The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Character codes: R, Crew
Captain's Log, Stardate 43920.5
We have breached the perimeter of the Modius Anomaly. Despite an acute sensitivity to its anticipated instability, we have been caught unawares concerning the breadth of the Anomaly's gravitational influence. Theoretical data addressing the effect of this pull on the Enterprise has proven inaccurate, as has the projected electromagnetic corrosion factor of the Anomaly itself on both shielding and sensors. The power drain of maintaining adequate safety measures in such close proximity to the Anomaly is staggering. On several occasions, we have been sucked dangerously close to the unstable vortex, urging me to increase our safety margin by several degrees. At the resultant distance, however, sensor readings are difficult to obtain and predominantly inconclusive. I fear the need to venture closer to the treacherous spatial distortions bordering the Anomaly's vortex will become essential if we are to complete our mission; but I have faith in the ability of my crew to navigate these dangerous waters successfully.
Elo fidgeted at the weapon's console, watching his mate as she nudged the Enterprise slowly along the Anomaly's outer fringes. Tongues of color licked at the vessel's hull. Each flash left stains of it's hue in the hollows of Sheiza's flesh, shifting her delicate coloration from purple, to green, blue and red, and then back to purple to again.
"Easy, Mister Sheiza," Picard murmured.
Elo's gaze drifted from the constant play of light on his mate's features to study its effect on tie harsher lines of the captain's face. Here, as it had on hers, the Anomaly's vibrant displays defined an impressionistic vision rather than the actual image. The sweep of Picard's features left starker shadows, brighter highlights.
Elo bristled at the deference in her voice. It surprised him, as it always did, that she could so easily bend to this Human's will. She seemed undisturbed by the necessity of the charade.
"Sir," Data's mechanically precise syllables clashed through the spectacular display of light and darkness. "I am reading..."
The ship bucked abruptly, and the bridge crew scrambled for grips on nearby consoles and chairs. Several were thrown from their feet.
But not Elo. Knowing her thoughts as she knew her own, he braced for Sheiza's evasive maneuver even as her delicate fingers skipped over the controls. A wraith of fuchsia followed the Enterprise's retreat, clutching hungrily at the outer shields.
"...a significant disturbance," Data finished as he picked himself up off the deck and slipped back into his chair.
"So I gather," Picard acknowledged wryly.
Sheiza's voice was a brush of music in the stillness. "I'm sorry, sir," she murmured. "There wasn't time to confer."
Elo's fingers tightened into synthetic molding. Rage that she should apologize for saving their primitive vessel and their meaningless lives washed his bones. The angry thoughts drew a warning glance from his mate's indigo eyes.
"Never apologize for being right, Lieutenant," Picard told her, tugging at his uniform to straighten the line of it. He smiled gently, an expression meant to reach across the bridge and bestow honor on the one to whom it was directed. "I commend your foresight. Well done."
Sheiza's head bowed momentarily in acceptance of the commendation. "Thank you, sir," she acknowledged. Her eyes touched Elo's again, reinforcing the warning in her mind, before she turned back to the console. "Shall I re-engage?"
Picard sighed. He glanced around the tense bridge with its eerie glow of reflected light and noted the strain in the eyes of his crew. "I believe we all could use a rest, Lieutenant," he responded after a moment. "Tuck us in the safety zone, and let her drift for a bit."
"Very well, sir," Sheiza acknowledged. Her fingers caressed the controls and the Anomaly sank deeper in its bed of black, starless space. Garish light flooding the bridge lessened to a tint. The silently flashing yellow beacon that warned of alert status died, and the vessel herself seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
"She is very good," Riker commented quietly to his commanding officer as the two resumed their seats. It offended Elo that the Human said it with such surprise.
"Yes," Picard agreed. "She is. We were lucky to get her."
Elo tried to ignore their conversation. He busied himself with the tasks of his position, but the complexities of their technology was child's play to him. He felt the ship's movements before it made them...sensed and fulfilled its needs even as they manifested themselves. The distraction their vessel provided him was less than the distraction walking would have provided them.
"Odd, isn't it," Riker mused. "That there isn't more background in her file?"
Though he really tried, Elo could no more ignore the coarse gratings of their excessive voices against his eardrums than he could dismiss the surges of rage prompted by their assumptions of superiority. And so he listened.
"I mean..." The first officer leaned easily against the arm of his chair, eyes watching Sheiza's back rather than the man to whom he was talking. "...I'd think her...talents...wouldn't have gone uncommended this long."
A pang of paranoia tightened Elo's belly. He felt her calming touch even as the flood of distrust engulfed him. Twining herself into the crux of his arguments, Sheiza dissolved them one by one. Though she rarely formed words in him, the strand of his distrust wove into a phrase as clearly spoken as if she'd said it aloud.
It meant "my love" in the Human tongue. The sound of her voice in his skull calmed him.
"Yes," Picard agreed, swinging his gaze to Sheiza as well. "Unusual, indeed." The captain's expression settled to satisfaction. "Unusual that we should have such luck. Captain Willis would hardly have approved the transfer, if he'd realized her potential."
Riker grinned. "You sound proud of yourself," he observed.
Picard's eyes flickered with amusement, but the smile remained shielded. "I am," he returned quietly.
Although a simulation of sound was significantly more difficult for him than it was for her, Elo summoned his concentration and formed his own voice in her thoughts. Mioshi, he acknowledged, deferring to the wisdom of her way. She read the Humans better than he. She always had.
Perhaps, he thought grimly, she even likes them.
"Join us, Sheiza," Riker called, indicating the empty chair with a nod.
For a moment, the lieutenant hesitated. Her eyes scanned the calculated dimness of Ten Forward, searching for an excuse to refuse. She found none. Her gaze worked its way back to the open smile on Riker's bearded features, and she pondered the options available to her.
Of course, she was under no obligation to accept his offer. His perceived scope of influence over her was limited to the bridge and the execution of her duties during working hours. She was aware of this even is she slid gracefully in place and set her drink on the table. "Thank you," Sheiza murmured. Her dark eyes noted each of the commander's companions without seeming to. Elo would be angry at her for the breach of procedure, she told herself. And then she smiled. Perhaps she would not tell him.
"You know Geordi," Riker began, taking it upon himself to handle introductions. "And Deanna." Both the chief engineer and ship's counselor nodded a greeting. "And this is Cal Morrison," Riker finished, gesturing at the blond security man to his left.
"Pleasure," Morrison drawled. His blue eyes twinkled as he studied Sheiza from across the table. "Why is it that you know all the pretty ones, sir?" he asked of Riker without ever derailing his eyes from their perch.
"It's a gift, Morrison," Riker retorted with a grin.
Sheiza shifted uncomfortably. Her flush of boldness paled under the Human's intent scrutiny. She felt suddenly out of place and frighteningly vulnerable.
Noticing the acute discomfort in the shift of Sheiza's gaze, Riker nudged the conversation another direction. "We were just discussing the Anomaly," he stated casually. Actually, that wasn't true. They'd been discussing her, but he couldn't very well say that. "I was impressed with the way you handled it."
Again, her eyes twisted uncomfortably. "Thank you, sir," she responded in that quiet, almost musical voice of hers.
"No 'sirs,' down here," Riker admonished gently. "It's Will."
"And Cal," Morrison piped up eagerly.
Shooting Morrison an exasperated look, Deanna Troi jumped into the conversation before the security man could turn the slight opening into a window of opportunity. "So," she observed, leaning forward to effectively cut off Morrison's view of the newcomer. "You served with Captain Willis; I know Jed quite well. How is he these days?"
Sheiza tensed. Her hearts fluttered nervously. "He is," she responded cautiously, "well. Captain Willis is an excellent commander." She glanced quickly to Troi, and then just as quickly away. Was there something more she was expected to say? Some sort of personal remembrance she was obliged to share about a Human she had never met? Studying her drink intently, to avoid their curious gazes, Sheiza chastised herself for giving in to a momentary urge of childish curiosity. It had. been foolish to join them. She realized that now. Terribly foolish.
Searching her perfunctory understanding of their ways, she struggled to find a means of escape. It would be harder to do now without raising suspicion. She should have stayed clear of the Humans as they had been instructed.
"I'm sorry," she blurted, standing abruptly. "I really have to be going. Thank you for inviting me to join you." She hurried away, leaving her still brimming drink where it sat as she strode across Ten Forward and out the front doors.
For a long moment, no one at the table said anything.
"That was odd," Troi ventured finally.
LaForge sipped at his drink and set it carefully on the table. "The pretty ones usually are a little odd," he offered philosophically. "The prettier, the odder."
"Is that some sort of engineering axiom?" Morrison razzed.
LaForge grinned. "Just the Geordi LaForge rule of thumb," he responded easily.
Troi continued to gaze at the place where Sheiza disappeared. Her senses had picked up something she was unable to categorize. It was deeply unsettling, not unlike a dream that lingered just beyond the mind's capability to recall it. She glanced up to find Riker watching her. Smiling at him, Troi shook the impression away and turned into the casual banter of her table companions.
"So, Geordi," she addressed the engineer brightly, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "Are you saying that I'm ugly, or that I'm odd?"
Elo watched his reflection in the mirror, noting the way his skin shifted over planes of bone and cartilage. It seemed odd to see this...this thing...and know it was himself. All he recognized of it was the eyes. His own eyes stared back at themselves. They were the wrong shape and partially covered by flaps of skin that made them seem small and inconsequential, but they were unmistakably his. Their color was as it had always been: deeper than the color of Sheiza's, more absorbing of light and detail. He took small consolation in the fact that they had left them to him.
Fingers pared down to sticks and barely half their original length (his fingers, he reminded himself with a surge of revulsion) pushed ebony hair from where it fell across his face. He recognized the urge as Sheiza's.
Ugly, am I not? he thought to himself, knowing that she would understand it was meant for her.
Exceptionally, she returned. The flash of her smile lit him. Not the smile the doctors had given her, not the thin-lipped slash of opening the Humans called a mouth, but rather the iridescence that was the way she remembered herself. He found the lips of his own reflection twisting to an expression with which they were unfamiliar.
But not so, she amended, for a Human.
Elo lowered his hands to place them in the bowl of water before him. He watched the surface of the fluid accept him and reform over him, as Sheiza did when he touched her.
Had done, he reminded himself. In the before time.
Lifting his hands, he watched the water stream from them. Glistening ropes of fluid rushed back to itself, droplets splattering free in their haste. The Humans used little water. Their technology cleansed them without the healing properties of that which was so much a part of their makeup. He believed it to be a natural extension of their wish to die. To kill. Their kwatsaniis were as barren and shriveled as the winds that bore them into the skies and beyond.
So dark, Mioshi, she admonished.
Though the water ran from him, it left some of its ownness behind to stand in tiny pools on the leather-like enclosure the doctors had melded to his own flesh. He thanked the water for its gift and pressed both palms to his face that all of him might share in it.
Elo started. Even though his mind knew the voice to be Sheiza's, his body twisted instinctively to a defensive crouch. She was there, standing just beyond the doorway that led to his quarters. The light from this cleansing room made her translucent skin almost glow, as it had done in the before time.
She smiled. "Mioshi."
"It is dangerous," he countered, stepping into the darkness to be with her. "One of them might see."
Her smile deepened, working amusement through her other features and into her stance. "You did not see," she teased.
It was true, he had not. He had been inattentive, or the absence of her blocking would have left him an emptiness as blaring as the loss of all that was. His thoughts of Humans and the way of things that were no longer to be had muddled his senses and left him vulnerable. It was dangerous. "It is safer if they know us as separates," he insisted, angry with himself, and with her for showing him his own dereliction. "There is less chance ..."
The fingers she laid on his lips stilled their movement. "I wished to see you," she said simply. The smallness that was her moved closer to him, reminding Elo that all had not changed with the doctors. She still fit as she had still tucked into him as the touch before the oneness.
"And I, you," he relented grudgingly.
Her fingers traced the line of his alien features, exploring them in the half darkness that was broken only by the cleansing room's light. "You are not so bad," she teased, pressing against the hollow near the base of his throat. "Not so bad that I would wash after the oneness."
Elo smiled then, too. He touched a place on her that her Humanness would find pleasurable.
"Just dark," she whispered, leaning into his hand. "Very dark."
Elo watched his fingers move along her flesh, noting again the difference in their coloration and wondering at it. The doctors had chosen a paleness for her--a paleness that could almost fool him when the light was as it was now. Even compared to the other Humans, she seemed ghostlike.
And yet, for him they had chosen a depth of color she could not help but find repulsive. He'd have thought it a mistake but for the Human LaForge and those of his racial mix. They were darker still--nearly black in their hue. He was thankful the doctors had left him that as solace.
"And vain," she told him. Her lips brushed him as he had seen other Humans do in the ten forward. His surprise was tempered with the unexpectedness of his body's reaction. He sought the caress again, and she complied.
"Mioshi," he murmured against her.
"Mioshi," she responded.
For a long time, they remained still in the semi-darkness. The pressure of his hands against her gave her pleasure, and he learned from it to take pleasure in her touch.
"Soon," Sheiza said suddenly, stepping away. "Soon it will be over, and we can return."
"Soon," he repeated, finding her thoughts to be his own.
And then he sensed it--an unfamiliarity that had lain between them all along, but he only now was beginning to see. Camouflaged by its very openness, it had escaped his notice. The unforgiving leather of his flesh folded to a frown. "What?" he demanded.
As he focused upon it, the pitch of unfamiliarity dissipated like the vestiges of a bad dream. And yet, somehow, he felt it more strongly for its absence. It was a surprise to realize that there were places in her she did not allow him. A thrill of pride crosscut his instinctive anger. He was learning. Soon, perhaps, she would have no such places.
"What," he pressed firmly.
Sheiza smiled. "You are learning," she said.
Although her approval touched him deeper than the brush of her flesh, Elo recognized the distractive ploy for what is was. He remained un-deterred. "Tell me," he demanded, his fingers tightening into her arm.
Sheiza's eyes grew pensive. "The Humans," she answered after a moment. She needed say no more. The hollow place in her opened to the insistent pressure of her mate, and Sheiza allowed him to see the struggle as if it were his own.
But it was not.
Elo had no such doubts.
Spinning away, he flung her from him as he stalked to the farthest place the small quarters would allow him. For a moment, he could not look at her. When he finally did, he stared at her from black eyes that saw her as alien as her thoughts appeared to him.
"You are a fool," he snapped.
Sheiza shivered. The coldness of his exclusion was in her mind, a punishment, but it chilled her flesh as well. She found herself suddenly alone. It was frightening, this aloneness. She did not know how the Humans could stand it.
"Elo," she murmured, broaching the chasm she'd shorn between them. "They are not as we were told. We have no right to do as we would do."
The sharp hiss of his revulsion cut the room like an insult. "They are nothing," he spat.
She had expected this. Expected, and feared. "They are as important as we," she countered quietly.
She took another step. The distance between them was not so much now. He would have pushed her away, but he missed the presence of her thoughts in him, the comfort of her kwatsanii.
"They are nothing," he insisted. "Your thoughts are dangerous. When It comes, there will be no time for thoughts as these. You must purge them from yourself. You must know that we will do what we must do."
"They have kwatsanii," she said quietly. Tears glistened in her eyes. Tears: the water-letting of Humans. She had assimilated their ways well...too well. "I have seen it," she insisted. "In the one called Picard. And the one, Riker."
He felt a surge of something more than anger at her words. That she should utter such vile lunacy was enough, but the one Riker? Could her Human form sway her so? Could the biological pollution they had endured for the cause have eroded her mind as well?
"You see a reflection of yourself," he argued desperately.
She continued on as if he had not spoken. "So different," she murmured, "but still there. I felt it." Her hand fisted and pressed to the place in her that would have been a heart, if she had been Human. "I feel it."
She slid into him, both of mind and of body. The secret place was open to him. He sensed that of which she spoke and experienced a doubt as profound as her belief. Had they taken her from him?
"Kwatsanii?" he repeated numbly.
Sheiza nodded. Her eyes were hopeful as she searched him without intruding into places he might see as manipulation, "Believe in me, Mioshi," she pleaded. "We must try to save them. We must at least try."
Hands clenched, Elo learned more in a heartbeat than he had accumulated in his lifetime. Blocking his doubt from her, he learned to lie.
"As you wish," Elo murmured, sensing she knew nothing of his deception. "We will try."
As she tucked into him, the flood of her joy nearly intoxicating in its potency, he felt no pride in the accomplishment for which he had so long strived. The secret place in him was his own, but there was nothing for him in that place but shame.
"I'm not sure exactly what you wish me to do, Counselor," Jean-Luc Picard said slowly. He watched the Betazoid sitting across from him and tried to think of a genteel way of stating it. "He has done nothing wrong."
"I'm aware of that, Captain," Deanna Troi countered a little snappishly. "I am merely telling you that a problem is in the offing. Elo Mantegna's attitude is dangerously hostile. Outwardly, he may seem benign, but his..." She hesitated, searching for the word. "...aura exudes anger."
"Anger," Picard repeated. "Toward anyone in particular?"
Troi shook her head. "That is what frightens..." She corrected the word almost before she finished uttering it. "...unnerves me. The rage is directed at everything. When you issue an order, the air fairly reeks of it. And Will. Just the sight of Will spurs a reaction that...disturbs me with its depth."
"Has there been some sort of altercation?" Picard asked thoughtfully.
Troi shook her head. "Nothing that I know of. Will says he's hardly spoken to the man since he transferred on."
Jean-Luc Picard rubbed his chin slowly, leaning back into the comfort of his ready-room chair. It was a dilemma he hadn't faced thus far: calling a man down for something he might do in the future. There were disadvantages, he was forced to admit, as well as advantages to having a ship's counselor with Troi's unique capabilities.
And then there was the problem of how to handle it. Lieutenant Mantegna had seemed willful, perhaps, since he'd transferred aboard, but hostile? If there had been incidents of consequence, he was unaware of them. And yet, Troi would not have brought the matter to him unless she felt strongly about it. Was he to tell her to discount the talent that made her such an indispensable part of his crew? Setting his mind to a coarse of action, Picard gently tapped the personal communication device pinned to his chest.
"Mister Mantegna," he summoned calmly. "Could you join me in the ready room, please?"
He imagined the surprised glances that would be circling the bridge and tried not to think of them. Instead, he spent the few seconds of surprised silence framing exactly what he planned to say in his mind so it wouldn't sound as ludicrous to Mantegna as it did to him.
"Yes, sir," Mantegna's coarse voice returned after a moment.
The large tactical officer entered the ready-room and infused it with an instantaneous sense of tension. His black eyes scanned first the room, and then Picard and Troi, each in their turn. While he didn't seem inordinately hostile, neither did he seem particularly pleasant. "Sir?" he prompted without waiting long enough for anyone to casually slide into any sort of preamble.
"Have a seat, Lieutenant," Picard gestured to the empty chair at Troi's left.
"I prefer to stand," Mantegna responded evenly. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "sir."
Picard rose slowly, avoiding the counselor's gaze. Perhaps she had a point, he mused. For a new officer, Mantegna made very little attempt to adapt. While he did his job impeccably, there had been no evidence of a normal assimilation into the social aspects of starship life.
Not that a man could be convicted for that. What he chose to do on his own time was his own business.
"Is there something wrong?" Picard asked abruptly. He studied Mantegna's responses, opting for the direct approach in his own stance and expression.
There was nothing. No flicker of surprise. No seed of resentment. Nothing.
"Wrong, sir?" Elo repeated. It was less of a question than it was a challenge.
"Are you having difficulty adapting to the Enterprise?" Picard elaborated. "Are your relations with other crew members moving along satisfactorily? Is there anything you'd like to change?"
Elo's gaze narrowed. "No, sir," he responded cautiously.
"No to which, Lieutenant?" Picard pressed.
"No, I am not having difficulty adapting to the Enterprise," Elo stated quietly. "I do not have any relations with the other crew members and that is quite satisfactory; and no, there isn't anything I'd like to change."
Picard began to pace slowly. "It has come to my attention that you might be unhappy," he said slowly. To his credit, Elo's gaze didn't skip to the counselor. "That you might perhaps harbor some sort of resentment."
"No, sir," Mantegna responded stoically.
"Are you quite certain?" Picard pressed quietly.
"Yes, sir. "
"Is there anything you'd like to talk about?" Picard pursued.
Picard turned and faced the tactical officer directly. "You may return to your post, Mister Mantegna," he stated flatly.
Elo turned and strode from the ready room. There was silence after his departure for a full minute.
"I see your point, Counselor," Picard conceded finally.
"No," Troi corrected, standing as she spoke. "You don't. What you saw here..." She gestured to the room. "... I wouldn't have come to you about. It's not unusual for newly-transferred crew members to experience dislocation trauma that leads to brisk or unfriendly attitudes. What I came to you with is something much more." She leaned into the desk as Picard resumed his seat "Muchmore."
"Can you be more specific?" Picard requested.
Deanna Troi shook her head. "I wish I could," she muttered. Raising her gaze to meet Picard's, Troi tried to impress upon him the importance of her claim. "I'm not sure what it is, Captain," she stated slowly, "But Elo Mantegna is dangerous. He is very dangerous."
"Rest assured that we will keep a close watch on him, Deanna," Picard promised. "If he shows any signs..."
"That's what worries me," Troi interrupted. "That's what worries me the most. Just now?" She gestured to the room in general. "He was in complete control. Not a stray thought, not a stray emotion. If I had not felt it so strongly before, I might have doubted my own assessment."
"You're saying you sensed no hostility?" he asked bluntly.
"I sensed nothing," Troi responded quietly. "Nothing at all."
Picard mused on this bit of information. "Then he was...?" He let the statement fall off into nothing.
"He was blocking me, Captain," Troi stated securely. "As effectively as a stone wall, he was blocking me."
The bridge was a silent, tense place. The Modius Anomaly lingered just off the starboard bow, ever-present, ever-threatening. The constant flicker of its spectacular light show wore thinner as time wore on.
Troi fidgeted. She held both hands clasped primly in her lap, fingers interlaced so they wouldn't unconsciously seek a place to tap. She had to concentrate to keep from sitting like there was a metal rod fused to her spine. The headache that pulsed at the base of her skull pushed inexorably higher with each beat of her heart. As the nagging pain crawled across her scalp in search of a perch behind her eyes, Troi tried to ignore what her instincts told her.
He was behind her, and he was watching.
There were a million reasons to tell herself she was over-reacting. Her empathic abilities sensed nothing. Though she had secreted glances in Elo's direction at every opportunity, she had never once caught him watching. And yet...
Troi's fingers flexed. As ship's counselor, she would have diagnosed herself as the victim of a mild paranoid delusion. As the victim, however, she found it impossible to believe his eyes were not boring into her spine. She found it impossible to believe that the hatred she felt clammy against her flesh did not really exist, even though every molecule of her Betazoid abilities insisted that it did not. She found it impossible to believe she was wrong.
"Deanna?" Riker asked gently, bending slightly at the waist to avoid the need to raise his voice above a whisper. "You okay?"
She glanced up at him and smiled a gesture of reassurance that felt wooden and stiff on her lips. Standing there, his clear eyes worried, he reminded her more of the lover she used to know than the friend she had come to understand through the fullness of their time aboard the Enterprise. The protective brace of his stance was an unconscious attempt to lend her support. He did not realize his strength and his confidence were constant buttresses against the chaos of emotional battery she endured every day in her dealings with Humans.
For some reason, meeting his questioning gaze here on the crowded bridge, she remembered an intensely private moment. She remembered the feel of his arms encircling her as she fought against a welling of tears that lurked on the leading edge of hysteria. She remembered the breadth of his chest as he held her, letting her cry when she thought she could not cry without breaking apart. She remembered the gentle press of his beard against her forehead and the steady rise and fall of his breathing beneath her cheek. To be honest, I'd always thought there was something a little too aristocratic about your Betazoid heritage. The way he had said it was tenderly insulting. The memory of it flushed her with the same indecipherable mix of emotions that so consistently vexed her whenever she thought she had William T. Riker properly placed and pigeonholed in the tapestry of her life.
Riker's head cocked to one side. That slight smile that was more question than most men could manage with actual words slipped into his expression.
"I'm fine, Will," she murmured.
The question in his eyes faded to a frown, working through bearded features to settle against his lips, but he didn't press her answer.
Picard pushed up from his chair abruptly, taking command both metaphorically and physically with a single step that placed him dead center of the bridge. "Let's take another crack at her, Mister Sheiza," he announced. "Move us in closer."
"Yes, sir," Sheiza acknowledged. Her fingers performed surgery on the navigation console and the enormous ship pirouetted through space like a well-trained ballerina.
He came then, his appearance cracking the fibers of their universe with jolting strands of noise that each Human (and even those who were not Human) felt in their bones. What had been nothing but air warped, and in its place stood a man.
He was tall, glowing from both inside and out, and what might have been arresting under normal circumstances was breathtaking under the effect of the god-like aura. Hair of almost iridescent gold hung in waves around classic, straight features. Eyes the impossible color of cloudless summer skies that could exist only in the childhood memories of an adult far from home skies gazed benevolently over the stunned gathering of Humans. He smiled. Straight, white teeth radiated a warmth that was palpable.
"Please, do not be alarmed," the apparition told them, extending both hands, palm up, in a universal sign of peaceful greeting. His voice was velvet smooth against the stunned silence. "I come in peace. I mean you no harm."
Of the Humans, Picard was the first to recover. "Merde," he murmured, gazing in awe at the being that stood less than a meter in front of him. He blinked and recovered his decorum in the same breath. "I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard," he stated with carefully measured bravado. "Of the Federation Starship Enterprise."
"I know who you are, my son," the newcomer assured Picard. "I have come a long way to find you."
Riker slid from Troi's side, inserting himself subtly into the framework of the encounter before him. The motion drew the captain's attention. His eyes acknowledged Riker's concern while simultaneously warning the first officer to exercise great restraint in his choice of reactions.
Even as the almost non-existent inclination of the captain's head assured Riker that discretion was foremost in his thoughts, Picard riveted his attention to their impromptu guest. "Counselor?" he inquired without glancing her direction.
"Nothing, captain," she murmured in response. It was not an entirely accurate answer. She was sensing an overpowering influx of emotional reaction from her crewmates. From the stranger who appeared out of thin air, however, she was receiving nothing.
"I apologize for the fear I sense in you, my children," the apparition told them with a smile. The ethereal glow surrounding him began to dissipate slowly. "Our contact was inevitable, but I had hoped for less disruption when the time came."
"Who exactly are you?" Riker inquired bluntly.
"I am Abaar," the alien responded. He turned on Riker to judge the amount of hostility in the first officer's aggressive stance. The handsome features softened with amusement. "There is no need to protect him," he assured Riker tolerantly. "I wish you no harm."
"You can appreciate our position," Picard answered before his first officer had the chance. "Your arrival was most...unexpected."
Abaar nodded. "Yes," he agreed. "Again, I apologize." The last of the golden halo of light encasing the alien's form faded. He stood before them, still glowing from within, but no longer from without.
Picard nodded once, accepting the words along with the sincerity with which they were offered. "Welcome to our vessel, Abaar," he greeted with flawless diplomatic aplomb. A half-gesture led the alien's eyes to Riker. "My first officer, Commander William Riker." He moved on, extending one hand to Troi as he spoke. "Counselor Deanna Troi." The bid to join them was unmistakable.
Troi rose gracefully, stepping toward the alien and into the line of fire.
Sheiza focused her concentration on the dissipation of Abaar's personal protection shielding, hearing the screech of every moment as it grated across her bowstring-taunt nerves. Time seemed endless. It was a task to wait the eternity of thirty well-counted seconds that would allow the residue of electromagnetic particulates to disband as had the visual reflection of energy.
Her hands grew cold where they rested against metal. Only a few more moments, she told herself firmly. Only a few more moments, and it would be over.
"Counselor Troi," Picard introduced, holding out one hand to the seated Betazoid as he spoke.
Sheiza sensed the weapon in her mate's hand before she saw it. Horrified, she watched Troi rise into the line of fire, her mind as unaware of the danger as Sheiza's was aware of it.
"No," Sheiza murmured. She stood, unable to contain the heat of her sickness as Elo sighted his weapon beyond and through the unsuspecting counselor. The warning, however, did little more than betray her mate. While the Betazoid woman hesitated, sensing the rush of despair, but not sensing it enough to move; Abaar's eyes widened and swung on Sheiza. He saw the danger instantly and stepped more fully into the shadow of the woman standing between him and it.
A brilliant smear of blue cracked the air from Elo's weapon to its mark. It would have sheared Deanna Troi in half had Sheiza not lunged into the counselor and replaced Troi's body with her own.
The stench of disrupted flesh flooded the bridge. Sheiza's body absorbed the flare of energy and lurched back the way it'd come. She slammed into the navigation console with enough momentum to shear the chair from its mooring and twist the metal console to scrap as she landed.
The Enterprise lurched. For a moment, the graceful vessel hung suspended in time and space. Then, turning her head in response to the commands of short circuiting navigational instrumentation, the Enterprise dove into the vortex of the Modius Anomaly.
"Red Alert!" Picard shouted above the shrieking din of tortured metal. His bridge crew lay scattered about like so many of a spoiled child's playthings. The neutrality of the bridge's normal illumination was gone, replaced by the glare of emergency lights mixed with the continual flare of colored energy against their shields. "Security to the bridge. Medical to the bridge. Engineering, I need a report now!"
Each order emerged so quickly on the tail of its predecessor that the string of instructions seemed to be one long sentence. Picard jerked himself off the deck, ignoring the stab of pain along his ribs, but Riker beat him to the punch.
Landing a solid right cross to the point of Elo Mantegna's chin, Riker expected at least a T.K.O. All he got was a momentary pause and a lift across the bridge. Twisting with the instinctive grace of a born fighter, Riker managed to lessen the severity of the damage to both himself and the instrumentation lining the far wall as he slammed into it.
But not much. The crack of bones was unmistakable. Riker slumped to the deck like a noodle in water.
Mantegna turned to level the weapon in his hand at Abaar once again.
This time, it was Picard who stepped into the line of fire. Elo's hesitation was momentary, but it was enough. The lift doors behind him split to expel the thundering form of an enormous Klingon and his two equally large flanking men. They hit Elo Mantegna with the force of three charging rhinos.
Elo catapulted over the weapon's console, slamming into the deck and Picard at virtually the same moment. The weapon left his hand like a thing with a purpose, carrying through the disrupted momentum until it hit a wall and shattered.
Elo was up almost before he was down. Shaking off a flying, three-tiered body check that would have downed an elephant like it was little more than an inconvenience, he fought to free himself from the tangle of arms and legs that was his commanding officer. His hands found Abaar's throat just as the lance of Worf's phaser found him.
The Humanness that concealed him, betrayed him. Neural impulses altered to simulate theirs shut down under the stun beam. Elo fought it bitterly, but the drag of his altered biology was too much. His fingers slipped from Abaar's throat, and he felt the slap of coarse carpet against his face.
For a moment, the stillness in his head was surreal. Eyes that lay open because he lacked the strength to shut them watched the twisted form of his mate beneath a garish carnival of lights. It was then that he allowed himself to think. Not because he wished to face what he had done, but because he could no longer hide it in the rage of vendetta.
"Mioshi," he muttered, hoping beyond hope that she would answer.
The taste of metallic residue filled his mouth. His tongue licked at it is he mused groggily over the implication. They had hurt him more than he'd thought. It had been hatred that gave him the strength to rise and find Abaar's throat, just as hatred had given him the strength to sight through the Betazoid woman even as Sheiza's horror writhed within the confines of his skull.
The twist of lights faded. The wail of alarm died beneath the shrieking silence in his mind.
"Mioshi," he whispered again.
And again, there was nothing.
Eyes finally falling shut saw the rise of Abaar as the alien straightened from the cravenly cowering he'd assumed behind the shield of the woman. They had failed; Abaar lived. Elo took the bitter knowledge with him, along with the dullest ache of emptiness he'd ever known, into the black abyss of unconsciousness.
"...and complete loss of any sort of navigational fix," Geordi LaForge was saying.
"The atmosphere is an electro-magnetic nightmare out there, and it's tearing us to ribbons. Shields are already down to two-thirds power. Even if the helm would respond--which she won't--there's no way to tell which direction to send her. We've lost main power all over the ship, and secondary power on decks six, twelve and fourteen."
"Do your best, Mister LaForge," Picard ordered calmly. Every breath he drew was like a hot iron in his side, so he kept his answers as succinct and to the point as possible. "Picard out." He tapped the communicator inset in the arm of his command chair and waited for a long moment before once again turning to face the carnage that had been his bridge.
"How is she?" he asked of Beverly Crusher.
The doctor didn't even look up from her frantic work. Data was helping untwist Sheiza from the remains of her navigational console as Crusher and her nurse battled to keep the lieutenant alive.
"I don't know," Crusher snapped. "I've lost all her vital signs, but I'm still reading cortical activity. We've got to get her to the med-lab or we're going to need a body bag instead of a stretcher. Data, can't you get her free, damn it?"
Finding no way to lift, twist or remove the last metal bar pinning Sheiza in her technological coffin, Data drew a breath and snapped it like a twig. "She is free, Doctor," he supplied evenly.
"Good." Dropping her instruments, Crusher maneuvered both hands into place beneath Sheiza's twisted form. "Gently, now," she instructed, leading the effort to shift the lieutenant onto the anti-gravitational stretcher hovering centimeters away.
Picard's eyes swung away from the desperate fight against time to find the sprawled figure of his first officer. "Number One?" he questioned, evaluating the amount of injury the fallen commander had sustained by the extent of damage done to the science station on which he landed.
"I'm okay, sir," Riker managed badly. He shifted as if to sit up.
"You're not okay," Crusher and Troi chorused immediately.
"Just hold still until I can get to you," Crusher demanded. "Deanna, don't let him move."
Troi tightened her grip on Riker's hand, brushing blood-soaked hair back from where it clung to bruised flesh. "I won't," she promised.
Surrendering the hover board to her nurse, Crusher gave the nurse implicit instructions: "Tell Bellejoi to start in immediately, Alyssa. I want full life support, and I want those vitals back on the board before I get down there." Dismissing the patient from her mind, at least for the moment, Crusher turned and moved to the next in line.
The scanner in her hand found enough wrong with William T. Riker to fill a complete file. "Okay, Mister I'm okay," she said gently as she pressed a hypo filled with painkiller against his neck. "This won't hurt a bit." The hiss of injection faded the edge to Riker's expression almost immediately. His eyes drooped, and he let Troi press him back to the deck. "You're going to be fine, Will," Crusher assured him. "Just hold still and enjoy Deanna's company until we can get another hover board up here for you."
"I'm fine," he insisted again, head lolling to one side in what seemed to be an abortive attempt to sit up. "I'm perfectly capable..." His voice faded to a grumble, "...of walking if...you'll...you'll just..." His argument lost its way in the sedation already dulling stubborn determination along the bearded features, but eyes almost angry with sharp awareness of duty unfulfilled glared defiantly back from the slack expression.
Crusher smiled, placing one hand carefully on the shoulder that didn't have the glare of bone erupting through flesh. "Relax, Will," she told him. "It's not all that often you have a pretty woman all to yourself." Her eyes flicked to Troi. "Don't let him move, Deanna," Crusher ordered calmly. The seriousness of her gaze the weight of her voice impressed upon the counselor the importance of the demand.
Crusher was off again, moving to the third and final body strewn on the deck of the starship Enterprise. She ran a scanner over Elo Mantegna and frowned at the odd readings it gave her.
"The phaser was set on stun, Doctor," Worf informed her coldly.
"Well, he's a lot more than unconscious," Crusher retorted. She ran the scanner again and came up with the same readings. Blaming them on the same interference that was scrambling the sensors to useless static, she set the device aside and resorted to more primitive means of diagnosis. Her hands ran along the unconscious tactical officer's back, searching for and finding broken bones along the way.
"His place is in the brig," Worf insisted.
Crusher's eyes rose to meet the Klingon's head on. "You broke six, maybe seven ribs when you hit him, Worf," she stated tersely. "He is experiencing extensive internal bleeding and erratic vital signs. I don't think the brig would be the best place for him right now."
"Then I will place a team on him at all times," Worf compromised.
"You do that," Crusher allowed. "Just keep them out of my way. Sickbay's going to be full enough without excess baggage under foot."
The lift doors opened, and another medical team emerged onto the bridge. Each medic had a hover board in tow.
"Riker first," Crusher snapped before they'd cleared the lift. "Be very careful, there's spinal and cervical subluxation, and I don't want cord damage," She pushed to her feet and headed for the now-empty lift. "Mantegna next. Watch his ribs and kidneys. Engage a tension field to slow the internal bleeding. I'll be in surgery if you need me."
The lift doors closed over the trailing edge of her rapid-fire instruction. A split second later, they opened again. "Jean-Luc?" Crusher demanded, her hand holding the door at bay.
"Yes, Doctor?" Although he attempted to keep the hitch out of his voice, he could tell by her expression that he had not been entirely successful. She frowned, eyes narrowing.
"You're pale," she stated accusingly. "Are you hurt?"
"Not excessively, Doctor," he acknowledged. It would have been useless to deny it all together. She was too good for that. Anyone who could spot the injury in his stance with a glance that lasted less than a microsecond would see the uncontrollable tightening of his features that accompanied every breath he drew.
"Jean-Luc..." She started out of the lift.
Picard held up a hand to stop her. "Really, Beverly," he insisted. He'd wrenched knees and broken ribs enough times to self-diagnose his current situation as non-life threatening. The doctor needed no more patients on her list, and the Enterprise very badly needed her captain. "I promise to visit when the dust has settled."
Though her eyes remained uncertain, Beverly Crusher allowed the captain his denial. She nodded once and released the door. "You'd better," she threatened as they began to shut. "Or I promise I'll come back up here and drag you down to Sickbay by the..."
The turbolift doors closed on the remainder of the statement.
The slight smile shaded Jean-Luc Picard's expression as he contemplated Crusher's threat and its many possible conclusions. It faded as he was again forced to face the devastation on his bridge. Riker had slipped into unconsciousness as the medical team nudged his stretcher into motion. Troi slid along side, muttering gentle assurances in the hopes that he could still hear them.
"I am sorry, my son," Abaar offered into the waning chaos. "It pains me to see your people suffer so."
Picard turned to the golden-haired alien with a weariness that bordered on exhaustion. "Abaar," he said quietly. His subtle glance relieved Worf of any further need to maintain vigilance over their unexpected guest. Although the Klingon nodded and shifted his attention to other tasks, he never quite gave up the distrustful monitoring of an exceptionally efficient security chief. "Have you any idea why Lieutenant Mantegna might wish to harm you?"
Abaar shook his head slightly. "No, my son," he returned, smiling sadly. "I have none."
"Surely," Picard persisted, "there must be a..."
Abaar laid a hand gently on Picard's arm. His palm tingled where it touched the captain. The nagging ache along Picard's ribs and knee eased considerably; and with the pain, went many of the questions he had intended to ask of the alien.
"He is of your people," Abaar reminded the captain with endless patience. "Not of mine." His smile twitched. "Fear, perhaps," he offered after a moment. "Not an uncommon reaction in those weak of spirit."
"Elo Mantegna may be many things," Worf growled from his stance behind the weapon's console. "But he is not weak of spirit."
Abaar shrugged noncommittally.
For a long moment, Jean-Luc Picard stared at the newcomer. Although the alien could in no way be held responsible for their current predicament, there was something about him Picard found disquieting. Despite the benevolence of Abaar's countenance and the gentle smoothness of his kind voice--or perhaps, because of them--Jean-Luc Picard felt a shiver of premonitory distrust snake down the length of his spine.
"How is she, Doctor?" Picard asked quietly.
"Alive," Crusher answered with even less elaboration than usual. They'd been lucky on the rest of the ship...the worst injuries were confined to the bridge. Riker and Lieutenant Mantegna had been stabilized almost immediately. Although Sheiza took considerably longer, the fact that she was still alive at all was a testament to the efficiency of the Enterprise's medical staff.
Picard's hand reached out to cover Crusher's, disrupting the rhythmic linear repetitions of the compression intenuator nestled in her palm. "Can you be more specific?" he requested gently.
Sighing, Crusher flicked the humming device off and set it aside. His ribs had been little more than cracked anyway. They were as good as new now--perhaps even better. "Not really," she admitted tiredly. "This Anomaly is playing havoc with my diagnostic equipment. I can't trust half of the readings I get from them, and I don't believe the other half."
Picard frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean this." Crusher reached out and flicked a lever on the diagnostic board to her left. "Density: twelve point eight," she read the display disgustedly. Her eyes flicked to the patient stretched unmovingly on the bed below it. Elo didn't look like he was unconscious, he looked like he was dead. The waxy cast of his features denied the nominally normal readings her hand scanner was finally supplying. "It's ridiculous," she snapped. "I've seen blocks of pure durillium ore with lower densities than that." One hand waved vaguely in the direction of the far wall where another patient lay, this one surrounded by the appliances of total life support. "Sheiza's reads the same way. Yours however," she triggered the appropriate switch to illustrate her point, "reads a perfectly acceptable five point three."
"Both Elo's and Sheiza's read twelve point eight?" Picard repeated.
"No," Crusher sighed. "Elo's reads twelve point eight. Sheiza's reads twelve point three. But then again, Sheiza's quite a bit smaller than he is."
"Any other discrepancies?" he pressed.
"Oh," Crusher's lips twisted into a humorless smile. "Lots. Blood counts at impossible levels. So much actual body matter that there isn't enough space left over for a body cavity. Organ shadows that don't bother to mimic the readings of the base organ." Crusher interrupted her here. "Did you know Sheiza has two hearts, one of which isn't functioning? Nice, huh?" She spun away in exasperation, one hand running through her long, auburn hair. "I can't work like this, Jean-Luc," she said finally. Although her back was turned, he could sense the desperation creeping into her voice. "I've stabilized her readings as best I can, but I have to have something to tell me what's going on inside her. I'm flying completely blind here. How can I operate when I don't know where to cut?" Her voice lowered almost to a whisper. "If you don't get us out of this electro-magnetic soup, I'm going to lose her."
Picard stood cautiously. He tested a portion of his weight on the twisted knee. Satisfied with the results, he let the rest of it fall in place. "We're doing everything we can, Beverly," he told her gently. "There is a lot more at stake here than just Sheiza's life."
Crusher turned on him, her eyes furious. "Not for me, Jean-Luc, " she retorted. "For me, just Sheiza's life is everything that's at stake."
"I didn't mean it that way," he told her.
For a long moment, Crusher continued to glare at him. Slowly, gradually, her anger dissipated. "I've done everything I can do for you," she relented, waiving him off. "Don't put too much weight on that knee until the muscles have had time to re-mesh."
Picard nodded. "Will?"
Crusher glanced across the bay to William Riker's quietly resting form. The readings were skewed a bit, but reasonable enough. "He won't be ready for duty for another couple of days," she advised.
"I need him now, Doctor."
Crusher's eyes snapped. "Do you need him alive?"
Picard's jaw worked silently as he weighed the good of adding to the doctor's already staggering load with the truth of the situation, or holding off the grim outlook for the sake of her mental state. "If we're here for another couple of days, Beverly," he informed her finally, deciding she deserved the truth no matter the circumstances, "none of us will remain alive."
Crusher blinked. "That bad?" she asked quietly.
Picard nodded. "Worse," he admitted.
Gingerly, he made his way across Sickbay. A thought struck him as the doors hissed quietly open. "These diagnostic aberrations," he said suddenly, turning to face Crusher as he spoke. "Do they occur only with Mantegna and Sheiza?"
Crusher frowned. "I haven't really..." she started. And then she interrupted her. "Yes. For the most part, at least. Will's readings are relatively predictable. As were yours, and the majority of the minor injuries sustained during the initial shake-up. Only a minor glitch here and there."
Jean-Luc Picard's eyes shifted first to the deathly-pale, life support system, to enclosed form of Sheiza; and then to the security-flanked body of Elo Mantegna.
"Interesting," he muttered. "Very interesting indeed."
The expression lighting Abaar's features was one of serenity, but Deanna Troi sensed something else entirely. She glanced up, so disturbed by the subtle impression that she forgot, for a moment, that Will Riker was emerging from the healing embrace of Crusher's well-crafted sedation therapy.
"Deanna?" Riker muttered groggily, She felt his hand flex in hers as Abaar raised eyes of the bluest blue to meet her frowning gaze. The eyes turned indigo, and then black. For a moment, she had the impression of depth beyond depth...of an abyss that fell to eternity and then beyond.
And then it was gone.
His eyes were blue; his smile, benevolent; his aura, at peace with the world and blinding with its pureness.
Deanna Troi could not remember why she had thought otherwise.
"Deanna?" Riker muttered again. He shifted on the bio bed, the dawning awareness in his features tightening with pain prompted by even the most limited movement.
"I'm here, Imzadi," she responded automatically. Her fingers tightened on his, extending strength into the bond they shared. With an effort that bordered on strain, Troi dragged her gaze from Abaar's and sent it in search of the doctor. She was relieved to find that Crusher heading their way, already half way across the bay and her stride eating the remaining distance like it was candy. "I'm here," Troi repeated. She dropped smiling eyes to Riker's awakening ones.
"What in the...? Where..." Riker managed to elbow himself almost upright before his pain informed him that injured men lie still. With a groan twice as expressive as the twist of his features, Will Riker sank back to the bio bed.
"Who's been using me as a Bijocki bag?" he inquired dourly.
A tired smile shadowed Beverly Crusher's expression as she ran an analyzer over his chest and abdomen. "A Bijocki bag, huh?" she commented. "You must be feeling better."
"Am I?" Riker grunted. He glanced at Troi as the doctor continued her examination, and what he saw in her eyes made him frown. "You okay?"
"She's not the one lying flat on her back in a bio bed," Crusher reminded him. "Does this hurt?"
The response Riker was about to make concerning Troi' condition give way abruptly to the higher priority of a half-squelched yelp. "Yes, that hurts!" he assured her sharply.
Crusher nodded. "I thought it would," she commented. She pressed somewhere else. "That?"
This time, Riker was ready for it, and he managed to contain the reaction to a tight growl. "Yes," he forced out from between clenched teeth.
Crusher nodded as if she'd expected as much. "Well, Commander Riker," she told him, lifting her hands from his sides to fist them and plant them on the rise of her hips, "you fared exactly as one might expect to fare when thrown twelve meters onto metal protrusions of various shapes and sizes."
Riker nodded once, a tight, conservative motion that reflected the amount of pain any motion at all cost him. "When can I get back to the bridge?" he wanted to know.
Though Crusher had anticipated the question, it edged her voice with anger nonetheless. "Whenever you're up to walking there," she snapped.
Riker nodded. Releasing his grip on Troi's hand and drawing a deep breath, he dragged his feet over the edge of the bed and let their weight pendulum him into a sitting position. The cast of his expression yellowed. Fingers digging into the bed whitened with the strain of holding his position. "I'm up to it," he grunted through the task of breathing.
Crusher snorted. "You, William Riker, are not up to anything more taxing than a good night's sleep," she retorted, "but unfortunately, I've been outranked." She left out the fact that it had been circumstances, and not the captain, that had done the outranking. "So," she accepted an injector from the nurse waiting at her side, "We're going to give you a little buffer...very little. Just enough to take the edge off things without giving you the impression you're invulnerable."
"Believe me, Doctor," Riker assured her through teeth that still clenched onto the end of each word he expelled. "I feel anything but invulnerable right now."
"Good." Crusher placed the injector against his neck and dispensed the first in a complex series of neural blocks and pain inhibitors. "I want you to remember that. I also want you to remember that not only are you not invulnerable, you are, at this particular point in time, far more breakable than the average bear."
Across the bay, Abaar was smiling. "I am glad that your comrade was not badly injured," he told Worf sincerely.
The Klingon merely grunted. He did not like the task of baby-sitting the benign alien at his side. He considered it beneath him not only as a warrior, but as the chief of security as well. Any of a dozen of his subordinates could have handled the task and handled it well, leaving him to attend to more important matters in their currently challenging situation. Yet, the captain had been adamant. He had taken it upon himself (as was any captain's right, Worf reminded himself) to usurp the normal order of things and delegate security manpower in a manner that was the security chief's prerogative. Worf growled behind his teeth. Although he acknowledged the captain's right to do so, it chaffed at him that Picard would invoke that right. It chafed him to the point, in fact, that he had actually questioned the decision.
Picard took the challenge well, far more benevolently than any Klingon would have. Instead of the swift and resounding punishment such a breach deserved, he had expressed a confidence in Worf that made the Klingon raw with shame. Under the passage of time, Worf could see the wisdom of his captain's way. His determination to perform the task well was an obsession in its intensity. Any resentment that still lingered was tempered with pride, and a need to live up to his captain's expectations.
Still, the Klingon knew in his Klingon heart that such duty was a waste of a warrior best utilized elsewhere.
"He seems to be of great value to your captain," Abaar continued conversationally.
"Commander Riker is an excellent officer," Worf stated unequivocally. He did not add that, among the Humans, Riker was one of the few he considered a friend.
"It is a shame that all his officers are not so valued," Abaar commented, glancing down at the unconscious form that lay on the bio bed before him.
"Lieutenant Mantegna is also an excellent officer," Worf countered. Although he was not sure why, Worf felt a need to defend the unconscious man. Perhaps it was the fact that Elo Mantegna was his second in command, or perhaps it was because he felt a kinsmanship with the dark Human's abrupt ways and abrasive manners. Perhaps it was merely that a golden alien so filled with benevolence and goodness had no place speaking of a man of Elo Mantegna's strength. Regardless of the reason, Worf found himself bristling at the alien's offhanded slur in the same manner he had bristled at the accusation that Mantegna was weak of spirit.
"I apologize if I offended you, my son," Abaar offered quickly.
"I am not offended," Worf retorted coldly. "And I am not your son. You will refer to me as Lieutenant Worf, or you will not refer to me at all."
The alien's features broke into an appreciative grin. It was a much different expression than had yet visited his classical features. "As you wish, Lieutenant Worf," Abaar agreed. "As you wish." His blue eyes narrowed slightly. "There is a place I would visit," he said casually. "The place where your engines reside."
"Engineering is strictly prohibited to unauthorized visitors," Worf countered immediately. He took a certain pleasure in denying the alien's request.
"Is that what I am, Lieutenant Worf?" Abaar questioned gently. "An unauthorized visitor?"
"You are," Worf agreed with characteristic bluntness.
Abaar's expression darkened, as did his eyes, "I do not believe your captain would mind," he suggested.
The Klingon turned deliberately on the alien. He glowered down on the smaller man, fixing him with a penetrating gaze that advised against further pursuit of his goal. As one lip curled into a sneer, Worf passed final word on the subject: "I would mind."
Will Riker walked slowly to the turbolift, working to make his gait seem relaxed rather than pained. He could feel Crusher's eyes on his back. It wasn't until the door hissed shut over her tight-lipped disapproval that he let himself lean against the railing and relax.
"Bridge," he grunted.
As the lift slid smoothly into motion, an overpowering wave of nausea hit the first officer and chilled his flesh to clammy ice, His knees trembled, threatening to deposit him rudely on the floor. Only the fact that his back was propped against the lift wall kept him upright. Riker closed his eyes, waiting for the worst of it to pass.
But it didn't pass.
And it didn't pass.
He drew a deep breath to steady his stomach and regretted the decision immediately. Pain stabbed along the conduits of his bones, racing from his ribs to his spine to his skull like fifteen thousand volts of electricity on a hot wire. It hurt to move. It hurt to breath. It even hurt not to move and breathe. Riker's fingers clenched deeper into the slight padding of the rail that held him upright.
She'd warned him that the wide array of drugs would make him weak, and that the dosages might not be effective in pain repression if she kept them low enough to allow his mental facilities to function in even the most rudimentary fashion. What she hadn't warned him of was that every motion--even the sight of motion--would make him as green as a fledgling cadet in his first gravity deprivation simulation. It was almost more than he could do not to reverse the lift and send him back to sickbay where he obviously still belonged, Or better yet, give it new instructions to take him to his quarters where he could lie very still in a very dark room and be very sick all by himself.
That, however, was not where he was needed. He was needed on the bridge. The mere fact that Crusher had released him in this condition--albeit under vocal protest--attested to that fact.
The quiet hiss of opening lift doors pulled his eyes open and his spine erect. It was as much a reaction of habit as it was of pride. He stepped surely onto the bridge despite the odd sensation that he was falling through an atmosphere comprised predominantly of orange jello.
"Commander William Riker reporting for duty," he said more steadily than he felt.
Jean-Luc Picard turned as his stood. Emergency lights reflected off sharp features made sharper by the weight of impending disaster. Here, as on the rest of the ship, lights and atmosphere controls were at a minimum. Only Sickbay needed full illumination, and so only Sickbay got it.
"Welcome back, Number One," the captain greeted.
"It's good to be back," he lied. Taking the gently sloping ramp that separated upper deck from lower deck like it was a mountain to be descended, Riker absorbed the worry flung his way from every corner and tried very hard not to let it show that he noticed. Though he wanted to pause at the captain's side for a few moments and just stand there to show them all he was really okay; he opted instead for a quick seat in his normal place. Nothing like falling on one's butt to falter the troops' faith in a commanding officer, he told himself practically. Nevertheless, the show of weakness galled him.
"Any change?" he asked of the captain, hoping Picard remembered he'd not been on the bridge since shortly after their plunge into the Modius Anomaly.
"None whatsoever, Number One," Picard verified. "The Anomaly continues to absorb or refract all signals fed into it. We have been able to obtain neither a navigational fix or sensor readings of any sort."
Riker nodded as if he'd already known that, but silently he thanked the captain for the subtle appraisal. "Have we launched a probe?" he asked carefully.
"Several, sir " Data offered from his station at the Ops console. He looked vaguely lonely, sitting there without a helmsman at his side. A helmsman, at this time, however, would have been ludicrous, for the helm it was nothing more than a tattered ruin of spare parts. "There has been no response from any of them."
Riker stared for a long time at the viscous whirlpool of colors that eddied across the main viewscreen. Almost continual flashes of pure energy cut the marbled patterns of light. The ship stumbled ever so gently every six or seven minutes when one of the bolts managed to find a shield.
Favoring the side that had led his impromptu landing on the various protuberances of the science station only hours ago, Riker eased himself back into the relatively comfortable grip of his chair. "Quite a tempest in a teapot," he observed.
"Unfortunately, Number One," Picard answered grimly. "It seems to be our teapot."
Elo woke slowly, his mind fogged with emptiness and confusion. For a long moment, he could not remember where he was.
The memory of her twisted form dragged his thoughts into the now time with a grip of steel. As he cast about desperately for some residue of her being, he found instead, another's presence.
Elo opened his eyes to the woman Crusher. He was surprised by the concern in her expression as she studied him.
"It's all right, Mantegna," the Human soothed. She misunderstood the flash of fear in his expression; she thought it a fear of them. "No one is going to hurt you."
"Sheiza?" He twisted against the weight of the containment field, eyes raking the small bay until they found his mate's still form where it lay, stretched motionless on a bed at the far end of the room. The Humans had cocooned her with metal. Her delicacy lay hidden within a web of tubes and wires and metal plating. But the monitor above her read life. Life. A thrill of hope cut Elo, laying waste to the morbid dread her absence left in him. She is alive.
"Sheiza lives?" he demanded hoarsely.
It was the doctor's turn to be surprised. Her eyes flicked to Sheiza, and then back to Elo. "Don't fight the containment field," she answered rather than addressing the question he'd asked. "You'll only hurt yourself more."
"Sheiza lives?!?" Elo demanded more urgently. He fought the force field in retaliation for her efforts of soothing. The pain in him was nothing compared to the emptiness.
"Elo, stop it." The Human's hands pressed his shoulders to the bed. Flares of orange circled her wrists where they breached the field. "Yes. Sheiza is alive. Now stop struggling."
Elo allowed him to be subdued, his mind swimming in the revelation that Sheiza still clung to her thread of life. For the moment, nothing else mattered...not even the bitter taste of their failure. If she lived, there would be another time. Another time, another place....Elo's elation faltered. Though he searched the deepest recesses of himself, there was no trace of her there. Nothing lay in him but him. There was only the Human's word that Sheiza lived. His desperation to believe undercut the darker knowledge that the Human's capacity for deceit was as great as their capacity to kill.
"Are you certain?" he asked quietly.
The doctor nodded. Watching her struggle to withdraw her hands from the containment field, Elo was again reminded of how slowly they learned. He had shown them his strength on the bridge, and yet, they judged this setting to be sufficient to hold him prisoner, as it would be to hold them. They would not know differently until it was too late.
"She's weak," Crusher explained. Manipulating her medical devices, she pressed buttons and stared blankly at scans she didn't possess the breadth of mind to comprehend. "You've hurt her very badly."
Elo snorted. How like them, he thought bitterly. To see her sacrifice as his aggression. To be so blind that they could not fathom that she had given up not only her own life, but his as well for the woman Troi.
The doctor's eyes moved in silent communication with the watching security team. They nodded acknowledgment of her intent.
"I'm going to release you from the containment field now, Elo," she stated slowly. "Don't do anything stupid."
Her threat was subtle, as was she--for a Human. He gave the security team no reason to interfere when the field died around him. Her hands probed the slight distention of his abdomen, and he repressed reactions of both pain and revulsion.
"Impossible," Crusher muttered.
She pressed against his second heart again, lips twisting with concentration. Elo blinked. The realization that her choice was not random--that she had found something she was not meant to find--came like a dash of cold water against his flesh. As she reached for a scanner, he delved deep within his internal response system and found the source of the betrayal. The absorption web that protected his identity was compromised. It no longer allowed only that which coincided with their physiology to escape. Errant readings were seeping into the ranges read by her diagnostic equipment, confounding her instruments with truth rather the conformity they expected. It was obvious she'd heard the reverberation of his second heart. There was no telling what else her clumsy examination had uncovered.
By the time Beverly Crusher ran the hand-held analyzer over Elo's abdomen, it read nothing more than it would have read if she'd run it over her own. The frown on her features knitted it to frustration. Shaking the scanner as if it were the machine's fault, she tried again.
Again, it read a stomach, liver, kidneys, intestines...But no heart. She traced it up the line of his breastbone and found the methodic beat exactly where it should be.
Beverly Crusher flicked the analyzer off. She plied controls on the diagnostic board above him, and got the same responses. Her frown deepened. Heart beat: normal. Respiration: normal. No sign of internal trauma. She pressed a very specific button and got a perfectly acceptable 5.4 for a relative density reading.
Slowly, Crusher dropped her hands to her sides. She glanced once at Sheiza, and then swung her gaze on Elo Mantegna, "Who are you?" she asked quietly.
Allowing the silence to rest intact, Elo let his gaze drift away. It worked a painful, relentless path around the bay until once again, he found Sheiza's slack form. It was she who lingered on the surface of his eyes when he could no longer hold their lids at bay. It was she; she and the technological coffin in which the Humans had entombed her.
The woman Crusher's voice was very far away now. He felt her hands against him and resented it.
"Who are you, Elo?" she whispered in the growing blackness. "What are you?"
He had only one thought before the gentle caress of the nothingness stroked away his ability to think at all: Let the Human wonder.
"I've boosted all excess energy to the shields," LaForge informed the roomful of officers. "We've re-located everybody to the sections that house those operations essential to the continuation of vital functions, and we've shut down everything else. We'll be rubbing elbows for a while, but it should give us an extra twenty-four hours or so."
"Very good." Picard nodded to the engineer and let his glance circle the table. Other than Crusher, who could not afford to distance herself from the critically unstable Sheiza, they were all here. His senior officers: the best men and women Starfleet had to offer.
His gaze spent a moment on each of them, judging the amount of strain the current situation had laid upon them and taking pride in the knowledge that they were more than equal to the challenge. There was not a weak link in the chain. They were a crew he was proud to call his own.
He watched Will Riker the longest, noting the way the injured first officer struggled not to show the wash of pain growing heavier on his features with each passing hour. He should be sent back to Sickbay , but Picard could not bring him to issue the order. Riker belonged here, with them, in this time of crisis. The first officer's duty was on the bridge, as was the captain's. He could not deprive an officer--a man--of Will Riker's caliber of that right. He could not deprive the crew of the increased chance Riker's presence gave them to survive this encounter. And, he could not deprive himself of the sense of completion that Riker gave the bridge. He could not, and he would not.
Lastly, his gaze came to Abaar. The alien sat to the captain's immediate left, hands folded neatly before him on the briefing room table. He seemed glaringly out of place. Although Abaar followed the proceedings with keen interest, the alien had nothing to offer to the discussion. He merely sat in silence and watched, his lips turned with that mysteriously benevolent smile and his skin glowing oddly gold.
Picard struggled to remember why he'd agreed to allow Abaar this seat in the briefing, but he came up blank. The uneasiness he'd felt shortly after the alien's abrupt arrival intensified. The skin along the back of his neck crawled and shriveled. He remembered suddenly why he had allowed it. He had allowed Abaar to come because Abaar had asked. The revelation was anything but comforting.
Data took up the challenge without hesitation. "The sensor mainframe has proved unresponsive to my attempts at re-calibration," the android offered. "And although we have re-routed navigational input directly to engineering, we have experienced no change in helm response."
For a moment, Picard didn't answer. He had not realized he was glaring at Abaar until the alien glanced up to meet his eyes. Abaar smiled.
Picard turned to Data, his thoughts crystal clear in his head. "Due to physical damage or lack of navigational reference?" he asked, chiding himself mentally for allowing his attention to wander. Abaar belonged here. It was obvious. He was one of them. A friend to be trusted and revered.
"Unclear, sir," Data admitted. "According to read-outs still functioning, the navigational system has been adequately repaired to allow us to re-establish control of the helm. However, most diagnostic systems are inoperable due to either damage sustained in the initial foray, or electro-magnetic interference from the Anomaly itself."
"What you're saying, Mister Data," Picard paraphrased, "is that it may work, or it may not."
Riker shifted restlessly in his chair. "Not very comforting," he muttered as one hand rose to rub at his forehead. The web of sedation designed by Crusher and her medical team to keep him on his feet was wearing thin. He was having considerable trouble concentrating on what was being said, not to mention the task it had become to hide the deterioration of his condition from the others in the room.
"It is the best of which I am capable," Data responded.
Picard turned to his second in command. "Number One?" he prompted, trying to ignore the shadowing of half-concealed bruises that bled along the younger man's drawn features
For a long moment, Riker said nothing. What appeared to be thoughtful contemplation to the general populace of the room was in actuality a gathering of strength so that he might expel several words in a row without pausing to gasp for air. Only Troi noticed the subtle difference. "There's no indication that time is going to present us with a solution," Riker ventured finally. "Whether it's twenty-four hours, or twenty-four days, correct?"
LaForge nodded. "That pretty much sums it up," he acknowledged.
"Then I say we pick a likely direction and kick her in the guts," Riker stated calmly. "We can't be worse off than we are sitting here like condemned men awaiting the ax, and we might actually find ourselves in the clear before shielding gives out."
For a long time, no one in the room spoke. Each officer pondered the significance of the drastic plan, and the dire circumstances that would prompt so rash a suggestion from the normally conservative first officer. Only Abaar seemed unaffected by the pronouncement. Though the course of action settled on by this gathering would determine his fate as surely as it would the fates of his Federation traveling companions, the alien seemed altogether unconcerned. So unconcerned, in fact, that he appeared amused.
"As in," LaForge offered quietly, "eenie, meanie, miney, moe?"
"I'd prefer to think of it as a SWAG," Riker countered.
LaForge frowned. "SWAG?" he repeated hesitantly.
"Scientific Wild Ass Guess," Picard supplied evenly. "Certainly an option for consideration, although it lacks a certain quality of assurance I would prefer."
"Assurance is a luxury we can't afford, Captain," Riker returned. His voice was dull with exhaustion, as were his eyes. "Every moment we waste fighting the Anomaly's effects is an energy drain that buries us deeper in its grip. The Enterprise is bleeding to death even as we speak."
"Commander Riker's plan would afford us a fifty percent chance of breaking free of the Anomaly on either of the near sides," Data offered helpfully. "Assuming we could reach escape velocity with current engine impairments."
"Which only leaves us a mere fifty percent chance of ending up deeper in the soup without a paddle, so to speak," LaForge countered, "Not a betting man's odds, if you ask me."
"Can we cut down those odds by calculating a course based on our own coordinates?" Picard suggested. "Plotting a trajectory in reverse of the one that resulted in our arrival?"
"You mean, turning in place and following our own tracks out?" LaForge asked. He shook his head. "Not a chance. This electro-magnetic storm is the equivalent of a full-blown blizzard. It's wiped out every trace we made on the way in. I couldn't pick out an ion train if our lives depended on it." The engineer winced at the unintentional accuracy of the statement and continued. "I can't even give you an educated guess as to how much we've drifted in the currents and eddies out there. We may be close to where we cut power, and we may be half way across the Anomaly from it. The readings we managed before going in indicated some type of whirlpool formation. If that's accurate, we may have already been sucked to the dead center, and there may not be any near edges to head for."
They each considered the grim prognosis. No one offered a solution, because no one had one.
"Counselor," Picard turned his attention suddenly. "How is this...situation affecting our personnel?"
Troi hesitated. The hands that lay perfectly folded in her lap belied the quiet duress that reflected from deep in the recess of her dark eyes. "The crew is handling it well," she allowed guardedly. "There is a great deal of concern, but very little panic. The civilians are less calm, but within acceptable limits."
"What do you mean by acceptable limits?" Picard pressed.
Again, she hesitated. "They're frightened," she said after a moment. "The disruption of their daily routines, the relocation of their sleeping quarters has given weight and depth to their fears."
"Perhaps I might help," Abaar offered suddenly. He straightened, leaning into the table as he spoke. "I could move among them, speak to them of my people and my ways. Tell them of other places they have yet to see."
Troi nodded slowly. "It would give them something else to think about," she agreed. "It might slow the progression of their doubts."
"Another unknown amid a vortex of the unknown?" LaForge offered doubtfully. "Might not be the easiest medicine to swallow."
"Our people are taught to embrace the unknown," Troi argued. "To take value in learning from new beings and new cultures. Abaar is not so unlike us that he would prompt fear. His presence, his willingness to share would give the people hope. It would reinforce in them the memories of why they are here, facing the dangers of space."
Picard made his decision decisively. "Very well, Counselor," he allowed. "Make it so. Accompany Abaar at all times and monitor his effect on the civilians. Terminate the experiment at the first indication of trouble." Picard turned to Abaar. "We appreciate your cooperation in this matter, Abaar."
"I will do my best to allay their fears, my son," Abaar responded graciously. "We are of the same life force, your people and mine. It is our duty to share the universe as one."
"They aren't Human," Crusher told him surely. "Neither Elo nor Sheiza. There are too many discrepancies."
Picard nodded, his eyes flicking to the closed door of Crusher's office as though he could see the patients beyond it. "I had figured as much," he admitted.
Crusher leaned forward. "But I'm not sure exactly what they are, Jean-Luc," she told him. "I can't get a fix on either one of them. It's like they have some sort of organically-coordinated internal deception system. Their vital readings are mirror images of standard Human norms...too much so. Elo was hurt and hurt badly on the bridge, and yet his respiration and other vital signs are as steady as a rock. He doesn't show any sign of internal trauma or bleeding, and there isn't a broken bone anywhere in his body " She paused for effect. "Now."
"What do you mean, 'Now'?" Picard obliged.
"Before he became fully conscious, I was getting a lot of very odd readings," she told him. "At first, I blamed it on the electro-magnetic interference; but then, after you pointed out that the inconsistencies were limited to only Elo and Sheiza, I began running some in-depth diagnostics on the equipment. There isn't anything wrong with it. A periodic glitch here, or an inaccuracy there, but nothing that would account for extra organs and broken bones that heal themselves spontaneously."
"And these irregularities occur in Sheiza as well," Picard prompted.
"Actually," Crusher allowed, "they're more prevalent in Sheiza. Her readings are skewed in almost every instance. It's almost like something is trying to read Human, but isn't quite making it."
"Mutations consistent with Elo's?"
"Only more accentuated," Crusher agreed. "There's no doubt that she has two hearts. If she didn't, she'd be dead. The one in her chest hasn't given me anything since we brought her down from the bridge."
"Does Elo have two hearts as well?"
Crusher shook her head. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms across her chest. "He did at one time," she acknowledged tiredly. "But then, all of a sudden, he only had one. It was like he realized I'd found something, and he fixed whatever was letting the readings for the second heart escape."
"But you're sure he has one," Picard pressed. "I mean two."
"As sure as I can be without cutting him open to take a look. We can't get anything in the line of internal pictures. The Anomaly has destroyed the functionality of every piece of equipment that requires the emission and return of a signal for the sake of definition. All I get is a blanket of static, if I get that much."
The silence between them stretched into staleness. "I need to know is much about them as possible," Picard told her finally. "Our very survival may depend on it."
"You think Elo can get us out of this, don't you?" Crusher surmised.
"Yes, Doctor," Picard acknowledged grimly as he pushed himself to his feet. "I think that he can. The question, however, is not can he, but will he? Of that, I am not so certain." Picard turned to go. "I will be on the bridge when he awakens."
Crusher waited until the door to her office hissed open to let him leave before calling after him. "Jean-Luc?"
He turned, waiting for the question.
"And what happens if he won't?" she inquired after a long moment.
Jean-Luc Picard's expression hardened. "Then I believe we all die, Doctor," he said in quiet rage. "I believe we all die."
Deanna Troi watched Abaar work, amazed by the way the civilians quieted under his touch. From the quiet dread of the more experienced to the sheer panic of those facing their first deep-space emergency, the golden alien's effect was universal. He spoke to them, saying nothing in particular, and they listened with the rapt attention of disciples to their master. Troi even found herself drawn into the magnetic well of his almost hypnotic soothings.
"It is going well," Abaar commented when they were out of earshot of the small gathering of families that had been relocated to shuttlebay six. "Don't you think?"
Troi nodded. She agreed with him: it was going well. And yet, she found it odd that the part of her forming concerns that still weighed in her thoughts would fade to submissive agreement. She struggled to remember those concerns, but could not.
"I believe we are nearly done," he continued conversationally.
"No." Troi swallowed, finding it hard to disagree with him. She forced words from lips that seemed to fight against their emergence. "There are several more families that we need to speak with."
"Are there?" Abaar responded. He smiled, glancing at Troi with eyes of the bluest blue. "I was certain we were nearly finished."
Troi blinked. She looked back the way they'd come, confused. "Perhaps..." she muttered.
"You look tired," Abaar commented kindly. "This must be very tiring for you."
"Tiring," Troi repeated. She thought about it for a moment and realized she was tired...very tired...so tired she could hardly keep her eyelids off one another. "Yes," she agreed with a weak smile. "It is."
"Perhaps you should rest," Abaar suggested.
Troi drew a deep breath, trying to purge the exhaustion from her system with a tightening of mental control. For a moment, she was better; and then, like a flood gate buckling under the torrential waters of the rainy season, she was worse... much worse. She swayed and would have fallen if not for Abaar's hand on her elbow.
"Yes," the alien held her steady. "You should rest." His hand brushed a stray lock of hair back from her face. "You are exhausted."
Troi sagged again. Her mind was numb, incapable of functioning through the mud of her thoughts. She gazed at Abaar, struggling to remember her objections.
"The captain..." she managed finally.
"I'm sure he will understand," Abaar assured her. "I will tell him you have gone to your cabin."
Troi nodded, thinking perhaps she should go to Sickbay instead.
"You are not ill," Abaar murmured kindly. "Only tired. You will sleep and be fine."
"Yes," Troi agreed. She felt somewhat better almost immediately. "I must get some sleep." She pulled from his grip, a flutter of embarrassment in her hands as she straightened the line of her uniform. "You'll tell the captain?"
Abaar nodded. "I will tell him," he assured the shaky counselor.
And then he smiled.
Much to his chagrin, William Riker realized he had fallen asleep. He awoke to the sound of Beverly Crusher's voice, and it took him a moment to remember he was on the bridge and not in Sickbay.
"...still indicates that he sustained no significant trauma in the incident," she was saying. "While I don't buy that for a minute, he appears strong enough to answer any questions you want to ask."
"Very well, Doctor," Picard acknowledged. "I shall be down as soon as possible. Picard out." He turned to Riker with a critical eye.
"I'm fine, Captain," Riker assured his commanding officer a little defensively. He glanced around the bridge, wondering if his slippage had been as obvious to the others as it had been to the captain. Their subtle avoidance of his gaze told him more than an accusation.
"Very well," Picard agreed. "You have the bridge, Number One. I'll be in Sickbay if you need me." Picard stood and strode from the bridge with a fluidity that barely reflected the stress of his injured knee.
Riker drew a breath deep enough to pull at hastily fused ribs and settled himself in for the duration. The deliberately uncomfortable position he chose in the command chair as he stared out the main viewscreen helped fight the drag of exhaustion on his thought processes.
"Sir?" Data inquired hesitantly.
"What is it, Data."
"I would be very interested in hearing more about this 'Scientific Wild Ass Guess,'" the android said seriously.
Despite the cramp of pressure building under his lungs, Will Riker smiled.
"You have some things to answer for, Mister," Picard stated harshly. His glare was impressive, cascading down his hawk-like nose to impale the man stretched on the bio bed before him. There were many it would have intimidated. Elo was not one of them.
He met Picard's glare and matched it. Now that the need for the charade of obedience was past, Elo toyed with the notion of vengeance. The Human's arrogance galled him now, as it had since their arrival on this primitive vessel. That he should think himself capable of inspiring fear was ludicrous, and yet he did. Elo's strong fingers flexed as he considered breaking the Human's neck for the pleasure it would bring him.
But he did not. Instead, he stared straight ahead as if his thoughts were stone.
"You have nearly killed two of my officers," Picard went on. "And you have plunged my vessel into a vortex of destructive powers, the extent of which we have yet to completely analyze. I demand some sort of explanation for your behavior. Some sort of reason."
Elo snorted. He was surprised that the sound came from him, for he had not meant it to. Since he had already broken the surface of his silence, however, he saw no harm in displaying the depth of his disdain for this Human and all of his kind. "You demand?" Elo sneered. "You demand?!?"
Picard's eyes narrowed slightly. "Who are you?" he asked carefully.
"Don't you remember, Captain?" Elo mocked. His voice laced the honorific title with the contempt it deserved. "I am Elo. I nearly killed two of your officers, and I have plunged your vessel into a vortex of destructive powers the extent of which you have yet to completely analyze."
Picard switched tactics. "Why did you wish to harm Abaar?" he demanded.
"I did not wish to harm him," Elo corrected without inflection. "I wished to kill him."
"Why?" Picard prompted.
For a moment, Elo didn't answer. He chose to speak only when Picard hid given the question up and begun to form another. "Because Abaar deserves to die," he stated quietly.
Picard's retort was immediate: "Did Sheiza deserve to die as well?"
Elo's hands clenched before he could stop the instinctive reaction. He bled the rage away from his thoughts with great difficulty and saved the moment of retribution for a time when it would serve him better. "Ask her," he responded bitterly, the words barely passing between the clench of his lips. Though the woman Crusher had told him Sheiza lived, he knew now it was a lie. He would have felt Sheiza somewhere in him, if his mate still lived. The false readings were merely a reflection of the Humans' inability to differentiate between life and existence. "It was you for whom she died."
"Me?" Picard retorted, surprised.
Elo didn't answer. He had said too much already. Even in their clumsy way, they might prove a danger to what he had yet to do. Sheiza sacrificed herself and him to save the Humans. Now he would sacrifice the Humans to destroy Abaar. It would be vile and wasteful in the end, but it would serve the purpose. Abaar would be no longer.
"It was you who shot her," Picard reminded him.
The accusation burned in Elo's memory, but still, he said nothing.
Anger slipped into Jean-Luc Picard's eyes. "If Sheiza dies," Picard told the silent tactical officer angrily. "It will have been at your hand, not mine."
If the fates had shown mercy, Elo told himself fiercely. It would have been at his hand that she died, knowing that he went with her and that he forgave her. But there had no mercy for them, just as there had been no mercy for their people. A sharp, mournful keening rose behind the quiet rhythms of his internal balance. The resonant silence Sheiza left in him filled with the sound of death and grief.
But aloud, he said nothing.
Abaar studied the instrumentation, his eyes absorbing everything they touched. There was much to see, much to learn.
Abaar turned, smiling benevolently at the Human that approached in a half-run.
"What are you doing down here?" the Human LaForge demanded. His features were sharp with anger. "You don't have clearance to be in this area. Where's Deanna?" The engineer's vision prosthetic swung until it found Barkley. "Reg? What's going on?"
Barkley blinked, looking for all the world like a newborn kitten whose eyes had not yet gained the strength to face the full light of day. "I'm showing Abaar the warp drive," he answered after a long, expectant moment.
"You're doing what?" LaForge yelped. His features were furious, his wiry frame worked into a frenzy of barely contained rage.
Abaar watched with amused indifference as the engineer shoved between him and his disciple.
"The captain's orders were implicit," LaForge reprimanded his subordinate.
"I'm afraid this is my fault," Abaar soothed calmly. He smiled at LaForge, gazing through the VISOR in an attempt to reach the opacified eyes below.
"I asked Reg to show me this portion of your magnificent vessel. I meant no harm."
LaForge fidgeted, rolling his shoulders around the sense of unease that settled at the base of his skull. "Reg?" he pressed. Even as he glared into Barkley's blank gaze, however, LaForge felt an odd draining of his righteous indignation.
"Abaar wished to see the warp drive," Barkley explained, as if nothing else need be said.
"Let me get this straight," LaForge said quietly. "You disobeyed a direct order from the captain because Abaar asked you to?"
Barkley blinked. "Yes," he agreed without the slightest remorse.
"How long have you been blind?" Abaar asked gently.
LaForge glanced at the alien. Again, he felt an odd pressure at the base of his skull. It tingled there, numbing his desire to yell. "I was born blind," he answered, despite the fact that he intended to say something much different.
"Such a pity," Abaar murmured. He placed the tips of his fingers on the VISOR's vertical sensors. "There is so much to see in this universe."
LaForge pulled his head back, taking a step away from the alien at the same time. "You shouldn't be here," he said firmly. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Abaar smiled. "Are you certain you wish me to leave, my son?" he asked quietly.
LaForge did something he rarely did: beneath the VISOR, he blinked. "Yes," he answered. "I'm quite certain."
"As you wish, my son," Abaar agreed pleasantly. He had seen what he came to see. There was nothing in their technology he could use to free himself from this snare. Had there been, this Human's resistance to his will would have been moot. He would have killed it without a second thought, or perhaps he would have let its friend kill it. As it was, however, the need for such action did not exist; and the need to retain their leader's faith did.
With a benevolent nod of his head and a graceful swirl of his flowing cloaks, Abaar turned and left the place of machines. He had probed their intellect without avail. He had studied their technology to the same end. There was only one way left: the way out was the way in.
The alien they called Elo would save him, and then he would die as had his race. Abaar's fingers flexed.
I thought perhaps that I might kill you, the voice said to him. But then I saw how much more fun it would be to watch you this way, to see you as their pet, as their prisonr.
Elo's eyes snapped open. Abaar was above him, the sneer of a smile in his deceptively elegant features. I could see how this would pain you, he went on pleasantly. Being helpless before them. It would have been a waste to free you from that.
"Abaar," Elo hissed with all the hatred seething in both his hearts.
Abaar smiled. "So primitive," he chided, actually speaking for the first time. "I thought your race considered itself above vocal communication."
Elo eyes skated around the room. Both security guards lay sprawled on the deck, It did not surprise him.
Abaar noticed his glance. "I suggested that they sleep," he commented. "Such obedience is priceless."
"Even they will see through you, one day," Elo snarled.
Abaar laughed. "Yes," he agreed. "One day." His eyes glittered, darkening as he spoke. "But not this day, Klaan. This day, they have sent me to calm their children. This day, I own them."
"As you once thought you owned us," Elo retorted.
"As once I did own you," Abaar countered. He lifted one hand and let it drop through the slightly glowing containment field. Not so much as a ripple marked the breach of the energy barrier. "Such bitterness," he observed dryly. "You surprise me, Klaan. I did nothing to your people that another would not have done in time." He stroked Elo's cheek, and then his temple. "You were sheep ripe for the slaughter. I merely...obliged."
Elo jerked his face away from the alien's caress. "We shall return the favor," he vowed, choking on the swarm of pain that bled through the Humans' net of sedation.
"Will you?" Abaar's voice was filled with mockery. It rang in Elo's ears like laughter. It boiled his blood, as it was meant to. "Will you really, my son?" Abaar's endless blue eyes took on a glint of sadistic pleasure "Did they tell you how many tried before you, Klaan? How many failed before you failed? Entire races, my son. I have fed for centuries on those who seek to reek vengenance. They come to me as ..." he hesitated, and then laughed again, "... as sheep to the slaughter. As Klaan, they come. And as Klaan, they fail. You are all the same to me. Klaan ... Morinini ... Human. All the same."
A calmness slipped through the rage of Elo's thoughts. "We have not failed," he stated slowly. It was clear to him now, almost as if someone had told him. "You are trapped here as are we. When the vessel dies, so will you die."
Abaar feigned an indifference that was not in his eyes. "We shall see," he responded casually.
"If you possessed the means to save yourself," Elo continued. "You would have scrambled to safety by now, tail tucked between your legs and lips curled in fright. You haven't the courage to risk your own death for such a race. You would starve on their kwatsaniis." It was so clear...so clear he did not know why he hadn't seen it earlier. They had to do nothing but wait. Wait and rejoice.
"Again, my son," Abaar turned away from him. "You underestimate me." He paused at this place and that, working his way slowly to Sheiza's still form. "As you do them. It was the way of the Klaan...to think themselves above all others."
Elo tried not to watch Abaar, but eyes locked in place couldn't tear themselves from the horror of the blond alien as he ran one hand lovingly down the side of Sheiza's face. "You will die," Elo muttered, his voice sick with fear he struggled to hide.
"No, my son," Abaar corrected. "I do not think that I shall. I think that you shall save me." He traced the contour of Sheiza's lips with one finger, and then the line of her jaw. His hand covered her face slowly, first and last fingers seeking the indentations of her temples. "Won't you?"
Elo forced his gaze away. The hammering pulse against his belly made him nauseous. He felt blood welling between his tissues as he reminded himself over and over: She is dead. She is dead.
"You will deliver this ship from your trap," Abaar continued. "You will guide it back to the space from which you took it. I know you have the skill. It would not be so difficult for a Klaan, to maneuver in blindness. You are so much better at it than these Humans."
Elo bit his answer off in his throat. Sheiza was dead. There was nothing of her left in him, and therefore nothing for Abaar to take. He concentrated on that knowledge. She was safe from his violation.
"Ahhh," Abaar breathed, his quiet announcement filled with victory. "There you are, my little one."
Elo's hands fisted at his side. It is a trick, he told himself. A trick.
"So fragile," Abaar continued. "I thought perhaps they had lost you."
Elo felt the tentative question form in his mind with a familiarity that could not be forged. The sense of himself that formed the base for his kwatsanii wretched with despair. He had thought her dead. He had, in his own way, wished her dead.
"Kwatsanii," Abaar murmured, his voice deep with hunger. "That is the word the Klaan use, is it not?" He waited for an answer, but when none came, he continued with bland indifference. "Little matter. It is not in the calling that I find worth. The Humans have another word for it. The Rodisians and Bermelit others still. The Gabralti did not even believe it existed." He paused, a distant smile staining his benevolent expression with evil. "They were wrong." His hands pressed to Sheiza like a lover. "I showed them their error before I fed, so that they would know the depth of their loss."
Elo felt it begin. The suction of Abaar's thoughts fouled his deepest places.
"So gentle," Abaar mused. "So receptive." His voice lost its familiarity...turned alien. Even the Humans would have seen it. "I have hungered long for one such as this."
"Release her," Elo demanded abruptly. He pressed into the weight of the containment field and breached it with a flare of color. It took more strength than he had thought. His legs trembled with the weight he placed on them when he stood. "I will do as you ask."
Abaar's eyes glanced up momentarily. They shown with the strength of Sheiza, reflecting the depth that was her. "Yes," he breathed. "When she is one with me, you will serve me as a slave."
"I will serve you now," Elo argued. He felt the echo of Sheiza's struggle in a place too deep for naming. He felt her pain and her terror and her desperation as if it were his own.
And it was.
Elo swayed. The evil one's presence was shearing him from her. The webbing of their sacred bond unraveled. His kwatsanii began to shred, even as did hers.
Unable to move, unable to hold to that which was Sheiza any longer, he bargained with the only thing he possessed: his own kwatsanii. It was a fool's gambit--a promise of eternal damnation to offer it willingly--but Abaar left him no choice. "Now and forever," Elo vowed bitterly. "I am yours, if you release her."
"You are mine regardless, Klaan," Abaar returned. "You will serve me in hopes that, when I have delivered my new children from this place and they have given themselves to me as savior, I will allow you to join her."
Elo watched helplessly as Sheiza's erratic life readings shivered and failed.
Will Riker hesitated outside the door to Sickbay, his shoulder automatically seeking the support of the metal bulkhead. Nausea welled under his lungs again, making it hard to breathe.
Although he hated to admit it, Crusher was right. He didn't belong on the bridge, even if they needed him there...even if he felt he should be there. The urge to pass out had nearly overwhelmed him twice. If it had happened at a critical moment, he could have been the death of them all.
He'd had to tell himself that three times to push the simple phrase "I'll be in sickbay if you need me," up his throat and out his mouth. He'd had to say it four more times to get himself into the turbolift and allow the doors to shut on the sight of the bridge and the crew with which he'd faced so many crises. He'd lost count of how many times he'd repeated it standing here outside the door to Sickbay, trying to gather the strength to go in.
Drawing a deep breath, Riker pushed himself erect. Pain twitched up and down his rib cage, contesting his right to straighten almost as vocally as it contested his right to breathe, but he weathered his body's mutiny without backing down. There wasn't much he could do about the cold sweat sheening across his face and slicking the palms of his hands, but Commander William Riker had no intention of dragging into Sickbay like a crippled old woman. He'd go in upright, or he wouldn't go in at all.
Well, it was a good thought.
The doors hissed open, and Riker hobbled through it like a cripple old woman. Doctor Crusher was nowhere in sight. Even though he could tell from where he stood that her office was empty, he started for it as much because there was a chair in it as anything. His practical intentions were waylaid by the sound of angry voices drifting from the main ward.
One of them was Elo's.
Riker followed the voices. He saw the sprawled bodies of the security team first, and the swaying form of Elo Mantegna a microsecond later.
Accusation on his lips, Riker started forward, but the dead sickness in Mantegna's eyes demanded an instinctive re-evaluation. He followed the dark man's despairing gaze to the slack body of Sheiza and the blond intruder bent over her.
"What in the...?"
Abaar spun. The emptiness that had been his eyes glared at Riker with soulless depths that chilled the first officer to the bone. For only a moment, Riker could see into the being called Abaar, but it seemed a thousand lifetimes. For that single, endless moment, William Riker knew fear.
He was a child again, trapped in an airless vacuum of terror the like of which only a child could experience. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't speak. Invisible fingers clutched the tender flesh of his throat as if to rip it out. Every nightmare that had ever trapped him in blackness from which he could not awaken beat against his eyes. The terrifyingly unnatural silence of death descended from his ears into his mind. He was alone. So alone. No one to hold him. No one to love him. She was never coming back. There were worms where her eyes were supposed to be. Fingers that used to tie his shoes were talons of bone. He wanted to fall to the floor and throw his arms over his head, but he lacked the strength for even that.
"Leave us," Abaar demanded in the voice of the master. The sound of it dug into Riker's bones and made him desperate to obey.
But Will Riker was not a child.
He remembered that as he saw the beat of Sheiza's heart flicker and die on the monitor above her diagnostic bed. He remembered that he was first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and that he had never really been alone. He remembered Sheiza's gentle laugh as he told her about his first experience with Altairean brandy.
Instead of running as every instinct in him screamed, he lunged for the alien Abaar. He saw his own hands touch golden, glowing flesh and watched that flesh turn putrid and rotting in his grip. The fear in him intensified, twisting through his innards like a whipsnake, but it was no longer the fear of child. It no longer had anything to do with things within him, or with things in his past. It had to do with what he saw; with what he saw in the black, endless abyss of Abaar's fathomless gaze.
Crusher was knee-deep in a good dream when the brittle shriek of cardiac alarm jerked her awake. For a moment, she couldn't remember where she was. The lab, with its glowing banks of machinery, was an odd place for a nap, and it seemed to her that perhaps she had not yet completely awakened.
Sheaf after sheaf of hardcopy that lay scattered over the large, flat tabletop around her rustled as it settled from the jolt of her sudden awakening. The alarm ceased its insistent demand for attention. The silence left in its wake hammered against her eardrums with a surrealism that made her again wonder if perhaps she was not dreaming.
Exhaustion acquiesced to instinct. Crusher's fingers worked clumsily down her frock to the cardiac monitor and retrieved it. She checked the device's short-term memory just to make certain it had really sounded.
It had. The flat line was between thirty and forty-five seconds long. Crusher abandoned the heap of contradictory data and headed for the patient's ward at a brisk, near-run.
What she saw when she got there stunned her to a momentary standstill. Both security men were down, either unconscious or dead. Mantegna had broken through his containment field and was barreling down on the fused forms of William Riker and the alien Abaar.
"Security to Sickbay, emergency!" Crusher shouted into her communicator as Mantegna plowed into the twosome near Sheiza's bed. Riker went one way, and Abaar the other.
Riker landed hard, skidding across the slick deck to jamb roughly against the immovable form of a diagnostic bed. He didn't move. He didn't flinch. His eyes were open and unseeing, staring glassily at the floor pressed to his face. Crusher knew he wasn't breathing before she reached him.
"Will!" she shouted, dragging his slack body clear of the bed. She felt for a pulse but found nothing. "Damn it! Will!" She looked around for help, but there was only Elo and Abaar, and they were locked in mortal combat at the far-end of the bay.
As she watched in paralyzed horror, Abaar heaved his antagonist away. It cost him no more effort than it had cost Elo to throw Riker across the bridge. Mantegna skidded past her and hit the wall with the sickening sound of breaking bones. As he sagged, Abaar came after him, eyes black with rage that chilled Crusher in places she didn't know existed.
Crusher stood, stepping instinctively between the two men. Her body formed a fragile shield before Mantegna's crumpling form. Although she realized it was a useless move, she couldn't stop herself from making it. Abaar stepped to her, his black eyes (hadn't they been blue?) deep with a vacuum of emptiness. The tips of his fingers burned cold on her temples, and then, in them. She felt his fingers sinking through her skull to find her mind.
A wash of brilliant energy sheered the air. Reflected heat washed her face. It numbed the flesh of her temples.
And then she was free.
Abaar stumbled away, his handsome features dazed. The bolt of phaser fire reached out again, lighting the outline of his body to glowing brilliance for a microsecond before fading. Like a feather in low gravity, Abaar tipped, unbalanced and fell to the deck.
Crusher staggered. Her mind pulsed against the cell walls of her skull, bruised and disoriented from the brief encounter. She turned in time to see the phaser slip from Elo's slack fingers. It clattered back from whence it came, near the left hip of an unconscious security guard, and Elo fell after it. His body jolted when it hit the deck. His dark eyes were barely slits. They struggled silently to maintain a focus and consciousness.
When Crusher tried to go to him, her knees absorbed her weight, and she crumpled. Her left hand slid against the deck until something solid stopped it.
She turned disorientedly and found Riker's sprawled body at the end of her arm. He lay where he had fallen, his eyes still open and unseeing. Precious seconds slammed against the silence as Crusher struggled to make her mind work.
A security team burst through the door, phasers drawn and searching for targets. One headed for Riker, and the others for Elo.
"Don't hurt him," Crusher mumbled, her lips defying her determination to speak. She saw acknowledgment of her order in the change of Morrison's posture as he knelt at the alien's side and brushed the phaser out of reach.
"You okay, Doc?" Morrison demanded. He noted the daze in her expression and turned the request to the guard checking Riker's pulse. "Jaxx?"
Crusher clenched her eyes tightly for a moment and then opened them to a slowly stabilizing room. She saw the tight shake of Evan Jaxx's head as he abandoned Riker's slack body and turned to her.
"Get him up on the table," she demanded hoarsely.
Jaxx shook his head again, checking her eyes for response as she had checked his so many times. "He's gone," Jaxx stated with uncompromising certainty.
A rush of adrenalin gave Crusher the strength to shove the security guard away. "Get him up on the table," she demanded again. One hand slapped clumsily at her communicator as the other wedged itself between mattress and frame of a bio bed to help drag her to her feet. "Alyssa to Sickbay," she snapped. "Stat."
Jaxx had the first officer stretched on the bio bed before she was stable enough to do what had to be done. The enemy Time forced her into moving before the room had quit swimming around her, and Crusher nearly crumpled on top of her patient when she reached across him to ply the appropriate switches. Jaxx caught an elbow and steadied the drunken sway.
The first jolt of cortical stimulation did nothing to the flat lines that were Will Riker's life signs. The second put his vitals back on the board and gave the life support systems something to tie into. By the time her nurse made it to Sickbay from the lounge twelve meters down the hall, Beverly Crusher had the first officer on full life support and was turning to her second patient.
"Stabilize Will," Crusher ordered without giving the nurse a second glance. She fell as much as she knelt at Mantegna's side. The analyzer in her hand ran over the alien's body more by instinct than by intent. It gave her readings she had almost come to expect from him: two heart rates and a relative density that exceeded that of pure duratronium and then it told her other things. It told her one heart was doing less than half of what it should. It told her of the eight ribs he possessed that a Human male would not, seven were broken. It told her that for the third time in twenty-four hours, the patient under her hands was in very real danger of dying.
The wave of dizziness that washed over her would have tipped her over if she'd been standing rather than kneeling. Crusher swallowed hard, fighting to remember that lives depended on her.
Morrison put a hand on her arm. "Doc?"
"Get him on a bed," she grunted. She watched Elo's eyes as the security man did as he was told, slipping in place and hauling the heavier alien to his feet in one fluid motion. She saw the pain slip through Elo's expression. She saw it pool in his eyes and push the alien closer to the edge of awareness.
After he'd eased Mantegna to a bed, Morrison came back for her. She clung gratefully to the arm he left within her reach and pushed buttons in hopes of obtaining something she could use.
Elo watched her work, his eyes remaining shut perceivably longer each time he blinked. "You're going to be all right, Elo," she assured him. "Just lie back and...."
Crusher's voiced dropped to nothing. She stared in disbelief at the board above his bed. Respiration: normal. Blood pressure: normal. Heart rate: normal. And there was only one of them.
"Do you want to die, Elo?" she asked finally.
He didn't answer. He merely watched her, his eyes growing duller with each passing second.
"Do you want to die?" she asked again, her tone as angry this time as it was disbelieving.
Elo's eyes broke away from her gaze. They lolled to one side, his head following slowly until he was staring at the place Sheiza lay. The monitor above her pulsed steadily with life. Though he could feel nothing of her in him, he sensed she was still there.
"Let me help you," Crusher demanded. She put a hand on his chin and pulled his eyes back to hers. "Stop blocking me. I can't help you if you're blocking me."
Elo's gaze rolled again, this time in the opposite direction. "He risked everything for her," the alien whispered in a voice that barely cleared his lips.
Crusher glanced to Riker and then quickly away. She couldn't think of Riker now... not now. "Trust me," she half pleaded and half ordered. "Trust us."
Elo's eyes slipped shut. His breathing caught in his chest, and for a moment, Crusher feared that he might not draw another.
The diagnostic bed began to whistle an alarm. Readings plummeted and soared. The monitor changed from a display of textbook-perfect Human life signs to something entirely alien and obviously in extreme distress.
The heart beneath his stomach was no shadow. It was real, as were the three other organs she was reading that Humans didn't possess. His circulatory system was non-existent. No network of veins or arteries carried his blood throughout his body. In fact, he didn't even really posses blood. According to an analyzer she was beginning to believe was not malfunctioning in the slightest, what he had was a gel-like fluid in the place of blood, and it puddled around his organs in an ever-shifting pattern of currents and eddies. A leather-like synthetic was bonded to the thin membrane encasing the jelly to make his flesh appear Human.
Elo's eyes opened again to watch the Human work. He watched her push free of the security guard and establish an unsteady balance all her own.
The quickly clearing pattern of Crusher's thoughts threw off the sensation of violation and stun while her fingers fairly flew over defaults in the life support system to recalibrate them to the readings her equipment was giving her. She didn't notice Nurse Alyssa Ogawa move in to help. She didn't notice Morrison step back to allow them more room to work.
Elo's lips moved slightly. Closing his eyes, he put the effort of a lifetime into the task of speaking. "Abaar was right," he whispered coarsely. "I underestimated you."
"Don't try to talk," Crusher instructed. She engaged a tension field to control what she assumed was an unnatural pooling of fluid in and around his upper heart.
"You are more than I thought," he continued. His eyes opened briefly, and he met Beverly Crusher's gaze. "Forgive me."
Deanna Troi sat very still, balanced on the edge of her bed like it was a high wire strung over a great abyss. The slightest slip this way or that would plunge her to blackness, to death. She breathed deeply of the stagnant air and tried to flush the fear from her mind.
Something had awakened her. Something terrible.
A shudder of horror skidded across her nerves, nearly unbalancing the counselor from her tremulous perch. Thin, delicate fingers knotted into the satin coverlet as the thundering tick-tock of her ancient clock marked the passing of time.
She should be somewhere. The thought intruded on the endless passing of moment after silent, dead moment. She should be with Abaar. The captain's orders had been explicit.
Troi blinked. It occurred to her that she couldn't remember why she was here...why she had been sleeping rather than performing her duties as ship's counselor. She started to stand.
The abyss yawed like an open mouth beneath her, teeth gleaming whitely in the void of blackness. Her fingers clenched deeper into the silken fabric. Threads parted beneath her nails, rending small tears in the coverlet's flawless flesh to expose the tender nerves of her fingertips to the coarser bite of quilt batting,
She dared not move. She dared not breathe.
Staring vacantly at the delicately mauve carpet that curled between her toes, Troi sensed something altogether different. Beneath her waited horror...an endless trap to be fallen into if she should move or speak. Clinging desperately to the slender edge of sanity, she realized she was not alone.
He was there. She felt him.
"Imzadi?" Troi heard her own voice echo in the emptiness of her room. Somewhere else, somewhere deeper, she heard it echo through the emptiness of her mind. Beneath her, the term of endearment ricocheted off cavernous walls, mocking her to eternity as it spiraled into the abyss and died.
Jean-Luc Picard stared at his first officer's body and tried to keep the despair out of his voice when he spoke. "He's gone, then?" he asked Crusher quietly.
Crusher's normally pale complexion had faded to candle-wax white. She nodded silent verification to the pronouncement. "No brain activity at all," she said after a long, bitter silence. "All the readings you see are life support."
Picard nodded and turned away. He'd seen death before. He'd seen it and slept with it and left many a friend in its arms. He'd even once given a ship to it. But this time...this time seemed different somehow. Riker's slack features looked the same as they had a short ten minutes ago as the first officer sat dozing in his chair. Picard remembered the start of embarrassment, the twist of the younger man's bearded features that was half pain and half self disgust. Riker had pushed himself stiffly to his feet, his eyes surveying the bridge as if it was something they were required to do and then he said it: "I'll be in Sickbay, if you need me." The words came out like they were pulling teeth along with them. He retreated to the turbolift with the slow step of a man who fought himself every inch of the way, but he went.
The last thing Picard saw of his first officer was the expression in Riker's haggard eyes as the turbolift door closed. It was the look of a man doing what he had to do, in spite of the fact that it was exactly the opposite of what he wished to do. At that moment, Jean-Luc Picard felt as much respect for Will Riker as he had ever felt for another Human being. He knew the strength it took to abandon your bridge for its own good. He knew it and experienced a swell of pride at Will Riker's retreat that night have been similar to that of a father watching his son's first steps.
And now, stretched motionless on a bio bed that read nothing but mechanical impulses of simulated life, was that same man. Picard suppressed a shudder. He had lost his right arm to some vile, obscene twist of fate. It made no sense, and it left him feeling cheated. More than that, it left him with a void in both his command structure ind his personal sense of right. Everything was skewed...off balance...out of alignment. Without Riker, what had seemed critical before now seemed hopeless.
"What do you want me to do, Jean-Luc?" Crusher prompted after a long moment.
Picard steeled himself, gathering in churning thoughts and emotions as a teamster would gather in the reigns of a stampeding team of horses. No officer was indispensable, he reminded himself. They would go on because they had no choice but to go on. They could afford neither grief nor despair now. "Turn it off," he stated flatly. "Will would want us to conserve the energy."
Crusher nodded. Although every muscle in her body rebelled at the idea, her hand reached to do the captain's bidding. The part of her that had been Riker's friend clung to irrational hope that the doctor in her had thrown away long ago. She had to force her finger the last several centimeters.
Crusher's hand froze on the switch. It was not Picard who had spoken. Her gaze swiveled to find Elo watching her with those endless black eyes.
"You must not kill his body," Elo insisted coarsely.
Crusher frowned. The alien should not have been conscious, let alone able to speak. "He's dead, Elo," she told him, admitting it to the last part of herself as she formed the words in the medical bay's taunting silence.
"Abaar," Elo continued, "absorbs...feeds...death isn't...immediate."
Crusher stiffened, as did Picard.
"What are you saying?" Picard demanded.
Picard reached the bed first. "You're saying he's alive?" he demanded. "In Abaar?"
Elo's eyes closed. He breathed for several seconds before forming a reply. When he spoke, it was simple: "Yes. Alive."
"His mind?" Crusher reached for an injector and adjusted it to accommodate Elo's drastically different physiology.
"His kwatsanii," Elo corrected, "That which gives him worth. You must...No!"
Elo jerked away from the injector Crusher pressed against his throat. Features tightened with pain, and his breathing intensified for several moments before slowly easing back into its irregular pattern. "No sedation," Elo murmured. "There is no time."
Crusher drew the injector away hesitantly. She watched the erratic waiver of his vital signs as he fought to remain conscious. "Time for what?" she pressed, knowing she should encourage him to sleep instead.
"We were sent to kill him," Elo murmured. "To punish him for what he did to our people. To keep him from doing it to another race such as ourselves. We tracked him to this time, this place. We knew he would show himself to you eventually."
"You and Sheiza," Crusher whispered.
"And so you waited," Picard surmised. "Hiding in ambush for Abaar to arrive." The line of Picard's mouth hardened. His eyes were flint as he heard verification of his own suspicions. "Not caring who you hurt...who got in your way."
"Sheiza sensed it," Elo continued. His words were disjointed, disoriented. He seemed partially aware of them, and partially ignorant that they existed. "She told me you were a people of kwatsanii, but I did not believe. I promised her we would not destroy you to reach him." Elo laughed bitterly, a jarring sound against the grate of his labored voice. "I should have known better than to lie to her," he observed. "It was a thing I learned from you." His eyes closed, and for a long moment, he said nothing. When they opened again, they were clearer and more intent. "You must help me," he stated clearly. "Dursephicate amoxide, four hundred milligrams. It will clear my thoughts and give me strength to move."
"Dursephicate is toxic," Crusher countered sharply. "You'd be dead in thirty seconds."
"I am not Human," he reminded her.
Crusher turned to Picard. He shook his head slightly, denying her permission to carry out the request. Elo saw the motion and responded to it.
"I can save your ship, Jean-Luc Picard," he told the Human. "I can navigate your vessel without its sensory devices."
"I don't believe you," Picard countered flatly.
Elo laughed again. The sound was heavy with frustrated rage. "Why should I have expected otherwise?" he snarled.
"Yes, indeed," Picard agreed. "Why should you have? You've shown us nothing but treachery. You live among us in the guise of a friend only to sacrifice us on the altar of your thirst for vengeance."
"My duty lay in the mission," Elo argued. "I did nothing I regret." He knew it was a lie even as he spoke it. There was much he regretted, much he would have done differently if he had only believed.
"Your mission," Picard fairly spit the words. "It has cost me my first officer and you..." Picard slung his arm in a broad arc that indicated Sheiza's general direction, "...your mate. I hope it was well worth the cost."
"Abaar's destruction," Elo grated painfully, "is worth any cost." His eyes unconsciously sought Sheiza. The sight of her dug at him with unmerciful talons of guilt. He looked away only to find himself confronted by the deathly-still form of Will Riker. "Any cost," he repeated as much to himself as to them.
"And now I am expected to lay my vessel in your hands?" Picard demanded. He leaned closer to the prone alien, his eyes snapping with righteous indignation. "My vessel, and the lives of every man, woman and child aboard her? So that you might lead us from the hell into which you've thrown us?"
Elo watched the captain or a long moment, exhaustion dulling his grip on conscious thought. He fought the seductive pull of sleep with every breath. "Yes, Picard," he answered finally. "That is what you must do."
Jean-Luc Picard straightened slowly. His expression faded to stone, as did the raging fire in his eyes. "Then am I now to believe you no longer consider us expendable?" he asked calmly. "You were prepared to sacrifice my crew once. Why should I believe that has changed?"
Elo felt himself slipping, The haze laying on his eyes opacified until he could no longer distinguish the Humans from the machinery that surrounded them. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, he wondered if he would ever awaken again. "Because, Picard," he told the Human thickly, "you have no choice."
The place was empty and without depth. He cowered in a corner of it, paralyzed by fear as he waited for It to come.
The cold fire of terror numbed his ability to think. Though he strained with everything in him to see, the blackness was only blackness. It was all around him, part of the very air he breathed and the coldness that lay against his flesh. He felt teeth as they sheared pieces of him away, leaving gaping holes in him that did not bleed and did not pulse with pain.
But they were gone. Memories...thoughts...pieces of himself that he had hardly known existed.
He remembered his mother. And then he did not.
He remembered the feel of sunshine on his face. And then he did not.
He remembered the sharp smell of spawning salmon. And then he did not.
He remembered the heat of Troi's breath at the base of his throat. And then he did not.
Desperation flailed in Will Riker's chest. He screamed, but no sound came out. The memory of what it felt like to scream was absorbed even as what should have been sound blew from his lips.
And then he saw It. He saw the smile and the glow of putrid flesh and the endless black of eyes that demanded more. He knew it was It because the memory did not slip through his grappling fingers. It stayed with him, haunting his very soul.
He remembered the shatter of breaking ice and the abrupt embrace of Cutter's pond as he plunged through a skinned-over fishing hole. He remembered the slowing thud of his heart against his breastbone as Alaskan water froze into him. He remembered the mittens his mother knitted him catching along the rough underside of the ice as the current dragged him along. He remembered Jimmy Gaffer's face pressed to the other side of the ice, the other side of the mirror, screaming, "Hold on! Hold on!" He remembered the ice hatchet on the end of his father's arm arcing toward his eyes.
And then he did not.
Deanna Troi clung to the satin coverlet, her own blood slicking it with warmth. Nails manicured to perfection sliced deeper into the flesh of her palms as she listened to the sound of her own breathing in the overpowering scream of silence,
They were alone, beyond the reach of any help that might come.
Exhaustion pounded her nerves to a frayed mesh. The muscles of her arms and thighs trembled with strain. Tension hammered a pulsing ache into her skull.
She had to move. She had to move soon or die.
Terror gripped her at the very thought.
The shrill screech of her personal communicator was an assault on every bare nerve that lay exposed in the silence. "Counselor Troi," Picard's voice hailed tersely.
It required every ounce of courage she possessed to release the bed with one hand and engage the emblem pinned to her lapel. "Troi here," she fairly whispered.
Pressure built at the base of her spine. It would hear. It would hear and come.
"Where exactly are you?" Picard demanded.
Troi hesitated. If she answered him, It would know as well.
"Why were you not with Abaar?" the captain continued. "Why was he free to roam the ship at will?"
Will? Troi's throat tightened. "I'm feeling quite ill," she murmured. "Did Abaar not tell you?"
This time, it was Picard who hesitated. "Tell me what?" he responded finally.
"We were finished. He was going directly to the bridge. He said you would not mind." Troi swayed and had to grab for the bed again. She closed her eyes to the terror, but that only seemed to intensify it. The blackness was everywhere. It was part of the very air she breathed, of the coldness that lay against her flesh.
"Are you all right, Counselor?"
"Yes," she lied reflexively. "I'm fine." Lifting her feet cautiously from the floor, she drew both knees into her chest and huddled there on the edge of the bed. "I'm fine."
"I want you to report to Sickbay, Counselor," Picard told her firmly. "Immediately."
"I'm not ill," she insisted, wondering even as she formed the words why she would say such a thing. "Only tired. I will sleep and be fine."
"You may consider that an order, Counselor Troi," Picard snapped.
Troi trembled. "Yes, sir," she acknowledged quietly. The communicator went dead without a sign-off as Picard terminated the link between then.
Staring disconsolately over the knees pressed to her chin, Deanna Troi pondered the vast emptiness between herself and the door to her cabin. It was farther than forever, deeper than eternity, blacker than glass pressed to night.
And now she was to step into it.
Elo held tightly to the Humans, letting them guide him down the subtle ramp to the remains of the navigation console. The android Data surrendered his chair, and they eased him into it. He felt the power of the vessel in his hands the moment they fell to the controls.
It was a primitive ship by any standards, but the potential of it surprised him. He saw suddenly how Sheiza might sense something beyond their ugliness.
"We've rerouted helm control up here," LaForge reported. His dark features were skeptical as he watched Elo's fingers explore the board. "But I still don't know how you figure to take us anywhere without some kind of navigational reference to steer by."
"Your race is limited by what you can see," Elo responded coarsely. "What you can touch. It is an insular existence. There is much beyond it you are unable to experience for your self absorption."
LaForge shook his head. "Well, don't pull any punches there, Mantegna," he responded wryly. "Tell us what you really think."
Elo turned his face slowly to the dark Human. He watched for a long moment, wondering why the man's coloration no longer repulsed him. It was odd, this tentative feeling of kinsmanship that eroded his instinctive hatred of them. He recognized it as the doubt he had sensed in Sheiza. He had not understood it then. Perhaps he did not even understand it now.
"I am called Elo," he said finally, turning back to the console before him. "Mantegna is not a name that has meaning to me." It was a foolish thing to say. It implied he cared what they called him when he did not.
Elo's eyes studied the layout. Dangerous ideas worming unbidden into his mind faded as he sought refuge in the cold touch of mechanization. He absorbed the abilities and the limitations of their technology and meshed it with his thoughts. The navigational system of the U.S.S. Enterprise became a part of him, and he, a part of it.
Abaar was dead, by Human standards. There was no heart rate, no respiration, no brain activity. And yet, it was obvious he was not dead. Life energy too alien in nature to be accurately measured by their diagnostic equipment jumped at least half of the monitors into erratic, un-interpretable patterns. Others lay dormant or off the scale. Crusher wondered how they would read if he were conscious.
"How is he?"
Troi's quiet inquiry startled Crusher, and the doctor flinched. "I'm not sure," she admitted, turning to the Betazoid counselor. "There isn't enough about him I understand to make....Good Lord, Deanna!"
Deanna Troi looked like hell. Her dark eyes were ringed by deep, bruise-colored circles. The remainder of her flesh, however, was pale almost to the extent of appearing bloodless. The tight line of her lips had no color at all. They were merely a faded extension of the hue of her skin. The vibrantly black hair pulled back loosely from her face looked obscene by contrast. Her eyes were dull and lifeless.
"Sit down," Crusher advised, reaching for the other woman.
Troi waved her assistance away. "I'm fine, Beverly," she responded in a voice that sounded like paper on paper. "What happened? Will he be all right?"
"He's better than you look," Crusher countered. "Now sit down, and let me take a look at you. What happened? Are you ill? Hurt? Tell me what you're feeling."
Troi let herself be led to a diagnostic bed, but her eyes never left Abaar. "I'm not sure," she murmured. "I feel...drained. The captain insisted I come here, but he's wrong. I am not ill, only tired. I will sleep and be fine."
Crusher ran a hand scanner over Troi's seated form, frowning at the dozens of reading that indicated trouble. "How long has it been since you've eaten?" she demanded.
Troi shrugged. "Three, maybe four hours," she answered without inflection.
"That's impossible." Crusher ran the analyzer over the counselor again, and came up with the same readings. "It looks more like four days. Your blood sugar is dangerously low. Most of the nutrients in your system are residual." Pressing a hypo to Troi's neck, the doctor administered the appropriate diet supplements directly into the counselor's bloodstream. Her color improved almost instantaneously. "It has to have been more than four hours."
Troi shook her head slowly. "No," she murmured, "not much more." Her eyes closed, and she swayed slightly where she sat. Crusher laid a hand on the counselor's arm to steady her and found the flesh stone cold.
"I'm going to run a complete physical on you," Crusher announced grimly.
Troi watched dully as the doctor scurried around sickbay, gathering equipment she needed for the task ahead. Although she saw each movement as it happened, several seconds lagged against her system before her mind absorbed the sensory data being input. She felt disconnected...distracted. She didn't realize the doctor was pressing her into a prone position until she felt the brush of material against her shoulder blades and neck.
Crusher smiled at her but didn't pause in her set-up of equipment.
The doctor tensed, her intent features stoning themselves into a mask that hid much of what flooded through her eyes. She didn't answer the inquiry immediately. Instead, she engaged a viewing screen half way across the bay and cursed. What should have been a comprehensive view of Troi's internal heat disbursement was a field of static.
"Beverly?" Troi tried to sit up, but the doctor held her down as easily as she would have suppressed a frail child. "Where's Will?"
Again, the doctor ignored the question. "Hold still, Deanna," she muttered, switching to a hand analyzer.
Panic flooded the Betazoid's eyes, panic and despair. Her gaze searched the room frantically until she found Riker's body tucked into a far corner she had failed to notice when she entered. The monitor above his head showed life -- artificial life.
"Dead?" Troi whispered, horrified.
Beverly Crusher tried not to let her concern show in her eyes as she laid a hand on the flat of the counselor's shoulder and stepped between Deanna Troi and her view of the lifeless first officer. "Deanna," she assured the woman gently. "Don't panic on me. Will is going to be all right."
Troi shook her head. "He's dead," she insisted, accusation sharp in her tone. "Full life support. No cortical activity." The Betazoid began to tremble suddenly, her fingers curling into the mattress beneath her. "Oh, God," she whispered. Her eyes closed as if to shield her from a sight too terrible to bear, but Crusher could see them searching back and forth beneath the thin sheath of her eyelids. "He's not...dead. He's..." Her voice changed suddenly, dropping to the horrified whisper of a frightened child. "He's frightened, Beverly," she sobbed. "So frightened."
Crusher's fingers closed around the counselor's arm. "Can you sense him, Deanna?" she asked imperatively.
"It is trying to..." Her eyes opened and found the doctor's gaze. Horror pooled in the Betazoid's eyes. Horror that was hers, and horror that was not. "...absorb him," she moaned. "Pulling him apart, piece by piece. It is eating him alive."
"What, Deanna," Crusher demanded. "What is pulling him apart?"
"It," Troi muttered in response. "He won't last much longer. He can't. He's fighting, but there's no way to fight It." Troi twisted on the diagnostic bed. Her delicate features distorted as if she were in physical pain.
"Imzadi," she groaned, her voice so deep with horror it was unrecognizable. "Help me, Imzadi."
He remembered the slash of a Klingon fist and his firm resolve not to duck. And then he did not.
He remembered the expression of quiet pride on Jean-Luc Picard's features as the turbolift door eased shut. And then he did not.
He remembered his name. And then he did not.
The Enterprise twisted slowly on its axis, a merry-go-round of one. Floating effortlessly in the weightless void of space, she marbled garish flashes of gaseous energy through the eddies of color that pushed against her like the tides of a fantasy ocean. The displacement of her mass stirred the Anomaly's patterns, serving as a catalyst and driving it to re-create itself in new and equally-transient glory.
Elo's gaze remained fixed on the ballet of color and energy that flared against the main screen. He analyzed their seemingly random reactions to the vessel's movements, and his mind calculated currents with instinctive ease. When he had gathered enough information, he nudged the ship carefully forward.
She responded to his commands more quickly than he had anticipated. The jolt of sudden motion threw the Humans for grips on their consoles and seats. Several fell.
The Anomaly was re-created.
Elo allowed the vessel to gather itself, and then pressed her forward again. This time, she lagged. He pressed harder, and she stumbled to obey. Again, the ship lurched. Those Humans who had learned, clung to their stations and remained upright. Those who had not, fell again before they had fully regained their balance.
"Reduce shielding," Elo ordered quietly.
"Reduce shielding?!?" a voice repeated from the communicator lodged in the captain's command chair. "Are you crazy? We're barely keeping that soup at bay the way it is. We drop any more power, and it'll tear us apart."
The questioning of his order spawned instant rage. Elo fought the urge to abandon the vessel to its arrogant creators and let them destroy themselves with their delusions of competence. He drew a slow breath and explained himself instead. "The shielding draws the Anomaly," he stated carefully, wondering if this Human had enough intelligence to understand the workings of space different from his own. "Energy to energy. We cannot escape unless we slide through the currents...slip along the way already forged rather than breaking a new path. For this, you must reduce shielding."
"Make it so, Mister LaForge," Picard demanded calmly. He was one who had learned, sitting stiffly in his command chair with fingers dug into the arms for stability.
There was a moment of long silence from engineering, and then LaForge's reply, "Yes, sir."
"Reducing shields," Worf said through clenched teeth.
The Enterprise began to shake immediately. Her walls trembled like a frightened child, and the decks beneath them echoed the sentiment.
They began to move.
"Radiation levels approaching fifty-five millirads per minute," Data stated from the science station. "External hull pressure increasing. We've experienced minor damage to both fore and aft baffles."
The ship continued to move. Flares of color and light painted the space around them. Elo forced the ship deeper into the garish melange, fighting the Anomaly's efforts to tug them back the way they'd come. Heat flared in his palms. He felt the same burn in his thoughts and knew he'd hit an irradiated pocket of radiation before the android spoke.
"Radiation levels are at eight-five millirads per minute," Data informed them calmly. "One hundred three millirads. One hundred sixty-five millirads per minute."
"We've lost shields," LaForge shouted.
"Bridge to Doctor Crusher," Picard snapped. He was slow in the call, having instinctively depended on Riker to make it while he concentrated on matters of another nature. "Initiate radiation protocol on all decks."
"Acknowledged," was all the doctor responded.
"Two hundred twelve per minute," Data continued. "Two hundred ninety per minute. Lethal exposure in fifty-eight seconds."
"Raise the shields, Mister Worf. Divert from any secondary energy source as needed," Picard ordered.
Worf was ready for the command and began initiating it before the words were completely free of the captain's lips. His perpetual scowl deepened. "Unable to raise shields, Captain," he growled.
"Lethal exposure in thirty seconds," Data informed them.
"Tap into primary power sources, Mister LaForge," ordered Picard.
No one else said a word. Hands tightened on chairs and consoles, and faces hardened with anticipation, but there was no outcry of accusation or anger from the bridge personnel.
"Lethal exposure in--"
"Raise shields now," Elo interrupted, his voice tight with strain.
Worf tried again, and this time, the shields snapped obediently into existence.
"Shields at one eighth power," LaForge reported from engineering. "We lower them again, and I doubt if get anything back."
"Damage report," Picard requested calmly.
"External hull breached on decks eleven and thirteen." Data complied, reporting the information as it came in over his console. "No casualties. Loss of reserve power to decks thirty-four, forty-six and fifty. All personnel being evacuated. Power generators six and seven down."
"We've lost all control of the helm," LaForge added. "Engines working at sixty-seven percent of capacity and losing ground fast."
"I control the helm," Elo informed them calmly. "She will go where I tell her to go." He twisted stiffly to meet Picard's gaze. "I must lower your shields again," he stated. "We are very close to the border between this space and yours. The drain of energy is extensive. We must not allow it to continue. Your shields fight the drag of the Anomaly. We must lower then or lose the capacity to break free of this place."
"The radiation will destroy us," Picard answered.
"We are free of the radiation pocket," Elo countered. "I can take you from this place, if you so desire."
Picard listened carefully to every word Elo spoke. He sensed that the alien already possessed the means to do as he proposed, and yet, he offered them the right to choose. He who would gladly have given their lives to the purpose that drove him was now offering Jean-Luc Picard the right to choose the destiny of the Enterprise and all aboard her. For a long moment, the captain made no answer.
"Opinion, Mister Data?" he requested finally.
"I have no opinion, sir," Data responded. "Lowering our shields will lead to the destruction of the Enterprise within a matter of minutes. At current rates of degradation, however," he qualified the grim statement with an even grimmer one, "remaining within the Anomaly will also accomplish this."
"Caught, as it t'were," Picard mused, "between the devil and the deep blue sea." He squared his shoulders suddenly and lifted his chin in defiance. "Mister LaForge?"
The chief engineer had his answer ready. "We've got three hours at best, Captain," he stated matter-of-factly. "I'd prefer to go out giving it a shot."
Picard nodded, He turned slightly toward Will Riker's empty chair and wished for the hundredth time that his Number One was on the bridge. "Very well," he said finally. "Make it so, Mister Elo. At your discretion."
Elo turned back to the navigation console. For a long minute, he stared at the viewscreen before him as the Enterprise tingled beneath his fingers and in his thoughts.
The choice was his now. They trusted him. The means to save them, as well as the means to betray them, was his.
Here was an odd sense of motion in a place that had lain empty since Sheiza's loss. It was disturbing--so alien that its mere presence stirred his Kwatsanii with discomfort, and yet vaguely familiar. Trust. He concentrated on the machinery beneath his fingers.
Enterprise. She fought gallantly against the back drag of the Anomaly. Not unlike himself, her energy drained away with each passing moment. His decision must be made soon, or it would no longer be his to make.
Elo tightened his concentration, flushing distracting thoughts to places uninvolved in the decision. Their kwatsaniis--the existence of which he no longer doubted--lay in his hands. If he delivered them as he'd promised, Abaar would escape.
If he betrayed them, Abaar would die as they did. His people would be free. The mission would be complete.
The devil and the deep blue sea, the Human had said. In that choice, there was no choice.
"Lowering shields," Elo stated into the silence that lay expectantly over the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
He remembered his hands fisting at his sides as he stared down into the coffin, down at her flaxen hair fanned on the pink, satin pillow like the halo of an angel. And then he did not.
He remembered the spark in Troi's eyes as she spoke: "And if you ever call me aristocratic again...." And then he did not.
Deanna Troi sat up on the diagnostic bed, her eyes clear and strong. She swung both legs over the edge of the bed and was standing when Crusher turned to start back across the bay.
Crusher realized it was not the counselor whom she addressed before the name cleared her lips.
"She is safe," the alien assured her from Troi's lips. "There was no strength left in her to fight for them. She opened herself to me that I might help."
"Them?" Crusher echoed numbly.
"Riker is with her," it informed Crusher. "She has given him the depth of her own kwatsanii to fight Abaar. If she had not, he would be gone."
Crusher wanted nothing less than to turn and face the bed where Sheiza lay, but she could not help it. As she feared, the life signs were gone. Alarms that should have been shrieking lay silent as the monitors all glowed flat.
Sheiza was dead.
"Why?" the doctor whispered. She blinked back tears, feeling foolish. She hadn't cried at the loss of a patient for years. "I could have saved you, once we were free of the Anomaly."
"Her hold was weak," Troi's voice repeated. Though the set of the counselor's features was identical to the calm, soothing expression to which Crusher had grown so accustomed, there was something different in it now. The light in her eyes was not Deanna Troi. The light in her eyes was someone else altogether. "She could not have fought for them alone," it continued. "She had given all there was to give."
The alien's lips turned to a sad, gentle smile. Her eyes drifted to Riker, watching the artificially maintained rhythm of his life signs. "He tried to save us," she said quietly, "Elo and I." The words were not directed at Crusher, but rather, they lay as a bridge spanning the chasm of difference of what was Klaan and what was Human. "I cannot allow Abaar to absorb him."
"Can you stop it?" Crusher asked.
The alien straightened suddenly. Her head cocked to one side as if she were listening. "Elo is preparing to cross the barrier," she informed the doctor. "When the Enterprise is again in normal space, Abaar will be free to escape."
"He's unconscious--" Crusher started.
"In body only," the voice interrupted. "He will know when it is safe, and he will try to leave."
Troi's features hardened with resolve. "He will not take Imzadi with him," she said calmly "We will hold him here. We will fight for him."
"Can you win?"
The alien met her gaze. Beverly Crusher saw Sheiza in Troi's dark eyes as clearly as she'd seen her in the eyes of the woman who now lay lifeless in a bed across the medical bay. For the first time since they'd given Will Riker up for dead, Beverly Crusher felt hope.
"He will not take Imzadi," the alien repeated quietly.
He remembered the burn in his left eye as Tommy Bersurr's grimy knuckles ground into it. And then he did not.
He remembered strawberry ice cream sliding down his throat. And then he did not.
He remembered the brush of Min's body against his as they danced. And then he did not.
"Lethal exposure in forty-three seconds," Data announced.
The bridge waited. Every set of eyes was riveted to the screen. The tangle of colored energy had meshed into a wall of light.
A barrier. Elo pressed the Enterprise forward.
"Lethal exposure in thirty seconds."
"Belay the countdown, Mister Data," Picard snapped. He stood, preferring to face death--if that was what was to come--on his feet.
The Enterprise bucked.
"Exterior hull pressure critical," LaForge shouted. "Engines overloading. Implosion of matter/antimatter chamber in one minute, thirty seconds."
Data resisted the urge to inform them that they would all be dead of radiation exposure a full 73.8 seconds before that occurred.
"Come on, baby," an ensign muttered from his position at the Science Two console.
The Enterprise bucked again. And again. Even those possessing good grips on stable objects were wrenched free. Only Elo remained in his seat, the line of his features bathed in scarlet light. Metal screamed. Every Human on the bridge unconsciously marked the passing of the ten second mark. The lights flickered and went down. For a split second, every system on the starship Enterprisefailed. Power...gravity...life support. For the barest fraction of time, they existed in the void of space.
And then they were through.
Emergency lighting gave way to normal illumination. The vortex of swirling color was gone. In its place lay the comfortingly black velvet of space, dotted by multitudes of tiny diamond stars. The Humans drew a collective gasp of life.
"Radiation levels returning to normal," Data informed them. "External hull pressure at acceptable levels."
"Shields are up and increasing in power," Worf offered almost simultaneously.
"Cutting power to engines," LaForge's voice said. "Matter/antimatter implosion averted. All systems on standby."
For a moment, Elo let their joy sustain him. The barrage of their alien kwatsaniis held much in common with his at this moment...a moment of birth amid the expectation of death. They were not as different as he had once thought.
Her presence was a knife in him, her nearness both joy and fear. Elo jolted to his feet. "Sheiza?" Pain jarred him to the core. He stumbled.
Something, someone touched him. Elo turned in fury on the Human called Picard and saw only sincere worry in the smaller man's eyes.
The air around him changed. As he glared at the Human, the universe opened itself. The maw of nothing gulped. He felt the emptiness that was Abaar's passing.
It was over.
Abaar was gone. He felt the absence in every part of him. Elo sagged. Picard's questioning grip became one of support.
"No," Elo whispered.
But it was as he had accepted: the Humans for Abaar. The decision had been his, and he had made it.
But not Sheiza. She was not part of his bargain. Yet, in the moment of change, he'd felt her. And then he did not. There was only one explanation: she was with Abaar, twined with him, joined to him, when they crossed the barriar. And he had taken her, as he promised he would. Sheiza was with him now, banished for all eternity to the soulless hell of the barren abyss.
She was gone.
Jerking from the Human's supportive grip, Elo managed three steps in the direction of the turbo lift before his alien body collapsed to the deck of the ship he had saved.
He remembered the shine of pride in Tasha Yar's eyes at the simple words of commendation. And then he did not.
He remembered the....
The transition was not so unlike being born. Or at least, it was not so unlike what William T. Riker imagined it might be like to be born.
He was dying, torn apart in pieces by the evil that wormed deep itself deep into his soul in an effort to own him.
And then he was not.
He was lying on a diagnostic bed, Deanna Troi's delicate hand clenched in his. He trembled with bone-chilling cold, afraid to open his eyes for fear it might be a trick.
It was Beverly Crusher's voice. He felt hands on him, a comfort of contact beyond anything he could describe.
"Will, can you hear me?"
Fighting the fear with the help of his Imzadi, Will Riker forced his eyes open. As he'd hoped, Crusher was there. Her smile was a mixture of jubilation and relief.
"Deanna?" he murmured, voice dry from disuse.
Imzadi squeezed his hand, drawing his gaze. She was Troi, but she was not.
"Welcome back, Mioshi." Its hand brushed his face and soothed the swell of dread her unfamiliarity spawned.
Riker nodded, pain stiffening the motion until it was hardly a motion at all. "The ship?" he muttered.
"Out of danger, Will," Crusher offered with a smile. "We're free of the anomaly. Everything is going to be okay now."
"Abaar?" Horror whistled through him at even the speaking of the name. Though a part of him sensed the passing of the evil one, he needed the assurance of hearing it.
"It is gone," the Imzadi told him sadly. The regret in her gaze was not Deanna Troi. He recognized it suddenly as Sheiza. "Abaar escaped."
Elo allowed the captain to support him on one side, and the Klingon on the other because it was the only way to reach Sickbay without a stretcher. His feet barely moved in response to his will. The battle with the Anomaly had taken more from him than he had given. There wasn't enough left of his strength to stand without their help.
The woman Crusher met them at the door, a hypo of Dursephicate Amoxide in her hand. The drug hit his system like an infusion of pure energy. He felt it spread and sink into the places in him that barely functioned. His hand pushed the Klingon away first, and then the Human captain. He saw the deadness above Sheiza's form and moved blindly toward it.
The word turned him in mid-step. Although the voice was not hers, he recognized her in it. He stared at the one they called Troi.
"It is I, Mioshi," she assured him gently.
"Sheiza?" he breathed.
Her smile answered him. A familiarity grew in the places in him that had lain barren. He welcomed her return as he would have welcomed his own.
He couldn't go to her, so she came to him. He touched her unfamiliar form, pressing his fingers, and then his lips to the pale flesh. "Mioshi," he whispered against her. "I thought you lost."
She touched him as well, drawing his gaze to her own. "I am lost," she answered quietly.
For a moment, Elo stared into her dark eyes, confused by the announcement. And then he saw it. He saw the woman Troi lying dormant, and he understood.
"No." Elo pulled himself free of her. His eyes were accusation. "No!" He turned on Picard, keeping his body between the Human's and the woman behind him. "I gave you your lives," he snarled. "Your ship. A thousand for one. It is only fair ..."
Her hand laid itself between his shoulderblades. The palm rested flat against his back. "Mioshi," she whispered again.
Elo stopped, his face a mask of grief.
"I am lost," she repeated, barely breathing the words this time.
A shudder jolted through Elo. His eyes closed. For some time, he didn't move. When his dark eyes opened again, he was different. Accepting. His gaze rose and sought out the lifeless body that had been Sheiza. He went slowly to her, his gait shuffling and unsteady. He laid a hand on either of her hearts, feeling the stillness of their death. Tears burned his eyes. They ran small rivers down the leather of his face, and he touched their wetness in stunned disbelief. He water-letting of Humans. He had learned much from them. First, he had learned betrayal. And then, sacrifice. Now this...the water-letting. The part of him that was not numb with grief felt an odd pride in the accomplishment.
"You were right, Sheiza," he said quietly. "There is much in them of value."
The Imzadi touched his back. She laid her face against it, listening to the rhythm of his upper heart and wishing for things that would never be again. "Much," she agreed.
William Riker stood carefully, as would a man balanced on eggshells. His breathing was still labored; his ability to move, still impaired. But he was up. He would not have missed their departure for the world.
"We owe you a great debt, Elo," Picard told the alien gravely.
Elo smiled. "Do you forget so easily, Captain?" he questioned gently. "It was I who sent you to the Anomaly. It was I who would have sacrificed your vessel and your crew."
"And you who brought us back," Picard countered, "at great cost to yourself."
Elo shifted Sheiza's limp body in his arms. Despite the fact that she felt nothing from the discarded shell, he was careful not to damage her limbs, or bind them against him. "It was a decision not made easily," he allowed. "Abaar had much to answer for."
"I'm sorry he escaped," Troi said quietly.
Elo glanced to her, and then quickly away. He couldn't face the darkness of her eyes, the memory of what he had last seen in them, the memory of what he would not see again. "Better that you held Riker," he admitted coarsely. "A kwatsanii is a thing of indefinable value. There will be other times for Abaar."
Silence descended on the small room. Here were others present--the Klingon, the dark engineer, the doctor--but he had nothing to say to them. They were components of a life he was leaving behind. They were best forgotten while still fresh. The scars would more easily heal.
"I'm sorry about Sheiza," Riker said suddenly. The way he stood reflected pain. It was in his eyes and the tight line of his mouth, but to the other Humans, he must have seemed almost serene. And there was something else. Something in his expression that knew Sheiza and grieved for her.
"You were her friend, Riker," Elo answered slowly. "She spoke of you."
"I wish ..." he tried to finish it, but couldn't. He looked away, studied his feet.
Elo felt his pain.
"She is not dead," Elo said quietly. "Not as you know it." He had not intended to tell them, not intended to share the ways of the Klaan with outworlders. But Riker's pain was real. It was deep. It was something he could not leave in the other man, not after what Riker had risked for them.
Riker's eyes were quick and sharp. They rose, doubting and questioning, and above all, hoping.
"The Klaan ..." It was hard for him to speak of it. Painful. But the wild hope in Riker's eyes softened the distate of the words in his mouth, and he continued speaking. "... we do not exist alone. We are one another in a way you cannot understand."
Riker tried to read his eyes. He tried very hard to understand.
"I don't understand," the Human admitted finally.
Elo laughed. It was a quiet, rumbling sound that felt and smelled and was of Sheiza. "Yes, Human," he agreed. "We know." He started to turn away.
"Please ..." Riker's hand on his arm did not infuriate him as he would have thought it would. "Please ... explain it to me. Tell me ... help me understand."
His pain was still there. Elo felt it.
"Please, Elo." Riker murmurred. "Is she alive?"
"She is ..." Elo frowned, trying to find a common frame of reference. "She is with me," he allowed finally. "A part of me."
"You mean her memories?" Riker's hand still lay on Elo's forearm. "Her thoughts?"
Elo shook his head. "No. Her. All that is her. She exists in me. Her kwatsanii ..." he searched his memory for their words, "... her soul."
Riker's eyes widened.
"Yes." Elo smiled, nodding his approval. "You understand."
"She's alive," Riker breathed.
"She is with me now," Elo agreed. "She wishes you health...Imzadi." He formed the word awkwardly, not knowing what it meant even as he spoke it. "This means something to you?" he questioned after a moment.
"Yes," Riker agreed. His eyes cleared. The pain in them became nothing more than physical. "It means a great deal to me."
Elo nodded in satisfaction. "The People are waiting," he stated finally. "There is a great deal our doctors can do. Perhaps they can give her a new place to exist...a place as beautiful as she was before..." He hesitated, glancing down at the body cradled easily in his arms. "...before they turned her Human," he finished. His head lifted as if he were listening. A wry smile twisted his lips and sank into his expression with a fondness that was unmistakable. "Yes, Mioshi," he murmured to none of the Humans. "They are not as ugly as I first thought, myself."
Elo stepped away from them, putting distance between the Humans and himself.
"Goodbye, Picard," he stated directly to the captain. "Perhaps our people shall meet some day."
"We shall look to the day," Jean-Luc Picard returned sincerely.
Elo smiled. His image glittered for a moment, but then the iridescence faded like dust on the wind. For a long, silent moment, Elo stood as he was. There was a clarity to his image, as if the diffusion of the very air they breathed did not exist between the watchers and the watched.
And then, he was gone.
Without a sound, without a warning of any kind, the alien Elo vanished and the air aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise sealed itself over his passing.
The silence was stark in the small room. No one spoke at all. They barely dared to breathe.
It was Picard who finally broke it, his voice low and deep with emotion. "We shall look to the day, my friend," he said again. "We shall look to the day."