by F.J.Verduin

Chapter one: Encounters -----------------------

Stardate 43335.5, Captains log: "The Enterprise is currently investigating the Salora-system, a previously uncharted system that so far has promised nothing new. We are scheduled to finish our investigation in a few days, after which I suspect the crew and I will be in desperate need of some well-deserved shore leave."
As the steam prevented her to look at her reflection in the mirror, she used her towel to wipe it clean. The remaining drops of water that ran down her face were easily taken care of as well, and she began gently to rub the towel against her lower leg. Bending forward, stretching her foot, leg and arms to their limits, she wiped her leg dry.
After she had repeated the process with her other leg she heard the chime. Some-one at the door! She wasn't expecting anyone, but Deanna hurried to wipe most of the drops from her body before she grabbed her bathrobe. Still trying to get into the thing she heard the chime sound again. "Who is it?", she asked rather loudly, still engaged in a battle with her robe she seemed to be losing.
"Lt. Worf, Counselor. Could I speak with you?"
"Yes, just a minute, I'm ... busy!" she shouted as she stumbled out of her bathroom. On her bare feet she tiptoed toward the table where she grabbed her brush. She straightened out her hair with a few brush-strokes before turning to the door and spoke the magic words "Come in!"
The Klingon security officer walked in, immediately startled by the Counselor appearance. He had not thought he could be disturbing her at such a ... private moment. He averted his face, and made a stumbling apology.
"Excuse me, I didn't know ..." Deanna had no need of her empathic talents to realize the position she'd put Worf in and she tried to reassure him.
"Please don't go, come in and sit down." It seemed to help somewhat, at least it made Worf stop looking at a fixed point on the wall. Deanna decided it to be best if she went back into the bathroom quickly, so Worf would have some time to recuperate. "Get something to drink while I go and put something on"
"Yes, that would be ... best.", he said while slowly looking over his shoulder. "Of course I would not have come by if I had known you'd ... ." It didn't seem necessary to finish the sentence, mainly because the counselor had left the room already. Besides, he thought to himself, wouldn't he?
Worf looked around Counselor Troi's cabin. While it breathed a definite female atmosphere, he found it not altogether unpleasant. His eyes found the replicator to his right and he walked to it.
"Computer, prune-juice." A glass, with the purple drink he'd grown accustomed to drinking in the last year, appeared out of nothing in the niche in the wall. He took the glass and started to walk to the couch in the middle of the room when he remembered something. He turned back to the niche. "Computer, hot chocolate.", he said. "Add some whipped cream." Worf had heard her ordering it several times at Ten Forward, and recalled her enjoying the drink immensely. The glass materialized as ordered, and Worf took it with his remaining free hand. Curiously he smelled the sweet odor and grunted softly: "NOT a warrior's drink!"
When Deanna got out of her 'bathroom' she had already put on her uniform, and smiled as she saw Worf sitting on her couch enjoying his juice. Her smile got even bigger as she saw the chocolate he'd gotten for her. Quickly she walked to the couch, telling Worf to keep seated. With both hands she took the glass to her mouth and sat down next to him. The first sip was always the best, and she closed her eyes to enjoy it to the fullest.
Worf looked at her while she drank, and it made him feel good. He was happy to have remembered it!
"Now Worf, what did you want to ask me?" Deanna began and she turned toward Worf who seemed to look at her in a strange way. She gave him a questioning look. "What's so fun- ny?" she asked.
"You have some ... here ... ." Worf moved his right hand toward her face to indicate some cream that was there. He controlled his urge to touch her, and pulled his hand back. Deanna touched her upper lip and discovered the cream. With the tip of her index finger she traced her lip, scooping the cream. When she reached her other cheek, she inserted it in her mouth and sucked it clean.
"Thank you. It must have looked quite funny indeed.". Her lips produced a smile bigger than she had intended to. "Now, your question?"
"It concerns my son, Alexander.". Wolf face turned to its regular grim look. The tone at which he spoke suggested to Deanna that Worf's problems with his sun were bigger than he had let known to her before, and his feelings were hard to misread. She had, in a way, gotten used to him 'dropping in' on her from time to time to talk about Alexander, but his problems with his son would seem to occur more and more regular these days.
"Alexander's behavior is not acceptable. He refuses to accept the Klingon code of honor by constantly disobeying me, and it dishonors both me and him.'. He rose and looked at Deanna, almost gazing at her. Then he quickly looked away. "My apologies, counselor. I have bothered you long enough with my problems. It is time to deal with them myself, and I cannot allow you to burden yourself with something that is so obviously my own fault."
With large steps the warrior moved toward the door, and went through it before Deanna could say anything, leaving her alone on the couch. Her face had that puzzled look. Worf's troubles had been genuine enough, she had no doubts about that. But still ... somewhere behind all those emotions about his son, and even his memories of K'Ehleyr when he spoke of Alexander, she sensed something else, something ... caring. But the images fled from her mind as she tried to concentrate on them. Finally she gave up, returning to her hairbrush. And then the ground moved under her feet.
"Senior officers to the bridge, condition red!". Will Riker's voice woke her from her daydreaming. Running from her quarters to turbolift four she prepared herself for the worst as she felt the Enterprise slowly rocking under her feet.
"Helm, reverse thrusters, full impulse". Jean-Luc Picard's eyes were firmly fixed on the screen in front of him, trying to find something there that caused the trembling but to no avail. Nothing out of the ordinary. "Bridge to Engineering! Geordi, what happened to our warp-drive?" "I couldn't say captain. Everything down here just went ... dead! Like the energy was drained from the warp core it- self. But that would be impossible." Something in LaForge's voice told Picard that the engineer had probably hit the nail right on the head with that remark. Another quiver went through the ship.
"Helm just went of-line, Sir!", the helmsman reported, while he was tapping on a console that a second before had still been lit.
"Work on it, ensign! Geordi, we need those warp-engines back!", Riker interceded. "Data, what's out there?" "Sensors are registering something impacting with our shields, Commander. Gravitational ... forces ... seem to move in orbit around the Enterprise. Some of them have hit us, but we have sustained no damage. And Sir, I believe they are responsible for our sudden loss of power."
Meanwhile counselor Troi stood in the turbo-lift when something mentally 'hit' her with a magnitude of power she'd never encountered before. With a loud moan she fell to her hands and knees, struggling to rise again while the lift was shaking violently. As the feeling got even stronger she stopped her efforts to get up and remained on the floor.
Picard noted the pause in Data's remark "Explain, mr. Data, what do you mean with 'forces'?". Data turned around.
"Captain! Although nothing showed on our sensor scans something is definitely out there. The frequency of the impacts and varying locations suggest a multitude of disturbances around us, Sir. It would seem from the readings the disturbances are of a gravitational nature, like a black hole only far less powerful." A sudden signal from his console made Data turn again. "Sir, sensors are failing. It would almost seem ... whatever is out there is 'feeding' of the Enterprise.
A warningsound from his computer console made Worf look up. "Sensors showed something has penetrated the shields and has attached itself to our hull, Captain!", Worf reported, "Hull-integrity on decks fifteen through twenty-two is down to 60%. Deck twenty-three has been breached. Emergency forcefields are not responding! Shield-energy is dropping rapidly!".
At that moment, the turbo-lift halted between levels due to the shockwaves. Deanna was laying on the floor, almost knocked senseless from the surge of emotions, of pain going through her. Trying to ignore the torment she reached for her comm. pin. "Troi to ... ." Another surge went through the ship, and the turbo-lift fell several floors before it came to a standstill again. Deanna was thrown into one of the liftwalls and fell back to the floor.
"Inertial dampeners cannot fully compensate for the dis- turbances due to lack of power, captain!". Data stated, while his fingers were tapping at an unbelievable speed at the con- trols.
"Shields down to 35% and still dropping. Emergency force- fields are up, Captain, but I don't know for how long.", Worf stated, "One minute, five seconds before shields will collapse." Looking at his console, the lights seemed to dim, then die, but then appear again after a moment.
"Suggestions?". Picard looked at Will Riker, now standing behind the weapons console besides lt. Worf. No power, no helm-control and no clue what they'd gotten themselves into this time. Riker started to utter a command to Data, but then saw the confused android as the controls in front of him slow- ly faded and then died under his fingers, just like the others. Not much more even Data could do now, unless ...
"Deanna?". His head turning towards her seat he already knew she wasn't there. But where then? Nobody had paid much attention to her absence, but Will did now. His fingers tapped the pin on his chest. "Riker to Counselor Troi! Deanna, where are you?".
A large jolt went though the ship that almost knocked all of the crew to the floor. "Shields now at 17% and dropping fast! Thirty seconds!"
Despite of her anguish, Deanna tried to recall the feel- ing she had after Worf'd left her quarters before. It hadn't seemed that important then, but now .... Why? But she still didn't understand, nor hold the feeling as the suffering grew in her mind. Then she could no longer keep it inside and screamed. Her hands grasping at her hair, pulling at it and tearing locks from her head. She could not believe the pain, the agony she felt. And after a final scream, one that hardly seemed human anymore, she closed her eyes. She never heard the message coming from her pin.
Everybody on the bridge looked at the center-stage. Picard rose from his chair and stumbled towards the helm, trying to aid the ensign. "LaForge, you're really pushing the timelimit here. We need power NOW!".
"I'm ....ry, Ca...ain, there's not..........ore I can!". The cracking sounds indicated that even the comm. system was failing them.
Worf stood behind the console which seemed the only one still operative on the bridge. "Shields now at 10%, approximately eight seconds left." Without shields, he knew, the Enterprise wouldn't stand a chance. He was prepared for the end, as any Klingon warrior. His only regret was his son was not with him.
Back in the turbo-lift, Troi was barely conscious from the flood of emotions coming at her when the words "No more ... please no more" came from her lips. But no-one heard.
The starfield-view on the main screen was breaking up. No lights were on on the bridge, except for the red-alert light. Everybody on the bridge stared at the flickering screen, al- most in shock, not believing it could end this way. And then the screen went dark before their eyes.

Chapter two: Clues ------------------

"What happened?" Riker's face showed his astonishment as the lights came back up. "This isn't possible! We should be gone by now."
"I must disagree with you, Sir. We are here, and alive, therefore it *is* possible!". Data's comment to Riker's remark, unintentionally funny, livened the atmosphere on the bridge a little. "Power to the systems seems to be partially restored Captain. Minimal sensor scan-range is available at this time. Life-support systems are operational. Communications are out. Shields ..." Data accessed his panel. "Shields are still down, Sir." "Lt. Worf," Picard ordered his security officer,"I want casualty reports from all decks. Mr. Data, analysis! What happened just now?"
"I do not know, Sir, it would seem the disturbances ceased just before our shields fully collapsed. Sensors are still not registering anything. I have no explanation about what happened."
"Conn. systems still of-line, Captain." The helmsman responded to Picard's questioning eyes. "Impulse drive is not available."
"Thank you, ensign." Picard touched his pin. "Bridge to Engineering. How is it looking down there with you, Geordi?"
"Too early to say, Captain. It ain't good, I can tell you that. Warp-drive is out, and the fusion impulse-engine reactor got most of the last impacts to the hull. It will take at least half an hour to get a complete assessment of the damages. Estimated repair time at this time ... thirty-six hours. And that's a minimum, Sir."
Worf interrupted before Picard could answer. "Sir, casualty-reports coming in. Over one hundred and twenty light- wounded, but ... eighteen crewmembers are reporting missing, Sir." The Klingon swallowed before he continued. "From deck twenty-three."
The report left the Picard overwhelmed. "The emergency force-fields?", he asked. He already knew the response.
"They were not activated until sixteen seconds after the hull was breached, Sir. They never stood a chance."
Picard heard the hissing sound of the turbo-lift doors opening. It seemed power was being restored to some of the other systems as well. It made him regain some of his optimism, despite the news he'd just heard. But then he saw Counselor Troi, lying unconscious in the lift. "Picard to doctor Crusher. Medical emergency! On the bridge!". He didn't wait for a reply but ran straight for her, closely followed by Will Riker.
Some time after that, Deanna awoke with a massive headache. Her eyes met Beverly's, and she managed a smile, but only briefly. "What happened?"
"That seems to be a popular question these days." Glad Deanna was awake she returned the smile. "You were found out cold in the turbo-lift. Do you remember anything about what happened?"
"No, I just ... wait, now I remember. Emotions. It was awful, a surge of emotions that was ... so painful." She tried to rise from the hospital-bed as she spoke. "Ow! That hurts.". She reached for her head. "You have a mild head-trauma.", explained Beverly. "It probably happened when the ship was shaking. The turbo-lift must have been one of the worst places to be in at that time. You're lucky to have gotten out of there at all."
"Yeah, ... lucky me." She replied and relaxed. "You're not the one whose brain feels like someone just stepped on it."
At that moment Picard and Riker entered the room. Seeing her, Will greeted her with a concerned look on his face. "Deanna, are you all right?"
"I wouldn't be here if I were, Will. Captain?". Her eyes went over to meet Picard's, who looked even more worried than Riker. But it wasn't just about her, she could feel that. And then she remembered something else, something she encountered during the agonizing events in the lift. People in pain, dying. "My god, they all died, didn't they?", she said.
He had been thinking of little else the last moments, and understood immediately what she was referring to. "Yes Counselor, I'm afraid we have lost eighteen members of our crew today. Although I would give anything to change that." Picard frowned. "But I'm glad to see that you're o.k., you gave us quite a scare." Deanna listened to the captain as he filled her her in on the events that had happened to them on the bridge. Meanwhile, doctor Crusher watched Deanna's vital signs as they came up. Much of the medical equipment was still cut off from power, and the many wounded that were being treated down in cargobay two were not getting the care she'd liked to provide them with. 'Lucky, Deanna', she thought, 'You're still one lucky girl.'
"Data, what are the readings on those warp coils now? Any improvement?". Sliding from under the console and putting the panel back in place, Geordi LaForge was finishing one of the first major repairs to the warp-drive systems.
"Yes Geordi. That seems to work quite satisfactory. I believe we should be able to perform a level-2 diagnostic on the control-conduits after a few more modifications."
"I'm on that right now." The engineer went over to a screen on the other wall, and tapped the controls to reroute the energyflow coming from the warp core. But as he did, noth- ing happened.
"We're supposed to get some additional power at least, but ... nothing. Data, how can that be?". LaForge stepped over to another console.
"I do not know, Geordi. The modifications you have made were supposed to be sufficient. I cannot say where ...."
"Bridge to Engineering!", the comm. system sounded with lt. Worf's voice. "We are registering a huge power buildup down with you. Can you clarify?"
"No, we can't!", Geordi said, "We've rerouted warp power to the shields now, but we're not getting any readings down here." LaForge looked at the readings on the screen. No addi- tional power was being delivered to either the shields or the nacelles. They read the same pattern as before. Then he looked at Data, whose head had tilted slightly. Whenever he had problems processing information, he tried to imitate a human-like questioning posture.
"GEORDI!", Data suddenly shouted, "REVERSE THE FLOW NOW!"
"But ... ." Geordi wanted to ask why, but his trust in his friend outweighed the need for information. Quickly he started to feed the required corrections to the system, as he instinctively felt something going terribly wrong. The con- sole-lights were dimming once again, a high-pitched tone sounded. Everything in the compartment started to shake uncontrollably. Trying to keep on his feet he saw a glow, spreading all over the computer console. 'That ain't right!' he thought, just before an energy discharge destroyed the console he was working on. The explosion hurled him across the room, until he collided with the fall wall.
Data leaped across the center console, landing next to Geordi. A quick assessment of the situation made Data realize medical assistance was vital.
"Data, the flow ... ." Geordi's lips produced the rest of the words. Data rose and accessed the panel before him. With impressive speed he finished the corrections LaForge had started. The alarm stopped.
"Not again!" were Picard's first words as he noticed the lights in sickbay faded. "Number one, with me!". The two of them rushed out, leaving the doctor and her patient.
Deanna's face started to show her pains were increasing, so Beverly enquired. "Your head?"
"Yes, but it's not as strong as before." She grabbed the sides of the bed firmly. "Aahhh!" Deanna bit her lip.
"You mean it's not your injury?". Beverly was surprised. When she asked, she'd thought the head-wound had troubled Deanna. Now it turned out to be something else, but what? She scanned Deanna, her brain-activity readings had gone way up the scales. She went over to her desk to get a sedative. But she turned around again she saw the readings were dropping already, and were almost back to normal again. She was asleep.
Her comm. pin sounded. "Data to doctor Crusher. I have a medical emergency in Engineering. Please respond."
She had to make a choice, and decided Deanna would be taken care of here. "I'm on my way!", she replied. Once more turning her head to look at the sleeping woman, she then ran quickly out of the infirmary. ***
"Well Mr. Worf, what happened?". Picard said as he stepped into the turbolift.
The answer came from the comm. system. "Moments ago we registered a power increase in Engineering, but it seemed to be contained there. I contacted commander LaForge when the buildup reached dangerous levels, and within minutes after that it disappeared rapidly. At that same time our systems went down and came back up again without warning."
Picard tapped his comm. pin again. "Picard to Engineering. LaForge, what happened down there?" An unexpected voice responded. "This is Data, Captain. I am afraid lt. commander LaForge has been in an accident, Sir!"
"Accident? Data, what are you talking about?"
"Geordi and myself were attempting to discontinue the energyflow from the core, when one of the consoles exploded. I am afraid he has suffered serious injuries. I have already contacted doctor Crusher, she is on her way."
"Damn!" Picard said. Another one.
"Will he be alright, doctor?". Data had kneeled next to Beverly, while two engineers assisted her in fitting Geordi with restraints to keep the pressure of his neck and vertebrae.
"I'm sorry Data. It's just too soon to tell right now.". She touched her badge. "Crusher to O'Brien. Two to beam directly to sickbay."
O'Brien replied. "I can't help you, doctor. Power hasn't been restored to the transporters yet."
Beverly let out a sigh. "Is nothing working around here? Data, you'll have to carry him. Carefully!"
"Yes, of course doctor." With ease Data gently picked up the engineer's body and followed Beverly out of Engineering.
"I believe it's time for a meeting, number one. Have everybody in the conference room in ten minutes. Doctor Crusher is excused, of course. I'll be in my ready-room. In the mean- time, see what you can do about contacting Starfleet. They need to be advised of our ... situation."
"Of course. Yes Captain."
Picard left the turbo lift as it arrived on the brige, and saw the central seat immediately filled by Riker. Somewhat annoyed by that fact Jean-Luc walked to his ready-room. It almost seemed the doors hesitated before opening, or was that just his imagination?
Will settled down in the chair. The Captain could use some privacy, he knew that. The loss of a crewmember was al- ways bitter, but he didn't doubt for one second Jean-Luc was blaming himself for the lost lives of the men on deck twenty- three. "Worf! What were eighteen people doing in the power dis- tribution section?"
"I believe some of them were attempting to repair one of the circuits destroyed in the first wave, Sir. The others ... most of them were of-duty crewmembers who were heading for their stations, only passing that deck. The loss of power prevented the corridors from being shut off from the breached section."
"I'll be needing a list of their names, and one of their direct families. Have we established contact with Starfleet yet?"
"Negative, Sir. Long-range communications are still inopera- tive."
Things just kept getting worse. Riker tapped his, and contacted sickbay.
"Any news on Geordi yet, Beverly?" The response took a while, but when it came an unfamiliar voice conveyed the message.
"Doctor Crusher has not yet returned, Commander."
"Strange. A direct transport to sickbay shouldn't ..." but then he realized that power-losses probably occurred everywhere on the ship. Possibly at the transporter rooms as well. '"Damn" is putting it mildly, Jean-Luc.' he thought.
Picard stood in his room, glancing at the stars as they appeared motionless in the dark void around him. It usually made him feel better looking at the endless space, letting his thoughts run freely. But now it only added to his depression. All that power at his command, all the possibilities he had let pass by. Eighteen deaths!
He turned around to the replicator. Should he try again? The food dispenser had made a funny noise when he'd requested his tea just then. It really shouldn't have surprised him. Nothing else had gone right today.
"Tea! Earl Grey, hot." Something started to materialize, but stopped halfway through the process and disappeared with a soft whining.
A computerized voice. "Only essential food and beverages can be provided during the energy shortage. You may choose any from: Water, ... ." A long pause, then a bleep. An impressive list of choices. Jean-Luc decided he'd best be going to the conference-room, before anything would give in.
Eighteen deaths. On his ship!

Chapter three: Hunches ----------------------

"Speculations, Mr. Data?". Worf, Riker and Data had joined the Captain in the conference room. Picard leaned over the table in the direction of the android.
"Sir. I have reasons to believe something has taken over control of the Enterprise's power distribution. This afternoon Lt. Worf registered a large energy buildup in Engineering just as Commander LaForge and I were conducting repairs on the warp power conduits. It was then that I calculated an 87.3% chance something was deliberately containing the energy-output from the warp core".
"What could cause such a containment?"
"I believe, Sir, that the present situation can be traced back directly to the hull breach on deck twenty-thee."
The hull breach. Picard's attention momentarily faded.
"Sir?" Data had noticed the change in the Captain's attitude.
"I'm sorry, Data. Please continue."
"Yes, Sir. It was at that time the Enterprise started to loose power from almost every system. Before the hull was breached, most of the energy drains were directly traceable to the impacts the disturbances had on ours shields.
"So?" Riker didn't seem that impressed. Picard looked at him. He was bothered by the fact Will had apparently forgotten about the lives that had been lost during those moments. But then they hadn't been Will's responsibility, had they? They had been his!
Data continued. "A plausible explanation would seem to be that something has entered the Enterprise at that moment at deck twenty-three and 'joined' with the power distribution system. From that location it could get to anywhere in the ship. It would be possible, if my theory holds up, to gain control over the warp core as well as any other system."
"Gain control? You're saying ... it's intelligent? A lifeform?"
"There are indications to support that assumption, Captain. For one, the accident in Engineering. The explosion that injured Commander LaForge should not have occurred, all modifications were done according to procedure. But when it occurred, the energy displacements should have spread through the entire compartment. It is my belief, Sir, that 'it' tried to stop Geordi from taking away it's ... food-supply."
"You mentioned something similar on the bridge, Data. You said they were 'feeding' of the Enterprise's shields. Any idea how it stores it's energy?" Riker added to the conversation.
"Not as yet Sir. I am still working on that."
The doors slid open. Counselor Troi, still looking a bit dazzled from the excitement in the last few hours, walked into the conference room. She tried not to show she had troubles keeping on her feet.
"Reporting for Duty, Captain."
Picard smiled. "Welcome Counselor! It appears we have an uninvited guest aboard, and I feel your assistance would be welcome in this matter." He filled her in on Data's suspicions. Deanna nodded.
"Those feelings I've been having in the turbo-lift and the ones just then in sickbay, they were from ... whatever it was we encountered. The time of the accident would be exactly when I felt the second surge, although it was not as bad as that time in the lift."
"During that first time, " Picard said, "we encountered several disturbances. Data's theory would suggest only one was actually aboard when the second 'surprise' occured."
"But why doesn't finish us?" Worf asked. "Anything that can merge this easily with our power supply could have easily destroyed us."
"Maybe it wasn't interested in destroying it's food-supply altogether." Deanna attempted to get Worf's attention with that remark, but for some reason he had not looked at her since she'd come in. Nor did he do so now.
"Or," Data suggested, "our presently available power is not enough for it to warrant the effort to contain it."
"Once you've got a full plate in front of you, you don't worry anymore about the crumbs on the table, eh?" Riker's grin showed.
Data tried to apply the analogy, and though it wasn't completely accurate he felt it would suffice. "Yes, Sir. Our core energy output just after the encounter was down to 23%. Distribution only provided the systems with just under 6%. Since then we have made repairs, and while the output-ratio was increased to 40% for a brief period of time, our systems were not getting any additional power.
It all started to make sense to the Picard. "All fine and well, but that still doesn't explain us falling out of warp."
"I have another theory about that. It would be possible the warp field somehow collided with the gravitational pull of the ... lifeforms, Captain?"
"Whatever." Picard didn't seem to care.
"Lifeforms, definitely!" Deanna said. "I never sensed such feelings before, but it's definitely alive."
"Lifeforms." Data concluded. "As they absorbed the warp field's energy, collapse would be almost instantaneous. The Enterprise fell out of warp, and ended up among them."
"A perfect parasite, undetectable by our sensors, and we're an unwilling host. Quite a trap. Well, it seems like we're stuck here for while." Picard rose from his seat. Everybody else did so to, even though the Captain had not yet given them their orders, or even dismissed them. He seemed absent-minded, and suddenly realized they were all waiting for him to give the command.
"Dismissed." He spoke at a tone that couldn't be mis- interpreted. His crew left the room, quickly and silent. Good, he needed the time to himself. Slowly he fell back into his chair and burried his face in his hands.
Deanna followed Worf, who had left the conference room first after Picard had dismissed them. "Worf, wait."
He couldn't pretend not hearing her at that distance, so he stopped and waited for her.
Somewhat out of breath, she caught up with him in the far corridor. "Worf, why are you ignoring me?"
"I was not aware that I was, Counselor."
He lied, of course. They both knew it. Still, if he in- sisted ... there wasn't much she could do about it.
"Counselor? Whatever happened to 'Deanna'?" She tried to change the subject to something lighter, not knowing she did exactly the opposite.
He looked embarrassed. "It would not be correct to adress you in any other way during duty-hours, Counselor. "
"Well, there's an easy solution to that. I'll meet you in thirty minutes then, in Ten Forward, after duty." Deanna smiled and quickly walked passed him, leaving him no time to turn her down. She'd get to the bottom of this, even if it was the last thing she did.
"But ... " Worf tried. To late, this time she was ignor- ing him.
"Any improvement in his condition, doctor?" Data asked. The android leaned over Geordi's body which was covered by a scanner. Scanning the readings he knew LaForge would survive, but it would take a long time for his wounds to heal. "He'll live. Best I could do for now with these power shortages. The burns on his face look worse than they really are, the skin is already regenerating."
Data looked at doctor Crusher. "I need to talk to him, doctor. Is there any way ..."
"NO! Absolutely not. I won't wake him up as long as he's like this. His pains would be terrible."
Geordi's head moved. Beverly stood beside him at once.
"You all talking 'bout me?" he let out with a breath of air.
"Shhh..", she said, "Don't talk."
"But I need to ... Data .. where is ...?" A cough made his body jerk, and left him gasping for air.
"I am right here, Geordi." Geordi turned his blind eyes toward the sound. "Data, it's ... in the systems."
"We know, Geordi. You should rest now." Data slowly pushed him down back on the bed.
"Hold him steady, Data. I'm going to give him another sedative." "No ... don't ..." The engineer tried to fight the hands but didn't have the strength. Then he felt doctor Crusher put the hypospray against his neck, and he relaxed.
"It looked like he wanted to tell us something." Data remarked.
"No Data, he didn't know what he was saying. Not with all those painkillers I gave him before you came in.
Data again tilted his head. Doctor Crusher was probably right about Geordi. But then again, he had looked very eager to tell him something ... but what?
Deanna was the only one sitting at the bar in Ten For- ward. In fact, she was the only one there except for Guinan, with whom she'd started a conversation while she waited for Worf to show up.
"Yeah, it's pretty slow today. Gives me a time to clean up the mess they made." Guinan was clearing the tables and floor that were covered with spilled drinks and meals.
"Now, you know it's not their fault" Deanna said, although she knew Guinan was only joking.
"Yes, but still. It doesn't clean itself you know."
"Need any help?", Troi offered.
"Gee, I thought you'd never get to it. Yes, I could use some help." Guinan pointed a to an old-fashioned mop in the corner. "Old, but effective. Now get to it."
Just as she'd gotten the hang of the thing, Deanna saw Worf walking in. She looked at him and saw he was definately uncomfortable being there. Then she looked at Guinan, who needed nothing further.
"Go with him. I can handle things down here." she said.
"Are you sure you'll manage, alone?"
Guinan smiled. "I was going to ask you the same."
They left together. Guinan watched as they disappeared though the doors.
Will Riker sat in the captain's chair on the bridge. It felt good, as it always did, but he couldn't help thinking of Jean-Luc. Something had gotten to him. The crewmen? He had never taken the loss of his crew this hard.
Data joined him on the bridge.
"How's Geordi, Data?", Will inquired.
"He will be fine, Commander, but it will take some time before he is up and running again."
"'Up and running', Data?" Riker was surprised. "Where'd you get that expression from?"
He halted. "I recalled dr. Crusher using it two weeks ago. Did I use it inappropriately, Commander?"
"No Data, you just ... caught me off-guard with that one."
"My appologies, Commander."
"Nevermind, Data."
"No, Sir." Data sat down behind the operations console. Operating the controls, he had put the talk behind him already. Whereas Riker continued to think about it while, until he finally gave up.
"Now, Worf. Won't you tell me what's bothering you? Yesterday you came to me, telling me you had a problem. Then suddenly you rush out of the room and you've been avoiding me ever since."
"I have been ... busy, Counselor." Worf stated.
"Don't give me that, Worf. And I've asked you not to call me Counselor when we're of-duty." Deanna got annoyed now.
"Deanna..." he begain. Still he had troubles finding the right words in front of this woman. Talking about his problems with his son with her was one thing. But the truth of the matter was, Alexander wasn't as much of a problem as he had led her to believe. Sure, raising a child on his own presented him with difficulties. Of course it would. But gradually his talks with her had been less and less about his son, and more and more about himself, sometimes even about her. Even about ... 'them'?
Quickly he tried to think about something else. She was still an empath, even if she was only half Betazoid.
"Yes?" The way she said it, it sounded harsh. Not that she was angry with him, she just wanted to provoke a reaction. But it had the opposite effect. Worf averted his eyes again. Well, at least she was consistent in constantly saying the wrong things.
"I should go." he said, and got up from her couch.
Deanna sighed. One last resort. "Great, there you go again." she replied. "It's probably all about one of those honor-things you keep talking about. Tell me, does honor prevent a Klingon from confiding in his friends?"
"Don't talk about something you do not know of!" Worf reacted furiously. As he turned to her, and she saw his expression, it made her feel uneasy. Was she wrong again?
"I do know something about friends.", she said.
That seemed to do the trick. Slowly she walked to him, and felt his outburst of rage disappear. "Good friends!" she added, and took his hand.
For the first time since their last meeting she saw a glimpse of a smile appearing on his face. And when she told him that, it got even bigger.
Deanna sensed those feelings again, like the time before in her quarters. Could it ...? She looked at his face.
The Klingon gazed back at her, almost drowning in her eyes. Softly he touched the injury on her forehead with his fingertips.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I shouldn't have left. I should have ..."
She signalled him to keep still. "Shh, don't say that. You didn't know. Nobody did." The sensations got even more intense now, and it felt nice. A welcome change from the feelings she had been sensing.
They stood like that for some time, saying nothing. Yes, it did feel nice ... and maybe even more than nice!

Chapter four: Decisions -----------------------

Captains log, supplement: "While on what seemed to be a routine mission in the Salora-system the Enterprise was some- how 'attacked' by an entity, which has apparently penetrated our hull and has linked up with our energy resources. Eighteen members of our crew died during that process, and our ship's chief engineer has sustained serious injuries when he tried to stop the energydrain. Without power to the drives, and little power available for any other system, our options seem severely limited.
He had been depressed all morning. First they had notified him the Enterprise's repairs were seriously delayed now that LaForge was hurt in the 'accident'. And then the entity. Something that penetrated the hull, and was able to fuse with the power distribution systems? He had troubles imagining it, but it would seem Data had found the logical explanation to explain recent events. Now all he needed was the reason why.
Lost in his reflections, walking past Counselor Troi's quarters, he was just in time to see his security officer leaving.
"Captain!" Worf said as he noticed Picard. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"I have been meaning to ask ... as chief of security. My responsibilities still lie with the safety of the ship." Picard nodded. "You have not yet given any orders about 'separating' ourselves from the being."
Picard rubbed his chin. "I must admit, I haven't really given any thought to that yet." Dammed his indeciveness.
Strange. Worf's first reaction was one of surprise. It was nothing like Captain Picard to forget about the ship's safety. "Sir. It is likely to be a difficult task, whatever actions we should decide to take. We shouldn't be ..."
"Wasting time?", Picard asked. "Yes Worf, you're absolutely right. It's about time we started taking some steps toward that end."
"Captain, I did not mean to suggest that ..."
"It doesn't matter, Worf. You were right." Resilience seemed to have returned to Picard's movements, as Worf watched him walk on through the passageway.
"Number One!", Picard started to address the commander while still standing in the turbo-lift. "Let's try and figure out how to get that ... whatever it is of our vessel. I think we've been here long enough to get a fair impression of the system and frankly, I don't like it." Riker had left the captain's seat just in time. If Jean- Luc had been any faster, he would have ended up in his lap. Yes, this was the Picard he knew. "I think I can agree with you there, Sir."
"Do we have contact with Starfleet?" the Captain asked.
"Negative, Sir." Riker replied. "The communication system has been repaired, but it has proved to be very unreliable during this energydrain. We have no way of reaching them without power."
"In that case, it's just us then. Data, have you made any progress on the subject of the energy containment?"
Data turned his seat around to face him. "I only have a preliminary hypothesis, Captain. I do not yet have the data to establish its validity."
"Well, that'll have to do. Let's have it."
"It would seem that the entity consumes most of the energy we can generate. Above a core output level of approximately 32.4% however, it would seem the additional energy is stored rather than converted."
"Converted?" This was new to Picard. "Into what?"
A signal sounded. Data looked at his console, and without any sign of emotion he answered. "Volume, Sir. Based on these readings I must conclude the entity has now increased the drain on our reactor. Energy output is down to 5.5%, and hold- ing."
'Volume?' Picard thought.
The comm. system sounded. "Crusher to Picard."
"Yes doctor, what is it?"
"Captain, Geordi has regained consciousness again. He keeps insisting on speaking to lt. commander Data."
"He's on his way." Data had already left his seat and headed to the turbo-lift.
Deanna was alone in her quarters. After Worf had left her, she'd been less than sure about what had actually hap- pened. With mixed emotions she paced around in her room and tried to sort out her feelings.
She realized it had been unexpectedly pleasant talking to Worf. They'd always gotten along, but there seemed to be a lot more than just 'getting along' between them now. And it dawned on Deanna this could very well be the start of something serious between the two of them. But then there was Will. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had always assumed ... as had he. She walked over to the couch, remembering the time she was almost married of by her mother, Luxwana.
She had said then his greatest desire was to command a starship, preferably the Enterprise. Had she started their relation again, like Will had asked her, she would have come in second one day or even third, after the crew. A captain had his responsibilities.
Finally recalling the conclusion she had reached then, the one she'd been avoiding ever since to even consider, she sat down. She had changed in those five years she was assigned to the Enterprise, and so had Will. This wasn't Betazed, and in these years together on the ship the subject of the two of them together had hardly ever come up. Mainly because she didn't want it to.
No, seeing Will as a possibility in her future had been comforting, but unrealistic. They were friends. Just ... friends. She noticed something dropped on the floor next to her foot. She looked closer to see what it was, and only then realized ... she was crying.
"Data, quickly. In here."
Dr. Crusher had waited outside sickbay for Data. Both of them ran in, headed straight for LaForge who was still lying on the examination table. He looked in pain, gritting his teeth.
"Data?" He sounded awful.
"Yes, Geordi?"
"There was ... a glow. It looked ... " But he couldn't finish the sentence. Throwing his head back, the engineer let out a series of nasty coughs.
"Looked like what, Geordi?"
"Please hurry Data, he can't possibly take much more of this." Beverly sounded concerned. Her right hand held firmly on to the hypospray.
"Particles. Sensors ... should scan for ... graviton par- ticles." LaForge closed his eyes and let out a breath of air. He didn't move again after that.
Beverly checked his vital signs on her tricorder. "He's unconscious. I sure hope that message was important, Data. It nearly killed him."
"I believe, doctor, that lt. commander LaForge has just provided us with an answer to a very pressing matter. Data touched the pin on his chest. "Data to lt. Worf. Modify sensors to scan for graviton particles within ship's perimeters, and execute."
Lt. Worf answered in disbelief. "WITHIN perimeters? Yes, Sir." Time passed slowly as Data waited for the reply. If Geor- di was right ... this situation just got worse.
Worf had fed the necessary information to the rear con- sole, and waited for the results.
The image on the screen, a portrait of the 1701-D Galaxy Class Starship 'Enterprise', slowly began to fill with numerous indications. The sensors were finally picking someth- ing up.
"Captain! It's ... everywhere!".
Picard and Riker joined him to look at the screen. Amazed by the enormous size of the entity the sensors had detected, they were left speechless. For a while, nobody made a sound at all.
"What the hell ..." Riker started, but forgot to finish in his amazement.
"Picard to sickbay! We have a reading here, Data. It's ... unbelievably big, and practically all over the ship."
"Does the scan register the impact of the gravitational forces on the ship's hull, Captain?". Picard looked at Worf, who had turned the console to pull up the results.
"Captain, the hull *is* being compromised. Structural integrity is down, ship-wide, to 98%. Readings show indica- tions are increasing in numbers and size.
"Great!", Riker said, "Now I definitely know I don't like this system!"
*** Back in the conference room they had all assembled, with the exception of LaForge.
"The entity continues to feed of us, absorbing our energy in order to grow." Data continued his report. "The effects are consistent with our prior information. When the entity absorbed more of the energy than it needed it stored it near the source, in this case Engineering, only to access it when the flow was stopped. Energy is absorbed, but would only be assimilated in the whole after our energy output decreases."
Assimilated. Picard hated that word.
"The buildup!" Worf remarked. "Exactly. However, growth in this case seems to be limited."
"Explain, Data." Picard, like most others, got more than a little 'irritated' when Data would leave things open-ended like that.
"Sensor readings show the growth is proceeding at a speed that would cause it's density to increase and the hull to collapse in less than thirty-six hours, Sir. After that time has passed, the destruction of the Enterprise would probably kill the entity, thereby limiting ..."
"Klingons do not lay down and wait! They do battle." Worf interrupted. He had heard enough about waiting. Then he saw Deanna look at him from across the table, and returned to silence.
"Understood, Worf.", Picard told the Klingon. "But somewhat improbable, I would say. I hardly think waiting for it to break the Enterprise in half is the option to pursue here, Data. Any other suggestions?"
"Only one." Beverly said, "Besides the fact the ship would break apart under the strains, I believe the increase in gravity will cause some other problems as well, probably even more pressing." "What other problem could be bigger than this one?" Will asked.
"Nothing really, Will.", she replied, "At least, as long as you don't mind this situation ending a little sooner. We'll most likely be long dead before the hull gives in, considering the gravitational force it would take to break this ship apart."
"Well then, we don't seem to have a lot of options *or* time then, for that matter." Picard noticed. "What we also lack is a solution. How do we get it of our ship? Anyone?"
"Don't look at me, Jean-Luc." Beverly said.
Picard again. "We can't very well *ask* it to leave us can we, Counselor? Have you had any ... contact with it since the last time?"
"No Sir, and even if I could reach it, it would be difficult. The feelings I got were of a very rudimentary nature. It didn't feel at all like it was trying to communicate." "Maybe we should try to make it *want* to leave." Riker said.
"What are you saying, Will?"
"Seems to me it's first reaction was to get as much power of us as it could. Maybe, if the power were gone, it would leave on it's own accord."
"Not necessarily so, Commander. It could decide to wait until the energy was restored, due to a lack of alternatives."
"Then maybe," Picard said, "we should provide it one!"

Chapter five: Preparations --------------------------

The Enterprise's main crew was still in conference.
"A type-6 shuttlecraft would never hold the entity. It's structural design isn't designed to withstand a gravitational disturbance of that magnitude.". Riker looked at Worf in disbelief. "Besides, we can't be sure there aren't several more of them out there, just waiting for something to appear."
"Not to mention the fact it would only be a very small decoy, energy-wise I mean." Picard agreed with him. "However, I suspect the others are intelligent enough to look for other options now the Enterprise's been taken. I doubt they'd hang around for long. Am I right, Data?" Data nodded.
"Now, if we could find a way to make it a more attractive lure, it shouldn't have to be an issue whether the shuttle could hold it. It would just have to endure the strain long enough for us to get our systems back on line. How would we go about realiz- ing that, Data?"
"A graviton field around the shuttle could possibly strengthen the structural integrity of the vessel, Captain. But at this time, our deflectors would not have the power to create it."
"Could that field be created from within the shuttle?"
Data hesitated. "In theory, yes. Although I must confess it has never been attempted before. The shuttle-reactor would have to undergo extensive modifications for it to be able to produce a field of a sufficient magnitude to ... "
"Yes, all right Data. Can you do it?" Picard asked.
Data looked at Picard. "Yes, Sir."
"Captain! Even if we proceeded with the modifications, how do we get the shuttle of the ship?". Riker had a point there. "Chances are it'll run out of power before we can get it of the deck, let alone stand the shuttle-bay."
"We could blow the hatch in shuttle-bay two." Worf sug- gested. "The vacuum should be enough to blow the shuttle out."
"You forget Worf, there'd have to be a pilot aboard, or the shuttle would be lost to us. It would have to be in a stable orbit for our plan to work. Blowing the shuttle into a vacuum ..."
He hated to be misinterpreted. "I did *not* forget, Sir. I volunteer to be the shuttle's pilot."
Now he had their attention, everybody looked at him. Even Deanna. He had no need of empathic abilities to read what was going on inside her. By the look on her face it was fairly obvious.
"Are you sure, Worf?" Picard asked.
Picard didn't understand, none of them did. A Klingon would not sit by and let someone else fight his battle. There was a matter of honor to be followed here.
"Aye, Sir."
"It's decided then. Data, how long before the modifica- tions will be completed?"
Data said nothing.
"An estimate will do, Data!" Riker said.
Data turned to Riker. "In that case, Sir, it will take approximately six hours."
The Captain concluded the meeting. "Make it so."
"Deanna, can we talk privately somewhere?" Will asked her after they had left the room.
She looked passed him and saw Worf leaving for his sta- tion. "I'm sorry Will, can it wait? There's something I have to do."
"I suppose, but ... "
"Thanks, I'll see you later." And then she was gone.
Will's eyes followed her and saw her join Worf, who was probably headed for his quarters.
"Why, Worf? Just why did you do that?"
With large paces he walked on. Deanna had difficulty keeping up with him.
"I do not understand, Counselor." They were on duty now. "As security officer it is my responsibility to make sure the ship is protected." "We could have found another way, Worf. I mean, we ..."
"There is no time for debate, Counselor. Within hours, there will be nothing to protect. We needed to act now."
"But Worf ..."
"I am sorry, Deanna. There are matters I have to attend to."
"You mean Alexander? If you need any help ..."
"No. This is something I must do myself."
She halted. He did not, and within seconds he had disappeared from her view. ***
Even though there had been reasons to move quickly before, this time Data tried to work even faster. His hands moved at an astonishing speed to produce the required adjustments to the shuttlecraft Justman.
The craft would be placed almost directly in front of the shuttle-bay doors. Once the forcefields were down, the Justman and everything else in the bay that wasn't secured would be blown out by the vacuum. Data tried to imagine what a person inside the shuttlecraft would endure but, having no prior information about such an undertaking being tried before, he came up blank.
"Alexander!" Worf called his son. No answer. "Alexander!" Louder now. He heard footsteps in the other room and headed that way.
Alexander had been reading up on things in his father's study lately. He liked stories, especially those about Klingon history. Maybe honor and rules did not mean as much to him as his father would like to see, but he would read the stories until he knew everything about his race he could possibly find in there. And then he'd know. He would.
"Why don't you answer me when I call you?" said Worf who appeared in the doorway. His father had startled him. He shut off the terminal and got up from his seat. Lift- ing his head to look at his father he stood there. "I'm sorry father."
"Yes, well ... come with me."
Alexander followed his father from the den. Worf sat his son down, and kneeled before him. He had never seen his father kneel before!
"Alexander, there is something I must tell you."
"Yes, father?"
"I have to go on a mission. There is a chance ... I will not return."
Alexander's lower lip started to tremble.
"We have discussed this before, Alexander. You know I have my duties." Worf had hoped his son would understand.
But his son didn't care about his father's duties. As tears started to well in his eyes he clung to his father with all the strength he could find. "No! I don't want you to go. I'll loose you too."
Worf wanted to comfort his son, but he was lost for words. Raising himself, he pulled Alexander up with him, holding him close to him. Slowly he made his way to the bed in the corner and lay Alexander in it.
"Forget about what I said."
"You won't go?" the boy asked.
"I will return." Worf answered. "Promise?" "I promise." It wasn't a lie. Not yet. He just had to make sure that it wouldn't become one.
Leaving Alexander's room he saw the bat'telh on the wall. Instinctively he grabbed it, and headed for the holodeck.
Riker saw shuttle three as he entered the bay. The Justman looked in mint condition, despite the extensive modifications that were being fitted by Data. An engineer he recalled having seen in Ten Forward a few days ago stood at attention. Riker acknowledged him with a nod, and continued his walk to the Justman.
"How are things going, Data?"
"If you are referring to the components I have just in- stalled, Sir, then things are ... going well."
"The Captain will be pleased to hear that. It's just a shame we don't have time to test it. I hate to leave anything to chance."
"Sir, I calculate a 14.6% chance the graviton field generator will fail to function, a 16.1% chance the Justman will collide with the shuttle-bay walls after the doors have been opened, an 8% chance . . . "
"That'll be enough, Data."
"Yes, Sir."
"Will it be ready in time?"
"Estimated time of completion is in four hours, fifteen minutes, Commander."
"Thank you, Data." Will Riker had begun his return when he suddenly realized something. "Oh, and Data?"
"Yes, Sir?"
"If you happen to see Worf, ... don't tell him the odds."
"No, Sir."
"Computer, what is the location of lt. Worf Rohzhenko?"
A soft bleep, and a computerized female voice responded: "Lt. Rohzhenko is on holodeck one."
Holodeck one? During an energy shortage? Surely the holo- decks would be inoperable.
It wasn't too far a walk, she decided. Deanna was determined to try and talk to Worf just one more time.
She found him in the center of the holodeck. The small room was dark, obviously she'd been right about the energy- drain preventing the holodeck programs to be run.
He stood with his back to her, the bat'telh still in his hand. He had heard her come in when de doors sounded. Of course, it could only be Deanna.
"Deanna." He still hadn't turned around.
"Worf, we really should talk. How did your talk with Alexander go?"
"It was difficult. But he understood, he is Klingon."
"That's good to hear." She sensed him holding back. Slow- ly she put her hand on his shoulder. The metal band that hung over his uniform felt cold to the touch.
It was only then that he faced her. So close, yet so far. He couldn't bring himself to consider anything, now that he had taken on this mission. Despite the promise to Alexander about his return.
"I had planned on using the calisthenics program. I did not anticipate ... this." "Worf, it's only natural to be nervous before something like this."
"I am *not* nervous, Deanna. It is just that I am concerned."
"For Alexander." She'd had her suspicions all along. And it was probably the reason she had come to the holodeck, she suggested to herself.
"Yes." He had to ask her now, time was going to fast for him to wait. "Deanna, do you remember the time ... I was injured?"
How could she forget? The last thing he had asked her was whether she would care for his son should anything happen to him during his surgery. And she had agreed to do so. She would have agreed to anything at that time.
"I remember, Worf. You don't have to ask." She felt her other hand being taken by his. He pulled her to him.
She smiled. "One of these days, Worf," she said, "I'll take you on a holo-trip to the mountains of Betazed. You would love the sunset."
"Yes, I think I would like that." He drew her even closer.
And their lips met.
"Data to Captain Picard. The alterations regarding the Justman's generators have been completed, Sir."
"Excellent, Mr. Data." Picard rose from his seat. "Mr. Worf, modifications have been finished on the shuttlecraft. They are ready for you in shuttle-bay two."
The reply sounded over the comm. system. "Aye, Sir. I am on my way."
"You should try to maintain a steady course until you are clear of the shuttle-bay, Worf." Data commented just when he was leaving the shuttlecraft.
"You mean, 'not hit anything'?" Worf said.
The shuttledoor was closed. Swiftly Data walked to the bay's exit. Worf saw the bulk-doors being secured, then he accessed the panel in front of him.
"Justman to Enterprise, ready to open bay doors!"
*** Picard stood behind the ensign at the operations console. "Everything secured? Then blow the hatch on my mark ... now!"

Chapter six: Termination ------------------------

The vessel Justman was pushed out of the shuttle-bay by the sudden vacuum with tremendous force. Unable to keep the shuttle under control, Worf couldn't distinguish up from down. The shuttle's engines were off-line, and Worf was pushed back in his seat by the motions. He couldn't gain access to the control panel to activate the thrusters. His hands reached for the controls before him. Just a little further ...
*** "Oh my God. He's not stabilizing." Deanna had watched the scene from the bridge with the rest of the crew, standing next to Beverly. With an open mouth she looked at the screen that showed the shuttle, whirling away from the Enterprise at high velocity.
"Enterprise to shuttle Justman. Come in, Worf!" Picard stared at the screen in amazement. No! He had sent him out there.
The ensign reported. "Captain, sensors show the Justman's thrusters are activated. The shuttle is stable."
On the main screen, the bridge-crew saw the shuttle's lights come up. It slowly ceased to rotate, and then came to a full stop."
"The Justman has stabilized at forty-thousand kilometers distance, Captain."
Forty-thousand! Worf wasn't taking any risks. But it would be difficult to get a fix on him with the transporters from that distance.
Worf's voice sounded. "Captain. I have regained control of the shuttle. Activating primary reactor circuits."
Picard relaxed noticeably. "Well done, lieutenant."
The turbo-lift opened with a hiss. Data stepped onto the bridge, relieving the ensign at the conn. . It took him less then a second to evaluate the situation.
"Sir, the graviton field is in place and holding."
"Excellent! Mr. Data, shut down energy to all nonessen- tial systems. Set life-support to a minimum. Reactor-output to 5%." Immediately the lights began to dim again. Only this time it wasn't caused by the entity.
"Reactor at nineteen ... twelve ... seven ... 5%, Sir. Lifesupport at minimal levels. Non-essential systems are down."
"Now all we can do is wait." Picard said.
Deanna's face showed something was hurting her badly.
"Deanna, what's wrong?" Beverly asked her.
"It's starting again." she managed to let out. "Only this time it feels like ... anguish. It's in pain."
Beverly pulled a hypospray from her coat and put it against Deanna's neck.
"No ... don't sedate me. I want to watch ..." she said, but then she felt the spray injected in her. "Just relax, it's only a mild sedative. It should take the edge of the pain. Does that feel better?" "Yes, it does. Thank you." A welcome relief from the pain.
"Well, apparently we're having some effect on the entity at least." Picard said. Touching his comm. pin he contacted the shuttle.
"Mr. Worf. I believe it's about time to 'set the bait'. Activate the shuttle's warp generator whenever you're ready."
"Aye, Captain."
At the Captain's command, Worf had activated the Justman's milli-cochrane warp engines. Slowly the nacelles outside the shuttle's hull began to light up.
"The shuttle's reactor is creating power at 120%, Cap- tain. System overload in the nacelles will occur in two minutes and thirty-four seconds."
"What will happen then?", Deanna asked Commander Riker.
"At that time," Will replied, "the nacelles will reach the limits of their capacity, and blow up the shuttle."
Picard saw the look on her face. "Don't worry, Counselor, we'll transport him out of there in time."
"How, Captain? That 'thing' is still on the ... Owwww." Another surge. The sedative appeared not to be able to stop the pain completely."
"Captain!", Data reported. "Sensors now show the entity is moving toward the shuttle!"
Inside of the Justman, all systems went mad at the same time. Desperately trying to keep in control of the shuttle Worf tried to access the computer.
"Mr. Worf. It's heading your way." Picard's voice. Holding on to the console with one arm, the Klingon struggled to reach for the communicator on his uniform.
"I gathered as much, Captain. Things have definitely taken a turn for the worse inhere."
A jolt went through the shuttlecraft. He heard the hull squeak under the strains.
<Pain. Hunger.> It had never felt this hungry. The other one had been good. This one was not as good. Not as rich, not as full. But it couldn't wait anymore. <Now.> It would have to be enough. There was nothing else left here now but this one. <Feeding.>
"Captain. We now are completely free of the entity's gravitational pull." Data looked over his shoulder. "I suggest we transfer power to the transporters."
"Make it so! Picard to transporter-room three. O'Brien, get him out of there. Now!"
<Faster. More.> With all the intensity the being could gather it consumed the energy directly from the Justman's powered nacelles. <Unity.> While feeding of the vessel it could feel the time had come. <No. Too quick.>
Worf had been thrown on the floor. Powerless, like a leaf in the wind, he was smashed against the Justman's inner hull. Only moments away from death, a light seemed to appear around his body. And then it vanished.
<Not now. Too soon. Pain.> Raw energy flowed through the being.<Too fast. The other one. Go back>. It felt that the structure of which it was a part began to collapse. <Go back. Too late.>
Deanna let out a scream. The pain again, but this time it passed quickly. "Sir, something is happening on the Justman. Readings are unclear. Graviton particles seem to increase in numbers at the shuttle's bow. Scans suggest the rest are just ... deteriorating."
The comm. system. "O'Brien to Captain Picard. I have Mr. Worf here, but he has sustained some serious injuries."
Beverly ran off to the turbo-lift, without looking back. After a second-delay she was followed by Deanna, who passed the doors just barely before they closed.
Riker exchanged a look with Picard, and then ordered "Full power, Mr. Data. Bring those systems back on-line. Shields up."
With the power now completely drained from the Justman, the remnants just drifted.
The new-one had no memories. <Hunger.> It felt like it had not been alone before this moment <Hunger.> There was nothing here. <Hunger.> But then it found ... richness. Full- ness. <Go. Unity.> *** Data rechecked his findings. "Captain! The Justman ... it is headed directly for us."
"Impossible. There's nothing left to ..."
Data ignored him. "Impact in eighteen seconds from ... now."
It had not yet learned how to fuse, it still dragged the remains. It would have learned from the other one. <Fullness. Go.> Why be alone? <Closer.> There should be another. <Near. Unity.>
Riker had taken control of the weapon systems console. "Arm photon torpedoes. Fire on my mark." A pause. "Fire!"
Three short bursts of light came from the Enterprise's forward torpedo-tubes.
As it learned how to be one with the wreckage, it got closer fast <Other ones. Fullness.>. Pulling the remnants, it now headed for the others. Not as rich. But closer.
The torpedoes impacted, and in one single burst of light the explosion destroyed whatever was left of the shuttlecraft Justman.
<Unity. No more.>
And after that ... nothing.
Picard shielded his eyes from the light of the blast.
"That couldn't have been just us, Captain.", Riker said. "No chance the torpedoes could have caused that explosion."
"No, number one. I think we hit more than just the wreckage." Picard didn't feel the need to elaborate on his speculations now. He would leave those for the log.
The man growled softly. A soft hand touched his face, and he heard a woman's voice.
"Just take it easy. It's all over now, you came back."
He wanted to speak the words, although she wouldn't understand them. No matter. He would explain them, in time.
"jIH Dok." 'My blood'.
*** "And, Captain? What are your orders?"
"I do believe we're still in desperate need of some shore leave, number one." Picard eased back into his chair and finally relaxed. "Lay in a course for Starbase 109, ensign. Warp 5."
A swift reply. "Course layed in, Captain."
Picard raised his left hand, and pointed outward at a distant star on the viewscreen. "Engage!"

Epilogue --------

They walked down the corridors together. Finally, having arrived at Troi's quarters, they stopped. An uncomfortable silence occurred.
Worf, uneasy now, was trying to decide on a course of action. The Klingon would prefer fighting Romulans over having to deal with this silence. But a part of him wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here, with her, at this moment.
Deanna felt her emotions surge, felt her heart miss a beat. More than anything she wanted to probe Worf's thoughts, despite all her training on Betazed on the privacy of the mind. She wanted to be reassured that the love she was developing for him would be answered. But she couldn't. If it was meant to be, it would happen naturally between them. She didn't really need to know already. Besides, weren't the discoveries, the surprises the best parts of young love?
Commander Riker came out of an adjacent corridor. Caught up in their thoughts, both Deanna and Worf did not notice him. As he discovered the both of them, he froze in his steps. Slowly he moved a few paces back, careful not to attract attention.
"It was nice." She finally found the strength to say at least something. "Yes, your holodeck program turned out to be most ..." Worf tried to find the right word. Again, an awkward silence.
"Pleasant?" she tried.
"Promising, I would say." And upon that answer her eyes seemed to sparkle.
"Promising ... about what?"
No turning back now, the Klingon knew. "About ... us."
Her hands took his, and Worf bend over to kiss her. Both overjoyed, the kiss lingered. Only after what had seemed like minutes he stood upright again.
The door to Deanna's cabin opened with a hiss. Taking one step toward the entrance, she felt Worf's hand holding firmly on to hers, not wanting to let go. They both stood motionless, until she looked over her shoulder. An impasse? She tightened her grip on Worf's hand, and gave a gentle tug. Then he followed her beyond the doors that closed behind him.
Riker had observed the two, recognizing the gaze in Dean- na's eyes. She had looked at him like that once. The kiss between them hadn't been surprising, after that look of hers it had only seemed natural. Worf following her in however had upset him!
With a burning feeling starting down in his gut, Will Riker walked back through the corridor from which he'd come. No point in asking Deanna to join him in Ten Forward now. Or ever, for that matter.
But as he walked through the corridor, strangely his mind recalled the various liaisons he had on the Enterprise instead of the times he'd been stationed on Betazed he tried to focus on. Still, after all that, she'd always been there for him when he needed her.
Pondering on those thoughts, his eye caught a young woman walking past him. He'd not seen her before, even though she was wearing a Starfleet uniform. And as he watched her walking down the corridor he'd just left, he saw her smiling at him just as she took a turn and dissappeared from his view.
Slowly the familiar grin returned to his bearded face. And it dawned on him that he would never lose Deanna as his friend, just as she would never loose him. If she had decided to start a relationship with Worf, well, she probably couldn't have made a better choice.
His grin grew even bigger when he knew where he was going. Having arrived at his quarters, he went straight for the in- strument on the table. And taking it to his lips, the trombone produced a catchy, jazzy tune.
Yeah, those notes were gonna sound GOOD tonight.

---THE END---