Character codes: R, C
If the drunk doesn't get you, the hangover will ...
It had been six days since the Trill ambassador and her symbiant tag-along left the ship, and Will Riker still felt like shit. What bothered him this morning though was that now he looked the part as well. The pale, waxy caste of his skin wasn't getting any better. If anything, it was getting worse. Ugly, bruise-colored circles that had all but faded from under his eyes a couple of days ago were back with a vengeance.
Gazing morosely at himself in the mirror, Riker rubbed at his beard and tacked a mental note to his brain: Visit the holodeck, get some sun. All he needed was a good, strong dose of ultraviolet light, dressed up in the guise of old-fashioned Valdez sunshine.
Or a new face, he thought grimly. Because there wasn't much even Valdez sunshine could do for the bags under his eyes, or the dull sheen of exhaustion in them.
The wallcom twinkled. "Picard to Commander Riker," the captain hailed.
Riker straightened instinctively, coming to the form of easy attention he habitually maintained in the captain's presence. "Riker here," he aknowledged.
There was a moment of hesitant silence -- not much, but enough to deepen the frown on Riker's features -- before the captain spoke again.
"Is everything .... all right?"
The frown crawled up Riker's expression and into his eyebrows. He stared at his own reflection, wondering if the man there sounded as bad as he looked. Though his voice was a little scratchy, perhaps even hoarse; did he really sound so bad that the captain would call from the bridge just to inquire about his health?
"Fine, sir," he allowed carefully. "Why do you ask?"
Again, the slight hesitation. The way Picard finally said it made the statement sound more like an apology than the reprimand it should have been: "You were due on the bridge at oh eight hundred, were you not?"
Riker grunted like he'd been slugged. A chill gripped the base of his skull. It squirmed its way down his spine to gather his ribs in tighter about his lungs like an overzealous embrace. How long had he been standing here, staring at himself in the mirror? Two minutes? Ten? His hands reached again for the marble counter. His posture sagged. His eyes dragged slowly up the surface of the mirror, finding the wall chronomoter behind him in its reflection.
"Oh eight hundred," Riker repeated dully. The chronometer read oh eight thirty-two. He'd been standing there, barefooted and bleary-eyed, for almost an hour. Almost an hour! His weight sagged deeper into his palms. His knees trembled slightly, his belly lurched as he continued to stare at the reflected chronometer in slack-featured disbelief. "Yes, sir," he muttered finally. "I'm sorry, sir. I'll be right up."
"Very well, Commander," Picard allowed graciously, his voice studiously clean of anger, or irritation, or even reprimand. In contrast, he sounded positively blasé. Almost conversational. Would you care to join us on the bridge at your leisure, Commander Riker? "Picard out."
Riker stared at himself in the mirror for another thirty seconds. In the five years he'd been aboard the Enterprise, he'd never been late reporting to shift. The fact that he was more than thirty minutes late now; and, had the captain not called, he would have been another only God know how many minutes? hours? later rocked the image he maintained of himself. It frightened him in a way that a Romulan disrupter cranked to "fuck-me-up-dead" couldn't have.
Is everything .... all right?
The captain's inquiry rattled about in his skull. It slammed against the already impressive headache pulsing through his brain and made it significantly worse. Hell no, everything wasn't all right. He was thirty minutes late to shift and still standing there like an idiot, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror.
Riker pushed off the marble counter and turned back to his quarters. He didn't have time to shower now. Or to trim his beard. Hell, he didn't even have time to change into his uniform, but he was going to make time for that one.
Thirty minutes late was one thing.
Walking onto the bridge in your pajamas was something else entirely.
"That's really very thoughtless of you, Beverly," Troi announced. "I thought we were better friends than that."
Crusher glanced up as Troi made a stab at the CMO's half-eaten salad with her chocolate-covered spoon. "You make me feel positively decadent. I invited you here for a triple hot fudge sundae, not something my doctor might prescribe to promote regularity."
Beverly Crusher smiled a weary smile. She picked at her plateful of wilted lettuce with a fork, rolling one perfectly round tomato idly around it's nest of greens.
"Reglarity isn't such a bad thing," she murmurred. "It's ..." she hesitated, trying to find some modicum of wit hiding in her depleted reseviours. There was nothing there to find. Not only could she think of no way to finish the sentance, she could see no reason to. No reason to finish much of anything.
Troi reached out instinctively. Her fingertips against the back of Crusher's hand drew the doctor's attention. Again, she got a wan smile for her concern.
"Beverly--" Troi started.
"I'm all right," Crusher demured.
Crusher fidgeted in her chair, eyes skating around the sparse population of Ten Forward. Though there was no one within three table of their corner booth, she found herself uncomfortable with what she knew the counselor was going to say next.
For a moment, Troi just watched her. "I'm your friend," she said suddenly. "As well as your consellor."
"I'll be all right," Crusher revised after a long moment of silence. "But you can't expect it to happen overnight, Deanna. Odan meant a lot to me. Its going to take a while to get over him."
"Would it help to talk about it?"
Troi squeezed her friend's hand gently. "Would it help if I said I'm sorry?" she murmurred.
Crusher glanced up. For a moment, the wet glisten of unshed tears welled to the surface. She nodded acknowledgement, smiling emotion back into herself with a turn of the lips that echoed sincerity rather than facade.
Troi withdrew her hand across the table.
"Make you a deal," Crusher said suddenly. She shifted her grip on the fork and speared the tomato on its tines. "Trade you this," she lifted the red bulb and tilted it slightly toward the counselor's half-eaten chocolate sunday, "for a bite of that."
Riker swayed slightly and grabbed at the cooridor wall for support.
"Working," the commpanel beneath his hand announced.
Riker didn't bother to answer. Lifting his hand from the glass-front panel, he rolled his shoulders in a carefully limited motion that still spawned a grimace to his wan features.
"Working," the computer repeated.
"Never mind," Riker grunted. "False alarm."
Immediately, the flicker of lights behind the panel dulled. Riker rolled his shoulders again and stretched his neck. Sitting on the bridge and watching Galopodin IV rotate for the past four hours had tightened every muscle in his body to a knot. The little spasms that worked his shoulderblades and neck were nothing compared to the cramp where his spine joined his hips. And that, in turn, was nothing compared to the headache that had spent the morning escelating to pure, simple agony. All he needed was a dash of dizzy to finish off the day.
Cautiously, Riker took a single step in the direction of sickbay. When the sway of dizziness chose not to repeat itself, he took another. Slowly, doggedly, and looking more like a little old man than the first officer of a glaxy-class starship, Will Riker worked his way down the corridor.
Still a dozen meters from his intended destination, the temptation to re-route to his quarters and spend the lunch break sleeping off the vanere of exhaustion leached to his brain almost overwhelmed him. He even went so far as to pause at the last turbolift and press the call button, but the angry pulse of pain behind his eyes put him back on track before the car actually arrived. Though an hour of sleep might ease the muscular disfunctions, it wasn't going to be enough to soften the bitter knife-edge of pain carving his thoughts. For that he needed something more, something the odds dictated came in a hypo-spray and required a medical degree to dispense. And if he had to face a barrage of "How do you feel"s and "Are you sure you're okay"s to get it, then he'd face them with a smile and a "fine, fine, fine."
The door to Sickbay swished open to an apparently deserted room. Riker's gaze flicked through it, running reconassainse first on the bay itself, and then on the lab to starboard and Beverly Crusher's office to port. The place more than seemed deserted, it was deserted. Riker vascillated, still one step short of crossing the threshold.
Since the duty nurse was nowhere in sight, it was logical to assume she was either in one of the storerooms or out on a quarters call. That meant calling in an off duty med-tech -- more bother than he really had in mind. And besides, he preferred to deal exclusively with Beverly when given the option. It wasn't that he didn't have faith in her subordinates, but rather that he preferred not to compromise their faith in him. It was common knowledge that captains and first officer were made of durainium. Dizzy spells and sick stomachs had a tendancy to dispell that illusion faster than a preacher could clear a Risan brothel.
And there were times, innaccurate as they may be, that people needed those illusions to face the enormity of the vast unknown forever.
Just as he'd decided on a judicious retreat, Alyssa Ogawa breezed into the room from one of the deeper chambers. Though both arms were loaded down with equipment and data pads and she wore a slightly haried expression, her almond eyes brightened at the sight of him.
"Commander. Come on in. I'll be with you in two jerks of a dead lamb's tail."
Grinning, Riker stepped into the bay and allowed the pneumonic doors to finally hiss closed behind him. Ogawa deposited her burdon with a clatter on a nearby countertop before turning back to face him.
"Two jerks of a dead lamb's tail?" Riker questioned before she had a chance to ask him why he was there.
Ogawa winced. "Did I say that? Sorry. One of those parental disfuctions we all have to learn to live with."
Ogawa shrugged. "My mother. Sweetest woman on Earth, but for some reason she liked to equate our response time as children to jerks of a dead lamb's tail. I asked her once why that was and she told me it was something her mother used to say when she was a child. I'm sure my grandmother would have told me the same thing, and probably her grandmother as well. I decided it must be a genetic thing, sort of an heirloom that's been passed down through the generations from daughter to daughter to daughter. Now what can I do for you, Commander?" Her smile hitched a little as her eyes ran a quick evaluation. "You look a little ragged around the edges."
"Feel a little ragged," he admitted. "Is Beverly around?"
"She and Counselor Troi headed to Ten Forward for chocolate sundaes about half an hour ago."
"Oh." Riker hesitated. Although Alyssa Ogawa had seen him flat on his back on more than a handful of occassions, she was still a junior officer and there was still that thing about illusions.
"Is there something I can do?" Ogawa prompted.
Riker started to shake his head, but a particular brilliant dagger of pain chose that moment to trace a line from his left temple to a point directly behind his left eye. He winced, rubbing at his brow-ridge. "Uh ... I've got a real headache," he admitted finally. "I thought maybe Beverly might be able to give me something to back it off."
Ogawa was watching him closely. "I can do that," she agreed. "Let me run some ... where'd that tri-corder go?"
"I don't really have much time," Riker interjected hurriedly as Ogawa scoured the bay with her gaze for the missing diagnostic instrument. "I just thought that ... I mean, Beverly's been giving me periodic doses of peredinium to counter some of the after effects of the implantation. It's a ... some sort of painkiller, I think."
"It is a painkiller," Ogawa agreed, still looking for her tricorder. "A mild, non-narcotic one. I doubt it would do much for a headache bad enough to chase you down here from the bridge." She balled her hands on her hips and sighed, giving the room a final once over before turning back to the first officer. "We're right in the middle of re-calibrating all the tri-corders," she explained, "and I can't seem to find the only one that isn't broken down right now, so why don't you lie down on a diagnostics bed for a minute and let me ..."
"I really don't have time for that," Riker interrupted.
"It will only take a minute."
"I've got to get back to the bridge," Riker half-lied, turning for the door. "If you don't think peredinium will help, I probably can't afford to be grogged up with whatever would anyway."
"How much does it hurt?"
"Not that much. In fact, it's better now. Thinking about dead lambs must have done the trick."
He grinned at her, but he could tell by the way she looked at him that she wasn't buying in. At least, not all the way.
"I could call Doctor Crusher if you want," she started.
"No. I know better than to interrupt a woman when she's eating chocolate."
"It could be serious, Commander," Ogawa reprimded.
"It's not. It's just a headache." He was close enough to the door now to trigger it open. Ogawa laid a hand on his arm to stall the retreat he'd already half effected.
"I'm sorry, Commander, but ... uhh ... I think we should call her. I mean, it's only been a week since the implantation. I don't want ..."
Images of being strapped to a biobed and spending the next thirty six hours as the subject of exhaustive testing flashed through Riker's mind. He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. I give up. But don't call her. I'll drop by ten forward. At least that way, if she doesn't think its anything, the interuption is kept to a minimal."
"I don't know ..."
"Alyssa," Riker interrupted, his grin turning one cornered and sly. "Trust me. I'll drop by ten forward on the way to the bridge. I promise."
Ogawa regarded him for a long moment. "You promise?" she repeated.
"Scout's honor." He lifted a three fingered slaute that had been Earth tradition for centuries to symbolize honorable intent.
Ogawa shook her head with a smile. "Alright, Commander. I trust you ... I guess."
Riker returned her grin. "Thank you." He turned and started out the door.
Riker paused, looking back at Ogawa with an eyebrow raised in question.
"You were a Boy Scout, weren't you?"
"Troop 7544: Valdez, Alaska," he answered immediately. "Eagle Honors with palm leaves in Honesty, Irreverency, and all round general Trustworthiness."
Ogawa nodded. "Good. Because I'm going to check up on you."
Ogawa shrugged. "My brothers were Boy Scouts," she offered.
Riker laughed. "Well that pretty much explains it. Have a nice day, Alyssa."
"You, too, Commander."
Will Riker stepped out of the doorway, letting the sickbay doors hiss shut behind him. He sighed heavily and rubbed at his beard. After a moment, he began to walk in the direction of Ten Forward rather than toward the bridge as he had planned.
Troi and Crusher were laughing like schoolgirls enjoying a lockeroom joke when Riker spotted their table and headed for it.
"Looks like fun," he observed. "Mind if I join you?"
Immediately, Beverly Crusher's eyes clouded. The joy bled from her expression and replaced itself with carefully structured pleasantry. Riker felt like she'd kicked him in the belly.
"Uh ... sure." She nodded to an empty chair, rising even as she did so. "Actually, I was just leaving. I have a lot of work to do and I've been playing hookie long enough; but Deanna isn't finished with her sundae yet. She looks like she could use a little help."
"Beverly ..." Riker reached out to put a hand on her arm. Crusher flinched and he aborted the guesture before it completed itself. "I didn't mean to interrupt," he said quietly. "Please, sit back down. I'll get back to you later."
Crusher shook her head. "Really, Will," she told him firmly. "I was just leaving. Ask the counselor. I've told her three times that I've got to get back to work." She reached out and touched him then, her fingers resting briefly on his bicept as she slid by. "You two enjoy the rest of that sundae for me."
And then she was gone.
Riker watched her go, his eyes dark with loss as she snaked her way through the scatter of tables and out the door. "Damnit," he breathed.
"Care for some chocolate?" Troi asked gently. "It's good for the soul."
Riker turned weary eyes on her and sank into the chair Beverly Crusher had moments ago vacated. "I'm sorry, Deanna," he muttered. "I didn't mean to chase her off."
"You didn't chase her off," Troi corrected. "She was telling the truth when she said she needed to get back to work."
"Yeah, right. She certainly looked concerned about it when I walked in." He dropped his head in his hands and began to massage both temples with just the tips of his fingers.
Troi sighed and set her spoon in the remains of her sudae with a tiny metalic clink. "Give her time, Will," she advised gently. "She's gone through a lot in the last couple of weeks."
Riker snorted. "Yeah. Well, it ain't been no hay ride for me either, Counselor," he observed, his voice bitter with a resentment that surprised himself almost as much as it did her.
"You've both been through a lot," Troi agreed carefully after a long moment. "You both need some time to heal."
"Right," Riker murmured. His voice had lost its edge. The resentment in it, the sarcasm, was faded with exhaustion. "Time."
He glanced up, met her gaze.
"Are you all right?"
"Fine," he answered grimly.
"You look terrible."
Riker pushed slowly to his feet. He ran a hand through his hair and then rubbed it along the line of his beard. "Give me a little time, Counselor," he said finally. "I've been through a lot." The jest in his tone fell short. The twitch of humor along his features faded almost before it stained his expression.
"You look sick, Will."
"Just a headache," he demurred.
Troi stood. Her eyes didn't believe him. She started to go to him, but he stepped away, turning as he went. "I'm due back on the bridge," he muttered.
"Are you sure, Will?" Troi called after him.
"Sure that I'm due on the bridge?" He turned long enough to flash her a jaunty grin nearly up to Riker specs. "Pretty sure."
Troi abandoned her chocolate sundae to the bus boy she'd been staving off for a quarter of an hour and hurried after the retrieting first officer. "Sure it's nothing more than a headache," she countered firmly as they left Ten Forward and started down the corridor to the turbo lift. Her hand reached forward and brushed at his face, a guesture he almost managed to avoid without looking like he intended to draw away from her touch.
"You're hot, Will. You should be in Sickbay."
"I'm fine," Riker argued.
Troi stepped in front of him and stopped him in his tracks. She touched first his forehead, and then his cheeks, her eyes darkening with worry.
"You have a fever."
Riker glanced down the empty hall, noting three engineering crewmem at the far end that looked away when he met their interested gazes. "You're starting rumors, Counselor," he told her.
"Will!" Troi snapped when he started to slide past her.
Riker sighed. Casually, like it had nothing at all to do with exhaustion, he leaned one shoulder into the cooridor wall. "I've been running a low grade fever since the implantation, Deanna," he told her tiredly. "And I've had some headaches. Beverly says it's nothing serious. She says it's my body's way of recovering from what it perceived as an invasion."
"Beverly knows about this?"
Will smiled. "She is my doctor, Deanna."
"She knows you're running a fever," Troi persisted. "She knows you have a headache."
"She knows I've been having them," Riker evaded.
"She knows you've got one now?"
Riker shrugged a one-shouldered shrug. "Haven't had one for a couple of days," he allowed.
Troi's face hardened with determination. "You're going to Sickbay," she announced.
"No, Deanna," Riker corrected gently. "I'm going to the bridge." He pushed off the wall and began to walk again.
"This could be serious, Will," Troi arugued. "You're having some kind of relapse."
"You can't have a relapse of a symbiont implantation," he told her patiently. "Not unless somebody splits you open again and drops the guy back in."
"I'm calling Beverly."
"Don't." The order was so sharp it stopped Troi's hand half way to her communicator. "Don't call her," Riker repeated more quietly. He met her eyes and then looked away.
"She's your doctor, Will."
"That's not what she sees when she looks at me." They were at the turbolift. Riker pressed the call button and waited for the car to arrive. "It's a headache, Deanna," he said finally. "I'll drop by Sickbay after shift if it hasn't abated by then."
"I think you should go now."
"I think it's my head, and I'll decide when to go," he snapped. The turbolift car arrived. The door hissed open. Worf was inside. He nodded to Riker.
"Worf." Riker returned the nod and then went back to Troi's eyes. "I'm a big boy now, Counselor," he told her gently. "When it hurts enough, I promise I'll do something about it."
"If you still can," she retorted coldly.
"If I still can," Riker agreed. He stepped into the lift.
"You have until the end of shift, Commander," Troi told him. "After that, I make a medical recommendation for a full psychological evaluation."
"Psychological evaluation?" Riker repeated in surprise.
Troi fixed him with a burning glare. "Psychological evaluation," she repeated, stressing the term and weilding it like a threat. "Big boy or not, it isn't healthy to enjoy pain."
She turned and strode away as the turbolift doors slid shut. Riker and Worf rode several decks in silence.
"Isn't healthy to enjoy pain," Riker grunted after a long, long moment. "Do you believe that crap?"
"I believe the counselor was making a relative diagnosis," Worf commented.
"Relative to what?"
Worf glanced at his commanding officer. "For a Human, it may not be healthy to enjoy pain," he explained calmly. "But for a Klingon, it is imparative."
Riker leaned back in his chair, gazing at the main viewscreen with as much interest as he could muster. It wasn't much. Galopodin VI looked remarkably like every other class M planet in the Trigarrius system; and far more pressing matters were eating away at his attention.
Like his head, for example. What had spent the morning building into a headache had spent the afternoon esculating to biological mutiny. He felt every beat of his heart in every fiber of his skull. Deafening, confusing, distracting gongs of pain marked time to the beat of his heart.
And it didn't stop there. His arms and legs ached feircely, and his back had gone from uncomfortably stiff to one continual spasm: a knot of muscles clenched into a fist around his spine. He was so dizzy it was hard to sit upright, and between the dryiness in his mouth and the lurching see-saw of his stomach, even swallowing was becoming an increasingly difficult task.
He wasn't sure exactly when it changed, but sometime during the last hour discomfort metamorphosed into down-right sicker than a dog. He felt worse than he'd felt in years. All he really wanted to do was go somewhere and lie down. Somewhere dark, somewhere quiet, and most importantly, somewhere alone.
"....need an away team," Picard was saying. "Make a geographical sweep of the...."
The bridge swayed suddenly and tipped over on its side. Riker grabbed the arms of his chair for balance, wondering dully how it was that no one else seemed to notice the sharp yaw of the deck.
Riker blinked. Swallowing hard, he swung his gaze to Picard. The obviously expectant cant of the other man's features verified Riker's worst fear: he'd missed more than a casual observance. The captain was waiting for an answer, and he hadn't even heard the question. Riker tried to remember what was being said while he wasn't listening.
Picard's expression flexed. He started to ask if the first officer was all right, but changed his mind at the last moment.
An away team, Riker decided. The captain had been talking about an away team. Probably in reference to a geological sweep of the planet. The proper response would be to nod, stand, walk to the turbolift and beam down to Galopodin IV or Galopodin VI or whatever Galopodin they were presently orbiting.
He couldn't do that, of course. The way the deck was seesawing back and forth and the difficulty he was having just keeping his seat made the idea of getting up and walking all the way to the turbolift more than improbable, it made the idea ludicrous.
Riker came to a conclusion he'd spent the better part of the day avoiding.
"I think," he said slowly, "that I'd better pass on this one, sir." He swallowed again and tried to think still thoughts. "Mister Data would be my choice for command of the team."
Picard looked at him like he'd jumped up on the tactical console and started singing Volare. Ensign Raleigh swung around from the helm, his continual a-little-too-young-to-be blasé-about-his-first-commission expression gaping with surprise. Even Data twisted in his seat to fix the first officer with a curious gaze.
The way they were all staring at him, he felt like he owed somebody an explanation. "I'm feeling .. a little under the weather, sir," Riker admitted. He pushed to his feet with an effort. "With your permission," he managed through the struggle it was to keep his balance, "I think I'll report to Sickbay."
"Permission granted," Picard responded immediately. He almost reached forward to steady Riker, but corralled the urge at the last moment and satisfied himself with just looking like he was going to reach forward and steady Riker. "Lieutenant Worf, accompany Commander Riker to Sickbay."
Stung by the implication that he couldn't make it to Sickbay on his own (even though he wasn't all sure that he could, and each passing moment made him less sure of it), Riker squared his shoulders and put on his best stolid look. "That's really not necessary," he began. He would have said more, but Picard's expression rendered the effort moot. The captain's eyes had their captain's gaze on, and Riker had seen that look enough times to know arguing with it was paramount to beating one's head against a durillium bulkhead. Neither tactic had a snowball's chance in hell of resulting in anything other than an impressive headache, and he already had one of those. Better to give in gracefully and save his breath for something he had a chance of accomplishing.
Like making it to Sickbay under his own steam.
Riker glanced at Worf, and then back to the captain. "Yes, sir," he acquiesced as if that wasn't the only option left open to him. Then, with a burst of energy spawned equally by a desperation to escape the bridge before he passed out and a need to at least appear properly indestructible as was befitting the first officer of the Federation flagship, he turned and strode to the turbolift. Worf joined him there, and the doors hissed shut.
"Sickbay," Riker snapped, sagging gratefully against the wall. His skin was cold, clammy. His knees felt like noodles. The turbolift began to move and it was suddenly everything he could do not to wilt beneath the waves of vertigo that washed across his senses. It reminded him of being caught in a gravity depravation simulation gone wild. First his body had no mass at all, and then it weighed a gross or two over a thousand kilos. What was ninety degrees seemed like twenty-seven, and what was twenty-seven seemed like forty-six. Fiercely determined not to faint in front of one of his officers -- especially not Worf, who didn't have a weak bone in his body -- Riker endured the violent twistings in his perception of vertical and horizontal with grim-lipped tenacity.
Worf, bless his Klingon hearts, didn't say a word. He merely stood at Riker's side and stared straight ahead.
The vertigo passed grudgingly. It left the exhausted first officer clinging white-knuckled, but gratefully sentient, to the turbolift railing. For almost a minute, he could manage little more than the strength it took to breathe.
"Damn," he muttered finally. "Guess I should have bailed out a couple of minutes earlier."
Worf grunted. "It is commendable to remain at one's station until forced to leave," he commented, still not looking any place but straight ahead.
Riker released one hand of his two-handed grip on the railing to wipe a sheen of sweat from his face. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't do something Human to embarrass the security chief for the gruff effort at consolation -- like acknowledge it.
He lost track of time. The comforting blackness on this side of his eyelids lulled his thoughts into limbo.
"Sir?" Worf prompted quietly.
Riker drew a deep breath. It cut across his lungs and spine like a knife. The pain brought his thoughts back on-line, and he opened bleary eyes once again to the small turbo-lift car.
"Still with you, Mr. Worf," Riker allowed grimly. He frowned, squinting his eyes at the glowing keypad near his shoulder. It bothered him that he didn't know the purpose for at least half of the buttons. "What's wrong with the lift?" he asked finally. "Why aren't we moving?"
"Resume," Worf demanded curtly of the air around them.
The lift eased smoothly into motion, and they arrived at their destination a few short seconds later. The door hissed open. Riker stared at the corridor beyond it, wondering where he was going to gather the strength to push himself into motion.
"I didn't hear you halt the lift," he commented.
"You were occupied, sir," Worf answered. He stepped into the lift's arching doorway to block the sensor that would have shut the doors in another few seconds.
And then he waited. Patiently and without comment, the Klingon held his post and the door until Riker finally found it in himself to drag off the turbolift wall and shuffle into motion. They moved like old men, walking down the cooridor at a pace unfamiliar to decks accostomed to the confident stride of Starfleet officers. Though Worf shortened his gait until he barely seemed confined by the slow, cautious way his superior officer was moving, the Klingon security chief couldn't manage to not look like he was hovering.
The deck pitched wildly and Riker reached out to grab at the wall. He paused for a moment, breathing. Sickbay was only twenty meters down the hall, but it suddenly seemed like a very longtwenty meters. He wasn't sure he was going to make it.
"I could call for a hover board," Worf suggested calmly.
"No," Riker said immediately. "I'm okay." He released the wall and they took another dozen steps. "Just a little slow." They took a dozen more.
"A lot slow," he muttered, staring at the door to Sickbay. Though it was less than ten meters now, he was sure he wasn't going to make it. His knees were melting. The corridor had started tipping crazily, and he couldn't find a handhold in the smooth bulkhead.
"Worf?" Riker whispered.
"I think," his knees were buckling even as he spoke, "you'd better call for that board." Then, without another word, Will Riker collapsed in a uncerimonious heap.
Beverly Crusher watched him in the darkened bay, watched his vital signs, watched his sleep-lax features. He wasn't as sick as she'd first thought. There was the fever, but that was relatively easy to control. His color was already improving and though slightly sedated, he was resting comfortably.
But for one, horrible moment, when Worf stepped across the threshold to sickbay with Will Riker draped over his arms like a boneless rag doll, she had thought he was dead.
Riker shifted grogily. He muttered in his sleep and coughed. Instinctively, Crusher laid a hand on his arm. Instead of stilling him, as she'd intended, the touch led him to awarness. Dull blue eyes blinked open. He stared around the dim bay like he didn't know where he was.
"Shhh, Will," Crusher soothed, stroking his shoulder with her fingers. "It's all right. Go back to sleep."
He blinked again, tried to sit up. "Beverly?"
She stepped closer to the biobed, shifting her hand so it lay flat against his chest. She restrained him as easily as she might a child. The point of his shoulder pressed against her stomach. His heart pulsed a steady, healthy rythm beneath her palm.
"Go back to sleep, Will," she repeated firmly.
"Where am I?"
"Sickbay. Now go back to sleep or I'm going to sedate you."
He started to say something else, but the words forgot themselves in his expression. His gaze fogged. His eyes slid shut and his breathing deepened back to a fitful slumber. Crusher stood over him, her hand laid lightly on his shoulder, for another hour.
"You, Will Riker," she told him sternly, "have a severe case of the flu."
"The flu?" Riker echoed hoarsely. It hurt to talk. It hurt to swallow. It even hurt a little to breathe. Though he recognized the slight numb of sedation coursing his system, it still felt like he'd drunk a flask of Tiberian acid and gone fifteen rounds with a Risinian Bouncer. His throat was on fire and he ached from head to toe. Especially his chest. His chest ached bone deep every time he drew a breath.
"The flu," Crusher verified. She crossed her arms and settled an appraising gaze on the incapacitated first officer. "As in influenza."
"Never heard of it," he grumped.
"It's an Italian word. A literal translation of the Medieval Latin term influentia, which referred to the belief that epidemics were due to the influence of the stars."
Riker squinted at her, his expression skeptical.
"I'm serious," she insisted. "I just spent three hours coaxing something more useful than that out of the computer. It seems to be under the impression -- as I was -- that 'the flu' isn't something you could have contracted. There hasn't been a single reported case in over 200 years."
"Lucky me," Riker groused.
"Yes," Crusher agreed with a light sharpness in her eyes. "Lucky you. This thing used to kill people by the thousands."
Riker didn't like the sound of that. He struggled with a cough gathering in his chest. "It's dangerous then?" he inquired carefully.
Beverly smiled down at him. She reached out a hand to push sweat-damp hair off his forehead but re-thought the guesture before she made it. Her eyes darkened. She withdrew her hand and folded long, slender fingers back into her palm.
"You'll be fine," she stated firmly. It came out more like an order than a reassurance.
Riker started to say something, but coughed instead.
He was amazed at the punch one small cough packed. It felt like someone was simultaneously trying to drag his lungs out through his mouth and knock his head off with a durillium mallet. Beverly had her hands on him again when he collected his wits enough from where the coughing fit had scattered them to notice. She was supporting his shoulders and doing something to the bed.
"The flu, huh?" he murmured as she eased him back to the mattress, the top half of which was now at a thirty degree angle.
"Not only the flu," she told him as she settled him in place, "but what was commonly called -- way back in the twentieth century -- swine flu."
"Oh come on!" Riker protested. "I haven't touched a pig in years. How could I get swine flu?"
Crusher's eyebrow shot up. She considered his claim for a moment and then dismissed the part about touching a pig with the certain knowledge that tapping that statement with a ten-foot pole would only suffice to get her knee-deep in a story she didn't want to hear. "Actually," she calmed him, "the swine flu has nothing whatsoever to do with pigs. From what I can decipher, the word 'swine' was tacked on as some sort of differential between various mutated strains of a base virus. It has no more to do with pigs than Chinese flu has to do with persons of Oriental descent. And as for how you picked it up," she shrugged and shook her head. "I don't know. We're still working on that one."
She reached above him and adjusted several readouts on the diagnostic monitor. "You did, however, manage to pick it up somewhere," she went on. "And this 'swine' flu is a significantly more virulent strain of influenza than its viral cousins."
"Great," Riker moaned.
"Not so great," she corrected gently. "You're going to feel less than good for a while."
Riker snorted. "Less than good," he repeated dryly. "Interesting interpretation." His eyes had drifted shut again, but one of them made the effort to struggle open. He fixed her with a dour, one-eyed glare. "Have you every had this 'swine flu' you're convinced I have?" he demanded.
Riker nodded. "I didn't think so." The single eye once again fell shut.
Crusher smiled. She placed a hypo spray against his throat and injected an obscure antibiotic she'd spent most of the day synthesizing into his bloodstream. For the first time since she'd known him, Will Riker didn't wince at the tiny prick like she'd jabbed him with a knitting needle. In fact, he didn't react at all. That single fact, combined with the laxity of normally-amused expression, worried her a lot more than any four hundred-year-old virus had a right to.
He didn't get better, he kept getting worse. What had been minor complications became major ones. The fever twisted around their attempts to control it. His lungs took on fluid. Exhaustion hammered the normally resiliant first officer into a continual state of semi-consciousness. He tried to eat, but couldn't keep anything down. They took to feeding him intervaneously to keep dehydration already raging through his system from sucking away his life.
Troi sat near him, stroking his hand incessessantly and speaking to him in quiet, soothing tones even though he had once again slipped away to feverish dreams.
"He's getting worse, isn't he?" Ogawa asked her superior officer, carefull to keep the question low despite the fact that they were a twenty meters from the counselor and her sleeping companion.
"Yes," Crusher answered quietly.
"Are we going to lose him?"
Crusher didn't answer that one. Instead, she shifted from her lean against the doorjamb and turned back to the sanctuary of her office.
Ogawa followed. She watched from the doorway as the CMO tried to evade the question by burying herself in the clutter of disks and hardcopy that obscured the surface of her desk.
"Beverly?" Ogawa prompted.
"It's the flu, Alyssa," Crusher answered without looking up. "An ancient form of contagion we conquered over two centuries ago."
"That isn't what I asked," Ogawa reminded the other woman.
Crusher picked up a disk and slid it into the computer, leaning intently toward the display that promted immediately to the monitor. She began to scroll through screens slowly.
"I don't know," she said finally, still not looking up.
Ogawa watched for a moment longer. She would have liked to offer assurances, but she didn't. What use pretty lies to a woman who knows the truth? Without another word, Alyssa Ogawa turned and left the CMO to her desperate work.
"I've tried everything I can think of, Jean-Luc. He's not responding to any of it."
Picard watched Beverly Crusher pace. The severity of the situation was etched her every move, in the unnatural state of aggitation that pushed her from her chair to stalk the confines of her office.
"Is it getting worse?" he asked after a moment.
"Yes." Crusher ran a hand through her long, red hair. "It started out as the flu. It's grown into pneumonia."
"Pneumonia." Picard repeated the vaguely familiar term, tasting it as he tried to place it in his memory. "Wasn't that a pulmonary ailment?"
"Still is," she snapped. "An inflammation of the lungs that promotes fluid collection in the chest cavity. It interferes with the victim's ability to breathe. Will's already experiencing that to a certain degree."
"But there are treatments .... " Picard started.
"None of which are working," Crusher finished. She dropped once again into the chair across from him. "I don't understand it. At one time, pneumonia was a very real threat. For that matter, so was influenza. But not now. Not today. Any of a half a dozen drug therapies should do the trick." She closed a folder that was open on her desk and shoved it aside. "But they're not. He's not responding. He's not responding to any of them."
"Is he ...." Picard forced the words past his teeth with an effort, ".... in danger then?"
"He's dying, Jean-Luc," Crusher returned stonily. "If I can't find some way to stop the deterioration of his condition...." The statement trailed off to the obvious conclusion.
For a long time, Picard didn't respond. When he finally did, the inquiry took on a new direction. "Is there any possibility," he asked slowly, "that this is contagious?"
Crusher shook her head, leaning back in her chair as if releaved to be freed, if only for a moment, from the weight of Will Riker's condition. "No. Absolutely not. At least, not to us. Childhood immunization practices wiped out our vulnerability to this type of viral infection centuries ago."
"Then how could Will contract it?"
"I don't know. He shouldn't have been able to. His records show he was immunized at birth just like everybody else. And even if he wasn't, you know Starfleet always doubles up before they muster cadets out to deep-space duty."
"Then perhaps," Picard mused aloud, "this is not the simple virus it appears to be. Perhaps there is some sort of mutation...."
Beverly Crusher shook her head. "That's the first thing we checked. There's no mutation in this virus. It's identical in every way to the strains of influenza that physicians documented centuries ago."
"Except it won't respond to treatment," Picard countered.
"And it somehow managed to override Will's immune syst...." Crusher's eyes darkened with a sudden thought. She leaned forward and punched several commands into the terminal on her desk. Screens flashed across her monitor one after another. She found the one she wanted and halted the rotation. "Immune system," she finished quietly. "Will's immune system."
Picard leaned forward. "Something?"
Crusher's eyes lifted to meet his. "It isn't the virus that won't respond to treatment," she stated quietly. "It's Will."
"Hello, sleepyhead," Troi greeted gently. Her fingers brushed his face: cool, soothing. He blinked and focused on her with some difficulty.
"Still here?" he grunted.
Troi smiled. "Nothing better to do," she whispered, squeezing his hand.
Riker coughed. The burst of air ripped through him, disturbing the deep ache steeped into his bones. For a moment, pain stirred, coiled, rose as if to awaken. Troi's hand tightened on his. He held to her and waited like the doomed man awaits the ax. Slowly, grudgingly, the swell of sickness in him settled. It became again the ever presence that lay in wait beneath a shroud of sedation. The tension in Riker's shoulders eased.
"You, Counselor," he breathed, "Need to get a life."
She laughed. Her fingers traced the lines of his face. They were raindrops on his skin, cooling, soothing. He closed his eyes to the comfort of her nearness and lost her in the darkness that invaded his senses.
Fear bit at him. "Deanna?" His voice was sharp with panic. He barely recognized himself in it.
"Here, Imzadi," she whispered, her breath warm on his skin. "Always here."
He forced his eyes open again, structured a smile for her. He tried to squeeze her hand, but saw in her eyes that the flex of motion made of his best efforts was barely discernable as pressure to her.
"I'd kill for one of your back rubs about now," he murmurred.
The hand not holding his laid itself on his chest. "I'll give you a raincheck," she promised. The smile that struggled on her lips failed to make itself a success. "As soon as you're up to collecting."
"Now there's an incentive for getting well if I've every heard one," he murmured. His eyelids became too heavy to fight. They slipped shut, trembled, stayed shut. Pain webbed his expression with each shallow breath.
Someone took Troi's place at his side. He knew it by the way the air changed: Deanna charged it, like an electric current; Alyssa Ogawa cooled it.
"Hello, Alyssa," he murmurred, never opening his eyes.
Ogawa's hand dropped to his shoulder as she continued checking his monitors. "Commander," she returned. "And how are you feeling this afternoon?"
"How do I look?" he whispered coarsely.
"You're looking exceptionally fine today, Commander." There was no hesitation at all in the oriental nurses reply, nothing more than a slightly forced brightness to mark it as the kind lie that it was. "When are they going to release you anyway?"
"When are you going to stop calling me 'Commander'?" he retorted. "After all, once you've given a man a sponge bath ...."
"Oh Commander," she admonished lightly, "you are such a flirt." The back of her hand rested itself on first his forehead, and then each of his cheeks in turn. Though the monitor could tell her anything she needed to know about his internal temperature, Alyssa Ogawa understood the importance of Human contact. She glanced to Troi, gave the counselor a reassuring smile, and picked up a hypospray.
"I really hate that stuff," Riker complained before she touched him with the injector.
"You're getting very good at that," Alyssa observed, dispensing the dosage quickly and efficiently. "Pretty soon we'll be able to use you in Ten Forward as entertainment. Blindfold you and have the audience hold up personal belongings for you to describe."
"Right," Riker muttered. His breathing didn't rattle so much as it eased in and out of his chest, and his head pulsed a little less every time his heart decided to take a beat. He found enough strength to force his eyes open once again. "William the Wonderful: The Swine Flu Swami."
Ogawa laughed. "That has a nice ring to it, Commander," she agreed. "I'd come see your show."
"So would I," another voice offered.
Riker swung his eyes to Ogawa's left. The motion made him nauseaus, but he found Beverly Crusher approximately where he expected to find her. Picard was there, too, his eyes a little too shielded to effectively hide their concern.
"Visiting hour's picking up," Riker observed, his voice little more than a whisper.
"You're a popular guy," Crusher responded.
"For a sick pig," he allowed.
Crusher smiled. She stepped closer, laying a hand on him in a guesture that for the first time in weeks didn't seem forced. "Actually," she informed him gently, "We may just have come up with solution to that."
Riker's gaze sharpened into her. "Talk to me," he demanded.
"Well, it seems that the reason you're not responding to any of our treatments is the same reason that you contracted this influenza in the first place. It has to do with your immuno system, with the Classic Rejection Syndrome symptoms you began exhibiting during the latter phases of Odan's," she managed to say his name almost like it didn't hurt, "implanation. In the process of suppressing your bodies natural defense system to keep it from attacking the symbiont, we also checked its ability to defend itself against any other form of invasion, including viral and bacterial infections to which you would normally be immune."
Riker squinted his eyes, concentrating on sifting her words through the distraction of pain, exhaustion and sedation. "So ... I'm running with sheilds down?" he asked finally.
"And trying to do battle with the Romulans, the Cardassians and the Ferengi all at the same time," Crusher agreed gently. "So what we're going to do is a little engineering repair. Get your shields up and running so we can get rid of this little pig invasion for you."
"Pig invasion," Riker repeated dully. He nodded, his eyes slipping shut. "Sounds good to me," he muttered. "Let's get to it."
Crusher pulled a diagnostic console over him and began prompting information to the screen. "Just lie back and relax," she told him soothingly. "This won't hurt a bit."
Riker snorted. "Yeah, right. Where have I heard that one before?"
"If you like, Number One," Picard offered blandly, "I can hold your hand."
Riker's eyes popped open. He gazed at the captain for a long time, and then slowly, he grinned. "Thank you anyway, sir," he mumbled. "But I think I can take it."
"If you're sure," Picard allowed without expression.
The doctor was initiating something that gave off a vaguely orange glow and set up a resonating hum in his bones. It made it hard to think, and even harder to talk. Riker closed his eye. "I'm sure," he muttered, forcing the words through slightly vibrating teeth.
It took less than a minute to find that the rattling oscillation of his skull and his ribs and the bones in his feet was nearly as painful as she'd promised it wouldn't be. He opened his eyes, watched Beverly through it. She was busy, checking monitors, firing instructions to Alyssa and someone else out of his line of sight. Something cold kissed his throat. It radiated ice from his neck down into his chest, and then his belly and on to his extremities. Though the oscilation continued, perhaps even intesified, the pain eased considerably. In it's wake, came exhaustion. He was too tired to think, too tired to breathe; but he was afraid to close his eyes for fear he might be too tired to survive.
Beverly was talking to him, her hands active on his body though he couldn't feel them through the dead skin that cocooned him like a chrysilys of lead. Memory spiked through him: a vivid tactile memory: the pressure of her hands, the cool texture of her skin. And in its wake, came others. Smells, tastes. Air like molten water, too heavy to breathe. Pain. The secent of her as she lay against him. The breathing whisper of her voice.
"Beverly," he murmured.
Exhaustion swelled through him. It broke across sandbagged dikes of resistance and flooded his body cavities until he no longer felt the reverberation of his heartbeat, no longer felt the draw and release of floundering lungs. Her eyes faded into the distance.
"Beverly?" he whispered, suddenly frighted. A hand tightened in his. She spoke to him gently, reassuringly. Though he couldn't discern individual words, the soothing rythm of her voice calmed the thrash of panic beginning in his chest. He clung to the hand, hoping it belonged to her.
To Doctor Beverly.
He began to sink. Her delicate fingers were a saftey tether; her voice, a beacon and the color of her eyes, motivation. They made the journey with him, marking the way back out, as he slipped into a void of dreamless sleep.
Troi was dozing in her chair. She didn't stir as Beverly Crusher checked monitors and ran several simple diagnostics on the sleeping first officer. When there was nothing more to keep her at Will Riker's side, she stayed anyway. Her hands found themselves resting on the flat of his shoulder, or smoothing back slightly disheveled hair from closed eyes, or merely lingering on the line of his beard, its texture fresh and vivid in her memory.
Riker stirred, shifted.
Immediately, Crusher stepped back. She looked up to find Troi's eyes on her, watching, assuming ....
"I was ... " the excuse trembled on the doctor's lips as she met Troi's dark eyes. "... checking him," she finished after a long moment.
"You're still worried," Troi surmised. Her gaze wandered to Riker, as did the doctor's.
"No. He's doing fine. Doing well. Everything is responding just the way it should."
"Seeing him this way," Troi ventured after a long moment. "It's must seem as if it's happening all over again. As if Odan ...?"
"No." Crusher shook her head. "It's not like that. Not like that at all."
"Then what?" Troi urged. "Talk to me, Beverly."
"You realize," Crusher said quietly after a long moment of silence, "that he wasn't looking for you in Ten Forward. That he was looking for me."
Troi started to deny it, but she checked the urge before it found voice in the darkness. Beverly Crusher had been her friend for a long time. Too long to lie to her, too long to be forgiven if she did. So instead, Troi chose to address the accusatory way those words lay between them.
"Will Riker is a poker player by nature as well as by choice," she said quietly. "He rarely broacasts his intentions upon approach."
"And I didn't stay around long enough to let him broach the subject."
"Don't blame yourself because Will has trouble asking for help," Troi countered a little more sharply than she intended.
"He did ask. Alyssa says he came to Sickbay for a
painkiller shortly before he collapsed. Since she can't dispense
narcotics to bridge personell without authorization, she sent him to
Ten Forward. Sent him to me."
"I was there, Beverly," Troi reminded the other woman. "He may have asked Alyssa, but he didn't ask you."
"He shouldn't have had to," Crusher countered sharply. Riker shifted restlessly, and she lowered her voice before going on. "He looked sick, Deanna," she said grimly. "I sit in my office and picture it in my mind. I remember the way he looked. If it had been anybody else, I would have had him in Sickbay so fast his teeth would have rattled."
"Do you think it would have made any difference?"
"It might have. It would have given me more time to run tests. More time to find out what was wrong before he went critical."
"More time for him to bitch and moan about being laid up for tests while there was work to be done," Troi added.
Anger flared in Crusher's eyes. "Do you know how close we came to loosing him?" she demanded.
"Yes." Troi met the doctor's angry gaze without blinking. "I know."
For a moment, Crusher didn't say anything more. When she did speak again, her voice had lost it's edge. "I'm a doctor," she stated wearily. "It's my duty not to let personal feeling interfere with my job."
"You're Human," Troi responded. "And you've gone through a series of tramatic events over the last little while that would have broken most people. I think you need to quick punishing yourself."
"It's no excuse, Deanna. No excuse for letting a man die."
"He isn't dead."
"He could be. And it would be my fault."
"He isn't," Troi insisted.
"But he could be," Crusher repeated just as stubbornly. "I wasn't there when he came to me for help."
"Help he didn't ask for," Troi reminded the other woman.
"Help I didn't give him a chance to ask for. Because of who he was, because of what happened ..." Her hands fisted in the pocket of her frock. "If anything, I should have been more aware. More vigilant. I knew what Odan's implantation did to his system. I should have--"
"Read his mind?" Troi interrupted.
"He risked his life for Odan's."
"That was his choice. And he did it for reasons beyond Odan, beyond even you and Odan."
"But when it was my turn to return the favor," Crusher pushed on doggedly, "I ran away like a frightened schoolgirl."
"Or like a busy doctor with work to do," Troi countered.
"I didn't have any work to do. I left because of him. I left for the same reason I haven't been able to look him in the eyes since ..."
"Since you made love?" Troi finished quietly.
"He told you ... " Crusher started. She shook her head and changed the tone of the question. "He talked to you about ... about what happened?"
"He told me you made love," Troi verified gently. "He told me that Odan needed you. That you needed Odan."
"Odan," Beverly repeated, his name less than a breath of air across her lips. Tears welled in her eyes. They glistened on the rim of her eyelids, threatening to shatter the fragile dam of her self control. "I'm sorry, Deanna ..." she started.
"Sorry for what?"
"I know you and Will ...." Crusher's voice trailed helplessly to silence.
"Are friends," Troi said after a beat. "As are you and he." She reached out and laid her hand Crusher's arm. "He's been worried about you, Beverly. He's asked several times if there was anything he could do. If talking to you would hurt or help. I told him to give you time." She squeezed her friend's arm.
Crusher glanced to the counselor, and then away. Tears were rolling down her face. She didn't answer because she couldn't trust herself to speak.
"Have you talked to anyone about it, Beverly?" Troi asked. "About Will? About what happened?"
"It wasn't Will I was in love with, Deanna. It was Odan."
"Have you talked to anyone about Odan, then?"
Crusher straightened the line of her smock, avoiding the counselor's intent gaze. "I've talked to you," she mumbled finally.
"No," Troi corrected gently. "You haven't. We've talked about everything but Odan."
"And Will," Crusher added just as quietly, turning in the darkness to finally meet the counselor's eyes.
Though she could have hidden it, she didn't. A flicker of pain traced Troi's expression. It gave them common ground. "And Will," she agreed.
Riker groaned slightly, shifting in his bed. Both women started, having nearly forgotten the sleeping first officer in the darkened bay's plethora of shadows.
"What about me?" Riker asked groggily. His voice was coarse, and it slurred his words like they had no identity of their own.
"Shhhh, Imzadi," Troi soothed immediately. She lifted his hand and held it, standing so she would be in his line of sight. "Go back to sleep."
His eyes weren't even open. They moved about under closed lids, swinging back and forth in a precursor of full consciousness. His hand hung heavy and unresponsive in hers.
"What about me?" he insisted. Though still more asleep than awake, coming awareness began to coordinate his facial muscles. Their lax repose tightened to an expression of sorts.
Troi brushed hair out of his face and smiled. "We were discussing how devestatingly handsom you are when you're helpless," she told him. "How we should get you sick more often."
"Mmmmm," Riker murmured. His lips twisted into a weary grin that held more resemblance to his normal expression than anything he'd managed for the past three days. "Who we?" he asked, his eyes still closed and his voice still vague in the way it formed his words.
"Beverly and I."
"Beverly?" An edge tightened his voice, just as it tightened his hand in her's. He made an abortive move to sit up, one that failed so miserably it almost didn't count as an attempt.
"Relax, Will." Crusher laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're too weak to be moving around. Go back to sleep. That's the best thing for you."
"Beverly," Riker murmured. This time it wasn't a question. His eyes fell open finally, focusing slowly and with difficulty in the dim room. "How am I feeling, Doc?" he managed with a lopsided grin and a great deal of effort.
"You're feeling tired," she told him, smiling. "And like you should follow your doctor's orders before she has to sedate you."
More from exhaustion than from any desire to cooperate, his eyes again fell shut. "Did we win?" he asked sluggishly.
"Win?" Troi repeated.
"Our war with the pigs," Riker muttered.
"We won, Commander," Crusher told him.
Riker nodded. Again, his features were edging toward the rim of consciousness. He shifted to a more comfortable position.
Several moment after they both thought him asleep, he spoke again, "You think I'm devestating?" he asked grogily.
"When you're helpless," Troi agreed with a smile.
"Beverly?" he prompted when she didn't answer.
Crusher glanced to Troi, and then returned her gaze to the half asleep man she'd nearly lost in more ways than one.
"When you're helpless," she echoed Troi.
Riker sighed. He shifted again, and again, before he lost the urge to move. "I can live with that," he murmurred, slipping back to sleep before he'd completely finished speaking.
Will Riker was feeling much better. He sat on the biobed, propped to a sitting position in hopes that such an alert position might convince Beverly Crusher of his improved condition and hasten his much-delayed release from sickbay.
"You're looking chipper this morning," Beverly Crusher commented from the open door of her office.
"Chipper?" Riker repeated, his lip curling with distaste. "Is that anything like 'pert'?"
Crusher smiled and crossed the bay to his side. "Something like that," she agreed. Her gaze ran over the diagnostic board on the wall behind his bed. Though it was well hidden beneath a vigilant smile, Will Riker knew her well enough to read the slight shadow of a frown that settled in blue doctor eyes.
"That rock and rattle therapy of yours seems to have done the trick," he ventured hopefully.
"Yes," she agreed distractely. "It does, doesn't it?"
"So?" Riker prompted after a moment.
Her doctor facade slammed down with a nearly audible clang as she turned her bedside manner on him. "So, what?"
"So what does it say?"
"That's really what it says, Will. No sign of swine flu. No temperature. No fluid in the lungs."
"But?" he pressed.
"No buts. You're the picture of health."
He still didn't like the look in her eyes. There was something she wasn't telling him.
Her smiled eased to something more honest. "I'm sure."
"Great." He clapped his hands together and shifted as if to swing his legs over the edge of the biobed. "Then I'm free to go, right? Blow this popsicle stand, ride off into the sunset, all that jazz?"
Again, it flared in her eyes. Not quite worry, but not far from it. Her hand laid itself hurriedly on his leg, interfering with his stated intention to rise.
"Why don't you give it a few more days, Will." She patted him and then drew her hand away. "Just to be sure."
Riker fixed her with an evaluative gaze as he settled back to the biobed's backrest. "I've already given it a week," he countered.
"Last time I looked, a week was seven days."
"It's leap week," Riker quipped.
"Six days then," Crusher allowed agreeably.
"I said almost a week.
"Three days isn't almost a week even during leap year and in generous company," Crusher informed him.
"It is if you're bored enough," he grumped.
"I'm not bored."
"You're not lying in a biobed looking chipper."
"If I were, I'd be enjoying the vactaion."
"That's the difference between us, Doctor." Riker shot her a wicked grin. "My idea of a vacation is flat on my back on Risa, not in Sickbay. Can you at least release me to my quarters?"
Beverly arched an eyebrow at him. "Do you have a hot date, Commander?
"As a matter of fact," Riker countered. "I have several."
"Well then I suggest you shuffle your social calendar for a few more days because you're not going anywhere until I'm satisfied you're completely recovered."
"I thought I was the picture of health," Riker reminded her quietly.
Crusher hesitated and then shrugged. "Your white blood count is a little high," she admitted grudgingly. "It's probably just residuals from the immuno enhancements we performed -- exciting the bone marrow is a tricky process, a little under or a little over is to be expected -- but I want to be sure."
Riker frowned suddenly. "Hmmmmm," he muttered, straightening on the biobed as if suddenly uncomfortable. "That's funny ...."
The doctor's expression hardened with concern. "What?" she demanded. "What's funny, Will?"
Riker shook his head. His frown deepened. "Very funny," he repeated more to himself than to her.
Crusher put a hand on his arm. "What, Will?" she urged. "Tell me."
The gaze he lifted to hers was somewhat confused. "My bones...." he told her carefully, "....don't feel...." the corner of his mouth twitched, "....excited."
It took her a moment to find the grin he shielded beneath his expression. When she did, she was not amused.
"Will Riker," she growled, pushing off him with a frown. "You're an ass."
"But they don't," Riker insisted. The grin broke across his features despite his best attempt to keep it subverted. "They truly don't."
"An ass," she repeated tightly. And then, turning grumpily on her heel, Beverly Crusher stalked from the room.
It had been two days since Beverly cleared him for duty, and Will Riker still felt like shit. Or more accurately, he was feeling like shit again.
For the vast majority of those two days, things ran like they were supposed to run. He checked in twice a day with Sickbay, and they gave him a clean bill of health. Other than a residual exhaustion that left him drained by the end of even an easy shift, he didn't seem any the worse for wear. And Beverly warned him he'd be tired for a while.
But now, since morning actually, it was something more than tired.
Gazing morosely at himself in the mirror, he ran a hand across his beard and noted how long it took for almost-normal color to fill in the waxy-white finger trails. And those damn ugly circles were back, too. They ringed his eyes like he'd made an off-color remark to a couple of Klingons.
Sighing, Riker tapped the comm badge pinned to his chest. "Riker to Sickbay."
"Sickbay," Ogawa's voice returned.
In an odd way he wasn't about to admit, Riker was relieved. "Alyssa...." He hesitated, unsure exactly what he wanted to say. Alyssa, I have a problem with bags under my eyes. Do you have any helpful makeup tips....? Riker grinned wryly at his own reflection. Just as he was about to change the medical inquiry to a request for a dinner date, the persistent cramp that had been stitching along his ribs all day dug its claws in and reminded him why he'd called.
"Would it be possible," he asked carefully, choosing his words around the gasp of cramp, "for me to experience any sort of relapse of this swine flu?"
"Are you feeling ill, Commander?" Ogawa demanded immediately. "Do you have any symptoms?"
"Well," Riker hedged. "Not exactly." He grabbed a comb and tried to smooth the line of his hair. He was due back on the bridge in twenty minutes, and he didn't want to show up looking like he'd been asleep -- which he had. "I mean, not the same way as before."
"Why don't you come down...."
"I'm due on the bridge soon," Riker interrupted. "If there's any possibility it's just a side effect...."
"Are you in any pain, Will?"
This time, it was Crusher's voice that asked the question. Riker winced at himself in the mirror.
"Not really," he answered.
"Where does it 'not really' hurt?" she demanded.
Riker sighed. He'd spent enough time in Sickbay over the past week to make him sick -- both literally and figuratively -- and he had the feeling that his one simple question was going to cost him more. Though he wanted to regret even broaching the subject, staring at his own reflection in the mirror made it harder to wish he hadn't brought it up than it should have been.
"My chest," he admitted. "And my....my stomach. That didn't hurt before." He rubbed at the easing cramp. "At least, not as much as it does now."
"Stay where you are," Crusher instructed. "I'll come to you.
She sounded like a worried mother. Or a wife. Riker's fingers tightened into the marble counter, resentment flaring under his ego. "I'm not an invalid," he snapped.
For a moment, Crusher didn't respond. When she did, her tone was cold enough to classify as clinical. "Fine," she said quietly. "Then you come to me, Commander. But come straight to Sickbay." Her voice took on just an implication of threat. "Do not pass the Bridge. Do not collect 200 credits."
Again, Riker sighed. It occurred to him too late that a little charm might have gone a long way. "On my way," he acknowledged, remembering an old proverb concerning the ingestion of one's own nose to the detriment of one's appearance. "Riker out."
He was half way to the turbolift when the alarm klaxon began to howl.
"You are trespassing on Volttein space," the gelatinous mass of flesh on the main viewscreen informed them again. "Retreat or be destroyed."
"We are most certainly not trespassing on Volttein space," Picard countered. "Lestra III is located well within the bounds of Federation space, and the colony located on Lestra III is populated by citizens of the United Federation of Planets. You, however, have fired on a Federation vessel without provocation. We will have no choice but to consider any further attack an act of aggression on your part."
"Retreat or be destroyed," the alien repeated. His image flickered and vanished. Open space and a bird's-eye view of one smallish vessel replaced itself on the main viewscreen.
"We will have no choice but to consider any further attack an act of aggression?" Riker repeated wryly as he emerged from the turbolift and crossed to take his seat at the captain's side. "I would have thought we'd consider the first one to be an act of aggression."
Picard's lips twitched into a half smile. Mind occupied with other thoughts, he didn't notice the slightly disheveled appearance of his first officer, or the odd way the younger man sank into his chair. "I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt, Number One," Picard murmured. "No use squaring off if it can be avoided."
"Such a likelihood is highly unlikely," Data offered from the Ops console. "The Volttein are a notoriously bellicose race. Armed conflict has figured prominently in all previously recorded contact."
"Just because you know someone is a bully, Mister Data," Picard reprimanded gently, "is no reason to punch him in the nose before such an occasion becomes necessary."
"Bully?" Data repeated. Before any of them could offer a replacement word to head off the thesaurus listing that was coming, Data found the reference in his mainframe and began to spew: "Ah. Bully. Blusterer. Brawler. Ruffian. Tyrant. Pug-ugly. One who intimidates. To browbeat. To heckle. To enforce one's view through the use of superior size or strength...."
"Thank you, Mister Data," Riker and Picard said at the same time.
The android cocked his head to one side as he many times did in an attempt to mimic the Human response to confusion. "You are welcome, sir," he said. And then he amended: "Sirs."
"Sickbay to Commander Riker."
Riker winced. He tapped his commbadge, addressing the reprimand he knew was coming before she had a chance to start it: "I am on the bridge, Doctor," he told her firmly. "I will be down as soon as the current situation is resolved."
And then he held his breath.
The fact that she didn't jump down his throat before he got his mouth shut was encouraging. It was possible he'd managed to put enough command tone into the brusque explanation to convince her it wasn't open for debate. But then again ....
He resisted the urge to cross his fingers.
"See that you are," Crusher responded finally. Though far from happy, her tone was resigned. "Sickbay out."
Riker breathed a silent sigh of relief, settling a little deeper in the chair. As if to congratualate him on his moral victory, the dull ache in his side crescendoed.
"Anything I should know about, Number One?" Picard inquired.
Riker pivoted slightly to respond, and the pain in his side turned to a series of cramps that pushed him out of the comfortable grip of the body-contoured cushion and back onto the plasti-metal molded rim where he could perch with a little less discomfort. "Just a bit of a relapse, sir. Nothing serious, I'm sure."
Picard frowned. He was studying the first officer, noticing things about the younger man's slightly ragged appearance that had escaped his otherwise-occupied attention the first time around. "That sounds familiar," he chided.
Riker pulled both hands up in front of himself like a shield. "With all due respect, sir," he countered quickly, "I learned my lesson. I was on my way to Sickbay when the Volttein rang." The sharp bites of pain melted grudgingly to a less-distracting, duller ache; not unlike a bad tooth. And, as long as he remained balanced on the edge of his chair, it almost didn't hurt to breathe.
"Hmmm," Picard grunted. "That sounds remotely like an excuse, Number One." And then, turning to Worf before his first officer had a chance to respond, Picard directed the next statement there: "Speaking of the Volttein," he said, "what exactly are they doing, Mister Worf?"
"Nothing, sir," Worf responded. "They are merely waiting."
Picard sighed. He watched the small ship on their screen with an expression of quiet resignation. "Then we shall wait as well. Contact the colony, Number One. Assure then that we will not allow the Volttein to make good on their threats."
"Yes, sir." Riker started to rise and head for the secondary communication console, but something sucker-punched him right under the floating ribs. He barely made it out of his chair before he was back in it, one hand grabbing at his side.
Picard caught the aborted motion out of the corner of his eye. "Number One?" he asked, turning.
Riker straightened slowly in his chair. He was suddenly pale, beads of persperation standing out on his wan flesh like droplets of oil on wax. "Shit," he muttered under his breath.
Picard waited for clarification, his expression pulled tight with worry as he studied the obvious pain in the way Riker moved. "What?" he prompted when the first officer didn't offer any.
Riker glanced up. His eyes were shaded with worry of their own. "I'm not sure," he allowed cautiously. "Some sort of cramp. It came out of nowhere." He rubbed at his side with one hand. "Whatever it was," he observed after a moment. "It seems to be gone now."
"Perhaps you should...."
Picard never had a chance to finish his statement. Riker tried to stand again; but this time the pain dropped him to his knees for the count. As one hand dug violently at his own side, the other clenched white on the arm of his chair to keep him from tipping over with the rest of the room.
"Doctor Crusher to the bridge," Picard snapped. "Medical Emergency." He knelt at the first officer's side. "Will?"
Riker was breathing like he'd run a race. Sweat lay beaded on his forehead. He'd gone ghastly white in just the last few seconds. "Sorry, sir," he muttered gamely. "This doesn't seem to be my week."
"No, Number One," Picard agreed. "It doesn't. Beverly will be here in just a moment. Perhaps you should sit...."
"Captain," Worf's voice cut through the bridge. "The Volttein are hailing us."
Riker's eyes clenched shut as he jolted under third blow of jarring, tearing pain. Exponentially worse than the last two, it stoked the glimmer of fear in his chest to a healthy glow.
"Tell them to wait," Picard demanded without looking up.
Less than two seconds later, Worf spoke again. "They are amassing power in their forward weapons array," he announced. "They are going to .... they are firing on us, sir."
The ship rocked marginally beneath the blow before the Klingon had completely finished the warning.
"Damnit!" Picard sprang to his feet. "Open hailing frequencies."
Gritting his teeth with effort, Riker managed to drag himself off the deck with fingers clenched like talons into the arm of his chair. It was bad enough to have his friends and crewmates see him hunched up like a little boy with a belly ache; he had no intentions of allowing the Volttein share in that image. Drawing on a combination of ego, determination and desperation, the first officer managed to struggle to his feet only moments before the viewscreen dissolved once again to a view of the alien command bridge.
"You are trespassing on Volttein space. Retreat or be destroyed," the gelatinous mass of flesh on the main viewscreen repeated stoicly.
"Lock photon torpedoes on the Volttein vessel," Picard told Worf, his eyes glaring at the alien captain. "If she fires on us again, destroy her."
"With pleasure, Captain," Worf acknowledged. "Photon torpedoes locked."
Something in the enthusiasm of the tactical officer's tone pulled a quick warning glance from Picard to his first officer. Teetering like a drunk, three-legged elephant caught in a raging monsoon, Riker nodded without nodding. He shifted his stance to shoot Worf an order that -- though silent -- was implicit. Disappointment that would have been indiscernible to anyone who hadn't watched the Klingon bluff a flush with a pair of deuces flickered in Worf's eyes, assuring Riker that the captain's intent had been not only received, but understood.
Meanwhile, the Volttein captain on the main viewscreen changed from one color to another, to another, and to yet another -- all in less than a second. "It would be in direct violation of Federation dictates to open fire on a vessel of inferior weapons capability," he stated like he'd read it out of a manual.
"Unless said vessel poses a threat of a Federation vessel, a Federation outpost, or is bent upon making itself a pain in the ass," Picard snapped.
Riker felt his knees going. He dug his fingers harder into the slight padding of the arm of his chair and prayed for the captain to hurry.
"As, at this time, you qualify for two out of three requirements," Picard continued. "I am fully and duly authorized by Starfleet Command to remove your vessel from Federation space in any manner I see fit. Under the circumstances and considering my present state of agitation, I suggest you re-evaluate your stance. Picard out."
He made a broad slashing sign to Worf, and the lieutenant cut communications.
Riker barely made it to the fadeout. His insides were on fire. He wanted nothing more than for someone to dip him in a bucket of ice water and hold him under until he drowned. He slid back to the deck with a quiet moan he tried and failed to keep locked behind clenched teeth.
Picard knelt again at the first officer's side. He studied the younger man with concern that made Riker feel like he should crack a joke to break the tension.
"I don't recall a regulation that allows us to fire on somebody for being a pain in the ass, sir," he managed badly.
Picard's hand laid itself on Riker's arm. His fingers tightened slightly in a mute gesture of encouragement as they established a grip. "It's new," he muttered. "Just added to the books this year. Very small print, near the bottom." The turbolift doors hissed, and Picard's eyes rose. They called to Beverly to hurry. "We named it the Q Corollary, after our favorite pain-in-the-ass."
Crusher took the captain's place at Riker's side. She ran a tricorder along the clench of his body and stared at the readings like she didn't believe them.
"I like it," Riker whispered. "I'll have to remem...."
The statement cut itself off as the first officer doubled up into a tiny ball on the deck. Despite the fact that it was a most undignified position for a first officer to assume and that he hated -- HATED -- assuming it in front of the captain, let alone the crew; Will Riker found himself clenched into a fetal position. He struggled to breath, sure tat just one more kick to the gut was going to shatter him into a thousand first officer bits right there on the deck in front of God and everybody.
"Crusher to transporter three," Crusher hailed. "Two to beam directly to Sickbay."
Picard stood and stepped away. Eyes battered by the sight of Will Riker's body clenched to a fist of pain, he asked what Riker was thinking: "Can't you give him something, Beverly?"
Yeah, Beverly, Riker thought desperately. Can't you give me something?
"Transporter room three," came O'Brien's voice. "Ready when you are, Doctor."
Anything, Beverly, Riker thought harder. Anything at all. He would have asked her that aloud, but he couldn't find enough air to do the job.
"No," Crusher snapped. "I can't. Energize."
Before Picard could form another question, or even ask if his first officer was going to be all right, doctor and patient glimmered, glittered and were gone.
Beverly Crusher worked frantically, closing her mind to the onslaught of panic that lurked in the corner of every thought that formed in her head. He was not going to die. No matter what her instruments said, Will Riker was not going to die.
"Careful....careful...." She glared at the readings intently. "OK. Hold him steady there." Her eyes flicked to Ogawa, and then back to the displays that were only now beginning to level out.
"He's stabilizing," the slender nurse announced. Her voice was almost as relieved as her eyes.
"Okay." Crusher began to breathe again. "I want lab work on those samples yesterday."
Ogawa nodded and left them alone.
For the longest time, Beverly could do nothing but watch him. Despite what she'd told Deanna, the waxy caste of his complexion was familiar. It did bring back memories -- memories too fresh to be endured. They bubbled and boiled, a vile toxic cauldron, in the sterile little room of conscientious denial where she kept them locked away.
"Will." She whispered his name, thinking another, as she stroked his too-cold face. "Will. Can you hear me?"
He groaned quietly.
"Hang on, Will," she urged. She gripped his hand fiercely. "Hang on."
He shifted. His hand flexed around hers. It opened, and then closed again. His knuckles brushed her breast.
For a moment, the memory was a physical blow. She remembered the texture of his beard on her tongue, the heat of his breath against her throat, the cool pressure of his teeth in her flesh.
"How is he?"
Beverly started. She twisted, eyes searching the otherwise empty bay until she found what she knew she would: Deanna Troi lingering in the archway entrance. The Betazoid woman's dark, intent gaze was fixed unblinkingly on Riker. Her delicate fingers were white where they pressed against the bulkhead.
"Not good, Deanna," Crusher whispered.
Troi moved to Riker's side, never looking anywhere but at the restlessly unconscious first officer. She reached out to lay a hand's worth of fingers along Riker's sweat-beaded features.
"And how are you?" the counselor murmured.
It took a moment for Beverly to realize that the question was meant for her.
"Me?" she repeated numbly.
It occurred to her then that she was still holding Riker's hand. That she clung to it like a lover, rather than a doctor, or even a friend. Heat stung her neck and cheeks. She replaced his hand gently on the biobed and stepped away.
Troi didn't seem to notice the retreat. She bent closer to Riker's face. Her second hand joined the first, stroking his features gently, tenderly. "Yes, Beverly," the counselor whispered as if she were speaking to Riker. "You."
When Crusher didn't offer an answer, Troi's dark eyes pulled themselves from Riker with an effort. They were in search of the doctor and centered there with disturbingly direct focus.
"I...." Beverly took a step back. She shrank beneath the pressure of the Betazoid counselor's gaze. "I have work to do."
Troi stared harder at the doctor. It seemed to be a task for her to speak. The exotic features flexed along expressions that only half-formed before they changed, or went again blank.
"Beverly," she whispered finally. "Will needs you now."
"I'm doing everything I can--"
"Let the memory of him support you," Troi interrupted as if the other woman hadn't spoken. "Draw strength from it when you need strength. Don't let it cripple you."
"I'm afraid," Beverly admitted. "Afraid I'll fail him."
"He is your friend," Troi returned. She swung her attnetion back to Riker. "He has been your friend far longer than he was your lover."
The moment crystallized between them, and for its duration, Crusher couldn't force herself to breathe. Troi's words lay naked in the unflattering light of reality. So direct. So unflinching. For the briefest span of time, Beverly Crusher could not bear to face them.
Those moments passed.
She found a balance. Subtle lines redrew themselves within her. Medical priorities frayed from emotion Whether or not she failed became less important than whether or not she tried.
Will Riker needed her help.
He needed her now as he'd needed her a hundred times in the past. Brusied, battered, bleeding. Periodically tettering precariously close to death. He was one of her best patients. One of her most consistent.
And he was her friend.
Watching Troi and Riker, Beverly remembered blue eyes twinkling with mischief. That's funny. My bones don't feel excited. A grin twitching around the corners of his mouth, You're frowning, doctor.... The gentle humor in his expression belying the imposing brace of his broad-shouldered frame ... I think I should warn you that when it comes to poker, I take no prisoners ....
Deanna was right. Will Riker had been her friend for a very long time. She could remember so much about him that had nothing at all to do with Odan.
For a moment longer she watched them, and then, without another word, she turned and headed for the lab.
"His appendix burst," Crusher informed the captain, cutting straight to the chase. "We nearly lost him."
Again, echoed like an accusation in her head.
"Then he's out of danger ..."
Beverly shook her head. She met the hope in Picard's gaze and crushed it. "It wasn't appendicities, Jean-Luc. We've been running complete work-ups on him every twelve hours for the last week. His appendix was fine up until this morning."
"Classic rejection syndrome," she answered grimly. "The immuno-therapy accelerated out of control. His white cell count is off the scale. They're attacking his internal organs, destroying them. The appendix was only the first."
Picard watched his first officer toss restlessly on the diagnostic bed. Troi was at the commander's side. Her graceful fingers, her quiet voice stroked him constantly. The contact between them was never broken. The way she touched him, the way she talked to him was intensely private. Picard felt like an intruder watching it.
"How long does he have?"
"If we don't get him to a starbase for marrow re-stabilization and a complete arterial flush, I'd say eight to ten hours."
Picard watched Riker the counselor for a while longer. "Is there anything you can do for him here? On the ship?"
"We're doing everything we can," she allowed. "but there's quite a bit of cell mutation. They aren't reacting to traditional treatments."
There was a long silence. Too long. Beverly tore her eyes away from Riker and turned to Picard. He wouldn't meet her gaze.
"You realize, of course," he said finally, "that I cannot leave the colony unprotected."
"I'm aware of that," Crusher allowed tightly. In actuality, she'd been able to think of nothing else. It ate at her mind, her conscience, that so little of her cared whether or not the colony was left unprotected. "What about a rendezvous with another vessel? Either as a transport for Will, or to assume this standoff with the Volttein and free us to leave?"
Picard shook his head. "Nothing within range."
"A shuttle then." She was grasping at straws, and they both knew it.
"Starbase 882 is seven hours away at high warp," he reminded her gently.
Beverly turned back to Riker. "Then you tell me, Jean-Luc," she demanded in cold, quiet, frustrated rage. "Do we just let him die?"
"No," Picard answered after a long, hard pause. "We don't. We take him there ourselves."
"And the Volttein?" Crusher pressed.
"We take him there ourselves," Picard repeated, turning his back to the quiet soothings of Deanna Troi and heading for the door, "even if we have to drag the Volttein behind us every parsec of the way."
Picard stood in his Ready Room, staring out the viewing portal at the slowly rotating planet below them. Lestra III had been a colony for less than a decade. Before that, it was a rock. A piece of space debris locked in orbit around a small sun with a thin atmosphere and little or no indigenous flora or fauna.
But now, under charter from the Federation, a handful of terraformers struggled against overwhelming odds to transform their small place in the universe from rock and soil and scrub into an agricultural utopia. Though thus far, they'd experienced little success in the endeavor, they continued to toil dilligently, holding grimly to their allotment of faith and trusting in the Powers That Be to protect them from the unkown because they undeniably deserved protection.
And yet, staring down at it, it seemed once again nothing more than a rock. A predominantly lifeless mass in tenuious orbit around an insignificant star. No strategic importance, no mineral wealth.
It seemed a small price to pay for Will Riker's life.
Picard's features tightened painfully at his own contemplations. He knew where his duty lay, what it was that he must do. And yet, a part of him cared little or nothing about the thousands of men, women and children on the planet below. A part of him wanted to evacuate them, or leave them to the mercy of the Volttein, because not to do so would surely cost him the life of a man he had come to think of as his friend.
Perhaps, his only true friend.
Jean-Luc Picard shuttered. He despised that part of himself, the part that would think to sacrifice these ususpecting farmers for the sake of his own personal agenda. He could not abide it, could not tolerate it.
And yet, try as he might, he could not entirely vanquish it either.
Again he was reminded, as he had been so many times over the past five years, of why he'd made the rules in his life that he had. Why he chose to remain aloof from his command, why he chose not to choose friends from among them.
Just as Jack Crusher had been, Will Riker was a mistake.
Had he been a wiser man, he would never have allowed Riker to wear away his barriars with charm and wit and heroism in the face of insurmountable danger. He wouldn't have allowed respect for the gregarious first officer's personal code of ethics to mutate into anything more than the regard that must exist between a captain and his executive officer if they were to function as an effective team.
And he certainly would never have allowed Will Riker to become his friend.
Because now, when a friend would do whatever was necessary to save Riker's life, he was forced to choose once again, as he had been forced to choose in the past:
Duty over friendship.
Death over life.
Strangers over brothers.
For the hundredth time, she was temtped to administer a stronger sedative. He was in such pain. Even unconscious, he twisted beneath the fever of a body eating itself.
But she didn't, because she couldn't.
Though the immuno-suppressants were only partially effective in their work, they were at least that; and they not could continue to be that unless his system remained clear of secondary contamination.
So Beverly Crusher watched from her office, a plethera of moot data spread across her desk, as Will Riker, moment by moment, died.
Time wore by, fraying the captain's nerves. Each second ticked off another second of Will Riker's life. He sat in the command chair now, glaring at the planet from a different perspective, but still glaring nonetheless.
"Status, Mister Worf." Picard snapped.
"No change," Worf returned. "The Volttein have neither advanced nor withdrawn. Their weapon systems are on standby."
"Might I suggest, sir," Data offered, "that the Volttein are exercising a 'cat and mouse' strategy."
Picard frowned at the viewscreen. Though Data's analogy wasn't entirely befitting of the situation, he had a vague idea of how the android arrived at his conclusion. "Yes, Mister Data," he agreed, rather than pointing out the finer points of a cat and mouse scenario as it related to their current situation, "but do the Volttein consider us the cat or the mouse?"
Data turned from the Ops console. "Due to our vastly superior armament and offensive capabilities," the android answered seriously, "one must assume we would have to be considered the cat."
"And they're waiting for us to get bored and go away."
"It would seem a logical extrapolation," Data agreed.
Picard stood suddenly. His gaze sharpened into the screen, and he took a step forward. Eyes sweeping the panoramic view as if searching for something only he could see, the captain discovered the heart of his adversary and understood.
"Mais, oui...." he murmured more to himself than to the bridge compliment.
"Sir?" Data questioned.
"I believe, Mister Data," Picard said quietly, "that our Volttein friend has an entirely different game in mind. One of an infinitely more aggressive, more dangerous nature." Picard made up his mind then, nodding at the screen as if he'd come to some secret agreement with the starscape that adorned it. "Open hailing frequencies, Mister Worf," he ordered calmly, settling himself for the game to come.
He was dying. Minute by minute, second by second, Will Riker was dying. Life ebbed from his body. It seeped out his pores, escaped on every breath he exhaled.
And ultimately, it was her fault.
Beverly bowed her head to her hands. The stacks of paper on her desk shifted quietly when she moved, a reminder that perhaps -- just perhaps -- there was an answer to all this buried in them. Something she'd missed. Something she could do that would give him more time. Something. Anything.
She closed her eyes, haunted by her own voice.
There's no precedent for a Human host. I couldn't guarantee what might happen.
The words rang dully in her mind. Too little, said too late, and with too little conviction. Her hands tightened against her forehead. She should never have allowed him to take the risk.
No precedent, her voice echoed. No precedent.
She shouldn't have, but she did. She agreed to the implantation in spite of her gut instinct: that the danger was too great for the host. For Will. She did it in the desperate hope that Odan would live, and that somehow, everything would work out.
That Will would be strong enough.
The she would be good enough.
That fate would be kind enough.
That the mission was important enough.
All the reasons reminded themselves to her, but they rang false now, as they must have then. She'd blinded herself to anything but the rewards for success. She let Will minimize the risk, let him justify it. To himself. To her. To the captain.
Perhaps even, she'd helped.
Beverly's fingers pressed into her temples. She clenched her eyes tight against the accusations circling the quite office, but nothing could hide from her what she knew was the truth.
She'd let Riker talk her into it.
He was her friend, and she traded his life for Odan's.
"Hailing frequencies open," Worf informed the captain.
A moment later, the view of the Volttein vessel warbled and replaced itself with the gelatinous mass of its captain.
"We grow weary of this standoff," Picard began without introduction. "We are prepared to negotiate."
"You are trespassing on Volttein space," the Volttein captain responded like a broken record. "Retreat or be destroyed."
Picard smiled diplomatically. He adopted a conciliatory stance. "We don't wish to become involved in hostilities," he assured the alien. "We understand your position and are prepared to negotiate your claim to this planet."
"The Volttein do not negotiate for what is already theirs."
"Sir,...." Data started.
"Not now, Mister Data," Picard growled under his breath. He assumed his most banal smile. "We acknowledge your claim to the planet," he allowed generously. "Allow us time to evacuate our--"
"You are trespassing on Volttein space," the Volttein interrupted with great bravado. He seemed to take strength from Picard's attempts at mollification. He pressed every allowed appeasement and demanded more. "What exists on the planet is now Volttein."
"It is not our intention to precipitate hostilities," Picard repeated quickly.
"Retreat or be destroyed," the Volttein captain bellowed. The screen went abruptly, rudely blank.
"Hold us steady, Mister Raleigh," Picard instructed. He waited calmly, eyes intent on the viewscreen.
"Captain," Data tried again. "As I attempted to point out earlier, the Volttein culture is based entirely upon aggression as a form of acquisition. Any attempt at diplomacy -- most notably, at appeasement --- would be viewed as a sign of weakness."
"Yes, Mister Data," Picard answered quietly. "I know."
Data frowned. "Then I do not understand, sir," he stated. "Any acknowledgment of a Volttein claim to this sector of Federation space...."
"Steady, Mister Raleigh," Picard urged.
"....would be viewed by them as a such a sign, and would result in a response of an aggressive nature. Therefore, the Volttein's most probably course of action would be one of...."
"The Volttein weapon systems have come on-line," Worf stated. "Main weapons array charging. They are preparing to fire on us."
"Are they indeed," Picard murmured.
"... attack," Data finished.
"The Volttein are firing," Worf announced. The forward shields flared yellow and the ship rocked almost negligibly. "Forward shields holding," Worf reported. "No substantive damage incurred."
Data turned back to his console. "All decks reporting," he offered. "No casualties."
"Lock phasers on the Volttein offensive weapons array," Picard ordered calmly. "and their main propulsions system, while you're at it. Fire at minimal intensity required to disable both systems." His expression hardened into a slight, humorless smile. "Be very careful, Mister Worf. We don't want to break anything. Just give them a bit of a bloody nose."
"Phasers locked," Worf acknowledged. "Firing phasers."
Half a dozen fingers of light lanced across the abyss of space to tap the Volttein vessel a handful of locations.
"The Volttein's weapon array has been disabled," Worf announced, satisfaction coloring his tone. "Their engines are off-line. Impulse capability only."
"Very good, Mister Worf. A bloody nose, to be sure." Picard tugged at his tunic and settled into a less formal stance. "Raise the Volttein captain for me."
"He is hailing us," Worf informed Picard.
"Very well. Put him on screen."
The Volttein bridge took the place of space. "Upon further examination of the planet Ferra Sel-e-ne," he announced haughtily, "the Volttein find nothing of interest. You may keep the planet, Federation captain. We no longer have any use of it."
"How generous of you," Picard allowed. "We accept your denouncement of any and all claims to Ferra Sel-e-ne," for the sake of expediency, he used the Volttein designation for Lestra III, "and demand your immediate retreat from Federation territory."
"We leave only because our mission here is complete," the Volttein retorted.
"As long as you leave," Picard agreed. His eyes darkened. "But do it now."
"Because we wish to," the Volttein countered. His image went blank, and the screen resumed its view of the Volttein vessel's exterior. Turning in place, the small ship set a course for the border between Volttein and Federation space and set off as fast as it could limp.
Though he knew to the moment the time, Picard glanced over Data's shoulder at the mission chronometer glowing on the Ops console. He smiled slightly, the tension easing out of his spine.
"Mister Worf. Inform the colonists that their Volttein problem is resolved. Set a course for Starbase 882, Ensign Raleigh. Warp factor eight."
"Warp factor eight," Raleigh verified.
Picard settled back into the command chair. "Bridge to Sickbay," he hailed.
The response was immediate: "Crusher here."
Picard flicked a button on the panel inset in the arm of his chair, prefering to deliver this particualar message in person. The main viewscreen dissolved into a visual of Beverly Crusher's office. The doctor glanced up from the scatter of hard-copy spread in disarray across her desk. She seemed surprised at the automatic computer notification of inter-ship visual display. As Picard's face took shape on her monitor, however, the surprise melted to a sharply anticipatory fire of hope.
"We shall be arriving at Starbase 882 in approximately..."
"Seven hours and fourteen minutes," Data supplied.
"...seven hours and fourteen minutes, Doctor." Picard smiled at the grease of relief that nearly slid Beverly Crusher's expression off her haggard features. "Please have your patient prepared for transport at that time."
"The Volttein?" Crusher asked.
"They couldn't stand the heat, so to speak," Picard answered blandly.
Slowly, Crusher smiled. Her hands found each other and laced together atop the scatter of papers. The stoop to her shoulders straighted.
"I'll call ahead and let 882 know we're coming," she agreed. The gratitude in her eyes almost equalled the relief, but she left both unspoken over the intra-ship communication. "Crusher out," she finished simply after a long moment.
The main screen went back to its soothing view of stars. For almost a minute, Picard sat precisely as he was, eyes distant as he remembered another friend, in another time.
"Query, sir," Data turned from the Ops console to face the captain. "You knew the Volttein would respond to our overtures of negotiation with hostile force."
"I suspected," Picard allowed, his eyes focusing slowly on the curious android. "Bullies are bullies, no matter what their race."
"Ah," Data nodded eagerly. "Bully. Yes. I understand. But," he frowned again, "I fail to understand why hostile confrontation would be a desirable occurrence."
"Because, Mister Data," Picard explained, leaning back comfortably in his seat. "We did not have the luxury of time on our side; and there is a point, in every negotiation, when the time comes to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. With the Volttein, that moment just came earlier, rather than later."
"Take the bull by the horns," Data echoed. "Accessing: to take action, to take matters into one's own hands, to...."
"Precisely, Mister Data," Picard cut him off. "Or in this case, to let the Volttein take matters into their own hands."
It occured to Picard periferrally that they had not yet shifted into warp drive. He glanced at the Raleigh and found the young helmsman patiently waiting, as only a green ensign would, for a specific order to engage.
"Engage, Mister Raleigh," he obliged.
"Engaging," Raleigh repeated dutifully.
With a certain sense of satisfaction, Picard watched the stars bleed into long lines of light against the main viewscreen, marking their acceleration to warp eight. He considered the view for a long moment, warmed by the knowledge that Riker would be in satisfactory medical facilities soon, and back in his place on the brige shortly after that.
"After all," the captain continued finally, his lips shadowing the half-smile in his eyes, "as the Volttein so graciously pointed out, it would have been in direct violation of Federation dictates to open fire on a vessel of inferior weapons capability." The smile worked its way clear of the captain's wry sobriety to settle comfortably and fully into his aquiline features. "Unless, of course, it's a matter of self-defense."
"Then your goal was, from the beginning," Data said slowly, "to disable the Volttein offensive capabilities."
"Sometimes," Picard countered, "preventative medicine is the best medicine."
Data considered that. "I believe I understand, sir," he said finally. "Except...."
Picard sighed. "Yes, Mister Data?" he prompted the unasked inquiry.
"You mentioned a game, sir," the android reminded him.
The self-satisfaction in Picard's expression sank a little deeper into his features. "Yes. I did, didn't I?"
"May I inquire as to the nature of this game?" Data pressed.
"It's an old Earth game, Data," Picard told him. "A game not unlike poker, in its own way. But with very high stakes. And much more dependent on courage and cunning, rather than the luck of the draw. It is a game every boy plays at one time or another in his life. A right of passage, if you will."
"I would be interested in learning this game," Data commented.
"It's not something you learn, Data," Picard corrected. "It's something you either are or are not."
"puq ngIl," Worf observed.
"Quite, Mister Worf. I believe every race has an equivalent."
Data's golden features twisted with a frown of consternation. "I fail to see what a crying child has to do with the current discussion," he observed finally.
"The Klingons equate the challenge to a crying child," Picard explained. "The Human male has another name for it: He who Flinches First, Mister Data. Or, in the vernacular: Chicken."
Data's head twitched first to one side, and then to the other. "Chicken," he repeated finally. "Fowl, cock, hen, pullet, fryer, broiler, capon...." He looked first at the captain, and then at Worf. Neither of them offered anything helpful. "A most unusual designation for a diversional activity," he observed finally, turning back to his station.
Picard watched the stars fling themselves past the main viewscreen as the USS Enterprisehurled effortlessly through space. "But then 'Chicken,' Mister Data," he told the android with a slight smile, "is a most unusual game."
Troi could hardly keep her eyes open. She'd been at his side every moment, holding his hand, speaking to him, trying desparately to give him something to hold on to, something to live for. He needed to remember he had friends, people who loved him. He needed that to hold on.
But now, now that he was resting comfortably and he was out of danger and the doctors smiled when they came in to check on him, she found exhaustion swarming over her like hungry ants. It pricked her skin and twitched her muscles and made her eyes burn.
"You're exhausted, Deanna," Beverly Crusher said from the doorway. "Why don't you get some sleep?"
Troi looked up, squinting in a vain attempt to force the other woman into focus. "I don't want him to wake up alone," she answered after a moment.
Crusher stepped across the threshold and let the door hiss shut behind her. "I'll stay with him."
Despite the offer, Troi sensed reticience in her friend. "Beverly ..." she started.
Crusher smiled. "I want to stay with him," she interrupted. "I think ... I think I need to stay with him. For a while at least. Until I'm sure he's all right."
Troi closed her eyes for just a moment, and almost didn't have the strength to open them again.
"Deanna," Crusher chided. "Go get some sleep."
Troi shook herself awake, surprised to find that the doctor had crossed the room in what she'd thought was only a blink.
"Just for a few hours," she said pushing to an unsteady stand.
"A few dozen," Crusher corrected firmly. "Doctor's orders."
Troi looked down at Riker. His face was lax in sleep, free of pain for the first time in what seemed an eternity.
"You saved his life, Beverly."
"I had more than my share of help. Jean-Luc took a big risk forcing the Volttein's hand that way."
Troi smiled. "Will has more than his share of friends," she noted. "And with as much time as he spends flat on his back in a biobed, he needs them all." She met Crusher's eyes. "Especially you."
Crusher drew a deep breath and returned the smile. "Get some sleep, Counselor," she ordered.
Deanna nodded. She bent quickly to place a kiss on Riker's cheek, to stroke his features one last time and whisper something softly against his ear. Then she left, her gait slightly unsteady and not entirely linear.
Beverly sighed and took the seat Troi had vacated. She watched Will Riker sleep for some time before she leaned forward and took his hand in hers.
He wasn't asleep, really. But he wasn't awake either. He was resting in a place that was a little of both and lot of neither.
The gentle voice intruded on his sanctuary of silence. It pulled on him, tugging at the edges of his non-awareness. The womb comfort of sedated half-sleep began to bleed away. He found to his surprise that he had hands, and feet, and then arms and legs.
He tensed slightly, suddenly afraid. A small voice inside him warned him off. It told him he not to go any further, that along such roads lay only pain.
He began to sink again, hiding.
"It's all right, Will. Come on. Try and open your eyes for me."
He recognized her voice then. Beverly. He trusted Beverly. She wouldn't call to him unless it was safe for him to go.
Will Riker slid slowly into the blinding brilliance of day. He pushed his eyes open with an effort, and found Beverly Crusher watching him, smiling at him, holding his hand.
"About time you got around to waking up," she chided gently. "We were beginning to think you were going to sleep all week."
"Where am I?" Riker whispered. His voice was dry, cracked. He shifted as if he thought to sit up.
Immediately, Crusher's free hand moved to press against his shoulder, but she needn't have bothered. He didn't have the strength to wiggle his toes, let alone actually pull himself upright. Not only that, but he lacked the inclination as well.
"You're in a recovery ward on Starbase 882," she told him gently.
Riker frowned. The last thing he remembered was a belligerent Volttein and one hell of a belly ache.
"How'd I get here?" he asked after a moment.
"The Enterprise brought you."
"What about Lestra III? The Volttein?"
Crusher smiled tiredly. "Jean-Luc called their bluff, and they didn't have the stake to stay in the game."
Riker thought about that for several seconds. "Sounds interesting," he grunted quietly. "Wish I'd been around to catch the action."
Crusher's smile settled deeper into her expression. "You're lucky to be around at all, Commander," she informed him. Her hand shifted from his shoulder to brush slightly disheveled hair out of his eyes.
The gesture surprised him. She hadn't actually touched him since ....
She caught the reflection of his thoughts in his expression and the gesture pulled itself away. She tried to retrieve her hand as well, but when he realized he had it, Riker tightened his grip on it possessively.
"What ... what happened?" he asked, searching for something to keep her talking. To keep her from melting away, or even worse, freezing up. "Did I have a relapse?"
"Why don't you get some rest, Will." She smiled at him. "We'll talk about this later."
Again, she tried to untangle her hand from his.
And again, he tightened his grip.
"Don't go," he muttered. "I mean ... do you have to go?"
"I should be getting back to the ship," she said in her best excuse voice. "I have a lot of work to--"
"Yeah," Riker interrupted. For a moment, he looked angry; and then he just looked tired. "Work to do. I know." He let go of her hand, releasing her to leave with both his fingers and his eyes.
For some time, Beverly remained where she was, perched on the edge of his bed. "You've memorized my lines," she said finally.
"I understand," he returned.
He closed his eyes. "I'm tired, Beverly."
"We've never really have talked about it, have we?" She touched him again, her fingers trembling where they laid themselves on the neutrality of his forearm.
Riker opened his eyes again. He watched her, waiting for her lead so he'd know which direction to go.
"I wasn't sure you remembered," she allowed hesitantly. "I didn't know how much of you ..." she stumbled. "How symbiotic the relationship was," she corrected.
For a moment, he considered lying to her. It would be easier. Certainly on her, perhaps on them both. But almost as soon as he considered it, he rejected the notion. He had too much respect for her to lie.
"I remember most of it," he allowed.
Crusher nodded as if she expected as much. "Deanna told me that you and she ..." Again, she stumbled. "That you talked."
"I needed to talk to someone," Riker said quietly.
Crusher shook her head. "I know that. I didn't mean ..." she shook her head again. "I'm sorry, Will. I'm sorry I've been avoiding you like the plague. I'm sorry I didn't realize you were sick in Ten Forward. I'm sorry I let you talk me into performing the implantation in the first place when I knew it--"
"Whoa," Riker laid a hand over her's. "Stop. Hold it. Take a breath."
Crusher closed her mouth over the other things she wanted to appologize for.
"First," he said quietly. "I underwent the implantation for my own reasons. Securing that peace treaty was important enough to warrant the risks."
"But I knew it was dangerous--"
"And you think I didn't? I left a subspace communique for my father in my personal que. To be sent automatically, just in case."
Crusher blinked. "Did you send it?"
Riker's serious features broke into a grin. "Hell no. I survived."
"What did it say?"
"Things the old bastard doesn't need to know until I'm dead. But the point is, I knew what I was doing. I went in with my eyes wide open and I came out of it better than I thought I would."
"You can still say that?" Crusher inquired quietly. "After these last two weeks?"
"I'm still alive and kicking. That's what counts in the long run."
"I was afraid I was going to lose you."
Riker's eyes darkened slightly. "I was, too," he admitted. "But you didn't. You pulled me through like you always do." He shifted slightly and grimaced. "Thanks, Doc."
Crusher was studying him with doctor's eyes again. She noted his slight loss of color from the exertion of speaking, and the way he'd taken to blinking twice as often as he should.
"You're wearing yourself out," she decided. "I want you to get some sleep."
"I've been sleeping on and off for two weeks," he complained.
"I hardly think that counts, Commander," she told him in mock reproach. "Now close your eyes."
He stared at her long and hard. "Will you stay?" he asked after a moment.
"I'll stay," she agreed. "I'll even hold your hand, if you like."
Riker lifted his hand off the mattress, an effort that took more strength than it should have. "Deal," he said quietly.
Beverly took it and squeezed. "I'm flattered. I noticed that you didn't take Jean-Luc up on the same offer the other day."
Riker grinned wearily. "He's not my type," he allowed, eyes slipping closed as he spoke.
"He's called about you six times, you know."
"Tell him I'll be up to my old tricks in no time."
Crusher smiled. "I'll tell him. Now go to sleep."
Riker settled deeper in the bed. His hand laxed in her grip. His breathing regularized. She thought he'd gone to sleep when he spoke again, "Beverly?"
"I thought you were going to sleep," she chided.
"The next time I stick my hand up to volunteer for something," he murmurred. "Anything... just break it off at the elbow, will you?"
Beverly's grip became more possessive. "You, William Riker," she stated, voice tremoring slightly. "Have got yourself a deal."
Riker nodded once, sighed deeply, and this time, really and truly, went to sleep.