Elbow Room

a novella By BEKi

Character codes: R/T, Crew, Tom, several Maquis

Timeline Note: The prologue takes place directly after the events detailed in the DS9 episode Defiant. For those of you keeping track, the story proper begins approximately nine months after the Defiant Incident and two weeks before the events detailed in the opening sequence of the Voyager pilot, Caretaker.
Author's Note: This story is a sequel to "The Last Goodbye," a short-short story (originally published in NumberOne 2, posted on the TNG website) I wrote to suggest a plausible explanation for the glaring Riker character inconsistencies that occurred in the DS9 episode Defiant. As it pre-supposes a certain level of knowledge of the "explanation" (which more or less turns cannon on its ear), I've tacked that vignette on the front of the story in the form of a prologue. If you've already read "The Last Goodbye," feel free to skip the prologue and begin reading "Elbow Room" at its original start point: "You must be very bitter ..." Special thanks to Greg Lash and Randall Landers. Without their extensive input and treknical expertise, this story would never have happened.


Deanna Troi sat very still, her eyes misted with tears she was trying her best not to show. After what seemed an eternity, the Cardassian emblem on the screen faded to a familiar face.

"Counselor Troi," Gul Dukat greeted, smiling his most ingratiating smile. "You're looking well."

She didn't bother responding, for she knew she looked nearly as devastated as she felt. Instead, she waited, staring dully into the small desktop monitor, until he chose to continue.

"I understand your distress," Dukat allowed after a beat. "It must be difficult to accept that a lover could turn traitor to all you believe in. I extend my sympathies."

With an effort, Troi gathered her voice. "Commander Sisko said I would be allowed to speak with him."

"It was his last request," Dukat agreed. "And although the sentence wasn't death, it was somewhat of a ... final ... determination. We thought it only decent to honor the petition." Dukat smiled. "You see, we aren't the barbarians you make us out to be."

"May I speak with him then?" Troi asked, her voice tight with pain.

"Yes, of course."

Dukat stepped aside, and after a moment, the familiar bearded countenance of William T. Riker dominated the screen. He looked good: well treated and only a little gaunt around the eyes for his ordeal. He smiled when he saw her, an expression that lit the deepest recesses of his eyes.


For a moment, neither of them said anything more.

It was Troi who finally broke the silence. "I wish I could say I understand, Tom," she whispered, her voice breaking.

His smile became forced, pained. Only years of poker kept the agony in his eyes from bleeding into his expression. "I wish I could explain," he returned gently. "But they haven't allowed me much time. I don't want to waste it expounding on political treatises, or justifying things that don't seem all that important any more. I'd rather spend it looking at you. I'd rather spend it saying goodbye."

"I don't want to say goodbye."

Riker drew a long, slow breath and released it. "I love you, Deanna," he said calmly. "I always have, and I always will. Someday - someday soon - you'll understand exactly how much."

"You loved me so much you wanted to spend the rest of your life in a Cardassian work camp?" she demanded bitterly.

He shrugged slightly. "That wasn't the plan," he allowed. "That's just the way it worked out."

Behind him, a Cardassian barked a curt warning.

"They're telling me we've wasted enough of the rest of my life," Riker told her wryly. "I guess they have some big rocks waiting for me to break into a bunch of little rocks." He squared his shoulders, braced himself to lose the transcomm signal. "My father always said I'd end up dead or in prison," he allowed. "The worst part of all of this is proving him right. Tell Jean-Luc goodbye for me, and tell Wes I expect great things from him." There were tears in his eyes, but his chin was lifted in defiant pride. "Goodbye, Imzadi," he whispered as the screen faded to black.

She sat where she was for almost a full minute, too devastated to cry. Her thoughts were a tangle in her mind, her emotions a whirlpool of grief.

The call button to her quarters buzzed quietly. She didn't answer, but the door opened anyway.

"Imzadi?" Riker called from the doorway.

She stood and turned. He came to the pain in her eyes because it wasn't in him to stay away. For minute upon minute he held her in silence, his arms a safe haven from the storm. When she could, she stepped back.

"I don't understand," she whispered, sinking to the edge of the couch. "He had so much to live for, and he threw it all away."

Riker took a seat at her side. "Imzadi ..."

"Don't call me that, Will," she interrupted. Her eyes lifted, found his. "I know that for years, imzadi has been a term of endearment between us. A term of friendship. But that isn't what it means. It means beloved. It means -" her voice broke. "Just, please don't call me that," she finished.

He drew a deep breath and released it.

"I don't mean to hurt you, Will -" she started.

"I'm not Will," Riker told her quietly. "At least, not to you."

Troi froze. "What do you mean?" she whispered.

"I mean that the man you're speaking to when you say Will is in a Cardassian prison."

Troi's eyes lifted slowly. She stared at him as if he were a ghost.

"He was on a mission, Deanna," he explained quietly. "A mission to expose the Obsidian Order's secret fleet. Starfleet asked me to do it: He volunteered instead."

"Tom?" was all she could manage.

He smiled at her, the reflection in his eyes a veiled apprehension Will Riker could not have managed. "Disappointed?" he asked.

She began to tremble. Tear welled in her eyes, tracking wet rivers down her face. "Why?" she murmured.

"He said I'd lost enough of my life."

"And you ..." her voice quavered "... you let him go?"

The question cut him, but he didn't look away. "He outranks me, Deanna," he reminded her quietly instead. "And it wasn't a request. Someone had to go, and he made it clear to Starfleet that he wanted that someone to be him."

"But they said it was you -"

"Starfleet couldn't allow an officer of Will's stature to take such a visible role. It had to be someone expendable: Someone who'd be an embarrassment, but not an intergalactic incident." His eyes flickered bitter. "Someone like me. That's why they contacted me in the first place. I guess they figured Will had everything I might want to live for."

She stared at him for a long moment in silence, then whispered, "So what happens now?"

"I take his place," Riker answered just as quietly. "As he once took mine."

"Here? On the Enterprise."

"And with you," he agreed. "If you'll have me."

"We were friends," she noted.

"You and I?"

"Will and I," she corrected. "We were friends, not lovers."

"He told me that," Riker allowed. "He said that was why it had to be him: Because you and he were friends, and because you and I weren't."

"He went for me?"

"He went because he felt it was his duty. And because he felt he was more qualified to keep the other members of the team alive long enough for Sisko to do his part with Dukat. I don't have any command experience: He does."

"But you're going to take over here? As the first officer of the Federation flagship?"

"Starfleet feels I can handle it. Will did, too."

"Does the captain know?"

"Yes. The captain, Commander Sisko, maybe three others in Starfleet's top echelon of command."

"What will happen to Will? Are they just going to leave him to rot on Lazon II?"

Riker sighed. "It wasn't part of the plan for him to get captured. He made a tactical error - under-estimated someone he shouldn't have under-estimated - and it was the best Sisko could salvage out of the situation."

"What about a rescue attempt?"

"It has to look like Starfleet wasn't involved. If he were to be rescued now ..."

Troi put a hand over her mouth. She turned away for a moment, her shoulders trembling.

"Imza -" Riker stopped himself and re-phrased, "Deanna ..."

"No." Troi turned. Tears ran freely down her face; but her lips trembled to a smile, and mingled with the agony in her eyes, was something else. "No, Tom," she whispered, placing a hand on the side of his face. "Not Deanna. Imzadi."



"You must be very bitter," Grellel Tabias noted, shifting uncomfortably on the narrow slab of stone that served as his sleeping palette in the dark, cramped cell.

"Bitter?" Riker repeated.

"Bitter," Grellel agreed. "Angry ... outraged. He usurped your life, your woman, your career, your very self. Everything you once had is his, and all he left you was this cursed fate: rotting in a Cardassian mine with the rest of us."

Will Riker smiled slightly in the impenetrable darkness. "You're not so bad, Grellel," he demurred. "A little ripe, but otherwise tolerable."

"You know what I mean," Grellel insisted. "If he had given you a chance - split your birthright with you as would only have been fair - you would never have been driven to join the Maquis in the first place. You would have served your destiny in Starfleet and shared in the glory that he stole as his own."

"You seem to have a relatively low opinion of me," Riker mused.

"Not of you," Grellel countered. "Of the other one ... of Commander Riker, the infamous hero of the Borg Wars and stealer of other men's lives."

Riker sighed. "It's really not that black and white. It was his life as much as mine ... perhaps even more so. After all, he lived the seven years that promoted him from a lieutenant to a commander. He put in the time to heal the wounds of broken promises with Troi. Maybe he deserves his happiness. Maybe he shouldn't have to pay penance for something that was never his fault in the first place."

"Maybe he should have realized that it wasn't your fault either," Grellel snapped. "Maybe he should have lent you a helping hand instead of blocking your every move. Maybe he should have shared his life with you instead of trying to live it regardless of whether or not it was his to live."

"He got me the commission on the Ghandi," Riker noted.

"A scientific vessel," Grellel retorted. "Why not a starship? Why not the Enterprise? Was he afraid you'd show him up? Was he afraid you'd climb through the ranks faster, or perhaps get a command before him? Or maybe he just knew that you'd get bored on a scientific vessel and do something destructive. Maybe he understood himself well enough to know that if he took enough away from you, you'd do exactly what you did."

"Maybe the Ghandi was the only posting available," Riker muttered.

Grellel snorted derisively. "You're an odd duck, my friend," he announced. "If a man took from me what Commander Will Riker took from you, I wouldn't make excuses for him. I'd pass every hour of every day plotting my revenge. I'd picture him in my head and imagine the horrible ways I would desecrate him if and when I ever escaped this miserable rock."

Riker shifted slightly on his own stone pallet. He was still hungry, as was usually the case, and his throat was parched raw. Despite the discomfort of talking, however, he continued the conversation because the sound of his cellmate's voice in the darkness was more often than not the only difference between sanity and insanity in this God-forsaken place.

"Placing blame at this late stage of the game would be nothing more than an exercise in futility," he muttered. "I got myself into this knowing what it would entail. I can't see any use wasting my energy hating a man for living a life to which he's rightfully entitled."

Grellel laughed quietly. "What else are you going to waste your energy on, Tom?" he asked.

Will Riker closed his eyes. The darkness was no different, no more or less dense. He opened them, closed them, opened them again. He tried to remember her face and failed. "I don't know," he said finally, "but I'll think of something."


She wasn't speaking to him again. It wasn't an obvious thing - she didn't refuse to answer if he spoke, or look a hole through him if he made a passing comment - but it was something he'd experienced enough to recognize it for what it was when the cabin got unnaturally quiet and she took far too much interest in a book she'd just yesterday pronounced weepy-eyed crap.

Tom Riker sighed. He watched her pretend she didn't notice him watching her and sighed again.

"Can't we talk about this?" he asked finally.

Troi closed her book and set it aside. "Talk about what, Tom?" she asked, fixing him with that irritating look she had that was half condescending, half sneer and half down right disgust and screw the fact that three halves did not make a whole. "What would you like to talk about? What exactly do you think we have enough common ground on to discuss?"

The muscles along the back of his neck tensed with irritation. "You know," he said tightly, "for a professional counselor, you can be ... " he struggled not to say what he wanted to say, " ... real irritating," he finished finally. "Damned irritating."

Troi just looked at him. "Well that was insightful," she commented after a moment. "Anything else?"

Tom thrust to his feet. "No," he snapped. "Nothing else, Deanna. I'll be in Ten Forward if you need me. Or if you want to talk. Or if you just feel like being pissy with somebody, and I'm the only guy that comes to mind." Without another word, he stalked from the room.

Deanna Troi sat without moving for over a minute. When she did move, it was to once again pick up her book.


"Screw it," Tom Riker announced, taking a deeper drink of his synthehol and glaring a little harder at the wall. "It doesn't matter what I say, or what I do, all I get is grief."

"Women are difficult by nature," Worf agreed, trying to be helpful. "I have found them to be consistently more trouble than they are worth."

"Amen to that," Tom agreed. Swinging his eyes like a battle ax around the room, he studied the crowd gathering in the lounge to celebrate the end of their shift and the beginning of someone else's. The noise spawned by their communal joviality was a source of constant irritation to him. After so many years with only his own voice to keep him company, the maddening drone of four or five dozen crewmen chatting and laughing about God knows what was almost enough to drive him from Ten Forward to a quieter refuge.

Almost, but not quite.

Synthehol made the difference. Blandly watered-down fraudulent synthetic imitation of an intoxicant that it was, it was still the only game in town; and Ten Forward was still the only place on the ship that imbibing it wasn't a direct violation of Starfleet regulations. So as long as Troi was bent on making his life a living hell, and as long as he was determined to let her do so; Tom Riker would grit his teeth, set aside his intolerances and put up with the damned noise for whatever anemic solace the synthehol might actually offer.

"A hell of a lot more trouble," Tom growled after a beat. "And too damned much work, if you ask me. What was I thinking? How could I have ever deluded myself into thinking I could make this work?"

"Come on, Commander," LaForge said quietly from across the table. "It's not that bad. You're just in a rough spot right now. Every relationship hits the rapids now and again. It's part of the game."

"This isn't a game, Geordi," Tom countered darkly. "It's a blood sport." He drained his glass of synthescotch in one long draw and then began tapping it loudly on the table. Already well aware of the first officer's foul mood, Silla Coom, the waiter on duty, had another glass waiting. He appeared out of nowhere and exchanged Tom's empty for a Surian sunrise.

"What is this crap?" Tom demanded of the young man. "Do I look like I'm in the mood for fruit juice and sugar?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Coom said. "I thought Torrie told me she was serving you Surian sunrises."

"Salurian scotch," Tom corrected acidly. He held up his shot glass by the base and shook it under the waiter's nose. "A real drink, Silla. The kind that comes in a real glass. Is that too much to ask?"

"No, sir. I'll get one right away." Coom retrieved the Surian Sunrise and scurried away.

"And hurry up," Tom called after him.

"Ease off, Commander," LaForge said quietly. "He's doing the best he can."

Tom swung his glare on the chief engineer. "You the conflict intervention delegate this week, Geordi?" he challenged. "Or'd you just get tired of walking and decide to hitch a ride on the nag Riker bandwagon?"

LaForge frowned. Letting the challenge pass, he said instead, "Maybe something's bothering her."

"Something's bothering her all right," Tom grumbled, staring into his empty glass. "Me."

"Something other than you," LaForge pressed.

Tom grunted, but didn't answer.

"Perhaps she is not getting enough chocolate," Worf suggested. "When we spent time together, I found chocolate to be very helpful."

Tom shook his head. "This is a little beyond chocolate, Worf," he muttered.

"Nothing is beyond chocolate," Worf returned firmly. "At least, that was never my experience with Counselor Troi."

"You guys dated for six months, Worf," LaForge chided. "I think you can call her Deanna."

"Counselor Troi and I have a professional relationship, now," Worf returned a little testily.

"Now maybe," LaForge pressed, "but not then."

"Then, I did not call her Counselor Troi," Worf reasoned.

"Where in the hell's my drink?" Tom demanded. He ran a quick but fruitless recon of the lounge in search of Coom, then asked Worf, "Why did the two of you stop dating anyway?"

Worf's brow ridge flexed to a frown. "I found her very ... irritating," he allowed. "And she found me very ... inflexible. In addition, my inability to develop a liking for chocolate was a consideration."

Tom snorted. "Well at least that's a reason." He pushed his chair back from the table as if to rise. "I think Silla ran away. I'm going to the bar and get my own damned - uh, oh."

Both LaForge and Worf glanced up. Following the line of Tom's gaze, they found Guinan walking toward them, her expression one of utter calm. Already half way to his feet, Tom Riker sank back into his chair.

"Hello, Commander," Guinan greeted serenely. "I'll be your new waiter." She set a glass of orange juice on the table before him. "And this is what you'll be drinking."

"Orange juice?" Tom challenged.

Guinan smiled. "Yes."

Tom sighed. "Is this your way of saying I'm not playing well with others today?" he asked.

"You're a very perceptive man," Guinan allowed.

Tom sighed again, more heavily and with greater emotion. "Damn it, Guinan," he said wearily. "I don't want orange juice. I've had a hard day, and I'm in a bad mood."

"Really?" Guinan returned unflappably. "I would have never guessed."

"All right, all right. I get the message. I'll behave myself. Now can I get another drink?"

"No," Guinan said, "but if you behave yourself, I'll let you stay and drink your orange juice."

"I don't want orange juice," Tom repeated snappishly.

"Then I suggest you try the holodeck," Guinan countered. "The waiters there are programmed with six centimeter duranium skins, and holographic synthehol doesn't influence the psychological state in even a diminished capacity."

Tom rubbed at his forehead. "Duranium skin, huh?" he muttered. "Am I really being that much of a terror?"

"Worse," Guinan assured him. "Try the orange juice. You'll feel better." She moved gracefully away, her full skirts whispering like a dozen naughty boys in church.

Staring disconsolately at the glass before him, Tom Riker considered the complex web of deceits that had brought him to this moment in time. Across the table, Geordi LaForge watched him watch the juice for almost a minute before he said what he'd been trying not to say since Tom strode into Ten Forward looking for all the world like a bull in search of a china shop.

"You're not thinking about calling it quits, are you, Commander?"

Tom sighed, shaking his head. "Haven't you been listening, Geordi?" he muttered. "I'm well past thinking and half way into doing."

LaForge's expression hardened subtly. "Maybe you should give it some more thought," he suggested.

"What's there to think about? I am so sick of this shit. Whatever I thought we'd have, this isn't it."

"You've sacrificed a lot to be with Counselor Troi," LaForge insisted. "It would be stupid to throw it away over a simple argument."

"Not a simple argument," Tom countered. "It's a whole bunch of simple arguments. Every hour of every day: stupid, moronic, meaningless arguments over absolutely nothing. All we ever do is argue. I can't open my mouth any more without getting my head bitten off."

"It takes two to argue," LaForge pointed out.

Tom snorted. "You've obviously never lived with a Betazoid," he grunted. "They can argue with a tree, if they take a mind to it."

"You knew that about her before you got into this."

"Maybe so, but I gotta say it's nothing like I thought it would be. I'm not sure it's worth the effort. I don't even enjoy being around her any more. And she sure as hell doesn't enjoy being around me. It's not like I thought it would be. Not at all."

"So you just give up?"

"Give up?" Tom repeated sharply. He glared at the engineer over the glass of untouched orange juice. "What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"

LaForge's features flexed. He swung his visor away, taking a sudden interest in the Ten Forward crowd. "Never mind," he muttered, taking a draw on his drink.

"Never mind, my ass." Tom leaned into the table between them. "You said it: you obviously meant something by it. What are you trying to say, Geordi?"

"I'm just trying to remind you what's at stake," LaForge muttered.

"I know what's at stake," Tom assured the engineer. "But - not to put too fine a point on it - it is my life; and if Dee and I aren't working out, that's between me and her, don't you think?"

"Then don't ask my opinion," LaForge snapped.

"I didn't ask your opinion," Tom retorted. "I asked if I could join you and Worf for a drink. I didn't realize that was the same thing as making an appointment for co-habitation counseling."

LaForge thrust to his feet. Even behind the VISOR, the anger in his dark features was palpable. "I've got things to do," he announced, and then he stalked away, leaving his half-empty drink where it sat.

Tom looked to Worf. "What in the hell's gotten into him?" he demanded.

Worf met Tom Riker's gaze for a long moment, studiously fierce in the way he maintained absolutely no expression at all. After a long beat, he stood as well. "I, too, have duties to attend," he said. Then, like LaForge, he walked away.


Troi laughing. Troi crying. Troi eating a chocolate sundae.

Will Riker staggered slightly, nearly overcome with exhaustion and the overbearing weight of the sun on his burned red skin. The surface of Lazon II was a blast furnace made of solid stone. Though the thick cloud of asteroidal debris orbiting the penal colony defused much of the planet's direct light, it did little to shield them from the punishing heat. Atmosphere so thin it barely served a man at rest seemed utterly devoid of oxygen under the duress of hard labor. Fearing he would pass out if he didn't, Riker paused in the task of breaking rocks to catch his breath.

Troi basking in the healing waters of a Risan public bath. Troi standing utterly nude beneath the Veholoan falls on Betazed. Troi whispering his name in the hollows of his brain.

A Cardassian overseer prodded him with the end of a sanction wand, then struck him when he didn't respond quickly enough. The blow knocked him off balance. He fell to one knee, the flesh of his lower leg opening to the bone in a jagged line that ran from knee to ankle. Blood seeped from the wound, sizzling audibly on the seared surface of a nearby rock.

Troi bluffing with two of a kind. Troi cupping a baby wingersling protectively in her hands as the mother swooped them repeatedly with her razor-edged beak. Troi throwing a snowball at the back of an unsuspecting Beverly Crusher's head.

Grellel caught Riker by one elbow. The Bajoran helped him to his feet and stabilized him there, taking his own blow from the sanction wand for the effort. Riker muttered a grunt of appreciation, then struggled the mining tool in his hands to one shoulder.

Troi breathing. Troi moaning. Troi whispering.

The rock-cracker fell without intent. Though it fractured the shale-like surface of the rock, it opened no fissure that might lead to a successful break. He hoisted the tool again.

Troi playing Dabo. Troi inhaling the aromatic vapors of Therusian Six. Troi ....


"You look distressed," Guinan observed gently.

Deanna Troi glanced up, forcing a smile she didn't mean. "It's been a hard week."

"I have three remedies for a hard week," Guinan offered, "and all three of them are chocolate."

Again, Troi smiled. Again, she didn't mean it. "No thanks," she demurred. "I'm not really in the mood."

"You? Not in the mood for chocolate?" Guinan slid gracefully into a chair at the counselor's side. "This is more serious than I thought. Tell me about it."

Troi's eyes slipped the contact Guinan tried to establish and wandered to the vast viewing portal that predominated one wall of the Ten Forward lounge. "It's nothing really," she repeated.

Guinan watched her for almost a minute. "Tom was here earlier," she said finally, her voice very quiet. "He seemed upset, too."

Troi look up, startled.

Guinan met the other woman's astonishment with calm implacability.

"I'm sorry; would you prefer I call him Will?"

Troi blinked. Tears sprang to her eyes. "How long have you known?" she whispered.

Guinan smiled gently. "Since the beginning." She reached out to lay a palm over the counselor's hand. "They may look somewhat alike, but their auras are very different."

Troi closed her eyes. She began to tremble. Tears overran the barrier of her will to trickle silently down her face. She opened her eyes again and met the dark gaze that waited for her confession from across the table.

"I think I've made a mistake, Guinan," she whispered. "I think I've made a terrible, terrible mistake."


"Geordi. Wait up."

Geordi LaForge hesitated, entertaining for a fraction of a second the idea that if he pretended not to hear, he might make it to the turbolift before Tom Riker made it to him. The notion faded as he turned to wait for the man trotting down the corridor toward him.

"Listen, Commander," he said before Tom could broach any subject at all. "I was out of line in Ten Forward. I'm tired, and I guess I took it out on you. I apologize. I didn't mean to come off sounding like a jerk."

Riker studied the chief engineer for a moment, wishing the man had visible eyes for him to read. "What you came off like," he said after a three beat, "is a man in the know."

LaForge's expression froze. "In the know?" he repeated coldly. He shook his head, shouldering the assumption aside. "Got the wrong man, Commander. I'm so far out of the loop, I get lapped every third duty rotation." LaForge resumed his trek down the corridor, and Tom fell in step at his side.

"Out of the loop, my ass," Tom announced grimly. "You know. I can tell you know."

"Know what?"

"Know about the switch."

"The switch. Binary device, right? Works both ways? My dad used to say that when I left lights on in the house ... like I could tell when the lights were on -"

"I know that you know, Geordi," Tom interrupted. "It's the only explanation ... the only reason you could possibly have to be mad about Dee and me."

"I'm not mad about you and Counselor Troi," Geordi returned grimly. "I just think it's a shame to give up on something that cost as much as that relationship cost."

"He had other reasons for going," Tom said.

They reached engineering. "I've got a lot to do," LaForge said. "I'll see you Tuesday night at the game."

"Is that what gave me away? The fact that I lose when he wouldn't?"

"You're just in a slump, Commander. I'm sure you'll pull out of it sooner or later."



"I need someone to talk to about this."

"I hear the ship's counselor is available."

"Give me ten minutes to try and make you understand."

"There's nothing to understand."

"This wasn't my idea," Tom insisted doggedly. "I was under orders, too."

"You're not making much sense, Commander. Maybe you should stay away from the synthehol for a while."

Tom exploded. "Damn it, Geordi," he snarled, "you know damned well what I'm talking about."

"No, Commander," LaForge countered coldly. "I don't know what you're talking about. Furthermore, I don't want to know what you're talking about." He stared at Tom, his VISOR a tangible barrier to the interpretation of his emotions. His posture, however, had no such qualms about communicating an unmistakable animosity.

"I can't keep doing this," Tom said, trying hard to ignore the other man's overt hostility. "I can't keep pretending I'm someone I'm not."

"Maybe you should have thought of that earlier."

The statement was a blow. Tom stepped back, more hurt than he had any intention of admitting. "Maybe you should kiss my ass, LaForge," he said after a long beat. "You know ... out of all the people on this ship, I thought you'd be the one I could talk to. I thought you'd be the one who might try to understand." He shook his head, his eyes dark with angry frustration. "I guess I was wrong again," he muttered tersely. "I guess I was wrong about a lot of things." He turned and walked away.

LaForge let him get to the juncture of corridors before he spoke again. "All right," he said grudgingly. "You want to talk, I guess we can talk."

Tom hesitated. Shoulders tense, spine stiff with resentment, he said, "Holodeck three? Sixteen hundred?"

"All right," LaForge repeated. And then he turned and walked away.


"I don't love him."

Troi and Beverly Crusher sat together in a half dark room, drinking tea and watching the stars roll by. Crusher didn't react immediately to the Counselor's quiet confession. Instead, she continued watching the stars as if they held some answer to the eternal mysteries of the universe.

"You don't love him?" Crusher said finally. "Or you don't think that you should love him?"

Troi laughed quietly. It was a teary laugh, a laugh that bordered on heartbreak. "For an excellent doctor," she allowed, "you make a lousy therapist, Beverly. Of course I think I should love him. Will gave up everything so Tom and I could be together. If for no other reason than that, I should love him because if I hadn't thought I would - if we hadn't both thought I would - it would be Tom and not Will rotting on a Cardassian penal colony."

"Do you resent Tom for that?"

Troi sighed. "No," she murmured. "I resent Will for that."

Crusher sipped at her tea. "You realize, of course," she offered after several long moments of silence, "that you weren't Will's only consideration. There were a number of other factors involved."

"Tom told me the justifications," Troi assured her. "That Will, with his command experience, would have a better chance of succeeding; that he'd have a better chance of not only completing the mission, but of bringing the other operatives back alive."

"There was also Will's sense of guilt over Tom's lost life," Crusher added. "He felt he owed Tom in many ways."

"He didn't strand Tom on Nervala IV," Troi said.

"Maybe not," Crusher allowed. "but Will still felt a certain responsibility to Tom: a responsibility to replace the life he wasn't willing to give up with another life ... one that would make Tom happy."

"Me," Troi murmured.

"You were a part of it," Crusher agreed. "But I think you're missing something, Deanna. You're missing the fact that Will thought Tom was - in a very odd, very paradoxical way - his second chance to find happiness with you. In so many ways, they were the same man. I think he thought that if you found love with Tom, you - in a way - found love with him. I know it sounds strange, but that's the way he looked at it."

"He looked at it wrong."

"You were very much in love with Tom when he left for the Ghandi," Crusher reminded her.

"I was in love with an illusion. For two weeks, we lived in a world that didn't exist: a simulation of reality: a holodeck of emotion. Based on that, I thought I was in love; but the man I loved wasn't Tom Riker. The man I loved was Will Riker ten years ago; and the man who left for the Ghandi and then came back to take Will's place here on the Enterprise is not that man."

"It was easy to see Tom as a younger version of Will," Crusher agreed. "I think we all fell into that trap. He still possessed the fire, the enthusiasm of unrealized ambition that Will used to have. He was undisciplined, a loose cannon, but he was also full of raw potential. I imagine he seemed very much the same dashing man you fell in love with on Betazed."

"He may have seemed that way," Troi murmured. "But he wasn't."

"No," Crusher agreed. "He wasn't. He'd spent seven years in utter isolation. That he's sane after that kind of ordeal is a testament to his strength of character, but I'm sure it changed him. I'm sure there are residual effects we can't begin to know ... things that make him as different from the Will Riker of ten years ago as Will is."

"He's less disciplined than Will was," Troi said quietly. "Less able to cope with authority. He's ferociously sure of himself ... overly so, in many ways. I doubt very seriously if he would have ever accomplished what Will accomplished in Starfleet. He doesn't have the maturity, doesn't have the capacity for self analysis or change."

"Those are very professional opinions," Crusher pointed out. "You sound like you're evaluating an officer candidate, not the man you love."

Troi smiled. Tears trickled down her face. She brushed them away. "He isn't the man I love," she said quietly. "It only took me seven years to see it, but the man I love is serving a life term on Lazon II."

Crusher blinked, stunned to silence.

"Don't you see, Beverly?" Troi whispered. "Tom is everything about Will I couldn't stand. Everything about him that made me question my capacity to care for him so deeply: the arrogance, the ambition, the lack of discipline ... even that bold, dashing charm. His ability to woo a woman was intoxicating, but it always made me distrust him ... doubt him. I forgot that for a while, but I remember it now. I remember that when Will Riker tried every trick in the book to thaw me on Betazed, I had no trouble at all resisting his charms. It was only when he gave up - when he lost the fixation of the hunt and eased down into the gentle, funny, warm man he is - that I lost the battle."

Troi stood. She wandered the doctor's dimly lit cabin and found herself standing before the transparent viewing portal, watching the stars as he so often did when he was thinking.

"But even then, I couldn't truly love him," she went on. "Even then, there was too much edge, too many things I didn't trust. If he'd met me on Risa all those years ago, we still wouldn't have worked. Not then, not being the people we were." She was crying again. "But now. Now he's different. Now I'm different. I was starting to see that when he left for Deep Space Nine. I was starting to realize that he'd grown into the man I wanted, a man I could trust with my heart, a man I could grow old with and love every hour of every day."

Troi fell silent, staring dully into the bejeweled black of endless space.

"He doesn't know," Crusher surmised finally.

"I didn't know," Troi returned. "Not until he was gone. Not until the emptiness in me found a name, and I realized what that name was." She shook her head. "I find myself lying awake at night," she murmured, "Tom's breath on my skin as he sleeps, his arm across my waist. I know he's a good man, a gentle man ..." her voice trailed off. She shook her head again. "I lay in the darkness," she whispered, "and I ache for him. For Will. For the intangibles of what Will is that Tom is not. For his depth and his courage and his sense of duty. For his gentleness and his wiseness and the texture of seven years together, learning to trust, learning to love." She turned from the viewing portal and met Beverly Crusher's eyes. "Will gave his life so Tom and I could be happy together," she said. "And I can't even do him the simple honor of accepting the gift. I can't love Tom. I don't love Tom. I love Will."

Beverly Crusher stared at her best friend, unable to think of a single thing to say.


Troi up to her chin in a down sleeping bag, the flawless moonlight of Terrellia Prime dazzling on her flawless skin. Troi holding El as they watched the Aurora Borealis together for the first time. Troi eating fresh trout and doing her best to like it.

Riker coughed raggedly, his breathing coarse as it rattled in and out of his gaunt body.

"You're getting worse," Grellel observed in the pitch black of their cell. "The infection must have spread to your respiratory system."

Riker coughed again. "Just a frog in my throat," he muttered wearily. "Nothing to worry about."

"A frog?" Grellel repeated. "Really? Who's prompt rod did you kiss to rate meat?"

Riker chuckled, then coughed again. His fingers clenched to fists.

"Tell me about her again," Grellel suggested after some time. "Tell me what she smells like. Tell me what she tastes like."

Riker smiled.

Troi drenched in Betazoid oils, her toenails painted Burilean green.


Geordi LaForge and Tom Riker sat like opposing factions on either side of a red-checkered arbitration table in a New Orleans bistro, the awkward silence between them softened only marginally by three quarters of a quartet jamming bluesily in a corner three meters away. Wailing plaintively, the saxophone told tales of woe as the trumpet and piano commiserated. Laid almost reverently across the piano's scarred wood cabinet, a holographic 'bone waited in vain for the familiar attentions of a man in no mood to play.

"So I'm here," LaForge announced. "What is it you want to talk about?"

"I want to talk about the biggest scam in Starfleet history," Tom answered grimly.

LaForge's expression flickered. "If you're referring to the Defiant Incident," he said, "that's classified. Pick another subject."

"There is no other subject," Tom retorted. "You and I both know what's going on, but in deference to your obvious desire to cling to your culpable deniability in good conscience, let's pretend you're hearing this for the first time: I'm not William T. Riker. William T. Riker is doing time on Lazon II. I am Thomas William Riker, and I'm masquerading as the jester in this ludicrous farce under direct orders from Starfleet Command."

LaForge turned away, studying the holo-bistro with an interest that bordered on evasion. "So you told me," he said quietly. "Anything else?"

Tom leaned into the tabletop. "That's all you've got to say?" he challenged.

"What do you expect me to say?" LaForge countered. "That I'm shocked? That never once, in nine months and sixteen days, did I suspect that you weren't exactly what you claimed to be?"

"If you knew, why didn't you say something?"

LaForge snorted. "Because I was told to keep my mouth shut. My orders were to play along, so I played along."

"I thought we were friends."

LaForge shook his head. "We were friends," he said, his voice low and specific with the meaning of words that might otherwise have seemed ambiguous. "You and I play poker together. Sometimes we have a drink in ten forward, and you talk about your problems."

Tom looked down at his hands. He didn't speak for a long time.

"Is that all?" LaForge asked finally.

"No," Tom said. "There's something else." He looked up. His eyes were cold, indifferent. He said it as if it didn't matter: "Deanna Troi and I are through."

"Congratulations," LaForge said.

"Not that our relationship is any of your business," Tom went on calmly, "but considering the circumstances, I felt you should know that this wasn't my choice. I'm not the one who gave up."

LaForge looked up, surprised. "She called it off?" he ventured cautiously.

"She called it off months ago," Tom said. "It's just taken her this long to push me far enough to put it into words."

Sipping sparingly of the holodrink in front of him, Geordi LaForge considered the other man's words. "I spoke to her less than a week ago," he said finally. "She told me then that she wanted it to work. That she'd keep trying for as long as it took."

"She lied to you, Geordi. She knows as well as I do - maybe even better - that what's wrong with our relationship can't be worked out."

"Anything can be worked out if you want it badly enough."

"Not this," Tom said quietly. He started not to say it, then went ahead and said it anyway: "She doesn't love me. She loves him."

LaForge tensed. Tom shrugged. "It took me a while to figure it out," he admitted, "but we both know it now, so there's no use in going on with something that's a pale imitation of the original." Tom shook his head and took a long holo-drink. "I can't compete with a memory," he muttered more to himself than to LaForge. "I won't compete with a memory."

LaForge didn't have to say what he was thinking. Even through the obscuring shield of the VISOR, it came through loud and clear.

"You think I don't know I can't fill his shoes?" Tom demanded, reading the engineer's expression. "You think I don't see the way Picard flanks me with every order he issues? The way he makes sure that you or Worf or Data tag along every time I command an away mission?" He snorted, looked away. "You think I don't feel it when she touches me and remembers him?" he asked quietly. "You think I don't catch it when you fold flushes knowing I've got two of a kind? You think I don't notice when Bishop or Morrison or Jaxx glance to Worf for verification every time I issue an order?" He swung his gaze back to LaForge. "Well, I've got news for you Geordi: I know I'm not any William T. Riker - I know that - but I'm also not a first year cadet who can't take a galaxy class vessel through a routine mapping expedition without a God damned android looking over my shoulder to make sure I don't screw anything up. And I may not be the man that Deanna Troi loves, but I'm not so damned different from the man who ten years ago was more a stranger to you than I am."

LaForge sighed. He sipped again from the frosted mug growing warm against his palm. "You're right," he said finally. "You're not that different."

"No," Tom agreed sharply. "I'm not. And you might want to consider the fact that if it had been him who got reflected back to Nervala IV, it might have been you and me who became friends."

"Maybe," LaForge allowed quietly.

"Not maybe, damn it," Tom snapped. "We're the same man. The difference between us is a nanosecond in a transporter console's failsafe circuitry." He glared at the engineer, frustration etched into every line of his expression.

When LaForge didn't answer, Tom went on: "I know we're different now, but then - back when you first began your friendship - we were the same man. You and I would have been friends, Geordi. We would have been friends the same way you and he became friends."

"Maybe we would have," LaForge said quietly. "But we aren't."

Tom sighed. "No," he agreed quietly. "We aren't. We're pity poker on Tuesday night and conversations of obligation over drinks."

LaForge sighed. "It isn't you, Tom," he offered after a long minute. "It's ..." he hesitated, searching for the right words. "It's more what he and I've been through together. We've run the gauntlet over the years. We took on Q; we faced the Borg. He was there when I got word that my mother was MIA. He hung in with me on Tarchannen III when my DNA whacked out and tried to turn me into a glowworm. He's the one who got me out of that mess with the Klingon ambassador. He ...." LaForge shook his head. "He's been my best friend for ten years. I guess it's just harder watching you live his life than I thought it would be."

"You mean watching me screw up his life," Tom corrected.

LaForge shrugged. "He did this so you and Troi could be together. It's hard watching that sacrifice go up in smoke."

"He didn't do this for either me or Troi," Tom retorted. "He did this because Nechayev ordered him to do it. His sacrifice was for Starfleet, not for us."

LaForge shook his head again. Rather than argue, though, he said, "When Worf and I worked up the nerve to go to the captain with our suspicions about you, he wouldn't tell us anything, but he gave us an encode to access a holoprogram embedded in Will's Curtis Creek program. I guess Will knew we'd figure it out sooner or later, and he wanted us to know why he decided to do what he did and why we had to respect his decision. So less than two weeks after my best friend went on a kamikaze mission without ever even saying goodbye, I sat there with my feet dangling in forty degree water and listened to him tell me that Picard made it clear the mission was voluntary, but he took it because he felt you were his second chance with Counselor Troi. I listened to him say that whatever happened to him, it would be worth it as long as you made her happy." LaForge took a long draw of his holo-drink. "That was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said quietly. "Listening to him tell me that and trying to make myself accept it."

"As long as I make her happy," Tom murmured. He put his head in one hand, rubbing slowly at his temples.

"He told Worf and me to try and be your friends," LaForge added quietly, his VISOR focused on nothing. "He told us you were what she wanted, and what she wanted was what he wanted."

"I'm not making her happy," Tom muttered. "I'm making her miserable." They sat in silence for a long moment. "How long have you known?" Tom asked finally.

"Since day one," LaForge answered. "The two of you may look alike, but once you get past the beard, you're about as similar as a pea and a polyurathane peanut in a pod. I started noticing things right away. Worf wasn't far behind."

"Guess I'm not very good at being myself," Tom noted wryly. "When did you go to Picard?"

"About two weeks in."

"Does the rest of the crew know?"

"A few," LaForge allowed. "Owgawa ... Crusher ... Bishop. I don't think anybody else was close enough to him to notice the differences, or to give them any weight, at least. I guess it was so glaring to Worf and I because - other than Troi and the Captain - we're his best friends."

"Glaring," Tom mused. "In what way?"

"In half a dozen ways."

"Such as?"

LaForge shrugged. "Well ... for one thing, you stink at poker. That's what tipped Bishop: he started asking questions the night you folded on three of a kind. For another, you're pretty green when it comes to command, and it shows." Warming to his subject, LaForge went on, "And you're paranoid. You wear authority like a hat instead of a suit, and you're always ramming your hat down somebody else's throat. You jump to conclusions. You always assume the worst. You never ask for opinions, you just make your own decision and to hell with whatever your crew might have to say about it."

One corner of Tom Riker's mouth pulled into a wry grin. "But other than that," he said, "how do you feel about me as a first officer?"

The intensity of LaForge's expression eased a bit. "I'm not saying you're a bad first officer," he demurred. "I'm saying your command style is different than his was."

"Aaaaah." Tom nodded, his voice taking on a self-depreciating tone that didn't quite clear bitterness. "I see the difference: He was a secure, confident, optimistic leader of men and I'm an arrogant jerk in a tight, red uniform."

"He's had a little more practice," LaForge countered in a way that softened the comparison, but didn't refute it. "And he's had most of that practice under the best in the fleet. Captain Picard was his mentor. He taught Riker a lot."

"Didn't teach him how to say no to Nechayev."

LaForge's features clouded. "You've never met Nechayev," he said darkly. "She doesn't take no for an answer. When Nechayev wants something, Nechayev gets it."

"You're assuming I've never met Nechayev," Tom corrected quietly.

LaForge frowned. "If you have met her," he allowed after a beat, "then you know what I'm talking about."

"I know she gets what she wants because nobody ever tells her no," Tom countered. "And I know that telling her no will not - despite all rumors to the contrary - result in the end of the known universe. All it will do is piss off one very short, very cold woman and maybe teach her a thing or two about that God complex she's got going."

"In Starfleet terms," LaForge muttered, "she is God."

"No, Geordi," Tom returned. "She's not. About six years into my stint on Nervala IV, I met God; and I can tell you for a fact, that He's not her."

LaForge shook his head dismissively. "Whatever," he allowed.

"And since she's not God," Tom went on, "I can't see it as sacrilege to undercut her delusions the same way I'd undercut any other megalomaniac bent on turning the world to their own ends."

LaForge's expression took on a guarded cast. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked after a beat.

"It means I'm tired of the whole quadrant taking her dictates as scripture. Maybe it's time for somebody to draw a line in the sand and tell her that just because she decides to designate Will Riker as her own personal sacrificial lamb doesn't mean we have to go along with it."

"I don't like where you're going with this," LaForge warned.

"I'm not going anywhere, Geordi. I'm already there."

"Already where?"

"Lazon II."

"No." LaForge shook his head, his tone unequivocal stone.

"You said you were his friend," Tom challenged.

"I am his friend," LaForge countered. "And I'm also a Starfleet officer. What you're talking about is treason."

"What I'm talking about is justice. Will should have never been surrendered to the Cardassians in the first place. He was under orders - Nechayev's orders - but she played him like a trump card, and Picard let her. All I'm suggesting is that we reshuffle the deck and deal a new hand."

"No," LaForge repeated.

"Why not? Standing pat with two of a kind will get you nowhere but broke."

"In the holoprogram he left," LaForge said, "Will specifically ordered us not to mount any kind of rescue attempt if he was captured. He said that no matter how well planned it might seem, no matter how well conceived, the risk was too much."

"He said that before he'd spent nine months doing hard time," Tom pointed out. "I'll bet a month's pay he's changed his mind by now."

"You'd lose."

Tom snorted. "You underestimate how much damage incarceration does to the Riker mind set. Take it from a man who spent eight years in a cave: we don't do well in confined spaces."

"He's not you."

"He's close enough," Tom snapped.

"He's not close at all," LaForge retorted. "Will Riker is fiercely loyal to Starfleet. He believes in duty and in sacrifice and in doing whatever it takes to accomplish the mission. It's essential that the Cardassians continue to believe that you hijacked the Defiant. He wouldn't do anything to jeopardize that belief, and neither will I."

"A rescue operation wouldn't have to tip our hand," Tom insisted. "If it was done right - if it was planned out and executed in such a way as to appear that the Maquis was retrieving Tom Riker - it wouldn't be any more risk than the original operation."

"No," LaForge repeated for the third time. He pushed to his feet. "Will would never forgive me if I turned a successful mission to failure because I was too selfish to accept his right to choose his own destiny."

"Destiny," Tom scoffed. "Is that what you call it? You think the infamous Will Riker's destiny was to rot in a Cardassian prison under an assumed identity?"

"It doesn't matter what I think. It matters what he thought."

Tom shook his head and leaned back in his chair. "His destiny is here, Geordi, with Troi and the Enterprise. That was my destiny once, but it's his now. He belongs here and, one way or another, I intend to see that he gets back here."

"Are you doing this for him or for you?"

"I'm doing it for both of us. And for Dee. And in a way, for you and Worf and all the other people on this ship that might die some day because I make a choice he wouldn't have."

"You can't live your life second-guessing yourself."

Tom snorted. He looked away. "I can't live his life any other way," he murmured.

LaForge watched the other man for a long moment through the unblinking sensors of the VISOR. "A word of advise, Tom," he said finally. "What you're suggesting is treason. It's not self sacrifice, it's not a hero's death, and it's certainly not a frat prank against a button-up headmistress. It's treason. If you discuss this with the captain, or with Worf, or with anyone else on this ship, you're liable to end up in the brig."

Tom took a long draw of a holo-whiskey sour. "Are you saying you're going to turn me in?" he inquired calmly.

"I'm saying you'd better learn the value of discretion, and you'd better learn it fast," LaForge countered. "As far as I'm concerned, you and I had a few drinks and talked about what a damned shame it was the way things turned out for Tom Riker. We kicked around a few hypothetical scenarios, and I convinced you that any sort of rescue mission would be a fool's gambit. Since we both know Will Riker is no fool - and the whole of Starfleet knows you're Will Riker - I'm considering the matter closed."

Tom hoisted the nearly empty glass in a toast. "Then the matter is closed," he agreed, his eyes explicit with the declaration that it was anything but closed.

LaForge nodded and turned away. He reached the holodeck exit before Tom spoke again.

"Thank you, Geordi," he said as a command arch opened in the bistro wall to reveal the holochamber's door. "If not for your help, at least for the ten minutes."

LaForge hesitated. He glanced back. "No one on this ship can help you," he said. "No one in Starfleet can. The only person who might have tried was Ro, and she's with the Maquis now."

Tom's eyes narrowed. "The Maquis?" he repeated cautiously.

LaForge nodded. "You never met Ro, did you?" he asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, he went on, "She was a Bajoran: Ro Laren. She and Will got pretty close. She served at the helm for a little over a year, then transferred back to Fleet for covert training. She defected to the Maquis a couple of months before you came back on board. I hear she ranks in their command structure now ... a commander or something."

"Really," Tom muttered.

"Yes," LaForge agreed quietly. "Really." Then, without another word, he left the holodeck.

Slowly, Tom Riker smiled. "I supposed," he told no one in particular, "that in a round-about way, I have to be proud of myself. It stands a man in good stead to know he could have been worthy of the kind of friends he seems to have." He rapped his glass sharply on the table top. A bartender materialized from thin air. "Bring me another whiskey," Tom announced. "I have a toast to make ... a toast to friends I might have had."

The bartender glanced around the empty bistro. "Your friends, they are coming, yes?"

"Whiskey," Tom repeated in lieu of an answer. "Jim Beam, circa whatever year you think best."

"Ahhhh." The bartender nodded knowingly. "You drink alone," he observed.

"I never drink alone," Tom countered. "He's always here, like a big, black shadow I can never quite step beyond. Even now, when I finally have what the both of us aspired to, he's here, casting the specter of his omnipresence over me." Tom clacked the glass on the table again. "Whiskey," he repeated for the third time. "In fact, make it a double."


Deanna Troi struggled through her last appointment for the day and returned to their quarters. He was packing when she rounded the corner to the bedroom. For a moment, the sight of the small travel duff on the bed stopped her dead in her tracks.

Tom glanced up, nearly missing the open bag with the pair of socks he tossed. "Hey, Dee." He flashed her a familiar grin, then stuffed a shirt and into the soft-sided duffle with an abandon that would render it unwearable by the time he reached his destination.

"You're leaving?" she asked, her voice steadier than it felt.

"Just a week or so. Got a communique from my dad. He was doing whatever it is he does on Challa Three when Alturian Brain Fever hit him. Doctor says he'll pull through, but it set me to thinking. It's been more than twenty years since I've seen him, and I thought, What the hell? If Will's a big enough man, so am I. Maybe it's time to do some fence mending, maybe it's time to lay some groundwork for the future before the future becomes the past and we all rot to space dust in the interim."

Troi took a careful seat on the chair near her vanity. "That's a cheery outlook," she observed.

Tom flashed her another grin. "I'm a cheery kind of guy."

"You certainly are today," she agreed.

"Look," he shoved another shirt in, then a pair of pants, "I'm sorry about last night. I slept on it, and I realize that you were right, and I was wrong."

Troi sighed. "No one was wrong, Tom," she murmured. "We just see things very differently."

"Yes," Tom agreed, placing a final item in the bag and snapping it shut. "We do see things differently. But I'm still sorry. Sorry for a lot of things, not the least of which is not being what you thought I'd be."

Troi stood as he slung the duffle over his shoulder. "Tom ..." she started.

He smiled, stopping what she had to say with a single finger on her lips. "I do love you, you know," he told her. "It's just not what either of us thought it would be."

Tears glistened in her eyes. "You're leaving, aren't you?" she whispered.

"My dad ..." He hesitated, then let the lie fall away. "Yes," he agreed after a beat. "I'm leaving."

"Will you be back?"

He glanced away, evading. Troi closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them.

"Don't go, Tom," she said. "We can make this work."

"No," he corrected quietly. "We can't. We've tried, and we've failed. This wasn't meant to be." He smiled at her, a painful expression on his handsome features. "Maybe that's why, all those years ago, he didn't show on Risa. You and I weren't supposed to be together. Not then ... not the way he was ... the way I still am." He smiled slightly. "You grew up without me, Dee," he said, one finger tracing the side of her face. "You went on, and I didn't." He touched her lips, then drew his hand away. "We can't change that. It's time to stop trying."

"I love you," she said.

Tom shook his head. "I know you've tried," he allowed. He studied her for a moment, his eyes memorizing her face. "We made a mistake, Dee," he said finally. "Both of us ... all three of us. I know it. You know it. And I'm sure that wherever he is, he knows it, too." He kissed her then: tenderly, passionately. It was the first time in a month they'd shared anything worth sharing. "If something happens," he said when their lips separated. "Remember me the way I was. Remember me on Betazed, when we first fell in love. Remember me in my lieutenant's uniform - twenty pounds lighter and ten years younger. Remember me looking at you the way I used to look at you."

"Please don't go, Tom," she whispered.

"I have to go." He kissed her again, then stepped back. "Remember that I loved you," he said quietly. "If you don't remember anything else, remember that."

"I'll remember," she agreed.

He nodded. "Goodbye, Deanna."

"Goodbye, Tom."

The word imzadi hung unspoken between them, no longer a piece of the puzzle they had become. After a long moment of silent regret, Tom Riker turned away.


"Imzadi," Will Riker whispered, his voice dry and cracked and barely more than a whisper in the darkness. He twisted slightly, his body resistant to the fire that crawled under his skin and through his vital organs.

Grellel watched the younger man sleep, wondering what it was that made him cling so stubbornly to the last vestiges of life in a place as forsaken as this. The infection in his system was comprehensive now; it had been for more than a week. He grew weaker each day, less aware of his surroundings, less aware of even the pain of his sickness.

For a while, they'd dragged him to the mines, prodding him with prompt rods that made less than no impression on a man too delirious to manage more than a mindless stagger in whatever direction he was pointed. When pain ceased to serve as motivation, even the guards began to see the futility of their routine. They left him to his filth when they came at daybreak for Grellel, left him to rot in the cell's eternal solitude and darkness, expecting each night when they returned to find him dead.

Grellel shook his head. Such a waste ... such a needless waste.

Riker shivered, spiked with a chill born of fever, not the cloying humidity of their cell. Grellel adjusted the blanket that lay around the younger man's gaunt shoulders and continued to watch him sleep.

It was a feverish sleep, filled with dreams of the woman Troi and nightmares of the Borg.

He wasn't what Grellel had expected ... not what he had been told this Starfleet castoff would be. The compassion he maintained for the man who stole his life was impressive, as was his intense love for the woman whose affections they'd shared. He spoke of her often, and at length; and since the onset of the fever, his words concerning her were more willing to tell the unguarded truth.

"Imzadi," Riker whispered.

He'd been strong when he arrived: arrogant, defiant. Now, less than a year later, he was little more than bones and skin. He wouldn't survive as many of them had. He would die in this cell and move on to whatever place his race considered a just reward for a life well lived.

For that, Grellel found himself oddly grateful.

The Human Riker was a good man. He deserved more than to rot in this place until his mind was as broken as his body. He deserved more than to share his secrets with a man he thought was his friend.

Grellel sighed, shifting slightly in the darkness.

"Captain?" Riker muttered, his voice slurred.

"Rest, Number One," Grellel told his restless cellmate. He patted Riker's shoulder. "The ship is safe. You've done well, my friend. You've done well."

Riker muttered something unintelligible, but settled back to the subtle twists of his feverish dreams. Still in the darkness, one hand on the younger man's shoulder in a gesture less exploitive than sincere, Grellel sat in silence and listened.


Dead Lazlow's was smokey and noisy and every other cliche embraced by the popular colloquialism Rat Hole Dive. Tom spotted Ro Laren almost immediately. Sitting rather conspicuously for a woman who was wanted by the largest police force in the galaxy, she was obviously waiting for him and just as obviously unconcerned that she might be recognized.

"You must be Laren," Tom said to the cold-eyed evaluation she ran over him.

He used her first name in case any of the dozens of drinkers within earshot were Federation spies. She countered with a blunt, "You can call me Ro. This way." Moving like an eel through Jell-O, she led him deeper into the crowded bar.

They approached the corner table by way of every other table in the joint. Of the three people sitting around it, he recognized only one.

Though they'd never met personally, Tom had done enough research on the Maquis movement to recognize its most notorious rebel by more than just the cultural tatoo engraved into the flesh of his right temple. A big man with angular features, short black hair, and piercing black eyes, Chakotay of Dorvan was every inch his reputation. Once considered by the Starfleet elite as the most promising officer to rise through the ranks since Jean Luc Picard, he'd spent the better part of the past three years proving a dangerous embarrassment to the Federation and more than a passing annoyance to Cardassia Prime. In defense of Dorvan V, his homeworld and the most hotly disputed of the colonies sacrificed to the diplomacies of the de-militarized zone, he'd honed the Maquis mainstay of deep-territory penetration and target elimination to a virtual art form. As far as the Cardassian empire was concerned, the ex-Starfleet Dorvanian turned Maquis was Public Enemy Number One.

"This is him," Ro announced by way of introduction, taking a seat to the left of a woman who lacked enough Klingon influence to her predominantly Human features to be anything more than a fifty-fifty hybrid.

"I'm Chakotay," the rebel with the tatoo announced as if he hadn't noticed the flash of recognition in Tom Riker's eyes. He nodded to the Klingon woman, "This is B'Elanna ..." and then to the third man, a Vulcan as utterly implacable and without expression as Vulcan's invariably tended to be, "... and Tuvok. They'll help me decide if we have any interest in what you have to say."

"I think you'll find what I have to say interesting," Tom allowed.

"That may be optimistic," Chakotay countered. Although his voice was level and without malice, the Maquis captain's eyes didn't share in the charade of ambivalence. They watched Tom with calculated enmity, as hostile as the Vulcan Tuvok's were indifferent. Chakotay gestured to the last remaining chair. "Have a seat, Commander."

"Call me Tom," Tom corrected, accepting the seat despite the fact that it left his back to the crowded bar.

Posture coldly distant, Chakotay laced both hands together on the table top. "We're busy people," he announced without further preamble. "Say what you have to say."

Thrown by overt hostility where he'd anticipated mutual interest, Tom hesitated. "Where do you want me to start?" he asked after a beat.

"Why don't you start with why you think the Maquis would have any interest in any plan Commander William T. Riker might have to offer?"

Where hostility had thrown him, a direct challenge knocked Tom completely off the tracks. He glanced at Ro. "I thought you explained things," he said.
Ro shrugged.

"You explain it," Chakotay ordered.

Tom's hackles rose. Chafed by the assumption of authority in the Maquis rebel's tone, he worked to undermine the resentment that threatened the diplomacy of his expression. "All right," he allowed after a beat, "I'm not Commander William T. Riker. At least, not the one you mean. As far as the galaxy's concerned, I'm the other one."

"The one serving time on Lazon II," Torres clarified.

"That would be the one," Tom agreed.

Chakotay studied him for several seconds. "I don't believe you," he said suddenly.

Tom's features flared with equal parts surprise and resentment. "You don't believe me?" he repeated angrily. "What am I supposed to say to that?"

"I don't really care what you say, Commander. I think we're through here." Chakotay started to stand.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" Tom glanced around the bar furtively. "Just sit down a minute, will you? Let me explain. Ten years ago there was a transporter acci-"

"We know about Nervala IV," Chakotay interrupted. He stared at Tom for several seconds, then noted, almost derisively, "Convenient." Despite the flavor of scorn to his tone, however, he did settle back to his seat.

"Convenient," Tom repeated. His eyes worked to keep themselves civil. "Listen. The incident at Nervala IV is a matter of official Starfleet record. If you check the facts, you'll see that there are two of us: Me and him. As a direct result of that duplication, diagnosis of, and compensation for, reflexion duplication syndrome is now part of the required curriculum in transporter studies at the academy. If you need more proof than that, talk to any of the several hundred people who've seen us together. It isn't done with mirrors, Chakotay. I do exist."

"Whether or not two William T. Rikers exist is not a matter of contention," Tuvok announced calmly. "Whether or not you are the William T. Riker of the Borg Wars is."

"And even if you aren't," Torres added, "whether or not you're working for Starfleet to bring down the Maquis."

Tom leaned into the table, staring hard into the reflective distance of Chakotay's eyes. "Starfleet has nothing to do with this," he insisted grimly.

"I believe that less than anything you've said," Chakotay countered.

"I don't give a damn whether you believe me or not," Tom snapped. "Rescuing Will Riker is my idea. If I manage to pull it off, I'll be facing a court marshal, not a commendation panel."

Chakotay watched him for a long beat. "You're knee-deep in quite a career, Commander," he said finally. "It seems a shame to scully it over a hundred kilograms of transporter replicate matter."

Outrage resonated in Tom Riker's bones. It lit his eyes and washed his features like blood staining milk. "That transporter replicate matter would be me," he hissed, "and the career I'm knee-deep in is his. All in all, I consider it a fair trade." He calmed himself with a visible effort. "Listen, Chakotay, I'm telling you the truth. No matter what Starfleet claims, I am not Commander William Riker. Commander William Riker is serving time on Lazon II. I am Lieutenant Tom Riker, formerly of the USS Ghandi."

"Commander ... Lieutenant ..." Chakotay shook his head. "Either way, you're still Starfleet."

"I resigned my commission three days ago," Tom announced.

"Commander William T. Riker resigned his commission three days ago," Tuvok corrected.

"Whatever. The point being, none of the Rikers currently available are on active duty in Starfleet."

"That doesn't mean anything," Torres said. "You resign your commission ... get thrown out of the corps ... kill an Admiral ... it's all Nechayev's idea of a cover. Once you've completed your mission, all is forgiven and they re-instate you in full."

"We deal with infiltrators every day," Chakotay elaborated drily. "And as shills go, you're not even particularly convincing."

Tom sighed. "Tell me what you want from me," he said wearily. "Tell me what it will take to convince you that I am who I say I am, and that the only reason I'm here is for your help."

"You can't convince me," Chakotay answered. "But you can tell me about the Defiant Incident."

"The Defiant Incident was a scam from the get-go. It was a top secret, fully-sanctioned operation designed by the Starfleet Advisory Board to ferret out the Obsidian Orders secret fleet."

"Tell us something we don't know," Torres grunted.

"The CO of the mission was always Commander William T. Riker," Tom went on doggedly. "He spearheaded the operation under direct orders from Admiral Nechayev."

"General perception is that the mission was commanded by Tom Riker," Chakotay observed quietly, "under the direct authority of the Maquis."

"That should be proof in and of itself. You know I'm not with the Maquis ... that I've never been with the Maquis."

Chakotay shook his head. "Starfleet lies are proof of only two things: that Nechayev is still Nechayev and that Starfleet hasn't changed since they sacrificed Bajor to the Cardassians a dozen years ago."

"They're proof that what I'm telling you is the truth," Tom said.

"Or that what you're telling us is just another tangle in a thick web of Starfleet treachery," Chakotay returned.

"Where were you while Will Riker was in the Orius system?" Ro asked quietly.

The implication of the question was unmistakable. Such a direct assertation of faith in even the most basic tenement of his story bolstered Tom's confidence and gave him footing to continue the struggle.

"I was re-assigned to the Enterprise to serve as cover in case the mission failed," he answered, speaking more to her now than to Chakotay. "I was there the whole time: very visible, very indisputable should it come to the need for an alibi to serve testament to Starfleet's uninvolvement."

"Then you were never on Deep Space Nine?" Ro surmised.

"Never set foot one on the station," he agreed. "Never set foot on the Defiant, either. When the mission ran aground at Omekla III, it was Will Riker who surrendered to Gul Mavec. It was Will Riker who was tried on Cardassia Prime, and it is Will Riker doing life on Lazon II. By default, that leaves only me to be him, which I've been doing for the past nine months."

For a long moment, no one said a word. "It would be quite a charade to put yourself over as the XO of the Federation flagship," Ro commented finally. "Are you saying Captain Picard didn't notice?"

"Picard was in on it," Tom answered. "Sisko, too. Will's orders were to lay as subtle a trail as possible to the secret fleet: Sisko's were to make sure Dukat didn't get lost following it."

"And Picard's were to send his Number One on a suicide mission?" Ro asked.

"It wasn't supposed to be a suicide mission. He wasn't supposed to get caught. He was supposed to make the run on Omekla III, scan the Orius system and hightail it to the badlands. Once there, Kira would have 'overpowered' the crew, and they would have been surrendered to Federation authorities - Nechayev, in specific. It was all planned out. It would have worked if Will hadn't screwed up, if he hadn't underestimated Kira Nerys."

"But when he did," Torres noted, "you were conveniently available to take his place."

"Convenience had nothing to do with it. I was the political escape hatch. If Will got caught, or killed, the Federation had to distance itself from the plan. The only way to do that was to have Will Riker still aboard the Enterprise as if he'd never left. That way, Nechayev could disavow all knowledge of the operation and validate the authenticity of the claim by the Federation's willingness to leave the rebel Tom Riker to the wolves - something they would never do were he really the infamous Commander William T. Riker."

Chakotay shifted in his chair. He took a drink of pajuta from the mug grown cold near his left elbow.

"What?" Tom demanded, reading dismissal in the rebel's posture.

Chakotay shrugged. Studying Tom over the rim of the mug, he noted, "You seem to have an answer for everything. All the pieces fit together rather nicely for my taste."

"And that's a problem?" Tom prompted.

"It's convenient," Chakotay agreed.

"You think I'm making this up? You really think I'm capable of subterfuge on this level?"

"I don't know what you're capable of," Chakotay allowed, "but I do know what Starfleet is capable of, and I know to what lengths they are willing to go to bring the Maquis down."

Tom studied the other man's eyes. "Your mind was made up before I ever sat down, wasn't it?" he asked finally. Chakotay didn't answer: he didn't have to. "If you thought this was a trap," Tom pressed. "Then why agree to meet with me at all?"

"Better the enemy you know, than the enemy you don't."

Tom shook his head. "If I were truly your enemy," he said, "I would have had Starfleet security planted all over this bar. I could have the whole place surrounded, but I don't. Doesn't that prove anything?"

"It proves you are unfamiliar with the clientele of Dead Laslow's," Tuvok said.

Tom frowned, and Ro elaborated: "Dead Laslow's is Maquis territory. Everyone here is known to the cause. It would be hard enough to smuggle in a comm badge, let alone infiltrating jarheads. One red shirt - even a red shirt in civvies - and the place would drain like a depressurized shuttle bay."

Tom blinked. "Oh," he said, trying to look as if the information wasn't a revelation. He failed, so he said it again, more convincingly this time: "Oh."

Torres rolled her eyes. Chakotay smiled without smiling. Tuvok merely looked bored. Only Ro was uncondemning of his ignorance, watching him carefully, her eyes making judgements in his favor.

One out of four was better than he had expected.

"If you are indeed a transporter duplication of Commander Riker -" Tuvok said after a beat.

"Or he is of me," Tom interjected.

Tuvok arched one eyebrow. "Or he, of you," the Vulcan allowed blandly, "then it would be logical to assume that you are identical in every way."

"For the sake of argument," Tom said quietly, "I won't disagree yet."

"There is an obvious similarity of appearance," Tuvok went on, "and identical retinal patterns, if the Defiant's security logs are to be assumed accurate."

"Never assume," Tom quipped.

Tuvok frowned.

"Makes an ass out of u and me," Tom elaborated to the Vulcan's pause.

Tuvok's stern features turned slightly with distaste. "You would appear to be attempting to make a point," he noted. "Perhaps clarity would assist you to such an end."

Tom shrugged. "The Defiant's security logs have a retinal scan of the man who stole the Defiant," he explained. "If I had been that man, assuming our retinal patterns are identical would be a pretty safe bet since the computer didn't deny me access. Catch is: I didn't steal the Defiant. William T. Riker stole the Defiant. The security computer compared William T. Riker's retinal scan to William T. Riker's service record: it only follows that they'd match." Tom shrugged. "But that doesn't mean mine would. Or at least, it means you can't assume that it would based on the Defiant's security logs."

"Are you saying that it wouldn't?" Ro prompted.

Tom shrugged. "Don't know. Never tried it."

"Why not?" Torres demanded.

Tom glanced at the half Klingon Maquis. "To tell the truth," he admitted. "I've never had enough reason to access anything classified beyond my own clearance to risk the fallout."

Torres snorted derisively.

"You are genetic identicals," Tuvok pointed out. "It is only logical that you share identical retinal patterns."

"We were genetic identicals ten years ago," Tom countered. "We've lived significantly different lives since then."

"Experience is not a dictating factor in retinal identification," Tuvok returned.

Tom smiled. "He's gone blind twice in that space of time," he noted, "and I spent eight years in a cave. Tell me that wouldn't make some sort of difference."

"I am not certain," Tuvok allowed.

"Neither am I," Tom agreed, "but I can tell you our fingerprints don't match any more. We've got the same whorl patterns, but we've scarred up differently over the years. I have a partial wipe on my left index ... burned it off scoring shale with a laser on Nervala IV. And a hand scanner won't pass me either. I put a duranium spike connector through my right palm about seven years ago. I was repairing a suspension bridge in the caverns and a tension rod slipped." Tom held out his hand, displaying a small, round indentation near the middle of his hand more than a centimeter deep. "Didn't have much in the way of medical facilities on Nervala," he noted, "so I've got one hell of a scar that he doesn't." He met Tuvok's eyes. "So you see, Tuvok, we may have been the same man ten years ago, but we're not really that much alike any more."

"I see," Tuvok noted calmly. "In what other ways do you consider yourself different?"

Tom saw the trap in the question, but answered it anyway: "In every way."

"Can you be more specific?"

"Among other things, he's good at being the first officer of the Federation flagship, and I'm not."

"I would be interested to know how your views of right and wrong differ," Tuvok said.

"And loyalty," Chakotay added quietly.

"And honor," Torres said.

They watched him expectantly; again, only Ro abstaining from the assumption of impending failure.

"In some ways," he allowed after a long beat, "I suppose you could say we have a similar code of ethics. I don't give my word unless I intend to keep it. I try not to lie any more than I have to, and once I pick a friend, I keep them."

"Do you have friends in Starfleet?" Tuvok asked calmly.

Tom glanced away. "He has friends in Starfleet," he said without inflection. "I have acquaintances."

Chakotay leaned forward. "How do you feel about betraying those acquaintances, Riker?" he asked.

"I'm not betraying them. If this works, I'll be giving them back their friend."

"What about your oath?" Chakotay pressed.

Tom met the Maquis rebel's gaze squarely. "I resigned my commission, remember?"

"Resigning a commission does not necessarily equate to a relinquishing of loyalty to either the organization or its agendas," Tuvok pointed out.

"What have I got to be loyal to Starfleet for?" Tom snapped. "Starfleet left me on a rock for eight years, and then when they found me, they brushed me off because the man who'd lived my life in my absence had done it so damned well."

"If you resent Starfleet so much," Chakotay asked, "why did you join them after the Enterprise rescued you from Nervala IV?"

"I didn't seem to have many options."

"There are a lot of things for a man to do in the universe besides play flyboy for the regime du jour."

"I accepted a scientific posting."

"You accepted the only posting you were offered."

Tom looked away. "For eight years," he said quietly, "I lived every day in isolation. I ate alone, I slept alone, I worked alone ... the only thing that kept me sane was regimentation. I was a Starfleet officer and I conducted myself accordingly. I saluted stalagmites I assigned rank. I ran surprise inspections on my work areas, on my living quarters. I configured new tacticals on a dozen historic battles and then let the stalagmites grade me on my solutions." He shook his head. "That may sound crazy now, but it was the only toe hold I could find in a world where the only sound I heard day in and day out was the sound of my own voice." He looked up, met Chakotay's eyes again. "I took the posting on the Ghandi," he said quietly, "because Starfleet was my life and because you're right, it was the only posting I was offered. I spent eight years in hell being grimly, determinedly Starfleet; and they promoted me from second officer of the Potemkin to a helm position on a scientific vessel."

For a long moment, Chakotay didn't comment. When he did speak, his voice was indifferent, but there was a tangible lessening in the hostility of his posture. "Why did you agree to Nechayev's plan? If Riker had been successful, they would have had to put one of you in a penal colony for consorting with the Maquis."

"I'd already tendered my resignation from the Ghandi. In return for participation in her plan, Nechayev would have set me up with a new identity. After a very public court martial, Tom Riker would have been incarcerated and died, and I would have had a new life somewhere far enough away from the contested territories to keep out of Cardassian sight."

"So you did it for money," Chakotay surmised coldly.

"I did it for a chance at a life that wasn't a bad remake of his," Tom countered.

"And when the plan fell apart? When Riker was captured and it became obvious you were expected to take on the part for the long run?"

"That was always a possibility. When it happened, I didn't have the option to back out."

"Are you saying you would have?"

"No. Not then."

"Even though you resent Starfleet to such a deep, unbroachable degree?" Chakotay pressed derisively.

Tom's features tighten. "I agreed to take Will's place," he said calmly, "because, at the time, it seemed like an equitable trade. It seemed like I'd been given a chance to live the life I was supposed to live."

"But it didn't work out," Chakotay noted.

Tom shook his head. "Serving as the XO of the Enterprise may have been my destiny ten years ago, but it isn't any more. The people on that ship are his friends, not mine. I didn't fit in: didn't do things the way they were supposed to be done, didn't say things the way they were supposed to be said, didn't stick to regulations the way they were supposed to be stuck to."

"I've had that problem," Ro allowed quietly.

"Me, too," Torres agreed.

"Starfleet is a very specific organization," Tuvok observed. "Their rules and regulations address very specific circumstances and are, consequently, understandably inflexible."

"Starfleet has a stick up its butt," B'Elanna Torres countered matter-of-factly. "They're more interested in regulations than in results."

"That's only half the rub," Tom muttered. "Try playing under those rules with everybody thinking you're someone you're not. They all have expectations - unrealistic expectations. I couldn't ask questions, but I was still expected to know the answers. Picard and Will were simpatico, but I can't get the bastard to say more than 'make it so' to me. His friends expect me to enjoy the things he enjoyed, to be good at the things he was good at. They talk about experiences they have in common that I don't know the first thing about." Tom shook his head. "To put it bluntly," he said, "I just wasn't up to the charade any more. And worse than that, I came to realize that I'm really not qualified. Will Riker spent the bulk of his career being mentored by Jean Luc Picard on how best to be the next Captain of the Century. I, meanwhile, spent my career counting time in on a rock, cutting pretty pictures into shale and daydreaming about something I was too naive to realize didn't exist."

"Troi," Ro surmised quietly.

Tom's eyes snapped to the Bajoran rebel. "That's none of your damned business," he told her definitively.

"If you're not qualified to do your job on the Enterprise," Chakotay said, drawing what had become a conversation back into the realm of an interrogation, "what makes you think you're qualified to lead a raid on a Cardassian stronghold?"

Tom smiled slightly. "I never said I wasn't good," he assured the dark-eyed rebel with the cultural tatoo. "Just that I wasn't good at playing by the rules. From what I understand, that makes me a lot like you."

It was the wrong thing to say. Chakotay's eyes went native. For a long moment, he stared at Tom like a Klingon whose honor had been challenged.

"You're nothing like me, Riker," Chakotay said finally, his voice calmly neutral despite the razor edge to his gaze, "so don't presume that you are." Then, coldly and definitively: "I've heard enough. We'll think about it and get back to you." He stood, ending the discussion.

"That's it?" Tom demanded, standing as well. "Your answer's no?"

"I said we'll think about it and get back to you," Chakotay repeated calmly. He stared to turn away, but Tom grabbed his arm.

"If he hadn't exposed that fleet," Tom insisted, "the Maquis would be a blood stain on Cardassian history by now."

"Let go of me," Chakotay said quietly. "Now."

"He's rotting on Lazon II for doing your job," Tom pressed doggedly. "For exposing the Obsidian Order's Secret fleet and saving your collective ass!"

Tom didn't see the rebel move. He didn't see it, but he felt it, and felt it hard - first in his jaw, and then in his lower back where a table splintered under his weight, and then in his shoulders and his head where they slammed to the barroom floor.

Dazed, he blinked up at the swarm of unfamiliar faces that swam in and out of focus. Chakotay crouched near his left shoulder.

"Unlawful detention of a Maquis officer," he said, patting Tom's shoulder. "Next time, I'll kill you." He rose and started away.

Tom scrambled to his feet to follow. Still dazed, he managed nonetheless to get a hand on Chakotay's arm again. "Wait," he mumbled, staggering slightly. Chakotay regarded him coldly, his eyes a deadly warning that Tom chose to ignore. "I heard you were fair, Chakotay. I heard you had a code of honor."

"Did you also hear I make idle threats?" Chakotay asked quietly.

"Let him go, Tom," Ro said, stepping in. "You made your case, now let it rest." She broke his grip and pushed him back.

Chakotay studied the other man for a long moment, then said, "You might want to listen to her, Starfleet. She knows the lay of the mine field better than you do." Then he walked away. Torres and Tuvok followed.

"Are you going to pass, too?" Tom demanded as Ro moved to join them.

"This isn't just my decision," she answered calmly.

"I thought the two of you were friends."

"We were never friends," Ro corrected. "We came to a mutual understanding."

"Are you with him or us, Laren?" Chakotay asked from three meters away.

"I'm with you," Ro answered, but her eyes stayed on Tom.

Chakotay let a beat pass, and then another. "Not to rush you," he said after a third, "but we're leaving."

Ro nodded. She held Tom's eyes a moment longer, then turned away. Chakotay waited for her to join them; then, like leopards in the jungle, they vanished, melting into the landscape of the bar as if it were their natural habitat.

Ever the outsider, Tom Riker remained conspicuously behind.


"Does it matter what I think?" Ro asked quietly.

"It always matters what you think, Laren," Chakotay returned.

Sitting in council chambers, waiting for Rheger Kha's security escort to finish combing the room for potential threats, the members of Chakotay's strike team passed the time for the most part by sleeping. Slumped side by side at the end of the table, Ayala and Torres exemplified the Maquis capacity to take full advantage of every opportunity to refuel. In a rebellion where sleep was often a casualty of necessity; and exhaustion, a tool in the enemy's hands, both rebels stoked their coffers in anticipation of the unanticipatible. Similarly, Tuvok was either asleep or meditating, and six of the seven guards that would stand security for the meeting dozed at their posts.

Chakotay, himself, had been going over the Shalla Nor simulation in his head, flexing and twisting the holographic training program in search of any contingency that might come up that he had failed to adequately address. With the extensive Cardassian forces dedicated to protecting the contested outpost, even the smallest omission in training could prove fatal to the strike team assigned to take it out for the third time this year.

"I think we should help him," Ro announced.

Chakotay spared her a glance. "I know you think that," he said.

"But that's not what you're going to advise, is it?"

"No, it's not."

Ro leaned closer, lowering her voice. "He did expose the Obsidian Order's fleet," she reminded him.

"Yes. He did."

"And he's a good man. A brave man."

"A lot of good men have died in this war, Laren. A lot more will die before it's over."

"Then you've made your decision?"

"My decision was made before I ever spoke with your friend. He didn't say anything that changed my mind."

Ro frowned. "Tom Riker isn't my friend," she informed the Maquis captain a little tersely.

Chakotay's expression cornered itself with the implication of a smile. "He would be, given time."

Ro shrugged the statement off. "Is there anything I can say to change your mind?"

"Not unless you can guarantee me it's not a trap. And that even if it's not a trap, that I won't loose any of my team."

"You've never required a guarantee before."

"I've never planned a strike I didn't feel benefited the cause sufficiently to justify casualties."

Ro sighed. "Nothing in life is a guarantee," she said. "It's all risk and profit: you weigh one against the other and make your choices accordingly."

"Is that a Ferengi Rule of Acquisition," he asked, "or did you just make it up?"

"This isn't a joke, Chakotay," she snapped. "You've planned strikes on munitions caches ... on surveillance outposts. This is a man's life we're talking about. Are you saying that he isn't as important as one of twelve dozen iridium mines?"

"Shalla Nor supplies the Cardys with more than fifty percent of their iridium," Chakotay reminded her. "More than that, every time we take it out, they dedicate more troops to re-building it and then to protecting it. The drain on their patrolling manpower alone is worth the risk. The degree to which it pisses them off is pure frosting."

"A man's life," Ro insisted. "Will Riker's life."

"Riker's Starfleet," Chakotay returned quietly. "In case you haven't been keeping up, Laren, that makes him one of them."

"Will Riker's not the enemy. He saved the whole quadrant from the Borg."

"And the quadrant thanks him," Chakotay said. "When he starts taking on Cardassians, you be sure and let me know."

Ro leaned forward. "Riker may be Starfleet," she said grimly, "but like a dozen others, he's a borderline contingency for us. He's well respected, highly placed in their command hierarchy, and - most importantly - morally conscientious enough to stand up and be counted if the Maquis ever manages to get the border wars on the table as a viable issue. His sense of right and wrong is stronger than his loyalty to any given institution - he's broken regulations before because they got in the way of his moral code -and he's dealt with the Cardassians enough to see them for what they are. He could be a valuable ally if and when we try to split the Federation council at the Jellico line, but he won't be anything more than a wasted asset if we leave him to rot on some Cardy penal colony. We need him in the system, Chakotay. We need the influence he wields, the opinions he can sway."

Finally satisfied with the council chamber's integrity, the Kha's security escort retreated. Chakotay kicked Torres's chair, stirring her awake. She, in turn, woke Ayala. Tuvok opened his eyes of his own accord, and the team as a whole assumed a more formal configuration around the stone-hewn table.

"Can't consider him much of an influence if they're willing to sacrifice him on a point of politics," Chakotay noted, folding his hands on the table and adopting a specific posture he assumed only in the presence of the Kha: a deferential posture that ceded its natural authority to the only man he would consider ceding it to. "He's not our problem, Laren. If Starfleet wants him rescued, let them rescue him themselves."

"He is our problem," Ro retorted as guards posted at intervals along the walls took their cue from Chakotay's change of posture and became bastions of stoic soldierliness. "And I think he's worth risking our lives for."

The Kha's personal entourage entered the room in a rustle of feathers and fur. They fanned out, setting up a protective perimeter around the council chamber's circumference. With the keenest senses in the known galaxy and the fiercest reputation, the Avarians that made up the Kha's honor guard could smell chemical volatiles at less than one part per ten million and could hear the rush of Human blood through Human veins at fifty paces. Eyes capable of using body heat as a light source watched every move made in the large stone room that served the Maquis stronghold as council chambers.

"Then we see it differently," Chakotay told her, ending the conversation with his tone. The air in the room densified, and the smell of it changed. With the exception of the members of the Kha's honor guard, every Maquis present fell silent, averting his or her eyes in a show of respect.

Rheger Kha of Avari Prime, the founder of the Maquis movement and the Commander-in-Chief of its multi-ethnic fighting forces, stepped into council chambers. Greeted by the submissive postures of a predominance of the most dangerous men and women in the galaxy, he made his way slowly across the room.


Though every member of the Maquis ruling council was present in deference to the Kha's rare presence in-chambers, they watched the proceedings from ancillary posts along the chamber walls. Because the meeting was called as a specific address of Chakotay's meeting with the Starfleet Riker and his intentions concerning the proposal of a raid on Lazon II, it was only he and his strike team who sat quietly around the circular table itself, eyes respectfully averted as Rheger Kha settled himself into place and preened his resplendent array of colorful feathers until they lay exactly as they were supposed to lay. Only when the Avarian was situated and satisfied with his appearance, did the meeting commence.

"Chakotay of Dorvan," Rheger Kha said, his strident voice clickish with consonants unfamiliar to his native tongue. "Tell you what has come to be. This Riker Tom is as he presents?"

Acknowledged by the Kha's direct inquiry, Chakotay's posture changed. Submission bled from his shoulders, deference faded from his eyes. As was the Maquis custom, he became the equal of the man he faced: a reflection of the Maquis belief that in life and in death, all men were the same. It was only in matters of custom and of war that rank held bearing.

"He seems sincere enough," Chakotay allowed, "and his story holds up in the wash. There are two Rikers on record as of 2369 - Commander William Riker of the USS Enterprise and Lieutenant Tom Riker formerly of the SS Ghandi." He indicated Ro with a subtle nod. "Ro served with Will Riker on the Enterprise and assures me that the man we met at Dead Lazlows isn't the same man who defeated the Borg. She also vouches for the transporter accident story. Though she was on Mellis Prime completing her covert operations training when the Enterprise discovered Tom Riker on Nervala IV, the incident is a matter of ship's record. She's seen the mission logs and verifies their authenticity. That doesn't leave us much room to maneuver: either we accept his story or we roast Ro as a Starfleet operative planted to feed us disinformation." He glanced at the Bajoran national. She met his gaze without the slightest indication that his comment had any effect at all. "Personally," Chakotay deadpanned, "my money's on Ro."

"Ro of Bajor is known well to us," the Kha agreed easily. "We doubt no words of her speaking."

Chakotay nodded as if the gesture was somewhat of a concession.

"I concur," he allowed, his eyes sparking with an amusement that didn't share itself with his expression or his tone. "Ro is an acceptable source of reliable intelligence."

To Chakotay's left, Ro shifted. She brushed her hair back from her face with a gesture implicit with its message for Chakotay of Dorvan. Though both Torres and Tuvok picked up on the exchange, Rheger Kha missed it, as he was intended to.

"Then this man is as claimed the imposter and Riker William is of now Lazon II?" the Kha surmised.

"Looks that way," Chakotay agreed.

"Interesting," the Kha murmured. "Interesting much. Then wish you to pursue?"

"No, I don't," Chakotay said firmly. "The man we met may not be Will Riker, but I'm still not convinced he isn't fronting another Starfleet flyby. And on the basest level, even if he is dealing straight off the top of the deck, I don't see that we have anything to gain from throwing in with his plan."

"Riker William is nothing gainful?" the Kha asked, surprised. "He is prime of Enterprise. His tactical worth singular is envious to me, and there would be great power of swaying value in his joining to us."

"That's not going to happen," Chakotay said with unequivocal certainty. "Will Riker is Starfleet to the bone. Even if we were to rescue him, he wouldn't throw in with the Maquis."

"You know this how?" Rheger Kha demanded.

"Let's just say I'm an acceptable source of reliable intelligence on the matter," Chakotay said. "Riker won't betray his oath. He won't give us tactical information, and he won't join the cause."

"Choice we will not give him," the Kha countered. "If save we his life from Lazon, then gives he in return to us, his life the cause for serving."

"He's not bound by Avarian reciprocals," Chakotay explained patiently. "His oath is to Starfleet. His loyalty is to Starfleet. He'll die before he does anything he views as treasonous, and it would do irreparable damage to the cause to be the delivering hand of such a death." Chakotay leaned forward, tensing several of the Avarian guards with his proximity to their Kha. "If we rescue him," he said firmly, "we'll have no choice but to return him to Starfleet, no strings attached. Granted it would be one hell of a PR coop, but I don't see the return outweighing the price. Even if we succeeded, it would be a dangerous raid, and most likely a costly one in terms of casualties. All other considerations aside, I can't say I'm anxious to put my people's lives on the line to mount a rescue operation for a man who's hunted us in the past and will no doubt hunt us again in the future."

"He may be Starfleet," Ro ventured quietly, "but Riker did us all a big favor in exposing the Obsidian Order's plans. He saved a lot of Maquis lives, not to mention the lives of civilians in contested territories."

Rheger Kha's quick eyes skipped to Ro. His surprise that she would speak in opposition to Chakotay was obvious.

Chakotay, on the other hand, took the challenge in stride. "Riker did what he did for his own reasons," he said, neither angry nor insulted by a dissenter among his own people. "Just because we happened to benefit as well doesn't mean we're obligated to run salvage on him."

Rheger Kha glanced around the table, noting each member of Chakotay's team. He studied Ro the longest, impressed that she would speak, impressed that Chakotay would listen.

"We have surprise for Chakotay of Dorvan," he announced finally, his piercing gaze settling back to the Maquis captain. "Thought we that he would hunt this mission much willingly. His ways of honor inconsistent to Rheger Kha seem."

"This isn't a matter of honor," Chakotay said. "And, in a practical sense, I don't see any advantage to the situation. We take all the risks but aren't in line for any of the profits."

"Profit all from Riker William's return," the Kha said.

Chakotay's expression flickered. "No," he said quietly. "I don't think we particularly profit from William Riker's repatriation. In fact, I think we very well might suffer from it in the long run." He folded his hands carefully on the table. "You, however, sound like you're in favor of it. Am I speaking to the wind on this matter?"

Rheger Kha smiled slightly. It was an odd turn of expression on his stark, Avarian features, but unmistakable nonetheless. "Chakotay of Dorvan is speaking never to the wind," he assured the Maquis captain. "You are proven well to us, and it is never of our thoughts to small walk those of proving to decisions made." He glanced around the circular chamber, meeting the eyes of the other members of the Maquis ruling council still standing their inconspicuous stances near the chamber walls. "But believe we still that Riker William profited us much," he added after a beat.

"Regrettable that he alone should be in paying. If without great cost we may bring change to this, be it would consideration worthy, think you not?"

Chakotay considered it. "I'm not convinced this kind of raid could be accomplished without substantial risk," he said finally.

"Think this also those of your command?" glanced to Ro. "Ro thinks the risk is worth taking," he allowed.

The Kha nodded. "We are of hearing such thoughts," he agreed.

Taking her cue from Chakotay's almost imperceptible nod rather than the easily mis-understood invitation of an Avarian straining the limits of his universal translator's syntax extrapolation programming, Ro said, "A small team with specific goals might be able to infiltrate cleanly. The advantage of surprise would be on our side. Given the right tools, the right intelligence, we could be in and out again before they realize we're there."

"And they wouldn't be looking for a strike that far in-territory," B'Elanna Torres added. "After Starfleet's disavowal of Riker, they won't be looking for a rescue of any kind."

Chakotay arched an eyebrow at his chief engineer. "You, too?" he asked, mildly surprised.

Torres shrugged a one-shoulder shrug. "Sounds like an interesting fight," she allowed defectively.

Chakotay sighed. He looked to Ayala, who shook off the implication that he had any thoughts at all on the matter, and then to Tuvok, the last remaining member of his own advisory council.

Unconcerned that their deliberations had stalled his conversation with the most powerful member of the Maquis, he asked, "What about you, Tuvok? Any thoughts?"

"It may be prudent to consider," Tuvok pointed out cautiously, "that Starfleet does not wish Commander Riker repatriated and would not, in all probability, be receptive to our generosity in returning him."

Torres frowned. "It's not like we'd be asking them to lend a hand, Tuvok," she pointed out. "They have nothing to lose. All they have to do is sit on their butts and wait. For them its a win-win scenario."

"I don't think that's what Tuvok's saying," Chakotay countered quietly, his eyes dark with the thought. "I think what he's saying - correct me if I'm wrong, Tuvok - is that Starfleet is satisfied with things the way they are. A rescue at this point might prove an embarrassment to them."

"An accurate assessment," Tuvok agreed. "Starfleet went to great lengths to successfully perpetrate their elaborate subterfuge. At this time, the Cardassians believe themselves to be in possession of Tom Riker, a Starfleet traitor. Any attempt on our part to alter the outcome of what Starfleet no doubt views as a successfully completed mission may well be met with considerable resistance."

"Say you that Starfleet of Federation try and stop us would?" Kha asked.

Tuvok met the Avarian's gaze directly. "If they were to view our intentions as unacceptably disruptive to their continued diplomatic accord with the Cardassian empire," he allowed, "they may well indeed take steps to preclude success in our endeavor."

Rheger Kha clicked quietly to himself. He glanced around the table, his clicks escalating in both timber and tone. "Seska of Bajor has to her Prophets passed?" he asked suddenly.

When Chakotay didn't answer, Ro stepped in. "Seska's been temporarily re-assigned," she explained, glancing sideways at Chakotay. "She'll be making the next Shalla Nor run with Jovikaan."

Rheger Kha nodded, but his attention had already shifted to Chakotay. Watching the subtle play of emotions working the Maquis captain's aquiline features, the Kha found himself in the unique position of being utterly ignored. One by one, each participant in the conversation followed the Kha's gaze. Within half a minute, they were all watching the pre-occupied rebel, but Chakotay was too captivated by his own contemplations to notice.

"Think you deep of this, Chakotay of Dorvan," the Avarian leader noted finally.

Chakotay glanced up. Realizing that the conversation had drained to him, he reacted by squaring his shoulders slightly and meeting Rheger Kha's hugely-pupilled eyes. "I have a few thoughts on it," he allowed.

"Being they?" the Kha prompted.

"Being they," Chakotay returned quietly, "that maybe I was a bit hasty in my evaluation. I can see a few advantages now that didn't occur to me earlier. As a matter of fact, I'm beginning to take a liking to the whole notion."

B'Elanna Torres leaned into the table, her Klingonoid features suddenly sharp with predatory anticipation. "What are you thinking, Chakotay?" she demanded.

"I'm thinking," he allowed, a smile creeping into his stark features and turning them with an expression markedly similar to that of his chief engineer, "that catching Starfleet with its pants down around its ankles is the best idea I've heard all millennium."

Ro leaned forward as well, Torres and Chakotay's predatory enthusiasm pulling her in like the gravity field of a red dwarf. "Exposing Riker's involvement could cause an intergalactic incident," she said. "The Cardassian Empire and the Federation could well go head-to-head over it."

"And if they go to war, the Maquis stands to inherit the benefits of an invaluable, if reluctant, ally," Chakotay finished for her. "Whether Starfleet likes it or not, we would finally be on the same side." He grinned, turning his eyes back to Rheger Kha. "I'm beginning to like the idea," he told the Avarian. "I'm beginning to like it a lot."

"Amaze you me," the Kha muttered, shaking his head. "Mind of yours is much gaming of pawn to king. Thinking we that lucky the Cause is calling the Son of Kolopak comrade. Would not I wishing to enemy of you be."

Chakotay inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the Avarian's praise. Across the table, Tuvok had no expression at all.


"Oh my God," Riker whispered, his voice deep with horror and shock. "What have they done to you? What in God's name have they done?" He twisted in protest to the image seared into his feverish brain. "No ... God, no ...."

Across the darkness, Grellel listened to his cellmate's dreams, listened to the man's fears, to the shadows that infested the deepest corners of his mind.

"I'm sorry, Captain," Riker murmured. Fever slurred his words, one into another. "I'm sorry ... I'm sorry ...."

It was the Borg again: familiar visitors to the younger man's rich tapestry of feverish dementia. He struggled against their violation, thrashed impotently on an unforgiving stone pallet as he called again and again for forgiveness from a man Tom Riker would barely know.

"Fire," Riker muttered. "Fire. God, forgive me. Fire ..."

"It's alright, Number One," Grellel said. "I forgive you."

As it often did, Grellel's voice calmed Riker's thrashing. His dementia cooled slightly, and the dreams became less devastating. "I'm sorry, Captain ..." he whispered.

Grellel didn't speak again. He sat in darkness and listened, ashamed to know another's deepest pain, but he listened.


She was beautiful, and he was lonely, and they made quite a pair, drinking as heavily as they were drinking. Tom Riker studied the remnants of a scotch and soda in the bottom of his glass, marvelling that with as much alcohol as he'd consumed, his memories of Troi seemed somehow sharper, more immediate. He could hear her voice in his mind, smell her skin on his senses.

"That's terribly impolite," the woman across the table informed him primly, smiling a seductive smile when he glanced up to meet it.

"What?" he asked, his voice slurred with an impairment his memories refused to share.

"Thinking about another woman when we've only just met."

Tom smiled. He intended it as a charming expression, but it lay on his features more like betrayed misery. "How do you know what I'm thinking?" he inquired in a sly slosh. "You're not Betazoid, are you?"

"Do I look Betazoid?" she countered, her voice a full, throaty purr.

"Not at all," Tom assured her dully. "Not at all." It was the truth. She didn't look Betazoid: She looked Bajoran - probably because she was Bajoran. She had the dark intense eyes, the crinkle-cut nose, the dangling ear cuff designed to keep her in touch with her paugh .... Tom looked around the smokey bar in a soft-focus, alcoholic haze. It boasted a heavy patronage of Bajorans, as any self-respecting Maquis bar most probably would. Maybe she was one of them - one of the elitist Maquis who chose their causes with the finicky aplomb of Starfleet diplomats.

Shaking his head in disgust, Tom returned his gaze to the dregs at the bottom of his glass. He hadn't expected logic. He hadn't expected calm, dispassionate discourse, then a flat-out refusal. He hadn't expected to have to sell the Maquis on their own cause, and he hadn't expected the one man he'd heard had enough balls to take on the Cardassian empire single-handedly to knock him on his ass without even breaking a sweat.

Sighing heavily, Tom Riker finished off the last of his drink and set it aside. Rebels weren't what they used to be, he decided. Not by a long shot.

"Cheer up, Tom," the Bajoran across the table purred. "Have another drink, then we'll go somewhere and make you forget her." She pushed a fresh scotch and soda across the table. He didn't know where it came from, and he cared even less.

Downing half the drink in one motion, Tom announced, "She's already forgotten. I can't even remember her name."

It wasn't an accurate statement. He could remember Troi's name - he could remember Troi's smell - what he couldn't remember was the name of the striking woman across the table. Teeka ... or Teepee ... or Tee-something. Watching him with predatory eyes, she was waiting for an opening, looking for a vulnerability. Whatever Tee she was, she was hunting Starfleet tonight - a uniformed notch on her undoubtedly well-notched bedpost - and unless he struck now, throwing up an entire evening's failed shots of liquid consolation onto her pretty red shoes, he was going to be it.

All things considered, it sounded like fun.

Tom finished the drink and set it aside. "Let's go," he said, pushing to a stand.

The bar tipped dangerously. The room began to undulate. He was sitting again before he realized his knees had buckled him back to his chair.

"In a moment," she allowed, still smiling.

She faded slightly, blurring into the bar's contorted atmosphere like a badly-programmed hologram. Tom blinked, then blinked again.

It occurred to him a little too late that he went from drunk to dead drunk too damned fast. By the time his brain molded the realization into a conspiracy, the drug was already deadening his nerves, turning his skin to ash. Adrenaline flushed his system. His heart tripled its dance beat, but limbs lacking the dexterity to move hung useless on their joints. He stirred woodenly in the chair and nothing more.

"Damnit." The curse turned to mush on a tongue thickly swollen. He struggling to focus, struggled to breathe. The room tipped again, and he nearly passed out.

"Relax, Tom," she whispered into his ear. "You've had a little too much to drink ..."

He struggled feebly against her apologies to nearby drinkers, but couldn't find the voice to deny them. The drug was invading his autonomic responses. He could barely feel her fingers against his skin. He couldn't move his legs, or lift his hands. Air was mud in his lungs, cement in his throat.

"I'll help you with him," a deep voice offered. It was a familiar voice, one he nearly recognized. Straining hard to focus, he failed miserably. His eyes betrayed him, loosing their acuity and fading to utter black as hands under his arms lifted him to feet he no longer owned. He felt them slog him into motion, but couldn't identify any impression of direction.

"He's all right," the Bajoran woman told someone from a million parsecs away. "I'll take him home and let him sleep it off."

Again, Tom tried to protest, but his lips numbed on the fumble of words. Feet he tried to drag couldn't feel themselves against the floor. Chair legs and tables he might have snagged were out of his reach only millimeters away.

A sharp cut of cold wind told him they were outside. It roused him enough to bleed the hands against his arms to tangibility. Wrenching to one side, he managed to slip through them. The street was wet and cold and hard. It came up to meet him with a jolt that should have made more of an impression.

"He should be out by now," the Bajoran woman whispered across the buzz droning in the restricted confines of his skull. "I gave him enough to take down a Targ."

Hands jerked him to his feet. Fingers pried apart eyelids he didn't remember shutting. A white-edged knife of light cut through his eyes and into his brain. He jerked away, but the probing light followed. Behind it was a vague impression of lines and geometric shapes.

"Bastard," Tom mumbled.

"Get him off the street," the half-familiar voice instructed calmly. "If he doesn't go down in another five minutes, give him another dose."

"Another dose could kill him," the Bajoran protested.

"Better him than us," the voice returned.

Tom struggled to make it the full five minutes. He only made it three.


Lovek of no title stared grimly at the massive painting that predominated his office wall. It was a depiction of Cardassia Prime in the time of the ancients, full and ripe and lush with the promise of pending Summer. In many ways, it transcended the ancestral memory it evoked. In others, it did not do the sensual air justice.

Lovek sighed. The painting had been a gift from his youngest daughter upon his ascension to Gul. She had intended it to hang in the halls of the Dutopa Council, not as a vestiture on the bare stone wall of some God-forsaken penal colony in the Akara system. Here, it seemed out of place - as out of place as he, an honored Gul stripped of his title and his command and his very soul.
Lovek sighed again, deeper and more cravingly, then turned away. It was a poet's way to dream, and a poet he was not. Even now, without rank or honor or authority, he was at least and always a warrior. A broken warrior, a mortally graven warrior, but a warrior none the less. His thoughts were of strategy and tactics and the small details of brutality that could free him from this living hell. He would not die on Lazon II. He would not die in disgrace.

Lovek's aid entered his office without the basest protocol of respect. It was a breach of etiquette that would have earned him death on Cardassia Prime, but which stood as nothing more than an annoyance here. Without honor, there was no reason to stand on discipline. Without rank, there was nothing.

Behind his aide, another of the disgraced prodded a prisoner forward. The Bajoran stumbled and nearly fell.

"Leave us," Lovek ordered.

The aid and guard retreated without comment.

Lovek smiled at the Bajoran when they were alone. "Hello, Grellel," he said, his eyes glittering. "How is my favorite Bajoran terrorist today?"


Tom Riker came awake fast and hard and with the vivid memory of danger flushing his mind like fire. He jolted upright, surprised to find himself not only alive, but unrestrained on a primitive palette-like bed. The room was dim and dank. It reminded him of the caverns on Nervala IV.

"Welcome back," a man he didn't recognize greeted from across the room.

"Where in the hell am I?" Tom demanded. His voice was hoarse, his throat parched to the consistency of moldy orange peel. His head ached, and he couldn't focus clearly on the details of the dusky room.

"Here," the man answered simply.

"Where's here?"

"The same place it was yesterday." He stood. "Get up. We're going somewhere else."



Tom snorted. "You're damned helpful," he noted.

"Not my job to be helpful."

Tom rubbed at the eyes. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and nearly passed out. The pain in his skull pulsed brighter. "What is your job?" he mumbled, reaching up to find a simple gauze bandage near his left eyebrow at the temple.

"Babysitting," the man allowed drily. "For the time being at least."

Closing his eyes for a moment in an effort to force away the sway of disorientation staggering the room to unsteady, Tom said, "Thanks, but no thanks. I can take care of myself,"

"If you could take care of yourself," his companion observed, "you wouldn't be here." Pulling the still unsteady Starfleet officer to his feet with a none-to-gentle grip on one arm, he added, "A word of advise, Starfleet: When in enemy territory, avoid drinking and consorting with unknown women. But if you must do one or the other, at least don't do both at the same time."

"The Bajoran," Tom muttered, remembering her eyes but little else. "She did this?" He gestured vaguely to the bandage.

"You did that to yourself," the man returned. "Fell on your face in the street."

"She drugged me," Tom decided, shrugging off the stranger's support and nearly falling for his effort.

"You're quicker than they say you are, Starfleet," the man noted, "but then, that's not saying much. Can you walk, or do I have to drag you?"

Tom squared his shoulders with an effort. "I can walk," he said. And then, forcing down the wave of nausea that rushed the back of his throat, he asked, "Who are you?"

"I am me," the man said. "And you've wasted enough of my time with your recovery. They're waiting for you in council chambers." He shoved Tom roughly. "Walk."

"Who's waiting?" Tom asked. "Chakotay?"

"Fine," the man growled. Catching Tom by the biceps, he jerked him off balance. "I'll drag you."

Already disoriented, Tom lost his balance. He stumbled, falling heavily against a nearby wall. His knee jarred bruisingly on the stone floor. The man hauled him back to his feet.

"I said I can walk," Tom snapped, wresting his arm from the other man's grip before being jerked off his feet again.

"Then walk," his captor ordered.

Cautious of his balance and limping slightly in deference to a newly bruised knee, Tom make his way slowly across the room. He ducked through a low-slung doorway and found himself in a long, uneven corridor.

The room had reminded him of the caverns on Nervala IV for good reason. They were underground somewhere, his recovery chamber only one in a series of subterranean caverns. Dank and musty and dim to a fault, it was living space hewn from solid rock. Busy and well-populated, children ran the corridors as men and women of all ages clumped in huddles along their route. They watched him with suspicious eyes as he passed, many of them openly hostile. A few wore uniforms representative of a dozen different military branches from a dozen different worlds, but most wore civilian clothing charred and torn to virtual tatters.

"Sightsee later, Starfleet," the Maquis behind him snapped, shoving a shoulder that nearly unbalance him again to a fall.

"I try taking this any faster," Tom retorted, "and you graduate from babysitter to rickshaw driver."

The Maquis laughed, a harsh, menacing sound. "You go butt down on me," he said quietly, "and I'll leave you to the civvies. They're just about due for fresh meat anyway."

At the end of the corridor, they entered a large room, well lit by the standards of the remainder of the place. Though he recognized a number of the occupants immediately - Torres, Tuvok and most notably Ro Laren - the man he'd expected to find behind his abduction was nowhere to be seen.

"What in the hell's going on here, Ro?" Tom demanded, addressing himself to the individual he felt was most apt to give him the time of day. "Why was I shanghaied by the Maquis?"

"You weren't shanghaied," Ro answered calmly. "You came to us, remember?"

"I didn't come to you to be drugged into oblivion," Tom snapped. "I came to ask for your help. And if I recall correctly, your boss said no."

"I didn't say no," Chakotay informed Tom, striding into the room from one of the numerous branching corridors that converged on the chamber. He had to duck slightly to avoid hitting his head on the arching entranceway, but he performed the evasion with the natural ease of a man well-used to the inconveniences of cramped quarters. "I said we'd get back to you." He pulled up a chair and took a seat at the large, round table predominating the room. "Consider yourself gotten back to."

Chakotay's presence was a catalyst to the others in the room. Clusters broke apart, and extraneous individuals retreated. Three guards posted themselves around the room while Torres, Tuvok, Ro and his inimical escort took seats around the table. Chakotay spoke up when Tom didn't join them.

"Waiting for an invitation, Mister Riker?"

"I'm waiting for an explanation," Tom countered. "Why am I here?"

"Because you're too stupid to recognize the texture of Burridean stun powder mixed with scotch," B'Elanna Torres said.

Chakotay smiled with his eyes but nothing else. "You're here," he elaborated, "because we've decided that the Maquis can benefit sufficiently from this little raid you're considering to explore its feasibility."

"Why did you drug me?" Tom pressed. "Why not just set up another meeting at the bar?"

"Dead Lazlow's is neutral territory that affords us a certain safety margin for initial contact," Ro answered. "It isn't a place to discuss details or tactics."

"Then a simple set of directions would have sufficed. I don't appreciate being blindsided. That's not the way I work."

"The way you work is irrelevant, Starfleet," the man who'd escorted him to the meeting remarked. "When you come to us, you play by our rules."

Tom's eyes narrowed. "I don't work with people I can't trust," he said, "or with people who can't trust me."

"Then you must not get much accomplished," the man returned.

"We're not in the business of trusting people, Riker," Chakotay said calmly. "Especially not those in the employ of Starfleet Command."

Tom's gaze swung back to Chakotay. "You still think Starfleet sent me to set you up?" he demanded. "You still think this is all a charade to get me inside the Maquis?"

"The possibility of such a strategy has been explored," Tuvok allowed.

"And for the most part, dismissed," Ro added, shooting the Vulcan a side-eyed glare. "If we thought this was a trap, Tom, you wouldn't be here."

"Then why all the intrigue?" Tom demanded. "Why seductresses and drugs and kidnapping a Starfleet officer in broad daylight?"

"I thought you resigned your commission," Torres jibed.

"Ex-Starfleet, then," Tom agreed.

"Because if Starfleet went to the trouble to steal one of its own ships and frame one of its most decorated war heros just to trip up the Obsidian Order," Chakotay said calmly, "there's no telling what kind of chicanery they might have up their sleeves when it comes to us." He leaned forward, his eyes piercing. "And despite what our reputation might be, we don't take unnecessary chances. There's too much at stake; too much to lose if we trust too easily or too well."

"I'm telling you the truth, Chakotay," Tom said firmly.

"For your sake, I hope that you are," Chakotay countered. "Because if you're fronting an ambush, Mister Riker, you are a dead man." He gestured to the single empty chair at the large, round table. "Have a seat, and let's hear what you have to say."

Wincing slightly as he settled, Tom took the proffered chair "Where do we start?"

"We start with what you bring to the mix," Chakotay said. "If it's enough, we'll counter with what we're willing to chip in."

"Fair enough," Tom agreed. "I have plans of the Cardassian stronghold. I have reconnaissance photos from Phoenix Force flybys, and I have blueprints obtained through deep cover mole attrition."

Chakotay glanced to Ro. She met his eyes with an almost palpable tension. Tom didn't notice.

"I also have the latest in Starfleet intelligence on Cardassian patrol routes in the Akara sector," he went on. "and troop strengths and disbursements for outposts along the way." He grinned. "So how's that for an opening bid?"

Chakotay didn't answer for a long moment. "I suppose you have all this in your head?" he said finally.

"In a manner of speaking." Tom reached behind his left ear and three of the five Maquis seated around the table - Tuvok and Chakotay being the exceptions - half rose from their chairs in instinctive retreat. The guards standing the room's perimeter tensed, and a full dozen weapons trained themselves on Tom Riker as he peeled away a virtually invisible patch of plastiskin to reveal a data chip leached flat against his neck.

"I thought you checked him, Ayala," Chakotay said quietly.

"I thought I did, too," the Maquis who'd escorted Tom to the meeting chamber returned. "Obviously, I didn't check him well enough."

"Obviously," Tuvok agreed drily.

"If this was a transcomm," Tom said, peeling the data chip off his skin and setting it on the table before him, "Starfleet would have the coordinates to your precious little rebel base; but it isn't and they don't because I'm not what you'd like to believe that I am." Tapping the table to the left of the data chip, he said, "Consider this my contribution to our little party."

"I'll consider it sabotage until I've had it verified." Chakotay nodded to a guard standing quietly in one corner of the chamber. The big man crossed to Tom and removed the microchip.

"Be careful with that," Tom said. "It represents the sum total of whatever my Starfleet career might have come to." He turned his attention back to Chakotay. "So, Chakotay," he demanded somewhat smugly, "satisfied that I'm not the enemy yet?"

Watching him with eyes utterly inscrutable in their emotion, Chakotay didn't answer. It was only then, staring into dead flat nothingness, that Tom Riker realized he was in trouble. Glancing around the room, he saw Chakotay's reflection in every expression. The hostility was tangible. What little acceptance he'd fostered in the group was gone. Even Ro was watching him as if he'd grown a Cardassian neck ridge.

"What?" Tom demanded, his shoulders tensing. "What?!?"

"It's a trap," Ro announced. She pushed to her feet and began pacing the room like a caged tiger. "Whether he's a pawn or a player, it's a trap."

"What trap?" Tom demanded.

"I smell it, too," Torres agreed. "The whole thing reeks of Nechayev."

"Without reliable intelligence to the contrary," Tuvok added calmly, "it would appear inadvisable to continue."

"What trap?!?" Tom repeated angrily.

"An over-baited trap," Ro snapped. "The kind of information you're offering would be inaccessible to you. It would be inaccessible to you if you really were Will Riker, or even Jean-Luc Picard. The only way you have it is if you're a plant. They anted you in at too high a price, Tom ... overplayed their bait thinking the fish wouldn't see the hook."

Stunned, Tom looked from Ro, to Chakotay and back again. "You've got to be kidding," he said finally.

"We don't kid," Torres growled.

"We have to abort, Chakotay," Ro said, leaning into the table and fixing the Maquis captain with an intent stare. "I brought him in because I thought it was legit, but this changes everything. With Picard and Nechayev both aware of who he really is, there's no way he gets his hands on that kind of intelligence unless they're using him to get to us."

"I'm no fool, Ro," Tom said. "I know when I'm being used."

"Then you're worse than a fool," Ro shot back. "You're Starfleet." She wielded the designation like a curse. Tom flinched at the vehemence in her tone.

"I thought you were on my side," he said after a beat. "I thought you, at least, believed me."

"I did," Ro said. "I don't any more."

Chakotay glanced to Ayala. The only member of the Maquis team who hadn't voiced an opinion, Ayala was watching Tom Riker with singular intensity. Eyes narrowed and features expressionless, he didn't move, didn't blink, he merely watched.

"Ayala?" Chakotay prompted.

"He's telling the truth," Ayala said unequivocally. "If he's being used, he isn't aware of it."

Attention swinging to the Maquis who pronounced him credible with such definitive calm, Tom realized what he should have realized before: "You're Betazoid."

"I'm Maquis," Ayala corrected grimly.

"Are you sure?" Chakotay pressed.

"No, Chakotay, it's a guess." Ayala shot the rebel captain an acid glance. "I can't read him so I thought I'd just take a shot in the dark and hope I'm right."

Chakotay lifted an eyebrow, but let the answer pass. Leaning back in his chair, he studied Tom with an altered expression no less confrontational for the change. Though the suspicion in his dark eyes had bled out, there remained a hard, uncompromising quality to the evaluation that communicated eloquently his continued disaffection. "If you're not part of the ambush," he said finally, "tell me where you got the information."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I gave my word I wouldn't."

Chakotay gestured with a flick of his fingers. "Your word doesn't mean anything to me," he said.

"It means something to me," Tom returned.

"You're a traitor now, Riker. You might as well be a liar, too. Tell me where you got the information."

Rigid with grim defiance, Tom said, "The person who gave me that information took a huge risk. I won't sell her down the river just because you think she might be setting you up."

"This isn't negotiable," Chakotay said. "Tell me who gave you the information or we have to assume it came from Nechayev."

"Assume what you gotta assume," Tom said grimly.

Chakotay glanced to Ro.

"This isn't a game, Tom," Ro said. "If you want us to trust you, you have to trust us."

"I don't trust anyone who invites me home by slipping me a Mickey."

"Trust has to start somewhere," Ro countered. "I don't think you're running a front for a Starfleet setup." She met his eyes unflinchingly. "Now you tell me who gave you the information."

"If you don't think I'm setting you up, why do you need my source?"

"Just because you're not setting us up, doesn't mean someone else isn't. We have to protect ourselves. We can't use recon we can't verify, and we can't verify without knowing the source."

"The officer who gave me this gave it to me to help Will Riker," he said grimly, "and she did it at substantial risk to her career. I told her I wouldn't tell anyone where I got the information, and I won't; but I can vouch for her: she's not trying to set up the Maquis."

"Your personal assurances mean less to me than your word," Chakotay said.

"Then go to hell," Tom snapped. He thrust to his feet and said, "I'm through begging, Chakotay. And I'm through being your Starfleet whipping boy. My offer's on the table. If you're interested, let me know. If not, I have other avenues to pursue." He started for the door, but two of the three guards standing sentry with their backs to the council chamber's walls intercepted him. Though their weapons remained holstered, the threat in their postures was indisputable.

"Sit down, Tom," Ro advised quietly.

"Go to hell," Tom repeated. "All of you."

"For someone willing to ignite a war between the Federation and Cardassia in order to accomplish what he wants accomplished," Chakotay noted calmly, "you walk away easily from your only option."

"You may be the best option," Tom countered, "but you're not the only one. I'll mount this damned mission by myself if I have to. Now call your dogs off, Chakotay."

Chakotay looked up, fixed the other man with a deceptively indifferent gaze. "You may be a little green when it comes to the finer points of covert operations," he said, "but you can't be dumb enough to think I let you walk at this point."

"Is that another threat?" Tom demanded.

Chakotay didn't answer.

"Call your dogs off," Tom repeated, "and I'll get out of your hair. I'm sure we both have better things to do than sit here and call each other names."

Chakotay studied Tom for a moment, then gestured vaguely to the guards. They stepped back and resumed their posts.

"Thank you," Tom said. He started for the door again.

"Don't be a fool, Tom." The tense cramp of Ro's tone faltered Tom's retreat. He hesitated, looking at her.

"If he wants to go," Chakotay said quietly, "let him go."

Ro stared at Tom, her eyes boring into him, trying to communicate.

"This isn't a game of cards," she said. "You don't just get up and walk away."

"You do when there's nothing left to talk about," Tom returned. "Your friends," he indicated Chakotay with a quick jerk of his chin, "have obviously already made up their minds about me, and nothing I can say is going to change it."

"Sit down," she repeated fiercely.

Tom hesitated. He studied Ro, then Chakotay. The Maquis leader was calm, indifferent; but his eyes had the predatory look of a wolf running caribou to ground. The rest of the Maquis strike team was watching as well, waiting to see what he would do.

"I'm not afraid of you, Chakotay," Tom announced.

"You should be," Chakotay said quietly.

The room grew silent. Nothing moved. No one spoke. The still became oppressive. Tom stood his ground a moment longer, then grudgingly, almost belligerently, resumed his seat.
The tension in the room bled off in a slow, ventilated hiss. Ro leaned back in her chair. Torres nodded. Ayala looked vaguely disappointed.

Folding his hands on the table before him, Chakotay studied Tom for a long moment, then allowed, "The Maquis isn't in the habit of sharing the identity of our sources with Starfleet. If your concern is confidentiality, you have my word that her name won't leave this room."

"Your word means as much to me as mine does to you," Tom said.

Chakotay lifted an eyebrow. Deep in the recesses of brooding black eyes, a spark of amusement flickered.

"Commander Shelby," Ayala said suddenly.

Tom Riker tensed. He swung on the Betazoid Maquis, his expression deadly.

"You're projecting it, Riker," Ayala said. "I'd have to be Vulcan not to pick it up."

"You're wrong," Tom hissed.

"You're basic geometry to a quantum physicist," Ayala returned.

"Captain Chakotay," a disembodied voice hailed.

Chakotay tapped a comm panel inset in the table top. "Chakotay here," he allowed, his gaze vaguely disapproving in the way it regarded Ayala across the table.

"Your microchip is verified," the voice announced. "It contains extensive intelligence on Cardassian troop strengths and locations as well as blueprints of the incarceration facility on Lazon II. We are extracting data now."

"Was there an encryption code?" Chakotay asked.

"Yes," the voice answered. "It came from Shelby."

Chakotay nodded. "Good work. Let me know when you have something for me to look at. Chakotay out." He glanced around the table. "All right, people. If the recon comes from Shelby, we can assume it's accurate and up-to-date. With that in mind -"

"Wait a minute," Tom interrupted, confused. "Are you saying Shelby's one of you?"

Chakotay's eyes gave nothing away. "Commander Shelby is sympathetic to the cause," he allowed without inflection.

"More importantly," Ro added, "she's too smart to be used as a conduit for disinformation. She can't be bought, sold or manipulated. Anything she supplies can be taken at face value."

Tom's eyebrow climbed from confusion to surprise. "Shelby's a Maquis?" he demanded.

"Commander Shelby is Starfleet," Ro stated firmly.

"But like many Starfleet," Chakotay elaborated, "she knows the difference between right and wrong. It's difficult for someone of her character to defend the policies of a bureaucratic diplomacy that betrays the very people it was designed to protect." He smiled slightly. "Like a number of her peers, her moral ambivalence has, on occasion, proven advantageous to us."

Tom looked from Chakotay to Ro and back again. "Are you saying the Maquis has infiltrated Starfleet?"

"Were you under the impression that we survive on inordinately good luck, Riker?" Chakotay asked. "That we evade Starfleet tactical teams as a matter of course through the grace of whatever Gods may be on our side?" He shook his head. "The Maquis was founded on the same precepts that formed the original foundation for Starfleet," he said. "We're supported by the same people who stand behind the spirit of the Prime Directive rather than the letter of its technical transcription."

"But that's treason."

"No, Riker. It's revolution. Starfleet, as a governing body, has become a rigid, inflexible dictator who denies culpability for the atrocities it precipitates through relentlessly near-sighted manipulation of intergalactic events of consequence. Within the ranks of Starfleet itself, however, there exists a sizeable contingent of men and women of conscience and honor and soul. We have more support among the ranks of Starfleet Command than you can imagine. For those who see the Cardassian treaty for what it is, there's little question as to who holds the moral high ground in this conflict."

"Did we come here to recruit another Starfleet to the cause?" Torres inquired testily. "Or did we come here to discuss the raid on Lazon II?"

Chakotay grinned. "B'Elanna's right," he said. "If you want to discuss political treatises, you and I can do it another time. Right now, we have a raid to plan."

"Then you're going to help me," Tom surmised cautiously.

"No," Chakotay corrected. "We," he stressed the word in an exclusive manner, "are going to rescue Commander William T. Riker from the Cardassian penal colony on Lazon II. If you want to come along, I might consider authorizing a temporary Maquis field commission to low-man-on-the-totem-pole as long as you remember at all times exactly who is in command."

"And that would be you?" Tom surmised.

"That would be me," Chakotay agreed.


"Drink," Grellel ordered gently.

Riker twisted away. Broth trickled down the side of his face. It pooled in the hollow of his throat and soaked into the tattered remains of what had once been a Starfleet uniform. He shivered, his body no longer able to differentiate heat from cold.

"Drink, my friend," Grellel insisted. "It will make you well. It will make you strong."

Riker coughed, gagged. He took a little broth, then gagged again.

"That's it," Grellel encouraged. "Just a little more."

"Tastes like shit," Riker murmured, his words nearly lost to the disfunction of his muscles.

"It's supposed to taste like shit," Grellel assured him. "It's good for you. Drink a little more."

"No more," Riker whispered.

"Drink a little more," Grellel insisted. "If not for yourself, then for me."

Riker's eyes struggled open. They no longer held a focus, no longer held an awareness of his surroundings. Deep beneath the glaze of fever, however, and deeper still beneath the beginnings of a distance that resembled death, they still reflected the barest glint of humor.

"For you?" he managed coarsely.

"Yes, for me," Grellel repeated. "If you die in here, they'll let you rot to the bone before they haul you away. I may be ripe, my friend; but I am not ripe enough to fail to notice the competition."

Riker tried to smile and failed.

"Besides," Grellel went on, "It's only polite of you, as my cellmate and the junior partner in this particular partnership, to refrain from dying until I do, no matter how the Prophets may entreat. Now drink a little more."

"A little more," Riker agreed, but his thoughts lost track of themselves, slipping on the treachery of awareness, and he was gone again before Grellel could argue his passing.


"I find your decision to assist Tom Riker in his mission both illogical and gravely ill-advised," Tuvok informed Chakotay as they ate. "The inherent risks of such deep encroachment into Cardassian space are immeasurable, and I see very little benefit to the Maquis should the endeavor succeed. Furthermore, I believe the risk of Maquis equipment and personnel to be unwarranted. Failure at this juncture in the Maquis's evolution would be highly inadvisable. The loss the stealth raider and a significant Maquis leader such as yourself during the execution of a needlessly reckless endeavor would not only demoralize the existing faction to a dangerous degree, it could conceivably discourage support from borderline factions that might otherwise join the cause."

Chakotay smiled, taking a large bite of a food substance unrecognizable in form but, in all probability, passingly nutritious. "I appreciate the fact that you consider me a significant loss to the cause, Tuvok," he said around the food as he chewed, "and while I agree that failure at any time is inadvisable, I can't say I see this as either a needless or a reckless endeavor. The proposal Tom brought to the table makes sense. Furthermore, Shelby's reconnaissance makes it workable. The Cardassians certainly won't be expecting us to strike so deep in territory - which is always an advantage - and I can't say the idea of kicking them in the nuts isn't appealing to me."

Tuvok's eyes narrowed slightly. "Inflicting testicular pain on a sleeping behemoth is hardly an advisable strategy," he noted. "Particularly for an opponent of vastly inferior resources and insufficient military strength to support such an aggressively contentious posture."

Chakotay's grin widened. "Maybe not," he agreed, "but it sure gives morale a shot in the arm. If we plan this thing right, the mere fact that we had the gall to pull it off at all will work for us. It may be just the thing to tip a few of those borderline factions into our camp."

Tuvok shook his head. "I disagree. I believe the risks outweigh the potential rewards."

"I would expect nothing less from a Vulcan," Chakotay assured him.

Tuvok raised an eyebrow, surprised by what appeared to be a racial statement from a man who normally took great pains to enforce a doctrine of ethnic equality in a rebellion elbow-to-elbow with traditional cultural enemies and their resultant racial bigotries.

"That wasn't a dig, Tuvok," Chakotay assured his tactical officer quickly, "it was merely an observation. Vulcan society doesn't lay much stock in illogical concepts like the advantage of being the underdog. When logic says the odds are insurmountable, Vulcans tend to lay down their arms and concede the game."

"I fail to see the error in such a course of action. Death is not a logical end to pursue if one's ultimate goal is victory."

"By the same token," Chakotay countered, "giving up doesn't get you any closer to the winner's circle either."

Tuvok inclined his head slightly, conceding the rebel captain's point, then prompted, "May I assume you have a colorful story to illustrate this 'underdog mentality' that I, as a Vulcan, would not properly understand?"

"Funny you should ask," Chakotay agreed, grinning. "There's a popular game among my people. It's called football, and while it's not a very logical game - you probably wouldn't even consider it a sane game - it is a favorite game at least in part because of it's unpredictability."

"I was under the impression that 'football,' originated on Earth," Tuvok noted drily.

"So did Dorvanians, Tuvok," Chakotay countered. "So did Dorvanians. As I was saying, this popular game among my people is renown for its unpredictability. No matter what the odds say, no matter how dramatically mis-matched the teams may be in terms of skill and size and experience, you can never call the winner with any degree of certainty until the last whistle blows because, so many times, who wins and who loses comes down to only one thing: who wants it the most."

"It has been my experience," Tuvok said after a beat, "that even the most intense desire very often has little or no effect on the outcome of any given circumstance."

"That may be true on Vulcan," Chakotay allowed, "but when it comes to football or war or any of a dozen other contests we less-logical creatures engage in, the desire to win can be the most important element in determining the outcome. Overwhelming favorites tend to get complacent - too secure with their superiority, too sure of their ability to win. They don't play as hard because they don't think they have to. And that, my Vulcan friend, is usually when they get their Cardassian butts kicked." Chakotay finished his food and wiped at his mouth. "Showing those borderline contingents a little cheek right now will do more for our momentum than anything we'll accomplish by more conservative strikes. Going after Riker and succeeding could prove to be the first step in a long march to victory."

"Or the downfall of the Maquis movement," Tuvok argued.

Chakotay shrugged off the portention of gloom. "Worst case scenario: we all die and the Maquis loses a good ship. That's no more risk than we run on any raid." He stood. "To be honest, though, I don't see that happening. The very things that worry you about this mission are the things that will make it work. We have a huge advantage of surprise here. They won't ever see us coming."

"You overestimate your capacity to succeed," Tuvok stated, standing as well.

"Maybe," Chakotay allowed. "Maybe not. I guess we won't know until we actually hit the trenches, will we?"

"Once engaged, cognizance of inadequacy will likely prove immaterial," Tuvok pointed out.

"Then we'd better make sure we're not inadequate," Chakotay noted blandly. "Listen, Tuvok, I'd love to talk tactics with you all day, but I've got a few things to take care of before we jump from the frying pan into the fire. I'll catch you at sixteen hundred with the rest of the team when we run over the final briefing, OK?"

"As you wish, Captain," Tuvok allowed.

Chakotay slapped the Vulcan on the arm - a familiarity he afforded few of his officers - then headed away at a brisk walk. Tuvok watched him go, his Vulcan eyes inscrutable with their opinion.


"So he trusts me enough to assume command of my mission," Tom said, watching Chakotay and Tuvok from across the low-ceilinged room, "but not enough to give the babysitter the night off?"

"Has nothing to do with trust," Ayala said, shoveling food into his mouth like he hadn't eaten for days, "has to do with common sense."

Tom grunted. He continued picking through his food with a fork, but ate very little.

"You don't break a cur to the leash," Ayala went on casually, "and then turn him loose in the bayou. Even if he's too frightened to turn on you, he'll probably run away." Ayala glanced up. "So that's why you're still on a leash, Starfleet - to keep you from running away."

"I didn't come here to run away again," Tom said grimly.

Ayala snorted derisively. "You came because Chakotay brought you," he reminded the other man contemptuously. "And the only reason Chakotay brought you is because he knows he can control you. If he doubted that - if he thought you had the spine to be any real danger to the cause at all - it wouldn't have been stun powder in your scotch and soda. He would have left you on a pike at Dead Laslow's, your Starfleet throat cut from ear to ear."

Tom grunted again. "Easier said than done," he muttered.

Ayala laughed. Shaking his head, he picked up a metal tankard and downed the entire contents in one long draw. "You aren't very bright, are you Riker?" he asked, setting the tankard back to the table.

"Bright enough," Tom countered coldly.

"Bright enough for Starfleet maybe, but not bright enough for the Maquis. If you were, you'd have a better idea of what happened in that briefing."

"What happened," Tom said cautiously, "is that I'm in."

"Yes," Ayala agreed pleasantly, "you are. But you have no idea why, do you?"

Tom hesitated. "Because Shelby's information checked out," he said finally, his expression cautious with the knowledge that the obvious answer often wasn't the right one.

Ayala met Tom Riker's eyes for a long expectant moment. He laughed again, then went back to eating.

Tom watched the Betazoid Maquis mop up the last of his dinner with a coarse-textured slab of unleavened bread. "If I'm missing something," he said finally, "why don't you educate me?"

"Because I'm your babysitter," Ayala retorted."not your private tutor." He finished his meal and leaned back in his chair. His eyes raked Tom's barely touched dinner with obvious disdain. "What's wrong, Starfleet? Our food not good enough for you?"

"Food's fine," Tom allowed. "Can't say I care much for the company."

"I'm deeply hurt," Ayala assured him, smiling from the teeth out.

Tom shook his head and went back to picking disinterestedly at his food. "Is there any particular reason you don't like me, Ayala?" he asked.

"You mean, other than the fact that you're Starfleet?" Ayala thought about it for a moment. "No," he said after a beat, "not really. That in itself seems to be enou- no, wait a minute ... there is something else ...." Ayala leaned forward, his voice lowering itself as his gaze sharpened with predatory anticipation. "I detest fools," he hissed. "Especiallyarrogant, naive, Starfleet fools who think they can dictate terms in a game they don't even understand."

"I think I understand the game," Tom allowed.

"You don't have a clue, Starfleet," Ayala snapped. He studied Tom for a moment, then asked, "Do you have any idea what the chances are of you slipping a microdot into the heart of Maquis headquarters undetected?"

Tom's eyes narrowed. "Pretty good, if I'm any indication," he allowed cautiously.

"Did it even occur to you that we wouldn't have lasted a week if our security was actually that lax?" Ayala demanded.

Tom glanced across the room to Chakotay. "Are you trying to say you knew it was there all along?"

"I'm saying that if you were half the strategist your reputation makes you out to be, you'd know that we not only knew it was there, we already knew what was on it."

Tom returned his attention to his plate. He took a bite and chewed, his mind working a thousand parsecs a minute. "Sounds like 20/20 hindsight to me," he said finally.

"Think about it," Ayala sneered. "You know what I'm telling you is the truth."

"If it is," Tom returned, "it'd be the first time." He took another bite, chewed it longer. It was harder to swallow than the first had been - harder not to taste the bitter edge of what represented itself as benign gruel.

Watching the realization sink in, Ayala smiled. "You're child's play, Starfleet," he said scornfully. "You manipulate easier than bayou clay."

"Maybe I do," Tom allowed quietly, "but tell me this: If you already knew what was on the microdot, then you already knew the information was good. So why the third degree?"

"It was a test."

"A test I must have passed," Tom noted.

"A test you didn't fail," Ayala countered.

Tom resumed picking at his food. "What about Ro?" he asked finally. "Was she in on this supposed test, too?"

"Laren isn't much of an actress. She served Chakotay's agenda more effectively from the outside."

"That go for Torres, too?" Tom pressed. "And Tuvok?"

"Simplicity is a virtue in the Maquis," Ayala said. "We keep things on a need-to-know basis."

"Sounds a little like I'm not the only one he doesn't trust," Tom noted.

Temper flared in Ayala's eyes. "It isn't a matter of trust," he snapped, "it's a matter of compartmentalization. The Maquis isn't Starfleet. We trust our leaders because we can afford to trust them. And they trust us. Every man, woman and child fighting this war is doing it because they believe in the cause. There's no one to distrust except outsiders like you."

"So I'm still an outsider? Even though I've risked my life and given up my career to bring you valid reconnaissance for a mission that somebody obviously thinks is worth pursuing? Even though I'm neck deep in this thing now and there is no going back for me even if we succeed? Tell me, Ayala, what exactly does it take to get you people to trust me enough to look me in the eyes and tell me the simple truth?"

"When you earn our trust," Ayala informed him coldly, "you'll have it. Until then, you don't have anything but the right to draw your next breath ... and even that's on loan from Chakotay."

"A loan I'm sure is negotiable," Tom agreed. He smiled in a bitter twist. "I remember the drill, Ayala; we've been here before. So while you're reminding me that I can be killed at any time for any reason, I'll just sit here and nod and try to look impressed. In the mean time though - just for the record - the reputation as a strategist is his, not mine. In all truthfulness, I'm known around the galaxy as a bit of a loose cannon."

Ayala leaned into the table. "You're known around the galaxy as a bit of a failure," he countered, his voice edged with acid. "And failure isn't a character trait the Maquis takes lightly. So as long as we're setting the record straight, let me 'educate you' on your official Maquis status: we're watching every move you make. If you screw up, you go down. Simple as that." Ayala's eyes glittered with challenge. "Now you can take that as a threat," he said quietly, "or you can take it as a warning. But unless you're finished with everything you planned to do in this lifetime, I'd suggest very strongly that you take it as a fact."

Tom met the Betazoid Maquis's eyes unflinchingly. "I'll keep it in mind," he allowed.

"You do that," Ayala agreed. His eyes flicked up, catching sight of Ro Laren across the room. She was just settling to a table by herself. "Ro!" he called. She looked up, and Ayala gestured her over. After a beat of hesitation, she picked up her tray and came toward them.

Ayala rose as she drew close. "Tag," he said, leaving his empty tray on the table behind him, "you're it." And then he walked away.

Shrugging, Ro took the seat Ayala had vacated. Setting her tray atop of his, she began eating much the way he had, shoveling food in fast without much regard to manners or taste.

"The Maquis could use a brush-up course in table etiquette," Tom observed drily.

"Not much room for niceties in a revolution," Ro countered between bites. "We consider ourselves lucky if we get time to eat at all."

Tom picked his fork up again. Turning a colorless lump of synthetic meat byproduct like a corndog on a stick, he noted, "In this case, luck would have to be a euphemism."

"This is the good stuff," Ro assured him. "Cooks always go all out for the last meal before a mission. That way, if we don't come back, they can take solace in the fact that they sent us to the Prophets with full bellies."

Tom smiled slightly. "Have they ever considered that may be the reason we wouldn't come back?"

Ro glanced up. "Better force it down," she advised. "It's a long way to Lazon II and back."

Tom set his fork aside. "I think I'll pass," he decided. "I hear fasting's good for the concentration."

"Suit yourself," she agreed. Then, as if it were part of the same thought, she asked, "What's with Ayala? He looked pissed."

"He doesn't like me."

Ro snorted. "Ayala doesn't like anybody," she informed him. "That, in and of itself, usually isn't enough to piss him off."

Tom shrugged again, his attention distracted by Chakotay and Tuvok in the corner. They were finished eating. The Maquis captain slapped the Vulcan on the shoulder in a gesture of obvious camaraderie then strode away. After a moment, Tuvok left as well.

"Chakotay's ex-Starfleet," Ro told him, noting the direction of his gaze.

"I know," Tom muttered.

"He's a good man," Ro added. "A good captain."

"Would he have killed if I'd walked away?"

"You know where we live. He wouldn't have had any choice."

Tom nodded. "Thanks for the warning," he said.

"I didn't warn you."

"You did warn me," he corrected. "I saw it in your eyes."

Ro glanced to where Chakotay had been sitting. Two other Maquis shared the table now, eating as if their lives depended on it. "He warned you, too," she said after a beat. "You just didn't listen."

"I listened. I was betting it was a bluff."

"Chakotay doesn't bluff."

Tom shrugged. "I've never been much of a poker player," he allowed. Then, suddenly, he asked, "Did you know he was baiting me about Shelby?"

Ro's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean did you know? Were you in on it?"

"In on what?"

Tom studied her for a long moment. "According to Ayala, the whole 'who gave you the information' thing was a test. Chakotay already had the microdot analyzed. He'd verified the encryption code as Shelby's and was hot-seating me to see if I'd ante her to get into the game, not to find out if the recon was valid or not."

Ro considered it for a moment. "Sounds like Chakotay," she said, then went back to eating.

"Then you didn't know?" Tom pressed.

"No. I didn't know."

"And that doesn't bother you?"

"Why should it bother me? Chakotay wanted to know if you'd compromise your word. Now he knows."

"I don't like tests," Tom said grimly.

"If it was a test, you must have passed."

"Ayala said I didn't pass: I just didn't fail."

"Ayala was jerking you." Ro took a long drink from a tall, metallic glass, then went on, "If you hadn't given Chakotay the answers he was looking for, he would have cut your throat and dropped you on the steps of the nearest Starfleet embassy."

"And that doesn't bother you either?" Tom asked after a long beat.

"What? That he'd kill you if he thought you were setting us up?" She shook her head. "Not at all. This is a war, Tom. If you want to play with your phaser set on stun, go back to the Ghandi."

"So it doesn't bother you that he'd kill me," Tom said, "and it doesn't bother you that he doesn't trust you enough to let you in on the game he and Ayala were running ... does anything bother you, Ro?"

Ro sighed. "This isn't Starfleet," she explained. "The only political agenda in the Maquis is to survive. Chakotay tells me what I need to know to do that. If he didn't tell me about his plan, it was probably because he decided I'd be more convincing re-acting from my perception of the truth. It's his job to make that kind of decision, and he's very good at his job."

"Then you don't mind being lied to," Tom pressed.

"I don't mind being lied to by Chakotay," she revised.

Tom shook his head. "I have to admit," he said, "you're not what I expected."

Ro's eyes flashed. "In what way?" she demanded, her tone flirting with defensive.

Tom met her gaze squarely. "In a number of ways. First and foremost though, from everything I'd heard about you, I didn't think you'd be the trusting type."

"Until I joined the Maquis," she informed him, "I'd never run into anything I could affordto trust."

"But you trust Chakotay."

"I trust the cause." She hesitated, then added, "And the cause trusts me."

Tom smiled. It was a bitter expression, one that wore itself wearily on his handsome features. "I envy you that," he said quietly.

Ro cocked an eyebrow, and he elaborated, in part because she seemed interested, and in part because he found himself wanting to tell her: "It's been a long time since anyone's trusted me to do anything other than let them down."

"It must be hard," she said after a beat, "trying to live up to Will Riker."

"Trying to be Will Riker," Tom correct. "And yeah. It's hard. Damned hard."

"Why did you agree to do it?"

"I thought it was a chance to live my life." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "I didn't realize it was a chance to live his."

"He never had much use for me," Ro observed indifferently. "Couldn't ever get entirely past what he thought happened on Garon II."

"What did happen on Garon II?"

Ro blinked. She studied him for a moment, then, slowly, she smiled. "I served with him for over a year," she said, "and he never asked me that. None of them ever did."

"Am I being presumptuous?"

Ro's smile deepened. "Only if you expect an answer." She took another bite. Around it, she added. "But I appreciate the fact that you bothered to ask. Most people would rather assume."

"I've been in that position before." He glanced around the half-full dining hall, then added, "I'm in it now. Every one of them assumes I've got something up my sleeve. I can see it in their eyes when they look at me."

"Do you?" Ro asked.

"Do I what?"

"Do you have something up your sleeve?

Tom's frown faded to a smile. "My arms."

"Then who cares what they think?"

Tom shrugged, then admitted, "I guess I do. Being watched like a snake at an egg convention isn't my idea of fun."

"Waste of effort," Ro announced. "The only person whose opinion you need to worry about is Chakotay's. As long as he's satisfied that you're on the up-and-up, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."

"Easy for you to say," Tom noted. "Villagers aren't pounding on your door with the torches." Ro lifted an eyebrow, and Tom elaborated, "I'm the outsider here, not you. They know you; you know them; I don't have the advantage of either. Maybe you can afford not to worry about what they think, but I can't."

Ro studied him for a moment. "Ayala isn't Betazoid," she announced suddenly. "He's halfBetazoid, and he doesn't like being reminded of it. His mother left shortly after he was born - something about him being a son instead of a daughter - and he hates her for it. He holds the whole of Betazed in contempt, and the Federation by association. He also hates Starfleet with a passion, although I'm not sure exactly why."

"Is he ex-Starfleet?"

"I don't think so. I think it has something to do with his mother."

"Was his mother Starfleet?"

Ro shrugged. "I never really asked. I just know he hates her and takes it out on us."

Tom smiled slightly. "I thought it was just me he didn't like."

"Ayala doesn't like anybody," Ro repeated, then went on, "B'Elanna Torres is the best engineer in six solar systems - maybe even in the whole quadrant. She did a couple of years at the academy but couldn't wrap around the idea of an authoritarian structure. Taking orders isn't her strong suit - it isn't even her weak suit - so unless your name is Chakotay and you can whip her butt at hoverball three games running, don't even waste your breath."

"She reminds me a little of Worf," Tom commented.

"She reminds me of a ten-year-old terrorist I knew on Bajor," Ro returned. "All bomb and no fuse. If she snaps at you, you're on safe ground; but if she gets polite, you'd better duck. She favors a left cross, and she's broken more noses with it than the Prophets have prophecies."

"She and Chakotay seem close."

"They are. Chakotay recruited her after she deep-sixed the academy."

"Are they together?"

Ro frowned at the question, but answered it anyway: "No. Chakotay was with Seska for a while, but that's over now." She studied Tom for a moment, then added, "There's not much room in the Maquis for relationships. It's dangerous work. People die every day. Investing yourself that deeply in someone else doubles your risk. Investing yourself that deeply in someone you work with doubles everybody's risk."

Tom nodded. "What about Tuvok?" he asked.

Ro's expression twitched. "Tuvok is exactly what you'd expect from a Vulcan," she allowed, "only a little more condescending."

Tom grinned. "And Chakotay?"

"Chakotay's a perfectionist. He demands everything you've got plus five percent, but his strike teams run at less than half the standard casualty rate as a result. He still thinks like a Starfleet - which can be an advantage - but he has the instincts of a Dorvanian and the moral code of a Maquis. There isn't a pliant bone in his body - he'll break before he bends - but he's fair, and he's relatively open-minded as long as you don't challenge his authority or disrespect his spiritual beliefs. He takes a lot of risks, but he never takes unnecessary ones, and he'd rather take the risk himself than ask one of us to do it. Don't play hoverball with him - or at least if you do, don't put money on the game because you're not even close to as evenly matched as he'll lead you to believe - and don't get into a political discussion with him about Starfleet's role in the Bajoran Occupation or the Demilitarized Zone. He's a brilliant tactician and the best pilot in the Maquis, but only about half of the stories he says are legends among his people actually are. The rest of them are his way of getting you to do what he wants you to do because you think you'll insult his ancestry if you tell him that you think what he's saying is a load of crap. He believes in Spirit Guides, he graduated first in his class at the academy, and he'll never forgive you if you betray him, so don't."

"You sound like you'd follow him into hell," Tom noted quietly.

"I would," Ro agreed. "And I have." She met his eyes directly. "We all have."

Tom nodded. He considered the information silently, rolling it over and over in his head.

"So now you know them as well as I do," Ro said after several moments. "You're not an outsider any more, unless that's what you choose to be."

"What about you?" Tom asked quietly.


He smiled. "You didn't tell me anything about yourself."

She shrugged. "I'm Bajoran," she allowed expansively.

"And?" Tom prompted.

"And I was an outsider until I came here."

"That all?"

Ro smiled slightly. "I wear my arms up my sleeves, just like you."

"I like that in a Bajoran outsider," he allowed.

"You say that like you think I care," Ro observed drily.

He was watching her closely. "You tell me about Chakotay's gambling habits and Ayala's mother," he said finally, "but all you'll give me about yourself is that you're a Bajoran?"

Ro shifted slightly. She let her gaze wander across the scattering of Maquis diners rather than meeting his gaze directly. "Being Bajoran," she said finally, "is an identity unto itself. If you know anything about the Bajoran occupation, you already know more about me than I told you about any of the others."

"Being Bajoran," Tom countered quietly, "is a little like being William T. Riker, I would imagine. Just because you've heard the stories, doesn't mean you know anything about me."

Ro continued watching the others in the room. "I was a refugee for a while," she said quietly. "Then I was in prison for a while. Then I was a traitor for a while. Then I was a Starfleet officer for a while. Now I'm a traitor again."

"I'm not Will Riker," Tom said just as quietly. "I think I see Starfleet clearly enough to realize that what the Maquis is doing isn't traitorous."

Ro pulled her gaze back to him. "No," she agreed finally, "you're not Will Riker."

"I hope that's a compliment."

"Will Riker is a good man," Ro allowed. Then she smiled at him in a quiet, warming way that seemed more natural on her features than the reflective indifference she normally maintained. "But you, I think I'm beginning to like."


"Can't you at least give me a hint?" Seska wheedled, her eyes bright with mischief.

Chakotay smiled. She was standing close - very close - but he was comfortable with her proximity despite the fact that they no longer shared each other's company in an intimate context. That her hands expressed themselves on his arms, and periodically his shoulder or his chest, was her way of reminding him that what had been between them may have changed, but it hadn't lost its seductive edge.

"Need to know," he informed her easily. "And to put it bluntly, Seska, you don't need to know."

"Then why even bring it up?" she demanded a little petulantly.

Her quarters were sparse, typically Bajoran. There wasn't much to offer a visitor except the rare luxury of privacy, and even that was suspect in a Maquis stronghold. Stone rooms hewn off stone corridors served little more than the sleeping needs of rebels more often gone than not. The door - a decorative cloth hung from hooks imbedded in the stone-arched entrance - fostered an illusion of seclusion that was, in reality, nothing more than a thickness of dyed linen and the happenstance of an empty corridor.

"I thought it would be rude to leave without saying goodbye," he said.

"You're worried," she surmised, reading the forced indifference of his tone like an ion trail in open space.

"No moreso than with any high-risk mission," he lied.

Seska's eyes flared. "Don't lie to me, Chakotay," she snapped. "Lie to B'Elanna ... lie to Ro ... but don't lie to me."

Chakotay considered the order for a moment, then allowed, "I suppose I have some concerns."

"Such as?"

"There's an element of risk I'm not entirely comfortable with."

"Don't be evasive, Chakotay. What element of risk?"

He studied her closely, calculated her expression, interpreted her posture. Deciding she would hound him until he either answered her or walked away - and he wasn't yet ready to walk away - he said, "I'm not sure I can trust all of the players. The nature of the mission requires that I include an unknown. I'm relatively certain he won't betray us by intent, but I'm not convinced he won't do so by nature. He has a hero complex, and I don't like heroes watching my back."

Seska smiled. It was a victory, this admission of anxiety. His reluctance to leave her as he so often had in the past was a tangible advantage in the small war they waged between the lines of duty and allegiance. Tactically devastating, his concession was a buckled shield that granted her access to the more fragile barriers of his thick-skinned hull. She'd breached those barriers before - burrowed her way through his defenses to the unprotected vistas of his affections - and she had confidence that, given the right opportunity, she could breach them again.

Running a hand across his forearm, over his biceps to the point of his shoulder, she suggested for the third time, "Then let me go with you." Her fingers worked the weave of his shirt. "I can watch your back." She smiled seductively, her eyes coyly evasive of his attempts to engage. "I might even enjoy watching your back ..." she traced the line of his collarbone beneath coarse material, "... Cha-ko-tay."

His name was a toy to her. She drew it out, tasting it like a fine Tholian ale. The texture of it against her tongue was an intimacy between them, a reminder of dark Dorvanian nights and the smell of wet grass on skin.

"That's not going to happen," he said as if the flicker of memory in his eyes hadn't betrayed him. "You've been training on the Shalla Nor simulation for six weeks now. You can't back out less than twenty-four hours from deployment."

Her hand flattened against his chest. She began picking at imaginary lint. Her hip brushed his; one of her boots nudged his instep. He weathered her attentions as the familiar game that they were, giving no more ground to the aggressions of her campaign.

"I don't know why you lent me out to Jovikaan at all," she murmured after several moments of picking and brushing and straightening to no avail. "I'm part of your team, not his."

"Jovikaan needed you," Chakotay reasoned. "He needs your engineering skills ... your physical dexterity ... your tactical acumen."

"And you don't?"

Chakotay relented. "Had I known this was in the offing," he allowed, telling her what she wanted to hear, "I would have told Jovikaan I couldn't spare you."

"Tell him now," she urged.

"It's too late. You're going to Shalla Nor like we planned."

"What about you?"

"B'Elanna and Tuvok and I will just have to muddle along without you."

"The run on Shalla Nor doesn't sound as important as what you're planning," Seska noted. "Or as much fun." Finished with the non-existent lint, she smoothed the nap of his shirt, her hands lingering, loitering. "We never have any fun any more," she said, adjusting his vest.

"Are you finished?"

Seska looked up, met his eyes. "Not quite." His mask was wearing thin. She could see Dorvanian instincts stirring restlessly behind the translucent facade of discipline. "You have something there." She ran a fingertip up the ledge of his jawline, tapping him just under his left ear. "Right here."

"Do I?"

"Yes." She licked her thumb. "You do." Stroking his jaw like a sculptor working clay, she erased a smudge that did not exist with the subtle pressure of her skin against his. "There," she said after a long beat. "You're presentable now." She smiled into his eyes, as aware that he read every inflection of her facile deception as she was that every brush of her fingertips was an electric jolt he refused to acknowledge. "You really should take greater care with your appearance, Chakotay," she chided gently. "You're a leader. People look up to you as an example."

"I'll try to keep that in mind."

"I could remind you, if you should happen to forget ...?"

"I won't forget." He stepped back, distancing himself from her. "I have a briefing in ten minutes. I only dropped by to wish you luck. Shalla Nor is a dangerous place: Don't underestimate it just because you've mastered the simulations."

"Come now, Chakotay," she countered slyly, "you, of all people, should know that I never underestimate anything I've mastered."

He passed the bait and inclined his head. "Goodbye then," he said, and turned away.

She waited until he got to the doorway before she spoke again. "That's it?" she demanded, her voice sharp with the realization that she'd lost him. "You're really going to go without me?"

"Yes," he agreed calmly. "I'm going to go without you."

Anger made her direct. "I'm part of your team, Chakotay," she snapped, her intent to manipulate fraying under the pressure of attaining what she intended to attain. "My place is with you."

"Your place is where the cause needs it to be," he countered, his tone just as cold, just as hard. "And this time, that's Shalla Nor." He let a beat of silence pass, and then another. Shields up and hull integrity secure, he offered her the consolation of powering down the deflector array. "We'll have dinner when I get back," he said. "You can make me mushroom soup."

"What makes you think I'll want to cook for you when you get back?"

He smiled slightly. "Arrogance." And then, more seriously: "Experience."

She crossed to his side. "Experience is the past, Chakotay," she announced, "and I've never been much for living in the past."

The warmth in his eyes faded. Negotiations deteriorated to detente. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he said.

"Your rules," she reminded him.

"Yes," he agreed, "my rules. Goodbye, Seska." He ducked quickly through the cloth that served as her door.


Her voice stopped him in the arched doorway. He stood with his back to her, waiting. The cloth had already dropped between them, so when she touched him, it was through a fragile barrier of dyed linen. Her fingertips pressed into his vest, four points of subtle pressure near his spine to remind him what her hands felt like against his skin.

He didn't need reminding.

"Walk with the Prophets, Chakotay," she said finally.

"And you," he agreed.

Then, before either of them could re-engage a battle neither of them would win, he walked away.


Utterly still, his features calm and without expression, Tuvok stared into the blank terminal before him and waited. That the danger of the moment was more tangible than any he had ever faced in his many years of dangerous service was nothing that could be read in his outward appearance.

Without warning and without preamble, the screen came to life. Captain Kathryn Janeway, still slightly disheveled in pink silk pajamas, stared at him from eyes sharp with obvious concern.

"Are you all right, Tuvok?" she demanded.

That the inquiry came before he could address his reason for contacting her was not something that surprised him. "I am, as of yet, undetected," he assured her, answering both the question she had asked and the one that would have followed. "The Maquis, however," he went on before she could interrupt, "are preparing to engage in activities whose potential damage to the Federation warrants the jeopardizing of my primary mission. Captain Chakotay and his strike team, along with Lieutenant ..."

The acuity of Vulcan auditory nerves saved - as it had more than once - Tuvok's life. He cut the transmission in mid-word, dousing Janeway to a blank screen as Chakotay rounded the corner and nearly ran him down.

"Tuvok," he said, surprised. "What are you doing in here?"

"It was my intention to review all available reconnaissance on Lazon II," Tuvok lied easily. "I find the intelligence disturbingly deficient, and once again must voice my reservations concerning a rescue operation mounted in unfamiliar hostile territory."

Chakotay smiled slightly. "To a Maquis," he reminded the Vulcan, "the whole quadrant's hostile territory. And as far as deficient intelligence goes, I put B'Elanna on approach tactics. I hear she and Ayala have a plan." He glanced at his chronometer. "Speaking of which, we'd better shake a leg. You know how testy she gets if anyone shows up late when she has the floor."

"I shall join you shortly," Tuvok demurred, turning back to the free-ranging terminal. "I have not yet completed a comprehensive data search."

"Join me now," Chakotay countered. "B'Elanna will have anything the database can offer, and I'm not in the mood to listen to her growl while we're all waiting for you to duplicate her efforts."

Because he had no other choice, Tuvok inclined his head slightly in acquiescence and turned to follow the Maquis captain, leaving behind the only opportunity he was likely to get to stop the beginnings of an intergalactic war.


"Lazon II isn't a planet," Torres was saying. "It's a planetary fragment with a nominal class M atmosphere. It orbits its sun through a dense cloud of asteroids, presumably remnants of Lazon II's original mass." She indicated a diagram drawn roughly on a huge sheet of white synthetic adhered to the council chamber's rough-hewn wall. "This is our best bet for a clandestine approach. If we hitch a ride on one of the asteroids, we can get very close to the outpost itself without appearing as intruders on whatever sensor nets they might have in place."

"Asteroids are notoriously difficult to steer," Ro commented.

"I'm not finished yet," Torres retorted.

"Go ahead, B'Elanna," Chakotay said, flicking Ro a vaguely repremandatory glance. "I'm assuming you have that covered?"

"Of course I have it covered," Torres snapped. "It wouldn't be much of a plan if I didn't." Shooting Ro an acid glance of her own, she continued: "As I was saying, the asteroid cloud is our best option for concealment. Ayala and I've been studying the trajectory information on the cloud that Shelby provided, and I think we've located a displaced rogue."

"What's a displaced rogue?" Tom asked.

When Torres answered with nothing more than a glare, Ro explained: "A displaced rogue is an asteroid that's been ejected from its assumptive orbit. Periodically, in a field of this density, individual trajectories change for any of a hundred reasons. When one changes significantly, it tends to collide with something else. These kinds of collisions create a chain of secondary collisions that result in displaced rogues: asteroids large enough to survive the original collision but bumped out of their assumptive orbit by the force of the impact."

"If you don't understand basic astrophysics," Torres added bitingly. "What are you doing in Starfleet in the first place?"

Tom raised an eyebrow. "I understand astrophysics fine," he assured her after a moment. "It's your terminology that threw me. I've never heard an astro-frag referred to as a displaced rogue before."

"Well now you have," Torres snapped, "so if you're done asking stupid questions, can we get on with this?"

Tom snorted slightly. "By all means," he said, gesturing with exaggerated gallantry, "get on with it."

"Like I said, we've located a displaced rogue whose altered orbit takes it within spitting distance of Lazon II every seventeen hours. It's our suggestion that we dock on this particular rock at the far end of it's run and surf it through the belt to Lazon II. That will give us approximately a two hour orbital window before the rogue loops Lazon II and starts back the way it came."

Chakotay nodded. "Enough time," he allowed, "but not too much. Good work, B'Elanna, Ayala. Anything else?"

Torres shook her head. "That's it," she announced, taking her seat to Chakotay's left.

"Are you sure?" Tom pressed solicitously.

"Yes, I'm sure, Starfleet," she snapped.

"Good." Tom turned to Chakotay. "Then at the risk of sounding unqualified to sit in on this meeting, how in the hell does Lazon II survive in that kind of atmosphere? If asteroids change their orbits at will and collide with anything in their new path, don't they hit Lazon II? And even if they don't, doesn't an asteroid that passes within spitting distance of a planetary frag play havoc with the environment?"

"Lazon II doesn't have much of an environment," Ro offered. "It's a rock planet with very few indigenous life forms and not much in the line of breathable atmosphere. It's class M, but just barely. As for actual asteroid impact, they have a planetary deflector field that sloughs off the smaller debris, but they periodically take a hit from one of the bigger rocks."

"How does it survive?" Tom demanded.

"Doesn't," Ro said. "At least, not intact. The incarceration facilities have been re-build six times in the last hundred years."

Tom snorted. "Nice place for a penal colony," he observed.

"It's also a working sulphisium mine," Ro added. "The Cardys use the prisoners as labor and house them underground. Whether or not the inmates survive random asteroid impacts doesn't seem to be a high priority."

"What about the guards?" Tom pressed. "And the prison administrators?"

Ro shrugged. "Cardys assigned to Lazon II are in disgrace. I guess they take their risks with the inmates until they redeem themselves by mining enough raw ore to buy out of the posting."

"There's motivation to maintain humane conditions," Tom noted grimly.

"Make no mistake, Tom," Ro said, "regardless of what Dukat told Sisko to the contrary, Lazon II is a death sentence - death by natural causes. Bajoran agitators have been sent there for years. It's the Cardy's political solution to martyrdom. Once someone checks in, they just fade away. No tragic demise in a blaze of glory. No tortured heroes to rally the troops behind. Just a long, hard, ugly death on a world no one knows about."

"Sounds like a real vacation spot."

"It's hell," Ro said. The way she said it rebuffed any implication that the subject should be explored further.

"So we ride a displaced rogue in," Tom said after a beat. "What then?"

"Then we do what we do best," Chakotay said. "Ayala, B'Elanna, Tuvok ..." He looked at each Maquis in turn, "you'll be responsible for taking out the mining operation. I don't care how you do it, but I want it quiet and comprehensive. Laren," he glanced at Ro, "you and I'll go after the infamous Commander Riker. Once we find him, we'll dust off, hitch a ride back the way we came, and make a run for the badlands. With any luck, Central Command will be too busy playing Risian roulette with the Obsidian Order to notice a couple of Maquis wasps buzzing about their knobby little heads." He looked around the table, meeting the eyes of each Maquis in turn but skipping a glance over Tom as if he didn't exist. "We'll have to be quick, efficient and specific," he said grimly. "In and out before the Cardy's know what hit them. That's the only way this works ... the only way we have a chance of coming back. Any questions?"

"What am I doing while all this goes down?" Tom asked quietly.

"You're with me," Chakotay said. "At all times, no matter what else happens, you're stuck to me like glue." He shifted his gaze to Tom's. "You can consider that an order," he said quietly. "If you disobey it, I'll kill you."

Tom inclined his head slightly. "Guess I'm with you."

"Anybody else?" Chakotay asked after a beat.

"Am I correct in assuming," Tuvok asked, disapproval obvious in his tone, "that your escape scenario does not allow for the possibility that the Cardassians may indeed notice our encroachment into their space?"

"No," Chakotay told the Vulcan calmly, "you're not correct in assuming that. I've given the possibility that the Cardy's may notice us a lot of thought. What I've come up with is this: if they notice us, we run. If they catch us, we die." He met Tuvok's gaze unflinchingly. "Do you have a problem with that, Mister Tuvok?"

"I find it ill-conceived," Tuvok allowed.

"Nevertheless," Chakotay countered, "that is the plan."

The Vulcan watched Chakotay for almost a minute before speaking again. "Then I would submit," he said finally, "that we endeavor to make ourselves as unworthy of notice as is possible."

Chakotay inclined his head slightly. "My thoughts exactly." He looked around the table again and saw no more questions in the expressions of his people. "Alright then," he said, "I suggest everybody get some rest. As per SOP, the base is now officially in transmission blackout. If you have communiques to post, leave them in the que and ChoCho will route them when the block drops." He stood. "We'll be leaving in six hours, people. If you have goodbyes to say, make sure they get said. We may not be coming back."

Chakotay walked away, and the briefing broke apart.

"There's a positive outlook," Tom noted drily, directing the comment at Ro.

Ro shrugged. "Chakotay views every mission as his last," she explained matter-of-factly. "After a while, you learn it's the best posture to adopt."

"Sounds morbid as hell if you ask me."

"No one asked you, Starfleet," Ayala said as he passed.

"Approaching your departure as a death of sorts is motivation to leave less business unfinished," Ro said, ignoring Ayala and his comment.

Tom frowned. He, too, ignored Ayala, speaking directly to Ro. "Maybe that works in terms of closure," he said, "but I've found there's more motivation to survive if you leave things a little open-ended. Take my dad for example. There are times I know I've squeezed out of tight spots that would have killed me otherwise just because the idea of going out without telling him to kiss my ass at least once is more that I can bear." Tom grinned. "Now there's motivation ... something worth coming home for."

Though Ro smiled slightly, her tone remained serious. "Coming home isn't always an option to a Maquis," she said. "There are missions that require sacrifice to accomplish. If you view yourself as already dead, it is easier to do what has to be done."

The humor in Tom's eyes flickered out. "Yeah," he said after a beat. "I suppose nothing left to lose does make a man more willing to risk it all."

Reading more than empathetic familiarity to his expression, Ro came to conclusions she'd suspected from the beginning. "Is that what you're doing, Tom?" she asked calmly. "Risking it all because you have nothing left to lose?"

Tom looked up. He met eyes reading him in a way he didn't particularly care for. They weren't Deanna Troi's eyes - empathically perceptive eyes and vaguely contemptuous for that perception - but rather they were Ro Laren's eyes, the eyes of an outsider working to decipher something she recognized from the reflection of her own mirror. And for that familiarity, for that similarity, they read him more effectively than Troi ever had. Ro Laren, formerly of the Enterprise and currently of the fighting Maquis was more than he'd expected in a number of ways. The fact that she gave a rat's ass about what he was thinking was one of them.

"Nah," Tom allowed finally. "Not me. I'm doing this for an entirely different reason."

"That reason being?" Ro prompted.

He flashed her a jaunty grin. "Elbow room," he said. "Pure and simple, I'm in this for the elbow room."


"Something on your mind, Tuvok?" Ayala asked as the he, Chakotay and the Vulcan strode down the stone corridor toward a common destination.

Tuvok lifted an eyebrow. "There is," he assured the other man, "at virtually all times, something on my mind, Ayala. Would you care to be more precise in your inquiry?"

Chakotay smiled, but didn't comment. It was rare for either of the two polar opposites of his team to make an attempt to find common ground between them. He didn't want to discourage the effort even to the extent of appearing amused by it.

"Something bothersome," Ayala elaborated blandly. "Something vexing, something ... shall we say, distressful?"

"I am quite at ease with my thoughts," Tuvok assured the other Maquis. "Thank you for your concern."

"You seem tense," Ayala pressed with the discerning empathy of a dog gnawing a chew-toy. "Worried even."

"I am Vulcan, Mister Ayala," Tuvok countered coldly, his voice taking on the deflective warning tone it so often assumed with the younger man. "We do not worry. It is an illogical expenditure of effort."

"Still ..." Ayala insisted.

"As we have discussed on a number of occasions," Tuvok interrupted calmly, "it would seem a more productive expenditure of your time to confine your empathic diagnoses to species you are qualified to interpret, of which I remind you, Vulcans are not one. Your continued persistence in ascribing emotional basis to logical brain function will no doubt lead to feelings of inadequacy in your chosen avocation."

"Are you saying I'll get an inferiority complex?" Ayala demanded, surprised.

"What I am saying," Tuvok countered, "is that choosing to place oneself within a dynamic whose defining parameter seems to be to perpetuate failure is neither logical nor indicative of a sound judgment faculty. I would suggest that you seek professional intervention."

Despite his best intentions, Chakotay laughed.


"You look better today," Grellel noted, hording their precious allotment of light by keeping the power stick set at its lowest possible setting. "Stronger," he elaborated. "Less willing to journey to the Gardens of the Prophets and leave me here alone."

Will Riker's eyes skated sluggishly around the cell. They searched for the Bajoran national, but never completely located him.

"I feel better," he lied, his voice hoarse and dry.

"You spoke of your captain last night," Grellel commented. "Called to him as if you feared for his safety."

"First officer's duty to preserve the safety of the Captain," Riker muttered automatically.

Grellel nodded. "You take your duty very seriously," he observed. "So seriously that you cling to it even now." He watched Riker for several moments. "What else do you take seriously, my friend?"

Riker shifted, settled, shifted again. "Fishing," he answered finally. "Steelhead trout running in the spring. Jazz ... blues ... New Orleans ... Thelonious Monk and Muddy Waters ... blueberry cobbler ..." He smiled slightly. "Women," he said as if it should be obvious. "Definitely women."


Riker nodded. "Her, too."

Grellel smiled. "She isn't a woman to you, then?" he goaded gently.

"She's more than a woman to me," Riker corrected. "She's my best friend ... my confidante."

"And what of Tom?" Grellel asked.

Riker shivered. "What about him?" he muttered dully.

"Does he take her seriously as well?"

Riker coughed. "Doesn't matter," he whispered. "She loves him. That's what matters."

"So you give him your life," Grellel surmised, "because she loves him, and you are only her friend."

Riker blinked against the texture of softened darkness that lay like a shroud in the confines of the cell. With the light stick on low, there was enough illumination to delineate shapes in the darkness and form shadows in the corners, but not enough to discern detail in the expression of his only companion.

"I joined the Maquis because I was bored," Riker whispered finally. "The Ghandi wasn't enough action for me. I needed something else, something more."

"Do you mind if I call you Will?" Grellel asked.

Riker closed his eyes. He sank deeper into the corner, holding a tattered blanket tighter around stooped shoulders that shivered despite the natural heat of the small, dark room.

"Yes," he murmured. "I mind. My name is Tom. Call me Tom."

"Does she call you Tom?" Grellel pressed.

Riker opened his eyes. He stared at the shadow who was his only friend on this God-forsaken rock. "She calls me whatever I want her to," he said finally. "Whatever I ask her to."

Grellel studied the ghastly pale Starfleet officer for almost a minute before responding. "You are more than your reputation, my friend," he said finally. "Far more than the hero you are supposed to be."

Riker closed his eyes again. "I'm a dying traitor on a Cardassian penal colony," he muttered bitterly.

"Far more," Grellel repeated. "Far, far more." Picking up the failing light stick, Grellel twisted it to off. The darkness densified to impenetrable black.


Ayala ducked his head into the Maquis raider and scanned the stripped-down interior. Chakotay was in the back, stowing a diverse selection of lethal weapons into an aft bulkhead storage pocket. Stepping across the slight rise of the threshold, Ayala joined him.

"You wanted to see me?" he asked.

Securing a Starfleet plasma rifle in place, Chakotay clicked the bulkhead cover closed. "Yes," he agreed. "You and I have some things to discuss in private."

"Tuvok?" Ayala surmised.

"No." Then, with a narrow-eyed glance to the side, "What about Tuvok?"

Irritation flexed Ayala's features. "What do you mean, what about Tuvok? I told you earlier: something's bugging him - something big."

"You're bugging him, Ayala."

"Something besides me," the Betazoid Maquis insisted. "He's very consistent, Chakotay. I never get a read off him, even when I know I've gotten under that smug Vulcan hide of his. But over the past couple of days, I've been getting a consistent buzz, a tangible sense of unease. He's bothered by something - something big enough to let it overflow his mental brainlock with residuals I can read."

"Tuvok's not sold on the mission. He thinks it's too much risk for too little gain."

"That's not it. This is bigger - much bigger. It's more on the line of contemplating mutiny as compared to disobeying an order."

Chakotay glanced sharply at the Betazoid Maquis.

"I didn't say he was contemplating mutiny," Ayala said to the quick flash of disapproval in his commander's eyes, "I said whatever is bothering him is on that same level of import."

"I heard what you said, Ayala," Chakotay returned grimly, "and I didn't like it."

"You're missing something, Chakotay," Ayala warned. "I'm not sure what it is, but we're both missing something."

"What you're missing is the fact that Tuvok is a member of this team. His loyalties aren't in question."

"Everyone's loyalties are always in question," Ayala countered. "That's why you keep me around, remember?"

"I keep you around because I can use your insights on FNG's like Riker."

Ayala snorted. "Riker's an open book. You read his twitches and gives as accurately as I read his emotions." Then, disgustedly, "Is that why you called me all the way down here? To get my take on Riker?"

"I called you down here because I want an explanation." Fixing the other man with a grim glare, Chakotay demanded, "Why did you tell him he was projecting Shelby?"

Ayala blinked. Caught off guard, he hesitated for a moment to let natural wariness catch up to the instinctive response already qued to the rim of his tongue. "Because that was the plan," he said after a beat.

"That wasn't the plan. Bevington calling with Shelby's encryption code was the plan."

Ayala shrugged. "You say poe-tay-toe, I say pah-tah-toe --"

"I'm not playing games, Ayala," Chakotay interrupted coldly. "The point was to see if he'd give her up, not to make him think that he had."

Ayala's expression shaded itself with the seeds of belligerence. "And the difference would be?" he demanded.

"The difference would be that one was necessary and the other wasn't."

"Whatever," Ayala muttered, waving the reprimand off. "We got what we needed, didn't we?"

"Whatever?" Chakotay challenged. His voice was hard with authority; his features, stark with command intractability.

Ayala's frown deepened. "Do you really want to argue over this, Chakotay?" he asked.

"This isn't an argument, Havierre," Chakotay returned. "This is you explaining to your commanding officer why you disobeyed a direct order." He took a step closer, his proximity overtly threatening. "Unless, of course, you think my orders aren't worth following any more?"

"I have no problem with following your orders," Ayala granted cautiously.

"You obviously do," Chakotay challenged. "You understood the plan, and you understood the intent behind the strategy. So why don't you tell me why you undercut it while I'm still in the mood to listen?"

Ayala met Chakotay's glare for a long moment, then looked away. "I didn't see that much difference between Bevington calling with Shelby's name and me saying it," he muttered.

"The difference is culpability," Chakotay said. "You went out of your way to make him think he gave up Shelby, that your knowledge of her identity came from his mind."

Ayala shrugged.

"What?" Chakotay demanded. "I didn't hear that."

"All right," Ayala snapped, "I sensed a vulnerability and used it. Is that what you wanted to hear, Chakotay? I knew it would be a kick in the nuts to him to think he gave her up, so I made him think he gave her up."


"Why not?"

"That's not good enough."

"What do you mean, it's not good enough? He's the enemy, remember?"

"He's not the enemy ... not any more. He's part of the team now, and I expect you to treat him that way."

Ayala snorted derisively. "If he's such an valued member of the team," he sneered, "what's with the twenty-four hour survail?"

"I've got him under surveillance because it's good security practices," Chakotay countered, "not because I expect him to betray us."

"He's Starfleet," Ayala announced acidly. "Betrayal is his prime directive."

"He's ex-Starfleet," Chakotay countered, "just like me."

"He's not like you, Chakotay. Nothing about him is anything like you."

Chakotay met the other man's eyes. "Take a shot at him again," he said quietly, "and you answer to me."

Ayala tensed. "Are you saying you'd chose him over me?" he demanded.

"I wouldn't chose him over Tom Paris," Chakotay snapped, his tone as derogatory with the name he chose as it was capable of being. "But as long as he flies under my flag, I'm not going to let you bleed him for fun."

"I remember a time when you enjoyed drawing blood, Chakotay. When making the enemy squirm was your idea of fun."

"Tom Riker isn't the enemy. You'd realize that if you could see past his connection to Troi."

Ayala's eyes flashed. His wiry body tensed itself to a fist. "Back off," he warned darkly. "You're walking dangerous ground."

"No, Ayala," Chakotay countered just as darkly, "you're the one walking dangerous ground. Don't play out your personal vendettas in my arena. You know better than to think I'll tolerate it."

"This has nothing to do with her."

"This has everything to do with her: your hatred of her, his love for her."

"You're wrong."

"I'm not wrong." Chakotay studied the angry Maquis for a long moment. "I need Riker, Ayala. I need him to discredit Starfleet in the Defiant Incident. If you have a problem with that then disqualify yourself from the mission."

"You need me for this mission."

"I don't need you," Chakotay corrected coldly. "Not if I can't trust you."

"You've always been able to trust me."

"I've always thought that I could."

"And the fact that I think Riker is a waste of oxygen changes that?" Ayala demanded.

"I won't be put in a position of playing referee all the way to Lazon II. I can't afford the distraction ... none of us can afford the distraction. Either you're in or you're out. Make your choice."

Ayala looked away. He studied in minutia a phaser scar bitten deep into one of the raider's primary support buttresses. "All right," he said finally. "I'll play nice. I won't like it, but I'll play nice."
Chakotay smiled slightly. "You don't know how to play nice, Ayala," he countered. "Just don't draw blood."

Ayala looked up. He met Chakotay's eyes. "You can always trust me, Chakotay," he said quietly.

"I know that."

"I apologize if I made it seem like you couldn't."

Chakotay nodded. "Apology accepted."

Ayala turned and walked away. He got to the raider's arched doorway before he stopped. "If you don't want me on this mission," he said quietly, his back still to Chakotay, "I think Truman's still available."

"Truman isn't part of my team. You are."

Ayala nodded. He left the raider without looking back.


The ship was smaller than a standard shuttle, and it was close quarters with the six of them jammed into every nook and cranny. Chakotay flew, Torres served as navigator and Tuvok kept watch over the sensors while Ayala slept soundly in his seat in the corner and Riker and Ro merely passed the time waiting.

"So, Riker," Chakotay said suddenly after flying for more than four hours without offering more than a comment here or there to Torres, "tell me about Picard. Is he half the legend he's made out to be?"

Tom shrugged, jostling Ro slightly in their cramped proximity. "I suppose," he allowed. "I didn't get to know him very well. He kept pretty much to himself."

"Picard is a good man," Ro offered. "A fair man."

"So I hear," Tom allowed drily, "but all I ever got out of the man was the bare minimum in French diplomacy."

"I take it you didn't fit in on the Enterprise," Chakotay surmised. "At least, not into the captain/first officer relationship."

"Like a square peg in a round hole," Tom agreed.

"And that's why you came to us with this plan?" Chakotay went on. "Because you didn't fit in?"

Tom shifted uncomfortably. "More or less," he allowed. "That and the fact that this was a wrong deal from the beginning."

"But not wrong enough to stop you from buying in a year ago," Chakotay noted almost casually.

"A year ago," Tom returned tersely, "things were different. And like I told you, I didn't exactly buy in: I was following orders."

"Orders you're willing to break now."

Tom studied the Maquis captain's profile, trying to read the conversation's current. Deep and swift and undoubtedly treacherous, he had no doubt he could drown in the riptide and wash up on the shores at Starfleet Command. "Yeah," he said finally. "Orders I'm willing to break now. Like I said, things are different."

"In what way?"

"In every way."

Chakotay nodded. "Tell me something, Riker," he said suddenly. "just for the sake of my own peace of mind: We're not risking our lives on this incredibly dangerous mission just because you're tired of Troi, are we?"

Tom jolted. He flushed, the lines of his posture becoming all angles. "I'm not sure where you got that idea," he said, speaking grimly through the effort it took to keep his voice level, "but it's wrong. This has nothing to do with Deanna Troi."

"Nothing?" Chakotay prodded, glanced to Torres knowingly.

"Nothing," Tom repeated.

Chakotay shrugged. "Just a question, Tom," he allowed. "No need to get all bent out of shape about it."

Tom glanced to Ayala, then leaned forward in his seat. "I've passed about as many of your tests as I'm going to pass, Chakotay," he said angrily. "If you don't trust me by now, then why don't you do us all a favor and drop me at the nearest class M?"

"Nearest class M is Cardassia Prime," Chakotay noted. "How do you feel about burridium mining as a career path?"

"Suits me," Tom retorted. "At least there won't be any more tests."

Chakotay smiled. "Alright, Riker. I'll quit testing you if you answer me one question truthfully."

"Ask," Tom snapped.

"What are the command codes for the USS Enterprise?"

Tom sat back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest. "Go to hell, Chakotay," he growled.

Chakotay's smile deepened. "Hell's three degrees off the port bow," he quipped. "What do you think of the view?"


Ayala shouldered his way into the cockpit and crouched at Chakotay's side. They'd been cruising from star cluster to star cluster for more than ten hours now, weaving a seemingly random path ever deeper into enemy territory. Tom was asleep, as were both Ro and Torres. Though not truly asleep, Tuvok was deep in a meditative state, his long legs folded one over the other in a lotus position only Vulcans could truly achieve.

"Opinions?" Chakotay asked, his voice low enough to pass the sentry of ever-vigilant Klingon awareness slouched in a chair less than a meter away.

"He was lying to you," Ayala said, his voice quiet nearly to the point of nothing. "This has everything to do with Troi."

Chakotay glanced at the sleeping Riker. "You don't have to be empathic to see that," he noted just as quietly. "What I'm interested in is how it has to do with Troi."

"He got claustrophobic when you hit him with the idea of being tired of her," Ayala said. "I got an overpowering sense of guilt, and then of resentment. My best guess is that he feels he's trapped in Riker's life. This is his solution. If he frees Riker, he frees himself."

"Frees Riker?" Chakotay asked. "Or eliminates him."

Ayala frowned. "Is that what you're worried about? Some sort of revenge motive? You think Tom Riker went to all this trouble to eliminate a man who would in all probability never have seen the light of day again anyway?"

"The thought's crossed my mind," Chakotay allowed. "Along with the idea that, given the right plan, it wouldn't be too difficult to convince Starfleet that Tom Riker was the casualty. Instant legitimacy as the one, true William Riker - that's a big step up from a pretender's stipend."

Ayala shook his head. "Rheger Kha's right," he noted. "You do think like a 3D chess game."

Chakotay shrugged. "Being allowed to masquerade as the Enterprise's XO and serving in that capacity are two different things," he noted. "Especially for a man of Riker's ambition."

"I'm glad you're on our side, Chakotay," Ayala announced. "I'd hate to have to second-guess you."

"Just one possible scenario," he demurred.

"But not the one that our Riker has in mind," Ayala said. "He may resent everything about the man, but I'm getting nothing to support any kind of intention to commit murder. Besides which, he doesn't have complex enough brain functions to come up with an agenda like that."

"You underestimate him," Chakotay said quietly. "Command experience aside, Tom Riker has the same instincts as Will Riker, and I can tell you from experience that Will Riker's instincts are by far the most dangerous thing about him."

Ayala's eyes narrowed. "You served with Riker?" he asked after a beat.

"Not with him," Chakotay allowed quietly, "against him. The Enterprise was patrolling the Duteria system when we raided the munitions cache on Duteria IV."

"Picard commands the Enterprise, doesn't he?"

"Picard was in diplomatic negotiations with the Romulans. It was Riker who came after us; Riker who damned near caught us." Chakotay shook his head. "If the Sky Spirits hadn't been looking after their own that day, you'd be taking orders from Tuvok."

"I might be hunting gators in the bayou," Ayala corrected, "or dealing Double Duce on Risa, but I wouldn't be taking orders from Tuvok."

Chakotay smiled. "What about the rest of it?" he asked, returning to the subject at hand. "Anything I don't already know?"

Ayala shrugged. "He's gotten attached to Ro. And he's sick of being tested."

Chakotay shot the Betazoid Maquis a side-eyed look. "You have an amazing grasp of the obvious," he noted drily.

"I try."

Chakotay snorted. "Who do you suppose told him he was being tested?" he asked rhetorically after a beat.

"He's a smug bastard," Ayala countered, "so I brought him down a couple of notches. Explained to him his place in the food chain and how ill-equipped he was to consider himself anything more than space chum." Then he added, "But that was before I promised to play nice. I wouldn't do it now ... not unless I felt it would help him develop on a personal level."

Chakotay shook his head. "How does he feel about the team in general?" he asked.

"Doesn't like me much," Ayala quipped.

"There's a surprise."

Ayala went on: "Seems more or less ambivalent about Tuvok and B'Elanna, likes you but balks every time you call him Riker instead of Tom. I get a growing sense of attachment to the idea of a team - I think he feels like he fits in for a change." Ayala shook his head. "Isn't that a kick in the ass?"

"What about the Maquis as a cause?"

"Doesn't seem to care one way or the other."

Chakotay nodded. "Okay. Get some rest, Ayala. If I decide I need more, I'll start baiting again, you just play along."

"Don't I always?" Ayala stood and turned to find Tom Riker awake and watching. For a moment, the two men stared at each other, then, arching an eyebrow in an unmistakably dismissive gesture, Ayala pushed his way past Tom to resume his seat near the back.

"Do you issue progress reports quarterly, Chakotay?" Tom asked quietly.

"You're doing all right so far, Riker," Chakotay returned calmly. "I'll let you know when you start failing."

"Is it me in particular?" Tom pressed, "or is it anyone who doesn't belong to your little club?"

"In the Maquis, you don't learn from your mistakes," Chakotay answered, "you die from them. Through a process called natural selection, it tends to breed cautious survivors."

"You crossed cautious two days ago. You're into Oliver Stone territory now."

Chakotay arched an eyebrow. "Oliver Stone?"

"Twentieth century conspiracy freak. Thought the government was out to get him."

Chakotay smiled. "Sounds like a Maquis," he agreed.

Tom shook his head. "I don't know what else I have to do to prove to you that I am what I say I am," he said.

"Don't do anything," Chakotay told him. "I'll get there when I get there. Nothing you can say or do is going to accelerate the process."

"Ro says you don't lay much stock in words."

"You've shown me more by what you haven't said than by what you have."

Tom studied the Maquis captain for a long moment, then asked, "Did you really expect me to give you the command codes to the Enterprise?"

"If I thought you'd give me the command codes for the Enterprise," Chakotay returned, "I would have had Kale Teeka kill you back at Dead Lazlows. There's no room in the Maquis for traitors, Tom. And there's no room for anyone who would try to trade into a position that has to be earned."

"I can't earn it if you won't give me a chance," Tom said.

"You'll have your chance," Chakotay assured him. "You'll have more chances than you'd ever want."

"I only need one."

"You've already had one," Chakotay said, "and regardless of what Ayala might have told you, you passed."

"Shelby?" Riker asked quietly.

"Shelby," Chakotay agreed.


"Hang on," Chakotay advised. "This could get a little bumpy."

They were on the rim of the asteroid cloud, navigating debris with broad arcs that tested the space legs of even the most seasoned among them. Maneuvering deeper into deadly territory, Chakotay negotiated the gauntlet with a confident ease that belied the skill involved.

An enormous chunk of space debris appeared out of nowhere, hurtling toward the small vessel's main viewscreen at a speed that defied evasion. Re-acting instinctively, Chakotay averted a collision with centimeters to spare.

"Your reflexes are getting slow," Torres observed.

"A side effect of aging," Chakotay returned as he dodged another asteroid shard. "One I hope to continue to experience for some time yet. How much farther, Ayala?"

"Straight ahead," Ayala answered.

"He didn't ask where," Torres groused, "he asked how far."

"If I knew how far," Ayala countered just as testily, "I would have told him."

"Three o'clock high and coming in fast," Ro warned.

Chakotay dipped the vessel to port. A scatter of debris rattled off the starboard shields like pebbles on a tin roof as a Horta-sized asteroid that would have punched a hole through their shields as easily as it would have through their hull careened by.

"Getting a little thick in here, Tuvok," Chakotay observed. "How're we holding up?"

"Dorsal shields are down to sixty three percent," Tuvok stated matter-of-factly. "Axial stabilizers are two decs short of red-line."

"Two decs?" Chakotay repeated, surprised. "Were you going to warn me before they blew?"

"As stabilizer damage is a self-evident consequence of protracted gyronic maneuvers performed in even a limited gravimetric environment," Tuvok returned stiffly, "and as you have performed such maneuvers on countless occasions without demonstrating appreciable concern for axial strain incurred, and as the level of stabilizer strain cannot be reduced by any manner except through the immediate cessation of gyronic maneuvers - a highly inadvisable strategy if we are to continue to navigate the asteroid belt without incurring lethal impact damage - I saw no point in stating the obvious."

"Never stopped you before," Ayala offered.

"I will, however," Tuvok went on, ignoring the Betazoid Maquis's dig, "update you on axial stabilizer stress levels in the future if you so desire."

Chakotay was grinning. He dodged a small chunk of debris and twisted the agile vessel on its vertical axis to avoid another. "Just tell me before she starts doing the hokey-pokey," he said.

"If you are referring to uncontrolled spinning along anterior axial planes," Tuvok returned, "that will occur in approximately seven point six two three minutes, barring unforeseen impact damage."

"Eleven thirty," Ro said.

"Approximately seven point six two three minutes?" Chakotay jibed, tipping the raider's wings negligibly to allow a fragmented asteroid to skin by.

"Barring unforeseen impact damage," Tuvok repeated humorlessly.

"Six thirty," Ro said. "Two tails riding in the lee."

Chakotay dodged the first chunk of space rock, then shimmied a narrow evasion of the two smaller asteroids caught in their mentor's gravity field. "Damnit, B'Elanna," he muttered, "you didn't tell me we'd be making a spawning run up mud river."

Torres shrugged. "This is nothing compared to what we'll face -"

"Eight o'clock," Ro interrupted. Chakotay compensated.

"-closer to Lazon II," she finished matter-of-factly.

"You may think nothing now," Chakotay countered, "but you'll think something if one of those damned rocks -" The ship jolted as another small asteroid slammed into the dorsal shield before skipping away, "- comes through the bulkhead. What, Laren? You didn't think that one was big enough to call?"

"Blind spot," Ro retorted. "Six and eight o'clock, and three seconds back but moving twice as fast, ten o'clock."

"Dorsal shields down to forty nine percent," Tuvok announced. Then, placatingly, he added, "Axial stabilizers nearing red-line capacity."

"Ten o'clock, Chakotay," Ro repeated.

"Rogue at seventeen degrees Starboard," Ayala announced at almost the same moment.

"Got it," Chakotay agreed, adjusting the small ship's coarse. An asteroid several times the size of a Cardassian war cruiser loomed in the forward viewscreen. Chakotay began prepping for a contact dock.

"Chakotay," Ro started, her voice sharp with alarm, "ten o'cl-"

The incoming asteroid blindsided the raider with the force of a charging rhino. Shields flared and the small ship gyroed. Riker and Ro slammed against the port bulkhead. Tuvok fell out of his chair. Chakotay and Torres managed to hold on, but Ayala lurched through the cabin, airborne, landing in a tangle of camouflage equipment stowed in the back.

Lights flickered and failed. Emergency compensators snapped on-line. An audio alert muted to near silence whispered rumors of shield inadequacies.

"I assume that would be my ten o'clock," Chakotay quipped grimly, working the controls to regain control of the badly listing vessel as it limped toward the protection of the displaced rogue.

"How bad are we hurt, Tuvok?"

"Dorsal shields negligible," Tuvok announced, resuming his seat at the ops console. "Both primary port and aft stabilizers damaged. Hull integrity acceptable."

"Three hundred kilometers, Chakotay," B'Elanna said.

"There's a swarm coming in at two o'clock," Ro warned. Favoring her left arm, she resumed the spotter position directly behind Chakotay's shoulder. "Ten, maybe twelve rocks."

"We're okay, people," Chakotay muttered, his features edged with tension. "Just a little punch drunk."

"Did you hear me, Chakotay?" Ro pressed.

"I heard you, Laren. Swarm at two. Not a problem unless the engines go off-line."

The sound of grinding metals shivered through the small cockpit, and the raider dipped another six degrees to port.

"Or we flip upside down like a turtle on it's back," Ayala growled, struggling to free himself from the netting. Tom stepped in to help. Together, they de-cocooned Ayala like a fly salvaged from a spider web.

Chakotay's hands worked the controls ceaselessly. At his side, B'Elanna Torres compensated for a number of damaged systems with the few that still functioned at full capacity and a healthy dose of Maquis ingenuity.

"Come on, baby," Chakotay muttered.

"Dorsal shield strength insufficient to sustain multiple impact," Tuvok noted calmly.

The raider listed again. It shivered and began to twist on a horizontal axis, turning them away from the rogue.

"I can't stabilize," Torres warned. "We're starting to veer off course."

"Cut power," Chakotay ordered. Re-calculating trajectories with instinctive ease, he tipped the raider into its list, exacerbating the twist by a factor of ten. "Give me a forward thruster pulse on my mark," he said. Red emergency lights sheening his skin to burnished iridium, Chakotay glared at the viewscreen with a fierce intensity reflective of his people's belief that the force of one man's will could make a difference between life and death.

The ship continued to turn, no longer moving forward, only spinning a slow, axial spin. When the rogue was 180 degrees to the aft, Chakotay ordered, "Now, B'Elanna."

Torres hit the thruster ignition with the palm of one hand. The ship jolted and began to slide backward.

"Ten seconds to impact," Tuvok announced.

"Again," Chakotay demanded.

Torres obeyed without hesitation. The backward skid accelerated. Less than a kilometer ahead of the asteroid swarm, the Maquis raider slid, aft bulkheads first, into the sheltering lee of the displaced rogue. A dozen impacts that would have fractured the raider beyond salvage pattered harmlessly off the protective shoulder of the rogue's surface.

Chakotay smiled. "Like my father always said: if you can't charge 'em, flank 'em. Quarter aft thrusters, B'Elanna."

"Aft thrusters off line," Torres returned.

The raider jolted hard, and their momentum stopped. "Never mind," Chakotay said, "I think the eagle has already landed." He directed his attention to Tom: "Engage docking clamps. Make sure we don't unmoor while we're making repairs." He glanced around the small vessel's cramped interior. "Anybody hurt? Ayala?"

"I'm fine," Ayala grumbled, still sitting on the camouflage net, rubbing at his neck.

"Good. I need you on the stabilizers. Tom, tell me you have at least rudimentary engineering skills."

Finished with the docking protocols, Tom said, "I've done my share of circuitry re-calibrations, bypasses and an emergency gyro-compensator stitch-and-ditch or two."

"Close enough," Chakotay agreed. "You're with Ayala. Laren, you and B'Elanna start reconfiguring the engines for stealth approach and see what can be done about the thrusters. Tuvok and I'll try to get the dorsal shields back on-line before we face the gauntlet again. Let's move it, people. We've got less than six hours before the jump to Lazon II. I'd prefer to make it in a ship that flies rather than a free-falling metal box with wings."

"I told you your reflexes were getting slow," Torres noted as she passed.

"My reflexes are fine," Chakotay countered easily. "It's my language skills that could use a little work. I misunderstood the call." He flashed her a grin. "On Dorvan V, ten o'clock is when we take siesta."


"What is this shit?" Riker demanded, studying the thin mush that clung stickily to the rusted rim of his pock-marked spoon.

"I believe it is Quinday shit," Grellel answered. "No ... wait ..." Leaning sideways on his sleeping palette, Grellel peered intently at one thin line from among the multitudes of groupings of thin lines he'd scored into the stone wall from the ceiling to nearly the floor. "No, I'm sorry. This is Quadday shit. We won't get Quinday shit until tomorrow."

"Quadday," Riker muttered, taking another bite despite the bitter grit of it against his tongue. "I should have known."

Grellel smiled in the dimly-illuminated cell. "You really are feeling better," he noted, pleased. "It's been weeks since you sniveled about the food. I was beginning to miss your constant complaining, as absurd as that may sound."

"Yeah," Riker allowed, "well I was starting to miss your complaining about my complaining."

"I think the fever's finally broken," Grellel noted.

"Last night," Riker agreed. "Right in the middle of the most enjoyable hallucination."

Grellel smiled. "Let me guess: Troi in a bubble bath?"

"Close," Riker allowed, his eyes glinting with an expression they hadn't favored in several weeks.

"Troi on holiday at Risa?"


Grellel finished his gruel and set his bowl aside. "Tell me about it," he urged. "I have so little imagination myself."

Riker set his bowl aside as well. Though it was still half full, he'd managed to eat and keep down the rest, a significant improvement as improvements went. "Have you ever seen an Orion dancer?" he asked coyly.

"Orion?" Grellel repeated. "Green skin? Too many veils?"

Riker grinned. "She looked a little like that," he said, "only not as many veils. Not many at all, in fact. One or two, maybe, and not very judiciously placed, in a modest frame of speaking."

"Poor timing," Grellel noted. "Had it been my hallucination, I would have chosen to recover tomorrow."

"Damned white blood cells," Riker grumbled good naturedly.

"But I'm glad you're better," the Bajoran added after a moment. "It would have been lonely here without your continual blathering on about that woman Troi."

Riker smiled slightly, but in his eyes was an unfathomable sadness.

"Tell me about her again," Grellel prompted. "Tell me how she danced with her injudiciously-placed veils."

Riker nodded and began to tell a story.


It was night on Lazon II, pitch black without the benefit of stars. The Maquis raider's shields flared as they breached the thin atmosphere; but the brief flash of bitter orange was inconsequential to the passing of the night, nothing more than another asteroid burning to space dust after penetrating the planetary deflector field. An owl hunting mice, the raider swooped silently across the stark landscape. It skimmed rocky outcroppings, never clearing the stone surface by more than a dozen meters. Following the line of cliffs and plunging to the depths of jagged arroyos, it availed itself of any and all protection offered by a terrain as foreboding as the use to which it had been put.

Easing the raider to a hover before the rock-faced end of a deep box canyon, Chakotay settled the craft to stone with less sound than the whisper of butterfly wings and cut engines already minimized to almost nothing.

"Son of a bitch," Tom Riker whispered, his voice flush with awe. "Now that's some impressive flying. And I thought I was a shuttle pilot."

"Chakotay's the best in the fleet," Ro allowed, her voice hushed as well, though for an entirely different reason, "and this is hardly a shuttle."

"With engines at less than twenty percent," Tom insisted, "can't handle much better than the old Galileo class. Hydraulic acuity must be sluggish as hell."

"It is sluggish as hell," Chakotay agreed, sliding out of the pilot's seat and shouldering past Tom on his way to the aft bulkhead stow pocket, "but flat-lined engine output is the only way to make a silent approach." He flicked a side-eyed glance at Ro. "And Laren's right," he added slyly, "I am the best in the fleet."

"And the most humble," Ayala added drily.

"You were skim-riding canyons with maybe a meter's clearance off each wing," Tom pointed out. "That's like trying to thread a needle with a boa constrictor."

"Half a meter," Torres corrected as she, too, slid past Tom.

"A big boa constrictor," Tom revised agreeably.

Pulling a plasma rifle out of the bulkhead cache, Chakotay said, "I get a lot of practice. Laren." He tossed the weapon and Ro caught it. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the disaster a miss in such close quarters might have been.

Chakotay passed another plasma rifle to Tuvok and kept the Starfleet issue phaser rifle for himself. "Alright, people," he said, "we haven't got all day. Tuvok, I want communications and pursuit capabilities neutralized. Any other damage you can do I'll take, but make sure you don't rouse the troops prematurely."

"I shall endeavor to allow them every opportunity to complete a full night's respite," Tuvok agreed.

"God knows Cardassians as a race need all the beauty sleep they can get," Ayala quipped, strapping on a Klingon disrupter Torres handed him from a secondary weapons cache.

"I'm sure they'll appreciate it," Chakotay returned. "Heads up, Tom."

A starfleet phaser was already arcing through the air. The fact that it came from Torres rather than Chakotay as he expected, cost Tom a fraction of a second's reaction time. He fumbled the weapon and Ayala caught it. The Betazoid Maquis handed it over without comment.

"Thanks," Tom muttered. To his surprise, Ayala merely nodded, refraining from any of a dozen obvious comments that would have drawn blood.

"All right," Chakotay said, his voice grim with determination, "you all know what to do. Good luck, and as my ancestors used to say: Oyka Hey."

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose," Ayala added with a wry grin.

"Up yours," Torres growled not in response, but rather in addition.

"Live long and prosper," Tuvok agreed.

"Walk with the Prophets," Ro allowed.

A hesitant silence fell over the small raider as each member of the strike team slid their gaze to Tom Riker.

"You're part of this team now, Tom," Chakotay said after a beat. "And that makes it bad luck not to participate in the rituals and customs."

Tom looked at the other man for a long moment, then nodded. "All right," he said quietly. "My dad and I had a saying on the few and far betweens when we actually did something together - usually something ill advised. I suppose it suits this occasion as well as any other."

"Spit it out," Torres ordered. "We haven't got all night."

The fact that she'd snarled at him was oddly comforting. Had she afforded him a politeness she afforded none of her other compatriots, it would have been a sign of distrust. He smiled, realizing suddenly that each of them, in their own way, had accepted him.

All except perhaps Ayala.

"As my old man used to say," Tom allowed, his features breaking slowly into a grin, "put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye."


The surface of Lazon II was everything they expected it to be: hot, dry and inhospitable to the extreme. The air was thin and oxygen poor. It whipped around them in whirling dervishes, scouring their skin raw with the abrasive touch of pulverized stone.

They made it underground without incident. The caverns of the penal facility itself were cooler than the surface, but strikingly dark. If not for the wan overflow of periodic light panels recessed into the walls of the stone corridors, they would have had to feel their way along.

"This is where we split up," Chakotay said, nodding to the three-pronged juncture directly ahead. "Raider leaves in seventy-two minutes, with or without you."

Tuvok nodded and headed down the corridor without another word. Ayala followed, as did Torres.

Chakotay, Ro and Tom turned to take a second corridor. Moving quickly and quietly, they followed the stone path as it twisted deeper into the complex. The floor took on an incline. The corridor forked again, and then again. The air became heavier, hotter. Breathing became a task, and their pace slowed.

"The mines are just ahead," Ro said, her voice so quiet it barely cleared the pad of footsteps in the dark. "Take a left at the next fork."

They could smell the cells before they came to them. The stench of a dozen species in close captivity seasoned the gravid air to a virtual tangibility. Sliding past Chakotay, Ro took the lead. She passed a dozen cells - two dozen - then stopped suddenly, choosing one of the heavy metal doors for no obvious reason. Chakotay nodded and set to work. He gummed the locking mechanism with putty explosive, then stepped aside, averting his eyes.

The flash was blinding in the almost complete darkness, but the explosion sounded off as only a muffled pop. The door sagged slightly, and Chakotay pulled it open. He slid inside, as did Ro.

Tom looked around for a moment longer, then he, too, entered the small, dark cell.


Riker slept restlessly, his body twitching with skits of motion that denied him the comfort of true rejuvenation. A residual fever still festering under his skin made it hard to find a position that didn't grow to intolerable in only a few minutes. Twisting and turning and flipping and flopping, he spent the darkness sanding utter exhaustion to weary fatigue.

Grellel was right. He was getting better.

For the past week, the only thought available to his wandering contemplations was the fervent, unrelentent wish for death. Now there was enough strength to his musings to realize that he was hot, thirsty, hungry, exhausted and every muscle, bone and joint in his body ached like hell.

As improvements went, it made a good case for a relapse.

Something skittered in the darkness - a rat, or a roach, or whatever denizen of Lazon II passed for such creatures. Riker pressed the sound from his mind, replacing it with a tactile memory of how his body felt the time he picked up swine flu after the Peliar Zel peace treaty negotiations. It had been a similar set of syptomologies: weakness, fatigue, nausea, deep joint pain that defied Crusher's attempts to mollify them ....

Will Riker worked his mind with the memory. Filling his senses with the smells of anesthesia, the sounds of Alyssa Owgawa's quiet ministrations, the feel of Deanna Troi's hand in his, he placed himself back on the Enterprise. Lazon II faded in the reality of his awareness. Troi sitting by his bedside took its place. Clucking over him like a worried hen, doing her best to be cheerful, trying her damndest not to let on how much damage the Tril implantation had actually done to his immune system, her voice reminded itself to his half-conscious awareness. The impenetrable darkness became the hazy apathy of a sedated mind. He could smell her in the stench of imprisonment, feel her hands against his face and sense the nearness of her empathic presence.

He tried to focused on what she was saying. Fiercely, doggedly, he re-structured the fabric of his dungeon silence and formed it into something he could interpret as words.

He wasn't alone.

The realization hit Riker like a blow, jolting him from the passive apathy of wandering thoughts. His eyes opened to darkness. Lying utterly motionless on his hard, stone palette, Riker stared intently into the all consuming darkness and tried to see what could not be seen.

There was no sound in the darkness, no motion, no movement to give them away; but he could smell them. He could smell them and feel them and sense the displacement of air that their bodies pushed aside.

Two, maybe three.

Panic wriggled under his lungs. Were they Cardassians? Other prisoners? What did they want? Why would they hide? Were they even real or had his mind slipped to a place more terrifying than the penal facilities of Lazon II? Had the antibiotics in his gruel been piggybacked on interrogative hallucinogens? Had the Cardassians grown weary of waiting for him to confide in Grellel and taken a more aggressive stance in their manipulations of his mind?

Would he tell the shadows in the corners something he had managed to thus far avoid telling the Obsidian Order's trial advocacy?

The clatter of approaching Cardassians outside the door broke the escalation of panic in Riker's scrambling thoughts. They were bringing Grellel back from the mines. A key scraped in the lock, and the door swung open. Grellel stumbled inside. One of the Cardassians followed him; the others moved on.

Though the dim wash of grey from the corridor light panels illuminated the cell like the flicker of a single candle in a dampening field, to Riker's light-sensitive eyes it was more than enough. He stared at one of the corners, seeing the glint of eyes watching him.

The Cardassian guard stepped into Riker's line of sight. "You," he snarled, towering over Riker's pallet. "You've vacationed long enough. Tomorrow, you join your friends in the mine again."

Riker's eyes skipped to another corner, and then a third. "Do you hear me, Human?" the Cardassian demanded, shoving him with a prompt rod.

Pain spasmed along Riker's ribs. His kidneys registered the jolt of energy as a kick. Grunting, he closed his eyes to the firestorm of neural disfunction the prompt rod dispensed as punishment for his distraction.

"I hear you," he muttered, his voice little more than a coarse whisper.

"You missed an eventful day in the mines, my friend," Grellel said as the Cardassian turned back for the door. "One of the Luithians fell ..."

Almost to the door, the Cardassian guard spotted something in the shadows and went for his weapon. Three of the cell's four corners converged on him. Riker rolled off his pallet as the door clicked shut, plunging them once again into abysmal darkness. He scrambled to one side, pressing himself flat against a wall.

"Get down, Grellel," he hissed as the darkness writhed with the sounds of a struggle. Metal hit stone, and someone grunted. Bones broke definitively in the darkness, and then it was quiet.

For a long second, there was no sound at all.

"Then again," Grellel observed in the darkness, "you appear to have had an eventful day yourself. Care to introduce me to your friends?"

Riker didn't move, didn't breathe. He couldn't tell if they'd been wearing night gear, so didn't know whether or not they could see him in the utter blackness.

Grellel's light stick flared in the darkness. Though set low, it illuminated the small cell more than well enough to define the important details of the occupants.

"Grellel!" Riker snapped, and then he froze.

"Hello, Will," Tom Riker greeted, his bearded features dancing eerily in the wan glow cast by the lightstick he held in one hand. "No offense, but you look like hell."

Riker blinked. He blinked again.

Across the cell in a corner, Grellel looked from Tom Riker, to Will Riker then back again. His interested gaze drew a number of comparisons between two men who might have appeared identical had they resembled each other to a greater degree.

"You," Riker breathed, his eyes narrowing from stun to caution to rage.

"You were expecting someone else?" Tom quipped.

Struggling to his feet with an effort, Riker leaned unsteadily into the cell's stone wall and glared at the healthier reflection of himself. "You dumb son of a bitch," he whispered.

Tom arched an eyebrow as Ro knelt by the Cardassian on the floor, checking for a pulse he didn't have.

"You must be Tom," Grellel noted calmly.

Tom's gaze flicked to the Bajoran prisoner, then returned itself to Riker.

"What in the hell are you doing here?" Riker demanded, his voice shaking with outrage, an emotion that expressed itself with unmistakable clarity even through the drawn emaciation of haggard features.

"Looks like I'm saving your ass," Tom answered.

Riker sagged, nearly falling beneath the blow of such a simple explanation. His shoulders trembled slightly, and his hands drew themselves into fists. "You can't be serious," he breathed. "Tell me you're not serious."

"We don't have much time, Tom," Ro noted, standing.

Riker's attention jumped to Ro. He stared at her in confusion, then, as if her presence was too much to fathom, dragged his gaze back to Tom.

"I thought I made myself clear -" he started.

"Newsflash," Tom interrupted, handing Ro the lightstick and stepping to the other man's side. "The universe does not revolve around what you do and do not want. Things happen in which you have no say."

Riker closed his eyes. His head dropped back to the cell wall as Tom established a grip on the tattered remains of his uniform. "My God," he whispered dully. "What have you done?"

"I've done what should have been done nine months ago," Tom said.

"This is treason," Riker murmured.

"Haven't you heard?" Tom retorted. "I went renegade last year - joined the Maquis. Figured that's what you would do if you were me." Tom shifted his grip for another, and adjusted his stance to get better leverage for lifting Riker away from the wall against which he was leaning.

"I'm not you," Riker breathed, the words barely escaping his lips.

"No. You're not. That's probably the only thing Dee and I have agreed on in six months: that I'm not you."

"Deanna," Riker murmured.

Tom slid under Riker's arm and straightened into the slag of his gaunt doppelganger's negligible weight. Carefully, he eased the other man into motion.

"No." Riker staggered, shaking off Tom's assistance. One knee gave way, but he caught himself on the rim of a shallow, dish-like impression on the cell's stone wall. "I'm not going anywhere with you," he announced, his voice grim with determination. "I'm not going anywhere with any of you."

"This is no time to be a hero, Commander," Ro observed.

Riker's eyes swung sluggishly to the Bajoran Maquis. "What in the hell are you doing here, Laren?' he demanded. "I thought we had an agreement."

"We did have an agreement," Ro allowed calmly. "I owed you. Now I don't."

Riker slapped off the hand she extended to him. "No," he repeated fiercely. "I'm not going with you."

"You're mistaken if you think you have any choice in the matter," Chakotay announced quietly. Still half-shadowed by the farthest corner of the cell, he spoke with an unbrookable authority that defied defiance. "You're coming with us if I have to stun you and carry you out on my back."

Riker blinked. He stared at the other man for a long moment, then said, "You're Chakotay."

Chakotay inclined his head slightly.

"The Cardy's will cut you into strips if they catch you here."

"I don't intend to let them catch me."

"They'll catch you if you try to carry me out on your back," Riker assured him. "I suggest you get the hell out of here while you still can."

"Don't be a jackass, Will," Tom hissed. "Right now, this is a Maquis raid to free a Maquis prisoner. The only way Starfleet's hand gets tipped is if you make us fail."

Riker snorted derisively. "You've already failed, Tom," he murmured, his voice slurred with exhaustion. "You've failed me, you've failed yourself, you've failed the whole damned Federation." His knee gave again, and he began to slide down the wall.

"Well at least I'm three for three," Tom observed, grabbing Riker's arm as the hollow-eyed commander would have slumped to the floor. Dragging Riker away from the cell wall, he refused to be pushed away this time, saying, "Come on, Commander. I've got better things to do than stand here all day and listen to you piss and moan about what a disappointment I turned out to be."

Lacking the strength to resist, Riker allowed himself to be passed off to Ro. He stumbled as the Bajoran Maquis established her grip. His leg barked itself on a sleeping shelf. Cursing vividly, he would have fallen if Chakotay hadn't stepped in to help.

"I've got him, Laren," Chakotay said, shifting his grip to take Riker's weight on one shoulder. Despite his best intentions to the contrary, Riker leaned heavily into the Maquis leader's support.

His breathing had grown markedly harsher, rattling in and out of his chest like paper in a wind tunnel.

"His leg," Grellel offered. "It's badly hurt. He won't be able to go far."

"He'll go as far as I'm willing to drag him," Chakotay countered. "Tom, check the corridor. Ro, you're riding shotgun." Tom nodded and slipped out of the small cell. Ro unslung her laser rifle from one slender shoulder and set herself to cover Chakotay's retreat.

"I can help," Grellel offered.

"We're already behind schedule," Chakotay told Ro. "Let's get moving."

"I can help," Grellel repeated more desperately.

Chakotay shifted Riker and started for the door. Ro fell in at his side.

Working Chakotay's unbrookable expression with tremulous urgency, Grellel stepped into their line of travel. "Please ..." he pleaded. "I can help carry him. I know the way to the surface ... I can show you."

"I'm sorry," Chakotay said coldly, his voice utterly devoid of inflection. "There's no room for you."

"Make room," Riker muttered, nearly dead weight in Chakotay's uncompromising grip.

Chakotay arched an eyebrow, turning to regard the barely conscious man propped on his shoulder.

"He's coming with us," Riker stated grimly.

Chakotay snorted. "You would think after nine months," he observed drily, directing his comment to Ro, "that the Cardys would have taught him more humility." He started forward again, but Riker caught a hand on the wall and dragged them to a stop.

"You won't make it thirty meters if I fight you," Riker whispered. "Ten, if I start yelling."

"You aren't that stupid."

"You'd be amazed how stupid I can be."

Chakotay hesitated.

"He knows who I am," Riker said quietly. "I can't leave him here."

"If he knows who you are," Ro countered, "then the Cardassians know, too. He's an informer, Will. He was put in your cell to keep an eye on you."

"I'm not a fool, Laren," Riker retorted, still staring into Chakotay's eyes. "I know the way the Cardassians work."

"You know?" Grellel whispered.

"He did what he had to do to survive," Riker said, still speaking only to Chakotay. "But he also saved my life. He got me medicine when I need it ... kept the Cardys off me ... treated the infection ... fed me ... gave me his allotment of water. I won't pay him back by leaving him here to die."

"I had no choice," Grellel murmured. "They would have killed me if I hadn't done what they asked."

"I know that, Grellel," Riker said, his eyes never leaving Chakotay. "You did what you had to do."

"I never told them you weren't Tom Riker," Grellel whispered.

"You will," Riker said quietly. "If we leave you here, you won't have any other choice." He stared at the Maquis leader, his eyes resolute. "He goes," he said quietly, "or I don't."

"That's where you're wrong, Riker." Chakotay pulled a phaser from his belt. He thumbed the setting to kill and placed the snout flush against Grellel's temple.

Grellel stiffened. "Riker?" he questioned, his tone rich with fear.

"Your choice," Chakotay said quietly.

A long moment of silence hung in the small, dank chamber. "You won't kill him," Riker said finally.

"Willing to bet his life on that?"

"I can't leave him here."

"That's all you had to say." Chakotay's thumb flexed over the trigger mechanism.


"Make up your mind, Riker," Chakotay ordered.

"I can't leave him here," Riker repeated, "and you can't kill him. He hasn't done anything."

"He's in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

"So were thirty six Starfleet officers and twelve civilian advisors stationed on Duteria IV."

Chakotay's eyes darkened. "Not the same thing," he allowed after a beat.

"It is the same thing," Riker insisted. "And you're no more a killer now than you were then."

"I am what I have to be," Chakotay countered.

"You don't have to kill him. Let him come with us."

"No room." Chakotay's fingers whitened against the phaser pressed to Grellel's head. "And I'm out of time. Make a choice, Riker: Does he live or die?"

"He escapes," Riker said.

"Not an option."

"Make it an option."

"I can't."

"You can," Riker whispered. "You can make it an option the same way I made it an option at Duteria IV. I could have taken you, but you escaped.

"We were out of range," Chakotay said after a long beat.

"Out of range for a disabling shot," Riker agreed, "but not for the Enterprises's augmented torpedo array. I could have photoned your ship before it hit the badlands, but I didn't."

"Then you made a bad call," Chakotay said.

"You were a Starfleet officer, once," Riker insisted doggedly. "An honorable man."

"I still am an honorable man."

"Then don't kill him."

"That's up to you."

"And don't leave him here. You know what they'll do to him: You know what will be left after the interrogation."

"He should have thought of that when he was picking which side of his bread to butter."

"He didn't have any choice. He did what he had to do."

"I can't risk taking him back to my base."

"Then take him somewhere else. Just don't leave him here."

Tom's head popped back into the cell. "Clear as hell out here," he said. "You guys waiting for an engraved invitation or what?"

Chakotay waited a beat, then another, then a third. "Kill the light, Ro," he ordered finally, slipping the phaser back into his belt. His eyes raked Grellel. "If you keep up," he said, "we'll try to make room for you on the ship."

"Thank you," Grellel whispered, his voice a prayer in the darkness as Ro crushed the light stick beneath the heel of her boot.

"I said we'll try," Chakotay countered a little sharply.

"You're one hell of a pilot, Chakotay," Riker murmured. "There aren't three raider jocks in a thousand who can angle out of a galaxy-class tractor lock."

"There aren't three XOs in all of Starfleet who can photon a moving target at better than 3.5," Chakotay countered, "even with galaxy-class augmentation."

"If you hadn't evacuated the station before you blew it, I would have shown you the difference between targeting scanner tactical specs and real world application," Riker assured the Maquis captain as they made their way through the darkness to the door.

"You could have tried," Chakotay countered, easing them both out of the cell and into the dimly lit corridor beyond.


Riker's condition deteriorated rapidly as the rescue team negotiated the maze of stone corridors webbing the underground facility. In obvious pain, he clung to sentience doggedly, struggling to hold his silence as his feet dragged woodenly across the uneven stone flooring. His breathing was labored; his skin, cold and clammy. Fever sweats ran in rivers through the contoured landscape of his gaunt features. He went down twice, disasters Chakotay narrowly averted through the application of brute strength to shift falls to stumbles.

He was nearly unconscious by the time they reached the half way point. A dead weight between Grellel and Chakotay, he slowed the strike team's pace to a virtual crawl. Shelby's intelligence on the penal colony's lax security precautions was accurate. With less than minimal effort, they avoided the sparse scatter of Cardassian guards completely; but even without the time delay of evading confrontation, they were dangerously late by the time they arrived at the rendezvous juncture. Tuvok, Torres and Ayala were nowhere to be seen.

"We're running late," Tom observed, his eyes constant in their surveillance of the surroundings. "More than eleven minutes off schedule."

"I told them to go on after five," Chakotay said. "They'll meet us at the ship."

"I'll meet you there, too," Ro said, stepping back from the tight cluster of Maquis invaders. Chakotay's attention snapped to her like a magnet to steel. He didn't have to ask to get an explanation. "I have something to take care of," she said. "I'll be at the ship before twenty-one twenty. If I'm not, leave without me."

"No." Chakotay ordered. "Stay with the team."

Ro took another step back. "Twenty-one twenty," she repeated, and then she turned to go.

"Laren." His tone twitched them all with the urge to salute. Ro hesitated, but capitulated in the end to the authority he wielded without wielding it.

"He's here, Chakotay," she explained, her voice barely clearing her lips. "He's here - the Commander of this penal colony."

Chakotay's posture changed. His expression darkened, and his eyes flashed fire. "Lovek?" he demanded.

Ro nodded.

Chakotay considered it. "It doesn't matter," he said after a long beat. "We don't have time to deal with him."

"It matters to me," Ro said quietly.

"Does it matter more than the mission?" Chakotay demanded. "Does it matter more than the team?"

"I have to do this, Chakotay," she said. "You, of all people, know I have to do this."

"He'll be in the most heavily protected portion of the complex," Chakotay pointed out. "You'll tip them to our presence if you go after him."

"I won't get caught," she said. "At least, not before you clear the complex with Riker. If I get caught after that, I'll convince them it was an unsanctioned assassination attempt."

"He's dead, Laren. Revenge won't bring him back."

"He was my father," she countered, "and I've been waiting for this chance since I was eight. The astro-frag doesn't break away for another thirty-six minutes. If I'm not there in twenty-five, I'm not coming. Go without me, knowing I did what I had to do."

Chakotay watched her for a long, long moment. "All right," he said finally. "Twenty-five minutes, no more." He glanced to Tom. "Go with her," he ordered. "Make sure you're both back at the ship by twenty-one twenty."

Tom nodded.

"I have to do this alone," Ro said.

"Tom's under orders to stay with you," Chakotay informed her calmly. "If you lose him, I'll leave you both."

"There's no reason to risk his life," Ro argued.

Chakotay stared at her. "Now you know how I feel," he said quietly. Then he glanced to Grellel. "Come on, Grellel," he said. "We have a rock to catch." Together, they started forward again, dragging the nearly unconscious Will Riker between them.

"Go with Chakotay," Ro told Tom. "I don't need you, and I don't want the responsibility." She started away. Tom followed. "I said I don't want you with me," she snapped.

"That isn't what you said," Tom answered easily. "And even if it were, Chakotay outranks you."

Her eyes raked him up and down. "You picked a hell of a time to start following orders," she observed acidly.

Tom smiled. "First time in a long time I've had a Captain who could kick my ass."

Ro shook her head. "He's sending you with me because this is a one-way mission," she explained. "He thinks I like you well enough to change my mind, but he's wrong, Tom. I'll get us both killed if I have to to get to Lovek."

"What was it Chakotay said back in the raider?" Tom asked casually. "Oyka hey? Did I ever tell you about being a Boy Scout when I was a kid? You learn a lot of Indian stuff around campfires and sleeping out under the stars on the tundra. Among other things, I learned that oyka hey is a Sioux war cry that means 'it is a good day to die.' I always thought that was a cool sentiment." He shrugged. "Guess I never outgrew it."

Ro watched him for a moment, her eyes studying his features in the low light. "I like you better than him," she said suddenly.

Tom Riker smiled. "You should," he agreed. "I'm a hell of a lot more fun."


"Hello, Lovek."

Lovek didn't move, didn't flinch. Recognizing the specific hatred of a Bajoran voice, he had no need to see her to know her.

"Hello, my dear," he said, back still turned, hands still folded contentedly in his lap. "How nice to see you again." He turned then, slowly so as not to prompt her to fire unless she were already dedicated to such an eventuality. "How very nice indeed."

He didn't know her, something that surprised him not at all. She was one of thousands, perhaps of tens of thousands. Her companion, however, he recognized immediately.

"Commander Riker," he greeted, smiling. "You look well. I must say I am surprised." She followed him with the focus of her disrupter as he stood behind his desk. "Our friend Grellel exaggerated the extent of your condition. He made it seem as if you were in quite eminent danger of expiring." Lovek smiled. "But then you know how they can be. Excitable. Passionate." Lovek let his gaze wander to the Bajoran woman. "That is what I so love about them."

"You don't remember me," she said. It was a flat accusation, almost as if she had expected nothing more.

"Don't be foolish, child," he admonished. "Of course I remember you. I remember you all." He moved from behind the desk to face her eye to eye. "So tell me, my dear. What is it that I can do for you today?"

"You can die," she said in that ineffable tone of Bajoran finality.

Lovek laughed. "Yes," he agreed, watching the reflection of the Bajoran occupation in her eyes. "That I can do for you, my dear. That I can do."


"Something's happened," B'Elanna Torres announced, her sharp-eyed Klingon gaze sweeping the barren Lazon landscape to no avail. "We have to go back."

"They still have twenty-nine minutes," Ayala countered.

"They're thirteen over due," Torres snapped. "Something's happened."

Ayala shook his head. "You worry too much, B'Elanna."

"Forgive me for not being Betazoid," she retorted acidly.

"Half Betazoid," he corrected. "The unimportant half. Everything that counts is Cajun which, in its own way, isn't that different from Klingon."

Torres snorted and went back to pacing.

"Having met your father," Tuvok noted from his seat on the raider's entrance ramp, "I find myself surprised to learn he was of Acadian descent. I remember no particular indication of such a colorful ancestral linage."

"You should meet my grandfather," Ayala said. Then he frowned. "When did you meet my father?"

Tuvok didn't miss a beat. "I was incarcerated for a short time on the USS DelVechio," he said. "Shortly before joining the Maquis, as I recall."

"Your memory must be off," Ayala said quietly. "The DelVechio was lost at Wolf 357."

"Perhaps, then, it was during my days of smuggling on behalf of the Bajoran refugees during the occupation," Tuvok corrected easily. "I have, on several occasions, been detained by Starfleet vessels."

Torres took a break from pacing to shoot Ayala a surprised glance. "Your father's Starfleet?" she demanded.

"Was Starfleet," Ayala agreed, still watching Tuvok. "A career man - engineer."

"I didn't know you were raised on a starship," she said.

"Before my time," Ayala told her. "When I was born, starships didn't have family quarters. Somebody had to give up a career, which my father wasn't prepared to do."

"What about your mother?"

Ayala smiled bitterly. "She wasn't the type to stick around."

Torres frowned. "Then who raised you?" she demanded.

"Wolves," Ayala said, his tone drawn low and long for dramatic effect. "An old she-bitch suckled me at the teat until I was ten."

Torres snorted, shaking her head. She started to respond, but Ayala spoke again before she had a chance. "You may be right, B'Elanna," he said quietly, staring out over the rocky plains of Lazon II. "They're more than seventeen minutes overdue. It's not like Chakotay to be late."

"They've run into trouble," Torres agreed, losing interest in her investigation into the murky waters of Ayala's enigmatic past. "We have to go back."


Chakotay, Grellel and Riker were nearly clear of the penal facility when they ran into trouble. The only conduit to the surface was blocked by two Cardassian guards holding a spirited conversation. Neither appeared to be of a mood to acquiesce to the other's point of view until the most wanted Maquis in the quadrant rounded the corner with a Bajoran national at his side and the Starfleet traitor Riker supported between them.

Chakotay reacted instinctively. Dropping Riker, he hit the stone floor in a roll and came up on both feet, the plasma rifle level and firing. One Cardassian went down without lungs as the other dove for cover. Oblivious to the proximity burns of wildly thrown disrupter blasts, Chakotay charged after him.

Behind Chakotay, Riker landed hard and badly. Dragged by Riker's unbalanced weight, Grellel fell as well.

Chakotay tackled the retreating Cardassian with a shoulder to the solar plexus and they both went down ... rolled ... came up again. Too close to wield the plasma rifle effectively, Chakotay used it as a club. The Cardassian warded off the blows with heavily muscled arms as he struggled to engage his comm badge without loosing his grip on the disrupter his adversary was exerting such effort to keep him from leveling with any degree of accuracy.

One of Chakotay's swings connected with a Cardassian neckridge and the guard howled in agony. The disrupter fired in a convulsive spasm.

The blast of green-red energy that belched from the weapon's snout would have gutted Chakotay had he not managed to deflect it with the durainium butt of the plasma rifle. Flaring purple-green-red-blue, the disrupter flux enveloped the metallic stock and raced up the barrel. Tempered durainium iced to liquid fire in the Maquis rebel's hands. He cast the weapon off, throwing a protective arm over his face to shield his eyes as one hunched shoulder turned itself sacrificially into the heat pulse that ballooned off the rifle's disintegrating powerpack.

The explosion rocked the narrow corridor. Slapping Chakotay like a heavy-handed comrade, the force of the repercussion pitched the rebel face-first into the stone corridor wall. The energy wash that followed pinned him there as his leather jerkin began to blister, liquefying against the flat of his shoulder. The air filled with the stench of burning flesh. The pressure wave rolled on, and Chakotay sagged. Stunned and disoriented, he fell to his knees.

Farther from the core of the burst, the Cardassian recovered more quickly. He staggered forward and shoved his disrupter into Chakotay's back as the Maquis rebel struggled to regain to his balance.

"I should cut you in half, Maquis," the Cardassian hissed, pinning Chakotay to the wall with his superior bulk.

"Do it," Chakotay urged.

The Cardassian snarled. Grabbing a handful of hair, he slammed Chakotay's head against the wall, then turned the stun-drunk rebel to re-establish his grip face-to-face.

"I want you to see it coming," the Cardassian sneered. His nostrils flared with the scent of blood running a dozen rivers down Chakotay's face. His eyes were bright with sadistic satisfaction. Jamming the disrupter into the hollow at the base of Chakotay's throat, he said, "I want you to see the flux melt your skin before it disintegrates your eyes. I want you to smell your spine turn to slag."

"Bring it on, Knobby," Chakotay whispered, blinking away blood.

Rage flashed the Cardassian's features. He drew the disrupter up in a slashing uppercut that caught Chakotay under the jaw. The force of the blow slammed the Maquis rebel's head back against the stone wall again. Blood ran in a wash down his neck. It soaked into this collar as the embers of awareness flickered in his eyes.

"My sister hits harder than that," he murmured, his voice slurred and dry with pain.

The Cardassian placed the disrupter flush under Chakotay's chin. "Beg, Maquis," he hissed. "Beg me to kill you quickly."

Chakotay didn't have a chance to answer. Through the dull-edged ringing in his ears, he heard the distinctive whine of a Cardassian disrupter. Fear drained like acid through his mind. For a moment, the panic consumed him; but when it passed, it was gone.

Staring into the guard's mocking eyes, Chakotay braced himself to die.

The Cardassian responded by disintegrating from the eyeballs out. Grey flesh turned liquid over the incandescent glow of irradiated bones. He looked surprised for a moment, and then he became nothing.

Turning away from the flux that enveloped the Cardassian guard was instinct. Closing his eyes to protect them, Chakotay sank deeper into the burned muscles of his shoulder and back in a brittle bid for millimeters that might make a difference.

For a moment that seemed an eternity, fire lay its icy hands against his flesh. It stroked his clothing and ran its fingers through his hair. Behind him, the stone wall of the corridor held him hostage to the flux's deadly flirtations.

Then, slowly, the flux began to dissipate. Organic residue from the disrupted Cardassian settled to his skin in a waxy film. Backwash bathed his bones in resonance, but the force of the blast was spent.

The corridor settled once again to silence.

For a moment, Chakotay didn't breathe. He didn't move, didn't think. It was a moment of suspension: a moment between what was and what could have been.

The pain in his shoulder and in his skull and in the protruding planes of his cheek and forehead became an awareness to Chakotay's thoughts. He opened his eyes, more afraid for a moment of the damage he might have incurred than of the death he'd somehow evaded. Flexing his hands, he found them still at the ends of his arms. His skin held its cohesion adequately as the dissonance in his bones began settling back to still. Eyelids blinked over eyes that saw, and he drew a deep breath with lungs that breathed. As the thunderous rushing of blood through constricted veins accounted itself to nothing more than understandable fear, Chakotay of Dorvan offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Sky Spirits for the simple gift of one more moment.

"Chakotay?" Grellel inquired cautiously.

Chakotay staggered. "I'm all right," he allowed coarsely. "Point that thing somewhere else."

Grellel lowered the Cardassian disrupter still aimed at where the Cardassian guard had been. He took a step back, uncertain whether the brusqueness in Chakotay's tone was an indication of anger or of exhaustion.

Sliding off the uneven surface of the corridor's stone wall, Chakotay stepped over the slag remains of the disrupted guard. He staggered again, but caught his balance and looked around.
Riker was still down, still unmoving, still unspeaking. Crumpled as a wounded man dropped to stone might be expected to crumple, he responded with little more than dull-edged obligation when Chakotay knelt at his side to check for injuries.

"His head," Grellel explained unnecessarily. "He hit it ... on a rock, I think."

"You think?" Chakotay muttered, his tone derogatory with the obviousness of the observation.

Grellel flushed. Standing aside until Chakotay finished his examination, the Bajoran kept the rest of his observations to himself. Satisfied Riker wasn't badly hurt, the Maquis allowed himself a moment to rest. Head bowed, he closed his eyes and listened to the echo of silence against his eardrums.

"You're bleeding," Grellel ventured finally. His hand touched the vivid wash of color down the back of Chakotay's neck.

Chakotay flinched. Shrugging the gesture of concern off, he reached up to survey the damage himself. "Somebody hit my head on a rock," he muttered, wincing as his fingers found the gash on the back of his skull, "I think."

"We'd better go," Grellel said, glancing down the corridor worriedly. "They'll be coming."

Chakotay stayed where he was. "I need a minute," he muttered. "Not every day I take disrupter fire at point-blank range."

Grellel's flush deepened. "He would have killed you," the Bajoran said defensively. "I had to shoot when I did."

"Wasn't meant as a criticism," Chakotay assured him. Swaying slightly, he added, "I'm just glad you know Cardassian disrupter power settings well enough to make a shot like that."

Grellel winced. "I don't know them," he admitted. "I fired it the way it was."

Chakotay snorted, rubbing at his eyes. "Remind me not to play domjot for a while," he muttered. "I think I've used up all my luck for the year."

Grellel fidgeted, looking down the corridor again. "Don't you think we should go?" he asked nervously. "Won't the explosion bring others?"

"These tunnels are struvian granite," Chakotay said. "Too dense to conduct sound very well. Nearest checkpost is two clicks deeper. If they heard anything at all, they'll figure it was just another asteroid impact."

"And if they investigate anyway?" Grellel insisted.

Chakotay glanced up. "Then shoot them with the disrupter."

They stayed where they were for another three minutes. Chakotay stirred finally, shifting his battered body to get a grip on Riker's sprawled form. "All right," he muttered, "let's go. Tuvok has orders to leave us if we don't make rendezvous, but B'Elanna will come looking." He struggled for a moment with Riker's unwieldy weight, then said, "Help me with him, will you?"

Together, the two of them wrestled Riker to his feet. Taking the brunt of the emaciated man's weight for himself, Chakotay added, "She's not much of one for following orders - especially if those orders contradict something she's already set her mind to do." He gestured to the disrupter still in Grellel's hand. "Rotator inset into the grip: turn it until it clicks."

Grellel did as he was told.

"Indicator light above it," Chakotay said. "What color?"

"Red," Grellel answered.

Chakotay nodded. "Now you have full power," he informed the Bajoran. "Don't shoot it at me again." Then to Riker, he said, "Come on, Commander. If we're going to do this, let's do it."

Riker stirred slightly. "Worf?" he breathed, his voice unaware of itself in the context of the moment.

"Gesundheit," Chakotay returned.

Together, the battered Maquis and the emaciated Bajoran dragged Riker into motion. "Worf is one of his friends," Grellel explained as if Chakotay had asked. "One he trusts. One he respects."

"Good for Worf," Chakotay muttered.

They began to move, Chakotay taking the brunt of Riker's weight, but Grellel helping maneuver the gaunt Commander's broad-shouldered frame through the narrow passage. Disoriented by the punishment he'd taken at the hands of the angry Cardassian, Chakotay stumbled over the first few steps. He swiped at his eyes with the back of one badly singed hand, then knuckled blood from where it had rivered across his jaw and down his throat.

"I saved your life," Grellel noted as they walked.

Chakotay grunted.

"He would have killed you, if I hadn't shot him," Grellel insisted.

"Maybe," Chakotay allowed. "Maybe not."

Sliding a little more of Riker's slack-kneed weight off the Maquis rebel's raw, blistered shoulder, Grellel added, "If I'd missed and hit you instead, there would be room for me on your ship."

Chakotay snorted. "If you'd hit me," he assured the smaller man grimly, "B'Elanna would have eaten your heart." Together, they struggled Riker up over the lip of the tunnel and emerged into the searing nightscape of Lazon II. "While it was still beating," he added.

The night air was devastating. It swaddled them in heat and grit, sucking the moisture from their flesh as they moved. Breathing was hard for Grellel, harder for Chakotay, hardest of all for Will Riker.

"I am not a traitor," Grellel said suddenly. "I did what I had to do to stay alive - to keep him alive."

Chakotay tripped, fell to one knee. Grellel kept his grip on Riker, supporting their shared burden until Chakotay once again had his balance.

"I saved his life," Grellel said. "And I saved your life. Does that mean nothing to you, Chakotay?"

Chakotay didn't answer. Dragging the now unconscious Starfleet officer over the heat-brittle surface of Lazon II, he kept a conspicuous silence.

"I deserve at least an answer," Grellel announced. "Will there be room for me on your ship or not?"

"There'll be room," Chakotay agreed quietly. "We may have to strap you to the warp coils, but there'll be room."


He didn't remember her.

Tom glanced at Ro, unsure how the Cardassian's obvious oblivity would effect the Bajoran Maquis. She was staring at him, hatred in her eyes. Tom couldn't tell whether or not she knew.

"You don't remember me," she stated.

The Cardassian chuckled. "Don't be foolish, child," he said. "Of course I remember you. I remember you all." He moved from behind the desk. "So tell me, my dear. What is it that I can do for you today?"

"You can die," Ro answered grimly.

The Cardassian laughed again. "Yes," he agreed affably. "That I can do for you, my dear. That I can do." He took a step closer. Ro held her ground with no apparent concern of his growing proximity.

Tom shifted one hand, resting it over the butt of the Bajoran phaser strapped to his hip.

"But before I die for you," the Cardassian went on conversationally, "tell me how your life has turned out. Have you lived it well? Will the Prophets welcome you to the Celestial Temple when your time comes to pass from this world?" He studied her, still smiling. "Tell me about your parents," he suggested. "About your father. Do you still remember him with fondness, or do you remember him begging and screaming and shaming you with his subservience?"

Ro twitched, and Lovek regarded her kindly. "It's alright to be ashamed of him, dear," the Cardassian told her. "He was a weak man, an unworthy man. He didn't protect you as he should have, did he?" Lovek turned and strolled the perimeter of his office with a casual air that belied the deadly focus of Ro Laren's disrupter. "Do you remember how it was I who protected you after he abandoned you, my child?" he asked. "Do you remember how I fed you, and how I cared for you, and how I watched after you as if you were my very own?" He glanced at her. "After he had failed you, my dear, do you remember how I did not?"

"You're a murdering bastard," Ro stated.

"Yes," Lovek agreed easily. "But I protected you. I saved you." He came to a stop again before her. Hands laced together and resting harmlessly on his stomach, he watched her eyes as if waiting for her to see something she did not yet realize. "And for this," he said, "you will kill me." He shook his head, sighing. "Perhaps this is as it must be," he allowed, spreading his hands in a gesture of supplication. "And if it is, then who am I to argue?" He smiled at her, benevolently, kindly. "And I forgive you, my child," he informed her. "I ask only that when I am dead and buried, you remember who it was who shamed you, and who it was who saved you."

Staring deeply into the eyes of the man who murdered her father, Ro Laren pulled the trigger.

Lovek grunted with the impact. He fell back, knocked to the floor by the ball of energy that sank into his belly and spread in a flux of red-green. Set on low, the blast didn't kill him outright.

Rather, it spread through his flesh and vital organs, disrupting the molecular integrity like acid on linoleum. Ro stepped forward. She started down into Lovek's dying eyes.

"I remember," she informed him coldly. "And I do not forgive you. My name is Ro Laren. His name was Ro Talia." She turned away, shouldering past Tom on her way to the door. Behind her, Lovek gurgled weakly on the floor. He twisted and twitched, his system too denigrated to form cohesive sounds.

"He's still alive," Tom said.

Ro paused at the door. "Coming?"

Tom met the cold metal in her eyes. "You're going to leave him like this?" he asked. "Like a gutted animal?"


Tom shook his head. "This isn't right," he told her quietly. "He could last for hours."

"He'll die faster than my father did," Ro answered. "And in less pain. I'm leaving. Unless you want to die here, I'd suggest you come along." She slid out of the Cardassian agitant's office.

Tom drew his phaser and thumbed the setting to kill. The head shot was precise. Lovek died without another sound.

Ro was waiting for him on the other side of the door. Her eyes were hard, unforgiving. Tom met the scrutiny without apology. He waited for her to comment, but she didn't. Instead, after a long, silent moment, she turned and strode down the narrow, stone corridor. Tom waited a beat, and then followed.


"You're late." Torres snapped. "And you're top-heavy." She ran a derogatory glance over Grellel. "Who's the noser, and why's he tagging along?"

"His name's Grellel," Chakotay informed the half Klingon engineer as he passed off a nearly unconscious Will Riker to Ayala and Tuvok, "and he's got a ticket, so clear an extra seat."

"We're riding capacity the way it is," Torres argued. "You'll never get this bird off the ground with another ninety kilos."

"Then dump equipment, B'Elanna," Chakotay snapped. "He's coming with us."

"All right, all right," Torres muttered. She looked around. "Where's Ro?"

"She had something to take care of."

"Something to take care of?" Ayala repeated, descending the raider's ramp minus Tuvok and Riker. "Something important enough to risk missing our ride home? We only have thirteen minutes until the rogue heads back into the cloud."

"She knows our timetable," Chakotay said. "She'll be here."

"And if she's not?" Torres demanded.

"Then we leave without her. Grellel, get inside. Ayala, de-block the raider. B'Elanna help me with the 'flauge net -"

"Leave without her?" Torres challenged angrily. "She's part of the team, Chakotay. And what about Tom? Are we going to leave him, too?"

"Don't argue with me, B'Elanna!" Chakotay staggered slightly, but caught himself with one hand on the belly of the Maquis raider. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing. When he opened them again, what had momentarily strayed from calm was once again under control. "Ro will be here," he said quietly. "Now help me prep for takeoff."

"All right," B'Elanna agreed cautiously. She glanced to Ayala, who shrugged in return.

As Chakotay and Torres removed the flauge net, Tuvok, Ayala and Grellel performed cosmetic surgery on the interior of the raider. Every chair but the pilot and co-pilot's found itself discarded on the burned brittle surface of Lazon II, along with a number of metallic bin covers and doors and any other object of even negligible weight that could be removed without impeding the performance of the vessel.

"Six minutes," Ayala noted from the top of the ramp.

Several meters in front of the raider, Chakotay stared into the darkness without responding. Torres moved up behind him.

"Anything?" she asked.

Chakotay shook his head. He tensed slightly when she touched him. Pain torched the paths her fingers chose. He turned his head just enough to see she was examining his shoulder.

She looked up, met his eyes. "Close," she said.

He turned his gaze back into the darkness. "Closer than that," he murmured only loud enough for her to hear.

"Residue wash?" she surmised.

He nodded. "Not much, but enough."

"Four minutes," Ayala warned.

"Warm up the engines," Chakotay ordered. "Get navigation on-line and run pre-flight."

Ayala grunted acknowledgment and vanished back into the raider.

"Are you going down?" B'Elanna asked.

Chakotay nodded again. "Balance is shot," he admitted. "Having trouble with focus. Head hurts like hell, but that may be from getting slammed against a wall, not from flux overflow."

"Can you fly?"

"For now." He stared out into the darkness. He continued to stare for another three minutes.

Torres laid a hand on his arm. "It's time," she said.

Chakotay didn't answer her. Instead, he spoke to the night: "Damnit, Laren. Where in the hell are you?"

"Chakotay?" Ayala called from the doorway of the raider. "We staying or going?"

Chakotay swept the night plains of Lazon II one last time and then turned away. "Let's go," he said quietly.

Together, he and Torres walked up the ramp and into the Maquis raider.


"We're late," Ro noted, breathing hard as she kept pace with Tom Riker's aggressive trot. "Chakotay will have already gone."

Tom grunted, breathing hard as well. "Doesn't strike me as the type to leave half his team behind," he said.

"The rogue will be breaking into the cloud in less than a minute," Ro pointed out. "If the raider isn't on it, it will have to negotiate the asteroid swarm without any protection."

"Then maybe we'd better pick up the pace," Tom noted.

Like a pair of matched Terrulite Trotting Quadrequines, they sped up in tandem, negotiating the unpredictable landscape at a dangerous pace in the pitch black night. The hot air afforded them little oxygen, and even less relief from the punishing heat. Ro mis-stepped and stumbled. Tom broke his pace to let her catch her's. Once again synchronous, they resumed a pace they couldn't maintain.

"If they've gone," Tom said, "we'll be okay. I've been left behind before."

"We'll starve in a week," Ro countered grimly, "or be taken by the Cardassians."

"We won't be taken by the Cardassians," Tom said.

Ro smiled in the darkness. "No," she agreed, "we won't be taken by the Cardassians."

A quiet whisper of wind whipped fiercely across the sun-baked land. In less than a second, it grew from a breeze to a whirlwind, thundering directly overhead in a soundlessly deafening reverberation that stirred their bones to sympatic resonance.

They hit the ground together, hands thrown over their heads to protect themselves from the sudden shrapnel storm of madly swirling stone. Pressure rolled over them in a wave. It crushed them to the hardpack like cookie dough smashed flat.

As soon as it came, it passed on. Silence assaulted the night.

"What in the hell ...?" Tom demanded.

Ro rolled to her back, eyes scanning the night sky. "Chakotay," she murmured.

It swooped back, another wave of black pressure in the night. This time, it hovered, then descended. The shadow became a vessel. A square of light opened in the port hull.

"Hey, Noser," a voice called, barely audible above the pressure roar of atmospheric-displacing engines. "Lookin' for a lift?" Backlit by the interior lights, Ayala leaned out of the access hatch, one hand extended.

Ro was already up and running for the door. Tom scrambled after her, hard pressed to keep his balance in the wind dervishes created by the raider's engines. Ayala caught Ro's hand and pulled her in. The raider began to ascend before Tom reached it. He made a desperate leap, his fingers catching the door jamb, clutching, clawing, struggling to find purchase on slick metal. His legs swung free under the raider's belly, dragging him back the way he'd come. For a moment, he maintained the impossibly balanced grip through pure determination, then gravity exerted it's scientific dominance and Tom Riker slid clawing and cursing into the night sky of Lazon II.


The fall jarred him badly, knocking the wind out of his body in a single whoosh. Dazed and disoriented, Tom watched in disbelief as the belly of the Maquis raider began to pull away.

Chakotay was leaving him.

Railing against the realization, he tried to get up, tried to make another jump at the receding square of light; but the pain in his ribs and back spasmed, crippling him. He couldn't move, couldn't breath. All he could do was lay helpless on the scorched stone surface of Lazon II and watch the Maquis raider grow smaller and smaller on its way to a rendezvous with a rock.

Chakotay was leaving him.

Rage swarmed Tom's mind; then bitterness; and finally, a devastating sense of loss.

They'd come for Ro.

Closing his eyes, Tom surrendered to what he should have known all along. Hope drained through his body and seeped into the barren ground below. The roar of the raider's engines dissipated to nothing in his awareness and the night faded to silence. It was over. The game was played and once again, he'd proven to be the expendable one. That, and nothing else, was the measure of his worthless life.

Tom concentrated on breathing: slowly, and in specific measure. He lay still because there was nothing left within him possessive of the faith required to believe he could move.

Transporter replicate matter. The phrase reverberated within the confines of his memory, reminding him of what it was to be nothing.



Hands on his arms: four hands, twenty fingers. They dug into his flesh, demanding response. Tom opened his eyes to chaos.

Thundering, hurricane dervishes of wind intruded upon the cathedral silence of Tom Riker's soul. The smooth, metallic belly of the Maquis raider was virtually on top of him. It hovered like a gull over a school of fish while Ro to his left and Ayala to his right dragged him to his feet and boosted him into Tuvok's waiting hands. The Vulcan pulled him into the raider as if he weighed nothing at all.

Cold metal against his skin: it was more comfort than he had ever known.

"Clear," Torres announced as Ro, and then Ayala, followed him through the hatch. She twisted her chair back to the navigation console and the raider swooped into the night sky.

"You're late," Chakotay said from pilot's seat. The back of his vest was charred and even from the profile, it was obvious he'd met with trouble after they split.

"So sue me," Ro countered, leaning wearily against the port bulkhead. She looked to Tom. "You okay?"

Unable to draw enough of a breath to expel an answer, Tom nodded. Blinking grit and dust from his eyes, he watched Tuvok head for the sensor console as Ayala dug in an exposed storage bin. The Betazoid Maquis located an oxygen unit and tossed it to Tom. "One hundred and eighty proof," he said, "guaranteed."

"The asteroid has entered the cloud," Tuvok announced from the sensor console. "Pursuit at this time would be inadvisable."

"Inadvisable my grandmother's ass," Chakotay growled. The raider accelerated exponentially, its shields whining in protest against an atmosphere they had not yet cleared. The wings began to tremor, but Chakotay held the flight plane more-or-less level as they climbed through the stratosphere of Lazon II at an angle highly disrecommended by any reputable manufacturer of aerodynamic devices. "Hang on, people," he warned grimly. "This is going to be a rocky ride."

"When is it ever not," Ayala observed drily. "When is it ever not?"


They didn't catch the asteroid without incident, but they did catch it without catastrophe. Though the shields took heavy damage for the second time in less than twelve hours, and one of the smaller shards actually breached a weakened overlap and buckled a portion of the aft bulkhead, they were still flight-worthy and, from all appearances, undiscovered by Cardassian sensors when they docked to the rogue and settled in to wait.

"How is he?" Chakotay asked, watching Ayala run a diagnostics tricorder over the unconscious Will Riker as the eight of them killed time in the small vessel waiting for the asteroid to near the outer rim of the cloud.

"He's alive," Ayala allowed. "Not much more. There's a massive infection running rampant in his pulmonary system, but there's also signs of antibiotic treatment."

Chakotay glanced to Grellel. Grellel shrugged. "It was a trade," the Bajoran allowed. "They would have let him die if he were who he claimed to be."

"I thought you said you never told them who he was," Ro noted.

Grellel shrugged again. "I lied."

"He's got a minor concussion," Ayala went on. "Two broken ribs, a number of scrapes and contusions, and an ugly laceration on his left shin that's abscessed into the bone. Looks like its been there a while ... must hurt like hell to walk. He's malnourished, badly dehydrated and suffering from a number of related deficiencies." Ayala looked up. "All in all," he finished, "just about what you'd expect from a Cardassian prisoner of war. Maybe a little better condition than most."

"Is he going to make it?" Ro asked.

Tom snorted. "He'll make it," he grumbled before Ayala had a chance to answer. "Will Riker always makes it, and he usually manages to get a commendation in the deal."

Chakotay's attention shifted from Riker to Riker. His gaze ran reconnaissance on the other man, valuative in the way it read the splay of cuts and bruises. "What about you?" he asked finally.

"What about me?" Tom allowed cautiously.

"You took quite a fall," Chakotay said. "Looked like it rattled you some."

"Rattled," Tom agreed. "But not broke."

Chakotay nodded. He didn't say anything more.

"Thanks for coming back for me," Tom offered after a beat. It sounded more awkward when he said it than he thought it would. The gratitude in his voice seemed out of place, as if it was something that bore no right to express itself.

Chakotay studied him for a long moment. "I don't leave my people behind if it can be avoided," he said after a beat of silence.

Tom nodded. "I appreciate you extending me the same courtesy," he allowed. Again, it sounded awkward, wrong.

Chakotay's eyes narrowed slightly. Beneath dried blood and charred flesh, he seemed put off by the acknowledgment of indebtedness. He watched Tom for a moment more, then turned away without commenting, working his way back to the pilot's alcove with the weary caution of a man in pain.

"You really aren't very bright, Starfleet," Ayala noted, shaking his head as Chakotay resumed his seat at B'Elanna's side.

Tom sighed heavily. "What now?" he muttered, rolling his neck along the stiff line of his shoulders.

"Oh, nothing really. Nothing except the fact that you just told the only man who might actually value you in this quadrant to piss off."

Tom frowned.

"Chakotay was telling you that he didn't leave you because he considers you part of the team," Ro explained quietly. "He wasn't extending you a courtesy, he was doing for you what he would have done for any of us."

"And you responded by telling him that you don't want to be part of his team," Ayala said. "That you still consider yourself separate and apart." He studied Tom, his gaze introspective, almost neutral. "If that isn't what you meant," he said after a beat, "you might want to address it."

"That isn't what I meant," Tom assured them.

Ayala glanced to Ro.

Ro smiled.


"Sorry," Torres said, her voice unsympathetic on the apology.

Chakotay didn't comment. He let her examine the wound for another thirty seconds before shrugging her attentions away. "It'll have to wait," he informed her calmly. "We'll be airborne in another hour, and I need my senses about me."

"If I can separate the vest from the skin ..." she started.

"You separate the vest from the skin," he interrupted, his voice still utterly level, "and you'll have to fly the raider back to the badlands yourself. Just cover it with something, and give me another shot of senephetrine."

Torres frowned. "I just gave you a shot," she reminded him.

He looked her straight in the eyes. "Give me another one, B'Elanna, unless you want to spend your golden years breaking rock on Cardassia Prime."

She stared at him, seeing things hidden in the dark recesses of his eyes that suddenly worried her. "That bad?" she asked.

"Bad enough," he allowed. His left hand began to tremble. He closed it to a fist and expected her not to notice.

"Maybe Ayala should take a look."

"I don't need Ayala to tell me what's wrong," Chakotay countered. "And I don't need him to tell me what to do about it. I've taken disrupter wash before, B'Elanna. It may shut you down, but it won't kill you unless it shuts you down while you're playing hide-and-seek in an asteroid cloud. I need another shot of senephetrine - something to keep me on my feet. I'll sleep it off when we get back to the badlands, but for right now, there is no other option." He met her eyes. "Now are you going to do it, or am I?"

"You have a concussion," Torres insisted doggedly. "Maybe worse. If your brain is bleeding, even low dose senephetrine can cause complications. High-dosing would be stupid."

"High-dosing is the only way to put off disrupter malaise," Chakotay said. "And my brain's not bleeding; my scalp is bleeding."

"I still think Ayala should run a diagnostic before -"

"I'm not a shuttlecraft, B'Elanna," Chakotay snapped.

"No, you're not," she countered just as sharply. "If you were, I'd dismantle you for spare parts and be done with it." Then, more calmly, she tried to reason with him again: "Ro can pilot the raider. She's a good pilot ... you've said so yourself."

Chakotay closed his eyes. He didn't say anything for a long moment. When he did speak again, his voice was calm. "Laren's a shuttle pilot," he said quietly. "And the raider isn't a shuttle. It isn't even a standard strike ship. It would be like sending a Starfleet cadet into Klingon war games."

"You've done the hard part, Chakotay," Torres insisted.

"The hard part's just starting," Chakotay corrected, his eyes still closed. "We're still deep in the heart of Cardassian space. Even if Lazon II can't sound an alarm, getting home will be a blind man's walk through a proximity minefield in an eggshell that's already half cracked. We've sustained heavy damage to both the stabilizers and the shields. There are standard evasives this ship can't do without cracking at the gunnels, but others it can take on that no other ship in the quadrant would even think of trying. If we run into any unexpected traffic at all, it's going to take more than average flying to get us home. It's going to take someone who can fly this ship in this condition. It's going to take me."

"Doubling senephetrine can kill you," Torres argued.

"I've done it before."

"Then you were lucky before."

"I'll be lucky again. Give me the shot." He opened his eyes and stared at her. "That's an order, B'Elanna."

Torres's features tightened grimly. She dug in the medkit until she came up with the hypospray. "If this kills you, Chakotay," she said, placing the cold blunt nose of the cylindrical tube against his carotid, "I'm going to miss you."

"I'll miss me, too," Chakotay allowed as she dispensed a second dose of senephetrine directly into his bloodstream.

The drug hit his system like napalm rolling through a poppy field. His body stiffened to solid steel. Cords of muscle stood out along his neck and jaw, and his hands clenched themselves to knotted fists. He convulsed slightly, his eyes closing as the pulse in his temple throbbed, clearly visible in the way it disturbed the symmetry of his cultural tatoo. He began to bleed again from wounds that had already closed over. Like an Andorian turnip squeezed hard and long, blood welled through temporary field seals and ran down his face and neck.

For ten seconds, for twenty, he didn't move, didn't breath. For thirty, for forty five. His lips began to rim themselves in blue. Garish lines of blood stood starkly on almost colorless flesh. For sixty seconds, for ninety, he did absolutely nothing but sit in the pilot's chair like a man hewn from solid stone.

Then, slowly, grudgingly, his muscles began to relax. He drew a deep breath and opened his eyes. Blood suffused his flesh again, warming it slightly from alabaster chalk. He swayed, his posture punch drunk from the excess of senephetrine patrolling his autonomic system, and looked at her through eyes spiderwebbed red with a dozen burst capillaries.

"Better," he allowed, coarsely.

Torres reached out and wiped blood from his skin. Re-sealing seeping wounds without comment, she did as much for him as she could.

He smiled appreciation, a weak gesture that barely shadowed the coy flirtation he could be when he chose. "I'm all right," he assured her.

Torres didn't challenge his assertion, but she could read the future in the glaze already seeping under the edges of his expression. His hands were shaking. She touched one, surprised when it responded like a child denied affection for too long.

She held his hand for almost a minute before he let it go.

"I'm all right," he repeated.

Torres nodded, choosing not to speak of the truth as if by refusing to do so, she could somehow change what was to come.


"You don't like him much, do you?" Grellel asked, watching the man who so resembled the man originally incarcerated on Lazon II.

Tom Riker snorted. Leaning against a bulkhead, nursing the numerous dings and dents in his considerably-battered body, he threw a glance at the sleeping Commander Riker that defied neutral interpretation. "What's not to like?" he asked derisively. "He's the infamous Commander Riker. He's everything I was supposed to be."

"You must be bitter," Grellel noted.

"Damned straight I'm bitter." Tom slapped at dirt on his sleeves. "I've got good reason to be bitter."

"Here." Ayala tapped Tom's shoulder with a canteen. Tom took it, drank sparingly of the less than half-full container, then passed it on to Ro. Though even the limited motion required by the maneuver winced a grimace through his features, he supplanted the urge to curse with a dull grunt.

Half way back to Will Riker, Ayala hesitated. He waited a beat, then returned to Tom's side and crouched, running a quick tricorder evaluation. "Good thing you've got a rock on your shoulders," he noted. "That fall would have cracked anything less. You have a couple of broken ribs, a hell of a lot of dust in your lungs and some deep muscles bruises you're going to regret. Other than that, you'll live."

Tom nodded. "Thanks," he muttered.

"I'd rather not dispense any pain meds unless you need them," Ayala added. "If we run into trouble, they'll only slow you down."

"I'm okay."

Ayala clicked the tricorder shut. He looked up, met Tom's eyes. "You slipped too fast," he said. "If you could have held on for another two seconds, I would have had you."

Tom's eyes narrowed. He said nothing.

"I tried," Ayala repeated, "but you slipped too fast." Then he stood and walked away. Across the small compartment, he took a seat on the edge of the make-shift bed they'd fashioned for Riker and resumed the task of monitoring the unconscious Starfleet officer's condition.

"He did try," Ro allowed.

"Then I suppose that's all I can ask," Tom muttered. He watched Ayala and Riker; and then, only Riker. His gaze was at once resentful and concerned.

"Why did you come for him?" Grellel asked, watching Tom watch Will. "If you hate him so, why risk your life to rescue him?"

"Because Dee ..." Tom let the sentence die almost before it started. He shook off his own answer, and looked away. His eyes wandered the cramped interior of the raider until they found an unoccupied corner. "Because he didn't deserve to rot in prison for following orders," he said finally. "And because, when it all comes down to it, he's a hell of a lot better at being him than I am."

"And because Deanna Troi loves this one," Ayala finished quietly, not looking up from Will Riker's motionless form, "and Starfleet or not, Tom Riker is a better man than to stand in the way of that."

Tom blinked. He glanced at the Maquis, surprised almost as much by the compliment as he was by Ayala's casual clarification of his motivations. "What do you know about Deanna Troi?" he challenged.

"Daughter of the daughter of the fifth house?" Ayala intoned wryly. "Heir to the Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx? Heir to the Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed?"

Tom frowned. "You know Dee?"

"Let's say I knew her mother," Ayala allowed. "A long time ago, when I was very young."

"He speaks of her often," Grellel observed into the gravid silence. "And in great detail. I found it odd that a man so taken with a woman would surrender her to another."

"He didn't surrender her to me," Tom countered defensively, turning back to Grellel. "Dee picked me. She had her choice, and I was who she wanted." He hesitated. "Or at least," he allowed grudgingly, "who she thought she wanted. She was wrong. We both were." He shook his head, smiling wryly. "He ditches her on Risa, breaks her heart, makes her look the fool, and still, when push comes to shove, it's him she loves." Tom studied his still-featured counterpart. "Go figure," he said finally.

"You are what I expected him to be," Grellel noted.

Tom's eyes narrowed, suspecting an insult in the observation. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"It means nothing. Only that you are what I expected him to be." Grellel studied Tom. "The two of you are very different," he said suddenly. "I'm surprised that the Obsidian Order could be fooled into mistaking one for the other."

"Cardys aren't the brightest race in the universe," Ayala said.

"Perhaps that explains it," Grellel agreed unconvincingly. Then he added, "Or perhaps they knew all along."

"If they'd known," Ro chipped in, "the Cardassian Empire and the Federation would be at war."

"Perhaps," Grellel mused. "Perhaps not."


"We are nearing the outer rim of the asteroid cloud," Tuvok announced.

Chakotay nodded, too weary to expend the energy required for a vocal acknowledgement. He moved sluggishly in the pilot's chair, his body dense beyond the parameters of six-to-one gravity.

He couldn't feel his left arm, couldn't feel his shoulders. It was hard to concentrate, even harder to focus. He had no depth-of-field at all, and all but the very vortex of his field of vision had gone as grey as the winter mists of Dorvan V.

It occurred to him suddenly that he couldn't fly.

His mind struggled with the concept, thrashing defiantly against the ramifications of surrendering the safety of his ship and crew to another. Argument after argument lost itself to the chaos swarming his thoughts. He knew a dozen justifications to keep the helm, but he couldn't think of a single one.

Chakotay's hand slid off the directional yoke. Freed to the will of gravity by fingers that refused to maintain their grip on molded plasticine, it barked itself on the directional console, then fell deadly into his lap.

"Chakotay?" B'Elanna prompted.

Chakotay sank deeper into his thoughts. B'Elanna was a passing pilot, as was Tuvok, but neither were qualified to navigate the rim of the asteroid cloud, let alone evade Cardassian patrols should they encounter them. Ro was a little better, but her expertise was with shuttles. The obvious choice - Will Riker - was in no more condition to fly than he was, Grellel wasn't an option, and Ayala had failed his solo flights for three years running. The process of elimination yielded a last resort before his capacity to think left him all together.

"Tom." His tongue was less adept with his voice than he had hoped. The hail sounded more like a grunt than a summons. "Tom," he repeated more forcefully.

"Yeah?" Tom answered immediately.

"Get up here."

Tom glanced to Ro. Ro shrugged.

"Sometime today," Chakotay snapped.

Tom scrambled to his feet and made his way to the forward compartment. He ducked under the support arch to crouch at Chakotay's side.

The Maquis captain looked like a corpse. His skin had gone a dull, waxy white. Bruises along his jaw and forehead stood out like jelly stains in snow. When he turned to Tom, his eyes had no life, no animation. Black marbles nested in a familiar face, they stared through him rather than at him.

"The concentration of fragments is greater on the rim than anywhere else," Chakotay said as if he'd pre-ambled the statement with something that made sense. "Watch your aft shields, they're beginning to break down. Dorsals are already at less than deflector capacity. Stabilizers are shot, so don't press them. B'Elanna will keep you on course; Tuvok will let you know if he's reading any Cardassian patrols. Try to avoid traffic all together - you never know when a freighter has a Cardassian liaison officer on board." He blinked. A line of sweat tracked its way down the side of his face. "We're running tight on fuel," he continued flatly, "so keep it midrange, not full throttle. Use planetary clusters as cover. If you jump from one to another instead of maintaining a bee-line course, you're more likely to show up as ..." He swayed, and B'Elanna reached out a hand to steady him. "... as localized traffic, which makes you less likely to warrant closer inspection. We don't have the weaponry to support a dog fight or the stabilizers to perform evasives, so avoid confrontation at all costs. Run if you have to but remember, it's a hell of a long haul to the badlands in a ship that fades after the first ten thousand kilometers." He swayed again. B'Elanna's hand went from steadying him to holding him up. "I hope you're as good as your reputation, Riker," he murmured to Tom Riker's eyes, "because if you're not, we're all ass-deep in hot water." He held out a hand. It trembled visibly on the end of his arm. "Give me a hand," he ordered.

Tom hesitated. He glanced to Torres, and then Tuvok. Neither seemed surprised by Chakotay's surrender of the helm.

"I don't ..." he started.

"A hand," Chakotay repeated grimly.

Tom took the hand Chakotay extended and pulled the other man to his feet. Chakotay swayed, nearly fell. He held on until he had a balance of sorts, then let go. His eyes still weren't tracking. He was staring over Tom's shoulder now, instead of into his eyes.

"Up to you, now, Tom," he muttered.

"I can handle it," Tom said.

"I'd fly blind if I didn't believe that," Chakotay said. And then, "Trust B'Elanna. She knows more about this ship than any of us, and she has excellent instincts." He stepped aside, clearing a path to the pilot's chair. "And stick to the planetary clusters," he repeated, unaware of his redundancy. "Try to look like a freighter, not a Maquis."

"All right," Tom agreed quietly. Slipping past Chakotay, he sank into the pilot's chair and immediately began familiarizing himself with the flight console.

"Be careful, Tom," Chakotay muttered. "Stick to the planetary clusters. You have to blend in, or a Cardy patrol with pick us up and investigate."

"I'll stick to the planetary clusters," Tom agreed, glancing to Torres out of the corner of one eye. "We should be safer that way."

Chakotay nodded. He closed his eyes, then forced them opened again. "Trust B'Elanna," he murmured. "She knows this ship. How hard you can push her. What you can get by with and what you can't."

"Initiating pre-flight sequence," Tom informed Tuvok quietly. Tuvok nodded.

Chakotay dropped a hand to B'Elanna Torres's shoulder. "You were right," he said, his voice almost gone.

"I'm always right," Torres countered. "Can you make it to Ayala?"


Riker began flipping switches, igniting engines, preparing the raider for launch into the dense cloud of asteronic debris.

"The asteroid has reached the apex of its orbit," Tuvok announced. "We will begin retreating from the cloud rim in four minutes and thirty eight seconds."

"We'll be up by then," Tom said.

Chakotay's finger's tightened into Torres's shoulder. His knee buckled, and he would have fallen if not for his grip on her.

"Ayala," Torres called, seemingly indifferent to the bone-bruising grip her captain maintained on her shoulder. The Betazoid Maquis was there in a moment. "He's had sixty ccs of senephetrine," she said.

"That's too much," Ayala stated immediately. "Especially in concert with a head injury."

"I told him that," Torres countered. "He didn't listen. There's a bad disrupter burn on his shoulder. Be careful of it."

Ayala shook his head, sliding cautiously under one of Chakotay's arms. Ro was already under the other. Chakotay released B'Elanna with an effort, and together Ro and Ayala eased him toward the back of the raider's cramped cargo compartment.

"One of these days, Chakotay," Ayala informed the Maquis captain soberly, "you're going to push yourself too far and find that, contrary to popular mythos, you are notindestructible."

"Today," Chakotay whispered, his voice coarse with the burgeoning effects of a drug that had already stolen his balance and his ability to move and the complexity of his many senses. His knees buckled, and he went down. Grellel scrambled in to help them with the Maquis captain's dead weight. Lax and unwieldy, he didn't react at all when the Bajoran chose a grip on his wounded shoulder. Barely breathing, his skin candlewax white and clammy to the touch, he let them carry him the rest of the way.

He was dead before they eased him to the floor.


Tom held the ship on course, flying for the most part by himself as Torres did her level best not to abandon station in deference to the desperate war being waged in the cargo compartment for Chakotay of Dorvan's life.

"Damnit, Chakotay," Ayala hissed, pumping the Maquis captain's chest by hand as Ro introduced pressurized oxygen into lungs that only inflated and deflated if forced. "Breathe for me, you dumb Dorvanian bastard. Breathe."

They'd been working on him for almost twenty minutes, resorting to manual forms of resuscitation when more technologically-sophisticated avenues closed down in failure.

"We're losing cohesion in his neural net," Ro stated calmly. "His neural synapses are beginning to break down. The electron scatter is almost twelve percent." Despite the dispassion to her report, there was a panic to the way she formed the words. "What do I do?"

"Give him another jolt."

Ro glanced up. "Won't that disrupt the patterns completely?"

"Maybe," Ayala allowed. "Or maybe it'll incite an electro-chemical response."

Ro nodded, doing her best to detach from the task at hand in the same calm manner Ayala had. She adjusted the temporal stimulator slightly. "Twenty juels?"

"Twenty juels," Ayala agreed, giving Chakotay's chest another five pumps.

"Twenty juels," Ro repeated. "Clear."

"Seris system coming up starboard," Torres noted distractedly. "Twelve planets, no class M's. Good cover, low risk of detection."

"Got it," Tom agreed.

Ayala removed his hands from Chakotay's chest. "Clear," he said.

Ro initiated the stimulator, and Chakotay's body twitched spasmodically.

"No response," Ro reported after a three beat of silence. Ayala went back to pumping the motionless Maquis captain's chest with an aggressive cardiac rhythm.

"Try it again," Ayala ordered.

This time, Ro balked. "You'll fry his brain," she said.

"If he's dead, Laren," Ayala returned calmly, "it doesn't matter if we fry his brain."

"Give him a minute," Ro argued.

"He doesn't have a minute," Ayala returned. "Do it now or we lose him for sure."

"How low is his electrical activity?" Torres asked from the navigation console.

"Less than twenty percent."

"Do it," Torres agreed grimly.

Ro hesitated only a moment; then, re-adjusting the temporal stimulator, she said, "Clear."

"Clear," Ayala agreed.

Chakotay didn't even twitch. Eyes closed, features calmly composed, he lay as a corpse, his body unresponsive to the frantic attempts of his people to revive him.

Ro stared at the unflinching flatline of his neural monitor. "He's gone," she whispered. "We've lost him."

"Hit him again," Torres countered.

"Laren's right," Ayala said. "He's dead."

"Hit him again," Torres insisted, her voice flush with anger.

Ro glanced to Ayala. Ayala shrugged.

"Do it," Torres snapped.

Ro placed the temporal stimulator against Chakotay's flesh one more time and administered a final jolt with the dull expectation of utter failure.

The neural flatline jumped. It jumped again. Chakotay's eyelids flickered.

"Chakotay?" Ro whispered.

He came alive in a flurry of spontaneous neural activity. His body convulsed. He gasped sharply, and began to breathe. His eyes opened, and he stared straight at Ayala.

"Cardys at oh eight hundred," he whispered. "Duck and cover."

"Cardassian patrol bearing six six two mark seven," Tuvok announced at almost the same precise moment. "We'll be on their sensors in -"

The raider dove hard to starboard. It unbalanced them all, knocking Ro into Ayala and Grellel into the port bulkhead. Riker slid off his pallet and landed on the floor with a soft whump. The interior lights faded to almost nothing.

"Kill everything but life support and station-keeping thrusters," Tom ordered calmly. Torres complied without question.

"What in the ...?" Ayala started.

"Duck and cover," Tom said. Where moments before had been open space, the forward viewscreen now showed a broad expanse of snow shrouded planet. "So this is the Seris system," he observed casually. "Looks like a great place to hold a snowball fight, doesn't it?"

"Seris III," Torres clarified. "Mean temperature minus eighty degrees celsius; atmosphere predominantly ammonium and hydrochloride." She glanced to Tom and said, "Short snowball fight. Are we masking with the polar magnetic fields?"

"If we aren't," Tom answered, "we'll know it in about thirty seconds."

"Polar magnetic fields?" Ayala asked.

"Screws with sensor acuity," Tom explained. "Too much background noise. With power shut down, we're a black dot in an ink slick. Unless they're scanning specifically for tachyon emissions, we might as well be invisible."

"A tactic Commander Riker successfully employed against Midosian pirates in 2360," Tuvok noted.

"A tactic I successfully employed against Midosian pirates in 2360," Tom corrected tersely.

Tuvok lifted an eyebrow, but didn't argue. Instead, he announced, "The Cardassian patrol has moved beyond aft sensor capabilities."

Collectively, they began to breathe again.

"Good reflexes, Tom," Ro noted as the raider shook itself out of orbit and once again took to open space.

"Thank you, Laren," he agreed casually.

"Luck," Torres countered. She glanced back over her shoulder, watching Ayala's attentions to the still grey-skinned Chakotay. The neural monitor was active, and his eyes were open.

"Chakotay?" she called.

He turned his head, found her, focused. He smiled slightly, then closed his eyes.

"Is he alright?" she demanded of Ayala.

"He's alive," Ayala allowed. "I don't know why, but he is."

"It doesn't matter why," Torres said. She turned back to her console. "How are his senephenetrine levels?"

"High but dissipating."

Torres nodded again. "You paid your passage this trip, Ayala."

"I didn't do anything," Ayala countered, still watching the deadly pale captain whose vital signs pulsed strongly on the monitor in his lax hand. "I didn't do a damned thing."

"Not my time," Chakotay murmured. His voice was low, almost nothing. His lips barely moved when he spoke.

"What?" Ayala demanded, but Chakotay didn't answer. His neural patterns had evened out to the gentle parabolic waves of unconsciousness.

"He said it wasn't his time," Torres supplied from half way across the raider and well out of even Klingon auditory range for a barely spoken whisper.

Ayala glanced to Ro. Ro shrugged. "Almost enough to make you believe in that Sky Spirit shit, isn't it?" he said finally.

"Almost," Ro agreed.

Will Riker stirred for the third time in as many minutes. His eyes fluttered, and he struggled weakly against the disorientation of half consciousness. "What in the hell's going on?" he muttered.

Ro reached out and took the tricorder from Ayala. "I've got him," she said, then stepped over Chakotay to cross to the fallen commander's side. She ran the diagnostic devise over his body and nodded at the results. "Nothing to worry about, Commander," she said. "Everything's under control."

Riker's senses began to clarify. He twisted awkwardly, scanning the small interior of the crowded raider with a gaze sharpening quickly to a focus. His eyes noted Tom at the helm and Grellel in a corner, then settled on the motionless body of Chakotay.

"Chakotay?" Riker tried and failed to rise. His expression took on tangible lines of anxiety. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine," Ro said.

The assurance took a moment to settle in, but when it did, much of the animation bled from Riker's expression. Tension left his muscles, and he settled back to the bulkhead with a quiet grunt.

"He looks like hell," Riker noted after a beat, veiling concern unconvincingly with over-played indifference.

"You should look in a mirror," Ro countered.

Riker smiled wearily. "No thanks," he demurred. "Not up to the mental anguish." His eyes flicked to the forward compartment. "Tom flying?" he asked.

"Tom's an excellent pilot," Ro returned coldly.

Surprised by the overtly defensive set of her tone, Riker lifted an eyebrow. "I didn't say he wasn't a good pilot," he pointed out.

"You didn't have to say it," Ro grunted. "It was in your tone of voice."

"A little over-protective, aren't you?" he jibed.

"I'm not over-protective," she retorted. "He's one of us, and you're not."

Riker chuckled. "I see you like him better than you liked me," he observed drily.

"There's more about him to like."

"I suppose that's a matter of interpretation."

"Not around here it isn't." Ro clicked her tricorder shut. "Get some sleep, Commander. It's a long ride back to the badlands." She started to rise, but he caught her forearm.

"Commander?" he challenged gently. "I thought we'd evolved to Will and Laren by the time we parted ways."

"Get some sleep, Will," she amended although her voice didn't grant him any lessening in the structure of its tone.

"Now that we're back on a first name basis ..." Riker's voice lowered, took on an intensity. "You asked me for a favor once. Do you remember?"

"I just helped pull you out of a Cardassian hell hole," she pointed out. "I think we're even."

Riker stared hard into her eyes. "I didn't want to be rescued, and you know it," he said quietly. "This was a big risk - a risk I would have done anything to keep you from taking."

"Well, it's too late now," Ro muttered. "The damage is done."

"Maybe," Riker muttered. "Maybe not. I assume we're still in Cardassian space?"

"Ten more hours," Ro agreed, pulling her arm from his grip. "Give or take a warp speed limit."

Riker winced as he re-adjusted himself on the cold, metal floor. "Then I don't have any choice. I have to call it in, Ro. I need that favor."

"What kind of favor?" Ro asked cautiously.

He met her eyes. "If we run into trouble," he said, "if the Cardassians board us, there can only be one Riker on this ship. One Riker, Laren. Am I making myself clear?"

Ro's eyes narrowed. "Part of the Maquis agenda is to expose your involvement in the Defiant Incident," she pointed out.

"A phaser on level 10," he stated grimly. "Complete disintegration. No remains. Nothing to prove this was ever anything other than a Maquis operation to retrieve one of their own." He held her gaze. "I'm not asking anything I don't have the right to ask."

"You or him?" she demanded.


Ro ran her eyes again over the interior of the raider. Tom, Tuvok and Torres were busy flying the ship. Ayala and Grellel were absorbed with stabilizing Chakotay to an acceptable degree.

"He came for you because Troi doesn't love him," she said finally. "Troi loves you."

Riker flinched. His eyes narrowed, and for a moment, he looked like a man prepared to gamble the universe on two of a kind.

"It doesn't matter," he said finally. "If the Cardassians board us, neither one of us is ever going back to her, so it's still a matter of Federation stability. Can I count on you, Laren?"

"My name is Ro," she informed him coldly.

Riker took the affront in stride. "Can I count on you, Ro?"

She glared at him, angry at the pinch of conscience he'd so deliberately fashioned for her. "And if I say no?" she demanded finally.

"Then I don't have any choice: I'll have to skully this ship and everyone aboard."

"That's an optimistic goal, considering your condition."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Can I count on you?"

She met his eyes for a long moment, then finally nodded. "We won't be taken alive," she said, "but if it comes to that, I'll make sure the Cardys only have one Riker to identify."

Riker nodded. He eased himself back to the bulkhead and said, "Thank you, Ro." Then, almost in the tone of an afterthought, he added, "There's a phaser set to overload in the back quarterpanel. You have about three minutes."

Ro blinked.

Riker crooked an exhausted grin at the surprise in her eyes. "I couldn't take the risk," he muttered. "Not unless I was sure you'd back me if we fell short."

"And you're sure of me now?"

"I served with you long enough to know I can trust your word if you give it," he said. "I just wasn't sure that you'd give it." He opened his eyes again, met her gaze. "I'm not a martyr," he said. "I don't want to die if I don't have to."

"You're not a martyr," Ro agreed, "you're a hero. That's infinitely more dangerous."

"I'm just an officer trying to do my duty," Riker corrected. "Tom's the hero. He's the one to watch."

Shaking her head, Ro Laren rose and left him to find the phaser escalating to disaster in the back of the ship.


"That was quite a chat," Ayala observed as Ro rejoined him at Chakotay's side. "Say anything interesting?"

Ro produced the phaser from her belt. "He set it to overload in a back quarterpanel," she announced, tossing the small weapon to the Betazoid Maquis. "Figured it would be better to vaporize us all than take the risk of failing his mission."

Ayala shook his head. "Crazy Starfleet," he muttered.

"It's what I would have done," Chakotay murmured. His eyes were open again, dull but aware of their surroundings, and his color had warmed to something that resembled a native of Dorvan V more than it did a Denubian wax bug.

"Like I said," Ayala returned. "Crazy Starfleet ..."


Counsellor Deanna Troi was doing her best to merely survive another day. They seemed longer now than they ever had in the past, less likely to end and release her to the peaceful refuge of night and the salvation of dreamless sleep.

"Very well, Joanie," she said, smiling her best counselor smile. "We'll talk again Wednesday."

"Are you sure you're alright, Counsellor?" Ensign Winston asked for the third time this session. "You seem a little ... down."

Troi smiled harder. "I'm fine," she insisted, "just a little tired."

Ensign Winston left her office, unconvinced. Sinking wearily into an overstuffed chair, Troi surrendered to the weight of the day and closed her eyes.

"Computer," she called. "Thelonius Monk. Any selection, just keep it low."

The quiet, soothing whisper of jazz filled the room. It was a comfort to her, reminding her of him.

Not of Tom, but of Will.

She smiled slightly, less pained by the irony of the thought than she would have been a week ago. Though Tom had been as fond of jazz as Will - as moved by the soul of it and as inspired by the structure of it - it wasn't him she thought of, eyes closed, expression euphoric as he set about butchering whatever piece of music struck his passing fancy with the heartfelt addition of one more trombone.

It was Will.

William T. Riker, who valued the challenge of a task he could not - for all his extensive diligence and considerable intelligence -master to his satisfaction. William T. Riker who smiled depreciatingly, his skin flushed slightly pink where his beard met his throat, and tried once again to play a song he would never play well for a lounge full of people who he never allowed to see him fail at anything else.

Troi slowed her breathing, giving her mind over to the music and the mood. It was in that capacity to embrace failure that he was defined, in that capacity to embrace failure that he differed from Tom. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. She thought of him constantly now, as if Tom's leaving had granted her permission to indulge in an awareness she'd denied since Will Riker spoke to her for the last time from a Cardassian interrogation center.

Goodbye, Imzadi ...

"Bridge to Counselor Troi," a voice hailed crisply.

Troi opened her eyes. "Computer, audio mute," she instructed. And then, "Counselor Troi here."

"You have a priority message from Starfleet headquarters, Counsellor," the tac officer informed her matter-of-factly. "Shall I put it through to your office?"

Troi rose, straightening her uniform out of instinct. "Yes," she said after a beat. "Put it through."

She crossed her office and took a seat before the communications monitor. For just a moment, the memory of watching the Cardassian emblem fade to Gul Dukat's face almost nine months ago seemed devastatingly tangible.

The monitor flared to life. The familiar Starfleet emblem formed from the haphazard scatter of space noise as the communications link established itself. The emblem lingered for a moment, then faded to the face of Commander Elizabeth Shelby.

"Counsellor Troi," Shelby said without preamble, "I'm afraid I have some bad news."

Troi blinked. Although Shelby had been stationed at Starfleet Headquarters for several years, they'd never had occasion to communicate. It was a bit of a shock to see the aggressive commander seated primly behind a desk, and more of one to find out that the priority message was to deliver bad news.

Bad news meant only one thing: Tom Riker was in trouble.

"There's been a shuttle accident," Shelby went on when Troi didn't respond. "I'm afraid Commander Riker was on it. He's been hurt quite badly."

Troi held her composure with difficulty. "Is he going to live?" she asked.

"The Starfleet surgeons are very optimistic about his chances," Shelby allowed, "but there is a contamination issue. He was exposed to high levels of irradiants, and he's in quarantine at the present time."

"Can I see him?"

"I'm afraid not," Shelby said. "However, I have been authorized to SFAX you updates on his progress on a regular basis. If all goes well, he will be held in quarantine for thirty to ninety days, and then released to return to regular duty."

Troi's eyes narrowed. "Commander Riker resigned his commission a week ago," she noted cautiously.

Shelby stared directly into the pickup screen. "I was under the impression that you had been apprised of his change of status," she said. "Commander Riker's resignation was for the purpose of completing a mission whose parameters I cannot discuss with you. He has since been re-instated as the executive officer of the USS Enterprise and was returning to active duty when the shuttle accident occurred."

"He was coming back?" Troi murmured.

"Yes, Counsellor. He was coming back." She hesitated, then added, "He didn't share with you any details of his mission?"

"I wasn't aware he was on assignment," Troi repeated.

Shelby nodded slowly. "I see," she muttered. "I see. Well, be that as it may, you may apprise Captain Picard to expect his first officer back within thirty to ninety days."

Troi frowned. "You haven't contacted Captain Picard?" she asked, surprised.

"I'm sure Captain Picard will be notified of Commander Riker's status by Starfleet authorities at the proper time. I am, however, acting on a direct request on the part of Commander Riker to update you concerning his condition. As you, along with his father, are listed as his next-of-kin, we are required by Starfleet regulations to notify you as quickly as possible."

Troi nodded. "Thank you," she said. "Tell Will ..." the name came out hard, "... that I'm thinking of him. Tell him I wish I could be there."

"I believe he already knows that, Counsellor," Shelby said gently. "He asked me to tell you that he is a fool, and that he loves you very much." She smiled slightly. "I can vouch for at least half of that statement, and I think anybody with eyes will verify the other half."

Troi reflected the commander's smile hollowly. "Thank you, Commander," she said. "I'll look for your updates."

Shelby inclined her head slightly, then held a standard expression until the Starfleet emblem usurped her image on the screen.

Troi closed her eyes. She sat still, listening to the silence. "Computer," she said finally, "resume audio." Once again, the quiet, comforting stylings of Thelonius Monk reminded her of the man she loved.


"Interesting," Gul Hokovak muttered, examining the report in his hand. "Very interesting indeed."

"Interesting?" Kobit challenged. He leaned forward, eyes intent. "It's the proof we need. It was Commander William T. Riker who invaded the Orius system nine months ago. Now we have proof."

"Proof," Hokovak murmured. He tossed the datapadd onto his desk. It clattered slightly, then settled. "Proof of what? That the Human Riker was incarcerated on Lazon II? That we already knew."

"Look at the surveillance photos again," Kobit insisted. "The man in those photos isn't the prisoner in cell block Khe. He is ten kilos heavier, and in no sign of systemic distress. Less than two days ago, the man who surrendered to the Kraxon in the Orius system was nearly dead from a pulmonary infection. They are obviously not the same man."

"This one is the one who killed Lovek?" Hokovak asked.

Kobit nodded. "He and the Maquis Ro Laren. The photos were gathered from the Order's survail of Lovek's office."

"And of course," Hokovak added wryly, "they are utterly authentic."

Kobit frowned. "Are you suggesting the Order generated the incident rather than documenting it?" he asked after a long beat of silence.

"I am suggesting only what the Federation council will suggest. You know as well as I that digital evidence is no evidence at all. My grandson can take an image of the prisoner Riker and reconfigure it to a semblance of health as portrayed in your surveillance. That this event actually transpired at all is of passing interest only. Interpreting it as proof of pre-meditated Federation involvement in the Defiant Incident is wishful thinking unbecoming an officer."

"But ..." Kobit protested.

Hokovak leaned into his desk, cutting off the younger Cardassian's argument with a look. "What you obviously fail to understand, Kobit," the Cardassian Gul explained calmly, "is that we have been fully aware of who we held in the Lazon II facility for some time. One of our best operatives was placed to gain his confidence. We would have eventually learned more from him than he would ever have divulged to torture or mind manipulation."

Hokovak leaned back. "But that opportunity has passed. We didn't anticipate that they would risk the political exposure of a rescue, but they did. He's back with his own people, and with him has gone whatever advantage he might have represented." Hokovak sighed. "Not that I see that as such a loss," he added. "Riker is a formidable man. In some ways, it would have pained me to see him broken."

"You knew it was Riker?" Kobit repeated.

"Of course we knew," Hokovak returned derisively. "We knew from almost the beginning."

"Then why did we allow the Defiant Incident to go unanswered?"

Hokovak shook his head. "You are too young to remember the Federation wars," he muttered. "It was a dark time for our people - the only time in our history where we faced the very real danger of subjugation." He shook his head again, this time, shaking off the memory. "We have no desire to engage the Starfleeters in conflict again," he stated. "Whatever embarrassment we can inflict to strengthen our bartering position within their political structure is an admirable goal, but to escalate such an incident to war would be absurd. Only a fool ignites a fire in his living domicile."

"Then at the very least," Kobit insisted, reclaiming the report padd from the center of Hokovak's desk and brandishing it aloft, "embarrass them with this. Show them that we know of their deception, and that it is only our benevolence that stands between peace and war."

"Embarrass them?" Hokovak repeated. "By admitting to the entire quadrant that their raid into the heart of Cardassian space was an unmitigated success?" Hokovak chuckled. "You have no future in the Order, my boy," he observed drily. "Such an admission of weakness would open the door to Klingon aggression, as well as Romulan, Tholian and any other of a dozen races who already view Cardassia Prime as a plum to be plucked at the earliest opportunity. Moreover, it would re-open the political wormbox of the Orius invasion fleet. Do we really want to remind the Dutapa Council - or the universe at large, for that matter - of the Order's intention to dominate the quadrant?" Hokovak shook his head. "I think not," he said. "This is one sleeping gommi best left to lie. Unless roused with a kick to the snout, it will give us at least the strategic advantage of knowing that they have a secret they wish to keep. As long as the Federation thinks disclosure of their involvement in the Defiant Incident will lead to war, we have a leg up in the competition. Let's not surrender it for the sake of proving our capacity to spy upon our own people, shall we?"

Kobit slumped. He started disconsolately at the report padd in his hands. "Then this is worth nothing?" he asked finally.

"It will make a fine addition to the Obsidian Order's Hall of Political History," Hokovak said. "Of course, it will have to be displayed in utmost secrecy."

Kobit flung the small device at the corner of Gul Hokovak's office. It clattered against the wall, then fell face-down on the floor.


Will Riker woke slowly, his world coming into focus in the manner of a holodeck simulation coalescing from the individual atoms of an incohesive atmosphere. He blinked, then blinked again. The room was white, clean, sterile. It had been so long since he'd existing in anything other than the gloomy confines of a filthy Cardassian cell that it took him a moment to get past the wonder of so much light.

"Welcome back," a voice said quietly from somewhere to his left.

Riker blinked harder, focused more forcefully. He found Tom Riker amid the overpowering flush of white, and worked to make him a reality.

"Where am I?" he muttered.

"Quarantine," Tom answered. "Carraviccio II. Not a bad place - the food's passible and the nurses are pretty."

Riker grunted. He tried to sit up and failed. "Where's Grellel?"

"He stayed with the Maquis."

"The Maquis," Riker repeated. He looked around the room again. "Where am I?"

"Carraviccio II," Tom repeated patiently.

Riker shook his head. "Never heard of it," he noted.

"That's the point," Tom agreed.

Riker closed his eyes. He gathered his thoughts and structured them into some semblance of order. When he opened them again, Tom was still where he had been.

"Why are you here?" he demanded.

Tom smiled slightly. "Unfortunate tendency to subject myself to unnecessarily contentious circumstances. Dee used to tell me I use conflict as a compensatory artifice to make up for low self esteem, but I think she was just trying to get my goat."

"Did they send you in to ask?" Riker demanded.

"Ask what?"

"I won't tell you, you know," Riker said grimly. "Not you, not Ro, not any of them."

"Tell me what?"

"Riker," Riker said coldly. "William T. Commander. Current assignment: First officer, USS Enterprise. 01-574-35-0232-0568."

Tom laughed. "That's funny," he observed. "That's really funny."

"It's all you're getting," Riker countered. "All any of them are getting."

Tom shook his head. "I'll be damned," he muttered. "She was right. You are as Starfleet as B'Elanna says, aren't you?"

Riker didn't answer. Instead, he asked, "So what happens now?"

"Now," Tom said quietly, "you go back to your life and live happily ever after."

Riker's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean exactly that. The Maquis doesn't have any intention of pumping you for information or rallying you to the cause. Regardless of what you might think, we're smart enough to know the difference between a recruitable element and a lost cause."

"You're saying they're going to release me?"

Tom chuckled again. "You've already been released, Will. Carraviccio II is a high-security medical facility - a high-security Starfleet medical facility."

"Oh," Riker muttered. Then, with a little more emotion, "Oh."

"And they say you're the one with the silver tongue." Tom rose from his seat and started for the door.

"What about you?" Riker asked suddenly.

"What about me?" Tom countered defectively.

"If ..." Riker hesitated, then went on, "If I've been re-patriated to the Enterprise, where does that leave you?"

"Haven't you heard?" Tom quipped. "I was recently recruited by the Maquis after serving nine months of a life sentence on Lazon II."

Riker's eyes narrowed. He tried to read the expressions of a man who no longer even resembled him.

"You don't have to do that," he said finally. "We can work something out."

"Alternating weekends with Dee? Every other duty shift on the bridge?" Tom shook his head. "I don't think so, Will. You live your life; I'll live mine. Maybe we'll get together in fifty years and compare notes."

"I can't ask you to give everything up again," Riker insisted.

"You're not asking. My career with Starfleet - such as it was - is over. I'd be on a penal colony myself if the Maquis hadn't cut a deal."

"A deal?" Riker repeated.

"They traded me for you." He flashed Will a grin. "Personally, I think Chakotay got the better end of that stick, but Picard would probably disagree."

"You'll stay with the Maquis, then?"

Tom nodded. "I fit in there. They don't seem to have as much trouble calling me Tom."

"What about Deanna?"

Bitterness flickered in Tom Riker's eyes. "She's all yours," he allowed quietly. Then as an afterthought, he added, "Come to think of it, she always was."

Tom turned again to go.

"Tom," Riker called.

For a moment, Tom Riker looked as if he would ignore the quiet hail and slip silently from the whitely sterile room; but after a beat of hesitation, he turned grudgingly back to face the way he'd come.

"Coming after me was everything I hoped you wouldn't do," Riker said. "It was irresponsible and dangerous and damned near treasonous." He studied the other man's expressionless features.

"Thank you," he said finally. "I owe you one."

"Make Dee happy," Tom answered, "and I'll consider us even."

"I thought she'd be happy with you. I thought that was what she wanted."

"I did, too." Tom looked away. "I guess we were both wrong." He started to leave again, then stopped himself. "Just out of curiosity," he said, "you and Laren didn't ..." He let the question dangle for a moment, then finished, "... did you?"

"Not my type," Riker answered.

Tom lifted an eyebrow. "You mean smart, capable and self-reliant?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of mean."

Tom snorted. "Been a while since you've seen Dee, hasn't it? Good luck, Will. You're going to need it."

"Good luck to you, too, Tom. The Maquis are getting a good man."

"They know that," Tom said. "They even gave me my own ship." He grinned. "Beat you." Then, without another word, he slid out of the room and into the first destiny he'd known since confronting his own eyes in the face of another man in the caverns under the outpost on Nervala IV.

From the comfort of his hospital bed, Will Riker watched Tom Riker go. "You may have beaten me to the captain's chair, Tom," he said quietly, "but as unlikely as it may seem, I have come to the conclusion that all things considered, I'd rather have the girl."


Grellel walked slowly along the stone corridors of the Maquis stronghold. It was a unique place to build a rebel base ... a place that the Order would no doubt never have thought to look. He nodded to a guard posted in an arched doorway, and the guard nodded back.

Grellel smiled and continued to walk.

They'd accepted him more readily than he'd thought they would. Once Riker spoke for him as a victim of the vile Cardassians and Chakotay told them of his inept heroism in the tunnels of Lazon II, they offered him membership in their pathetic little movement as if it was something he'd earned. Grellel shook his head. In trade for the life of one disgraced Cardassian guard and a handful of antibiotic pills thrown in salizar broth, they'd given him the keys to their precious little kingdom.

Hokovak would be pleased. He would be very pleased.


Grellel started, surprised by the nearness of the voice who called his name. He turned to see the Maquis Ayala standing less than a meter away. With him, was a Bajoran woman he didn't know.

"See anything interesting?" Ayala asked conversationally.

"I thought I'd visit Tom," Grellel answered, smiling, "but I think I've gotten turned around somehow. I seem to be lost."

"You are," the woman agreed pleasantly. "You're in the mission ops quarter." Her eyes sparkled slightly. "Not a good place to be unless you belong here."

"Oh." Grellel looked around. "I didn't know."

"It's all right, Grellel," Ayala allowed. He reached out to sling an affable arm around Grellel's shoulders. "I mean, after all, you're one of us, right? So no harm done. We just thought maybe you'd be happier somewhere else."

Grellel grunted as the Betazoid patted him firmly on the juncture where his neck joined his shoulders. On a Bajoran, it was a natural place to express camaraderie. On a Cardassian whose neck ridge had been surgically removed, it was comparable to a kick in the crotch.

"Some place like Cardassia Prime," the Bajoran woman said as Ayala hit him again - harder this time - and Grellel fell to his knees in agony. She placed a disrupter at the base of his throat, smiling down on him, all pleasantry and benevolence.

He recognized her suddenly, saw in the cold sparkle of her eyes an Obsidian Order operative he'd known quite intimately during their younger years. Her finger whitened on the weapon's trigger as he drew a breath to call her by a name, to identify himself, to reveal to her the commonality of their shared mission.

His intentions died along with her secrets as the flux of disrupter discharge enveloped him and returned him to the primordial slime from which their ancestors had evolved.

Seska smiled, lowering the disrupter and stepping back to avoid staining her boots with the biological residue of what had moments before been a Cardassian spy.

"You enjoy this life too much, Seska," Ayala noted quietly.

Seska shrugged. She holstered the disrupter and glanced at the Betazoid Maquis. "He was a Cardassian," she observed dismissively. "He would have proven to be trouble eventually."

"He thought he recognized you," Ayala said. "In the last moment of his life, he thought he knew you."

Seska smiled. "I've been told," she said sweetly, "that I resemble the Cardassian Angel of Death." She vamped for him. "What do you think, Ayala? See anything that would make a Cardy cry?"

"What I see is a woman who would kill her own mother, if she thought she was Cardassian."

Seska laughed. "That's very funny, Ayala," she said. "Especially coming from you."

Ayala grunted, but didn't comment.

"She was Betazoid, wasn't she?" Seska pressed as they walked away from Grellel's remains. "A member of the fifth house, if I recall?"

Ayala shot her an acid glance. "You know full well who she is," he snapped.

"Yes," Seska agreed slyly. "I do." Then, after a long beat of silence, she added, "And I know who her inheritor is, too; and what her relationship is to Riker."

"Good for you," Ayala grumbled.

"I must admit," Seska announced breezily, "I was a little surprised he survived ... a little surprised he didn't meet with some unfortunate, unforeseen ... complication."

"The mission was to rescue Riker," Ayala said, "not to kill him."

"Still ..." Seska pressed.

"Chakotay would have had my head."

Seska smiled. "Chakotay wouldn't have had to know. You're the medic, Ayala. One hypospray of tellisium and the poor man would have had a massive cardiac event. Such a shame, after all he'd been through, but hardly your fault." She watched him, reading him. "Now tell me you didn't think of that," she purred when she was sure he had. "Tell me it didn't cross your mind how wonderfully tragic it all would have been."

"That's the difference between me and a sociopath," Ayala returned, "a thought can cross my mind without me acting on it."

She patted his arm. "Something to strive for." Then, she added, "Maybe you'll get another chance some day. Maybe Tom Riker -"

"No." Ayala's tone left no room for argument. "Tom isn't part of it."

Seska shrugged. "Just a thought. I know how much you hate her."

"I hate my mother," Ayala corrected coldly, "but Deanna Troi isn't my mother, any more than I am."

"Ayala, Ayala, Ayala." Seska shook her head in mock despair. "My, how you've evolved in the past week. I didn't realize Chakotay's beneficence complex was so contagious."

Ayala smiled menacingly. "I'm as de-evolved as I have ever been, Seska," he assured her darkly, "but even I can see that it wouldn't be any kind of justice to kill a man like Will Riker to pay for Lwaxanna Troi's sins. In all probability, she wouldn't even notice."

"Never know unless you try," Seska quipped.

Ayala shook his head. "You're a dog," he informed her.

"No, Ayala," she corrected, "I'm a bitch. And I'll tell you a little secret: that's just the way Chakotay likes 'em."

"You have no secrets," Ayala countered wryly.

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Seska purred. "You'd be very, very surprised."


Elizabeth Shelby poked her head inside Will Riker's comfortable quarters. "Up for a visit?" she asked.

"Always," Riker agreed, setting his book aside.

Shelby stepped inside, followed closely by Jean-Luc Picard. Riker scrambled to his feet. Staring at a man he'd thought to never see again, every word he might have said was suddenly stricken from his vocabulary.

"Will," Picard greeted, his voice quietly assumptive with its tone.

"Sir," Riker returned.

Shelby grinned, shaking her head. "I'll leave you two alone." She left, closing the door behind her.

"It's good to see you, Will," Picard said when Shelby was gone. He gestured to the chair in which Riker had been seated. "Why don't we sit?"

"Yes, sir. I mean ... it's good to be seen, sir. And yes, let's sit down."

They sat together until the silence grew uncomfortable.

"So how did Tom do?" Riker asked, unsure what else to say.

Picard shrugged, an uncharacteristic gesture for a man normally so precise in the economy of his body language. "He tried very hard, but it was a difficult situation." He smiled vaguely. "I'm not sure anyone was fooled. Geordi and Worf came to me less than two weeks in. I don't know how many others in the crew suspect the truth."

"I suppose that's to be expected," Riker allowed, easing back in his chair with a stiffness not entirely excised by the aggressive regimen of physical therapy that comprised his daily schedule.

"After all, I'm not an easy man to live up to." He flashed Picard a grin. "Or down to, as the case may be."

Picard chuckled appreciatively. "No, Number One," he agreed, "that you are not."

Riker met his Captain's eyes. "I'm glad to be back, sir."

Picard nodded. "I'm glad to have you back, Will." He hesitated, then went on. "This past year has been the hardest of my career. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to have him around after you were sacrificed during the Defiant Incident."

"I hear we're not much alike," Riker noted.

"Nothing at all," Picard agreed too quickly. "I found it difficult to trust him, impossible to seek his counsel." He shook his head. "I found myself continually comparing him to you, and he came up sadly lacking in the comparison."

Riker smiled. "It's nice to know I'm irreplaceable."

"More than irreplaceable," Picard countered quietly. "You are ... necessary. You are a part of the Enterprise. Without you, she was not the same ship." He met Riker's eyes. "I've never told a junior officer this before, Commander," he said, "but were I given the opportunity to make the decision again, I would not allow Starfleet to disavow you as they did. I would not allow them to conscript you into a one-way mission, and I would not allow you to accept the assignment."

"We were both under orders, sir," Riker reminded the other man quietly.

"Orders be damned," Picard snapped. "I would resign my commission before accepting such orders again."

Riker smiled. He nodded slowly, his body relaxing into the chair from the posture of an officer to that of a man. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly. "It means more to me to be valued by you than it does to be valued by the service."

"You are an excellent officer, Number One," Picard told him. "And a man I am proud to consider my closest friend."

Riker inclined his head in acceptance of the sentiment. Although it was nothing he didn't already know, it was something that had never been spoken of between them. They sat in silence for a moment, nothing more to say.

"Hungry, sir?" Riker asked suddenly.

"What do you have in mind?" Picard returned cautiously.

"Gagh," Riker announced. "They make it here in the cafeteria."

Picard lifted an eyebrow. "Hospital food, Number One?" he inquired wryly.

Riker shrugged. "With Gagh," he said, grinning, "who can tell?"


The interior of the Maquis ship split beneath the flash of a brilliant white light. Like heat lightening jagging through the black night skies of Dorvan V, it flared once, and then it was gone.

"What was that?" Chakotay demanded. He changed directions, stepping to the tactical console to peer over Tuvok's shoulder.

"Curious," the Vulcan noted. "We've just passed through some kind of coherent tetryon beam."

Chakotay frowned. "Source?"

"Unknown." Tuvok's fingers moved across the control console like Taritian skipping beetles. "Now there appears to be a massive displacement wave moving toward us," he muttered.
Tension just beginning to ease from Chakotay's posture dug itself back in. "Another storm," he surmised, his voice challenging Tuvok to disagree.

"It is not a plasma phenomenon," Tuvok countered. And then, "At current speeds, it will intercept us in less than thirty seconds."

Dropping one shoulder, Chakotay slid past Ayala to resume his place in the pilot's chair. "Anything left in those impulse generators, B'Elanna?" he demanded.

"We'll find out," Torres noted, already working the board in an effort to find options they didn't have.

"Still exceeding our speed," Tuvok announced.

"Maximum power," Chakotay ordered, fully aware that the battered vessel had already given them its best.

"The wave is continuing to accelerate and will intercept us in eight seconds," Tuvok reported.

Ayala stopped his repairs to stare out the forward viewscreen. Chakotay and Torres did as well.

It was coming like the horsemen of the apocalypse. They could see it bearing down on them: a distortion in the fabric of space itself. Like a floor rug snapped clean of dirt out the back porch door, the roil of the displacement wave began to overtake them.

"Five," Tuvok warned.

Chakotay glanced at B'Elanna. She was already looking at him. The interior of the Maquis vessel flared again. This time the white light blossomed to consume them. It became all there was, and when it passed, it left nothing in its wake.


Deanna Troi met him in the transporter room. She smiled at him and favored him with an embrace that felt oddly distant.

"Welcome home," she said, her voice quietly subdued. "I'm glad you changed your mind."

Will Riker studied her eyes, the scent of her overpowering in comparison to his memory of it.

"Can you give us a minute, Ensign?" Riker asked of the young transporter technician he didn't recognize behind the console. She nodded and left them alone.

Riker turned back to Troi, his hands trembling slightly where they lay on her waist. "Is that all you can say, Imzadi?" he asked.

Her eyes clouded. A flicker of pain traced otherwise neutral features. She touched his face with one hand, but there was nothing for him in the caress. "I missed you, Tom," she whispered.

"Did you?" He kissed her, the memories that he'd clung to for nine months of hell disintegrating to reality between their lips. She changed in his hands, sinking into him. Her body became compliant to the pressure of his fingertips.

When they separated, her eyes were different. She was crying. He smiled and wiped away a tear that ran down her cheek.

"Don't call me Tom," he said.

Troi closed her eyes. Her hands clenched into his uniform, clinging to it possessively.

"Imzadi," she whispered.

"Imzadi," he returned.