got it from a boy on the Morningstar, who got it from a girl on the Grisham who stole it from the Vulcan Command Training Center." Beth grinned. It was all so surreptitious. "Mike says it's awesome!" Cassidy's glee was uncontained. "Mom would be soooo pissed if she knew we got this program!" Beth giggled back. "I know! Dad too!" She pulled her hand away from the panel and smiled at her younger sister, whose sparkling blue eyes now held the most amazing fire. "Ready?" Cassidy didn't answer. She only nodded and released a small squeal of delight. "Mike said you have to start low though…so I went with level three." Cassidy nodded in agreement. The doors to the holodeck opened and they walked in. It was dark, and hot and humid. They were bombarded by metallic and chemical odors. Everything was lit with an emerald green hue. The doors closed behind them and Beth looked around hearing her little sister's verbal approval of the program's realistic setting… 257


"Whoa…this is sooooo cool." The Borg Cube was massive, bigger than any ship Beth had ever seen before and it was lined with thousands of them…Borg were lined up in their individual bays for as far as their eyes could see. It was then Beth realized how hard this program might really be. Two against thousands? "We'll never make it," she whispered to her sister. "We have to get all the way to the core." Cassidy giggled ferociously. "Maybe we should start at level one?" "Maybe…" Beth agreed. "Computer, arch." A large operating arch appeared over them and Beth reached for the panel, manipulating it once more. The room suddenly changed. It was significantly smaller and while there were far fewer Borg between them and the ship's core, there were still several hundred. Beth pressed the panel and the arch disappeared. "It's a Borg Sphere now…" she whispered. "The object of the training is to make it to the core and input the nanites." Beth reached for a small table that lay before them. There were phasers and a small chip that contained the infectious robots. Beth handed Cassidy a phaser and she took one for herself. "The program starts when I pick up the nanite chip. If one of us gets hit or gets assimilated, the program ends." "Game over..." giggled Cassidy. Beth snorted, "Yep, game over…" She reached her hand for the chip. "Ready?" Cassidy nodded eagerly. "Ready!" Beth picked up the chip and the Borg sphere came to life.

Riker stretched his neck from side to side, then rolled his shoulders, trying to release his tension from the day. Reports had been reviewed and Tuvok had the conn. Deanna had gone back to the counseling center. She had been disappointed by Dr. Ree's opinions on the reports of a treatment for Xenon were proving unsuccessful, and he advised against starting Cassidy on anything too experimental. Her support meeting was due 258


to begin and Riker knew that Deanna preferred to attend them in her office in the counseling center rather than in their quarters. The day had been a rough one. He had received reports that a small band of Reman mercenaries had attacked a small Romulan armory and had stolen a significant supply of weaponry. No one knew what to make of it and tensions between Romulus and Remus had risen once again. After all the advancements that had been made over the last decade, to have the peace process interrupted by a group that used tactics similar to the Maquis had angered him. The thought that there were just some people who hated peace stymied him. They had even taken responsibility for the attack. Romulus received an encrypted transmission from the band of rebels taunting their governments, stating they would never allow peace between Romulus and Remus and calling themselves…Thraiin – the Rihannsu word for Romulan wolverines. He just wanted to relax a little. It was then he thought about his little girls playing in the meadows of Denali and it was there he longed to be. He stood from his desk and made headway for the holodecks.

"They've adapted!" screamed Cassidy as she ducked under the swinging arm of one of the Borg drones. She dropped her phaser, knowing it was no longer useful. They were still a hundred meters from the sphere's core and Beth knew they would never make it now. There were still at least fifty drones between them and the computer access port they would need to reach to input the nanites. Beth ran hard, dodging two more drones and held out her phaser, hoping against hope that the modulations would give her one more shot at the ramp leading to the computer core. She held the phaser and aimed it at the drone now bearing down upon her. Her hand was as steady as a rock…until she heard her sister scream. A drone had captured her and his hand was lifting toward her neck, two small tubules extended from the back of its hand… 259


"COMPUTER END PROGRAM!!!' Beth's heart flew into a terrified rampage. The Borg drones had disappeared and she and her sister stood there in the empty room, the holoemitters quietly fading. She spun her head to see her father towering over them, standing near the entrance of the room; his bright blue eyes alight with fury. Beth swallowed hard‌ Grounded wasn't the word.

260


PART EIGHT

C

261


262


Stardate 91943.9 Federation Starship - USS Enterprise - NCC-1701-G Main Galley

There was an audible grumble from Worf and Beth heard it. She walked over to him in with a glass of prune juice and handed it to him. While the juice made him partially smile, she could tell that he was still annoyed by something. "What's wrong Emissary?" she asked as she straightened her apron. "I am not fond of billetug," he groaned. Beth grinned. "I know. That's why Alexander and K'Reeg are cooking for you." Worf seemed surprised. "They are?" "Yes Emissary. Alexander said something about not having bregit lung or rokeg blood pie in a long time, so K'Reeg offered to assist him in making them for us!" she said happily. "Everyone is making enough so we can all try something different. A true pot-luck." Worf seemed satisfied. "Well then, I will eat." Beth eyes scanned the kitchen. Her eyes lit when she saw the pool winners actually talking amongst those in the room. This is what she 263


wanted. She wanted the crew to see through the faรงades and the hyperbole. These representatives of worlds were no different from them; they actually all had the similar roots. These two would go back to their quarters and tell everyone about how real the evening had been and slowly but surely, Beth was sure the walls would come down. It had been easier on the Panther. It had a mess hall and a smaller crew. It would just take longer and it would take creativity but it would happen. One of the Reman representatives had served in security aboard a battleship in his early career and found much in common with the young Lieutenant Flint. Ensign Torgrid had struck up a very logical and scientific conversation with Tuvok and Elieth. One of the Remans was also wearing an apron and was in a deep discussion with Praetor Vreen about the amount of a certain spice to add to his dish. Deanna and Enya were working with Jaden and Romulan Senator Linias. While Deanna and Enya created Beth's favorite Betazoid uttaberry crepes for desert, they also helped the Senator and Revaik. It was an especially moving scene as Jaden was able to meet someone from her own kind without having to worry about whether he approved or disapproved of her father's defection. He had simply told her that he was happy to see that Starfleet was so accepting of her and that it gave him even more hope for the future. The four of them seemed to be enjoying themselves as they prepared Viinerine, a traditional Romulan food that Revaik was hoping to try. Jaden's father did not know how to make it and Senator Linias was only too happy to teach her so she could bring the recipe home to him. Beth smiled because she knew her mother didn't care for the dish, but appeared ecstatic to help Jaden learn how to make it. Riker and Cardassian President Vadine were busy laughing in the corner with Janeway. Riker had already completed the jambalaya and President Vadine was so taken with the smell of the dish, he decided to prepare Cardassia's version of it so they could be compared. They were enjoying a fine glass of kanar and she could see that Janeway's face was brightening. She liked the drink but had to sip it very, very slowly. Llewellyn and Dryden felt compelled to prepare a grilled chicken dish that smelled wonderfully of coriander and other smoky spices. Beth's own preparation of the Choblik stew was simmering slowly. 264


She personally thought it smelled delicious but then she always did have a propensity for liking vinegary foods. Whatever concession the Remans had to make, Beth was hoping that it would be resolved. They certainly seemed to be in a receptive mood. She turned to her Klingon uncle. "Emissary?" "Yes Captain?" He turned his great brown eyes to her. Her eyes turned to the Praetor and the Reman Ambassador. "I was wondering how things were going in negotiations. Are there many hurdles left?" Worf shook his head once. "Only matters of a trivial nature in my opinion and mostly between Romulus and Remus. For being so close to each other they have much to overcome in matters of trust." Beth nodded with understanding. "They have always jumped the same hurdles over and over again. It's frustrating." "Indeed," he grumbled and then saw the Reman Ambassador Melkit actually smile as the Praetor Vreen tried to chop a strange Reman vegetable. Worf tapped Beth on the arm and she turned her head to watch. The Praetor held the vegetable up and said something to the Reman that both Worf and Beth knew had to have been an off-color remark. Whatever the reference had been, it caught theAmbassador off-guard and his guttural Reman laugh pierced the room. "Gah! Leave it to genetalia jokes," said Beth and she smiled while rolling her eyes and Worf's laugh joined the Reman's in filling the room. She kissed him on the cheek, adjusted her apron once more and made headway for her stew. Her father's eyes caught hers and he lifted his glass to her. She smiled and bowed her head slightly, knowing that whatever problem there might have been, it would be resolved over the table, a table which would be overflowing with food prepared with pride and love by those who would eat it. For tasting the food of another culture was an acknowledgment of their right to exist and be free. As long as there aren't too many mollusks of course. Beth opened the pot of her stew and its bright green color made her smile. To keep it this bright, you had to have the knack, to understand to keep the heat low and cook it slow. Ensign Torgrid's face lifted from his 265


conversation with the two Vulcans as the smell of the stew wafted over to him. He smiled as much as his face would allow and he excused himself from the others and walked towards Beth. His long legs bore joint implants which silently allowed him extended strength. His tail flicked once as he reached the stove in the great kitchen in the bowels of the ship. "Captain!" His synth-voice vibrated, "That smells amazing! Look at how beautifully green you kept it!" Beth smiled proudly. "I had good teachers, Torgrid." "You must have! You have lived with Choblik?" He seemed surprised. "I thought you were Terran. You are not?" "No Ensign, I am Titanese." She smiled. "Titanese?" The Choblik's tail quivered with the question. "What planet is that?" "It means she's from the Titan Ensign!" Llewellyn's voice broke through from across the kitchen. The raised voice caused the others in the room to quiet and those who were not actively cooking looked to Beth and Ensign Torgrid. The Choblik's scientifically centered mind was having some difficulty processing the classification. "You do not consider yourself human?" Beth smiled and she stirred the stew. "I consider myself Titanese. I may be physically part Human and part Betazoid but I did not come from Earth or Betazed. I came from the Titan. I grew up and lived in the culture of the Titanese. It was the most glorious place of all and I hope one day that the Enterprise will match it in strength of community." Deanna nodded her head and spoke from the stove where Jaden was learning how to prepare the food of her ancestors, "You see Ensign. The Titan was the most species diverse ship in Starfleet." "In the galaxy," Beth added. Deanna nodded. "Those who lived on the Titan had to learn how to live with those who were different from each other. In doing so, we were able to take advantage of the strengths of all who lived on her." Janeway's voice was heard next, "The Titan also learned how to resolve the conflicts that inevitably arose from the differences as well." She laughed a little, "And we understood there were quite a few." Worf had to add his two credits. "But they always found a way. When serving on the Enterprise, I remember hearing of a certain Choblik 266


cadet who actually infected the Titan crew with nanoprobes to study humanoid intestinal tracts to ascertain the root of the term gut feelings‌" Riker laughed. "Our Security Chief was not happy, let me tell you. But all in all it was about perspective. The Choblik, who see things in very scientific terms, had a difficult time understanding the emotional reaction of those who felt they had been invaded without permission." "Well, the subjects' knowledge of the experiment would have tainted the outcome of the findings," Torgrid stated with complete understanding of the Choblik's methods. Beth laughed, "Exactly Torgrid. You are correct. But even with something as simple as having short-lived mechanical probes in your gut, there were many who felt it was a personal assault. I understood it caused quite the disturbance. It took a lot of talking between parties to get both sides to understand the bases of their concerns. The Choblik wanted unbiased data and the subjects wanted their privacy." Torgrid nodded with a little more understanding. "Ah. A dispute had arisen and a solution was found?" "Yes." answered Riker. "The test subjects learned to be a little more tolerant and the tester learned to be a little more sensitive. He learned to get prior approval from the CSO before undertaking any more field studies." "Oh. He did this of his own fruition?" Torgrid asked. Deanna laughed. "He did." "It was such an interesting study, do you have the results of it?" he asked and Riker, Deanna and others laughed. "I think that we'd have to ask old Keru where they might be," said Riker. "That particular study was undertaken a few years before I was born Ensign," said Beth. "Too bad. I would like to have read the young Choblik's data." Riker noticed the look in Beth's eyes. She didn't want him to undertake a completely new study. "I'll make sure his findings are forwarded Ensign," he said and Beth's look of relief was apparent. "But don't you start any follow up studies without talking to me first!" Revaik clarified to her charge. Torgrid's eyes blinked with comprehension. "Yes sir." He smiled 267


and his huge cybernetic irises focused once more on Beth. "But still – you have learned to cook from Choblik!" "And from every other species on board. Pak'shree, Elaysian, Arcturan, Pahkwa-thanh, Irriol, Cardassian, Andorian, Klingon‌" "She makes an excellent gladst and a wonderful pipius salad Ensign!" Alexander commented from the stove towards the rear of the grand kitchen and K'Reeg who was standing next to him seemed surprised and happy to hear it. Beth laughed. "I'm just really bad at cooking Terran food!" "Ain't that the truth!" cried Llewellyn. "She tried to cook spaghetti once. Spaghetti! It's not that hard! She found a way to congeal it!" he griped. The others in the room laughed. Beth just shrugged. "It's true Ensign." She looked down to the glorious bright green of her pot of Choblik home-cooking. Her smile was greeted by the return smile of the Ensign in front of her. "Well, you have no problem with Choblik food Captain. I will not be telling my mother about this. She still doesn't know how to keep it green!" The conversations in the room picked up once more and the cooks all served their food at a large table that had been set in the foyer of the kitchen. As people tried foods, Beth would watch for smiles and grimaces. All were expected and no one took offense. Tastes were tastes. It was just enough to show you cared enough to try. Again, Beth felt like the Enterprise was slowly turning into the home she had always dreamed of. So what will I call myself now if not Titanese? An Enterpriser? Enterprisan? Enterprisian? She smiled and took a large bite of blood pie. She relished it completely; Alexander and K'Reeg had outdone themselves. The Remans and the Romulans had been able to resolve their issue just after the vegetables had been chopped. Laughter reigned the evening.

Sleep did not come. She had spoken with Brian, Tristan and the rest of the Cats. They 268


were as prepared as they could be. She had laid her head down on her pillow and the sleep did not come. It had never been like this. Not on the Oberon, not on the Ruaha, not on the Ada Byron, not even on the Panther. She had always been able to sleep. But Q had never visited her before any mission when she was on those ships. This meant something. But what? She sat up in bed and ran her fingers through her hair. It was dark in her room but the star trails streaked past her window. What test will it be Q? Have you put me into a position of creating our greatest enemy on the eve of cementing our greatest alliance? Are you forcing this alliance to lie to waste? Her thoughts turned to the ghost species once more. Why? After staying hidden for so long, why do they come forward and kill now? What have we done? Are they really that angry with Romulus for shafting them on the last payment? Grace period or not, they waited years to exact revenge – and then only to kill single individuals on freighters? They obviously have better technology - why would we be a threat? She found the anger starting to enter back in. She rubbed her eyes hard, growled, turned on the light and stood from her bed. The sleep would not be coming. She sighed and dressed herself in her uniform. She moved to the mirror and brushed her hair out, then brought it behind her head into a long pony-tail and braided it into a loose rope, then folded it once into a loop which hung at her shoulder. She needed the hair off her face where she was going. She sat at the edge of her bed and pulled on her boots, walked over to the replicator and ordered a cup of cold coffee. She drank it down entirely. She set the cup back into the replicator which processed the matter of the cup back into the system. As she walked out of the door to her room she noticed the quiet. There was no one in the corridor. The sleep had come to them and she found herself envious of them. She walked into the turbolift to deck seven, exited and walked with deliberate speed to the holodeck. She tapped in her code to the panel and the door opened. 269


Inside the holodeck was a small shuttle craft of modern design, like one that could be found in shuttle bays on the Enterprise. "Computer. Begin flight simulation program Riker one two alpha," she said and the computer responded with an acknowledging tone. The door to the shuttle opened and she took the pilot's seat. The door closed and the surrounding area turned to the black void of space, the shuttle was now adrift in it. She gazed at the panel in front of her – once. She took a deep breath in and looked out the forward windows. The fourth planet of the Rigelian system lay at her starboard side. She moved her hands across the panel without viewing it. The shuttle moved forward at full impulse. Within a minute her course appeared before her. It was the Rigelian asteroid field - an almost impenetrable confluence of rocks and space debris which separated Rigel IV from her outer neighbors and Beth's favorite practice ground. "Computer. Audiophile playback, program Riker nine omega, Sex Pistols tracks only, one hundred ten decibels." Before the opening guitar and drum beats of Anarchy in the UK had even begun, Beth moved her hands across the panel and the shuttle shoved itself headlong into the field. The floating debris appeared almost graceful and Beth arced the craft below the first large rock. The music was loud and Beth breathed in as the small ship lifted to avoid a smaller yet quicker moving asteroid from the port side. Her eyes never left her windows or the simultaneously shown views projected on the base of the window. Views from the port, starboard, dorsal, ventral and aft of the craft allowed her to see the asteroids as they hurtled from every direction. Her breath eased and her heart fell into syncope with the thrumming of the music. The shuttle dipped, lifted, turned, arced, fell, rolled and dived as Beth's hands floated across the console. The music blared and she could feel the vibration of the sound waves in her hands and in the center of her chest as she directed her vessel among the bombardment of asteroids on its way to Rigel V. She loved this. She loved the pure escape of flying and concentrating on everything but the stressors of the universe, where the only thing that mattered was not getting blindsided by a rock. The shuttle flew through the outer edge of the field and the 270


viewscreens revealed she had cleared the remaining debris. She brought the shuttle into a full loop and faced the field once more, entering back into it without hesitation. She would do this as many times as she could until her mind eased. Tonight it would take a total of seven times through the field. It was not her record, but certainly one of the longer sessions she had undertaken in recent years. She brought the shuttle towards Rigel V after her final clearing of the field and the remaining strains of Pretty Vacant had ended. She now felt like the silence was deafening. She stood from the pilot's chair, breathed in deeply and knew the sleep would evade her entirely. I need to walk the ship. "Computer, end program," she ordered and Rigel V, the shuttle and the void of space disappeared. She stood in the empty holodeck; the bright reflections of the holo-emitters glowed brightly. She would head down to deck thirty-two and start at the beginning.

She exited the far aft turbolift. Deck thirty-two. Mostly crew quarters, phaser arrays, tractor arrays and torpedo bays were down here. It was the deck that was furthest from the bow and the bridge. It's got to be here somewhere. There's always one on the lowest deck. She walked the empty corridors, listening for it. Bottom Aft. Bottom Aft always existed on starships like this. Bottom Aft was the unofficial crewmember lounge but only for those who lived and served there. Most captains had never served on a bottom deck, so they wouldn't know, but she had, twice. Deck seventeen was her home on the Oberon for two years and deck twenty eight for another year on the Ruaha. Bottom Aft was her hang-out. Hell, Bottom Aft had been her refuge. Only two captains she knew had ever known about Bottom Aft – Estevan and her father. Estevan had known from personal experience and her father, only due to his efforts in getting to know his crew, was let in on the secret. It was a secret he had kept, for Beth did not know of its existence until she was assigned to the depths herself. The corridors seemed almost too quiet. There was always a Bottom 271


Aft – always. Where could it be? Finally she heard a burst of laughter coming from a small room, of course facing the aft of her ship. The doors had just shut and the halls were silent once more. Someone had just entered the room. Beth turned the corridor to see the mark on the side of the door jam. It read Store Room 3200. Beth smiled. Bottom Aft on the Oberon had been Store Room 1701 and on the Ruaha it had been Phaser Support Room 2812. She walked up to the door and it slid open. As expected, in the store room stood at least thirty crewmembers. They were laughing and talking loudly. The noise was a comfort but she also knew that it would become very quiet in just a moment. She walked in. Oh, they are creative! A full bar no less! As she had anticipated, a severe hush fell over the room. A large makeshift bar with shelves on the bulkhead had been crafted intelligently from the shells of storage containers. The shelves themselves had been erected using what appeared to be pieces of unused steelplast, obviously a gift from an Engineer during the G's construction. Bottles of almost every kind of liquor sat on them. There wasn't a crewmember in the room that didn't have a drink in their hand, claw, tentacle or pincher. The crewmembers actually looked horrified. Beth knew they thought they'd be in trouble. She quietly walked up to the makeshift bar and her eyes glanced over their handiwork. She definitely had the crème de la crème of crewmembers on deck thirty two. Never; never had she seen such attention to detail in a Bottom Aft before. It was a true work of impromptu art. There was still not a sound until a Lieutenant in a red collar approached her and cleared his throat. He looked like he was fresh out of Command School and it heightened her appreciation for the place all the more. "C-C-Captain?" he stammered. She turned to meet his eyes. "Lieutenant." She looked around. "I am impressed. The crew on the Oberon and the Ruaha could only dream of something so grand in their Bottom Afts!" There was a slight murmur. "You know about Bottom Aft Captain?" She nodded and looked to the Ensign in a yellow uniform behind the constructed bar. "Coffee and Arcturian whiskey, please," she ordered 272


and the Ensign smiled and leapt to fulfill his Captain's order. She turned her attention back to the Lieutenant. "Yes Lieutenant. I served three full years on a bottom deck on two different ships." There were smiles from all around. The Lieutenant smiled and extended his hand. "Welcome home Captain. This is the Enterprise-G Bottom Aft Bar, the home of the Bottom Line!" Beth laughed as she graciously took her drink from the Ensign behind the bar and sipped. She nodded with approval and he bowed to her. "We called ourselves the Basement Rats on the Oberon and the Bottom Feeders on the Ruaha." She shook the Lieutenant's hand. "Hi, I'm Captain Beth Riker." The black haired, dark-skinned human male responded, "I'm Lieutenant Kentah Isasile. I am the Ventral Weapons Supervisor down here." "Very glad to meet you Lieutenant. Would you be so kind as to introduce me to the rest of the Bottom Line?" He bowed with grace and respect. "It would be my honor, Captain." Lieutenant Isasile moved Beth around and proudly introduced her to every member of the crew who stood in the provisional bar. The noise level began to rise once more as the crewmembers eased and realized that Bottom Aft would remain the secret it was supposed to be. It just had a very special member. Beth found herself falling into several conversations with her crew. What she appreciated the most was their deep sense of excitement with the mission at hand as well as with their assignments. After a few minutes getting to know people, she approached Lieutenant Isasile once more. She then pointed and waved to a noncom crewman and a Senior Chief who she had been introduced to then she moved and sat upon a storage tub that had been imaginatively converted into a rather comfortable bar stool. She then waved to the Ensign bartender. Everyone approached her and she directed them to find seats near her so she could talk to them directly. The Ensign behind the bar refilled her drink without asking and she smiled. "Thank you Ensign King." She took the drink happily. "You found 273


non-replicated Arcturian whiskey. Again, I'm impressed." "Only the best for our Captain," he replied. For as tall as he was, he had a rather light-toned voice. She imagined he must have had a wonderful tenor voice if he sang. "Well. I have asked you all to join me here to find out what I can do for all of you." She sipped her coffee and whiskey. "I know it's hard down here and I know it's easy to think you've been forgotten. I refuse to be that kind of captain. What's wrong down here that I can help fix?" She turned her eyes to the crewman. "Crewman Nui'dian. You first." She looked to the young Bolian male. He turned bright blue. The seam that split his face turned dark azure. "Captain?" She knew he'd be nervous. "It's okay crewman. Be honest. We've only been out for three weeks. There have got to be issues with something that I can rectify faster than going through the regular channels. I promise your seniors will never know. Bottom Aft members always look out for each other." She smiled. "I look out for everyone of course but I want to start with Bottom Aft…call it Captain's prerogative. If there is one thing you could change about living on deck thirty two, what would it be?" The crewman's face mellowed as his thoughts raced. Beth laughed to herself and took another sip of her drink. The crewman looked to the Chief, Ensign and Lieutenant and realized what the Captain was doing. She wanted a sampling of opinions from every rank level. She was just starting with the noncommissioned crewman. He nodded his head. He was being given a chance to make things better and if he blew it, his fellow crewmen would never forgive him. It made the task feel that much more daunting. But the idea came to him and he thought it was a good one. "Comm Center Captain." He nodded with slight hesitation. Ensign King nodded and pointed to the crewman. "Good one Crewman!" Beth wasn't sure she understood and she looked to her bartender. "Captain…" he responded, "There is only one comm center on deck thirty two. Every other deck has three. Our comms are always full and we have to move up decks to communicate with our families and then all we do is make the crewmembers on those decks mad for taking up their comms…" Beth understood fully and then rolled her eyes. Designers 274


automatically shafted the lower decks…always. "Lieutenant," she addressed Isasile, "you should know, being the senior officer down here – what space can you do without?" Isasile smiled widely and looked to the others. This topic had obviously been discussed over many drinks in BottomAft already. "Without a doubt, Storeroom 3235 and no one knows what Room 3221 is about. It's empty. It's not designated as a storeroom and it's not even in a position to be well used for weapons support." Beth nodded and turned her head back to the Bolian crewman. "That's easy. Thank you crewman." Beth looked to him and he smiled broadly. "Now Chief Zian, it's your turn." Chief Zian, a Vulcan female in a yellow-collared uniform was a Phaser Specialist and worked the aft phaser array. Beth had a special place in her heart for the aft phaser arrays. It had been her first section command on the Oberon before becoming the Ventral Weapons Supervisor on the Ruaha. "Captain. Deck thirty two's forward room, below the base of the deflector array is also unused. Many of us would like to be able to convert it to a multi-cultural meditation room." Beth knew that the crew quarters on the lower decks were usually shared spaces, especially for non-commissioned personnel. If Vulcans wanted to meditate in their rooms, they would have to make arrangements with their roommates to avoid being disturbed. Beth nodded. "Excellent idea Chief. Is the room large enough for several meditation units?" "Yes Captain. I believe it could be converted to hold at least six units," she replied coldly. "Fine. I will have Commander Elieth work with you. However Chief, I think we need to be cognizant of the other physically differing species that meditate – like the Irriol. Maybe we should think about refitting for fewer spaces in order to accommodate them?" Beth answered. Chief Zian bowed her head. "Very logical Captain." Beth sipped her drink once more and her eyes fell to her bartender. "Ensign?" Ensign King smiled. "Captain. My heart lies with Bottom Aft…Finding a way to secure things would be great. Stocking it would be 275


even better. Maybe a few throw pillows…" Beth laughed. "Okay Ensign…I'll see what I can drum up for you." Beth knew that her plans for this fabulous place would exceed his but she cleared her throat, "However, you have to know, there's something just right about your décor. It's the effort of those of deck thirty two. I won't mess with that – you bring your own throw pillows." "Understood, sir," Ensign King agreed. Beth's eyes finally came to the first person brave enough to greet her. Lieutenant Isasile. "Well Lieutenant. What would you change?" Lieutenant Isasile smiled and looked to his crewmates around him and then his eyes came to rest upon Beth with excitement. "Captain. This is my second assignment to the bottom deck. To find out that you have also been through this is just…just…great," he laughed and Beth laughed with him. "I'm still in shock that you're here and that we're not being thrown in the brig…" Beth laughed out loud, remembering the several times that she and others she served with had to strike Bottom Aft before inspection or if there was the remotest possibility that brass was swinging through. "Yes Lieutenant, I thought I'd never get out of cellar either. But, for me it was one of the best learning experiences of my career. Most captains don't get this type of experience; hell, most in command don't get this experience. You have – use it to your advantage Lieutenant. Well what would you change?" Isasile seemed to blush. "My only request would be that you, as the newest member of the Bottom Line, take a shift in the bar every so often, as we all do." Beth nodded with a smile and she set her drink on the bar. "Gladly, Lieutenant." She stood from her chair. "I will also personally reprogram the door for password entry. If anyone wants to know what's going on in here that isn't a resident of the thirty two, they will have to come to me to find out." She stood and walked behind the bar where Ensign King showed her the set-up in the storage containers. Again, creatively set inside the containers, they had arranged steelplast shelves which held numerous bottles and a mish-mash of glassware and personal items – everything positioned to be stowed quickly and easily. Beth knew that the crew from the bottom 276


deck had donated anything they could get their hands on from family, friends and their own travels to keep it as well stocked as they could, they would replicate everything else. She knelt down behind one of the storage containers to review the contents. She knew that she would be able to contribute quite a bit. As she pushed her head in further to the back of the largest unit, she noticed that the crowd in the room had gone silent once more. She slowly pulled her head from the storage unit when she heard a deep male voice from the room. "See Lieutenant Commander!" the voice said loudly. "What did I tell you…a bar! It's a non-regulation as you can get!" Beth froze and looked up to Ensign King's face. The young Ensign returned her gaze with a strange mix of anger and glee. Beth held her finger to her lips to tell King to keep quiet and he nodded softly. She heard K'Reeg's voice. While he sounded perturbed, he did not sound as shocked as the first male voice. "I can see that Ensign." K'Reeg sighed heavily. Beth could hear that the last thing K'Reeg wanted to do was fill out a report on thirty individuals caught in a non-reg, makeshift bar. She grabbed a bottle of orange-colored Klingon produced synthale and quickly stood up. "K'Reeg. Would you care for a glass?" K'Reeg was visibly pleased to see the captain, especially holding a bottle of synthale. Beth was able to see that the tattler was a light-haired and fair complexioned human male in a yellow-collared uniform. He was obviously trying to make points with his superior. The man's face fell and his skin paled significantly. Beth thought he looked familiar but she didn't know why. "Captain," K'Reeg acknowledged her. "No report will be necessary Mister K'Reeg." Beth smiled and after grabbing a glass and pouring a serving of the synthale, she took the glass in her hand, walked back around the bar, stood in front of her Security Chief and handed the glass to him. "I'm on duty Captain," he politely turned her down. "Shame." Beth smiled and handed the glass to Lieutenant Isasile who accepted it graciously. Beth then turned her attention to the tattler. He was visibly shocked to see her. "Name," she asked calmly. "Lieutenant Jerbin, Captain," he answered. 277


Jerbin? "Related to Captain Nathaniel Jerbin?" She stared him straight in the eye. "Y-y-yes, Captain. He's my father." He was standing ram-rod straight. Beth's mind was reeling. Jerbin's son. Jerbin's son was on her ship? She could tell that he was as tight-assed as his father. She wanted so badly to rake him over the coals - to treat him like his father treated her. But she knew she wouldn't. She would handle this the right way and maybe, just maybe, she might be able to save the poor fool from himself. She breathed in and set her hand on his shoulder. "Well Lieutenant, I would like you to join me on the walk of my ship." She turned to K'Reeg. "yaS cha'DIchWI‌" she looked to her Second and he returned her gaze. "Absolutely no word of this is to travel beyond that door. Understood?" "Of course not Captain. Bottom Aft should remain that way." He nodded. Beth smiled broadly. "What ship, K'Reeg?" "The Princeton, Captain. We were called the Barrel Dregs." Beth laughed with the others. "Well, K'Reeg – you are now a part of the Bottom Line." K'Reeg nodded slightly and looked to Lieutenant Isasile. "Thank you." Beth pointed to Jerbin and told him to wait. She then had K'Reeg follow her over to the panel in the bulkhead near the door. She entered her security code and deftly reprogrammed the door. K'Reeg viewed the new password over her shoulder and he nodded. "Very good Captain, I'll get the word out to those who live here." "Thank you K'Reeg." She turned to face the remainder of those in the store room. "Goodnight everyone." "Goodnight Captain!" they seemed to lift their voices in unison. "Jerbin, you're with me," Beth said and she swiftly left the store room, followed closely by the pale-faced Jerbin. Beth walked down the corridor and could feel Jerbin a step behind her. This would be the test. If he talked, she might bite his head off. She moved toward the aft turbolift and entered it when the door opened. "Deck thirty one," she said bluntly. 278


The turbolift moved ever so slightly and the doors opened once more. Beth stepped forward, grateful that Jerbin had kept his mouth shut. He followed her once more. She took a deep breath and finally looked to him and directed him to move to her side. He did so and she continued to walk the corridors in a slow, yet deliberate fashion. She could tell that he was about as tense as a Vulcan lute wire. "Jerbin," she began. "Yes Captain?" he tentatively answered. "Do you reside on deck thirty two?" "Yes, Captain," he answered. Her brow furrowed. "That means you were invited to be a member of the Bottom Line. That's how you found out about it correct?" He tensed even further and Beth didn't think it was possible. She continued to walk in a slow, steady gait. A blue-collared Ensign rounded the corner and politely greeted her and she acknowledged him. "Yes, Captain," Jerbin replied once more. Beth stopped and turned to him. "Yet you still felt that it was more appropriate to break the trust of every crewmate on deck thirty two in order to assure that regulations were adhered to?" Her voice was held low. She thought he would break into a sweat. "Captain‌I...I‌" She sighed heavily, "Look Jerbin. What you did was correct. I'm not angry with you. There are rules and rules are made for a reason. However, something else happened down there and I can't fix it for you. Only you can. You have to find a way to mend that trust with those you serve with. These are the people who may save your life one day. These are the people who have the power to support you. They also hold the power to withhold that support." She rubbed her eyes and she thought that maybe, just maybe she was getting tired. The Arcturian whiskey must have helped. The sleep might come after all. "I understand your desire to assure the rules are followed Jerbin. It is commendable." "But they'll never forgive me will they?" He dropped his head. "I have already Jerbin. They may take more time." She patted him on the arm. "I guess I blew it." And his eyes softened. "Jerbin, if I were you, I'd go back with my tail tucked, apologize 279


and beg forgiveness. Ignoring this will make it worse, trust me," she said. "The password is‌" "No sir." He cut her off. "I'll earn that on my own." Beth smiled. "Good. Even better." She turned to head back towards the turbolift. "I look forward to serving you a drink down there. You're a good officer Jerbin. You will make your father proud." Jerbin's eyes widened. "But Captain, he said you hated him." Beth smiled. "I did," she confirmed as she moved into the lift and turned to her former Captain's son. "But you're not him‌are you?" "No sir," he replied with a rather stunned look on his face. "See you in Bottom Aft, Lieutenant." "Yes sir." The turbolift doors closed and Beth yawned heavily. "Deck Eleven." The lift moved and within moments the doors opened and she walked out and rounded the corridor to her quarters. As she made it to her bed, she pulled off her shoes and undressed and moved directly under her covers. Her head rested on the pillow. The sleep moved in.

280


Interlude X Stardate 91922.2 Earth Calendar July 27, 2413 Utopia Planitia Fleet Yard Shuttle – Perseus

While she always knew it would happen, the very idea that it was actually occurring still seemed surreal, like a strange impossibility. Here, rising in front of her as the small shuttle Perseus moved forward, was the incomprehensibly beautiful silhouette of the NCC-1701-G – the Enterprise. While she was not technically the same ship she had once thought she would command, in tradition and theory she was. This wasn't just a dream coming true - it was more concrete than that. It was the tangible realization that all of her hard work, the torture she endured, her losses and her pain were worth it. She did know that it would happen - she just thought it would take more time than this. She stood between the shuttle pilot and navigator who were escorting her to her new home. Home! It was a feeling that had evaded her for well over a decade a feeling that she thought might never come over her again. She was glad she wasn't piloting the shuttle herself as she was convinced the emotion of it would surely make her lose concentration on the helm. She hadn't realized it but her right hand 281


was trembling. She had only noticed it when she felt a strange coldness on her right cheek and she lifted her hand to quickly wipe away the trace of the tear that had trickled from her eye. The navigator had noticed and she smiled. "A dream come true Captain?" she had asked. Beth was forced to laugh a little. "Oh, it's more than that Ensign," she replied. "I was born to be on her." The pilot turned briefly with a smile. "I had the honor of escorting Captain Brint to the F, sir. He said the same thing." It caught Beth off guard and she choked a little. "And he was too, Lieutenant. I only hope I can serve to make the former Captains proud." "Again, he said the same thing." Beth smiled and nodded. If she spoke any more she was afraid she would lose all semblance of control. The Enterprise was more than just streamlined, she was stiletto sharp. She was a beguiling beauty that could charm first before surprising you with the fatal blow. A perfect representation of the Federation's defensive capabilities and unquenchable need for knowledge. The shuttle moved into the Utopia Planitia Orbital Station shuttle bay and Beth was forced to take her eyes off the Enterprise's hull as shuttle bay walls appeared. She took a deep breath in and patted the pilots on the shoulders as the shuttle rested quietly on the bay deck. "Thank you officers," she said kindly and turned to face the door of the shuttle which was beginning to hiss its way open. "Your welcome Captain," said the pilot, "and congratulations." Beth turned back with a smile and a nod and slowly walked down the short ramp into the shuttle bay. She was immediately approached by Admiral Janeway and Admiral Thomas Hrath. Janeway extended her hand first. "Captain Riker." Her distinct voice made Beth feel at ease. "Admiral." Beth shook her hand then turned to Admiral Hrath, the CO of the Starfleet Fleet Yards. "Admiral Hrath." She smiled, shaking his furry hand. 282


"You've come a long way since you manipulated your way into Command's central computer Captain," he said. Beth laughed out loud. Admiral Hrath, a Caitian male, had been an Engineering Captain assigned to the San Francisco station when she was a little girl. He still loved the creation of starships and was now the CO in charge of all three construction sites, San Francisco, Utopia Planitia here at Mars and the relatively new facility in orbit of Callisto. His feline face and mane always made Beth think of pictures of the lions of Earth and of stories of the howler cats of Romulus. His fur was dark brown and soft and his eyes were brown and his ears pricked upwards and moved like ancient radar dishes with every sound made in the shuttle bay. "Yes sir," she admitted with slight embarrassment. "I assume Captain that you are prepared to move in?" Janeway smiled. "I couldn't get packed fast enough when I was asked to take command of Voyager." Beth grinned from ear to ear. "My things from the Panther are already on their way Admiral." Janeway nodded with complete understanding. "I remember it as if it was yesterday Captain," she said, turning towards the bay door. Beth followed her and Admiral Hrath out to the corridors. Beth found herself fighting to keep from running down the hall and finding a way onto the ship as fast as possible. Her heart was thumping in her chest so hard she was convinced that it was deafening to Hrath. "I don't think I will ever forget this either Admiral." "No Captain. You won't. It always seems to mean more than the commissioning ceremony." Hrath twisted a whisker from the side of his flattened snout. "Which will be in four weeks." "We launch in four weeks?!" Beth's eyes widened. "That seems rather short." "She's almost ready now Captain. She just needs a command staff and a few departmental leads," Janeway stated. "And that's something for you to accomplish." Beth actually felt her heart fall a little. "My parents will miss it." 283


Janeway nodded remorsefully. "Yes Captain. Sorry about that." Beth was overwhelmed but shrugged. "Four weeks…and cabin modifications are done?" she asked Hrath, who nodded. "Most of the assigned crew are humanoid Captain. Very few cabin modifications were necessary," he added with a smile. "We have yet to be able to match the diversification of the Titan you know," he said with resignation. "Although we really do keep trying." "Well, you do that Admiral." Beth smiled then breathed out once more. "Four weeks," she whispered, realizing that the Federation would want as many completed ships to be out of the drydock as soon as possible in order to churn out more for the anticipated battles with Shentaria. Beth nodded her head now. "We'll need to get Engineering and Tactical up first, so they can familiarize themselves with the new systems. Hopefully I can snag Engineering from one of the Cats, they would be more familiar with the new technology. After that, I'll concentrate on an XO and the others." The small group turned a corner and Beth stopped in her tracks. It was the entrance tube to the Enterprise. It was essentially a long, enclosed gangplank surrounded almost entirely by windows, allowing for an unencumbered view of the length and breadth of the ship to fill her vision and she found herself having to concentrate to breathe. The ship was nine hundred meters long and her thirty two decks towered over them. The underside of the hull was more visible and she noticed that the area where the Captain's yacht would be ensconced was vacant. Shuttles and small craft moved to and fro and there appeared to be a rush of activity on other entrance planks. Indeed the finishing touches were already being made. She felt Hrath's touch on her arm. "Come Captain," he purred. "They always stop here, don't they Kathryn?" Beth heard Janeway's slight laugh. "Yes Tom, they do. But then again, so did I." "Wait," Beth whispered and she shook her head slightly, "Wait." The serene grey-silver of the tritanium shadowed over her. Her eyes looked over every possible nook and cranny of the new

284


ship's massive hull. She made mental notes of everything, where the escape pods were placed, the nacelles' position just over the top of the saucer section, how the shuttle bay at the back of the saucer section looked larger than she had imagined, hatch placement and window placement, which decks had entrance planks as well as the positions of the torpedo and phaser arrays. Nothing looked out of place and everything only looked more beautiful than she had ever imagined. She knew that this ship would fly like nothing else before her. Janeway grinned. "Tom, you have to remember, she's a pilot first. Pilots never board their vessel without the pre-flight visual." "Ah, that's right. Her father did the same before boarding the Titan as I recall," Hrath hummed heavily. Beth's eyes remained on her new ship but she smiled, trying to imagine the look on her younger father's face as he set his eyes on the Titan's hull for the first time. "My compliments to the Engineering staff Admiral. She's the most beautiful ship I have ever seen," Beth said softly. Hrath's cat-like grin widened and his long, brown tail flicked gently. "That, Captain is something with which I couldn't agree more. They went all-out for her and for you." Beth's eyes were torn away and fell to the Admiral's. She saw him nod and coax her towards the entrance to the ship. "I don't know Captain but when the staff found out that you had been offered the command, they seemed to be buoyed." Beth felt her face flush. "I'm more honored than they will ever know." Janeway moved with them as they continued to walk toward the main entrance on the tenth deck. "I think they know that Captain. Many of us know how you revere the name and her history. I couldn't be happier that Command thought of you first." Beth remained quiet for she couldn't think of anything else to say. They walked and walked towards the behemoth ship. Beth was in awe. If she didn't feel so assured about this move, then the ship might have appeared as though it was about to swallow her whole. Yet the all-encompassing mouth of the mooring bay door had made 285


her feel quite the opposite. Instead of feeling as if she were being swallowed, she felt as if the ship had sprouted arms and drew her into its warm embrace to hold her, to welcome her and to say to her‌I have waited for you, too. They reached the end of the entrance plank and Admirals Janeway and Hrath walked in without hesitation. Beth stopped at the very edge of the gangplank. She looked up and realized that there was a crowd of people standing there, waiting for her to cross the threshold and welcome her home. She was overcome and she laughed. She looked to those who watched her. "I have rarely known a day in my life when I haven't truly believed this day would come." She steeled herself and looked to the faces of those who looked upon her. "Now? I find myself hoping I am worthy of her and her crew." Smiles beamed from those in front of her and she watched her foot as she stepped onto the deckplate of her new home. There was a roar of applause and well-wishes from the crowd. As Beth and the Admirals walked into the ship further the crowd moved apart, revealing a small electronic podium. Beth knew this was a command podium and it would be here that she would receive the Enterprise. She and the Admirals were approached by a blonde-haired human woman in a red-collared uniform. Her red collar bore four gold pips. Hrath shook her hand happily. "I am pleased to introduce Captain Marcia Leonard of Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards and the Captain who has had command of the Enterprise since before her first deckplates were melded together. Captain Leonard? Captain Elizabeth Riker." Beth stepped forward to shake her predecessor's hand. "Captain. I cannot express the level of gratitude and of‌" "Captain," Leonard cut her off. "She was made with you in mind." Beth blushed hard once more and dropped her head slightly then smiled. "In any event‌thank you Captain." Captain Leonard moved to the podium where she manually input transfer commands. "Computer." There was an acknowledging tone. "Release all command codes to Captain Elizabeth L. Riker, authorization Leonard epsilon alpha one seven two."

286


"Command code transfer to Captain Elizabeth L. Riker initiated," the computer responded. "Secondary clearance required." Beth stepped forward calmly. "Computer, verify receipt of command codes authorization Riker gamma four delta three one." The computer chimed once more and the computer's voice spoke out once more. "Secondary clearance verified. The USS Enterprise is now under the command of Captain Elizabeth L. Riker." There was another loud burst of applause from the gathered horde and Beth shook Captain Leonard's hand once more. Her short blonde hair bounced with the smile that Beth was rather shocked by. "Well Captain Riker, take care of her. I'm off to start another custom build for someone else." Beth smiled. "What will be her name Captain?" Leonard nodded, knowing that Beth now understood her passion for creation. "The USS Steadfast, Captain. She'll be the Enterprise's twelfth sister." Beth grinned. "Have fun Captain and we'll send home postcards." Captain Leonard laughed. "You'd better." With that, Captain Leonard waved to everyone in the room and without looking back, she exited the ship and walked down the plank to the orbital station. Beth looked to the Admirals once more. Janeway stepped forward. "Well Captain. I need to escort you to your bridge." Beth nodded with a smile and without having to ask, the crowd parted and lined the way to the turbolift. She wanted to stop and meet every person there but knew the Admirals would not tolerate it. Hrath had ships to build and Janeway had more than just her fleet to direct until Admiral Riker returned from his secret assignment. Beth followed them quietly. She loved the smell of it. Everything was new and had the strange chemical aroma that only fresh carpet, new plexi and steelplast paneling could make. Although this was her first new launch, she had been assigned to the Ada Byron shortly after her launch and it still faintly held the new ship smell at the time. However, the intensity of the odor on the Enterprise had pleasingly surprised Beth. 287


The doors opened to reveal her bridge. Beth grinned uncontrollably as she walked out onto the main floor. She had once wondered why the change of command would occur on the tenth deck but Janeway had told her it was a superstition of Captain Leonard's. She apparently never believed she ever had real command of the vessels she built and to turn over command on the bridge would somehow sully it for the new commander. She always changed command at the entrance plank. It was only now that Beth appreciated the gift. Silly as it was, she looked to the command chair and knew it was hers and hers alone. Beth toured the bridge and her sterile ready room. Several workers were present, testing the panel functions and working on the controls and placing finishing touches on décor. Janeway and Hrath showed her the stations and the controls but Beth already knew them by heart. The moment she accepted the offer, she was sent the schematics and she memorized what she could. Just like any pilot would. She would crawl around the Jefferies tubes later. It was an old game – try to lose yourself in your own ship. Janeway stopped and turned to Beth as they moved back towards the turbolift. "You mean you're not going to sit in the chair Captain?" Beth laughed. "Not yet Admiral. I'm going to wait." Janeway's eyebrows rose. "That's a new one. They usually always head right for the chair," she said to Hrath who nodded in agreement. Beth tipped her head a little. "It's something that Picard once told me Admiral," she sighed. "That taking the chair was a personal moment." Janeway's face fell slightly. "I understand Captain." She brightened back up quickly. "I will show you where your quarters are Captain and then I'm afraid I must be off." Hrath turned to them both. "I will be taking my leave of you now. I have to get to the Callisto Yards to attend the plan meetings about the Fortitude and the Resolve – two more of your ship's sisters that are due for commissioning soon after Enterprise." Beth bid him farewell and shook his hand. He made for the aft turbolift and Janeway moved her to the forward lift. "Deck 288


Eleven," she said. "I still don't know much about this ship Captain. They've been building so many. So don't ask me where the head is." Beth laughed. "No Admiral, I won't." The doors opened and Janeway walked her to the door of her quarters. "Here is your new home Captain. I will leave you here. I will be returning to Command where I will be letting a certain Tristan McGregor know of his promotion and assignment as Captain of the Panther." Beth thought she heard herself squeal but she wasn't sure. Whatever noise she had made, it made Janeway laugh out loud. "I'm glad you approve Captain Riker." "I do indeed Admiral. I thought nothing could make me happier today but you have proven me wrong. He is, without a doubt the best choice for that position." Beth beamed. Janeway looked once to the door of Beth's new quarters. "I also know that we have made the best choice for the Enterprise, Captain. I will see you in four weeks but I will talk to you tomorrow, when I know you'll be starting to request members for your senior staff." Beth nodded. "As you can imagine Admiral, I already have ideas," Beth admitted. "You always did think ahead," said Janeway. Beth smiled, especially when Janeway moved forward to hug her. "I know you'll do us proud. You always have." Janeway pulled back and started to turn back towards the lift. "By the way, welcome home Elizabeth." Beth took a deep breath in. "Thanks Aunt Kathyrn." Janeway smiled with a nod and entered the turbolift. Beth turned to face the door and upon the computer's recognition of its new tenant, the door slid open. Beth's jaw dropped. She walked in and her eyes moved from side to side. A full office was set up to the left. A huge conference/dining table took up the center of the room. A guest head was ingeniously set off to the aft portion of the room. She walked into the bedroom. The space was large and the bed was too. Her dressing room was set beyond it and its size made Beth begin to giggle but the bathroom made her lose it 289


outright. There was a huge tub and a separate shower which had a choice of sonic or water for bathing. She had never seen such opulence, not even in her parents' quarters on the Titan. But something back in the main room had caught her eye and she turned back towards it. She was right. Behind the desk there were multiple stacks of environmentally controlled boxes. They were all the same beige color and all carried a brightly colored French flag demarcation on the side. Her heart skipped when she saw a paper envelope sitting on the desk. She slowly moved to the desk and reached out to pick up the envelope. Her name was neatly printed on the front. Captain Elizabeth Lwaxana Riker Beth took another deep breath as her eyes scanned the boxes behind her desk. She already knew what lay inside them. She almost feared opening the envelope. Her fingers gently lifted the seal and she pulled out a letter. The note had been written on paper of distinct and ancient quality. Her eyes started to well immediately. She knew whose stationery it was. She had received handwritten notes from him only on very special occasions and none since she was in the Academy. She looked upon his handwriting. The note was undated but appeared old. She read the letter. On the occasion of your acceptance of command of the USS Enterprise: My Dearest Elizabeth: If you are receiving this note it is only because I cannot be physically with you to celebrate what we both knew would eventually happen. Please know that I am still with you and couldn't be prouder of your achievement. As Captain of the Enterprise, I promise you that your life will never be dull. 290


To celebrate, I am making sure that you have enough of the 2382 to last awhile. Drink it in good health - to celebrate your new discoveries - to making of new friends and the loss of old ones. My winemaker has a standing order to make sure that your ship will always be supplied with the label's very best. First, as tradition mandates, I will give you advice as an old Captain of the Enterprise. It is the same advice given to me by another old Captain of the Enterprise…Captain James T. Kirk: "Don't. Don't let them promote you. Don't let them transfer you. Don't let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship because while you're there, you can make a difference." No my Elizabeth, I don't regret retiring when I did. It was the right time. My life is nowhere near over yet and I would like to spend what I have left in the comfort and company of my friends and family and pursue the interests that Starfleet never afforded the time for. Now, for the advice as your grandfather – Live. Live my Elizabeth. Live as though you have no tomorrow. Love. Love my Elizabeth. Love as though there were no hate. Learn. Learn my Elizabeth. Learn as though everything in the universe depends upon on your knowledge…for as the Captain of the Enterprise, one day it actually might. More importantly, laugh. Laugh my Elizabeth. Laugh until you are sore. Laugh when things get rough and laugh when you feel the joy. Never – never forget to laugh. Yet finally - try not to do the above alone. Share your life, share your love, share what you have learned and share your wonderful, beautiful laugh. 291


With all of my love – Your Grandfather, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. P.S. Now would be a good time to open a bottle, pour yourself a glass and go and sit in your new chair, Captain.

Beth laughed as she wiped the tears from her face. She set the letter down on her untouched desk, moved to one of the boxes and pressed the button. The pressurized lid opened with a faintly audible hiss. She pulled a bottle from the box and smiled when she found a cork pull in the lid of the box. Beth walked to the replicator. "Burgundy wine glass," she ordered and a beautiful crystal stem glass appeared. Beth carefully opened the bottle and poured the rich, dark red wine into the glass. Glass in hand, she left her quarters and made headway for the bridge. The doors of the lift opened and she saw that workers were still diligently testing every control panel function. As she walked back onto the bridge, she was silently acknowledged with smiles as the work continued. She noiselessly strolled to the command chair, gradually sank herself into it and leaned herself back. She then brought the glass to her lips and sipped her wine and smiled. Jean-Luc had once talked about learning to enjoy the perfect moment. This was definitely one of them.

292


PART NINE

C

293


294


Stardate 91940.0 Federation Starship – USS Enterprise-G Bridge

Beth wondered if this is how Jean-Luc had felt right before he was to cross paths with one of Q's tests – anticipation mixed with anxiety. Yet to her surprise, she was beginning to feel a slow, steady washing over of acceptance, calm and focus. She knew that many others were feeling the same mix of emotions. Partially because she could feel the tension leaking through Enya, who remained by her side on the bridge but mainly it was because it was hard to miss in their faces. Dryden had been particularly supportive. He seemed well rested and considering her lack of a full night's sleep, she appreciated his clarity. She looked over to the Sec-Tac Station. K'Reeg was not yet on duty. He had taken an extra half-shift the night before to assist with the final leg of the transition to the four shift-rotation and Beth expected him back at his station just after they entered over the common border with Onias Sector which wouldn't be for another four hours. Standing at the Sec-Tac station was Lieutenant Donnorh, a Zaldan male. His his face reflected the lack of activity he viewed on his panel. Beth exhaled. She hadn't served with a Zaldan since she was on the Ada Byron. Zaldans, 295


while they looked human from afar, had webbed hands. They also held very peculiar views. While many humanoid species practiced certain social civilities, Zaldans abhorred courtesy, viewing it as being deceitful and masking true emotions. Beth had to remind herself to be clear cut, concise and if need be, rude to the Lieutenant. She smiled when she realized that K'Reeg might find working with Zaldans easier than most as he would not need to worry about offending them. She turned to Dryden and he returned her gaze with curiosity. "You have the bridge Number One. I'll be in the ready room." "Yes sir," he replied and took the command chair as she moved forward. He could tell that she needed to busy herself with something other than staring at the viewscreen. "Captain?" asked Enya as she stood with her. "I will be back on deck nine if you need me." "Very good, Counselor." Beth nodded in approval and then moved towards the ready room. The doors to her office opened and as usual, she immediately ordered a cup of coffee and sat at her desk. "Computer. Music audio playback program Riker one one gamma, Coltrane-Davis tracks only." she said. "Fifty five decibels." The computer acknowledged and soon after the sweet piano intro, the singularly piercing tone of Miles Davis' horn split the air as the strains of On Green Dolphin Street filled the ready room. Beth stretched her neck, turned to her comm and began to read the reports of the previous shift. She smiled, knowing that a particular report of an occurrence on deck thirty-two was conspicuously missing.

The command chair was comfortable. Almost too comfortable. Careful Paul…you may get too used to it! The Enterprise is Riker's not yours. A few more years learning and building your reputation and you'll be given the gift of an exploratory, just like Dad – just like Admiral Riker – just like Captain Riker. Damn he liked working for her. Hili'ina was a fair commander but he was extraordinarily stern and oftentimes was too linear in his thinking. Unbendable and usually unwilling to hear other points of view, Paul was often frustrated by it and frequently felt squelched and held back. 296


He had been nervous when he was called into Hili'ina's office. He thought that he might have done something wrong. Hili'ina never called anyone into the office unless personnel issues were at hand. He had never sought Paul's opinion alone in the ready room. Mission matters were always discussed in the observation lounge with the entire senior staff and only then it was to receive orders. They never discussed issues as a group. Paul was surprised that Hili'ina didn't slam him for the usurping move during the battle at Telanus. While Hili'ina didn't necessarily freeze – he certainly wasn't thinking like his normal, linear self. Paul saw the look in his eyes when the shields were down. It wasn't panic, but Paul knew that he was having a hard time coming up with a simple solution - and because he was so used to being the one with all the answers and never asking for help, he didn't know how. So Paul offered it without his request. Besides, Paul knew exactly where Riker and Issa where heading and he knew that he could get the Walesa into a position not only to provide cover but he knew that they could assist with the dorsal torpedoes as well. By all means Hili'ina could have raked him over the coals – but he didn't. He didn't thank him either. Well, he did thank me… Paul entered Hili'ina's ready room, prepared to be told that rotation needed to be shifted yet again – a monumental task for the behemoth ship – but he found the captain sitting on the settee, not behind his desk. That had never happened before. "Commander," the captain had started. "Please have a seat." Hili'ina's hand moved graciously, offering Dryden a seat on the couch next to him. Paul could feel his heart starting to thump in his chest. As he lowered himself onto the settee, he couldn't even fathom what it meant. He sat up straight on the couch, as close to sitting at attention as he could and looked to his captain, whose boney ridges flared from his forehead in three directions and seemed unusually soft with his expression. Paul thought Hili'ina looked disheartened and his trepidation flared. What had Paul done? "Yes Captain?" he had asked openly. Hili'ina leaned back on the couch, extended his arm over the back of it and breathed in heavily through his rigid nose. "Commander. 297


I have received a rather unusual transmission that concerns you." The captain rubbed his eyes with his hand. Paul's worry skyrocketed and his mind raced. Was it his father? He had been out in the distant sectors for almost a year now. Was it his mother? Her new position at Command couldn't be an issue, could it? The Walesa was now in the fleet under her new command. Was she causing Hili'ina problems? Did he expect Paul to be able to help? Paul breathed in deeply, preparing himself for the worst. "Unusual, how sir?" Paul drifted the thought out. "Unusual in the respect that I have, for the first time in my career, been asked to give up an XO, Commander. Usually I'm the one offering promotions out – but I've never been cherry-picked before." Hili'ina leaned forward and then did something remarkable…he smiled. "Sir?" Paul was stymied; not by the words but mostly because he had never seen Hili'ina smile so pleasantly before. It wasn't a professional smile, it was a full-out grin and Paul was on the edge of being frightened by it. "Captain Riker has just contacted me to ask if you might be interested in becoming her new First Officer." Hili'ina was more than relaxed now, he actually appeared buoyant. Paul was confused. "Captain Riker, sir? What happened to Commander McGregor?" Hili'ina's grin melded. It was no longer just a happy smile and Paul began to feel like he was being played with, like a mouse just before the cat kills it. "You mean Captain McGregor. He was promoted." Paul was stunned. McGregor had only been an XO for less than two years. His command had come quickly, Paul thought and he blew out through his mouth and leaned back onto the settee. The thought of being Riker's XO was exciting. She had an incredible reputation as a commanding officer but the thought of transferring to a defense ship made his skin crawl. The Panther was the most elite defense ship in all of Starfleet. Absolutely no one got off that vessel without being promoted or decorated – no one – but those decorations were frequently posthumously awarded. He was an explorer, not a 298


fighter. Then there was Clark. Clark had only been on the Walesa for four months. They had waited five years to find a way to make it to the same ship, to leave Clark for a battle ship? No. Paul knew Clark would kill him before he even attempted a transfer to the Panther. He brought his hand up to his forehead, rubbed his eyes and tried to find a delicate way to say no. "The Panther?" he started. "Sir, I'm not…" "No Paul..." Hili'ina cut him off. "You mean you haven't heard?" He seemed surprised. Paul pulled his head back. Hili'ina had rarely used his first name and secondly – he had been so busy with the rotation and personnel reviews with Counselor Nelson that he hadn't heard – whatever it was. "Excuse me sir? Heard what?" Hili'ina let loose a loud and unrestrained laugh! It was a sound that Paul had never heard before and he was saddened by it. Hili'ina had a wonderful, jovial and Bacchanalian laugh and Paul found himself wishing he had heard it more often. "Paul…Captain Riker has just accepted command of the new Enterprise. She's not asking for you to be the new XO of the Panther, she's asking for you to be her new XO of the Enterprise!" His grin was splitting his face now. "She just contacted me from the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards. She took command yesterday and she wants you as her first choice." Paul wasn't sure he had heard him correctly and he looked to Hili'ina with a blank stare. "The Enterprise sir?" Hili'ina's laugh had taken on a quality of giddiness. "Yes Paul. You're being cherry-picked to be the new XO of the new Enterprise-G. She launches in four weeks. Riker would like you there by next week, sooner if possible." Paul's mind was reeling. The Enterprise – the flagship, the top of the mountain! Paul imagined that his facial expression was hilarious to Hili'ina, for he must have looked like an idiot with his dumbfounded cheeks sagging from his widened eyes. It was only then that his thoughts came to an abrupt and jolting halt…Clark! Paul's face morphed immediately into a tortured grimace. How could he leave Clark now? If there was one thing Clark 299


would definitely understand, it would be Paul's departure for the flagship – Paul had always told Clark that he would love nothing more than to be selected for the Enterprise and then use the experience to achieve his goals, but he had gotten so used to having Clark next to him the thought of having to resort to nightly transmissions again was breaking his heart. His eyes closed and he rubbed his face once more feeling anguish he never thought he'd feel upon hearing an offer to the Enterprise. I can't believe I'm actually considering turning this down?! Paul – you are an idiot! Don't decide this yet…talk to Clark. It was an idea he could sit on for the moment and he raised his eyes to Hili'ina. "Captain…I need to talk…I need to talk to Clark first." He couldn't believe his own ears. He was actually going to think about this? It was then that Paul thought Hili'ina was going to explode, but not in anger – his grin was positively popping off of his face and the great man stood from the settee, laughing so loudly that Paul wondered if he really wasn't talking to an alien-possessed Hili'ina. Surely he was never like this the whole time and Paul never knew it? "Well Commander, as luck would have it, Captain Riker had also called to seek recommendations for a new CSC. She knew that I had to go through the selection process recently and wanted to know if I had come across any one I could recommend." He leaned back against the edge of his desk. "I just happened to mention it might be easier to lure you over to the Enterprise if she would take the set." Hili'ina's smile turned back to the mischievous Cheshire cat grin once more. "Funny…she seemed rather pleased with the idea," he chuckled. Paul's face contorted with awe and astonishment. "Sir? You did that for me?" Hili'ina nodded brightly. "Paul. Your whole career was geared for this. You were meant to move on. So was Clark. You're both an extraordinary assets to this ship but I never would have been able to hold on to her as well as I have without your assistance and recently, a little training of my own. But it's time. Your departure for the Enterprise makes me look good too you know!" He stood once more. "So, do you think Clark will be interested?" Standing to meet his Captain eye-to-eye, Paul laughed aloud, 300


"I think Clark will be…overwhelmed…sir." Paul saw what looked like pride exuding from Hili'ina's expression and Paul smiled broadly, overcome by Hili'ina's generosity and good nature. "Captain. I don't know how to thank you," he said honestly. Hili'ina extended his hand and Paul took it gratefully. "You just did Paul. If you watch out for Riker like you have with me, you'll be in your own command chair before you know it. I look forward to sending you the congratulatory on that day." Paul grinned widely and he was swept over by a feeling that he was actually going to miss the guy. After three and a half years, Hili'ina had finally become the man Paul had always wanted to serve. Bastard. "Commander!" Paul's attentions were pulled to Donnohr's percussive voice. "Long-range scans show a tri-fin at heading 125 mark 12!" "Confirmed!" Llewellyn's voice held a low pitch that Paul hadn't heard before. It was a battle pitch and he assumed that Riker was more familiar with it. Damn Shentarians! Why? Why couldn't they just wait two more days?! "Red Alert!" he said without hesitation and Llewellyn fired the klaxons. Paul addressed Phinod at the Flight Controller's station, "Keep on course Ensign. Let's figure out where they're heading first." The doors to the ready room slid open and Riker appeared briskly. Her face appeared to have been carved from stone, like she had been expecting this all along – like she was ready for it. "Report," she commanded calmly and Paul noticed that she had begun to pull her long, dark hair to the back of her neck; she then braided it with the skill of a master weaver. In seconds, she had bound the long rope up, looping it under and using a small binder, pulled from where he didn't know, she secured it in place. It was the strangest pre-battle ritual he had ever seen. Instead of donning armor, the warrior ceremonially plated her hair. "Tri-fin is ahead of us Captain," he reported coolly. "Onscreen," she ordered and a tiny red spot appeared on the main viewscreen. "Is it on an intercept?" she asked Donnorh. 301


"Negative Captain. Either they haven't seen us or…." "Ambush?" she finished as she took her seat in the command chair. "Hail the Cats." "Captain. We're in interstellar space here. There is no planet to hide behind. It's a solo," Llewellyn interjected. "Besides, it almost appears as though it's drifting. I can't figure it out. It's just shifting…" As Llewellyn was talking, Dryden had taken his seat in the XO chair and reviewed his panel, hailing their escorts and placing their transmissions in sequence at the bottom of the viewscreen. He looked up to see the tiny red dot on the viewscreen and turned to see Riker as she leaned back heavily in her chair. He could see her thinking, turning the situation over in her mind, taking in every fact and analyzing. Even during their battle simulation, Paul hadn't seen this level of determination set in her face. It was as if a new and different person arrived on the bridge and her presence filled the room. There was no doubt that she held command. "It's alone?" she asked. "Well, that's really not like them. They always travel in small groups." "It's performing a search pattern sir…like it's looking for something. It hasn't seen us yet!" Donnohr cried. Beth thought briefly as she looked to the viewscreen, the Cat Captains appeared to be all finding their seats, rapt as she was on the scans coming from their respective tac officers, waiting to hear what she had to say. She wasn't used to having five on her screen; it had always been four before. Shaughnessy was the last to sit and face her. Okay. Not quite what I was expecting. It's on a search pattern…for what? Do I really want to know? Yes. Absolutely…and no. No! I could care less right now! We have tactical advantage. I must strike now. It's alone. Rid us of the first hurdle. That much is certain. But why is it alone? In the middle of nowhere? No matter – it WILL call for more! She faced her escorts on the screen, "Panther, Jaguar." She ordered, "It hasn't seen us yet but it will. We need to clear the path. The rest of you move into escort pattern delta." "Aye sir," Shaughnessy and McGregor both responded and all five faces disappeared from the viewscreen as the two ships moved from their forward escort positions and the other three moved into a relative, 302


offset triangular escort position as they departed. The aft turbolift doors opened and K'Reeg and Janeway moved out. "Report," Janeway said softly and K'Reeg looked to Donnorh who gave leave of the tac position and moved into the support station behind him. "Tri-fin Admiral. I just sent the Jag and Panther to rid us of it but it's alone and was on search pattern. I don't think we'll be alone for long. If there's another Shentarian in the quadrant, they'll call for it," Beth reported and watched as her CO looked to the viewscreen when she mentioned the enemy ship's presence. "Very well Captain." Janeway moved to and sat in the chair of an unmanned support station to assist if necessary. "I can assume we have no idea what it was searching for?" "Correct Admiral. I don't think we have the time to find out," Beth outlined. "Agreed," Janeway stated bluntly. "The tri-fin has spotted us sir and has moved to intercept. The Panther will reach it first," K'Reeg reported and Beth turned her eyes to the viewscreen where the distant view still showed the red spot of the three-spiked vessel but now the silver-toned defense ships were visible as they moved into the sweeping death-dance they had refined over the past two years. The Shentarians would have their spindly hands full with these two Beth thought and she hoped for Tristan's sake, he would take the first strike. It was her gift to him – new Captain gets first shot. She knew Brian would defer to him for the same reason; it would make him a part of the team. Beth thought it was a little odd, for being so in love with him, she thought she would feel apprehension over his involvement in battle, but she had come to accept the fact that she had loved him for well over a year and they had already faced many battles together. This was no different. His loss now would hurt just as much as it would have while they were on the Panther together. Now she really did feel like she had wasted time. She shook the feeling off her and looked to her Second. "Anything else on the long range?" she asked. "No sir," K'Reeg responded. "Not yet." "There will be," Beth warned and turned her head to Janeway. 303


"Everyone locked up down there Admiral? This will be a bumpy ride I think." "They were getting put away when I left Captain," Janeway responded. Beth nodded. "Ensign, bring us out of warp and keep a safe distance away. Number One, order the same for the remaining Cats." "Aye sir," acknowledged Phinod in unison with Dryden. The Enterprise moved out of warp but had edged into a slightly closer position to the impending battle and the viewscreen's ability to capture data increased, automatically magnifying the focused objects. "Open audio Number One," Beth ordered. "I want to hear it." Dryden opened the communication channel between the ships and the voices of the two Captains were heard. "We'll take the port roll Jaguar," said McGregor. Beth knew this to mean that the Panther would move hard port and attack the dorsalport aspect of the tri-fin. "We'll follow under you then swing around Panther." Brian was in his element and Beth knew it. He always liked to strike tri-fins from below first. The Panther flew into a hard port turn that arched across the trifin's bow. The tri-fin fired phasers that missed the Panther off her stern. "Fire!" McGregor called and the Panther sent off a combination quantum torpedo volley followed by a stream of phasers directed at the aft hub of the ship, a tactic used to weaken the ship's shields. Beth heard Shaughnessy's commands as the Jaguar sank below the tri-fin and sent off a pulse of phasers against the widest, open area of the hub at the tri-fin's underbelly. Beth knew that the tri-fins were, in some respects, an easier target than their four-finned counterparts due to the wide offset, but they were also more maneuverable than the quads and a joint attack was always the most effective way to take them out. The tri-fin responded to the attack once more and the surprise of it caught Beth's breath. The retort had been a dual strike – torpedoes and phasers fired simultaneously from bilateral aspects of the ship. It was a tactic they hadn't used before. Both Cats took hard blows. "Whoa!" Shaughnessy cried. "That's new!" "Hanging in there Jag?" McGregor asked him. 304


"We're okay but damn! - this crab is wily!" Shaughnessy snarled. "Their shields are holding," K'Reeg reported and Beth exhaled but just as she did, she heard that tone in Tristan's voice. She instinctively sat forward in her chair. "Jaguar! Brian…are you picking that up?" He sounded worried. "We sure are!" Shaughnessy replied and Beth could hear the shock in his voice as well. Before Beth could even ask what it was Llewellyn spoke up, his deep voice was clear and intense, "Intermittent tachyon bursts Captain! But not from the tri-fin! I can't get a lock on their source!" He grunted. "Intermittent?" she asked. "Did the burst miss them? How are their shields?" "Yes sir. Their shields are still holding for now!" confirmed Llewellyn. "The bursts are gone. Let's focus on getting this thing out of the Enterprise's way!" McGregor's voice was heard over the comm once more and Beth could tell he had refocused himself mentally. "Let's worry about those tachyon bursts after the tri-fin's gone!" "Agreed!" Shaughnessy replied. With that, Beth watched as the Jaguar and the Panther began a series of phaser attacks against the tri-fin when it did something truly unexpected… it retreated. Beth shot up from her chair and watched the viewscreen in utter disbelief, she shot a look to K'Reeg and questioned him reflexively in Klingon, "qaStaH nuq jay'?" then turned to look at Dryden and then to Janeway. "I've never…" K'Reeg's face lit with her explicative-laced question and he peered to her intensely. "yay' jIH HoD – nor have I," he responded. "They have always fought to the death, except at Isla Deneb, when it was tactically advantageous for both sides to back off and regroup." "Was it something I said?" Shaughnessy asked. "I think it smelled you Shaughnessy!" McGregor roared. Beth quickly moved her hand up to her face to hide her smile as she turned from the viewscreen to return to her seat, but Dryden caught it. He really liked working for her. At least she knew how to laugh and wasn't 305


afraid to show it. "Hail them," Beth said with a slight shake to her head and a small smirk still resident on her face. "Do you want us to pursue Captain?" asked McGregor and Beth could tell he was itching to follow it. "No," Beth said succinctly. "We need you both back here. I suspect it will seek support and I don't want the party split up when they return," she sighed. "Besides, we now have to find a way to avoid those tachyon emissions." "If I could find out where they were coming from Captain…" snarled Llewellyn, "…then we'd be in a much better position to avoid them as we pass that area, but right now, I recommend a full stop." Beth nodded. "Full stop Ensign, so ordered for the Cats as well." She stood once more. "Still nothing more on the long range sensors K'Reeg?" "No sir," K'Reeg confirmed. "Fine. Yellow alert Mr. Llewellyn." "Aye sir." And he changed the beacons' colors. Beth turned to Dryden. "Let's regroup ourselves. Get Revaik…" but Beth stopped herself as the forward turbolift opened and Jaden stepped out and moved directly to the science station. "Never mind Number One." Beth smiled then looked to Janeway who stood, knowing that she and Beth would consult in the ready room. "Report when ready, Number One. I want to get past these bursts. Frankly, I don't care where they're coming from – only how to get around them safely and back to Earth. Starfleet can send a different science vessel back here later to research it." "Aye sir," Dryden responded then watched his Captain move towards the ready room once more and just as they moved, Admiral Riker entered the bridge from the aft turbolift and followed them into the ready room. Dryden had never seen the Admiral look so serious and he now understood exactly where Beth got her command presence.

Beth smiled when she realized she had left her music on when the red alert fired off. Her father, who had just entered, heard the intense 306


musical discussion between Coltrane and Davis in Straight, No Chaser. He let his smile break as he took his seat across from the Captain. "Computer end audio playback," she said and the music abruptly stopped. Riker noticed the slight redness to her cheeks. "Sorry about that, Admirals." Janeway also grinned as well as she could under the circumstances but it was Riker who spoke first. "Glad to hear you're listening to the masters instead of that noise you used to listen to…what did you call it? Heavy metal?" Beth flicked her eyebrows. "I still listen to it sir. And punk as well." Riker scowled. "Noise." "No sir, not noise. I believe that the genres have a lot in common." "How so?" He seemed annoyed as if her theory had no ability to bear out. He remembered the screaming and the clamor in the holodecks all too well. "They're all explorations of the interplay of chaos within structure and vice versa." She leaned back in her chair and adjusted her comm to see the most recent reports being issued from the ship. Elieth's and Revaik's teams were trying to work with Llewellyn to locate the source of the strange tachyon emissions, the reason for their appearance as well as a way to decipher when and where they might occur next so they can navigate through them. Riker smiled. "Interesting Captain. Which one is chaos within structure? Which one is structure within chaos?" Beth grinned back at her father. "The research continues Admiral." Having reviewed her screen she turned her attention to her CO. "Admiral. Shentarians were always a possibility but they were still somewhat of a surprise." "Yes Captain they were. I'm alarmed at the fact there was only one." "Just one?" Riker asked, obviously just now being briefed. Beth turned her comm to him so he could read the outlines of the last occurrence. He leaned forward from his chair to begin the cursory review. His scowl appeared immediately. 307


"Yes Admiral and it retreated," Beth informed him and Riker's head bounced up with surprise. "Exactly how my face must have looked, Will," Janeway sighed. "They're off to find support." "I'm afraid so Admiral. In the meantime, we're stuck until we can find a way around those tachyon bursts. If we get hit, our shields are down. If we get hit twice we'll be sitting ducks." "Any clue what's emitting the bursts yet?" asked Riker. Beth shook her head. "Not yet sir – but the teams are working on it." She turned to the replicator. "Two coffees, French roast, black." After they appeared in the device, she pulled one out and handed it to Janeway who smiled and accepted it graciously. Riker shook his head. "You both drink too much coffee." Beth and Janeway smiled and toasted to each other.

"So what you're telling me is…we still don't know where they're coming from and there's been no way to determine where they will come from?" Beth was getting frustrated now and Dryden could see it. "Correct sir," he replied. "The bursts themselves appear to be focused. They're definitely not the wide swaths of tachyon fields that we're used to seeing. Llewellyn described them as being more like beams or pins extending from a pin cushion – it's just that pin cushion itself keeps moving." "So the point of origination appears to move as well?" Beth asked. "Yes sir, and with no discernable pattern of movement. We won't know where it will pop up next," Dryden informed her. "Do you think it's a cloaked ship?" Beth asked. Dryden sighed. "Elieth and Llewellyn aren't sure. If it is a cloaked vessel it's enormous and has been moving from spot to spot at warp. There's just no way to tell." he then briefly smiled. "The thought is intriguing Captain, it might be something the Shentarian ship was searching for." "The tri-fin would have been just as susceptible to the tachyon bursts, correct?" asked Janeway. 308


Dryden nodded. "Yes Admiral. We suspect that was the reason for its withdrawal." "Five Cats, a Determination-class starship and tachyon bursts‌it was going to lose no matter what." Beth sighed. "I would love to know whether that's a cloaked ship or not, but we just don't have the time." Her voice was filled with disappointment. "That tri-fin now knows that the Cats are escorting us and will suspect the importance of this passage. How long will it take us to go around?" she asked, knowing the answer would not please her. "If we head into Romulan Space, it will delay us by three days. If we move away from the Onias sector, we'll be forced to go around the Paulson Nebula and we'll be set back over a week." "It's a proverbial road-block," said Admiral Riker, looking to Beth. "Q?" Beth sighed heavily. "I'm not sure Admiral. It's possible of course. But I can't risk the lives of these diplomats when I know the Shentarians are likely watching from a distance. If we get hit by those tachyon disruptions they'll be on us like Rigelian razor flies." "Agreed Captain," said Janeway. "What's your plan?" "The Praetor has made arrangement for our possible need to enter Romulan space, correct Admiral?" She looked to Riker and he nodded. Beth was sick. Q was forcing her hand and she knew it. Well girl, buck it up. It's showtime! "Number One, lay in a course to bypass through the Onias sector." Dryden nodded. "Aye sir." Beth looked to her CO and then to her father as Dryden left the ready room. "Admiral Janeway, I'm going to ask you to contact Command and get some support of our own underway to meet us, just in case the Shentarians really do decide to come after us. Admiral Riker, I would appreciate Romulan support as well." The two Admirals nodded but remained seated. They didn't say a word to each other, all of them knowing that Q's plan was unfolding like a map before them but none of them knowing to where or to what the map was directing them. "At least Revaik and Griffin can get new scans of the region." 309


Beth tried to smile. "There's my girl." Riker smiled. "Always looking for the bright side."

The Enterprise was now on her way through the Onias region of space – right through the edge of the place that Beth was hoping she could avoid, but knew in her heart Q would not have allowed it. She found herself standing in stellar cartography once more. This time she had Griffin and Revaik by her side. The holosphere was filled with the sector that had taken up their time since Griffin first brought it up days ago. Beth's forehead crease was noticeable – even to her. "Which five planets are at issue Revaik?" she said as she sat up against the rail of the center deck. Griffin's hands flowed over the panel as Jaden's mellow voice filled the room. "Captain. The five planets we have been looking at are these…" Griffin moved the views of the entire sector and the stars in the room expanded farther apart once more. Now only a few stars were visible in the room and all of their corresponding planetary systems were visible. Beth could tell immediately that none of the planets were inhabitable as they knew it – not one Class M was visible. Not even a Class L or a Class K – the least habitable classes. They all looked like dead rocks or gas giants to Beth. Revaik's hand ran over a padd she was holding and Beth's eyes were drawn back to the planets above her head. Revaik configured the computer to highlight the five planets in a pale blue halo. All five planets revolved around different stars, all of which all sat in the same corner of the sector. "Well, well," Beth said with some surprise. "They're all in the same general vicinity of each other." "Yes Captain," said Griffin. "Like you said, if they're hiding, they're making it easy on themselves to travel from one planet to the other." Revaik grimaced. "Captain. I am finding it hard to see how they could be hiding on one of these planets. There's no evidence of any type of cloaking technology at play here." 310


Beth nodded. "I know. But you'll recall that Romulus has stated they felt they received outdated technology when they first entered into the alliance with them. It's possible they've snowed us all along." Beth stood back up from the railing, her eyes taking in the positions of every planet that Revaik had highlighted. "They all revolve around type G yellow dwarfs?" Beth asked again. "Yes sir," answered Griffin. "Another reason why your suspicions may be right. They're certainly the type of stars most frequently seen with planets that support life." "On our current course and heading, will we pass by any of these closely enough for you two to get another crack at them?" Beth asked. Griffin and Revaik both smiled and Beth could see she hit some positive news. "Yes sir. We're looking forward to being able to obtain completely new scans on four out of the five." Griffin's hands floated across his panel once more. A bright red line outlining the Enterprise's current course appeared over Beth's head. The ship would indeed be heading down a path that led them on a relatively close pass-by of four out of the five systems. Beth was struck by the news. Four of them? Had Q just led her into the heart of the lion's den? Her eyes looked at how the Enterprise would be surrounded by the four planets as she passed through an area common to the four systems. Trepidation was not what she was feeling…it was more than that. She knew it wasn't fear…but it's close. Her eyes fell back to the planets above her head – each one spinning around its home star, highlighted in the pale blue light that Revaik had used to point them out to her. "Dryden to Captain," the voice on the comm spoke. "Go ahead Number One," Beth replied. "Captain. You are needed on the bridge. Long-range sensors show that the source of the tachyon emissions appears to be following us." "On my way." Beth replied then looked to her scientists. "Clark – you begin the scans when you can. Also, why don't you go ahead and prepare a class five probe for the first one we pass. Revaik, you're with me." 311


"Aye sir," they both answered and Jaden walked out with Beth. As they exited cartography Beth looked to Revaik who seemed to be wearing that special scientist grin they seemed to get when a mystery was unfolding. Beth remembered the look from the years she spent with the deep space scientists on the Titan. Stellar cartographers, exobiologists, linguists, exochemists, geologists, archaeologists, gravimetricians…she had been around them all and they all bore the same strange smile when there were more questions than answers. Her brother used to get the same damn smile. It's why she knew she would never be a scientist. She hated the questions. She liked the answers. She was especially fond of people who liked finding the answers for her. "Why would it follow us?" Revaik asked and Beth realized she had asked the question to no one in particular as they walked towards the turbolift. Beth grinned and didn't answer her, knowing that Revaik wasn't really expecting one to begin with. That's when Beth heard it. Beth stopped in the corridor, well short of the lift. "Did you hear that Jaden?" she asked softly. "Hear what sir?" Revaik asked. Beth tried to focus her ears on the noise once more. It was a familiar noise and it sounded distant and faded. It was high pitched and on the edge of feeling…subliminal. Beth's heart started to pound heavily in her chest. Jaden looked to her captain whose face had paled and whose eyes drew back wide with an expression of dread. "You can't hear that?" she asked Revaik once more. Confused, she answered, "I don't hear anything Captain. It's as quiet as a Vulcan temple on this deck." Without waiting to explain, Beth turned and ran full bore to the turbolift. Revaik followed. "Bridge!" Beth barked as the doors to the lift closed behind them. "What's wrong Captain?" Jaden asked. Beth did not answer her and only shook her head. Jaden noticed that the captain's eyes had closed, as if she was trying to focus on hearing something. Jaden couldn't hear anything but the soft swish of the turbolift 312


as it hurtled towards the bridge. The doors opened and Beth rushed out to the bridge followed by Jaden who moved towards her science station. The captain moved quickly towards her command chair. Dryden began to report, "Captain. The long range sensors…" "Sh!" Beth held up her hand. "I need quiet on this bridge," she ordered. Everyone was taken off-guard and Dryden's face showed his confusion. The sound was just a little louder up here. Not by much, but enough to know that it was…it was that noise – the noise from the white void. "Can anyone other than me hear that noise?" Beth asked. Every person on the bridge stopped to listen but Beth already knew no one else would hear it. That's because I'm not hearing it with my ears! I'm hearing it in my mind! Where? Where is it coming from? Beth was more than reluctant; she desperately didn't want to open the door in her mind. Enya was still below with the VIPs but Beth's experience in the void made her more than just wary of it. "Captain?" Dryden spoke softly and his voice reflected the concern he was starting to build. Beth lifted her eyes to Dryden. "I hear something Number One. I hear something…familiar." She didn't know how else to start to explain it. "Familiar, sir?" Dryden asked. "I don't hear anything Captain." Beth sighed and nodded but for her, the noise was still there and still very, very faint – even more so than when she had heard it in the void. "Fine then." She turned back to Dryden. "Report." Dryden shifted where he stood. "Are you sure Captain?" His concern still evident. Beth forced a weak smile. "Not really Number One, but report any way." Dryden nodded. "Long range sensors reveal the source of the tachyon pulses appears to be following us but from an extreme distance. The pulses have dropped significantly in frequency and none have been directed towards our group." Beth sat in her chair. "Yellow alert." She looked to him as he sat next to her, his eyes still heavy with concern. Llewellyn lit the yellow lights 313


and a short tone emitted from the beacons and then waned. "Cloaked ship?" Dryden nodded. "It appears more and more likely Captain." Beth actually allowed herself to smile. Q isn't going to allow me to get out of this without looking down the lion's throat either. "Well we all really wanted to find out more about that now so, let's have a looksee shall we Revaik? Begin scanning what you can to see if this…thing…really is a ship. In the meantime I see no reason to deviate from our course…yet." "Aye sir." Dryden nodded.

The sound was a constant, steady tone that sat like a lump in the back of her mind. Her eyes watched the viewscreen waiting…waiting to see what couldn't be seen. There was no ship. Tachyon emissions were invisible. There were no Shentarian vessels on long-range sensors. The Enterprise continued on the same pace through the outskirts of the Onias sector and into Romulan space. They would be passing by the first copy-cat planet, as Jaden had nicknamed them, within minutes and the Class V probe had been readied for launch. But the noise was beginning to get louder…or maybe it was just more noticeable due to its constant presence in her mind. In any event, Beth was beginning to find it more difficult to ignore. Dryden's eyes watched her carefully and she knew it. He hadn't lost his concerned expression since she told the bridge crew she heard the noise in the first place. The source of the tachyon emissions still appeared inconsistently enough to make analysis a challenge at the very least. It did appear to be following them, yet at a distance to make sensor readings inconclusive. Beth was convinced it was a ship of some kind. The fact it was following them reflected some kind of intent and if Revaik and Llewellyn were right, it was massive; six, maybe seven times as large as any Teslaclass ship. She just wished she could empty her mind of the constant whirring of the noise. When Revaik spoke, it didn't release her from the torture, 314


but it did provide her with a short respite. "Captain, we're ready." Beth breathed in and nodded her head with resolute determination. "Fine Revaik, proceed with the launch." "Aye sir," Revaik answered. Time stood still. Beth's head spun and she caught Dryden's eyes. He was with her. Everything around them was frozen in the moment, but they stood there together able to move and breath and see and hear. Dryden's eyes widened and his expression was the most peculiar mix of shock and wonder. Beth closed her eyes and waited…waited to hear his voice. She didn't have to wait long. "Are you sure Riker?" Q's voice carried from behind Revaik, her frozen hand hovered over the panel that would launch the probe for the first planet. Beth opened her eyes slowly and her eyes met Dryden's once more. To her relief, Dryden broke a small smile. "He really is a pain in the ass isn't he?" he mumbled. Beth smiled and her smile evolved into a grin and then she allowed herself a slight giggle. "Q!" She spun to see him standing on the rim of the bridge dressed in a full red and black judge's ensemble that Jean-Luc had once described to her from his first encounter with the entity. It only made her laugh more loudly. Q was not smiling. He looked perturbed by her reaction to him. He floated ethereally down from the rim to the main bridge floor. Beth and Dryden watched as Q's arms spread wide, his robes hanging like drapery across his breadth. He settled in front of the viewscreen and his eyes never left Beth's. "I see you utterly fail to comprehend the razor thin precipice on which you and the rest of the galaxy teeter, Riker. Jean-Luc would be very disappointed in you I think." Beth lost her smile. "Jean-Luc would be proud of me," she sniped. "Your presence here is not necessary." "Au contraire, mon capitain." Q bowed with false respect. "My 315


presence here is required. I'm here to serve as witness." "Witness to what?" Dryden scowled. "Why, the beginning of the end of course!" Q floated back towards the ready room door. "The Continuum holds little faith in humanity's ability to see past its own nose." He folded his arms in front of him, "And‌I must admit what little faith I have had is lost. Humanity is reaching its end and you, my dear Captain, will be the reason for its demise. But as judge, jury and executioner I must review all evidence before passing sentence." Q's face lost all light and shadow filled the bridge. "A sentence I fear that you will just pass upon yourselves. You're making my job all too simple Riker." Beth stood still for a few moments, going over Q's words in her head. What am I missing? What are you trying to say Q? Q's eyes softened momentarily and he smiled gently. Beth looked to him with worry. "Well Riker, we'll see just how well you were listening." Q brought one of his hands up and looked to the tips of his fingernails as if checking for dirt and after finding them perfect in every way, he returned his pessimistic gaze to Beth. "You did say that it was how you learned, didn't you Riker?" Beth swallowed hard and nodded weakly. "Well then. Let's hope, for the galaxy's sake, you heard." He stared back at her then in a flash, he disappeared.

316


Interlude XI Stardate 72118.6 Earth Calendar August 19, 2393 Federation Starship – USS Titan- NCC-80102 Earth Orbital Station Ten Reception Hall Ten

"Happy Birthday!" the large crowd raucously yelled. Beth and Bill stood locked-armed against the mass of adults crammed into the room. It was overwhelming and a bit stifling. Bill looked to his sister and swallowed hard. "I thought you said this would be fun," he whispered. There was giggling from behind them and Beth turned to see the light blue eyes of her sister as she laughed mercilessly at her siblings. "Told ya!" barked Cassidy. Wide-eyed in shock, Beth shrugged absentmindedly. The surprise of the crowd had thrown her off. Her relatively new secret ability to read everyone without being heard caused a rush of emotional noise she hadn't been prepared for and it shook her. She raced to find a way to close the doors in her mind. She stammered under her breath to her brother who already towered over her, "But Dad said it would be just the family." 317


Bill rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but family means everyone, stupid." Beth grimaced. "Butthole," she hissed back. "You're both dumb." Cassidy smirked. Beth and Bill both turned on their younger sister and Cassidy stuck her tongue out at both of them. Riker moved in with a grin on his face. He wrapped his arm around his son's shoulders and moved him forward into the crowd. With his other hand he gently touched Beth's head and he glared at his youngest. "Cassidy‌" he warned with his voice and she looked to the floor. "Come on now, it's supposed to be a happy day. You only turn eleven once." He looked down seriously at his children. "Can we get through this party without the three of you coming to blows?" Bill smiled and nodded. Beth, still trying to close the door in her mind nodded as well. "Okay Dad." She looked up to her father in with a pleading sigh, "You said it wasn't going to be just adults." Riker grinned. "We're a bunch of kids at heart Beth." Beth rolled her eyes and Riker laughed out loud. "Let us have a little fun! Come on the whole family's here! Grampa Picard and Aunt Beverly and Uncle Geordi are here. Even Uncle Worf was able to make it!" Beth grinned brightly and looked to Bill. They had weakened in their pessimism. "What about Aunt Christine?" she asked hopefully. Riker shook his head sullenly. "No. Sorry honey. She did send a message though." Beth nodded with comprehension. "Are they still over by Tholia?" Riker's head spun with shock. He stopped and turned and lowered himself to Beth's eyelevel. "Where did you hear that?" A shock of adrenaline shot through to Beth's fingertips and she raced to find a way to cover for her own lapse. She just couldn't tell him she could read everyone's mind when she was around Betazoids. It would mean doctors and teachers and tests and tests and more tests. She always thought it would be great to be like Cassidy. No one could sense her little sister, not even her. She thought it would 318


be great to be able to keep her thoughts to herself. When she started to show signs that her empathic skills were more than Bill's she decided to keep it secret. It was just turning into a lot of work to hide. "I don't know‌I thought I heard you and Mom talking about it the other night." Riker scowled with disbelief. "I don't remember saying anything like that." Beth was beginning to panic. "Then I don't remember‌why? Is that where she is?" She was faking it entirely and she was just glad it wasn't her mother giving her the once-over. She would have sensed her dishonesty immediately. Riker shook her off quickly. "We'll talk about it later." Beth breathed out with a quiet sigh of relief. Her sister was giggling maniacally at her and Beth snarled in return. Sometimes Cassidy just bugged her. Her father brought her forward into the crowd once more. Adults bent down to hug her and kiss her and wish her a happy birthday. It wasn't until her eyes rested on Jean-Luc Picard that her mood lifted exponentially. "Grampa!" she cried and she burst her way through the remaining crowd. He turned towards her and he beamed his wonderful smile and held out his arms in welcome. She moved into his embrace without hesitation. "My Elizabeth!" he roared. "Happy Birthday!" "Thanks Grampa!" She turned to face Beverly, "Hi Aunt Beverly!" Beverly Crusher looked radiant. Her graying-red hair pulled back into a soft bun at the base of her head and her bright blue eyes matched Cassidy's in hue. "Hello Beth, happy birthday sweetheart." She kissed Beth on her cheek happily. "Thanks," she replied. Riker smiled and watched as Bill left him to receive a hug from Geordi. "Bill!" Geordi patted him hard on his back. "Jean-Luc was right, you have grown haven't you?! You'll be taller than your 319


father I think!" "I hope so Uncle Geordi, girls like tall," Bill said with as deep a voice as he could muster. There was a burst of laughter from the group that surrounded them. Riker shook his head with proud embarrassment. Picard lifted his laugh and directed it at his former First Officer. Beverly moved in to give Bill the obligatory kiss on the cheek that he immediately wiped off with his sleeve. "You will certainly take after your father Bill. He was quite the ladies man before he married your mother." Bill's eyes went wide and he spun to look at his father with awe. "Really Dad?" Riker pressed his tongue into his cheek. "Thanks Bev." Beverly shrugged. "I'm only telling the truth." Riker looked down and saw Cassidy watching shyly from behind him. "Wanna say hello sweetheart?" Cassidy nodded and moved around Riker's legs and took in greetings from her aunts and uncles. Picard knelt down and gave her a great hug until she began to giggle. His job done, he watched as she returned to her father's arms and he lifted her up with ease. Picard grinned when he looked at the two of them. Cassidy was Riker's mirror image. Beth moved back into her grandfather's waist and he gently took her back into his embrace. "So tell me Elizabeth. How did you enjoy your time when Bill was with us?" Beth grinned. "It was great Grampa! I pretty much got the whole place to myself. I got to use the holodeck twice as much and Uncle Tuvok started to teach me Andorian, and Ferengi!" she said and then grinned mischievously, "Are you sure you can't keep him?" Again, there was another laugh from the group. Riker raised his eyebrows. "Now Beth, Bill's only been back for a week and you're already trying to pawn him off? Before he came back you said you missed him!" Beth shrugged. "Yeah, but I've had enough already." "Butthead," Bill retorted. 320


Beth stuck out her tongue at him and Riker broke it up once more, rolling his eyes to his friends with a heavy sigh. "Jean-Luc? You can have them all if you'd like." Picard shook his head. "No thank you Will. William kept me on my toes long enough." Picard turned to Bill with a serious smile. "However, I expect you to report to me on those books and maps. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about those petroglyphs we observed." Bill's eyes lit with the fire of excitement and there wasn't anyone who didn't notice. Riker grinned happily. "I already have my hypotheses stated and I'm working on proving my theories Grampa. I'll have the report to you by next week!" Picard grinned broadly. "I'm sure you will. Once I read your report, I'll have other assignments for you." Bill was beside himself with joy. "Cool! Thanks Grampa!" Deanna moved forward from the crowd and greeted the group. She then looked to her oldest daughter. "Beth?" "Yes Mom?" she replied. "Come here, I need to ask you something." Beth moved into her mother's arms and let her draw her away from the family. Deanna spoke softly so not to alert anyone around them of what she was saying. Beth's curiosity piqued. "There's someone here who wants to meet you but he's very shy," Deanna said. "He's about your age and he's a little lonely in this big group of adults." Beth was taken aback. "He wants to meet me? Why? Why doesn't he want to meet Bill instead? He's a boy." Deanna shrugged softly. "I don't know. I think Bill scares him a little." That, Beth could understand. "Yeah." She looked up to her mother's kind and beautiful face. "He needs a friend?" Deanna nodded. "Very much so. He lives alone on a ship like you and your brother and sister do, so it's hard for him to meet people his own age." 321


Duty laid out to her, Beth accepted her assignment with honor. "Consider it done Mom." Deanna grinned and kissed the top of Beth's head. "He's right over there‌" Beth looked out toward the long padded bench along the panoramic windows of the reception hall. Earth's bright blue color filled the view entirely. Her eyes came upon a boy sitting on the settee. He looked like a human boy but Beth knew better than to judge species by appearance. Many people looked at her and assumed she was all human too. She walked over to him and he turned his head from the window and smiled when he saw her. He was older than her but not by much. He had dark hair and dark eyes. He wasn't going to be very tall like Bill, but Beth could see that he was already very strong. She liked his smile very much. "Hi," she said. "I'm Beth." "Hi Beth. I'm Mike." He held out his hand formally and she smiled and shook it. She turned around on sat down on the settee. "Happy Birthday. You just turned eleven?" She grinned and blushed. "Uh huh. How old are you?" "I'm twelve but I'll be thirteen in two months." Beth smiled and scrunched up her nose, mentally putting herself into Mike's position. "Must be weird coming to someone's party you don't know." Mike nodded his head and looked in to the crowd of people. His eyes rested upon two adults. One was a female Deltan and the other was a human male. Beth thought the woman was very pretty. She had no hair but Beth decided she didn't need any to make her any more beautiful. The man was about the height of her Grampa Picard and he had dark hair and eyes. His arm was holding the Deltan woman warmly. The man was wearing a Starfleet captain's uniform and the woman was wearing some sort of robes that Beth assumed was diplomatic wear. "Is that your parents?" she asked Mike. "Uh huh," he confirmed. "My Mom's the new advisor to one of the Federation Council members and my Dad's the Captain of the 322


Ras Dashen." Beth smiled. "Really?! That's one of the new Shasta-class ships isn't it?" she asked excitedly. "I've never seen one." Mike's eyes widened a bit. "You like ships?" Beth nodded her head fervently. "Yeah! I love ‘em!" Mike turned around in his seat, quickly rising to his knees and folded his arms over the back of the settee, a gleam sparked in his eyes. "There!" He pointed out the window. "There she is! Isn't she great?" Beth turned around with just as much excitement. "Where?" Her eyes followed Mike's pointed finger. The ship was bigger than the Titan and her hull was rounder and like most other starships, her nacelles were set slightly above the saucer section. Beth could tell right away that she wasn't meant for deep space exploration. She didn't have the depth of sensor arrays that the Titan or even the Enterprise had. She was a multi-use ship meant for defense, science and politics. Beth smiled widely. "She's cool looking." Mike nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I like her a lot too." "How big is your crew?" Mike turned to look at her seriously. "Six hundred seventy seven and me." Beth felt the pang of familiarity. "Yeah. I get it." She rolled her eyes. "Titan's crew is listed as three hundred fifty but Bill and Cassidy and I don't count." Both children turned back to sit on the settee to face each other. "At least you have a brother and a sister to play with." Mike said a little sullenly. Beth rolled her eyes. "Bill and I used to play but we don't much any more. He's all into archaeology now," she said with annoyance. "Cassidy's okay I guess. She can be pretty funny but sometimes she can be a pain. She doesn't like ships like I do. Bill used to like ships too and we used to race each other in the holodeck all the time but Cassidy doesn't like to race." "Really?" Mike asked with enthusiasm. "Shuttles?" Beth 323


grinned and nodded. "Have you ever tried to use one of the Engineering programs to take apart a warp conduit relay and then try to put it back together?" He smiled. Beth shook her head. "No. But I have used them to learn how to reprogram the shuttle's warp signature." Mike grinned. "That's cool. Can you teach me? I want to be an Engineer or maybe even Operations when I join Starfleet." "You don't want to be a captain?" She was stunned by his revelation; she just assumed everyone wanted to be a captain like her. Mike shook his head. "Nah, I like making the ships work. My Dad's always saying how great the Ops crew is on the Ras Dashen and how he wouldn't be able to do his job without them. I want to be one of them." Beth thought briefly about this and smiled. "I'm going to be a captain." She leaned over to him, biting her bottom lip. "I'm going to be captain of the Enterprise when I grow up." She dropped her voice into a whisper, "I even have a program for it! Wanna play? You can be Ops if you want." Mike's eyes widened in pure joy and he kept his voice low as well, "You have an Enterprise bridge program that you play with?" "Sure do!" she blurted and lifted herself from the couch, then realized that it was her party and leaving wouldn't be an option. "Maybe we can get our parents to say okay a little later. I don't think my parents will let me leave." Mike nodded in defeat. "That's okay. My mom won't let me any way." He grimaced. "She says we have to make an impression." Beth giggled. "Parents are dumb." Mike nodded in complete agreement. "It's your party. Are you impressed?" Beth laughed out loud. "I am. Mister‌" she squinted. "What's your last name Mike?" "Llewellyn." She nodded in satisfaction. "Mister Llewellyn." 324


"Captain Riker." Giggling, the two sat back down on the settee and looked out onto the sea of adults in front of them. "My mom said you were part Betazoid." "I am," Beth confirmed. Mike looked her over once and smiled and gently nodded his head. "Can you read my mind?" Beth smiled and dropped her head. She didn't want to lie to him. He was nice, but it was her secret. "I can read your emotions." "That's so weird," he said lightheartedly. "I can make pain go away." Beth's eyes widened. "Really? That is so cool." Mike shook his head. "No it's not. It's weird. We're just freaks." Beth was shocked. She was hurt and offended. "We're not freaks." Mike looked down with shame and embarrassment. "All the kids at my old school used to think so." Beth was mortified. "Why? Because you're part human?" Mike was dumbstruck. "What? No." He rolled his eyes. "Because I'm part Deltan." "Why? Is one better than the other?" "No of course not but‌" Mike hung his head. "Most people think humans are better." He looked to her and his eyes quizzed her. "Don't they?" Beth had never heard such a thing in her life. "No. Humans aren't any better than Deltans or Betazoids or Choblik or Elaysians or Pahkwa-thanh or Klingons or‌" Mike smiled once more and he started to laugh lightly. "No, they're not are they?" he concurred. "Why did the kids from my old school call me a freak then?" Beth knew immediately. "Cuz they're stupid. You can do something they can't. I think it scares them. But don't you think it's cool that you can help people who are hurting?" She smiled. 325


Mike nodded in agreement. "Very cool." He grinned. "How cool is it to read other people's emotions?" Beth grinned back. "It can be really cool."

326


Interlude XII Starfleet Academy, June 10th, 2402 Administrator J'Nil's Office

Beth stood ramrod straight at attention in front of Administrator J'Nil's desk. Her Red Squadron uniform shone brightly as the sun was setting behind the Administrator's back. Her hair was pulled back and braided into a long rope that was looped and tied at the base of her neck. Professor Ja'quald stood next to J'Nil. He was as stone-faced as always but Beth knew he was seething. She didn't even need a Betazoid conduit to know it. He wanted her hide. She wondered why she felt so satisfied. Four days. Four days before graduation and she finally blew. She finally told old Ja'quald what she thought of his "First Contact" procedures. She finally tired of his lousy Interspecies Protocols and she finally stopped taking the constant harassment; but to her extreme satisfaction, she had finally taken a stand and stuck up for her father. With a little help from Q, she was able to finally, finally tell Ja'quald where to stick it. It was undoubtedly insubordination. 327


It might be perceived as a personal assault. It came close to becoming a physical assault but she realized he wasn't worth the brig. Boy it felt good. Now Beth stood in front of the Administrator whose large, soft, dark eyes looked so heartbroken she almost wanted to cry. J'Nil had been such a support to her. He helped her through the torture that was Cassidy's defection. He helped her when she was laden with extra assignments by the staff so they could prove to him she wasn't being given special treatment. He always stopped by her quarters on the weekends to monitor her progress and give her that little piece of advice and support she needed at the exact right moment to give her the energy to overcome the mountain of work. He knew how horrible Ja'quald had been to her and he actually advised her on techniques to use to overcome Ja'quald's battery of insults. It was, after all, good training on how to deal with a multitude of races that weren't very diplomatic with their communication. But Beth snapped and Q was there to provide her with the weapon and she couldn't wait to use it. And use it, she did. Now she could see that that J'Nil was crushed that she couldn't hold out for four more lousy days. Beth didn't want to disappoint him. Her gut was filling with dread when she realized she would have to walk to Starfleet Command and tell her father that she had been expelled. Four days before graduation. That was definitely something she was not looking forward to, but she knew he'd find a way to get over it. She had faith her parents loved her and if she ended up being a freighter pilot, they'd still love her. J'Nil cleared his Grazerite throat and he scratched his head at the base of his right horn. Beth had rarely seen the man without his head covering and realized that his horns were beautiful in the red of the sunset. "Cadet Riker." Beth's eyes shot back to neutral position, staring at the air 328


somewhere between herself and the window behind J'Nil. "Yes sir!" "You have had an opportunity to read Professor Ja'quald's report?" "Yes sir!" "Do you deny the facts as laid out in this report?" "No sir!" J'Nil was dumbfounded. "You do not?" "No sir. The facts are accurate as described by the Professor." "You do not deny that you were insubordinate?" "No sir." J'Nil breathed out and both he and Beth could hear the slight snicker issued by Ja'quald's tiny turned-up nose. His great, rounded head and strangely symmetrical eyes always made Beth think the Arcadian looked like a large and ill-defined porcelain doll, but she knew better than to think he was so passive. He was devious and cunning…and vindictive. Beth was never really sure why he hated her father so much, she could never really delve that closely into his thoughts, but hate him he did, and that hate burrowed into him and he relished using that hate as a tool against her – Riker's daughter. He used that tool at will. He used that tool ceaselessly since Cassidy Riker defected to the Thraiin almost six months earlier. As far as Ja'quald was concerned, Beth was just another Riker ready to turn on the Federation and he wanted to out her and show the Federation that the Rikers couldn't be trusted. "Professor Ja'quald." J'Nil addressed his subordinate, "There is one thing I don't understand about your report." Ja'quald turned his massive head to the Administrator. "What could possibly be unclear Administrator? Cadet Riker personally assaulted me, was insubordinate and threatened me with blackmail." "You see Ja'quald, that's the part of your report I don't understand. Blackmail you how?" Beth felt a slight sense of vindication surge through her. Watch your step Ja'quald…I have you. Hell, I own you. You can get out of this, but you're going to have to dig yourself out. 329


Ja'quald stuttered slightly. "Cadet Riker threatened to spread a vicious rumor about me Administrator. A vicious and untrue rumor." "Yet you failed to state the nature of that rumor in your report?" J'Nil asked, "May I ask why?" Ja'quald's large eyes rounded into great orbs. "The nature of the rumor is irrelevant Administrator. The pure fact that Cadet Riker threatened me to begin with is reason enough for expulsion." J'Nil broke a small smile and he addressed Beth once more, who hadn't moved from her stance at attention. "Cadet Riker?" "Yes sir!" "Do you wish to clarify Professor Ja'quald's report? What did you threaten to tell the Board?" Beth felt a surge of victory as her eyes briefly met those of her adversary. Professor Ja'quald lost all color in his face. He swallowed hard and the fear he was feeling was palpable. Beth thought she could even smell it. Here it was – the proverbial silver platter. She could imagine Ja'quald's head resting on it and she could set it on her own mantle and glare at it in perpetuity and it would still give her pleasure when she was old woman. She could out him here and now, maintain her position at the Academy and watch Ja'quald burn. Her mind reeled at the possibilities. The sweet taste of revenge made her salivate and she relished its intense flavor. Now to stick the sword into his heart! "I'd rather not say sir. It was between me and the Professor." Ja'quald looked like he would fall into a stupor. J'Nil appeared confused but then he smiled brightly. "Cadet. I order you to tell me what you threatened to say about the Professor." His voice was gentle and caring and Beth could tell immediately that he was thrilled with her decision. They would work together on this. "No sir. I refuse. It's between me and Professor Ja'quald." "You are refusing to obey a direct order Cadet?" "In this case, yes sir," she stated, still standing ram-rod straight. "Frankly sir, what was said is none of your business." 330


J'Nil let a small laugh escape. He could see the relief sweeping over Ja'quald's huge face and he knew whatever it was that Beth had on him was true and she was now saving his rear. She was sacrificing her career for his. J'Nil had never been so proud. You are your father's daughter! "Cadet Riker I am sorry to hear that. For admitted insubordination and disobeying a direct order you are hereby reduced in class rank by five degrees," he mumbled and looked like he was calculating in his head. "If I figure that correctly, that will lower your standing from second to seventh." Beth was awestruck. She had expected to be released, to be kicked out - to be held back. Five levels? That's it? "If I also figure correctly, that still means you beat your father's rank by one." Beth wanted to scream with joy, run across the room, grab J'Nil by his horns and kiss him square on his bovine face but she didn't even move. Ja'quald sputtered, "That's it? That's all you're going to do?" "Professor," J'Nil addressed him. "From what I can gather you've been pressing Cadet Riker into insubordination for the past four years. I have penalized her as I see fit. Unless you have more to add to clarify your report and give me a real reason why the consequences should be more severe then I suggest you accept my ruling." Fury lit in Ja'quald's face. He nodded once to his superior and left the office in a fit of rage. Beth didn't move. J'Nil brought his hand to his face and looked at her directly. "You saved his ass, didn't you Cadet?" Beth didn't answer, she only allowed a small smile. "You realize that he will now only double his efforts to make sure you don't survive Command School don't you?" "I look forward to the challenge sir." J'Nil laughed. "Well Beth‌you'll have one." 331


Beth allowed herself to grin brightly. "Thank you sir." "I'm not sure you'll be thanking me next year." "At least I have a next year sir. For that, I thank you." J'Nil laughed again. "Dismissed, cadet."

332


PART TEN

C

333


334


Stardate 91940.0 Federation Starship – USS Enterprise-G Bridge

"The probe is away sir," said Revaik. Beth tried to swallow but her mouth had dried out. "Did that really just happen?" Dryden asked coolly. Beth nodded. "Afraid so Paul," she responded and looked to his soft brown eyes. She knew that he was still coming to terms with the oddities of Q's arrivals and departures. She also appreciated how he never seemed to let on just how flustered Q really made him. "Bizarre," he said. "What's bizarre?" asked Jaden, lifting her eyes from her console after assuring the probe's telemetry readings were coming in clearly. "Oh‌nothing," answered Dryden. Beth tried to smile but her mind was now beginning to fill with the shrill sound once more. It was getting louder, there was no denying it. "How long before the probe reaches the planet, Revaik?" she asked. "We should start receiving our first data streams shortly Captain," was the reply. Beth nodded and sat back in her chair, Dryden followed suit. 335


Their eyes met once more. There was a faint chirp at K'Reeg's station. Beth didn't want to know but she forced her eyes to look at the tactical officer's face and wasn't surprised when the Klingon's expression contorted into concern and confusion. He pressed a few areas on his panel and Beth could tell he was trying to decipher something. "Captain," he said, "the intruder sensors have just‌blipped sir." Beth's stomach felt like it had dropped clear to her toes. "Can you ascertain where the sensor was triggered K'Reeg?" "The bridge, sir." Another, more urgent tone emitted from Jaden's panel. Here we go thought Beth. "Captain, the probe is missing!" she blurted. "It just disappeared from our sensors!" Llewellyn turned and locked eyes with Beth. Now she knew they were in trouble. "Mike?" "Our shields are failing Captain. Gone!" His hands blurred over his panel as he tried to somehow find them once more. "Red Alert!" Beth barked and Llewellyn struck his panel. Suddenly more panel warning tones were heard and Dryden's head spun to the XO console. "We're being hailed by the Cats sir! All of them!" Beth's mind whirled; she tried to prioritize the flood of information and still tried to handle a sudden rush of the noise in her mind. She took the briefest of breaths. "Onscreen." Dryden placed the faces of each captain on the viewscreen ahead of them. "Report. Panther, you first," Beth ordered. "Our shields are down and we've had several intruder alert alarms." McGregor's face showed his concern. Beth didn't even need to seek out additional information from the others; it was obvious they had all suffered the same problems. "Same here," she stated. "I don't think we have a choice. I'm ordering a full stop until we can determine the reason for our shield loss, and also to see if the‌" There was a horrible gurgling noise from the Puma. Beth looked 336


at the viewscreen and Captain Farhadian's face became contorted. Her chest was pulled forward and her head was tilted back. Her eyes looked like they were pressed shut and the skin around her face lifted back toward her ears. There was a sudden commotion on her bridge as the crew responded to assist their captain. "Farhadian!" Beth yelled, but the transmission from the Puma ended abruptly. "All stop!" She shot up from her chair. There was another alarm and Beth spun her head to see Phinod bring her hand up to her nose with an expression of revulsion. The ensign then passed out at the helm. Beth heard the environmental system issue something onto the bridge. "Intruder!" barked K'Reeg. "Where?!" yelled Llewellyn, "I can't see anything!" "Get to the helm!" Beth yelled and Dryden moved forward. From where Beth stood she could see that the four remaining bridges on her viewscreen were all in chaos. McGregor and Shaughnessy were barking orders at their crew. Issa appeared to be having fits, although Beth was sure he must have been fighting off something that was attacking him and T'Vyn's usually stoic face was covered in concern and her yells contained a high pitch that Beth had only heard once before‌during the battle at Telanus. Beth's eyes locked onto T'Vyn's. T'Vyn was staring at her‌straight at her. Her eyes went wide with what Beth was sure was as close to fear as a Vulcan would dare show. The skin around T'Vyn's face creased at her cheek and her skin paled. "T'Vyn!" Beth cried. "What is it?!" What the hell is going on here? That's when she felt it. A cool, soft and seamless rope wrapped around her lower throat and encircled her entire neck. The tip of the unseen thing slid up past her ear and began to cover her eyes, pressing them shut but it stopped just short of doing so. "Captain!" she heard Dryden's voice cry. She couldn't respond. She looked to K'Reeg who drew his phaser and her fear exploded. She tried desperately to shake her head. She didn't know from which direction she was being attacked. "Don't K'Reeg!" Dryden ordered. "We don't know where that thing is!" The grip on her throat tightened. Strangely she could still see T'Vyn 337


on the viewscreen. Her eyes had never left her. Beth stared back at her. She appeared to be watching something but Beth couldn't tell what. The cold, soft tentacle slid around the back of her head. The noise exploded in her mind. [FEAR! TERROR!] Beth buckled at her knees – the emotions were overwhelming. No. Please. Please don't… [SADNESS! LOSS! PAIN!!] Please… Beth's mind was filled; the sound was deafening; louder than it ever had been while she was in Q's white void. She was paralyzed. [HORROR!!!! DEATH!!! DEATH!!!] Please…please don't hurt us. We mean you no harm! [CONFUSION…HOPE?...] Beth became confused. She knew her body was suffering tremors, she could feel the vibrations. She could see the horror on Dryden's face. It was only then she could see that he was also being held. Every member of her crew was now being held by something…invisible. [Fear!!! NEED!!! Desperation!] Strangely, Beth's mind now began to fill with visions… Her eleventh birthday. Tristan's hand as he withdrew it from hers at the hospital. Taking The Chair on the bridge of the Enterprise. Her piggy-back ride on her father's back. Jean-Luc's face as he handed her the family album. Her mother's laugh as she told her a story about her grandmother. Her first solo flight on the Marsalis... [CONFUSION! HOPE?!] Her rage-filled assault on Ja'quald. The alcohol-induced fistfight with her brother on Betazed. A giggle-ridden discussion with her sister as they talked about boys and made jewelry from isolinear chips… Beth's knees buckled further. Please help. [HOPE!!!!!] Once more Beth's mind was filled with vision but now the visions 338


were surreal and strange. She saw herself standing on the bridge being held aloft, her feet hanging, dangling. Members of her crew were frozen. Mike looked like he was turning blue. Panic struck her. Don't hurt them please!!! The vision changed to show her raising her hand and placing it in front of her, reaching out as if to touch something. Her eyes looked around her. She wasn't really doing what the vision had shown. The tentacle around her neck slithered more firmly around the back of her head and it now covered her eyes and forced them shut. She was finding it hard to breathe. The vision returned. She was reaching out for something. She felt a hard clenching at her hand. [FEAR! Desperation!] Her hand was forcibly lifted. Although she couldn't actually see with her eyes, the vision in her mind altered and she could see herself raising her hand as it was being lifted by the hard, clenching‌claw? Her hand was lifted slowly and gently. The overwhelming noise was so loud it has become a din. Her fingers felt something soft and satiny. Smooth and cool to the touch the claw moved her hand towards the softness. It moved under her touch. She was feeling skin. Cool, soft skin like that of the underbelly of a snake. Scaled skin, delicate, scaled skin. It was so thin Beth was sure it had to have been a delicate area of the entity's body. She wondered what would happen if she pierced the skin with her hand. [FEAR!] It knows what I'm feeling! [Hope?] It can sense my emotions! [Submission‌] Beth realized that the tentacles around her neck had loosened their grip. She took a deep and shuddered breath. The tentacle around her head adjusted itself and the claw gently patted her hand that had been placed on the delicate scaled skin. She opened her eyes to see the most amazing being she ever thought possible. 339


"Captain!" Dryden yelled. The being had loosened its grip on him and he tried desperately to pull himself away to assist her but the entity held him in place. He looked around the bridge and heard K'Reeg's gurgling throat as he continued to fight his captor. "K'Reeg! Stop fighting it! Don't resist!" he yelled, knowing full well that the Klingon would rather die than give in. "That's an order K'Reeg!!" K'Reeg growled loudly and relaxed his huge frame. It was obvious that the entity had loosened its grip from the great Klingon's throat. "The Captain is under attack!" "Just do what I say Commander!" Dryden yelled and then looked upon the creature that had revealed itself to them. The entire bridge crew stood in awe of the being. It well over two meters high, Paul thought it might have been pushing three meters. Its massive head was shaped like that of a softfeatured dinosaur, except that its jaw was short and its mouth, though obviously full of sharp teeth, was rounder and well, more pleasant looking. It had no discernable ears or orifices meant to receive sound. The defining characteristic of the creature's face were two considerable and distinct orbs on either side of its face, just above what Paul thought was a wide and singular intake that would act like a nostril. Paul knew that the orbs must have been ocular buds of some kind. They were pearlescent and grey. Eyes, yes – but they had definitely evolved to take in more than just what humans considered to be visible light. He could tell that this creature would likely comprehend ranges of particulate matter and rays like no other creature he had met before. It had four slender and strangely beautiful tentacles that jutted out from the back its bi-pedal body. The tentacles were smooth and contained no hint of any kind of thorn or suction cup. The being had two long arms that came to an end in what appeared to be four-digit hands with a claw-like nails protruding from the end of each digit. They still appeared to be delicate and fragile. The being's legs were thick however, and though they were muscular and shaped more like a bird's or a dinosaur's they still were 340


covered in the creature's most amazing feature‌its skin. Paul was awestruck by the glorious display. Colors rolled over its glossy structure, blending, melding and boiling. Every hue imaginable swirled over its body. Paul was unable to decipher if the patterns had any meaning. He assumed they would to the others of its kind. They're just like octopi he thought. His eyes were caught by Revaik's face as she viewed the creature that held the captain. She had also been let down by the invisible entity and was still held firmly in place, but Paul noticed the unquenchable expression of wonder as it spread across the ridges of Revaik's softened Romulan brow and her sharp and thin-lipped mouth. Llewellyn was still being held as well, but his attentions were solely on the captain. Paul thought he was actually growling. Paul knew that he was very fond of the captain and they had served on the Panther together, but he had been told that Llewellyn and the captain had known each other since childhood and were very close. Llewellyn's reaction to Riker's predicament was understandably personal. Paul heard a groan from the floor near his feet. Ensign Phinod was slowly waking from her unfortunate encounter with the creature's gaseous response. He could see her being lifted to a standing position by yet another creature that could not be seen. Paul wondered how many were aboard the vessel. The VIPs! His heart started to pound in his chest. How would they find a way out of this mess? Canrella looked as though she would pass out from sheer fright when realized that she was being manhandled by an invisible being. "Hey!" she started thrash. "Ensign," Paul said to her calmly. "Listen to me. Don't fight it. Let's just see what we're up against all right?" Phinod took the order like a trooper and nodded her head, causing her Bajoran earring to shake wildly from the arc of her subdued Ferengi lobe. Paul then looked to the face of his captain and his trepidation took a solid hold. Captain Riker's head was enveloped by one of the creature's thin tentacles. Her hand was touching a strange dark spot at the height of its 341


chest. It was a large and almost rectangular shaped area that differed in texture from the rest of the being's elaborately colored skin. It seemed almost burnt-brown. Paul could see the captain's hand almost sinking into it as if it were less than solid. He was horrified. What's it doing to her?! "Captain! Can you hear me?" he asked. To everyone's surprise, Riker responded. Her voice was smooth, calm, reassuring and remarkably strong. "Yes Number One. I can hear you," she said. "I'm confused though. I don't know what its doing. I can see it here in front of me but I'm also seeing things in my mind. I don't understand what's happening." "Seeing things in your mind?" "Yes." She turned her attention back to the creature that enwrapped her. "I don't understand…"

Her mind was filled. The visions came rapidly and they mounded atop one another, and they were beginning to crush her. Speeding, hideous images filled her mind and Beth was unable to comprehend them… Romulans running in fear. Remans – Remans running alongside them, their grotesque features drowned in their own terror. Running… Beth looked to the large grey orbs of her captor when she felt the tentacle cover her eyes once more, forcing them shut. It wasn't physically hurting her, but the visions that were forced into her brain were becoming more violent. Her heart began to thump so hard in her chest she wondered if she wasn't actually beginning to feel real fear. There were thousands of them…panicked, all running, screaming in sheer horror. Remans running alongside Romulans, some holding hands, helping each other to escape… Escape what? Beth's gut was filled with despair. They're the slaves! They're the captives! They're those who were sent by the Romulans to honor the accord! They're being annihilated! The visions continued…A pair of Remans, locked in an embrace, screaming for mercy. A phaser destroyed them both. Beth began to buckle again. You murderers! You enslavers! 342


Once again she was pressed down upon the incoming emotion of the life form that held her. [FEAR! HORROR!!! DESPERATION!!] She cried out in agony. "Captain!" she heard Dryden and K'Reeg both yell out but she couldn't respond. You're going to kill me with fear. Q was right. I will lose. I will lose my life feeling the one thing I never had to face…I will fail. More visions entered her brain, this time they came with the emotion of urgency…There weren't just thousands of them…it was much more than that. Hundreds of thousands…all fleeing, screaming for their lives…running, running from…death. Phasers lit the dark of the vision lighting the fear in each Romulan face and in the sensitive eyes of each terrified Reman. Pulse cannons struck, torpedoes ripped though simple dwellings and gardens, flattening and setting afire everything, including those who ran. Stop! Stop killing them!!! Beth tried to scream out, but the being kept forcing her to watch. [FRUSTRATION! ANXIETY!] Green blood flowed everywhere. You murderers! Beth's anger exploded and she tried to free herself from the tangled grasp of the beast, but it held her firmly in place. She was sure that Dryden and the others were all yelling, although she could no longer hear sound on her bridge, she could only hear the shrill sound of the emotions being pressed into her mind and the smell of death filled her nostrils. The tentacles tightened around her throat and began to shake her body. [DESPERATION…SADNESS…LOSS…] Beth's mind filled with new visions. Remans laughing. Romulans playing in the sun. A pair of Remans playing some sort of board game with two Romulans. Many people of both races were tilling in the soil. Two Romulan females and three Reman females laughing over a bassinet. The scenes were idyllic. There was peace. There was harmony and contentment. [SADNESS] 343


Beth's fury ignited once more. Without realizing it, she imagined an image in her own mind. The image of one of the tentacled beings whipping a Reman. She imagined another tentacled beast shooting a Reman. Enslavers! Murderers! You enslaved proud and happy people. [SHOCK!] The tentacle loosened around her throat. Again, she imagined the life-forms forcing Remans and Romulans into mining shafts and toiling. She imagined Remans recoiling at the entity's cruel treatment. [SHOCK!!!!!] Her mind was once again force-fed a stream of visions, these were even more intense than she had suffered before. She could feel everything, sights and smells…everything. Remans and Romulans in the cool evening. There was a loamy scent to the air, and Beth could tell it was due to the recent turning of soil. A Romulan male and a Reman female were walking near one another, their hands lifted strangely to the same spot in the air. They were laughing. Suddenly a tentacled being appeared between the two of them and Beth could see that each one held a hand at a burnt-brown mark at the upper portion of the being's chest. The Reman female nodded and the Romulan male laughed brightly once more. Beth was confused. The three were communicating but not one word was spoken. They were enjoying themselves. I don't understand…You're slave masters! Once again she imagined the beings as torturing Remans and Romulans, forcing them to perform hard labor under the duress of violence… [FRUSTRATION! ANXIETY!!] The set of three, Romulan, Reman and tentacled beast walked together, along a hilltop of a sublimely lush countryside. They were connected, laughing, overlooking the scene in front of them on the valley below… A huge city spread out before them. The community was massive. It was a sprawling city of single-storied dwellings. Beth could see scores of Romulans and Remans, and every so often she could see the swirling colors of a tentacled being amongst them. The people looked like anything but slaves. They looked like a perfectly content and peaceful community. 344


She was utterly confused. [SADNESS…LOSS…] The violent visions filled her mind once more and Beth tried to cry out. No please! Please! Remans were running from the city's edge – explosions ripped through the town square…phasers burning everything…everything. PLEASE STOP KILLING THEM!!! [DESPERATION!!] Beth watched as the city burned. Phasers were coming from the sky. Torpedoes were sent from above. Beth's heart ripped clean open when she saw that phasers were being issued by burnt red ships… …with three fins. Shentarians? What? How? The visions kept coming. The ground was saturated with blood; screams filled the air, explosions ripped at the heart of the once peaceful city. Her body could no longer take the assault on her senses and she gave way, her legs collapsing from underneath her. Shentarians were everywhere in the once peaceful city. They slaughtered mercilessly. Remans and Romulans lay dead everywhere in the city streets, their bodies no longer bearing any resemblance to their former selves…limbs and heads were severed from torsos… But something started to fill her mind... Voices...voices upon voices upon voices...layers upon layers of confusion, fear and panic started to enter her head. The door to her mind had been swung wide open and everyone was rushing in. Everyone. She had no defense. She couldn't find the music. There was too much interference. The visions forced upon her by the entity were overloaded by the onslaught of sheer terror and emotional turmoil being suffered by the hundreds upon hundreds of people on her ship. Beth could only succumb to the horror and to her tormentors and her body gave way entirely. I will fail. [PAIN…LOSS…AGONY!!!!] 345


Dryden's worst fear was coming true; the life form appeared to be draining the captain dry of any energy. Her face was still covered by one of the being's long, thin tentacles but he could tell that blood was draining from her face – but what was worse…the being now held the captain aloft. Her body hung limply from its two long arms and the three remaining tentacles began to writhe around her. The captain's hand still touched the being at the burnt-brown mark on its upper chest but Dryden could no longer see her hand, it looked like it had been immersed wholly into the creature's body. "Beth!" screamed Llewellyn with anger and fear ripe in his voice. The invisible being that held him wasn't about to give way and Dryden could tell that it had tightened its grip around Llewellyn's throat. "Mike…" he warned. "Don't let it kill you. I'll need you to help me figure a way out of this…" Llewellyn snapped his head to look at Dryden in fury. "It's killing her!" "Commander." Paul's eyes widened with authority. "Letting it kill you won't help her!" "Why are they letting us talk?" Revaik asked coolly from behind the captain. "What?" barked K'Reeg. "No. Seriously – they haven't covered our mouths…they're letting us communicate. Why?" she asked once more. Dryden was stunned by the obvious revelation. "She's right. Can they hear us?" Revaik looked over the being as it stood in front of her. Around her own neck she could feel the tentacle of the creature that held her prisoner. "I don't think its killing her," she said. "Look at her, Revaik!" Llewellyn yelled fiercely and much to the surprise of everyone on the deck, the aft turbolift opened. Dryden felt the tentacle around his neck tighten sharply. Out stepped Enya Priest. Her face was covered in tears and her face was contorted in pain. When she saw the captain being held aloft, she fell to her knees in agony. "She doesn't understand…" 346


"What?!" Dryden yelled. "Can you sense her, Counselor?!" Enya lifted her hands to her face, trying to cover the torture she was experiencing. "Yes." "Is she alive!?" "Yes…" she whimpered loudly. "Are they killing her?" he barked. "I don't know – I can't feel them…I can only feel her and she's horrified. She's in such misery." Her tears continued to flow. "Such horrible misery."

Deanna knew. She knew something was horribly wrong. She locked her eyes with Will. His sharp blue eyes shone through the snowy white of his hair and beard. "What?" he asked her quietly. "What is it Deanna?" She looked around the VIP room. All of the diplomats were used to the pressures of command and the unknown. They all stood in the room calmly, waiting to hear what might happen next. It was obvious that there was chaos on the bridge. One look out the massive windows that lined the negotiation room made it perfectly clear – the Panther hung in space like a dying bird. The Jaguar slowly rotated on an invisible axis and Deanna could tell they had lost all inertial dampeners. The Puma and Cougar couldn't be seen and the Leopard sat just off the nose of the great Enterprise – and everyone knew that the mighty ship was also suffering from power and attitude control failures. All of the ships were quietly floating with no discernable intentional motion. Worf moved forward to Riker. "Half the power systems are down Admiral and so is the comm system. The doors will have to be manually forced open." Alexander followed closely behind. "Priority should be given to reaching Engineering, don't you agree?" Riker looked upon the fright that crossed his wife's face. "Wait," he said calmly. "Deanna. Can you read her?" Deanna huffed in frustration. "Yes. But there's an awful lot of tension on that bridge, Will. I can't read her any more than the others. The whole ship's compliment is experiencing fear." 347


"But what about Beth? Can you focus in on her?" he asked calmly, softly. Deanna tried to seek her out; deeper into the layers of fear and anger that were pouring out from the bridge of the ship she delved. She finally found the familiar tone of her daughter's emotional pattern and was shaken by what she felt. "Will. She's in agony." She tried to keep her own voice from cracking. "Pain? She's being tortured?" he asked, trying to quell his own fear and he looked to the steeling eyes of his Klingon friends. "No," she said with a hint of surprise in her voice. "I don't think it's physical pain. It's mental. She's horrified by something…something…but I can't tell what." Riker nodded briefly. He peered up to see the remaining group working. Janeway was at the doorway with President Vadine and Riker assumed they were planning on moves after the door was wedged open. He smiled. Can't imagine a group like this would stay in their seats! The Praetor and the two Reman representatives were slowly moving towards Riker. Ambassador Melkit's face was covered in concern. "Admirals," Melkit stated starkly. "The captain is not safe." Janeway locked eyes with Riker. "We need to get up there Will." "We know Ambassador." He looked to Deanna with a soft plead in his eyes. "Can you discern anything more?" She shook her head weakly. Riker looked to the two Remans. "Ambassador Troi felt that the captain was suffering from pain…" Melkit shook his head sharply. "No Admiral. She's not in any physical pain. She is however, terribly emotionally disturbed by something." His grimace deepened. "But the remaining bridge crew is being physically restrained." Riker chastised himself for not running to the Remans first. Of all the species in the room, they were the most telepathic. "Sorry," he apologized. "No need Admiral. How can we assist?" said the second Reman, 348


Ambassador Bikinian. "We need to get to that bridge," he replied. "We're almost there Will." Janeway smiled and as if she had commanded it, the door popped ajar. She and the large Cardassian diplomat pushed against its sides to allow them all to leave the large conference room. "Will, why don't you and Deanna and the Melkit head to the bridge? I'll move towards Engineering with Bikinian, that way we'll be able to use the Remans to at least have a clue as to what each of us is doing?" Riker began to nod in agreement. "Are you sure Kathryn? This is your command‌maybe you should be the one to head for the Bridge." Janeway allowed herself to break a small smile. "She's your daughter Will. Get up there." "Thanks." The large group split into two; Riker, Troi, Ambassador Melkit, Worf, Praetor Vreen and Tuvok moved towards the bridge and Janeway, Vidine, Bikinian, Alexander and the two Romulan Senators, Jerbin and Linias, grouped together to moved towards Engineering. "What are the chances the turbolifts work?" Janeway asked. "Or the armory panels." Riker shrugged with pessimism but all smiled when the panel doors opened to allow access to the phaser pistols stored inside. The weapons were distributed among the group. "Well, at least one thing's going right." It was then that the turbolift doors opened, showing that the system was operational. Janeway smirked. "Uh oh‌two things went right. That means everything else might just go to hell." Riker grinned at her as his group stuffed themselves into the lift. "When did we get so jaded?" Janeway rolled her eyes. "The day we accepted the Admiralty bars." Riker smiled and nodded. The turbolift doors closed.

Commander Elieth pondered his predicament carefully. Logic dictated the need for resolute calm. Logic required that he maintain all 349


semblance of control. Power had gone out in Main Engineering. The warp core was offline‌so were the inertial dampeners. The Enterprise was floating freely in space. Although he preferred not to use the term, they had been lucky the system's safety controls maintained power long enough to buffer the antimatter containment fields so a core breach was not a risk. He wondered if that wasn't a part of the attackers' plans – to assure the ship they were attacking would lose key mobility but maintain life support. Logic would also dictate that if that were the case, their attackers were not likely Shentarian. They had no compunction about killing and would not care about key systems like life support. No, those systems were usually the first to be targeted by the Shentarians. What they were facing therefore, must be a new foe‌and a foe it must be, for running into a natural phenomena would likely not cause the precise power failures they were now facing. No, this foe had obviously advanced technology to obliterate shields and safely power down all maneuvering systems and leave the crew unable to communicate with one another. He wondered if panic had started to set in with the remaining crew on other decks. Judging by the reactions of his still new Engineering team he doubted the validity of that hypothesis. They had been calm, professional and rational since the systems went off line not more that three minutes ago. Logic and protocol had dictated that reestablishing communications with the bridge was the priority. Elieth had gathered a small contingent from Engineering to head for the bridge. He had assigned Lieutenant Yoshida to take over in the Engineering to take on the efforts to redistribute power from life support to the comm system. His second priority would be to regain, stabilize and protect the warp core and its redundant safety systems. Only then were they to focus on powering up sensor arrays so they could get a look at what they might be up against. Logic dictated that the bridge was the likely target. He was about to point to the armory panel when he realized that Ensign Bishop had already begun distributing phaser rifles to the team. She knows the protocol. She understands the need without having to be ordered. Wisdom in one so young is an asset to this crew. 350


Elieth was very satisfied with the stellar performance of his crew. Quiet and professional, not one of them was submitting to their emotions. They are battle-hardened. They know the risks and know the danger that submitting to fear causes. This is the finest crew I have ever worked with. They are almost…Vulcan. He turned to Lieutenant Yoshida. "You are to remain here. If this team does not make contact with you or does not return you are still to remain here and attempt to regain control of this vessel from Engineering. Is that understood Lieutenant?" Elieth could see the young human swallow. It was a sign of fear that Elieth had seen before. It was also a sign of accepted fate. "Yes sir," he said, with an almost serene tone to his response. Elieth almost allowed his lip to curl up, but that would have been an emotional response. No. Emotions were definitely not useful, especially not now. "Fine," he addressed the small group of five that were with him. "Ready phasers…let us proceed." Just then there was a banging at the main door to Engineering. The teams' reaction was startling and cohesive. All of them turned the phaser rifles at the door. Elieth's heart rate increased. A normal physical reaction. There was pounding at the door once more, but this time it contained an odd pattern. The humans in the group suddenly smiled and relaxed. He was confused by their reaction. "Shave and a haircut," said Ensign Bishop with a smirk on her face. "What? You've never heard it before Commander?" Elieth was now ninety seven years old…and no, he had never heard it. Humans never ceased to pique his curiosity and it was something his father had commented upon on multiple occasions. His mind briefly rested upon the thought of his father, who was, as far as he knew, in the conference room with the other VIPs. The importance of assuring their safety now bloomed in his mind. "It's an old Earth pattern Commander," she said brightly. "I have confidence that it's okay to open the door sir." He heard the Ensign's voice and nodded his agreement. "Hold your weapons steady," he ordered as he brought his rifle to his shoulder and pointed it at the door. 351


Crewman Stavik moved to the door panel and pulled the manual override to the main door. It popped ajar. Several humanoid fingers appeared between the two doors and Elieth allowed a sense of relief to wave over himself when he heard the familiar gravel-voice of Admiral Janeway. He ordered his crew with his eyes to assist with opening the massive doors. The Admiral walked in and Elieth was not surprised to see that she and others in her group were also armed. "Status, Mr. Elieth," she asked curtly. "I had just assigned the crew to teams to address power issues and warp core protection and we were just about to take a small team to head for the bridge." "That won't be necessary commander. Admiral Riker is already on his way with a group. Our focus can be placed on getting the power restored." Elieth scanned the group for his father's face. It wasn't there. Janeway noticed and smiled softly. "He's with Admiral Riker," she said under her breath. "Yes Admiral," he replied succinctly. "Commander, we have reason to believe that the captain is under attack and the rest of the bridge crew is being restrained in some manner to prevent assistance." "How were you able to discern‌" "Ambassador Bikinian is in constant contact with Ambassador Melkit," she said. Elieth's eyes shot up to the Reman who had entered the room behind her. "Ambassador, please forgive‌" Binkinian's small dark eyes pulled up at their edges. "It's all right Commander." His eyes turned serious once more, "However we need to make every effort to gain control of this ship. The bridge has been overrun by intruders." Janeway's eyes shot to the Reman's. "Intruders are on the bridge?" "Yes, Admiral, and the captain is under direct assault."

The screams from the crew were barely enough to keep Riker from firing straight off. It was only momentary, but he could have sworn he 352


saw a glowing, tentacle-bearing dinosaur enveloping his daughter and his instinctive reaction had been to kill it straightway. In a blur…as if in a dream, the dinosaur disappeared. Now he could only see her. Floating. She was hanging in mid-air with her hand above her, like a bizarre marionette that had been tangled in its own strings. I can't lose her, too. "How many of them are there?!" Riker barked holding his weapon out in front of him as he slowly exited the turbolift followed quickly by Melkit, Deanna and the others. Deanna piped with surprise when she saw Beth's limp body hovering in front of the command chair. "We don't know sir!" cried Dryden. "Each of us is being held, there may be more! I recommend you stay where you are. When Counselor Priest moved forward they tightened their hold on the rest of us. If you stand still, they ease their grip! They have allowed us to talk to one another and I don't want to lose that ability if I can help it sir." The environmental system issued a heavy dose of the isoflurane antidote onto the bridge once more. "They did that when Enya walked in as well Admiral. I believe it's a fear response," said Revaik, whose head was held at a strange angle by the being that held her. "What?" asked Worf starkly. "Fear? What do they have to fear! They're killing the captain!" Enya Priest stood in front of Riker, wide-eyed with fear and confusion. She saw Ambassador Melkit. "Ambassador? Can you sense the beings? Because I cannot." Melkit shook his head dejectedly. "No Counselor. I can only hear the Captain." "Same for me," she said. "Horrifying…painful…awful things." "Yes Counselor." Deanna wiped a tear away from her face. "They're killing her." "No Ambassador," said Melkit. "They're not." His eyes connected with Deanna's. "But there is an additional problem. Captain Riker is now thoroughly overwhelmed with the thoughts of everyone on board this ship. The attack is not coming from the being…it's being channeled through 353


you." He turned his eyes to Priest and then back to Deanna. Deanna's eyes widened with terror. "She can't close the door?" Melkit shook his head. "The being is filling her mind with images and the Captain wants something desperately, but the being is holding that door open and due to your presence, she cannot filter out the crew's thoughts from those of the entity that holds her. I'm afraid it will overtake her. You may both need to leave." "Why?" asked Priest. "Because we're Betazoid Enya…we're too close," she said. "She told me a few days ago, she is overcome with the thoughts of everyone around her if a Betazoid is near." "What?!" Enya grimaced and an odd expression of comprehension and determination crossed her face. She turned to Deanna once more. "I realize this is the strangest time and place for this very personal question Ambassador, but it's imperative I know the answer. Did you use fertility drugs in order to get pregnant with the Captain?" "What?" retorted Riker, still holding his phaser and pointing it at the nothingness around him, "What kind of a question is that?" "Did you?!" barked Priest once more. Deanna nodded weakly. "Weeks…months of treatment." Enya nodded gratefully. "Pearthny's syndrome." "What?" Deanna replied. "Pearthny's," Enya replied. "We need Doctor Richardson up here. I know what can help her." "How will a drug help her when she's being held by that…whatever it is?" Riker barked back. "Admiral!" Priest stood up to him. She was half his height but she could have been ten feet tall for all he knew. "I arrived here before you and they have made no attempt to harm me. I don't believe they are injuring the captain!" Her sad eyes moved to those of the Reman Ambassador. "I think they're just trying to talk to her." "Are you crazy Counselor?" Riker screamed, "Look at her! It's killing her!" Melkit slowly moved towards Priest, his eyes never leaving the strange view of Captain Riker hanging in mid air. "She can't hear 354


them…there's too much noise." He turned to Priest. "You're absolutely correct Counselor. They are not trying to hurt her. It is possible they're trying to communicate." Priest turned to the party behind her. "Someone get Richardson up here and tell him to look up last month's Starfleet Psychiatric journal and bring the hypospray to treat Pearthny's Syndrome! And hurry! The Captain is already unable to take much more of the noise!" Tuvok undertook the assignment and backed into the turbolift. "What was the name again Counselor?' "Pearthny's - like peerth knee!" Priest clarified. "Got it?" Tuvok nodded and the turbolift door closed. "What are we going to do, just stand here and watch them torture her!?" Worf bellowed. "Enya." It was the Captain's voice...whimpered, pained and strained. "Enya…"

"All weapons systems are still down Jerbin!" cried Lieutenant Isasile down the corridor of deck thirty-two. "And the comm system as well!" Jerbin moved forward to reach the young but senior officer on the deck. "Turbolifts are operational Lieutenant! I've been able to maintain contact with the security divisions above us! Admiral Janeway is in Engineering and they're attempting to reestablish control and power sir. She says that the bridge has been breached by intruders sir!" Sickened, Isasile acknowledged his counterpart in Security with a nod, "Did the Admiral have any orders?" "Yes sir! Maintain battle stations and report everything you see out the ventral phaser bank windows. We can't tell what might be under us. The Cats are all accounted for but they're adrift sir!" Again Isasile's stomach tightened. "Let's take a look!" Jerbin followed Isasile through to the ventral phaser arrays. They ducked below the dead conduits through the dark until they came upon the ventral window bank below them. "We'll need to open the cover manually – they shut automatically at red alert for additional protection to 355


the ship's undercarriage." Jerbin nodded and moved to the manual release panel. He opened it and pressed in his security code to access the pull-bar. He stopped briefly and looked to Isasile, dread washed over his face. "I hope the Captain's alright." Isasile swallowed hard. "I'm surprised you care. I would have thought you hated her for dressing you down." Jerbin grimaced with guilt. "She didn't dress me down Lieutenant. She just reminded me what an idiot I was." Isasile smiled weakly. "She'll be alright." Jerbin knew that Isasile was just saying something to give him hope and he took it for what it was worth. "I want to be up there‌kicking the butt of whatever it is that's got them." Isasile tried to laugh as he reached to assist Jerbin with the massive pull-bar. "Let's see if there's anything out there, shall we?" Jerbin refocused himself and with Isasile's assistance, the two pulled the bar towards them. The heavy plated shields moved away from the colossal window under their feet. Sickened defeat washed over their faces. Isasile rubbed his face. "Great. Just great." "Thraiin," Jerbin verified. "I wonder how long they've been tailing us." Isasile tilted his head in confusion. "I don't think they're the problem Jerbin." "Why not? They're out there!" "Because they're adrift too‌" Jerbin turned his eyes to the behemoth vessel underneath them and realized that Isasile was right. The battle cruiser was adrift, just like everyone one else out there. "They must have got caught with us." Jerbin's eyes locked onto Isasile's once more. "I'll be reporting up the decks sir." "Very good Lieutenant." replied Isasile as he watched the security officer bolt out of the phaser array room. His eyes returned to the unusual ship below them; the markings were in Rihannsu but he knew enough of the Romulan language to know that the ship was named Anthek. 356


Interlude XIII Stardate 89182.9 Earth Calendar June 7, 2411 Federation Defense Ship USS Panther NX-90261 San Francisco Orbital Shipyard Drydock Seven

Beth was sitting on the couch in the ready room of the Panther. Her hands were shaking. Of all the damnedest things, her hands were shaking! She didn't want to let them see. She didn't want them to know. She had arrived back on the Panther over an hour beforehand after dropping down to the planet to talk with her parents, but the visit did not go as planned‌

For the first time in her life, she wasn't so sure she wanted it. Isla Deneb had made her think about a lot of things in a new light. Command being one of them. Now she had the four pips. Right on time, too. Her stomach lurched with the thought that Estevan had to 357


die for her timetable to be met and she wished he was back. She wished he hadn't died and she wished she didn't feel like this…like she wasn't ready. She wanted more time with him. He had been such a good teacher, so willing to guide her and show her and participate in her growth as a leader. She was learning so much and he left her right in the middle of the most difficult lesson. The funerals were awful. Estevan's had taken place in Rio and his partner Miguel was inconsolable. Janeway had informed her that the field-promotion was made permanent that morning. One of her goals had been met…at the expense of Estevan's life and Miguel's happiness. It was hard for her to look at Miguel in the face. He noticed the fourth pip straightaway. He didn't even speak to her. The loss combined with the tropical heat on top of the gravity made Beth wish she had never been born. She wasn't even sure how she made it through the eulogy. Gallegos had been everything in a CO she could have dreamed of. He was a brilliant tactician and he was also demanding and expected nothing less than her absolute best; but he was also understanding, caring, funny, playful, wise and strong. Her family had never been an issue to him, or if they had, he never let on about it. He was genuinely interested in grooming her for command and constantly stepped back and placed her into situations to let her get her own feet wet and he watched her…vigilantly. He was always quick with the criticism but always backed it up with advice on how to rectify her mistakes. She aspired to be like him. But Brint's death had shattered her. She still couldn't believe that he was gone. She had placed the padd with his last letter upon her desk and she picked it up once more and she found herself absentmindedly pressing the play section on the small panel thinking that maybe his face would be of comfort…but her heart began to break when he spoke so happily…his antennae were perked on end and she knew he had been joyful. He couldn't even sit down he was so excited so she watched him as he walked aimlessly around the massive ready room the Enterprise-F. "Hi Pink! Have I got news for you!" He turned towards the 358


window and then turned back, never really facing the camera that recorded her message. "As you know, I've been…dating…a certain zhen named Lissa…" He stopped and Beth could tell his thoughts were filled with his mate's vision. He was undoubtedly in love. "…for quite some time now and things have been going very well." He turned to face the camera and then sat at his desk. "I've already contacted your father but he's busy with the Thraiin issue and couldn't take my call and I just had to tell someone Beth!" His face was so bright blue, his joy was overwhelming him. Tears began to stream down Beth's face… "We're pregnant!" he roared. "I'm going to be a father Pink! We're going to have a baby!" Beth cut off the rest of the message, unable to hear it anymore. Lissa and the baby were gone too. He knew when he sent the core that he was killing not only his crew, but his family. She sat in Estevan's chair, feeling cold, wiping tears from her face and feeling like there was no one to talk to. She refused to go to that place again…that hopeless place. She needed to talk…and she wouldn't make excuses for anyone this time. She had needed to talk to the only people who might know…who might understand. The Panther was still a few days from being cleared from retrofit and repair inspections as they sat in the San Francisco Orbital Station, so she took the opportunity and beamed down to the Sausalito town center and walked to her parent's house. It had been a typically cool afternoon as the fog began to seep in over the hillside and from around the bridge and into the inlet near the home, but she forgot to make sure the door in her mind was closed when she reached the front step to her parent's house. Real gravity always did that to her…it always threw her off balance; the pure effort it took for her to walk on a planet took her mind off of…her mind. She growled in frustration. She could feel her parents just inside the door. She was struck by waves of tension, sadness…even grief. It came first from her mother and Beth began to close the door, knowing that her mother might 359


pick up on her presence, but within seconds Beth knew her mother was so preoccupied by her own fears that she wouldn't sense her at all… Beth focused on clearing her own mind of emotion…just like Tuvok taught her. Poor Tuvok! Thinking he was teaching me Vulcan techniques as an exercise in self-improvement, when really I wanted was a way to spy on or lie to Betazoids without getting caught. Luckily the method proved very effective. She could hear her parents' conversation in her mind and it was the first time that Beth thought her mother might not be overreacting to one of her goals being met. Her mother was worried…worried that it was all too much for her too soon… "She's only twenty-eight Will," she had said. "She just lost Gallegos and worse…she watched Brint die. Brint, Will! Now they want her to command a defense ship? I can't believe Janeway thinks she's ready! All she'll see is…" her mother voice had broke with frightened anxiety, "…more death. That's all she has seen since she took the assignment on the Panther! I wished she'd never taken it! I wished she's stayed on the Ada Byron!" Her father had a strange mix of thoughts and emotions. Anxiety was there and so was exhaustion, but there was also a level of fear and sorrow that she did not expect. Her father feared that things were going to get worse. "What good would that have been Dee?" he said solemnly. "The Ada Byron was at Isla Deneb. Hell, most of us were. Defense ship or not, we're at war again and exploration is on hold until…" he sighed, "…well, until we're done. Unless we make headway against Shentaria, we'll be lucky to be in a position to seek out knowledge again," he whispered. Deanna reacted to him with pain. She didn't even need to ask. "I know," she replied then she began to break down. "I just wanted her to live longer than us." Riker hushed. "Deanna." Beth knew he had reached for her… Beth was about to turn around and walk back towards the town center when her father's words held her back. "Dee…" Beth could hear it in his mental voice and she could pain well up from within him. There was something horribly, horribly

360


wrong. Her mother's weeping increased and she could feel her mother's own fear and pain. Her mother didn't really want to know what her father had to say. "I saw her," he whispered. There was no need to say who he saw. Beth took the news with a shot of shock and adrenaline and froze, stupefied on the pathway just outside the door to the home. Beth thought about ripping her mind from the conversation and running, but the surprise had welded her feet to the spot. Beth began to weaken as she felt her father's despair overwhelm him and he began to cry. Beth had only ever heard him cry when people died. To her, there was nothing more painful than hearing her father cry. "Where?" her mother's broken voice asked him. "Oh Dee…" he barely whispered, "She's gone. She's really, really gone. I'm sorry I never believed…I always thought there might be some hope…that it was all some awful joke. I can't believe I've been so stupid for so long." Beth felt her father fill with loss and anger and shock but it was a flash of rage that surprised her…he lowered his voice and grunted. "She tried to kill us Deanna." Her mother remained silent and Beth could tell that her mother wasn't overly surprised by her father's revelation. She filled with empathy for her father and Beth knew…her mother had accepted Cassidy's betrayal long ago - as Beth had and even Bill, but her father had never really accepted it. Until now. Beth fought to clear her mind of the rising anger and rage so her mother wouldn't feel her on front path. Her breathing regulated and she focused herself once more. "Tried to kill you? How?" her mother's voice was heard clearly in her head. "She's the second in command of the Thraiin flagship Dee. We engaged them in battle three days ago." he said softly. "Pomalek is her commanding officer." "Pomalek?" Deanna whispered in recognition. Beth also knew of him. He had been a notoriously vicious Commander of the Reman Fleet and subsequently became the liaison to the Romulan Senate. 361


She had seen him on board Titan almost every time they had visited the area. He had defected to the Thraiin a firestorm of political upheaval right when Beth had entered the Academy. "Yes. He didn't even need to order her to attack us. She seemed to undertake the task with glee." Her father was a jumble of emotion and Beth was having a hard time shaking her own off. "We were lucky Deanna. Very lucky…we were dead in the water until Klingons showed up. She would have killed us…she would have killed all of us…" His voice broke once more. "She's gone." There was a period of intense and knowing silence while her parents dealt with their emotions. Her mother's sorrow for her father's ultimate acceptance of her sister's betrayal filled her psyche. "Yes Will…she left us a long time ago." Then she felt something so horrific exude from her father that she stopped breathing for a moment. He had lost his hope. It rocked her to her foundation. There were no thoughts, no feelings from him that made Beth feel like they would survive this war, no way that the Federation could survive this latest hurdle…no way she could handle this new command. She had never felt her father lose hope before and she didn't know how to take it. Beth turned and walked away from the house. She walked away slowly...down the small and quiet street back toward the town center where she transported back to her ship. HER ship. The thought nauseated her. That's when her hands started to shake…and they hadn't stopped since.

Matters only got worse when she got back on board. They had cleared the ready room. All of Estevan's things had been removed. Beth wasn't prepared for the room to be so empty. She felt as if someone had surgically removed a part of her without letting her know. 362


Now here she sat, on the settee, looking at Estevan's chair with her hands shaking - feeling like she wasn't ready, feeling like they wouldn't win…feeling like the color of the hope was fading. "There has to be more," she whispered to grabbing at anything to pull herself from falling back into that pit she had faced so long ago… "There has to be more to learn…" The door bell chimed and it took Beth a few moments to realize that Estevan would not be the one to answer…it fell to her now. "Come," she said flatly. Tristan walked in and Beth looked to his eyes briefly. She had closed the door to her mind the moment she left her parents' home but she could see Tristan's reaction to her sadness and it shifted her somehow. "Captain," he said softly, "you have a visitor from San Francisco." Beth's heart sank, the last thing she needed was another inspector to come in and tell her that repairs would take more time…but to her sheer surprise, her father walked in…wearing light blue civvies. "Beth." She froze in her seat – his face was pale and ashen. Tristan backed away from the door and it closed. Beth felt the welling of the sorrow begin in her lower gut and she pressed it back down. "How long were you there?" he asked softly. "Mother knew?" Beth replied, pushing, pushing the sorrow down. "She felt you as you were walking away…" he said. "How long were you there?" "Long enough," she said. "You saw her. She tried to kill you." Riker fell to a seat in a chair near the door, pain and devastation crossed his face. "You told mom that we may not win…" "I did not! I never said we wouldn't be able to win…" The tears were unstoppable and the sorrow found a way over 363


the muscled hump she tried to build in her stomach. "You lost hope Dad…" she whispered with stunned grief, "You don't think we're going to survive." Riker's face contorted with grief. "I momentarily lost hope Beth," he whispered. "I should have accepted Cass's defection a long time ago…" Beth nodded. "I know how much you loved her." "I lost the hope of regaining her Beth, not the hope of our ability to survive." Beth connected her gaze to his. Was it possible she misread him? When it came to the depth of faith her father had in Cassidy, yes. It was possible. "You believe we have a chance against Shentaria? Riker ran his hands over his face, then down his beard. He nodded. "I do." There was a long moment of silence between them. Beth's eyes floated to the padd on her desk. "You know that Lissa was pregnant, don't you?" Riker nodded silently. Beth inhaled. "How did you do it Dad? How did you and mother do it?" "Do what?" Beth's mind was filled with the vision of her pressing the torpedo spread that annihilated the programmed Riker family in a shuttle that could have destroyed her ship…"Know that a decision you may have had to make may not only kill your crew but your family?" She wiped tears as they streamed down her face. I blew up a computer simulation…he has had to make that decision for real on several occasions, and mother's had to obey his orders… "How?" Riker stood slowly and walked in front of her, watching the tears slide down her cheeks. "I took strength in knowing that the Federation is worth the sacrifice." Beth was slammed and she dropped her eye contact. "So did Brint. And he wasn't wrong Beth. It was worth it. He 364


saved us all and any chance the Federation has to overcome Shentaria." he leaned forward and softly touched her hand. "He sacrificed himself, his crew, his family and his ship because he knew it was worth it. And yes. I had to make that choice more times than you may realize." He stood up straight and cleared his throat. "Beth." "Yes?" she responded automatically. "Look at me." Beth swallowed back her tears and connected her eyes to his. He may have been wearing civvies but he was all command. "I was once in the very same position that you are in now. I know exactly what you're going through. You still think of that chair as Estevan's, don't you?" Beth stifled the cry and she broke her eye contact once more and nodded weakly. "Look at me Beth." Beth wiped more tears from her face and looked once more to the strength that came from the crystal blue of her father's eyes. "A good person once told me that I had to let Captain Picard go if I had any hope of being a real commander. And she was right. You have to so the same Beth. Gallegos is gone…so is Brint. You must let them go." Riker's eyes pierced her with such intensity Beth thought she was being bruised by them. "That..." he pointed to the chair behind the desk, his mind filled with visions of Guinan pointing to the chair on the EnterpriseD, "…is now your chair…Captain." Beth could feel a strength made of pride, confidence and anger in her father that overcame her unwillingness to open the door in her mind. Her eyes fell to the chair her father pointed to and she swallowed hard. "You didn't get the fourth because he died, Captain…you got the fourth pip because you're ready. Your crew needs you. The Federation needs you...because we have some Shentarian and Thraiin ass to kick Captain, and I'd hate for you to miss the party because you're feeling sorry for yourself."

365


Beth found that she could do nothing but laugh. Riker grinned. "Now that's the Beth Riker I know‌laugh at it Beth. Take your command and laugh‌and that's an order."

366


PART ELEVEN

C

367


368


Stardate 91940.0 Thraiin Battle Ship THK Anthek Bridge Pomalek's body lay at her feet in a crumpled pile at the base of his command chair. His eyes were still glaring at her, even in the vacant state of his death. All power had been lost except for life support. Nothing else was operable that she could tell. Weapons, cloak, shields, lifts, not even the red flashing lights of the alert systems were working. The rest of the bridge crew remained unconscious from a foulsmelling gas the creatures had emitted onto the bridge. She had also been overcome by it and had passed out but when she regained all awareness, she found herself overcome with visions. They were the most intense visions of her strongest memories of her childhood, of her family, her friends at the Academy; her training with the Thraiin, Ronan's soft lips touching hers; her mother's pitchblack eyes; her brother's strong arms as he held her trembling body, her sister's infectious laugh right before she hit her head with a pillow…her father's tortured and confused face before she left him on Market Street…Jean-Luc's understanding eyes and soft, gentle hands as he handed her a key… 369


She was being held by what felt like soft tentacles and claws. It had not hurt her... ...but Pomalek was a different story‌ He had stood quietly for a long while and his face turned to hers in fury and he began to struggle against the invisible barriers of the intruder that held him. It snapped his neck and dropped him to the floor in a heap. Cassidy knew. She knew everything. She was overcome with gratitude, fear and relief. She felt the creature's tentacle slide softly down her face as it wiped the only tear she allowed herself to shed. The tip of the thing was cool. It then slid down her neck and down to her chest where she could feel it press against the hardness of a key that remained hidden under her uniform. The tentacle caressed it gently, to remind her. She nodded softly, felt the being touch her face once more and it left her. Power was restored and Cassidy sat in her chair, then laid back and closed her eyes. It was only moments before she could hear her conn officer begin to come around. She waited to hear the inevitable cry of shock when she would find the captain dead at the foot of the command chair. It only took a second. "Captain!" she cried. In another moment Cassidy felt the officer's hands on her face and she allowed herself to breathe in deeply. "Commander! Commander! The Captain's dead!" I know. Cassidy opened her eyes weakly, allowed a look of shock to roll over her face and given the fact that the corpse was still staring at her in hatred it wasn't a difficult thing to do. "Where are they?" cried the Ktarian conn officer. Cassidy let her eyes roam quickly. "Gone," she said tiredly. She shot up from her chair and noticed that the rest of the crew was beginning to come around. "Get those cloaks back up now!!!" she bellowed. "Sickbay! We have a medical emergency on the bridge!" Cassidy knew there was no hope for him but she had to do what she had to do. 370


"Cloaking device has been restored Commander!" cried the Reman tac officer behind her. Cassidy nodded with satisfaction. "Good!" "Why did they kill him?!" cried the conn officer in obvious anger and distress. Cassidy looked to her bright yellow eyes and shook her head solemnly. "I don't know Sergeant." It was a lie. They killed him because he knew as well‌and they understood the ramifications of it. But Cassidy now knew they had other problems on the horizon and she had to get the ship back to battle form. Others would be coming‌

USS Enterprise-G Ventral Phaser Array - Midship Lieutenant Isasile's face dropped. The Thraiin vessel had obviously recovered their power and had re-cloaked. They could no longer be seen. "Oh shit," he whispered to himself and immediately grabbed the manual release bar and pushed it back towards the bulkhead, forcing the huge plate back across the window at his feet. Once it was secure, he turned and ran to report what he saw.

Richardson was shocked when he saw Ambassador Tuvok heading down to corridor towards sickbay. Richardson had been issuing orders to his nurses who had been bringing in trickling reports of minor injuries from the decks above them and a rumor that the bridge was under attack. His heart leapt to attention when he saw the speed with which Tuvok was walking and the slight arc to the Vulcan's eyebrows that reflected serious concern, even worry. Richardson turned on his heel and sped towards him. "Ambassador!" 371


Tuvok moved straight to him. "Doctor it is imperative that we speak quickly and concisely, the captain's life depends upon it." Richardson allowed the shock to roll over him then off of him. "It's true then, the bridge is under attack?" He moved Tuvok back towards the doors to sickbay. "It is unclear what sort of attack doctor, but in a manner of speaking, yes. Listen very closely." Richardson knew better that to try to interrupt, Vulcans under duress were never patient and it was something he appreciated, maybe more than anyone on board. Once inside sickbay, Tuvok turned to him and touched his arm. Richardson now knew the matter was of grave importance. "The captain is being held captive by an unknown life form. We believe that the entity may be trying to communicate with the captain but Ambassador Melkit and Counselor Priest both believe she suffers from a condition that is impeding her ability to hear them." Richardson spoke reflexively, "What?" "Captain Riker informed her parents not more than a week ago that she cannot filter out the thoughts of the entire Enterprise crew when she is physically near a Betazoid. Ambassador Melkit has confirmed that Captain Riker is currently suffering from this affectation and may be impeding her ability to comprehend the entity that is holding her. Counselor Priest believes the captain suffers from something called Preathny's Syndrome and believes you can treat it with a hypospray. She said you could find out everything you may‌" Richardson had had enough. "Preathny's!?" he bellowed. "How could she make such a diagnosis? Is she mad? It's an extremely rare disorder Ambassador, according to the article in last month's journal there are fewer than twenty reported cases! I would be a fool to inject the captain willy-nilly in the hopes the diagnosis was correct! There are too many unanswered factors! How dare she!" "Doctor!" Tuvok barked ferociously. "Counselor Priest is sincere in her belief. She had asked and received confirmation that Admiral Riker and Ambassador Troi utilized fertility treatments in order to bear their children. Does this assist your ability to diagnose her?" Richardson was flabbergasted. "She asked that?" "Yes. And Ambassador Troi confirmed that they had indeed undergone months of treatment in order to bear their children." Richardson was sick. "It's possible then." 372


"Can you prepare a hypospray? Time is of the essence." Richardson caved. As much as he loathed the idea of treating someone without clinical data to support the diagnosis, he already knew he had no choice. There was something in Tuvok's eyes that let him know there was supreme urgency. "Fine." "Thank you Doctor." Richardson moved to his office and deftly moved to his comm. His fingers flew over the small panel and he read the article briefly. "It won't take more than a minute to prepare Ambassador." Tuvok nodded. "Every second will count." Richardson swallowed hard as he turned from the comm then to the med replicator and began to input the orders. "I will however require that I scan her before I inject her." "A wise decision Doctor. Now all we have to do is find a way for you to approach her without getting yourself or the other bridge crew killed." Richardson spun his head and dropped his jaw. Oh. Wonderful.

Dryden began to lose all hope when he saw the captain's face. It was contorted in misery and pain. He was no longer convinced it wasn't killing her. Suddenly Ambassador Melkit's voice sharply barked, "It has me!" And surely it did. It was easy to tell that the Ambassador was now held tightly in the grips of another being. Melkit's face changed. Something was forcing his hand upwards and Dryden wanted to scream to tell him to fight it, to not touch whatever it was that they were making him touch because that's when everything changed with the captain. Yet Dryden couldn't vocalize it fast enough and it was soon obvious that the Ambassador had connected his hand to the being. His face remained almost without expression for what seemed like an eternity, but slowly and persistently that changed. His eyes began to widen with horror and shock. Grief consumed him and he cried out. "Can't somebody stop them?!" cried Deanna. "They're torturing them!" "I can't aim at what I can't see!" cried Riker. 373


"Enya…" Beth's voice was weak and strained. Enya's face crossed with terror. "Captain?" "Please Enya. Help me," Beth cried. "There's too much," she whimpered harshly. "They have so much to say and I…can't…hear them very well anymore. There's too much noise. I can barely hang on to you…" Her voice turned harsh as she grunted her words. "Help." "Captain, the doctor's coming! Will they allow him to approach?!" Beth grimaced sharply and whimpered but released a breath shortly afterwards. "Yes," she whispered. "I can't hear them…and I need…I need to hear them…" Her voice sounded so desperate. The turbolift door opened and Tuvok exited with Doctor Richardson directly behind them. Dryden would have allowed himself to laugh if the situation had been humorous, for the look on Richardson's face was priceless. Dryden had never seen the Doctor look anything less than in control and now he appeared like a toe-headed toddler staring at disaster he couldn't comprehend. Mister Cool indeed... "Doctor!" Priest turned immediately. "Please! The captain is desperate!" Richardson shook his head briefly and Dryden could tell that he had regained his icy demeanor and cool shell once more. He almost envied the man. Richardson whipped out the medical tricorder and opened it towards the captain, who was still hovering in mid-air. The lights of the thing were going crazy and Dryden hoped that Richardson was gathering data on the beasts as well. "I'll be damned," he whispered and looked to Priest. "You were right Counselor." Priest nodded with appreciation and she smiled. "The captain said they will allow you to approach Doctor. Would you rather I do it?" Richardson smirked. "Now you really are after my job." "Doctor…" Dryden grumbled with a warning to the smart-assed physician. Richardson ignored him and began to slowly move towards the levitating commander. He held his hands out to show the hypospray in his hands. Dryden could feel the tentacle tighten around his throat once more. If Richardson made once false move Dryden knew his neck would be twisted like taffy. "Slow Doctor," Dryden hoarsely choked. 374


No one moved. There wasn't a sound on the bridge. Everyone's eyes followed Richardson. Richardson eased his movements until he reached the captain. Dryden could see that the being was touching the doctor because his thick locks of blonde hair flipped up from his brow. Richardson's stark-white face paled even more. He lifted his hand slowly and placed the hypospray against the captain's hovering arm and injected her. He slowly started to back away from her. They all waited…and watched to see if there was any change in the captain's condition. Within seconds Dryden could see color returning to his captain's face and hands. Her breathing deepened and started to regulate and it was obvious that she was focused, but on what he couldn't tell. She slowly started to pivot in the air and her own weight was placed on her feet. She was standing once more. But she wasn't with them. She was concentrating on something completely different. Her eyes were glazed, unfocused…glassy, tearful. Dryden looked to Melkit's face and noticed that he too, bore the same expression. It seemed like eons to those on the bridge. What was being said, or if anything was being said was silent. And strangely, quietly the captain's eyes focused on the room once more. "Please lower your weapons. I'm all right. They mean us no harm." "Captain…" Dryden warned. "It's okay Number One." Her eyes looked to his. "Dad." She turned to the Admiral and the others. "Please. Trust me. I'm all right." Riker and the others dropped their weapons. To their surprise and wonder, all of the beings appeared simultaneously. Their skin exploded in colors and patterns so mind blowing none of them knew how to react. Melkit's was still enwrapped by one of them and so was Beth. The being that held Dryden loosened its grip entirely and he could tell the same was happening to the bridge crew. "Counselor." Beth's voice rang true and strong across the bridge. 375


"You're my First Contact specialist. They'll be able to communicate with you as well. It's imperative that you listen to everything that they have to say so you can confirm what I believe they have said." "Confirm?" she asked, fright entering her voice for the first time since she entered the bridge. "They cannot communicate verbally Enya. They have no language that we would understand. Only visual. They talk in pictures." "What? I'm afraid that I won't under…" "Counselor. Please. I need you to do this. I'm not well. I need you to come here and take over for me…understood?" Enya's eyes widened with fear but she moved forward to the captain. Beth gently reached for her hand and held it. "They will reach you by touching near your visual cortex Enya but for you to talk back, you need to touch theirs. It's all right." Beth turned to the tooth-filled face of her visitor and tried to smile. She removed her hand from the burnt-brown mark on its chest, then gently, softly reached for its glowing face and caressed its chin with care. To everyone's shock and surprise, it tilted its head towards her hand and two large, paper-thin folds covered its large orbital eyes. It was a gesture of affection without a doubt. Beth lifted Enya's hand and gently placed it on the burnt-brown mark on the creature's chest. "It's okay Enya. It's going to be okay. Don't be afraid." The creature let Beth move away and then slowly moved a tentacle around Enya's head. Dryden watched as the same look of vacancy drifted over the counselor's face. She was watching something in her mind. Now it was obvious. Beth looked to her crew. "Don't make any sudden moves when they release you. That's an order – especially for you K'Reeg. Understood? They are not…" her voiced cracked in sadness and Dryden wondered what they had told her, "…not our enemy." The creatures let the crew go and as ordered, they moved away slowly and gently, each turning to look at the frightening faces of those that had held them captive. Except the creature who held Melkit. "What about the Ambassador?" asked K'Reeg urgently. 376


Beth wiped a tear from her eye. "They're still talking‌that's going to take awhile." She looked to the Romulan Praetor who had been standing there the entire time, a look of awe apparent on his ridged face. "They'll need to talk to you next, Praetor." "Me?" he asked with severe hesitation. "What for?!" Beth looked to her father. "Admiral," she whimpered. "How to you tell someone that their entire civilization was based on a horrible‌ horrible misunderstanding?" Her voice cracked once more. "Excuse me," she blurted and began to rush for the ready room. "Captain! Where are you going?!" cried Riker. "To throw up!" she barked and disappreared behind the ready room doors as they swished closed behind her.

Beth heard to door to her ready room open just after she lifted her head from the toilet. She lifted her eyes to see Richardson staring back at her, tricorder already scanning her. He smirked heavily. "Not quite the position I was hoping to see you in." She grabbed the sides of the toilet in fury at first but found herself broken up by his remark. She blurted out a laugh. "Oh, I'm sure I'm real attractive now, Doctor." "Whew! I'll say. You're extra special hot when you're puking." "You're a sick individual, Ken. I appreciate that about you." She laughed once more and stood to turn to the sink. She immediately began to rinse her mouth out with water. She splashed some more across her face. She looked to the tricorder then to the physician. "What the diagnosis?" "Preathny's Syndrome." "Preethawha?" "Preathny's. It's a rare genetic disorder that we're just beginning to get word on. It seems to arise in a small population of second generation Betazoids whose parents required the use of fertility treatments in order to reproduce." Beth wasn't sure she could take any more news like this. "I was asking why I was puking and you tell me I have a genetic disorder?" Richardson grinned. "Well Captain, you weren't very clear about 377


which condition you were asking about." Beth shook her head. "Again Doctor…beside manner of praying mantis that's just mated." Richardson laughed. "Ouch." She tried to squeeze past him in the small doorway to the head and she shook her head once more. "Dammit Ken, just let me into my office…" "Oh, sorry Captain." Beth moved forward and the doors opened to the ready room. Riker and Dryden walked in together and Beth glanced past them to see that the tension on the bridge had decreased substantially. "Enya said they're going to turn the power back on," said Dryden. Beth nodded with understanding. "Paul, I'm sure the lower decks are going crazy. First and foremost the safety of our new visitors is paramount. Maybe more so than the VIPs right now, understood? I don't want a posse coming up here with phasers blazing." Dryden nodded. "Yes Captain." he looked at her with concern. "Are you going to…?" "I'm fine Paul. Really. Just a tad overwhelmed. I want Senior Staff and the VIPS to gather in the VIP negotiation room in ten minutes. Tell Enya to invite the leader and…oh…let me think – how many telepaths are there?" Beth tried to think. "Including you and Counselor Priest, there are the Remans, that's all." Beth shook her head. "No Doctor, they'll be able to communicate with the Romulans and the Vulcans as well." "They can only communicate with telepaths?" "That's why the humans on the freighters died – they couldn't reach them and they were so desperate to talk to someone…" Beth's face contorted with pain once more. "Just get the meeting set up Paul. It's urgent. We may be facing more trouble than we realize." The power to the ship kicked on and Paul moved speedily out of the ready room. Riker moved in and approached her. She shook him off. "Not yet Admiral. I can't. I need to get through this first." Riker nodded with understanding as much as she wanted to break down, she couldn't. She would never be able to rein in the emotions to 378


handle it. "Fine Captain." Riker looked to Richardson. "Will she be okay?" Richardson flicked shut his tricorder. "Well, now that we know what was troubling her, the treatment should be easy enough. Her nausea however appears to be related to the emotional turmoil she's enduring." "Doctor…" Beth mumbled. "I can't go horking in the Praetor's lap at the meeting. Do you mind giving me an anti-emesis or do I have to slap you around?" Richardson grinned and was about to make a glorious double entendre response when he remembered that the Admiral was present. Riker lifted his eyebrow in the most peculiarly Vulcan way and Richardson once again pulled out the hypo and connected it to his tricorder. He pressed a couple commands, pulled the hypo from the tricorder and pressed it against the captain's neck. "There." "Thank you," she sighed. "Dismissed." Richardson backed out of the ready room and the doors shut once more. Riker breathed in deeply. "Okay Captain. What did you mean – how do you tell someone their civilization was based on a misunderstanding?" Beth weakened in her stance and Riker grabbed her arm. She sat up against her desk. Her eyes drifted to his. "They weren't slaves." Riker wasn't sure he was comprehending her. "What do you mean?" "They thought they were rescuing them from slavery." Beth rubbed her face. "They interpreted the first Romulans as begging them to save their own. The Romulans offered them the slaves and they thought they were saving them…" Her voice broke once more. "They gave them the cloaking device hoping they could help rescue their own from slavery..." Riker's eyes widened. "You mean…" He leaned up against the desk alongside her. "You mean that they misinterpreted each other over a thousand years ago?" Beth nodded weakly. "There's over forty million Romulans and Remans living on five different planets, all being protected by them." "You mean to say that Romulus has been funneling Remans and members of their own kind to these creatures for over a millennia…created the Tal Shiar…and forced their own culture into one of repression over a 379


misunderstanding?!" Beth's face grimaced. "Yes." Her hand reached for his and he held hers tightly. "But there's more Admiral…" He knew it had to be bad. Her black eyes looked just like Deanna's did when someone died. "What?" he whispered. "Shentaria found them." she tried to lick her lips, but her mouth was too dry. "They have no weapons Admiral. Their only defense is the ability to hide." Her voice fell into a whisper once more, "Shentaria has slaughtered more than a million of them. Romulans, Remans and…whatever they call themselves." "They don't have a name?" Beth stood and breathed in deeply. "They do…but it's seen, not verbalized. I know what their planet looks like, but I don't know what its name is." Beth shook her head. "Hell of a first First Contact, hey Admiral?" Riker nodded with a dumbfounded look on his face. "It's a doozy all right." Beth's smile was short lived. The ready room door opened once more. Dryden stepped in with a look of concern. "Captain. While the power was down the Ventral Weapons Supervisor reported the presence of a Thraiin vessel just underneath us. They regained power and recloaked long before we did." After the initial shock of the news rolled over her Beth shook her head. "We were sitting ducks. Why wouldn't they have fired on us?" Riker looked to her with the same level of confusion. "Maybe their weapons systems were still affected by a power down?" Beth nodded her head with disbelief. "I'll have to ask…" she waved her hand, "them," she said. "Gods I wish they had a verbal name I could call them!" she barked in frustration. "Go to yellow alert Number One and thank Lieutenant Isasile for me if you would." As strange as it was for the captain to know the name of a lieutenant down on the bottom deck, Dryden couldn't bring himself to change his facial expression. His eyes were still gaunt. Beth seemed to feel something grab her by her feet and shook her to her core. Her eyes went wide with shock and she took in a quick breath of air. "The Cats…" Dryden nodded weakly. "The Cats." 380


She had been so bound up in the shock of the conversation with the new species and in her own illness that she forgot about their potential response to the intruders on their bridges. "T'Vyn's the only telepath..." Dryden nodded with a grim look. Beth drew her hand to her mouth. "How many are dead?" "Twelve sir…eight from Starfleet and four of them." Beth yelped and sat back against her desk. "Twelve?" she whimpered. "Including Captain Farhadian."

Beth closed her eyes. "No…" she whispered and tried to push back the rising tide of sorrow in her throat. "Oh dear God," said Riker and he brought his hand to his face. "What about the others?" she said so softly that Dryden had to strain to hear. "As you suspected Captain, Captain T'Vyn's crew and those who boarded the Leopard remained safe. The Puma lost Captain Farhadian, another bridge member and one of the…aliens. The Jaguar lost one crew members and two of the…aliens. The Panther lost three crew members and one of the aliens and the Cougar lost two crew members." "All because they couldn't understand…" Riker whispered softly and Beth felt her fathers hand on hers. She pulled it back. "Thraiin." Beth grunted in order to try to redirect her misery. "Again. Stay at yellow alert Paul. We can't afford to be taken by surprise. We still have a lot of talking to get through. Make sure that the captains of the Cats…" her voice cracked, "…and the acting commander of the Puma transport over for this meeting. I'm sick of miscommunication. I won't tolerate it anymore!" Dryden nodded briefly. "Yes Captain." He bolted back through the door. Beth couldn't look at him. "Admiral. Please gather them and have them escorted to the negotiation room. I will be there shortly." "Beth…" "Please Admiral!" she pleaded. Riker stood and walked out to the bridge. He didn't need to do 381


much; Paul was already herding groups into the turbolifts. He felt like he was in a fog. His eyes met Deanna's. Her head was loosely held by the tentacle of one of the creatures and she had the brightest smile on her face. The being was obviously communicating something pleasant to her. When she saw Riker's face, her smile drained away. She found a way to excuse herself from the being who moved into the turbolift with Ambassador Melkit, who allowed the being to enwrap his head once more and his lifted his hand to the burnt-brown spot on its chest. "Will." Deanna approached him quickly and with concern. "What happened?" Will reached up to touch her hair and stroke it. The streaks of grey only looked like glittering highlights to him. "She's a hell of a commander Deanna. She's more like Jean-Luc than me." "Will. What happened?" "Farhadian's dead. Eleven others‌" He stopped himself for the briefest of seconds. "Including four of them." The turbolift door behind them opened and Captain McGregor bolted forward. "Where is she?" His eyes were filled with worry. A wave of relief swept over Riker. "McGregor." "Sir? Is she all right?" Riker nodded. "She's alone, she just found out about the losses." He directed his eyes towards the ready room. McGregor moved for the door. "Tristan," Riker called him and he turned to face him. "Admiral?" "I'm glad you're here." Tristan nodded his head slightly and entered the ready room. Riker took Deanna into his arms and moved for the turbolift in an attempt to prepare himself for one of the most surreal meetings he would ever attend.

"Beth," he said calmly and deeply. She was standing near the windows, facing out, her back turned to him. "No," she said sternly. "I can't." "Beth. Don't do this." "I couldn't understand them‌" she said bitterly. "If I had just 382


opened my mind sooner, allowed them in…I might have been able to prevent…" "You can't do this Beth. Carrie only did what she thought she had to …hell, I almost took it too! I fought back – we all did! If you hadn't of reached them when you did, we all would have…" Beth turned to him, her eyes wide in horror. "What do you mean?" "I'm not sure how, but they can talk to each other Beth, I guess telepathically – the moment they felt they had reached someone who could understand them they left our ships – they must have transported or something over here and to the Leopard. T'Vyn had fourteen of them on her bridge!" Beth's faced contorted in pain. "Who?" Beth grimaced. "Who did you lose?" Tristan moved forward but Beth backed away. "Anderson, Wright and…Be'thul." Every name meant something to her. They were all her former crew. "Be'thul?" She raised both hands to her face. Be'thul was the only Klingon the Panther had assigned and she had been a good friend to Beth during her tenure on the ship. "I'm so sorry." She slowly began to sit on the sofa near the window. "I'm so sorry." Tristan moved to her and he wasn't going to take no for an answer. "Beth…it wasn't your fault." She tried to push him away but his arms ensnared her tightly. "Don't Tristan." "Too bad," he retorted. "It wasn't your fault Beth." "I should have listened more." "I'm just glad you survived." Beth let her eyes connect to his. It was then she allowed herself to feel the relief that he too had survived. Her face contorted with her grief and he pulled her head to his chest and allowed her to release her tears.

Riker had only seen gatherings like this in his imagination, or was it really in his dreams? He surveyed the room to see a cacophony of different species, half of whom had their heads wrapped up in tentacles and their hands touching a dark spot on big colorful dinosaurs. He smirked 383


when he realized that at that moment in time he would have had a hard time proving he hadn't been taking hallucinogens. He heard a slight laugh from Commander Priest. "It is rather bizarre isn't it Admiral?" she said with a wink in her eye. Her short sandy hair was mussed by the thin tentacle of one of the new creatures and Riker was taken by it for it was smiling at him. Its huge teeth were bared in a horrible grin that reminded Riker of Dr. Ree from the Titan. I'll never get used to that he thought. The creature's grin widened and lifted one of it three free tentacles and patted him on the shoulder. "It likes you Admiral. It's not used to seeing hair on the humanoid face. It says you remind him of a stuffed creature he once owned," Priest said with a smile. "Great," Riker replied. "Just what I want to be remembered for, being a dinosaur's teddy bear," he muttered. "Do they know about the deaths?" he quickly changed the subject. Priest nodded with a saddened look in her eyes. "They feel terrible sir. They're feeling responsible for not being able to communicate with us." "Do they know we feel the same way?" Priest nodded. "Very much so. They honor our dead as heroes, sir – those who have sacrificed themselves for the greater good..." she shrugged, "…or at least that's what I can gather – visualizing concepts as heroism is very difficult. Images I conjure that represent hero differ from theirs, and in kind differ from that of the other species in the room. From what I can tell, they are taking the images produced by each of us and then…kind of…blend them into an idea of what we intend to mean." "Conjure?" Riker said. "I'm not sure I understand. You mean you have to imagine things?" "Well, for lack of a better term…yes. They only understand things visually. If I wanted to offer them a cup of tea, I have to imagine handing them one a cup of tea." She smiled brightly, "So when it comes time to discuss matters of a more ethereal nature, the actual concepts of emotion…love, hate, hero, enemy, pride…How does one imagine those visually? It's been very challenging Admiral." Her smile broadened. "But rewarding I take it?" He grinned. "More than I ever thought possible sir. They are remarkable. They're peace-loving, gentle people." 384


Riker looked up to Deanna whose smiling face reflected the joy she was also taking in her new role as translator. It had been a long time since Deanna had been able to fully participate in a First Contact and it was apparent she was relishing it. Riker lowered his voice and looked down to the petite Betazoid once more. "Counselor…how are the Romulans and Remans taking this news?" Priest pursed her lips. "It hasn't been easy sir. They're all emotionally twisted. The Praetor and Senators are understandably horrified, confused, angry…and guilty. The Remans are saddened and also very angry. But they're all in shock by the thought that they both have millions of their own kind living peaceably with one another…it's been a little overwhelming sir." Riker lifted his eyebrows. "That, counselor, is an understatement." She smiled as the tentacle on her head shifted slightly. "Sir, he wanted you to know that he thinks you and Ambassador Troi make a nice couple. He also knows that the Captain is your daughter and that…" Her face contorted with confusion, "I think he wants to say that family is important to them as well?" "That's exactly what they're saying," said Tuvok from across the room. "Family appears to be the most important concept in their society." "Well you tell them that we're all family here." He smiled. "The whole Federation is family." Priest grinned once more. "It is a concept that they're beginning to appreciate sir. They were very pleased when they found Romulans and Remans on board our ship. They've been watching all of us for centuries, all of the fighting and all of the disputes. They have kept a low profile in order to avoid becoming involved in those disputes. They are very passive, sir. But they need our help now." Riker nodded in agreement as the doors to the room slid open. Beth walked in. She looked cool, confident and calm. Riker knew she had to have been crying. There was just the slightest hint of puffed redness at her eyes. One glance to McGregor confirmed his suspicions. They had suffered horrible losses together. He was glad they were able to share it. It was the one advantage he had as captain, the ability to share everything with Deanna. Beth stood at the front of the room. She looked around briefly 385


and Riker could tell that she was a jumble of emotion, both happy and sad. He realized it must have been the same look he had when he entered the room. "No captain…you're not hallucinating." It forced a smile and a weak laugh from her face and it lifted his heart. "Thanks Admiral. It is, truly, one of the most remarkable sights I have ever seen..." she said, "…and one I hope I will see time and time again." Her face soured. "But we have to plan. A Thraiin vessel has been sighted and we now know it remains cloaked out there. We also have to plan how we're going to deal with the Shentarians, especially if they return like I think they will."

The meeting went more slowly than she had hoped. There were several times the whole process was stopped entirely while the telepaths decided how best to visualize their intentions and on many occasions they had found it difficult to agree on how that could best be done. Beth rubbed her temples as she leaned back in her chair while an argument over that very subject unfolded before her. "Their still our citizens Praetor!" bellowed Melkit from his seat. "The Remans on these planets deserve our unbridled protection! We must provide them with the tools and resources to protect themselves!" "I don't disagree with you Ambassador!" yelled the Praetor. "But I'm not so sure that I want to hand over Reman or Romulan technology to…to…arrrgh! What do we call them?" "Frankly gentleman, these might be questions best answered at a later time," Tuvok attempted to interject. "They are quiet capable of making those decisions for themselves. I understand that each colony has its own government and they self-rule. The alien species does not interfere with them." "But they are our citizens Ambassador!" cried the Praetor. "Not if they don't see it that way," said Troi. "Many of these people are very happy where they are now and in fact see…them" she pointed to the creatures around them, "…as saviors. They were all brought from two planets where, yes they were torn away from family and friends, but they were brought to nothing less than paradise from what I can tell. You must 386


be willing to accept the fact that a majority of these people want nothing more to do with Romulus or Remus. There are now generations of them who have never seen their home worlds and do not consider themselves beholden to either planet. They've already had multiple generations of mixed-raced births!" Beth tried desperately to imagine what those people must look like. She smiled to herself. The arguing continued and Beth began to rub her temples harder and harder. She froze when she heard the words "Prime Directive" slip from Admiral Janeway's mouth. She looked up to her CO's concerned face. "They are warp capable Admiral," said Beth. "I'm not saying that we can't help…" she cringed in frustration, "…them. I am however, concerned that the representatives of the colonies' governments aren't here. Why don't they just carry colony members on board their ships?! It would have made communications a hell of lot easier." The room silenced and Beth could tell that the telepaths were all trying to find a way to ask them the question. Precious minutes passed. Tuvok spoke first, "The colonists don't know Admiral. They have no idea that…the alien species…is even out here seeking our help. They don't even know about their neighboring colonies. Each planet's colony is…unique. The alien species acts only as guardians and provides each planet with the technological means to hide itself as a dead planet. Otherwise each colony is entirely self-sufficient and they are all technologically deficient. It is possible that the Prime Directive will apply Admiral. They are a new society. Each one separately - and none of them are warp capable." Beth sat back and shook her head. "Ambassador. They…them… Aehallh'alha no longer fits." She pointed to the glowing dinosaurs in growing frustration and then stopped. "Rokelh." she said softly and looked to the Praetor and the Reman Ambassadors. "Yes?" They all nodded. "Rokelh." "Rihannsu for protector," said Troi. "It fits." She grinned. "Well, at least we've been able to come to at least one decision in this mess." Beth grinned. "As I was saying, the colonies would be considered the Rokelh's protectorates correct? And the Rokelh are warp capable. Besides, the colonists are aware of the technology, they all descended from it." 387


Janeway smiled. "Nice out, Captain." "Hey, I didn't go out of my way to piss off an Interspecies Protocol Professor for nothing." Beth mumbled. "I could talk him into a Prime Directive squabble in a heartbeat." "And you almost got your ass handed to you if I remember correctly, Captain," Janeway replied. Beth smirked. "Yeah, well…" she stood with an edge of anger in her voice and addressed the room as she stood. "Excuse me for my lack of tact in this situation. Diplomacy was never my strong pointAmbassadors, but we all seem to be missing the point." "What's that Captain?" Worf's deep and frustrated voice boomed from across the room. "None of us…" she moved her hand in a circular motion to reflect that she meant every person in the room, "would want Shentaria to get their hands on this remarkable cloaking technology…would we?" Beth huffed. "Could you imagine it? The Rokelh cut off our power dropped our shields and entered the bridges of our vessels. We lost twelve people and a damn fine captain confronting a friendly species! Can you imagine the loss of life if we were to encounter the Shentarians in this way? They'll run through the galaxy!" The room fell silent once more. "We have no choice but to protect the Rokelh! It's us against them," she said. "The Shentarian threat is too great, as is the Thraiin!" She bolted her hand to point out the window, "And the Thraiin are already out there. We encountered Shentarians yesterday – you can't tell me that they're not already on their way with fleets of ships! I don't believe that the Prime Directive is an issue. Frankly, signing a piece of paper saying we're all friends right now means nothing. We'd better act on it first. The Federation, Romulus, Remus, Qo'Nos…Cardassia! All of us had better work together on making sure that no one…not the Federation, or Romulus, or Remus or Cardassia or the Klingon Empire and the Deities forbid the Borg ever show back up…NO ONE gets their claws on that technology. Or we'll all die together, that's for sure."

388


Interlude XIV Stardate 85998.0 USS Ada Byron – Tesla-Class Vessel - NCC-100110 Synchronous Orbit of Qo'NoS

"NO! NO! jop! way'!" Worf barked forcefully, stepping back in a graceful arc that forced Beth off balance and she dropped to her knees. The base of her bat'leth hit the ground and its tip stuck hard in the soil, the hand that held the upper curve of her weapon struck her in her face. "That's not the way!" he roared. Beth shook it off, but blood began to drip from her lip. Her eyes lit with fury. She hated when he got the best of her. Worf's eyes widened with warrior fire and he chastised her once more,"Now get up and learn the maneuver again! Have you forgotten everything I've taught you?" "No!" she hissed back. "It's just been awhile since I've had a worthy opponent!" Beth grabbed at the sleek blade once more and brought it up in front of her, letting herself crouch into a ready position, waiting for Worf to begin the move once more. Worf smirked. "You must have been practicing with petaQs Lieutenant Commander! You've weakened! I'm not even trying hard!" 389


Beth was angry. "I know!" Worf readied himself once more for confrontation. "Now pay attention! Don't forget to lower your center of gravity and use it to your advantage!" "Yes Emissary!" Beth gave her mentor a quick nod and a grunt, she never wiped the blood from her lip, it would have shown weakness to her counterpart. Worf moved in quickly, lifting his blade and drawing it back he turned towards Beth's crouched body. She stayed low and dodged his heavy blade's pass then turned under and around, striking a blunt blow against his back. He grunted loudly and turned. "Better!" he blurted. "Much better! Captain M'Raq will not tolerate weakness in his First Officer!" Beth spun on him and her eyebrows contorted with confusion. "I'm Tactical Chief, Emissary. Not the XO!" She moved towards him once more and lowered her stance. "You are yaS wa'DIchwI!" said a booming voice from behind her and a bat'leth blade barely missed her as it struck the ground at her right. Captain M'Raq's blazing green eyes met her gaze of surprise and she moved back quickly knowing he would redraw his weapon for another attack. The attacks now came from two sides and Beth sucked in her breath as she rolled with her blade between the two behemoth Klingons. They struck at once and she was able to deflect their blades with one defensive lift. She tucked under and gave Worf a blow to his lower abdomen. When she withdrew she lifted the rear of her bat'leth to deflect another blow from her captain. M'Raq lunged quickly once more as Worf reeled and swung hard from Beth's left. She jumped when she saw Worf's leg move to trip her. M'Raq barely missed her arm with his blade. She took two steps back and looked at M'Raq. "chay'?" she asked. "How? What happened to Commander P'Rem?" M'Raq approached her slowly and he let his teeth show in a typical Klingon grin but Beth knew better than to lower her weapon. She was not disappointed when M'Raq lunged and their blades collided with a shattering clang once more. "He was promoted this morning," he growled. "He'll be the new CO of the Kilimanjaro." 390


Beth turned to deflect an oncoming blow from Worf from her other side and M'Raq moved around. It took every bit of concentration she had to focus on thwarting the two strikes and when she did so she garnered a howl of approval from Worf. "Yes! Much better!" M'Raq countered with a spin and she was able to catch him and Worf stepped back to watch her form. "chaQ!" Beth heard his instructions and lifted her weapon high. "Good! baQ!" Beth switched her dominate hand position of her blade. M'Raq pulled back on his blade and struck once more. Beth resisted the pounding blow. M'Raq grinned wildly. "Excellent Commander!" He stood tall and lowered his weapon as a sign that his advances were completed. Beth did not lower her weapon. "You want me as your yaS wa'DIch?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Yes." M'Raq's thick, black hair was loose and stuck out from his head in frenzied mop. He was wearing a red-collared Starfleet uniform with grey shoulders. He bore a traditional Klingon sash across his chest. He was just as imposing as Worf and in some senses more so, for his youth gave him a virile strength. "Commander Riker." Beth smiled and after looking to Worf, her mentor acknowledged that the bat'leth training was done for the time-being and she lowered her weapon only then. "Commander?" She looked to M'Raq in awe. Worf smiled and he began to chortle. "Commander Riker. Sounds about right," he bellowed. M'Raq slowly approached her and she looked up to his great, dark emerald eyes in shock and admiration. "Sir. I don't know what to say." He shook her off. "Say you will accept the challenge." Beth grinned widely. "Of course I will Captain. You honor me in ways I cannot express." M'Raq nodded and lifted his hand and showed her a singlegold pip. She swallowed hard then shot to attention. She felt the Klingon's hand at her collar, removing the dark pip and replacing it with the gold one. His deep voice resonated through the holodeck. "In accordance with orders from Starfleet Command, dated June 15, 391


2408, Lieutenant Commander Elizabeth L. Riker is hereby promoted to Commander. Lieutenant Commander Riker has repeatedly shown great leadership potential and tactical prowess as an officer aboard the USS Ada Byron, and has faithfully and honorably discharged her duties as chief of tactical, often going above and beyond the call of duty. Signed, Admiral Kathryn Janeway, Eighth Fleet, Commanding." He looked down upon his new First Officer. "Congratulations Commander." Beth nodded once with awe and gratitude. "Thank you Captain." She turned to look to Worf. There was no denying his pride. He stood tall and held his bat'leth at his side. "Your father does not know yet, Commander," he said with a twist at his lip. "The Admiral will be most pleased, I am sure." Beth let a small laugh escape from her mouth. She turned her attentions back to her CO. "Captain? What are my orders?" M'Raq nodded and appeared pleased that her attentions were fixed solely on his requirements, not hers. "Clean yourself up Commander. Notify your friends and family then connect with Captain P'Rem to assure that the transition is complete. He is required aboard the Kilimanjaro as soon as possible." Beth grinned. "Aye sir."

"Beth!" Riker's expression was filled with worry, "Is everything all right?" Beth smiled and her father's immediate anxiety eased. "Everything's great Dad!" she leaned in towards the comm at her desk. "Then what's the urgency?" he asked. "I just knew if I could reach you now, it would be better and I didn't want the news to leak to you!" Riker's brows creased with curiosity. "What news?" Beth did even speak, she just lifted her head softly, then pulled her long hair back to reveal her collar. 392


Riker noticed immediately. His eyes softened and his cheeks sagged with shock. "You were promoted." Beth smiled softly and nodded. "I've just been made XO." Riker's eyes widened even further. "What?" Beth let herself giggle slightly. "Captain M'Raq just made me his First…his yaS wa'DIch!" She loved her father's smile. His pride was unmistakable and he leaned across his desk in the ready room of the Persephone. "Elizabeth! That's wonderful news! I'm so proud." "Thanks Dad." She let her slight disappointment show. "Can you tell Mom for me? We're due to head out for the sectors beyond Megara tomorrow and I know she's at Romulus again. I won't be able to send her a transmission in time." "Of course I will Beth. Have you been able to reach Bill?" he asked. She shook her head. "Not yet, but I'll try him next. Is he still at the Trelayan dig?" "I believe so. He wasn't supposed to return to Earth until next week and I haven't heard that his schedule had changed." "Good." She smiled. Her father reached for his comm as they always did. "Elizabeth. You always do me proud. You'll make M'Raq a fine First Officer. You always did work well with Klingons." "A trait, I believe, I picked up from you," she retorted. "Maybe," he said. "But you understand them better than me. You always understood others better than me." Beth shook her head profusely. "No. I don't. If it weren't for your understanding of others, I wouldn't be where I am today. You were the first person to serve me gagh." She laughed when she saw the light of recollection in her father's eyes. "You were the first person to let me pick up a bat'leth. And you were the first person to introduce me to Romulan ale." There was a roar of laughter from Riker. "That was a night! I had never seen you drunk before!" Beth blushed with embarrassment. "Neither had anyone else. 394


Brian and Mike still won't let me live that down." "And they shouldn't!" Riker grinned. "It was still one of the funniest days of my life. There you were, my daughter – dancing on the tables at Risa making the Orions blush!" "Yeah. Great. Thanks for reminding me." Beth smiled with embarrassment. There was a tone on Riker's comm and Beth heard it. She had heard the tone often enough over her life to know he was receiving an incoming urgent message from Command, and she knew her father would have to go. "Thraiin again?" she asked. "No. I'm afraid something else is happening Beth. There was a horrible accident in the Gamma Quadrant and we're just now beginning to get information on it. It sounds like a First Contact mission went bad…real bad. We've lost contact with four of our ships near the planet they were observing." Beth swallowed hard. "Four?" she gasped. "What planet?" "We thought it was called Kloth'en, but it now sounds like that might have been just a word in their language that meant prison." "What?" Beth asked in confusion. Riker looked to his comm and appeared rushed, "Look, I'll fill you in when I can, but you'll be briefed soon, trust me. It looks like the planet and our ships may have been annihilated by the governing planet…one called Shentaria." "Shentaria…" Beth let herself whisper the word. Riker's comm chirped once more and he didn't hide his annoyance. "I'm sorry Beth. I'll call back soon. Congratulations! I love you!" Beth smiled and watched as her father blew her a kiss and pressed a button on his comm ending his transmission.

395


Interlude XV Stardate 76767.3 USS Enterprise – NCC -1701-F Synchronous Orbit of Earth Reception Hall Twelve

Three captains sat in a small corner of the room that was surrounded by a decorative divider that gave them the ability to escape from the larger crowd of the party. Jean-Luc Picard looked handsome in his formal uniform that bore a special cluster on the tips of his sleeves to reflect his retired status. He normally would have avoided a function like this, but he didn't want to miss the opportunity catch up with the Rikers or with Brint. The wedding had been blissfully short and no one was required to take off any clothing so it was almost a pleasant affair. He looked to his former XO and noticed that he was almost completely grey now. It almost made him feel old. He wasn't enjoying retirement like he thought he'd might. The vines were a comfort but only on occasion. He was feeling edgy and had been looking into…alternatives…to pass his time. He wondered how his two friends would take the news if he decided to accept the amazing offer. 395


"I hear the girls are doing well at the Academy, Will," said Brint, allowing his white smile to emit form his perfectly blue face, his antennae twisted slightly. "Very much so. Both on honor roll, both ranked in the top ten of their classes." Riker beamed with pride. "Geordi seems to think they're both born for command." "They were Will. What made you think otherwise?" Picard joked. "They had no choice really. Raised on Titan, they were bound to follow in your footsteps I think." Riker smirked. "Somehow I think you were more of an influence Jean-Luc. It's funny how Beth never talks about being the Captain of the Titan when she gets older. It has always been about the Enterprise." The three men laughed quietly. "How's Bill? I see he was unable to make it." Riker grimaced. "I'm not sure if that's the whole truth." Jean-Luc frowned with him. "He and Beth still not talking?" Riker nodded his head. "Family life is not all it's cracked up to be, Captains. My twins aren't speaking to each other, my daughter refuses to acknowledge that her mother even exists and I'm helpless to do anything about it." He sipped his scotch. "The fact that Cassidy's even here surprises me." Brint laughed. "They'll come around Will. It's just sibling rivalry. It happens in every family." Riker shook his head. "I don't know Brint. Beth hasn't spoken to Bill in over three years and Cassidy hasn't said a word to Deanna in over two. This is hardly what I call sibling rivalry. The girls are the two most stubborn, unforgiving, pig-headed‌" Riker stopped when he heard the familiar voice of his oldest daughter. "Mike! I didn't know you were coming! When did you beam up?" "Just a few minutes ago."

396


Riker heard a young man's voice and he connected his eyes to his counterparts with a crooked smile. "No fair, Dad…eavesdropping?" whispered Brint as he stood up then took a seat closer to Riker. He snuggled in hard to Riker's back. "Move over, I want to hear." Riker grinned broadly and moved over on the small couch to allow his friend better earshot. Picard shook his head in false chastisement but found himself leaning over his glass of wine and listening in as well. The young man's voice was heard once more. "Mom and Dad are here too and I promised them I would, you know..." "Make an impression?" Beth laughed. "Some things never change." She drew in her breath quickly. "Oh…wait a minute. I know why you're here!" she said in a most accusatory way. "The bride's sister…" She giggled. "Yeah, well…" Mike was caught outright and the men all smiled to each other. "I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her out of uniform…" There was a distinct pause and then laughter, "You know what I meant Beth. I just wanted to see what she looked like in civvies, that's all." "Uh huh." Beth giggled in return. "Sure Mike." Riker felt Brint's head fall against his back. "How much ale have you had Brint?" he whispered, trying to hold in his laughter. He knew he had also imbibed heavily and the rosey cheeks on Picard were also giving him away. It was like being in the back of class with troublemakers…the more you wanted to keep quiet, the harder it was to do so. "Not enough." Brint snorted quietly. "Now shhhhh Riker... I'm snooping on your daughter." "Seriously Beth. Look at her," Michael said with such longing in his voice, all three men knew he was done for…he was hopelessly in love with the bride's sister. "She's gorgeous!" 397


"Then why are you here talking to me you big idiot? Go over there as ask her to dance," she chided. "Oh, I couldn't." "Mister Llewellyn‌" Beth sighed. "When are you going to grow some balls?" She snorted. "I can't have an Operations Officer with no balls now can I?" She laughed and it was obviously intended as a mean-spirited joke of some kind. Picard contorted his face and looked to Will who just shrugged. Brint obviously found it very humorous and dropped his head on Riker's back once more, pounding on Riker's shoulder quietly. "Oh I do love her," he whispered. "No I suppose not Captain," replied Llewellyn. There was another long pause of silence and the three men could tell that this had been a friendship long in the making. "Beth?" "Yeah?" she answered. "You ever think about getting married?" Beth laughed quietly. "Not really," she said succinctly. "Why not?" There was another long pause. "I guess I never expect to that's all." "Why not? Because you want to command the Enterprise?" He said it with such sincerity the three men knew that Mike wasn't being facetious about Beth's dream; he held it in as high esteem as she did. "Maybe that's part of it," she responded. "The curse?" 398


She laughed quietly. "I don't believe in curses…really." "Oh yeah, then why don't you think you could be married and command the Enterprise? Hmm?" Mike sassed back. "You do! You do believe in the curse!" Riker turned to Picard and mouthed, "What curse? What are they talking about?" Picard shrugged and Brint lifted his head from Riker's back. He reached for his ale on the table and Picard could tell right away that Brint knew exactly what the two young people were talking about. "I do not," Beth retorted. "That's all superstitious bull." "Then why don't you think you'll ever be married?" There was no answer. "Thought so," he stated then he drew in a deep breath and sighed heavily. "She's so pretty." "Mike…just go talk to her," Beth pleaded with him. "Okay. If I can grow balls and talk to Janine Fields then you can be captain of the Enterprise and be married…deal?" Beth laughed sarcastically. "If you think I…" She laughed again… "Okay…deal Mike. Now go talk to her." "You know her! Introduce us! Pleeeease…." "Fine, Michael," Beth huffed. The three men could tell that the couple walked away. Picard leaned toward the small cocktail table and watched as Brint slowly lifted himself from the couch where he had been sitting with Riker. Brint sat back down in the chair opposite the two. He took a very large slug of his ale. "What curse are they talking about?" asked Riker. "What, you're both kidding right? Why…THE curse of course." Brint replied as if Picard and Riker were both dolts for not knowing. "Brint, what are they talking about?" said Picard, with a bent 399


smile and taking a sip of his wine. "Name a captain of the Enterprise who's had a successful marriage," Brint said. "Garrett," replied Riker quickly. "Look what happened to her." There was silence after that. "You mean to say that people believe that you're cursed if you're married and command the Enterprise?" "Well Jean-Luc‌you tell me. You've stated on more than one occasion that you married the ship. At times I can't say I haven't felt the same way myself. Riker here's had a successful marriage but not until he left the Enterprise." "Oh please Brint‌" Riker retorted. "You can't be serious." "Hey, I'm just repeating the myth." Brint smiled. "But to tell you the truth? I fear the day I fall in love."

400


PART TWELVE

C

401


402


Stardate 91941.0 Federation Starship – USS Enterprise-G Conference Room 9110

"Captain." Tuvok's voice silenced the room once more. "The Rokelh have ten vessels in our immediate vicinity. It is almost their entire fleet. Two ships are on assignments of deep space exploration." "Are they responsible for the tachyon emissions?" "Yes Captain. It appears as though they re-modulated the cloaking device on one of their ships, first as their only means of self-defense and second as a means to push us into their system." Beth nodded. "Even if I had decided to go around the nebula‌" "They would have altered course to guide you here." "Ambassadors, when communicating with them, I was unable to decipher when the last Shentarian attack took place. I could remember seven, maybe eight distinct villages being destroyed but the timing of them were unclear," said Beth. "The first attacks began a couple of months ago." Deanna looked up to her daughter's face with a professional glare. "Captain, from what we can tell, the Shentarians have only been able to locate one of the planets where the colonists live. The other four have not yet been identi403


fied and the Rokelh may have altered their cloaking technologies to further disguise the planets. It's why they overtook our probe." she sighed in obvious frustration, "It's so hard to comprehend what they're saying." she grumbled, "I see them in these amazing ships and all of their controls appear to be bio-visual that respond to their skin somehow… they don't press any buttons or panels. It's remarkable." Beth tried to imagine what the inside of their ships must look like and then a thought waved over her. "The ship that was emitting the tachyon…Llewellyn and Elieth said it had to have been huge…" T'Vyn responded and Beth could tell that the Vulcan had been put through the ringer. Her avant-garde hairstyle looked on the edge of ridiculous with a tentacle wrapped through it, but her face was bent with concern and the utter tidal wave of visions she was being fed. Beth understood all too well how tiring it was and she was grateful that all agreed that she was no longer required to act as translator. "It appears as though each vessel may carry well over ten thousand crew members Captain." Beth was stymied. "You mean to say you think that there may be over a hundred thousand of them out there, right now? "Yes Captain," T'Vyn replied. "And their only defense is the tachyon emission diversion." she stated. "There is no other weaponry on board. The tachyon bursts are a last-ditch effort to avoid destruction but they are aware that it gives away the position of their ships…which have no shields." Beth looked to McGregor and he returned her look of shock. "They can't even deflect a laser blast?" "No," replied Priest. "No weapons of any kind. No shields, no weapons…they're explorers Captain. I think they've said they've summoned home the fleet when the attacks started and two ships are still out of range. It was then they began to board every freighter that passed near the sector in the hopes they could find someone who would understand them enough to help them." Beth sighed. "But everyone they came across was human…and therefore lacked the telepathy to comprehend the intent behind their actions. I was able to feel the emotion before they even touched me," she replied. "The fear they were feeling was a combined fear of Shentaria and their fear of…us." She leaned her head back on her chair once more, 404


trying to chew on the facts available. "Shentaria is on their way. We cannot leave them." She connected her eyes to the translators. "Can they assist us if Shetarians were to show? They were able to shut down key systems on the Enterprise and take down ours shields, could they provide us with such and advantage against them?" Again, there seemed to be a quick discussion amongst the group and then an interminably long silence. Finally it was Priest who answered: "Captain, I think I understand that they can bring down key systems but that the technology to bring down shields is the problem." "What kind of problem?" Beth asked. Ambassador Melkit entered the conversation. "It appears as though they cannot control their shield device to aim it in a specific direction. It's all encompassing." "Meaning that if they were to use it against them‌" Riker cut in, "We would lose our shielding as well?" Again there was a very long pause and Riker could tell that Deanna was tiring quickly. She nodded and looked to the others. "Yes." "That explains the serendipitous discovery of the Thraiin vessel." Beth sighed in frustration. "We may need to take that risk at some point but only as a last resort," she stated. "Agreed?" Janeway nodded. "Agreed Captain." Beth rubbed her eyes, then her temples once more. "Now I have an odd question to ask, but I really need to know. Please ask them how the Shentarians found them." Once more Beth sat as patiently as possible while the telepaths attempted to imagine a way to visualize a verbally basic question. With every question posed, the telepaths would discuss the best possible way to assure they were not being misconstrued. Beth's utter emotional exhaustion was beginning to take a hold on her. Her lack of sleep over the previous few days was also starting to take its toll and Riker could see it. "Captain‌are you all right?" Beth nodded weakly and ignored him as she continued to watch the group trying to translate her question. "They're not exactly sure Captain, but they think it may have been due to a damaged vessel on its way back to the home world. The Shentarians likely picked up some sort of a resonant trace of the damaged 405


cloak and just followed it all the way to the planet. Once they realized that the planet wasn't what it appeared to be they sent wave after wave of their ships‌" "In order to clear the planet for their habitation," Beth finished. "At least they're consistent. What ships are available Admiral?" Beth asked her. Janeway sat forward in her chair. "Before this all occurred, Command dispatched four vessels, the Persephone was pulled from dock, the Cerberus is coming from the other side of the Paulson Nebula, and the Ada Byron and the Zenith are coming from the Starbase 23 and the Quebec II outpost. But the first ship won't reach us for another ten hours. I will contact Command and brief them on what has occurred and ask for a full response, but it will take them at least forty-eight hours at high warp to make it here." "That's if they don't meet any Shentarians or Thraiin on the way," countered Riker. "What can Romulus and Remus provide Praetor? Your ships must be closer." The Praetor locked eyes with Ambassador Melkit. "I will call for a response as well, but most of our fleet have been busy swatting back at the Thraiin and are closer to the home-world. It will likely be two days before they can arrive as well." Melkit nodded. "As with us. The Thraiin have been diverting our attentions to the sectors nearest T'Met. It will take us even longer to respond to the Onias sector." "Emissary," Beth addressed Worf. "Can the Klingons respond?" "I will see to it." he said in a low rumble. "But I believe our nearest ships may also take ten or more hours to reach us here. The Klaan and its escorts were instructed to leave Iolus Prime quickly. I will have to determine what other ships may be near the sector." "I will ask the same from the Vulcan ship T'Naari," said Tuvok. "I would offer our assistance Captain, but I'm afraid any Cardassian vessels are more than just a few days away," said President Vadine stoically from his seat at the massive table. Beth nodded. "Cardassia can assist by assuring that no more Shentarian ships cross into the Beta Quadrant from the Gamma Quadrant," she said with a slight smile. 406


"We will do what we can," he replied. "Fine." Beth looked around. "Are we agreed then that we must stay here until back up arrives?" There was a consensus. The Rokelh's skin rippled with shades of pale blue and green that Beth found beautiful. "I can't be sure Captain, but I think they're saying thank you," said Priest with a soft smile. "There is an enormous wave of gratitude emanating from them." "You're welcome," she said as she stood. "Commander Praang?" Beth addressed the acting commander of the Puma. He was a mediumsized Klingon with wild hair and a spectacularly complex set of ridges in his forehead "Yes Captain." His deep voice boomed through the room. "Captain Farhadian and the others died honorably and will undoubtedly enter Sto-Vo-Kor. You however are now commanding the Puma. Is your bridge crew ready?" Praang stood bolt upright. "They are warriors Captain." Beth smiled. "Indeed they are Commander Praang. I want you to work with the other cats to assure proper division of personnel. Number One, work with Elieth to assure all systems are back on line." "Aye sir," Dryden replied. Beth felt her stomach turn over once more. "Admirals, I will be in my quarters if you need me," she said and departed the meeting.

"Marry me." Tristan had entered her quarters and without so much as a greeting he moved into her, latched onto her arms and held her firmly, looking into the black pools of her eyes intensely. They widened in shock then closed in what appeared to be overwhelming sadness. "You can't be serious." "Look at me Beth, I've never been more serious about anything in my life," he retorted. Beth attempted to pull away from him but his grip on her arms was resolute. "Tristan. Don't. Don't do this to me. Not now, not right in the 407


middle of everything." "No Beth. Now. Because we're in the middle of everything. You said yourself you didn't want to waste any more time." "Tristan…" she begged. "Please…" "Look at me, Beth. Look in my eyes and tell me you don't love me." Beth looked him straight in the eyes. "You know I can't say that. I do love you." "Then what else do you need?" Beth shut her eyes once more. "Sanity," she huffed. "Eight people under my command just died Tristan, Carrie was one our best friends…how can we even be talking about this?" "I'm here because I finally have the guts to tell you that I don't want to lose you like we lost Carrie. I'm here asking you to marry me because if I do lose you…" his eyes filled with despair, "I need to know you were mine Beth. I want to know I had you while I had the chance." He grunted. "What was it your mother said to your father every time they would face danger Beth?! What was it?!" Tears began to stream down her face in anguish. "Tristan, please…" "What did your mother say Beth?" Beth's voice broke as she relented in pain, "She always said…one day…one day would have been enough." Tristan moved his hands and grabbed her face and let his fingers weave into her hair. "One day Beth. I love you. I need you and I don't want to go another day without you. Just say you'll marry me Beth." Beth thought the mass of the galaxy would begin to fold in on itself and she would crush right into its midst. Her pain, sorrow and guilt roiled so hard she was barely able to qualm her stomach but she had been surprised by the depth of anguish she felt when she looked into Tristan's soft hazel eyes…anguish brought on by her unquenchable love for him. "Tristan…" "Don't give me any crap about that stupid curse. You know as well as I do it's a load of bull." Beth's heart was being torn into shreds; her tears fell softly down her cheeks which he wiped away. She wasn't sure she had the strength 408


anymore. She looked once more into his soft hazel eyes and found the comfort she had been missing for decades. Everything seemed like it would be okay as long as she looked into the hazel of his eyes. He moved in and kissed her. "Marry me." Beth couldn't say no. She could no longer push him away when all she wanted to do was to pull him closer. She nodded her head weakly in his strong hands and whispered as another tear dropped from her eye. "Yes."

He felt awful. She had finally fallen asleep in his arms and he stroked the silk of her chocolate brown hair once more. He had no choice but to return to the Panther. He had been gone too long already. This was something they had to get used to. Separation was never easy. He knew that. His parents lived on two different ships for most of his life. He was just relieved she had said yes. He lifted her limp hand to see that the ring had fit perfectly. A small, yet elegant stone was inset into a platinum filigree of tiny Celtic knots. It had been in his family for generations. Who knew how far back it dated. You'll be mine Beth. I waited too long but I finally did the right thing. You'll finally be mine. He softly kissed the ring on her hand then laid it back onto the bed. He shifted quietly and began to pull away. He wasn't surprised that she had awakened. Her black eyes peeped through her tired and puffed eyelids. They were filled with a mix of joy and sadness. "I have to go Beth," he whispered reluctantly. "I know," she said, pulling his face to hers, allowing her to place a deep and passionate kiss against his mouth. Once their lips parted she stroked his hair and sought the comfort of his soft eyes once more. This is right. This is the right thing to do. "Don't forget." He smiled. Beth grinned. "Elgin. I won't forget." Her smile lifted him wholly. He kissed her once again, then lifted her hand and kissed the ring she now bore. "We're going to make it through this Beth."

409


Beth swallowed hard and touched his hair once more. "Go," she said. "We both have to get back to work." "You need some sleep Captain." Beth shook her head and say up. "I've slept enough. I have to get back to the bridge." Tristan knew better than to argue with her, and he smiled. "Come on then Captain. Let's go."

She smiled as best she could as she watched him step up to the transporter pad. He let loose that mischievous grin of his and it lightened her spirits. McGregor broke his eye contact with her to look at Chief Vega behind the controls. Vega had been assigned to the Panther while Beth was CO. "Carlos," he addressed him. "Yes Captain McGregor?" Vega shot to attention. "Take care of her. That's an order." Vega smiled. "Of course sir." Beth's nostrils flared and she tried to suppress her sorrow at watching him leave but she pursed her lips hard back into a smile, then took a deep breath in. "What time of the day in Elgin, Tristan?" Tristan laughed. "You pick." "So I get to pick date and time?" she joked. "But you only got to pick location." "Ah. Not so fast. I get to pick where we have the honeymoon too." Beth allowed herself to laugh. "Energize." Tristan faded into the brilliant blue light that returned him to the Panther. Beth turned and began to walk from the room. "Captain," called Vega quietly. "Yes Chief?" "Is it a secret?" His eyes panned down to her finger. She lifted her hand and touched the ring gently. "If it was, I wouldn't be wearing the ring," she said. "Besides, it's McGregor we're talking about

410


right? I'm sure most of Scotland already knows." Vega laughed out loud. "May I say then, Captain, it's about time." Beth looked to him in shock. "Were we that obvious?" "There wasn't a soul aboard the Panther who didn't know how he felt for you. You were a little harder to tell." Beth turned back for the door then stopped suddenly and turned back to Vega. "Okay…how long has the pool been going on?" Vega laughed out loud. "Almost a year and half Captain." Beth sighed with her grin. "Let me know who won." "Aye sir." Beth nodded and finally left the transporter room and almost struck Enya Priest in the corridor. "Counselor," Beth acknowledged her. "Captain," she responded. "I'm glad I ran into you. I was on my way back to the bridge talk to you." Beth stopped her at her side. "Is something wrong?" Enya smiled appreciatively. "Not really Captain. I just wanted to make a suggestion and wanted to discuss it with you but if you're too busy." Beth tilted her head to Priest, requesting her to follow her to the turbolift. "Not for you Counselor. I wanted to talk with you as well. I needed to tell you how much I have appreciated your efforts with the Rokelh. They seem quite comfortable with you when you translate for us. I know how tiring it must be. I can't express my gratitude enough for what you're doing for us…but for me in particular…" "That's precisely what I wanted to talk with you about Captain. It seems as though you're going to need a translator for awhile and I would like to volunteer my talents." The turbolift door opened and they both entered. "Bridge." Beth looked to her with comprehension spreading across her face. Beth rubbed her eyes hard with her left hand. She was exhausted. Her eyes were sore but she knew she had to move forward. Without saying so, Enya had noticed the ring on her finger. "Are you saying you want to board one of theirs vessels Commander?" "Yes sir. You're going to need someone who can communicate 411


with them. The Reman, Romulan and Vulcan representatives need to remain on board. Ambassador Troi and I…" "Wait, my mother wants to go, too?" "Yes Captain, we feel that it would be hazardous to have just one translator, the possibility for miscommunication would be too great." Beth leaned against the wall of the lift. Priest was right of course. But the thought of placing two people on a ship with no weapons or shields just didn't sit right with her. She tried to find options but was coming up short. "Enya," she said softly. "You've seen what the inside of their ships look like – it might be an overload for both of you." "Both Ambassador Troi and are willing to try it Captain. If it becomes too much, we'll try to find other alternatives at communication, but I genuinely don't know what they may be. The Rokelh have no means to communicate by sound, so our combadges are the only link to their ship. In order to talk to them, you have to talk to one of us and we have to try to visualize your words. I can't think of any other way." Beth couldn't either. "Fine Commander. Make preparations with the Ambassador and report before you make headway over. Beth thought Priest would jump out of her skin with joy. "Yes sir!" The door to the bridge opened and Beth walked out slowly. Dryden smiled as he stood from the command chair. There was a sudden outburst of applause. It was only then she saw McGregor's face on the viewscreen. Enya grabbed her hand and looked at the ring. "I knew it!" she cried. "So tell me Captain," Beth said to McGregor with a tired grin. "Who doesn't know?" "Well, I cannot make any guarantees, but your parents and Shaughnessy." "Thanks. At least there're three people…" "Incoming transmission from the Jaguar, Captain," said K'Reeg at his station. Beth cringed. "Great. Make that two people…" The forward turbolift opened and Riker and Troi walked out onto the bridge and burst forward when they saw her. "Beth! Is it true?!" "Tristan!" barked Beth, "I just left you forty seconds ago!" McGregor laughed, "Sorry love, I couldn't help myself." 412


THK Anthek "Terminate transmission," said Cassidy from the command chair of the Anthek. She rubbed her forehead with the tip of one of her long and delicate fingers. "I don't need to know any more." "Commander," came the low, sullen voice of the Reman man to her right, Jassek. Jassek was the new second in command of the Anthek. Upon Pomalek's unfortunate death, everyone moved up. That was until Command would make their final decisions on permanent replacements. It was what she had been waiting for‌for twelve years. She refocused her thoughts when he spoke to her. "I see you are to expect a new brother-in-law?" he said sharply. Cassidy huffed. "We still have orders Lieutenant. I'm just waiting to see if we'll get the opportunity to carry them out." She glared at him. "You can leave the petty family jabs to those who know how to use them better," she snarled. "We cannot report to Command until we find out what they're doing first. And if they present us with an opportunity to strike, we will strike. But if not, we will have to move out of range to file our report and await orders. There's too much at stake to make the wrong move now and I'm not about to make a mistake. I suggest you focus your work to assuring that cloak doesn't drop again Lieutenant. Is that clear?" Besides, if Shentaria arrives, Command would expect us to take part in any battle against them. They cannot be allowed to grab any of that technology...if they do, Federation...Thraiin Militia...Klingon...it won't matter, we'll all die. Enemy of my enemy as they say. The large Reman bowed to her slightly. "Of course Commander." "Good," she sniped. "Let's see what kind of a wedding gift I can give my sister."

Llewellyn walked into the ready room and stood in front of the Captain's desk. Her attention had been fully taken by the reports coming across her comm. Full power had been restored and all decks began to prepare for the potential reappearance of Shentarian vessels, along with 413


the knowledge the Thraiin were also in the area. Beth had told her senior officers that she wasn't as concerned about the Thraiin threat because the Cats and the Enterprise were more than a match for just one of their ships. They now awaited the arrival of the other ships. It was about one of these ships that Llewellyn now appeared in the captain's office and he had handed her a PADD. She took it from him almost blindly. "Thanks Commander." He thought Beth looked like hell warmed over. He had never seen her look so tired or more emotionally exhausted. After everything they had gone through on the Panther together – the long days, the intense battles…the death…she had never lost the fire in her eyes. Now, as he stood before her waiting for her to finish reading his latest report, he noticed that her eyes were vacant of the energy and strength and he wondered how he could help. The ring on her hand had been a beacon of light and hope that he had needed to see when McGregor had told the crew in his transmission. He had known McGregor had loved her for years, probably before McGregor had even realized it himself. He was never really sure that Beth would allow herself to open the door to let him in – to let herself love and be loved in return, but seeing her exhausted smile on her face when she entered the bridge had done more to lift the morale of the entire crew than anyone had realized. Now her face had lost that smile and her eyes were missing that spark. He knew why and it angered him. "Captain," he said. Beth lifted her eyes solemnly from the PADD in her hands and it was only then that he realized she looked like she bore the weight of the universe on her shoulders. "Yes?" "Permission to speak freely?" Beth's eyes narrowed and returned to the PADD. "Denied." Mike's rage flared. Don't do this Beth. Don't start believing the lies! He pulled his lips tight and let a small and dissatisfied growl out before he cleared his throat quietly. "Commander," Beth warned as her tired eyes fell upon him once more. "Beth…don't…don't start believing in failure. I can see it. I can see it in your eyes." 414


She lifted her hands to eyes and rubbed them gently then returned her gaze to his. "I'm sorry Mike, it's very hard…" "I know," he said supportively. "If I could just lay my hands on you and make the pain of their deaths go away I would, but I can see that you're starting to believe that you and Tristan…" "Mike please," she whispered her beg to him. "Sorry Beth but you need to hear this…" he grunted. "You've always believed that there's hope…" Beth lifted her gaze to him with surprise once more. "You think I've lost hope?" Mike nodded his head. "I've never seen that look before. I've never seen you look so…tired." Beth took a sharp breath in. "You mean beaten, don't you?" Her eyes widened with shock. "You think I look beaten?!" "I think you look like you believe you'll lose him..." he grunted, "…or your life." Beth sat back in her chair as her hand tossed the PADD to the top of her desk. She drew her hands over the top of her dark hair and closed her eyes. "I don't believe in the curse Mike." He had her and he knew it. "You do. You always have and Brint's death sealed it for you." Beth's eyes wandered aimlessly towards the large windows that revealed the sharp lined hull of the USS Panther and he could see her eyes begin to glisten. "Maybe I do Mike," she whispered in defeat. Llewellyn shifted slightly in his stance. "Why did you say yes then?" Beth dropped her head. "I don't know." Mike let a laugh escape his throat. "You're such a bad liar." Beth jerked her head with her hushed laugh and he moved closer to her desk. "You love him and he loves you. That's why you said yes." Beth raised her tired eyes to his once more. "He used the one's day's enough line." Mike's grin widened. "Beth, don't do this to yourself…" Beth sighed heavily. "I'm trying Mike," she said. "I really am trying to believe it can happen. Deities know I love him." "You made me a deal…I expect you to keep it." 415


Beth connected her eyes to his. "I'm not sure how much control I really have over the subject Michael…not one…not one Enterprise captain has ever survived more than a few years married." "That's bullshit and you know it. The curse is a lie." Beth didn't answer him she only returned her gaze to the sight of the Panther. Llewellyn rolled his eyes. "Well here's a way of looking at it…why don't you marry him to spite it?" Beth contorted her face with confusion. "What?" "You're always the one who takes pride in breaking with tradition…so if the curse is tradition…just break with it." There was a long period where Beth and he remained quiet. He watched her as her gaze dropped from the Panther, then down to the ring that enwrapped her finger. He could see her tortured look of love and pain. Mike's heart was so filled with joy for her, yet combined with the pain of the loss of their friends he could understand her reaction. Beth gazed up to him from her desk and he knew that she could feel his emotions. He had always known – she knew exactly what he was hurt about and he decided to let it out. "All these years…all these years you really could read my mind…you owe me Beth. Just marry him." Beth lifted her eyes once more and saddened even more, which was exactly what Mike didn't want to see. "Mike," she said softly. "I'm so sorry." "You didn't even trust me to keep it secret?" Beth licked her lips and shook her head. "I barely trusted myself. Hell, I only told Bill after the commissioning ceremony and only because Enya's presence surprised me." She glanced to him with sorrow. "I'm sorry Mike. I've never spied on you…I never would…" "Spied on me?" Llewellyn jerked his head back. "You really did stifle that side of yourself? All that time?" "Of course…" she said, "I hate it." Without asking he sat in the chair across from her. "Are you kidding me? After everything you preached to me about? You actually believe humans are better!" Beth's eyes widened with shock. "What?!" 416


"You believe that humans are better!" "You're out of your mind Mike, you know damn well…" "I know nothing of the sort. You may make a show of it Beth, but you don't practice what you preach!" "How can you say that?" "Why deny your Betazoid abilities then?" Beth huffed. "They can be intrusive. I like my privacy of thought. I assume others do to." Mike twisted his lip. "So, you deny using that gift because it's not human enough?" Beth rolled her eyes. "No, Mike, I deny using that side of me because it's rude." "You would expect me to use my ability to help a crewmember who was in pain right?" Beth sat back in her chair. "I've never asked you to…" "That's not what I'm saying Beth!" Mike barked back. "You would expect me, as a person, to use my Deltan heritage to stop suffering wouldn't you?" She was silent and didn't answer him. "I would Beth and you want to know why?" He stammered, "Because you reminded me that I'm more than human. I'm Deltan too and I use that side of me to help those who have need of it regardless of their heritage – I use that side of me to the benefit of everyone on this ship. The same way that K'Reeg uses his Klingon heritage to protect and defend this ship, the way that Revaik uses her Romulan abilities to solve problems, the way that Enya uses her Betazoid abilities to counsel and assist with communication, because the Federation is more than humanity Beth. It's more than just…" "Wait!" Beth retorted with her eyes widening upon hearing Llewellyn's words. She whispered softly, "Humanity is reaching its end…not the Federation…" she cringed with the thought of it. "I can't believe it. I can't believe I assumed myself…what a fool…what a damnable fool!" Llewellyn returned her look with a confused stare. "What are you talking about?" Beth shuddered. "Something Q said to me…that humanity would never figure out the problem of the Rokelh." She rubbed her eyes. "He was right. Humans on their own never would have been able to under417


stand them. What he said was ‘Humanity is reaching its end' but what I heard was ‘the Federation is reaching its end.' You're right Mike. You're right. I wasn't listening to him. I didn't hear it. I equated the Federation with humanity, not with its diversity…" she cringed again. "We're more than humanity." Llewellyn nodded. "You bet your ass we are. We are an amalgam of two hundred and seventy nine distinct species representing three hundred five member planets and six hundred and eighty seven colonies. We may be based on the human home-world but…" "Our strength comes from that diversity," she whispered. "Diversity you've celebrated in everyone else…but yourself Captain." Llewellyn huffed. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you through this." Beth sighed. "I'm sorry for shutting you out Mike. Of all people…you should have been the first to know." Her eyes glanced ever so slightly out the window and fell upon the sight of the Panther positioned so gracefully off the Enterprise's starboard side. Her eyes then fell to the new ring on her finger and he could see that her focus had changed once again. Llewellyn relaxed and stood from his seat. She smiled weakly, then more strongly and by the time she lifted her eyes to his once more he could see that the spark had returned. He nodded and smiled back. "That's better Captain." Beth grinned, picked up the PADD from her desk and exhaled. "Commander, I finally understand what we need to do to prepare ourselves. Please contact the Cats and the incoming ships and ask for a manifest of their telepathic crewmembers. For once we may actually get the upper hand on the Shentarians." She grinned and Llewellyn could see the spark in her eyes had actually lit to fire and he felt himself buoyed. "Why don't you prepare for the welcome arrival of the Ada Byron? There's a certain Ops officer I understand you've been looking forward to seeing." Mike laughed quietly. "Aye sir." He turned to leave the ready room. "Commander…" He faced her once more. "Yes Captain?" "Thanks." He only dipped his head reverently and exited the ready room.

418


Beth couldn't help but maintain an edgy smirk as she looked to the comm on her desk. The Klingon's face was beaming and his hair was in full battle-mode as she used to call it. Her former CO and the captain of the USS Ada Byron had a rage of thick, black wiry hair that spun out from his head, and his jade-green eyes were wide with excitement and, she thought, just a bit of pride. "You've already read the briefs on our predicament Captain?" she asked. M'Raq's head nodded ferociously and he chortled with a grunt. "Only you could have made a four way alliance pale in comparison to a first contact Riker…and then top it off with galactic ramifications and threats from Shentaria and the Thraiin. You never did do things small." "You know M'Raq…I really like the fact that you no longer outrank me. I can now tell you to get bent to your face and you can't throw me in the brig." M'Raq chuckled fiendishly. "Getting bent…sounds like fun to me." Beth grinned and shook her head. "Do you have any questions Captain?" M'Raq shook his head. "No. The plan is sound enough. I'm looking forward to meeting them." "I have to warn you, they're a bit nervous around Klingons M'Raq. They have been watching all of us for centuries and the Klingons' war-like tendencies are the polar opposite to their own society." M'Raq acknowledged her with a short nod. "But it's those warlike tendencies they need now…odd don't you think?" Beth knew he didn't think so in the slightest. "Their peaceful ways are being usurped by another war-like species M'Raq…" "Ahh, maybe." His eyes glistened and his attention was diverted, "Good. The Zenith and the Cerberus have arrived as well." Beth's comm beeped with a note that an incoming transmission was being received from the USS Zenith and the USS Cerberus. She pressed a key and placed the captains on a four-way discussion with 419


M'Raq. A round-faced Bolian woman appeared. She had a full head of light grey hair, pulled back into a low-wrapped bun at the base of her neck. Captain Tik had been the CO of the USS Zenith for over twenty years and had built a solid reputation as being one of the most consistent neutral zone guards. It was a job she and her crew relished. Also appearing on her screen was Captain Futs-Lung Chen, a human male with short black hair and a tall and muscular build. Beth had known Captain Chen for several years as the USS Cerberus was the sister-ship to her father's command vessel, the Medusa-Class USS Persephone. "Captains," she greeted them both. "Captain Riker," Chen acknowledged her. "I see you're first mission on the Enterprise is living up to expectations." Beth had to chuckle. "I think it just comes with the name. I take you have read your communiquÊs?" "Yes Captain," said Tik. "Are you sure there's only one Thraiin vessel in the vicinity?" "So far as we can tell. We need to keep on secured lines from now on, but I don't trust them at all‌so let's just keep to script," Beth responded. "Have your assigned crewmembers beam aboard at the scheduled times. "The T'Naari and the Klaan should be here shortly. We'll move forward from there." "Agreed, Captain," said M'Raq. "Captains." There was as short acknowledgement from the others and the comm screen went dark. Beth took a deep breath and stood from her chair. "All right then," she whispered to herself. "It's time to put this plan into play."

420


Interlude XVI Stardate 80712.9 Earth Calendar November 2, 2401 Starfleet Academy Quad Picnic Tables Beth loved this time of year in the Bay Area. They still called it Indian Summer but she didn't really understand why. Autumn was what it was; it just always seemed warmer in autumn in San Francisco than it did during the summer. But the air had a chill that hung on it now and once the sun dipped below the horizon, it would turn cold. The fog would not be coming in today. She could tell already. It was really the only time of year that made her happy to be planetbound. Most other times she longed for the art-grav of the Titan. Her heart sank with just the thought of it. Titan. She was likely going to be decommissioned if her father was offered the promotion. She didn't want to think of what they would do her home, so she put off thinking about it in denial – denial that her father would be offered the Admiralty position, denial that he would even accept the offer and denial that they would dare think to recycle the Titan for any other use. She smiled when she saw her sister sitting alone at the picnic table. Her off-hours had been so filled with the young man she had been dating that Beth rarely saw much of her any more. She seized 421


the opportunity to talk with her and jogged to the table at the end of the quad. When she got there she was surprised to see her sister with a sad and forlorn look about her face. It was at times like this she wished she could read her. She sat across from her and didn't speak. Cassidy looked up briefly and dropped her eyes back down. It was only then Beth realized that a tear dropped from her sister's porcelain cheek. "He didn't dump you did he?! Because if he did, I'm going to hunt him down‌" "No Beth. He didn't dump me." Cassidy raised her head and Beth could see the beautiful, if sad, smile. Beth was confused. "Did you break up with him?" Cassidy shook her head. "No." "Then what's wrong?" The light caught her bright blue eyes as they focused on the main building of the school. Beth automatically looked back but couldn't see what Cassidy might have been looking at. She turned back around to look at her sister with concern. "School getting tough?" "Not really," she said. "I just hate them." Beth nodded her head with understanding. "They never let up do they?" she said it as more of a statement than a question. Beth was not the only one left to suffer for being "Riker's daughter." Cassidy also had to undergo the same litany of extra work and ridicule from her school mates that Beth had. But it never seemed to bother her as much as it had bothered Beth and now Beth was beginning to wonder whether or not it was all just piled up so high she might just blow. "Never," Cassidy concurred. "I'm getting pretty tired of it actually." Beth couldn't even respond. It would have seemed too trite. She just tried to change the subject. "So am I ever going to get to meet this Ronan guy? You've been dating for over a month and I've never met him!" she joked. Cassidy attempted to brighten her smile, "He's twenty-six, very handsome and he's got an amazing Scottish accent," she said. 422


"Dad might think he's a little old for you, so that should be twice as much fun when you introduce him…especially since he's a civilian!" It was obvious Cassidy was trying very hard to smile. "I hope one day soon, but I'm not so sure…" she drifted off and left her sentence to hang. Beth was overcome by Cassidy's obvious torment. "What's really wrong Cass?" Cassidy flicked another quickly-shed tear from her cheek. "I'm so unhappy Beth." The statement was profound in its simplicity and depth. Beth could see it, clear into the wells of each of her cerulean eyes. Her sister was just that – thoroughly and utterly unhappy. Beth was awestruck by it. "You're ranked number one in your class. You're dating a gorgeous guy. Yeah the teachers are horrid to you, but we've always dealt with that…why Cass? Why are you so unhappy?" "Beth?" Cassidy turned her eyes to her and they pierced straight into her. Beth was shaken by the intensity of Cassidy's gaze. "Yes?" "You've always believed you are destined to command the Enterprise, right?" There was no sense in denying it. Beth truly felt she was born to be that person. "Yes." "What would happen if you found out you were meant to do something else?" The question baffled her. "What do you mean?" "It's like Dad. He always thought he'd end up commanding Enterprise but he ended up finding out he was destined for something different. What would you do if you found out you were destined for something else?" The thought of it had never crossed her mind. Not once. Not ever. No one ever told her it might not be possible. Not Jean-Luc, not her mother, not even her father…Beth wondered how disappointed her father might have actually been when he took the Titan. The thought was a shock and an epiphany. "Dad always said he had a 423


greater need to move forward Cass. Forward for him meant towards the Titan." "Do you believe that?" She had never questioned it until today. "I guess." "So if you found out you were destined for something other than the Enterprise, would you accept it?" Beth sat on the question and tried to wrangle with its horns. It bit her and gnawed at her until she was forced to confront it for herself. If I found out I was destined to be something other than the Captain of the Enterprise? Destined…destined… "I suppose it's the word Cass. If I found out that my destiny was something other than commanding the Enterprise it would mean that I knew that I could serve a greater purpose than that role I thought I was meant for. Are you sure you wanted to use that word?" Cassidy cracked a real smile for the first time since Beth sat down in the quad. "It's precisely the word I used for that specific reason. I always thought I was destined for command in Starfleet Beth." "I know." "Maybe even Admiralty." Beth smiled softly. "Rikers never do anything small," she said. Cassidy's eyes shot up to hers and locked on once more. "No. We don't. Do we?" Beth shook her head. "You think your destiny has changed?" Cassidy looked down to the table top and nodded weakly. "Yes," she whispered so softly Beth was barely able to hear it. It was as if she was relenting in prayer. They sat together in the quiet. Cassidy laid her head on one of her arms and her fingers traced unseen patterns on the table. Beth had watched her sister's innumerable habits over the course of their lives and knew that she was practicing the Rihannsu alphabet. Once again, Cassidy was in constant movement, even at rest. Finally Beth spoke. "It's not like you're a total rebel Cassidy…just a little one. Like me. I mean really, how bad can this ‘new destiny' be?" She smiled. 424


Cassidy did not smile back and Beth realized her joke may not have been so funny after all. "I have a rebel name don't I?" she snapped. Beth rolled her eyes. "You were named for a fictitious lawman of the Ancient West Cassidy, not the criminal. You know that." Cassidy sighed. "I always felt like it was the other way around." Beth was stung. Sometimes Cassidy put herself into the position of being treated that way, but more often than not she was treated as a rebel simply because people expected her to be one. Beth tried once more to lighten the conversation, "Dad never, ever, ever called you Butch." Cassidy smiled. "No. He didn't, did he?" she concurred. "No. Now come on. Have dinner with me in the mess and we'll go do target practice. Red Squad has me tied up all this week and I've only got one night free and I'd really like to spend it with you." Cassidy seemed more melancholy than ever. She let another tear drop then quickly wiped it away, nodded her head and stood brightly from the table. "Sounds great." "Good." Beth replied. Beth couldn't remember a more wonderful evening with Cassidy. They laughed through dinner, gossiped about men, aced their target drills and stayed up much too late. The following morning Beth was awakened by a summons from the Administrator's office. Cassidy had resigned and disappeared.

425


426


PART THIRTEEN

C

427


428


Stardate 91942.3 USS Enterprise NCC -1701-G Transporter Room Four

She watched her parents part ways at the transporter pad like she had watched them a hundred times before growing up on Titan. They had held hands all the way down the corridor and even into the transporter bay – never caring who saw their affection for one another. Senator Linias stepped up to the platform first wearing an expression of stoic bravery. Just as she had on every away mission she had ever gone on, her mother approached Beth first, kissed her on her cheek, told her she loved her then turned her attention to her father. The gaze never changed. It was always the same. They exchanged glances of sadness mixed with tension and worry. Her mother reached for the thinning grey hair and touched the top of his forehead where he used to fight a wayward lock of hair. He grabbed her hand and whispered, "Imzadi," before bringing the hand to his lips to kiss the base of her palm. Her mother smiled that familiar, knowing, strength-inducing smile and stretched to kiss him softly. "One day Imzadi," she whispered. "One day would have been enough," she said and then turned to step up to the transporter pad, her eyes never leaving those of her father. 429


Beth had seen the ritual countless times before, but this time she finally understood the depth of its meaning. She was finally able to comprehend the power and the breadth of her parents' love for one another and their willingness to accept the sacrifice one or both may have to make. Beth's thoughts drifted to Brian and Issa and T'Vyn then to the pain of missing Carrie and then finally...to Tristan‌ She had seen the same look in his eyes when he spoke her mother's words. The same piercing gleam of determination and satisfaction in knowing that love existed between them and that somehow experiencing even a just fleeting moment of that feeling was enough to complete one's life. Beth looked to the new ring on her hand after she watched her mother's body dissolve away from the transporter pad. Her father turned to her and upon seeing what she was looking at, smiled gently. "Do you get it now?" he asked softly. Beth felt as though a weight had lifted from her, allowing herself to remember to feel the joy of loving McGregor and, more importantly, she had been able to tell him. He knows. He knows I love him. All of a sudden it was all that seemed important. She lifted her eyes to her father's and smiled in return. "Yes Dad. I finally get it," she said. Riker placed his arm over her shoulders and they walked out of the transporter room.

Eleven years and surviving three of the Federation's most deadly battles had given Beth more than a taste for what was to come. Telanus had taught her that Shentaria would stop at virtually nothing to gain any advantage. Surprisingly, it didn't make it any easier to face, and she supposed it was a good sign that she hadn't lost all touch with reality. Jean-Luc would have understood this and Dad understands all too well. Dryden's voice filled the bridge, "Red alert! All hands to battle stations!" The lights flared and the siren blared. Beth wondered whether or not she would have preferred Riker's presence on the bridge but brushed the thought away quickly. That would have been too much to think about, her mind was already spinning as it 430


was. She was glad he was back down in the VIP area with the remaining diplomats, ready with their own plans should the new shielding technology fail against the Shentarian threat. Besides, her Commanding Officer was there at her left hand side. Janeway looked cool. She always looked cool. Beth had to smile to herself though, due to the effectiveness of the new psi-inhibitor she had been given by Richardson, it was the first time she had allowed the mental door to remain open since she had joined Starfleet. Beth was actually relieved to feel the wave of trepidation as it coursed through Janeway as she sat in her chair with a look of pure calm. Beth knew only then that her own fears were not that abnormal. She turned her attentions to K'Reeg. His dark eyes were alight with a fire she had never seen before, but it was one that she drew strength from. She felt a sense of potent comfort when she looked upon him. Beth knew that he had seen the slight wave of unease pass through her own eyes. He shot up straight at his position…to remind her of her own strength. Without realizing it, she had smiled at him with gratitude and stiffened her own posture in her chair. He grinned ferociously and growled, knowing she had found her own courage, and the look of sheer pride as it washed over his visage made Beth feel that much more resolute. "How many are there?" she asked him bluntly. "Fifteen on long range scans, but it's possible more may be traveling behind the fourth system Captain," he replied. Beth truly appreciated K'Reeg's knowledge of Shentarian tactics. They loved to hide a portion of their attack force and would reveal it only if necessary. And Beth intended to make it utterly necessary. "We may be facing upwards of thirty ships…maybe more," she muttered to both Dryden and Janeway. "How long before they intercept?" "Twenty minutes," K'Reeg confirmed. "How long until the Persephone reaches us?" asked Janeway. "She's at least forty minutes away Admiral," he said brusquely. "That's eleven armed ships to their fifteen…to start," Beth said. She dreaded how many ships may still be hiding behind the fourth system. Janeway shook her head slightly. "As always, they find a way to outnumber us. Hail the fleet." 431


Dryden pressed commands at the XO station and nodded to her and in a quick succession of flashes, the faces of every Captain in their small contingent appeared on the viewscreen. Janeway addressed them. "Captains, I know you can see what we have approaching. We are assuming that they have a squadron behind the fourth system as well. We won't see the Persephone for forty minutes and The Romulans and more Klingons may not be here for an hour or more. We'll have to face them with what we've got." Shaughnessy responded, "We're counting eight tri-fins, five quads and two scouts. The Cats should intercept and divide if possible." Janeway looked to her control panel then to Beth who nodded in concurrence. "Agreed. Use your attack patterns as you see fit Shaughnessy," she said. "But keep an eye out for that bilateral attack they used," Beth warned. Brian smirked. "You know we will Riker!" Beth couldn't help but smile. Shaughnessy always brought out the fighter in her. She addressed the remaining ships. Venel, the blonde-haired Vulcan commander of the T'Naari, appeared utterly calm and it was odd to see his image caught between that of M'Raq's wild-eyed fury and the possessed ferocity plastered on the face of Mul, the Commander of the Klingon vessel IKS Klaan on the viewscreen. Beth stood from her command chair. "I suggest the rest of you focus on the quad-fins. The tri-fins are better handled by the smaller ships…although we're going to just wing it if they have more than ten more vessels hiding. "How confident are you that they may be hiding out there Captain Riker?" asked Venel. Before Beth could answer the Vulcan's question, Captain Issa of the Cougar responded. "Because, Venel, we learned a very hard lesson at Telanus and none of us are going to assume we have the upper hand with them again. I'd rather be surprised to find out that they didn't have a squad or two back there than to be blindsided." Beth nodded as the Vulcan took in the information with a curt nod of acceptance. Vulcan ships were rarely involved in combat outside of the Federation. There were few Vulcan defense ships and they were used 432


mainly to transport and defend diplomatic teams. "Are your guests all set?" she asked the faces on the screen. Amidst the nodding heads, the face of Mul looked decidedly the most uncomfortable and Beth could see it. "Is there a problem Commander Mul?" He shook his head sharply. "No Captain. We're…adjusting…to each other, shall I say." Beth raised her eyebrow. "To the Rokehl or to having a Romulan on board your vessel?" she snarled. Mul snarled back in the same fashion. "Both." "Adjust and accept Mul. Senator Linias is going out of his way to make himself available as one of the translators. It's very difficult for Romulans who haven't used that genetic skill in eons. It's been very challenging for him. Try to be patient," she warned him. "And if you aren't…trust me when I say that Ambassador Troi can be even more of a challenge if you give her reason." I can't believe I just placed my mother and the second most powerful Romulan on the bridge of the Klingon flagship to face battle against my generation's most fierce enemy. Mul chortled. "Ambassador Troi has already made her wishes very clear Captain. Like Klingon women, I do not think I want to get on her bad side." Beth smiled. "No. You don't." Janeway stood alongside Beth and scanned the faces spread across the enormous screen. "Good luck Captains, Commanders." There were several nods before most of the transmissions were terminated but the captains of the Cats remained and Janeway grinned. "You're going to make me say it aren't you?" Janeway asked and looked to Beth who only smiled supportively. "You know we are Admiral!" shouted Issa. "Ay Admiral. It'd be bad luck if you didn't say it!" Shaughnessy replied. "The Puma would be dishonored if you didn't Admiral!" replied Praang loudly. Janeway nodded. "Fine then," she retorted then quickly looked to each commander eye-to-eye. "Be careful captains." Issa sat back in his command chair and slammed the arm of it with 433


his fist. "And if you can't be careful!?" he roared. "BE VICTORIOUS!" replied the well-rehearsed chorus from the Cats. Four of the five remaining faces dropped off of the screen and Beth found herself locked-eyed with McGregor. His soft hazel eyes were aglow, and she could feel his fear, his apprehension and his nervous energy as it spilled from him, but most of all she could feel the simple, driving force of how much he loved her. Her ears filled with the sound of the pounding of her own heart. She stepped forward towards the screen, caring not who was watching them. They were alone together as far as she was concerned. She almost reached out to try to touch the soft, light brown hair that fell upon his forehead. "Beth," he said softly. "One day." Beth nodded her head in complete understanding. "One day." He smiled sadly and the screen darkened.

Beth never understood why her father hated the restraints so much. To her they provided more than just a level of comfort, they gave her that ability to really push the limits of the ship knowing she wouldn't fly around regardless of the status of the art-grav and the inertial dampeners. She could order the flight controller to pitch the ship at the most insane arcs and the torque on her body would be minimal. The restraints would pull her back into the command chair with a consistent pressure that felt more like a hug than a jerk. She was able to take a momentary glance at Revaik who was sitting at her station monitoring the ops back-up and paying particular attention to the shields. Standing next to her was one member of the Rokelh. His skin was swirling in dark, muted tones of red and deep blue that combined into rich violets and purples. Two of his long, thin tentacles were extended out from either side, each firmly grasping the heads of Ambassador Tuvok and Praetor Vreen whose hands in turn were touching him at the burnt-brown area of his chest. As she had feared when the Rokelh had first boarded the ship, Revaik confirmed with Richardson that her human heritage had altered any genetic predisposition to telepathy. He did not want her to try to 434


communicate with them for fear that doing so would inadvertently harm her visual cortex. Beth knew Revaik was deeply disappointed, as the species fascinated her. Enya Priest had joined Reman Ambassadors Melkit and Bikinian along with teams of Vulcans, Betazoids, Irriol and Pahkwa-thanh in boarding the Rokelh vessels. The initial reports were understandably incomprehensible for very few of the team members were able to verbalize what they were seeing. Yet, once the battle started, the reports became clear and concise. The Rokelh ships had stayed cloaked and far behind the combined fleet and watched as the battle had begun. The Enterprise rolled towards a pair of burnt red quad-fins. The shields were holding for now but Beth knew that wouldn't for too much longer, as the ships they were bearing down upon held the advantage. They had split apart from one another and Beth knew she either had to fly in between them and take on a quick-strike double-attack or try to focus on just one ship, leaving them open to assault by the other. She had decided for the quick-strike and the ship moved gracefully between the two enemy vessels. "Fire!" she cried to K'Reeg. He growled as he pressed the commands for ventral and dorsal torpedoes. The yellow lights flicked brightly as the Enterprise shuddered hard from a volley sent by both Shentarian craft. "Shields are down seventy-five percent!" barked Llewellyn from Ops. "Damage to the quads?" Beth asked. "Minimal!" cried K'Reeg. "They're coming about!" "Let's focus on the first one!" she said. "Come about bearing 175 mark 12! Full spread at the hub and aim for the weapons! We'll have to hope the shields can hang on for another full spread from the second ship while we focus on the first one!" "Aye sir!" cried K'Reeg and Phinod guided the Enterprise back around to face one of the two capable ships one on one. "The Jag and the Puma have taken down a tri-fin!" shouted Llewellyn, "And they're moving in to assist the Ada Byron!" "Order the Puma to engage the tri-fin that's bearing down on the T'Naari!" barked Janeway from her seat and Llewellyn followed her orders directly. The Puma broke away from the Jaguar, rolled and dived 435


to meet the Vulcan ship which was being attacked by two ships. Beth's attention was focused solely on her own dilemma. The Enterprise moved headlong towards one of the two ships she had to deal with. Dryden looked to her briefly. "You gonna take it head on?" Beth nodded once. "Yes." "All auxiliary power to the shields," he ordered to Llewellyn. "Aye sir!" he replied. "Two more incoming ships Captain! A quad and tri!" she heard K'Reeg say. She looked to Dryden who lifted his eyes from his console. "They're new to the party Captain," he said, meaning that they had come from behind the fourth system. "Great," she muttered. "Let's try to concentrate on one at a time." she watched as the ship moved in fast upon the four-finned craft ahead of her. "Fire full spread!" "Incoming spreads from the two new ships!" The Enterprise jolted hard from either side and Beth was surprised that it felt like the shields had held. Llewellyn confirmed. "Shields are holding!" Beth shot a brief look to Janeway who responded with a quick smile. "But they won't take many more hits like that." Beth looked to see that the spread they had just fired all hit their target and she could tell their shields fluctuated hard. She was just about to yell for a turn to repeat the procedure when Dryden's voice caught her off-guard. "What the hell?" Dryden looked to his console. Beth turned to him. "What?" "A torpedo just struck the new tri-fin!" Dryden cried with surprise. "Our torpedoes‌" "No Captain. I can't tell where it originated from! I can't tell what kind it is but it just took it down! One torpedo sir! It just took down their shields!" Beth didn't even hesitate, "Fire full spread at the hub!" K'Reeg's hands flew over his console and the Enterprise sent out a full spread of 436


five yellow-tinted torpedoes towards the tri-fin, all made perfect strikes at the center of the vessel. It began to rupture and disintegrate. Beth turned her attentions to the three other ships surrounding her own. "Have at it, Mister K'Reeg, aim and fire at will!" The Enterprise was pelted by a barrage of fire from the three ships bearing down upon her. "Who can assist!?" Beth cried. "No one Captain! They're all fully engaged!" Dryden answered. "Our shields are down to thirty percent!" "Another round of torpedoes sir! Coming from nowhere!" Dryden shouted. Confused, Beth looked to Janeway. "The Thraiin vessel?" she asked. Janeway shook her head slightly. "Unknown Captain. I wasn't aware they could fire while cloaked." Beth shook it off once more, determined to focus on the battle at hand. "Defense pattern Nelson one five!" "Aye sir," replied Phinod and her hands flew across the flight panel. The great ship moved quickly and turned upon two of the Shentarian ships. "Fire!" cried Beth. "Third one's coming down Captain!" yelled Llewellyn, "And shields are still down to fifty percent!" Beth pushed herself back into the command chair, "We need to focus on the two in front of us!" she yelled. Her eyes bore into the viewscreen in front of her. Both ships shifted and moved into an attack posture. The aft view clearly revealed a third quad-fin dead astern. They were trapped right in between all three. "Let's see how Tiger responds to this," she said. "Phinod‌" "Yes Captain," replied the controller calmly. "Set course to ram the quad-fin to the port side. On mark I want you to pull a Perniski." "What?" Janeway whispered hoarsely. "That's an order." If Beth hadn't seen it, she wouldn't have believed it. Phinod actually grinned. "Yes Captain!" She nodded. 437


"Captain‌" Janeway lifted her eyebrow. "She's awfully big to be trying that maneuver," she warned. "You may end up hitting them!" "I know what she's capable of, Admiral, and Phinod's already handled one on the Io. I know we're bigger that that, but Canrella can do this! I know it! I suggest you press back into your seat, the art-grav always goes off-line right around the fourth revolution." She turned her attentions to K'Reeg, "You know what I'm looking to do K'Reeg?" "Yes sir!" he howled and his eyes were glued to his panel. "I can do it!" "Oh shit," Dryden mumbled. "All hands – prepare for temporary loss of artificial gravity!" Dryden commanded over the intercom and he set his feet hard against the floor, pushing his back into his chair, letting the restraints snug him in tightly. The Enterprise effortlessly moved forward and gently swayed to her port, aiming directly at the quad-fin. The ship to their starboard side compensated by moving up in order to take aim at the Enterprise's dorsal hull. The ship to their stern continued to move in directly behind them. "NOW!" she cried. Phinod's hand flailed across the panel and the ship tipped her nose down and just off to her starboard side. The port-aft of the vessel lifted and Phinod screeched from the conn station. "Roll!" "FIRE all weapons!" Beth howled and the Enterprise began to tumble through space, phasers and torpedoes spewed forth from every bank on the ship, striking all three enemy vessels and others flew randomly into the vast emptiness of space. Beth watched the viewscreen as the ship's internal lights flickered off and on and then shut off once more. She felt the art-grav fail and her rear lifted from her seat. "Main power is off-line" Llewellyn reported, "Shields are down! Auxiliary power has been initiated!" Beth's heart began to pound heavily in her chest when the viewscreen went dark. The ship was still tumbling and she knew the ship's port nacelle would come close to one of the Shentarian ships. She waited to feel the impact. "Beginning reversal procedures!" Phinod yelled. Beth felt the sudden pull of her restraints once more and it almost knocked the air out of her chest. The ship began to shudder horribly and 438


Beth began to second-guess the wisdom of her decision. The ship was not slowing down fast enough‌it continued to tumble. "I need more power to the forward thrusters captain!" Phinod barked. Without need for her order, Llewellyn responded, "Power is being diverted from life support!" Beth felt the inertial dampeners kick in once more and then fall back off, jolting her in her seat once again. She heard Revaik involuntarily yelp and Beth tried to turn her head to see how the Rokelh was faring, but she couldn't force her head around. Her eyes drifted to her Flight Controller. "Canrella," she moaned. "Allllllllmost there‌" Phinod grunted. "Alllllllmost there!" The ship's alternating thrusters began to fire off in succession and the ship began to slowly stop spinning. Beth felt her butt sit back squarely in her seat and within seconds the ship's main power came back on-line. "WOO! I LOVE this ship!" cried Llewellyn. Beth squelched her smile and looked to K'Reeg. "Two ships destroyed and the third has lost its shields and has backed off. "Injuries?" she asked. Dryden looked to his screen. "So far only reports of minor injuries scattered throughout the lower decks. Beth cringed but nodded. Abruptly the viewscreen popped back on, and Beth's eyes were immediately caught by a blur of a large vessel as it crossed their bow. "What was the hell was that?" she yelled with panic in her eyes. "The Persephone!" barked Dryden. "They've powered their weapons and are pursuing the third ship! Torpedoes are away!" Beth looked around her bridge. There wasn't a face that didn't bear some sort of shock, and the Rokelh's skin was blossoming with orange and yellow blotches. She really didn't want to know what it was thinking right now. "Direct hits Captain! The Persephone took it down!" Dryden reported. There was short beep at his post. "They're hailing us." "Onscreen," she said. A handsome human man with straight brown hair and light green 439


eyes appeared on the screen. He was shaking his head with mock derision. "Is everyone all right there Captain?" His voice contained a strong Scottish lilt. Beth nodded. "Yes, Captain Ryan. So far only reports of minor injuries." Ryan rolled his tongue under his bottom lip. "Only a Riker would have tried that with a Determination-class vessel. You were lucky you even stopped!" he chided. "You just couldn't wait for th'Persephone to get there could you?" Beth shrugged. "I didn't realize you were so close, Greg." "Ahhh I bet you were just itchin' to try it!" he smiled. "You ready to go?" Beth grinned and refocused herself. "Is she ready to go Llewellyn?" Mike nodded. "Yes sir! We're back to full power and the shields are at maximum!" "There you go Ryan! Ready to join us? We think there's even more behind that fourth star!" Ryan smiled smartly. "It's why we came! Let's get to the others! Looks like they could use our help!" Beth nodded. "Helm – make headway to assist the Cerberus!" "Aye sir!" Beth turned to catch the gaze from the Admiral to her left. Janeway was shaking her head slightly and Beth could feel the shock emanate from her, but she was surprised that she didn't feel any anger from her. "Admiral?" she questioned her softly. Janeway looked to her and then she smiled. "I'm not sure if it was brilliant or idiotic, Riker. Please try not to do it again." "Yes Admiral," Beth replied. "I'll try."

The two ships immediately entered back into the depth of the battle zone. The Cerberus was taking heavy fire from two quad-fins. The Enterprise moved in swiftly to assist and the Persephone broke off to support the Ada Byron deal with another pair of quad-fins. "Captain!" she heard the Ambassador's voice cry and she spun to 440


see Tuvok's eyes widen. "Shentarians have located a Rokehl vessel!" Before Beth could respond, there was a vocal report from Chief Zian. "Zian to Enterprise!" her voice called. "We're under direct attack! The Shentarians discovered us when phaser fire entered the cloaked field!" She grunted loudly and Beth could tell that they had come under fire, "They're firing indiscriminately to ascertain our location. The Rokehl have attempted to move the ship to avoid the fire but I believe that one of the set of thrusters has been damaged and their mobility has been compromised." "That is correct, Captain," Tuvok stated and Beth could see the tentacle readjust on his head. He shifted his hand on the visual cortex area of the entity's chest. Beth didn't envy any of the translators – their heads were constantly being filled with visions that required interpreting and she knew all too well how difficult the job was. "Where?" Beth spun her head to Dryden. Dryden looked over his panel and pointed to an area where Shentarians appeared to be firing at nothing. "Here sir. Bearing 227 mark 2." Beth swallowed what little moisture she had left in her mouth. "Open a channel to the Cerberus!" Captain Chen's face appeared harried. "We're a little busy Captain," he stated. "We can only give you a couple of shots, Futs-Lung...we have to assist a Rokelh ship that's been discovered." "Go help them Riker. We'll hold on for as long as we can," he replied and the screen went dark. "Fire two spreads!" she said, "And make ‘em count K'Reeg!" "Yes sir!" he retorted with a grunt and the ship sent off a succession of torpedoes against one of the vessels attacking the Cerberus. "Their shields are down!" he barked. Beth nodded. "Fine! Finish them off!" Without hesitation, K'Reeg shot off another line of phasers and the vessel began to ignite. "Set course for the Rokelh vessel!" she ordered. The ship moved quickly to the area where a Shentarian tri-fin was moving in a pattern, firing phasers quickly, trying to locate a target at which to aim. Beth pushed herself back into the command chair once 441


more and took in a deep, cleansing breath. "Target that ship!" But before the Enterprise had fired a shot, a bright white torpedo crossed her viewscreen from behind her ship and hit the Shentarian vessel perfectly at the hub. "Their shields are down!" Llewellyn cried and spun to look at Beth in shock. "Again, Captain, I have no idea where that came from!" Dryden stated. "Whatever it is, it's sitting right behind us." Beth ignored him. "Fire!" K'Reeg blasted a set of quantums directly at the tri-fin which had no defense and began to lighten in the hub before exploding and darkening. "Admiral! We've just lost the Zenith!" reported Llewellyn. "And the Klaan is fighting off three more! They won't last long!" Beth looked to Janeway who concurred with the unspoken order to turn back around and assist the Klaan. Mother, she thought briefly, we're on our way! We're coming to help! "Move into assist Phinod!" she yelled, but the ship jolted harshly. Beth's eyes shot to Dryden's. His hands flew over the XO console. The Enterprise lurched hard once more. "Our shields are down!" Llewellyn cried. Beth's eyes flew wide. "What?" "They're gone!" Llewellyn confirmed. "We just took two direct hits by torpedoes sir! From dead astern!" Dryden replied. Beth was just about to scream an order to fire full phasers when she heard a familiar chirp at the XO console. He lifted his eyes to hers. "We're being hailed." Beth pressed the button on her chair and the restraints pulled back silently and she stood compulsively. "Onscreen." Janeway took in an audible gasp and Beth had to fight to hold her stomach once more. Her gaze was met with a pair of stellar blue eyes. "Cassidy," she whispered. Cassidy Riker returned the stare coolly. "Hello Beth," she said. "I only have one question for you...and how you answer it will deter442


mine whether or not I will destroy your ship." Beth was almost unable to speak. Here she was, staring at her sister. After twelve years she expected her to look...horrible. But she didn't. She looked beautiful. She also looked very, very serious. Beth's mind reeled for a way to respond. She finally jolted herself with anger when she realized her sister had fired on her ship and had disabled their shields. "Oh really, Cassidy...and what question would that be?" Cassidy leaned back in the command chair of the darkened bridge. "What exactly were the Shentarians firing at?"

Her mind reeled. What is she getting at? Why would she fire on the Shentarian vessels and then on us? How many torpedoes does she have aimed at us? Can we slip away and assist the Klaan in time? Beth's eyes were caught by Cassidy as she stood from her command chair. Beth couldn't resist hitting back. "I thought you were Pomalek's dog Cassidy." Cassidy seemed unfazed by the comment. "Captain Pomalek was killed by an unknown entity. I'm in command of the Anthek now," she stated coldly. Cassidy was approached by a large Reman man in a charcoal grey Thraiin uniform he handed her a device remarkably similar to a PADD. Cassidy smiled to him and pointed towards the screen. "Captain Riker," she said and glanced back down at the device, reading it as she spoke. "Let me introduce you to my second in command, Lieutenant Jassek. Lieutenant Jassek wishes to inform me quietly that you just happen to have one of those remarkable creatures on your bridge and that it has cloaked itself and is sitting between Tuvok and…" her grin broadened. "I have struck pay-dirt it seems." Cassidy smiled and moved in to stare at the Romulan man sitting behind Beth. "What do we have here? Why Praetor Vreen…how convenient that you just happen to be aboard the Enterprise." "Emissary Worf is also aboard Commander," stated Jassek, "And the Reman representatives and…" He looked as though his eyes were glazed over and his eyes widened with surprise. "…Commander!" He turned to look at her. "They're all over! There are Romulan Senators on two other Federation ships, two Remans are aboard…the 443


cloaked vessels of the ghost species! They have no weapons!!!!!" "So. You are protecting them I see." Cassidy's gaze returned to Beth. "I do so love having mind-readers on board. They're awfully useful. Just like having Mom on board." She smirked. "Actually, Mom was never as good as a Reman." She sneered. "She could only tell you how someone felt. Jassek and his kind can tell me everything. Looks like I have the information I needed." Beth had enough. "If you destroy this ship, Cassidy…" Cassidy shook her head. "Unfortunately, Beth, it seems as though that would be strategically disadvantageous right now." "Excuse me?" Beth growled. Cassidy snarled. "You always were too slow to figure things out," she barked. "Nothing would bring me more praise from my command that being able to report that I have killed the Romulan Praetor and the Klingon Emissary, along with the mighty Enterprise. But what good would that be if the Shentarians get their claws on these remarkable, and dare I say technologically creative individuals." Cassidy threw the PADD on the command chair. "Really Beth…what good would it do the Thraiin to have worked so hard to prevent Reman – Romulan unification when both could be obliterated by Shentaria? Frankly – you're easier to fight and I don't like the idea of Shentaria getting their hands on this species' ability to disable ships so effectively." Beth was sickened. "We need to get to the battle zone! Several of our ships need assistance and I will not wait any longer!" Cassidy sighed. "Yes, yes," she muttered. "We'd better go prevent those foul creatures from ruining our plans." "We?!" Beth barked. Cassidy turned back and looked to Beth and smiled brightly. Beth was twice as angry that her smile was so damn beautiful. "Yes Beth, we. Enemy of my enemy as they say." She turned to face her chair then briefly turned back around and looked to Janeway. "Oh, and hello, Aunt Kathyrn." She smiled and turned back around. The screen went dark. Janeway's face filled with fury and Beth was about to talk to her when her ears were filled with Dryden's voice, "Captain!" Dryden looked 444


to his console. "The Anthek has broken off and is heading for the battle zone!" Beth couldn't even process the conversation. "Follow suit Ensign…get to the Klaan!"

It was everything she had never planned. For years Beth had fantasized about how her inevitable first meeting with Cassidy would go. In those encounters Beth had been the one to hold the tactical advantage and she would hold her sister at bay until she could force her surrender and bring her to justice. In those encounters, Beth was able to say scores of scathing things, call her hundreds of names. In those encounters, Cassidy would be sitting behind a forcefield and Beth forced her to listen about the tortures she and the family had to endure due to her treachery. In those encounters Cassidy would break down with the horrible guilt of it all and beg for forgiveness. In those encounters Beth was perfectly capable of outwitting her sister and was always the hero at the end of it all. She was able to tell her with just a look how much she resented her for making her life a living hell and how much she hated her for turning her back on the Federation – for turning her back…on her. But it in reality? It was everything she had never planned. Beth felt like she had been blindsided by her own stupidity. She was furious with herself for standing there, dumbfounded, cheeks sagging and mouth agape while Cassidy just…smiled. Worse, she had smiled because she had been the one to hold the advantage over Beth. She had verbally skinned Beth on her bridge and left her standing there like a fool. Cassidy had disabled her ship with just two torpedoes! She could have easily stricken at the heart of the Enterprise and wiped it clean out of space. Beth was more than angry, she was implacable. The fury swelled and the rage…the rage…found its home once more. Her eyes drifted down to the Ops console to find the eyes of her longtime friend. Mike had seen the look before and he nodded gently, understanding all too well what she was feeling. The wound would never heal. "Shields are back to maximum Captain," he said. 445


Beth didn't even need to be pulled back. She was already there. She was ready to lash out upon the Shentarians for their greed and she was going to make them pay for her sister's humiliating treatment. But strangely, it was moments before she realized that they had been engaged in heavy battle for minutes. The Enterprise had taken on two quad-fins that had attacked the Klaan and dispatched them. The Enterprise had taken some heavy hits, especially to the mid-level decks on the starboard side. There were no hull breaches, but they had come very close. Beth only snapped out of her intense mental focus when she heard her mother's voice from behind the Klingon Commander whose face was now on the viewscreen in front of her. "Mul!" Troi had screamed, "Shentarians are the priority, remember?!" Beth's heart kick-started and she drew in a deep breath. Relief moved in momentarily but she quickly stomped it back down, remembering the battle was nowhere near over. Mul's face was contorted with rage. "Why are we accepting their help?!" he roared. "That Thraiin ship will not survive to see the end of the day!" Beth spat, "Mul! Don't make me repeat myself! You are ordered to fall back and take a defensive position to prevent another attack on the Rokelh! Is that clear?! You have no shields and I don't want you to risk being boarded by the Shentarians! We'll need you back in the fight when your shields are back up!" Mul roared before nodding in forced assent and the screen went dark. The Enterprise lurched hard from incoming fire from a four-finned ship. "Return fire!" railed Beth. "Get us over to assist the Leopard!" "Aye sir!" cried Phinod. "Sir! The Thraiin vessel is systematically taking down the shields of the Shentarian vessels!" Dryden yelled. "I don't know what kind of torpedoes those are but damn, they're effective!" Once more a hot-white torpedo emitted from the cold-dark of nothingness and hit the Shentarian craft, effectively bringing down its shields. Beth didn't hesitate to use the advantage. "Fire all weapons!" K'Reeg sent a barrage of phasers and torpedoes causing the rustred ship to explode. 446


"I've never seen the Thraiin use anything like that before!" Janeway stated. "Where did they get them?!" "I have no idea!" Beth replied. "Every time we run into them they have something new and something just a little bit better than what we have! I'm sick of it!" "At least they're being used against the Shentarians!" Janeway retorted. "For once we have an advantage against them!" "Don't for a moment believe that they won't use them against us!" cried Vreen from his position from behind Beth. "Do not trust them Captain! They will stop at nothing…" "I know Praetor!" Beth screamed and locked her eyes with his and he could see her fury. "I know what they will do and I have no compunction about making sure they do not leave the area if we survive this!" "Admiral! The T'Naari is requesting assistance – their shields are down and they're under attack by three ships!" Dryden cried. Beth spun her head and refocused on the battle. "Enterprise to Leopard! We're heading to the T'Naari!" "Aye sir," replied T'Vyn's cool and calm voice. "Focus on the tri-fin. We'll take the first quad-fin!" "Captain…" Dryden said softly. "We're too late." Beth's head spun and looked to him wildly. "The T'Naari's gone." Beth felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She tried to breathe but found it impossible. Her eyes bounced over the panels at her command chair and she swallowed the shock of it. "Target their main reactor and fire at will Commander!" K'Reeg's hand flew across his console and the intense red beams of the phasers shot forth but missed their target. Beth looked briefly to K'Reeg. His face appeared to be turning a strange light ash-brown. His features softened and he looked to her as his eyes widened. There was a strange and empty silence across the bridge. "Whale," Dryden whispered. Beth's body was jolted by a shock of adrenaline so powerful her fingers flared in pain. Her lungs screamed for her to take a breath but she couldn't. Her eyes flew to the viewscreen and all she could see was the remaining ships still heavily engaged in battle. Her mind cracked into a 447


thousand whirling thoughts…I was too late. I should have listened better. I will fail. The Federation is at its end and all because I wouldn't listen… Time seemed to blur into slow motion. "How many ships are in the developing cone?" she asked softly. "All of us," Dryden replied. "And seven of the Rokelh ships," said Tuvok. Beth found that one breath she needed and she somehow…somewhere found the courage to ask..."Who will be nearest the base of the cone?" I hope it's us. I deserve to go for failing to listen… There was always an interminable pause while waiting for this information Beth thought. Revaik's calm and steady voice floated weakly from behind her. "We're at the wide end Captain." Beth didn't hear the turbolift doors open or shut. She didn't hear her father or Worf enter the bridge. She only heard Janeway's voice ask the next, inevitable question. "Who is near the base?" Dryden swallowed. "The Panther and the Jaguar." "What?" asked Janeway in shock and she turned to lock eyes with Riker who stood behind them all with Worf by his side. Beth was still unaware of their presence on the bridge. Beth could no longer feel her own body. Everything, everything about her felt two dimensional…flat and cold. She looked to K'Reeg. "They'll both have to drop their cores," she stated. "One is not big enough." "No sir," he concurred. "Hail them," Beth stated and she unlocked the restraints and stood from her chair. Within moments two faces filled appeared on the bottom of the viewscreen. Both faces looked stricken and pale. Her face was filled with surrender. Shaughnessy looked to her, cleared his throat and tried to break a wide smile. "No need to order us Captain," he said. "Nothing like a little galactic peace to inspire one's pride…remember?" "Brian," Beth whispered in grief. 448


He shook his head. "Make sure Kayla knows I can't meet her at Risa." It hurt as much as a blow from a sledgehammer to her chest. Beth's nostrils flared as she tried to tighten her abdominal muscles. It's happening again. It's never going to end. The Shentarians will find a way to make me watch everyone I have ever loved die. She nodded weakly. "I will Brian." As if in denial, Beth tore her gaze from Shaughnessy's freckleframed smile and let it rest upon the one face she most desperately didn't want to look at. His soft hazel eyes were filled with anger and tears. "The curse is bullshit, Beth." She couldn't answer him. "Find someone," he said. "Prove it wrong. If you love me, you'll find someone new." Beth refused to respond. She could only let her eyes fill with the tears and they gently fell onto her cheeks. "I love you," she whispered. Tristan nodded with fury. "One day was enough Beth. I'm just glad I got to tell you." He blew her a kiss and abruptly the transmissions ended. Riker fell into a chair at an empty station and Worf placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. Both ships dropped their warp cores and they began to drift towards the mouth of the enormous vessel that was moving in upon the battered group.

"Get us out of here," Beth said quietly to Phinod. "Drop shields Mr. Llewellyn." Her eyes connected with those of Tuvok and the Praetor. "Tell them to get the hell away from the whale." "They have already begun to move away Captain," the Praetor replied as the large Rokehl readjusted his tentacle around the Romulan leader's head. "Incoming verbal transmission from Rokelh vessel One Captain," Dryden stated. 449


Beth nodded. "Open frequency. Report Counselor. Were you successful?" Enya Priest sounded exhausted, sad, hurt and tired. "Yes sir. No more Shentarian vessels remain a threat behind the fourth system Captain. We have neutralized seventeen more ships. Casualties were light." Beth swayed where she stood. Seventeen? They still had seventeen more ships?! "Well done," Beth said succinctly. "Stay back until we can end this." "Yes sir," Priest replied. "We're out!" cried Phinod, "We're clear of the subspace net!" "Captain!" Dryden barked. "The Panther's gone!" Beth's heart broke in two as she turned to look at her viewscreen, expecting to see the tell-tale blue-white flash that would confirm the ships' destruction. But it wasn't there. Confused Beth looked to Dryden. "It must have been hit by a subspace bubble before it could detonate their core!" Utterly destroyed, she panicked. "Hail the Jaguar! Inform them they will have to use a torpedo..." "They're way ahead of you Captain," Dryden said. "The Jaguar has just‌" The light was so blinding, Beth was forced to close her eyes. She felt the tears fall onto her scorching cheeks. Good bye‌ This time it took longer, but the focus returned. She sat quickly and reengaged her restraints. "What's next!" she flared. Without faltering, K'Reeg barked back. "Quad-fin bearing 122 mark 55!" "Ensign!" "I'm on it Captain," Phinod replied. "Raise shields!" she yelled, "Attack pattern Sulu one two!" Beth's eyes locked onto her target on the viewscreen. The red-tinted vessel glowed at the hub, giving her a clear picture of exactly where she wanted to hit. "Quantum spread on my mark!" "Ventral torpedoes ready!" K'Reeg howled, "Aft torpedoes ready!" "All power to forward shields!" 450


"Aye sir!" cried Llewellyn. The ship moved directly in upon the four-finned ship, and looked as it they would ram her head-on until Phinod gently turned the vessel. She rocked heavily from phaser fire directed squarely at the Enterprise's bow. Beth shook in her seat. "Steady Ensign, you're doing fine." Phinod again moved her hand and the Enterprise began to invert. "Incoming torpedo spread!" Dryden yelled. The Enterprise took a series of massive hits just under the bridge. Beth couldn't tell how the shields had fared but her eyes never left the glowing hub of the Shentarian ship. "FIRE!" she bellowed. K'Reeg released a series of spreads from the underbelly of the ship. The Enterprise moved like a falcon and finished the ship off with another series of torpedoes issued from the aft bays. "What's next?!" Beth asked automatically, "Where to?!" "Nowhere," said Janeway softly. "There all gone Captain." Beth did a double-take and looked to her CO once more in disbelief and Janeway nodded back in return. She heard Dryden's cool voice from her side. "The Cerberus didn't make it, but they took the last two trifins with them."

There was silence on the bridge. Beth's eyes fell to the space before them, glittering with shards of the whale and the Cats that went with her. Her heart was empty and she was wondering whether or not she could even remember what color the hope was. She struck her combadge. "Riker to Chief Vega." "Vega here, sir." "You know what to do?" "Yes sir," he replied. "I'll bring them to you." Beth could only whisper, "Thanks Carlos." She stood slowly from the command chair and looked down to her hand and gently fingered the beautiful ring. She pulled it off and took it into her hand and clenched it into her fist. "You have the bridge Number One." "Aye sir," he replied calmly. 451


Beth walked directly towards her ready room. Suddenly, the Rokelh shot up from his position between the Praetor and the Vulcan Ambassador. "Captain!" cried Tuvok. Beth stopped just before the door to her office, trying with every ounce of strength she had left to hold on until she could be alone. The hate and the anger began to consume her. She turned to see the Rokelh from across her bridge. "I don't know what it wants to say Captain. It has removed the tentacles," Vreen stated. Beth looked to the massive creature. It drew the soft membrane over the bulbs of its gigantic eyes and its whole body swirled in a mass of color, quickly blending into a shade of the palest green. It was the same color of the tiny little orb she had once held in her hands. Shattered, Beth broke and turned to run into her office, the door shutting behind her. Riker began to walk down the ramp to follow her but Worf held him back, shaking his head. "No Will," he said. Riker turned in anger, but sat back down when he saw the serious look in his friend's eyes.

452


Interlude XVII Stardate 77761.1 Earth Calendar October 31, 2401 LaBarre, France, Earth, Sol System, Sector 001 Private Residence of Jean-Luc Picard "Here. I want you to have this," he said, holding out a large, leather-bound book. "No. Grampa." Beth shook her head softly. "That's your book. That's the book of your family." she said with such desperation in her voice that she thought she could see the tears forming in his eyes. "You are my family," he said and he smiled weakly. "Here. Let me show you." He moved over to the table in the large bedroom of the wonderful old home. The rain gently pelted the leaded glass windows which made them look liquid themselves. The late autumn had already forced the leaves from the grapevines and Beth wondered how it made things turn so surreal. Picard had invited the three of them to visit. He knew she wasn't speaking to Bill so he hadn't told her Bill would be there. Mercifully, Picard called her into his room before she was forced to say something hateful to him – causing a scene at Grandfather's house was the last thing she wanted, especially after he had announced to 453


all of them that he would be leaving and likely would never see them again. Suddenly her spite for Bill didn't seem so important. Picard set the scrapbook on the wooden surface of the ancient table. He opened the book towards the end. There was a picture she had seen a million times before. It was the picture he had always held the book open to while it rested in his ready room on the Enterprise-E. "You know this?" Beth nodded. "It's you and Robert and Rene." His eyes saddened and he nodded and his fingers touched the edge of the portrait with great tenderness. "The last of the Picards." Beth looked to him in slight confusion. "I don't understand." Picard lifted his eyes to hers. "There will be no more after me," he said factually. "When Rene and Robert died, the name no longer had a chance to survive." He smiled more brightly. "Until you came along, that is." Beth couldn't even comprehend what he was saying. "Family is more than just blood, remember Elizabeth?" Beth nodded. "We were always taught that, and I do believe it. You are my grandfather." He smiled once more. "And you are my granddaughter…see?" He flipped the page of the book and to her astonishment there was page after page of photos of him with her and with Bill and with Cassidy and her parents and Uncle Worf, Uncle Geordi, Aunt Beverly and the uncle Data she never got to meet. "You are my family Elizabeth. And just like I would if you were of my own blood, I give this book to you now so in case I can't return, the Picards will not be forgotten." Beth was swept back by her own sorrow and pain. "Just tell me, grandfather…" "Anything Elizabeth." "Tell me you're leaving because you want to. Tell me you're leaving because you love it…tell me…" "Elizabeth." He touched her arm gently. "I'm leaving because I'm an explorer. I can't stay here. I'm going because I need to." He smiled once more. "I am hoping to return you know. I want to see what you'll look like on the bridge of the Enterprise." He grinned. 454


Beth couldn't help but laugh through her falling tears. She flipped the book back to the picture of Robert and Rene and her grandfather. "You're assignment is to remember the Picards, Elizabeth. Make sure we're never forgotten." She looked to the faces of the three people in the picture, and like he had done, her hands gently touched the edge of the photo. "I've never been so honored." The tears fell silently from her eyes. "I will miss you Grampa." "I'll miss you too‌my Elizabeth." Picard nodded gently and patted her on the shoulder then leaned and kissed her on the cheek. "Go now. I need to speak to the others. They will be getting assignments as well." Beth turned to him and hugged him so hard she thought she might break him. He laughed mirthfully in her arms. "I love you Grampa." "I love you too Elizabeth. Remember them." "I will." She began to cry. She closed the book gently and placed it in the box that had been its home. She took the book into her arms and held it tightly against her chest and looked to him once more. He was so strong. She tried to take some of that strength with her, but it wasn't working. She ran from the room in tears, tearing past her brother and sister who were waiting outside. "Beth!" cried Bill. But his voice only seemed to make Beth's cry louder as she departed the home in the soft curtains of rain.

455


456


PART FOURTEEN

C

457


458


Stardate 91942.8 Federation Starship – USS Enterprise-G Captain's Ready Room

Beth walked with little knowledge of where she was heading. Her office was in shambles. The loss of artificial gravity had thrown all of the loose items across the room and they had all landed scattered across the floor and the desk and the chairs. Her eyes shot over to see the large, leather-bound scrapbook face down and bent backwards – thrashed against the shelving unit it had been resting on. She ran to it and tried to lift it to examine its condition but her hand was clenching something and she opened her fist to see the ring. She dropped it to the floor. She turned to see that the picture of her and Bill and her parents was still attached to the bulkhead by the door and the pure fact that her mind had always somehow placed Cassidy's face in the photo seized her… The rage had nowhere left to go. She dropped to her knees and tried to squelch her cries as she reached for the scrapbook, gingerly flipping it on its face and hoping none of the photos had ripped. As she brought the book back to her, she opened 459


it to reveal a picture of Picard and Riker and Troi, all smiling. Standing in front of them were her brother Bill and her. They were toddlers at the time, and her mother held baby Cassidy in her arms. Beth was overcome with the thought that there should have been a picture of her and Tristan holding a baby and she fell apart. Her sobs were uncontrolled and she fell to the floor in unabashed agony. "I am impressed," said a soft and uncaring voice from behind her. Beth wasn't sure she could take anymore pain and she wailed out loud. "I told you it wouldn't be easy Riker," said Q from behind her desk. Beth couldn't stop crying. "I hate you," she hissed before her sobs overtook her once more. "You don't hate me," he said lightly. "If it wasn't for me you wouldn't have listened at all." She didn't respond to him. He rolled his eyes and stood from the desk and walked over to her as she laid on the floor near the scrapbook. He picked up the book and she roared with fury. "Don't you touch that!" She grabbed his arm so violently he pulled back away from her. "Leave me alone Q! " "All right! All right! I'll leave you alone. Far be it for me to try to compliment you on your achievement." Beth's eye's flared with wrath. Q disappeared in a flash of light but his voice entered her room. "But don't forget Riker. The trial never really ends." Beth sat on the floor, numb to anything around her. She couldn't hear and couldn't feel anything. Her fingers blindly sought the ring on the carpet and once finding it, pulled it back into her grasp once more. "I'm sorry to intrude Captain, but there's an emergency hail from the Persephone," Dryden called on the comm. "We need you back on the bridge. Captain Ryan will only speak to you." Beth wasn't sure how close to catatonic she really was. Did Dryden just tell her they needed her back on the bridge? Was he kidding? "Captain. Are you there? Are you alright?" Dryden asked. 460


Beth was suddenly overcome with the thought they would soon barge into her office and find her on the floor with the photo album. She hit her combadge out of habit. "I'm here Number One. I'm on my way." Beth stood from the floor and lifted the scrapbook and set it closedfaced onto the shelf. She didn't even bother to wipe her face and she forced herself to walk back to the bridge. She could feel the stares as she walked out. She could feel the sorrow. She could feel the sympathy and the pain. Her father looked horrified and Admiral Janeway appeared to be sadder than she had ever seen. Beth grabbed onto anything to keep from breaking once more. "Captain," Dryden said with concern and he stood to greet her. "Onscreen," she said softly and turned to face the viewscreen. Captain Ryan's face appeared once more. He looked awful and Beth had to remember that she couldn't read him. He had Xenon Syndrome‌like her sister. Beth's stomach lurched. "Captain. What's the emergency?" she asked in concern. "We have a present for ya Captain," Ryan answered; his soft Scottish accent began to break her heart once more. Beth was too drained to be playing any games and it angered her. "Captain what's the emergency?!" "Captain!" cried Revaik from her post. "It's the Panther! They have the Panther in tow!" Ryan smiled brightly. "They have no power and only minimal life support and their comm system's down, but they're okay." There was an audible gasp from everyone on the bridge except her. She was still too overwhelmed to comprehend what he was saying. "How, Captain?" asked Janeway. "Apparently the Anthek had another trick up her sleeve Admiral – they have subspace shielding and can waltz right through Shentarian nets. We caught them trying to leave the area with the entire ship in tow. The Rokelh were the ones who tipped us off!" he growled. "We were able to locate them and we were able to drop their cloak. They used the Panther as a shield to hide behind while they recloaked. They left the Panther adrift and I assume they're either still out there or they've left the area." Ryan grumbled. "Before Cassidy re461


cloaked…she had a message for you Captain Riker. Something about understanding the weakness for the Scottish lilt?" Beth's hands started to tremble. She could no longer hear anything. "He's alive?" she whispered. "Yes Beth. He won't let us transport him until the Panther has been stabilized," Ryan responded. "It won't be but a few minutes." Beth refused to believe him. She turned and walked back into her ready room. The door shut behind her leaving those on the bridge to stand in utter confusion. She stood there. In the middle of her ready room she stood there, unable to comprehend anything anymore. The bell to the ready room chirped. "Come," she said, but only because it was the automatic thing to say. "Captain." There was a gentle Latin accent in the voice and Beth turned to see Chief Vega standing there, followed closely by her father. "This is for you." Beth looked down to the outstretched hand of her transporter chief. In his palm was a singular piece of metal. It was silver in color and appeared superheated and its surface blended from smooth and shiny to buff and muted. "The Jaguar, ma'am," he said softly. "I could not locate anything from the Panther," he said with pain in his voice. "I'm sorry Captain. I have failed you." Riker stepped in from behind and placed his hands on the Chief's shoulders. "You've done nothing of the sort Chief. The Panther survived. That's why you couldn't find any debris." Riker took the metal from the Chief's hand and looked to him kindly. "Thank you Chief." Vega smiled momentarily, then looked to the metal in the Admiral's hand. He nodded and left the ready room. Riker looked upon his daughter with concern, set the metal on her desk and turned to walk out of the office. "Captain," he said. She lifted her eyes to his. He wasn't smiling. He wasn't sad. She opened her mind to him and she could only feel the depth of his love…and his pride. She grabbed onto it voraciously. "Yes Admiral?" "Well done," he said with a slight smile. He turned to leave her in 462


the ready room. The doors opened and standing there was Tristan. Beth started to tremble once more. Riker smiled broadly and let Tristan pass into the office. The door closed. "Beth!" Tristan moved to her. She looked right at him but he still didn't seem real to her. She didn't respond. She could only stand there, staring at the hazel of his eyes. He smiled gently and reached for her hands. Her fist still clenched the ring in her right hand tightly. "Where's the ring?" he asked, looking at the empty finger on her left hand. Beth gawked at him, still unable to formulate words. He held up her right hand and opened her fist to reveal the delicate band. Without speaking, he took the ring from her hand and placed it back on her left ring finger. "Now why would you be takin'it off when I told you that we had a date in Elgin?" "Tristan‌" she finally whispered. "Brian's gone." "I know love." "Are you real?" He smiled and grabbed her face with his strong hands. "Yes." he leaned to kiss her softly. "The curse is bullshit Beth." Her laugh was blended with her tears of pain and joy. "I love you," he whispered then kissed her again.

463


464


PART FIFTEEN

C

465


466


Stardate 91967.9 Paris, France, Earth, Sol System, Sector 001 Federation Headquarters Concourse outside Grand Auditorium Five weeks later... Admiral Riker walked alongside his wife with and his son with a beaming smile on his face. The smile seemed as though it had been permanently etched there since the wedding in Elgin three weeks beforehand. Deanna couldn't help but laugh and she brought herself into tight to her husband's side and grabbed her son's arm and they escorted her together as they walked from the auditorium. Beth had received a commendation for her creative thinking that allowed the Rokelh to participate in their own defense. They had created a sizeable attack force of Rokelh ships led by Counselor Priest and Commander Elieth who were able to surprise seventeen Shentarian ships hiding behind the third gas giant of the fourth system in Rokelh territory. Using the isoflourane response inherent in their own bodies, and with having so many Rokelh available, they were able to approach the surprise attack force, use the shield and the power disrupters without affecting those in the battle zone, boarded the Shentarian vessels en masse and simply knocked them all unconcious. Everytime one of the Shentarians moved, 467


the Rokelh who feared them so badly, would issue a susbtantial amount of the isoflourane-type anesthetic causing them to pass out until the Romulan, Klingon forces and a sizeable defense fleet from the the Federation could arrive. It was the shortest ceremony to take place besides the signing of the treaties... Those ceremonies ended up being slightly different from what they had originally planned. Instead of a formal four-way alliance, there was a celebration of a set of smaller treaties. Romulus and Remus still had too much to fear and felt their focus would be better spent on trying to repair the damage done by their millennia of slave harvesting. Their own public needed to put first and there wasn't anyone from the Federation, Qo'noS, Cardassia or the Rokelh who couldn't agree that a lot needed to be done. Several smaller treaties were signed that placed the Rokelh and their space as a combined protectorate. Small teams from Cardassia, Romulus, Remus, the Federation and Qo'noS would constantly patrol the borders of the Rokelh to protect them from further intrusion from Shentaria – and each other. "Sometime the best friendships are based on mutual distrust." Riker grinned. "Hell of a day, hey Dad?" Bill's deep voice stated. "Hell of a couple of months," he concurred. "I'm glad you'll be staying at Earth for awhile." Bill's dark eyes met his mother's with a smile. "I'll be here for at least six months but there's been a new discovery on Fordera 7. I think I'll be heading there next." Riker grinned and shook his head. "I'll take what I can get." Deanna squeezed them both towards her. "Strange to have a brother-in-law?" Bill shook his head. "No," he said. "Everyone's family, you always said. Besides, Tristan's a great guy. I knew he was in love with her after she was injured in the battle at Telanus. They should have gotten married a year ago." Deanna giggled. "That's what the general consensus seemed to think. Will you join us at the house after the reception? I understand Beth 468


will be leaving shortly and I'd like to have one of my children near me for awhile." Bill nodded and patted her hand. "Of course, Mom." Deanna nodded lightly as they walked towards a small group milling about the entrance door. Among them were Grazerite Federation Councilmember and former Starfleet Academy Administrator, J'Nil, Admiral Janeway, Admiral Brath Binigma, a Tellerite man and the newly designated head of the 6th Fleet and Praetor Vreen – whose head was wrapped by the silvery-white tentacle of a Rokelh individual they had taken to calling Charlie. "Ah here's one faction of the Riker clan I see!" said J'Nil loudly – his voice filled the cavernous hall. "A very proud day for you I think!" Deanna moved forward to receive a kiss of greeting from the Councilmember. "It is indeed J'Nil!" she beamed. "It's not everyday a group can get together and call a place off-limits to the benefit of all!" "The last place that comes close is Antarctica, I think," said Janeway and there was a slight murmer of laughter. "Look, here's the lady of the hour!" said Binigma and his smile emitted from his fuzz-covered face. The group turned to see Beth, Tristan and Dryden walking towards them. All three were dressed in their formal uniforms and Riker smiled, thinking how much she resembled Deanna. They were greeted warmly by the group. Charlie's body lit up in a swarm of warm hues of red and burnt gold and he slid his tentacle around Beth's head without so much as a thought. Beth stood still with a smart smile on her face as she allowed the visions to fill her mind. Charlie's body blasted into brilliant green as he removed his tentacle and Beth laughed and looked to Tristan. He smiled, leaned over and kissed her softly. "What?" Deanna said. "I've never seen such a reaction from Charlie before. What did he say?" Beth smirked at Tristan. "He asked about our honeymoon…" she smiled and winked and there was generous laughter from the group. Riker reached out and shook Tristan's hand. "Son," he said with a laugh. "Hi Dad," Tristan replied then leaned to kiss Deanna on the cheek, 469


"Mom." "Captains." Janeway cleared her throat. "I hate to be the one to ruin a perfect day, but I have your orders." Beth and Tristan both nodded with acceptance. "It's okay Admiral. We're as prepared as we'll ever be." Janeway handed them each a PADD. Tristan took his and looked at it first. He nodded. "Very good Admiral. The Panther will be underway immediately." He looked to Beth with a soft smile. "We're on patrol of the Rokelh border indefinitely." Beth grinned. "Good." She turned her black eyes to her PADD and read. Her face paled slightly and Troi stepped forward. "Beth?" Beth lifted her eyes and handed the PADD to Dryden. "Tell me what you think Number One." Paul took the PADD from the captain's hand. He took a deep breath and read. STARFLEET COMMAND SAN FRANCISCO, EARTH, SOL SYSTEM, SECTOR 001 ORDERS FOR CAPTAIN – RIKER, ELIZABETH L. ORDERS FOR COMMANDER – DRYDEN, PAUL M. USS ENTERPRISE UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS REG NO. NCC -1701-G BEGIN: USS ENTERPRISE TO PROCEED IMMEDIATELY TO SECTOR 22375, CRUX ARM. PURPOSE OF MISSION: EXPLORATION. END.

Paul's eyes shot up to meet Beth's and he was ecstatic to see the joy beaming from her face. He smiled brightly and laughed. "I'll be damned," he said then loudly repeated himself. "Well, I'll be damned!" "Go see what's out there, okay, Beth?" Riker said with a grin. "I'll be here when you get back." Tristan smiled. Beth shot forward to hug everyone in the group, all of whom gladly reciprocated the gesture. She kissed her parents and hugged them 470


tightly. "I'll call you later love." Beth smiled and Tristan pulled her to him and they kissed deeply and lovingly. "If I don't hear from you by seven, I'll send the Puma to get you." Beth looked briefly to everyone and smiled, turned, kissed Tristan quickly one more time, grabbed Dryden by the arm and turned with him to walk towards the transporters. "Come on Number One. The squelched explorers have been let loose!" "I'm right there with you Captain!" he said, taking her arm in his and they walked down the corridor. Laughing, J'Nil turned from the group to head for the reception. He was quickly approached by a fellow Councilmember from Earth. The man shook his hand and realized that the group standing there was watching a pair of Starfleet officers walking briskly, arm in arm, down the massive hall. "Excuse me, J'Nil, but isn't that Riker's daughter?" J'Nil's eyes caught Riker's with a smile. "No Preston. That's Captain Elizabeth Riker and let me assure you...she's one of a kind."

471


472


Epilogue Stardate 92231.8 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-G Captain's Ready Room "So the skirmishes have dwindled to the point that Shentaria has stopped leaking over the Gamma Quadrant border. It seems we have them contained, for now. None of us really believe that they're done. But we'll continue to bolster the defenses." Tristan still found a way to smile through his serious discussion and Beth could only smile in return. His face on the comm screen was the joy of her day. "The Thraiin however…they've been a real pain. They're getting quicker and faster. We've retrofitted our shields once again so their new torpedoes are less effective, but they're still tough to get around." He grimaced. "I should tell you that Cassidy is no longer on the Anthek." "No?" Beth asked, surprised. Tristan shook his head and Beth could tell is was bad news. "No. They've given her a section command and a new ship. Even more formidable than the Anthek, it's called the K'Manatran." Beth shook her head. "She always did have a flare for the dramatic." Tristan grinned. "Aye, to call your ship the Outcast…pretty dramatic indeed." "I miss you," she said softly. 473


"And I miss you," he replied. "Take lots of pictures and lots of scans. I bet it's beautiful." "It's incredible Tris…I only wish you were here to share it with me." "Ah, you're the explorer. Just come home once in awhile and I'll be a happy man.." Beth kissed her fingers and touched her screen. Tristan did the same. "G'Night love – only tomorrow, would ya be so kind as to call me while you're brushing your hair?" He winked. Beth laughed. "I'll try. Good night." Her screen went dark. She took a deep breath in and smiled brightly. She looked briefly out the window. The windows were filled with the sight of an enormous nebula. Its colors were the most incredible shades of hot pink and white with dark matter ribbons strewn through it. Beth turned her attentions to the comm. "Computer, resume letter." The computer chirped and Beth leaned back in her chair. "As I was saying Marcia, before my husband so wonderfully interrupted me, one of the greatest joys of being the captain of an exploratory is the ability to name the discoveries you come across. As our first official postcard home to you, we the crew of the Starship Enterprise officially name this the Leonard Creation Nebula to honor this ship's creator and first Commanding Officer – Captain Marcia Leonard. It was the only way I could think to thank you for giving me that very special gift – her untouched command chair." Beth smiled briefly and sipped her coffee. "You should also know that this nebula contains five of the largest star nursery spires ever recorded by science. They have also been named. They are the Shaughnessy, Farhadian, Tik, Chen and Venel spires, and Revaik tells me that they will be producing new stars for eons." Beth grinned. "I hope you enjoy the pictures Marcia. We plan on sending you many more postcards in the years to come. I remain, very truly yours, Captain Beth Riker, USS Enterprise."

474


Star Trek: Heritage - A Break With Tradition  

In 2413 the United Federation of Planets and its allies are once again at war. Fresh off her fiery stint as the captain of a small Starfleet