Character codes: R, T, Crew
Will Riker was trying hard to decide if he was awake or if he was asleep. The room lay dark about him, the shadows of familiar things familiar in themselves. He blinked, blinked again, and then elbowed himself upright on the firm mattress in an effort to vanquish the aberration twisting the air less than a meter beyond the foot of his bed.
Staring hard at the small cyclone of color, Riker studied the way it wrapped itself together in a cyclic pattern of never-ending self-procreation. Small wisps of smoke danced like gay ribbons in the wind, or kite tails on a summer day. He tried to reason with his overly-tired mind, assuring himself that it could not exist; for if it did, the vibrant dervish of motion would certainly have stirred enough breeze by now to cool his sweating feet.
He waited patiently, thinking it would dissipate with the coming of wakefulness; but it didn't. If anything, the vivid wraith of smoky mist seemed to grow more tangible, glowing with a light that must have come from within, for it did not come from without. Riker frowned and reached for the communicator embedded in the surface of his nightstand.
The whirlpool of light and mist began to change. It solidified, taking on form and volume. Features formed in the smoke like a Venus rising from the waves: delicate, flawless, porcelain-fine. Deep-set eyes a color found only in a man's deepest dreams opened. She smiled.
It was a dream. Riker's hand suspended its motion, hovering for a moment before dropping away from the communicator.
The corner of his mouth crooked into a grin as the mists laid themselves down in curves as seductive as the line of the woman's face. When she moved, gliding closer, thin tendrils of smoke clung to her breasts, her waist, her thighs. Below the knees, she became a part of the sea of fog that swirled mysteriously about the furniture in his quarters. She approached like a mythical siren, emerging from the early morning mist that rose off the lakes of Valdez in summer. He felt the weight of her as she lowered herself to him...the curve of her thighs, the slight swell of her belly....
It was a good dream.
Riker went to touch her, but found he couldn't move. Her fragile weight sank deeper into him, growing as it went. Muscles flattened to bone. It became a task to breathe.
She kissed his throat, his chin. Her lips burned where they touched. Will Riker felt a flare of panic in his chest and tried to pull away.
It was not a dream.
He realized that at the same moment he realized he was in trouble. The fire on his lips was in his mouth, and then his throat, and finally his chest. Something tore at his lungs. Fingers of iron closed around them, clenching, crushing. Though he struggled to replace the air it wrung from them, whatever, whoever held him would not allow it. His pulse thundered in his ears.
Panic flared to fear. He tried to cry out, but he hadn't the air. He tried to twist away, but he hadn't the strength.
Fire. Pressure. Death.
As the last wraith of mist swirled about his tongue, Will Riker lunged to his feet. He gasped air, precious air in lungfull after lungfull. His chest heaved with exertion. His eyes clamped tight with the searing pain of oxygen on oxygen-starved nerves.
As the sensation of suffocation eased, Will Riker straightened through the darkness in the still room. He felt air on his flesh, heard the quiet, comforting throb of the Enterprise's engines, sensed their subtle vibrations through the pads of his bare feet.
Riker blinked. He twisted his head on his neck to absorb the myriad of sights that lay in the shadows. Familiar, and yet, unfamiliar. He became aware of the hands that hung at the ends of his arms. Lifting them, he studied the palms, the fingers. He curled each in turn, marveling at the complexity of the motion. Stretching them to their extent and then clenching them until nails bit into flesh, he tested their limits of flexibility.
His heart pulsed, pushing fresh blood to the tips of those fingers and retrieving the spent blood and toxins that moments before, had been the fresh. He drew in a chest full of air and memorized the sensation of each air sac expanding with life-giving oxygen.
His heart pulsed again.
Throwing his head back and his arms wide, Will Riker laughed with sheer delight.
Deanna Troi woke with a start, her heart hammering in the base of her throat. For a moment, she lay perfectly still. Something had awakened her. It dragged her from one layer of consciousness to another without benefit of the normal transition. Disorientation acquiesced to fear.
But there was nothing. There was nothing in her at all.
She closed her eyes and cast out into the body of the ship. Emotions brushed through her, coloring her mind as they went...Raleigh, frustrated...Swanson, satisfied...Byrne, angry...Lotus, excited...LaForge, bemused...Mendez, overjoyed.... They filtered through her reach, registering and passing without note.
They were not what had awakened her.
Frowning, Troi swung her legs over the bed and rose gracefully in the pitch-black room. "Portal," she demanded. The viewing portal near her bed lightened so that she might watch the continuous reel of stars as they flowed by the Enterprise's sleek metallic hull. To her dismay, the counselor found no solace in their gloriously overwhelming spatial ballet. She felt as ill at ease watching the velvet of space as she had staring into the velvet of night.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
"Other than minor sensor malfunctions on decks six, eight and twenty-three," Data reported calmly after a moment of intent data gathering and extrapolation, "We seem to have experienced no ill effects from our brief incursion through the spatial cloud."
"Are you certain, Mister Data?" Picard pressed. He was standing directly behind the android, staring at the nebulous, varicolored cloud that glorified the majority of the main viewscreen before them.
"All responses to query have been negative, sir," Data responded. "But there is a point zero-zero-zero-three-seven percent chance that I have failed to make the proper queries. If you would care to verify..."
"That won't be necessary, Mister Data," Picard interrupted hastily. "I'm sure your queries were most extensive."
For a moment, Data didn't look as if he had an appropriate response. "I would like to think so, sir," he commented finally, returning his attention to the ops console.
Surprised, Picard glanced at the android with an eyebrow that would have climbed into his hairline, if he'd had one. There was a certain flavoring of injured feelings to Data's response. It was a subtle coloration of the tone. So subtle, in fact, that had Picard been a less assured man, he might have questioned whether or not it had really existed.
But it had existed.
Picard resumed his seat slowly, a slight frown working into sharply elegant features. He'd certainly not meant to impugn the android's capabilities. Somewhere behind the captain's face he wore, Jean-Luc Picard mulled the intricacies of phrasing an apology that would suffice to soothe any inadvertently injured feelings without prompting the android into an extended dissertation concerning his emotional state or lack thereof.
It was not a dilemma to be resolved quickly. "Any progress, Mister Compton?" he asked the tactical officer while his mind tried and discarded option after option.
Compton shook his head, his pale Slavic features tight with concentration. "Whatever it's made of, sir," he reported finally, "is completely alien to our sensors. I can't even get a consistent reading for recognizable elements, let alone a compositional analysis."
"Still no life readings then?" Picard surmised.
"No sir." Compton blew a burst of air through his nose and started a new series of sensor parameters. "That's about the only thing I can tell you about it...it is definitely not alive." The ensign's frown deepened. "I don't think," he muttered under his breath.
Picard nodded his approval. "Very well then," he agreed. "Continue gathering data until we've moved beyond sensor range."
"Sir," Data interrupted. "If I might suggest, the chance to investigate a heretofore undiscovered phenomenon might well be worth the delay in rendezvous with the U.S.S. Locksley."
"Unfortunately, Mister Data," Picard responded, "Our rendezvous with the Locksley has been assigned top priority. We will have to make do with gathering as much data as possible and logging the location of the formation for further study by another vessel. Prepare to re-engage warp engines."
"Very well, sir," Data agreed. He sounded, however, disappointed. "Re-engaging warp engines."
"Heading 486 mark 3, Warp Five."
"Heading 486 mark 3, Warp Five," Data repeated dutifully.
Together, Captain and android watched the nebulous cloud shift from the center of the viewscreen to the far left edge, and then vanish all together.
Will Riker pressed the call button to the left of the door. He could not remember the woman's name. Jenessa, perhaps. Or Jessica. What he did remember was the way she flirted with him, the half-veiled innuendoes that wormed their way into the last conversation they'd had over drinks in Ten Forward. At that time, he'd been heading on shift and thus, unable to take advantage of the implicit offer. Later, after thinking about it for several hours, he decided her approach was a little too obvious...a little too manipulative for his tastes. He didn't call her as he'd promised.
The door hissed open and his initial impression of her was validated. Standing in the open doorway in something that revealed a great deal more of her than it covered, Jelissa Torenaize blinked with surprise.
"Commander," she managed after a moment. Genuine surprise melted with disturbing ease to a smile that hit a man well below the belt. "What a pleasant surprise," she purred.
He didn't waste time on amenities. Instead, he stepped through the door and let it hiss shut behind him. Torenaize, again, looked surprised.
But not half as surprised as Will Riker looked a moment later.
Torenaize sat on the edge of the bed, watching the first officer sleep. It had been a surprise to see him on the other side of the door. She'd given him up for lost several nights ago when he hadn't called as he'd promised.
And now he lay, sprawled naked and exceptionally well-exercised, on her pink satin sheets. She watched the rise and fall of his breathing, listened to the gentle cadence of his snore.
He certainly hadn't been what she'd expected. Suave, cool to the point of detachment, she'd always assumed Will Riker would be a superb, if somewhat well-used, lover. Such men were hard to please. Impossible to surprise. Torenaize thrived on the challenge.
But he'd not been that way at all. Each touch hit him like a blow. There were moments--Torenaize smiled to herself--that she'd thought he was going to faint. Curling her toes into carpet the color of mulberries, she watched him sleep for another twenty minutes.
And another twenty minutes.
And twenty more...
The quiet chime of her chronometer broke the reverie of silent companionship. Torenaize glanced at the luminescent crystal, surprised that so much time had passed. She normally didn't allow men to spend the night in her quarters. It implied a deeper commitment than she had intentions of fulfilling. If she let him sleep much longer, he would expect her to make breakfast when he woke.
There were many things Jelissa Torenaize excelled at. Cooking, however, was not one of them.
Leaning forward, she let one hand trace along his neck, and then his shoulder, and finally, his arm. "Will?" she whispered. "Time to wake up, sleepyhead." She licked his ear.
He awoke like someone had doused him with cold water. Eyes wild and sharp with confusion, he twisted, tangling himself in the pink sheets, to look at her like he'd never seen her before in his life.
"Now that's not the reaction you had last night," Torenaize teased. She was a little unnerved by the lash of resentment his expression spawned in her belly, so she licked him again, just to remind them both why he was there.
Riker's eyes narrowed, focusing. "No," he grunted, pushing her away as he swung his legs over the opposite edge of the bed. "Too much...too...much."
Torenaize frowned. She watched him rise, wandering the room like he was lost. "They're by the front door," she offered after a moment.
Riker glanced at her, and then at the front door. His eyes found the various pieces of his uniform to which she referred, and he hurried to retrieve them.
"My," she observed, stretching luxuriantly on slick, smooth satin. "We don't wake up well, do we?"
Riker fumbled with his boots, finally managing to pull one on by using the wall to balance against. He reversed the process and straightened. "I have to..." He mumbled, searching for some excuse. "...to go." His eyes ventured a quick glance, and then hid in the turn of his shoulder.
Torenaize rose gracefully. She approached him in a way that left him trapped in a corner. "To go?" she repeated coyly. "So soon?" She pouted, running a finger down his chest as he tried desperately not to notice the way her bare breasts brushed against his uniform. His discomfort no longer angered her, it amused her.
Closing his eyes, Will Riker cowered deeper into the corner and began to tremble.
Torenaize blinked. "Will?" She quit toying with him. His breathing was too rapid. It was shallow, like he was going to hyperventilate at any moment. "Will?" Her voice rose a little in concern. "Are you all right?"
"I have to go," he repeated. Touching as little of her bare flesh as he could manage, Riker squeezed by the woman before him and fled.
The labored rise and fall of his breathing began to ease only when he was safely cloistered away in the empty turbolift. His hands took longer to stop trembling. Closing his eyes to the constant barrage of sensory input, Will Riker tried to find a place inside himself to hide.
Beverly Crusher felt someone watching her. She glanced up and found, to her surprise, that it was Will Riker. He was standing just inside the door to her office, shoulders pressed to the glass wall like he was hiding from something. And he wasn't just watching, he was staring.
"Will?" she asked hesitantly. It wasn't like him to walk into her office with no request to enter, or even a polite cough to apprise her that he was there. Crusher frowned. Now that she thought about it, he not only wasn't acting himself, he didn't look himself either. His flesh was pale, far too pale, and sweat beaded on it like oil on wax. His beard stood out from the colorless complexion like a child had drawn it there with black crayon. She stood and started toward him. "Are you all right?"
"Doctor Beverly," he whispered.
Beverly Crusher jolted to a dead stop. Her eyes flashed with hurt and anger as she stared in disbelief at the man before her. "That's not funny, Will," she snapped. Almost before she'd finished saying it, she realized Riker wasn't teasing her. The look in his eyes was the same it had been that night...the night she and Odan made love for the last time.
"Sit down, Will," she demanded. She took his arm and steered him firmly toward a diagnostic bed. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I can't...can't..." He let her lead him to the bed but refused to be forced onto it. "I'm frightened," he whispered. "We are dying."
Crusher reached out a hand and wiped the sheen of sweat off one cheek. "We?" she questioned. "Who, Will? Who's dying?"
Riker stood abruptly, catching Crusher as she stumbled. He didn't let her pull away when she tried. Instead, he held her tighter. The look in her eyes was a mix of puzzlement and anger and something else he almost remembered, but couldn't quite.
He kissed her.
It was different than when he'd kissed Torenaize. It didn't frighten him, didn't twist his insides up into a knot and make it hard to breathe.
The terrible fear eased.
Beverly Crusher stared at Riker for a long time. He looked so much now like he had when he'd been Odan: the pasty cast to his complexion, the tinge of pain under his expression, the lost glimmer in his eyes. She untangled herself from him and pushed gently away.
"I'm going to run some tests, Will," she stated calmly. When she flicked the bio bed on, it began to whistle in alarm.
"Good Lord!" Beverly Crusher stared in horror at the diagnostic board that flashed warnings over six of the seven vital functions. She grabbed an injector, twisted it to appropriate dosage levels, and administered several drugs in quick succession.
His heart fluttered back to a stable rhythm. His temperature eased out of zones more appropriate for a Scadrazine sunspot than a Human being. Electrical activity verging on epileptic seizure began to calm.
"What happened, Will?" the doctor demanded. "What in the world did you do to yourself?"
He began to regain his normal color. "I feel much better," Riker told her.
"You should," Crusher retorted. "Your heart isn't trying to kill you anymore, your blood pressure isn't trying to give you a stroke, and your brain isn't trying to throw you into a grand mal seizure."
Riker drew a breath and released it slowly. "Thank you," he said, smiling as he stood. "I knew you would help." He started for the door.
"Oh no, you don't. Beverly Crusher planted herself firmly in his path. "You," she poked him in the chest, "are not going anywhere, Mister. You just plant yourself back on that bio bed and don't move a muscle until I get back."
"I feel fine," Riker assured her.
"Only because I filled you up with half the contents of my pharmaceutical cabinet," Crusher countered. "Now either you get yourself back on that bed, Commander, or I call Security."
The fire in her blue eyes was too sincere to ignore.
Riker slid back onto the bed. He eased himself down until he was stretched its full length. Crusher nodded approvingly.
"Now you just lie there and let the diagnostic program do a full work-up while I go hunt up some things I'm going to need," she ordered. "Don't get up, don't move, and don't talk. It will take about fifteen minutes. If you need anything in that time, tap the comm unit in the side of the bed. I'll be several different places, so I won't be able to hear you yell; but it's locked into my personal communicator code. If you start feeling sick or weak or hot, call me." She glared at him sternly. "I mean that, Will. Don't play Mister Macho. It could cost you your life."
"I'm due on the bridge," Riker argued.
"I'll inform the captain you won't be there," Crusher countered. "Alyssa will be back from her break in about two minutes. Until that time, don't you move a muscle. And that," she told him harshly, "is an order. Got it?"
Riker sighed. "Yes, Doctor," he agreed.
Beverly Crusher nodded and left the room.
Riker waited for a full thirty seconds before he sat up, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and stood. A slight wash of dizziness chilled his skin, but it passed quickly, so he dismissed it. Striding like a man with a purpose in mind, Will Riker left Sickbay and headed for the bridge.
"Number One." Picard sounded surprised, and he looked more so. "I didn't expect to see you here.
Riker blinked. "This is where I am supposed to be," he countered finally.
Picard's brow wrinkled with a slight frown. "Doctor Crusher informed me that you were in Sickbay for tests," he said after a moment. "She made it sound quite serious."
"She's finished," Riker lied. "I feel fine." That was a lie as well. He was beginning to feel the same way that had forced him to seek out the doctor in the first place. It was important, however, that he be here--that he be here, and that Picard not. "You said something about paperwork, sir?"
Picard's features twitched with what was, for him, an expression of revulsion. "Quite right," he agreed. "An extraordinary amount of paperwork."
"Perhaps you should get to it," Riker advised.
Distracted by the thought of upcoming drudgery, Picard did not notice the amount of intensity in the simple suggestion. "You're sure the doctor's finished with you?" he pressed.
"I feel fine, sir," Riker maintained.
Picard nodded. "Very well, Number One. You have the bridge."
Riker's shoulders squared. Discernible pride lit his features as he surveyed his temporary domain with the sweeping gaze of a man in control.
Picard paused near the turbolift. He'd noticed the accentuated reaction, as had the remainder of the bridge crew. "Number One?" he questioned with a slight twist of bemused puzzlement on his features.
Riker spun. "Yes, sir?"
Picard almost hesitated to ask it: "Everything...okay?"
Riker grinned. "Excellent, sir," he confirmed. The first officer drew a deep breath, cutting a figure not unlike a sea captain of centuries gone by smelling the salt air. He looked exceptionally pleased with himself.
"Very well." Picard allowed after another beat of silence. "I shall be in my quarters if you need me."
"I'm sure I won't, sir," Riker responded, taking the captain's seat with a sense of purpose. He didn't seem to notice Picard's look of sharp surprise, or the disbelief that flared in any of the dozen or so bridge officers' expressions. He seemed only aware of the command chair, and his place in it.
Though Picard's eyes faded quickly to non-expression, the line of his spine was too rigid and the clench of his jaw too pronounced as he left the bridge in the hands of the younger man.
Deanna Troi dressed slowly, still disturbed by the feeling of wrongness that pervaded her thoughts. She hadn't slept well. In fact, she'd hardly slept at all. The night lay about her for hours as she vainly struggled to put aside the eerie sense of dread. It was nothing she could verbalize: not so much a presence, as it was an absence. She ran a brush distractedly through long waves of ebony hair and gazed much deeper into the mirror than the surface reflection that gazed back.
A thrill of panic ruffled Troi's inner sense of calm. For the first time since she'd been jolted from the dead of sleep hours ago, she realized what was wrong. She couldn't sense him, couldn't sense him at all. Dread beat against the base of her throat. Her heart worked against itself, crescendoing until it raced out of control. Adrenalin flooded her system. The absence jolted into clear focus...too clear...so clear it burned her inner sight with blindingly pure light.
Her lips formed his name in the silence: "Will?" The face that stared back at her in the mirror had faded to ghostly pale. Her throat was tight with apprehension as it gathered his name and pushed it into the room. "Will?"
She tapped the communicator pinned to her uniform, noting that her fingertips were colder than the metallic emblem beneath them. "Counselor Troi to Commander Riker," she demanded with a voice barely able to squeeze past the constriction that had worked its way into her chest. "Come in please."
Please, her mind begged. Please!
"What is it, Deanna?"
She deflated as if she were a balloon and he'd pricked her with a pin. "Will," she murmured, unable to keep the relief from bleeding into her tone. "Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right." He sounded irritated, but she felt nothing from him. Nothing at all. "What do you want?"
Troi's fingers tightened into her dressing room table. For the first time in years, she felt foolish...insecure in her own perceptions. The fact that it was Will Riker that made her feel that way not only angered her, it hurt. "I thought...I mean..." she stumbled awkwardly in an attempt to verbalize the depth of anxiety she'd felt for him. "I sensed...."
"I'm very busy, Counselor," Riker snapped. "I don't have time for this. If you have something to say, then say it."
Troi went cold clear to her toes. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Commander," she whispered. "Troi out."
For a long time, Deanna Troi stared at herself in the mirror and tried to decide if it was William Riker or herself who was not what they should be.
Beverly Crusher had gathered everything she needed, consulted with everyone she needed to consult with, and given the diagnostic program plenty of time to do the grunt work so she could get down to specifics. She strode into Sickbay only to find William Riker was no longer there.
"Where's Commander Riker?" she demanded hotly.
Ogawa glanced up from a strep culture she was mutating. "Commander Riker?" she echoed blankly.
Crusher waved at the empty diagnostic bed. "I was running a full diagnostic on him," she elaborated impatiently. "I told him not to move. "
Ogawa straightened. "He wasn't here when I got back from my break," the slight nurse reported with a wince of anticipatory dread. She had seen Crusher mad before; she'd seen her that way enough times not to want to see it again.
Beverly Crusher didn't disappoint her. "Damn that man!" the red-headed doctor fumed. She flung an expensive, but relatively unbreakable piece of equipment across the bay. "There's going to be hell to pay for this," she assured her nurse with a glare. "Computer! Locate Commander Riker."
"Commander Riker is currently on the bridge," the computer supplied pleasantly.
"Oh, he is, is he?" Crusher growled. "Well he won't be for long. Locate Captain Picard."
"Captain Picard is currently on Holodeck Three."
"Thank you," Crusher snarled. She started out the door.
"Shouldn't you just call him?" Ogawa ventured.
Crusher turned as she walked, leveling an angry glare at the nurse without interrupting her purposeful line for the door. "Oh, no," she assured the other woman. "I think this needs to be said in person. Somebody's head is gonna roll, and you can lay odds it's going to be wearing a beard! I'll be in Holodeck Three if you need me."
The door hissed shut over the doctor's angry retreat, and Alyssa Ogawa breathed a sigh of relief. As much as she liked Commander Riker, she was eternally grateful he was half a ship away at this particular moment. The last place in the world she would want to be right now was in William Riker's boots. The second to the last place she would want to be was anywhere close enough to William Riker's boots to get caught in the cross-fire.
"I don't care who you are, Doll," the waspish blonde secretary told Deanna Troi in a gratingly shrill voice. "When Mister Hill says he ain't seeing anybody, he ain't seeing anybody." Wrinkling her nose and flashing an insincere smile that was meant as an "I'm sorry" but came off more as a "Go away," the blonde went back to painting her already blood-red nails.
"If you'll just tell him..." Troi started patiently.
"Sorry," the secretary interrupted in a voice that was anything but sorry. This time, she didn't even bother to look up.
Deanna Troi threw her hands around in gestures of frustration. Her normally serene features filled with uncharacteristic irritation. "This is ridiculous!" she grumbled, sidestepping the scarred oak desk and its primping blonde occupant.
"Hey!" The blonde jumped to her feet with a clatter of heels against the hardwood floor. Her hands flapped in the air, partially as an expression of outraged indignation and partially to dry her wet nails.
Before the woman had a chance to interfere, Deanna Troi got to the door, gripped the metal handle, twisted, and pushed her way into Dixon Hill's private office. Picard glanced up. His eyebrows arched with surprise when they found a familiar, yet entirely unexpected visitor darkening his doorway.
"I told her you was busy, Dix," the blonde whined querulously from behind Troi's shoulder. "You want that I should call somebody?"
A self-conscious smile twisted into the captain's features. "That won't be necessary, Madeline," he assured the indignant secretary. He nodded slightly in greeting to Troi. "Counselor."
"Counselor?" Madeline echoed sharply. What had been merely indignation turned to suspicion. She eyed Troi distastefully. "You ain't consorting with mouthpieces now, are you Dix?" she demanded.
"That will be all, Madeline," Picard stated firmly. The secretary gave him a sour look and popped her gum at him, but she left the room, closing the door behind her.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Captain," Troi offered hesitantly.
"Not at all," Picard returned. Curiosity hid in the inflection of his voice. Curiosity, and not a little unease. "I was merely catching up on some paperwork in a more..." he glanced around the dingy office, "stimulating atmosphere than my quarters." He gestured to an empty chair and the counselor placed herself carefully in it. When she didn't offer an explanation, he took it upon himself to ask: "Is there something wrong?"
"Yes." She said it surely; but then her expression changed, and with it went her answer. "No." The dark eyes seemed confused, a rare expression indeed for those particular eyes. She settled on something halfway between the two extremes: "Perhaps."
Jean-Luc Picard folded his hands on the desk before him and fixed the Betazoid with an unflinching gaze. "Perhaps we should start at the beginning," he suggested.
Troi stood. She began to pace. In as many years as he'd known her, Picard had never seen Deanna Troi pace. It was a nervous habit, and Betazoids didn't have nervous habits. Perhaps because they maintained greater control over all aspects of their mental facilities (even those of which they were unaware), members of the empathic race didn't manifest their unease by engaging in undirected physical activity. They didn't twiddle their thumbs, they didn't tap their fingers, and they didn't pace.
Counselor Deanna Troi of Betazed was, nevertheless, pacing.
"I'm not sure..." she started from across the room, her delicate features shrouded in the mysterious shadows of a dreary corner.
Before she could finish the statement, or even properly start it, the door to Troi's immediate left flung violently open. The yellowed pane of glass shattered as it slammed against the wall behind it. Troi yelped. Though her hand flew instinctively to her mouth, it was only half successful in its attempt to squelch the sound before it escaped.
There was a man in the open doorway. Or more accurately, a mountain of a man. He was at least six foot seven, and a good three hundred pounds. Close-set, too-small eyes glared from scarred, jowly features as hands like sides of beef raised a tommy gun and aimed it point blank at the surprised detective/captain. Fleetingly, Picard wondered why it was that the shrill-voiced Madeline who invariably detained various members of his crew--much to their frustration--in the waiting room outside his office always managed to take a powder when the real bad guys came calling. He decided it must be a flaw in the author's material, and, as the behemoth's finger whitened on the trigger, he made a mental note to investigate and program compensation for the inconsistency.
"Freeze program," Picard ordered calmly. The intruder obediently froze, a single bullet already emerging from the tommy-gun's snout. The captain turned back to Troi. "You were saying?" he prompted.
Troi flinched. She had to close her eyes over the surrealism of the huge man and his bullet-spitting gun before she could re-gathered her thoughts and start again. "You know that Commander Riker and I have a...a bond of sorts," she ventured slowly, skirting the scowling, frozen hologram as she crossed the room to its only empty chair. When she reached her destination, Troi sank into it like she was too tired to remain standing.
"That I sense his emotions more easily that others. That I am aware of what he is feeling, at least subconsciously, at all times."
Again, Picard nodded.
The counselor drew a deep breath. "I'm not," she said, raising dark eyes to meet her captain's inquisitive gaze. "Not at all. Not anything."
"You're not sensing Commander Riker's emotions?" Picard ventured, hesitant.
Troi shook her head sharply, impatiently. "I'm not sensing anything from him." Her hands clenched to fists. "No emotions...no sense of self...nothing. It's as if..." She wavered. "...as if he's not there anymore!"
Picard mulled the counselor's claim over, giving it serious consideration from several angles before addressing it. "Could he be blocking you?" he suggested finally.
"He could block me," Troi answered. She straightened in the chair, leaning forward until she sat balanced only on the rim of it. "He could hide his emotions, his reactions, his thoughts..." her voice trembled, "but not his self. I would feel him, sense him..." Her voice broke altogether, and she let the sentence hang incomplete in the room between them.
Picard gazed at Troi for a very long time in silence. He noted the tremble in her hands, the tight set of her jaw and the way her delicate fingers clenched at one another. He could count the times he'd seen her this upset on one hand. Where another might have found himself tempted to minimize her claim, Picard took it as seriously as he would have taken an engine overload warning from LaForge, or a quarantine advisory from Beverly Crusher.
"What are you saying, Deanna?" he asked when she'd had a moment to recompose herself.
Troi drew a deep breath. Though her hands clenched fiercely to fists again, the action didn't seem enough to bolster her resolve. Her lips still trembled when they parted to speak. "I pray that I'm wrong, Captain," she told him quietly, "but I think Will Riker is dead, and we have an intruder on the bridge."
He couldn't wait any longer. His hands were trembling. He knew his skin had gone white again from the way it felt cold on his bones. The racing pulse of his heart was beginning to burn in his chest.
He had to go home.
He had to escape.
"Mister Raleigh," Riker spoke into the bridge's complacent silence. He stood to give the order more substance. "Prepare to change heading."
Picard and Troi were nearly to the turbolift when it opened and expelled a seething Beverly Crusher.
"There you are!" she snapped in a voice that made the captain flinch in spite of himself. "We have a problem. More accurately, you have a problem." Her eyes burned with righteous fire. "And his name is William Riker."
"You are relieved, Mister Raleigh," Riker growled. His expression was taunt with rage that came on like a squall on a clear summer day. Tad Raleigh could do little more that stare in blank amazement at his superior officer.
"Remove yourself from the bridge, or I shall have you removed," Riker threatened.
"Sir...I..." The young ensign was trembling with confusion and despair. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."
"Mister Worf," Riker summoned dangerously.
Raleigh pushed himself to his feet, catching awkwardly long limbs on the console in his haste to retreat. His eyes were wide as he backed away from Riker and toward the safety of the turbolift.
As soon as he was certain the young helmsman was going to comply, Riker spun on Data and repeated his original order. "Lay in new coordinates and engage, Warp Nine."
Data blinked only once. "As Ensign Raleigh pointed out," the android informed Riker calmly, "I am unable to initiate a course change from our current destination without direct authorization from the captain."
Riker turned purple. He stepped threateningly toward the android, seething; but Data's only reaction was a slight tilt of his head as if he were intrigued by the response.
The turbolift hissed open, and Picard strode onto the bridge. Beverly Crusher was right on his heels, but Deanna Troi lingered behind. She remained near the lift, watching Riker with a sense of despair that shone out her eyes.
"Commander Riker," Picard snapped, making a beeline for the ready room with a frigidity to his expression that made the first officer's fury seem congenial by comparison. "In my Ready Room. Now."
Riker's lip curled away from his teeth. "No."
The single word froze all action on the bridge. Raleigh hung suspended between retreat and the hope that Picard's re-emergence onto the bridge might bring some order, and with it, a chance at reinstatement to his post. Several technicians gaped at the first officer in unabashed disbelief. Even Worf seemed astounded.
Picard turned slowly. "Excuse me?" he said slowly, quietly, even though there was no possibility he'd missed the response the first time.
"This is my bridge," Riker raged. "My watch, my bridge. Your presence is not required." He turned his back deliberately on the captain and bent over the navigation console to key in the change of course himself.
"You are relieved, Commander Riker."
Riker spun on the captain. His eyes were wide with stun. The expression took over his features, running the rage off as if it had never been.
"Report to Sickbay, immediately." Picard stepped forward. "That is an order."
"You can't relieve me," Riker pleaded. He sounded more like a child than a man considered by some to be the finest first officer in Starfleet. "I didn't...I'm sorry I..." Riker's hands knotted into fists. He pulled them to his temples and pressed them there, the knuckles digging into flesh like pain would give him some sort of answer. "Too much," he whispered. His eyes screwed themselves shut and remained that way as if they could hide him from something no one else saw. "Too much."
Picard descended the ramp slowly, his eyes evaluating Riker as he approached. "What is too much, Will?" he asked carefully.
Riker's eyes popped open. "This." His arm swung in a broad arc that included them all. "All of this. Too much. Out of control." His expression was an illustration of need. "We must go home."
Picard glanced over his shoulder. "Counselor?" he asked quietly.
Riker's expression softened. He smiled. "Deanna."
Picard smiled as well. "Yes. Deanna."
"It's not Will," Troi whispered. She sensed Worf stiffen. His wave of suspicion and anger assaulted her.
For a long moment, no one said a thing. It was Data who finally broke the silence. "Shall I re-instate our original course, sir?" he inquired hesitantly.
Fear leapt into Riker's features. "No!!" He stepped forward, catching Picard's arm by the wrist. Worf drew his phaser. "We must," Riker forced out between gritted teeth, "Go home." Each word struggled to escape his lips. "Go home," he grunted. "Go home."
"You are hurting me, Will," Picard told the first officer gently. His wrist was turning purple. Bones popped like small explosions in the silence. "Let me go."
Troi felt something. She saw something in the way Riker gaped at the captain's twisted wrist.
"Will?" she breathed.
Riker spun at the sound of her voice. When his eyes met Troi's, he froze. "Deanna?" He released Picard and took one step toward her, but what she'd sensed was gone. She shrank away, and the stun beam of Worf's phaser lanced out, tagging the first officer square above the heart.
Riker faltered. He didn't take the step he was about to take, but neither did he fall. Instead, he blinked, looking like a child who had awakened from a bad dream. "What in the hell...?" he started, a confused frown darkening the bearded features.
Troi's expression changed. "Will?" Hope sparked in her eyes as she lunged forward.
Picard lifted a hand to ward off the second shot Worf was preparing to fire.
"Will?" Troi demanded, grabbing his arm when she got close enough. "Will! Answer me." She shook him. "Answer me!"
Riker looked at her in confusion. His mouth formed the words, but he seemed unable to expel them.
"No!" She shook him again, harder. "Stay with me, Will. Fight, damn it, fight!"
There was panic, rather than confusion in Riker's expression now. He didn't look like he could breathe. His eyes rolled back in his head until only the whites of them showed.
"Imzadi!!" Troi fairly shrieked.
"Imzadi," he repeated. It was not Riker's voice. His eyes focused on the counselor, and he dragged her closer when she tried to pull away. "Take Us home," Riker demanded, pleaded. His fingers dug into her arm. "Home, Imzadi," he repeated fiercely. "Home."
"His vital signs are still erratic, Jean-Luc," Beverly Crusher told Picard as she studied the medical scanner nestled in her palm. She set the device aside, and turned to place a hand on Riker's throat, and then his cheek, and finally, flat on his chest, over his heart. Though his eyes tracked her movements dully, there was nothing of Will Riker in their gaze. "If I give him any more cordrazine, we risk throwing him into cardiac arrest."
"How much longer until we reach the spatial cloud?" Picard demanded tersely.
"Two point seven three hours at present speed," Data responded.
Picard's eyes narrowed. He watched the stiff way his first officer sat in the chair, the way Riker's fingers curled into the padded arms like talons. Though he flinched whenever the doctor touched him, Riker reacted in no other way to her examination. He merely stared straight ahead...at nothing.
"He won't last that long," the doctor stated firmly.
"Increase to warp nine, Mister Raleigh," Picard ordered.
"Increasing to warp nine," Tad Raleigh verified.
"Spatial cloud directly ahead," Data announced.
Riker's white-knuckled grip on Troi's hand didn't loosen at all, but his eyes focused in from their pointless gaze and swung around the bridge until they found the main viewscreen. His lips parted in an attempt to speak, but they'd lost the coordination. All he could manage was a trembling sigh. His eyes, however, watched the swirling mists that swam in the black of space like a man born blind watching his first sunset.
"Slow to half impulse," Picard ordered. "Let us drift through it...gently."
"Slowing to half impulse," Raleigh acknowledged.
The Enterprise never made it into the swirling cloud. As they drifted forward, the mists on the viewscreen bled onto the bridge. They formed themselves into three separate wraiths of varying hue and intensity.
"Steady, Mister Worf," Picard cautioned.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the wraiths began to move. They twisted their way around the bridge, exploring, swirling around furniture and sentient beings like the damp mists of the Irish highlands.
"They don't register as lifeforms at all," Beverly Crusher informed the captain sotto voce. "I'm reading an incredible array of uncatalogued trace elements, but nothing identifiable as organic."
"Scan for magnetic fields," Lieutenant Jolliet suggested from the science station.
Data's fingers skipped over several controls. "I am registering a specific envelope of magnetic activity for each entity," the android reported after a moment. "There are also significant occurrences of posilinear cohesion and endocrematic secretions." He looked up from his console. "It is quite possible they are sentient, Captain."
One of the wraiths discovered Worf. It circled the tense Klingon several times, and then descended over him in a blanket of smoke. Picard and Crusher both took an instinctive step forward.
As quickly as it covered the security chief, it uncovered him. Flickers of light worked themselves through the wraith's core. After a moment, it retreated and continued on its way.
"Mister Worf?" Picard demanded.
"Nothing, sir," Worf responded, his eyes trying to watch all three entities at the same time.
After another several moments of exploration, the wraiths converged, one by one, on Riker's tense, almost catatonic form. Weaving themselves into a single being, they began an intricate dance that all but obscured the first officer in smoke and mist and color. The sparks began again. They bounced off Riker's waxy flesh and clustered near his heart and his lungs. The wraiths' coloration fluctuated like a frightened chameleon. The display reeked of agitation.
"His vitals have evened out a bit," Crusher offered without having to be asked.
"The entities?" Picard asked cautiously.
Crusher shook her head. "I don't know."
One of the wraiths broke away from the others. It drifted lazily across the room and settled over Ensign Raleigh's hands. The young officer jerked from the console like it had suddenly grown too hot to touch, but he didn't abandon his post. He waited, watching like the rest of them as the wraith sank slowly into the helm. Almost immediately, whistles and alarms began to sound. The bridge lighting blinked crazily and went red.
"Engineering to Bridge," LaForge's voice snapped across the silence. "The engines just went off line. Systems are shutting themselves down all over the ship. What in the...?"
"Maintain life support integrity at all costs, Mister LaForge," Picard ordered calmly. "Stand by."
"Shields are up," Worf growled. "No. They are down again. Up..." The Klingon's features twisted with frustration. "Shields fluctuating," he compromised.
"The Being Data," the computer's voice boomed over the order Picard was about to issue. "We ask to enter."
Data glanced to Picard, one eyebrow raised in question.
"Who are you?" Picard answered the request with a demand.
"We cannot control this vessel," the computer countered. "Too much. Must communicate. Ask to enter. Answer, Being Data."
As abruptly as it began, the mechanical malfunctions ceased. The wraith re-emerged from the console. It hovered between Ensign Raleigh and Data.
"We have the engines back," LaForge offered from engineering.
"Shields up," Worf announced firmly.
"Captain?" Data inquired.
Picard glanced at Riker. His mind worked furiously with the limited options available to him. "I cannot order you..." he began.
"If granting access to the entity will increase our chances of reclaiming Commander Riker," Data stated quickly into the Captain's hesitation, "then I volunteer."
"There may be no way to excise this creature once it enters," Picard warned. "You could well end up in the same condition as Commander Riker."
Data turned his head to regard the first officer. "I have no autonomic nervous system for the entity to interfere with," he observed logically. "I do not believe it will be life-threatening for me to interface with them. Furthermore, it is very possible that, in choosing me, the entities have also considered this factor and come to a similar conclusion." Data focused his unblinking gaze once again on Jean-Luc Picard. "Requesting permission to accept the entity's invitation."
Picard's lips tightened to a grim line. "Permission granted," he allowed tersely.
Data turned to face the wraith. He extended one hand until it pierced the curtain of smoke. The entity seemed to understand the gesture. It crawled up Data's arm, over his shoulder, up his neck and disappeared in a single breath down the android's throat.
Data lurched to his feet. His body spasmed several times before he came to a complete standstill. Every line of his body was clenched with tense energy.
Slowly, the android smiled. He turned clumsily, gazing at the bridge in rapt wonder. His own hands caught his attention, and he watched them open and close.
"Amazing," Data muttered. "So complex. So intricate."
"Who are you?" Picard demanded, stepping forward.
Data raised his eyes slowly, focusing on the captain with some difficulty. "We are," he stated as if it were an answer. "There is much sorrow if We caused loss. We meant to experience, not to harm."
"Then release my officer," Picard countered.
"Cannot," Data answered. "We are with him too much. So complex. We are tangled."
"Then untangle yourself," Picard snapped. "You are killing him."
"He is killing Us," Data responded.
"I'm losing him, Jean-Luc," Beverly Crusher told Picard. "His heart-rate's elevated into the critical zone. He's going to arrest any moment."
Troi twisted in her chair at Riker's side. Her hand was still clenched around his, but her eyes were frantic. "Can't you do anything?" Troi demanded of the android.
"We cannot," Data answered. He stepped closer, eyes intent on the counselor. "You can," he said suddenly. "You can untangle."
"How?" Troi pleaded.
"Allow Us enter," Data said. "You can untangle. Only you. Riker trusts the Imzadi. He will answer you."
"No." Picard stated firmly.
Troi lurched to her feet. "Yes," she countered.
Picard stepped in to her, grabbing her by the arms. "It is too dangerous, Deanna," he insisted. "You've seen what they did to Riker's emotions, what they're doing to his body."
"Data isn't being affected," she argued desperately.
"Data had no emotions to tangle them." the captain reasoned. "You have too many. More than any of us, you cannot afford to allow them in. They won't be able to leave you, and I'll have two dead officers."
"Instead of just one?" Troi retorted. Her eyes were frantic.
Riker convulsed in his seat. His limbs tightened, and then he slumped back into the chair like a man whose bones had been taken away. "He's in cardiac arrest," Crusher announced grimly. She shuffled equipment to try and counter the new development.
Data cried out. "Dying." He clutched at his chest with one hand. "We are dying." He looked directly at Troi. "Help Us."
"Yes." Troi answered. She pulled from Picard's grip and turned to the two wraiths who were swirling around Will Riker's slack form like small, multi-colored tornadoes. "Yes. I will help."
One of the wraiths broke off and engulfed the counselor. She jolted stiff as it disappeared down her throat. Her hands clenched to fists and rose to press at her face.
The pain was obvious. Her fragile frame began to tremble. Slowly, Deanna Troi's eyes opened. She gazed about herself with the same awe that had been in Data's eyes, but it was tempered by an expression of tense agony that ate at her delicate features. Trembling violently, she stepped toward Riker and fell at his side.
"Imzadi," she called.
Beverly Crusher ceased her futile attempts to revive the first officer's heart and pulled back to allow the counselor room to work.
"Come to me." Troi's cheek followed her hands, resting against Riker's dead-white flesh, "Come to me. Find me. Find Us. We are here. Call to Us. Show Us where to come."
A single, tiny wisp of mist rose from Riker's waxen lips.
"Yes," the counselor murmured. Her fingers moved to his lips, as did her mouth. "We are here. Come to Us." She breathed slowly, while he did not breathe at all. "Hold to Us. Come with Us."
Will Riker gasped, and Deanna Troi stumbled away. She turned in circles, her hands extended to the length of their arms in a macabre mimic of a child's game.
"We are dying," she keened. "We are dying."
Before the others could move, Data took a decisive step into the circular pattern of her dance. He caught one out-flung hand and then the other, pulling Troi to him.
The android kissed her.
Deanna Troi crumpled.
Crusher moved in as Data moved out. She ran a quick scan of the counselor and nodded approval into Picard's expectantly tense gaze.
The bridge took on an eerie silence. Every gaze turned to Data, watching the precisely motionless android. His amber eyes were rolled back in his head. The slack expression reflected no life whatsoever. The remaining wraith whirled about him in a wild rushing of smoke and air.
"Data?" Picard ventured. He took a step closer.
"Captain," Worf growled. "I would advise against touching the remaining entity."
"Noted, Mister Worf," Picard allowed without taking his eyes off of Data. "Data? Can you hear me?"
The android shuddered. His expression relaxed into something familiar, and he turned directly to Picard. Thin lips drew themselves into a toothy grin.
"We are," he announced with a definable aura of satisfaction. His fingers stretched to their limits, and the motion moved to his hands, and then his arms. It didn't stop until the android was standing, arms flung wide and face turned up the ceiling above. "We ARE." Data laughed with unmitigated delight. "WE ARE!"
"Can you release my officer?" Picard demanded.
Data turned to him with the expression of a child interrupted at play. He drew one deep breath, and then another. A laugh bubbled up from the bottoms of his toes. "We can," Data verified. His eyes sparkled like someone enjoying a private joke.
"Do so," Picard ordered.
"We do," Data agreed. But first, he turned away from the captain and approached Troi. "We thank Troi," Data told her. "She has saved Us."
And then he turned to Riker. Although the first officer was conscious, he looked too tired to sit upright. Haggard features reflected the strain put on his system, as did the quiet way he tolerated Crusher's tendings.
"We are sorry," Data told him sincerely. "We did not mean to harm."
Though Riker nodded, he couldn't manage anything more.
Then Data turned back to the captain. "We have experienced Human," the android told Picard. "We will not again."
"Thank you," Picard responded.
"No." Data shook his head, smiling. "We thank you." He held his hands before himself and flexed them slowly, watching each move that each finger made. The sense of awe was tangible on his straight features. "Human is..." Data looked up. "We have no word." His smile grew pensive. "We will not forget. We will never forget."
He laughed suddenly. His gaze swung back to Riker and his eyes fairly glowed. "We will not forget Jelissa," the android vowed fervently. Then he sank into the chair before the ops console and turned to face the viewscreen.
"We go," Data stated simply.
Color and smoke swirled around the android for a moment. The volume of the waiting wraith quadrupled. Slowly, like the mists of morning retreating before a rising sun, they seeped back to the space from which they had come.
"Data?" Picard queried tentatively.
"I am quite well, Captain," Data verified, turning to face his commanding officer.
The tension bled out of Picard's shoulders, as it did half the crew's. "Can you tell me anything about them ?" he asked, eyes skipping to the spectacular display of color that writhed on the main viewscreen. The show exuded a sense of emotion. Picard wondered fleetingly if it was a form of communication between the wraiths, or their attempt to communicate with the Humans.
"They are entities of exploration and knowledge. They seek out new lifeforms, new experiences. There is no concept of aggression within their frame of reference."
"I don't know, Data," Riker offered from his chair. Although Crusher wasn't finished with him, he looked much better. His eyes were clearer, his features less drawn. The smile resting in his lips seemed to be an expression of relief just to be alive. Beneath the smile, however, a stain of exhaustion still shadowed his eyes. "I got pretty aggressive when they had hold of me." He glanced at the captain. Wry embarrassment twisted his expression.
"You remember what went on?" Picard queried.
"As I understand them," Data continued, "they absorb emotions, sensory input, anything that is a part of the experience. That is why Counselor Troi lost all contact with you. There were no emotions to sense. The entities absorbed them as they formed."
"How did you know I lost contact with Will?" Troi interrupted. "I didn't tell you that."
Data cocked his head to one side. "They did," he answered as if it were self-evident. "They experienced your loss. They grieved with you." He turned back to Riker. "Your aggression was your own, Commander," he told the first officer, "as was your joy, your sorrow, your fear. The entities merely blocked all avenues of inhibition, so that you might allow them to experience it fully. But it was too much for them. They became confused. Disoriented. They became tangled in your nervous system and could not escape." Data looked to Picard. "They panicked, sir."
"You refer to the entity as 'they,' Data. Why?"
"The entities are of a collective conscience," the android explained, "but also individuals unto themselves. If the wraith inhabiting Commander Riker had died, they would have all died."
"The entire race?" Riker asked, surprised.
"Yes, sir. The entire race."
The entire bridge crew digested this for a long moment without comment.
"Well, Commander Riker," Picard stated when the silence became stagnant. "I believe I speak for us all when I say we are all glad you did not die."
Riker laughed. It was a coarse, abrasive sound, but one of sincere amusement. "Thank you, sir," he murmured.
Picard smiled, an expression that reached behind his eyes. "You are quite welcome, Number One."
"You are also due in Sickbay for a full physical." Beverly Crusher informed the first officer as she stood. She glanced to Troi. "You too, Deanna."
Riker pushed himself to his feet, but he didn't look any too steady there. He winced. "Can't it wait until I've gotten some sleep?" he groused good-naturedly.
"No, it can't." Crusher gestured toward the turbolift, and both Riker and Troi headed that direction. "But you can sleep while I'm running it, if you like."
Riker grunted. "I doubt that," he retorted. "I've been through your physicals before, remember? Not even I can could sleep through that!"
Crusher raised an eyebrow. "I guess it all depends on how tired you really are," she countered.
The three of them entered the turbolift together, Riker in the middle. Troi glanced up at him. A coy smiled curled into her lips.
"Jelissa?" she asked innocently.
Riker developed a much worse headache than he already had. One hand reached for his forehead as the other reached behind him for the support of the turbolift wall.
"Oh, God..." Riker groaned as the doors hissed shut.
On the bridge, Jean-Luc Picard tried very hard not to smile.