Where Angels Fear To Tread
Character codes: R, Crew
Captain's Log, Stardate 42767.2. It appears that our hopes of encountering civilized life in the Rhegus Delotian system were unfounded. Despite theoretical extrapolation to the contrary, our sensor sweeps have revealed one class M planet after another to be devoid of intelligent life. While flora and fauna disbursement vary little from what long-range probes led us to expect, we have encountered not only an absence of intelligent life in this sector, but absolutely no evidence that such life ever existed here. No ruins, no remains, not even the remotest indication that a civilization of any sort has ever graced the surface of a single planet in this vast belt of inhabitable worlds. It is as if Evolution somehow overlooked the Rhegus Delotian System: a garden of Eden on a galactic scale into which man, or man's sentient equivalent, was simply never introduced. It remains now as it has always been. Perhaps indeed, we are the first sentient beings to look upon it.
As we near the close of our exploratory survey of this leg of the
galaxy and prepare to turn for home, I feel a distinct sense of....
"SIR!" Wesley interrupted excitedly. "I've got somethi...."
The youth's voice trailed off. Thin features that had yet to cast off the implication of childhood settled to a frown as he worked the helm console, checking and re-checking data. His fingers jumped across the board like it was electrified.
Jean-Luc Picard waited, one finger pressed to the log recorder's pause button, for a full fifteen seconds before he prompted the acting ensign to continue, "Yes?"
"I'm sorry, Captain. I...." The frown resting in dark eyes turned to confusion, a rare expression indeed for Wesley Crusher. "I thought...." The youth shook his head sharply, as if to deny his own uncertainty, "I know ...."
His fingers slowed as they ran out of controls to manipulate. They eventually wound themselves to a stop. Glaring at the console in front of him, Wesley Crusher disentangled his thoughts from his task long enough to manage a full sentence. "There was something out there," he stated almost as much to himself as to the captain. The youth's tone bordered on belligerence. "I saw it. Just for a moment, but I saw it."
"Be more specific, Wes," Riker admonished from his seat to Picard's right. "What did you see?"
Wesley swiveled in his chair. Taking confidence from the fact that the first officer questioned the way he reported what he saw, rather than whether or not he actually saw it, the young ensign rephrased his report: "For a split second, sir," he told Picard firmly, "I was registering massive life readings on the fourth planet in the outer belt. But then...." He shrugged slim shoulders. "They just ... vanished." Though the slight tremble in his own voice was glaringly obvious to Wes, no one else on the bridge seemed to notice. Or at least, they didn't let on that they'd noticed.
Picard squinted at the screen. "Where?" he demanded.
Wesley drew a breath to answer, shooting a quick glance to Riker just to make certain he wasn't overstepping his bounds. He'd learned to trust Riker, to judge the first officer's facial cues as first alert indicators of treacherous footing ahead. A slight glint of warning in the commander's eyes had shut him up on more than one occasion. Without Riker's subtle tutelage and consistent intervention on his behalf, he would never have gotten assigned bridge duty in the first place. He certainly wouldn't have made the rank of acting ensign. And, on one or two occasions, he might even have been kicked entirely off the ship.
Today, however, Riker was no help at all. The commander's expression was as blank as his Tuesday night poker face.
"All over, sir," Wes said carefully. "The entire planet surface. Enough to constitute an entire race."
"We have not yet entered sensor range," Data informed the captain. He glanced sideways at Wes, unconsciously mimicking the expression the boy so often gave him in such situations. It meant, to the best of his knowledge, Sorry.
"Long range scanners indicate no life on the fourth planet bordering the Delotian vector," Worf responded immediately.
While the captain checked for verification of Wesley's claim, Riker pushed to his feet and crossed the bridge. He scanned the acting ensign's board over one of the youth's slim shoulders. "Unauthorized enhancements again, Mister Crusher?" he inquired calmly, his eyes studying the readouts and their implications.
Wes winced. "I was just running a test program on the port sensors. Geordi gave me clearance to attempt some re-calibration when we had some free time...."
"You consider bridge time free time?" Riker demanded sharply. He reached over Wesley's shoulder and pressed several buttons, noting their affect on the display.
Wes's features tightened with a mix of embarrassment and frustration. Though he had an entire explanation on the tip of his tongue, he swallowed the urge to offer it and answered the reprimand crisply and cleanly, the way the commander expected him to: "No, sir."
Riker responded with barely a twitch along the hard line of his stern expression, but his eyes were more generous in their approval. They flicked from the helm to Wes just long enough to make it clear he was pleased.
"Could the readings have been an aberration prompted by your experimental alterations, Mister Crusher?" Picard asked not unkindly.
Oblivious to the recondite exchange between teacher and pupil, he caught Riker's eye to let the first officer know that the reprimand had been sufficient. Riker acknowledged Picard's subtle concern without ever allowing Wesley Crusher to realize he was the momentary object of the captain's attention.
"No, sir," Wes answered immediately. "I mean," he swallowed hard and revised the unequivocal denial. "I mean, I don't believe so, sir. The readings are ... were too complete."
"A reflection, then," Riker countered. Again, he reached across Wes to press some buttons. "Refracted and magnified from the life readings aboard the Enterprise. Dislocated to appear that they originated from the planet's surface."
Wes shook his head. "Too many of them, sir. Millions....hundreds of millions. They read in irregular concentrations. Some bunched up all together and others spread out over a large area."
"Urban and rural populations?" Data offered helpfully.
This time, Wes nodded. He risked a grateful sideways glance to the android before facing the captain again directly.
"It was a population, sir," he stated firmly. "A large population. I'm sure of it."
Picard swung his gaze back to the main viewscreen. He frowned, watching as the small planet that was the focus of their discussion slid along the lower edge of the star-dotted blanket of space.
"There isn't anything wrong with the sensors," Riker offered after a moment. He stepped back and centered his gaze on the same point that so raptly held his captain's attention.
"Any speculation?" Picard asked the bridge in general
"A cloaking device?" Worf suggested.
Riker shot the security chief a surprised glance from the corner of one eye. "On a planetary scale?" he queried, trying to decide if the Klingon's supposition was meant seriously or offered as a show of support on Wesley's behalf. Although no one had, to this point, questioned what the young helmsman saw, the implication hung pregnant in the air like an unspoken threat.
"I am reading no sign of an energy source capable of maintaining such a device," Data commented.
"Perhaps it is cloaked as well," Worf returned stubbornly.
For a long moment, Picard made no comment. When he did, it was with the decisive calm they all recognized as the earmark of a decision made. "Mister Crusher." He nodded slightly to the planet under discussion. "Change heading. Take us in for a closer look, warp two."
Riker looked nearly as surprised as Wesley.
"Uh ... yes, sir." Wes hurried to enter the new coordinates into his console. "Warp two."
Picard tugged his tunic down tight. "Engage." He waited until Riker returned to the command arc and settled into his chair before choosing to address the expression that had -- if only for a moment -- flashed through the first officer's features.
"Well, Number One," he elaborated blandly. "This is an exploratory mission, is it not? What better time to go exploring?"
He smiled. It was a tolerant smile, one quite similar to the expression Dixon Hill might wear when confronted by the first teasers of a holodeck simulation to come. "Perhaps we shall find an answer to Mister Crusher's little mystery, eh?"
Riker nodded in deference to the other man's will. "You may be right, sir," he acquiesced gracefully.
Picard grinned. "And I may be wrong, Will. But what have we to lose?" His finger pressed the communicator recessed in the arm of his chair. "Counselor Troi to the bridge."
"On my way," Troi's lyrical voice responded immediately.
Settling himself more comfortably into the command chair, Picard watched the small planet grow slowly, but inexorably, larger. "How long until we're within primary sensor range?" he asked.
"Six point two three minutes, sir," Data replied.
"Captain." As it always did, Worf's voice seemed inordinately loud against the calm bridge. "I recommend we raise shields. If they possess a cloaking device capable of deception on a planetary scale, they may possess equally ... advanced ... technology of a more ... aggressive ... nature." The slight hesitations made it clear that neither "advanced," nor "aggressive," were the tactical officer's first choice in adjectives.
"Recommendation noted, Lieutenant," Picard allowed. "But denied. If there is indeed a 'they,' I would not care to approach their homeworld in a defensive posture. This is, after all, a mission of peaceful intent."
"On our part," Worf grumbled.
A smile lit the deepest part of Picard's expression, but he didn't allow it to reach his lips.
"Yes, Lieutenant," he answered patiently. "On our ...."
The Enterprise jolted as if she'd run into a brick wall. The lights blinked twice and failed. Immediately, the glowing red of emergency back-ups sprang into the darkness. Picard's hand slammed down on the communicator.
"Engineering," he roared. "Report!"
"We've lost all primary power," LaForge's voice came back over the din of scrambling engineers shouting directions at one another. "Engines inoperative. Shields inoperative. Weapons systems inoperative. I don't know what happened. It's like ... like somebody just flipped a switch and turned us off."
Picard turned toward the Ops console. He didn't need to ask questions. Data already had his answers ready; he was merely waiting his turn to speak.
"All sensors have failed," the android reported as dispassionately as if he'd been reporting the weather. "Computer systems scrambled. Diagnostic unable to function at ...."
Data slumped in mid-sentence. His head and shoulders dropped forward like a marionette without strings. Or more accurately, like a marionette whose strings had been cut. His forehead brushed the console. One hand lay palm up on the dark Ops display and the other hung limply at the end of an arm that pendulumed loosely from the shoulder.
Riker reacted first. He was on his feet and at the android's side in an instant. He checked Data's positronic circuitry first externally and then, by flipping back a small panel of flesh along the android's skull, internally. Conduits that should have glowed with activity lay conspicuously dark.
"Turned off," he announced grimly.
Stepping closer to the insensate lieutenant commander, Riker placed the bulk of his body between Ops and the general bridge crew as a visual barrier to what he was about to do. He ran three fingers down the android's version of a spinal column until he found where it joined the third intercostal strut. Just left of that, his fingers sank into Data's back up to the second knuckle. He found the recessed switch and flipped it.
He flipped it again. And again, nothing. Thinking that repetition might trigger some sort of breaker effect -- hoping that it would -- Riker toggled the switch back and forth.
The android didn't so much as twitch.
And so Riker did the only thing he could: he retrieved his fingers and moved on to other matters. Trying somewhat unsuccessfully to think of Data as nothing more than one more malfunctioning machine, the first officer reached across his friend's slumped body to transfer Ops control to his own console.
But nothing existed to transfer. The station read as dead as the positronic marvel that normally manned it.
"Damnit!" Riker hissed. Nobody but Wes heard the quiet curse. Riker ran his fingers over the console, keying several command function bars to no avail. He pressed another dozen buttons in futile defiance of the inevitable before giving in and making his official report. "Ops inoperative," he informed the captain grimly, shifting his weight with the intention to turn and resume his position in the command arc.
He'd hardly moved at all when lifting eyes found themselves confronted by the wide-eyed stare of a child. A highly intelligent, extra-ordinarily gifted child; but a child, none-the-less.
A boy in ensign's clothing.
Wes gazed in muted horror at Data's slumped form. His lack of formal training shone in the near panic that glazed his expression. He looked as ready to buckle as any green cadet Riker had ever seen.
"Wes," Riker called, instinctively using the youth's name rather than his rank. Until Wesley Crusher went through boot at the Academy, snapping orders at him stood at least as much chance of compounding the panic as it did of addressing it. Right now, a knowledgeable friend was going to be more effective than a superior officer; and Riker knew it.
And he used it.
"Wes. Come on, Wes. Snap out of it. I need you."
Wesley turned the stricken gaze from Data to him.
"Can you take us anywhere, Wes?" he asked, putting as much demand as request into the query. "Anywhere at all?"
Though navigational capabilities had very little relevance on a vessel with no means of propulsion, the order served its purpose. Wes blinked. He nodded mutely to Riker and pulled his attention back to his board with an effort. For at least the moment, he started thinking about something other than Data's motionless body.
"The helm's dead in the water, Commander," he responded shakily. "She doesn't respond to anything."
Riker nodded. He forced a smile of reassurance through the maelstrom of command prerogatives vying for attention in his skull. "Keep on it, Wes," he instructed. "You're doing fine." And then he turned crisply away to rejoin the captain.
Though Riker resumed his seat to Picard's right, the muscular frame never quite settled. He remained perched on the rim of his chair, every line reeking with the coiled tension of an unsprung spring.
The kid did all right, he told himself. As all right as anyone ever did the first time they watched a shipmate ... a friend ... drop in a crisis situation.
"We've lost life support all over the ship," LaForge's voice announced grimly just as the emergency lights blinked twice and failed in the manner their predecessors had failed. "We won't last fif...."
Silence filled the void left by the chief engineer's abruptly unfinished statement. Not static, not the sound of an explosion, just silence.
Picard tapped his personal communication device, fingers finding the emblem in the abysmal blackness by the familiarity of the action.
"Bridge to LaForge," he demanded in a voice that was nothing but calm. "Acknowledge." He waited a few seconds and tried again. "Bridge to Engineering. Acknowledge, please."
Riker responded to the implied request. "Bridge to Engineering," he stated firmly into the unnatural silence. His fingers were starting to get cold. They felt stiff and sore, as did his toes. "Acknowledge."
The request went as unanswered as the captain's had. Each officer on the bridge took his turn with their personal communicator, and each failed as had the first. Silence settled over the last attempt like a pall.
"This is it, then," someone commented from the darkness. It was a calm statement. No hysteria, no bleating wail of fear or desperate plea for mercy, no angry lashing of frustration. Just the words: This is it. Acceptance.
It was getting harder to breathe.
At first, Riker thought the constriction was in his imagination. He realized it was more than merely an aberration of what he knew was to come when the strain of drawing air into his system became steadily more pronounced. As the moments grated by on silent blackness, the pressure intensified. He felt himself struggling to breathe more deeply, even when his lungs were expanded to full capacity.
He tried to think of something else. Unfortunately, he found there wasn't much capable of distracting a man from the sensation of suffocation. The air grew thinner by the moment. Cold lay on his flesh like the kiss of death. It became a living thing, part of the vampiristic atmosphere that sucked oxygen from his lungs, from his pores, from his every cell. A whorl of disorientation swirled in his skull. He found himself wondered idly if he would fall to the deck or die sitting upright in his chair.
He shifted his weight, straightened his knees. Cartilage snapped in protest. The tiny pops sounded like gunshots in the silence. He lifted his palms from the arms of his chair. The treated moldings were getting sticky with the cold. That meant it had to be about ten below by now. Maybe a little more. His thoughts wandered. He remembered his mother warning him about licking metal on days like this.
Like he'd ever really had the urge to lick metal as a child anyway.
He shivered despite his determination not to. Once the involuntary reflex took hold, it held on like a Telarian cling-leach. In a vain attempt to generate heat, his body sent shiver after shiver rattling down his spine. His ears popped. A quiet ringing set up shop someplace between them. It grew louder, more insistent. Pressure built behind his eyes until splotches of brilliant color began to dot the blackness. He'd go blind soon.
If he didn't freeze first.
He fought the dread gripping his belly with carefully structured memories of his friends and shipmates.
The poker game Tuesday night. He remembered Geordi laughing while O'Brien complained about his string of bad luck. Crusher just sat behind her towering stack of chips and smiled. Data lit a replicated stogie on the pretense of lending a sense of "atmosphere" to the proceedings and managed to set off several temperature-sensitive safeguard systems.
Had the central computer not taken into consideration the presence of several biological life-forms that required oxygen for continued existence, it might have dropped a force field in place and created a vacuum to extinquish the source of the billowing cloud of foul, sickly-sweet smelling smoke that quickly swelled to fill the gaming room. As it was, the sprinkler systems kicked in and doused the whole lot of them, the cards, the green felt table, the chips and dip and pretzels .... Data's cigar smoldered wetly, creating more smoke; and the computer countered by releasing several kilos of powdered polysoliphicate charcoal into a room which had of course been sealed to protect the rest of the ship from the dangers inherent to the unchecked spread of fire through metal cooridors.
By the time LaForge managed an environmental systems over-ride, the five of them (it would have been six, but Data, of course, proved impervious to the more debilitating effects created by various resperatory contaminants) were gasping white dust and waving their arms to clear the last of the smoke and retching and fighting to breathe and
fighting to breathe and
fighting to breathe ....
Riker found himself wondering if they would suffocate or freeze or pop from the intensifying build-up of pressure. His fingers clenched into fists and would not open.
As suddenly as it happened, it un-happened.
The atmosphere began to re-energize itself with the blessedly quiet hiss of air pumping through airvents. Ears ringing with silence found themselves listening to the sudden, familiar, comforting whir of machinery. The pressure eased in Riker's skull. Normal lights flared with a brilliant flash that brought more than one hand up to serve as instinctive shields.
Riker gasped. Fresh, intoxicating oxygen flooded his system. It invaded the murkey corners of his brain and painted brilliant swashes of color into his perception of his surroundings. He drew lungful after lungful of air into his chest. The bridge swayed. He felt suddenly lightheaded from the effects of too much oxygen, rather than too little.
Data straightened. "... this time," he resumed precisely where he'd left off. "I have attempted to bypass ...."
Data's report drifted off as he blinked against the normal lighting and looked around with confusion equal to, if not more profound than that of his companions. "Did I miss something?" he inquired sincerely.
A relieved grin split Riker's straight features. He laughed, enjoying the feel of it in his chest and the sound of it emerging from his lips. "I think we all missed something, Data," he told the puzzled android. "Status."
Data swiveled back to his station. "Sensors fully functional," he informed them. One eyebrow arched expressively as he scanned other readouts. "Helm responsive. Engines on line."
"We have shields," Worf told them.
"Raise them," Picard snapped, beating Riker to the order by a fraction of a second.
"LaForge to Bridge."
Picard stood shakily, one hand retaining its grip on the command chair for support. "Picard here. Report."
"We're up and running, sir." LaForge's disbelief was obvious in his tone. "I don't know why we are, but we are. Engines at full capacity. Life support stable. Nothing down here but a lot of spooked people to prove we were shut off for a full twelve minutes and seven seconds."
"Good work, Mister LaForge," Picard commended. He was steady enough to release the chair now and take a stand dead center of the bridge, and he did so.
"I'd love to take the credit, Captain," LaForge offered quickly. "But we didn't do a damn thing. Like I said, I don't know why we're up, we just are."
"Acknowledged, Mister LaForge. Bridge out." Picard turned to his first officer, noting the light fringe of frost on the younger man's beard. "Number One?"
Riker was flexing his fingers, working circulation back into the stiff joints. He looked up and shrugged.
"My sentiments exactly," Picard agreed.
Deanna Troi clung grimly to the padded railing that ran the interior perimeter of the turbo lift. Only a moment more. She need last only a moment more.
The door hissed open and the bridge lay before her. She forced herself to take a step. To take two. Picard didn't turn, but Will did. His eyes widened in surprise, and then alarm. The captain turned when she grabbed at the doorframe to keep from falling and Riker grunted like he'd been punched.
She clung to the plastic molding, her delicate hands clenched as if they thought to somehow sink into it to find a better hold. Her dark eyes were wide and staring and already beginning to glaze over. Black circles ringed them, making her look nearly dead. The bluish cast of her flesh heightened the effect.
Riker was on the move before Picard finished turning. The first officer bounded up the ramp and reached the turbolift in a matter of seconds, but he wasn't fast enough. Troi crumpled. Folding in on herself, she would have landed in a precise heap if Worf hadn't stepped in and caught her.
"Captain," she muttered, the brittle rush of air barely escaping her waxy lips.
"Doctor Crusher to the Bridge," Picard snapped as he strode to join Riker and Worf at the counselor's side. "Medical Emergency."
Her eyes fell shut. A shudder rippled through her frail body.
"They are ..." she whispered.
"Don't try to talk, Deanna," Riker soothed as he accepted Troi's negligible weight from Worf. "Lie still. Beverly will be here in a moment." He cradled her to his chest. His arms tightened around her to form a protective embrace. "Just lie still."
A sense of security enveloped her at the familiar touch of Will Riker's skin. She felt his beard against her forehead, smelled the familiar scent of him, found herself serenaded by the familiar rhythms of his voice. For a moment, she was tempted to listen to his gently coaxing words. A great rush of warmth breathed through her. A lessening of fear and of pain ...
But then, too, she felt the pressure.
She knew it then. Knew it suddenly and knew it surely. Will would die if she listened to him. If she allowed herself to be comforted, they would all die.
She struggled feebly against that fate, and Riker tightened his hold. He laid one large, warm hand on her face, stroked her temple with his fingertips, ran his thumb across her lips as if shushing a child.
"Shhhhh, Imzadi. Shhhhh."
But she couldn't quiet. Not yet. Not until she told him. Not until she was sure he understood. She had to warn them because none of them would see the danger -- none of them could see the danger -- until it was too late. She fought her eyes and demanded them to open. Slowly, they obeyed. Will and the captain bled into focus.
"... coming," she breathed with the last of her strength.
The word emerged triumphant only to bounce off their expressions. Its meaning, its importance was lost to the worry both men held in their eyes as they crouched over her. She tried to repeat it, but she lacked the strength.
Will held her tighter. He stroked her hair, told her to hold on. Picard stood and moved aside as Beverly Crusher swept from the turbolift and took his place. Somewhere beyond of her limited scope of vision, she could hear Worf breathe.
They hadn't heard.
None of them understood.
Fear and rage and despair welled inside her. What she needed to tell them, what she'd battled through the crippling, numbing barrage of empathic chaos to bring them lay half-remembered and unheard on the starship deck.
And she was slipping.
Troi felt herself loosing ground. She was being dragged away from the warmth of Will Riker's body by something too strong to fight. She could no longer see him, could barely hear him. Like a wet blanket of sultry night, the darkness wrapped itself around her. It was winning. It was shutting her down. An enormous weight shredded the fibers of her awareness like rough fingers parting the fragile weave of fine silk. She was spinning out of control. She no longer had any sense of direction, no longer knew up from down, left from right. She was falling through an endless abyss that yawed to forever.
She screamed, but the silence was consuming.
They came then, as she knew they would. Fingers in her mind. Alien. Intruding. Their movements violated her. More of them. Hundreds. Thousands. Pressing in, making room. The was no way to protect herself. What little residue remained of her identity wasn't enough to gather into resistance. They swarmed into everything that was her. Probing. Invading. Opening her like ripe fruit. There was nothing they did not know, nothing they could not possess. So many of them inside her now that she could feel nothing else.
He was holding her hand.
Her hand. She felt her hand. It became all of her that she could identify. Only the contact between her palm and Will's was real. She knew she existed because she felt him.
For a moment, he was a fragile umbilical cord, her only connection to what had once been herself but was fast becoming them.
The empti-blackness ballooned inside her. It distended like a bloated slick of oil from a place she instinctively understood was nothing. Those that had become her told her to go, and she had no choice.
The umbilical cord stretched. It frayed and began to part.
The quiet hiss of Beverly's hypo-spray snarled against her throat. Troi shrieked. The cord snapped. He never heard her as she fell from his grip and into the nothing. Black, wet, consuming, it closed over her head.
And she was gone.
The pool of nothing lay reflective like a mirror. It was a black
ocean of soundless night. The icy void of starless space. Its endless
surface was glass smooth. Not so much as a ripple remained to mark
the passing of what had been Deanna Troi.
Ensign Meyers leaned closer to the mirror, taking great care to ensure that the dark line she was drawing followed exactly the curve of her lower eyelid. When she was finished, she pulled back, examining the effect. A slight smile crooked into her lips.
Not bad for a helmsman, she decided.
Setting the eyeliner aside, she pressed both hands to her uniform and ran them along her body. Though wrinkles fled before the simple gesture, that was not its intent. It's intent was to make certain that the material clung in just the right way to those assets that couldn't be highlighted with makeup. She adjusted this bump and that, and then finally, nodded her approval.
But she wasn't finished. Picking up a hand mirror, Meyers turned her back on the vanity table and studied the reflection of her reflection. It was important that her back side be as presentable as her front side. That was something a lot of women didn't take into consideration.
After all, wasn't it her back side that he saw all day, every day?
Sure, she would manage to catch his eyes and smile at every opportunity. And he'd make a point of it to stroll between the helm and the viewscreen at least twice during the shift. But an overwhelming majority of the time, he sat in his chair at the captain's side and stared at her back.
For that reason, her back had to be interesting enough to make him want to see her front.
And then her front had to be knock-out.
She spotted a single crease that ran diagonally across her back and down over her butt. It marred the perfection of an otherwise seamless bodyscape of hills and valleys. She picked up a thermal rod specifically designed to address such a predicament and pressed the wrinkle flat.
Meyers smiled as she examined the results. Even her critics had to admit that she had an impressive backside.
Then she noticed a slight imperfection in the lay of her shoulder-length hair. It curled too much here, and not enough there. She picked fussily at the auburn tangle until it was arranged exactly the way she wanted it arranged.
She nodded again.
As she studied herself in the double reflection, Meyers told herself that today would be the day. Today, he would pause at her station and look down on her with that devastating grin and that sparkle to his lively blue eyes. Today, he was going to lean casually against the helm and tell her one of his slightly off-color jokes and laugh that deep, rich laugh and invite her out for drinks.
And then, who knew?
Of course, she told herself that every day, but today was different. She had a good feeling about today. She had a feeling things were about to change.
Meyers turned back to the small vanity table, a wide smile on lips glossy with the cinnamon-hued lipstick the saleslady at the boutique on Starbase 226 assured her was guaranteed to turn a man's head. Her reflection smiled back as if to say she agreed.
Blinding pressure hit her like a bolt of lightning from out of the blue.
Meyers dropped the hand mirror to clutch at her temples. She screamed, but it came out more like a strangled moan. The mirror shattered against one corner of the vanity. It showered the mauve carpet with a thousand tiny diamonds of glass. Meyers screamed again. This time, no sound came out at all. Perfectly manicured fingers clawed at her face. She tried once to tap her personal communicator and call for help, but the pain wouldn't allow it. Her shoulder bruised itself against the wall. Her knees slammed to the deck.
The flash of light was brilliant, searing. It flared the small room to an iridescence that would have blinded any who watched. Residual light seeped out under Kathryn Meyers' door to lay a burned white blanket across the deck outside, but there was no one in the corridor to notice.
The interior of the room blinked. The light vanished as it had come. It lasted less than a second.
The woman crumpled against the bulkhead didn't move for a long time. When she did move, it was slowly, cautiously. She straightened as if afraid that doing so might be painful. She stretched her fingers, and then her neck. One hand reached out to press itself against the wall. She steadied herself that way as she rose to a tenuious stand. For some time she stood, gingerly, unsure of her balance or her ability to maintain it. Slowly, the hand left the wall. She took a single step. Her green eyes circled the cabin, absorbing every detail of her surroundings.
Glass lay scattered through the carpet. It glinted in diffused lighting chosen for the flattering way such lighting minimized slight skin imperfections. She noticed both the glass and the lighting, just as she noticed the half-empty mug of cocoa still sitting in the food slot across the room and the uneven hang of an emerald lace afghan that lay folded across the lower third of the nearby bed.
As she turned, observing everything, a flicker of motion trailed the corner of her eye. Her slender body tensed. She swung on the motion and found herself once again faced by the vanity table and the lace-ruffed mirror above it.
For a long moment, the woman didn't move. She stared at the mirror with an intensity that bordered on fascination. Her eyes studied the image there in minute detail before slowly, she raised a hand to place it on the glass surface. One finger traced the contour of her own reflection, defining it there as if creating it in her mind.
Although it was the same reflection that had watched itself line dark, expressive eyes with equally expressive eyeliner, it was not the same woman.
Vlenia pulled her fingers from the cool, smooth surface of the mirror. She watched herself move, touching first her own cheek, and then her breast, and finally the hollow of her belly. The reflection mimicked each motion. Vlenia stared at the stranger in the lace-ruffled mirror.
"Kathryn," she murmured, listening to the sound of her
voice in the silence. "Kathryn Meyers."
Four of Starfleet's finest officers and a very nervous, but very excited, acting ensign sat around the briefing room table, staring at each other in stunned surprise. The final member of the senior staff briefing -- one Geordi LaForge, generally considered by those who served with him (and even those who didn't) to be far and away the most capable chief engineer in the business -- stood before the assemblage and absorbed their disbelief with slumped shoulders.
"Thank you, Mister LaForge," Picard said finally. Though the timbre of the captain's voice verged on sympathetic, his expression read quite differently. The stern line of sharp-edged features was hard with, though not disapproval, something very near it.
"I do not understand," Worf growled. "A starship does not merely turn itself off. There must be a reason."
"I didn't say there wasn't a reason," LaForge protested quietly as he resumed his seat. "I said we've run every test in the book and a couple we invented off the tops of our heads, and we can't come up with a reason."
"And you have no hypothesis?"
"None, sir." LaForge folded his hands on the table and stared at them, the VISOR glinting metallic in the room's subdued lighting. "I'm sorry."
"No guesses at all?" Riker pressed. "No hunches? Not even a wild hair idea?"
"Nothing," LaForge repeated miserably.
"I cannot accept that," Picard announced after a long moment of silence. "I tend to agree with Mister Worf: starships are not in the habit of simply turning themselves off. There must be some logical explanation that is being over-looked. Have you examined the possibility of external forces?"
"We've examined everything, sir. We've pulled the logs from every sensor on-line. Nothing."
"How 'bout the sensors that were off-line?" Riker suggested. "Maybe the sudden loss of power created a surge somewhere that tripped ..."
"We did that, too, Commander," LaForge interrupted. "Nothing."
"It is not logical," Worf announced.
"I'll give you that," LaForge agreed glumly.
"Query," Data said suddenly. "Are there not questions to which there exists no logical answer?"
The android's supposition hung in the air for several beats before the captain chose to address it. Though when he spoke, Picard's voice was slow with consideration, his aquiline features were once again nearly disapproving.
"Are you suggesting that our current dilemma is such a question?"
Data blinked. "I am not suggesting anything, sir. I was merely vocalizing a concern I find re-occurrent in my own personal quest for elucidation. If the implication of such a query is inappropriate, I apologize."
"Continue, Mister Data," Picard allowed.
Data nodded and warmed to his subject with obvious relish. "The conclusions reached by Commander LaForge in his search for the truth, and the resultant consternation such intangible conclusions prompt in my fellow officers, bear remarkable resemblance to the philosophical quandaries debated throughout the span of history," he announced. "Though one might logically assume that to any question there is an answer, I have found this not to be the case. During the course of my study of Human knowledge, I have encountered many questions to which there is no apparent answer: Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What is the empirical value of pi? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"
The burst of spontaneous laughter that circled the conference table stopped Data's dissertation. He looked from one officer to the next, his head cocked slightly to the side and his eyebrows raised in obvious question. The chuckling subsided after a moment.
"What is the nature of humor?" Data finished. "The satisfactory resolution of that question in particular has eluded me despite the devotion of more than seven thousand one hundred and twenty-three hours of analytical examination, experimentation and theoretical extrapolation in minutia."
Worf leaned forward, his big hands folding on the table and his impressive brow lowered in an impressive scowl. "There is a point?" he inquired, glowering.
"Merely because we seek answers," Data obliged, cutting to the chase. "Must they indeed exist?"
Riker shook his head, grinning. "Sounds like you've gotten back into that Zen philosophy database again, Data," he observed.
"An understandable assumption, Commander," Data responded, turning his attention to the first officer. "But not entirely correct. I have been researching the philosophies of S'Eli, which -- though remarkably similar to the Zen disciplines in terms of surface detail -- are not ...."
"Gentlemen," Picard interrupted impatiently. "This is not a philosophical debate. Less than six hours ago, this vessel lost all power for no discernable reason. Every man, woman and child aboard was confronted with the very real likelihood of death before -- for equally inexplicable reasons -- power was once again restored. With the threat of a repeat episode hanging over our heads, I hardly think this is the time to discuss the intangibles of spiritual existence and the destructive capabilities of small rodents. Now does anyone have anything of a more constructive nature to add to the conversation?"
A long silence permeated the room.
"Considering the fact that nothing about this makes any sense," Riker ventured finally, "Is it possible that Q could be behind it?"
"Something to consider," Picard allowed. "Although I believe that our flamboyant irritant would have made his presence known by now if he were indeed involved."
"Romulans," Worf suggested.
LaForge shook his head. "No way. They don't have anything that could do this. And even if they did, they wouldn't be able to use it without us picking up something on the sensors."
"Nevertheless," Worf insisted darkly. "It is the type of machinations to which the Romulans strive."
"Machinations?" LaForge repeated doubtfully.
"A weapon that strikes in the night," the security chief clarified. "With no warning and no honor."
"If it was the Romulans," Wes ventured, "Wouldn't they have let us all die instead of re-instating life support at the last minute?"
"Such a weapon would require a great deal of power," Worf reasoned. "It may only be capable of sustaining systems shutdown for a limited period of time. Considering our narrow margin of survival, I believe that twelve minutes would be a reasonable assumption to apply to maximum function parameters."
"Twelve minutes and seven seconds," Data corrected helpfully.
Picard listened to the Klingon Security Chief's suppositions without interrupting, but when Worf looked to him for an opinion, the captain shook his head.
"For the time being, Mister Worf," he decided, "Let us work under the assumption that such an all-encompassing leap in technological skulduggery by any of our known adversaries would not have escaped the notice of resident intelligence operatives. We can therefore eliminate the Romulans, the Kardassians and the Ferengi from consideration."
"What about the Borg?" Wesley asked.
That silenced the room for several seconds.
"That would have to be pretty long distance, Wes," Riker said finally. "I'll give you that we don't know much about the Borg's capabilities, but Q kicked us all the way out into the Never-Never to arrange that little tea party of his. It would take them several years to get here from J-25, so that pretty eliminates their potential for involvement in this fiasco by anything other than some kind of high intensity transmission, and even that would be one hell of a stretch."
"What about when they interfaced with the computer? Could they have maybe sunk some kind of retro-active self-destruct coding command string into the dormant programming ...."
"Whoa there, Wes. Hang on a minute." LaForge leaned into the conference room table. "I think you've been reading a little too much of that science fiction stuff. First of all, they can't do that. You know enough about our safeguard systems to know that we'd be able to trace any kind of cybernetic viral programming they might have tried to introduce. Second of all, we ran a level one diagnostics of every computer system from engineering to the food slots after our little run-in with the Borg. The only way they left something behind for us is if they created a program so far beyond our understanding that we can't even recognize what we're looking at when we're staring it straight in the eye. Now they were a pretty scary bunch, but they weren't that far ahead of us. I'd say we've got a better chance of having a poltergeist on board than of having some sort of residual sabotage left over from that two minute Borg interface."
"Perhaps it isn't a weapon at all," Riker suggested suddenly. "Maybe what we experienced was a result of a naturally occurring phenomenon. Something to do with the physical properties of this section of space. The Rhegus Delotian system is, after all, predominantly unexplored. Is it possible we've run into some kind of new spacial anomaly that doesn't exist within our sensor frequencies, but does within the physical parameters of our perception of reality?"
"Possible, I suppose," LaForge allowed doubtfully, "But not very likely. Anything big enough and powerful enough to shut down the Enterprise at all, let alone for twelve full minutes, would have to register somewhere. A magnetic field glitch ... an ionization warp ... something. If it's so alien to our frame of reference that it doesn't have any properties in common with the spacial anomalies we've explored in the past, then I don't see any way it could have enough in common with our energy production and propulsion systems to shut us down."
"Maybe it has something to do with the people," Wes mused.
Picard straightened sharply in his chair. "The people?" he repeated.
Wes flinched. All eyes turned to him, and he shifted nervously in his chair. The sick twist of his expression left little doubt that the comment wasn't meant to be necessarily heard, let alone considered. Especially not by the whole senior staff. It was more like thinking out loud than offering a viable solution.
"Say what you've got to say, Wes," Riker told the youth reassuringly. "We're all working on specualtion right now. Tossing out ideas just to see how they sound. You can't be any further off base than Geordi considering poltergeists."
Wes swallowed hard and nodded. "The people on the planet," he elaborated cautiously. "The population I was reading before we went dark."
"We were too far away from any planet to get sensor readings ...." LaForge started.
"Wes was testing a sensor enhancement program," Riker supplied. "We were on our way to investigate what looked like a planetary population on the fourth planet in the outer belt when all hell broke loose."
LaForge frowned. He rubbed slowly at the lower half of his face.
"Now that's an element that's new to the mix," he said finally. "How much enhancing did you do, Wes?"
"A lot," Wes responded guiltily.
"Exactly how much is 'a lot'?"
Wes winced. "I kinda ... pretty much ... tripled the range."
"Tripled?" Riker echoed in surprised.
"And broadened the base range of frequencies," Wes added.
"How far were we from the planet when you ran the scan?" LaForge asked.
"Not that far. Maybe a thousand parsecs beyond normal range. I was just running a preliminary test."
"If you tripled the power input but only scanned a thousand parsecs beyond normal range ..." LaForge hesitated, thinking hard. "... it's possible the differential boosted intensity up to 300 percent. If that's the case ..." again, he hesitated. Computations flickered across his features. He considered several options, shook his head once and then turned to the captain. "That intense a sensor scan could conceivably cause considerable damage to electrical and/or biochemical systems, Captain. It might even be interpreted as a hostile act. If Wes was running a scan on a planet inhabited by a highly sentient race, he may have tripped a defense warning system."
Picard looked anything but happy. "Are you saying that this incident may have been a retaliation by unidentified person or persons to a perceived act of aggression?"
LaForge nodded. "Or maybe it was just some kind of reciprocal scan, something to identify ..." LaForge shook his head. "No, that still doesn't make sense. Whether it was an attack or a scan, we would have picked up some sort of signature from an energy influx of that magnitude. I don't care what kind of power source ... " The engineer brightened. "Unless it was organic." And he faded. "But no organic psychometric scan could out-distance our long-range sensors. That's impossible."
"Don't rule out the impossible, Mister LaForge," Picard countered. "We are obviously dealing with unknowns here."
"What exactly do you mean by psychometric, Geordi?" Riker questioned.
"An organic-based 'reading', for lack of a better word. An intense projection of conscious thought for the purpose of gathering data. There are several telepathic races that can do it, and I've even heard of a few that practice it on a regular basis in place of sensor arrays. While they can be pretty acurate and all things considered, they have amazing range, I've never heard of anything along these lines. Nothing that can come close to matching the Enterprise's capabilities, let alone shut her down."
Riker leaned into the table. His features had darkened, the look in his eyes going to an something tangibly harsh, something devoid of their normal sense of humor. "Counselor Troi's collapse would support that theory, wouldn't it?" he demanded grimly. "The intrusion of an over-powering empathic surge, perhaps of a consciousness too alien for her mind to tolerate? It could have triggered a survival instinct that virtually shut her mind down. Especially if that intrusion was of aggressive or hostile intent."
"Like a breaker effect," Wes offered. "Involuntary shutdown to avoid total memory core blowout. Like she blew a fuse or something."
Riker turned on the youth. "She's not a computer, Wes," he snapped.
Wesley flinched. Fidgeting uncomfortably in his chair, he studied his hands to avoid the necessity of meeting the first officer's angry glare. "I'm sorry, sir," he muttered. "I didn't mean it that way."
Riker reined in the flare of temper quickly. When he swung his gaze back to LaForge, his expression was once more composed. Except for his eyes. His eyes were still sharp with an uncharacteristic glint of steel.
"Ignoring for a moment the matter of range," he suggested quietly, "is that feasible? That the ship was subjected to some sort of extraordinary psi force that induced power-grid failure?"
"I'm not sure. I'd think that any encroachment of that magnitude -- even an organic based one -- would leave some sort of energy signature the sensors could pick up on."
"Not necessarily." Riker turned his arguments to Picard. "What if it was pure thought energy? Something too nebulous to register on machinery, but strong enough to influence Deanna? To debilitate her."
Picard met his first officer's eyes. He nodded and then tapped his commbadge. "Picard to Crusher. Come in please."
"Crusher here," came Beverly Crusher's immediate reply.
"What is Counselor Troi's condition?"
"No change, Captain," Crusher responded. "She's been comatose since she collapsed. I'm getting no REM or deep cortical activity."
Riker rubbed one hand along his beard. The stone-eyed indifference in his expression didn't fool anyone, least of all the captain.
"Have you ascertained a cause for her collapse?" Picard pressed.
"Nothing I can pinpoint. There's been no physical trauma, no psychometric disruption, no external forces that I can identify."
"Is it possible that she is suffering from some derivation of psychogenic stress?"
"You mean an empathic blow-out?" Crusher's voice hesitated as she considered it. "It's possible, I suppose. Along with at least two hundred other less-than-one-tenth-of-a-percentage possibilities. But I can't give you anything more conclusive than a shaky maybe until I've done more testing."
"Very well, Doctor. Carry on. Picard out." The captain turned his attention back to the roomful of waiting officers. "Mister Crusher. I want you to work with Commanders Riker and Data on your sensor enhancement program. I want to know everything there is to know about it's capabilities and the possible ramifications of Commander LaForge's intensity-transference theory. In addition, I will expect a detailed analysis of the logs containing the population readings you obtained. Do not, however, initiate any sort of new scan of the planet without my direct authorization. Is that understood?"
Picard turned to LaForge. "Commander LaForge, I want a level Omega diagnostics on this vessel. Run a fine tooth comb through every system, top to bottom. I want to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that mechanical failure is not a factor."
"Even with concurrent shifts running twenty-four hours solid, that will take better than two days, sir."
"Make it so, Mister LaForge. Until you can give a certified all-clear, we will maintain position with station-keeping thrusters. Mr. Worf, we will remain on yellow alert status until further notice. I want tactical on a continual full degree scan of all immediate surrounding space; and any anomolous readings, regardless of possible or probable conjectural explication, are to be submitted immediately for top-priority analysis."
"Due to the on-going nature of this crisis," Picard continued, "I will expect all shift rotations to be strictly enforced. Though I expect answers and I expect them in as timely a manner as possible, I do not want the efficiency of my senior staff compromised in any way. That means -- and I am speaking directly, though not exclusively, to you, Mister Worf -- that you will join your staffs in the observance of adequate sleep cycles and minimal recreational activities required to maintain optimum levels of physical and mental awareness. It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that we may find ourselves in need of all our faculties in the near future. For the time being, that will be all, Gentlemen. I expect you to keep me apprised of your progress. Dismissed."
The officers rose and began to disperse. LaForge headed directly for engineering. Worf made a bee-line for the bridge. Wes and Data waited for Riker to confer briefly with the captain before joining them.
"I need you and Data to consider all aspects of Wesley's enhancement program, Will," Picard told his first officer quietly. "I must know whether or not we have inadvertently committed an act of war."
"I'm still not sure there was an actual population on that planet, sir," Riker responded just as quietly. "I saw the readings. They were vague, indistinct, badly distorted. Some were little more than massed energy indications. They could have been sensor phantoms or derivative mirror reflections just as easily as they could be actual life signs. I'm not convinced this whole "sentient race" thing is anything more than an elaborate mirage created by the sensor array in an effort to respond to Wes's tampering."
"Nevertheless," Picard intoned, his voice unequivocal in it's command presence. "I want the possibility fully explored. We must be absolutely certain where we stand before placing ourselves in what might conceivably turn out to be a hostile first contact situation. And Will," Picard glanced at Wes and found the young acting ensign actively trying not to watch them. "Don't be too hard on the boy. If indeed his actions prove to be at the root of Deanna's collapse, he can hardly be held accountable for consequences that no one could possibly have foreseen."
"I realize that, sir. I didn't mean to snap at him."
"And I realize that you're worried," Picard responded gently. "We all are. Wesley perhaps, most of all. You might want to keep that in mind."
Riker nodded. "I will, sir."
"Very well, Number One. Carry on. And get me my answers."
One corner of Riker's mouth twitched. "The meaning of life, sir?" he inquired wryly.
Picard's eyebrow arched. "I was thinking more along the lines of the maximum nutritional requirements of a wood-eating rodent," he answered.
The bland articulation of the rejoinder stoked amusement to laughter in Riker's eyes. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of droll wit that was, by so many, so wrongly interpreted as a dearth of humor.
The captain did have a sense of humor. Though the subtleties of his technique bore little resemblance to the flamboyantly ostentatious style of the Enterprise's gregarious executive officer, and it perhaps even withered a bit by proximity, Jean-Luc Picard held the fall line between comedy and tragedy well. He served witness to the lunacy so often incumbent to emergency; and though he spoke of it infrequently, he spoke of it with timing and insight that buttressed the sagging morale of those to whom he was closest. The exposed glimmer of well-cloaked wit had served on more than one occasion, as it did now, to press Will Riker on.
To press him through the crushing weight of responsibility.
To press him through the crushing memory of Deanna Troi's motionless body.
"I'll get right on it," Riker agreed. He turned and strode across the room, joining Data and Wesley where they waited at the door.
"Alright, Wes," he greeted, slapping the youth lightly on the back. "Let's go take a look at that program of yours, shall we?"
Wes glanced back at the captain. Picard had turned away. He was staring out one of the portals into space, lost deep in his own thoughts.
"He's not mad at me, is he?"
Riker shook his head. "He's not mad at you, Wes. Those tests are turning out to be the only clue we've got."
"Yeah," Wesley agreed glumly. "But they might also be the reason we're in this fix." The three of them left the briefing room and headed toward the nearest lift. Wes shot a side-ways glance at Riker as they walked. "And the reason Counselor Troi ... you know."
"I do not believe that you can be held accountable for Counselor Troi's condition, Wesley," Data reasoned. "If indeed her collapse is linked to your experiment, it is linked through an extensive chain of variables whose manipulation was beyond your direct control. The consequences of such a chain of events falls out of the venue of responsibility that any scientist would be expected to consider when evaluating the advisability of his research. One must come to the conclusion, therefore, that you were in no way negligent by failing to anticipate said consequences."
"It's not your fault, Wes," Riker told the youth firmly. "You ran a few tests. Nothing more. Whatever happened to Deanna is something else altogether."
"I believe that is what I just said," Data observed.
Riker smiled. "By the way, Data: two cords."
Data cocked his head to one side. "Two cords, sir?"
Riker nodded. "That's how much wood a woodchuck could chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. Which, by the way, he can't."
Data frowned. "Commander," he responded slowly, "if a woodchuck cannot in actuallity chuck wood, then there can logically be no way to ascertain a precise quantity of wood that said woodchuck might theoretically chuck."
Wes glanced to Riker and stifled a grin. "Sure there is, Data," he chimed in. "He'd chuck as much as a woodchuck could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. And Commander Riker's right. That's about two cords, give or take a log."
"But if a woodchuck can not chuck wood," Data insisted as they entered the turbolift. "How can he chuck as much as a woodchuck could?"
"By chucking as much as a woodchuck would," Riker answered seriously as the turbo doors hissed shut. "If a woodchuck could chuck wood."
"Which he can't," Wes added.
Geordi LaForge hit the bunk with an expressive whump that reflected his day with relative accuracy. He locked his fingers together and stuffed them under his head so his elbows lingered in his periphery vision to either side of the VISOR.
Damn strange day. Damn strange.
He drew a deep breath and blew it out his nose. The engineer in him marveled at the intricacies of that mundanely simple, and yet somehow miraculous, act of life. Breathing. It was such an integral function. A fragile miracle of faith so taken for granted that, in the vacuum of space, there would always be adequate air available to perform it.
Geordi pulled one hand from under his head and yanked the VISOR off its perch across his eyes. The neural connectors on either temple responded to the rough treatment by jolting a sharp sliver of pain though his brain. Geordi winced. He set the device carefully on the stand beside his bed and settled back into the pillows.
The darkness didn't do much good. Just because the room was as black as a blind man's room always was didn't mean his mind was ready to shut down along with his eyes.
For twelve hours now, he'd been hip deep in the kind of diagnostics scan that was designed to be performed in drydock, not bobbing in uncharted space, anchored only by station-keeping thrusters. A systems crash of the magnitude that the Enterprise suffered should have left warning flags a blind man could follow, no pun intended. And yet, halfway to a briefing with the captain, he hadn't managed to turn up a single thing. Not one glitch, not one malfunction. The old girl didn't even have so much as a case of the sniffles.
And he had an ugly feeling things weren't going to change. In another twenty-four hours, give or take a few, he was going to have to face Jean-Luc Picard for the second time in two days and admit that he didn't have a clue what was going on.
No answers, only questions.
Hundreds of questions.
Why had the ship shut down?
Why had it started back up?
Why had they almost died?
Why had they not died?
This scenario and that chased each other around the engineer's skull, playing tag with ideas that were more interested in playing hide and seek. The headache that had been nagging his temporal lobe for hours intensified.
The first indication that it was something more than stress was a stab of pressure that skewered his brain from temple to temple and stole his ability to rise or breathe or form a complete thought. He didn't realize he was clutching his head until he felt the cool, rounded nodules of neural connectors beneath his fingertips.
He rolled out of bed and hit the floor hard. His elbows numbed with the force of the blow, but he barely noticed. Like a soldier on a field of fire, LaForge squirmed his way along the deck. His body writhed in snake-like undulations that dragged him slowly toward the destination of the door.
He was nearly half way there when a small pinpoint of blinding light pricked the artificial night of his quarters. In less than a heartbeat, the searing iridescence gutted the blackness. It swelled until the room was nothing but light from one corner to the other.
The interior of the room blinked. The light vanished as it had come. It lasted less than a second.
For several long moments, the man lying twisted like a broken corpse on the floor of his cabin didn't move. Finally, slowly, cautiously he pushed himself upright. He stretched his neck, rolling it along the line of his shoulders. His hands fisted and then opened, each finger discovering itself and its relationship to the others that shared the hand.
"Lights," he grunted roughly.
Obediently, the night mode of Geordi LaForge's quarters faded to day.
Kdoli's expression darkened. "Lights." he demanded again. When nothing changed to the opacified eyes identical to the ones that had been LaForge's since birth, Kdoli felt a ruffle of dread deep in a place he'd never before owned. Leading with outstretched hands, he followed the floor to the wall, and the wall to the door.
The quiet pneumonic hiss sounded like thunder to a man so completely unprepared for it. Kdoli flinched. Suppressing the urge to retreat, he held his ground and tried to triangulate his location. The ship's noise was greater in front of him than behind. It echoed slightly, mimicking acoustical reverberations denotative of a location constructed predominantly of space. Cautiously, Kdoli stepped across the threshold. The door hissed shut behind him.
Kdoli panicked. He stepped back too quickly, and his shoulders bumped the door before it had time to open. He was trapped.
"I was just on my to Ten Forward. You want to ...."
As he drew closer to LaForge, Wes's voice faltered. He'd only seen Geordi once without his VISOR. The opacified eyes staring sightlessly from an expression that bordered on panic had the same effect as a kick to the belly. For one long, horrible second, Wes dangled between the instinctive reaction to turn away and pretend not to notice and the irrepressible urge to stare.
"Uh ... I mean ... you want to ... uh ...."
With his back pressed to the closed door and his mind still grappling for balance amid the disorientation of unexpected dark, Kdoli struggled to control the flush of mindless terror presurring his fragile damn of calm. He put aside, as best he could, the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in an alien body, on an alien vessel. He focused himself on the task at hand. Accessing bits and particles of memories that were not his own, Kdoli tried to assertain an identification for the faceless voice.
Wes constructed his thought patterns first. "Uh ... Is everything all right, Geordi?" he asked hesitantly. "Are you okay?" He stepped forward and put a hand on Kdoli's arm.
Kdoli jumped as if he'd been stung. He jerked from the Human's touch. Although the bulkhead behind him finally slipped aside, retreat had ceased to be an option. It would follow. That much Kdoli could tell even without the sense of sight.
"Yes," Kdoli managed. "I'm okay. I ... just ..." The LaForge's memories gave him a name. "Wes?"
"Yeah, it's me. You okay? Where's your VISOR? Is something wrong? What happened?"
"I was ... I didn't ... I ..." Kdoli searched as blindly for words as he did for any glimmer of light in the unbroken blackness. Finally, he shrugged, reverting to simplicity, as was the Human's way. "I don't know."
"Where's your VISOR?" Wes pressed. "Were you sleeping?"
Kdoli latched onto the explanation with the gratitude of a drowning man thrown a life preserver. "Sleeping. Yes. I was sleeping. Must have been a dream. I'm okay now."
"You sure?" Wes sounded skeptical. He looked downright disbelieving, but that, Kdoli could not see.
"I'm sure," Kdoli lied. He stepped back into The LaForge's quarters and let the door close between them.
Wesley stared at the blank bulkhead, running hundreds of justification scenarios through his head in an attempt to explain Geordi's abrupt retreat. Nothing sounded right. Nothing sounded even close to right. Geordi without his easy grin was as odd as Geordi without his VISOR. Neither one made any sense.
Wesley Crusher was still trying to figure it out as he turned and continued slowly on his way.
Inside the engineer's cabin, Kdoli heard the retreat of footfalls and let himself once again begin to breathe. He replaced his weapon in its place of concealment and leaned into the cool bulkhead just left of the door sensor. His quickened breathing slowed until it was normal.
Normal, at least, for a Human.
Kdoli touched the place where his jaw and ear met. "Vlenia?" he whispered.
"I am here," a woman's voice returned.
Kdoli nearly fainted with relief. He touched the place again. "Something is wrong. There has been a great error."
"Are you hurt?" Worry was sharp in the demand. The expression of concern calmed Kdoli and reminded him that he was not alone.
"I must see you," he answered. "I must show you."
"The cabin LaForge," Vlenia verified. "I will come."
Kdoli nodded, letting his hand fall away from his throat. She would
come. He waited in the darkness for Vlenia and wondered how they
could have made such a mistake as this.
"She'll sleep for some time yet, Will," Beverly Crusher told the first officer gently. "I called because I thought you'd want to know that we're getting acceptable cortical responses now. She's stabilized, she's no longer in any danger, but it will be at least another thirteen or fourteen hours before the sedation wears off."
Will Riker glanced up. "Yeah," he admitted grudgingly. "I know. I just ... " He shrugged, letting the statement hang unfinished in the medical bay still. The worry in his eyes tried to hide behind a well-practiced poker face, but Crusher knew him too well to be mislead.
She nodded. Peeling away layers of professional decorum, she exposed the Beverly that lay buried well beneath the CMO Crusher facade. One hand dropped to Riker's forearm. Her fingers tightened just enough to assure the worried first officer that she knew exactly what he was thinking.
Riker's expression flickered with surprise. His gaze jumped to the doctor's hand, and then back to the kind empathy in her blue eyes. The grim line of his lips eased. He nodded, a short, tight motion that acknowledged her support without really acknowledging it.
"Stay as long as you like," she told him.
Crusher turned away and nearly collided with the young acting ensign who burst into the room as if his tail was afire. She couldn't help but smile as she watched her son's flustered retreat, amazed for the millionth time at exactly how much he resembled his father.
"Mom," Wesley began breathlessly. "I was looking for you. I was ... "
Wes's ever-active boy's eyes made their rounds of the room and found Deanna Troi's motionless body. His excitement stumbled. He saw the way Riker was leaning over her, the way the first officer held her hand and studied her with worried eyes. He saw the frustration that edged the older man's bearded features in an moment of unguarded despair.
"How's she doing?" Wes murmured, forgetting the rush of only moments ago.
"Deanna is going to be fine," Crusher assured her son. She said it a bit louder than necessary, watching the words ease into the tense line of Riker's shoulders despite the fact that he was turned away from them and very nearly beyond hearing anything but the rise and fall of his imzadi'sshallow breathing.
Crusher smiled to herself. "Let's talk in here," she suggested, putting a hand on Wes's shoulder and guiding him gently but firmly away from the comatose ship's counselor and her first officer guardian.
Wesley's gaze kept tripping back to Troi as his mother lead him toward her office. It was only when he was seated across from her desk that the persistent gnaw of what had brought him to Sickbay in the first place broke into the distraction of the counselor's condition. He focused on his mother and found -- to his irritation, but certainly not his surprise -- tolerant amusement in the way she regarded him.
"You were saying?" Beverly prompted as she took a seat behind her desk.
Wes shrugged. He tried too little and too late to sound casually indifferent. "I was just wondering if you knew what was going on with Geordi."
Beverly considered the question and her son. "Going on?" she repeated finally.
"Yeah. He having some kind of problem with the VISOR or something?" Before his mother could answer, Wes jumped into the anticipated line of her argument. "I'm not asking you to go against doctor/patient confidentiality or anything," he thrust her direction. "I'm just worried about him."
"Wes ..." Beverly started.
But Wesley was already hurrying on to thwart any attempt she might make to cut him off. "After all, he's my best friend. I mean, you could tell me, right? I wouldn't tell anybody else."
"Wes," Beverly tried again. "I don't ... "
"Aw, come on," Wesley whined. "Just give me a hint. I can figure it out. Is something wrong with it? It hasn't stopped working, has it? Maybe I could look at it and see ... "
Beverly Crusher placed both hands flat on her desk and leaned into them. "WESLEY," she demanded sharply. His arguments tapered to silence. "Thank you. Now what are you talking about?"
Wes seemed taken aback. His eyes crinkled, for the first time, with doubt. "You mean," he asked hesitantly, "you aren't working with Geordi on the VISOR?"
"No, I'm not," Beverly verified. "Now tell me what happened, and try to start somewhere other than the middle this time."
Wes twisted uncomfortably in his chair. "Well, Commander Riker and Data and I have been working on my enhancement program since early this morning. You know, figuring out the limitations, the possible glitches, all that kind of stuff. Anyway, Commander Riker said his eyes were beginning to cross and that we needed a rest, so I was heading for Ten Forward, and I decided to drop by Geordi's quarters and see if he wanted to join me but I ran into him in the corridor and ...." The youth swallowed. ".... and he wasn't wearing his VISOR. I figured it must be malfunctioning or something, but he was acting really weird and he didn't seem to want ...."
"Geordi was in the corridor without his VISOR?" Beverly interrupted. She was as incredulous as Wesley had been at the time. "Are you sure?"
Wes snorted in disgust. "Of course I'm sure. I almost ran into him."
"Did he say anything?" Riker inquired from the open doorway.
Wesley started at the sound of the first officer's voice. He swiveled in his chair, wondering how long the older man had been standing there. "That was weird, too," Wes ventured. "He almost acted like he didn't know me for a minute."
Riker's eyes hid his thoughts more effectively now than they had at Troi's bedside. He considered Wesley's answer without commenting on it.
Beverly Crusher, however, had to agree with her son. "That is weird," she muttered. "Geordi's sense of hearing is very refined. Even without his VISOR, he should have had no trouble identifying you once you spoke."
"He didn't offer any kind of explanation?" Riker pressed.
Wes shrugged. "Nothing. He just backed up into his quarters and shut the door on me."
Again, the first officer contemplated the information for a long moment of silence before responding. "That doesn't sound like Geordi," he stated slowly. "You sure you weren't ... interrupting anything?"
Wes's cheeks flushed slightly at Riker's implication. "Yes, I'm sure," he responded a little indignantly. "I think I would have noticed that." Much to mother's amusement, he refused to meet her eyes. "It's no big deal, anyway," he said, shuffling his feet. "I was just curious." He pushed out of the chair and stepped quickly away from his mother. "I gotta go."
Riker's voice caught the boy half way to escape. Wes paused grudgingly, waiting for the first officer to continue.
"What did he seem like to you?" Riker asked quietly. "I mean, was it just Geordi without his VISOR, or was it something more?"
Wes frowned at the question. He didn't know what Riker was asking, let alone how to go about answering him. "I don't know," he fumbled. "He seemed ... he seemed ... I don't know ... he seemed ... blind."
The word popped out of Wesley's mouth despite his intention not to use it. It was only after it formed aloud and bounced rudely back at him from the walls of his mother's office, that Wes realized what had bothered him all along.
Geordi had seemed so blind.
Calling Geordi blind was like calling Worf a coward, or Riker ugly. It just didn't fit. Geordi was the most sighted person he'd ever known. Even in total darkness, the chief engineer knew exactly where he was and where everything else was in relationship to him. Geordi called it "The Consolation Prize Sense": the sixth sense God gave all the little boys and girls he forgot to give the gift of sight. He'd once told Wes it was kind of like an apology on a cosmic scale.
But not today. Today, Geordi LaForge had seemed blind. Today, he'd seemed like he needed a white cane and a seeing eye dog just to make it back to his quarters.
"He seemed blind," Wes repeated.
"It was blind," Kdoli told her, trembling just slightly at the prospect. "It was blind, and the replicator duplicated the defect in me."
Vlenia shook her head impatiently. "That is impossible. It could not have run this vessel if it had been blind." She glared hard at the opacified surface of Kdoli's vision apparatus. She tried to imagine how The LaForge could have functioned with such an impediment.
"How can you stand there and argue with me?" Kdoli snapped. His voice was taking on a tinge of panic. "I cannot see. I am BLIND."
On impulse, Vlenia reached out one delicate finger and touched the surface on his eye. Kdoli yelped. He jerked away, his hands spreading defensively before him.
Vlenia flinched as well. "Sorry," she muttered. It embarrassed her that she had not thought to warn him. Carefully, she touched the surface of her own eye. They felt the same to her. It was not logical that one should function and the other should not.
"We must return," Kdoli stated after several long minutes of listening to her silent contemplations. "There is no hope for success with this." He gestured vaguely at his eyes. "We have already failed."
Vlenia's expression sharpened. "As you wish," she agreed tightly.
Even blind, Kdoli saw the disapproval in her. "You would choose otherwise?" he challenged almost defensively.
"What I would or would not choose is irrelevant," Vlenia reminded him. "It is your right to abort, as it is mine, as it would be Jhalic's under similar circumstances." Although she let silence seep into her response, Kdoli knew she was not yet finished. He waited for her argument until it came. "I am merely surprised," she obliged in an off-handed manner that was, in truth, anything but off-handed. "I had not thought you to be one to give up your convictions so easily."
Kdoli rose to the jibe. "I stand with my words," he responded hotly. "But I am no fool. Death lasts as long when delivered through ignorance as when given by intent. I have no wish to join The Knowing before my time at the defensive backlash of a cornered animal. Blind, I stand naked before them. Because I speak against those who would summarily execute more than a thousand sentient beings does not mean I wish to place my throat against their blade."
"There is no need to convince me, Kdoli," Vlenia observed serenely. "I agree that you would be safer on The Home. Return there. Jhalic and I shall remain until a decision is made."
Kdoli's milky eyes narrowed. "And if your opinions vary?" he asked cautiously.
"Then we will defer to the wiseness of our ancestors. We will do as we have always done, and The Home will be safe."
Kdoli drew a deep breath and blew it back out through his nose. The snort left no doubt as to his disdain for the suggestion. "Jhalic is as blind as The LaForge," he sneered. "His mind is stone. He will not be convinced. What you find here will mean nothing."
Vlenia did not argue. She had known that from the beginning. They had been chosen for this mission in the old way. The triad. It was an eternal balance. Kdoli and Jhalic were spikes of metal; their convictions declared and fixed. She was the free weight strung between them. The neutral to sway. It was she who would decide the path, she who held the fate of these invaders in the nuances of her interpretation. Only she could change the path of what had always been, and only then if neither spike pulled free.
"Change is a demanding mistress," Vlenia observed calmly.
The crook of a smile twisted Kdoli's lips. "Change is a bitch," he corrected. "But she is my bitch, and I will remain for her."
Vlenia smiled. "You are a wise man," she told him.
Kdoli laughed. "No, my dear Vlenia," he responded wearily.
"What I am, is a blind fool." He shook his head. "A
very old, very blind fool."
Worf threw his head back and loosed a roar that shook the very walls of the blood-red canyon in which he stood. Though debris dislodged by the tremendous wave of sound pelted the Klingon, he barely seemed to notice. Instead, he stood, feet planted shoulder width apart in the sandy soil, and breathed deeply of the scent of death that clung to the air. His enemies lay strewn about the rocky terrain. Their blood pooled in small lakes, reflecting the harsh light of the trio of suns that set to the north. Weapons gleamed silver in the contrast to the orange cast of the dying day.
It had not been a fair fight. Five of them to one of him; and yet, none of their razor-edged weapons had stained itself with his blood. He could have claimed the victory to be one of skill, but such vanity was not part of the Klingon's make-up. Instead, he viewed his enemies' corpses with the sour knowledge that they were unfit to die by his hand.
Something hit him squarely between the eyes. Worf's first thought was that the computer had developed a sense of combat beyond its programming parameters and supplied him with an adversary worth fighting. As the Klingon security chief's dark eyes scanned the terrain for his assailant, he realized that blow had been but the beginning. Pressure climbed behind his eyes. To his shame, he dropped the weapon in his hand to clench at the living thing that writhed in his braincase. It came to him as he fell to his knees that even his alterations to the holodeck's inbred safety measures would not have allowed this. A snarl formed in his chest and tore defiantly up his throat and out pain-clenched lips.
The orange atmosphere of Midicus III fell away before a blinding sword of brilliant, searing white light. Iridescence enveloped the howling Klingon and burned everything around him to white.
The interior of the holodeck blinked. The light vanished as it had come. It lasted less than a second.
The Klingon kneeling amid the sprawled bodies of his fallen enemies straightened slowly. He gazed at the carnage of dismembered limbs and pools of blood. His eyes narrowed, and he pushed himself to his feet.
"Simulation terminated," a pleasantly mechanical female voice announced. The stark landscape melted around him to become an empty, cavernous holodeck chamber decored only by a slightly glowing grid. "Program Worf 3: Midicus Combat complete. Available options: Save, Terminate or Re-load."
Jhalic grunted. He studied his hands, turning them over twice as he checked between the fingers for any trace of what had only moments ago been gloves of blood still warm from the kill. Nothing. His Klingon hands were as clean as Klingon hands ever got.
"Available options," the computer repeated patiently. "Save, Terminate or Re-load."
Jhalic's gaze rose to contemplate the Human technology that glowed
all around him. His hands balled to fists and a snarl of contempt
lifted one corner of his heavy lips. "Terminate," he
growled, addressing only in part the computer's polite request.
"Geordi?" Riker called. He tapped gently on the door, thinking perhaps the call button was inoperative, or had been muted.
"Geordi? It's Will. You in there?"
The question was moot. He knew Geordi LaForge was in his cabin. The computer had informed him of that less than two minutes earlier. He'd been tempted to ask the computer if LaForge was alone, but he viewed that as somewhat of an invasion of privacy.
As if there was such a thing as privacy aboard a galaxy-class starship.
Riker waited several seconds for an answer, but when none was forthcoming, he started to turn away. The quiet hiss of an opening door drew him back.
"Yes, Commander?" Kdoli ventured with a calmness he in no way felt.
Riker's eyes narrowed. As Wes claimed, LaForge was not wearing his VISOR. Opacified eyes stared startlingly white in contrast to the warm chocolate hue of his skin. Riker studied the chief engineer for a moment before asking the obvious.
"Is there ... is anything wrong, Geordi?"
He picked the words carefully. While he and LaForge had been friends for some time, the subject of the engineer's physical disability rarely came up. He wasn't entirely sure exactly how touchy LaForge would be about it.
Again, Riker hesitated. "Your ... VISOR," he said finally, opting for the direct approach and hoping Geordi wouldn't take offense. "I mean," he gestured vaguely in the direction of his own eyes. "You don't usually ... you know ... "
A flicker of movement from the shadows behind Geordi derailed Riker's attention. The vague scent of orchids in bloom wafted into the corridor. Cursing Wesley beneath his breath, Riker turned his attention back to the waiting engineer. He forced a smile through his teeth and tried to gracefully back out of a situation he should have known better than to butt into in the first place.
"Uhhh ... never mind, Geordi. Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt."
"No problem, sir," Kdoli told the uncomfortable Human. He waited until the commander turned away and headed down the corridor before he returned to the privacy of his quarters. Vlenia was replacing her weapon in a recess along the band of her boot. "That was very strange," Kdoli commented.
"What is a VISOR?" Vlenia wanted to know.
"Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement," Kdoli answered automatically. And then he shrugged. "Whatever that means." He could hear Vlenia moving about and followed the sounds instinctively with eyes that no longer worked. She paused for a moment and picked something up -- something metallic, by the sound of it.
"I am going to touch you," she told him.
Still, Kdoli was not prepared. She put something to his face, his eyes. Something arc-like and metallic that fit around him as if made to do so. Pain and light flooded his brain at the same moment. He cried out, clutching Vlenia's arm and wondering how exactly he knew where to grab. She removed the device immediately.
"No," Kdoli muttered, catching his breath. "That is it ... the answer. It is some sort of prosthetic ... a device that enables The LaForge to see."
"You were in pain," Vlenia argued.
"It ... surprised me." Kdoli extended one palm. "Let me try again."
"Let me try again," Kdoli insisted.
Grudgingly, she placed the VISOR in his waiting palm. It felt right there. He accessed The LaForge's memory file and learned about this thing The Riker called a VISOR.
Carefully, tentatively, Kdoli brought the device to his face. He fastened it in place and found the flood of input less devastating merely by his anticipation of it. There remained, however, a great deal of pain. Sparks of fire burned at his temples. A dull ache pounded his pulse rhythm someplace directly behind his eyes. As he became used to it, however, it seemed not so overbearing.
"I believe it is based on heat patterns," Kdoli surmised finally. "Perhaps the electro-magnetic spectrum. Yes. The electro-magnetic spectrum. It is more of a sensory device than an optical simulation."
"You are still in pain," Vlenia countered.
Kdoli swung the VISOR so that he could study its interpretation of her. Vlenia had gone first. He had watched The Meyers on the tap screen as the replicator scanned her and replaced her with Vlenia.
In many ways, what he saw now was the same.
In many ways, however, it was not. There was no consideration in the VISOR's analytical interpretation for the velvet creme that had been The Meyers flesh. There was nothing in it to see the spark of fire in Vlenia's eyes as she studied her new body in the viewing plate.
He could, however, tell the extent of her agitation by the spread of heat along her extremities. He could also tell that she stood exactly one point six three meters from him.
"But I can see," Kdoli countered.
Vlenia shook her head once. She took a step forward and reached for the device. Kdoli intercepted the motion before she could complete it.
"The LaForge wears this in order to see," he said gently. "It is so much a part of him that there was no conscious thought in him of it; but I have accessed the memory file. He is never without it. Do you not think they would notice if that were to change? Do you not think they would suspect?"
Vlenia's fingers tightened.
"The LaForge sees this as a part of him. The others do as well. I must wear it if I am to function here. I must wear it if we are to continue with the Judgement." Kdoli released her wrist and stepped back.
For a long moment, Vlenia didn't respond. "I don't like it," she said finally.
A grin twitched at the corner of Kdoli's mouth. "I'm not overly fond of it myself," he agreed, "but unless you are prepared to state yourself now, with me ... ?"
She jerked her head in a sharp twist of motion, and his expression softened with fondness. "I thought as much," he told her. "So let us be on with it."
Vlenia nodded slowly. "Let us be on with it," she echoed.
Miles O'Brien chuckled quietly, enjoying his companion's obvious embarrassment. He lifted a glass of synthahol masquerading as Irish whiskey (and a damn poor masquerade it was) to his lips and sipped at it. "Leave it to Wesley," he observed. "It's probably the first woman poor Geordi's had in those quarters since Doctor Brahms turned out not to be such a holodeck fantasy after all."
Riker shook his head ruefully. "Probably be the last, too, if all his friends keep dropping by for a chat."
"Did you see who it was?" O'Brien pressed.
Riker held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Once I figured out what Wesley'd gotten me into, all I was interested in was finding a graceful way to duck out."
O'Brien chuckled again. "An attitude I'm sure Geordi appreciated." He started to say something else, but the chronometer on the wall caught his eye; and along with it, his sense of humor. "Damn," he swore quietly. "I'm late for dinner again. Kieko will have my head."
It was Riker's turn to grin. "Married life becomes you, Chief," he observed.
"It's a trial marriage, sir," O'Brien corrected firmly as he rose to leave. "We signed a full two year co-habitation agreement. Plenty of time yet before we start picking a china pattern. And don't laugh. She'll have your head as well when I tell her it was you who kept me in Ten Forward for two drinks past my limit."
"Whatever happened to the honor code?" Riker demanded. "Not ratting out your buddies and all that?"
"That, my friend," O'Brien informed him, "is a luxury of bachelorhood. If you ever get married ... "
"God forbid," Riker put in.
" ... you'll find that you'd rat out your own mother, if that's what it takes."
"I thought you were just playing house, Chief."
O'Brien shrugged. "What good's a test run if you're not going to stick to the rules?" he countered.
Riker shook his head. "Not a pretty picture," he intoned somberly.
"Oh, she's pretty enough." O'Brien grinned. "She just gets mean when I keep her dinner waiting."
"I'm glad to see you've got the pecking order ironed out."
O'Brien picked up his glass, downed the remnants of its contents and set it back to the table with a solid clink. "You've got it all wrong, Commander," he assured the other man. "There is no pecking order. It's all a matter of compromises. I promise not to be late for dinner, and she promises not to make me eat raw fish." He gave Riker a mock half salute and headed for the door.
O'Brien was barely gone when a woman moved in to fill the empty slot. "Do you mind if I join you?" she asked quietly.
Riker glanced up, surprised to find Kathryn Meyers on the other end of the question. The helmsman was pretty enough -- more than pretty enough, in fact -- but she was probably the last person Will Riker would have expected to zero him in Ten Forward. On the bridge, she seemed coy, perhaps a bit insecure. He'd flirted with her now and again, but never come away with anything more than nervous laughter. She certainly didn't seem the type to slide into O'Brien's departure with such aplomb.
He gestured to an empty chair, and she took it with a grace of movement he'd never noticed from her before. Apparently, he hadn't been watching closely enough. The woman across from him now exuded confidence, energy, a sense of self he found irresistible.
"Kathryn, isn't it?"
Vlenia inclined her head slightly. She noted the way his eyes evaluated her without letting him know that she'd noticed.
"Can I buy you a drink?" Riker offered.
"An antiquated euphemism," she responded. "Since Ten Forward does not, and never has, sold their wares."
Riker laughed. Before his very eyes, Kathryn Meyers blossomed from an attractive, if uninspiring, third-year ensign to a challenge. Like a moth to a flame, he found himself drawn to the aura of self assurance that surrounded her.
"Perhaps I should re-word that," he acquiesced. "Would you care for a drink?"
Vlenia smiled. "Yes, Commander," she agreed. "I believe that I would."
Riker signaled Guinan with a slight flick of two fingers. "Will," he corrected, watching her eyes.
Vlenia nodded slightly in acknowledgment of the offer.
"Will," she agreed.
Jhalic stepped surely from the turbolift, taking control of the bridge in the manner that he took control of every place he went. He studied the Humans there, identifying each by the images stored in The Worf's mind when the replicator scanned him. Vlenia had yet to take her place at the helm. Neither was Kdoli on the bridge.
The man standing at tactical seemed surprised to see him. Jhalic accessed The Worf's memory file and came up with a name. "You are relieved, Mister Tocyata," he growled.
"But sir," Ishido Tocyata objected, "you just went off shift two hours ago. I don't understand ... "
"It is not your place to understand," Jhalic snapped. "It is your place to obey."
Tocyata managed to look embarrassed and enraged at the same time. His features struggled on his face with several expressions before finding one that suited the moment. "Lieutenant," he forced through clenched teeth, relinquishing the tactical console with a mask of blank that would have made a Vulcan proud.
Tocyata abandoned the bridge before Jhalic got settled. Along with him went the companionable chatter that normally littered an evening shift. The bridge lay conspicuously silent. Jhalic ignored the still he had inspired and began accessing the main computer.
Data rose from his place in the command chair. He walked slowly up the ramp toward tactical.
Jhalic sensed the android's approach and cleared the tactical screen of information The Worf would have had no reason to be reviewing.
"Might I suggest," Data began blandly, "that your dismissal of Mister Tocyata might have been more abrupt than necessary?"
Jhalic stared hard at the android. "You question my authority in this matter?" he demanded after a moment.
"Not your authority," Data assured the Klingon quickly. "But if I might point out, I have noticed that Humans react far more emotionally to reprimand than you or I. If perhaps you would ...."
"Unless you wish to lodge a formal complaint concerning my command capabilities, sir," Jhalic interrupted coldly. "I have a great deal to do." Without waiting for a reply, Jhalic turned a shoulder to the android and began running a weapons check.
Data stood very still, contemplating the abrupt turn of events. As he watched Worf work, he tried to decide exactly which statement had lit the Klingon's short fuse. He came to the conclusion that, for some unknown reason, Worf's fuse had been lit before he ever stepped foot on the bridge. Knowing that, however, did not change the odd sensation of dismay the hostile exchange spawned.
Turning slowly from the tactical station, Data wondered if the
discomfort he felt was what the Humans would call "bruised feelings."
The warm scent of sunshine hung gravid in the humid air. Endless azure skies -- or at least, the illusion of endless azure skies -- stretched overhead. A light breeze slid along the stillness, lifting leaves only for a moment, and then letting them ease once again into place with a gentle rustle. Exotic flowers lay in brilliant swashes of color to either side of the twisting, quaintly-cobblestoned foot trail. They vied among themselves for individual honors, flaunting a wondrous diversity of hue and pattern, each challenging it's neighbor to a greater grace of slender stems or a more delicate lay of petals.
"I find it appalling that you've been aboard over a year and have never been given an official tour of the arboretum," Riker told his companion in mock-serious reproach. "It would have to be one of the top three points of interest on board a galaxy class vessel."
"And the other two?" Vlenia questioned. She watched the resplendent array of alien fauna they passed with keen interest, noting the care afforded it by periodic Human caretakers.
"Well," he allowed. "One would have to be the holodeck." He touched her arm and pointed out a particularly unique specimen of Madrisian Bluestar. "The other ..." he smiled coyly, "the other is probably open to debate."
Vlenia started to press him on the matter when they turned a corner and nearly ran into a young woman crouched in the walkway. Riker caught her arm, steadying the balance she so nearly lost.
"Kieko." He smiled. The expression warmed his eyes. "Probably not the wisest place to park and enjoy the view."
She laughed and stood. Strong white teeth flashed in contrast to her flawless olive skin. She flicked long ebony hair behind her shoulders with a single precise movement of one small, bird-like hand. "I don't know, Commander," she countered congenially. "You meet the most interesting people just around the corners of life, don't you think?"
"I'm flattered," Riker responded, half-bowing at the waist.
Kieko laughed again. "At the risk of being rude," she informed him, "I wasn't talking about you." She held up a hand to display the furry blackish-brown caterpillar coiled about her index finger. "I was talking about my friend Horatio here. It seems he decided to take a Sunday stroll on a Thursday and found himself up the path without a paddle, so to speak."
"Horatio, huh?" Riker reached out with one finger to stroke the small creature. "How can you tell he's a he?"
"The beard," Kieko told him with a grin. Her eyes flicked curiously to Vlenia. "He's quite friendly," she told the other woman. "And very wise. He never bites anything that is capable of biting him back."
Riker noticed the curiosity in the oriental botanist's glance and responded to it. "Kieko, do you know Kathryn?"
"I don't believe we've ever met," Kieko answered.
"Then I'll do the honors. Kieko, Kathryn." Riker touched Vlenia, his fingers lingered near her elbow in a vaguely possessive gesture. "Kathryn, Kieko. Kieko runs the arboretum, among other things." His smile turned on Kieko. "Kathryn is a second-shift helmsman. She has a wonderful back. Sometimes I find myself staring at it for hours."
The caterpillar had worked its way to the end of Kieko's finger and was testing the air beyond it when he overbalanced and fell. Riker caught the creature in one deft swipe.
"And ladies," he continued without a break, holding the caterpillar up for both of them to see. "I'd like to introduce both of you to my pal Horatio, here. He just basically eats leaves and enjoys the quality life."
"For a few more weeks at least," Kieko agreed. She retrieved Horatio and set him carefully on a nearby tree limb. "Then he builds himself a house and redesigns his whole presentation into the most spectacular Speckled Banthin Moth you have ever seen. Isn't that right, Horatio?"
Vlenia watched Kieko, noting the way the other woman addressed the caterpillar as if speaking to another sentient being. She extended herself and tried to feel the creature's persona; but there was nothing beyond Riker and Kieko and a general warmth of life that was the organic growth so greenly spectacular around them.
"You name each of them?" she asked cautiously.
Kieko's eyes sparkled. "Actually, I call all the Speckled Banthin Moth caterpillars Horatio. Or at least," she winked at Riker, "all the ones with beards."
"Thank goodness my mother wasn't into naming by the gross," Riker commented.
"I don't know," Kieko countered. "I could see you as a Horatio."
Riker did his best to look offended. "Do you think I look like a Horatio, Kathryn?" he demanded.
Vlenia looked back and forth between Riker and Kieko. "I've never met a Horatio," she allowed, wondering if it was a mistake to admit such a thing.
Both Riker and Kieko laughed.
"Well I'd never met a Miles until Will introduced me to ... oh my goodness." Kieko's hand flew to her mouth. "It was my turn to cook tonight. I got involved in some genetic cross-pollination and forgot all about it. I wonder if he's running late ...."
"I saw him in Ten Forward earlier," Riker offered helpfully. "He did mention something about only having time for one drink."
"Oh, great," the slender woman fretted. "He'll be at home wondering where I am. I'm sorry to just run off like this, but I've really got to go." She brushed in vain at the small smudges of dirt on her coveralls. "You see, Miles and I have a deal. I get dinner on time when it's my turn to cook, and he doesn't make that hideous corned beef and cabbage when it's his turn." She hurried toward the door. "It was nice meeting you, Kathryn."
And then Kieko was gone.
Vlenia glanced to Riker. He was grinning.
"You're amused," she observed.
"I just find the subtle negotiations of married life charming," he allowed. "Care to continue the tour?"
Before Vlenia could form an answer, Riker's commbadge twinkled. "Picard to Riker," the captain's voice demanded.
"Riker here," Riker responded immediately.
"Join me in my ready room, Number One. Commander LaForge has an update."
"On my way," Riker acknowledged. "Riker out." He glanced at Vlenia apologetically. "Duty calls. Perhaps we could finish this another time?"
"I would enjoy that," she answered quietly.
"Followed by dinner? I make a mean Fricassee ala Caterpillar."
Vlenia studied him for a moment.
"Or spaghetti, if you prefer," he added hastily at the serious consideration her eyes were giving the claim.
"I believe I would prefer spaghetti," she agreed.
Riker nodded. He headed toward the door. "Tomorrow? Say, seventeen hundred hours?"
Riker left the arboretum and headed for the nearest turbolift at a quick, distance eating stride. "Your timing stinks, Geordi," he grumbled under his breath. "But I suppose you did owe me one." He entered the small elevator and the doors hissed shut. "Bridge."
As the lift eased into motion, Will Riker found himself thinking of
the woman he left behind. His grim-lipped irritation turned slowly to
"We were only into the second layer of diagnostics when we found them, sir," Kdoli told Picard calmly. "Though the glitches appear to be basically benign, I think they warrant closer inspection. I recommend that we return to Starbase 553 for a full once over before venturing any further into un-mapped territory."
Riker frowned, fidgeting in his place on the couch.
"Number One?" Picard prompted.
"Basically benign?" Riker questioned. "I don't think we can afford to classify anything capable of causing a systems-wide shut-down as even remotely benign."
Kdoli swung the VISOR on The Riker in surprise. It was not something they had considered in their analysis of this interaction, that he might be challenged. They assumed that the one who directed the Human's mechanical functions would be charged with all decisions concerning those functions. He had viewed this briefing as a proviso of protocol, not one of authorization.
It was now painfully obvious that such a presumption was inaccurate. The Riker had challenged. He disputed Kdoli's conclusion that their life support failure could be attributed to minor, though essential, systems failure.
And now he, Kdoli of The People, knowing near nothing of The Humans and only what The LaForge knew of their technology, found himself charged with the defense a theoretical postulation of primitive cybernetic techno-babble designed not for cohesive logic structure, but rather for obvious justificational rationale to support the initiation of desired subsequent strategic maneuvers.
In other words, if it came down to an argument, he didn't have a leg to stand on.
Kdoli scrambled through The LaForge's memory core, accessing anything and everything the chief engineer knew about The Riker. What he found about the bearded Human's uncanny knack for reading a bluff increased the electrical activity in his neural synapses and chilled his palms to clammy.
"Benign when taken individually," Kdoli improvised as calmly as he could. "But with the potential to build upon one another when viewed as a whole."
Riker shook his head. His frown darkened. "Where did they come from, Geordi?" he demanded. "You gave an all-clear on a Level One after our little square dance with Q, and then again less than a week ago when we were coming out of Sigma VIII. What happened between here and there that scattered bugs through the whole system, and why weren't we appraised of it when it happened?"
Kdoli looked to The Picard, and found the captain waiting for an explanation as well.
"There seems to have been some sort of contaminant introduced to the main computer banks," Kdoli explained slowly, weaving the lie even as he spoke it. "I don't have that many answers right now, but it looks like maybe it jumped from one system to the next until all of them were infected."
"Infected with what?" Riker pressed. "And where could we have possibly been exposed to the original contaminant? Are you saying we ran afoul of something this all encompassing without even knowing it?"
Kdoli shrugged. "I don't know," he answered in desperation.
That, Riker seemed to accept. He nodded. His expression treated the base-line surrender with respect. It was obvious that the first officer felt this answer more valid than any of the fabricated intricacies that proceeded it.
And indeed it was.
It occurred to Kdoli that The Riker sensed -- whether inadvertently, or through design -- the only claim he had thus far made in truth. That did not conform to what they knew of The Humans. A capacity for insight, an ability to sense the motivations of sentient beings, perhaps even a vague telepathic sensitivity: such intangibles were complexities to which a primitive race such as their's should be oblivious. He filed the thought away for future deliberation and returned his attention to the battle at hand.
"But you think it's serious enough to abort our exploration of the Rhegus Delotian system," Picard observed.
"Yes, sir," Kdoli agreed.
"I disagree," Riker countered immediately. "Data and I have been studying the logs of Wes's prospectus population readings. We're beginning to come to the conclusion that he may not have been wrong."
Picard frowned. "That he may not have been wrong?" the captain repeated dubiously. "That hardly sounds definitive, Number One."
Riker shrugged. "Its still too early to jump to any conclusions, sir; but I'm starting to think there may be a bigger stake to this than we originally thought. It's possible we're dealing with an entirely new sentient race. As long as the possibility for first contact remains, I say we sweat out the rinky-dink malfunctions. Our mission is contact. That's where our priorities have to lie."
"Secondary, of course," Picard pointed out, "to the safety of the crew."
"I don't consider a system-wide shutdown to be a rinky-dink malfunction," Kdoli added. "And it's my opinion that there's a strong possibility of re-occurrence if we don't address the mechanical concerns we've raised."
"Then maybe we need to hold position and do some jury-rigging," Riker allowed. "But retreating to Starbase 553 is out of the question. By the time we get there, fix the problem and get back again, whatever was out here may be gone. We'll have missed our opportunity."
"We won't have an opportunity at all if we're all dead," Kdoli pointed out. He found it odd, referring to The Humans in the same tense as himself. We. It was a strange amalgamation to extend to aliens not of The Home. Strange, but not all together repellant.
"And you're convinced it's that serious?" Picard demanded.
"Yes, sir," Kdoli told him. "I am."
"What about the possibility of addressing it without Starbase facilities?" Picard pressed.
Kdoli shook his head. "We can't do it. We aren't equipped. We don't have the know-how."
Riker straightened in his seat. "What?" he demanded sharply.
Kdoli knew he'd made a mistake from the tone of the first officer's voice. He looked to The Picard and saw the same surprise in their slightly veiled depths. He had said something The LaForge would not. It was in their expression, in the way they looked at him. He dissected his response and tried to diagnose the error.
He could not find it.
As he studied the dilemma, they waited for him to explain.
He had no inkling as to what it was they expected. However, his assimilation of The LaForge's character told him that the chief engineer would not retreat. "I'm sorry, sir, but we just can't do it," he repeated, hoping fiercely that he wasn't compounding the original transgretion.
Riker snorted. He leaned back into the couch and crossed his legs. "Well that's a first," he announced. "I never thought I'd hear Geordi LaForge say that a Starbase ... ANY Starbase ... knows more about the Enterprise than he does."
Kdoli looked from Picard, to Riker, to Picard again.
"I'm not saying they know more," he responded finally, "But I don't have any answers. It would be irresponsible for me to risk lives on nothing more than ego."
"I'd ante my life on you over a Starbase maintenance crew any day of the week, Geordi," Riker informed Kdoli.
"I, too, trust your expertise above that of the resident engineering staff of Starbase 553," Picard agreed. "But I also value your judgement. If you consider the mechanical factors to be of an import sufficient to warrant abandoning a mission of such critical relevance, then I have no choice but to concur with your determination as well." He tapped his commbadge. "Mister Data. Set a course for Starbase 553 and engage, warp six."
"Setting a course for Starbase 553," Data agreed. His voice
echoed slightly over the comm-link, shadowed by itself due to the
proximity of the bridge to the captain's ready room. "Engaging,
warp factor six."
Riker remained behind when Kdoli left. He sat quietly on the couch, neither broaching discussion nor shying from it. Though from all outward appearances, he seemed attentive to his surroundings, Picard knew his first officer well enough to see the distance in his eyes.
Will Riker was sorting thoughts in his head. Disturbing thoughts.
Picard watched the younger man closely and waited. Riker's reputation as a poker player without equal was well earned. The bearded features played their expressions without divulging information. He sat for several minutes, only his unnatural silence betraying the weight of his deliberations.
"Opinions, Number One?" Picard asked finally.
Riker blinked. He glanced to Picard, a slight flush of surprise snared in his unguarded countenance.
Picard leaned back in his chair. "You were thinking weighty thoughts, Number One," he observed quietly. "I assume they have something to do with Mister LaForge's report?"
Riker shrugged. "I don't concur his assessment of the dangers," he allowed, "But I think I made that pretty clear."
"Nothing more?" Picard pressed gently.
For a moment, Riker didn't answer. His eyes studied the man across the desk, narrowing slightly as if debating the pros and cons of full disclosure. He leaned forward. His elbows found perch on the tops of knees splayed wider than shoulder-width apart; his fingers laced one hand thoughtfully into the other.
"He seemed a little ... evasive, don't you think?" Riker answered finally.
"Evasive in what way?"
Riker reached up with one hand and stroked his beard. His gaze strayed to the corners of the ready room. "Evasive in a very un-Geordi like way," he elaborated vaguely, doing a little evading himself.
Picard smiled. He appreciated his first officer's dilemma. It was a difficult line to define, the line between friendship and duty. And when that line was drawn by conjecture, rather than by the application of solid fact, the demarcation was all that much more speculative.
"You're referring to the clarity of his technical information," Picard surmised quietly. "I had noticed that as well."
Riker's eyes jumped back to Picard's. He nodded, his reservations fading in the face of the captain's corroboration of his own perceptions. "It was almost as if he was laying down a line of techno-babble deliberately," Riker mused. "Like he wanted to keep the waters muddied as a way to insure his own continued usefulness. Not that I think that's what he was doing," he qualified quickly. "Geordi's not insecure enough to think he needs to fabricate job security. But still ..." Riker's brow furrowed " ... it kind of seemed that way, didn't it?"
"Or as if," Picard added, "he was not entirely certain of his own answers, but unwilling to admit as much."
"Exactly." Riker shook his head. "Geordi's never been afraid to admit it when he was in the dark before. I can't say I care for this kind of character development."
"Indeed, Number One. But then again, this is his bailiwick. His particular cup of tea, so to speak. To find oneself faced with unanswerable questions on which may well rest the difference between life and death ...."
"You think the re-fit at Starbase 553 is just a stall, don't you?"
"Perhaps more of a safety maneuver," Picard corrected. "A sharing of the responsibility. By putting more minds on the problem, Geordi increases his chances of locating the problem. At the very least, he defrays the degree of culpability should no answers be found."
"And the computer glitches?"
"Undoubtedly real, but perhaps exaggerated in their role concerning the power grid shut down. More likely, a scapegoat to justify retreat."
"Geordi has never been the kind of engineer who needs a scapegoat," Riker pointed out.
"Geordi LaForge has rarely been the kind of engineer who finds himself without answers."
Riker sighed heavily. "Frankly, sir, I don't see it. All modesty aside, Geordi knows he's the best. If he can't figure something out, there aren't three people in the galaxy who can. Why would he lie rather than just admit he doesn't know what's going on?"
"Ego can be a tricky thing, Number One," Picard responded. "And strategic exaggeration to save face is often quite dis-similar to lying. In this particular instance, Geordi may well have convinced himself that he's putting the safety of the crew first. His prevarication -- if indeed it is that -- seems to be constructed with the intent to lend credence to claims that might otherwise be construed as opinion. If Geordi believes that continuing the mission despite his inability to locate the source of malfunction would result in a potential loss of life, he might well be expected to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent it."
Riker considered the captain's supposition. Though the frown worked through his bearded features eased somewhat, it never quite dissipated.
"Then why did you support him, sir?" he asked finally. "If you think the computer glitch report was nothing more than a line, why are we headed back to Starbase 553?"
Picard sighed. "Because it still remains, Number One," he
answered quietly. "That Geordi LaForge knows these engines like
no other man alive. His instincts concerning them are based on
intimate knowledge of their capabilities as well as their
limitations. And if he fears a repeat performance of our brush with
death enough to embellish upon his normally precise relationship with
the truth, I cannot say that I care to call his bluff."
Vlenia paced the confines of her cabin like a cat in a cage. Jhalic and Kdoli watched her. Kdoli awaited her response to his report. Jhalic merely waited. He stood, one massive shoulder propped against the wall and both muscular arms folded across his broad Klingon chest. His eyes followed her every move.
"They agreed, Vlenia," Kdoli repeated finally. "The Picard chose to return to his base of operations for repairs. It is exactly as we had planned."
"No," Vlenia countered. Her voice was sharp. She continued to pace. "It is not as we planned. The Riker has doubts. He is a leader. He will speak of them, and they will influence others."
"He trusts The LaForge," Kdoli reasoned.
"He trust himself," Vlenia corrected. "Above all others. He knows that it is his strength, this belief in himself. If he questions The LaForge's report, he will investigate. And if he investigates, he will find that you lied."
"Then we eliminate him," Jhalic decided simply.
Vlenia paused in her repetitious course to glare at the third member of their team. "That is not an option," she reminded the large Klingon coldly.
"It is always an option," Jhalic countered.
"Vlenia's right," Kdoli agreed. "We are here to judge, not to destroy."
"Kathryn," Vlenia corrected automatically.
Jhalic shrugged. "If this The Riker proves himself an impediment to the Judgement, then he must be removed."
"It would only spawn more questions," Vlenia argued. "Substantiate doubts where they exist, breed them where they don't. By eliminating one so integral to their command function, we risk prompting suspicions that may well taint us in random application." She shook her head, a decision crystallizing on her delicate features. "No. It is to our advantage to minimize the disruption to The Human's daily routine."
Jhalic smiled. "There are ways to make his demise seem ordinary," he observed.
"Always so quick to kill, Jhalic," Kdoli accused. "So quick to destroy that which you don't understand."
"Worf," Vlenia corrected firmly. "Use the names of the given."
"You're wrong, Kdoli," Jhalic told the other man. "I understand them quite well. I do not likethem."
Kdoli snorted derisively. "You are a savage," he announced with heartfelt conviction.
"I am expedient," Jhalic countered blandly.
Vlenia ceased pacing before the vanity mirror. She stared at herself in its reflection. The expression resident along The Meyers' features was one she had grown to recognize as the inception of anger. A warming blush of the emotion's twin bloomed deep within what was not The Meyers; but rather, was Vlenia of The Home. They were the same: the reflection and her mood. It seemed alien to think of this creature as something akin to herself.
"The Riker is not to be killed," Vlenia told her companions after a long moment. "He is to be swayed. The complications are less."
"He would hardly be a complication, Vlenia," Jhalic observed.
Vlenia turned on him. "Kathryn," she hissed.
Jhalic shrugged. "Semantics," he countered calmly.
"Is it all a matter of semantics to you?" she snapped. "Death ... Judgement. Two words of the same meaning?"
"We're not speaking of the race as a whole, Vlenia," Jhalic pointed out. "We're speaking of an individual. One among many. Acceptable losses in the pursuit of truth, don't you think?"
Vlenia turned away from him. "The Riker is not to be killed," she repeated firmly. "Geordi, do you disagree?"
Kdoli didn't recognize her usage of his alien identification. For a moment, he didn't realize she was speaking to him. It was only when Jhalic's course laugh rumbled through the room that he understood the request had been made of him.
"Better to call him Kdoli and have him answer," Jhalic chided.
Kdoli flushed. He graced the big Klingon with an acid glare. "I do not disagree," he answered tightly.
Vlenia nodded. "Then it is decided. The Riker shall not die."
She watched Jhalic in the vanity mirror. He was watching her as well. Their gazes met in the reflection.
"You seem protective of The Riker," Jhalic observed. "Is there something of him that we should know?"
Vlenia eyes narrowed. "He is a leader among the Humans," she responded carefully. "His elimination would not go unnoticed, unmourned. There are those who would investigate. Those who would retaliate."
"Nothing more than that?" Jhalic pressed.
Vlenia turned. She studied the expression of first Jhalic, and then of Kdoli. She read in both of them an indiscretion that was not in her heart.
"Kdoli?" she questioned.
Kdoli shrugged an uncomfortable, one-shouldered shrug. "You do seem ... protective," he admitted grudgingly.
Vlenia's expression tightened. "I have interacted with The Riker," she told them brittly. "I have walked with him and listened to the words of his philosophies. Is that not why we are here? To learn and then to judge?"
"The Judgement is on all," Jhalic reminded her. "Not merely those you find ... pretty."
Vlenia snorted. "I find none of the Humans pretty, Jhalic," she retorted. "And the examination of those they would follow is as valid a measure as any."
"Worf," Jhalic corrected sarcastically.
"I would suggest that you choose a subject of your own, Worf," Vlenia continued acidly. "And leave mine to me. Though your determination has been declared from initial contact, it is your duty as a member of the triad to at least purport to a modicum of impartiality."
"Don't make a pet of him, Vlenia," Jhalic warned. "The Riker is -- as are the others -- a subject for examination. Should he become a detriment, he will be excised."
"Kathryn," Vlenia corrected.
"Excised," Jhalic repeated quietly.
Vlenia stared at the computer screen, studying the planetary scan of The Home. It was startlingly accurate, considering the amount of masking the signal must have penetrated to get a reading at all. She shook her head. Jhalic and Kdoli were wrong. It was not The Riker who they should fear. It was The Boy Crusher. He was too advanced of mind for his race. Were it not for the boy, the Humans would never have discovered The Home. Were it not for he, they would have sailed by, blissfully unaware of Those Who Watched.
But he had found them.
And they had come.
Vlenia laid her hand on the screen. She closed her eyes and pressed herself into the coldly cybernetic intelligence that governed this ship.
It hurt. Too cold, too alien. Too much like The Invaders.
Irrelavant, a memory whispered in her mind.
It was only a moment, and then it was done. Vlenia lifted her hand from the screen. She shivered, feeling isolated. Alone. Her fingers rose to the place where Kathryn Meyers's jaw joined her skull.
"Jhalic?" she breathed.
"I am here," he responded immediately.
The motion of him inside her head was comforting. The warmth of his
voice filled her again with life. She breathed in the scent of him,
reminded that she was not alone. Slowly, Vlenia let her hand fall away.
Jhalic watched the woman sleep. Her hair pillowed the delicate, dresden features in a halo of dark ringlets. She lay beneath the beeps and lights of their medical monitors, oblivious to their constant surveillance.
He felt Vlenia reach out to him and answered. The momentary fear that was her eased. The memory of The Invaders faded. She left him as she came, silently, without tracks in his mind.
He continued to watch the woman. The Troi.
Jhalic glanced at the Human who approached. An expression of fond tolerance softened her otherwise sharp features. Her hands lay casually in the pockets of her blue smock. She wore the tumbling waves of fire-colored hair as if it were something anyone could wear, something anyone could aspire to and attain.
"Doctor," Jhalic responded because he felt he had no choice.
"She won't be awake for several hours yet," Crusher told him. "But everything is looking very good."
Jhalic nodded. He studied The Troi more closely, forgetting for a moment that Crusher was watching. "She is unique," he observed finally.
"Yes." Crusher smiled. "She is."
"And yet she remains," Jhalic went on. "Here. With you."
Crusher frowned. "What do you mean, with me?"
"With Humans," Jhalic elaborated shortly. "With Starfleet." His eyes rose to skewer a confused Crusher. "It must be difficult for her, to be alone amid such ... such mind chaos."
"I'm not sure what you ..."
"An empath," Jhalic interrupted impatiently. "Among Humans."
Crusher thought about that for a minute. "I suppose," she allowed finally. "In some ways. I'd hardly consider her alone, though. Deanna has a great many friends. You, me, Geordi ... and she does have Will."
"Riker," Jhalic muttered. The way he said it was nearly an oath.
Crusher reached out a hand and touched him. "Are you feeling alright, Worf?" she asked gently.
"I am feeling alone," Jhalic countered. "As she must feel."
And then he turned on his heel and strode from the room. Beverly
Crusher watched after the broad, receding back, a puzzled frown
twisted into her expression.
Kdoli manipulated the engines carefully, judging the amount of sabotage he induced to be just short of what would register as an anomaly to Human diagnostics. They were getting too far from The Home. Reducing the efficiency of their already inefficient engines was the easiest and least destructive measure open to him. If it became necessary to incapacitate the propulsion system, he would do that as well. But it was not yet necessary, so he did not yet do it.
He pressed a place in his throat and spoke: "I am finished. Does it register on your board?"
Jhalic responded with a single beep. Though, as Jhalic was on the bridge and within earshot of countless Humans, Kdoli expected nothing more from the other man; he suspected that Jhalic would not have bothered speaking even if they were sealed in a room by themselves.
Such was Jhalic's way.
"Very well," Kdoli grunted. "You may let the Humans have their tactical station back then, if you wish."
This time, there was no response at all.
Wesley woke half way through his sleep cycle, a sudden thought brilliant and fully formed in his mind. The rest of his thoughts, however, were muddy with less than three hours of sleep. He'd been up most of the night and well into the morning, working on his own terminal even after Data and Commander Riker had called it quits.
After all, he was the one who'd gotten them into this fix in the first place. It was the least he could do to put in some extra hours toward the resolution.
He struggled upright and stumbled out of bed. Crossing the darkened cabin by feel, he stubbed a toe on something that shouldn't have been left on the floor. He muttered a few choice words his mother wouldn't have appreciated, but Commander Riker certainly would.
"Computer on," he grunted, voice hoarse and slightly slurred.
"Working," the terminal informed him sweetly. It took on a light green glow, illuminating his youthful features in its backwash. Wes closed his eyes and rubbed at them with the backs of his hands.
"Pull up the population spread from planetary scan of Rhegus Delotion system, fourth planet on outer belt," he instructed groggily.
The computer went to work. While he was waiting for the file, Wes sank into a chair and laid his head on the desk. He considered turning up the lights, but decided against it because it would be easier to sink back into sleep if he never fully awakened.
"Population spread from planetary scan of Rhegus Delotion system, fourth planet on outer belt no longer available," the computer informed him.
Wes blinked. He squinted at the still-blank screen and tried to force clarity into the muddied thoughts whisping around that single clear inspiration that hauled him out of bed while still half asleep.
"What?" he asked dumbly.
"Population spread from planetary scan of Rhegus Delotion system, fourth planet on outer belt no longer available," the computer repeated obligingly.
"What do you mean, no longer available?" Wes muttered.
"Retrieval information concerning population spread from planetary scan of Rhegus Delotion system, fourth planet on outer belt has been compromised," the computer elaborated. "File access denied."
"Denied?" Wes repeated, his voice rising. "You can't deny me access to my own file!"
"Access denied due to hardware failure," the computer told him patiently. "Retrieval information has been compromised."
"You mean the file is still there, I just can't retrieve it?"
Wes rested his head against the desk and closed his eyes.
"Great," he mumbled disconsolately. "That's just
great. Just absafriggin' wonderful."
Singletary shook her head in disgust. "We've run every test in the book," she informed her superior. "Everything checks out fine. There shouldn't be a bleed-off of power at all, but the engines are down almost 28%."
Kdoli tried to appear concerned. He watched the agitated way the Human female paced the confines of The LaForge's office. "Are you certain the readings are accurate?" he asked for lack of anything better to ask.
"Yes, I'm sure the readings are accurate," Singletary snapped. She seemed offended by the question. "We've checked them ten different ways from Sunday. I just ran up on the discrepancy by accident. I was doing a quick fly-by of the efficiency coefficient and transference energy ratio of dilithium consumption to energy output when I noticed that paramon levels were lower than they ought to be. When I started digging down to find out why, I ran into the power bleed-off. The way things are set up, the engines might have dropped off 60 percent or more before they started ringing bells. That in itself is a major concern. Why aren't the monitoring stations picking up on this, and what else aren't they picking up on? I mean just think of the ramifications if ... But that's not even the real corker." She kept interrupting herself, a disconcerting habit that was more personality trait than anything. "The real corker is that I just can't figure where that energy could be going. I mean, it should register somewhere, shouldn't it? It can't just disappear. But if it'd gone anywhere, we should have picked it up on one of the monitors, don't you think?"
"I would think," Kdoli agreed.
"Unless, of course, that's one of the things they're not picking up on." Singletary shook her head. She resumed the seat she'd originally taken upon first entering the office and stared at Kdoli as if she expected him to make the next move. When it was obvious he had nothing to say, she pushed him.
"So, what do you want us to do?"
Kdoli tried to look thoughtful. He could have told her exactly where the energy was going, but for obvious reasons, he didn't. He could have also told her that the defection did register on a monitor -- at least, it did until Jhalic altered the monitor -- but again, he didn't.
But he had to tell her something. The way she watched him demanded a response. So Kdoli told her the only thing he could think of to tell her.
"Keep an eye on it, Singletary," he instructed as if the order meant something. "Let me know if the degeneration accelerates."
Singletary looked surprised. More than that, she looked shocked. "Sir?"
Kdoli saw another line of queries forming in her eyes and chose to end the interaction before she asked him something he could not evade.
"That's all, Singletary."
Recognizing the dismissal in his voice, Singletary rose to leave. She paused at the door, however, torn between following orders and her perception of duty.
"Sir," she ventured carefully. "Shouldn't we appraise the captain of this?"
Kdoli smiled a Geordi LaForge smile. "I don't think that's necessary at this time," he assured the pale woman. "Not until we know where that energy is going, and why. When we have some answers, I'll fill the captain in personally."
Singletary blinked. "Uh ... " She hesitated, starting to say something more and then thought better of it at the last moment. "Yes, sir," she muttered. And then she ducked out of his office into the bustling bay of main engineering.
But gone was far from forgotten. As the door to Lieutenant Commander
Geordi LaForge's office slid shut behind her, Lena Singletary
wondered exactly how much damage going over her superior's head was
going to do to her career.
Data stared at the computer screen, it's light green glow enhancing the golden effect of his skin.
"There does not appear to be any way to access this particular file, Wesley," Data told the youth hovering behind his left shoulder. "Hardware failure has compromised the integrity of the retrieval coding. The information has been dramatically expurgated. I see no way to compensate for the damage."
"Great," Wes moaned. He was still in his pajamas. His feet were bare. He sank to the edge of his bed and put his head in his hands. "That's just so great. I can't believe this is happening. The odds of the mainframe picking that one file to dis have got to be ... they've got to be something just absolutely astronomical."
Data turned in his chair. He watched the youth with a slight cock to
his head. "Would it be appropriate to assume that the contents
of this particular file were inordinately important?" he asked innocently.
William Riker was quite surprised, and not a little amused, to find his stomach full of butterflies. It had been a very long time since the prospect of taking a woman to his quarters had made him nervous. A bit giddy with anticipation, perhaps, but nervous? Riker shook his head, grinning wryly. He flexed all ten fingers twice before he even attepted picking the glass up just to make certain they weren't going to embarrass him by spilling Kathryn's drink all over her. When he turned to take it to her, she was no longer sitting where he'd left her.
"Interesting collection," Vlenia commented, one finger running along the spine of an antique book. "Not many people bother with the real thing, these days."
"It was a gift," Riker responded. He almost added "from the captain," but decided at the last minute that it would sound too much like he was dropping names. "From a friend," he finished instead. "Your drink."
She accepted the glass, the tips of her fingers brushing his in the process. She turned away to finish her inspection of his quarters.
Riker watched her move along the wall, stopping here and there to study this and that. He was surprised by what caught her attention. But then again, she had surprised him more than once this evening. She was not at all what he expected.
"You are a very complex man," Vlenia observed, settling gracefully against one wall to sip at the drink she held.
"Scattered, my mother used to call it," he responded with a grin. Even as he said it, he was surprised at himself. He didn't share much about his mother with others. An unguarded comment of that sort hadn't slipped out in years.
"No." Vlenia's eyes settled into his. "Not scattered. Complex."
Though he had intended to lead her toward the couch, Will Riker found himself being drawn to the wall instead. He followed the urge to move to her without really being aware that he had.
"You're not what I expected," he told her.
Again, he was surprised. That sounded far too truthful to be anything a woman would want to hear. Besides that, it was not particularly complimentary. His obvious interest in her now bolstered the implication that he had not thought all that much of her before.
He figured now would be a good time to say something about her eyes, but instead he said, "Really." He still held his glass, and she still held hers. He could have planned it better, should have found a place to put them where they wouldn't be in the way.
"And what did you expect?"
That was lead in if he'd ever heard one. He should have said he expected a pleasant Chablis and he got a fine cabernet instead. He should have said he expected a single red rose and got an exotic, intoxicating orchid. He should have said anything at all except what he did say: "I'm not sure." The ineptness of his own answer twisted a wry grin into his lips. "Someone ... less complex perhaps."
He kissed her gently then, one hand on the wall by her shoulder and the other still holding his drink.
For the first time since she slid into the seat across from him less than twenty four hours ago, it was Kathryn who seemed surprised. She stiffened a little, pulling back. Riker let her go. He saw a dart of confusion in her eyes as he retreated, and it made him wonder what exactly she had expected.
She'd accepted his invitation calmly, confidently. It hadn't occurred to him for a moment that they were speaking different languages.
Vlenia remained absolutely still. She accessed everything in The Meyers memory file and realized that she should have anticipated this. She should have seen The Riker's advance coming, but she hadn't. It caught her completely off-guard. As she stared into his puzzled eyes, Vlenia of The Home tried very hard to devise a mode of escape that would not leave him suspicious.
"Would you like to sit?" Riker asked, releasing her by stepping away.
Vlenia nearly buckled with relief. The danger swept past, dusting her with it's proximity. Riker gestured to a couch, but took his own seat in a chair. She moved across the room carefully, watching him with each step.
He had sensed her panic; she was certain of it. He had somehow felt the sudden tension and chosen to defray it of his own volition. She took the seat he offered, trying to decide if the space between them was in deference to her discomfort or for other reasons entirely of his own.
What little they know of the Human race did not support the notion of a capacity for mercy.
And yet ....
"So." Riker smiled. The expression seeped into his eyes, warming them with a sincerity she could hardly doubt. "Tell me about yourself. Where were you born?"
Before she could lie, the quiet beep of a personal communicator chipped the expectation between them.
"Doctor Crusher to Commander Riker," Beverly Crusher's voice hailed.
Riker unfolded like a marionette drawn to his feet by a dozen separate strings. "Riker here," he acknowledged, features suddenly sharp with tension.
"Deanna's starting to come up," Crusher informed him. "I thought you'd like to know."
"Yes, Doctor," Riker verified. "Thank you. I'm on my way. Riker out."
He'd already set his glass on an end table and was turning to go when Will Riker remembered he wasn't alone. "Oh ... Kathryn." He looked both embarrassed and distracted at once. "I'm sorry. We're going to have to make this another time."
Vlenia rose. If she was surprised by his gesture of mercy earlier, she was twice as surprised by this new development. His desire to be near her had melted. It had melted to the extent that he momentarily forgot she even existed. In its place was concern ... concern for The Troi ... The Troi who had sensed them and who they had sensed. The Troi whose momentary overlap into The Home had given rise to argument and dissension among Those Who Ruled. The Troi who made them question the morality of their defense of The Home and who changed the way of things that had been for a millennium.
The Riker no longer mattered to himself. The Troi mattered to him. The Troi mattered to him more than he mattered to himself.
Vlenia blinked. "Counselor Troi is your friend?" she ventured hesitantly.
"She's a lot more than a friend," he acknowledged, heading for the door with a brisk stride. "I've got to be there when she wakes up. Make sure everything's okay."
Vlenia followed him out of his quarters. "I hope she's well," she told the first officer as he headed away.
Riker turned. For a moment, his thoughts focused on her, and he looked at her as he had before Beverly Crusher's call interrupted their interaction.
"Thanks," he muttered.
And then his mind was off again, preceding him on the trip to Sickbay and flashing through a hundred different scenarios as to why Deanna Troi had collapsed and if she would recover to his satisfaction. "Catch you later," he tossed over one shoulder as he followed the thoughts that forged ahead.
Vlenia watched him go, noting the way his stride quickened with each step he took. She watched the corridor for several moments after he had turned out of it.
Perhaps Kdoli was right. These Humans were different than what they had expected. Perhaps there was reason to doubt the old ways.
She let the thought settle in her head and felt the weight of it there.
"And you, Commander Riker," she told the empty corridor
quietly, "are not what I expected." She touched a finger to
her mouth, remembering the warmth of his lips as they pressed against
hers. "Not at all what I expected."
Picard sat, hands folded on his ready room desk, and studied the blonde woman across from him. She was pale, almost too pale, and obviously nervous, although she hid that fact with admirable decorum. She started to say something more, but thought better of it and repressed the urge by closing her lips tightly to keep the comment inside.
"The chain of command had been established for very good reasons, Lieutenant," Picard told her finally. "Circumventing your commanding officer is not a thing to be done lightly."
She started to respond, and then again, closed her lips over the words. Ice blue eyes doing their best to remain stoic closed for a moment. She drew a deep breath, opened her eyes and answered very clearly and with exacting military non-inflection, "I am aware of that, sir. And I am prepared to take whatever consequences my actions entail."
Picard nodded approvingly. The chips in her credibility made by climbing over the chief engineer's head were lessened by her own acknowledgment of the infraction and her willingness to take responsibility for it.
"Why didn't you bring this to Commander Riker's attention?" he asked abruptly. If she was bucking for commendation, or trying to cast LaForge in an unflattering light, she was going about it all wrong. Riker would have been the next logical step. Skipping two officers in the chain of command was more than an infraction; it was stupid.
"Commander Riker is with Counselor Troi," Singletary answered quickly. Though nervous, she'd appeared very sure of every statement she'd made. Every statement, that was, until now. The way her eyes skitted from his betrayed the fact that she was not entirely comfortable with the defense of this particular choice. "He's very ... I mean ... " Singletary tightened her answer along with her jaw, trying not to sound as indecisive as she sounded. "I didn't feel it was appropriate to interrupt him," she said finally, "and I didn't' feel this could wait."
Picard nodded again. He leafed through some papers on his desk that had nothing to do with anything just to give her a momentary reprieve from his judgmental gaze. "Not an altogether wrong justification for an exceptionally questionable choice," he allowed. "I'm sure Commander Riker appreciates your concern for his personal affairs."
Singletary's features tightened so much they almost broke. "I apologize for any inconvenience I have caused, sir," she managed between lips that were white where they were pulled back against her teeth. She pushed shakily to her feet. "If it would be permissible, I request leave to return to my station."
Picard looked up at her. "Denied, Lieutenant," he answered calmly. "Resume your seat."
She did so like it was breaking her knees to comply.
"Now," Picard leaned back in his chair, fixing the pale
engineer with an evaluative gaze. "Tell me exactly what it is
that prompted you to take such direct steps in the direction of
scuttling your career."
Vlenia studied the digital schematic glowing on The LaForge's office wall for several moments before turning back to Kdoli. "She is a danger to The Home," she said finally. "The Troi must not be allowed to regain awareness."
"And how exactly do we stop her?" Kdoli demanded. "Her mind is guarded now. Shielded from us. If The Home were to intrude again, it would destroy her."
Vlenia glanced across the room to Jhalic. "If it must be," she said quietly.
Above the metallic band of the VISOR, Kdoli's brow wrinkled. He looked from Vlenia to Jhalic and back again. "You would destroy her?" he asked incredulously. "Destroy The Troi?"
"If it is necessary to protect The Home," Vlenia retorted.
Kdoli pushed to his feet. "Is she not the reason we came?" he countered angrily. "The reason we did not destroy these as we have destroyed all others who would invade The Home? How can you think to destroy her?"
Jhalic snorted from his place across the room. Heavy, booted feet were propped on The LaForge's desk with characteristic contempt for the papers that lay crumpled beneath them. He didn't need to state an opinion, for his opinion was written all over his Klingon features.
Vlenia looked frustrated and angry at the same time. "I see no way to avoid it," she told Kdoli sharply.
Jhalic snorted again. "I do not even see a reason to avoid it," he offered.
"I would not expect you to," Kdoli snapped.
Vlenia turned on the big Klingon as well. "If you can offer nothing constructive to the conversation," she told him coldly, "then offer nothing at all."
Jhalic's heavy features broke into a humorless smile. "You amuse me, Vlenia."
"Kathryn!" Vlenia hissed.
Jhalic was on his feet in one abrupt snap of motion. It took two steps for him to reach Vlenia, and he towered over her like a behemoth of myth. Vlenia glared defiantly into his angry eyes. She gave no indication of an awareness of the size differential of the forms they had taken.
"I will not call you by the Human's name," Jhalic growled. He put a hand on her face. "You are Vlenia of The Home. I will call you such."
The anger in Vlenia segued to exasperation. "And if you call me such before the Humans?" she demanded without any real outrage to drive the inquiry.
Jhalic stared at her. "Would it be such a bad thing to end this charade?" he countered quietly. He, too, had lost the edge to his voice. There was something akin to tenderness in eyes that had moments ago sparked with rage. "To judge the Humans on their reactions to our presence rather than continue with this deception of speculative conjecture?"
"It would be an unfair measure to judge a race on the bite reflex when cornered," Vlenia argued patiently. Her voice had the tone of one who had covered this point countless times.
"I despise these fallacious games of stratagem," Jhalic informed her.
"But you play them well," she responded, smiling.
Jhalic grunted at the perceived insult, but didn't bother to respond to it. "If you are determined to preserve The Troi," he told her grudgingly, "then replicate her."
"We cannot bring another into The Judgment," Kdoli argued. "It would skew the balance."
"I did not say replace her," Jhalic countered in disgust. Although he spoke to Kdoli, his eyes never strayed from Vlenia. "I said replicate her. Scan and remove her. Leave an empty shell for them to ply with their medical ineptitudes." He touched Vlenia's face again, brushing one finger across her lips before removing it. "Perhaps it will give The Riker other things to think of than you."
Jhalic turned and strode from the office. Both Kdoli and Vlenia watched the door long after it hissed closed over his withdrawal.
"What does he mean?" Kdoli asked finally.
Vlenia shook her head. A twist of annoyance puckered her lips. "He is jealous," she pronounced disgustedly.
"Jealous? Of what?"
"Of The Riker?" There was a laugh in Kdoli's tone, but he tried admirably to conceal it.
Vlenia turned a coldly valuative glance on her companion. "The Riker is not so simple as you might think," she responded quietly. "There are complexities to him I find intriguing."
"The RIKER?!?" Kdoli repeated again.
The look she gave him made him wish he hadn't said it in such a way. Hiding his amused incredulity badly, Kdoli struggled to appear understanding. When that failed, he opted for an apology. "I'm sorry," he managed without cracking a grin. "I don't see it, but I will take your word that it exists."
"I have studied him more closely than you," Vlenia argued a little too defensively.
Kdoli nodded, still struggling not to laugh. "Perhaps it is a female thing," he agreed.
Vlenia glared sharply at him, but decided the comment was a sincere attempt at understanding, so she let it pass. "Jhalic is overly possessive," she announced.
Kdoli shook his head. "He must be. To see threat in a Human." Kdoli crossed the room and sank into a chair. "I still believe it a mistake to place the both of you on a triad. You must live with him when the decision is made. If it does not favor him ... "
"Jhalic is a professional," Vlenia interrupted. "As am I. Our personal lives have nothing to do with The Judgment."
"So you say," Kdoli muttered.
Vlenia's pretty features hardened perceivably. "You doubt me?" she demanded. "You doubt my ability to judge fairly?"
Kdoli smiled. The fondness he felt for her in his core reflected from his expression. "I doubt nothing about you, Vlenia," he told her gently. He entered her mind, moved through it so she would know he was sincere.
"Kathryn," she corrected automatically.
"Kathryn," Kdoli allowed. He retreated, left her to her own thoughts. It was the difficult thing of taking Human form, he decided. This aloneness. To loose so much contact with The People. It took great concentration just to move from himself to her and back again. The motion was comforting, but exhausting. "But of Jhalic, I am not so sure," he continued. "His hatred of the Humans was impressive before. Your ... interest ... in The Riker can only make it worse."
Vlenia cocked an eyebrow at her companion. "It was he who gave us an option to the elimination of The Troi," she pointed out. "Without it, we would have been forced to destroy her."
Kdoli shrugged, looking entirely unconvinced.
"Jhalic is trying," Vlenia stated firmly.
"Yes," Kdoli agreed. "He is very trying."
"Deanna?" Riker leaned closer to the counselor's lax features and tightened his grip on her hand just slightly. "Come on, Imzadi. Just a little farther."
Her eyes twisted beneath their lids. Her fingers moved in his, and the EEG monitor spiked with an audible blip.
"That's it," Riker encouraged. He glanced at the readings on the diagnostic board, but they didn't mean as much to him as the subtle variation in her delicate features, so he abandoned the readings for intent scrutiny of Troi's expression. "Try to open your eyes, Deanna. Try to talk to me."
Her eyelids fluttered. They fluttered again, and then they opened.
"There you go. That's it baby. Hold on to me. Stay with me, Deanna. Don't close them."
Beverly Crusher was a flurry of motion, checking some readings and adjusting others until they met with her approval. "Keep talking to her, Will," the doctor instructed quietly. "Don't let her slip."
"Stay with me, Deanna," Riker brushed a strand of hair out of her face. "No. Don't close your eyes. Keep them open. Look at me. Talk to me, Imzadi. Say something."
A faint smile flickered through her wan features. "You still here?" she whispered dryly.
Riker laughed. "I could ask you the same thing," he countered.
"You're doing fine, Will," Crusher murmured. "Her readings are starting to stabilize within acceptable ranges."
"You're becoming acceptable," Riker told Troi gently. "How terribly boring for you."
The counselor's dark eyes lost their glaze of well-being abruptly. They sharpened to focus, and slid directly to panic. The heart monitor tripled its rate.
"Will," she whispered imperatively, using her grip on his hand to pull herself off the bio bed just slightly. "You're in danger. They're coming. They're ... "
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," Riker admonished. He pushed her back to the bed as Beverly Crusher reached out to do the same thing. "Relax now, Deanna. Everything's okay. The ship's out of danger. Just relax."
"No," Troi denied more intently. She clung to his hand. Her fingers turned white from the pressure of her grip. "They're coming. Get out. Hurry, Will. Hurry ... "
Just as Beverly Crusher was about to administer a sedative, the Betazoid counselor screamed. The pain monitor on her board went dull red and began to drone insistently for attention.
"Jesus Christ, do something!" Riker demanded.
Crusher ignored him and changed injectors. She had barely pressed it to Troi's throat when a blinding light pricked the room and grew into a miniature sun going nova.
Both Riker and Crusher threw arms up to protect their eyes, just as both instinctively lunged forward in a vain attempt to shield the counselor lying between them with the bulk of their own bodies. The light grew worse, burning, searing, finding the tiny cracks between clenched eyelids and wreaking havoc on sensitive nerves.
The interior of the room blinked. The light vanished as it had come. It lasted less than a second.
"Deanna?" Riker mumbled thickly. He forced his eyes open, but found he couldn't tell any difference from having them closed. Dots and jags of electric color broke the blacker than black curtain of velvet laying against them. Nothing else registered.
His hands groped through the darkness to find Troi's throat. "Deanna?" His fingers spread to search for a pulse. Only the steady beep of the cardiac monitor against his ears kept him from going crazy.
The doctor had fared better. Her face was closer to Troi and the bio bed, and the shadow Riker's body threw across both women helped shield her optic nerves from the most damaging aspects of the blinding glare.
"She's stable, Will," Crusher assured the first officer. "The pain is gone. How are your eyes? Can you see anything?"
Riker felt hands grip his and lead him away from Troi. Crusher pressed him against a bio bed as her voice called for help: "Montoya to Sickbay. Stat." And then, to Will. "Can you see anything, Will? Anything at all?"
"Not a damned thing," Riker grunted.
His eyes felt like somebody'd laid a hot poker on them. The pain got worse suddenly. Much worse. He jerked away from the source of the fire, but Crusher's hand chased him down and grabbed his chin again. Her fingers clenched into his beard and used it against him.
"Relax, Will. It's just a light."
She set his eyes on fire again.
"It burns," he grunted, trying to twist away even though he was telling himself not to. Something pressed against his neck, and the quiet hiss of an injector told him what it was. The pain faded noticeably, but not enough.
"Montoya. Thank God. Scan his retina. Check for corneal damage and then flush with a protein-heavy saline solution. He needs lubrication quickly."
The flood of cold fluid across his eyes brought Will Riker to his feet.
"Whoa," Montoya's heavily-accented voice soothed. "Relax there, Commander. You're going to feel much better in a minute or two."
Again, the injector hissed against his throat, and again, the pain lessened.
"Beverly?" he demanded. "Deanna?"
"I'm fine, Will," Beverly Crusher assured from across the medical bay. "I've got some visual impairment, but you took the brunt of it. Deanna's slipped back into unconsciousness and that's the best place for her right now. Her eyes look fine. They don't seem to be damaged in the slightest."
"The pain?" Riker pressed.
"You're in a lot more right now than she is," Crusher returned. "All her signs are reading perfectly normal."
Riker's muscles uncoiled with relief, and he nearly fell to the floor. He would have, if not for the grip Montoya had on his arm. The painkiller in his system kicked a little harder, and he went from needing to sit down to needing to lie down in a hurry. Montoya and another set of hands eased him to the bio bed.
"Prepare another flush, Alyssa," Montoya told the second set of hands. "And then check on Beverly. Make sure she's not playing Doctor to the detriment of her own well being."
"What happened?" Riker asked whoever was listening.
"I have no idea," Crusher responded.
There was pressure against his arm, and another load of drugs intruded into his system. "Jesus, Montoya," Riker protested. "How much painkiller do I need?"
"That wasn't painkiller, Commander," Montoya responded levelly. "And let me be the doctor, will you? It makes me feel like Starfleet is getting its money's worth."
Fingers held open his eyelids, and cool fluid flushed once again across his eyes. This time rather than having the effect of hot oil, the wash was vaguely soothing. Riker reached up to engage his communicator. His aim was off, and the majority of his hand slapped nonfunctionally at his chest. The tips of his fingers, however, caught enough of the emblem to prompt a quiet beep.
"Riker to Bridge," he grunted. "What in the hell happened?"
The silence that greeted his inquiry convinced him he'd only imagined the engage beep of the communicator and he was really talking to himself. Just as he was about to tap it again, Picard's voice answered him.
"I beg your pardon, Number One?" the captain asked hesitantly.
"What happened? What was that light? Were we being probed? Attacked?"
Again there was a hesitation of several seconds. "What light?" Picard responded finally.
This time it was Riker's turn to be taken aback. For a long moment, he couldn't think of a single thing to say. "There wasn't any light on the bridge?" he asked stupidly because, for the life of him, he couldn't come up with anything else that even remotely resembled a logical question.
"No, Number One. There was not. Am I safe in assuming there was one in ... " he paused and Data's voice supplied from far away
"Sickbay?" the captain finished.
"Yes, sir," Riker verified. "That is a safe assumption."
"Any reports from the remainder of the ship?" Picard asked.
"None, sir," Data responded. "I am reading no fluctuation in normal energy patterns.'
"No significant alteration in Sickbay's energy profile log readings in the last twenty-four hours," the Klingon's voice responded.
"Report to my ready room for a debriefing immediately, Number One," Picard returned over the communication link.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," Montoya interrupted before
Riker could agree or disagree with the request. "At this point
in time, Commander Riker is functionally blind."
"There is no permanent damage to either the cornea or the retina," Santiago Montoya assured both the captain and his patient. Although neither man expressed his relief verbally, they both showed it in their faces. "You have probably already regained the majority of your vision by now," the Peruvian doctor continued, "but I'm going to retain the integrity of the blackout field until your eyes have had ample time to rest and re-lubricate."
Riker nodded. With a coaster-sized, nylo-aluminum circlet attached to the protruding edges of each eye socket by a line of white, gum-like adhesive, he almost looked to be wearing a high-tech pair of highly reflective shades.
"How long will that be?" the first officer asked cautiously.
"Another twelve hours, maybe twenty-four."
Riker winced. "That's a long time to be without my eyes."
"A lot shorter than the rest of your life," Montoya returned blandly. "Just lie there and enjoy the vacation. Let the rest of your body recover from the sedation and other sundry drugs we used to minimize the damage. That hydracortosepheline will make you nauseous if you try to stand up. Might make you nauseous even if you don't."
The doctor noted the slight twitch that ran his patient's expression. He knew facial muscles and their interactive relationships with one another well enough to read the slight movement for what it was: Riker's eyes had flicked left under reflective coverings.
Left, toward Deanna Troi.
"That means no visits to the counselor's bedside," Montoya admonished firmly.
The subtle change in Riker's posture validated the doctor's interpretive powers. Riker's shoulders slumped. He looked deliberately away from where Troi lay, one hand rubbing slowly along the line of his beard.
Despite his normal detachment, Montoya felt a pang of empathy for the temporarily incapacitated commander. It was a difficult thing to do: to sit idly by while someone you loved lived or died without benefit or regard for your approval or disapproval. And there was no doubt in Santiago Montoya's mind that Will Riker loved her. He spent far too much time and far too many women trying to hide the emotional attachment. He called her "Only A Friend" far too many times in the space of a conversation. Only true love prompted such intense denial. True love coupled with a fear of being left.
Besides which, Montoya had done his residency on Betazed. Imzadi didn't mean Only A Friend. It meant Beloved. And Beloved was Betazoid for I'm Going To Spend The Rest Of My Life With You Whether We're Ready To Admit It Or Not.
"You go stumbling around in the dark," the doctor told Riker gently, "and you're liable to trip over something we don't have the funds to replace. Let Alyssa know if there's any pain when the sedation clears your system. Or ... " he hesitated, but only for a fraction of a moment, "... tap your communicator and call me direct. Now if you don't mind, gentlemen, my wife and I were right in the middle of something when Beverly called. So if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go back and see if she's changed the access code to our quarters, or if she's up to giving it another shot." He nodded to Picard. "Captain." And then he turned and walked away.
Riker waited until Montoya's footsteps faded before speaking. "Now I feel guilty," he told the room in general. The reflective platelets stared blankly from his face. Though they were pointed in Picard's general direction, the slight tilt of the first officer's head betrayed the fact that he wasn't sure exactly where the other man was.
"I believe that was the good doctor's intent," Picard informed his first officer. "Other than guilty, how do you feel?"
Riker turned toward the captain's voice. He zeroed in, triangulating Picard's location with relative accuracy. "Fine, now," he allowed. "But it was kind of touch and go there for a while." A shudder skittered involuntarily down his spine. "Had some pretty grim visions of the future. Gave me a whole new appreciation for Geordi."
Even without his eyes, Riker caught Picard's change of mood. "What?" he asked.
"A potential problem," Picard allowed. "One of Geordi's lieutenants -- a Lena Singletary -- came to me with some rather disturbing information."
"Singletary?" Riker repeated. "Came directly to you?" He frowned. "That doesn't sound like her. She's a stickler for regulations."
"She claims there has been a significant bleed off of engine efficiency."
Riker waited for the captain to go on; but when he didn't, the first officer spent a few moments trying to decide why. "So why didn't she take it to Geordi?"
"Claims she did."
Riker got it then. He got it and didn't believe it, and it showed in his expression. "But Geordi hasn't said anything about it to you," he surmised.
"Singletary maintains that he has no intention of doing so until he has an answer for it."
Riker shook his head. "Now that," he said surely, "doesn't sound like Geordi LaForge."
"My thoughts precisely," Picard agreed.
"You asked him about it?"
Picard shook his head. "Not yet. Considering our earlier discussion, I thought I might get your opinions on the matter first."
Riker rubbed thoughtfully at his beard. "If it were anybody other than Singletary," he said slowly, "I'd think it was a bald-faced lie. But Singletary ... " His features twisted up again in that I-don-t-buy-it look. "She's a pretty straight shooter. I've never had reason to doubt her word before."
"Could there be a ... personal ... conflict involved?"
The way the captain said "personal" left no doubt as to what he meant. Riker considered it.
"I doubt it," he concluded finally. "Not that there couldn't be something going on outside their professional relationship. That even makes sense in a way. The two of them are pretty tight." The smell of perfume tickled at the back of Riker's brain, but he couldn't quite remember why it seemed relevant. "But I just don't buy Singletary in that role. She's got too much ... too much class. If they had something going on and it was turning sour, she might deck him with a right cross, but she wouldn't sabotage his career."
Picard accepted the commander's evaluation without question. It was Riker's position to know the staff. He could not, however, accept Singletary's implication of wrong-doing on the part of Geordi LaForge any more than Riker could. They both knew there was another answer -- had to be another answer -- but try as he might, he couldn't come up with anything that didn't cast the chief engineer in an incriminating light.
"An error, then," Picard suggested finally.
Again, Riker shook his head. "If she'd been wrong, Geordi would just have told her so. If he didn't know for sure, he'd have at least brought it up to us. Besides, Singletary wouldn't come to you without double-checking -- hell, triple-checking her figures. She must have felt pretty strongly about it to go up against regulations and Geordi both."
"She felt very strongly about it," Picard verified.
Riker started to say something else, but a thought froze him in mid-word. His mouth clamped shut as his expression darkened.
"What is it, Number One?" Picard prompted.
There was the temptation to say "nothing" in the commander's expression, but he pushed through it and answered. "Perhaps nothing," he started guardedly, "but not long ago -- directly after the system-wide shutdown, in fact -- Geordi was out and about without his VISOR."
"Out and about?"
Riker nodded. "Wes ran into him in the corridor outside his quarters. I went to check up on him later, and he answered the door without it."
"Could there have been some sort of malfunction?" Picard mused.
"Nothing he reported," Riker returned. "And when I asked about it, he looked at me like I was reciting Klingon love poetry."
"Why didn't you mention this earlier?"
Riker shrugged. "Didn't think about it. Figured I was interrupting something. He had someone in his room, and I assumed it was a woman."
Riker thought back, searching his memory for whatever it was that had made him come to that conclusion. "Well," he said slowly, "he stood like he didn't want me to see into the room. Like he was blocking it with his body. And he wasn't wearing his VISOR. I'm not sure exactly how Geordi handles his VISOR when he's with someone of the opposite sex; but he wasn't sleeping, and I can only think of a couple of things one might do with another person that doesn't require sight. I mean ... " Riker snapped his fingers. "I know. Perfume. I smelled perfume."
"A familiar scent?"
Riker frowned slightly. "Now that I think about it, yes it was."
"No. She's Chanel No. 5. This was something different. I've smelled it before. Smelled it recently, in fact. It's right on the tip of my ..." Riker cracked a grin, "... nose, but I can't quite place it. I know I've smelled it before, though. I'm sure of it."
Picard smiled. "I'm afraid that doesn't narrow it down much, Will," he observed gently.
Riker's grin widened. "I suppose you're right, sir. I have performed an olfactory scan of most the perfumes on board at one time or another."
"No need to brag, Number One." The amusement slid from Picard's voice as his mind circled back to their dilemma. "So then, we can assume that it was a woman. And that perhaps indeed you did interrupt something." He frowned and shook his head. "And there is, after all, nothing wrong with Geordi choosing not to wear his VISOR in the privacy of his own quarters."
"No." Riker shook his head. "It was more than that, sir. It was the look on his face. He looked ... scared. I didn't think much about it at the time: I was too busy butting out of what I figured I'd butted into. But looking back ... " Riker raised blank metallic eye shields to face his captain. "Looking back, it was weird. Very weird. And coupled with some of the behavioral changes he exhibited during the briefing in your ready room ... I don't know. Could something be going on with him?"
"Perhaps we should have a talk with Mister LaForge," Picard said after a long moment of contemplative silence. "Once your eyes are back on line."
"I agree." Riker reached up one hand to touch the circular nylo-aluminum plates. "Twelve hours."
"Or twenty four," Picard reminded him.
Riker turned his head toward the captain and pointed the blank
platelets to where he figured the other man's gaze was. "Twelve
hours," he repeated firmly.
Lena Singletary checked the readings three more times before leaning back in her chair and staring at the blank wall in front of her. It wasn't an error: engines were down a full 46 percent. And for some reason, it wasn't registering on anyone else's board. In fact, it hadn't registered on her board either. She'd had to go searching specifically for the information; and even then, it tried to hide from her.
Someone was sabotaging the propulsion computer. There just wasn't any other explanation.
And what was worse, there wasn't much doubt in her mind who was doing it.
Lena closed tired eyes, trying to come up with some other answer. Any other answer. It just didn't fit. Discounting the fact that he was her friend, Geordi LaForge was one of the finest officers she'd ever served with. His engineering sense was uncanny. His ease in dealing with people was nearly that. Unlike others on board, he didn't rule through intimidation. He didn't have to. Approachable worked for him. He could be friend and superior officer. It was something he and Commander Riker shared.
That, and their sense of humor.
Geordi's sense of humor never failed him, even in times of crisis. Especially in times of crisis. They'd gotten through some pretty tough things together. Like just yesterday when the ship decided to shut itself down. She'd been sure that was it -- end of game. They were all going to die, and she was scared. Only Geordi sitting beside her kept her calm. When he reached across the icy air that was getting harder and harder to absorb a daily requirement of oxygen from and laid his hand on hers, it hadn't seemed so bad.
Hadn't seemed so scary.
Just his hand, laid on her's for a moment and then drawn away.
Singletary slapped the console before her. Geordi LaForge was not a traitor. He was her friend. He was an extraordinary man who'd turned the tables on what should have been a handicap and made it into an asset. Not one man in a hundred could do that. Not one in a million.
Geordi LaForge WAS NOT a traitor.
And yet, he had to be. Everything pointed to him. As much as she hated to believe it, there was just no way around it. At least, not for her. Lena Singletary had been raised as an engineer. Her father was an engineer. Her mother had been an engineer before the shuttlecraft accident that killed her. Both her brothers were engineers. Her only sister married an engineer. Their children would probably be engineers. It was in Lena Singletary's blood to believe that if the facts said one and one was three, then three it had to be.
But that didn't make it any easier.
Not a damn bit.
Remembering the warmth of his hand in the icy darkness, she told
herself over and over that Geordi LaForge was a traitor.
"Am I disturbing you?"
Riker started. He hadn't heard her approach. That was probably because he was two steps short of asleep. The sedation in his system made him groggy. Not groggy enough to admit it though. Especially not to Kathryn Meyers.
The pleasantly feminine voice came from his left, so he looked that way and hoped he wasn't looking over her shoulder.
"No," he lied. "It's good to hear your voice, Kathryn."
"Very impressive," Vlenia teased. "Do you recognize everyone within a single sentance, or should I be flattered?"
Riker grinned. Pinpointing her voice as a frame of reference, he zeroed in until he was relatively certain he was at least facing her general direction. "You know what they say," he allowed. "Take away a man's sight, and all his other senses over-compensate."
He felt her weight settle on the bio bed at his side. "So what gave me away?" she inquired coyly.
"You have a very distinctive voice," he told her definitively. "And I've been thinking about it all day."
"You're a liar."
"Well," he amended. "For at least as long as I've been blind."
"But a gallant liar." She reached out and brushed hair from his forehead. Her fingertips lingered longer than was necessary to accomplish the task. The cavalier quality of her voice faded, and sincere worry filled the gap. "Does it hurt much?"
"A little," he allowed. It was a bit unnerving to have both the bid for sympathy of an overstatement and the machismo appeal of an understatement give way to the truth. She had that effect on him. And even though it left him feeling a little gawky and a lot out-of-control whenever he was around her, he kind of liked it. "Doctor says there's nothing permanent. I should be out of here in another eight hours."
Her hand slipped into his. "I'm glad. I was worried."
He tried to say something about the advantages of a heightened sense of touch, or of taste, but he couldn't force the words out of his mouth. "I'm glad you're here," he said instead.
Her lips brushed his in a sneak attack that retreated before he had time to respond to it. "I'll stay, if you like," she told him.
"I would like," he told her fervently. The nebulous
half-fear of night without end faded a bit. The edge dulled. His
hands tightened on hers, and he smiled. "I would like that very much."
Singletary sat, arms crossed, eyes focused on nothing and tried to take her mind off Geordi LaForge by deciding exactly what she was going to say to the captain. If he'd been displeased before, he was going to be down right pissed now. She had to have irrefutable facts to back her up if she expected to be believed.
Her frown deepened.
And there was always a chance that she wouldn't be believed anyway.
Geordi was the chief engineer. He was top dog in a kennel of purebreds. There were a half a dozen starship captains out there who would arm wrestle Worf in their underwear for a chance at stealing LaForge for their own vessels. He'd saved the Enterprise a thousand times. Maybe two thousand. Why should anyone in their right mind believe her claim that he was sabotaging the engines for no apparent reason?
Picard wasn't going to believe her. He had the kind of faith in LaForge that a captain needed to have in his chief engineer. And it wasn't only Picard. Riker wouldn't buy it either. Though the Commander had worked with her enough to know she wasn't some bimbo talking out of both sides of her mouth, they certainly didn't share the same kind of history that he and LaForge did. The two of them had served together on the Hood before transferring aboard the Enterprise. They play poker together, for Christ's sake. What kind of chance did she stand against that?
Singletary swallowed hard and reminded herself that the truth always stood a chance. And whether she stood a chance or not wasn't the point. It didn't matter. It was her duty to make sure the captain knew about this, and so she was going to tell him. She owed that much to every man, woman and child on the Enterprise.
And she owed it to herself.
But, duty or no, one didn't accuse the chief engineer of being a traitor without irrefutable proof. Her best chance at getting something she could use was to have someone else run the same tests and hope they came up with the same answers. (Or maybe even better, hope they didn't.) Unfortunately, the only person on board besides herself capable of doing that was Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge. It could prove awkward, asking him to help set up his own court-martial.
Singletary grubbed about in her mind for other options. Data. Of course. Even if he weren't incapable of deceit, they couldn't very well accuse a machine of lying to them out of some grossly misplaced desire for career advancement. And though she had never given a single soul any reason to accuse her of that, she was sure that somewhere down the line, someone would.
But Data could countermand that. He was the perfect witness.
Her jubilation was short-lived. Being a realist with pessimistic tendencies, Singletary found the flaw quicker than most people would. To every silver lining, there is a cloud; and Data's cloud was a thunderhead: If anyone asked him what they were doing, he would tell them. That inability to lie might just prove to be the double-edged sword that cut off the cat's head.
She could almost see it now: We are running engine efficiency diagnostics in order to prove you are sabotaging your own engines, Geordi. Why do you ask?
No. it had to be someone else. Someone she could trust. She ran through a list of engineers in her head, but they all came up lacking. Time after time her logic circuits spit out only two options. LaForge and Data. There just wasn't anybody else with the technical expertise to do the job.
It came to her suddenly, turning her stomach as it settled. Of course there was someone else. There was Wesley Crusher.
Singletary spent the next thirty minutes deciding if she wanted to face Picard naked with only her accusations as underwear, or if she wanted to ask the snot-nosed, Captain's pet, arrogant little genius of a brain trust for help.
It was a close call.
Riker stopped in mid sentence. Her perfume. It was the same perfume he'd smelled in Geordi's cabin. His jaw clicked shut with an audible snap.
"Will?" Vlenia questioned.
She had been in Geordi's quarters. Geordi had showed up at the door after several calls, sheened with sweat and without his VISOR. Riker felt oddly betrayed. He tried to remind himself that he had no real basis, not to mention absolutely no right, to feel that way; but it didn't help. The room seemed colder to him. It certainly seemed darker.
And it smelled vaguely of orchids.
"Will?" she repeated. "Is something wrong?"
Behind the nylo-aluminum platelets, Riker closed his eyes. "No," he lied finally. "Just tired. You must have things to do before you go on shift, Kathryn. I don't want to keep you from them."
Vlenia felt the lie. She sensed his withdrawl and it dismayed her. Perhaps even, in its own way, frightened her. She touched his face, brushing hair from the sticky-edged adhesive. Riker flinched unintentionally from the unexpected contact.
"What is it?" she pressed quietly.
Riker shrugged. He tried to smile, wishing fervently that he'd never been allowed to exceed the limited sense that God saw fit to give him. Her perfume lingered in his senses, awaiting an answer.
"How long have you and Geordi been seeing each other?" he asked finally.
"Geordi?" Her voice was a genuine question.
He shrugged again, flashed her a not-that-I-really-care smile. "You were in his cabin yesterday," he noted too cavalierly. "When I dropped by playing Riker Interruptus."
For a moment, she didn't answer.
"Yes," she allowed slowly. "I was there."
"Then you two are ...?"
"Are what, Will?"
Riker shifted on his bio-bed. He turned his face away from her and made a point of studying the far side of the ward like he could actually see through the metallic platelets.
"You're jealous," she said quietly.
Riker smiled a one-corner smile. "I wish you had told me."
"Told you what?"
"That you're seeing Geordi."
Vlenia studied him. She felt the flex of his emotions against her, but still, she couldn't interpret them. They were alien sensations against the core of herself. She felt that she should understand them, but she didn't.
She didn't understand them at all.
"Would it have made a difference?"
Riker sighed. "Yes. It would have made a difference."
She touched him again, this time, tracing the contour of his face with one finger. "You intrigue me, William Riker," she said quietly.
He moved slightly, pulling away from her touch. "Geordi and I have been friends for a long time," he told her like she should know what he meant.
"How would it have made a difference? Would we have not walked in the arboretum? Would you have not offered me dinner?"
"I wouldn't have kissed you," Riker answered a little sharply.
"Because of Geordi?"
"Because of Geordi."
"And if I had still wished to be kissed?"
Riker's expression tightened. "Geordi and I have been friends for a long time," he repeated.
"And that is important to you?"
"More important than what you feel for me?"
Riker shook his head once as if denying the mere implication. "Not the same game," he countered. "I enjoy being around you. You're very ..."
He hesitated for so long that she finished the statement for him.
"Very interesting," he corrected. "That's harder to find than beautiful. I value it more."
"That surprises me."
Riker laughed a self-depreciating laugh. "Surprises me, too," he admitted. "But then, everything about you surprises me."
"And yet you would leave me to The LaForge."
"He's my friend, Kathryn," Riker repeated firmly. "And he found you first. I hope you understand."
"No, Will. I do not understand."
Riker shrugged slightly. "Call it my sense of fair play. We all have rules we have to live by. I think this falls under that classification."
Vlenia considered it for a moment. She scanned the Meyers' memory core for pertinant cross-reference. "There are no rules in love and war," she responded after a several second deliberation.
Riker laughed. "But there are in friendship," he countered gently. "And Geordi's my friend."
"He's my friend as well."
"If that's all there was to it, we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we?"
Vlenia's eyes narrowed. "Are you saying I must choose?" she questioned finally.
Riker shook his head. "What you and Geordi have is between the two of you. I don't want you to bring me into it at all. I don't want you to compare us, and I certainly don't want you to choose between us."
"Then I don't understand."
"It's pretty simple. I'm removing myself from the equation."
"Why?" Vlenia asked after a long moment.
"Because I don't have any interest in being a complication."
"A complication to who?"
"To whatever you and Geordi have going on."
"What if I wish you to be a complication?"
"Kathryn ..." Riker hesitated. He went on after a moment, choosing his words carefully. "I wasn't fully briefed on the situation when we ... I mean, when I ... when I threw my hat into the ring. But now that I've got the lay of the land straight, I have to bow out. It doesn't have anything to do with the way I feel about you -- I think I've made that pretty clear -- it has to do with what I feel I should do. With what I feel obligated to do. With who I am, and what I believe in."
"What do you believe in?"
"I believe in playing the game straight up. I don't deal from the bottom of the deck, and I don't steal chips from my friends' stashes."
"Then it is a matter of honor."
"In a way, I guess. Yes. You could call it that. A matter of honor."
"And you see me as an object: something to be won, but not stolen."
"I don't see you as an object, Kathryn. You're a ... you're not an object. And winning isn't the point either. You're not the stakes in some kind of game. I care ... could care about you. I think Geordi probably feels the same way."
"Then what Geordi feels is more important than what you feel."
"No. But fair is fair, and he was here first."
Vlenia laughed quietly. "I am not a claim to be staked, William Riker," she chided.
"That isn't what I'm saying."
"Tell me what you are saying, then."
Riker sighed. "I'm saying Geordi is my friend and it would be wrong for me to make a play for somebody he's involved with."
"And if I were to make the play?"
Riker shook his head in frustration. "You're trying to turn this into some kind of sport, Kathryn. It's not a sport, it's not a game, it's not a contest. What it is is a no-win scenario. Kobiashi Maruup the kazoo. I won't compete against my friends. That's just not the way I'm made."
"Even if you know you will win?"
"Especially if I know I'll win."
"Then victory means nothing to you."
"I told you, it's not a matter of winning or loosing. It's ..."
Vlenia laid her fingers against his lips. "What if I tell you now that I prefer you?" she murmured. "That I choose to be with you." Her fingers moved to his chin. They stroked his beard for a moment, following it down the line of his throat to his uniform collar before retreating once again to the neutrality of her hand.
Riker drew a deep breath. "It wouldn't change anything."
"You're lying," Vlenia told him unequivocally.
Riker rolled his shoulders and shook his head. "You're making this damned difficult, Kathryn," he said, trying to break the quiet intensity of his tone with jest and failing.
"Why is it difficult?" she pressed.
"Because Geordi's my friend," Riker repeated for the sixth time.
"So you have said."
"It feels wrong to me. It's bad timing ... hell, it's terrible timing. If I'd met you before he did ... if I'd met even you at the same time ... but I didn't. The fact remains that I not only met you after he did, I met you after the two of you were already involved. And now that I know that, no matter what kind of justification I come up with, it's still justification. I can't ... I won't do that to Geordi."
"Then what you want makes no difference?"
"Don't make me into a martyr, Kathryn. I don't fit the shoes. They pinch when I walk. Anybody will tell you that." He started to say something else and then stopped. He constructed what he wanted to say in his head. He thought about it for a moment and then said it: "Sure what I want matters. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror without flinching. That's the part of what I want that matters. That's the part I have to go with."
"And what I want?" Vlenia pressed. "Does that make no difference to you?"
"Not while you're involved with Geordi, it doesn't."
"And if I were not involved with him?"
"But you are."
"If I become un-involved with him, then."
Again, Riker shook his head. "I won't be waiting in the wings for you to dump him. That's as bad as making a play for you. Maybe even worse."
"You would see that as betrayal also?"
"Yeah. Considering this conversation, I would. I'd feel like I was the reason you dumped him. I'd feel like I did exactly what I'm trying not to do."
"And if I never told him of this conversation?"
Riker snorted. "What? If you don't get caught, it's not cheating? Sorry, Kathryn, wrong number. Cheating is cheating. Getting caught has to do with punishment, not guilt."
"He would never know you were involved."
"I would know."
"And that's enough? Enough to keep you from me?"
Riker rubbed a hand across his beard. "We can be friends, Kathryn," he said finally. "Nothing more. I wouldn't feel right about anything more."
She kissed him then. Gently, on the lips. He didn't pull away, but neither did he respond. He could smell her breath, feel it intrude into his nostrils, into his mouth. One of her hands laid itself on his chest. It burned into his uniform like a brand of fire.
She only touched him for a moment, but it raised his temperature several degrees. He did his best to face her as she pulled back and look like it hadn't affected him in the slightest.
"I do not wish to be your friend, Will Riker," she told him quietly.
"Then I guess we have nothing more to talk about," Riker returned just as quietly.
"You lie to me," she countered. "I can see it. I can feel it."
"Am I?" She placed her palm on his chest again. She lifted it slowly, letting it hover over his heart, less than an inch from his uniform. "Heart rate elevated," she told him calmly. "Blood pressure, respiration. Should I go on?"
Riker reached up and took her wrist in his hand. Though he couldn't see a damn thing, he didn't have to guess at where she was. He could feel a presence radiating from her. It was as tangible as any visual image he'd ever experienced. He pulled her hand away from his chest and then released her.
"I think you should go," he said quietly.
"I think I should stay," she countered.
"I can make it an order."
Vlenia smiled. He didn't see it, but he felt it in a way he couldn't begin to describe.
"You're angry," she observed.
"I'm getting that way."
"Don't be angry with me, Will. I did not mean to make you angry."
"I'm tired, Kathryn. I think I should rest now."
She touched him again, and he actually flinched. Vlenia frowned. "I wished only to speak with you," she said quietly. "To understand you. I meant no harm."
"No harm done," Riker allowed coldly.
"Do not lie to me," Vlenia snapped. Her fingers tightened into his forearm. "You must not lie to me, Will. Please do not lie to me."
Riker's expression changed. He became suddenly cautious. "What's going on, Kathryn?" he asked quietly. "What kind of game are you playing here?"
"Game?" Vlenia echoed.
Riker leaned forward. "You hit on me in Ten Forward," he said abruptly. "Why?"
"Hit on you?"
"Come on, Kathryn. Give me a little credit, will you? I've laid enough bait in my time to know a come-on when I strike on one. I knew it the second you walked over to the table and sat down. I just want to know why. Why did you pick me? Why my table? Why that night?"
"I came to your table because you interested me," Vlenia allowed carefully.
"You've been on board more than a year," Riker countered. "Why now? Why the sudden interest? You have a fight with Geordi? Were you out looking for a little revenge? I don't really care, Kathryn. I just want to know the truth. Is that what it was?"
"I had no fight with The LaForge." Vlenia studied Riker intently. She could tell his feelings for her had changed, but she could not tell why. He was more than angry. He was hunting. She saw the aggression in the way he leaned into his queries, in the sharply derogatory way he formed his words.
"What then? You just like pitting one friend against another to see what they'll do? See if you can make some sparks fly? Liven up the ship a little?"
"I did not ..."
"And don't tell me you didn't know Geordi and I are friends," Riker snapped.
Vlenia flushed. She felt an odd tightness in her chest. An inexplicable ball of anger begin to heat the core of her, even as a coldness filled her stomach.
"I will tell you nothing if you interrupt me again," she informed him in a hard, angry voice.
Riker leaned closer. "Fair enough. I won't interrupt. Why did you join me in Ten Forward? Why did you wait until O'Brien left to do it?"
"I joined you," she repeated tightly, "because I find you interesting."
"That's it? Nothing else?"
"What would you have me say?"
Riker shrugged. "I don't know. Why don't we try the truth?"
"Which truth is that?"
"How about the one where you joined me because you figured I'd recognize your perfume."
Riker inhaled slowly, deliberately. "It's very distinctive. You must have known I'd place it sooner or later. Especially if you kept putting it right under my nose."
Vlenia shifted on the edge of the bio-bed. "I wear no perfume," she told him calmly. "What you smell is me."
"And I smelled you in Geordi's cabin. You must have realized that, must have realized I tumbled to the fact that Geordi had a woman in his quarters. It wasn't like I was very subtle in my retreat, so you must have realized something tipped me. Have you been waiting all this time for me to remember, Kathryn? For me to place it? Or did you think I already knew it was you, and I was just playing dumb? Tell me: what were you expecting? Did think I'd go to Geordi and tell him you hit on me, or did you think I'd try and one-up him?"
Vlenia shifted again. She waited so long to answer that had it not been for her scent, and the warmth of her nearness, Riker might have thought she left.
"You're wrong, Will. I am not playing a game. I wanted only to ... to be near you. To understand you."
"And what about Geordi? Just trying to understand him, too?"
Vlenia stood slowly, rising from the edge of his bio-bed without a sound. "I was with Geordi for reasons that are none of your concern," she announced quietly. "But he has never kissed me, and I have never kissed him. We are friends, Will Riker. Nothing more."
"I don't believe you."
"You may ask him, if you wish. He will tell you."
"If you're just friends, why did you let me think otherwise? Why didn't you just tell me it wasn't a problem when I first brought it up?"
"I was surprised by your response. I wanted to know more."
"I don't like being lied to."
"I didn't lie."
"Semantics, Kathryn. You knew what I thought and you let me think it. You lead me around by the nose to satisfy your curiosity. Or was it your ego? Either way, I don't appreciate it."
"I needed to know."
"You could have asked."
"I didn't think you'd tell me the truth."
"I've never given you any reason to think that."
"No. You haven't. But others have. Others have given us the answers we wished to hear and then shown us to be fools for believing them."
"Us?" Riker demanded.
Vlenia ignored his question. "I am sorry if I mislead you, Will Riker," she told him instead. "You have shown me many things. You have answered many of my questions."
"Was it worth what it cost?"
"I do not know."
Vlenia turned and left him. Tears welled in her eyes, but she blinked
them away. She strode from Sickbay and down the empty corridor, her
bootheels clicking in the silence.
Beverly Crusher tried the fourth in a long line of stimulants. She injected it into the counselor's neck and Deanna Troi's vital signs heightened in the exact progression that they were supposed to. The diagnostic board told her the counselor was conscious.
But she wasn't.
Deanna Troi showed no signs of consciousness. There was no R.E.M. There was not even a flutter of movement to the Betazoid's eyes. Crusher frowned and began manipulating machinery.
It was then that she discovered the EEG line.
The monitor had been regulated to the back loop once the counselor began regaining consciousness, and Crusher had not thought to check it since. What it told her now made her wish she hadn't checked it at all.
Staring at the flat line, Beverly Crusher felt a clench of horror tighten her throat. She wanted to shout at the board, to smash it with her fists, but she didn't. Instead, she merely stared.
Deanna Troi was brain dead.
The same part of her that had looked Jean-Luc Picard in the eyes so many years ago and said "You're mistaken. Jack isn't dead," stared at the monitor in hopes that it would suddenly spark back to life.
But the flat line remained a flat line, and Deanna Troi remained
"I don't agree," Vlenia told Jhalic. "I believe the testing is complete."
"What testing?" Jhalic demanded heatedly. "You've observed them, nothing more. There has been no adversity to determine their reactions; no fear to push them. Any race can appear civilized in its lair. It is our task to see them as they face the unknown. We must know if they will strike. It they will be a danger to The Home."
Kdoli watched his companions argue, gratified and not a little amaze that it was not he and Jhalic who pulled at opposite ends of the conversation. He sensed a change in Vlenia ... a softening. He sensed victory.
"What would you have us do?" Vlenia snapped. "Appear before them like specters from their darkest nightmares? Of course they would strike. Any sentient being responds to perceived threat. That in itself does not condemn them. If anything, a survival instinct re-verifies the supposition that they are, at the very least, a nominally intelligent species." She drew a deep breath and made a visible effort to calm herself. "It is not our task to provoke them into retaliation," she reasoned. "We must judge them on the texture of their culture, the depth of their ability to reason and be reasoned with."
"I have seen evidence of neither," Jhalic countered.
"You have not looked," Vlenia retorted. Her voice was tight with anger again. Frustration glinted in her green eyes as both arms flung themselves in wide gestures to punctuate specific points of their argument. "You made up your mind before we left The Home. You spoke for their destruction then, based entirely on your own preconceptions. You speak from the same heart now."
Jhalic's eyes narrowed. "You have reached Judgment," he accused suddenly. "You have judged on The Riker alone."
"I have not reached Judgment," Vlenia denied. "And any evaluation I make of Will Riker is valid as a racial measure. He is a specimen. A specimen, as would be any of the other Humans around which the testing revolved."
"You have made him a pet," Jhalic retorted. "You grieve that he was blinded in the scan."
"It wasn't necessary," she countered. "We could have chosen another time, when the room was empty, if we'd known."
"His injury is irrelevant," Jhalic snorted. "The Troi was surfacing. Our choice was to replicate her or destroy her. It was you who spoke to spare her."
"Not at Riker's expense."
Kdoli blinked. He stared at Vlenia, but she was too busy glaring at her mate to see Kdoli's rush of surprise.
"And you claim he is of no consequence to you?" Jhalic demanded. His voice rose in pitch as he spoke. Accusation and outrage vied for dominance with every word. "Your scope is limited. You judge on The Riker alone. You have allowed yourself to become involved."
"And your scope is non-existent," Vlenia returned. "You judge on none of them. You judge only on your bigoted remembrances of The Invaders who came before. Irrelevant." She spat the word at him. "You even use their words. You have become them. You wish to destroy these Humans because they are different from you and I, not because they are a threat to The Home. You have become a xenophobe."
Kdoli stood, placing himself between them. "What do you wish us to do, Jhalic?" he asked conciliatory as he shot Vlenia a side-long glance. He had never seen her so angry before. It made him uncomfortable to see such vehemence. It was unlike her; unlike her to draw parallels between Jhalic -- between any of The People -- and the vile Invaders who had slaughtered so many of them.
The change made him uncomfortable. Perhaps Jhalic was right. Perhaps her perspective had been compromised. Vlenia was a woman of great depth, of great emotion. It became conceivable to him that The Riker had become more important to her than The Judgment.
"What testing would satisfy you with its breadth?" Kdoli asked the one whom he had always considered a friendly foe.
Jhalic's angry eyes turned on the smaller man. He saw verification of his own worst fears in the way Kdoli's expression lay in his dark Human features.
"Return us to The Home," Jhalic answered finally. "Take us there in secret and reveal to them their destination when we arrive. Their reaction when they believe themselves to no longer be in control of their environment will be a test of adequate breadth."
Kdoli glanced again to Vlenia. When he sorted through her anger and her disgust, he found no objection to the plan in the way his VISOR read her expression. Surprisingly, neither was there an objection in himself. He had faith in these creatures. He believed that a fair testing would validate his confidence in them.
And if it didn't, perhaps he would side with Jhalic himself.
"Very well," Kdoli agreed. He felt a rush of amusement at the spark of surprise that lit Jhalic's heat dispersement. "I'll bypass the primary navigation unit and re-route our course. You take tactical to hide the energy I must pirate to accomplish such a task. Vlenia takes the helm in three hours. She can fashion a deceptive facade with the non-functional matrices to convince the other stations that nothing has changed."
"And if they fail this test?" Jhalic asked quietly.
"They will not fail," Vlenia retorted.
Kdoli looked first at Vlenia and then at Jhalic. "If they
fail," he told the one who had taken the Klingon's body,
"then The Judgment will be for death."
"Wes?" Riker called quietly. "That you?"
Wesley coughed nervously. "Yeah. Uh, sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you."
Riker grinned and pushed himself up in the bio-bed. He pointed his face in the direction of the youth's voice and tried to look as relaxed as he would have liked to have felt.
"You didn't disturb me, Wes. I was just lying here thinking."
Wes stepped closer to the bed. Riker could hear the slight shuffle of his boots on the metal bulkhead.
"I thought maybe you were sleeping," he mumbled.
"What made you think that? Couldn't you see my eyes were open?"
Wes didn't answer. He shuffled again, the uncomfortable sound of a kid who figured he'd done something wrong.
"It was a joke, Wes," Riker told him quietly. "Kind of hard to see through nylo-aluminum. Take my word for it, I know."
A long silence stretched between them.
"You just visiting, or you come for a reason?" Riker asked finally.
"Uh, yeah. I thought I'd ... I mean ... I wanted to see how you were doing and all. See if there was anything I could get you."
"A VISOR?" Riker quipped.
Again, Wesley didn't answer. The shuffling resumed. Riker could almost imagine the youth staring at his feet.
"Sorry, Wes. I guess my sense of humor's a little bent right now. Hard to keep your balance when the room's blacked out."
"But Dr. Montoya said ...."
"I know it's temporary," Riker interrupted. "If I didn't have that to hang onto, believe me, my sense of humor would be a hell of a lot more than bent."
"How's Counselor Troi?" Wes asked after a moment.
"I don't know. They won't tell me much. She was doing fine ... coming up when whatever hit us, hit us. I figure she must be doing okay, or your mom would have told me by now."
"Yeah," Wes agreed. "I guess."
Again, the long silence. Riker figeted. He flexed his back, his shoulders, thinking about the warmth of Kathryn's lips against his.
"So how's the analysis of your sensor readings going?" he asked, more to take his mind off of Kathryn that for any other reason.
Wes sighed so heavily he sounded as if someone had punctured him.
Immediately, Riker tensed. "What?" he demanded. "Is something wrong? What's wrong, Wes? Did something happen?"
"There was a hardware failure in the computer net sometime last night," Wes told him dejectedly. "And out of all the files it could compromise, it chose the one with the sensor scan on it to kill."
"Well you have a back up, don't you?"
The silence was all the answer Riker needed. "Oh for Christ's sake, Wes. Don't you know better than to skip procedural back-up? Do you think we waste all that breath stressing it just to hear ourselves talk?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Wes apologized miserably. "It's just that the odds of something like this happening are so completely outrageous ...."
"You said it was hardware failure?" Riker interrupted. The irritation in his expression had been replaced by a sudden, sharp-edged tension.
"Wes?" Riker prompted. "Did you say it was hardware failure?"
"I nodded my head," Wes muttered.
"Sorry, Wes. I must not have been listening. I don't know how I could have missed your brain rattling up and down in your skull. Try and give me answers I can interpret with aluminum siding on my eyes, will you?"
"Okay. So as a hardware failure it was ... what? ... a retrieval compromise that denied you access?"
Wes nodded again, but caught himself in the gesture and changed it to a vocalization. "Yeah. That's what the computer said."
"Damn. Be my eyes and access one of the remote terminals, will you?"
Quiet footstep shuffled across the bay and Riker heard the gentle beep of power initiation on a desk monitor.
"Got it," Wes announced.
"Run a directory that the file will show up on."
"Just do it, Wes," Riker snapped tersely. "You don't ask a superior officer 'why' when he gives you an order."
"Sorry, sir," Wes muttered. He punched several buttons. "Okay. I've got the directory."
"Now tell me how much room that file takes up."
A momentary silence validated Riker's suspicions. "Not nearly enough," Wes said after a moment. "You couldn't store a sensor sweep of Ten Forward in that amount of space, let alone the long range sweep of an entire planet."
"That's because the sensor sweep isn't there, Wes," Riker stated grimly. "I figured as much when you said the file was damaged by hardware failure. It's just one damn coincidence too many that the system would crash on the only solid piece of documentation that we have on this phantom population of yours. Someone or something doesn't want us to have a record of it. They erased it and then crashed the hardware in such a way as to target the file with a retrieval compromise to cover the fact that it's no longer there. Next auto-purge, the retrieval compromise would flag the log as trash, and we'd erase it ourselves. Presto chango, no tracks to lead back to Mama."
"You can't crash a system like that, can you?" Wes asked dubiously.
"If you can shut down an entire starship, Wes, how difficult could it be to screw with a computer?"
"Then you think it's someone onboard?" Wes asked excitedly.
"I don't know. Could be, but maybe not. The original shutdown seemed to be managed by remote, and we haven't taken on any ..." Riker's statement cut itself off for just short of a second and then went on as if he hadn't interrupted himself with silence "... passengers that we know of since then. Listen, Wes. I need you to take this to the captain. Show him what's going on and tell him I need to talk to him right away. In person, Wes. Make sure he realizes that normal modes of communication might not be secure right now. And then get busy and see if you can track down any other signs of tampering. No matter how small, no matter how trivial. Start with the mainframe and work your way through engineering."
"I'm on it," Wes agreed. He started to walk away.
"Don't talk about this to anyone but Captain Picard."
"What about Geordi? If I'm going to be snooping around engineering ..."
"Nobody, Wes," Riker repeated firmly. "Not Worf, not your mom, and certainly not Geordi. If we've got a saboteur on board, we can't afford to take any chances."
"You don't think Geordi ...?"
"I don't think anything, Wes. But SOP is 'need-to-know' only. If there is any kind of psi force involved, we could be talking about someone reading minds. We could be talking about an imposter, or a shape-changer, or something worse that we haven't thought of. Until we know exactly what the hell is going on, the fewer the people in the loop, the better. Let the Captain make any determinations as to who should and shouldn't be involved with the investigation. But make sure he talks to me first. Now get going. This has first priority over everything else."
Wes left sickbay with a quiet swish of doors, and Will Riker found
himself once again alone. He stared grimly at the underside of two
nylo-aluminum platelets and tried hard to keep from thinking what he
was thinking about whom he was thinking it.
"She's dead, Jean-Luc," Beverly Crusher repeated. "There is no brain activity at all. There hasn't been any for several hours."
Picard paced the confines of his ready room. His features were tight with a control he hardly felt. "What happened?" he asked finally, trying to force himself to accept the unacceptable by asking for the reasons behind it.
The doctor looked away. Her eyes automatically sought the viewing portal above his desk, and the comfort of space that glowed there. "I don't know," she answered quietly. "All her vital signs are normal. I don't have her on life support at all. It isn't possible, but her body is somehow carrying on despite the fact that there is no activity in her brain."
"I can't accept that," Picard snapped, whirling to face her.
"You don't have any choice but to accept it, Jean-Luc," Crusher snapped back. Glaring at him, all she saw was a reflection of her own attempt to hide the grief. Deanna had been her friend. She had been the captain's as well. Crusher closed her eyes and worked to control her own anger. Half way across the room, Jean-Luc Picard followed suit.
"It is possible, I suppose," Crusher allowed, "that her spinal column is controlling the autonomic system. Most reflex signals never reach the brain. They are sent to and returned from the spine itself. The only answer I can think of is that perhaps there is some Betazoid physiologic twist that allows her autonomic organ responses to function the same way in a time of biological crisis." The doctor shrugged helplessly. "I've never heard of such a thing, but I just don't have any other explanations."
"You mean," Picard struggled with the concept, "a sort of stasis?"
"Betazoids, as a race, have highly developed, incredibly sophisticated cerebral cortexes -- far beyond anything Human. Or even Vulcan, for that matter. Over the eons, many such mentally advanced races have evolved intricate physical fail-safes to protect their vast accumulations of knowledge. Vulcans have katras. The Rexto can regenerate anything they lose, including hearts and lungs, as long as the brain remains intact. Maybe the Betazoids have something comparable. With the their mind's incredible capacity to heal itself, it is conceivable that they have some sort of stasis factor to maintain the body for the interim. I know as much about Betazoid physiology as I do about, say, Klingon or Psuterian physiology, but you know how they are. The Betazoid hierarchy likes to maintain an air of mystery about their capabilities. I'm not sure that anyone but Betazoids themselves know the extent of their mental control. I'm not sure they know. I can speculate, but there is just no way to be sure."
Picard found himself standing at the viewing portal, staring out into space as he listened to the doctor's painful explanation. "What does all this mean to Deanna?" he asked only after Beverly Crusher had been silent for over a minute.
"It doesn't mean a damn thing," Crusher admitted bitterly. "If her Betazoid ancestry gives her the capacity to maintain bodily functions on a reflexive level for an indeterminate amount of time, it could mean the difference between life or death in a hundred different situations. If an injury were to incapacitate the brain, her body would be able to sustain itself until the damage could be repaired." Beverly Crusher's lips trembled. "But Deanna isn't injured," she said quietly. "Her body could wait an eternity, but her mind will never return. It's gone, Jean-Luc. She is gone."
Silence fell over the room again. Picard broke it with a question he didn't really want to know the answer to. "Does Will know?"
Crusher shook her head. "I haven't told him, yet. The trauma of blindness is more than enough for him to deal with right now. A shock of this magnitude could set his recovery back significantly." A small voice inside her head added another reason, one she kept to herself: and I'm not ready to tell him yet. I'm not ready to face him and tell him Deanna is dead. "There isn't anything he can do for her now but grieve, and that can wait until he's recovered his vision."
"I agree," Picard answered without looking away from his view of space. He waited for a very long time before turning to face the doctor. "And when it is time," he said quietly, "I will tell him."
Crusher nodded. Although it was her place to deliver that type of news, she was relieved that he made the offer. Part of her felt Riker would take it better from the captain. She told herself that it would be less painful, even if only marginally. But most of her knew the truth. Though she felt guilty for thinking it, she wasn't hypocrite enough to deny that it would certainly be easier on her. She wasn't sure she could face him. She wasn't sure she could face Will Riker and tell him Deanna was dead.
"When it's time," she agreed quietly.
Wesley had talked to the Captain and was just starting on his search and destroy program targeted to anomalies that might indicate cyber-tampering when Lena Singletary called his quarters on a private channel.
It surprised him because the blonde, blue-eyed Lieutenant had always been aggressively condescending with him. She was one of the few members of Geordi's senior engineering staff that he just couldn't seem to win over, no matter how hard he tried.
His surprise at hearing from her, however, was nothing compared to
his surprise at what she had to say.
"She called him The LaForge twice. Not Geordi. Not LaForge. The LaForge."
Picard watched his first officer for some time without commenting. "You think she may be an imposter then?" he asked finally.
Riker swung the metallically reflective eye plates away. "I don't know. I'm too close to tell. I have ... I can't deny that I feel something for her. I was angry when I thought she was playing me against Geordi. I was jealous. But I'm pretty sure that's not coloring my judgement now." Riker swung his face back toward Picard. "She's different than what she's been for the last year on the bridge. I've flirted with her enough to feel pretty confident in that evaluation. At first, I thought it was just an oversight. I don't think so now. She's like a magnet to me. I don't think I would have been -- could have been -- oblivious to an attraction of this magnitude for this long if it had really been there. She's changed. She's a different woman now than she was."
"And you think she's exerting some sort of influence over LaForge?"
"I think we can't overlook the possibility that if Meyers has changed, there might be others."
"It explains some things."
Picard considered it for a while. "I'm not sure 'explains' is an appropriate term, Number One," he said finally. "I think this scenario raises far more questions than it addresses."
"She said 'we,' sir," Riker said grimly. "Others have given us the answers we wished to hear."
Picard stood. He paced the small ward for several minutes, thinking. When he finally turned back to Riker, it was with an expression carefully blanked of emotion.
"Number One ..." he started. "... Will ... Doctor Crusher and myself had thought not to tell you of this at this time, but under the circumstances, I think it necessary to re-consider. There may be some correlation, and I cannot afford to eliminate your insights from my realm of consideration." Picard steeled himself. "I'm afraid it isn't good."
"Deanna," Riker breathed. The constriction in his chest closed to a fist.
"I agree with you that someone is sabotaging the engines, " Wesley told Singletary for the third time, "but you're crazy if you think it's Geordi. He wouldn't do something like that."
"Then why won't he report it to the captain?" Singletary countered. She wriggled deeper into the machinery and returned two wires whose moorings had been switched to their rightful places. It was worse than she'd expected. Someone really did a number on them. Wes turned onto the first set of inconsistencies, which led to the next, which led to the next, which led to the next ....
And so on.
Now they were hip deep in a rat's nest of wires and mismatched circuits with no end in sight. What little doubt she clung to by virtue of her friendship with Geordi LaForge was fading fast. No one could screw things up this well by accident. No one was that incompetent.
Except perhaps Barclay.
Though it came from a snide streak she was trying to give up for Lent, the thought made Singletary pause just a moment in her repairs. Was it possible that Broccoli did this? Could he have gotten in and knocked everything loose and then tried to put it back the way it was without anyone knowing?
After a moment of intense consideration, Singletary dismissed the notion. It was an attractive way out of the LaForge As Traitor scenario that was beginning to feel inescapable, but it wasn't workable. This was too deliberate, too well planned. Whoever screwed this up knew exactly what to do and exactly where to do it. This wasn't random stupidity; it was brilliant manipulation. If just one of the sets of circuits they'd discovered had been crossed in a way other than the way it was crossed -- wronger than wrong, for the sake of clarity -- they'd be one very large ball of space dust, rather than just a galaxy-class starship with a 53 percent and climbing bleed-off in engine efficiency.
No, Barclay couldn't have done this if for no other reason than the fact that if there was a way to do something wronger than it was already done, their man Broccoli would instinctively find it. It was a gift he had. Like Wesley's brains. Or Geordi's sense of humor.
Singletary's jaw clenched. She had to quit letting her mind wander, especially into the minefield of pleasant memories that concerned Geordi LaForge. If he was doing this (and he had to be doing it), then he wasn't her friend. He wasn't any of their friend.
He was a traitor.
She repeated that to herself: Geordi LaForge is a traitor. Geordi LaForge is a traitor. The sooner she got used to the sound of it, the easier it was going to be convince the captain.
"I don't know," Wes grumbled. "Try C-6 through C-21. They're not reading quite kosher. Why don't you ask him? I'm sure Geordi had his reasons. He'll be glad to tell you if you'd just walk up and ask him straight out rather than building up little conspiracy fantasies behind his back."
"God, Wes," Singletary grunted, checking the connections he'd suggested. C-17 and C-19 were switched. She switched them back. "You are naive."
"I'm NOT naive," Wes argued hotly. "I just don't believe in selling out my friends."
"What if they're selling you out, Wes? What do they have to do, put a phaser between your eyes and pull the trigger before you'll see it?"
She moved an elbow and cracked it on a strut. This place was tight. Too tight. It was ten times worse than a Jeffries tube, and those things had always given her claustrophobia. As she struggled with the feeling of having a million little ants crawling over her flesh, Lena Singletary came to the belated conclusion that what she should have done was make Wes do the actual manipulation and save the duty of rooting out the problems for herself. Though she wasn't about to admit it in this lifetime, the reason she hadn't done exactly that was because the damn kid was better at spotting the problems than she was. He had this irritating sort of sixth sense when it came to engineering. In that way, he was a lot like Geordi.
Geordi LaForge is a traitor, she reminded herself fiercely. Geordi LaForge is a traitor.
"With Geordi?" Wes answered. "Yeah, I guess he would. See, I trust him. He's saved this ship a hundred times. I don't buy that he's suddenly started sabotaging his own engines."
The arrogant little brain trust said it like he thought she enjoyed calling LaForge a traitor. The implication burned her. "Things change, Wes," she told the youth tightly. "People change. You'll see that when you get a little older."
Again Wesley Crusher's temper flared. "I'm old enough to see that now," he snapped. "But there are some things that don't change. Try AZV 12."
Singletary dragged herself deeper into the cocoon of wiring and looked for the terminal he suggested. "Yeah," she grunted. "Well you're just a kid. Maybe there are things about being a man you don't understand yet."
For a long moment, Wes didn't answer. "Maybe there are," he agreed finally. His voice was tense with an attempt to hide his feelings. "But maybe there are things about being a friend that you don't understand, Singletary."
She found AZV 12. It was disconnected entirely. Shaking her head in amazement, she worked it back in place. How he found that one was beyond her. It wouldn't even read on the board if it was disconnected, so he must have tracked it by pure instinct. Brain Trust Crusher might be naive, but he was also smart.
"Yeah," she agreed distractedly. "Maybe there are at
that, kid. Maybe there are at that."
***Vlenia worked the console diligently, keeping the false readings updated so that none of the Humans around her would notice their change
in course. So far, it had gone well.
"Look." Wes pointed out the readings that were glowing on the console now. Singletary followed the line of his finger, trying to see what the kid saw. "The whole navigation console's been bypassed. We're not anywhere near Starbase 553. We're back in the Rhegus Delotian system."
"That's impossible," Singletary argued. She pushed several buttons in hopes of changing the readings, but they remained consistent. "Isn't it?" she asked after a moment.
"Impossible or not, that's where we are," Wes told her. "That should be showing up on the navigation console. And it should be showing up on tactical. Heck, it should be showing up all over unless ... "
"Unless what, Wes?" Singletary snapped. "Come on. Don't keep all that wisdom to yourself."
Wes turned thoughtful eyes on her. "Unless the helmsman is running a dummy holo to simulate a different course," he said quietly.
Singletary paused with him, her mind whipping around as it tried to corral all the implications of the statement. "You saying we have more than one rotten egg on this tub?" she asked finally.
Wes bit at his lip. "The power drain necessary to run a dummy program would have to show up on tactical," he gave in answer.
"One at a time," Singletary told him. "I'm not ready to take on Worf yet. Who's on the helm?"
Wes thought for a moment. "Ensign Meyers took my place," he answered finally. "But it couldn't be her."
"Why not?" Singletary countered. "You don't think a pretty girl can be a rotten egg?"
"It's not that," Wes returned. "She doesn't have ... I mean ... "
"Spit it out, Crusher," Singletary demanded. "I don't require tact. Just say what you're trying to say."
"She isn't smart enough," Wes blurted. "That kind of program would take continual updating to keep the readings from stagnating and making it look like we were standing still. Even if she got the program from somebody else, she'd have to know how to run it and manipulate it to be effective. Kathryn's nice and all, and she's a pretty good helmsman, but she isn't any ..."
"She isn't any Wesley Crusher," Singletary finished for him. She nodded. "I see your point." For a moment, she seemed unsure how to proceed. Finally, decisively, the grimy lieutenant tapped the communicator on her grease-smudged uniform.
"Singletary to Captain Picard," she said calmly.
"Picard here," came an immediate reply. "What is the problem, Lieutenant?"
"We have ... " she hesitated just slightly, " ... a situation down here, sir. I think it requires your attention."
She could almost feel the freeze to his features. As if going over LaForge's head wasn't enough, now she was paging the captain to Engineering. Talk about a death wish. Lena Singletary held her breath and waited for his response.
"Are you absolutely certain, Mister Singletary?" Picard asked after an endless moment.
There it was. Last chance to bail out. Last chance to save a perfectly good career.
"Quite certain, sir," Singletary responded.
"Very well," Picard agreed. "I'm on my way. Picard out."
Singletary released her captive breath and turned a sick smile on
Wesley Crusher. "The shit is about to hit the fan, kid,"
she told him quietly. "Let's just hope we're downwind from
Vlenia touched the place on her throat. "Trouble," she muttered as quietly as she was able. The readings on her console were far too accurate for what they should be. Jhalic was right to route them to her from the tactical console. Someone was tampering with their tampering. It had to be sourced at the sight of the propulsion computer encroachment. "Engineering."
Had Data been sitting in his normal position at Ops, rather than in
the command chair, he would have undoubtedly heard the warning. But
since he wasn't, and he didn't, everything on the bridge went on as
if nothing was happening.
"The Rhegus Delotian system?" Picard repeated slowly. His features were a mask of unreadability as he studied the console for himself.
Singletary couldn't tell if she was about to be commended or demoted to head flea on the right butt cheek of Starfleet Outpost 9's Penupian mascot.
"Yes, sir," Wesley verified. "We're certain."
The captain nodded. "Sever the bypass circuitry, Ensign," he ordered calmly. "Let's return the helm to control and see what happens."
"Yes, sir." Wesley Crusher reached forward to do the captain's bidding.
"Hey!" Kdoli hurried into the room, trying to structure his features into something that would mimic The LaForge's good-natured humor. "What's going on here, guys? Captain? What are you doing down here, sir?" He was almost close enough to do something about what they were attempting. Just a few moments more of distraction.
"Make it so, Ensign," Picard ordered calmly.
"No, damnit!" Kdoli shouted. "DON'T!"
The warning failed. The Boy Crusher pressed a complex series of buttons that would return control to the main bridge. With that same series of buttons, he lit the fuse to a technological time bomb built into the deception as a fail-safe against discovery. Energy flared deep in the system. It jolted across the console in a spider web of pure energy.
Kdoli lunged forward. One shoulder jammed The Picard aside. He shoved The Singletary and sent her stumbling. Only he and The Boy Crusher remained as energy fused to energy. Kdoli placed himself between the boy and the console and pressed all six of the buttons required to break the linkage of smaller detonations that would chain to the matter/antimatter chamber. He got four of the six required for successful system-wide deactivation before the console exploded.
Heat and metal shards erupted in a spray of destruction. Kdoli took the brunt of the explosion in his chest. Its force threw both he and The Boy Crusher across the room.
Beneath the VISOR, Kdoli blinked. The ceiling above him flared with vibrant patterns that were reflections of the vision prosthetic's nearly destroyed sensors rather than actual readings. Though he felt The Boy Crusher move beneath him, Kdoli could not gather the strength to roll off the young Human.
It had been a mistake to booby trap the console. He should have known that, should have seen that The Home could be protected in other ways.
The Picard floated eerily above him. "Medical emergency," he snapped. "Three to beam directly to Sickbay."
Kdoli smiled at the Human. He was tired. So very tired. He felt he should sleep before the pain came.
"Hang on, Geordi," The Picard told him.
Kdoli felt a tingling not unlike the tingling that skated his core
during the replacement. He felt his sense of self disintegrating, and
then he felt nothing at all.
"Kdoli!" Vlenia shrieked.
She lurched to her feet as the Enterprise jerked like a dog on a chain. Flinging itself 127 degrees on its axis, the galaxy class vessel assumed the heading already programmed into the bypassed navigation console. They dropped immediately from warp six to warp two.
Every Human on the vessel -- and even those who were not Human -- was thrown to the deck. Vlenia scrambled to her feet and lunged for the turbolift. Jhalic joined her there and the door hissed shut before the Humans had regained their sense of direction from the sudden attack.
"Sickbay," Vlenia demanded, her voice choked with fear. The
turbolift began to move.
Beverly Crusher was holding Riker's left eye open and running a light across the pupil when the whine of transporter filled the sickbay. "What in the ... ?" she started, turning.
As Picard, Wesley, and LaForge materialized, the doctor in her automatically kicked into high gear. Though the bruised, cut visage of her son called to her, she knelt instead at the side of the obviously critical LaForge.
Both of his arms were gone to the elbow. Huge chunks of metal protruded from his chest and abdomen. The gold uniform had melted directly into his flesh. Although the VISOR was still recognizable, it too, had begun to melt.
The doctor tapped her communicator. "Montoya to Sickbay, stat," she demanded. Then her eyes glanced to Picard. "Help me get him on a bed."
Together they lifted the chief engineer's shattered body and placed it on a bio bed. Beverly Crusher immediately pulled a stasis unit over him and began working to stabilize his vitals.
Alyssa Ogawa did what her commanding officer desperately wanted to do: she grabbed Wes and dragged the still dazed youth away from the frantic activity to run a scanner over his head and chest. The readings eased a small portion of the tension lining her otherwise ageless features. "Sit down and don't move," the petite nurse demanded.
But Wes wasn't listening. He hardly acknowledged her. His wide, horrified eyes were glued to what was left of Kdoli. There wasn't any color at all in the boy's face. Ogawa would have liked to have taken the time to comfort him, but she didn't have it to spare, so she didn't. Instead, she turned back to assist Crusher in any way she could.
The Sickbay doors hissed open. Vlenia and Jhalic burst into the room like two charging locomotives. Jhalic cleared Kdoli's bedside of anxious Humans with a sweep of one huge arm. Vlenia moved into the newly opened space.
"Kdoli," she whispered urgently. "Can you hear me, Kdoli?" She was afraid to touch him, but she was more afraid not to. He needed contact if he was to survive. Her hands eased carefully into destroyed flesh. The part of him that was The LaForge gasped in pain, but the part that was Kdoli of The Home welcomed her with his dulling thoughts.
"Vlenia," he breathed.
The Humans gathered themselves and began to move back in. Jhalic drew one of their own weapons to hold them at bay. With his free hand, he pulled a communication device from the hidden folds of his uniform. "Emergency," he snarled into the unit. "First Priority. Remove Kdoli now. Repeat: remove Kdoli now."
Kdoli's body fluttered. "Vlenia?" he whispered again. One of the stumps of his arms moved as if he thought to touch her.
"I am here, Kdoli," she whispered. One hand remained pressed into the ruin of his chest as the other reached up to stroke the undamaged side of his face. His blood, his flesh was a mark on her. "I am here," she repeated brokenly. "Be with peace, my friend. The Home will reclaim you. Only a moment more. All is well. You are going Home."
"Too late," Kdoli returned. His features twitched with pain. "I am gone."
"No," Vlenia whispered. Tears ran down her cheeks. "Hold on, Kdoli. Just a moment longer. Only a moment .... Jhalic?!" The need in her voice was painful.
"They are coming," Jhalic responded, his voice cold with forced calm.
"A moment longer," Vlenia whispered near Kdoli's ear.
"Dear God, Worf," Beverly Crusher pleaded, stepping forward only to be brought up short by the unmoving Klingon's bulky body. "Let me help him."
Riker reached out, caught her upper arms and pulled her back. "It isn't Worf," he said quietly. "It isn't Geordi." He watched Vlenia with the eye Crusher had uncovered to examine. The other nylo-aluminum platelet was still in place.
"A moment longer," Vlenia urged fervently.
Crusher leaned against Riker's grip. She gazed past Jhalic to the faltering life signs over Kdoli that grew weaker with each passing second.
"He's dying," she told Jhalic fiercely. "At least let me try ...."
Kdoli's head turned slightly. "The boy?" he asked. The words were barely more than a whisper of air in the silence. "The Boy Crusher?"
Vlenia glanced up and found Wesley Crusher's horrified gaze. "He is fine," she assured Kdoli, returning her eyes to his. She leaned closer. The residual heat of his burns flushed her cheeks. "They are coming," she promised. "Stay with me, Kdoli. Only a moment more."
Kdoli smiled, and then he died.
It all happened in a matter of moments.
Vlenia's fingers tightened into a mixture of melted flesh and Starfleet uniform. She moaned, her face pressing into the hand that lay partially on, partially in Kdoli's chest. "Safe journey to The Knowing, my friend," she whispered. Her lips moved in blood. She tasted it, bitter and salty and alien. She prayed for mercy, knowing there was no mercy in this place. There was only death.
The room blinked. There was no light, no glare of scan. Only a momentary pause in the fabric of existence.
And then, at least to the Humans, there appeared a second Worf.
The new Klingon evaluated the room in a single glance. He stepped forward, running an odd instrument over Kdoli's slack body. His features twisted and his eyes closed.
"It is too late," Hrenal announced. "We cannot remove him. Kdoli is gone."
Jhalic began to tremble.
Picard reacted first. He stepped forward, Kdoli's blood still drenched into his hands and his uniform from where he'd tried to stem it's flow. "I am Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation Starship Enterprise," he announced to the assemblage of aliens knotted about the lifeless body of their companion. "We come to the Rhegus Delotian ..."
With the bellowing roar of a wounded animal, Jhalic struck. His free hand lifted from his side where it hung; it arched across his body and met the captain's jaw with a resounding crack. The force of the blow lifted Picard off his feet. It flung him back the direction he'd come.
Picard crumpled to a motionless heap as Riker leapt between his captain and the alien in Klingon form. Montoya entered Sickbay just in time to see Picard fall.
"Security to Sickbay," he summoned as Beverly Crusher knelt at the captain's side. "Emergency."
"Your communication devices no longer function," Hrenal informed the Peruvian doctor.
Montoya arched an eyebrow. He pushed calmly through the crux of aliens to kneel at Crusher's side. Beverly was sweeping a tri-corder over the captain's motionless form, but the display screen was blank.
"Can you give us a tri-corder?" Montoya asked. He pressed his fingers carefully into the bruise blackening on Picard's face. "We need it for medical diagnosis."
Hrenal inclined his head slightly, and the display screen on Crusher's tricorder jumped to life.
"Thank you," Montoya responded without ever looking up from his manual examination.
Hrenal glanced to Jhalic and Riker. The two men stood face to face, each tensed for a fight. "Jhalic," Hrenal said quietly to the Klingon who -- at least to the Humans -- appeared to be his twin. "Stand down."
For a long moment, Jhalic considered the puny barrier of the half-sighted first officer. He trembled with rage, the hatred in his expression tangible. Then slowly, he stepped away.
Hrenal nodded. His big hand dropped to Vlenia's shoulder.
For a long moment, she didn't respond to the contact. She remained hunched over Kdoli's still form, her breathing slow and shallow and fiercely measured. Finally, slowly, she straightened. The pain in her eyes was vivid, but there was no indication of it in the remainder of her features.
"He is with The Knowing," Hrenal told her gently.
Jhalic grunted. Vlenia responded in no way at all.
"Who are you?" Riker demanded. He reached up and peeled away the remaining nylo-aluminum platelet. "What have you done with Worf? With Geordi and Ensign Meyers?"
Hrenal ignored Riker as if he hadn't spoken. "They know," he said, aiming his words at Vlenia. "The time of learning is past. You are prepared for Judgment?"
"What kind of judgment?" Riker took a step of measured aggression toward the pair of Klingon Worfs. "Who are you? What have you done with Worf?"
"Careful, Commander," Montoya warned. "We only have four hands."
Hrenal glanced to Montoya and then turned to face the first officer. "A judgment of life or death," he answered. His eyes evaluated the Human and then switched to Picard who was only now beginning to stir in earnest. "We are The People of The Home," he told Picard. "You are The Invaders. Stand, The Picard, to face Judgment."
Picard blinked, struggled, and finally emerged again into the lucidity of stable consciousness. He climbed painfully to his feet, first using Montoya to get there and then shoving the doctor's worried support away. Crusher and Montoya faded back into the watching knot of Humans. Beverly worked her way over to Wesley as Picard approached Hrenal.
His left eye was blackened, as was his jaw. The imprint of an oversized Klingon hand lay along the bone of his cheek. He swayed dazedly when he moved, but the outrage in his expression was as steady as a durilium block in a high-gravity chamber.
Riker fell in at the captain's side when Picard drew even with him. He kept one eye on the unsteady captain and one eye on the twin Worfs before them.
"We are not invaders," Picard announced firmly. "I am Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation Starship Enterprise. We come to the Rhegus Delotian system in peace."
Jhalic laughed. The bitter burst of sound mocked the sincerity of Picard's claim. Riker started to respond, but he sank the urge when the captain flicked a subtle change of expression his direction.
Hrenal noticed. "You are Invaders," he repeated, shifting his attention between Picard and Riker. "The People were hidden from you, but you came."
"We came in peace," Picard responded firmly. "As explorers. As friends."
"Friends come invited," Jhalic snarled.
"We took your decision to return our life support as invitation," Picard countered calmly.
Hrenal's eyes narrowed. "You understand more than We expected," he observed.
"We are a race of explorers," Picard continued. "We seek out new life. To learn. To exchange cultures. To exchange knowledge."
"We have heard these words before," Hrenal responded. "From Invaders."
"We are not invaders," Picard insisted stubbornly. "We are explorers. Our intentions are peaceful."
Hrenal hesitated. He studied Picard for a long moment before answering. "So The Troi would have us believe," he allowed finally.
"Troi?" Riker repeated. His body tensed, his eyes coming alive in his expression.
"Can you help her?" Beverly Crusher asked from her son's side. "Can you bring Deanna Troi back?"
Hrenal's eyebrow arched. "Surprising," he told Vlenia without looking away from the desperately hopeful first officer who was trying his best to look uncaring.
"In many ways," Vlenia answered without inflection. Her features were lax; her expression, vacant. She made no attempt to wipe away the blood -- Kdoli's blood -- on her hands or on her forehead. She wore it like a badge.
"We have The Troi," Hrenal told them. "As we have The LaForge, and The Worf, and The Meyers. They will live or die by the Judgment, as will you."
"You lie," Riker announced. His eyes bored into Vlenia. "Deanna Troi is dead. There is no activity in her brain."
Vlenia focused slowly. She met his gaze. "It is not Troi," she told him quietly. "Troi lives."
Riker's eyes closed. They opened a moment later, but there was a difference in them.
Picard's expression, too, registered the effect of Vlenia's re-assurance. It was less obvious than Riker's reaction, but visible to anyone who was watching.
And Hrenal was watching.
Picard met the alien's examination. His eyes flicked to Jhalic, then Vlenia, and finally to Kdoli. He stared for some time at the grisly remains of what was, to him, still Geordi LaForge.
"He was not Geordi LaForge?" Picard asked finally.
"He was Kdoli of The Home." Vlenia's voice was dull. She stared through Picard as she spoke.
"I grieve for you," Picard responded gently. "He was a brave man."
"He was not a man," Jhalic corrected harshly. "He was of The People."
Picard turned on the angry Klingonoid alien. "He died saving us. He was someone we would have called friend."
"He would have called you Alien," Jhalic retorted.
"The time of learning is past," Hrenal told both Picard and Jhalic. "You will stand for Judgement."
"On what do you judge us?" Picard took another step forward, facing Hrenal and ignoring the dangerous proximity of Jhalic. Riker tensed, but held his ground without interfering.
Hrenal's eyes narrowed. "I do not judge you," he informed the captain. "Jhalic and Vlenia judge you. It is they who have watched, they who have moved among you and imbibed your ways."
"Kdoli was to be the third." Hrenal's expression flickered with emotion. "It was an eternal balance. The negative, the positive, the neutral. But you have destroyed the balance." He glanced to Jhalic. In contrast to Vlenia's non-expression, Jhalic's heavy features were twisted with rage and grief. "And in doing so," Hrenal observed quietly, "perhaps yourselves as well."
"We did not kill Kdoli," Picard argued. "It was an accident. An explosion. He sacrificed his life to save us."
"He pushed right in front of me," Wes whispered. His eyes still couldn't drag themselves from Kdoli's shattered body. "It should be me there, not him. I set it off. He died trying to save my life."
Hrenal's lips softened into a smile. It was a disconcerting expression on his Klingon features. "This would not be unexpected," he mused, studying the stricken youth. "Kdoli valued all life."
Wes looked up at Hrenal. "He ... he may not be Geordi, but he was a lot like him. Geordi would have done that. He would have jumped in and tried to save me ... to save the ship. I wish he hadn't died. I wish there was some way I could ... that I could ...."
Wes's voice broke. He looked away, embarrassed.
"It was Kdoli who spoke to spare you on the original transgression," Vlenia observed. "He said The Boy Crusher did not mean to invade."
"He was right," Picard assured her. "It was a child's mistake. A mistake made in the enthusiasm of exploration. There was no intent behind it. No aggression."
"It was Kdoli's voice who spoke to spare you," Jhalic observed. "And he who died at your hand."
"They did not set the trap," Vlenia countered coldly. "We did. Kdoli died at our own hands."
"It is time," Hrenal said suddenly. "Vlenia?"
"You say it was a balance," Picard interrupted.
Hrenal waited for Vlenia, but she didn't answer.
"A balance," Picard insisted.
Hrenal let himself be drawn back into discussion. He nodded. "Kdoli who spoke to preserve. Jhalic who spoke to destroy. Vlenia who would decide."
"And if she speaks to spare us now?" Riker asked. "Is that enough?"
Hrenal shook his head. "There can be no impasse," he stated. "If Vlenia judges for, and Jhalic against, it will be as it has always been. The Invaders will die."
"We are not invaders," Picard said again.
"That is for the Judgement to decide," Hrenal countered.
"We have no say in this Judgment?" Picard asked quietly.
"You have no say," Hrenal verified.
"You would destroy a thousand lives without remorse?"
Hrenal's eyes darkened. "We would protect The Home," he corrected. "We have the right."
"We are no danger to your home. We come as explorers. As friends."
"That is for the Judgement to decide," Hrenal repeated.
"We bring our families. Our children."
"You bring your weapons."
"Let us sit with your leaders and talk of peace."
"We have no leaders. We are all leaders. We are The People." Hrenal looked to Vlenia. "It is time, Vlenia."
"Is there in you no capacity for mercy?" Picard demanded.
"You have been given the right of Judgment," Hrenal answered with a note of surprise in his voice. "Is that not mercy?"
"The chance to be judged by those who have already spoken for our destruction?" Picard countered.
"It is a chance," Hrenal informed him. "If not for The Troi, there would not even be that."
"It was The People who shut us down as we passed through your system before." Picard didn't state it as a question. He went on without waiting for verification. "It was The People who took us to the brink of destruction, and then showed mercy. Why then and not now?"
"The Troi," Hrenal answered simply.
"What about Deanna Troi made you show mercy?" Picard pressed.
"We sensed her." He cocked his head to one side, looking as if he was trying to see Picard's point. "She seemed so ... sincere."
"If you can read her sincerity, why can you not read mine?"
Hrenal shook his head. "Her mind is open, direct. Yours is not. There are many secrets in you, many deceptions. You are as The Others. As The Borg."
Picard stiffened. He remembered the Borg. It had been little more than a month since he'd stared at their death white faces mutilated by cybernetic implants and watched them butcher his vessel, try to disassemble it with their technology and their programming imperatives of assimilation as Q taunted him about the arrogance of the Human race. Picard shivered.
"We are not as the Borg," he stated grimly. "We do not wish to assimilate. We wish to learn through our differences, not sterilize that which makes each race unique into a machinized vision of totalitarian homogeneity."
"You know of The Borg?" Jhalic asked, surprised.
"We know of the Borg. We have encountered them in the course of our explorations." He left out the fact that it had been a brief, and all too one-sided encounter.
"I'm surprised you survived," Jhalic noted. His tone held an implication of respect despite the derisive twist of his features.
"There is much about us that would surprise you, Jhalic," Picard answered. "If you would allow it."
"I doubt that, Human."
"It is time," Hrenal announced. "Stand forward, Jean-Luc Picard, as representative of your people and receive Judgment."
Picard squared his shoulders. He gazed first at Hrenal, then at Vlenia and Jhalic. "I reject your right to judge me," he stated firmly.
"What you choose to accept is irrelevant," Jhalic sneered. "You cannot stop us."
"We can give it a damn good shot," Riker countered quietly.
Jhalic turned his eyes on Riker and Riker quit breathing. The first officer doubled over. He couldn't draw a breath through the sudden vacuum of pressure in his lungs. Pain caved into his chest. He crumpled to his knees, unable to do anything else.
"You are nothing," Jhalic whispered.
And then he released Riker. As suddenly as the inability to breathe assaulted him, it was gone. He drew one gasping breath, but managed to cut off the instinctive urge to draw another by pure will. Riker forced himself back to his feet and faced Jhalic defiantly.
"You can shut down our ship," Riker told the alien who looked so much like Worf. "You can take away our oxygen and neutralize our pressurization systems until we crumple like aluminum cans in a vacuum. You can eliminate our temperature controls so that we shatter from cold, and you can by God drive us to our knees with pain; but you can not break us. Do you understand me, Jhalic? You may be of The People, but I am William T. Riker of the USS Enterprise. I am Human, and I am an explorer and a man of peace. And if you were capable of understanding even a fraction of the memories you've stolen from Worf, whose body you inhabit, you'd know that he is the same. You would know that Jean-Luc Picard is no invader and that Geordi LaForge would have given up his life to save one of your children just as Kdoli gave up his life for Wes."
"You understand nothing of Us, Riker," Jhalic spat. "The People have no children. Only mates. Vlenia is my mate."
Riker's shock showed in his eyes. He turned them to Vlenia, and then back to Jhalic. "Vlenia is my friend," he announced. "She will judge for us because she understands us."
"You over-estimate yourself."
"And you under-estimate us. We are more than you could ever understand."
"You are Invaders."
"We are Human, and we make no apology for that. We are exactly what we claim to be. It is your bigotry that prevents you from seeing the truth."
"You die at my very thought, Riker. At less than my thought, at my very whim."
"I have faced death before. I will face it again."
"You will face it from me, Human."
Riker smiled. It was a haughty smile, one that lit his expression with arrogance and challenged everyone at whom it was directed. "Bigger fish than you have tried," he informed Jhalic with grimly humored pride. "So take your best shot, my friend."
Picard waited until Riker was finished before he spoke again. "We reject your right to judge us," he repeated. "We are Human beings with the right to autonomy and the right to choose our own fate. The fact that you possess the means to destroy us does not give you the right to do so. Neither does it give you the right to judge us. We cannot stop you from doing as you will. You have proven that. But you will do it without our participation. We will not sanction your inequity. We will not assuage the bitter edge of the atrocity you propose. If you would slaughter us without remorse, then you will do so knowing we condemn you for it. That we judge you for the narrowness of your vision. That it is you who have become as those you so despise."
"And if the Judgement favors you?" Jhalic sneered.
Picard met the huge alien's mocking gaze. "You have no right to judge us," he repeated calmly. "For or against, we will not abide by the rulings of your kangaroo court."
Jean-Luc Picard turned then on his heel and strode from the room.
Slowly, one by one, each of the Humans followed suit. Jhalic didn't move to stop them. Neither did Vlenia, or Hrenal. They merely watched the Humans file out until only Riker remained.
"You will remain," Hrenal asked "to receive The Judgment?"
"I will not," Riker answered. But he didn't leave either. Instead, he approached Vlenia. Her eyes were again without focus. They didn't see him as he reached forward to touch the blood on her face.
The warmth of his fingertips drew her attention. She focused slowly, her eyes meeting his.
"I wish we could have saved him," he said quietly. He ran his fingers down her face, down the side of her throat. And then he stepped away. "I'm sorry." She could tell he wished to say something more, but she could also tell he would not say it.
"Good-bye Kathryn," he said finally.
"Vlenia," she corrected.
Riker acknowledged the change with a subtle inclination of his head.
"Vlenia," he repeated. He looked to Jhalic and then without
another word, he, too, turned and strode from the room.
"Number One?" Picard demanded quietly.
Riker shook his head. "They've locked us out, sir. Completely. We can't get a cup of coffee from a food slot, let alone rig a self destruct to detonate if they close down the power grid again."
"That's it then," Picard said quietly. He leaned back slowly in the command chair. His eyes stared without focus into the depths of space that reflected from the viewscreen. "We have no recourse but to await their verdict."
Riker eased back into his chair as well. He swore, quietly but colorfully, under his breath.
"When I was a kid," he observed tightly. "I always hated the waiting more than the actual spanking."
Picard smiled. It was an expression that tugged at the corner of his expression as he stared into space. "It may not have been wise to entreat them to their best effort, Number One," he mused. "I have found those delivered in mediocrity up until now to be more than sufficient."
Riker smiled as well. "If you gotta go, sir," he observed serenely, "better to go with a bang than a pop."
"A matter of opinion, Number One," Picard returned.
"Purely a matter of opinion."
"A unique race," Hrenal mused as much to himself as to the others. His gaze turned to find Vlenia still watching after the Human Riker. "Your Judgment," he demanded.
Vlenia never looked away from the place where Riker vanished. Her hands clenched around the stain of Kdoli's blood. "Life," she murmured.
Hrenal nodded. It was not an unexpected judgment. "Jhalic?" he prompted, turning to the being who was -- on the outside alone -- a mirror image of himself.
Jhalic returned the gaze for a full minute. He turned then to Vlenia, waiting until she felt the weight of his eyes and acknowledged it.
But still he did not answer.
Instead, Jhalic strode slowly to Kdoli's side. He stared down at the shattered Human body and let his hand fall to its chest. Kdoli's blood stained him. Human blood. The blood for which Kdoli had given his life.
"There are many fondnesses in The Worf's memory for this Human LaForge," Jhalic commented suddenly. "And for the Human Riker." He pulled his hand from Kdoli and inspected the slickness that remained. "Kdoli died for them," he whispered. His hand clenched to a fist. "He died for The Boy Crusher."
Jhalic raised his eyes to meet Hrenal's waiting gaze.
Picard sat stiffly in the command chair. His fingers were clenched into the arms, waiting for the lights to go down, for life support to click off; waiting for it to end. Wes had taken his place at the helm again. Beverly Crusher sat in Troi's vacant chair. Riker sat in his own. They all waited as he did, for the end.
Montoya had chosen to return to his wife, and Alyssa, to her husband. No one else knew. The drag of moments became unbearable.
The bridge blinked.
Deanna Troi swayed just left of her chair. Lieutenant Worf reached out a hand to steady himself on the tactical console.
Picard was on his feet first. "Counselor?" he demanded tersely, his hands closing about her upper arms.
Troi smiled. "We are free to leave," she told him.
"Or to stay," Worf added.
"Deanna." Riker stood and stepped to her side. He managed not to touch her other than three fingers on her forearm, but his eyes were a different story.
"I'm fine, Imzadi," she assured him. Her hand reached up, placed itself over his heart. "I'm fine."
Crusher ran a tri-corder over the counselor and nodded her agreement. She moved on to Worf.
"Engineering to Bridge." It was Singletary's voice, harping sharply from the communicator, and she sounded dazed.
"Sir ... " She hesitated. "I'm not sure how, but Geordi's here. He's here. No injuries. No burns." She sounded elated and confused and utterly amazed all at the same time. "Nothing wrong with him at all. No VISOR, but other than that ... "
Picard breathed a sigh of relief. "Excellent, Lieutenant," he murmured. "Get him to Sickbay, on the double." Picard terminated the link and turned to Troi. "That goes for you as well, Counselor. And you, Lieutenant Worf."
"I feel fine, sir," Worf argued.
"That wasn't a request, Mister Worf," Picard told the security chief with a smile.
"Geordi's alive," Wes whispered. He said it more to himself than anyone else, but they all heard and understood. "Geordi's alive."
Picard resumed the command chair. "So it would seem, Mr. Crusher," he responded, unable to completely restrain the jubilation that crept across his own expression.
"Kathryn." Riker pulled his gaze from Troi and looked to the captain.
Picard tapped his communicator to hail a woman he'd never before had reason to hail. "Picard to Ensign Meyers," he called quietly.
There was no answer. His smile faltered.
"Bridge to Ensign Meyers," he repeated. "Acknowledge."
Wesley turned to the captain. "Sir, I'm reading ... " The turbolift doors hissed open, " ... a population on the forth planet on the outer belt of the Rhegus Delotian system."
"It is The Home," Vlenia announced quietly. Every gaze on the bridge turned to her. She emerged slowly, taking each step as if she might be taking it on a deck that would collapse beneath her. Her eyes sought out Picard, rather than Riker. "Kathryn Meyers is safe," she told him. "She will be returned to you in time; but for now, she must be kept apart. It would be detrimental to her in this place. She is not strong enough of identity to function within the same reality as another who appears to be, but is not, herself."
"Vlenia," Picard breathed. He rose to his feet. "You are to remain with us then?"
"The Home extends an invitation," she responded by way of an answer. "We would welcome you as explorers." Her eyes swung finally on Riker. They were hesitant, questioning. "As friends."
Riker nodded. "As friends," he repeated quietly.
Drawing a deep breath, Jean-Luc Picard squared his shoulders. "As friends," he agreed. And then he turned to face the main viewscreen. "Mister Crusher, lay in a course for the forth planet on the outer belt. Warp factor two."
"Course laid in, sir," Wesley acknowledged.
A smile tugged at the corners of the captain's mouth. A smile of anticipation.