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Star Trek The Next Generation RETRIBUTION By

T.L. Shull

This novel is a fan written work and is not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of Paramount Pictures, CBS Corporation, or Pocket Books. 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 .

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For Allen

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When blood sees blood Of its own It sings to see itself again It sings to hear the voice it's known It sings to recognize the face One body split and passed along the line From the shoulder to the hip I know these bones as being mine And the curving of the lip And my question to you is: How did this come to pass? How did this one life fall so far and fast? Some are lean and some with grace, and some without; All tell the story that repeats Of a child who had been left alone at birth Left to fend and taught to fight See his eyes and how they start with light Getting colder as the pictures go Did he carry his bad luck upon his back? That bad luck we've all come to know And my question to you is: How did this come to pass? How did this one life fall so far and fast? When blood sees blood Of its own It sings to see itself again Blood Sings Suzanne Vega

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PROLOGUE

Refrigeration unit? Ha! Still hot as hell in here. Sweat box. At least there‟re no damned lights. Hell hole. Dark. At least it‟s quiet. At least there‟s no damned talking. At least there‟re no damned lights. At least there‟s no screaming...

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Damned sweat box. Quiet. Burning. Scalding claws. Burning damned bugs. Hell hole. Hot, quiet and dark. At least there are no lights. So hot. So tired… Refrigeration unit, my ass! At least there‟s no screaming...

Focus! Time to count. Keep my mind straight. I promised her. I promised her I‟d beat them. I promised her I would always remember. Time to count. One. One way to beat them. Never forget. Two. Two eyes have seen. Never forget. Three. There are three Vorta. Never forget. Four. There are always four. Never forget. Five. There are five Cardassians. Never forget. Six. Six walls to this box. Never forget. Seven. There are seven Jem‟Hadar. Never forget…

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CHAPTER ONE

Stardate 55713.3 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E Standard Orbit of Benecia Bridge

He leaned back into the familiar comfort of the command chair and looked up to the viewscreen to see the black expanse of the space which lay before him. The proverbial blank slate. He took a deep breath in and exhaled just as deeply, soaking in the perfection of the moment, just like Anij had taught him.

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The ship had just broken standard orbit of the planet Benecia after a quick stop to deliver medical supplies to the colony. His smile became impossible for him to hide and Riker had noticed it. “Glad to be back sir?” asked his First Officer who peered over to him from the position to his right. Captain Jean-Luc Picard turned his contented face to his long-time Executive Officer and nodded. “It‟s been far too long, Number One, don‟t you agree?” Commander William T. Riker stole a glance over to Counselor Deanna Troi who also appeared at ease in her chair to the Captain‟s left. Her dark hair was pulled back loosely, giving him an unobstructed view of her incredible black eyes. He smiled broadly when memories of the night before flooded forward. We‟re back to exploring and Deanna is mine! Does life get any better than this?! “I do indeed sir,” Riker answered with a broad smile. He stroked his face where his beard once resided and he thought twice about how he could approach Deanna about his desire to re-grow it. He liked his beard and he missed it. His CO‟s voice grabbed his attention once more. “Set a course for the Nyx Nebula, Ensign. I understand we‟ll be lucky to catch the birth of a bouncing baby Class O star.” Picard smiled with his order. “Only if we engage at warp three or higher, Captain,” informed Lieutenant Commander Data sitting in his usual spot at the Operations console, his bright yellow android eyes resting on Picard in the factual-yet-assisting manner that Picard had become accustomed to many years before. “Then make it warp three point five, Ensign. I wouldn‟t want to be late.” He smiled gently. “Aye sir,” responded the Flight Controller at the helm as his hands moved across the panel. “Course laid in and ready sir.” 12


Exhaling a sigh that contained all of his excitement, anticipation and joy, Picard leaned forward in the chair and looked to the viewscreen, anxious to see what lay ahead. “Engage.”

Stardate 55713.3 USS Panther – NX-90261 Patrol of Cardassian-UFP border near Bajor Captain’s Ready Room

There was a slight chirp from the PADD when the DNA analysis was complete. She read the orders then read them again. She rubbed her eyes softly then read them once more. Captain Antoinette Steele couldn‟t pull her searing green eyes away from the PADD in her hand – the orders seemed surreal to her. “Thank you Reed.” She shook her head with confusion. “I guess you don‟t know anything about this either?” she said, addressing her counterpart from the Steamrunner class ship which sat off the Panther‟s port bow. Captain Reed Carson stood in front of her in the ready room with an annoyed expression plastered across his ruddy face. “You got that right, Toni. All Jellico did was summon the Appalachia to Earth. When we got there, I was called to his office where he handed me my orders to hand that PADD directly to your hands in private and then leave. Nothing else.” Steele set the PADD face down on her desk then pushed her chair back, stood and walked around to Carson. “Well, I wish I could ask you to stay for dinner, but it appears we‟ll be moving on. Give my best to Claire.” She smiled and extended her hand.

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“I will Toni. You take care – whatever this is about okay?” Returning her salutation, he extended his hand and shook hers. “Will do, Reed. Thanks for your trouble.” Captain Carson turned on his heel then exited the ready room of the sparkling new defense ship. Steele picked up the PADD again then clicked her combadge. “Captain to Malek, report to the ready room, please.” “Aye sir,” responded a male voice. Within moments the door to her ready room slid open and a vivid-blue Andorian man entered. His antennae stood straight from his forehead and a shock of pure white hair. They swiveled gracefully from side to side, taking in his relatively new surroundings. He bore three small gold pips on the collar of his Starfleet uniform. The red color of his collar appeared to glow against the sapphire hue of his skin. “Captain?” Steele moved towards him as he entered then lifted her eyebrows as she handed him the PADD. “Tell me what you think of this, Malek.” Her Executive Officer removed the PADD from her hand and reviewed it. His head pulled back and his antennae lifted with confusion. “But it‟ll be two weeks before we can catch up to them, and that‟s at high warp. Why would they call us? Isn‟t anyone closer?” Steele nodded in agreement. “That‟s what I thought too. But look further…we aren‟t the only ones being moved. We‟ll be meeting up with the USS Jaguar as well.” Malek‟s eyes flew back to those of his new CO. “The Jaguar? Now what‟s so important that the Enterprise needs to be escorted home by two Panthera class ships?” Steele glided back to her chair and sat, her eyes never leaving those of her XO, her look of perturbation easy for him to recognize. “I have no idea Malek. The one thing I do know? Picard will not be happy.” She finally broke her gaze from her 14


XO and rubbed her eyes again tiredly. “I have never met the man, but by the time we reach them they‟ll be long past the Megaran system and heading out for the Nyx creation nebula. Being pulled back to the Sol System under escort will not be an easy pill for him to swallow.” “I gather not.” He handed the PADD back to her. “After everything they‟ve been through, I understand that many of the crew were looking forward to rekindling their exploration duties.” “Exactly. I have a good friend on her crew and I know he‟s been itching to get back to the unexplored sectors.” She exhaled heavily, set the PADD back on her desk and pulled her straight, long, jet-black hair behind her head then let it loosely fall back. “Well, no sense in wasting time. Set a course for intercept of the Enterprise and engage at warp eight.” Malek nodded. “Aye sir.” He departed the ready room quickly. Steele leaned back in her chair and stretched her neck, her eyes roamed the room. She loved her new ship and it already had felt like she had become a part of it. She appreciated its tight and aggressive design. She rested her eyes upon an unusual painting behind her desk and she smiled. The painting was filled with the impressionistic image of a light brown and sandy countryside butted up against a distinctly powder blue and cloudless sky. The rolling landscape bore dark green patches of what resembled bushy trees. Very few colors were used to paint the picture yet it sang to her all the same. It was a painting of a desolate, dry and lonely place to most, but to her it was a painting of everything familiar and home. Slowly, her eyes found and locked onto a photograph on the bureau behind her desk. A pocked, scarred and rugged face smiled back at her from within the frame. His black hair and dark eyes seemed to calm her. She smiled and briefly touched 15


the photo and whispered to it, “Well Paul, this should be interesting.” She turned towards her desk and resumed reading reports of the day.

Stardate 55713.3 Cardassia Prime Culat Province Temporary Office of Minister of Security Gul Cacet read the tablet in his hands then stretched his broad Cardassian neck from side to side as he sneered. “Are you sure the guarantees are in place?” “Yes Gul,” replied his assistant, Prethet. “They have assured us that this will not fail.” He grimaced. “Although I must admit I am still uncomfortable with the arrangements.” Cacet‟s scowl deepened across his scaled face and nodded in agreement. “Yes Prethet, I am also unhappy this has gone so far. Yet I must admit the risk has been worth it. We have been able to stabilize much with what we‟ve received from them and they will be able to obtain those precious to them as well.” He shifted in his chair and handed the tablet back to his assistant. “Be that as it may, I agree with your recommendations and I‟m pleased that you don‟t trust the situation either. Assure that two battle cruisers watch for activity along the border.” Prethet allowed a satisfied smile from his own greytinged face and nodded. “Yes Gul!” Gul Cacet‟s sneer deepened. “We cannot allow undue influence by the Federation now. Not when we‟re so close to controlling the rebellion once and for all. If this fails, so will everything we have worked for since the end of the Dominion‟s control over us.” 16


Prethet bowed his head respectfully, turned sharply and left his superior‟s office.

Stardate 55722.2 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E En route to Nyx Creation Nebula, Alpha Quadrant Captain’s Ready Room

Picard stood in his usual spot by the windows of his ready room and allowed his eyes to gaze upon the enormity of the nebula in the far-off distance. The Enterprise moved slowly towards its amalgam of colors – reds seeped into purples which blended back into pinks; hot blue-white gems sparkled through the veil of dark dust lanes and creation spires before him. He smiled unconsciously, for it was the first time since the end of the Dominion War he felt like he was making his way back towards home – to the unknown. Anij and her kind were now a dark, secret burden of the Federation. He would miss Ba‟ku. He would miss Anij, but her affection and wisdom helped him realize that he had other things to do, other tasks to accomplish. His eyes brightened with awe of the expansive nebula outside his window. It‟s time to move on. It‟s time to see what else is out there. The door to the room slid open and Riker moved forward not surprised to see his captain staring out the window. He caught him often enough in the past, that to see him there made him smile. “Beautiful, isn‟t it sir?” Picard turned his head briefly and displayed his grin to his XO. “Incredible, Number One. Just look at it…full of

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potential…” He turned his head back toward his view. “…full of new journeys.” “Aye sir,” Riker replied gently. “I‟m looking forward to them.” “As am I, Number One…as am I,” admitted Picard and he turned to address him. “Now what can I do for…” “Captain, we have detected a ship on long-range sensors.” Picard‟s comm interrupted with Data‟s clear voice. “It is on an intercept course.” “On my way Data.” Picard‟s eyes bolted to Riker‟s and his joy immediately dissipated. “What ship would be out here?” “You got me.” Riker shrugged as he followed Picard out to the main bridge. Troi was sitting at her post watching the viewscreen as a tiny white speck began to appear in its center. Picard and Riker moved forward to sit at their respective posts. “Report,” Picard ordered. Worf‟s deep voice resonated through the bridge and Picard was happy to hear it. To have Worf back on the Enterprise felt like the family was whole again. “It appears to be a heavily armed vessel Captain,” he grunted. Data‟s hand moved with blinding speed across his panel. “Sensors indicate amounts of tritanium typically used in Federation ships Captain, but the identity signature has not yet been picked up by long-range scans.” “Magnify,” Picard ordered and the viewscreen focused closer on the tiny white speck, but to Picard‟s frustration he couldn‟t recognize the silhouette of the silvery vessel. “It appears to have close to twice the firepower of the Enterprise sir, but she‟s just over half the size!” Worf said with reserved excitement and Picard almost shivered with the thought that Worf had actually been impressed by its firepower.

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Data cut in, “Sir, the identification signal has been received. It is Federation registry number NX-90261 – the USS Panther and it remains on an intercept course.” Picard contorted his face with confusion. What‟s that ship doing way out here? “The Panther? Wasn‟t she just launched?” Riker questioned. “She‟s a defense ship, isn‟t she Captain?” asked Troi. “Yes to both questions,” answered Picard. “Hail them, Mister Worf.” “Aye sir,” Worf replied and his hands jumped across the panel at his tactical station. He looked up in confusion and concern. “Sir, they are not responding to our hails. I recommend we go to yellow alert.” Picard‟s brow furrowed deeply. Worf always wanted to go to alert when things weren‟t perfect – which they rarely were. Not yet Mr. Worf. I think we should allow them to approach. They‟re still one of us.” “They certainly seem to be in a rush sir,” Riker stated. “Indeed.” The ship grew in size and clarity on the viewscreen and approached the Enterprise quickly. “They are still ignoring our hails Captain!” Worf warned. “Have they powered any weapon arrays Worf?” asked Riker urgently. Worf grumbled slightly. “No sir.” “Then maintain position Ensign,” Picard ordered. “Let‟s see what this is all about, shall we?” The Panther moved in, slowed and slipped into bow-tobridge position, her nose pointed directly down upon the larger Enterprise. Although the craft was significantly smaller than the Enterprise her hull‟s aggressive design and obvious focus on

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weaponry made those on the bridge shift uncomfortably in their seats. Picard stood from his chair as the ship‟s hull came into view on the screen ahead of him. He instinctively sucked in his breath. “She‟s remarkable,” he whispered, his eyes taking in the sleek structure of the defense ship‟s lines. Riker stood with him and whistled loudly. “Will you look at that?” “She has twelve torpedo bays sir. Eighteen phaser arrays, four tractor arrays and four pulse cannon bays,” Worf replied. “She is…the evolution of the Defiant.” His eyes lit with a warrior gleam. “She‟s a beast,” Troi whispered in distaste for the vessel‟s capabilities. “Yeah, she is.” Riker couldn‟t control his wide-eyed expression when he agreed with her and Picard smirked at his XO‟s admiration of the vessel. “We have received a data only transmission,” Data announced. Picard grimaced. “What does it say?” “The Captain and XO are requesting permission to come aboard sir,” he replied. Picard shot a look to Riker. “Not even a greeting? Not a very friendly start I must say.” “No indeed sir,” agreed Riker. Picard looked at the animal of a ship staring down upon him and inhaled through his nose and looked to Riker once again. “I suspect we have no choice Number One. Data send coordinates to transporter room four. Riker, Troi, Worf – you‟re with me. Data you have the bridge.” “Aye sir,” Data responded and moved toward the command chair as Picard and the others made for the turbolift. __________ 20


Upon entering the transporter room, Troi could easily sense the waves of tension projected by her counterparts. She took a breath in, knowing that none of them really knew what to expect. The aggressive nature of the defense ship‟s appearance had taken the captain by surprise and he was almost confident that his hunch about their safety was correct. However, Troi could tell he was more than happy to have Worf standing in the room with them. The Transporter Chief reported to Picard, “Two individuals have reported ready for transport sir.” Worf nodded with satisfaction but stood ready just in case. Picard smiled and shook his head slightly. “Energize.” Pale blue light shimmered as two figures materialized on the transporter pad. Within moments a stunning, raven-haired woman appeared before them and next to her stood a blueskinned Andorian male. Both wore standard red-collared Starfleet uniforms. The woman‟s intense green eyes appeared like beacons through the darkness of her long, black hair. Her skin was porcelain and perfect. Her teeth were brilliant white when she smiled. Troi was suddenly struck by a strong leaping sensation of joy as it spiked through Riker. She was confused by, and found herself a little annoyed with his reaction. Well, she is very beautiful. Guess I can‟t blame him for reacting to that. She then realized that all the men seemed to have a similar reaction and she allowed herself to smile weakly; yet she was still taken by the intensity of Riker‟s reaction, it was definitely stronger than the others‟. The woman spoke and her very distinct, mellow and smooth voice filled the room. “Captain Picard. I am Captain Antoinette Steele of the USS Panther. First, I need to apologize for our rudeness. I have been under strict orders to refrain from 21


inter-vessel transmissions. I request permission for me and my First Officer to come aboard.” Troi had heard the name before and she could sense Picard‟s immediate relief with his recognition of it as well. “Captain Steele! This is a most unexpected surprise! By all means, welcome aboard! I must say it‟s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said as he stepped forward to greet his guest. Steele smiled brightly as she shook his hand and stepped down from the transporter pad. “Thank you Captain Picard. I‟d like you to meet my First Officer, Commander Malek.” Malek stepped down and shook Picard‟s hand. “Captain.” “Commander, a pleasure as well.” Picard turned back to Steele. “Captain Steele, this is my First Officer…” “Commander William T. Riker,” Steele interrupted and Troi watched as Steele approached Riker then stood directly in front of him. Riker smiled gently and shook his head slightly. “Captain Steele, I can‟t begin to tell you how glad I am to see that you‟re back,” he said respectfully. “Will!” Steele barked, and to Troi‟s utter surprise, Steele threw herself wholly into Riker‟s arms. His smile broke wider and he lifted her from the ground in a great and affectionate hug. Troi thought that her look of astonishment was superseded only by that of the captain‟s. Riker let Steele down from their moment of shared friendliness and she turned to Picard. “I‟m sorry Captain Picard but it‟s been far too long since I‟ve laid eyes on Mister Riker here.” She smiled and patted Riker‟s arm. “We have a lot of catching up to do.” Picard‟s eyebrow lifted slightly. “Indeed.” He peered over to Riker whose face still reflected the happy surprise of Steele‟s appearance. “Captain,” Picard continued, “this is

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Commander Deanna Troi, Ship‟s Counselor and Lieutenant Commander Worf, our Security and Tactical Chief.” Steele smiled and extended her hand which Deanna took in return. “Counselor, it‟s a pleasure,” she said warmly then moved her hand to Worf‟s. “Commander, I am readily familiar with you and your career. If it weren‟t for you and the proof of the Defiant‟s usefulness, I wouldn‟t have the Panther now.” She grinned brightly. Troi was confused by Steele. She didn‟t know why exactly, something just didn‟t feel right about her. Steele turned swiftly back to Picard and her expression turned serious. “Captain, we need to talk privately. Your First Officer is welcome, but that‟s all.” Steele shot a brief and apologetic look to Troi and Worf. “Sorry Counselor, sorry Mister Worf, no offense.” Troi shook her head, still trying to discern the strong waves of emotions spilling out from Riker. “None taken, Captain,” she answered professionally. Picard nodded. “This way Captain.” He moved forward out of the transporter room quickly followed by Steele and Malek. Riker, still smiling, ushered Troi out before him. She turned to look at him but his eyes were solely affixed to Captain Steele who walked directly ahead of them. “I must say we‟re extremely surprised by your presence Captain,” Picard clarified as they entered the turbolift and the door closed behind them. “Bridge.” “I can imagine,” Steele responded but then remained silent. Troi could tell that she was waiting to address the matters further once they were alone. What‟s wrong with her? Troi asked herself. Why is Will so happy to see her? How does he know her? How does she know him? Why is he so thrilled? Riker addressed Steele with genuine excitement. “That‟s one hell of a ship you have there Captain. We had heard about 23


the Panthera launches but I don‟t think any of us were truly aware of their firepower until our scans went over her.” Steele‟s face beamed with pride. “Jealous Commander?” She lifted an eyebrow with a playful prod. “I‟m surprised you‟re not commanding one of them yourself.” “No thank you. I like to think of myself more as an explorer, Captain.” He smiled back with mischief. Steele nodded slightly. “That‟s what you think Riker. I seem to recall you being more of a fighter pilot myself.” Troi shot Riker a glance and was surprised to see his face flushing with color. “That was a long time ago,” he conceded with a wry smile. The group exited the turbolift as it opened its doors to the bridge. Steele and Malek followed Picard and Riker moved in behind and watched as Troi and Worf made their way back towards their posts. Troi caught Riker‟s gaze briefly and he smiled sweetly to her. She was still having trouble making out his emotions. They were all over the charts. He was thrilled, happy, nervous, shocked and excited, all rolled into one. Captain Steele however, was an enigma. That‟s it! I can‟t read her! I can‟t read her at all! It put Deanna on edge immediately. She watched the ready room door close behind Will as he entered. Who is she? Why can‟t I sense her? __________

Picard was stymied. Perplexed and anxious, he turned to confront his surprise guest. “So Captain, do you mind explaining your appearance?” he asked her bluntly yet gently.

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Steele smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Don‟t mind if I do Picard, but frankly I was really hoping you could tell me.” “What?” Riker gasped in confusion. Steele reached for the PADD that Malek was holding under his arm, she handed it over to Picard in turn. After stealing a glance at Riker, Picard removed the PADD from her extended hand. It had a DNA lock-out. His mood sank precipitously. “F.Y.E.O.,” he grumbled, “…for you and me only, Number One.” These are never, ever good news. Riker‟s expression took on the comprehension of what that meant. “Oh, wonderful,” he said sarcastically. Resigned, Picard drew his finger along side the biodetection scanner on the PADD‟s edge. A slight chirp acknowledged his identity and to his dread, orders began to file across the screen. He began to read: STARDATE 55702.3 UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS, STARFLEET COMMAND, ADMIRAL - JELLICO, EDWARD SAN FRANCISCO, EARTH, SECTOR 001 ORDERS FOR CAPTAIN – PICARD, JEAN-LUC ORDERS FOR COMMANDER – RIKER, WILLIAM T. SENIOR COMMAND OFFICERS – USS ENTERPRISE REG. NO. NCC-1701-E FOR YOUR EYES ONLY! PURSUANT TO STARFLEET REGULATION CODE SECTION 199, NATURE OF THESE ORDERS, NAVIGATIONAL PURPOSES DISINCLUDED, NOT TO BE DISCUSSED WITH ANY OTHER. BEGIN. IMMEDIATELY PROCEED UNDER ESCORT OF USS PANTHER REG. NO. NCC-90261 TO STARBASE 214. CAPTAIN – PICARD, JEAN-LUC, USS ENTERPRISE REG. NO. NCC-1701-E TO RENDEZVOUS WITH CAPTAIN – HUNTER, NATHANIEL R., USS JAGUAR REG. NO. NX-90262 AND CAPTAIN – STEELE, ANTOINETTE É., USS PANTHER REG NO. NCC-90261, IN CONFERENCE ROOM 127A AT 1700 HRS STARDATE 55728.2. UPON RECEIPT OF FURTHER ORDERS AT STARBASE 214,

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PROCEED UNDER ESCORT OF USS PANTHER AND USS JAGUAR TO SECTOR 001, EARTH. END.

Picard read them again. “Captain, if you have any insight into this, Malek and I would love to hear it. We just spent two weeks chasing you down to deliver these orders to you in person. Do you know why?” Steele queried. He looked to Riker with confusion, the anger starting to build. “We‟re supposed to rendezvous with the Jaguar at Starbase 214 then head back to Earth?!” he jolted the question out. “What the hell for?! We just got here!” Steele rolled her eyes and looked to Malek in frustration. “Well, I guess that answers our question. He doesn‟t know either.” Malek‟s antennae drooped slightly and Riker watched Steele‟s expression sour. “What have you heard Captain?” Riker asked her. Steele shook her head. “Seriously Will, I have no clue why we‟re here except that we‟ve been ordered to escort the Enterprise to Starbase 214, hook up with the Jaguar and escort you all the way back to the Sol System.” “That‟s all these say as well.” Picard flung the PADD on his desk; it landed heavily, spinning on its face. Steele nodded her understanding. “If it‟s any consolation Captain, I knew you wouldn‟t be happy about it.” Picard‟s stomach tightened. He tried to smile to let her know he appreciated her acknowledgment but he couldn‟t quite bring himself to do it. Riker gazed to Picard with a frown. “The Enterprise is being escorted back to Earth under armed guard?” “I don‟t think so Will. I‟m more under the impression you need protecting, not that you‟re under arrest. If that were the case, we wouldn‟t have two days at a Starbase to wait for the

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Jag. We‟d move headlong towards Earth.” She grinned impishly. “Well…that and the fact that if I were meant to keep you on your best behavior, I would have lit the pulse-cannons the moment we looked down on your unsuspecting mug.” Riker shot her a look and forced a pressed-lipped smile. She smirked back at him. “Agreed Captain,” said Picard. He took a deep breath in through his nose; the sheer ache of the orders weighed down upon him. “Worse yet, Number One? We‟re under direct orders not to discuss this with anyone on board. A section 199 command. We can‟t even tell the crew.” Riker‟s expression of incredulity was not lost on him. Steele spoke once more, “Whatever this is about Picard, Command doesn‟t want anyone to know. They didn‟t even trust secure subspace communications with this basic information,” she stated. “Which is why I came here with a DNA encoded PADD as opposed to you receiving an encoded transmission.” “Both Captain Steele and I were hoping you would have more information, but I can see that‟s not the case,” Malek said seriously then glanced to Riker. “Our crew has been mumbling since we set out for Nyx. Keeping their questions at bay has been a challenge. You‟ll have your work cut out for you Commander. You have more than twice the number of crew to pacify.” Riker nodded at his counterpart‟s appreciation of his situation and turned his attention to his CO once more. “What could it be sir?” Picard rubbed his head and moved towards the windows. His eyes scanned the incredible beauty of the nebula that had so captured his imagination earlier. He let the disappointment sweep over him like a wave. “Damned if I know Number One!” he flared. He brought his hands up to his face to cover his fury then caught Steele‟s sympathetic eyes. He sighed with deep sadness and anger. “I guess we‟ll find out.” 27


Steele nodded briefly. “We‟ll be heading back to the Panther now. We‟ll run along side and catch up with you in person when we reach SB 214.” Picard nodded. “Agreed.” He felt horrible. He had wanted to meet her…to thank her. Now he felt like he had been rude to let his anger out in front of her. He looked to her apologetically. “Captain Steele…it really has been good to meet you. I owe you quite a lot I think. I had hoped we would have met under more convenient circumstances.” She smiled cheerfully and Picard found himself taken by her intense green eyes. “First off Captain, call me Toni. Second? You owe me nothing, we were just doing our job. Third? Seeing as though we‟ll have two days before the Jaguar‟s arrival at SB 214, I was hoping that we could get to know each other a little better. Will told me you‟re quite the equestrian and I am in desperate need of a competent riding partner.” Picard allowed a true grin to erupt from his face. “I would be honored. It‟s Jean-Luc.” “Excellent.” She beamed then turned to look to her First. “Well Malek, let‟s go, looks like we‟re still flying blind.” “Yes sir,” he agreed, showing his frustration with the predicament as well. He turned briefly to face Picard. “Captain.” Picard acknowledged him with a nod. “I‟ll escort you back to the transporter room Captain,” said Riker. Steele smiled broadly. “I was hoping you would.” She turned back towards Picard. “Jean-Luc.” She bowed her head slightly and he responded in kind, his eyes leaving hers then turning to gaze back upon the nebula. The door shut leaving him in quiet once more. Disappointment wasn‟t the word. He just wanted to see something new. I just wanted to see what was out there.

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__________

Troi stood from her chair when she saw Steele, Malek and Riker move from the ready room to the turbolift. Riker didn‟t even chance a glance her way, his eyes remaining on Captain Steele. Deanna could feel tension seeping out from him and the Andorian and she wondered what the discussion had been about. The moment the turbolift door shut, Picard appeared from his ready room. “Ensign, lay in a course for Starbase 214 and engage at warp four when the Panther reports ready,” he stated, moving towards the command chair as Data vacated it. “Aye sir,” responded the flight controller who began to press the commands in at the helm. Confused, Troi looked to her captain. They hadn‟t even made it close to the Nyx Nebula and they were turning around? “Starbase 214?” she asked, “why are we going there sir?” Picard grimaced and connected to her questioning eyes. He slowly closed his own and turned his head away from her. He left her hanging. It was only then that Deanna felt the anxiety and disappointment leap from his psyche. She sat back in her chair knowing he would not be answering her question. Troi watched as Data and Worf turned back towards their stations, also having discerned that Picard would not be answering her inquiry. __________ After shaking Riker‟s hand, Malek stepped onto the transporter pad. Riker tapped Steele‟s shoulder and she turned

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her wonderful eyes up to his, her smile was beaming wider than ever. He was happy. He was joyful. He was relieved. He lifted her once more with a great bear-hug and she responded in kind and with a slight giggle. He let her down gently. “Toni. You should have told me! You didn‟t even let me know you were back on duty! When were you offered one of the Cats?” Steele rubbed his arms excitedly. “Two and a half months ago. I‟m sorry I didn‟t contact you Will, I‟ve just been so busy since the transfer and the launch.” Riker looked down into her eyes and shook his head playfully. “Can you have dinner with me at SB 214?” he asked hopefully. She nodded. “Absolutely. The night we arrive at SB 214, you‟re on my calendar. We have a lot to talk about.” He grinned and hugged her tightly once more. “Great. I‟ll see you then.” He watched her step up to the platform and take a position alongside her XO. “Energize,” he commanded to the chief, whose hands moved across the panel causing the blue, glistening transporter beam to dissolve their views. His smile still patent across his face, Riker left the transporter room and made headway back to the bridge.

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INTERLUDE I Five steps forward. Wall. Turn. Five steps back. Wall. Damned heat. Refrigeration unit my ass. Five steps forward. Wall. Turn. Five steps back. Wall. Hell hole. Sweat box. At least it‟s quiet. At least there‟s no talking. At least there‟re no damned lights. At least there‟s no screaming...

Turn. Five steps back. Door! Blast furnace! Scalding! Damned burning bugs!

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Door closed. Refrigeration unit? Ha! Food must be here somewhere. Ah! Here it is. Tastes like shit. Well…maybe not entirely – not as bad as Cardassia. At least it‟s food. At least there‟s no damned talking. At least there‟re no damned lights. Hell hole. Sweat box. Still tastes like shit. At least there‟s no screaming...

32


CHAPTER TWO

Stardate 57722.2 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E En route Starbase 214 Personal Quarters; Commander - Riker, William T. “Will!” Deanna caught his attention before he overpoured her glass of wine. He pulled the bottle back hurriedly and almost spilled some on the table. Deanna rolled her eyes in frustration.

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“I‟m sorry Deanna, I guess I‟m just preoccupied,” he admitted, setting the bottle back in the bucket resting on the table in his quarters. “I‟ll say,” she said, her annoyance evident. “What‟s gotten into you?” Riker shook his head. “A lot of things…and…nothing.” “What Will, what‟s going on?” she asked point-blank. “Ever since the Panther arrived you‟ve been on edge.” Will nodded and sighed heavily. “I‟m sorry Deanna, I can‟t say.” Deanna pressed her lips together in aggravation. “Fine. I can understand that, but you can still tell me what‟s got you all flustered. We haven‟t been able to enjoy this wonderful dinner and…” she reached out for his hand consolingly and her voice softened and lowered, “…I was really hoping we could enjoy another bath together.” Will grimaced and took her hand in his. The thought of soaking in a hot tub with her amazing body appealed to him like nothing else. The thought of having to say no to her crushed him. “I‟m sorry Deanna,” his voice weakened with his apology. “I‟ve been asked to follow up on a few matters by the captain before we get to SB 214. I‟ll have to take a rain check.” Deanna sighed heavily and shook her head and shrugged. She reached to take his hand in hers and her soft skin caressed his arm. He was losing himself in the black pools of her eyes. “That‟s a shame…maybe tomorrow night then?” she said. Oh shit! Riker grimaced then rubbed his eyes hard. “I can‟t. I‟ve already told Captain Steele I‟d meet her for dinner tomorrow night.” Deanna‟s eyebrows lifted with surprise. “Oh,” she said quietly and began to pull her hand back away from his. Riker quickly grabbed her hand back and his voice dropped in consolation, “Deanna, she‟s a very good and very old 34


friend. We were in the Academy together. I haven‟t seen her in person in a couple of years. We have a lot of catching up to do that‟s all.” He could still see her disappointment. “How come you never mentioned her?” “Well, I have on occasion,” Riker stated with some surprise. “I don‟t know why you don‟t remember. I‟ve told you about my friend Toni and that we correspond all the…” “She‟s Toni?” Deanna shook her head. “Toni from the Academy? Toni in the Nova Squad?” Riker nodded with some confusion. “Yes.” “Why was I under the impression that Toni was a man?” Riker laughed. “I have no idea Deanna, she has always been a woman.” The emphasis he placed on the word made Deanna shift in her chair. “That she is Will, and a beautiful one at that.” “Yes she is,” he admitted without shame. “You should also know that she was my first real girlfriend Deanna.” “I thought you said your first girlfriend married Paul Rice.” Riker smirked. “She did.” He shook his head and softly bit his lip with a mischievous grin. “I‟m surprised at you Dee. First you assume that Toni was a man and second you assume she would take Paul‟s last name?” Deanna burned but then sat back with intense embarrassment. “Oh.” She cringed heavily and covered her eyes and hid her face. “I‟m so sorry Will.” Riker sat forward then reached for Deanna‟s hand apologetically. “Deanna, Toni married Paul a few years after we graduated – the year I met you.” Deanna exhaled heavily in understanding and nodded. “She lost him when the Drake was destroyed,” she whispered. Riker nodded solemnly. “Yes.” Deanna settled back in her chair and smiled to him. “I guess I didn‟t realize that you and she were so close.” 35


Riker allowed a grin to break through. “Toni and I have been very close for a very long time.” “Why haven‟t you talked more about her?” she asked quietly. Riker shrugged. “I don‟t know.” He reached out for Deanna‟s face and touched her cheek softly. “I guess I didn‟t…” “Captain to Riker.” Riker closed his eyes and clicked his combadge. “Riker here, sir.” “Report to the ready room please, Number One.” Deanna smiled weakly as Riker stood. “On my way, Riker out.” He looked to Deanna with defeat. “Sorry.” He leaned forward and touched her cheek and looked deep into her eyes. “I love you, Deanna.” Deanna settled back, nodded and accepted his kiss. She could feel his sincerity and she was buoyed. “I love you too Will.” He turned and left his quarters to meet the captain. Deanna sighed heavily, picked up her glass and drew a long sip.

Stardate 55726.1 Starbase 214 Starbase Officers’ Lounge Strangely, Riker found himself wanting to reach out and touch her face as she smiled at him from across the small table in the starbase lounge. Instead, he reached across and took her hands in his. He was surprised to feel a ring on her left hand and he touched the ring softly. He pulled his hands back gently. Steele realized he had noticed her ring and she blushed slightly. “I don‟t know why I wear it Will…I think it‟s only out of habit.”

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Riker‟s head drooped a little. “You still haven‟t let go yet, that‟s why.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I don‟t know…” “It‟s only been what? Eleven years?” he asked with concern and agitation in his voice. “Paul would have wanted you to move on.” Steele frowned. “Maybe so.” She sighed once more and looked into his face and his gentle, caring expression. “I have in some ways…but…” she broke off. Riker smiled softly and took her hands back in his. “Sorry Tone. I‟m sorry.” Steele grinned and caressed his hands back. “It‟s okay. You‟re right you know. Paul would have wanted me to move on. It‟s just that every morning when I wake up, I put the ring on.” She dropped her head with a slight laugh. “God Will…I still talk to his picture,” she admitted with embarrassment. “He loved you so much. He always did everything to make you happy.” Riker let her hands go and leaned back in his chair with a smile and lightened his voice. “Something I just couldn‟t seem to concentrate on.” Steele pressed a smile. “You tried enough early on.” She let her grin widen. “You just lost interest.” “Hey.” Riker cringed. “I didn‟t lose interest. I lost my ability to concentrate on you, Zeta Squad and classes.” He chortled sharply. “Paul had it made. Gah, he could do anything – school, Nova Squad and you. He never had to make that choice.” “You made the choice that was right for you Will. You know that,” she offered. “Yeah, but…” He looked to her amazing green eyes; they always seemed so understanding. “Damn that was hard to do.” He laughed out loud again. “Then you ended up with my roommate. That was below the belt, Toni.”

37


She laughed brightly. “Don‟t blame me. Paul swept me off my feet.” “I remember the day I told him I broke it off with you.” Riker found himself swept up by the memory of Paul Rice standing in their quarters at the Academy. “He told me that day I was a fool for letting you go. He informed me that he was going to pursue you and that he had no intention of making my mistake.” Riker sighed with a grin. “Not that he was asking my permission. No…damn bastard – confident to the last. He told me he was going to marry you that day. He was always right…always.” He saw her smile fade slightly. Concerned, he leaned and took her hands into his again. “I miss him too. I miss him every day. I still feel like maybe things would be different if I had…” “Don‟t Will. Don‟t even say it,” she barked. “Paul and the others died because of a device created by a people who let hate control them. It ended up decimating them as well. You and the others from the Enterprise were able to find it and destroy it before any others could be hurt. You needed to be there.” Riker saw her quickly wipe away a single tear as it dropped quickly from her eye. Steele shifted in her chair and her smile returned. “I see that the baby face is back,” she wisecracked. “I‟m not sure I can get used to it Will. I liked the beard.” Steele could see that her comment actually made Riker appear to blush and she laughed. “What is it about your first love?” Riker grinned and looked to Steele‟s joyful face across the dining table. He hoped she would understand his train of thought, but one look to the jade that returned his gaze let him know he needn‟t have worried. She shrugged playfully. “I don‟t know…a common, shared experience I guess.” “Possibly.” Riker let his eyes fall over her hair and her face and as his eyes drifted lower he caught himself, finding it 38


difficult to figure out where his thoughts were heading and he broke his gaze from her lovely face. “What‟s her name Will?” she asked and bit her bottom lip with amusement. Riker grinned and laughed. “Deanna.” He smiled. “You‟ve already met her.” “Counselor Troi?” She let forth a genuine grin. “Will, that‟s wonderful!” “I‟m glad you think so.” “I do! She‟s beautiful,” Steele said reassuringly. Riker nodded. “I met her two weeks after you and Paul got married.” Steele‟s face scowled and her brows furrowed. “Then why haven‟t I met her before now?” she said with offense. “I met her on Betazed.” He leaned back and pulled his elbow up to the arm of his chair, then rested his head on his fist and frowned. “You see Tone, I ended up making the same decision with her that I did with you. Except…she never had the benefit of knowing.” He let his own embarrassment and pain show. “You mean you never told her you were moving on?” Steele asked. “Nope.” He rubbed his eyes. “I got promoted before I could meet her on Risa and…” he cringed, “I never followed through. Then we were both assigned to the Enterprise and well…once again, I let duty get in the way.” He shifted in his seat slightly and his smile broke free once more. “We only just recently reignited the fire, so to speak.” Steele shook her head slightly. “That‟s a shame. You wasted all that time did you?” Riker‟s brows furrowed. “You should talk.” His eyes drifted to the ring on her left finger. Her cheeks brightened. “You‟re right. Sorry.”

39


Steele peered into Riker‟s eyes apologetically and he laughed in return. “Looks like we‟re both pretty good at that,” he said with his smile. “That‟s for sure,” she agreed. “I can see you love her very much.” Riker smiled gently. “I do.” “Good.” She reached to touch his hand on the table. “I look forward to getting to know her,” she said sincerely. “So tell me Will, why haven‟t you taken your own command yet? You turned down the Drake before it was offered to Paul. You were offered the Aries. You were offered the Melbourne…” “I like the Enterprise,” he said bluntly. “This is home for now.” Steele shrugged. “I just never saw you as the type that would settle Will. You were determined to make captain before you turned thirty five and you would have if you had taken the Drake.” “Why does everyone think I settled? I don‟t think I settled at all…being XO of the flagship?” he challenged her. “Maybe not,” she offered, “but we were certainly looking for people of your caliber when looking for commanders for the Cats. I mean, don‟t get me wrong, I understand your need to explore. Paul was the same way.” Her face contorted with obvious discomfort. “But since the Dominion War, we‟re more than just a little thin on experienced commanders. We could really use you.” “I know,” he responded. “Maybe in a couple more years.” Steele sat back in her chair, folded her arms and whistled slightly. “Boy, you did get comfortable.” He laughed. “Maybe I did.” He saw Steele shake her head with what he thought looked like disappointment. “You said that you remembered me as more of a fighter pilot.”

40


“You were always the best Will,” she confirmed. “You were the only one who could give me a run for my credits.” He let his grin split his face. “Yeah, I was.” He took a deep breath in then exhaled just as deeply. “But that side of me has vanished. The Enterprise has nurtured a different side of me, one that I like.” “Vanished? I don‟t believe that for an instant. Squelched maybe, but not gone.” “No,” he replied calmly. “Well, maybe it‟s not entirely gone but that side of me has changed.” Steele reached for the hair at the top of his forehead and softly pushed back at his stubborn cow-lick. “You grew up.” She let her hand draw down the side of his face. “Maturity suits you. I like it.” “Good.” He sipped his wine. “By the way Antoinette, you need to know, you haven‟t aged a day. You‟re still incredibly beautiful.” “Thank you.” She dropped her head slightly. “That‟s nice to hear coming from you.” Riker leaned back in his chair and his eyes washed over her again. “So tell me, Captain, what‟s a nice girl like you doing commanding a brute like the Panther?” Steele‟s eyes widened with the excitement Riker had expected to see. “She is a brute isn‟t she?” She almost giggled with glee. “Ah Will, she‟s amazing! I‟ve never felt so a part of a ship before.” Riker laughed out loud. “Now you know how I feel about the Enterprise.” He turned serious again. “But Toni, I have to tell you…your performance on the Yeager during the Breen raid on San Francisco…was spectacular.” Steele‟s porcelain cheeks flushed with color again and she dropped her gaze to the table-top. “That was a rough day wasn‟t it Will?”

41


He chuckled slightly with her seeming humility. “But what you did…well Captain, I‟m just glad I‟m able to say thank you…in person.” He rubbed his eyes again, softly. “When were you released for duty?” She bit her lip coyly. “About two weeks after I left Starfleet Medical.” She scrunched up her nose slightly. “They offered the Panther to me while I was still there. I got better faster after I knew I they wanted me to come back.” “Come back?!” Riker shook his head in disbelief. “I‟m surprised they didn‟t kick you straight to Admiralty,” he joked. “Seriously, you deserved the accolades and the ship. Captain Picard still talks about the Yeager‟s move and the sacrifice you made for us and the Thunderchild. I know he was thrilled to meet you and he‟s very much looking forward to your ride tomorrow.” “I am glad to hear that, but we really were just doing our job. The real sacrifice was made by others, not me. Your shields were down, so were the Thunderchild‟s. Ours were still at sixty percent and had a hell of a better chance against that spread than either of you. “I was right. I lost seven damn good people that day,” she stalled and her eyes saddened, “but if either the Enterprise or the Thunderchild had taken those torpedoes, the losses would have been much, much greater,” she stated with authority. “You would have done the same and so would‟ve Picard. I know it.” She patted his hand on the table. “By the way Will, it‟s nice that I can finally thank you in person for your transmissions while I was in recovery. They helped a lot.” “I just wish I could have visited you in person,” he said sadly. “I was really worried about you.” “I know. The doctor told me you contacted him every day to check on my progress. When I came out of the coma and realized that I had missed three weeks of my life…the fact I could hear all about it from you made it very special.” 42


“Well, how else were you going to catch up on things?” He grinned and leaned forward across the table once more. “Will…” Her eyes, still smiling, caught a softer glow. “Just…thanks.” “You‟re welcome Antoinette.”

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44


INTERLUDE II

Hell Hole. Sweat Box. Okay. Evening exercises are done. Evening shit bars have been eaten. Drank my water, relieved myself in the toilet. Time to recite. Keep my mind sharp. I promised her Iâ€&#x;d remember. Time to recite. So tired‌

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No! Keep the mind clear! It‟s time to recite! Okay. Allakaket. Bettles. Chalkyitsik. Diomede. Eklutna. False Pass. Galena. Huslia… What?! Movement?! The box! The box moved! They‟re moving me! No! Where? Where are they moving me? I can‟t go back! I can‟t! You can. You can beat them. Just remember… There are always four. Never forget. There are always four. …Always.

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CHAPTER THREE

Stardate 55724.9 Cardassia Prime Culat Province Temporary Office of the Minister of Security “I see that one of the new patrol ships has broken away from our border and has met with the Enterprise. Only time will tell, I think,” said Cacet as he took the seat behind his desk. “Yes Gul,” replied Prethet. “We lost them on long-range scans but our intelligence reports have been reliable and they believe they are both heading towards their Starbase 214.”

47


“214?” he asked with some surprise, but then smiled weakly. “Good. Close. It will allow better monitoring. “Yes Gul,” confirmed Prethet. “Continue to report. I want to know every move they make, understood?” “Yes Gul.” “Fine. Dismissed.”

Stardate 55724.9 Starbase 214 Holosuite Atrium Well at least there‟s a silver lining to this cloud. A good ride is just the thing I need to help me get my mind off this damned detour! Picard moved down the corridor of the Starbase towards the holosuites. The heels of his riding boots scuffed the carpet slightly and he carried his English saddle tucked at his side. I think I‟ll increase the spirit level of the horse today. Hopefully Captain Steele is experienced enough to keep up! He followed the bend in the corridor and smiled as the area to the holosuite gallery opened into a beautiful green and white-lit atrium. He was immediately approached by a portly Bolian woman in a vibrant blue dress that matched her skin tone perfectly. Picard was struck by how odd it made the woman appear – as though she had layers of strange, thin skin that flowed from her shoulders and hung to the floor. She smiled brightly when she saw his saddle. “Captain Picard, I presume?” she asked. He nodded graciously. “I am, Madam.” 48


“Captain Steele has contacted us to ask you to forgive her tardiness. She should be here momentar…” Her eyes brightened and she gazed behind Picard‟s position. “Ah, not too late at all, here she is!” Picard turned quickly and was immediately taken by her as she approached. Her pitch-hued hair was pulled back loosely into a soft French-braided rope which rested over her shoulder. Her riding britches outlined what Picard now realized was a remarkably athletic and amazing figure. He freed his smile when he saw that she carried an English saddle at her side. When Steele recognized Picard carried his own, she laughed gratefully. “And here I thought I‟d be made fun of for bringing my own saddle!” Picard shook his head fiercely and extended his hand. “Absolutely not Captain!” he said as he took her hand in his. Her skin seemed softer than it had the day before, or had he just noticed it differently? “It‟s Toni, remember?” she chided. “Of course.” He grinned and found his mood lightening already. His disappointment over yet another delay to go exploring was beginning to fade slightly as he allowed himself to feel the excitement about the forthcoming ride. “Shall we?” “By all means.” They followed the Bolian woman who led them to a holosuite on the third level of the atrium. She left them at the door and Picard approached the command panel and turned to his counterpart. “Do you have a preference?” he asked. “Or may I be allowed to choose a suitable venue?” Steele grinned. “Will told me you have a preference for the French countryside. I was hoping to take in some of views of Burgundy.” Picard‟s heart fluttered with his satisfaction. “Excellent! What level and type of horse may I request for you?” 49


“Mmmm, Thoroughbred stallion. Something in a nice shade of brown. Level ten I think.” “Ten?” he responded with great enthusiasm. “Good. I was hoping for a robust partner today! Computer – Terran horse riding program, France fourteen.” “Select time of day, season and temperature,” the computer‟s voice responded. “Mid-day, early summer, twenty three point five degrees Celsius.” He smiled as Steele nodded her agreement. “Number of horses,” the computer inquired once more. “Two stallions. The first, a liver-chestnut Thoroughbred. The second, a dapple-grey Arabian. Both level ten. Standard English tack minus saddles.” A confirming tone chirped and Picard escorted his companion into the suite when the program was complete and the doors hissed open. He was overcome with the smell of oak, maple and some pine as well as the earthy-loamy scents he remembered from his youth. He breathed in deeply as they walked to two horses tethered to a fence post on the summit of a grass-coated limestone hill that gently led down towards a slow-moving river. They began to saddle the horses immediately. “Alésia,” Steele stated. “It‟s magnificent Jean-Luc. There‟s a great section that‟s perfect for some mid-level jumping off to the east there correct?” “You‟re familiar with La Bourgogne?!” he asked with some surprise. “Oui.” She smiled. “My grandmother rode here for several competitions.” “Le Grand Prix d‟Alise-Sainte-Reine?” he asked. “Your grandmother competed?” “And won…twice.” She grinned mischievously.

50


Picard‟s face contorted then he loosed an audible gasp. “Wait a minute…only one person has ever won that competition twice. Your grandmother was Gabrielle L‟Nui?” “Oui.” She giggled as she pulled the cinch of the saddle tight around her horse‟s midsection. She shook the saddle hard to assure its sturdy hold. Picard‟s eyes widened once more. “That means you‟re….you‟re Ambassador D‟Nera‟s granddaughter?” “I am.” Steele smiled but then her face filled with confusion. “But you couldn‟t have known him Jean-Luc – you‟re far too young.” Picard smiled. “Nice to know I‟m too young for some things Ton…I‟m sorry. I just can‟t seem to make Toni work. Antoinette. It suits you more I think. You don‟t mind do you?” Steele smiled gently. “Of course not.” He laughed and pulled hard on a leather strap, dropping the stirrup on his saddle to his preferred level. He stood to look at Steele as she deftly mounted her horse. He continued on his original train of thought, “However my parents did know Ambassador D‟Nera.” He stopped briefly as his memories of his mother flew forward. “My maman used to speak of him frequently…” He laughed out loud. “…much to my father‟s dismay I must add!” Steele began to giggle again. “Yes, well Deltans have always had that problem with humans I‟m afraid.” “I seem to recall that your grandfather caused quite a stir with the Deltan government when he decided to remain on Earth and marry a human.” Picard stated. Steele nodded briskly. “They never really forgave him. Deltans still find interspecies mating a taboo. When my grandmother got pregnant with my mother and they moved to North America, the Deltan side of the family refused to contact him. I still haven‟t met any of my Deltan relatives.” Steele sighed then let her sigh roll into a laugh. “How my grandmother 51


survived, not only being a human mate of a full-blooded Deltan, but having to beat off the constant competition, I will never know!” Picard laughed heartily. “I can only imagine!” He mounted his horse and looked at her eye-to-eye. “It now explains your incredible beauty.” Steele smiled brightly. “Why thank you Jean-Luc. I have to say, you are a very handsome man. With that beautiful bald head you could be easily mistaken for a Deltan yourself!” She picked up the reins in her hand and leaned towards him. Her eyes squinted with an impish glare. “First one to the statue of Vercingétorix buys!” Picard burst with laughter. Kicking their horses, they rode hard along the sturdy limestone hills that lined the river. __________ “Pardon me for intruding and please tell me if I‟m being too forward, but I didn‟t realize that you and Will Riker were so close.” Picard looked to her lovely green eyes as he sipped on a glass of wine. Steele smiled happily as she finished chewing a piece of baguette. “Well, I guess he‟s like me. We‟ve been close since the Academy, Jean-Luc. We dated for almost two years but final year did us in. For some reason, we‟re the kind of friends that talk just to each other. It‟s not that we keep our friendship a secret, but we don‟t really announce it either.” Picard nodded with appreciation. “I understand. I have many friends that roam outside my inner circle.” “Exactly,” she agreed. “It does however help explain Will‟s reaction to the Yeager‟s plight during the Breen raid.”

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“How so?” A quick expression of confusion crossed her face. “We‟d been in many battles before, but he had never referred to the casualty lists before with such fervor. I must have caught him reading the Yeager‟s list at least a dozen times at the XO console. Now I understand why.” Steele rubbed her eyes softly with her hand and nodded. Picard cleared his throat. “Antoinette, I can only say thank you and hope that you can appreciate the level of gratitude…” “Stop Jean-Luc.” She raised her hand to cut him off. Blushing, she sat back in her seat, bringing her wine to her lips and taking a sip. “If it helps, you are very, very welcome, but there really is no further reason to thank me. My crew and I did what was necessary and that‟s all. I told Will last night that I knew that both you and he would have done the same.” Picard smiled and dropped his head reverently. She was right. He would have. He wouldn‟t have flinched and if he were presented with the same situation, he would have moved the Enterprise in to take those torpedoes just like she had. It was the right decision. “Fine, Captain.” “Good.” She smiled and brought her wine to her lips once more. This time Picard caught sight of the band on her finger. She set her glass down on the table and caught his eyes. “I see Will hasn‟t told you that either.” Picard shook his head. “No. I didn‟t know you were married.” He allowed a strange and unexpected quality of disappointment to affect his voice. “Why Jean-Luc…” Steele coyly pulled her head back. Picard‟s words stumbled out, “Sorry Antoinette. It‟s just that...” he blew out slightly, “…if I were twenty years younger….” “My...” She seemed genuinely taken with his compliment. “Thank you very much. I can only say if only I 53


were twenty years…” She grimaced sharply and shook her head. “That doesn‟t sound the same as what I mean.” She hid her face behind one of her hands. Picard chuckled and relaxed a bit. “Don‟t worry, I will take that as a compliment as well then.” “Good.” She smiled. “Any children?” he asked, pulling a piece of bread from the loaf and resting it back on the table in the café. “No.” She shifted quietly. “You see…I‟m widowed, Jean-Luc. Eleven years ago. Captain Paul Rice was my husband.” Picard sat forward and widened his eyes with recognition. “The Drake…” he whispered. “Yes,” she answered, as lightly as possible. “Will chastised me last night for continuing to wear the ring. I think he was right.” He brushed her comment aside. “Captain Rice was a fine officer, Antoinette. The Drake‟s and Captain Rice‟s loss were a blow to the Federation.” She smiled gently and sipped her wine once more. “Yes. He was a very good man.” She sighed slightly then forced herself to smile brightly. “But, enough of that. I wanted to get to know you a little better. The famous Jean-Luc Picard!” “What would you like to know?” He grinned and leaned into the table. The two remained at the table talking for hours.

Stardate 55724.9 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E Starbase 214 Mooring Bay Delta

54


“No Deanna, I can‟t. Geordi and I are meeting for dinner later.” Doctor Beverly Crusher answered her friend as they walked side by side through the mooring bay doors to the Enterprise. They were laden with packages from what was apparent to anyone had been a long day shopping. “You‟re welcome to join us but aren‟t you and Will having dinner?” she asked. Deanna was frustrated. “I haven‟t seen him since yesterday Bev. I have no idea where he might be or if he has other plans.” “I thought you said you don‟t get jealous.” Beverly smirked. Deanna smiled and wasn‟t going to take the bait. “I don‟t Beverly. Really. Captain Steele is just a close friend of Will‟s that‟s all. I know he loves me.” “You sound like you‟re trying to convince yourself,” said Beverly as she tried to readjust the armloads of merchandise she bore. “I do not!” Deanna retorted. “Deanna! There you are!” Riker‟s voice came distantly down the corridor from inside the ship. He appeared quickly from around the corner. Deanna was unable to control her gleaming smile. “Will! Can you help us please?” she asked, already beginning to unload some of her bags into his assisting arms. Riker laughed heartily. “Leave you two alone for a day on a Starbase….” “Excuse me, Commander.” Beverly warned with her voice. “Deanna and I haven‟t been shopping since long before Ba‟ku. We were actually overdue.” “Whatever you say, Doctor.” He began to relieve her of a few of her bags when he noticed the captain walking through the main atrium of the mooring bay corridor.

55


The other two, having noticed Will‟s attention being caught, turned to look as well. Picard and Steele were walking blithely side by side, carrying their respective saddles, wide smiles apparent on both of their faces. They stopped together at the mooring bay door for the Enterprise when Picard quickly turned and kissed Steele once on each of her cheeks. Steele returned the affection with a quick kiss on his lips then turned to walk towards the Panther‟s mooring bay. Picard stepped inside the Enterprise. He noticed Will and his two companions and greeted them brightly as he walked by. His voice was light and happy. “Hello Beverly, Deanna, Will!” He smiled. “Remarkable day! I have to say!” Dumbfounded, the three watched Picard as he turned into the corridor of the Enterprise. It was only then they heard him begin to whistle brightly as he walked away. Deanna smiled happily as she looked to Beverly‟s confused face. “Now…what were you just saying Beverly?” She giggled, only too happy to return the dig. Beverly scowled. “Nothing. Come on,” she snapped back. Will peered down the corridor to where Picard and Steele had departed from one another then back towards the corridor where Picard had walked away whistling. He let loose a wide smile and looked to Deanna where his smile was met with enthusiasm. She reached up quickly to kiss him lightly and began to whistle as she walked deeper into the ship. Will laughed quietly and rolled his eyes. “Toni…” he said to no one other than himself.

Stardate 55727.8 Starbase 214 Holosuite 12

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“His name is Nate Hunter.” She grinned and reined her horse down the rocky trail towards the grove of tall trees. The dry, crisp air floated through her dark hair which fluttered back in large wisps as her horse stepped agilely though the scrub and juniper. “I don‟t believe I‟ve had the pleasure.” Picard stated, allowing his horse to follow Steele‟s down the terrain. “And it will be. He‟s an amazing officer. He was Jellico‟s XO on the Cairo until Jellico was promoted. Not too long after that, he was offered his own command of the Firebird,” she clarified. “He graduated three years before Will and me.” “The Firebird…ah. He remained under Jellico‟s command then, in a different fleet. That‟s why I don‟t know him.” She nodded her understanding and moved her horse into the sandier soil along the river‟s edge. They entered the deep grove of cottonwood trees that lined the edges of the river. Their leaves were an intense shade of yellow and flicked and quivered vibrantly in the breeze. In the remote distance large sandhill cranes waded in the shallow river waters by the thousands, their shrill and quivering calls still easily heard. Over the noise of the birds, Steele could still hear Picard take in a deep and refreshing breath. “You know, I‟ve never seen such unusual and beautiful country before. It‟s a wonder I‟ve never been to New Mexico. I should make a point of visiting when I have some time on Earth.” “I grew up about three hundred kilometers northwest of the area depicted in this program. I told you that you‟d like it. It‟s the exact opposite of France, I think. Rugged, dry and untamed…even to this day.” She slowed her horse to allow Picard to sidle along side as the trail widened along the shallow river-bed. “So what else can I tell you?”

57


“There are three others in the Panthera class correct?” he asked, now back on their original topic of discussion. “There will be a total of five. The Cougar and Puma have also been launched and the Leopard will be launched in about two months,” she replied. “Worf said he thought they were the evolution of the Defiant.” “Worf was right. These ships make the Defiant class look like mosquitoes. Their firepower and maneuverability are unmatched.” Picard‟s scowl made Steele grin and roll her eyes. “Explorers! They always grimace when the fighters talk about their ships.” Picard nodded. “We‟re just cut from a different cloth I think.” “No. I disagree, Jean-Luc. The fighters and the explorers both like to live life on the edge.” “Excuse me?” he asked her with surprise. “Oh come now, I know a lot of men and women like you. I even married one. You love the surprise of the unknown. You love the challenge and the thrill just like a fighter does. How do you face a new species? Your brain works the same way a fighter‟s does…like a tactician. What can I say? What might be offensive? How might they react? How do I not blow this?” She smiled. “Am I right?” Picard laughed. “Maybe so.” “So you see…not cut from different cloth, we make up the same cloth. We‟re all Starfleet. You like peace. I like making sure peace sticks around awhile. I like to think of myself as the one who protects your ability to go out and discover,” she replied. “Don‟t get me wrong, I have always found myself fascinated by the explorers. I find their differences illuminating and refreshing.” “The fighters always seem to find that hidden thread of excitement as well Antoinette,” he conceded. “There always 58


seems to be a light in the eyes when they talk about victory. It can be quite exhilarating…a certain Klingon attitude I might say.” Steele grinned. “You might be right.” She gazed up to the crystal blue sky through the tangled canopy of shining, yellow cottonwood. “I bet you used to go out at night, find a comfortable spot to lay back and stare at the stars and wonder what it would be like to sail and soar among them…right?” She allowed her velvet voice to waft over him. Picard‟s mood lifted. “Exactly!” he hushed excitedly. “That‟s it exactly!” She laughed quietly. “You see Jean-Luc…I never did that.” “What?” He was confused by her statement. “I would go out, especially at dusk, and stand on the edge of the mesa by our home and wait for the Earth perimeter patrol guard to fly in for the base, just so I could feel the pulse engines reverberate the air inside my chest.” Her eyes lit with excitement. “I couldn‟t wait to become a pilot. I didn‟t care where I flew. I just wanted to fly.” Picard grinned. “Same sky….” “Different views...” “Same cloth.” He nodded in comprehension and breathed in deeply once more. “What‟s planned for these Cats? They‟re extremely formidable. Having them near sectors on the edges of Federation space could appear as an aggressive stance by the UFP.” “You‟re right. The ships were developed as focused defense ships only. Our main objective will be to remain in Sectors 001 through 048 and keep on patrol. We‟ve had so many direct incursions into the heart of the Federation we want to prevent another raid like the Breen.” She smiled when she saw him concur. “But we‟re also meant to act as heavy escorts…” She grimaced. “…which is why I believe whatever the 59


Enterprise already has on board or will take on board is of grave concern.” She sighed as she slowed her horse to a stop. Picard ceased his horse alongside. “I agree…but I haven‟t received any word or any additional orders, have you? Steele shook her head. “No.” The disappointment and worry were now evident in her voice and Picard noticed it immediately. “Any suspicions?” Steele looked north along the Rio Grande and sighed once more. “Jean-Luc, I won‟t lie. I don‟t like what we might be in for.” Her eyes met his. “If it were a dignitary then they wouldn‟t have asked for a Cat to escort you. But two Cats? The Federation is expecting some kind of resistance to our passage I think.” She shifted in her saddle. “Someone doesn‟t want us to make it back to the Sol System.” “Well then, Captain.” Picard smiled to her brightly. “I am glad you‟ll be at my side.” She nodded faintly. “Likewise Jean-Luc.” She clicked her horse to a post-trot. “Lunch?” “Absolutely!” He followed in her stead.

60


INTERLUDE III

Where are they taking me? Still hot as hell. Sweat box. At least there are no damned lights. Where am I going now? Am I going back? So tired. I donâ€&#x;t want to go back.

61


I can‟t let Gul Nekrit win. I must…I must beat them. I promised. I promised her I would beat them. I don‟t want to go back. Hell hole. Never forget. There are always four. Always...

So … so tired.

62


CHAPTER FOUR

Stardate 55728.2 Starbase 214 Conference Room 127A Picard lifted his eyes to see a tall, dark-skinned and roguish human man in a Starfleet captain‟s uniform enter the room. He was thin yet muscularly built. His dark brown hair was cut short and he bore a serious scowl as he scanned the conference room. When his gaze fell upon Picard and Steele he let loose a relieved smile. “Nate...” Steele stepped forward, extending her hand and he pushed it aside to take her fully into his arms to hug her. Picard couldn‟t help but smile faintly. Steele just seemed to have that effect on people.

63


“Toni…” He looked into her eyes directly. “What the hell is going on, do you know?” She shook her head softly then stepped back, allowing him to step forward towards Picard. “Captain Nathaniel Hunter, this is Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of…” “Toni, I know who he is,” he admonished her with a smile. Hunter immediately moved forward to extend his hand to Picard. “Captain Picard, may I say it‟s an honor to finally meet you.” “Captain Hunter,” Picard responded and shook his hand, “a pleasure as well.” Hunter walked around the room, looking out toward his new ship, moored alongside the ships of his counterparts. “I received a hand-delivered message to meet you here. It took us well over two weeks to get here. What‟s this about?” “We don‟t know Captain,” responded Picard. “Captain Steele and I have gone over many possibilities…but no probabilities.” “We also received hand delivered orders.” Steele clarified, taking a seat at the table in the large conference room. She watched her friend pace the room briskly. She smiled and turned to Picard. “Don‟t worry Jean-Luc, Nate‟s a pacer. I wouldn‟t be surprised to hear that a wear pattern‟s already emerging in the carpet in Jag‟s ready room.” Hunter lifted his head to shoot her an unappreciative smirk and she smiled in return. “Well Nathaniel? Am I wrong?” “Maybe not,” he surrendered. Picard nodded with a soft smile as he took a seat at the conference table in the room they were ordered to appear. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair. He hated this. He hated not knowing what was going on. He hated the secrecy – secrets always, always led to danger. He inhaled through his nose and drew his hands tiredly across his head. 64


He just wanted to go see the birth of a new star. Was that too much to ask after everything he and the crew had been through? After the nightmare the Ba‟ku trip had turned into; after the Breen bloodied the Federation‟s nose by hitting its heart; after the super-battle at Cardassia Prime that ended the Dominion War…he just wanted a little peace. Really. Just a little. He sighed heavily once more and with it he realized just how tired he had become. He was tired of all of it. Suddenly retirement sounded pleasing. The thought was strange enough, but what frightened him was the fact that he found himself taken, however briefly, by the idea. Hang it all and move back to Ba‟ku. Live a slow and peaceful life. Allow myself the joy of becoming a master at the flute? Visions of that potential life skimmed over the here and now and he surprised himself once more by realizing that life on Ba‟ku was everything he didn‟t want. He allowed himself the ironic smile and opened his eyes. He peered out the window and was struck immediately by the sight of a spearhead-shaped frigate as it moored at an empty berth on the opposite side of the crescent-shaped station. His heart began to beat heavily in his chest. Picard stood and moved to the windows to get a closer look. “Tholians…” he whispered uncontrollably and with deepseeded concern. “What are they doing here?” Hunter spun in his spot and bolted to join Picard at the windows as Steele stood slowly to see for herself. “I have a bad feeling about this Picard,” said Hunter. “Look…over there…in the distance.” He pointed to the area just beyond the frigate. Picard and Steele both gazed beyond the mooring point where the frigate was arriving. In the distance they could see two enormous, burnt-red and silver Tholian battle cruisers waiting in obvious defensive positions. 65


Steele swallowed hard and looked to Picard. “I feel like I should be on the bridge,” she murmured. “Enterprise to Picard…” Picard‟s combadge chirped. “Jaguar to Hunter…” “Panther to Steele…” The three captains all smiled briefly to one another, knowing their respective crews had appropriately gone on alert. All three answered their calls and had their crews stand by. Picard addressed his counterparts, “They‟re delivering our package, don‟t you think?” His expression demonstrated the tension and annoyance he was feeling. “What could we possibly want from the Tholian Assembly?” “A very valuable asset Jean-Luc,” said a baritone male voice from behind them. Picard spun in place to see Admiral Edward Jellico standing stoically in the doorway. His eyes appeared tired and drawn. His already gray hair had thinned significantly since Picard had last seen him, and he thought Jellico looked old. Picard was relieved that he never took promotion to Admiral. The stress obviously made those in the position more than a little worse for wear. Jellico walked in to allow the door to close and he greeted Steele and Hunter with his eyes. “An asset Admiral? From the Tholians?” Picard asked in hushed and angry tone. “What is going on here?!” “Captain,” he responded to him in with no urgency in his voice, he merely sounded annoyed by Picard‟s vehemence, “Admiral Grayson and Ambassador Riva have worked tirelessly on a prisoner exchange with the Tholian Assembly. It‟s being carried out in mooring bay twelve as we speak.” “Prisoner exchange?” Picard gasped. “How many?” “Twelve Tholians for one former Federation citizen.” Jellico replied. He moved closer and joined them at the windows and peered over to the strange vessel at mooring bay twelve. “Former?” inquired Hunter. 66


“Yes,” he stated bluntly. “However, we believe he may be the one person to provide a key in assuring a new and stable government for Cardassia.” “What?” asked Steele. “Since the end of the Dominion War there‟s been anything but stability! It‟s practically a civil war! The old regime still pulls weight and the war criminals roam freely!” “We believe this prisoner can help. His testimony in the multi-government tribunals can finally help put the last remaining Dominion and Cardassian war criminals behind force-fields forever.” Picard‟s face contorted with his concern. “How?” he asked in a hushed voice. “To our knowledge there were no surviving witnesses to the massacres of Maquis and the Cardassian rebels at the Hutet camp on Cardassia IV. The only surviving Cardassian rebellion members were on Cardassia Prime and Lazon II.” Jellico‟s eyes closed and his head nod was almost imperceptible. “This man survived Jean-Luc…he is the last surviving witness to the Cardassian and Dominion war-crimes at Hutet.” He sighed. “Now the trick will be to get him to agree to testify at all. It is a job I‟m hoping you can help with.” “Why wouldn‟t he testify if it meant putting those responsible for the atrocities away?” Picard asked urgently. “As you can imagine Jean-Luc, being at the mercy of the Cardassians, he‟ll have little fondness for any Cardassian, rebel or not. Testifying to help any of them would be distasteful to him. But let me assure you this man has no love lost for the Federation either. Eliciting his cooperation will be difficult at best.” Jellico responded. The door to the room opened and two armed guards walked in. They both looked very uncomfortable and those in the room were immediately struck by a strong, offensive odor and instantly understood the guards‟ disgust. 67


Each guard held the upper arm of a very tall yet slumped, shabby and soiled human male. Binders held his hands behind his back and electronic leg-bands were wrapped around his calves and thighs. Picard knew that if he attempted to run they would be triggered causing the motor function in his legs to fail. Yet Picard was struck by his weakened state and believed even if he did run, his lack of strength wouldn‟t allow him to get very far. His thinning dark hair was fraying, dirty and matted. His face was covered in a long, scruffy and filthy beard. Any portions of his face that were free from hair were covered with jagged and ruddy scars. He was clad in soiled, shredded and tattered clothing which revealed large portions of his grimy chest and arms beneath. Picard could tell he was covered in a freeform jumble of thick scars, burn marks and deep wounds. Picard was unable to control the deepening of his frown of revulsion when he recognized the lump of an implanted Cardassian pain control device under the man‟s skin near his clavicle. Picard noticed that many of the wounds were very fresh and he turned his eyes away from the sight only to let them rest on the man‟s gaunt face. The man‟s bright blue eyes glared absently back at him. Picard drew in a deep breath of shock. He heard Steele do the same. The man‟s gaze slipped away from Picard and fell upon Steele. His vacant and empty stare slowly surrendered to softened bewilderment, confusion and awe. His voice could only allow a whisper filled with disbelief. “Tone?” Steele‟s brows furrowed, her face filled with uncertainty and puzzlement and she turned quickly to question Picard. “Will?” Picard moved his hand slowly and reached to touch Steele‟s hand. He shook his head gently. “No Antoinette...” he dropped his voice with concern, shock and anger, “…it‟s Thomas…it‟s Thomas Riker.” 68


Steele‟s cheeks drooped in astonishment and her eyes widened with comprehension and she turned back to the face the shackled man. “Tone…?” he whispered again. His eyes began to roll back in his head and he weakened in his stance. The guards moved to support him generously. Picard filled with rage and he moved in on Jellico. “This man needs a physician Admiral! Not shackles!” “We can‟t take the chance Picard. He‟s still a terrorist! We need to get him debriefed then placed on board the Enterprise!” Jellico retorted loudly. “Well dammit, debrief him later! Let‟s get him to the ship!” He turned to the weakened man in front of him and he lowered his voice. “Thomas. We‟re going to be taking you to the Enterprise immediately.” Riker nodded his head weakly but his eyes were pulled back to look at Steele with the same expression of disbelief and utter confusion. “Tone?” Steele merely replied with her own expression of awe, bewilderment and sadness. “Will?” she uttered, almost imperceptibly. “Picard! We need to debrief him first!” Jellico attempted to interject. Without even acknowledging Jellico, Picard clicked his combadge and moved towards Riker and his two guards. “Picard to Enterprise! Four to beam directly to sick-bay! Have Worf meet me there!” He spun on Jellico and glared at him. “Of all people…” Picard grunted then turned quickly to Steele. “Meet us there Antoinette.” Still in shock, she concurred with a nod and stepped back, her eyes still locked onto the face that she thought she knew so well.

69


“Picard! I order you to…!” Jellico roared but to no avail as the shimmering blue light dissipated Picard, the guards and Thomas Riker. Steele turned on Jellico whose face had brightened into a flaming shade of red from his anger. “Admiral…” her voice choked from her horror and alarm, “…how could you?” Her eyes met those of her counterpart and she could see Hunter‟s own disbelief that Jellico put interrogation before medical need. “How could you? I don‟t care if he is a terrorist. To bring him here first was wrong!” she barked. “You knew he would be…” She caught her fury in her throat, “…you knew!” Steele faced Hunter. “Meet me on the Enterprise Captain.” She shot Jellico a parting glare and ran out into the corridor, the door closing behind her. Hunter stood bolt upright in front of his former CO. Jellico‟s fury mounted and he flared at Hunter. “Captain! I suggest that you…” “Admiral Jellico!” Hunter cut him off, “I‟ll be meeting my counterparts on the Enterprise and we will meet you there. If you think that you can get me to approve of that last move…” he growled, “…you are sorely mistaken. I‟m with both Picard and Steele on this one!” “Captain Hunter, I order you to…” “Oh go to hell Ed!” Hunter barked. “You blew this! Report all three of us if you want but you‟d be a fool and you know it! You‟d better pray he even survives the transport! If you want anything from Riker now, you‟re going to have to go to the Enterprise to get it, which is where I will be – waiting to find out what kind of madness you and Grayson have in store for us!” He shook his head with anger. “Nate…” Jellico offered with a bartering tone. Hunter huffed loudly and walked out of the room to make headway for the Enterprise.

70


Stardate 55728.2 Starbase 214 Mooring Pylon Delta USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E Sickbay “Get those binders off of him!” demanded Doctor Crusher and the guards, too wary of the situation, seemed hesitant to comply with any order that may free their prisoner. At that moment, Worf bound into sickbay. Picard approached him hurriedly. “Worf, Thomas Riker is in custody but requires immediate medical attention. Please assure these guards that they may remove the restraints!” Worf towered over them and all it took was one look from the great Klingon and the two guards released Riker‟s hands. They simply fell forward and hung limply at his sides. “Thank you.” Beverly let her frustration out with her voice as she moved to assist Thomas. “Alyssa! Help me get him to the sonic room, he must be cleaned before I can do anything to remove these implants!” she ordered. Nurse Alyssa Ogawa moved immediately to Thomas‟ other side and they began to walk with him towards the rear of the medical facility. Worf looked to the guards once more and they moved in to assist but also to assure he would not bolt. Worf‟s look of approval was met with satisfaction by both of them. “Thomas Riker sir?” Worf asked Picard quietly. “How did he survive? He was sentenced to life in the Cardassian labor camps on Lazon II after he helped negotiate the release of the Defiant and the rest of the Maquis hijackers.” “Yes Mister Worf.” Picard‟s stomach lurched. “He has apparently spent quite some time in Tholian custody as well.”

71


“Tholian?” Worf murmured then lifted his head with understanding. “That‟s why the ships were here.” “Yes Mister Worf,” Picard verified. “Prisoner exchange. This is still highly confidential Worf – I don‟t want this news to get out.” He watched Beverly and Alyssa move Thomas towards the cleaning room then clicked his combadge. “Captain to Commander Riker.” “Riker here sir.” “Please report to sickbay and bring Counselor Troi with you.” “Aye sir.” He clicked once more. “Commander Data. Please assure that Captains Steele and Hunter along with Admiral Jellico are allowed on board.” “Captain Steele has already arrived Captain. She is on her way to sickbay. I will make sure the other two are greeted.” Data replied. “Thank you Data. Please escort Admiral Jellico and Captain Hunter to the observation lounge. I don‟t want it too crowded in here. Tell them I will meet them shortly.” “Aye sir.” Steele arrived in sick-bay first. She moved directly to Picard. Her look of shock had not worn off. “Thomas Riker?” she questioned. “I can‟t believe…I can‟t…” She shook her head then glimpsed the rear of the facility where she saw Crusher and Ogawa working furiously over Thomas as he laid on a biobed. The two guards and Worf remained close by. Thomas was significantly cleaner. The stench he had carried with him was gone, wiped clean by the sterilization process he had undergone. His beard was still long, but it was no longer matted or filled with debris. She moved towards the foot of the biobed but held back a slight distance, fascinated and horrorstruck by his mutilated appearance. He looks just like him! Of course he does Toni! He 72


IS Will! Will with scars… Will in pain. This Will also knows me, but this Will hasn‟t seen me since my wedding. This Will has been a member of the Maquis. This Will has been a terrorist. He has also been a hero to some. Her sorrow kicked in and she looked again to his face, his sunken eyes made him look decades older than she knew he was. What have they done to him? How did he survive? A tear fell from her eye and she watched the doctor anesthetize him so she could begin the process of removing the cruel devices implanted in his chest. The doctor turned to her and Steele could see Crusher‟s revulsion and unbridled fury. “They kept him alive on purpose, just so they could continue to torture him! There is a device which lets the torturers know when death is near just so they could stop in time to begin again later.” Steele brought her shaking hand up to her mouth in dismay; her eyes fell back upon the familiar bearded face that now looked almost peaceful under the influence of the anesthesia. The doors to sickbay slid open and Riker and Troi walked in. Picard held up his hand and drew them both to one side. “Will, Deanna…the Federation has just made a prisoner exchange with the Tholian Assembly. We‟ll be bringing the prisoner back to the Sol System where we are hoping he will be willing to provide eye-witness testimony against those involved in the Hutet massacre.” “Eye-witness?” Riker asked in astonishment. “The Tholians?” Deanna questioned and let a concerned scowl cross her face. “How did he get there if he was a Cardassian prisoner?” Picard shook his head seriously. “I don‟t know…but Will, Deanna – there‟s more.” He tried to prepare them with his voice but knew it was a pathetic attempt. “It‟s Thomas Riker.” 73


Riker couldn‟t hide his surprise or incomprehension. Picard noticed Troi grab Riker‟s hand at his side. His heart racing, Riker moved his eyes to the body on the biobed in the distance surrounded by Crusher, Ogawa, Worf and the guards. He could see Steele watching Crusher‟s frantic movements from a short distance. He could only make out glimpses of his double, a duplicate of himself created by a freak transporter accident on Nervala IV. The planet‟s atmosphere contained a tumultuous distortion field that made transportation extremely risky. A dual confinement beam was utilized in order to assure Riker‟s safe return from the planet‟s surface and after a very rough go, Riker rematerialized on board his ship the USS Potemkin. But, unknown to anyone on board, the secondary confinement beam had actually reflected off the underside of the planet‟s distortion field and back onto its surface, rematerializing another William T. Riker. That Will Riker spent eight lonely years stranded on the planet while the other moved onward an upward in Starfleet. That Will Riker was rescued by the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, in whose crew his double served as her First Officer. That Will Riker had chosen to call himself by his middle name, Thomas, just so he could be distinguished from himself. Will shook his head, trying to disperse his lapse of comprehension. “Thomas…?” he whispered. “How did he? How could he have?” Riker had trouble even forming the words. “You mean to tell me he survived the massacre at Hutet?” “He survived Will,” Picard clarified. “I don‟t know how. He just did.” “But I thought he ended up in the labor camps on Lazon II not Hutet.” Deanna inquired. Picard nodded. “There was a rumor he had escaped the camp on Lazon II and was recaptured. It‟s possible they moved 74


him to Hutet to avoid another escape attempt. Admiral Grayson and Ambassador Riva have just gone to great lengths for his return. They must have reliable information that leads them to believe Thomas was at Hutet at the time of the massacre.” Picard turned his head toward the patient again and looked upon him sympathetically. “He‟s been severely tortured and needs medical treatment.” Picard‟s tired and saddened gaze rested on Deanna. “He‟ll need your help Counselor.” Troi‟s face twisted with distress. Picard knew she could feel his ache as he fought the flooding memories of his own torture at the hands of the Cardassians. She moved her other hand to her Captain‟s shoulder. He acknowledged her support and continued his report, “The doctor is now removing the pain control devices that still…” Suddenly, Picard‟s attention was torn away by the percussive and stabbing sounds of Thomas screaming in pain and agony. Crusher cried for help and Picard looked up to see Crusher and Ogawa frantically trying to press Thomas back down on the biobed. Blood spewed from an open surgical laceration in his upper chest. The two were immediately assisted by the guards and they tried desperately to press down his flailing body. Thomas‟ loud and intense screams of anguish continued to fill the room. Troi cried out loudly and Picard saw her stance weaken. Riker turned to her quickly and held her tightly. Picard could tell that Deanna was overcome with sensations of Thomas‟ intense pain and emotion and her black eyes filled with tears. Confused, Riker‟s attention was ripped back across the room and his eyes widened when he saw Steele bolt from her standing position to head for the biobed. “NO TONI, DON‟T!” he yelled.

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Troi buckled from the overflow of torment and grievingly looked back to the biobed. Riker held her firmly to keep her from falling to the floor. The room was abruptly filled with the sound of shrieks of suffering from Captain Steele. As quickly as Thomas‟ emotion had overtaken her, Picard saw Troi‟s eyes take on a sense of relief and he knew her sensations of the prisoner‟s pain were washing away. Picard observed Steele‟s body buckling near the bedside, her hand tightly gripping Thomas‟ leg. Thomas quieted quickly allowing Crusher and the others to pin him back into a supine position on the bed, yet Steele‟s intense screams continued to pierce Picard‟s ears. Steele writhed with her shrieks and she dropped to her knees at the bedside, her hand never leaving Thomas‟ leg. “Toni!” Riker cried, and after assuring Troi‟s well-being, tried to move closer to the bed. “Let go…” he begged, almost quietly. “Hold him down!” Crusher commanded and she grabbed a small tool from Ogawa‟s rock-steady hand. Crusher moved in over the hole she had made in Thomas‟ chest and using the fine tool, located, secured and removed a fiber-thin trigger device implanted in the fibrous tissue near his sternum. Steele screamed once more, and so loudly Picard recoiled at the sound. In a blinding fury of surgical team precision, Crusher and Ogawa re-anesthetized their patient and he fell under its effect immediately. Steele‟s hand slipped weakly from his leg and she collapsed to the floor in a fetal position on the verge of unconsciousness. Picard followed Riker as he rushed forward. Riker bent down and lifted Steele wholly from the floor, turned and laid her upon an empty biobed. “Toni! Toni…?” He shook his head in sorrow. “Oh Tone…” Steele couldn‟t answer. 76


“It was booby-trapped!” Crusher yelled to Picard. “The original pain-control device was removed but this secondary device looks as though it was triggered remotely!” Picard‟s eyes scanned the room and fell upon Worf. “Anyone in this room?!” “No!” Crusher said as she continued to close her patient‟s surgical wound. “From much farther away – kilometers, hundreds of kilometers! It looks like a perimeter trigger.” “The Tholians,” Picard growled. He turned to look upon Steele, her body weakly responded to Riker‟s gentle persuading hands on her face. Crusher continued, “Whoever it was Captain, the device was meant to force him out of anesthesia…” Her appalled and urgent voice penetrated through the sound of Steele‟s continuing misery. “…and then kill him.” Picard moved toward the foot of the bed where Steele had been set. “What happened Number One? Will she be all right?” Riker shook his head. “I‟m not sure, sir. She just took it all…she took all of it.” He held Steele‟s face softly and her hands gripped his arms tightly. Her body shook with tremors and her face was contorted with waves of pain. “I‟ve never seen her so bad.” Picard watched Troi as she moved slowly toward Steele. He thought she looked confused. “I can‟t feel her,” she stated. “I can‟t sense anything from her…why?” Picard was going to answer her but noticed that she had reasoned it out for herself and the realization swept over her face. Troi connected her eyes to Picard then back over to Riker, whose worry and concern were etched deeply across his face. Troi‟s eyes flew wide. “She‟s Deltan!?” she questioned in shock. “Why – how did she feel the pain?”

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“Deltan?” gasped Crusher who then nodded quickly and took another tool from Ogawa‟s hands to finish closing the surgical laceration in Thomas‟ chest. “That explains it.” “Yes,” Riker responded as he caressed Steele‟s grimacing and sorrowful face. Her eyes closed tight against the tears and the pain that had yet to fade from her own body, her moans not yet beginning to weaken. “Only a quarter. Like all Deltans, she can absorb the pain of others but because she‟s mostly human, she actually feels the pain herself,” he stated as he consoled his friend, her voice now carrying soft and tortured whimpers. Picard nodded from the foot of the second biobed and looked upon Steele with sorrow and kindness. He turned to look at Crusher who was nodding her head in approval as she looked over her own patient. Ogawa was smiling broadly. “He‟ll be okay for now. I‟m going to keep him sedated for awhile.” She exhaled out heavily and with relief. “JeanLuc…if Steele hadn‟t…” she huffed, “…I wouldn‟t have been able to remove the device before it killed him.” Picard nodded with comprehension then turned back to Steele. Her whimpers had weakened slightly but the pain and agony still contorted her features. He exhaled deeply and looked to Riker whose hands still held Steele‟s tormented face. Picard touched Troi‟s arm briefly. “Counselor, stay with her and Thomas please. And make sure she‟s looked over by Beverly. I will be meeting with the Admiral in the observation lounge. Commander? I want you with me.” Riker looked to Picard pleadingly but quickly settled himself and nodded in agreement. He turned to capture Steele‟s eyes directly. “Toni. I‟ll be right back okay?” he reassured her. “Captain…” Steele croaked feebly in a shuddered voice. “Get Malek…” Understanding her request, Picard stepped forward. “We‟ll have Malek join us for the briefing Captain.” 78


“I‟d go…” Steele winced sharply and let out a loud whimper. “…but doubt...I‟d be useful.” Picard smiled and noted her attempt to be humorous. “No indeed, Antoinette.” He looked to Riker. “Commander?” Riker eased himself away from her and stole a good-hard look in Thomas‟ direction. He nodded to his CO and followed him out of sick-bay. Deanna moved in quickly to take Steele‟s trembling hand. Steele took it gratefully and held it tight, tears beginning to stream down her face. “Thanks Counselor,” she whined. Deanna nodded softly in return. “Captain.” Deanna spoke softly, “I should be thanking you. When you took his pain, you stopped me from having to experience his emotions.” Steele‟s expression revealed her understanding of Deanna‟s predicament and she nodded once. “Glad I…could help.” She tried to smile. Deanna grinned brightly and held the captain‟s hand as she tackled her remaining misery. Troi slowly turned her head to look toward the shell of the man stretched out on the biobed next to them. It was the first time Deanna had a clear view of him and she let out a cry of shock when she appreciated the cacophony of scars that were scattered across his mutilated figure. She felt Steele‟s hand tighten once more and she looked to the emerald green eyes that seemed to understand so well. Deanna‟s fury swelled and she looked back to Steele. “I don‟t care what he did,” Troi growled. “No one deserves that.” Steele let another whimper out. “They wouldn‟t…let him die Deanna.” Deanna took Steele‟s other hand and the two shared their horror and anger together. __________

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“Data contact the Panther and have Commander Malek transport over and meet us in the Observation Lounge.” Picard ordered over his combadge as he and Riker walked toward the turbolift. The door slid shut. “Bridge.” “Aye sir,” Data replied. Picard looked to his First who understandably looked confused and overwhelmed. The last time Riker had laid eyes on his double was the first time they had met. His head must be swimming! Picard knew he had to have him refocus but wasn‟t sure how he could help him. “Number One…” “Yes sir,” he answered, but Picard could tell it was an automatic response because Riker never lifted his eyes from the floor of the turbolift. “He‟s not you. You‟re two completely different men.” He tried to reassure him. Riker allowed a small grin and stroked his absent beard. “Believe it or not, that‟s not what I was thinking about Captain.” Picard cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?” Riker leaned back against the wall of the turbolift as it shifted directions, his face contorted with anxiety. “I see him laying there…scarred…torn. I can‟t even comprehend what he might have been through and find myself wondering whether or not I could have…” “Will,” Picard stopped him. “You may be different men, but you‟re made from the same…” Picard smiled. “…cloth. You have incredible strength. You should know that I admire you. You never fell into the same traps Thomas did. You are an outstanding officer and an honorable man, Will.” Will inhaled with the compliment and nodded briefly. “Thank you, sir.” He sighed heavily. “I still can‟t even imagine what he‟s been through.” Silence passed and Picard‟s stomach tightened. I can.

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The door opened and the two walked out onto the bridge. Data stood from the command chair and Picard waved to him asking him to remain. “Report.” “Admiral Jellico and Captain Hunter are in Obs Lounge. Commander Malek has beamed to transporter room four and is on his way,” Data confirmed. “Thank you Mister Data.” Picard accepted the report then began to move for the Observation Lounge when the door to the lift opened and Commander Malek stepped out, his look of concern apparent. “Ah! Commander, good.” Picard stepped forward to shake his hand. “Your Captain has asked that you attend this briefing in her stead. I‟ll explain more in the Observation Lounge.” “Aye sir.” He nodded briefly; his antennae reverently dipped and he made eye contact with Riker. Malek saw Riker‟s concern and drew himself closer to his counterpart and followed Picard into the lounge. Malek was about to quietly question Riker when he was surprised by the sudden rush upon Picard by Admiral Jellico. Jellico moved straight into Picard‟s face. “Captain Picard! Do you think orders are merely suggestions?! Well I‟ll tell you…” “Are you quite done Admiral?” Picard interrupted quietly and continued to walk into the lounge towards his usual seat at the head of the table. Malek‟s eyes flew wide and his antennae spiked, he shot a look to Riker who responded with pressed-lips and raised eyebrows as if to say…just lay low. It was a lead that Malek was all too happy to follow. “You disobeyed a direct order Captain!” Jellico roared. Again, Picard did not rise to the bait and he kept his voice calm and monotone. “No Admiral, I simply chose to acknowledge the fact that the Seldonis IV Convention

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supersedes your orders.” Picard stoically walked past Jellico and took his seat. “The Seldonis IV Convention applies to citizens of the Federation and organizations who are a party to them Picard,” Jellico retorted. “Riker is neither!” Picard let his fury fly. He bolted upright from his chair and leaned over the table. “No you don‟t Admiral! NO SIR! Don‟t you dare twist the definition of our own rules to justify the mistreatment of another!” Picard could feel the heat emanating from his own face. “I will not allow us to stoop to that level…or did my reaction to Ba‟ku teach you nothing?!” He shook his head with rage. “It‟s a horribly convenient definition to say he‟s no longer a Federation citizen when it‟s the Federation that needs him most! No sir! NEVER!” Picard slammed his hand down on the table and it rocked the room. Malek jumped back. Riker tried to reassure him with another encouraging look. “We are citizens of the Federation and the Convention applies Admiral! It applies to us! We must adhere!” “Thomas Riker requires representation Admiral, and I‟ll be damned if Picard stands alone in this!” Hunter barked. Jellico spun, looking around the room looking for support. He only saw Riker and Malek with concerned stares resting on their faces. He reeled back on Picard. “Where‟s Steele?!” Picard inhaled deeply and invited all to sit with a wave of his hand. “Admiral, please have a seat and I will try to explain what happened.” “Where‟s Thomas Riker, Picard?!” “Admiral!” Hunter glared at him. “Yelling will not make this easier. Let the good captain speak.” Jellico huffed heavily and took a seat with the others. “Thank you Admiral,” Picard said calmly. “Captain Steele remains in sick-bay pending a check-over by our

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physician. She was rendered unable to attend this meeting due to an incident that occurred in the sick-bay…” “I knew it! Riker tried to break free didn‟t he?” Jellico bellowed. Picard closed his eyes in frustration. “No Admiral.” “She saved his life!” Riker interrupted. “He was going to die and she saved him and any possible testimony he might be able to provide!” Picard always appreciated Riker‟s ability to cut in at the precise moment he wanted him to, just so he could catch a breath – just so he could keep from reaching across the table and grabbing his superiors by the throat. “What do you mean?” Jellico retorted. “Admiral. If you would let me finish, I will be happy to inform everyone here what happened. It‟s especially important for Commander Malek to hear.” Picard acknowledged him once more with his eyes, and Malek sat forward at the table at full attention. Jellico sighed and leaned back heavily in his chair. “What happened Picard?” he asked with suspicion. “Thomas Riker, known member of the Maquis, was received in extremely poor condition on the Starbase as a party to a prisoner exchange with the Tholian Assembly.” Malek nodded and his antennae bounced rigidly. “That‟s why they were here.” “Yes Commander,” Picard confirmed. “Riker was cleaned and placed under anesthesia so several Cardassian pain control devices could be surgically removed.” Out of habit, Picard drew his hands across his bald head. “Unfortunately a hidden device had been implanted in his chest and was triggered, we believe remotely, forcing him out of the anesthesia and causing him… severe pain. That device was meant to have, and would have caused Thomas Riker‟s death had it not been for Captain Steele‟s intervention.” 83


Malek‟s antennae drooped substantially and his facial expression and body language told both Riker and Picard that he understood exactly what that meant. “She took his pain,” he stated softly, “…didn‟t she?” Picard nodded. “Yes Malek.” He tried to sound supportive but wasn‟t sure he didn‟t come off sounding defeated. “Will she be okay?” Malek addressed Riker. Riker sighed with worry. “I think so Malek but I won‟t lie to you. She took a pulse of pain that was meant to rip him apart before it killed him. Not only did she feel the pain the device was causing but she must have been able to feel the pain of the open surgical wound and removal of the device as well. It will likely take her quite awhile to shake it off,” Riker replied. “What do you mean, took his pain?” Jellico asked. “Admiral, Captain Steele is one quarter Deltan,” Picard responded. “When Riker was forced out of anesthesia, she intentionally absorbed the pain he was suffering long enough for the doctor to surgically remove the hidden device and get him back under anesthesia,” he said factually, happier now that Jellico had calmed. “Dr. Crusher informed me that she is convinced that if Captain Steele had not intervened she would not have been able to remove the device before it killed Riker. Captain Steele remains in sick-bay and Thomas Riker remains under sedation. He will require additional treatment to heal several fresh wounds.” “They triggered the device remotely?” Jellico asked standing as comprehension crossed his visage. “Yes Admiral,” Picard confirmed. Jellico snarled. “The damn Tholians never intended for him to live!” “It must have been how they were able to get Riker from Cardassia to begin with – a promise that he would die before being handed over to Starfleet,” Hunter surmised. 84


Picard and the others could see Jellico‟s mind spin into a frenzy. Hunter smiled slightly and Picard could tell that Hunter was very familiar with his former CO‟s idiosyncrasies. “This may play well for us,” Jellico finally stated. “Commander Riker, how many people know of Thomas Riker‟s presence on board the Enterprise?” “Ourselves, the guards, Captain Steele, Dr. Crusher and Nurse Ogawa, Lieutenant Commander Worf and Commander Troi, sir.” Jellico seemed pleased. “That‟s all?” “Yes sir, Captain Picard had Worf assure sick-bay would remain off-limits for the time being,” Riker responded. “Good. I want to keep it that way. I wouldn‟t mind if we let it slip that Thomas Riker died from the Tholian device and that we became the victims of their deception.” Picard nodded in agreement. “It could only help in the ease of our transport to Earth, but only for awhile. The presence of the escorts would still tip our hand.” Jellico nodded but his expression remained stern. “Yes Jean-Luc, but I don‟t want them too far away either. I still don‟t trust this situation and don‟t believe for an instant those who still control part of the Cardassian fleet won‟t take advantage of this.” “Why don‟t you transfer Riker to one of the Cats sir? It would be easier to send one of us home more casually than it would be for the Enterprise,” Malek offered and Riker smiled. Jellico‟s eyebrows lifted. “Not a bad idea Malek.” He stood from his chair. “I want to think over my options for a bit but my first instinct is to have him remain on board Enterprise.” “Thomas Riker will still require intensive medical and psychological treatment,” Picard pointed out. “Both of which he can receive easier on board the Enterprise than on either of the defense ships.”

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Jellico stewed. “Agreed but I don‟t want to delay this trip Picard. The faster we get him to Earth the better. We have to pass right by Cardassian territory and if any of them even catch a whiff that Thomas Riker is on board I‟m afraid that we‟ll be right back where we started with them.” “Admiral, that is one fact with which I wholeheartedly agree,” Picard conceded and glanced to his superior officer with a serious stare. “Captain Steele can remain on board the Enterprise until she is released. She has faith in Malek to command the Panther while we move forward.” “Agreed,” Jellico concurred. “Admiral Noyes will also be joining me.” He turned to address the others. “Commanders, Captains, I‟ll provide you with further orders once Admiral Noyes and I have had a chance to discuss things. In any event we may have just bought ourselves a little time. I want to use it. Please be prepared to depart SB 214 at 0900 hours tomorrow morning.” Picard felt his empty stomach lurch again. “Fine Admiral, Commander Riker please assign quarters to our guests.” “Aye sir.” Riker nodded. “What about representation Admiral?” Hunter challenged and Jellico‟s face flushed to a beet red. Picard allowed himself to smile as he looked to his counterpart. Antoinette was right; Hunter was a very good man indeed. “I will assure a representative is brought on from the starbase, Captain.” Jellico groaned his surrender. “Excellent.” Hunter nodded. The group all stood from their seats and Jellico departed the room in a rush. Picard let his eyes fall to Hunter. “Thank you Captain.” Hunter shook his head. “I already told Ed he blew it. He knows it and he‟s just mad. He‟ll get over it and I don‟t expect any more grief. He‟s always been that way. He hates being 86


wrong and he stews.” Hunter smiled. “I was under his command long enough to read him.” Riker shook his head. “I don‟t know you did it Captain. I was under his command for all of two weeks and I ended up butting heads more than I care to remember.” Hunter grinned outright. “Yeah, he told me all about that Riker. I think you actually did pretty well.” “Liar.” Riker responded with a laugh. Hunter smiled and nodded. “Maybe so Commander…” He moved alongside Riker. “…but Jellico really is the best when it comes to matters involving Cardassian tactics. Never forget it and always respect it.” “Captain Picard?” Malek interjected. “Yes Commander?” “I would like to see Captain Steele, if I may.” Picard smiled and rested his hand on the XO‟s shoulder. “By all means.” “Come with me Malek. I promised her I‟d be right back,” Riker replied. Malek agreed and the group exited the lounge. “Report when ready Number One.” Picard offered and received a non-verbal acknowledgement from Riker. Data stood from the command chair and Picard happily sat. Relief swept over him. The horrible hurdle with Jellico was over and he escaped relatively unscathed. The thought that there were many other hurdles yet to jump made him feel tired all over again. Maybe retirement is a good idea… __________ “So how do you like serving under Captain Steele, Malek?” Riker asked him as they exited the turbolift.

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Malek‟s smile told him already, “Very much. She‟s an outstanding CO. A little bit like your CO, very passionate about her point of view, but honestly, she‟s just a lot of fun to work for. Very different from my last CO.” “Fun?” Riker asked. “Yes. She‟s very funny on the bridge. Always jokes with the crew. There isn‟t one of us who wouldn‟t do anything for her.” The thought of openly joking on the bridge seemed foreign to Riker. “I would have thought she would have been a little hard-edged considering the type of ship you‟re on.” Malek nodded. “To tell you the truth, I thought the same thing when I accepted her offer as XO. But I‟ve come to find out it‟s exactly the kind of camaraderie that‟s required on a defense vessel. Our job is serious enough.” Malek‟s antennae twisted then stood straight up. “When we‟re in battle, she‟s dead serious…and so is the crew.” “I have no doubt of that,” Riker confirmed respectfully. The thought that a lighthearted attitude would be required on a fighting ship seemed to make sense for the same reason Picard liked his ship to run a little tighter, a little more formally. The balance was necessary. Riker led him to sick-bay. As they entered the room, Riker could see Crusher and Troi talking quietly to one side. Thomas remained on the biobed attended by both guards. Steele appeared to be resting on the bed next him. Malek moved forward directly. “Captain…” he spoke softly. Steele tried to lift herself slightly to greet him but winced. “Commander…good…to see you.” Malek shook his head gently. “You just can‟t seem to stop putting yourself in harm‟s way Captain. Am I going to have to lock you up on your own ship?” he scolded.

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Riker smiled. It was exactly the type of thing he was about to say to her. Steele let herself drop back down to the bed with a weakened thud. “Maybe Commander.” Her expression turned serious. “How did…meeting go? Jellico…behave?” Riker moved in. “He was upset at first, but I think Hunter and Captain Picard were able to straighten him out. He and Noyes will be coming back on board for our transit to Earth.” Steele nodded weakly. “What about him?” Her eyes drifted to the bed next to her and to Thomas‟ motionless body. “Jellico is bringing a representative for him for the debriefing,” Riker confirmed. “Good,” she exhaled with relief. “Hey! Don‟t get my patient all flustered now!” Beverly admonished in a hushed tone. “I just got her to the point where she‟ll put her head down.” “Sorry Doctor,” said Steele. “She‟s mean Will. How do you handle it?” Riker smiled and laughed as he looked to Crusher who pressed her lips in that don‟t push my buttons look. “I listen to what she says. Keeps me from getting hurt.” Steele shifted uncomfortably. “Probably good advice.” “Still in pain?” Riker asked. Steele nodded briskly. Crusher looked up to the monitor above her head. “I want you to stay with me awhile Captain.” She turned to look at Malek and then to Riker. “I couldn‟t give her anything for her pain without it overwhelming her,” she explained with frustration. “I tried to tell her…” Steele groaned. Malek spoke supportively, “It‟s just something she has to go through Doctor. She told me that the day I started working for her, just in case something like this happened.”

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Crusher nodded. “Yes. The physician on the Panther provided me with all of her history.” Her eyes met Steele‟s. “Does she make this a habit?” “No Doctor,” Steele sighed with a smile. Malek addressed her. “Admiral Jellico has approved my command of the Panther until you are released Captain.” “Good.” Steele nodded. “I shouldn‟t be too long Commander. I‟ll beam back over as soon as I can.” “I know you will.” He patted her leg gently and smiled. “You know Captain, Kiley is going to get a real bang out of this when I tell her.” “Tell Kiley she can go screw herself,” replied Steele with a grin and Riker‟s eyes widened with her language. “She‟s my Second,” she explained. “She‟s Zaldan.” Riker nodded with comprehension. Zaldans abhorred etiquette so Steele‟s comment would only be deemed honest and appropriate. “I will Captain. She‟ll be glad to hear it.” Malek turned to walk for the door. “Oh, and Captain?” “Yes Commander?” “Since you‟ll be out for a little while, I just wanted you to know, don‟t be surprised when I have that hideous painting in the ready room removed. It‟s an affront to Andorian sensibilities! All that dirt…nasty, wretched place.” “Just because you come from a place that‟s covered in ice…” she grunted. She watched Malek smile impishly as he walked from the room. “Don‟t you touch that painting!” she threatened but Malek laughed loudly as the door whooshed closed behind him. Riker shook his head. “Malek said you had an unusual command style.” “Ah…” She winced again. “Maybe I do. This crew is as good…no…maybe better than the Yeager‟s. We‟re a team. We live together and will die together if necessary.” 90


Deanna moved back to the biobed where Steele lay. “How are you doing?” Steele exhaled deeply. “A little better.” She took Troi‟s hand. “You helped a lot Counselor. Thanks.” Riker smiled as he looked to the two of them. He was happy to see that they were getting along so well. “See Toni, I told you she was pretty special.” Steele smiled and gently nodded then slowly reached her hand out for Riker‟s face. He brought his head down so she could touch him. She slapped his face curtly. “Hey!” He pulled back, rubbing his stinging cheek. He really did miss his beard. “What was that for?!” “For not introducing us years ago!” Steele barked. “You are in deep trouble now Commander!” Riker‟s eyes widened when he saw that Deanna‟s expression contained the same look. “Oh...oh no. See? This is why. I didn‟t want to get double-teamed.” “Too late Will.” Deanna smirked in return. “You are far, far too late.” Riker backed away slowly from the biobed as the two women stared him down. He turned to look at Crusher and realized that she had also been privy to some conversations that occurred while he was in Observation. “Don‟t tell me…you too?” “Seems as though you didn‟t want us to meet her Will. Why were you so afraid…?” “Uhhh…thanks Doctor. I think I‟m needed back on the bridge!” he said as he backed quickly towards the door, his hands raised in a self-defensive posture. “You three have a lovely day!”

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CHAPTER FIVE Stardate 55729.1 USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E Sickbay

Lights. The heat is gone. Shit. I‟m back! I‟m back in Cardassia! Lights. There are five lights. No, wait! There are only four lights! There are always only four lights. Remember. Only four. Only four. Only four.

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Remember. Never forget. There are always only four. Only four. You beat them the last time. They sold you to Tholia. Hell house. Heat. Cube. Sweat box. Burning bug claws. They paid for me so I could sit in a hot box. At least there were no lights. No talking. Just heat, burns and scalding damn claws…but not one single, god- damned light. Now I‟m back in Cardassia. Shit. So tired... You can beat them again. Just remember…four. There are always four. Ceiling. Red hair? Pretty blue eyes. Human? Ceiling. One light. NO! There are always four! Always! Ceiling. Pretty blue eyes again. Smiling eyes. Familiar face? Ceiling. One light. No! There are always… Wait… There really is only one! Small lamp. Medical facility. Guard. Starfleet uniform!? Biobed. Body. Human female body in red-collared Starfleet uniform. Black hair. 94


Straight, dark, black hair. Pretty, no…beautiful. Beautiful woman. Long, black hair. Green eyes. Her? It‟s her? Dreaming? Woman standing. Beautiful woman standing in blue-collared Starfleet uniform. Long, thick, wavy dark hair. Black eyes! Her? It‟s her? Dreaming? Yes. Dream… Torture dream. Nice try Nekrit! Ceiling. Hell house. Sweat box. Burning bugs. Never forget. Four lights! There are always only four. Only four. Only four. Touch! Something touched me! On my arm! Wait...soft. No pain. Soft. Ceiling. Light. Beautiful woman on biobed. Green. Bright green. Amazing green eyes. Her? No. Torture dream. Nekrit messing with my head. 95


Ceiling. Light. “Can you hear me?” Oh! Velvet voice! Why Nekrit? This is new. This is horrible! First you murder my future – now you find my past? There will always be four. There will always be four lights Nekrit! “Can you see me?” Sounds so real! Her velvet voice. Those damned green eyes. “Toni…he‟s very confused right now. He doesn‟t even understand where he is.” Her voice too?! What the hell?! Nekrit! Go ahead! Screw with my head all you want! There will always be four. ALWAYS! “You need to lie back down Captain. You‟re not even able to walk yet.” “Okay Deanna. Sorry. I just thought I saw his eyes open.” I hate you Nekrit. I hate you. I will kill you. I hate you for taking her. I hate you for making me swim through these memories. I hate you for killing them. “He‟s going to be very confused. Can you imagine? Both of us? He‟ll be horribly confused.” “I suppose you‟re right Deanna. He hasn‟t seen me since my wedding.” “Exactly. He hasn‟t seen me for years. Now lay back down Captain. You‟re still in horrible pain. There, that‟s better.” Damn Nekrit! Gotta hand it to you…they sound more real than anything you‟ve ever done before! Ceiling. Light. One light. Female on biobed. Black hair. 96


Green. Green, green eyes. Understanding green eyes. Her? Antoinette? She was screaming earlier. I heard her screaming. I was screaming. They were all screaming. Screaming in the cavern. Death. Death everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of screaming people. I was screaming. She was there. She refused to scream. Nekrit made me watch…watch as they murdered them all. Made me watch as they murdered her. Threw her on the heap of others. Screaming... I hate you Nekrit. I will kill you. I will. I will beat you in this game and I will kill you. Make you pay for taking her. I promised her I would beat you and I will. Because I know… There will always be four. Always. There will always be four lights. __________ “How many lights? This is your last chance!” Gul Madred‟s voice asked in the same lilting tone but with urgency that frightened Picard. He wanted to rip the face clean off the skull of his Cardassian tormenter but he was too weak. He was hungry. He was so…so tired. His eyes drifted up once more…just to see... Five! There were five lights! There really were! Had they been there all along? Did he just add one? No! There can‟t be…! “Don‟t be a stubborn fool! How many?” urged Madred.

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He felt hands grab his arms. Someone spoke to Gul Madred. What? Taking me home!? Ah ha! I‟m going home! He gathered up every iota of defiance he could muster, broke free from those holding his arms and thrust himself in front of his torturer, his face filled with all the rage and hate he had grown for him… …and he lied straight to his face… “THERE ARE…FOUR…LIGHTS!!” Picard‟s eyes shot open. Cold sweat forced his pajamas to cling to his body. His breathing was rapid and his eyes bounced around as he tried to center himself. Yes. The Enterprise-E. I‟m home. It was the same damned nightmare. The same damned memory. He inhaled deeply and rubbed his eyes hard. He was so tired. Tired of the nightmare and tired of the memory. Thomas‟ return brought this up, surely. Still…I promised Troi. He reached for the comm and opened a channel. “Captain to Counselor Troi.” “Troi here sir.” “Counselor, would you mind stopping by my quarters?” “Not at all sir. On my way. Troi out.” Picard stretched and shook off the last, hanging remnants of the nightmare that sloughed off of him. His thoughts once again drifted to Thomas. His dread and his sadness weighed upon him. He stood and dressed himself in his uniform. Sleep would evade him for the rest of the night. He knew it. Sleep never came after he dreamt about the torture. It would hang onto him for awhile. He feared it would be hanging on for a long time. 98


He feared it would get worse. Slowly, he walked to the food replicator. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He gratefully took a sip of the beverage after it appeared in the device. He strolled back to the settee and sat when the door bell chimed. “Come.” The door slid open and Troi walked in. Seeing that he already had tea, she walked over to the replicator and ordered hot cocoa. Picard appreciated the fact that Deanna already knew what he needed. They had been through this too many times before for her not to know. She sat across from him, sipped her cocoa and set it on the table. “Frankly sir, I‟m not surprised,” she stated. Picard frowned. “Nor I, Counselor,” he admitted, “except this time…this time…” “It‟s frightening,” she answered for him. She always knew. Always understood. He nodded. “Yes. Thomas Riker‟s appearance is making me wonder.” “Wonder what sir?” “If I won‟t be more a hindrance than help.” He leaned back, looking to the blackness of Troi‟s eyes then drew his hands over his own and his mind allowed the imaginings of Thomas‟ captivity and torture. “He‟s been through…years….” “Captain…” She sat forward. “…tell me what you dreamt then tell me what went through your mind immediately after you woke up. The same way we always start.” Picard let a small smile escape and nodded. “All right…” __________ “Are you real?” Thomas asked softly. “Or are you a program?” It was only then that Steele understood what Deanna had meant. He would be confused. She looked up to see one of the guards waving to Crusher. Appropriate protocol. 99


“Wait Beverly,” she said. “I want to talk to him first.” “Captain…” “Just for a minute. Before everything starts. He deserves to hear a friendly voice first. He deserves to know where he is.” She turned to find his blue eyes peering from the nest of hair that covered his face. “Yes. I am real. I am Antoinette.” “How?” He scowled. “How did she make you? How did she know where in my mind to find you?” She smiled. “I‟m real. You‟re on the USS Enterprise.” “The Enterprise?” He looked around. “I‟ve been on the Enterprise. This is not the Enterprise,” he growled. “How did she do this? Is this a holodeck?” She sighed. “No. This is the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701E. The ship you had been on almost seven years ago was the D.” “Yes. It was. It was the Enterprise-D.” He scowled again. “This is not the D. You can‟t be Tone.” “The Federation made a deal with the Tholian Assembly. You are now in Federation custody,” she stated as she cringed with pain, trying to position herself to speak to him more easily. “You are on the Enterprise-E.” “E. Enterprise-E?” he asked. “What happened to the D?” “Destroyed on Veridian III,” she answered. “Destroyed?” He looked worried. “Deanna?” She smiled. “She‟s fine. She serves aboard this ship.” “You serve aboard this ship too?” he asked. “No. I serve aboard a different ship. I‟m just here for my health.” “Are you really Tone?” “Yes.” He looked to the two guards on either side. “They‟re really Starfleet?” “Yes.” “I‟m not on Cardassia Prime?” “No, nor are you on Cardassia IV or Lazon II or Tholia.” 100


“Hmm. Tholia. Hot there.” Steele laughed sarcastically. “I bet.” “How did UFP get me?” he asked. “Prisoner exchange,” she answered bluntly. “Ah, they plan to turn me back over to Cardassia.” He tried to prepare himself. “No. They need you for more important things, like prosecuting the Dominion War criminals.” “Prosecuting…?” He appeared utterly confused. “How can you prosecute war criminals for a war that hasn‟t ended?” This thought was shocking to her. “How long ago did Cardassia move you to Tholia?” “I don‟t know…weeks? They didn‟t just move me…they sold me,” he answered. “I understand they got a pretty good price for me. Don‟t know why Tholia wanted me.” “They got twelve prisoners in exchange for you. You commanded a heavy price from the UFP.” She grimaced once more as she sat up on the biobed. “You must have been in Tholian custody longer than a few weeks. The Dominion War ended over four months ago. Cardassia is…in ruins. Over eight hundred million Cardassians were wiped out by the Dominion.” “By the Dominion? What are you talking about, they are the Dominion,” he snarled. “Now I know you‟re just a hologram. She would just love for me to think Cardassia was the victim…” She caught his eyes. “I am Antoinette.” “Then where‟s Paul?” he sneered. “Admiral yet?” She laid back on the biobed. “Dead. Paul died eleven years ago.” His face fell with the recollection. “The Drake.” “Yes. The Drake.” “I remember now. Found out when I looked up his service record. He was offered the Drake. Found out about

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Paul…thought about contacting you but…” He trailed off. “You sure you‟re real?” “Yes.” “I don‟t think so. I heard screaming.” He looked to her. “She‟s still working, this is just a program.” Steele sighed. “You heard screaming for a reason. The pain devices were removed. It wasn‟t easy.” Thomas‟ expression contorted and he slowly moved his hand up his chest. His eyes widened when he realized the lump at his clavicle was missing. “Where did it go?” “Evidence,” she stated coolly. “Evidence?” he questioned. “Evidence of what?” “Their cruelty,” she said and whimpered harshly as she shifted on the bed. His head turned with confusion and concern. “You‟re in pain. It‟s her…” he hissed. “She‟s got you too doesn‟t she?” She sighed with frustration. “You have a long road. I know that. But I wanted you to hear a kind voice first. I wanted you to know that there are those who care…I just wanted you to hear a kind voice first.” “Mmm, velvet voice.” He rolled back on his bed to face the ceiling. “Good program. You sound just like Antoinette…” Steele waved to Crusher who understood her sign, clicked her combadge and reported to Picard that Thomas was alert. Steele grimaced as she repositioned herself on the biobed. She wasn‟t sure what she‟d thought she‟d accomplish by speaking to him, but after getting just a taste of what he had endured she found herself fascinated by him even more. Her hope that he could be helpful had dwindled. He would need intense psychological rehabilitation. She sighed heavily and turned to see that his bright blue eyes were locked on to her with frightening intensity.

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“I will kill her you know. Now she‟s making me remember old loves. She wants to set me up to think you‟re real and then she will make me watch you die too. Not this time. You missed…you really missed. Really good program, but you missed.” He closed his eyes and whispered, “I will kill you.” Steele‟s heart ripped. What did they do to you? __________

Deanna moved back under the covers as quietly as possible. She turned to her side and she felt him move in and encompass her. His warmth was soothing and she relaxed into him. He nuzzled his face into the crevice of her neck and his warm breath tickled her and she allowed herself the quiet laugh. She was desperate for a happy thought and he was providing it to her. She soaked it in. “What?” he coyly whispered and then kissed her earlobe gently. Deanna turned into him and Will brought her into his fold once more, allowing her to rest her head on his chest. He could feel her exhaustion and her worry. He thought about speaking, but then thought against it. He brought his arm up around her and held her against him, knowing it would take awhile for her to find the avenue to sleep. He would be patient. His patience paid off after a long while when he could finally feel her body begin to relax into his and her breathing deepened and quieted. It was only then he allowed himself to fall asleep as well. __________

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He felt his stomach tie in knots as he sat down at the desk. It felt like his office. No. It was his office. He knew that. He could feel that. He looked out the windows to see star trails streaking past and was saddened that they didn‟t seem to be the comfort he usually found them. He swallowed hard and looked to the comm screen in front of him. It bore a Starfleet logo and the words „Incoming Transmission – USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D.‟ He didn‟t want to press the button. He tried to suppress the rising fear and his hand trembled as it reached for the base of the comm. Surprisingly, his hand was delicate and feminine; his ring finger bore a simple gold wedding band. His index finger hovered over the button for an additional moment as he tried to find a way not to have to take this call. His fear began to explode and he tightened his abdominal muscles and pressed the channel button. Incredibly, his own face appeared on the screen. Young, clean shaven and handsome, he bore a serious expression as he looked into his own eyes. He felt the fear and the anger starting to percolate out and his hands began to tremble more noticeably. He swallowed once more but there was no moisture left in his mouth. The image of himself on the screen spoke, “Toni.” He started to shake uncontrollably and he fought the rising of the tears and the now brewing anger and denial. “Will,” he responded but the voice was not his own. It was soft and trembling…and velvet-toned. “Will, tell me you found them,” he begged with urgency. “Tell me he‟s all right.” He looked to his own face with desperation but the face never lost the serious stare - the professional stoicism – but then… …there it was… 104


…the broken glance – the surrender – the defeated break of the eye-contact. He felt himself blurt a soft cry and he shook his head. “Antoinette,” his young face said as he reconnected his eye-contact. “I couldn‟t let anyone else do this…it wouldn‟t be right.” He watched the face on the comm buckle with grief and saw the young Will Riker cover his eyes with his hands. “No,” his velvet voice said back to the face. “No. No Will.” The face on the comm looked away in anguish, then back to him. “Antoinette, I‟m so…so sorry.” He leaned forward towards the comm. “The Drake was destroyed. All hands…” His voice cracked again. “They‟re all gone Antoinette…all of them.” The shock of adrenaline pumped through his veins and sparked the tips of his fingers. He shook his head violently. He couldn‟t breathe. He felt the blood drain from his face. He tightened his jaw and looked into his own blue eyes on the on the comm screen.“No.” “Toni…” the young face said once more, “Paul‟s dead. The ship was destroyed by a Minosian weapon. They‟re all gone.” He broke his eye contact again and lifted his hand to his eyes, trying to hide what looked like a tear falling from his own face. “I‟m so sorry Antoinette.” He shook his head vigorously, feeling long, straight hair tickle at his heated cheeks, not wanting to believe, not knowing how he could live another moment if his friend‟s words were true; not knowing how life would be worth living without Paul. Not ever having him touch his face again, or kissing his lips. Not ever laughing with him or wrestling or just sitting with him again. Never being able to look into his soft brown eyes… The anger found its way out before the sadness. He raged with hatred. He filled with fear. His hands clenched

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themselves into tight fists and he looked to the blue eyes that were telling him that his love would never be coming home. And then he found it…he saw the reason why. He found the reason why Paul had died and the reason‟s intense blue eyes were staring sadly back at him from the comm screen. His lips curled into a snarl and he felt heat emanate from his face as his rage found its escape. He made eye contact with the blue eyes and placed all of his denial, hatred, anger and wrath into his only solace…his words of blame. “It should have been you,” his velvet voice moaned. “It should have been you Will. You should be the dead one, not Paul.” His anger found new strength as the blue eyes softened with guilt and torment.“It should have BEEN YOU WILL!” He saw the pain in his younger self‟s expression but he ignored it and slammed his womanly yet strong fist on the comm, abruptly ending his transmission. He sat there in his chair for a moment, terrified. His hands now shook more than they ever had before and he looked away from the black screen of the comm, but once more the logo appeared with the words: “Incoming Transmission – USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D.” His fury swelled and he hit the rejection button – then the rage found its home and the adrenaline found its avenue of escape and he stood, placed his hands on either side of the comm and pulled with every ounce of strength he had. The comm tore from the desk, sending momentary sparks across the room and he flung the piece away from himself. It sailed like a strange-shaped boomerang. Silently and with grace it flew until it hit and pierced the canvas of a large painting of an arid landscape. It tore clean through – creating a vicious ripping noise … a noise that he knew was the ripping of his own heart.

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He found that he was unable to control it anymore. He fell to his knees and screamed in unabashed agony. “PAUL!!!!” His screams continued, but went unheard.

Thomas began to shake uncontrollably. His eyes opened wide. He didn‟t understand where he was, he only knew that he needed to vomit. He turned over on his side and let his head hang off the side of whatever bed he was now laying upon and threw up forcefully. A guard, shaken by Thomas‟ sudden illness, clicked his combadge. “Security to Doctor Crusher. Please report to the morgue immediately.” __________

The cavern was enormous. Colossal, pearlescent, palegreen stalagmites pressed upward, reaching high for their partner stalactites that hung from the cathedral-like ceiling of the cave. The air was cold and moist and a strange, saltymineral smell and taste permeated the atmosphere. She felt the wave of terror as it flowed over her. Her heart began to race and she filled with dread and fear. The air had taken on the fetid and ferrous stench of death. The cave was filled with the reeking aroma of the strange mix of blood from several species along with the stink of burning skin and exoskeletons caused by phasers and disrupters. It was an odor she knew all too well – heavy hand-to-hand combat always brought that smell. But she had been unprepared for the noise and it rocked her to her core. The screams... 107


There was an overpowering dissonance of shouting and shrieking that echoed and resounded in the monstrous cave and her eardrums buzzed with the intensity of it. She didn‟t want to look at the source of the noise but something had forced her head to move and her view was ripped away from the cavern‟s heights to the floor in front of her. Her mind seized when she saw them, a mind-boggling horde of people being slaughtered like cattle. She could tell that there was nowhere for them to run. Hundreds upon hundreds of people from a multitude of races had been herded into this vast cave to be murdered. She recognized a few traumatized faces but the majority of them were people she had never met. Her stomach lurched when she saw several Jem‟Hadar firing indiscriminately into the huddled crowds. Their energy weapons blew gaping holes into the bodies of the wide-eyed and frenzied victims, their blood flowing freely due to the anticoagulants adherent to the Jem‟Hadar rifles. The blood pooled and mixed together and the screams…the screams were so loud they blended into a tonal ring that hummed into her brain. There were a few Vorta males standing at strategic points issuing orders to the Jem‟Hadar soldiers that moved in upon the victims. Cardassians moved in from behind the Jem‟Hadar, using their disrupters to finish off those who hadn‟t bled to death or who had somehow evaded the initial attack and had attempted to run after being shot. She tried to move her arms. She tried to move her legs but she was frozen, her eyes continually taking in the carnage in front of her. She opened her mouth to scream and she found her voice, but the sound that was produced from her throat, oddly, was not her own. It was deep and guttural and hoarse and distinctly male. She screamed all the same. 108


She heard a voice in her ear as her head was forced forward once more. “Watch them die. Watch them I said!” The voice was female and vindictively callous. She felt her hair being pulled from the back of her head as a hand forced her frantic gaze from the ceiling of the cavern back down to the screaming, desperate masses fruitlessly trying to block the oncoming fire with their hands, or claws or tentacles. Her own screams bellowed louder, “NOOOO!!!” Bodies were hoisted and thrown on top of one another just so the remaining victims could be reached by those who were shooting relentlessly. The blood continued to flow. Her eyes suddenly focused on a single individual in remaining group. A woman calmly and stoically stepped forward and separated herself from the terrified pack and she stood remarkably still. The woman‟s eyes met her own and locked on. She was a starkly beautiful woman with dark, short hair. She had Bajoran nose ridges and wore the traditional earpiece, but she bore it on her left ear – the sign of a rebel. Her eyes were dark and serious yet almost instantaneously they softened and she smiled with dignity and pride. The woman‟s lips moved. She couldn‟t be heard for the din, but it didn‟t matter - her lips were easy to read. “Remember that I love you. Never forget. Beat them. Promise me you‟ll beat them.” She nodded her head and replied to the beautiful, darkhaired woman knowing she would never be heard, but also knowing her lips could be read just the same, “I love you. I promise I‟ll remember. I promise I‟ll beat them!” she screamed at her full capacity. “I love you…” The woman‟s smile widened and she nodded softly. A Jem‟Hadar soldier approached the woman and without so much as a warning or a second glance, he shot the woman in the chest. Strangely, the woman‟s smile never 109


wavered. She fell to her knees keeping her gaze locked onto her own until she fell face-first to the floor. “LAREN!!!” she screamed in agony. “LAREN!!!” The sheer horror of the sight of the massacre blended with her own sense of loss of the woman who so bravely faced her death and she began to cry out in anguish and she whispered to herself, “Ro Laren…I promise…” Her head jerked back sharply as the hand pulled her hair once more. “You watch! You need to see what you have caused. You need to see what your own stubbornness has done,” the female voice growled. “You brought this upon them and yourself!” Hate raged forward and she tried to move her arms again but they were bound so tightly that movement itself was impossible. “I will kill you Nekrit!” she barked. “I will!” There was a hideous and almost lighthearted laugh in her ear. “You‟ll never get the chance, human.” Her head jolted forward when the hand pushed her from behind. As she lifted her head back up, she could see two Jem‟Hadar soldiers lifting the beautiful Bajoran woman‟s body and heartlessly heaving it onto the pile of dead bodies in the middle of the cavern. She moaned in sorrow and whispered to herself, “Good-bye my Laren...” Only a few screams remained. Then slowly, painfully, the cavern filled with silence. The quiet became more deafening than the screams. Everything inside her boiled with rage, hate and crushing, indefinable loss. Her body was swiftly wracked by intense pain originating from her chest and it split down her extremities. Every nerve was exploding. Her deep male voice screamed out loud. Except this time, it was the only scream heard in the cavern. 110


Steele jolted on the biobed, her body wracked with severe tremors. Nurse T‟Pala clicked her combadge. “Sickbay to Crusher, please report STAT.” __________ “I hate this part,” Steele grunted and tried failingly to humorously roll her eyes as she leaned her trembling body over the side of the biobed to heave. Her stomach muscles cramped and she grabbed the side of the biobed tightly as she gagged, Nurse T‟Pala held Steele‟s hair back from her face and Crusher stood nearby. Troi held Steele‟s free hand and Riker stood near the head of the bed. After she lifted her head, her eyes scanned across the room and she noticed that Thomas was no longer there. Her eyes widened, “Where is he?” she whispered. “He‟s gotta be going through the same…” “He is Captain,” said Crusher. “We‟ve moved him to the morgue where we have set up an isolation unit for him. I couldn‟t keep sickbay off limits any …” She was cut off by Steele‟s heaving once more. “At least I could give him antiemetics. He‟ll be fine.” Picard entered sickbay sharply. Troi eased herself away from Steele and approached him seeing the deep concern etched across his face. “What happened?‟ he asked. Troi then glanced to Crusher who moved toward them. Crusher was about to speak but she shrugged, shook her head and threw her hands up in frustration, “I‟m not sure I understand myself Captain, I think I‟d better let Commander Riker explain, he seems to know exactly what‟s going on.”

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Picard looked to his First who was standing next to Steele‟s biobed holding an empty emesis pan near her face. A quick look around sickbay confirmed that Thomas Riker had already been moved to the morgue. “You said that Thomas is also suffering from these same symptoms?” he asked Crusher. She nodded curtly. “Yes but I was able to give him a hypo to calm his stomach.” Picard could see that Will Riker looked worried and exhausted. He thought everyone looked exhausted. He quietly approached Steele‟s bed. “I don‟t think any of us were meant to get any sleep tonight,” he grunted. Riker nodded weakly in response. “No sir.” Steele heaved strongly yet again then rolled back onto the biobed. “I hate dry heaves,” she grumbled. “I just hate them.” Crusher moved forward. “Captain, I wish there was something I could do for…” Steele laughed tiredly. “I know Doc…I wish there was too.” “Again, what happened?” Picard pressed as he moved to the foot of the bed. Steele turned her eyes to his but twisted away quickly once more. Picard thought her skin appeared to have a slight green tint to it and he felt himself feeling sympathy illness for her. He realized then she wasn‟t about to answer him – her nausea had not calmed. Riker handed the empty dish to Crusher who moved in to take his place. He walked with Picard to Crusher‟s office and waved for Troi to join them. Riker stalled uncomfortably, “She‟ll be physically okay soon but…” “But what, Will?” Troi asked, sensing the deep worry he felt and seeing the lines crossing his brow. “Deltans are subconsciously telepathic...” His eyes connected to Deanna‟s. 112


“Yes. Which is why I‟m surprised I can‟t sense her.” Troi replied. He shook his head, “Toni‟s never been able to communicate telepathically and has never been able to sense the thoughts or emotions from anyone. To my knowledge, that has always gone both ways. No one is able to sense anything from her either. No Vulcan or Betazoid has ever been able to sense her or read her.” “But what is it Will? I know you‟re concerned about her, deeply concerned. Did Thomas do something to her?” Riker slumped against Crusher‟s desk and he cringed when he heard Steele retching once more outside the office. “No. Not exactly,” he growled then sighed heavily. “I‟ve only seen this happen to her once before, in the Academy.” He stood and walked around Crusher‟s desk and absentmindedly began to fiddle with the items that rested upon it, trying to find a way to word his next sentence. “You see, I was injured as a passenger in a scramjet training accident in the beginning of our fourth year. I was trapped in the wreckage and Toni and her team were the first to reach us.” He picked up another medical tool from the top of Crusher‟s desk, turned it over and set it back down. “I had several compound fractures.” He cringed with the memory. “I was in horrible pain.” “I remember you telling me about that,” Deanna offered. “Yeah, but what I didn‟t tell you was how Toni got to me first.” His eyes met Picard‟s. “She took your pain?” Picard asked. Riker nodded. “I couldn‟t stop her.” Deanna smiled. “She‟s stubborn that way I think.” Picard and Riker both smiled in return. “Yes she is,” Riker agreed, “but what was really amazing was what happened afterward.” Picard lost his smile, knowing that he might get his answer to his counterpart‟s illness. 113


“The next day I woke up with the worst nausea after having the strangest dream. It was horrible. I dreamt that I watched my father‟s patrol ship crash into a hillside. I rode a horse to the crash site and when I got to the wreckage he was too far gone for me to help. I tried and tried to wake him. I put my hands on his face, on his arms, anything to get him to wake up. I was so desperate…” Riker looked to Troi‟s dark and saddened eyes. “Except it wasn‟t my father…it was Toni‟s.” “What?” asked Picard. “I was sick for hours,” Riker continued, “I went to the infirmary thinking I had picked up some sort of virus but the doctor said I was probably just having a delayed psychological reaction to the crash the previous day. He gave me a hypospray and sent me on my way. My nausea got better but I just couldn‟t shake that dream. It haunted me all day.” He stood once more and looked sadly out onto the sickbay floor and Steele in the distance. “I went to her quarters to find her just as sick.” Riker rubbed his eyes tiredly. “It was then she told me that she remembered everything about the day my father…” he faded off. “The day your father told you your mother was never coming back?” Troi finished for him. “You mean you traded memories?” Riker nodded weakly. “Shared them is a better term. We still retained our own worst memories, but we took on each other‟s. She said that it had something to do with when she absorbs pain.” Picard scowled. “What do you mean?” Riker sighed and gazed to Picard. “We took on each other‟s most painful memory. I remember everything about the day her father died and she remembers everything about the day I accepted my mother‟s death.” His faced contorted with concern once again. “I remember everything about that crash Captain…the fear, the terror, the smells, the chill in the air, her 114


screams…everything. When she described my memory she could remember my hate, my shame and how long I cried before I realized my father‟s words were true.” The captain‟s brows furrowed. “You think that‟s what happened now? That she picked up Thomas‟ memories when she absorbed his pain?” “I‟m afraid of just that. Her reaction is much stronger this time.” Riker rubbed his eyes. “I‟m afraid that…” “That‟s exactly what happened.” Crusher interrupted quietly and looked to Picard. “She wants to talk to you Captain.” Riker set out from the office first and Picard followed. Picard‟s sense of dread deepened when saw the look of devastation on Steele‟s face. Steele turned her face to look at him. “Captain,” she addressed him, “Thomas is a witness to the massacre.” She tried to breathe in deeply. “He saw everything.” Picard‟s own stomach turned, trying to grasp the understanding of Thomas‟ experience. He has seen it. He actually witnessed it. He was then struck by a different realization.“You mean…you saw that memory?” Picard unconsciously stepped back. No wonder she‟s sick. She nodded weakly and he could see she was trying to hold on to any fiber or semblance of protocol. “Not only did he witness the massacre – he was forced to witness it, Captain. He was bound and tied and he was forced…” Her face contorted as she tightened her abdominal muscles against the need to be sick. “…forced as a punishment of some kind.” Steele rolled back on her bed again and her voice cracked slightly.“His lover was among them…” “His lover?” Deanna asked quietly. Steel nodded and her breath shuddered. “A beautiful Bajoran woman. He kept calling her name…Laren? Yes…Ro Laren.” Steele turned back to rest on the bed. “He kept calling her name.”

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Adrenaline shot through all those standing around her. Riker‟s eyes closed. Deanna grabbed his hand. Crusher leaned against the biobed and Picard took another step back, his eyes never leaving Steele‟s. He didn‟t really want to know but he asked just the same. “Dark hair?” Steele nodded weakly. “Wore her earring on the left.” Deanna blurted out a weak cry. “You knew her, didn‟t you?” Steele asked. “I had a strange feeling you all knew her. The memory gave me that impression.” Picard steeled himself to address her. “Ro Laren was an ensign assigned to the Enterprise-D, Captain. She defected to the Maquis several years ago.” Picard confirmed, yet he let his face show the pain of the knowledge of her death. “We had always tried to hold out some hope…” Steele shook her head succinctly. “You should all know…she was an extraordinarily brave woman, but no…she did not survive. She did face her death head-on however.” Steele heaved weakly. “Deanna.” Steele turned her eyes to Troi. “Thomas will need…” Her voice started to break with the sadness and her hands started to shake and Picard could tell that Steele‟s own ability to stand up against the intruding memory was failing and was beginning to overwhelm her. “He‟ll need…a lot…” Her bottom lip quivered with her grief. “…a lot of help.” Deanna moved in quickly to take Steele‟s hand. “It was so horrible…” Steele began to weep and Riker moved around in an attempt to comfort her. Feeling helpless, Picard touched Steele‟s foot then turned and walked toward the doors. His thoughts shifted to Ro Laren and he found himself weighed down by the knowledge that she had not survived. He knew that Thomas carried the greater burden of that pain, yet somehow Picard was oddly gratified in knowing that Thomas and Laren had found each other. 116


It felt right. They were a lot alike. He allowed himself a sad and feeble smile. They were made of the same cloth.

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CHAPTER SIX Stardate 55729.2 USS Jaguar – NCC-90262 Morgue

Captain Crea Temmett of the SB 214 Judge Advocate Generalâ€&#x;s office walked to the morgue, not quite knowing what to expect. He had been summoned by Admiral Jellico and informed that he was to be the new legal representative for a prisoner who had been received from Tholia. Jellico was unapologetically unhappy about the situation as he felt that it was a delay in being able to interrogate the prisoner, but Temmett was used to that, brass were never happy with the fact that rules applied to them as well.

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Yet he had been shocked to find out who his new client was. Temmett had been in JAG for thirty-five years. He had prosecuted court-martials and defended petty criminals. He had investigated admirals and crewmen. He had defended nurses and engineers…but he had never been faced with a client that needed his help like this before. He swallowed hard before the door to the morgue slid open. The Tellarite man walked in as confidently as possible, wanting his client to see that he could be trusted; wanting his client to know that he would get the best representation that Starfleet could muster. He allowed his shoulders to slump when he saw the man stretched out on a morgue slab. Is he dead? Temmett was approached by Picard who was followed closely by Troi. “Captain Temmett?” he asked. Temmett nodded slightly and extended his fuzz-covered hand. “Captain Picard?” “Thank you for coming on such short notice.” His eyes shot back over to his new client stretched out on the morgue slab covered in a medical gown. Two guards stood stoically on either side. His concern grew when he saw the number of scars on his client‟s legs and arms. “Is he…alive?” Picard understood the attorney‟s concern. “Yes Captain. He‟s sleeping. Our doctor has been medicating him…” “Drugging him?” he jolted in the typical curt style of Tellarites. Picard smiled. An advocate indeed! “Well Captain, you will need to hear about everything that has occurred over the past few hours. Counselor Troi here will be happy to…” “Excellent. I am glad you are here Counselor. I am thankful that you have made yourself available for the duration of the journey.” Temmett nodded with satisfaction. 120


Deanna stepped forward and nodded with a slight grimace. “Yes of course Captain. Mister Riker will require intensive psychological counseling just to get him to believe he is where he is. The last time he was truly conscious, he believed we were all a part of a grand holodeck program.” Temmett took a deep breath in then exhaled through his porcine nose, causing a distinctive whistle. “When do you expect the medications to wear off?” “Soon,” replied Troi. “I will remain here with you.” Temmett turned to Picard. “Captain, is there anyone you know who has enough experience to assist me? I am afraid our office is not well-staffed enough to have afforded me the luxury.” Picard was slightly shaken. “While Commander Riker has extensive legal experience, he would not…” Temmett smiled slightly. “I understand the reason why he would be unavailable. Any one else?” Picard nodded. “Lieutenant Commander Data would be an excellent choice I think.” Temmett stiffened his back. “The android?” Picard scowled. “He is. Is there a problem with that?” Temmett grinned broadly. “No! Not at all Captain. I would he thrilled to make use of his skills if you can make due without his presence on your bridge.” Picard smiled. “Consider it done. I will brief him on the current situation and have him join you.” “Thank you Captain.” Picard turned to leave the morgue and Temmett extended his hand once more. “Captain I want to thank you for being so sensitive about my client‟s needs. Admiral Jellico informed me of your…fervor.” Picard smiled gently, shook Temmett‟s hand and addressed Troi. “Counselor, do you have everything you need?”

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Deanna smiled weakly. “Yes, thank you Captain. I‟ll be fine.” Picard nodded and looked to Thomas‟ body once more with deep sadness. “Good luck…to all of you,” he said softly. “Thank you Captain,” Deanna replied. Picard turned and walked out the door. Deanna turned to Temmett. “Captain, let me bring you up to date.” “Thank you Counselor.” They moved into the morgue and began to talk.

Stardate 55729.2 Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract “We‟re just supposed to sit here and wait…” Gul Minet snarled, “…for what? We should be back on Cardassia Prime trying to control the rebellion, not sitting in space waiting for nothing!” His enormous neck tendons flexed with his anger and his light colored eyes blazed. “Did he tell you anything?” Glinn Sanun tried to look agreeable as he stood in front of his superior officer. “Gul Cacet would only state that if we were to see unusual movement from Starfleet to report it immediately.” “Unusual? Unusual how? Starfleet has done nothing but cruise the demilitarized zone relentlessly since the end of the war. Everything they do is unusual.” Sanun nodded with defeat. “I know Gul,” he agreed, “However the Enterprise is the ship we have been told to monitor.” Minet lifted his head and widened his eyes with concern and surprise. “The Enterprise?” He chewed on the thought momentarily. “What would they be doing? I had understood

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they were back to the Federation challenge of exploration,” he said sarcastically. Sanun smiled at his Gul‟s attempt of humor. “I do not know. Gul Cacet refused to be specific in that regard.” Minet scowled once more but nodded. “If there is something unusual going on and it involves the Federation flagship, at least we will be the first ones to know of it.” “Yes Gul.” Sanun stood and backed out of the Gul‟s quarters.

Stardate 55729.3 USS Enterprise-E Ready Room Picard remained unconvinced as he looked into the tired green eyes of his counterpart. “Are you sure Captain?” Steele took in a deep and exhausted breath and nodded her head. “Yes. It‟s time.” Picard stood and calmly walked around his desk and approached her closely. “Antoinette…I can‟t even imagine what you might be…” “Jean-Luc,” she interrupted then looked to him apologetically. “I have a ship to run and we both have a mission to accomplish.” She grimaced sadly. “Although I‟m not so sure I approve of the plan as it is. I‟m an escort after all. The thought I won‟t be escorting you…” Picard smiled. “If anything occurs I expect you to charge to my rescue once again Antoinette.” She smiled outright in return. “I promise.” She stood upright and extended her hand to him. “Captain, it‟s been a pleasure.”

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He nodded with concern still in his eyes and looked down to her offered hand. He grinned, softly pushed her hand aside and he moved forward. She accepted his hug willingly. “Good-bye Antoinette. Please take care.” She swallowed hard. “I will Jean-Luc, you too.” He nodded as he released her from his arms and watched her quickly depart his office. __________

Is it always going to be this hard? Will I feel this way every time she‟s assigned to do something without me? Will the fear always be this strong? Why does this feel so different? Riker looked to his collar in the mirror to assure the pips were appropriately adjusted and once he realized it was the third time he had checked them, he dropped his hands to his sides in defeat. He turned away from the mirror and walked out to his living quarters and stopped in the middle of the room without realizing it. Or is it just because it involves…him? He clenched his eyes shut and tightened his hands into fists. Is that why I‟m so worried about this? He felt a wave of embarrassment and guilt. What has changed? I have always loved her. I‟ve always been put into a position of having to see her in difficult assignments. Why is this different? Is it because I know she loves me too? Do I fear losing her more now? He searched his own mind and felt a soft strength and he could only think of one thing…Imzadi. He sighed and smiled. His comm chirped. “Captain to Commander Riker.”

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Riker felt the strange sense of satisfaction that his duties would take his mind off of his thoughts. He clicked his badge. “Riker here sir.” “Please report to the bridge Number One. We‟re about to get underway.” “Understood sir. On my way. Riker out.” Riker peered out his window. He could see two identical ships alongside the Enterprise. The Panther and Jaguar both slowly began to pull away from their mooring points, their movements perfectly synchronized with one another, looking like a strange pas-de-deux was being performed only for him. He let his gaze fall once upon each ship and his heart sank. This is going to take far too long. I don‟t like it. He turned and walked out the door to make headway for the bridge.

USS Panther Ready Room “Glad to see you back Captain.” Malek smiled after he entered the office. “We‟ve undocked and are awaiting the Enterprise.” Steele nodded tiredly. “Good. Have Ensign Reegath set a standard escort position for now. We won‟t be breaking free from the group for awhile yet,” she stated. Malek nodded once and his antennae dipped slightly. “Captain, are we really going to let them go at the Argolis Cluster?” He shook his head in disbelief. “If anything happens on the other side we won‟t be able to get to them.” “I‟m aware of that,” Steele confirmed. “This ship can‟t avoid the gravimetric shear like the Defiant could so going 125


through at high speed will be impossible…but we will get to them if necessary. We‟ll find a way.” Malek smiled. “Of course we will.” Steele allowed herself to smile back, glad to see his confidence return. “By the way Malek, I‟ll take my picture back...” She turned to look at the space behind her desk. Where once hung the painting of the dry and arid landscape, now hung a painting of a starkly frigid, barren and ice-covered plain. She laughed weakly. “…if you don‟t mind.” Malek was glad for her smile. “It‟ll be back by the time you get back Captain.” Steele looked to her First with confusion. “What do you mean when I get back?” Malek pursed his bright blue lips together and his antennae arced forward with slight aggression. “Commander Riker told me that you got very little sleep. I‟m still in command until I am relieved, which, technically you haven‟t done yet. So I am ordering you to bed and I have ordered Dr. H‟rim to come in and check on you beforehand. Like you said, we won‟t be breaking free from them for awhile, a week to be exact. I think the bridge can go without you for eight hours or so.” Steele opened her mouth to argue and looked to his serious dark eyes and knew that he was no longer in a joking mood. It was then she realized she was too tired to argue with him and she nodded her head. “Fine Commander,” she stood from her chair and walked around her desk. “To tell you the truth I‟m surprised H‟rim wasn‟t waiting at the mooring bay door when I came back.” Malek grinned. “I made a pact with him. I told him he could see you when I sent you to your room and he promised he wouldn‟t pounce on you the moment you returned.” “He didn‟t actually say pounce, did he?” She looked shocked.

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“He did Captain.” Malek raised his hand as if he was swearing, knowing that the Caitian‟s use of the term was meant to humor her. “Fine. Have the big fur ball meet me at my quarters.” Steele smiled and lifted her hand and rested it heavily on the Commander‟s shoulder. “Thanks Malek.” “See you tomorrow Captain. Sweet dreams.” Steele looked to him with a saddened expression and she tried to nod her head but she couldn‟t bring herself to do it.

USS Jaguar Bridge Captain Nathaniel Hunter sat back in the command chair with focus and determination. He peered to the viewscreen to see the Enterprise back away gracefully from her mooring point and turn to move alongside the Jaguar. He tilted his head to look at his XO. He was still getting used to her, but he was finding that her style was right up his alley. They were beginning to make a good team. Commander Bridget Claussen was a short human woman with short, sandy-blonde hair and an uncanny knack for appearing timid. He knew better however, as there was very little timidity about her. “Commander? Is everything and everyone in its place?” She smiled smartly. “Aye sir. We‟re all packed away.” “Good.” Hunter turned his eyes back to the ship on the screen. “The Enterprise looks ready.” He returned his eyes to her. “Well Commander – here goes nothing. Hail them and the Panther please.” “Aye sir,” responded Claussen.

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Within a moment, the viewscreen reflected the faces of Picard and Malek. Hunter acknowledged them both. “Ready gentlemen?” “Ready,” they both replied. “Fine then. Picard, if there was anything we could offer to help…” “Unfortunately it‟s too late for any of that now I‟m afraid,” Picard answered. “So it would seem.” Hunter replied. “Well, we‟ll be next door for a bit. Don‟t be afraid to knock.” Picard nodded. “Thank you Captain,” he looked to Malek. “Commander. Picard out.” Malek nodded once to Hunter and the transmission cleared from his screen. Hunter sighed heavily and rubbed his chin. “Well Admiral, this should be interesting.” Jellico stepped forward onto the bridge with a serious stare and nodded. “Indeed Captain, leave it to Cardassia to keep things from getting boring.” __________

Stardate 55731.9 USS Jaguar Morgue Thomas felt strange. He felt thick…heavy…even…balanced. He felt…real. He swallowed but what really surprised him was the actual presence of saliva. His mouth was no longer dry. He drew on his salivary glands and let the spit roll over his tongue, taking

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a surreal pleasure in drawing up an entire mouthful before swallowing once more. He drew in a deep, cool breath through his nose. The heat‟s gone. It‟s nice and cool here. Odd sounds started to enter his ears. Soft, gentle murmurs of people talking quietly came from a place off to his left. He waited to hear her voice, but it wasn‟t there. There was a female voice, but it wasn‟t Nekrit‟s. It was still familiar though. He took another cool breath in, relishing how clean it felt. How sterile. The place even smelled clean. Cardassia didn‟t smell like this. The torture rooms reeked with the stench of fear. No. This was a different place. Cool. Sterile. Clean. Odorless. He took in his surroundings without opening his eyes. He was on a biobed of some kind but the padding was thick and deep. He had been provided a pillow and even more strangely, a blanket. He was wearing a gown of some kind but, was still covered and comfortable. What is she playing at? Allowing me to feel human? Letting me feel some kind of dignity? He could still hear the gentle voices. He listened hard. “Commander, I want to thank you for making this space more livable. I‟m aware of reasons we must use this space, however it doesn‟t mean any of us should have to be constantly reminded its true use. I can‟t imagine that it would be anything but psychologically detrimental for my client,” said a male voice with a strange, nasally resonant vocal quality, however it still contained a tone of calm authority. “Agreed Captain,” said a gentle female voice and Thomas‟ heart began to race. It‟s her?

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He knew he had asked this question once before, but for some reason this time it felt more…possible. He felt more real, could she be? “Excellent,” the first voice replied. “Admiral Jellico would like to begin questioning as soon as you believe he‟s coherent enough to assist.” He chuckled lightly. “I don‟t anticipate that the questioning sessions will be long, just enough to see if we can make determinations of those who may have been involved.” He then sighed heavily again and Thomas knew then his nasal breathing pattern was that of someone who wasn‟t human. “His testimony is crucial and we need to find a way to elicit his knowledge without it harming him any further. There‟s so little precedent for these types of things…” There was another male voice, it was also deep and gentle and peculiarly familiar. “Captain, I have added the legal materials you have requested directly into my data matrix. I have also taken the liberty of adding the complete transcripts of all Dominion War trials held to date on Earth, Bajor and Peliar Zel. I thought they might be of some use to you.” There was a slight, audible gasp from the first man. “Lieutenant Commander, you mean to tell me that you have all of that right at your fingertips?” There was a moment of quiet before the second man answered. “The information can be easily accessed if that is what you…” “Oh Data! Do you have the ability to analyze those rulings with questions that might arise for us? To be able to prepare briefs and protective orders without having to read all that…” “Of course Captain. Is that not why you requested my assistance?” There was a soft laugh from the woman and the first man allowed a louder chortle. “How wonderful! Mister Riker will be getting the best defense team I have been able to muster in a 130


decade!” the first man said and Thomas jolted with the sound of his name. Again there was a moment of quiet. “Now all I can do is wait and hope that when he wakes, he‟ll have the mental capacity to help us.” He sighed heavily. “He‟s been sleeping for over three days now. I was hoping he would have been...” Thomas took a deep breath. “What? Able to talk?” he bellowed. “I‟m not mute.” He heard a scuffle of feet and then he heard her voice once more. “Thomas?” He closed his eyes tighter, afraid that if he opened them and didn‟t see her… “Thomas…” her sweet, warm voice filled his ears. “It‟s me. You‟re not dreaming nor are you hallucinating. It‟s me. It‟s Deanna.” He knew he had heard her voice before but again, this time it felt real. He parted his eyelids and gazed into the black pools of Deanna Troi‟s eyes. “How?” he asked, stupefied. “Thomas. We have a lot of work. You have a lot of questions. We will need to start slow. It‟s important that we start slow,” she said and then she smiled. Her smile was the most wonderful thing he had seen in years. He nodded gently, knowing that if he agreed, he would see that amazing smile once more.

Stardate 55732.2 Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract Near Setlik system Gul Minet‟s eyes widened as he read the communiqué. “Seems as though we‟re expecting some rather important company Glinn,” he said coolly. “Guls Cacet and Nekrit have just informed me of their intention to pay us a visit, along with 131


two other battle cruisers.” His dark eyes roamed over the short message again. “We‟re to receive further orders from there.” Glinn Sanun stood just a little taller with the news. “Gul Nekrit sir?” His surprise was obvious. “What could she possibly want?” Minet stood and firmed his own stance. “The Enterprise is being escorted by two of their new battle ships and Gul Nekrit is bringing back-up to the party?” He grinned brightly. “Sounds like she wants something very important.” He broke a short laugh. “…and I intend on making sure she gets what she wants.”

USS Panther En Route – Sector 001 Passing Iadora System Personal Quarters: Captain – Steele, Antoinette É Doctor H‟rim pulled lightly at his cat-like whiskers and laid his pointed, dark grey ears back against his head. “Have you tried hot milk?” Steele smiled weakly. “Yes.” “With a little nutmeg?” She laughed slightly. “Yes.” He shook his head with a defeated frown and upturned his vertically slit, dark blue eyes to her. “Look, I know how much you hate taking medication, but I‟m fresh out of home remedies.” “H‟rim,” she said sadly. “Right now, I‟d do almost anything to get a full night‟s sleep.” “Captain, what‟s bothering you?” he asked bluntly. “You‟ve never had this much trouble sleeping. Not even on the Yeager.” Her eyes met his and he knew immediately that she would not be admitting anything to him. “Fine Captain…lay

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down. You know how this affects you. You‟ll be asleep before I pull the hypo away from your neck.” She grinned thinly once more and rested her head on her pillow. H‟rim walked up to her bedside and pulled the cover up over her shoulder with care. “I know. I just hate knowing I might not be able to wake up if necessary.” She sighed. “But I‟m at my wit‟s end H‟rim. Malek‟s handling things just fine. If I could just get one night…just one night‟s sleep then maybe I‟ll…” “Shhh Captain,” H‟rim hushed. “You will. This will help.”

USS Jaguar Observation Lounge Admiral Jellico stood and stared out the window. The star trails passed but he hadn‟t noticed. His mind was still rolling over every detail. The door slid open and Hunter walked in. He watched Jellico as he stood by the windows. He hadn‟t even noticed him enter. “You know Admiral, it is possible to over-think things.” Jellico spun in his spot but smiled when he saw Hunter. “Maybe Nate.” “It‟s just taking too long. I know,” he said. “You never were one for being patient.” Jellico‟s face soured. “No.” “Well, you should know Captain Temmett has just contacted me. He said that he thinks Riker is ready.” Jellico‟s eyes widened with the surprise. “Really?” Hunter nodded. “He has made him available but Counselor Troi has made it very clear these will not be long sessions.” 133


Jellico shook his head with a smile. He patted Hunter‟s shoulder as he began to walk out of the Observation Lounge. “Hopefully they won‟t have to be.”

USS Enterprise Ready Room Picard sat forward in his chair and scowled heavily. “You don‟t think…?” Riker shook his head slightly. “I don‟t know Captain. It might be nothing at all. They might be identical designs but you and I both know that no two engineers are alike. It‟s possible they just calibrate their deflector shield generators differently.” “Maybe Number One, but why has the differential appeared intermittently?” Picard questioned. He leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips. “No. This mission has too much riding on it to take any chance. Have LaForge complete his analysis and report any new instances of the disturbance.” “Aye sir,” Riker nodded in agreement but allowed his worry to show. Picard noticed it immediately and as Riker stood to depart the ready room Picard raised his hand. “Will…” He looked to his First with concern. “…it‟s probably nothing.” Riker swallowed hard and his pallor weakened. “Sir…with everything that‟s happened over the last week, I highly doubt that.” He stared his captain straight in the eye, “…and so do you.” He turned and left the ready room, leaving Picard alone, letting the uncertainty wash over him like a wave. Picard‟s eyes hung there, looking at the door Riker had just departed through. You‟re right. I do.

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CHAPTER SEVEN USS Jaguar Morgue Captain Temmett growled in frustration. “Admiral!” he called Jellico to one side. Much to his chagrin, Jellico stood and walked some distance away from the table where Thomas Riker, Data and Troi were sitting. Jellico sighed and caught a glimpse of Troi‟s pursed lips, her anger was apparent. Temmett dropped his hairy head and lifted his eyes to Jellico‟s. “Why don‟t you just try…just try to get this through your head. My client will not be answering any questions about the Maquis. Don‟t you believe that it‟s all rather…moot?” “Moot?”

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“There‟s not very many of them left Admiral. My client may very well be the last one. Do you actually believe that he might be prosecuted when he may hold the key to peace with Cardassia? Why do you continually bring up these questions? I thought you had bigger fish to fry.” Jellico huffed. “Captain, information that Riker provides not only against Dominion criminals, but criminals from anywhere is information I want. If there‟s any information about any potential surviving Maquis member that has struck against a Federation ship, colony or outpost I am going to ask about it.” “Then I think we‟re done here,” Temmett said calmly. “Commander Data, we will be taking an indefinite recess.” “Yes sir,” Data replied and swiftly stood from the table. Jellico growled but quickly realized that he would be gaining nothing by arguing. Temmett spoke to him once more, “He‟s barely able to answer the most basic of questions and your constant hounding is proving wholly ineffective. So far he hasn‟t been able to remember names let alone where and when he might have been active prior to the onset of the Dominion War.” He turned to walk back to the table and addressed Troi. “Counselor, why don‟t you assure that Mister Riker is made comfortable? If things change we might allow the Admiral another chance to speak with him tomorrow.” Troi stood from her position next to Riker and set her hand gently on his shoulder. He looked tiredly up to her. “Agreed Captain. Thomas is exhausted.” Jellico knew he would never get another word in unless he played the game and he abruptly exited the morgue. Troi looked down to Riker. “Thomas, you did very well. We can take a break now and get something to eat.” Thomas felt strange. “Can I ask more questions?” Temmett sat back down at his chair. “Of course. We have plenty of time to talk to you.” 136


Troi smiled weakly. “What more do you want to know?” Thomas looked around the room. “You said we are on the U.S.S. what?” “Jaguar.” Temmett replied. “It‟s a new defense ship developed by the Federation after the end of the Dominion War.” He looked to Data then to Troi and he crumpled his forehead in confusion. “But I was on the Enterprise at one time right? I mean you two served on the Enterprise?” Deanna smiled and before Data could respond she piped in. “Thomas, both Commander Data and I still serve aboard the Enterprise. But defense ships do not have counselors and Data is here to assist Captain Temmett with your representation.” “Why didn‟t we stay on the Enterprise?” Temmett briskly waddled over to the replicator. “Tellarite root tea. Sweet.” He pulled the beverage out from the device and turned to hustle back. “For your safety, Thomas. Admiral Jellico and the executive command have created a ruse that you are dead. Cardassia is on the brink of full-scale civil war and the military‟s loyalties are split. More than half of the remaining Cardassian fleet has allied themselves with the Cardassian rebels that helped turn the tide in the Dominion War.” Temmett seated himself across from Thomas at the table. “However, those who wish to see the military maintain control of Cardassia have power over the more formidable ships in the fleet. Over seventy-five percent of Cardassian battle cruisers are controlled by those loyal to militaristic rule.” Troi turned to Thomas. “When Tholia negotiated their trade for you they implanted a pain device meant to kill you the moment they were out of retaliatory range. Admiral Jellico felt it best that we carry on the idea that you had died in the hopes that our crossing to Earth would be made safer.” Data entered the conversation. “The morgue is the safest place to hide the fact that you are alive. Your presence on this 137


ship is a well-guarded secret. Admiral Jellico felt that any Cardassian would assume that you would remain on the Enterprise.” At that moment the door slid open and a tall Bajoran man walked in. He was wearing a blue Starfleet uniform with three pips at his collar. His mousy-brown hair was cut short so it stood on end in a carefree, frenzied mop. He wore a traditional Bajoran earring on his right ear. He was carrying a small medkit with him. “Doctor Kaest. Your timing is perfect. Care to join us for dinner?” asked Temmett to the physician. Kaest Jonia looked across the room and smiled professionally at Riker. “Thanks Captain but I have several scheduled follow ups later and don‟t want many of the crew to see me in and out of here too frequently.” Temmett nodded in agreement. “I would like to continue our conversation but if I‟m interrupting you…” “No Doctor.” Riker spoke up. “Please sit down. I wanted to talk to you too.” Temmett waved his hand to Data, “Commander, let the Counselor and doctor have their time with our client. I would like to continue additional research if you don‟t mind.” Data stood and joined Temmett at the door. “Not at all, Captain.” Troi acknowledged the two men as they exited then turned her black eyes to those of Doctor Kaest, then back over to Thomas. “Are you sure you‟re up for this? You‟re exhausted.” Riker turned his weary blue eyes to her and nodded weakly. “I want this done. I want to feel real again.” “Thomas...” her voice warned, “…as we discussed, removing your scars on the outside…” “Deanna,” Thomas interrupted with agitation, “I want rid of them.”

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Deanna moved to one side and helped Thomas up from his chair at the table then moved with him to his bed. He sat on the bed and allowed the physician to scan him. Kaest took out a small tool from his med-kit and smiled gently. “You won‟t feel any pain Thomas, but you may feel warmth at the sites where the scar tissue is being reduced. If you want me to stop at any time just let me know.” Thomas nodded with understanding. “Fine. Let‟s start with your face. Why don‟t you lie down and make yourself comfortable?” “Deanna…” Thomas whispered with slight agitation in his voice. She moved to his side as he lay back on his bed. “Yes Thomas?” “Stay here, will you?” “Of course.” She took his hand and he held hers tightly. “I guess this means I‟ll lose the beard?” he said. Deanna smiled. “Just for awhile. You can always grow it back.” Thomas smiled. It was the first time she had seen him smile since he had returned. She could feel that he had indeed felt a small amount of happiness and she squeezed his hand tighter. The doctor made pass after pass after pass across his face. Small, discolored burns marks faded and disappeared. Large gashes that were previously hidden by his facial hair vanished with the physician‟s tool. Soon, he moved onto his patient‟s extremities completing his arms and legs then helped Thomas turn over. When his gown was opened to reveal his back, Deanna couldn‟t help but gasp. Thomas breathed out heavily. “Got your work cut out for you, ay Doc?” Thomas said sharply and Deanna could feel a rush of fear emanate from him. “Thomas…” she reassured, “…do you want to stop?” “No,” he grunted. “Let‟s just get this done.” 139


Kaest pulled the tool up again and began to work slowly on the patchwork of burn marks, switch marks and surgical tool hashes that crisscrossed and mottled his broad back. Deanna watched the physician‟s tedious but skillful work as he erased the signs of the torture Thomas had endured. She was overcome with the thought that somehow it was wrong – all wrong. She was unhappy with his decision to undergo the procedures so soon but she had no right to tell him he couldn‟t. Finally it came time for Thomas to have his chest cleared. He turned over once more and Deanna assisted the physician with lowering Thomas‟ gown to uncover his torso. Again Deanna found it hard to hold her stomach when she looked over the blizzard of marks, scars and divots in his chest and abdomen. After realizing that Thomas was ready, Kaest began to work once more, slowly removing each scar. From his umbilicus to his sternum he worked and worked until, without warning, Thomas seized his wrist of the hand that held the tool. Shocked, Kaest shut off his tool. “What is it Thomas?” Thomas had paled significantly and his grip on the physician‟s arm had not waned. “I promised.” Deanna could feel it – his sorrow, his terror. “What did you promise?” “I promised her.” “What did you promise? Who did you promise?” “Laren. I promised her I wouldn‟t forget.” He said and he began to shake. “I don‟t want to forget. I can‟t break my promise.” Deanna felt wave after wave of guilt begin to emit from Thomas and she moved hand to his once more. “What can we do Thomas?” Thomas looked to her with deep and ingrained sadness. “Mirror,” he whispered.

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Deanna nodded and looked to Kaest. “Let the doctor go Thomas. He can get you a mirror.” It was only then that Thomas had realized that he had held the doctor‟s wrist so tightly his hand was turning deep red. He released the hand immediately. “Sorry.” Kaest smiled gently. “It‟s okay.” He reached for a small mirror from the kit he carried with him and handed it to Thomas. Thomas looked into the glass and immediately held it up so he could view his upper chest. He sighed with what Deanna could feel was a deep sense of relief. “Good,” he said. “What?” she asked. “You haven‟t erased that one yet.” “Which one Thomas?” “This one.” He pointed to a small, round almost negligible scar at his right clavicle. It was dark and Deanna could tell at one time it had been a deep scar, like the tissue had been scooped whole from the area. “I want to keep this one. I need to remember.” “What does this scar mean Thomas?” she asked, not personally wanting to know, but pushing forward with the counseling technique. “It was the first one she gave me.” “Who Thomas?” Thomas‟ eyes widened and he shook his head. Suddenly Deanna could feel him loosing grip on his fear and anger. In an instant a strange vacuous expression crossed his face. “No. She wants me to play this game.” He shook his head once more. “Nope. Not gonna play.” Deanna looked to Kaest with defeat. “We‟re done doctor. It‟ll be a step or two back I‟m afraid.” Kaest looked to her with empathy. “I understand counselor.”

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Deanna looked to Thomas‟ soft, blue eyes and had to remind herself he was not Will. She pushed down her fury and held Thomas‟ hand as he reverted into his denial.

Stardate 55733.7 Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract VIP Quarters Gul Nekrit studied her hands. Her fingers lifted into elegant arcs as she observed the fine grey patterns of her skin. Her hands were soft, delicate …new. She looked to her face in the mirror on her vanity. Her dark grey eyes held the slightest blue tint that matched the skin of the tear drop scale of her forehead. She gently touched her cheeks and analyzed each supple curve as they led to the prominent ridges of her brows then down into her chin and finally to the broader ridges that graced her long and sinuous neck. Her dark brown hair was pulled back loosely and held at the base of her head with a clasp so she could proudly show off the radiance of her skin. This most recent molt was especially gratifying; she felt years younger. Satisfied with her appearance, she moved away from the vanity in the spacious quarters on the enormous ship and sat once more at a work station. She was not surprised when the bell to the quarters chirped. “Enter,” she said, her voice was soft and sullen. The door opened and her host entered the room. “Gul Nekrit, you wanted to see me?” She looked upon the commander and was taken by his dark, brooding eyes. His jet-black hair was swept back in the traditional Cardassian military style, a style she appreciated. 142


“Yes Minet, thank you for coming so quickly. Please, have a seat.” She directed him to a chair across from her. He moved swiftly and it made her smile gently. She knew very well that most jumped to please her. She carried a reputation; a reputation that she enjoyed carrying. Please me and life remains easy, don‟t please me and life can become very difficult indeed. It was a reputation that her mentor enjoyed as well – Gul Madred‟s name was still feared by most. Minet had been briefed on the mission by Gul Cacet when he boarded. To say the least, he was shocked to find out that one human man could cause so much trouble. He was prepared to assist his superiors in any way to assure that the military would maintain its grip on future rule of his homeworld, but starting a war with the Federation would not be an option. They didn‟t hold control over enough of the fleet. It was simple mission: Riker could not be allowed to testify. If he did, Nekrit and four other controlling members of the Central Command would be implicated in the Hutet incident. Since so many Cardassian rebellion members had been obliterated in the effort, Central Command would lose any credibility it had left with the public and the civilian rebellion would surely assume outright power. Cardassians did not readily approve of massacres, especially with so many of their own kind. It was…distasteful. Secretly, Minet was furious that Riker was ever allowed to be sold to Tholia. He thought Nekrit had been foolhardy to even let the terrorist live, but he knew that the reward had been great and allowed for their current control over the majority of the battle cruisers. A little buy-off can go a long way with battle cruiser commanders. Although he had never wavered in his own loyalty to the remnants of Central Command, he had reaped a share of the financial reward Riker‟s sale had brought. Now he was just disappointed that there was a mess to clean up. 143


Nekrit looked to him straight in the eyes. “Tell me, what news is there?” Minet was prepared. “The Enterprise is proceeding on the same course towards the Argolis Cluster. She remains escorted by two of the new Federation cats as they call them, new battle ships that are quite formidable.” Nekrit pursed her lips and flicked her hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, I know of them and I‟m not worried about them.” Minet knew better than to question her. “They are not proceeding with any haste. They are definitely not in any rush to return.” he cleared his throat. “As you likely already know, we intercepted their departure transmissions from Federation Starbase 214 and we‟ve been monitoring their inter-vessel transmissions constantly ever since. They have been useless. Typical navigational discussions only, something normally heard when three ships travel in close proximity.” Nekrit sneered. “Then it will surprise you to learn that the cargo is still alive?” Minet tried to hide his astonishment. “It wouldn‟t necessarily surprise me at all. You have an ear that I do not.” Nekrit smiled with the commander‟s obvious deference. “Yes. I suppose I do.” She leaned back confidently in her chair. “Our sources have verified that Riker is not only alive, but that he has been moved off of the Enterprise.” She smiled happily and grinned outright when Minet‟s face finally did reflect deep surprise. “That‟s correct. He‟s been moved to one of those battle ships as a way to avoid us.” Her voice was light and casual, as if she hadn‟t a care in the universe. Minet took comfort in it and he dared not ask her how she came by the information. He had seen her turn on lesser commanders before and obedience was rewarded, questions were punished. “That will hopefully make our jobs a little easier.”

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“Especially when the ship group splits up at the Argolis Cluster,” she offered. Minet finally smiled. “Much, much easier.”

USS Panther En Route – Sector 001 Personal Quarters: Captain – Steele, Antoinette É Bound. She was bound. Her large and masculine hands were held aloft by cold, metal clamps above her head and she felt that her feet were barely able to touch the floor – her toes bearing the full weight of her body in order to relieve the pull on her hands and shoulders. Four bright lights blazed upon her face, blinding her. She could feel the heat emanating from them. She was tired. She was sore. She was nude. The hair on her chest stood on end with the chill of the room. She felt more than just exposed. She wanted to cover herself. Her fear began to rise and her thoughts began to fill with anticipation of the pain. She was able to grab hold of one thought and clenched onto it as she would have a life-line… Remember your training Will…she wants to remove the pride. She wants to remove the dignity. She wants to remove the humanity. She wants me to feel like an animal. Animals cower. Animals fear. Animals have no pride. Animals have no dignity, they obey when trained. Well, she can‟t train me. I have dignity and I will keep my dignity even if I hang here nude. I have

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nothing to be ashamed of and I won‟t let her take my dignity away. And don‟t forget…there are only four lights. The air was filled with the smells of delicious grilled meats. Her mouth salivated with the thought of tasting it. She had been given only a bit of a mold-encrusted biscuit and a sip of water earlier and the taste of it still hung in her mouth, its foul flavor reawakened by the flood of spit that now rolled in her mouth caused by the enticing aromas flooding her nose. “Hungry human?” the soft voice seemed almost kind. Hate filled her and she knew better than to think she would ever savor the taste of the meat that was now being served as a feast to her torturer. She hung there as a trophy in front of her. She opened her eyes once more in an attempt to look upon the face of her tormentor but the four bright lights blazed so intensely, all she could see was the faintest movement from across the room. She could hear utensils on a plate; then the sounds of her chewing her assumedly delicious meal. The saliva flowed once more and it made her angrier. Fine Nekrit. Eat all you want. Give me mold and biscuits and water. I‟ll survive…but you won‟t. She heard Nekrit approach. Her heart started to pound in her chest. The pain would be coming soon. She had to prepare herself for the pain. “Why do the human animals always make things so difficult? Well, I suppose I shouldn‟t complain too much. They provide me the challenge that most do not and I must admit…I love a challenge.” She refused to speak to her. Not even a good retort would mean anything, why give her any tool to use against me? “Just give me the name of the site of the Maquis stronghold human. You know they‟re never going to win. There aren‟t 146


many of you left. Why continue to fight this losing battle? Your life could be so much easier…decent food, decent clothing and a comfortable bed…” She was so desperate for a bed. Something to sleep on. Something to curl up on and...NO! Don‟t let her do this! “…decent activities. A life of luxury compared to this, human. But you hang here like the plucked fowl you are.” Nekrit sighed heavily.“Fine then, be stubborn if you must. But I‟m much younger than you human. I will outlive you…and I wouldn‟t mind making you my life-long project.” She tried so hard to see her face but the lights continued to blind her. “Tell me human,” her soft and sickly-sweet voice rose to her ears and her heart began to pound once more…knowing full well what question would come next, “How many lights do you see?” She gritted her teeth, preparing for the wracking pain that would shoot through her body…and she answered. “Four.” But the pain didn‟t come… Her heart thumped so hard in her chest she could feel the pain control device moving just under the skin in her chest. The pain wasn‟t coming. She buckled herself down twice as hard. “It‟s a shame really,” the sweet voice cooed. “I really don‟t like it when I have to leave my mark…especially on such a fine human specimen.” She exhaled lightly and she could hear Nekrit pick up something from the tray… The tray…! “…but you just don‟t seem to comprehend the simplicity of the question. Well, not very many primates do. So I will teach you again. There are five lights human.” Her fury swelled and she waited for what new device this might be.

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“So I will ask again. How many lights do you see human?” “Four,” she grunted and her deep male voice resonated through the room. Before she could take her next breath she was overcome by a shock of pain so intense she lost control over her body. Urine trickled down her leg and onto the floor. She buckled and hung from her hands and she yelled out uncontrollably as the device entered her upper chest near her right clavicle and removed a chunk of tissue wholly. The intense bodily pain subsided, but the localized pain of the new wound was surprisingly hot and acidic. Whatever substance had been used would make the wound continue to fester and she knew it was never meant to heal. “There. My mark. You are my pet now human. My pet project.”

Steele rolled from bed, nausea sweeping over her. She stumbled across the room to her bathroom and tried to vomit, knowing there was nothing left in her stomach. She lifted herself from the toilet and fell against her sink and looked to her own face in the mirror. Her once bright green eyes were hazed, drawn and sullen. Large, dark circles had formed under her lids and her hands shook uncontrollably as she tried to wash her face, finding a little solace in its coolness. Once more she looked to her face and she knew exhaustion was seizing her. She feared going back to sleep. She feared her own bed. Her pillow provided no comfort. “I‟ll never sleep again,” she whimpered as tears fell down her cheeks. “I got them all…I got them all…” she cried, “…all of them.”

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Steele crumbled to the floor, her cries of anguish heard by no one. She whispered to herself, “I will kill her...”

USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E Ready Room Picard could tell it was bad news already. Geordi LaForge‟s eyes were dead give-aways. Visual implants or not, the expressive pull at their corners and furrowed skin at the insides of his eyebrows let Picard know that he was not going to enjoy what Geordi had to say. LaForge looked anxious and confused. Picard couldn‟t blame him. Geordi had no idea why the Admiral was aboard. Like everyone else on the Enterprise, LaForge had not known any of the details behind their mission until he had been briefed by him just moments before. His look of shock, combined with the knowledge of the news he was about to offer, made LaForge‟s skin appear to gray slightly. Picard glanced around the room briefly. Riker sat across from him. His First Officer looked shaken. His eyes were focused on the empty settee across the room. It was Riker‟s appearance that had prepared him mostly for the bad news to come. Riker already knew what LaForge was going to say…and that‟s what put Picard on alert. Admiral Renaldo Noyes sat in the chair next to Riker. The Admiral was a short man. His wiry, dark and thick hair was cut short and rested against his head in a perfect outline of his oval and olive-complexioned face. The four-pip bars of his rank shone brightly from the deep red of his gold-trimmed collar that protruded from the gray of the shoulders. His long black sleeves bore a wide band of red that matched the collar of his tunic and was held by a belt with a buckle bearing the Federation symbol. 149


His dark brown eyes now rested squarely upon Picard‟s Chief of Engineering with a serious and anticipatory stare. Picard drew in a breath and addressed LaForge who stood before him. “Now that you know the importance of this mission Commander, why don‟t you inform us of your findings?” LaForge nodded weakly and swallowed. “As you know Captain, we detected a strange pattern differential emitted from the Panther‟s deflector array and as requested, we were able to trace it when it reappeared just a few minutes ago…there‟s no doubt Captain, it‟s a subspace carrier signal.” “A message Commander?” asked Noyes whose deep and baritone voice seemed odd to come from one so short. “Yes Admiral.” LaForge responded. “Can you make out any of the message?” La Forge shook his head. “No sir. When I informed Commander Riker he asked me to make every attempt to translate it, but it‟s heavily encrypted. It was when I began to search for Commander Data to assist with attempts to break the encryption that Commander Riker asked me here. Now I understand why I haven‟t seen Data in a couple of days.” Picard leaned forward over his desk. “It‟s true then.” He allowed disbelief to settle in. “The only two on the Panther who knew…” “Were Malek…” Riker shook his head angrily then clenched his jaw. “…and Captain Steele.” Noyes‟ eyes began to bounce with his internal thought process. “You mean to say that Steele or Malek is sending encrypted messages? To whom?” he grunted. “The Cardassians?” Picard‟s stomach rolled. “We can‟t be absolutely sure it‟s either of them Admiral. It‟s possible a leak occurred…” He wanted so much to believe it, but couldn‟t bring himself to do so. 150


Riker‟s look of devastation told him he felt the same way, not wanting to believe that either of them would betray the Federation in such a way. Riker cleared his throat. “We have to move forward under the assumption that the Cardassians now know of the switch…that they know Thomas is alive and is on the Jaguar.” His tortured look let Picard know that his worry rested with Troi. “They may even know of our intended ruse to split up at the cluster.” Riker rubbed his eyes hard. “The problem is…we can‟t even let the Jaguar know.” LaForge nodded in agreement. “Any transmission to the Jaguar would likely be overheard by those on the Panther sir.” “We don‟t even know who we can trust now.” Noyes agreed with anger rising in his voice. “One thing is certain Captain. We cannot now break free from the Jaguar as planned. We would leave them at the mercy of who knows how many battle cruisers may be laying in wait for us near the Argolis Cluster.” Picard let the feeling sink in. His sadness and his feeling of being betrayed by someone he trusted within his own organization rose to the surface once more. His bitterness was hard for him to hide as he looked to his First Officer‟s worried and angry face. “We have some time before we reach the departure coordinates. I want you to make every effort to break the code Mister LaForge.” “Aye sir.” “I also want us to be as prepared as possible to defend the Jaguar Number One.” “Yes Captain.” It was the first time he had seen Riker refocus himself since he sat at his desk. Surely the knowledge of Troi‟s presence on the potential target vessel had given him the reason to do so; but the thought of Malek or Steele breaching the confidentiality of the mission, or worse, being an actual informant, sat upon him like a heavy stone. 151


Noyes stood from his chair in fury and concern. “We must to find a way to reach the Jaguar without the Panther knowing,” he said. “We must.” LaForge nodded. “I will try to think of ways Admiral.” Noyes nodded with satisfaction. “Thank you, Commander.” “Dismissed,” said Picard then watched as Riker and LaForge both left the office. Picard‟s eyes met the Admiral‟s and they the broke eye contact sadly, both knowing that something had gone horribly wrong and now the entire mission had been compromised. Picard let his hands glide over his smooth head once more. It will never end. Retirement. I think I really do need to retire.

USS Jaguar Morgue He sat there in his chair for a moment, terrified. His hands now shook more than they ever had before and he looked away from the black screen of the comm. But once more the logo appeared with the words “Incoming Transmission – USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D.” His fury swelled and he hit the rejection button – then the rage found its home and the adrenaline found its avenue of escape and he stood, placed his hands on either side of the comm and pulled with every ounce of strength he had. The comm tore from the desk, sending momentary sparks across the room and he flung the piece away from himself. It sailed like a strange-shaped boomerang. Silently and with grace it flew until it hit and pierced the canvas of a large painting of an arid landscape. It tore clean through – creating a 152


vicious ripping noise; a noise that he knew was the ripping of his own heart. He found that he was unable to control it anymore. He fell to his knees and screamed in unabashed agony. “PAUL!!!!” His screams continued, but went unheard.

Thomas sat up on his bed. The morgue was eerily empty except for the two guards and Deanna. His racing heart eased when he watched her move toward him in concern. “What is it Thomas?” She asked quietly as she reached his bedside. In confusion Thomas rubbed his eyes. He knew he had experienced the same dream before but the last time it had been worse. He remembered it made him ill. He remembered a doctor giving him a hypospray to help with the nausea. He remembered the entire dream. He could remember sounds, smells and emotions so vividly. This has happened before, he thought. I‟ve had this dream before… As if it washed over him, he allowed a memory of a scramjet crash to sweep by him – compound fractures, his screams of pain and agony…Toni putting her hands on my legs… Another memory swept past him – he was riding a horse to the site of a crash. His father…no…her father was dead. I got that memory from Toni. I remember that. I remember sharing the memories with her after the scramjet crash…But this? Where did this dream come from? Why does it feel the same? He lifted his gaze to Deanna‟s dark, caring and concerned eyes. “Toni,” he said, “was Toni here?”

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Deanna licked her lips in hesitation. She could sense his anguish and confusion but there was a strange duality to it. “Captain Steele was on the Enterprise with us. She is not here now.” “But she was there? How? How did she? How did I get…?” Thomas was overcome with the realization that Steele had been in the medical ward on the Enterprise. “I heard her screaming. Was she screaming?” he whispered, not wanting the guards to overhear him. Deanna wavered to answer him. “Thomas, you should really concentrate on trying to relax…I don‟t know if we want to delve into this right now, we need to concentrate on your…” “NO!” he barked. “How?!” His eyes widened with shocked realization and horror, swinging his legs off the bed and his loud retort caused the two guards by the door to begin to move in his direction. “Did she take my pain?!” he lowered his voice once more, “Oh God, she took my pain!” Deanna waved them back, “It‟s okay, I‟ll tell you everything that happened.” Thomas took her hand in his. “She did, didn‟t she? She took my pain somehow. When? How? Tell me Deanna…” he urged. “When you were first brought to the Enterprise, you were placed under anesthesia…” “Yes, yes, I remember you telling me that. You said the Tholians implanted a perimeter trigger in my chest and that the doctor removed it…” “Yes, but only because Captain Steele was able to absorb the pain long enough for her to do so,” said Deanna, tightening her grip on his hand. “What?” he asked, worry and guilt beginning to traverse his face. “The device pulled you out of anesthesia Thomas. It then began to cause you horrible pain. It was meant to kill you. 154


Captain Steele absorbed your pain long enough for Doctor Crusher to remove the device and get you back under anesthesia.” He was overcome by the vision of Steele‟s hands throwing the comm through the painting once more. The pain of the loss of her husband grabbed him by his throat. He was suddenly overcome with the vision of Ro Laren as she smiled, her body falling upon the blood-soaked ground. His hands started to tremble. Oh. Oh no. No. “She should have let me die,” he whispered. “She should have let me die.” “Thomas, don‟t say that.” Deanna begged, feeling his despair as it oozed from his psyche. “Captain Steele‟s okay. She back aboard her ship.” Thomas‟ eyes widened with sadness. “She‟s not okay Deanna. She took my pain…that means…” He covered his eyes. “That means she‟s not okay.” “What do mean Thomas?” Deanna asked. At that moment the doors to the morgue slid open and Dr. Kaest walked in. Deanna urged him forward and Kaest opened his tricorder and began to scan his patient. Thomas covered his face in sorrow and his fury began to boil from his inside once more. Deanna could easily feel his hatred and rage. “Thomas…” “Is this not a good time Counselor?” Dr. Kaest moved in with deep concern. “Doctor, I‟m afraid that Thomas may need…” “No. It‟s okay Deanna.” Thomas exhaled. “It‟s okay. The doctor can stay.” Deanna was not sure and she turned to shoot Thomas a pessimistic glare. “You look horrible Deanna. Why don‟t you go get some rest?” “I‟m fine,” Deanna retorted. “Counselor…” The doctor smiled weakly. “Thomas is right. You haven‟t slept in over twenty four hours. I‟m not due

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back in sick-bay for awhile. I will stay here with him. Why don‟t you get some sleep?” Deanna was overcome with a mix of her own dread, unease and exhaustion. She glanced to Thomas who appeared to have calmed and his emotions, although still thick with guilt, had settled. The thought of a soft pillow called to her. “Okay Doctor, but if he needs…” “I will send for you directly Counselor.” Kaest responded. “Now, off with you. I have tests I need to perform anyway and Thomas and I will be just fine.” Deanna nodded weakly and patted Thomas‟ hand. “We‟ll talk later.” Thomas tried to smile to her. “Yes.” Deanna turned and exited the morgue. Thomas looked to his Bajoran physician, letting his sorrow sweep over him and as he laid his eyes upon the dangling earring, he let the memory of Laren creep back in. At Kaest‟s direction, he laid back down upon his bed, listening to the sounds the tricorder was emitting. The doctor moved around the table and around again. It was only because Kaest began to walk around a third time that Thomas opened his eyes once more. Kaest was staring directly at him. His eyes glanced once towards the guards and the hair on Thomas‟ arms began to stand on end. Kaest spoke to him so softly he had to strain to hear his voice. “Was it Nekrit?” he whispered. Thomas‟ heart began to thump madly in his chest. __________

Deanna walked towards the cramped quarters she had been assigned in the bowels of the ship. Few people were there. 156


As a matter of fact…no one but she and the remaining members who had knowledge of Thomas‟ presence were there. It was eerie. She was so used to a large and bustling ship‟s compliment the thought that there were so few on the entire deck caused a wave of goose-bumps to roll over her arms. She was exhausted. The constant pounding of waves upon waves of grief, anger, fear and guilt that had emanated from Thomas was beginning to take their toll on her. She was beginning to feel the edges of her own psyche fray with each new discussion she had with him. But what really bothered her was a new sensation she had felt, and because of her exhaustion, she was unable to decipher its meaning. She inhaled deeply, trying to clear her mind of the remnants of Thomas‟ guilt and worry. She was actually a little amazed. For all of his torment, he still carried the ability to feel deep concern for another. Maybe that‟s all he can feel she thought. Not once since he regained consciousness and a clearer thought process on the Jaguar had he experienced any concern with himself. He always seemed to be focused on those around him. She had been troubled by his focus on her. Troi allowed herself a brief respite from her apprehension when Thomas began to shift his focus onto Captain Steele, but only afterward did she understand that he was more than merely worried for Steele…he feared deeply for her. She stopped in front of the door to her quarters. Something else was eating at her tired and fatigued brain. She sighed heavily and stretched her neck and was just about to wash that feeling away again when that nagging little part of her said…wait.

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She turned on her heel and moved down the corridor to the room adjacent to hers. She pressed the button. At least I know he‟s not sleeping. The door slid open. She smiled when she saw Data looking up at the door from his seated position at a small desk in the room. She allowed her smile to widen when he returned her grin with one of his own. He had initiated his emotion chip, something he frequently did while off-duty. He stood from his chair and moved towards her. “Counselor,” he cooed, “what can I do for you?” Deanna moved herself into the tiny room and noticed that it was more of an office than a guest room. There was no bed, nor any windows. He lifted several PADDs from a chair and set them on the desk, offering her a place to sit with a gracious move of his arm. “Please Counselor, have a seat. If you do not mind me saying so, you appear fatigued.” Deanna chuckled slightly and shook her head weakly. “Thank you Data but I was only stopping by to talk to you briefly before I went to my own room to sleep.” Data‟s smile dropped from his face. “Of course, Counselor. I am glad that you are finally going to take some rest. You have been awake far too long.” His eyes poured over her with concern. “What do you need to discuss?” Troi folded her arms in front of her, more as a way to steady herself than as a sign of aggression. “Data…” She rolled her eyes in frustration. “I don‟t know.” She hesitated again, seemingly embarrassed. “Maybe I‟m overreacting.” Data looked upon the counselor‟s face and surmised that she was bothered by something but was having difficulties verbalizing her concerns. A quick review of her history of hunches and observations of others‟ emotions led him to calculate that she was indeed having a crisis in that regard. “If I may Counselor…you appear to be having doubts about

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something. Can I assist you in determining the source of your concern?” Troi smiled, dropped her arms, then held one out to grip Data‟s arm and squeeze it gently. Data knew that it was a sign of affection and he was grateful for it. “Data…” she said softly. “You‟re getting better at perceiving the people around you with each passing day.” Data allowed a surprised grin to erupt from his shining gold face. “I do try.” He stepped back a little to allow Troi more freedom to move in the restricted space of his temporary quarters. “I am sorry there is so little room. I am afraid the lower decks of these defense ships were not built with many of the comforts available to us on the Enterprise. Are your quarters satisfactory?” Troi giggled slightly. “They‟re fine Data. I have a place to sleep and wash up. It‟s true this deck was never really meant to house someone for long periods of time. These rooms were designed for troop transport in times of conflict.” “Yes. I appear to have been assigned a briefing room,” he concurred. Deanna nodded then let her scowl return. “Data, something is bothering me and I‟m not exactly sure if I‟m not just letting my fatigue get to me.” Data pulled his head back with understanding. “Counselor, there is one thing I have learned over the years of working with you and that is when something bothers you, there is a ninety seven point eight two percent chance you have a solid basis for that concern, regardless of your level of fatigue.” Troi sighed once more. “Well, what about the other two point one eight percent?” Data grinned. “When you play poker.” Deanna laughed out loud. “Data! What a wonderful joke! You‟re doing much better!”

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Data dropped his head with what appeared to genuine humility. “Thank you Counselor. I have been studying the interactions between sets of friends as you have suggested. I am happy that my observations appear to have a positive affect on my ability to grasp and work with humor.” He dropped his eyes, “However, I can see that you are indeed worried. Now, what has troubled you?” “Data,” she began, “…ever since Thomas regained consciousness here on the Jaguar, I have been…well…a little overwhelmed with his emotions.” “Thomas Riker has been through an extraordinary ordeal and if I may say so, he will be facing even more challenges when he reaches Earth.” Deanna nodded with agreement. “He will require extensive psychological and psychiatric care there‟s no doubt. He will only be in a position to testify only after weeks if not months of therapy.” Her eyes fell upon him with a strange new worry. “You don‟t believe that he will be prosecuted…do you Data? Because I don‟t think…” “No Counselor. Captain Temmett has already developed the briefs outlining the terms of the immunity agreement. Although Admiral Jellico seemed displeased with the terms, he has no choice but to accept them. Thomas Riker will not be facing any charges for any alleged illegal activities while a member of the Maquis.” Deanna nodded and swallowed with relief. “Good. Because I‟m not sure that being one of the few, if not the only, Maquis survivor won‟t also affect his ability to recover.” “Agreed,” he said, “but what else concerns you?” Troi exhaled again, almost letting her eyes close from her exhaustion. “Doctor Kaest,” she said. “Doctor Kaest?” “Yes Data.” Troi began to pace inside the tiny office space, Data watched her intently. “I never really noticed it until 160


this evening, and frankly I might still be overreacting. Since I have been so focused and so overwhelmed by the flood of intense emotions emitting from Thomas, I never really thought twice about them, but Doctor Kaest has had a peculiar reaction to Thomas every time he enters the room.” Data coaxed her with a look and upon seeing his comprehension, she continued. “You see, Kaest‟s anxiety level is…well…not normal.” “Can you be more specific Counselor?” Troi grunted in frustration. “Not really Data. Again, I may be getting inaccurate signals from him due to my focus on Thomas, but it bugs me. Every time Kaest enters within a few feet of Thomas his anxiety level jumps.” “Could that not be attributed to normal tension levels considering the delicacy of this mission and his presence on board this ship?” “Maybe,” she relented, “but it just feels more intense than I would have expected.” Data stood and walked towards her. “Then I will increase my monitoring of the situation to see if your apprehensions are correct.” Troi was washed over with a sense of relief. “Thank you Data.” “Where is the Doctor now?” “With Thomas. They‟ve been together since I left the morgue. The guards are still there.” “Then I will remove myself back to the morgue. I can continue my work there without issue.” “Again. Thank you. I don‟t want anything to happen to Thomas.” “Nor do I Counselor. If he is able to provide the testimony we think he might, then there is a real chance that the military‟s dominance over Cardassia will finally falter. That can only be beneficial to the Federation.” “And the quadrant…maybe even the galaxy.” 161


“Indeed Counselor.” He reached his arms out and touched her shoulders gently. “Now however, you require sleep.” Troi nodded quietly. “Yes. Good night Data and thank you for indulging my crazy notions.” Data escorted her to his door. “Again Counselor, I have yet to be confronted with a time when your crazy notions as you call them, have lacked foundation.” Troi swallowed hard, nodded and left Data‟s room. She walked toward her quarters and when the door opened, she moved directly into her room. She didn‟t even bother to undress herself, she just fell upon the bed and just as her eyes closed and she felt the comfortable heaviness of sleep fall upon her, her mind let out only one thought…Good night Imzadi.

USS Panther Bridge Steele walked lethargically out of the turbolift and out onto her bridge. Malek was not in the command chair but Kiley was. She was a little grateful for it; she wouldn‟t have to hide her short fuse in front of her. Kiley was shorter than her by at least ten centimeters and had short, light brown hair and dark, chocolate brown eyes. She looked human from afar but one look at the Zaldan‟s hands revealed the webbing between her fingers and the fact that she was anything but human. Kiley stood from the command chair as Steele entered. She locked eyes with her Second Officer and could tell immediately that there had been some tension on the bridge. Zaldans were horrible at hiding their tempers and of course, she realized, they never tried. “Captain,” she grunted. 162


“Where‟s Malek?” Steele replied with a slight growl, not attempting to hide her exhaustion. “In the ready room with Lieutenant Commander Xad, sir,” she replied coldly and Steele could tell that she must have looked awful because Kiley‟s face contorted with shock and distress. “Captain, are you all…?” Steele snarled. “It‟s none of your concern Kiley.” Kiley nodded her head sharply. “Of course not Captain.” Steele moved directly to her office. The doors opened and her ears were filled with the sounds of Malek‟s deep voice raised in a bark towards her Chief of Engineering, a tall, pale blue Bolian male. “Is that clear Commander?!” Xad‟s eyes were wide with fury and he spun to look at Steele as she moved into the office, stupefied by the tone of Malek‟s voice. Xad‟s grimace deepened when he looked upon her and Steele began to realize she must have looked worse to others than she had to herself. Her exhaustion overtook her. “Is what clear Commander?!” she snapped. She noticed a strange lock of the eyes between the two men and she stepped forward aggressively. “I asked…is what clear Commander? What the hell is going on here?!” Malek‟s antennae drooped slightly and he looked upon Steele, anger still evident in his cerulean face. “I was just reminding the good Engineer of his duties Captain,” he grunted, “and how sometimes he needs to follow orders without knowing the reasons behind them…” Steele turned her attention to Xad. She had known him longer. He had served under her as the Assistant Chief of Engineering on the Yeager. He had never questioned orders before and now she knew she was missing pieces of the puzzle. “Lieutenant Commander?” Xad‟s pale blue face brightened with his anger, he turned to look at Malek again whose eyes appeared to be glaring at him

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with warning. “I‟m sorry Commander Malek, but I refuse to follow your orders. The Captain must know.” Malek shoved his fist down on the desk and openly growled at the Engineer. Steele moved in quickly. “Orders? Orders to keep something from me?” She turned on her First Officer. “What did you order him not to tell me Commander?!” Malek shook his head in fury. “Captain. I merely wanted to get real answers before I placed more burden…” “What?!” she howled. “What do you want me to know Xad?” “That someone has been transmitting messages via our deflection grid Captain. I just haven‟t been able to isolate the origination point.” Steele had been expecting something unusual, but this? This took any remaining semblance of foundation out from underneath her and she felt herself completely and utterly dumbstruck. She grabbed the back of a chair for support. “Dammit Xad!” Malek bellowed. “I don‟t care Commander! I may not know what our mission is, but I‟ll be damned if you or anyone else forces me into silence from the Captain. She‟s still in command of this vessel and deserves to know everything and if you desire to have me thrown into the brig for disobeying that order, then so be it!” Steele felt the fury begin to build and she let it fly without even attempting to hold it back. “ENOUGH!” She spun on Malek. “I don‟t want you to move a muscle, is that understood Commander?! I want to speak to you…alone!” She then turned on Xad, “What do you mean someone‟s been sending messages? To who? What did they say?!” Xad shook his head in frustration. “I don‟t know Captain.”

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“What do you mean you don‟t know? How...when?” she stuttered. “Captain…” Malek led, “Lieutenant Commander Xad noticed a differential in our deflection grid output three days ago and I have asked him to follow up on his findings, hoping he could identify…” “Three days ago!?” she cried, “and I‟m just now finding out about this?!” Malek shut his mouth and turned his back on her, walking towards the windows of the ready room. Steele let the realization wash over her. She recognized the look of pain in his eyes and Xad‟s determined and angry stare at him. “Oh my God…Malek! You thought it was me!” she whispered. “You thought I was the one!” Malek turned his icy blue eyes to her once more. “I‟m still not so sure it‟s not Captain.” Steele felt a cold stab in her heart. The seam in Xad‟s blue face deepened in tone as his anger built. Steele tried to keep the anguish from rising in her throat, her exhaustion from overtaking her ability to think. “How could you? How could you even think it was me?” “Oh come off it Captain,” Malek spit in fury. “You‟ve been anything but yourself since you returned from the Enterprise! You haven‟t slept. Your stress levels are off the charts. You don‟t talk to anyone and you‟ve been keeping to yourself in your quarters and acting nothing like normal!” Steele thought about it briefly but her rage and mistrust refused to let her think it was all so easy. “How do I know it‟s not you Malek?” Malek‟s eyes flew wide with disbelief and rage. “Are you kidding me?! How dare you think I would breach the confidence of this mission Captain…” “SHUT UP! Both of you!” roared Xad. Steele and Malek, stunned by Xad‟s outburst turned to look at him, both of 165


them ready to physically attack the other. “Look at you! Just look at you! You‟re both ready to kill each other! I don‟t know what the hell this mission‟s about but when it‟s got the two command officers at each other‟s throats I‟ll be damned if I‟m going to stand by and let it interfere! Neither of you are responsible for the messages, that‟s something I‟m damned sure of!” he howled. Steele stood there, astonished by Xad‟s words. “What?” “It couldn‟t have been. Not you and not Commander Malek. I‟ve double checked.” “I don‟t understand…” Malek‟s voice dropped in ferocity. “Look, when I informed Commander Malek of the differential, I didn‟t think much of it. It wasn‟t that big of a deal. I kissed it off to an intermittent calibration error that might have been present since commissioning, but Commander Malek asked me to follow up on it, stating that the mission‟s objective was too great to risk jeopardizing it. It was then I put two and two together and realized how important the mission was. “We‟re escorting the Enterprise! How often does that occur? Never! I‟ve never heard of it!” Xad grunted. “The crew‟s not stupid! We know she‟s carrying something pretty big if she‟s got two Cats alongside her! “When I determined that the deflection grid hadn‟t been modified and that it was instead sending out encrypted subspace messages – even I didn‟t know who to trust or why! I took it upon myself to try to determine the source of the messages on the Panther. I looked at the timing of the messages compared to what you both were doing! I looked for someone, somewhere on this ship who could have sent the messages and from what station they could have done such a thing! Neither of you sent them! But what‟s more amazing is that I can‟t find where anyone on board this entire ship has been sending them!”

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Xad‟s raised voice reverberated through the room. “No offense Captain, but Commander Malek has been right about one thing and that‟s how strange you‟ve been acting since you re-boarded the Panther! Even Doctor H‟rim has mentioned his concern for your ability to handle whatever pressure you‟ve been under. We both served under you long enough on the Yeager to know that you haven‟t been anything like yourself! You‟ve been closed, secretive and nonsocial. Even during the worst of times on the Yeager, you were never like this! Look at you! You even look horrible!” He turned on Malek, “Malek doesn‟t know you like we do Captain! You can‟t blame him for thinking what he did, but we don‟t know him all that well either, which is why I informed Kiley of what was going on. She was the one who kept an eye on Commander Malek for me. She‟s the one who helped me realize that he wasn‟t capable of sending the messages either!” Steele slid slowly into the chair in front of her desk, moving her head slowly into her hands, rubbing her head, trying to avoid the oncoming headache. “Then where Xad? Where could they be coming from?” “Not here sir. There‟s no way they came from this ship.” Malek closed his eyes. “Could someone from the Enterprise or Jaguar be piggy-backing on us?” Xad nodded. “Yes sir. I think it‟s the only explanation.” He cleared his throat. “Now, I understand that you two may be under orders to keep the nature of this mission from us…but if there‟s any way…” “We need to brief them Malek.” Steele grunted. Malek‟s eyes widened. “But Captain…” “I said we need to bring them in Malek! I want the entire senior staff informed of everything now! If what Xad says is true the mission has been compromised! We need to regroup. Xad, is it possible that someone from either the Enterprise or the

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Jaguar would know about the presence of these messages being emitted from this ship?” Malek‟s face began to pale and Steele knew he hadn‟t considered this. “Not only is it possible Captain, it‟s likely.” “Then we‟re on the outside,” she said succinctly. “They think we‟re traitors.” Malek licked his lips and connected his eyes to hers with sadness and guilt. “I‟ll call senior staff to the briefing room sir.” Steele nodded weakly. “Thank you Malek. Xad – I want you to try to…” “I‟m already on it Captain. We‟ll find out who sent them…don‟t worry.” Steele chuckled sarcastically. “Xad, Malek…I need to apologize for my actions of late…” “Captain, I‟m sorry about…” Malek offered. “No. I put you into a very strange position. Xad‟s right, I haven‟t been myself. I don‟t blame you for thinking the way you did. You put the mission first Malek. You did the right thing,” she said starkly as she stood from her chair. “Now let‟s see if we can find a way out of this mess…together.” Malek nodded with a smile and exited the ready room, followed closely by Xad. Steele sat at her desk and placed her head in her hands. She had so little emotion left. She had so little energy to deal with it all. A single tear dropped to her desk. She stared at it coldly for a long time. If I ever find her…If I ever hear her voice…I will. I will kill her.

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USS Jaguar Morgue Thomas looked to Kaest in pure disbelief and growing anger. “You‟re lying,” he whispered harshly. Kaest‟s eyes filled with moisture and he turned to assure his back was to the two guards who stood ready at the door of the morgue. He shook his head almost imperceptibly.“No. I swear it,” he whispered. Thomas raised himself on a bent elbow and glared into the Bajoran‟s eyes. “It‟s not possible. You‟re trying to trick me.” “Please…you must help,” Kaest begged. “Just follow along when the time is right. Your presence on this ship is too great a gift. You have been sent by the Prophets. I know it. It was meant to be.” “No.” Thomas whispered once more. “The Prophets do not exist.” Kaest‟s eyes softened with understanding. “You may not believe so but that is no matter. Please tell me you will do this.” Thomas wouldn‟t look him in the eye. “What if I refuse?” “Then more will die.” Thomas‟ eyes shot wide. “What do you mean by that?” “Look. You want her dead and so do I. I can give you the means to accomplish that goal. The fact that you ended up on this ship is just a fortunate happenstance. I had to use this opportunity and so should you!” Thomas swallowed hard and felt the physician place a small device in his hands. “When the time comes Thomas please don‟t fail me. I will meet you. You will not be alone.” The doors to the morgue opened and Thomas took the device and discretely shoved it under his waist on the bed. Kaest smiled gently and turned to see Data entering the room. There was no doubt that the android suspected something as his eyes 169


were drawn to the two of them immediately upon his entrance. Kaest briefly looked to his patient once more, closing his tricorder. “You are doing better by the minute,” he said loudly enough for the rest to hear. “I will return shortly.” Thomas‟ eyes connected with Kaest‟s and rested there – stone cold and immobile. Kaest placed his hand on Thomas‟ arm and squeezed it fervently. He turned, acknowledged Data and left the morgue. Data approached Thomas directly. “Are you well Thomas?” Thomas swallowed hard; filled with confusion and doubt he nodded his head weakly. “I‟m fine Commander. Just tired.” Data observed him shortly, nodded his head once and turned to walk towards the tables on the other side of the bay. “Then I will leave you to your rest.” Thomas closed his eyes but his heart was beating so quickly he knew he would never sleep. The bulge of the small device sat like a stone just under his ribs. Could it be true? Can he help me find her? Can he help me kill her? If so…I must use it. I will never get another chance like this. Once I‟m returned to Earth I‟ll never be placed in a position to harm her! What if he‟s lying? What if he‟s trying to trick me? What if he‟s working for her, not against her? I would be led right back to the spider‟s web. Thomas shifted himself over the device at his back. But sometimes the only way to kill a spider is to hunt her where she feeds.

Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract VIP Quarters of Gul Nekrit Gul Nekrit smiled cautiously as she read her tablet. Gul Minet eyed her carefully. Her smile could mean many things 170


and he was not about to assume one way or the other. Nekrit set the tablet on the desk and looked to her counterpart from Central Command, Gul Cacet, who stood near her at the desk. “Good news Nekrit?” he asked, giving Minet a moment‟s relief from feeling he would have to ask her himself. “Yes,” she said calmly. “This couldn‟t be going better.” Nekrit leaned back in her chair with and fingered the edge of the desk playfully. “If we continue to get lucky, we may never have to engage them.” “What?” Minet couldn‟t help himself. He had been preparing himself and his crew for battle with three formidable Federation ships, the thought that they would still be able to reach their mission objectives and not have to fire a single shot? It was too hard for him to believe. “How?” he asked. Nekrit turned her stark grey eyes to him. “I will need to use one of your sturdier shuttles Gul. I‟m sure you can arrange that?” Minet was beginning to fume. Facts were being withheld from him once more and it unsettled him. However, he knew that questioning either of his superiors would lead him nowhere but to death. He stifled his anger once more. “Of course.” “In the meantime, please change your course heading and move towards the Cluster. I want you and the other ships to find a way to hide from Starfleet sensors for as long as possible while I‟m away. Hopefully I will return without delay with our problem.” Cacet‟s eyebrow lifted slightly. “You want to go alone? I would feel much more comfortable if you took a small contingent with you at the very least.” Nekrit smirked. “While I appreciate your concern Cacet, I don‟t believe this will take long at all…but, I‟m no fool either. I will take a small team along with me.” Cacet nodded his head with satisfaction. “Good. Where in the Cluster are you headed?” 171


Nekrit shook her head. “A minor planet about four light years from the Tovuhn system called Nisiam.” Minet grimaced. “Nisiam? I know of it. Gul, I am concerned. If something happens to you there I‟m afraid we will not have much of a chance to rescue you quickly, the gravimetric shear that surrounds that area will impede this vessel‟s response time and will likely make it impossible altogether.” “I am aware of that, but that same gravimetric shear will impede Starfleet‟s larger vessels as well and I want you to keep the larger ships from entering into the cluster. A shuttle from the Starfleet battle ship called the Jaguar will meeting me.” “Why not just have the shuttle come directly to us?” Nekrit smiled and Minet shuddered. “Because as hard as it is to believe Minet, I would like to accomplish this mission without having to engage any Starfleet vessel, and I am sure you can understand why. Starfleet would have no reason to fire upon us if we do not provoke them, so having a Starfleet shuttle enter one of our ships would not be wise. However, they would not be able to stop me from returning to my ship.” This was something Minet could easily comprehend. A major portion of the Argolis Cluster was still considered to be outside of Federation territory, including the Tovuhn system and several smaller systems closer to the Cardassian Demilitarized Zone. It was still unarguably considered neutral territory. Starfleet would not fire upon them unless provoked and if they could avoid firing on Starfleet vessel, all the better. Firing upon a Starfleet vessel now could rupture any potential political gains Central Command had earned back with the Cardassian public. Minet stood from the chair opposing Nekrit. “I will make the necessary preparations for your shuttle.” “Good,” said Nekrit. “I want to leave within the hour.” “As you wish.” Minet departed the room.

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Nekrit looked up to Cacet and he grimaced. “I still would rather you take a larger contingent. I don‟t trust this. He‟s still Bajoran and no matter how much you may think you have him under your thumb, he will always be Bajoran.” Nekrit nodded softly. “Too true Cacet. However, you will be in a position to determine if the shuttle contains too many.” “I would still feel better if we would just fire upon them the moment they exit that battle ship.” Nekrit perused over her graceful hands once more. “Yes Cacet, I know. However this is one time when firepower is not in our best interest. If we fired upon a weaker shuttle…” Cacet pursed his lips tightly. “Yes. We would be asking for war.” "And don't forget Cacet, the Enterprise's First Officer is an exact duplicate. Right down to their DNA and a majority of their memories. I'm still not convinced they haven't switched them to protect our target and have fooled our good doctor. If we just blasted that shuttle out of space, we wouldn't know if we got the right one until they reached Earth. I cannot risk it. I'll know if he's the right one immediately and then I will kill him."

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CHAPTER EIGHT USS Jaguar – NCC-90262 Ready Room Admiral Jellico paced the office with gritted teeth. It was the first time Nate Hunter realized how annoying watching someone pace could be. Tensions were high enough and all he wanted to do was punch someone or something in the gut – just to let off a little steam. Unfortunately, if Jellico didn‟t stop pacing he would become Hunter‟s unwitting target. “Admiral,” he grunted. Jellico stopped in his tracks, peered around him and realized that he had been walking and mumbling across the small room. He looked down to Commander Claussen. Her

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serious stare belied her short stature. “Are you absolutely sure Commander?” She cleared her throat.“Quite sure Admiral.” Hunter growled. “Admiral, I don‟t believe for an instant that Steele would…” “Nate,” Jellico warned in his voice. “As much as I hate to say it, you have to keep an open mind when it comes to the power Cardassians can wield.” Hunter shook his head, “Sorry, I refuse to believe it and it‟s ridiculous to even think it!” He spun to Claussen. “What about Malek Commander, you‟ve known him for how long?” Claussen paled significantly. “Twenty years sir. I feel about him the same way you feel about Captain Steele. He could never betray the Federation.” “But one of them did just that.” Jellico sneered. Hunter tried to hold onto his fury and he tightened his hands into fists on his desk. “I still don‟t believe it. It must be someone else.” Jellico was seething. “Then why hasn‟t she tried to contact us? Surely she must know about the messages being emitted by her own ship!” “Not necessarily Admiral,” stated Claussen coolly. “If she hasn‟t been informed of it…” Jellico shook her off. “That would take a ship-wide conspiracy, don‟t you think? Engineering had to see it! Malek might be able to withhold the information for a little while, but surely her COE would bring it to her attention directly.” His face paled even more. “And if she does know, why isn‟t she trying to contact us or the Enterprise trying to explain the messages?!” Hunter stood with agitation from his desk, his thoughts reeling. Why would Steele not call them? If she or Malek were not the ones sending the messages what would keep her from just contacting them and admitting there was an unknown traitor 176


on her ship? Hunter‟s stomach twisted into knots as the solution bit him in the face. “Because the transmissions didn‟t originate from her ship, Admiral.” “What?!” barked Jellico and Claussen‟s face fell with comprehension. “Think about it! If I were her and I just found out that messages to the enemy were being sent from my ship what‟s the first thing I would do?! I‟d try to find their source and catch the person who was sending them! But what if they weren‟t coming from my ship…what if the messages were being piggy-backed? Who then would I trust? Who could I trust?!” “Piggy-backed…” Claussen sighed. “Sure, why not – we do it all the time! Locating the source of the piggy-back signal is the hard part…for all we know they could be originating from the Enterprise.” “Or even us,” Claussen offered and connected her gaze back to Hunter. Hunter stood from his chair and nodded slightly. “You‟re right.” Jellico growled. “Can you verify the source Claussen?” She looked defeated, “We can try sir, but only if the there‟s another transmission over the Panther‟s deflection array.” “I suspect that those transmissions may have ceased.” Jellico grunted. “We may never know where they originated.” “So what do we do? Say nothing? Do nothing?” Jellico though pensively. “I trust Picard.” “The same way I trust Steele,” said Hunter. “And Malek,” Claussen chimed in. Hunter watched his Admiral‟s face and scowled. “You don‟t trust Riker.” Jellico sighed. “Never have.” “You really think he‟d deal with the Cardassians to turn over his duplicate?” 177


Jellico stared Nate directly in the eyes. “How would you feel to have another one of you running around?” Hunter shook his head. “I know I wouldn‟t adore the idea, but I‟m not so sure I‟d lay down with the devil to kill him.” Hunter shivered. “That‟d be…just…I dunno – weird, like killing myself in a way.” Jellico shook his head. “Well, Riker‟s actually done it before. He and Pulaski killed clones of themselves, so I know damn well he‟s not fond of the idea of having two of him running around. I also know he‟d have no compunction in killing one.” Claussen grimaced. “He did what?” Jellico pursed his lips. “Years ago, the Mariposan colonists stole genetic material from Riker and Pulaski which was used to make their clones. They located the developing lifeforms and killed them.” Claussen pulled her head back. “Can‟t say I blame them, it was a pure violation of their personal rights.” “I can.” said Jellico. “It was murder. Plain and simple.” He grunted angrily. “Although Starfleet disagreed.” Claussen also wanted to disagree with the Admiral, and her expression had made it clear. Hunter saw the look in her eye and jumped in before she could spout her retort, “And you think he‟s doing the same thing now?” Jellico shrugged. “I have no evidence on which to base such an opinion. Only that he has a motive and the knowledge and the means. If we discover that the transmissions originated from the Enterprise, then I‟ll have something.” “Sounds like you hope it is him.” Hunter growled. “He really did get under your skin Ed. I‟ve never seen you like this.” “When it comes to Riker, Nate? I‟ll never be able to rest my faith in him. He‟s let me down before and I never have liked his attitude.” He turned to Claussen. “Please continue to seek the

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source of the transmissions Commander and not a word to anyone.” Claussen nodded. “Aye sir.”

USS Panther Ready Room She could barely see the repair line in the canvas now. The art restorer on Lya Station Alpha had done a phenomenal job considering the hellacious tear the comm unit had made in the painting so long ago. She reached out her trembling hand to touch the scarred area. The thickly placed stroke of paint felt almost sharp under her sensitive finger tips. She couldn‟t even smell the paint anymore. For years she took comfort from the scent the painting exuded from its breadth, like somehow the paint was still young, still wet…that Paul was still somehow…close. The scent was gone now, but even just a reminder of the scent brought back the memory… “What do you mean it‟s too small?” A bright white grin erupted from Paul Rice‟s dark-toned skin. “If I paint it any larger, it will never fit in your quarters on the Stravinsky!” Antoinette approached him from behind and ran her hands through his thick, dark, wavy hair and nuzzled the crevice of his neck. “But the New Mexico skies are so much bigger!” she joked. “No canvas is big enough!” Rice lowered his paint brush from the sizeable canvas, smiling as he soaked in the kisses from his wife with pleasure. “I‟ll never finish your painting it if I keep getting interrupted.”

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She nibbled his ear-lobe and his eyes rolled back in his head, he groaned uncontrollably. She whispered softly, “That‟s what you get for marrying…” “…a partial Deltan…I know.” He set the paintbrush and his board down and turned his attentions towards her, bringing her into his embrace and onto his lap. He stroked her dark hair and gazed into her lovely green eyes. “Trust me, I am not complaining.” He kissed her tenderly and when he pulled back he was surprised to feel a cold, slimy substance being pulled across his cheek. He knew instantly that it was a large streak of oil paint. He closed his eyes and didn‟t even look back as his hand reached behind him to find the paint board he had just rested to his side. He took as much paint onto his hand as he could scrounge away from the board, opened his eyes to meet the same mischievous look she was giving him then pressed his hand directly over her face – covering it with thick globs of green and brown paint. She howled in laughter and disgust. “So you wanna fight, do you?!” he challenged. He grabbed her hard, threw her to the ground and reached for an open tube of paint. She screamed in laughter. “NO!” she retorted. “Too late,” he replied. “This is what you get for marrying a full-blooded human.” Steele‟s hands trembled even more as she retracted her finger from the dried paint on the canvas. Her door bell chirped. “Come,” she said absentmindedly, still focused on the dark green splotches of paint that filled out the impressionistic juniper trees. Malek entered the room. “Captain,” he said, “you wanted to be notified when we were approaching the division coordinates.”

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Steele turned slowly and lifted her vacant and fatigued eyes to her First Officer. His antennae shot bolt upright and he took two steps forward, horrorstruck. “Captain…” he whispered, “you‟re not well.” Steele didn‟t have the strength to disagree with him. “Malek...” she whimpered faintly, “I‟m not sure…” “Captain!” He rushed forward and before her body collapsed to the ground, Malek lifted her into his arms and he carried her out of the ready room and directly to Sickbay.

USS Jaguar Morgue

Data was sure he had seen the look on his face before, but his programming made him acutely aware that the same look on Thomas Riker‟s face may not mean the same thing as it did on William Riker‟s face. Granted, they were technically the same man until several years prior, but it would be reasonable to calculate that the stark differences each had experienced since the transporter accident on Nervala IV would cause personality changes in one that may not have occurred in the other. He thought it was fascinating. He watched Thomas Riker at rest on his biobed, reading a PADD. He was humming. Most curiously, he was humming an ancient 20th Century jazz tune…Fly Me to the Moon. He had heard Commander Riker hum that same tune numerous times over the life of their shared careers. The voice was identical. The pitch and intonation of the humming was precisely what William Riker had sounded like

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when he had heard him hum the same tune in Ten Forward or on the bridge. Thomas Riker sighed. The sigh was exactly the same way that William Riker sighed when exhibiting boredom or frustration…or anxiety. Data began to watch Thomas with fascination. He seriously thought about initiating his emotion chip. The pros and cons of doing just that jetted through his positronic net and he decided to hold off for now. Emotions had a way with interfering with his duties. If he had enough time to spare after the preparation of the preliminary briefs he would reward himself with a few moments to watch Thomas with the emotion chip turned on, just to see if it altered his perceptions of his observations. For now he was choosing to make a comparison about Thomas and William – that they were even more different than Data and his “brother” Lore. Lore was the “black sheep” of his “family.” Dr. Soong was unable to repair the unstable emotion chip provided to Lore and due to that he had Lore disassembled, never believing Lore would ever be reassembled to wreak havoc on anyone or anything. Yet, Data still considered him his brother. They looked alike, they sounded alike, they were the same dimensions – just like Thomas and William; except Thomas and William were the same person. They were not brothers. They were not twins. They were both truly the same man – just duplicated – copied – doppelgangers. This was a man literally split into two equal selves. They were the most riveting and complex study of human nature he had ever known. If he ever wanted to know how William Riker would have reacted to eight years of forced solitude, all he had to do was study Thomas. If he ever wanted to see what William Riker was capable of if he ever turned his back on the Federation, all he had to do was study Thomas. If he ever 182


wanted to know what William Riker would do to survive …anything…all he had to do was study Thomas. And the reverse held true as well. William became a study of a man who made different choices and where his life had led him differed wildly from that of his other “self.” Comparing himself to Lore would never produce such starkly pure summations. For he and Lore were two completely different androids, and always had been. Their origins were different; therefore the results would always be tainted. But the Riker men…they were the quintessential doubleblind study in human reactions to different stimuli. He looked forward to turning on the chip in order to feel his reactions to his observations, and he resolved that if he was ever given the opportunity, he might actually ask what event in Riker‟s life caused him to hum Fly Me to the Moon on such frequent occasions; because Data now knew that event occurred before the then singular William Thomas Riker ever set foot on Nervala IV. Thomas stopped humming and Data lifted his eyes from the legal work at hand. Dr. Kaest had entered the room. Data stood out of respect. Dr. Kaest smiled professionally and walked just past the two guards at the door. “We‟re approaching the division coordinates Commander. I have been asked to remain here with Thomas until we know we are not being followed by any Cardassian vessel and alter our course to Earth.” Data nodded and sat back down. “Understood Doctor. Do you know how long before we reach the coordinates?” “I believe just under a half hour.” “Very well. I believe that I should awaken Counselor Troi so she can…” Data began to reach for his combadge but stopped when Kaest seemed to jump in place. “That won‟t be necessary Commander!” Kaest‟s earring jiggled wildly with his head shake and slight jump forward. 183


Data noticed most curiously that Kaest‟s eyes widened slightly and had made several short bursts of eye-contact with Thomas who was slowly rising from his supine position on the bed. Data surmised that all was not as it seemed. Counselor Troi was correct. Kaest was not being entirely truthful. “No, I believe it is necessary…” Once again Data reached for his combadge but before he could touch it, Kaest barked out loud. “Thomas!” In a whir Kaest turned, removing both hands from his lab-coat pockets to brandish two hyposprays. He pivoted and before either guard could move into take Kaest into their control he pressed heavy doses of a drug into both of them. Data moved with impressive speed but before he was able to come close to Kaest, he felt an odd vibration in his central core then, even more oddly, his emotion chip kicked on. He stopped his forward momentum and before he fell over with a loud, percussive thump, he was overtaken by a horrible wave of fear. Everything went dark.

Without looking at Thomas, Kaest made a beeline for a replicator near the back of the room. His hands flew over the console. Thomas looked to the small cylindrical device in his hand that had taken Data off-line. “This was effective.” Kaest turned from the replicator and rushed back holding a black-tinted bundle and boots in his hands. “But temporary. Hurry…put this on. We only have a few minutes, we must hurry.” Thomas looked down at the bundle and realized that it was a Starfleet uniform. He swallowed. “That‟s how I got into this mess to begin with.” He said starkly. “Isn‟t there any other way?”

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“It‟s not to help you get off the ship Thomas. I‟m hoping it will provide a diversion long enough to keep Nekrit from killing you the moment she sees you.” Thomas immediately understood the logic, nodded his head and stripped off the gown and put on the uniform. “What about the beard?” he asked. “Commander Riker shaved his beard. You look just like him now.” Thomas didn‟t know why he found this so odd, but he did. He shook it off and followed Kaest out to the corridor. It was deserted. Kaest had planned everything, every move, every turn, every re-programmed door and every use of a Jefferies tube until they reached the shuttle bay doors without being seen. The moment before they entered the room, Kaest pulled out a hypospray once more and dropped his voice. “There should be no more than two people in this bay at this time. I need you to focus on making sure no one alerts the bridge.” Thomas nodded. “Let‟s do this.” Kaest pressed his lips together and opened the shuttle bay doors. They walked in as nonchalantly as possible. Kaest was approached by the shuttle bay Chief. “Doctor! What can we do for you?” He smiled then looked quizzically at him when he saw Thomas. “And I didn‟t know Commander Riker was visiting! Welco…” Kaest wasted no time in using the hypospray. Thomas leapt and tackled the Ensign who had begun to approach him happily as well. Kaest flew in to assist and quickly rendered the second man unconscious. Thomas stood immediately to see if there were any others that may have been alerted, but there were none. “This way!” Kaest hoarsely whispered. “This one!” He pointed to a large warp-capable shuttle resting in the middle of

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the bay. Thomas jumped in directly behind Kaest and the two men prepared for their journey away from the Jaguar. __________

Deanna Troi woke up with an ache in the center of her gut and remnants of a spike of pure, raw, negative emotion emitting from her Imzadi. “Will,” she called out reflexively and quietly. She sat up and looked around and shook her head in befuddlement. The room was unfamiliar and the bed was small and utilitarian. “Computer, lights.” The lights brightened and only then did Deanna remember she was on the Jaguar. Still, the feeling that had awakened her gnawed at her stomach. “Will,” she whispered once more with worry and fear. She reached out to him with her mind and felt eased when she sensed him through the thick clouds of emotion being emitted from all those aboard the Jaguar as well as the other vessels surrounding them. Will was safe. She could tell that he was very angry and concerned for her, but he was safe. Nonetheless the dull ache in her abdomen persisted. It twisted itself inside and pulled at her, as though it was an echo of Will, a faded memory of him. It was the way Will used to feel – before they had rekindled their passion. It felt as if their connection had faded over the years; the way it felt before Ba‟ku – when their connection forged itself stronger than it had ever been before. She stood, shaking the last vestiges of hard sleep from her body and walked to the small sink in the bathroom. She wet her hands and splashed the refreshing liquid over her tired eyes. Her thoughts confused her. Why would Will‟s connection trigger such a horrible reaction when he was alright on the Enterprise? 186


Her eyes flew wide with the dawning of her clarity and the reason behind her ill feelings. “Thomas…” she murmured. “Of course! Thomas!” She looked down to find herself surprisingly still dressed in her uniform, took it for what is was worth and clicked her combadge. “Troi to Commander Data.” There was no answer and Deanna tried again. “Troi to Data!” Again, her request was met with silence. “Computer…what is the location of Lieutenant Commander Data?!” “There is no such designation on the ship‟s roster.” Deanna rolled her eyes in frustration. “No one is supposed to know we‟re here at all,” she muttered. She bolted through the door to her quarters and down to Data‟s assigned room. There was no answer to the bell. Her fears took root as she ran full bore for the morgue and wasn‟t surprised when she was confronted with the unconscious bodies of three men and that Thomas himself was missing. “Data!” she cried and moved in towards the android who remained in a prostrate position on the floor. “Commander Troi,” he vocalized, his voice completely muted by the floor‟s impedance on his lips. Deanna hustled to flip his stiffened body over, finding it heavy and difficult. “Data! Where‟s Thomas?!” She moved away quickly to check on the condition of the other two guards and was relieved to find that they were breathing normally. She knew then that they had been drugged. “I do not know Counselor. He and Doctor Kaest…” Data was interrupted when the ship‟s red alert beacons fired off. “It appears their escape has been noticed.” Deanna moved back and tried to lift him up to no avail. “Data are you functional?” His face contorted with and odd expression and Deanna could feel a wave of embarrassment, shame and guilt emanate from him. “I am afraid that you were right about your concerns about Doctor Kaest. He must have planted an interference 187


device on Thomas Riker. Thomas used the device to send an inhibitor pulse to overload my positronic net. It caused my redundant systems to concentrate on resetting key components before concentrating on secondary systems such as lower body movement.” Deanna nodded with comprehension. “I remember now,” she said. “Is this how Will ended up carrying around your head when I was in command of the Enterprise?” Data‟s upper lip twitched as he processed her questions. “While the circumstances are similar, the damage done to my torso at that time was much more severe, and Commander Riker required immediate assistance with the Engineering interface with the bridge. In this instance I will be fully mobile within fifty seconds. There is no need to remove my cranial unit unless you feel it is necessary.” He gazed to her curiously and Deanna could fell him issue a shot of trepidation. “Do you feel it is necessary?” Deanna smiled gently. “No Data. I‟m sure that fifty seconds will be just fine.” At that moment, the doors to the morgue opened and Admiral Jellico burst through followed by three security team members with their weapons drawn. Upon seeing the disabled men upon the floor and Deanna leaning over Data‟s stationary edifice, they holstered their weapons and began to assist the two downed team members. “Riker has escaped in a shuttle. Who did this?! He couldn‟t have acted alone!” His eyes seared into Deanna and she was relieved when Data answered for her. “Doctor Kaest was the perpetrator Admiral. He assisted Mister Riker in the escape.” Jellico fumed. He glared once more at Deanna with bridled rage. “Didn‟t you sense anything Counselor?” Deanna sighed heavily and shook her head. “Admiral…I, I have sensed little…”

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“Admiral,” Data interrupted and stared at Jellico from his newly obtained supine position on the floor. “Counselor Troi came to my quarters to report that even though she was overwhelmed with a flood of emotions from Thomas Riker, she was troubled by Dr. Kaest‟s reactions around him. It is why I came in to monitor him. Unfortunately, Dr. Kaest was prepared for the circumstance and gave Mr. Riker a device meant to temporarily reset key systems in my posit…” “Yes Commander,” Jellico barked. “I can see that. When will you be fully functional?” Data shifted his head hard to the left then once more to the right. He sat bolt upright then stood in a fluid motion to look at his superior officer in the eye. “Now sir.” Jellico huffed in anger and frustration and turned his attentions to the two men being lifted from the floor. “Are these men alright?” He looked to the security guards that were being lifted by the response team. “They‟ve been drugged sir,” responded the first team member sharply. “They‟re alive.” “Fine. Report their conditions when received.” Jellico returned his heavy stare to Data and Troi. “Let‟s meet in the Obs Lounge and try to determine where they may be heading.” He turned towards the door. “Admiral…” Troi called to him. Jellico turned to see her pointing at a set of hospital clothing resting on the floor. “Thomas changed clothes.” Data moved directly to the replicator and his fingers blazed across the interface. He turned and moved back towards the couple. “It appears as though Dr. Kaest replicated a Starfleet uniform Admiral.” He turned his eyes softly and with warning, “It meets Commander Riker‟s specifications.” Jellico‟s face bloomed bright red and he turned when he heard Deanna‟s voice. “Admiral, I may not be able to sense where they are heading, but I was awakened by a shot of 189


emotion that came from Thomas. At first I was confused by it, but now it makes sense. Thomas left the ship with only one intention.” Her eyes turned to Data then back to Jellico. “He is focused solely on killing someone and he believes he is close to being able to accomplish that task.”

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CHAPTER NINE

USS Enterprise Bridge Picard couldn‟t believe it. He soaked in glances from everyone around him on the bridge and knew immediately that they all understood exactly what had happened. “All stop! Can you identify the occupants?!” he clipped, standing habitually from his command chair and viewing the small shuttle on the viewscreen ahead of him. “A Bajoran and a Human,” replied Worf sharply from his station. The ship disappeared in a quick flash of light. “Where is it heading?” asked Admiral Noyes calmly from the counselor‟s chair.

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“Directly into the Argolis Cluster sir,” Worf retorted. Picard spun back around to lock eyes with Riker and then over to Noyes. “Admiral,” he sighed. “I don‟t see where we have much choice. We need to talk to them.” Noyes nodded weakly. “Agreed. But I don‟t want to talk about anything classified Captain. We must assume the Cardassians are listening in.” Picard pressed his lips together and directed Worf, “Hail the Jaguar and the Panther…together.” “Aye sir,” said Worf. “They‟ve responded sir.” Picard turned to face his viewscreen, standing upright and stoically. “Onscreen.” The faces of Captain Hunter and Commander Malek both appeared in front of them. “Commander?” Picard looked to the Andorian curiously. “Where is Captain Steele?” “Sickbay,” Malek uttered, his antennae curved forward with what appeared to be anger. “She‟s unable to assume command at this time.” “What?!” Riker shot out of his chair with deep-set concern and Picard waved him back and turned to Noyes. Noyes moved forward. “And Jellico?” he asked Hunter. “He‟s due to return momentarily Admiral.” Hunter replied. Noyes grimaced. “Can I assume certain things about the shuttle Captain?” Hunter stewed. “Yes sir.” “Pursue.” Noyes ordered. “Claussen is already on it Admiral.” “Beam over. Both of you. Now.” He shot a look to Riker. “Prepare a shuttle for pursuit Commander. I will join you.” Picard scowled. “You Admiral?”

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“Yes Picard. Me. Grayson and I have worked too hard to see this fall apart now.” Noyes pointed to Riker who nodded sharply and the two left the bridge.

USS Panther Sickbay “Is she asleep?” Malek questioned the physician quietly on the other side of the ward from where Steele lay. H‟rim shook his head slightly and folded his charcoaltinted ears flat back against his rounded skull and sighed heavily. “She is resting. The seizures have subsided.” “Do you know what‟s causing them?” “No.” H‟rim bared his teeth in a sign of anger that Malek was just now becoming used to. “She‟s never been the most cooperative patient Commander, and she is refusing to tell me what‟s bothering her.” He reconnected his eyes to Malek‟s. “Did he escape?” Malek nodded. “It appears that way Doctor. He and a Dr. Kaest left by shuttle and are heading into the Cluster. Commanders Riker and Claussen are in pursuit. I‟ve been summoned to the Enterprise. Kiley has the conn until I return, but if anything happens with her…” His eyes drifted back over to Steele. “Of course, I‟ll contact you immediately,” H‟rim confirmed and as Malek turned to walk away, he called to him once more. “Commander…see if you can determine what might have happened to our good Captain while she was aboard their vessel. She‟s absorbed the pain of others before, but she‟s never suffered side effects such as this. Find out what was different this time, will you?” “I‟ll try H‟rim.” 193


“Thanks. I‟d like to be able to treat her if possible and the more I know about the cause of her symptoms…” “Okay Doc. I promise, I‟ll find out more.” Malek nodded. He peered sullenly over to the biobed then turned and departed sickbay for the transporter room. H‟rim shook his fur-covered head and walked gracefully over to Steele‟s resting body. He smiled gently when he saw her open eyes. “Captain,” he said softly. “Did I hear Malek say that Riker escaped?” she asked tiredly. “Captain, you shouldn‟t worry yourself with the…” “Don‟t tell me what I should and shouldn‟t worry about Doctor,” she growled. “I asked…did Riker escape from the Jag?” H‟rim sighed in frustration. “Yes Captain. He was in a shuttle with Kaest of all people, and they‟re heading into the Cluster. Commanders Riker and Claussen are already following them.” Steele‟s eyes started to jerk from side to side. “He knows,” she whispered to herself. “That means he knows…” “Who knows what Captain?” asked H‟rim cautiously. “He knows where she is. He knows…” she hissed and sat up on her biobed. “He‟s going to kill her.” “Captain, please lay back down.” “I have to help H‟rim!” Steele turned her face to him in panicked fury. “He knows!” Steele bolted from the biobed, pushing H‟rim back with such force he fell back onto the floor. Steele tore out the door and ran for the shuttle bay.

__________

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“H‟rim to Malek!” chirped Malek‟s communicator as he stepped briskly up to the transporter pad. He looked to the Chief with concern and spun, stepping off the platform once more. “Doc? What‟s wrong?” “Captain Steele has just left sickbay sir. I believe she‟s heading for the shuttles!” Malek groaned aloud and sped back through the transporter room doors. “Doctor, is she fit to pilot that shuttle?!” “I‟d rather she not!” he replied. “I don‟t know what‟s causing her seizures if she has another while negotiating her way through the Cluster…” “Yeah, I was afraid you‟d say that.” Malek muttered. “Malek to bridge! Lock a tractor beam on any shuttle that leaves this ship is that clear!” “Too late Commander,” Kiley‟s terse voice responded. “She‟s already jumped to warp.” “Follow her!” he shouted. “That‟s an order Kiley!” “What about the Enterprise sir?” “Don‟t lose her Kiley!” “Sir, I don‟t think that‟s such a good idea.” “What? Why not?!” He roared as he entered the turbolift. “Bridge!” “Because there are three Galor–class Cardassian battle cruisers hanging off our port bow.”

USS Enterprise Bridge “Red alert!” Picard glared at the viewscreen. He had a hard time controlling his venom when he saw the outline of the three Cardassian vessels now staring down upon his ship. “We‟re being hailed Captain,” said Worf.

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“Make them wait Picard,” muttered Jellico as he shot out of the turbolift. Picard knew better than to question Jellico on matters surrounding Cardassian meetings. “Hunter?” “He has remained on the Jaguar.” Picard nodded with satisfaction. Worf addressed them again, “They are continuing to hail Admiral.” “I‟m sure they are Mister Worf. We have nothing to say to them. We have just as much right to be in this space as they do.” “Yes Admiral.” Jellico connected eyes with the Klingon, “But let me know if they power up their weapons.” “Of course, sir,” Worf replied. Picard looked to Jellico with a serious stare. “Admiral, another shuttle has just departed the Panther.” Jellico shook his head with frustration. “Malek?” “Human.” Worf interjected. “Steele?” “Most likely.” Picard answered. “And now we have a pack of Cardassians keeping us from following our own shuttles…” Jellico grunted. “Fine. Let‟s see who‟s knocking on the damn door. Open a channel Mister Worf.” The face of a grey-skinned Cardassian man loomed large in front of Picard and Jellico. His hair was cut tight to the skull, revealing taut and thick neck tendons. He was wearing traditional military attire that matched his skin-tone perfectly. His eyes were dark, ash grey and appeared almost gentle as he peered to the two experienced Starfleet officers on his own screen. He smiled widely when he recognized the two men. “Why Admiral Jellico, Captain Picard…” said Gul Cacet lightly. “Can we be of assistance?” 196


“Well, well, well…Gul Cacet,” Jellico said with a smirk. “What could be so important at the Argolis Cluster to draw away Cardassia‟s so-called Minister of Security during one of the most serious threats to military rule? Surely you aren‟t here just to offer assistance to passing Starfleet vessels.” Cacet smiled in return. “Of course not Admiral. As a matter of fact were are here on a matter of extreme importance to Cardassia‟s security.” “Really?” Jellico said more as a statement than a question. “We understand you have taken custody of a convicted terrorist. We would certainly like to see him returned to Cardassia to serve the remainder of his sentence.” Jellico didn‟t even blink an eye. “Sorry, what terrorist?” Cacet grinned and laughed. “So we‟re going to play that game.” “I have no idea what you‟re talking about Cacet.” “Of course you don‟t Admiral.” Cacet bowed his head. “May I ask…Captain Picard, where is your First Officer? Commander Riker, isn‟t it?” Picard stepped forward calmly but did not answer Cacet‟s lilting question. “He is a duplicate of the man we are seeking to place back into our custody Admiral. I‟m just offering advice. I would hate for him to be mistaken for Thomas Riker.” “Thomas Riker?” Jellico questioned. “Commander Riker…” “Look Admiral. We‟re not idiots. We know you arranged for a transfer of Thomas Riker from the Tholian Assembly. Thomas Riker was never meant to be traded to any other party – he is a convicted criminal under Cardassian law. We have a right to retrieve him and return him to Cardassia to complete his sentence. And we will do so.” The screen darkened.

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Jellico turned to Picard whose face reflected his growing anger. “We were set up all along,” he whispered. “Thomas was wearing Starfleet attire when he left the Jag.” Picard nodded. “It appears they now have both Rikers heading straight for them.” Jellico shut his eyes in fury. “Just to make sure we didn‟t switch them.” “Yes.” “They‟ll never fire on us in neutral territory.” Jellico smiled. “Nor will we.” Picard concurred. Jellico lifted an eyebrow keenly. “That‟s what they think.”

Argolis Cluster USS Jaguar Shuttle Hadrian En route - Planet of Nisiam Thomas could smell Kaest‟s fear. It smelled just like Nekrit and he knew Kaest was leading him into what was most likely some sort of trap. He‟d be counting on it. He was sure that Kaest had been truthful about his reasons for wanting to kill Nekrit – she had told him she had members of his family held in her still-active interrogation cells; but Thomas knew better. He knew Nekrit. He knew everything about her. Kaest was a fool but Thomas didn‟t have the heart to tell the poor bastard that Nekrit was lying to him. He couldn‟t tell him of course. He couldn‟t take the chance of telling Kaest and having him change his mind about meeting her. No, he needed to get as close as possible to her if he was going to have any chance of finishing his task.

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Kaest had barely spoken a word to Thomas since they entered the Cluster. Thomas found it rather calming actually. He had told Kaest that he preferred to pilot the shuttle himself. Kaest acted as navigator and the two were focused solely on the flight. Gravimetric distortions kept his mind busy and he relished being at the helm again. Someone once told him that piloting was like riding a bike; that one never forgets the basics. It was true. He could feel his own innate talent for anticipating the next distortion wave before it came close to striking. He‟d arc the shuttle as if it were riding on cushions of… “Thomas…” Kaest‟s voice calmly interrupted his thoughts. Thomas. Shit! I hate that name! My name is Will! It always has been. Starfleet took me away from me and then Nekrit took everything else. What‟s left? He sighed with agitation. “What?” “There.” Kaest pointed. “Northern continent. There‟s a mountain range on the eastern edge. Head for these coordinates,” Kaest ordered as he punched in the information into the panel in front of him. Thomas nodded and directed the shuttle through the green-hued planet‟s atmosphere and allowed it to soar toward the valley where Kaest had directed him. The shuttle landed gently near a crevice between two granite-appearing monoliths. “She‟ll be in there.” Kaest pointed to a grotto nestled in among the spires and the surrounding forest. “There is no exit on the other side,” he warned. Thomas grunted. “Good. I don‟t want her to be able to escape.” Kaest turned to him, puzzled, “That‟s not what I…” “I know what you meant Doctor,” he chastised as he turned in his seat to be faced with Kaest pointing a phase pistol directly at him. He wasn‟t surprised. It was what he was

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expecting all along. “And I knew this was too good to be true. You do realize that your family‟s dead Kaest, don‟t you?” Kaest growled at him. “They are not,” he hissed. “She promised me.” Thomas allowed a sarcastic laugh to emit from his gut. “You‟re an idiot Kaest. I‟m sorry for what she‟s done to you and your family, but don‟t you get it? Give me the phaser and I can give her what she deserves and make sure she doesn‟t hurt anyone else.” Kaest shook his head and urged Thomas forward with the phaser. “No. I won‟t. We had a deal and she promised me that she would let them go if I helped direct her ships toward you. The fact that you actually ended up on the Jaguar was just a sign from the Prophets that I‟m doing the right thing.” Thomas gritted his teeth. “Prophets.” He spit on the ground. “I‟m sick to death of hearing about your damn prophets! They don‟t exist, and if they do they‟re nothing but a bunch of spiteful, hateful deities who love nothing more than torturing Bajorans for their amusement.” Kaest frowned hard. “They forgive you for your blasphemy. You once loved a Bajoran, how you could say such…” Thomas lunged forward but backed off when Kaest‟s formidable reaction held him at bay. “You leave her out of this!” “Get out of the shuttle!” Kaest‟s eyes flared and his voice cracked highlighting his scattered mess of hair and trembling earring. Seeing the whole crazed package, Thomas realized he was dealing with someone who, like him, was living on their last nerve. Begrudgingly, he slipped out of the pilot‟s chair and moved towards the shuttle door as it blossomed open. “I should pity you Kaest, but I can‟t feel sorry for someone as idiotic as you.”

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“Shut up and move toward the grotto. You‟re lucky you‟re alive now. The order was to bring you to her, dead or alive. I just figured that if you were alive when I brought you to her I would have a better chance at obtaining my family‟s release.” “I told you, they‟re dead.” “Shut up I said!” Thomas huffed and moved out of the shuttle and began to move towards the grotto in the far off distance. He would make his move as soon as they passed into the forested entrance. He just needed to be patient.

USS Jaguar Shuttle Sun Tzu In pursuit of Shuttle Hadrian Commander Bridget Claussen looked over to the yellowskinned man in the pilot‟s chair of the small shuttle. She had heard about Lt. Commander Data for years, but never believed she would ever meet him, let alone command an away team with him as a member. Admiral Jellico had requested that Counselor Troi remain on board the Jaguar in case a confrontation with the Cardassians arose. She was disappointed as she had hoped to utilize Troi‟s empathic skills to assist them in finding their quarry. Yet, she was glad to see that Data‟s skills reading the trace signatures from the Hadrian were much more effective. They had only taken a nudge from one small distortion wave which had not done any damage to the armor. She was grateful for Data‟s precise navigation skills as she was not at all willing to concede piloting the small craft to the android. She wanted to glace behind her to check on her team, but her full concentration on the helm was necessary. She knew that her two best security officers were sitting patiently behind them. 201


Lt. Commander Egel, a Xindi Arboreal male and her Chief of Security, and Lt. Ismat, a Vulcan male, sat quietly in their seats allowing her and Data to track the shuttle. “I have picked up the signature once more Commander,” said Data succinctly. “Entering coordinates.” Claussen followed the prescribed route, making alterations for the ever-changing gravimetric waves as they danced in front of her. “They certainly aren‟t making this easy.” “Indeed Commander. Thomas Riker is one of the best pilots to be seen.” “How would you know that?” Claussen asked as her hands flew over the interface causing the shuttle to roll and dip, missing the shear as it swept by their underside. “Because Commander Riker is.” Claussen shook her head with confusion. “I don‟t think I‟ll ever comprehend that.” “Change course, new speed and heading,” Data retorted. “I see it,” she replied. “Comprehend what Commander?” Data queried. “That they‟re the same person.” “Only to a singular point in time Commander.” “Still, it‟s bizarre,” she stated and the shuttle lifted up and over a blur as it bubbled underneath them. “Oh that was close.” “It was Commander, and there are several more directly ahead. May I suggest we slow our speed?” “We can‟t afford to lose that signature.” “I do not believe we will Commander. It ends at that Class-M planet ahead. The data bank refers to it as Nisiam.” Claussen slowed the shuttle and maneuvered it through the final set of shear-waves and sighed with relief as they dissipated the closer they moved towards the jade-tinged planet. “Sure is a pretty one. Can you get a fix on the Hadrian?”

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“Affirmative,” replied Data. “Northern hemisphere. Coordinates have been entered.” “May I suggest that we set our shuttle down some distance from the Hadrian Commander? I don‟t want to waltz right into a trap. We must assume there is a contingent of Cardassian troops waiting for us,” said Egel from his chair directly behind Claussen. “Agreed,” she said, “but I don‟t want to be so far away as to make any hike too time consuming.” “Then may I suggest we land here Commander Egel?” Data pointed to a small plain just south of the coordinates of the Hadrian‟s position on the map on his interface. “It will provide us with an open area where a sneak attack will be difficult to achieve.” Egel leaned forward to scan the map in front of Data. He perused it quickly and nodded. “Very good Commander. It shouldn‟t take us but a few minutes to hike to the Hadrian and will provide us with an ample tactical advantage.” Claussen nodded when the coordinates were provided and within minutes she directed the shuttle into the planet‟s atmosphere. “Well, they‟ll know we‟re coming now.” “So does the shuttle behind us,” said Data. Claussen‟s eyes shot to her panel, “Who!?” “The shuttle is from the Enterprise Commander. It is the Captain‟s skiff, the Calypso.” “Good, more back-up,” barked Egel. “Yes Commander,” Data agreed. USS Enterprise Captain’s Yacht Calypso In pursuit of Shuttle Sun Tzu Riker and Noyes had barely spoken a word to each other the entire trip. Riker appreciated that Noyes allowed him to 203


focus on the task at hand – and that was avoiding the gravimetric shear that permeated the entire route. They were lucky that the Jaguar‟s shuttle was only a few minutes ahead of them. They had been unable to locate the signature of the first shuttle at all, but keeping track of the Sun Tzu had been relatively easy. Riker was impressed by Claussen‟s piloting skills as it had become abundantly clear she could maneuver the smaller craft through much tighter spaces. Noyes had wanted to use the Calypso as the ablative armor could withstand greater impacts, but Riker would have preferred to use one of the smaller, lighter craft. Doing so would have erased the need for the ablative armor because he could have avoided the shearingwaves altogether. “They‟re heading towards that planet,” said Noyes. “Go ahead and follow Commander.” “Aye sir.” A few long moments of silence passed by the two and Riker swerved the yacht hard to avoid a lifting distortion wave. As soon as they reached the clearing that led to the planet, Noyes turned to look at Riker curiously. Riker could feel the stare burin into the side of his stubbly face. “Admiral?” Noyes shook his head with embarrassment. “Sorry Commander,” he said quietly. “I‟ve been working with Thomas Riker‟s file so much that at times I forgot you were his duplicate. It‟s hard not to look…” Riker huffed a quiet laugh. “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror the very same way Admiral. No offense taken.” Noyes turned back to focus on his panel and cleared his throat. “Does it ever affect you?” Riker grimaced. “What sir?” “Having a duplicate of you?” “Of course it does sir. It‟s very disconcerting. But I think it might be more disconcerting for my father.” 204


Noyes‟ eyes widened. “I can only imagine.” Riker broke a small grin and let the subject drop but his eyes shot forward when a small chirp alerted him from the panel. Noyes had noticed it as well. “Another shuttle?” he asked. “I can‟t tell Commander. The readings are inconclusive. If it is, I can‟t even tell if it‟s a Starfleet vessel.” “The Sun Tzu has entered the atmosphere Admiral do you want to continue? If that‟s a Cardassian shuttle they‟ve seen the Sun Tzu.” Noyes jutted his chin out and pursed his lips. “Follow them Commander. When we reach the landing site, hopefully we can find cover in case the shuttle behind us is not Starfleet.” “Aye sir.” Riker drifted the yacht effortlessly behind the Sun Tzu and minutes afterwards pierced the atmosphere and eased down to the surface. Riker set the craft down perfectly alongside the shuttle from the defense ship and he and Noyes moved out quickly, arming themselves with phase pistols. They were greeted hastily by the team from the Sun Tzu. Claussen moved in first. “Admiral Noyes,” she greeted him with obvious surprise. “Commander Claussen. I‟ll be leading this away team.” “Of course sir,” she conceded immediately and connected her confused gaze to Riker who shrugged slightly. “We‟ve detected another vessel behind us but we were unable to identify it before landing. It could be one of theirs or one of ours.” Noyes stated. Egel moved forward. “Then may I suggest we find cover?” Noyes nodded, “Got any ideas where?” Egel pointed in the direction of two large graniteappearing spires. “Towards that forested area sir. That‟s where the other shuttle is resting.” “Lead on Commander,” Noyes ordered. The small group moved in haste towards the area where the Hadrian had come to 205


rest. “Remind me Commander…” Noyes addressed Riker, “…to remind Starfleet to change the dress code for Admiralty. These shoes were not constructed for comfort on away missions.” “Yes sir.” Riker smiled and took up the rear of the team, only to look down to see that the shiny patent shoes the Admiral was wearing did indeed look to be entirely too formal for grunting around in the soft, moist soil of the planet‟s surface.

USS Panther Shuttle Xerxes In pursuit of Yacht Calypso Captain Steele‟s hands were barely able to enter the commands fast enough to avoid the distortion waves as she entered the Cluster. She had thought there were more than a few times her tremors had actually been the lucky, life-saving factors when her hands struck the interface. She had come close to blacking out on a few occasions as well but once again luck seemed to be on her side, and when she was able to coax herself back to awareness it had been in wide open areas where the shear was almost nonexistent. She knew she wouldn‟t stay that lucky and would have to shake her head in order to clear her mind, but within seconds her fatigue would catch up with her and she‟d find herself fogged. The shuttle took a soft blow to her port side and Steele yelped. Her adrenaline shot through and her eyes went wide, refocusing her on her mission. He‟s found her. I have to help. She must pay for what she‟s done.

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CHAPTER TEN

Argolis Cluster Planet Nisiam Northern Continent, Eastern Range Temperate Forest Grotto Elevated Rock Formation Gul Nekrit couldnâ€&#x;t hold her victorious smile inside any longer. Not only had things gone according to plan, the inevitable variables within that plan had gone miraculously right. Her scout had informed her that three shuttles had landed. The first contained two men, the Doctor being a part of the set

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and a tall human male. The scouts‟ description of the man piqued her interest. He was described as being very tall, thin, and clean-shaven, wearing a Starfleet uniform. The second and third shuttles had landed in the lower plains to avoid ambush. Two small teams of Starfleet personnel were beginning to make their way towards the forested area. Included in that team were a Human female, a Vulcan male, a Xindi Arboreal male, a yellowtinted male that the scout had correctly assumed was the infamous android, and two other Human males…one of whom seemed remarkably identical to the first man. He too had been clean-shaven but seemed to be heavier in stature. “You see gentlemen…” she addressed her small team of security officers, “…see what happens when species join forces? They lose the inherent intelligence of the single focus. Cardassia had to lose hundreds of millions before they learned that lesson. We are now living proof that purity means success. These fools are walking right into the trap we have set for them.” “It appears so Gul,” replied Glinn Kevet as he turned to look at the three others beside him, “...but I would still feel better if we had more assistance. I do not like the fact that we are still outnumbered.” “I know Kevet,” Nekrit replied, “but I have faith in our ability to accomplish our task. Remember. I want the two tall ones brought to me unharmed. I need to assure I‟m killing the right one.” “Why not just kill both and be sure about it?” Nekrit closed her eyes with an impatient shake of her head. “Kevet, you worry me sometimes. Do you not understand the ramifications of this mission? Killing any of them would give rise to a potential conflict with the UFP that we can illafford. Bringing home the most infamous terrorist against Cardassia without giving the UFP reason to retaliate would be a sign of victory for the military and garner the last remnants of support we need to win over the people. That is why you and 208


your team were chosen. I need sharp-shooters to wound…not kill.” Kevet nodded with comprehension. “I apologize Gul, I should never have questioned you.” “No you shouldn‟t have,” Nekrit bit back. “But I‟ll let it slide…this once.” “Thank you Gul.” “Now go. Thin them out and make sure you bring me the two I asked for.” “Yes Gul,” answered Kevet and he waved for his team to head back out of the grotto and into the forest. Nekrit stretched her long, supple neck and took in a deep and cleansing breath. “Soon,” she whispered to herself. “Soon I can finish this.”

Neutral space outside Argolis Cluster USS Enterprise – E Picard watched Jellico with fascination. He had always heard about the unspoken language of the defense ship teams but thankfully hadn‟t been placed in a situation to be required to understand it. Jellico‟s words were simple enough, but it was the undetectable ballet of hand gestures, arm movements, head scratches and pacing that all meant something completely different from the words he was speaking to the two commanding officers on the viewscreen. Jellico rubbed his eyes with what appeared to be complete frustration. His voice contained the anger that Picard knew he was actually feeling, but he also knew that the eye-rub meant something else to the men who were watching it. “Malek, Hunter…we can do nothing more than sit here and hope that our teams come back safely. We can‟t afford an open war with 209


Cardassia at this time.” He moved his right hand to his forehead and rubbed his temple hard. “An impasse is the best we can do until they return.” He dropped his right hand and fidgeted with the bar on his left sleeve. Malek sat back with obvious frustration and Jellico shot him a look. “Sorry Commander. I know you‟d like nothing better than to head after them, but we‟re evenly matched now.” Jellico dropped his right hand and lifted his left and fidgeted with the bar on his right sleeve. “Understood Admiral,” Hunter addressed him, sitting back in his chair and licking his lips. “I suppose we really have no choice.” Malek appeared angry and Picard could understand. He was just told that he would not be the one to enter the Argolis cluster. Malek wanted to be the one to go after his Captain, but Jellico wanted Hunter to be the one as he had more experience with gravimetric shear than Malek had. He also felt Malek‟s strength came in direct battle, something that Jellico was no longer sure they would be avoiding. Jellico cleared his throat and Malek‟s antennae shot forward. “Are we clear?” Malek pursed his lips in resignation. “Yes Admiral.” The screen went dark and Jellico turned to Picard. “Well Captain.” Picard shook his head with a broken smile. “And you‟re sure the Cardassians have no idea what you‟re doing?” “I don‟t like doing it very much,” he conceded, “but they‟re an extraordinarily conceited species in a lot of ways Captain. Most of them see us as nothing more than animals, with no subtlety. I doubt that Cacet would look to the scratch of a nose as anything more than what it appeared to be.” “When will Hunter move for the Cluster?” “Fifteen minutes.” “Malek was unhappy.”

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Jellico smiled. “I would be too if I were in his shoes. An XO‟s first duty is the safety of the Captain. His just took off without him.” Picard sighed softly and sat back in his command chair. “Mister Worf. Is everything set?” “Yes Captain,” responded Worf from his station. “Good,” said Jellico as he sat in Riker‟s chair. “Now? We just need to have one of their ships follow Hunter.” “How are you so sure Cacet won‟t just take the one ship advantage against us?” Picard asked. Jellico scowled. “I‟m not. I‟m just betting that Cacet‟s duty to whoever is in that cluster is higher than it is to starting a war that frankly, the UFP can tolerate more than them. Even if it‟s three ships against two – they‟ll still have to fire the first shot.” Picard nodded. “And you don‟t believe he will.” “Not over a so-called terrorist they don‟t yet have in custody.” “I hope your right Admiral.” Picard said supportively. Jellico nodded softly. “So do I Captain.”

Argolis Cluster Planet Nisiam Northeastern forest Thomas saw his opportunity directly ahead of him. A small outcropping of rock jutted out from the foliage and would given him the perfect opportunity to turn and disarm Kaest. He kept his pace unchanged, not wanting to tip off his motive. Kaest kept back a considerable distance and his hand gripped his phase pistol so fiercely he could feel the pulsing of his own blood in his palm. Although Thomas was still thin from 211


his experience in Tholian custody, there was no doubt he was still physically strong. Kaest could tell that he exercised regularly. While his extremities were not well-muscled, probably from a lack of weight to lift and appropriate nutrition to gain bulk, he was sinewy and flexible, and that was the type of strength of which he had to be especially wary. They rounded a large tree-type trunk of a plant that bore no leaves, only large plate-like blades that curved around the upper-portions of the trunk. Thomas‟ head nearly missed hitting the lowest blade. As he ducked to miss it he moved with graceful speed, running behind a large rock and swooping in behind it to knock at Kaest from his right side. Kaest was only semi-prepared for the attack. Thomas‟ block did nothing to disarm him, but the tightened grip on the pistol caused it to fire off and hit a tree in the distance. Thomas growled in frustration that the noise had been caused and tackled Kaest clear to the ground. Kaest fought back valiantly but Thomas wrenched the pistol from his hand, pressed Kaest‟s head into the ground as he lifted himself upright, holding the pistol towards him. “Idiot,” Thomas grunted. “Now if you don‟t mind, I‟m going to finish what we both started.” Kaest backed away from him on the ground. “Kill me then, I cannot live without them.” Thomas shook his head with disgust, lowering the phase pistol to a stun setting. “I‟m not going to kill you, you pathetic fool. I just need you out of the way.” “Lower your pistol,” a cold and stern voice called from behind Thomas. “There is no stun setting on these weapons.” Thomas could clearly hear the charged and high pitched whine of a Cardassian disrupter rifle. The phaser shot had given away their position. He closed his eyes in defeat and dropped the phase pistol. He knew the team would not kill him until he was brought forward to her…

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…and getting as close as possible to her was all he needed. “Get up,” commanded the Cardassian guard to Kaest. Kaest‟s face paled as his did as he was told and the two men were led off towards the grotto.

USS Enterprise-E Bridge Picard‟s eyes locked onto Worf‟s determined face, his hand ever-ready at the weapons grid. Worf nodded confidently. “Ready Captain.” Picard watched the viewscreen with anticipation and felt somewhat relieved when the Jaguar set itself in motion. The ship fell away from its position in a gentle, curving fall then shot off into warp in the span of barely a breath. “Jaguar is away,” Worf confirmed, “and the Panther has moved to an assault position.” Picard waited to hear what the Cardassians would do. Shields were raised and weapons were targeted as they had been since the red alert fired off. “One of the ships is pursuing!” Worf grunted. “Let them pass.” Picard ordered. “We‟re being hailed.” Jellico smiled. “Onscreen.” Cacet‟s angered face appeared. “I thought we had an understanding Admiral.” “Whatever could you mean Gul?” “You would risk open war….” “I‟m doing no such thing.” Jellico interrupted lightly. “We haven‟t fired a shot Gul. Our ship is merely entering the Cluster to take detailed scans of the area for…scientific 213


research. If your ship fires one shot on that vessel…you‟ll be the one risking open war.” Cacet snarled and ended the transmission. “Their weapons remain locked, but are not charging,” Worf reported. Picard nodded with satisfaction. “Captain Hunter has his work cut out for him I‟m afraid.” “His ship could be torn apart before he finds them.” Worf confirmed. “If the Cardassian ship doesn‟t destroy them first,” said Jellico. Picard grimaced. “That battle cruiser is more than twice the size of the Jaguar; they‟ll be at a great disadvantage.” “For once,” Jellico smirked.

Argolis Cluster Planet Nisiam Temperate Forest “Did you hear that?” Claussen asked the rest of the small team. She heard slight vocal affirmations of her question. “Phase pistol fire.” Riker said quietly. They continued to move together cautiously and silently through the thick and heavy plant-life. Riker, still taking up the rear of the group, turned frequently to make sure they were not being approached from behind. There was a slight rustling noise from their left and Claussen stopped cold in her tracks and lowered herself, followed closely by the others. They waited a few moments to listen, but heard nothing further. Claussen slowly rose and began to walk, slowly coming to a clearing inhabited by large tree-like plants with curved blades for leaves. Before she entered the 214


clearing she stopped, turned and whispered to Data. “I don‟t like the looks of this Data.” Data agreed. “Indeed Commander. Walking through that area would provide us no cover.” Egel moved forward silently and began to sniff the air. He shook his head with dissatisfaction. “They have been captured here,” he said softly. “I can smell the adrenaline response.” Data looked to the Xindi with a curious tilt of his head but chose not to risk an open question. “Can you smell anything else?” Claussen asked, “Anything…Cardassian?” Egel shook his head. “They are descended from reptilians Commander. They are an impeccably clean species. They do not sweat or give off much odor besides their breath.” Claussen nodded. “Recommendations?” “Can we go around?” asked Riker, his eyes still constantly on alert. Egel surveyed the area. “The foliage thins here for a great distance,” he whispered. “It does not appear that we can avoid it.” Ismat shifted slightly. “We should disperse ourselves out if we are to enter the area. It will give us our only advantage.” Egel nodded. “I agree Lieutenant.” “Fine.” Noyes nodded then moved his arms to direct everyone to move forward, but just as they did, Data stood sharply and held Claussen back harshly. “Commander,” he warned. “Do not move. There is a trip wire directly ahead of you.” Claussen‟s eyes shot down and came to rest on a thin, fibrous wire that extended out in front of her. Data pulled out his tricorder and scanned across the area once more. “We are surrounded Admiral.”

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No sooner had Data finished his sentence than a barrage of disrupter fire lit up the forest. A beam of yellow-hot light struck Claussen at her shoulder and she fell to the ground in the heap. Ismat was struck in the back and Egel took a hit on his hand then his leg, sending his phase pistol sailing into the brush. A shot narrowly missed Noyes‟s left shoulder as he dropped to the ground. Riker and Data fired back but within seconds had nothing to aim at. Noyes shot forward to the injured. Egel groaned in pain and anger. “Sharpshooters Admiral!” Noyes nodded and Data moved in with his tricorder once more. “They will all require immediate medical care Admiral. We must get them back to the Enterprise.” “They didn‟t even aim at me.” Riker whispered as they moved in. “I can‟t even tell how many there are. I saw four, maybe six origination points.” “Perfectly executed.” Noyes grunted. They missed me, but only because my shoe slipped. Get these people back Commander,” he ordered Data. Data shook his head. “May I suggest Commander Riker Admiral? He is the better pilot.” Noyes looked to both of them quickly. “Fine, just get them moving.” Riker shook his head, “I can‟t carry more than one Data. You‟ll have to pilot them back. I‟ll stay here with the Admiral and try to find Thomas.” “I can walk. I can stay.” Claussen hissed quietly, holding her burned shoulder. “You cannot.” Data replied. “The wound will only increase in size and debilitate you. I will need you to navigate while you can.” Claussen conceded and Data lifted the unconscious Vulcan easily into one arm then bent down to assist Egel into his other. Claussen lifted her phase pistol with her only good arm. “Good luck Admiral,” she offered. 216


“You get them back Data. Send for support,” Riker ordered. “I will Commander.” The wounded troupe moved quickly back through the forest towards the shuttle landing point. Riker turned to look at Noyes, phaser at the ready. Noyes held his forward. “They‟re coming for us Commander.” Riker nodded. “We can‟t go forward, we have to go around.” “There.” Noyes pointed toward a rocky outcropping to their east. For what seemed like hours, the two men walked carefully and tediously through the remaining bush and to the outer edge of the entrance to what appeared to be a large, encapsulated grotto. A small water stream meandered by them. The grotto was surrounded by tall trees and granite walls. Riker stopped and leaned against a rock. “That smells like a trap Admiral.” Noyes stopped alongside Riker. “I agree Commander,” he sighed. “You don‟t suppose we have the time to wait for our back-up,” he said sarcastically. Riker shook his head. “If Thomas is in there, he might be dead already.” “I was afraid you‟d say something like that.” Noyes stood once more but as he turned he came face-to-face with the business end of a Cardassian disrupter pistol. Riker closed his eyes with defeat as his phase pistol was summarily yanked from his own hand by another armed guard. “This way…and no speaking,” said the tallest Cardassian. The two men were escorted inside the grotto.

Argolis Cluster USS Jaguar 217


Hunter loved his new ship. It had the maneuverability of a Defiant-Class but the heft of a Steamrunner. They were lucky not to have been hit by a wave, and the pursuing battle cruiser was taking a beating behind them. It only pushed him to take heavier risks with the Jaguar. “New course, heading 78 mark 2,” he ordered the helm and the ensign responded quickly. “They‟ve taken another blow Captain!” said the lieutenant at the tactical station. “And they‟re powering their forward weapons array!” Hunter shook his head. “Idiots! They‟ll only kill themselves!” he screamed. “Power to the aft shields! Evasive maneuvers!” The ensign at the helm rolled the Jaguar hard to port as the cruiser fired off a desperate spread of torpedoes, only to have them engulfed by an incoming distortion wave. The explosion decimated the cruiser and the compression wave that followed hit the Jaguar hard sending it careening out of control. “Can you regain the helm?!” Hunter roared. “Yes sir!” replied the ensign with a broken and frightened voice. “Incoming shear!” cried the Bolian male at Ops. “Brace for impact!” Hunter screamed. The Jaguar stopped rolling just in time to take a fullforce hit from a boiling gravimetric wave. The ship spun with it sending half the bridge crew flying. Troi cried out from her seat behind the tactical station when she was hit by someone‟s arm. “Come on girl!” Hunter yelled, “Keep it together!” The ship broke out of the back of the wave and rolled into clearer space. The ensign never lost focus on the helm and was able to steady the vessel and move her away from the next oncoming wave. “Well done!” Hunter praised.

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“The Cardassian ship has been destroyed,” confirmed the tactical officer. The Bolian ops officer turned quickly in his chair. “I suggest we don‟t take any more hits like that Captain. Ablative armor or not, we can‟t survive another strike like that.” Hunter nodded and swallowed hard. Agreed.” He looked around him. “Damage report.” “Half of the external sensors are offline! Moderate damage to secondary hull, starboard side. Injury reports coming in from decks two, three and five. No deaths reported.” “We were lucky.” Hunter quipped. “Now, back to where we were heading.” The Bolian man huffed loudly. “Wish we could sir, but that wave pushed us clear from the warp signature we were tracking from the Xerxes…we‟ll never pick it back up now. It was wiped clean sir.” Hunter grimaced in frustration. “Great, now how are we supposed to find them?” The tactical officer cleared his throat as he looked down at his panel. “Captain, we‟re being hailed. It‟s the Sun Tzu!” Hunter grinned. “Onscreen.” “Sorry sir, visual is still offline…I‟m working on it!” “Fine, audio then!” “USS Jaguar, this is the Sun Tzu requesting immediate medical assistance,” Data‟s voice broke through. “We‟ll be with you as soon as we can Commander. We‟ve just taken a hell of a blow.” “We witnessed it Captain. We left Admiral Noyes and Commander Riker on the surface of the planet Nisiam. They will need our presence forthwith.” “We‟ll be operational in seconds Commander. What about Captain Steele?” There was a slight pause. “Captain Steele sir?” Data asked. “We have not seen her.” 219


Hunter‟s mood fell precipitously. “She was on the Panther shuttle Xerxes. She was last seen heading in this direction. We understood she may not have been fit to pilot the shuttle.” “I am sorry Captain. We were never in contact with her.” Hunter frowned. “She may have been killed by the shear.” “Visual contact restored. External sensors are back online,” said the Bolian proudly. “Another incoming wave Captain.” Hunter returned his focus and ordered the helm to avoid the shear and they moved towards the advancing shuttle. “Scan for debris of the Xerxes Lieutenant.” Hunter ordered then turned to the tactical officer once more. “Prepare for shuttle arrival and get a medical team to meet them. The moment they‟re on board lay in a course for that planet Ensign and engage at maximum safe speed.” “Aye sir.”

Planet Nisiam Forest Grotto The air in the grotto was thick, moist and heavy. The small stream that trickled out made no noise to be heard. Riker was not surprised to see his duplicate standing at disrupter point on the far side of the small open-air cavern. To his side was a trembling terrified Bajoran man in a blue Starfleet uniform. His head turned when he heard an unfamiliar female voice. “This is just so damn convenient!” Gul Nekrit snarled as she easily waltzed past the four men now held captive in front of

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her – Riker and Noyes on one side of the grotto and Thomas and Kaest on the other. “Please Gul!” whined Kaest as he dropped to his knees in abject terror. “Please! I„ve done what you‟ve asked! Please! Release my family!” Nekrit rolled her eyes and grimaced. “Bajorans...always such fools. I never could pity them their stupidity.” Nekrit lifted her disrupter and pointed it at Kaest whose eyes widened in fear. “You haven‟t had a family in decades. How‟s that for a final thought?” She shot him and his screams faded as his flesh disintegrated into thin air. Noyes shut his eyes and Thomas and Will both growled out loud. “Now, where was I before that groveling doctor interrupted me?” Nekrit turned quickly. “Ah that‟s right, the Riker twins and their convenient combined appearance!” “Killing us won‟t solve your problems Gul,” said Noyes coolly. “It will only cause you more.” Nekrit giggled lightly. “I have no intentions to kill you Admiral. I have every intention of recapturing a Cardassian outlaw and returning him to face his crimes.” “His crimes!” hissed Noyes. “What Thomas Riker has done could never…” “Shut up Admiral,” she moaned, “I don‟t care what you think about Riker‟s crimes against Cardassia! It‟s my job to capture him and bring him to justice!” “Kill him you mean.” Noyes verified. “I can‟t let that happen.” “You have no choice.” “You have no idea which one of us is Thomas,” said Riker. Thomas didn‟t move a muscle. He continued to focus his attention on the Cardassian who moved so freely in front of him.

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When he heard Riker‟s statement he froze and looked to his duplicate in confusion. What‟s he doing? Nekrit grinned. “Which is why I was so thrilled that you came along for the ride,” she said. “Too bad it‟s only too easy to tell which one of you is which.” “We look exactly alike. We have the same DNA. You cannot possibly tell…” “Take off their shirts!” Nekrit ordered her guards. The Cardassian guards wasted no time tearing the shirts from both Rikers. Nekrit grinned broadly and turned towards Noyes. “You see Admiral, it was all too easy. They always keep the first one. Always. It‟s why I make them so memorable.” Her head turned and Thomas looked down to see the small round scar at the base of his right collarbone. “Gul Madred always said to leave a calling card. He used his voice. I use a different signature.” She pointed to the scar on Thomas‟ chest. “He was right though. For some wonderful reason, they always like to remember me.” “I‟m going to kill you!” Thomas lunged for her and the guards held him back with ease. She laughed lightly once more, and her hand reached for a small device at her side. Thomas‟ eyes flared with recognition as her hand lifted the device and pointed it directly at the small scar on his chest. The moment the device touched the spot Thomas screamed in pain, falling into the grips of the guards at his sides. She pulled the device away and took two steps back from him and set the device back into the pocket at her waist. “Frankly I would have thought the time in Tholian custody would have added to the collection I gave you but I can see you were all too willing to rid yourself of most of my handiwork. I‟m glad that…” A red beam of light pierced the scene from above. Again and again and again it flared until all four guards were laid out on the ground. Two of them were struck directly in the face. 222


Reactively, Nekrit reached for her holstered disrupter and held it up, keeping the three men around her at bay. “I suggest you don‟t move a muscle Nekrit.” The voice was strong and sullen, female and unmistakably velvet in tone. “No one has ever beaten my aim.” Without hesitation Thomas bolted for one of the disputers and pulled it from the limp hand of a fallen Cardassian guard. He jumped up and aimed it directly at Nekrit. “NO!” cried Noyes, “don‟t do it Thomas!” Another beam of red light appeared and another. This time the disrupters were knocked loose from both their hands. Nekrit screamed and ran for another resting by a fallen guard. Thomas flew from his standing position, tackling Nekrit and wrestled her into a headlock on the ground. Noyes and Riker both moved for disrupters lying by their feet and aimed them directly at Nekrit and Thomas. Thomas was still holding her neck back with his arm – deflecting her attempts to dislodge herself from his grasp. Her voice was choked and wheezed. “Let her go Thomas!” Noyes yelled. “I will shoot you!” Thomas only shook his head with disdain “And kill the only one who can testify against her? Let me kill her and we‟ll be done with it Admiral!” “Thomas! Let her go!” Noyes cried once more. “NO!” He continued to tighten his arm‟s grip around the Cardassian‟s throat. She began to thrash wildly, grasping, tearing at his arms with her nails. Blood began to ooze out of the long scratches she left behind. “RIKER!” Out from behind them came a commanding, clear and rich voice, Noyes and Riker spun in their positions. Thomas held Nekrit firm, but eased his choke-hold on her. Stunned, he looked up to see a set of fiery-green eyes blaze at him from across the grotto. Slowly she began to approach

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him, her phase-pistol pointed directly at him. “Toni?” he asked, shocked by her presence. “Toni, what the hell happened to you?” Riker whispered in shock when he saw her. Her face was ashen. Dark, almost bruise-like circles appeared under her eyes. She ignored Riker‟s question and kept her focus on the Cardassian struggling against Thomas‟ hold. “Don‟t do it. You can‟t kill her Thomas,” she said calmly, walking slowly towards him. Thomas tightened his grip on Nekrit, although she continued to thrash, there was no doubt Thomas‟ hold on her was resolute. He grimaced in tortured agony. “You don‟t know! You don‟t understand! She can‟t live! Not after what she did!” Riker and Noyes began to lower their disrupters as Steele crossed their site lines as she continued to approach Thomas‟ position. “I understand all too well what she did. I know everything.” Steele hissed with disdain. Thomas grunted out loud. “Then you know! You know she must die!” “I know she can‟t die!” Steele cried back. “How can you say that? You know nothing!” he spat back, tightening his grip around Nekrit‟s throat once more. “Look out!” Steele cried in warning as she watched Nekrit‟s hand move for her own belt. “The pain device!” Thomas pulled hard on Nekrit‟s throat but she tore away from his grip. He grabbed her hand that contained the cylindrical device and the two rolled atop one another as they fought for possession. Riker and Noyes both moved forward, disrupters in hand. “Toni, get out of the way!” Riker cried. “No!” she retorted. “I have this! I won‟t let her get away!”

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Within moments Thomas had Nekrit under his control again but not without sustaining more contusions and bloody scratches to his arms and face. He had her neck pinned to the ground and the pain device set deviously close to her temple. “Now you‟ll die the way you should…with the pain!” he roared. Steele threw her phaser to the ground and lunged towards Nekrit.“I won‟t let you kill her!” she screamed, reaching out towards Nekrit‟s flailing hand holding her own hand over Nekrit‟s as a threat. Thomas‟ eyes softened in fury and despair. “Don‟t Toni. Don‟t do it. Please don‟t take this away from me!” he pleaded. Steele‟s gaze met his with determination. “I won‟t let you kill her,” she growled then lowered her voice. “Don‟t forget. She‟s a lot younger than you. She can outlive you.” She looked to her hand hovering over the Cardassian‟s then locked eyes with Thomas and whispered so softly only Nekrit and he could hear. “We can make her our pet project.” Nekrit stopped thrashing and her face contorted in confusion, her throat was still clenched in Thomas‟ firm hold. “What?” Thomas hoarsely asked, not moving a muscle. His gaze never left Steele‟s and he nodded his head once. “She will outlive me,” he said softly in return. “You can‟t kill her.” Steele said out loud. “Killing her won‟t make you feel any better. Do you understand?” Thomas nodded his head slowly.“Are you sure?” he asked. “Not really,” Steele retorted, “but I do know killing her isn‟t enough to take away the memories.” Thomas‟s eyes flared.“NO!” he yelled and as if in a blur, Noyes and Riker watched in horror as Thomas pressed the pain control device directly to Nekrit‟s head. Her screams of pain were deafening.

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Steele shot forward and grabbed Nekrit‟s trembling hand. Nekrit‟s screams were immediately replaced with the horrific shrieks of pain from Steele. Noyes and Riker both rushed forward. “TONI!” yelled Riker in horror. Thomas screamed in fury, hatred and rage. Anguish pierced his cries as he pressed the device harder against the head of his captive. The small cavern echoed with his and Steele‟s vociferous cries of pain and grief. Nekrit, confused by the sudden disappearance of her pain looked down to see Steele‟s hand grabbing hers and her seizing uncontrollably on the floor next to her. It only took a moment for her to realize what was happening. “She‟s Deltan!” She began to smile, and her smile widened as her laughter took over. “You‟ll never win Riker! The Federation will never let you!” Her laughter brightened in pitch as Steele‟s screams continued to emit from her tormented body. “Captain Steele!” Noyes yelled and he moved into Thomas, pulling harshly at his arm, trying desperately to pry the device away from Nekrit‟s temple. “Thomas! Let go! Stop it!!” Thomas refused to comply and Noyes used every ounce of strength he had left to finally torque Thomas‟ hand and the device from Nekrit‟s laughing head. He then levered the device from his Thomas‟ hand. Steele‟s screaming silenced and Riker moved in to pull her away from Nekrit, keeping the disrupter safely pointed in her direction. Nekrit hissed at him. “I would rather die than be taken prisoner by you!” She snarled and then stood and bolted into a run. Riker lifted his other arm to reveal the phase pistol that Steele had dropped. He didn‟t hesitate to fire upon Nekrit. Nekrit was thrown face-first to the ground by the pulse. “Too bad. You won‟t be dying today,” he said. “Stun works just fine.” 226


Riker turned and moved towards Steele who remained seizing on the ground. “Toni…” he muttered, rushing to her side as she continued to shake helplessly. He looked up in fury. “We have to get her to sickbay!” Noyes held his disrupter at Thomas. “We need to get to the shuttle!” “Let me go with her!” Thomas yelled then lowered his voice and looked to Noyes. “I won‟t try to escape Admiral.” Noyes shook his head with disbelief. “The others are dead sir.” Riker glanced over at Steele. “She killed them.” Steele‟s weakened voice squeaked from her trembling body. “They deserved it,” she hissed. “They all do.” “Jaguar to Admiral Noyes!” Noyes smiled brightly and hit his combadge. “Nice timing Captain Hunter. One to beam directly to sickbay and four to beam directly to the brig. Have a med team meet us there for treatment of two prisoners.” “Aye sir. We‟ll send teams down to retrieve the shuttles. Is that Captain Steele with you? Her shuttle appears to have crashed in the northern fields.” “She‟s the one for sickbay Captain.” “Understood sir.” “Toni…” Thomas said sadly as he looked to Steele‟s quaking body as Riker tried to console her. “Toni…” Five blue-white glittering beams of light carried them all to the Jaguar. Steele was beamed straight into the sickbay, only to have the med team confounded by her condition. Admiral Noyes and Riker watched as Nekrit‟s unconscious body was laid into a holding cell in the brig and the med team confirmed she would recover from her phaser strike unharmed.

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Thomas was placed into a holding cell of his own after he was provided wound treatment and a new set of non-Starfleet clothing. The door to the brig hissed open and Deanna rushed in only to smile brightly when she saw Riker standing safely on board the ship. “Will,” she said. Riker turned and grinned moving toward her with affection, hugging her and lifting her directly from the deckplate. “Deanna…I‟m so glad you‟re all right.” Thomas watched the scene briefly then turned, moved towards the bed in his cell and pulled himself down into a fetal position.

USS Enterprise-E Bridge They sat there and watched each other…waiting to see who would emerge from the dusty lanes of the Cluster first. Picard shifted in his seat trying to remain patient…and hopeful. Jellico was not so quiet. He walked the bridge incessantly, peering over the shoulders of everyone as he passed, double-checking monitors, tapping one hand against his palm in a constant slap-tapping noise that was really beginning to get on Picard‟s last nerve. Picard was just about to clear his throat in an attempt to bring the annoying habits to Jellico‟s mind when Worf‟s voice filled the bridge. “The Jaguar sir! She has cleared the Cluster!” “Hail them Mister Worf!” ordered Picard. Hunter‟s face appeared on the screen. “We‟re good sir. See you at home.” Jellico nodded once briefly. “Did you get the scans?” Hunter smiled. “All of them.” 228


“Well done Captain. Jellico out.” Picard didn‟t waste a moment‟s time. “Set course for Earth and engage at…” “We‟re being hailed by the Cardassians sir.” Jellico smirked. “Well, for once I can say…I don‟t give a damn.” He smiled at Picard. “Shall we Captain?” Picard nodded. “By all means Admiral, as I was saying…engage at warp nine.” “Aye sir,” replied the Ensign at the helm and the Enterprise, followed closely by the Panther, followed the Jaguar towards Earth leaving the Cardassians‟ two ships with more questions than answers. __________ It wasn‟t until Jellico and Noyes were quite sure they were safe when the ships stopped to regroup. The decision was made to have the prisoners transferred to the Enterprise and Steele was also transferred to the Enterprise‟s sickbay at her request. She had stabilized to a degree but Crusher and H‟rim were unable to stop her constant and low-grade seizures without causing neurological damage. It wasn‟t long before she had Riker, Troi, Malek and Picard at her bedside. She attempted to smile but was unsuccessful. “Captain,” she muttered. “I need to see Jellico.” “He‟s on his way Captain.” Malek said reassuringly. “Admiral Noyes told us what you did, that you kept Thomas from killing Gul Nekrit.” Steele didn‟t respond to him. She only looked at the ceiling. Riker took her trembling hand in his. “You look awful Toni. You need to get some sleep. Malek here told us you haven‟t slept for days.” 229


Steele turned her vacant and empty green eyes to her oldest friend. “Sleep?” she asked with confusion and hatred beaming from her expression. “Sleep? I don‟t think I‟ll ever sleep again.” She gazed to the ceiling. “And if there‟s any real justice, neither will she.” Riker froze. Picard took a half step back from his position, tore his gaze away from Steele‟s cold expression and looked to his First Officer. “What did you say?” he whispered. “Death was too good for her.” Steele said factually. “If there‟s any real justice, she‟ll never sleep again.” “Captain!” Crusher cried out. “I‟ve been summoned to the brig! Gul Nekrit is seizing!” Picard nodded weakly and watched as the emergency med team left sickbay, only as Jellico walked in. Picard turned to see that Steele had actually broken a small smile. “She‟s having seizures, isn‟t she?” Steele asked. Riker‟s face had taken on an expression of devastation and loss. “Yes,” he replied sadly. Troi moved in and placed her hand on Riker‟s shoulder. “What? What‟s wrong?” Riker tried to hold his anger in but was having little success. “You did it on purpose? You and Thomas did it on purpose?! He wasn‟t going to kill her, he was just going to cause her enough pain for you to implant the memories?!” “Oh no, he was going to kill her and frankly so was I. I just happened to realize that there was a different option. One more befitting her crimes, I think.” “Did what on purpose?” Jellico asked brightly and Malek shrugged in confusion. Picard held up his hand to cut the Admiral off. Steele lifted her tired eyes to Jellico. “I hereby request an indefinite leave of absence Admiral.”

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“What?” Malek said in concern, moving forward towards her. “Why?” Jellico scowled with confusion. “Captain…I don‟t understand.” “Just grant it Admiral,” Picard said sharply and turned back with anger towards Steele. “Of course I will,” Jellico replied. “I‟ll have Malek take over for the interim but I still don‟t understand why!” Steele let out a slight and sarcastic laugh. “Interim, he says.” “You and Thomas injected her with the memories, didn‟t you?” Riker asked with such heartbroken misery Troi squeezed his shoulder in concern. “Why?” Steele turned her gaze to him again and said coldly, “Because she needed to know…” “Antoinette…” Picard whispered with horror, “all for revenge Antoinette?” he asked softly. “Was it really worth taking on her memories as well? You don‟t know what she may have had hidden in that terrible mind of hers.” She peered up to him with dead calm. “What memories could she have that would ever outweigh what she gave him…what she gave me?” Her velvet voice contained an edge that no one had ever heard before. “But now she‟ll know. Now she‟ll really know exactly what she did.” Steele said so coldly, so matter-of-factly, Riker closed his eyes in grief. “That wasn‟t your call to make Antoinette.” Picard said with deep-seeded sadness. “Do you really think I care Jean-Luc?” she retorted, her voice shaking from her own tremors. She turned her head and stared Picard down with a sneer.“Given half the opportunity would you not have done the same to Gul Madred?” It was a stab directly at his heart and he didn‟t know how to answer. Picard backed away from her slowly. “Admiral.

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Captain Steele has acted in consort with Thomas Riker to assault Gul Nekrit, the alleged war-criminal.” “What?” Malek barked. “Alleged?!” Steele screamed and sat up, her body quaking and her voice cracked. “She‟s a murderer! A torturer! Animals deserve more compassion!” “Toni!” Riker tried to calm her and she lay back down upon her biobed. Silence passed among them as the shock of her and Thomas‟ assault sank in. Riker looked around with an incredulous expression. Troi began to comprehend the facts of the matter. “You mean to say that you injected Nekrit with the memories of the massacre Toni?” “And more.” She smiled victoriously. “Not just Thomas‟ memories of the massacre, but every single torture session he had to endure…” Picard closed his eyes with heartbroken disappointment. Jellico shook his head in pure confusion. “What in the hell is happening Picard. I don‟t understand!” Picard nodded weakly. “Commander Malek. Admiral, come with me and I will try to explain.” He turned to Steele with sorrow. He then addressed Alyssa, “Nurse Ogawa, Captain Steele is to be placed on level-one psychiatric hold. Is that clear?” Alyssa nodded once. “Understood Captain.” “What‟s going on Captain?” Malek grabbed Steele‟s trembling foot. Steele sat up briefly and looked to Malek‟s confused face. “Go with them Commander,” she said calmly. Confused, Malek nodded and turned to go with Picard and Jellico. “Wait!” she cried out. “Malek!” “Yes Captain?” He spun to face her. “My painting…make sure my painting…finds me.” 232


Malek‟s antennae drooped substantially. “Of course Captain.” He turned back around and left with the others. Steele turned to see the sad blue eyes of her friend. “Will...” Her voice had returned to its soft, velvety tone and sounded almost conciliatory. “Yes Toni?” “Just do me one favor,” she asked gently. “Anything.” “Never forget how lucky you were to be the one to make it back to the Potemkin.” Riker‟s heart crushed solid. “Never,” he whispered as he took Toni‟s tremor-afflicted hand back into his. “Never.”

**

USS Enterprise-E En Route - Nyx Creation Nebula Personal Quarters: Commander - Riker, William T. ONE WEEK LATER… Will held Deanna in his arms as they lay in bed. He stared up at the ceiling in his quarters, lost in thought. “Thinking about Toni again?” she asked. “Uh huh,” he muttered in return. “I can‟t help it. I‟m worried about her.” Deanna shifted in his embrace, turning to look at him face to face. “She and Thomas both have a lot of work ahead of them. A lot of work…what they did was…” She cringed. “Understandable,” he said bluntly. “Maybe, but it was still wrong,” she replied.

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Will grimaced. “She‟s paying the price for it don‟t you think? She‟s on indefinite leave. How long do you think it will take for her to…?” “A very, very long time.” Deanna let defeat edge through her voice. “Captain Picard was able to get counseling while he served after his time with Madred, why can‟t…” “It‟s different, and you know it.” Will deflated. “I suppose it is.” He drew her closer to him. His mind wandered, letting the thoughts of how joyous Toni had once been struggle against his memories of how drawn, tortured and ruined she had appeared when he last saw her. His heart saddened with the thought of it. “She‟ll never be able to come back.” Deanna tipped her head up to him. “You don‟t know that.” “Yes…I do,” he said sadly, “and so do you. She‟ll never get that edge back Deanna. She‟ll never be the fighter she once was and she‟s not an explorer. They‟ll never let her come back.” Deanna didn‟t know what to say, she just held him tighter. Her need to be honest broke through, “No. They won‟t. But they‟ll find a place for her…they‟ll find…” “Where Deanna? She‟ll crush behind a desk.” “I don‟t know Will. We just have to trust her counselors, and we have to trust her that she‟ll find the courage to find that place for herself. The same way Thomas will have to find a place for himself once the healing starts.” “Out of curiosity, why didn‟t they tell Thomas that she‟s there too?” “Because they need to focus on themselves first. They‟ve both suffered horrible trauma. They need to face it themselves before they can confront the challenge of facing any one else.” Will nodded with comprehension. “I suppose so.”

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Deanna could still feel the smoldering anger and worry emanate from him. “What are you thinking about? What‟s got you so angry?” He allowed a soft smile, loving a Betazoid always had its disadvantages. “I can‟t say…I can‟t say Nekrit didn‟t deserve it.” Deanna swallowed. “I know, but it wasn‟t Thomas‟ or Toni‟s job to act as judge, jury and executioner. Their sentence was cruel and unusual…” “How?” Will barked and sat up in the bed, leaving Deanna to shift to stay with him. “How could their actions be construed as anything more cruel or unusual than what Nekrit and the others did to them…or to any of those poor people?” “Will…” Riker rolled his head in utter frustration and pain. “I know Deanna, I know. It wasn‟t for them to decide, even though they themselves were victims of it.” “Right,” she said softly and set her hand on his arm. He drew it around her and pulled her close to him. “They implanted those memories. It was, in and of itself, an act of torture.” Riker continued to sit upright and think about what Deanna had said. “I know.” Riker looked down to her with the same worried look on his face. “Will they ever heal?” Deanna sighed softly. “It‟s possible. With time and good counseling victims of torture can learn to live full-rich lives again. But both Toni and Thomas crossed the line and became torturers themselves. That will only add to the hurdles they will have to overcome. The torture cycle feeds on itself Will. Torturers are usually victims of torture themselves. With timely treatment, they can break that cycle…there‟s hope.” Riker nodded then drew Deanna back with him onto the bed, spooning her into his embrace. “Toni‟s a fighter. She‟ll make it through.” “So is Thomas.” Deanna smiled. 235


“Yes. He is.” Riker nuzzled Deanna at the base of her ear and kissed her neck. “I love you.” Deanna smiled, closed her eyes and settled into him. “I love you too Will. They‟ll be all right.” She could feel that he took comfort in her words and they held each other until they drifted off to sleep. __________ “THERE ARE…FOUR…LIGHTS!” Captain Jean-Luc Picard opened his eyes and sighed heavily as he sat up in bed. He rolled his head over his exhausted shoulders and licked his lips. He then slowly drew his hand to his eyes and rubbed them, hoping against hope he would be able to just lay back down and find the way back towards sleep. But he knew it was fruitless. He threw his legs over the side of his bed and hit the comm button on his bedside stand, utterly regretful for what he was about to do. “Captain to Counselor Troi.” A few moments passed until he heard her tired voice. “I‟ll be right there Captain.” This time he didn‟t even attempt to get dressed in his uniform. He just found a suitable robe and walked over to the replicator. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He withdrew the beverage then he stopped, stared at it momentarily then smirked sadly. He turned back to the replicator. “Hot cocoa.” He pulled the second mug from the replicator and set it upon the coffee table in his quarters just as the door bell rang. “Come,” he said quietly. Deanna entered the room, dressed in a soft blue lounge set and she tilted her head curiously when she saw that he had

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already obtained her beverage for her. She looked to Picard with a questioning expression. “This is new,” she said. Picard sat back on his couch and sipped his tea. “I apologize for not getting your cocoa for you beforehand. Only now do I realize it was because I was in denial that these sessions would take so long for you to require one.” Deanna‟s eyebrows lifted gently and then she smiled. “But tonight you know better?” Picard leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, holding his tea between them. He nodded succinctly. “Yes. Something new occurred tonight.” “Really?” Deanna asked as she sat and brought her cocoa to her lips. “What was that?” “I‟m not sure if it‟s a step back or a step forward,” he said hesitantly. “Why don‟t you let me be the judge of that?” Picard allowed a small smile to escape his lips before it vanished entirely. “This time…after I woke up…the first thing I thought of wasn‟t Madred or even the Borg.” This revelation was a small surprise to Deanna and she gently rested her mug back upon the table. “Go on.” “The first thing I thought of was Antoinette.” Deanna leaned her head on her bent elbow on the arm of the chair, focused on her patient. “What about her?” “Something she said to me before I left sickbay. She said „Given half the opportunity would you not have done the same to Gul Madred?‟” “And her question bothers you…” Picard nodded. “A great deal.” “Because you believe she might be right?” “No Counselor.” Picard lifted his gaze to hers and shook his head weakly. “It bothers me because I know she‟s right.”

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Sector 001 Earth San Francisco Starfleet Medical Headquarters Maximum Security Detention Ward - Room 13 TWO WEEKS LATER…

She tried to move her arms. She tried to move her legs but she was frozen, her eyes continually taking in the carnage in front of her. She opened her mouth to scream and she found her voice, but the sound that was produced from her throat, oddly, was not her own. It was deep and guttural and hoarse. She screamed all the same. She heard a voice in her ear as her head was forced forward once more. “Watch them die. Watch them I said!” But she began to shake uncontrollably – The voice…the voice was… …hers. She felt her hair being pulled from the back of her head as her own hand forced her gaze from the ceiling of the cavern back down to the screaming, desperate masses fruitlessly trying to block the oncoming fire with their hands, or claws or tentacles. “NOOOO!!!” She screamed although the voice was deep and male-sounding. Bodies were hoisted and thrown on top of one another just so the remaining victims could be reached by those who were shooting relentlessly. The blood continued to flow. 238


Her eyes suddenly focused on a single individual in remaining group. A woman calmly and stoically stepped forward and separated herself from the terrified pack and she stood remarkably still. The woman‟s eyes met her own and locked on. She was a starkly beautiful woman with dark, short hair. She had Bajoran nose ridges and wore the traditional earpiece, but she bore it on her left ear – the sign of a rebel. Her eyes were dark and serious yet almost instantaneously they softened and she smiled with dignity and pride. The woman‟s lips moved. She couldn‟t be heard for the din, but it didn‟t matter - her lips were easy to read. “Remember that I love you. Never forget. Beat them. Promise me you‟ll beat them.” She nodded her head and replied to the beautiful, darkhaired woman knowing she would never be heard, but also knowing her lips could be read just the same, “I love you. I promise I‟ll remember. I promise I‟ll beat them!” she screamed at her full capacity. “I love you…” And she felt the love and the pain and the undeniable horror at knowing what would happen… The woman‟s smile widened and she nodded softly. A Jem‟Hadar soldier approached the woman and without so much as a warning or a second glance, he shot the woman in the chest. Strangely, the woman‟s smile never wavered. She fell to her knees keeping her gaze locked onto her own until she fell face-first to the floor. “LAREN!!!!!” she screamed in agony. “LAREN!!!” The sheer horror of the sight of the massacre blended with her own sense of loss of the woman who so bravely faced her death and she began to cry out in anguish and she whispered to herself, “Ro Laren…I promise…”

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Her head jerked back sharply as the hand pulled her hair once more. “You watch! You need to see what you have caused. You need to see what your own stubbornness has done.” Her own true-voice hissed, “You brought this upon them and yourself!” Nekrit‟s body jolted wildly on the biobed, her body wracked with severe tremors. “Another grand-mal!” the male physician barked. His forceful hand reached and pressed down the arm of the unconscious Cardassian woman and injected her with a hypospray. Her tremors quieted, but did not cease entirely. The male physician slowly stepped away from the bed to consult with the other physician. “She‟s been this way for almost two weeks. She‟ll never be able to stand trial at this rate. I recommend transfer to the main facility at Vulcan. Maybe their psychiatrists and physicians will have better luck with the therapies developed using Vulcan suppression techniques.” The tall female physician pursed her lips with obvious doubt and the first physician could see it. “While it‟s the only viable alternative, I don‟t think they‟ll be able to do much more for her. I‟ve never seen anything so utterly destructive before. Not even with mismanaged mind-melds.” “That‟s due to the Cardassian physiology. Cardassians have photographic memories…they can‟t suppress them.” “That‟s my fear Doctor, she may never be cured.” The first physician swallowed. “All the more reason to try everything we can before we give up hope.” The female physician nodded curtly. “I‟ll begin the transfer protocols at once.” She turned and left the private medical room. 240


The male physician stood at the foot of the bed and watched his patient‟s body reveal the tiny seizures he was unable to cease without killing her. He thought briefly that for the first time in his career, mercy killing might be the best alternative, but a strange voice entered his mind…First do no harm. He sighed heavily and looked upon his patient‟s contorted face and felt a twist in his stomach. “Besides,” he whispered, “if I killed you, I couldn‟t say I wouldn‟t be doing it more out of hatred than compassion.” He turned and walked out of the room leaving Nekrit alone in her state of eternal nightmares.

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EPILOGUE Earth, Sector 001 San Francisco Fort Point EIGHT MONTHS LATER‌ He thought the catharsis would be the hardest part, but he was wrong. Actually feeling some sort of guilt for his role in injecting Nekrit with the memories had been the hardest part to stomach. The conflicted feelings of guilt tore at the very heart of his satisfaction over it. He found himself getting angry with himself, then Nekrit, then himself, then Toni, then Nekrit, then

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himself once more. He wasn‟t sure the anger would ever stop; he had been assured that it would – he just had to be patient. But the catharsis? The catharsis had just been hard. It took weeks for it to work its way out and then days to drain away. At one point he was sure that he would never stop crying. Suicide became a serious option but the counselors were ever-watchful and the opportunity never presented itself. They had poked and prodded and needled their way into his mind. No matter how hard he had tried to hide his pain, they found their way through and forced him to deal with it head-on until he could no longer plug the widening cracks in the dikes he had built against the rising pressure of his inner catastrophe. It all just came crashing down and the tidal wave of grief, pain, sorrow, remorse, anger, fury and desolation came roaring out of him. From every pore, from every duct and from every filament of him the hate and the guilt and the anguish flowed. Even though people were surrounding him at every moment – all telling him that he wasn‟t alone – he had never felt so isolated in all his life. Not even when he was truly isolated on Nervala IV for all those years did he feel so unreservedly alone and abandoned. He had let her go and it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Laren was gone. He had said goodbye and the moment he meant it, he literally fell apart. It had been weeks since then. It had been months since the hearings. The counselors had been telling him that it was a good sign to feel like an empty shell. It was a good sign to feel alone. It was a good sign to feel… They said it was an even better sign that he actually felt regret for his part in the attack on Nekrit. The hate surged through him; then rage then the guilt once more. Another circle of emotion he could no longer control. 244


He sighed and shifted his position on the old bench by the decaying fortress. He continued to watch as wave after wave of seawater crashed over the ancient, rusted guard-rail tucked under the Golden Gate Bridge. He fingered the ID bracelet attached around his wrist – the ever-present reminder that he was ill. This was his first extended expedition outside the confines of the Starfleet psychiatric facility since his catharsis. He knew his chaperone was watching from close by, just to make sure he wouldn‟t jump into the frigid waters of the bay; but he didn‟t feel like jumping anymore. He just wanted to sit and watch the waves. Usually people milled about the old site. Tourists normally came in packs to see the old fort from the 19th Century built under the historic bridge; but it was far too cold for tourists today. The ruins were deserted. The bite in the air reminded him that he was alive and for once he wasn‟t utterly repulsed by the very idea of it. He still felt alone. He still felt isolated. They still called him Thomas. He had resigned himself to it, but he still didn‟t like it. They said it was a healthy thing – for him to still resent having his name assumed by his duplicate – to still feel like Fate had handed him the short end of the stick and gave Will…the other Will…every chance at opportunity. They said it was good for him to feel angry. They said it was a good thing to deal with those pent-up animosities and jealousies. He was just so tired of it. He still felt like no one would understand what he had endured, but in a sense he felt somehow victorious too. He had kept his promise to Laren. He had survived. He had overcome and he had lived through it all. He had chosen to live in order to keep her memory alive. Even though he had said goodbye, he took comfort in his memories of her. The good memories – the memories of her soft caresses, the memories of 245


her smile and her loud, mischievous laugh; the memories of her gorgeous body as he made love to her – all of them – he grasped onto all of them. They had said that it was a healthy thing to do, so he allowed himself to remember her. It‟s what had caused the catharsis. It‟s what allowed the healing to begin. He actually allowed himself a small smirk as he watched the waves crash over the ancient, rusted guard-rail. And then once more, the feeling of loneliness swept over him. They said it would be constant battle for a long time. Two steps forward, one step back…sometimes all within a few seconds of each other. He hated it, but he was too tired to fight it anymore. It had been that way since the catharsis. He brought his jacket tight around him. The cold wind bit at his ears and nose but it felt good. It was a strange, comforting pain – the kind of pain that reminded him that he was alive and that somehow there still might be purpose to his life. It was the kind of reminder that there might still actually be a place for him somewhere, even if it meant that place was right here, right now – staring at the waves crashing over the ancient, rusted guard-rail. He just wished he didn‟t feel so isolated. He was due to be relocated to the social ward the next day. He wasn‟t so sure he wanted to move. As much as he hated feeling isolated, the thought of talking to others about his feelings revolted him – or maybe it just frightened him. Of all the things to be frightened of…after everything I‟ve been through…to fear talking to strangers about my feelings? How ridiculous! And yet…talking about it means having to relive it all…again and again…and again. He swallowed hard and let the wave of fear roll through him just as another wave of sea-water sprayed over the decrepit 246


iron chains that lined the retaining wall of the site. He wasn‟t sure he was even ready for the move. He had finally gotten to the point of being comfortable in his own room and now they wanted him to socialize? He rubbed his eyes and his face with frustration. I can‟t believe I‟m worried about living with other people! His mind wandered with the imaginings of his new neighbors…all psychologically disturbed, all of them…broken somehow. Broken…like me. The thought provided him no comfort. It saddened him. Once again the feeling of isolation and hate and resentment rolled over him. He heard the crunching sound of approaching footfalls on the graveled surface behind him. He sighed and continued to watch the waves pound the retaining wall and crash over the ancient, rusted guard-rail. He didn‟t want to go back yet. He just wanted to sit here and watch the waves and feel…feel…the cold air bite at his ears. “Will?” Nothing could have prepared him for the velvet of her voice. Nothing could have prepared him for the sound of his real name uttered by the velvet of her voice. He hadn‟t seen her since…then. He slowly turned to see a warm, dark, woolen coat. Her hands were inserted into the two large pockets on the coat‟s front but he was astonished to see that her exposed wrist bore a band identical to the one he wore on his own arm. Under the fabric of the pockets, he could tell her hands were trembling softly. He could also tell she wasn‟t trembling because of the cold.

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His heart started to churn in his chest and he forced himself to look upwards. Her dark hair fluttered away from her face in thin wisps. Her porcelain cheeks were flushed from the sting of the cold breeze; but he finally forced himself to look into her eyes – those incredible, jade, understanding eyes. Oh God… Oh God I‟m not…I‟m not alone... He shifted his body quietly down the small bench and she moved in slowly and gently to sit next to him. He leaned back and raised his arm and rested it over her shoulders, drawing her closer, feeling her tremors, letting her know… …letting her know she wasn‟t alone either. He felt her take a deep, cleansing breath and she settled into the crevice of his arm. He rested his cheek on the silk of her hair. Together they turned their gaze and watched silently as wave after wave crashed over the ancient, rusted guard-rail.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS When it came time to take on the challenge of writing a “preNemesis” Next Gen story, I couldn‟t help but be drawn to the amazing character-driven pieces that became so prevalent in the last few seasons of TNG‟s run. Chain of Command will always represent the best of Trek story-telling to me. So I must acknowledge the director, the writers, and actors in those two episodes, especially Mr. Patrick Stewart for his awe-inspiring performance. I must thank Amnesty International, the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center for the depth of clear information regarding torture and its relentless and cyclical effects. Once again I thank Allen, my husband, who patiently listened to my self-serving belly-aching when I came to a writing impasse. Again I thank my friends and family for just being there when I needed you. I must also thank all those on the TrekUnited and Omega Sector boards. This book took eons to eek out and you were always supportive and beyond patient with me. I only hope it lived up to your expectations. And finally and as always, I acknowledge Mr. Gene Roddenberry for laying the foundation of this incredible playground.

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Star Trek : The Next Generation - RETRIBUTION  

Novel; Star Trek TNG

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