In The Same Breath


R/T ish

AU ish

Not mine-ish


"Captain Riker!" The young first officer of the warship Banshee looked away from his readouts, his dark questioning eyes meeting with the steely blue gaze of his commanding officer, "Our sensors are picking up a Klingon Star cruiser bearing 440, mark 10."

"On screen." William Riker's response came without thought, but not without reservations. The young captain lifted from the center seat of the small battle bridge and eased slowly and thoughtfully towards the view screen.

<Why aren't they engaging us?> he thought, scratching two fingers pensively over his bearded chin, eyes narrowed at the ship's image.

The massive vessel, more then capable of defending itself against the firepower of the Banshee looked to be deliberately avoiding them, easing closer to the devil's gate, a far greater risk then engaging his ship. He watched the green auriora emissions skip like will-o'-the-wisps across the silver curtain of ionic dust that formed the gate, and shook his head.

"They must know we're here," he said, turning towards his first officer, Commander Max Corrigan.

Max had been with him since he'd taken Command of the Banshee two years ago. Driven, just as he was to defend the federation against the unification between the Klingons and the Romulans, he'd found himself for the first time in his thirty-three years, trusting someone else's instincts as much as his own. And right now the mistrust he was feeling was also written all over his first officer's face; smoldering in his charcoal eyes, manifesting itself in the deep lines that formed on his forehead, clearly visible even from under the wavy brown hair that fell over them.

"They know we're here, they could have scanned us long ago."

"Weapons operational?" Riker asked, a small smile bleeding through his dark expression. He'd been out here a long time, and he knew too well that the only thing that would force a unification warship to ignore them would be very valuable cargo.

"Fully operational, although their dumping a lot of surplus power into their shields to protect themselves from the gate."

"Arla?" Riker turned to his tactical officer, "See if you can scan their cargo."

He watched her long fingers play over the panel in front of her, and finally smack in frustration against the panel.

"They're jamming us Sir?"

Her defeated response brought a bigger smile to his face, "It's OK Lieutenant, we're going to take em out anyway."

"Yes Sir." she answered, her blue-gray eyes sparking with more faith in his attack strategy then he had.

"We can't get too close to the gate." Max reminded him, sitting down at the navigational controls.

"Not this time Max." Riker said, laying a hand on Max's shoulder, feeling it tense under his touch. He tipped his head, silently ordering his first officer out of the chair and replaced him at the Nav-controls.

"On my mark launch a long range antimatter spread."

Riker chuckled to himself as he tapped in his coordinates, fully aware of the what the hell is that going to do look his first officer was holding him with. When he was satisfied he'd programmed the proper heading and targeting coordinates he raised his eyes to Max, "Ever downwarp Max?"

"No," he said, his features relaxing into his signature demonic grin; the one that seemed to make the ladies of the Banshee breathe a little harder from what Riker had seen, "but I'm looking forward to it."

Riker flashed his own smile, one that dripped with confidence, and had served him in a similar manner over the years.

"Load torpedo bays with seven ion charges set to detonate on impact." He didn't bother turning to look at Arla, "I'm targeting their shields only.... the auriora emissions should take her down and we should be far enough away that she won't take us with her."

Max nodded eagerly and stepped behind him.

"OK boys and girls," Riker said, shooting a look over his shoulder and nodding approvingly to the seven members of his bridge crew, "Timing is everything."

Turning back, he double-checked his targets and prayed his mathematical skills were as sharp as he liked to believe.

"Launch antimatter!" he ordered, watching as the rusty orange streams cut through the inky black space. He counted to himself, making sure his subterfuge had reached the star cruiser before punching the warp controls.

He continued counting, gripping the weapons relay with a sweaty palm, and resting his other on the controls that would drop them out of warp and throw them back into it in less then ten seconds, hopefully without losing their shell.

The ship's engines whined, moaned with a hollow sound he'd never heard from them and slammed out of warp, bucking against the drag of the sudden stop.

Riker spanked the reactivation, simultaneously releasing the ion charges, catching only a glimpse of the blue bursts before the Banshee lurched back into warp. The deck shivered, Riker jerked in his seat. Still counting, he finally eased the small ship out of warp.

"Battle stations!" he barked, just in case the Klingon captain had quicker reflexes then he'd given him credit for.

With his order, flashing red lights crushed the soft lightening of the ship, the shrill alarm overriding the voices and urgent movements of his crew.

Riker cursed under his breath as fuselage and balls of electrified fire slammed the shields of the Banshee, following them in their retreat as if they were seeking revenge.

"Full reverse, all power to forward shields!"

"What the hell was in that thing!" he grumbled, losing his single handed grip on the arm of his chair, and hitting the deck with a crack.

"Son of a....." He groaned and stumbled to his feet.

The jolts to the ship eased, he squinted his eyes though the mist of ashy-gray smoke that veiled his bridge, checking his crew, and eyeing his ships systems.

A breath of relief escaped him as the debris began to fall well shy of the ship. Eyes on the view screen he offered a hand to his downed security officer and tugged him to his feet.

"Well, that was a bigger bang then I expected." he said, grinning between ragged breaths, "Do I want a damage report?"

"Not that bad, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

"As in everything's fine, or be happy we still have life support?"

"I'd shoot for som....."

"Captain!" Lieutenant Montgomery interrupted the first officer's response.

Riker raised his brows in acknowledgment.

"There's another ship in line with the gate."

Riker spun towards the screen. "That's not possible.........Magnify."

"Unknown configuration." Montgomery added.

Riker stared at the silver hull of the unknown ship.

"Looks like a shuttle of some kind," he said, "Life signs?"

"One Sir, the ships power is off-line."

Riker stepped closer to the screen, watching the shuttle tumble and rock, a defenseless victim in the push and pull of the gate's emissions.

"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" He whispered to himself, sweeping a hand through his untamed hair, wishing he could see this solitary occupant, know if it was really someone in trouble, or a Klingon on a kamikaze mission.

"If we're going to pull em out, we've gotta decide now, it's getting too close, the emissions will interfere with transport."

He could feel Arla's eyes burning into the back of his head, but that was all he could feel, it didn't feel like a trap.

"Lock on to the passenger.... beam them directly to the brig." He spun towards his security chief, "I want armed guards down there, at least until we see who our mystery guest is."

Turning back to the screen he listened as Arla initiated transport, and stared at the hull of the alien ship. Squinting his eyes at the shell of the fated shuttle, he read the word etched on the side.

"Enterprise?" He mumbled, sending a sidelong glance to Max, "I've never heard of an Enterprise."

"Doesn't mean there's not one, but I'll check it out, see what I can find." Max answered, picking up on his Captain's next order before it was issued.

Riker nodded.

"Arla," He began, moving away from the view screen, "I'd like yo....."

<Captain, our guest is safely onboard and insisting on speaking with you.>

Riker looked down, hiding his smile. The irritated tone in his security Chief's voice suggested he wasn't happy with their guest, nor was he happy about having to call his captain.

"Have you found out anything?"

<Not really, she's certainly not happy about being under guard.>

"She?" Riker mouthed the word, his brows furrowing, in his experience the most deadly spies he'd confronted had been female, "Maybe she'd prefer to return to her shuttle?" he added aloud, casting a look over his shoulder at the electrical charges that already sparked over the shuttle's hull.

<Could we do that Sir?>

Riker smiled at Montgomery's sarcasm, if that's what it was, with Dutch Montgomery and his short fuse, one could never be sure.

"I'm on my way.......see if you can at least find out her name?" Riker asked, moving towards the lift.

<We know her name, and her rank and her serial number, believe me.>

Riker waited, he thought he heard a muffled female voice and a stern reprimand from Dutch.

"Are you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?" he finally asked, leaning on the curved railing that cradled the walk to the lift.

< Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi, attached to the federation Starship Enterprise, SC 231 437.>

"Don't shoot her, I'll be right down." He chuckled, stroking his thumbs over the smooth railing, and nodding to his bridge crew, "Commander, continue checking on the Enterprise, and add a Lieutenant Commander Troi to your inquiry," He waited until Max had settled into the captain's chair and pulled his computer screen in front of him, "Arla, see if you can get any clear readings on what was in the belly of that cruiser, and set a course for the nearest Space station........I'll be in the brig protecting our prisoner."



Riker pushed off the wall of the lift as the doors hissed opened, stopping short at the hand that pushed gently against his chest.

"Mmm," He said, shaking his head with a sharp, appreciative jerk, "I'm still fighting to make that the standard uniform onboard this ship."

His strategic officer may have smiled, he had no idea, he was still following the sleek lines and curves more then visible under a flight suit he was certain was nothing more then black paint someone had brushed over her incredible body.

"I wanted to talk to you before you go in there," she said.

"Then talk."

"While you're looking at me."

"I am looking at you, more closely then anyone else I've looked at today."


"Piper?" He returned, finally dragging his eyes to hers, "I'm sorry, but if you're going to walk around like that, then I have no choice but to be turned on." He grinned, a very evocative grin, knowing she'd never be able to hold on to her serious mask.

Piper Merek had been onboard the Banshee for about eighteen months, she had a mind like a fox, piloting skills that came as easily to her as walking, and a body that had knocked him off his feet the first time he'd seen her. Their on again, off again, god, that feels good relationship had proven to be more then a pleasant distraction for the last several months.

"Pull your mind out of you pants Captain," she said, in that low, almost breathless voice that did nothing towards drawing his thinking northward, " I just want to warn you before you swagger in there all full of yourself, I think our prisoner is a little nuts."


"Disoriented might be a kinder word, but she thinks we're responsible for her shuttle pilot's death and she's furious that we captured her." Piper's brows wrinkled over her mischievous blue-green eyes.

"Rescued her you mean," Riker said, sending a disgusted look over Piper's shoulder to the closed doors of the brig, "and we didn't get any other life sign readings."

"Maybe not, but she's pretty insistent, I suggest you shoot for the straightforward approach for a change, save Captain charming for later."

"OK," He nodded, stepping past her, "Later I'll be charming, and later you'll still be wearing that, right?"

"Maybe?" She teased, stepping into the lift, brushing her thick sable curls over her shoulders.

He grinned, walking backwards, watching her until the lift closed.

The irregular hum of the ship's engines under his boots prompted him to pause outside the doors to the brig, and tap his comm-linc.

"Riker to bridge."

<Yes Sir?>

"We'll never make it to Star Base 27. After you run your scans, set course for the Onius moon, impulse power only."

<Aye Sir.>

He shook his head, not at all happy about having to take the Banshee to Onius instead of a federation base. He knew the people of Onius would help them, plagued as they were by the Unification, but he also knew their help wouldn't come without some sort of compensation. He shrugged. Releasing a few federation weapons to the Oni would be a lot safer then taking his injured ship past sector 23.

The doors to the brig opened, he took a half step inside, surprised at the quiet that greeted him.

Dutch stood rigidly, shoulders squared, laser rifle slung over his shoulder, eyeing the lady behind the Plexiglas shield as if she were a panther getting ready to pounce.

"So, does she bite?" Will's glib remark awarded him the direct stare of both his security officer and the tousled, but very beautiful, dark-eyed woman.



Riker's gaze had been fixed on his security chief, the woman's uncertain, but very familiar greeting turned his head towards her.

"That's right......Do I know you?" Riker shook his head, smiled cautiously and studied her, trying to call up a memory.

She certainly wasn't the type of woman he could imagine himself forgetting, she was small, extremely feminine, but her femininity held a strength, a calm self-confidence that literally emanated from her. But it wasn't only her confidence, or her aura of calm he found intriguing, it was the way she was looking at him, as if she could see inside him, knew what he was feeling without him sharing it.

"No," she finally answered, shaking her head, her tangled hair falling over the reddish bruise on her cheek, "I must have had you confused with someone else."

Her perfectly constructed composure fell away for an instant, and he almost thought he saw sadness in her eyes. He tilted his head, feeling an unlikely need to rid her of it, as if somehow that moment of sadness had affected him too.

He shook it off.

"Well, you got the name right anyway," he said, dismissing Dutch with a wave of his hand, and accessing the opening to the cell, "My name is Will......Captain William Riker, and as I understand it you're Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi, attached to the starship Enterprise, SC 231 437."

She smiled, a shaky smile and nodded her head.

He returned a much steadier one and stepped further inside.

"I understand there was a personality conflict between you and my security chief... I don't suppose you'd be more willing to talk to me, tell me why you were out there alone, skipping the gate?"

He sat down on the brown leather bench that covered the back wall of the cell, called up his most innocent expression, and patted his hand against the bench beside him.

"I'd be happy to talk to you Captain, but I think you'll be the one doing the explaining." Her chin raised defensively, her tiny shoulders squared, she looked down on him with a piercing gaze he assumed was meant to intimidate.

He bite back his chuckle, remembering Piper's warning.

"Of course, Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi, I'd be happy to explain anything you'd like to know. Sit down, relax and we'll have a long chat."


Chapter 3

Bullshit; he prided himself on being able to con the con man, but this woman, this Betazoid as he'd learned, wasn't swallowing any of it. He smiled down on her, a guise of a smile through clenched teeth, and gestured to the large shiny doors that led to the mess hall.

OK, maybe this was stupid, it had been his last ditch effort to get her to trust him, understand she wasn't a prisoner, but a guest onboard his ship. He'd released her from the Brig, assigned her quarters, taken her to sickbay, and now he planed on feeding her. He wondered if he'd walk away from this encounter with a few less fingers.

"It's not much, but we do have food." He shrugged, guiding her to a table and pulling out a chair for her. She settled into it with that look, the one he'd found intriguing, the one where she looked as if she could see into your soul. He coerced another smile and settled into the chair across from her.

"This is nice, considering there's a war on."

Why did she say it like that, like she thought he'd made the whole thing up, like he was creating some elaborate ruse to trick her.

"OK lady," he said, "what is up with you?"

She looked down at her lap, that's what she always did when he asked her anything, looked away as if she were devising another lie. She'd been pretty straight forward at first, had no problems telling him about the alleged Enterprise, where she was from, even her parents names, but explaining what she'd been doing skipping the gate, how she'd managed to avoid the explosion from the Klingon Cruiser always got him the same response, a perfect view of the top of her head.

"I don't understand Captain." She raised her eyes, tilted her head, and gave him that wide eyed looked of ignorance she seemed to excel at.

"I guess I'm trying to understand why you seem to be taking everything I say with a grain of salt. Ya know you're the one that coincidentally showed up after the Cruiser exploded, that alone gives me every reason to hold you as a spy." He accepted the tray of standard slope that one of the ensigns assigned to the mess hall placed in front of him, then returned his hard expression to her.

"But you're not, holding me as a spy.....why?" Her nose wrinkled as she looked at the oddly colored pile of food in front of her, and she pushed it away.

"I had an internal scan run on you," he admitted, giving up the act, "your belly's clean, and I figure you'd be pretty hard pressed to get anywhere on this ship with a crew that's always armed to the teeth."

She appeared momentary set back as he let his guard down, allowed his bottled up frustration to filter to the surface.

"I told you, I was on my way home from a convention.....I never saw a cruiser or an explosion. One minute I was speaking with ensign Miles, and in a flash he was dead, the shuttle engines cut out and I was in your Brig."

"Cut the crap!" His voice elevated, enough to draw the attention of the other crew members. His eyes met one of them, Pipers, he cocked his head and arched his brows, relaying his aggravation to her across the room.

"I'm sorry." he said, redirecting his potent stare. He wasn't sorry, but he said it anyway, "Maybe you're telling the truth about this, we'll find out.....I'm not a telepath, but I have this gut feeling you're leaving something out......why don't you just tell me."

She looked a little confused. He watched as she played with her fork, shifted in her chair, the composure she seemed to have in check faltering in a big way. He felt a pang of guilt, not a big one, but enough to make him give up his rigid posture, his icy look, ease back into Captain Charming mode. It was possible she didn't remember, she'd been jerked around pretty good out there, and fear was capable of playing tricks on the mind.

"Let's just forget it for now," he offered, "I don't see you as a major threat to my ship, whatever your covert reasons were for being in the middle of a war zone......Why don't you just eat." He slid the plate of food back in front of her, "I'm afraid it's not going to get any better then this."

She smiled, a weary smile, an uneven breath escaping her. Her expression changed, the incredulous look she'd seemed bent on holding him with shifted to a liquid expression of loneliness, as if in that instant she'd lost her best friend.

"Hey," he grinned, "Don't let it bother you, they've got food on Onius......I swear it'll get better."

Something between a sigh and a laugh escaped her, she picked up the fork hesitantly and tried the food.

"Ewwe," Her face said it all, the eww wouldn't have been necessary ......He chuckled to himself.

"Where did you get that scar?" she asked, arching her brows and bravely eating another bite of her food.

"Wrong end of a d'k tahg," he answered, his hand automatically reaching for the imperfection above his right eye.

Her brows raised doubtfully.

He massaged his fingers over his brow, feeling the uneven hair.

"OK, I lied," he admitted, "I got drunk, fell over a chair and cracked my head on a glass table."

"Probably chasing a woman." she said.

"Telepaths," he said, flopping back in his chair, outwardly taking her comment with a chuckle, inwardly wondering why it irked him.

"Food gro...."

The ship rocked.

1Riker shot to his feet well ahead of the red alert and the Captain to the bridge that reiterated itself through the mess hall.

"Let's go!" With a harsh jerk he tugged her to her feet, unwilling to leave her alone.

"Captain?" Piper was on his heals.

"Scramble the Jagers, we're gonna need em!" he barked the order over his shoulder and flew down the corridor to the lift, feeling Deanna stumbling to keep up, but unwilling to slow his pace.

<We're screwed,> he thought, stepping inside the lift, the hollow hiss of the doors sanctioning his speculation.



"What the hell are those?!" Riker clutched the bridge railing with one hand, bracing himself against the jolt that tossed the bridge, and steadying Deanna with the other. His eyes fixed only on the view screen and the tiny glowing objects that were attacking his ship like a swarm of hungry locus.

"We've been unable to scan them!"

Riker raced down the ramp, physically lowering Deanna into the Captain's chair, "Sit, stay!" he ordered, not waiting for a reaction, but moving in beside his first officer.

"Evasive maneuvers Riker Omega!" he shouted, squaring his footing as the Banshee leaned hard to port.

"They're targeting the shields, chewing through em like a mouse through a piece of cheese."

Riker narrowed his eyes at the screen, the flash of the quantum torpedoes lit up the black space, the crimson laser fire of the Jagers cutting through the translucent blue, creating a light show that seemed to do nothing to bring down the little remotes.

"Tighten the phaser beams, fan them out, gird the ship!" he barked the order, shaking his head at his first officer, "What we need is a goddamn fly swatter."

The orange beams launched, pulsing through the others, taking down a few, but not enough.

"We've managed to scan them Sir....they're ships."

"Ships?!" Riker yelled over the voices and warning alarms that echoed over his bridge, "Piloted by what..... Leprechauns?"

"Machines Captain."

He met his tactical officers eyes, "Great, mechanical Leprechauns."

"Shields are down to ten percent!"

Arla's normally sweet voice sounded almost metallic and scratched over his nerves as he watched another Jager go down in a ball of fiery lightening that exploded over the bridge.

"Electroplasma system tap now lieutenant ......divert all excess power to the deflectors."

"Captain!" He heard her voice, the voice of their visitor, he snapped his head around.

"Shut up!"

"Captain," she persisted, "They're targeting the ships power.... stand down!"

He eyed her through the smoke that sheathed his bridge, another blinding flash telling him another Jager had fallen caused his chest to tighten.

He turned back to the view screen, stone faced, but panicked as he darted his eyes over the sleek hulls of the Jagers as if he could find the serial numbers of her ship in the fire works display.

"Riker to Commander Merek."

<Captain!> Her breathless response came back instantly, his relief never showing through his determined expression.

"Call in the Jagers!" he ordered.

<You need us out here, your weapons are too wide!>

"Call em in Piper!"

<But Captain, I ...."

"That's an order Commander, and I mean NOW!" His stomach clenched, he stared out into the outside space as if he could grab her, shake her by the shoulders.

<Yes Sir.> The disagreement in her voice was as thick as the smoke that blanketed his bridge.

"Disengage all weapons!" His order scratched over his parched throat, he eyed each one of his bridge crew with a 'screw with me you die' look, "Power down all systems...... minimal life support!"

The order was carried out immediately ....the ship's lights dimmed, the sounds waned, the outside space swilling with only the debris of a battle that may have been lost, the tiny ships falling back, and hovering like tiny vultures in the distance.

He massaged a hand over his throat, dry from the smoke, he was certain he could taste the residue of blood in his mouth.

He turned slowly towards their guest, his eyes shooting daggers of blue fire even through the hazy smoke of his destroyed bridge.

"I wanna see my ready room, NOW!"


Chapter 4

 "Twenty four hour guard." Will didn't bother looking away from the PADD he gripped tightly in his hand, and issued the unnecessary order only to relay his irritation with this Deanna Troi.

As the doors snapped closed, he let his guard down, tossing the PADD on the antique black walnut desk and turning his chair to stare out the large view port behind him. Even here, without the magnification, he could see the intermittent flashes of the ships that hovered in the distance.

"And now what?" he mumbled to himself, wondering how long they'd have to hang here, a ghost ship in space, a sitting duck for any Klingon or Romulan patrols that might happen by.

He didn't bother turning as the chimes sounded to his ready room, but he felt his shoulders tighten.

"Come in."

"What the hell were you thinking?" Her voice was harsh, only escalating his annoyance with his lover and strategic officer.

"Permission to speak freely Commander Merek." His sarcastic remark drenched with contempt, as cold as the eyes he pinned her with as he turned his chair to face her, "You *ever* question my orders like that again Commander, and you'll be shuttling old ladies to and from Med-Lab."

She didn't waver under his powerful gaze, but held one of her own....just as he'd expected.

"I didn't agree wi...."

"And your first objection was noted." His hands fisted on his lap. He'd been challenged before, and maybe his reaction was due to the fact that they were sleeping together, or maybe his own shock that he'd believed the stranger so quickly.

"I'm sorry Captain, but I was monitoring the bridge, I can't believe yo......"

"My ship was going down for the third time Piper, if that meant I had to fuck the devil I'd have done it!" He got her to blink with that remark, her polar gaze almost melting, falling victim to the heat of his potent stare. But she'd never give it up completely, even the slight shift in her rigid expression would have gone unnoticed by anyone but him.

"When you have your own ship, your own crew....a thousand people you're responsible for, I hope for your ships sake you'd feel the same way."

A breath escaped her, rigid attention replaced by at ease, yet a very formal version of it.

"I hope so too Captain."

Oh my God she caved, he must have been more determined then he'd thought to convince not only her, but himself that he hadn't just made the most asinine decision of his career.

"She could be a spy though." The last ditch effort, thank God, he was beginning to wonder if he knew her as well as he'd thought. "Romulan's have been known to alter their appearance."

A rough chuckle escaped him, his anger waned, just as it always did with her....Sometimes he was sure she had a sixth sense that told her when to resist him and when to submit.

"It's funny you should say that Commander," he said, gesturing to the chair across from him, "Because apparently that's how our guest happened on the schematics for these ships......She was abducted by Romulans, had her appearance altered and was forced to serve on a war bird."


There it was, the stunned look, the one he hadn't been able to accomplish with his I'm the captain and you'll respect me act. He couldn't help smiling as he watched all five-foot nine of her perfection crumble in the chair across from him, perplexed and completely at a loss for words.

"There's more, so much more," He picked up the Rapalla that always graced his desk, his favorite lure, sleek and deadly, and turned it over in his fingers, "Seems Lieutenant Troi thinks she's somehow slipped across time, that she's trapped in a timeline that's not her own."

"And what do you think?" She appeared to be carrying on conversation with his hands, watching him manipulate the lure as if it was the most fascinating thing she'd ever seen.

"I thought it was a crock at first, and considering the BS I've seen it still could be, but I checked the information Max found on this Enterprise and Deanna Troi."

She leaned forward, resting her arms on his desk, her brows raising, obviously eager to hear what he had to say. Too eager he thought.

"I wasn't surprised that there is no Star ship Enterprise or Lieutenant Commander Troi anywhere in federation records......Throwing those facts in her face is how I got her to lay her cards on the table in the first place......Of course her claim that she was catapulted across time wasn't exactly the card I was hoping for."

"So you don't trust her, you think she helped us as a way to snake her way into your good graces?"

"I did, until I checked into a few other her parents," he swallowed, still not comfortable with his findings, "The people she named as her parents, they do exist .....A human by the name of Ian Troi matching all the stats she gave me as far as birth date and place did live on earth, course he also died there when he was five."

"So I was right about her, she's full of shit," Her blue eyes ignited, he'd never seen her so bent on burying anyone.

"No, you weren't," he almost smiled, "Sorry to burst your bubble. I had to dig to find this woman she claims is her mother, thankfully she's a woman of some importance on Betazed. Her names Lwaxana Roddenberry, she's never been married nor does she have children."

"You're starting to piss me off Will."

He let her remark and the long nails she drummed against his desk roll off his back.

"I did a DNA overlay on both, and crossed with Troi's........If Ian and this Lwaxana had a child, our guest would be it. That, combined with the explosion we generated is moving me to believe her."

"That's the most asinine thing you've ever said!" She shot to her feet, as always saying the first thing that entered her mind.

"Thank you," he said, lifting from his chair and moving around in front of the desk. "Don't you see what this could mean?" He fingered a lock of her hair and moved his face to within a breath of hers, "If she's what she says she is, comes from a time where Klingon's serve onboard their ships, and she's been privy to the inner workings of a warbird......We could use her, she could be the most lethal weapon we have against the Unification."

For a moment she just stared at him, considering his words or gauging his conviction he couldn't be sure.

She finally smiled, that half smile, the one she donned before pulling the trigger on a laser pistol. He matched it and nodded his head, satisfied he'd persuaded her.

"Are you going to be honest with her or camouflage your motives?"

He dropped the lock of hair he'd been fondling as if an electrical charge had just moved through it.

"That's it, that's how we'll get the Banshee out of here!"

"Ship doesn't have enough power to use the net." As always she was keeping pace with his shifting mind.

"Nope," he answered, a cunning grin pulling at his mouth, "but the Jagers do.......Two jagers under the camouflage nets could push the Banshee out of here with a tight tractor beam."

"Whoa Captain....."

He'd earned his title again, he figured the use of it meant only one thing, she was going to challenge him. And this time she was right, the Jagers would have to push the Banshee like little tugboats, almost contacting the hull. It would take precision flying and aside from Piper, there was only one other pilot onboard he'd trust to do it.

"I'll ride shot gun Piper." He volunteered before she was able to state her objection.

Her surprise lapse quickly into pleasure .....he assumed most of it stemmed from the fact that she'd be in charge out there.

"I'm ready," she said, "now all you gotta do is convince your first officer."

"Don't worry about it," he answered, tipping his head towards the door, "I know this will surprise you, but there are those on this ship who don't think my decisions are asinine."



Deanna shivered, slid further under the covers and pulled the thin blanket tighter around her neck. In the haunting silence of the almost dormant ship the emotions of its crew seemed to pursue her. Her head ached, her stomach knotted and a fine line of sweat tickled down her back. Under the circumstances, the high level of tension and raw emotions seemed normal.......They were on a warship, and the crew was driven by the fear and hatred it generated. But no one more then Captain Riker, thinking of him sent another chill up her spine.

She turned to her back and stared at the dim light that bathed the room, focusing on the shadows as they danced over the stark white walls, using them as a distraction to appease the unrest she was feeling. But her memories of her encounter with him in his ready room continued to plague her........She'd been so certain after she'd reestablished a grip on reality that she understood him. Circumstances have a way of changing people, and in the same situation the Will Riker she knew would be driven by the same explosive motivation to protect his ship and crew at all cost.

And this Riker had exposed himself to her as well, reluctantly in the Mess hall he'd let his guard down, it was then she'd realized this wasn't a dream or some cruel joke, that this man wasn't the man she knew. But even then she thought she understood him, could see and feel the similarities between him and Commander Riker. They were both strong, with a confidence that could almost be felt, likable, slightly arrogant and completely driven. But Captain Riker's drive didn't stem from his need to achieve success, he expected no less, and from the few things he'd told her had been rewarded with it over and over. This Riker's drive stemmed from a deep seeded anger, an anger so deep when she'd touched on it, when he'd exposed it, it had taken her breath away. She sat up with a start, the memory of it causing her heart to beat faster. Her hand felt like ice as she brushed it against her flushed cheeks, even now her own feelings about Captain Riker gyrating out of control. Logically she understood that this Will was a different man, but when his anger had flashed in his ready room, a tangible storm of black rage had completely engulfed him.......And no matter how hard she tried to shield herself from it, him, she couldn't. It wrapped around her throat, forcing her to literally gasp for breath. It was in that instant that she realized she was afraid, terrified of a man she thought she'd always understand, in any time.


Chapter 5

 The Banshee launched Riker's Jager into the vast expanse of space, spitting it with a chest crushing force that stalled his breath. Keeping a two handed grip on the throttle, he relaxed into it, drawing a breath, permitting the stimulant infused oxygen to heighten his senses. The small ship's in the distance didn't move.....He nodded, a smile, self-satisfied and awe induced pulled at his face. He'd spent years flying the advanced fighters, outwitting the timeless wisdom of space, avoiding her snares, and endless maze of secrets. And as he watched Piper's ship come about, its sleek A-line cutting through black, a trail of fiery blood in its wake he wondered how he'd ended up on the Banshee, shielded from the ominous space by a massive womb of metal.

<You with me Will?>

"Yea," he returned, pulling back and down on the throttle and falling in beside her.

<Good, cause it's important you stay with me, thrust for thrust, perfect timing......Like last night......You remember last night?>

He rolled his eyes.

"If I think about last night in this flight suit it could be detrimental ...... Drop the smoky voice and relay your coordinates." His eyes dropped to the panel in front of him, the two circular black screens flickering to life with crimson numbers and topaz lines.

<Keep your nose up and your speed down Will, come up under her belly twelve degrees to starboard.>

"Aye Sir." he answered, chuckling to himself, and tapping the flight control pattern enhancer, activating manual controls.

He watched her fall, and followed suit, pulling up out of his descent with more speed then she'd gauged.

<You're coming in too fast Will......Pull back..... you're gonna contact the hull!>

"No shit!" He lunged for the lateral controls, compensating for Piper's miscalculation and tipping the ship. He closed his eyes as the Jager's wing grazed the Banshee's hull, shivered slightly and evened out. He released the breath he'd been holding, and cursed Piper's coordinates. "New plan Piper......I'm taking Command, relaying MY coordinates now." He punched in his commands and waited for a rebuttal.

<Aye Sir.> Her unexpected response came on a shaky breath.

He nodded, and repositioned his ship.

"Target Now!" he ordered, condensing his beam and tagging the belly of the Banshee, "Increase pressure and engage thrusters, full ahead."

She returned a response, but he didn't hear it; the Banshee began to move, and his eyes were drawn to the ships in the distance. He narrowed his eyes the closer they moved towards them, noting the V-shaped formation and deviation of the space behind them. He hadn't noticed it before from the bridge, but the shimmering hulls of the ships illuminated the swirling cloud of unusual space behind them. Without the ship's standing guard, the difference would have been virtually undetectable, just another pocket of space void of stars, but this looked more like an artist rendition, like a paintbrush had been stroked over a shimmering surface, giving it almost an oil slick effect.

"How close can we get to those ships before their sensors will be able to penetrate the net?" He glanced at his own readouts, realizing their was no way he could divert any power away from the net, or the beam of the Jager to attempt a scan now.

<I don't know......why?>

"Nothing, no reason." he answered distractedly, wrenching his neck to see behind him, watch this mystery slip away.



Still feeling the effects of the stimulant infused oxygen of the Jager, the rumble of the Banshee's engines under his feet tickled up his legs like a kinetic charge. He shifted his weight and keyed in his estimated coordinates, scrambling them as he heard his first officer approach. Without looking up he moved to the next station on the bridge, stroking encouraging fingers around the chrome frame of the dormant panel. The repairs to his ship were going to take days, and he didn't have days, he needed to get back here as soon as possible, find out what the little Leprechauns were guarding.

"Captain, we've been able to tag the contents of the Klingon Cruiser, it didn't make sense so I held off in bringing it to your attention."

"Go head." He sidestepped to the next station, this one unfortunately sparkled with light. He frowned as he looked at the unending damage report.

"It appears the Klingon's cruiser was pumped full of auriora emissio...."

"They were siphoning off the emissions!?" Riker's eyes shot to Max, his antsy behavior and elevated voice drawing the eyes of his crew.

"It looks that way Sir......But it doesn't make sense, the emissions aren't any more explosive then the arsenal of power they have now." Max directed a look behind him to the crew, all eyes fell away.

"Let's break it down, find all the components, could be a single element they were looking for." He rolled his shoulders and shifted his weight, standing still on a dying bridge was closing in around him.

"I'll take care of it," The grin Max attempted to conceal behind a swipe of his hand was still evident in his eyes as he pulled it away.

"It's all right Max, I'm sensified and I know it. You have the bridge." Snapping the PADD out of Max's hand he back stepped up the ramp to the lift. "Set course for Onius, Maximum limp." He heard the snickers of his bridge crew, "God, I feel good!" he grinned.

The lift doors opened, he spun around, the grin he'd been holding Max with falling on Piper.

"Captain, you left the bay without burn-off." Winded and flushed, her hair still tousled from her helmet, Piper's stern reprimand only broadened his smile.

"I'm going now Piper, don't get excited," He stepped inside and pressed back against the wall of the lift. Out of eye shot he gave Piper a visual once over that only served to aggravate his heightened sensitivity, "Did you want to get off?" he asked, jerking his thumb towards the open doors.

Without hesitation she stepped back inside, "Yea, I think I would."


Chapter 6

 <We'll be arriving on Onius in less then an hour Captain.> Riker pulled his eyes away from the screen he'd been studying since his work out with Piper, and stretched his arms over his head.

"Thank you Commander, have lieutenant commander Deanna Troi sent to my ready room." He'd put off the meeting as long as he could, he had to talk to her, persuade her to help fight the Unification, tell him what she knew about the tiny remote ships.

He rubbed his eyes and pushed back in his chair, staring at the closed doors to his ready room, mentally rehearsing what he was going to say. Piper was against him asking for anything, their heated off the record 'discussion' had turned afterglow, into aftermath. He wasn't sure if he'd been angry at Piper for being so closed minded about her, or angry at himself for trusting her.

He swiveled his chair towards the view port behind him and watched the twin pulsars that marked the entrance to the small solar system that was home to Onius. The blue-white beats of the simultaneous beams were hypnotic, he focused on it, mentally capturing the haunting sound....... The burn in his shoulders cooled, the knots in his stomach unraveled, the hundreds of lives he was responsible for momentarily stopped leaning on him, and his eyes drifted closed.

Seconds, maybe minutes, and he startled from the velvety blackness of sleep, gripping the firm arms of his chair and leaning towards the view screen. In the distance, beyond the pulsars, a jagged bolt of ivory light ripped through the onyx space.

<Captain to the bridge!>

"I saw it Max, I'm on my way." The young captain was on his feet and to the doors of his ready-room before the response had left his mouth.


"There's nothing to report Captain," Max turned towards the ready-room doors, acknowledged his captain, and returned his gaze to the view port, "Our sensors didn't pick up anything, if we hadn't been looking we'd have missed it."

A Gallant class warship and all they had to go on was looking out the window.....why didn't that surprise him. Three long strides brought him beside his first officer, he lowered his eyes to the screen below him. "Can we extrapolate the origin of the phenomena with a distance gauge."

"Aye Sir, if it was operational."

Riker's head flopped forward, he shook it slowly, and pressed the heals of his hands against the Nav-chair in front of him. "This sucks." His observation meant only for Commander Corrigan's ears.

"You can say that again, I just hope the Oni don't make us barter for three days to get the repairs we need."

"As soon as we're in communication range, relay our intend, give em time to make their wish list." He finally lifted his head and turned to Max, "I know that flash, or whatever it was was behind the pulsars, that puts it almost on top of Onius.......I wonder if they're up to something?"

Max's eyes darkened, his head tilted thoughtfully, "Wouldn't be surprised, they're not the most trustworthy race we ha...." The lift doors hissed open, cutting Max short, "Speaking of trustworthy." he continued, tipping his head towards the dark-haired woman being escorted down the ramp.

Riker almost smiled before turning towards Troi and taking a few steps towards her, "Lieutenant Commander, thank-you for seeing me." She looked tired, her eyes held the residue of sleep, and her hair was tousled, untamed curls falling against her pale cheeks.

"I didn't have an option, Commander Merek dragged me out of bed at gun point."

<Piper?> he thought, looking over the Betazoid's shoulder as if Piper would miraculously appear out of nowhere, "I'm sorry, I'll speak to her.....I certainly didn't mean for that to happen, I was just hoping to talk to you before we got to the onius moon." He turned on a smile he sure as hell didn't feel and guided her gently towards his ready-room.


The last time she'd been in here, Captain Riker's anger and gyrating emotions had held her in an ironclad grip that had forced her to focus only on him. But this time, his demeanor was more relaxed, giving her a moment to inspect his ready-room, try to get a picture of the man behind the desk. She noted the fishing tackle, the glass display case against the wall filled with weapons; some Klingon, some Romulan, others looked to be old earth, but she wasn't sure. But two things caught her eye, out of place in a ready-room that looked more like a hunter's cabin. On the far side of the room in a corner all its own, a hand-blown bottle stood like a priceless statue on an illuminated stand, the tiny air bubbles embedded in the translucent blue glass bottle shimmered like tiny stars over the ready room walls, casting shades of pale innocence over the otherwise harsh interior.

But it was the occupant of the couch that drew her questioning remark. "That's a cat." She pointed at the multicolored ball of fur, its blue eyes half opening as if it knew she was talking about it.

"I like cats."

"You like cats?"

"Yea, why...... don't you?"

"Yes of course I like cats, I'm just surprised that's all."

Riker shifted, something just shy of a smirk played over his lips, "Surprised she's on a warship, or surprised I have one? I get the distinct feeling a lot of things about me surprise you, and I'm not sure why.......Would you care to help me understand."

At ease and oh so sure of himself he pressed back in his chair, his challenging smile and the arrogant glint in his eyes once again putting her on the defensive, "I think you're reading more into my observations then there is."

"Ok," he sighed, " we can play that game again if you'd like......You lie to me, I lie to you. But I warn you, I can match you shovel full for shovel full."

She looked down at her lap, escaping the alien familiarity of his deep blue gaze. In spite of the turbulent emotions that churned inside this man, she felt a need to be honest with him, and was finding it difficult not to trust him.

"Look, I'm not asking you to crawl in bed with me, but if you could just sit on the edge.....The federation needs all the help it can get."

The tone in his voice, his emotions up front and honest forced her to raise her eyes to his, "How can I help you, I don't understand."

"You saved the Banshee from the remotes, you said you'd seen the schematics for them....I need to know anything you can remember....why were the Romulan's building them in your time, what for, how are they controlled."

She considered her words carefully, what she knew about the remotes was minimal, and certainly wouldn't justify what she'd told him to do on the bridge. But if she told him the entire truth, that a stray thought from one of his crew had condoned what she'd surmised, he'd never believe her.

"I know they were designed for defense, a way to protect without risk to life, and they're programmed to react to certain frequencies .....But I don't know how."

"That's it?" His dark brows disappeared under the waves of hair that hung over his forehead, he tilted his head further, accentuating his disbelief.

"That's all I know about the remotes."

"Then how about you tell me everything you know about the Romulans and the Klingons?" Direct and impassive, his single motivation chillingly clear in the smoky blue gaze he snared her with.

"Why should I?" Her answer was deliberately meant to provoke him, and left her mouth before she could ask herself why she felt the need. He was doing his job in the middle of an ugly war, and yet she felt angry with him. Her reasons didn't appeal to her, and rationally made no sense, but she was scared, and she was alone, and across from her was a facsimile of a man that had always been there for her, who's strength she could always draw on, but from this man she could feel nothing, only anger he tried to wrap up inside himself filtered to her.

"Look," he said, freeing an exasperated breath, "whether you like it or not you're on this side of the timeline now, I have no idea how to get you back, nor do I plan on wasting time trying." He shrugged matter-of-factly, "The way I see it, you have two choices, stay here, let us use your knowledge to beat these bastards, or spend the rest of your life in a federation prison camp......And being as beautiful as you are, I'm sure you'd have no trouble staying alive."

The grin that spread over his face was slow and nasty, and she understood what he meant, but more importantly she understood he wasn't bluffing. Against her will she buckled under the ardent gaze he held her with, and looked to her lap, cursing herself for allowing him to intimidate her.


Chapter 7

 "Our sensors are minimal, but we're not receiving any life signs from the moon or the docking bay."

Riker took a step towards the view screen. The silver shell of the transit station that loomed over the colony on Onius looked undamaged. The beams of the tracking lights crisscrossed over the onyx space, the red approach lights flashed a warning as the door to the skip pulled open. "Maybe our communications are down?" He tossed a quick look over his shoulder to Arla, the rigid posture of Deanna Troi catching his attention. "What is it?" He shared a look with several of his crew, and moved closer to Lieutenant Troi.

"Can you hear me?" He kept his voice soft, but firm. She continued to ignore him, her grip on the chair whitening her knuckles, the liquid expression in her dark eyes almost frightening. "Hey, Lieutenant to me."

"There's no life." Her gasped revelation momentarily stunned him, he recovered quickly, "It's OK, maybe there was an accident."

"No, I mean NO life, not in the station, not on the moon......Everything is dead....Everything."

He drew his eyes away from her and tossed a look to Max, "Take the ship in manually ....Have Dutch suit up and lock the clamps from inside." His attention turned back to Deanna before his officer agreed.

"Hey," He hesitated before touching her hand, "Can you turn it off, protect yourself from the feeling?" He was more then aware of his crew's scrutiny, and disturbingly aware that his touch had someone caused her tears to cease and her breathing to steady.

"I'm sorry, I've never sensed such silence." She pulled her hand out from under his and wiped the tears away from her cheeks. "I'm fine now."

He eyed her doubtfully and nodded, turning back to the view-screen as the ship bucked against the restraints of the bay.

"Dutch," he said tapping his communicator, "After latch-up, run a scan of the bay."


"We haven't beamed down to the moon yet, but we jury-rigged the skip's sensors and it looks just as bad down there." Riker shook his head at the admiral on the other end of the transmission, "I'd like to check the sub-city, see if there's any survivors and anything we can use to get the Banshee back up again."

The admiral's lips pursed, his expression hard and cold had never deviated with Riker's recounting of what they'd found in the transit-station. He wondered if it was all an act, similar to the display he'd put on as he and his men had circled the catwalk that girded the bay. His first encounter with death had been at the ripe old age of ten. In route to sector 413 with his mother, their medical shuttle had answered a distress call from a civilian klingon cruiser, the four families on board had been killed, the shell of their ship left to drift in space. One boy was found alive and brought back to the shuttle with only minor injuries. He'd never seen a living, breathing Klingon, and from behind the coattails of his mother's lab coat he'd studied him carefully, the boy's dark brown eyes seemingly no different then his..... fascination and curiosity holding them both silently. He remembered a smile, an odd one tugging at the boys mouth and the sudden movement as the boy snapped his mother's phaser from the clip at her side and fired, his mother falling where she stood, knocking him to the ground.....And through wide blue eyes he'd watched the med-tech return the boys fire, the boy's smile never waning as his body fell silent, his mother's withering movements coming to an end beside him......Cold death, and the stench of her bristling skin a memory permanently imprinted in his mind.

The ache was dull now, and there were times he could look at death and feel nothing, but the death on the station, the haunting silence of the unmarred bodies, expressionless victims frozen in the act of whatever they'd been doing had crawled up his spine, and sliced across his shoulders like a dagger of ice, a frigid burn that even now continued to flare across them.

"I'm going to allow you free reign on this one Will." He startled at the sound of the admiral's voice, the fingers he'd wrapped around the arms of his chair, stiff from the grip he had on it.

"Yes Sir," he recovered quickly, "And the woman, Deanna Troi?" The admiral's comment had been clear, and he understood free reign meant not only the massacre on Onius, but the remotes and the Betazoid.

"A beautiful woman you say?" It was almost a smile that cracked through the premature lines of concern on the admiral's face, a smile that suggested he understood why Will was looking for an out.

"Very beautiful." Will validated the admiral's question with a bit more exuberance then he'd planned, and inwardly cringed.

"I've never known beauty to cloud your judgment before Will, I don't think it's going to start now. You've done an internal scan, you've run a DNA base and from what you've told me she's done nothing to threaten your ship. Relax Captain.....," A real smile breached the admiral's features, "and tell Piper to curb her jealousy, or her Uncle Jean-Luc may see fit to spend a few months on the Banshee."

Riker felt his shoulder's relax, the smile he returned Admiral Picard was deep and genuine, "I may play that card Admiral, thank-you."

"Feel free, and keep me apprised ....Picard out."

He found himself staring at the screen long after the Admiral's face had faded to black, the events of the last forty-eight hours toying with his emotions. Emotions he'd thought he'd corked so tightly inside himself, they'd never again break free.


Chapter 8

"Back off Piper, you've already overstepped your rights as an officer and your coming damn close to overstepping our friendship!" He raised a gloved hand and listened to his warning partially reiterated itself through the deserted Jager bay. This argument over Deanna Troi was getting old. He knew how often Piper had been screwed in her life, and took her cautious mistrust with a grain of salt. Her year spent in a Romulan prison camp had left scars that would never heal, scars embedded into a seventeen year old psyche, that would never fully release her from their ugly hold. No one onboard knew but him, and his knowledge of the incidents she'd endured at the hands of the Romulans had come about accidentally. Their lovemaking was always unbridled, a way to unleash every tension and harness every nuance of the escape, her unhindered need to please, her complete inhibition had totally enthralled him. Only once something went wrong, whether it was something he'd said, something he'd done, he still wasn't certain, but her eyes had gone cold, her body limp and uncontrolled tears had slipped from eyes that never cried. The experience had eaten him up from the inside out, hurting her, when he'd wanted to love her, moving him to expose a side of himself to her few had ever seen.

"You can't trust a Betazoid." He heard her voice, it rattled through the bay like an arctic wind, but even then he held her with a stern look of reprimand. "You must know that."

"No, I don't know that." His memories tamed his voice, and he shook his head slowly, waiting for an angry explanation. But she just stood there, one foot propped against the wall behind her, her arms folded loosely across her chest.

"If you're going to throw out accusations you better be prepared to defend your reasons."

"Never mind, I'm overreacting." She pushed off the wall with a sigh. That was the second such submission she'd offered him in the last two days, and it bothered him more then her vengeance for Deanna Troi.

"I want to mind," he said, snatching her wrist in his hand as she crossed to the hanger doors, "Tell me why......please."

"It's personal and I'm sorry, maybe uncle's right, maybe I am jealous." The eyes that had focused on the floor raised to his, the vulnerable uncertainty in them raping him of his anger and snaring him in his insatiable hunger for her.

"It'd turn me on if your were." Freeing her wrist, he slipped the same hand under her hair and cradled her neck, running a gloved thumb over the smooth line of her jaw. He knew she wasn't jealous, just as he knew eventually she'd tell him exactly what was going on behind her blue-green eyes.

"Then I'm positively green," she whispered, her breath warm against the lips he'd lowered to hers. He paused within a whisker of her mouth, the eyes she'd begun to close in anticipation, fluttered open, cobalt pools already glistening with desire. He brushed a barely there kiss against her lips, savoring her flavor like a fine wine before his thirst for her overtook him, and his mouth greedily devoured hers. He felt her muscles relax into him and drew her closer. Ignoring the phaser at her side, he slipped his hands past it and cupped her ass, forcing her against the leg he'd slipped between hers. Her movements against it kindled the flames that fully engulfed him. She moaned softly, her head dropping back, exposing sleek white flesh he momentarily nibbled before pulling breathlessly away.

"Computer," he panted, leering at her like a starving animal, "Initiate lock on Jager bay two, Captain voice authorization overrid....

<Lieutenant Troi to Captain Riker.>

"Yes Lieutenant?" He answered, pressing a silent kiss against Piper's throat, hoping to hang on to the mood, and hopefully distract her enough that he wouldn't have to hear how stupid he was for giving Troi a communicator.

<I really need to speak with you.>

"Can this wait Lieutenant, I'm right in the middle of something......I'd really *hate* to stop now." Still keeping an arm around Piper's waist, he arched hopeful brows at the momentary delay.

<It really can't sir.....It has to do with the safety of your ship.>

He felt Piper's posture stiffen, his own shoulders drooped, "I'll be there in a few minutes.....Riker out. I'm sorry," he grumbled, calling up one of his more pathetic expressions, "Please don't bitch, just say you'll be waiting in my quarters."

"Fine," she said, wiggling out of his hold, her eyes dropping to the erection straining against his uniform.

"Damn," he grinned following her gaze, "guess I should walk slow."

"Or walk fast and stay here a few minutes longer?"


Chapter 9

"Where'd ya get that outfit?" Riker looked quickly to the floor, warding off the chuckle that was threatening him. Whoever had provided Lieutenant Troi with clothing had made sure there'd be ample room for herself and at least two other people.

Troi crossed her arms across the two or three additional yards of khaki fabric that made up her blouse, "Commander Merek said it was all she could find."

"There is a war on, makes it hard to find a good tailor." He stepped past her as she stepped aside, permitting him access to her guest quarters, "But I'm fairly sure I can find something else, somewhere." He watched her stumble over her pants legs, the containment field he'd placed around his chuckle dissolved, and few short bursts escaped him, "I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at you."

"Yes you are," she returned, a trace of smile glimmering over her features, "You're very relaxed today?" she added.

"And I have a hunch you're going to spoil that." He said, his smile falling. He waited for her to sit down, and joined her on the leather bench that edged the back wall of the quarters.

"I've been thinking about what you said earlier.... about me being in this time now," she paused and fumbled with the sleeves.

"I was a little rough, it wasn't my intention to intimidate you into cooperating."

"Yes it was."

"Ya know," he said, taking one of her wrists in his hand, tearing the cotton cuff, rolling it and tying it around her wrist, "If you can read my mind, why'd I have to come here, couldn't we just talk through the walls."

She smiled briefly as he completed the same procedure with the other sleeve, and arched approving brows that soon wrinkled with her frown, "That's what I wanted to talk to you telepathic ability. I don't have it, or at least I'm not suppose to." She shook her head, the hair that been swept away from her face tumbled down over her shoulders, "I'm only an empath, but since arriving here I've been able to pick up stray thoughts, not on a whim, just sometimes I hear them in my mind."

He allowed the fact that she'd let him believe she was a telepath to slid, "And, go head , if you know something, or even think you know something that will affect my ship and my crew, I need to know." He kept the urgency that twisted in his gut out of his voice, she looked frightened, almost fragile. Maybe it was the fact that she was drowning in her clothes, or maybe it was the way she was looking at him, as if she needed his calm, maybe more then his calm, maybe his strength. Whatever it was, he felt almost compelled to give it to her.

"The tension level on this ship is very high, I can't pinpoint the source, but someone on this ship isn't what they seem." Her eyes continued to dip to the hands she nervously wrung together, only fully focusing on him when he shifted and draped his arm over the back of the bench.

"How so?" He asked emotionlessly. What she was doing took a lot of courage, or a lot of cunning, he'd play along calmly until he figured out which was her game.

"Several times since I've been onboard I've sensed a malicious intent, once while you were out in the smaller ships, once while the remotes were attacking, and most recently a few moments ago when I contacted you."

"Wouldn't malicious intent be only an emotion, you mentioned picking up actual thoughts?" His observation was merely a stall, a chance to sort through what she was suggesting, separate his emotional responses from his reasonable ones. There was always a chance of infiltration by the Romulans and the Klingons, one of the reasons all federation warships had been designed to run a weekly DNA sweep on the crew. Sympathizers weren't unheard of either, but he knew this ship and he knew this crew, he'd rather believe one of them had been killed and replaced, then think any of them had a loyalty to the Unification.

"Someone on your ship knew that the remotes were targeting the ship's power, that was how I remembered, why I....."

"So you lied before?"

"No, I'm not lying, why would I lie, what purpose would it serve?" Her dark eyes locked with his, relaying a deadly conviction and desperate need for him to believe her. And for an instant he held them, liquid jewels that threatened to capture him, draw him into her with an uncanny force like he'd never felt. He inhaled a sharp breath, severing the almost tactile hold she seemed to have him and turned his eyes to the view-port behind her.

"Let me ask you something," he said, focusing on the amber lights of the girth outside the ship that held the Banshee in the bay, "Not more then twenty-four hours ago I asked you to tell me everything you knew about the Romulans and the klingons.... your eloquent and mature response was, Why should I, you remember that right?" He paused without looking at her, her increased breathing the only answer he needed, "I don't think my threat of a prison camp moved you to all of sudden change your opinion, why now, what's your motivation?"

The leather of the bench squeaked as she stood up. He tucked the odd feelings she'd stirred in him as deeply inside himself as he could and followed her with his eyes as she walked slowly across the room.

"I wasn't sure before, that's all." She said it without turning to face him.

"But you're sure now?" he said skeptically, standing up and moving in front of her, "A member of this crew is out to destroy the Banshee?"

"No, you don't understand, it's not the ship, it's you..... Only you." He was glad she kept her luminous eyes focused on the floor, the haunting sound in her voice alone was enough to cause the hair on the back of his neck to bristle.

He opened his mouth to question her further, his first officer's voice, rough and slightly winded sounded over the COMM, holding his question in check.

"Go head Commander." he responded.

"I think you better get down here, team five found something you're going to be interested in."

"I'm on my way." he severed the connection and dropped his gaze to Troi, "We'll continue this later." he said, taking a half step before her hand around his arm stopped him.

"Don't go down there Will!"

Set back by the urgency, and the familiarity of her request it took him a second to recover. "I have to De-ann-a," he said, punctuating the use of her first name, "your welcome to join me, your instincts might be helpful down there."

He'd only been half serious with his suggestion, her instantaneous agreement and fast movement towards the door caused a smile to break over his face, "You're an unpredictable woman Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi."

"Somebody's got to watch your back, you're too busy watching everyone else."

He arched his brows and snorted a chuckle, "I feel safer already." he answered, sweeping his hand towards the doors.


Chapter 10

 Even before the silvery threads of the transport beam released them on the surface of Onius, Troi's warning and her unlikely concern for his life was quickly eclipsed by the miasma of death that loomed over the moon. The moon had never been much to look at, dry, barren, subject to constant sandstorms, a perfect home for a people that made the Fergengi look upstanding. But now, the dusty streets, the weathered sandstone buildings stood like a lonely ghost town, the scent of decaying flesh that carried on the arid wind the only evidence that only recently life had thrived here.

"Captain!" His first officer's voice came from behind him, shattering the haunting silence.

"You OK?" Will asked, dropping his eyes to Lieutenant Troi, her complexion ashy, her eyes seemingly frozen in front of her. He could only try to understand how profoundly this place was affecting her, he awaited an affirmative nod before pivoting around to face his young first officer.

"What's up?" he asked, stepping partially in front of Troi, shielding her from the icy gaze of his first officer.

"We found a Leprechaun." Max responded, his eyes still dipping towards Troi.

Will's interest in protecting Troi shifted quickly, he took a half step forward, "Where Max?"

"That's the weird part," he answered, his eyes drifting to the wooden wind-chimes beside them, their hollow sound only adding to the chilling atmosphere, "It was in the sub-city, fully intact......whatever the hell caused this, it wasn't the remote."

"Maybe," he answered, glancing over his shoulder at the sound of Troi's footsteps moving away, "Have you found a cause of death yet?"

"No, we've moved most of the Oni to a makeshift med-lab, we transported two to the ship and activated the medical program." Will groaned silently, holo-doctors something he'd never found a use for.

"No toxins, no chemicals, no evidence of germ warfare, I'm tellin ya Captain," Max said, shaking his head, "Whatever killed these people came out of nowhere and killed em like that." He snapped his fingers, the echo carried over the deserted streets.

"Well, something killed em, and we better find out what, because if this is a weapon, we're screwed." Will swallowed past his own fear and watched the younger officer do the same. "Max, how long until the Banshee is operational?"

"Days......A week maybe."

Will closed his eyes for a moment, the sandy dust of the moon already burning them, "any ships in the sub-city?"

"Four ships in the sub-city, but there's an updated T26 in the flight bay beyond the city......why?"

"I have places to go Max," he answered, once again turning to check on Troi, his gaze this time sticking to the target. "Oh God," he mumbled, moving quickly towards Piper and Lieutenant Troi. Both women ignored him, their eyes locked on each other, their shoulder's squared, their fists clenched at their sides, the only thing needed to round out the picture was a tumbleweed blowing down the deserted street.

"Commander Merek." Riker placed a firm hand on her shoulder, it tensed under his palm, "Commander!" he reiterated, physically breaking the visual attack the two women had waged on each other. "Pull in your claws Piper." he said softly, stepping in front of her, her frigid stare redirecting itself towards him, "Your personal problems have no place here.....Understood?" He stared her down until her shoulders relaxed with the breath she'd been holding, slid his hand to her upper arm and tugged her a few steps away from Max and Troi, "If you can't contain this prejudice you seem to have towards Betazoids, there's no place for you on my ship."

Her eyes flashed blue-gray with anger and defiance and then closed slowly. He didn't say anymore until he'd watched her inhale a breath, release it slowly and nod.

"Good," he said, cracking a half smile as her eyes opened, "Can we ditch the adolescent behavior and at least play that we're grownups?"

"If you can, I certainly can." Her glib remark and her similar smile were well rehearsed, the cautious looks she continued to send over his shoulder the only true emotions she relayed.

"Now, I'd like to take a look at that ship." He turned back to Max and Troi as he offered his intention, pleased at least to see the two of them carrying on a hushed conversation.

"You said you wanted to check out the sub-city Captain!" Piper fell in beside him.

"I know, and I will, but right now I'm more interested in that ship."

"Sir, there's four ships in the lower city, and I'd really like you to check out the remote." Max took a step forward, punctuating his suggestion with an urging nod.

"All right," he relented, "you go start running a diagnostic on the T26, I'll check out the remote and meet you in the hanger." Max nodded and turned towards the outskirts of the city.

"Commander, Lieutenant?" he urged, tipping his head towards the chiseled wooden pillars that marked the entrance to the underground chambers, "are you coming?" His firm invitation brought Troi in step beside him.... Piper, her reservations still clearly visible, glanced over her shoulder towards Max. "Commander Merek!" he called over his shoulder, almost tempted to allow her to go with Max. Personally he wanted to, but professionally he'd meant what he'd said, there was no place for prejudice on his ship. He was pleased when she broke into a slow jog and caught up with them. He nodded approvingly down to her, then redirected his attention towards Troi, "Still no life?"

She shook her head slowly several times, "I'm only sensing your crew." It was a simple observation, but something in the tone she'd used to relay it increased the chilling feeling he had about their earlier discussion. He shook it off, turning suddenly as the rumble of a ship's engine sounded through the hushed streets.

<That's where I should be.> he thought, walking forward and staring backwards at the hanger bay that housed the T26. He had to get back to where the remotes stood guard, something deep in his gut told him the answer to all of this lay somewhere behind that void.

He stopped at the top of the rotting stairwell that led to the inner city and watched Troi turn up her nose. On the cool air that billowed from below, the stench of fermenting Shanow leaves permeated the tunnel. Shanow whiskey was the only positive about the Onius moon, it smelled like shit, but after one shot it no longer matter, after a few more, nothing did.

He followed slowly behind the two women, moving slower with every step downward. A hollow sound of his name echoed through the stairwell, Arla's voice from above, he stopped short and returned a response. "I'll be right up." he shouted up the stairs, then redirected his attention downward, "Piper?" At least five steps ahead of him, she stopped , and tossed a look over her shoulder.

"You two go on ahead, I'll be right back." Even in the dull glow that illuminated the tunnel he could see Troi's frown and Piper's eyes flash. He chose to ignore both and moved quickly back up the stairs.

One foot on the grainy soil, the other still on the weathered stairs he smiled at his tousled and winded tactical officer, and opened his mouth to speak. The deafening explosion that thundered behind him, quaked the ground and hurled him with a jarring force into the sand a few feet away from the tunnel.

Gasping to capture the breath that had been knocked from his lungs, he drew himself to his knees and crawled to Arla, choking on the sandy debris that billowed from the stairwell.


Chapter 11

"Stay put for a minute," he ordered, brushing dirty blond curls away from Arla's forehead, exposing the gash below, "You'll be fine," he added, hearing the shouts of his crew echoing from the east side of the city.

Ignoring the pain that spiked up the back of his neck, he struggled to his feet, unstable steps taking him closer to the cloud of sandy smoke and debris that puffed through the stairwell opening. The first five steps were clearly visible under the panel lightening embedded in the walls, coughing on the dust, and spitting the dirt from his mouth he moved slowly downward. A few pebbles still tumbled down from the ceiling, but from what he could gauge as he moved further downward, whatever had caused this had been tightly localized. The urgent but muffled voices of his crew sounded behind him, the panel lights flickered and sparked at his sides. Tugging a palm lantern from his belt, he shined the consolidated beam ahead of him, picking up his pace as Lieutenant Troi's dirty and blood streaked face was illuminated in the bright light.

"You all right?" he asked, shining the light over her entire body, checking what looked to be superficial injuries only, then redirecting the beam ahead of him. With one arm he helped Troi to sit, heard her mumble something about being fine, his eyes still fixed on the rock slide up ahead, "Where's Piper?"

"She was ahead of me, about five steps." She choked, then coughed, her hands trembling covered her face, wiping away blood and dirt.

"Stay here." Watching the stairs under his feet he moved further ahead, glimpsing behind him once at the sound of his first office voice. He stopped when he could go no further and rested his hand against the jagged pile of rocks as if he could will them away.

"Riker to Commander Merek!" he said, slapping his communicator, "Damnit Piper, answer me." He pivoted towards the sound of the footfalls behind him, blew out an impatient breath and shook his head at Max.

"Dutch is in the inner city, the stairwells blocked from there too," Max, his eyes set on his tricorder continued, "The explosion was localized, but the quake brought down a good part of the ceiling down there, Banks, Roberts and O'keefe are all dead Sir."

"Shit." Riker wiped his hand over his mouth and beard, leaving the taste of blood behind on his dry lips, "How much rock are we talking here?"

"About three feet on either side, we can get through, but we're not picking up any life signs from beneath it."

"Captain," Troi's voice, hoarse, her breath ragged drew his attention upward, "She is alive, I can sense her." Through the grainy lighting Troi's eyes shimmered like black pearls, he held them for only an instant before slapping his communicator again, "Piper, this is Captain Riker, I need you to talk to me!" Keeping his personal urgency at bay, his expression impassive he tried again, "Piper, so help me if you don't answer me, and I find out you're alive, you won't be flying the Jagers anymore, you'll be heading the pit crew." .

<Like hell I will.> Piper's voice was strained, and constricted, several wheezing gasps for air followed. Even so, Riker breathed a sigh of relief.

"We're gonna get you out Merek."

<No!> her choked response came back before Max had taken a step away to get help, <The detonator's still armed--Will, it's motion activated."

"Did you get that Dutch!" he asked, hoping like hell he was monitoring from below and hadn't started digging.

"Aye Sir, we'll stand by."

"Don't move Piper, we'll think of something." Several other beams of light streamed down from the stairs above as more of the crew moved in, he turned towards them and held up a hand, "Everybody out but Commander Corrigan and myself."

"Sir, I don't think......"

"Objection noted, shut up." he barked, cutting off his first officer's standard objection.

Expecting his order to be carried out, he turned around. "Remember what we talked about earlier Captain!" Lieutenant Troi's warning, hollow and distant sounded as if it had carried across a vast chasm, instead of from directly behind him. He spun quickly around to chastise her, but she was already gone, disappearing up the stairwell with the other members of his crew.

<Re--d, blue.....yellow.> Piper's staggered voice, fainter then before yanked his attention away from the eerie feeling that blazed over his sweat soaked shoulders.


<Wire---ce--ling grate.> Both Max's and his own beam lifted to the latticed slate that supported the ceiling, the colored wires Piper was referring to woven through the grate, "We see it Commander," he responded, "Can we lock on to her, beam her out?"

"Negative Sir," Dutch's voice rattled through the tunnel, "Not without seeing the detonator, the transport frequency could set it off."


"Klingons," the word rolled off his tongue like a nasty curse, the hair on his neck prickled with white heat, his eyes narrowed, he followed the red wire with his light. The explosive was primitive at best, easily disarmed by a simple disconnection of the blue or yellow wire. But it was the red wire that disturbed him, the wire that had to be manually triggered to activate it, manually triggered by a member of his crew.

"You have to tell me, which wire, blue or yellow......I can't see the device, I can't tell which one is feeding it."


From the sound of her earlier breathing Riker knew her chest was constricted, but now her wheezing gasps sounded like whooping gulps. He momentarily severed the connection, "How much air has she got?"

"Not much," Max responded, blinking the sweat away from his eyes, "Especially if we keep making her talk."

Will reopened the channel, "One word Commander, ,Yellow or blue?"

<I like blue.>

"That was three words Commander, don't say anymore," he nodded to Max and examined the walls for footholds, listening as Max contacted the banshee and Dutch, telling the ship to stand by for transport, and the security officer to move his team to a safe distance away.

<Blue like your eyes, blue like a churning sea, blue like the petals of a....>

"No more talking Merek, that's an order." He rolled his eyes at Max, placed one foot in his first officer's cupped hands, his hands gripping the shingled rock ledge as Max boosted him up.

<Speaking of Macnee petals, you owe me some as I recall.>

"Jesus Christ, " he mumbled under his breath, lacing his fingers through the grating and wedging his feet in the two interlock joints below him, "I always knew the damn woman couldn't shut up if her life depended on it." Hanging on to the grate with one hand, he tightened the beam of his phaser and severed the blue wire, hoping like hell she wasn't so delirious that she'd picked blue only because it was her favorite color. He closed his eyes as the wire sparked, and opened them slowly when the stairwell fell silent.

"Get her out!" He ordered, dropping to the stairs below, stumbling slightly and then taking them two at time to get to the top.

<We've got her captain. We're takin her to sickbay.>

"Understood." he responded, resting his hands on his knees, grinning through jagged breaths at his first officer; the young officer's face displaying even more relief then his own.


Chapter 12

With the majority of the Banshee's crew on the surface, the engines shutdown for repairs, the unsettling silence spiked over Captain Riker's raw emotions. His sweaty palm still gripping the Banshee's surveillance PADD, he glanced at it one more time and tucked it his jacket pocket, his disturbing evidence engraved in his mind. All DNA sweeps of the Banshee, along with all transport trace patterns had been systematically deleted for the last six months.

Stopping in front of the lift, he manually accessed it, the metal against metal whine as the doors protested, drove the spikes in his shoulders deeper. Only four people besides himself had the authorization codes capable of deleting ship's records; His security officer, his first officer, his strategic officer, and his chief of tactical; Dutch, Piper, Max, and Arla. He swallowed hard as he stepped into the lift, the scent of the Macnee flowers he held in his hand, flared his nostrils and left a fruity sweet taste on the back of his tongue. For the last three hours he'd woven every possible scenario through his mind, the hows, the whys and the what-ifs snaking and coiling around each other, snarling themselves into a tight ache in the pit of stomach.

<Whichever one it is, they must know I know now.> he thought, nodding to himself and hoping that meant they'd be forced into playing their last hand.

The lift stopped and once again he pried the resisting doors apart, hesitating slightly before shuffling down the corridor to sickbay. He cast a sidelong glance to the glistening white doors of the morgue, silently acknowledging those that had died on Onius, and apologizing that they'd lost their lives in such a needless fashion.

The tinted glass doors to sickbay were closed, muffling the sounds. He stood outside for a second watching the holo-meds tend to the scrapes and bruises of the injured crewmen, his breath against the glass further blurring his view, he spotted Piper in the intensive unit in the back. He accessed the doors and moved inside, watching and listening to the display panel over Piper's unit.

"If you're not injured, you'll only be in the way Captain." The holo-doctor, Riker considered his worst nightmare swept into the room as if her radar had told her he was here, "We have everything under control here, we don't need any interference from command."

"Just remember Doc, Command can turn you off....... just like that." he growled, snapping his fingers in the redhead's face, glaring into the ice-blue sparks that flickered in her eyes.

"You excel at turning me off Captain, you don't even have to flick a switch." She grinned, that damn shit-eating grin she lived to pierce him with, and disappeared towards Piper's chamber.

"Bitch," he grumbled under his breath, turning towards the almost inaudible laughter coming from beside him..................." Lieutenant Troi?" He smiled curiously in her direction, noting her new attire; she was still wearing the khaki uniform of the lower ranks, but the tight fitting pants, and belted tunic revealed a body he was surprised to find on such a small woman.

"I could just take off my clothes, and you wouldn't have to strain your imagination." She said, jumping off the bio-bed, a smirk similar to Doctor Howards' curling her mouth.

"Don't flatter yourself Lieutenant. I was only checking your injuries........Perfect bodies run rampant on this ship." He matched her glib smile, and for an instant forgot where he was and why. Catching himself, he blew it off, "Piper's going to be fine thanks to you......If we'd waited for a readout, it might have been too late."

Any trace of her earlier smile vanished from her face, her brows wrinkled, and she sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. The simple facial expression intensified the solar flares that burned up his spine, "What is it?"

Her eyes drifted, over his shoulder, to the Macnee flowers in his hand, and finally raised to meet with his, "Have you come up with anything?"

"Lets you and I make a deal," he said, nodding encouragingly, "no more bullshit, no more tiptoeing......I'll be straight, and you do the same." He was amazed when with only a brief hesitation she agreed.

"In answer to your question, not really," he tossed a look over his shoulder to Piper, "That witch in a lab-coat isn't going to let me near her now anyway, if you want to tell me something, the time is now." He tipped his head towards the vacant room behind her bed, waited for her to move towards it and followed behind.

"You don't like doctor Howard?" Deanna asked, settling onto one of the stools that filled the tiny storeroom.

"Doctor Beverly Howard is the best damn doctor in starfleet..... I just wish when they'd established this holo-program they'd deleted her overbearing, headstrong, irritating, motherly personality traits."

"I see," she answered, looking to her lap to mask the smile he'd already caught a glimpse of, "I'm sure she has positive traits too?"

"That was them.....the ones I just said." He sneered over his shoulder, and growled, the pleasant sound of her light laughter drawing his attention back to her. He didn't say anything, only smiled, appreciating the sound and the cooling effect it had on his bristling muscles.

"I know you've got something on your mind," he finally said, massaging his fingers over the velvety petals of the Macnee, "Just tell me, I won't say a word until you're finished." He closed his eyes, taking away what he knew to be a probing stare, and waited. Her voice was smooth and comforting, actually unemotional, but her speculations, each of them served only to kindle the fire of betrayal that smoldered inside him.

"Bullshit." He said it flatly, and opened his eyes, "She could have died." He had his own suspect, and Piper sure as hell wasn't it, but then he had to admit he'd never actually delved into anything that would implicate her.

"She didn't want to go into the inner-city. Her fear in the stairwell was.....," Deanna shook her head, her eyes threatening tears, she looked to her lap.

"Her fear in the stairwell was of you," He'd had no intention of sharing Piper's secret, and against his judgment it slipped out, just as against his character he found he wasn't angry with Troi.

"Wh.....Of me, why?"

"Not you personally, your entire race. I don't know why, but I will find out," His shoulder's slouched, "I won't ignore this, but my gut says you're wrong."

"Your gut, or your heart?" she asked, sucking in a breath, vying to keep her tears at bay.

"Thanks," he said, standing up, ignoring her question, "That took a lot of guts, and I appreciate it."

She watched him through blurred vision, his external composure a masterpiece of deception. The man's concern for his ship and his crew consumed him, but also distracted him from an empty pain buried so deep inside himself, she wondered if he even he knew it was there.


Chapter 13

Riker pressed the heals of his hands against the front of the small desk in the transit station's comm-terminal, pushed his chair back, and rested his head on the cool metal. The clear doom that encased the station offered him a comforting view of the lacy spiral of constellations that softened the black space, the forced warm air pumped into the station blowing against his face reminding him of the stale reality he was trying to avoid. He knew he was doing the only thing he could do, but running covert DNA scans on his friends and command crew left a nasty taste in his mouth.

The melodious warble of the Oni computer drew his attention to it immediately, the knot in his stomach raveling tighter. His blue eyes, dull from lack of sleep swept over the readings, the negative scans doing nothing to alleviate his tension.

"Son of a bitch." he swore, snagging the cup of lukewarm coffee off the desk, the chalky brown liquid spilling unnoticed over his tunic. This left only the sympathizer theory, the one Lieutenant Troi had suggested after he'd questioned Piper. The memory of probing Piper about her flight coordinates on the Jagers, her refusal to bring them in when ordered, still gnawed at him. She'd answered everything without protest, but if Troi was wrong, and she wasn't the sympathizer, eventually she'd understand his curious questions, and inevitably she'd hate him for even suspecting her, especially at the Betazoid's urgings.

Piper said she and Dutch had worked the coordinates for the Jager flight, and Dutch also knew that a transport signal could engage the Klingon detonator ......Not common knowledge according to Max. Dutch had been the first officer that sprung into his mind once he'd narrowed it down, his explosive temper, his aloof behavior, and his position as head of security would make him a perfect candidate for infiltration. He flipped a look to the hull of the Banshee, then dropped his gaze to the computer.

<If I tapped into the ship's computer from here, no one could monitor it.> He smiled halfheartedly and tapped in a sequence of numbers and symbols that would bring the Oni computer to a federation frequency.

It was an odd feeling that coursed through him as he bypassed protocol and used an encrypted high access alpha frequency to log on to the ship's computer; it was urgent that he find the sympathizer, and yet a huge part of him didn't really want to know.

He started with the Jager coordinates, the crisscrossed grid of the relayed transmission. He read the number patterns, checked, double checked and triple checked the relay station, the lump in his throat tightening. Using the same computer transfer relay station, he searched the records for the day the Banshee had confronted the remotes, the numbers and symbols, the deliberately scrambled information twisted like a dagger of fire into his chest.

He began to tip his chair back, a sound, so faint momentarily freezing his muscles, the chair legs striking the ground with a metallic thud. He swallowed, afraid to breath. But with the movements of a man who had spent most of his life dancing on the edge, he flung himself out of his chair, rolled on the dimpled metal floor and crouched behind the desk before the phaser bursts whizzed with red heat through the comm-terminal. Crouching further, he tugged his own weapon from its clip and gripped it with a sweaty hand.

"Come on Max, let's talk about this!"

His plea was instantly answered by another snarled burst that struck the side of the desk, the metal glowed red with heat.

"You can't want to help those bastards?!" he tried again, raising his phaser and then lowering it. Max was his friend, the only friend he felt he'd had since he was a kid, he couldn't kill him.

"I don't give a shit about them!" Max's voice echoed like angry thunder through the bay, "If they take you down, I'll kiss their goddamn Klingon asses. This should have been my ship damn it, my crew!" There was a momentary silence, two more random shots and Max's foot steps moving closer, "You swaggered on this ship, sacrificed my friends for your fucking war, for your decorations. The grrr-reat Captain William Riker."

The more words Max strung together, the more certain Riker was that he was high on Shanow whiskey and suffering from burnout......a burnout, as his captain, and more importantly as his friend he should have noticed long before it came to this.

"Hey Max, remember starway 36........You saved my life, you remember that?"

"That was a long time ago buddy, before you started sacrificing my friends. You remember ensign Grace Symons?"

<Yea, in my nightmares, every night.> Riker thought, shifting the usual kill setting of his phaser to stun.

"No, probably not," Max continued without a response, "As I recall they butchered her.. NO, gutted her is a more appropriate word... right in front of our eyes, because YOU wouldn't sacrifice Beta code. Beta code......Jesus, what's wrong with you?!"

He heard Max stumble, but stayed still.

"I can hear her screaming now, Can you? Or maybe you couldn't understand her, pretty damn hard to talk while your drowning in your own blood like she did!"

The lump in Riker's throat expanded, the taste bitter and nasty choking his breath. He eyed the phaser in his hand and wondered if right here and now would be the best place to end this goddamn purgatory he'd been sentenced to live in.

"But ya know what pisses me off the most....CAPTAIN...... you never even so much as flinched!" His first officer's phaser fire filled the station, reckless and enraged it ignited the ceiling in angry flames, the walls with blue fire that glowed with a scornful fury and untamed regret.

It had been years, but Riker felt the heat of tears burning the rims of his eyes, he blinked them away without success and tumbled from behind the desk, stabbing Max with his first blast. The young officer crumbled to the grated floor.

The heat of his own tears, and the vapors of the scorched metal seared into his eyes like an acid drip, he stumbled in a fog to his friend and dropped to his knees beside him.

"I'm sorry Max," he choked, cradling the young man's limp head in his arm, and brushing away the tears that still glistened on his cheeks, "God, I'm sorry."


Chapter 14

< Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose. Noth...,> The female voice, throaty and somewhat sad carried over the parched sand flats that led to the hanger on Onius. Deanna looked up to the woman that had guided her here and arched sad but curious brows.

"He's drunk." Arla validated what her senses had already told her, "You sure you want to go in there?"

<He's looking for that home and I hope he finds it. Well I'd trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday. To be ho....,>>

Deanna nodded distractedly to her escort, the lonely voice and the increase of the guitar sending a chill up her spine, "What is that music?"

"I don't know, but it's a pretty good indication he wants to be left alone." A loud crash from inside of the bay and the shivering of the metal doors caused Arla to jump, "That's a good indication too." she cautioned.

"What's he doing in there?"

"Working on the T26," Arla answered, staring straight ahead at the bay doors, her profound concern for her captain shadowing her youthful features.

"Should he be doing that.....working on a ship, if he's drunk?" Deanna sensed the shift in Arlas emotions, a feeling of nostalgia, sweet memories, and if she wasn't mistaken very innocent love.

"Captain Riker could drink all the whiskey on this moon, and still be able to take apart and put together any ship in the fleet before the rest of us had finished reading the schematics .......It was a standing joke at the academy."

"You were there together."

"No, not exactly, my sister was there when he was....Unfortunately by the time I arrived, he was gone, but he left behind quite a reputation." Her fair brows disappeared under feathery bangs, and she gestured towards the hanger door, "You're sure about this?"

"Yep," Deanna answered, exhaling a breath, inwardly convincing herself she was, "Thanks Arla," she said, after taking a step towards the bay, "Maybe talking will help him."

"The captain's not a big talker, but I hope you're right." Arla turned and headed back towards town, leaving Deanna alone to confront a man that's emotions at the moment were so garbled, she wondered if anyone could untangle them.

Pulling back on the handle of the sliding door with all her weight, the door rumbled opened. The smell of Shanow whiskey combined with the odor of burning fuel filled the bay, her hand instinctively reached for her nose. With her first step inside, the music fell silent, her foot steps echoed against the char burned metal floor, she stepped over an empty bottle and moved guardedly towards the tarnished silver-gray ship. She drew a breath to call to him, a clattering sound, followed by shuffled footfalls from inside the ship stalled her breath in her chest.

"Fe-Fi-Foe-Fum I smell the blood of .........,." Riker appeared at the entrance of the ship, glass in one hand, wrench in the other and leaned against the hatch frame, "...a meddling female." he lifted his glass and downed the remainder of the cinnamon colored liquid, "I'm a little busy here, no offense, but.....get the hell out." He spun around before she could speak and disappeared inside the ship.

She hurried to the hatch and stepped inside, "Your crew is worried!" She shouted down the narrow corridor that branched off in two direction.

"Worried which one will get the next crack at me you mean?!"

Following the sound of his voice she veered to the right, avoiding the open panels that lined the chrome walls, and the cables that coiled over the bumpy metal floor. "Commander Corrigan is sick, "She said, stepping up two steps and stopping just outside the circular opening that led to the domed cockpit.

"Cause of me." Riker answered, only the top of his head visible above the brown leather chair he sat in, "Because I didn't see my best friend was cracking .....shit, I didn't even know he had a thing with ensign Symons."

"Nobody blames you, except you.....not even Commander Corrigan, at least not the rational part of him.....and you know he'll recover from this." She slipped into the smaller chair beside him and swiveled it towards him. He snatched the bottle off the console, and continued to star out the tinted view-port that shelled the cockpit.

Latching on to how he was feeling was next to impossible, his emotions distorted and constantly shifting, it was like looking for a single grain of sand in a stormy surf.

"You're a pain in the ass, have I mentioned that yet?" He finally said, startling her from her attempted invasion of him.

"It's my job," She smiled, hoping for at least a drunken smirk.

"And what is your job, on that great ship of exploration you serve on?" He waved his hands in an over exaggerated gesture towards the sky, the contents of the bottle splashing the glass of the view-port.

"I'm the ship's counselor."

"Great," he groaned, "A shrink, an empathic shrink no less. And I thought my life had hit rock bottom." He pinned her with a glassy eyed stare and shook his head, "Want a drink doc?" His question was more of a challenge, he bite back a smile and waited, waggling the bottle in front of her face.

"I don't think drinking is going to solve anything."

"Oh, I'm sorry," he snarled, jerking his chair around to face her and leaning as close to her as he could, "Would your Riker handle it differently?" He enjoyed watching her calm composure falter, the dark eyes that radiated concern widening with surprise. "I'm not an idiot, I just don't like prying into other peoples lives." he added bitterly, sitting the bottle back on the console and tugging a laser drill from the pocket of his coveralls.

"Actually, under the circumstances, I don't think he would." The hands he'd pressed against the arm of his chair to push himself out of it eased their grip and he sat back down, amazed. "Your shittin me.....there really is one?!"

"Yes, there really is one."

She looked sad and even with the alcoholic mist that shrouded his mind her pain sparked a pang of remorse for being the cause of it, "Are know......with him?"

"No, not anymore," She fidgeted with the clasp that pulled her hair from her face, "but I'm here said yourself, this is my time now."

"Why not anymore?" he asked, ignoring her roundabout request to let it slide, "Is he dead?" he inwardly cringed at his blunt question.

"No, he's not dead," Something between a sigh and a laugh escaped her, her breath rippling the hair on his forehead, the sensation drawing him closer in hopes of feeling it again. "We serve on the same ship, but his career plans aren't really conducive to a relationship."

"Sounds like a jackass to me," he said, leaning closer, stopping only when she pulled back slightly, "Do you love him?"

"Yes, I think I always will."

"And what about him?"

"I like to think...... maybe."

He could see she was uncomfortable with his close proximity to her and eased back, rocking his chair thoughtfully, "Life's gone in a heartbeat ya know, only a damn fool doesn't take what they can while they can." He shrugged one shoulder, and kicked his feet out in front of him, " Maybe it's different where you're from, but when tomorrow is nothing more then a chance, sure as hell makes today look pretty damned important."

Her eyes dropped to her lap, hiding silent tears. "I'm sorry," he said, watching the pale khaki of her pant leg deepen to brown from the tears that stained them, "I didn't mean to drag you into this hellhole with me, don't cry, I hate tears." Actually he'd never been one to fall victim to a woman's tears, but this woman was different, and it bothered him, but also pleased him at the same time.

"I'm sorry too," she said, wiping her cheeks and snatching the bottle off the console, "a drink sounds good."

"You better..........not!" He reached out a hand to accompany his warning, both coming to late.

He chuckled to himself as she coughed, then choked and wrapped a hand around her throat, "And you can still walk?" she finally managed.

"Years of practice," he grinned, "How do you feel?"

Her eyes danced over the cockpit, up and down his body and finally came to rest with his, "Good, I think.......Yes, very good." she took another sip, reenacted her early show and leaned back in her chair, "What were we talking about?......Never mind, I remember, I came here because I feel teer—teerat.....bad, I feel bad about Commander Merek."

Riker's brows creased, that wasn't what he remembered talking about, but then considering through his eyes the entire cockpit seemed to be filled with a foggy gray mist, it was possible he was wrong.

"Piper's fine, don't worry about it, she's a good officer, she'd a done the same thing."

"Arla said she blew up at you in sickbay?"

"No," He waved a dismissive hand, inwardly wondering how just being near this woman seemed to settle his regrets, "She just mentioned my questionable parentage, suggested a destination I should go, and then was kind enough to tell me what to do with myself once I got there."

His words apparently had to cut through the cloud of whiskey that shielded her mind, she stared at him blankly for endless seconds and then laughed......that laugh that had the ability to take away pain. She leaned forward on her knees and he followed suit, prying the bottle out of her grasp. For an instant she looked at her empty hand, then watched him set the bottle on the floor beside him.

Lieutenant?" he whispered, moving so close to her face his breath ruffled the loose curls that whispered over her cheek, "Can I kiss you?"

Chapter 15

<No.> Two days later and Lieutenant Troi's direct refusal to allow him to kiss her still brought a smile to his face. He was pretty certain that had never happened to him before, but he was also pretty certain he'd never thought to ask permission before. He stepped back behind the partition that separated the main sickbay from Max's force-field protected unit and watched lieutenant Troi interact with his first officer. She may not have kissed him, but she'd agreed to help his friend. Unfortunately the reports she'd offered him over the last forty-eight hours had been about as bleak as the progress his crew was making on the ship's repairs, and the COD for the people of Onius.

He almost smiled as he watched Max sit up and grin at Troi, he wondered what it would be like to allow people to open up to you, to be able to open up to other people. Even now, even though this Lieutenant Troi had dredged up feelings in him he was unaware he was even capable of, he'd never let his shields fall below eighty percent.

The footfalls behind him, not boots but the soft pitter-patter of barefoot against the hard floor stiffened his muscles.

"Piper?" he said without turning, "should you be up?"

"Not according to Doctor Howard, but if I left it up to her I'd be celebrating my thirtieth birthday under her care." A nervous chuckle escaped her, he could hear her feet shifting against the floor, her robe rustling against her skin, "I was thinking about what we talked about a few hours ago."

"What I talked about you mean? I don't remember a response."

"I know, and I'm sorry, just like I'm sorry I told you to go to blazes and make love to yourself once you got there."

"Is that what you told me?" he said, turning to face her, chewing the inside of his lip to halt the smile of relief that was begging to break free, "I don't remember it sounding that nice."

She wrinkled her nose and pulled the fleecy collar of her bathrobe up around her throat, "I've been talking to Dutch," she said, changing the subject, "He kinda helped me understand why you made the decisions you made and why you're making this new one. If you still want me to step up, I will." Her eyes drifted past him, "Until Max gets better." He stayed quiet, he knew she knew Max would never be back on the bridge of the Banshee, or any other ship in the fleet.

" Do you think she'll be able to help him."

"Yea, I do." he said, brushing strands of tangled hair behind her shoulder, and resting his hand there, reinforcing his conviction. Her eyes returned to him, so like his, deceptive with their flashing blue confidence, their sparkle of nonchalance, he looked to the floor as if he could escape himself.

"Piper?" he finally mumbled, "Why didn't anybody tell me about Max and ensign symons?"

"Nobody knew......until now." He felt her shoulder tense under his palm, "Makes ya think, doesn't it?"

He let his hand slide down her arm, then fall limp at his side, "Or drink heavily," he said suddenly, instinctively protecting himself as he felt his guard slipping.

"Yea, it's a wonder we're all not addicted to something." The trace of a smile that touched her mouth suggested she respected and understood what he'd just done, Oddly enough, he wasn't sure he did anymore.

"There's going to be questions....about me replacing Max, I'm hardly the likely candidate." She changed the subject again, and reminded him of what he already knew.

"They'll deal with it, I want you commanding the bridge when she's up and running, you know this ship better then anyone."

"I just hope you know what you're doing." She plunged her hands into the deep pockets of her robe, and stabbed him with a discerning look.

"Me too." He grinned, watching her gaze once again move behind him, "She may have saved your life ya know."

"That's what I've heard." She nodded, slowly and pensively, "What do you suggest I do?"

"Nothin'" he said, stepping around her, moving towards the exit, "you'll do what you want anyway." He added, without looking back.

Chapter 16

Riker's breathing, shallow and peaceful was the only sound that disturbed the silence of his dimly lit quarters. The PADDS he'd been studying before he unwillingly surrendered his body to sleep moved with the gentle rising and falling of his chest.

The chimes to his quarters sounded, loud and shrill, he bolted upright, the PADDS clattering to the floor beside him. "What?!" he grumbled, swinging his barefeet to the floor and stumbling to the door. The chimes echoed again, he slapped the switch plate twice before he remembered automated door activation was something he'd deemed expendable when he'd shut down the banshee's system, "Hang on!" he called, digging his fingers between the door seams and tugging it open, "There better be eight warbird's hove....." His dry warning to his uninvited visitor fell off as his eyes raised from the floor to Lieutenant Troi, and the bright smile on her face.

"You look a little harried." she said, giving him a visual once-over that prompted him to look into the mirror on the wall beside the door.

"Scary is more like it." he replied, swiping a hand through his hair to tame it and wondering if he could discreetly tuck in the one shirttail that hung in wrinkled creases over his pants. He frowned and decided to just untuck the other one, fortunately it was a perfect match, just as wrinkled. He shrugged at his reflection.

"Why are you here so late?" he asked the question as he guided her inside.

"It's nine hundred hours Captain."

He screwed up his face, checked the chronometer for himself, snatched his socks off the floor, his tunic off the couch, his jacket off the table and his boots out from under it, "I musta fallen fifteen hours ago." he admitted, shaking his head, "You want tea?" His offer of the Betazoid tea was more of a jab then an offer, he wiggled his pinkie in the air and did his best imitation of the prim and proper betazed.

"You have Sernia tea?" she said, deliberating ignoring his antics.

"No," He tossed the clothes he'd gathered into the bedroom, "I did, but I tossed it......nasty stuff."

"That's funny coming from someone who enjoys fermented leaves," she laughed lightly, her eyes studying his cabin with such intensity, he'd a thought she was going to be quizzed on its contents later.

"Coffee is fine." She finally answered.

"Good, cause that's all I have." He watched her eyes widen as he accessed a wall panel and pulled out his coffee processor, "What? I know what I'm doing."

"You have to make it?"

"If you want it. The banshee's replicaors are emergency only, and right now their off-line like everything else." He tapped the processor roughly, settling the hissing and sputtering, smiling to himself as it cooperated and gurgled softly. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Troi moving through his living room, examining his sound programs, his collected statues, even the hand-woven afghan that lay crumbled in a chair. He considered curbing her curiosity with a dry comment, or better yet asking her why she was here. But stayed quiet instead, studying her perfect features as intently as she was studying his cabin.

"This statue is from Betazed." She observed, her eyes moving from the finely chiseled Nacara stone to him.

"I know," he smiled sleepily, "I try to bring something back from every planet I visit. That was one of my first pieces. I spent a few months there early in my career......Nice place if you can stand the quiet."

She smiled, "And what about this?" she asked, tipping her head towards the pale pink bottle that stood beside it, "This is very similar to the one in your ready-room."


"Except this one's corked?"

"Yep." He pulled the mugs for the coffee from the shelves below the processor, but never took his eyes off her.

She looked again at the bottle, then turned back to him. He shook his head before she'd formed her next question, a silent warning he wasn't sure she was going to heed considering the prying look in her eyes. His shoulder's relaxed as she freed the breath she was holding and moved away from the bottle, an almost invisible nod of understanding directed towards him.

"Are you here for a reason?" he finally asked, pouring the coffee and handing her a cup before she began questioning him on his sound programs.

"I just wanted to see how you were." She accepted the steaming mug, smiled, then returned her gaze to the sound programs, "You have a lot of music."

"Are you always this nosy?" he asked.

"A man's taste in art and music says a lot about him."

"Well, don't judge me on that collection of crap, it's all Pipers. Be thankful she's not here, she'd make you dance."

"Really, you dance?" she laughed and set her cup down on the coffee table.

"Only if I see it as a form of foreplay." He waggled his brows and held out a hand, "With that in mind......wanna dance."

"With that in mind, I think I'll decline." She rested a hand against his chest and almost instantly drew it away.

"I don't bite ya know." He grinned, snatching her hand in his before it fell to her side, "Not right away anyway."

"You're a very persistent man." she whispered, her eyes focused on her hand and the thumb he was stroking in lazy circles around her palm.

"You wanted to talk about Max?" He kept his voice as unthreatening as his gentle caress of her hand. It felt fragile and soft compared to his, the faint scent of her, as delicate as her skin, as provocative as the sound of her voice, increased the beating of his heart, snaring him in an unfamiliar feeling, an unlikely arousal that had nothing to do with sex.

"Commander Merek came to see me yesterday." Troi spoke, but Riker didn't hear her, he was too busy trying to localize and destroy this alien emotion.

"Captain......are you listening to me?"

"What.......yea," he freed her hand, noting just a whisker of loss in her eyes, "You were telling me about Max."

"No, I was telling you about Commander Merek."

"Right, that's what a meant," he sucked in a breath, "What about her?" He returned her smile, even though he wasn't sure why she was smiling, he only hoped it wasn't because this was one of those times she'd picked up a stray thought.

"She came to see me."

"What!........Did she hurt you?" He smirked, the jolt of her news, snapping him out of whatever he'd been in.

"No, she was very, but nice."

"She's nothing if not direct," he rolled his eyes, and snorted a laugh.

"It was strange," she wrinkled her nose and looked past him as if the words she was looking for were hanging in the station outside the viewport. "She was very int...."

<Bridge to Captain Riker.>

"Riker," he held up an apologetic hand, "What is it Dutch?"

"You have an incoming communiqué from the Cochrane.......It's admiral Picard Sir."

"Shit," Riker's sentiment drew a gruff chuckle from his security officer and a curious look from Lieutenant Troi.

<We can redirect the transfer, have it relayed to quarters.>

"I don't suppose you could redirect it to deep space," he grumbled, slouching into the chair at his desk, "Go head Dutch, patch it through."

His finger hovered over the access switch. Before he tapped it he looked up to Troi, "You can stay Lieutenant, this won't take long.....I have a feeling the reception will be choppy." He grinned, and tapped the receiver.

"Admiral, Is there a problem?"

"Not at all Captain, I just wanted to let you know we received the data you sent."

<Already!> Riker thought, inwardly panicking, outwardly as calm as his superior officer.

<It's very lucky for you the Phoenix intercepted it, apparently it had been sent on a Delta curve relay.....If they hadn't caught it, it could have been weeks before it reached me. You should speak to the officer responsible about following fleet protocol.> Picard's mouth twitched, Riker was certain to hide the 'I'm always a step ahead of you' grin, he lived to throw at him.

<I'll speak to him, I'm sure it was a mistake sir, you know how these new recruits can be.> Riker shifted and shot a look to Troi, she however made no attempt to hide her smile. He frowned and discreetly moved his hand over the surface of the desk and rested it beside the transfer switches at the sides of the terminal.

<Very good.> Picard said, leaning closer to the screen, <And captain.>

"Yes Sir?"

<If for any reason this transmission gets garbled or disabled, I will increase my warp speed to 9.9.>

"Yes sir." Riker slumped back in his chair, glared momentarily at Troi's silent laughter and returned his attention to Picard.

"When will you be arriving Sir?" To Riker it was the only question that needed to be asked.

Picard spoke to someone beside him, nodded, then returned his attention to Riker, <At our present speed six hours, twenty-seven minutes.>

Riker fisted his hands around the rungs of his chair, "We're looking forward to having you onboard again Admiral." He lied, squeezing the rungs tighter until the tips of his nails dug into his palms.

<Have you appointed a new first officer yet?>

"No sir," he lied again, angry that the older man hadn't even ask about Max.

"Get it done Captain, we need that ship up and running with a fully staffed bridge crew.>

"Yes that all sir?" If Picard hadn't picked up on the contempt in his voice, Troi certainly had, he watched her shiver and wrap her arms protectively around herself.

<For now Captain......Picard out.>

Riker slouched further down in his chair, "I wonder if that's how Max sees me?"

"I don't think so Captain." The question hadn't really been directed at her, but her softly spoken answer and the sound of her footsteps moving closer pulled his angry gaze from the blank screen.

"I don't think so at all." She smiled and squatted down beside his chair laying both her hands over his. Her hair brushed against his arm as she nodded encouragingly, her eyes like liquid midnight almost making him believe her.

"Thanks Lieutenant," he whispered, inhaling a breath filled with her scent.

"Captain?" She rested her chin on the hands that protected his, "Can I kiss you?"

Chapter 17

<No.> Deanna smiled at her reflection in the mirror, remembering Captain Riker's refusal just before his lips met hers. Soft and sweet, it was as if with the simple touching of their lips the negativity that perpetually churned inside him had momentarily been swept away.

Brushing two fingers against her lips, she wished her own feelings in that instant were as simple as his. It seemed like a lifetime ago that a very young Lieutenant Riker had kissed her with the same simple motivation and she'd felt his brash and driven persona surrender itself to the moment. An intimate wink in time where the matrix of the universe was as simple has one man's dreams, and one woman's desires.

She smiled against her fingers, a sad smile that reflected her memories of Will, and her profound concern for Captain Riker. He'd severed the kiss long before he was ready, she'd felt his regret, but not as deeply as the storm of urgency that had swelled back up inside him as he'd drawn away.

Taking a deep breath, she walked with slow steps to the view-port, stared at the ruddy brown grating, and tried to focus. The emotions of the Banshee's crew had eased since they'd been on Onius, even with the unexplained deaths, and the incident with their first officer, the rabid fear and bitter hatred that had blanketed this ship when she'd first arrived had been tamed by only a few days of not having to worry if this battle would be their last. She reached for Captain Riker, and the firestorm of emotions that only an hour ago had overridden all the others, but only her own feelings spoke to her.

She spun around towards the exit and snatched her jacket off the chair, stopping short at the sound of the voice that sounded through her partially open cabin doors.

"Hey Lieutenant?" Piper Merek, dressed in the black two piece uniform of command pressed the heels of her hand against the door, prying it open before Troi had returned a response.

"Commander?" Troi rushed to help her, frail and ashen, the woman hardly looked as if she should be out of bed let alone donning a uniform and a weapon.

"Take these," Merek handed Troi the two PADDS she'd held in her hand, "Take them to Captain Riker, and convince him not to go alone."

"Where's he going?" Troi glanced at the blank PADDS, then into Piper's stormy eyes, "Where is he?"

"On the moon....he was suppose to take Dutch, but because he's worried about my weakened condition," She rolled her eyes and mumbled a curse, "He's going by himself.....You've got twenty minutes...."

"Wait, " Deanna said, breathing deeply, shielding herself from the sting of Piper's emotions, "He's your captain, don't you think he knows what he's doing?" She said it more to calm the young officer then because she believed it.

"NO, he doesn't know shit!" she slapped the wall beside her, her pale skin glowing crimson with anger, "He's going off halfcocked......and he knows he's going off halfcocked.... he thought he had time, but he doesn't......and if he tries to pull this off by himself, he's not coming back." She fidgeted with the blood stripe that traced down the outside of her pant leg.

"And you think I can stop him?"

"No," Piper's eyes lifted slowly, "No one can stop him, just go with him.... Dutch wouldn't disobey an order if his mother was being held at gun point, and I'm useless right now. I promised him I wouldn't tell any of the crew what he was doing, and I promised him I'd give uncle Jean-Luc the run around once he got here......But I never promised him I'd let him die." She crossed her arms and looked down on Troi with steely gray eyes, "If you don't go, I will, and I'll be cutting his chances in half."

Troi stared back at her, Commander Merek's fierce devotion to this man stemming not from her duty as an officer, or even her feelings as his lover, but a deep-rooted friendship she could almost touch. She nodded slowly and watched Piper's posture relax.

"He's going to give you a ration of shit before he allows you on that ship." Piper warned.

Deanna chewed her lip thoughtfully, "Then maybe we shouldn't ask him," she said, arching her brows and smiling wickedly.


Riker kicked his gear under the T26 console and spanked the release for the exterior dome of the bay. The creaking grind of the dome opening came abruptly to an end as he engaged the ship's engines. The explosive thunder that came from the initial kick of the engines caused his ears to ring, he shook his head briskly a few times and slid into the pilots chair.

Fisting his hand around the grooved metal of the manual control, he halted his motion forward and glared at the flashing COMM terminal. Against his judgment he opened the channel and leaned closer to the screen, "I was getting worried Piper, it's been almost ten minutes and I hadn't heard from you."

"Very funny Captain," Indignantly she swept her hair behind her shoulders, "I have some data I think you should take a look at, I know you're anxious to leave, so I could just beam it over."

His eyes narrowed, "Beam it over, you mean you don't want to deliver it yourself?"

"I'm tired Will." He scanned her features looking for deception, but all he could see was exactly what she'd said......a very frail image of one of the strongest women he'd ever known. For a flash he thought about killing his plan.

"Your the acting Captain now Piper, I told you to delegate. ....don't try to do everything yourself."

"I am," she smiled, "I think you'd be surprised how I'm delegating."

He eyed her doubtfully for a long time and finally nodded, "OK, beam over your information and I'll run it through this computer in route."

She nodded and leaned her head down, an avalanche of black curls shielding the face he would have loved to have tried to read. He tensed slightly as the silver threads of the transport beam illuminated the shabby lighting of the cockpit, and even after the beam released the three computer disks he found himself checking behind him to make sure she wasn't standing there.

"Did you get em?" She said, flipping her head back up, her hair flying in every direction.

"Yea, I got em." He picked up the disks, scanned them and lifted his eyes to her, "This is music......No, I take that back, this is Frank Sinatra."

A hint of the devil sparked in her eyes and she nodded enthusiastically.

"I'll be sure to think of you when I crush it under my boot." The grin that had ignited his bearded features fell off quickly as her face grew serious and the thumbs up she sent him pressed against the screen. Following tradition he did the same.

"See ya." she whispered.

"Count on it." he returned with a wink of reinforcement before cutting the connection.

Not allowing himself time to dwell on how many times he'd heard the same reassurance he'd just offered Piper, he snapped his chest harness and thrust the manual controls forward. <Least I only have to worry about myself.> he thought, exhaling a breath as the ship left the constraints of the bay.

Chapter 18

Riker stared over his shoulder until the milky white glow of the Onius moon and the flickering lights of the transit station had faded to only star studded blackness. He ran a hand over the waves of hair that feathered over the back of his neck and shook his head. Something didn't feel right.

"What?" he mumbled to himself, swiping a hand through his hair, trying to pinpoint the trace warning that was nothing more then a breath against the back of his neck.

"Piper!" he bellowed, jerking his chair around, "If you're on this ship I'll....." He cut himself off, rolling his eyes at his own ridiculous suspicions. There was no way, and no time for her to get onboard.

He double-checked his coordinates, engaged and disengaged the camouflage net, tested the cockpit rotation and ran a scan on the modified phaser cannons he'd installed in the ship.....everything was fine. Initiating auto-control he slumped back in his chair, deciding guilt and fatigue had sent his imagination into overdrive. He glanced at the computer disks he'd tossed into the copilots chair and smiled. Shifting slightly as the butt of his laser pistol gouged into his stomach, he tugged it from his holster, placed it on the console and reluctantly picked up one of the disks.

<I shouldn't have left her.> he thought, finally admitting to himself his true motivation for leaving Onius as quickly as he did. Picard would have fought him, but he'd have eventually let him go, his urgency to get off the Banshee had escalated at an alarming rate as he'd kissed Lieutenant Troi. He exhaled a deep breath that he hoped would cleanse his system of his reasons for wanting to escape her, and slipped Piper's disk in the ship's computer.

<Is it an earthquake or simply a shock, is it that..."> He yanked the disk out manually, screwed up his face and tossed it unceremoniously to the floor beside him, "God, I hate that."

"I kind of liked it."

Before recognition of the voice and the face had registered, he'd snapped his laser off the console, pivoted his chair around and targeted the intruder. "Geezes," he growled, easing his finger off the pistol's trigger, a few ragged breaths of relief escaping him as he realized what he'd almost done.

"Are you going to put that thing down." She gestured with only her head towards the weapon he still had trained on her, her body pressed tightly against the wall, her breath obviously stalled in he lungs.

"I'm not sure." he said, anger and shock playing a game of tag inside his stomach, "Conniving little bitch." he grumbled, anger walking away as the emotional winner.

"Excuse me?"

"I wasn't talking to you." He lowered the pistol and watched her posture relax. "What the hell are you doing here?!"

She didn't say anything.


"I'm sorry, I wasn't sure if you were talking to me." She took a half step forward and stopped as his grip tightened around the pistol.

"Don't be cute," he warned, "Sit down, and strap in."

"Why?" she said, obeying his order without hesitation.

"Because I'm taking you back, there's no place for you here." Without affording her a look he reached for the ship's auto-control.

"Is there a place for Piper?" Her hand came to rest over his, "Because if you take me back she'll replace me."

Gruffly he jerked his hand off the auto-control release, causing hers to fall away, and stared at her blankly, trying to form a response for her threat. He choked on several, none of them fitting the audacity of these two women's assumptions....He finally found himself chuckling, a dry and nasty chuckle that widened Troi's flashing eyes.

"Why are you laughing?" For an empath she looked genuinely confused. "Captain? This isn't funny, Commander Merek and I are shouldn't be attempting this alone."

"You two are nuts!" he choked between chuckles, "What is it with women, do you all take some kind of blood oath when you reach puberty," He held up his right hand, "We will put aside all our differences if in so doing we can bust the balls of an unsuspecting man."

"Who told you about that?" She gasped, holding on to a poker face that would have made him envious if he wasn't so furious.

"Look," he said, after staring her down for over minute, "before you and mother Piper entered my life, I survived, I have a hunch I can do it again. I'm not willing to risk you, or Piper or Dutch or anyone else for that matter on a half-baked idea, in a ship held together by spit and twine." He narrowed his eyes and awaited her rebuttal.

"Do you want to know what I think?"


"I think you don't want anyone else along because you are too weak to watch them die....You, have feelings for Piper and Dutch that don't fit in with the detached plan you have for your life, and you just can't handle it."

"That doesn't explain you does it?" he challenged, "I'm considering killing you myself."

"No you're not," she countered smugly, "You're thinking about my breasts."

His next attack was waiting, sitting on the tip of his tongue ready to pounce. He sputtered perhaps two jumbled syllables, tried once to reassemble them, finally, at a loss for words his eyes dropped to the attributes she'd just mentioned. He smiled and shook his head, "You're a different kinda lady Lieutenant."

"I'll take that as a compliment," she smiled, "along with your lusty obsession with my breasts." She leaned forward, her eyes dipping to the hand that still hovered over the auto-control release, "I know I haven't been trained in the combat skills that Piper and Dutch have, but they feel better knowing I'm here......Just let me stay."

He massaged a defeated hand over his beard, drawing a breath and releasing it slowly, "Fine," he finally said, dragging his index finger under her chin, "But if you die, I'll kill you."

"Two way street.... OK?" She unhooked her safety harness and held out her hand. He snagged it and tugged her out of his chair to his lap.

"Sounds like a deal," he said, cradling one hand behind her neck, forcing her unresisting lips to meet his. Unlike the innocent touch he'd offered her back on the Banshee, he parted his lips, his tongue reaching for the moist heat of her mouth. She answered him eagerly, her tongue battling his for dominance. The hungry vibration of her soft moan into his mouth liberated the hand he'd held passively against her side, his thumb stoking the underside of her perfect breasts.

The intermittent beep of the T26 alert sounded, the low hum at first lost behind the rapid beating of his heart. The persistent sound finally registered.

"Damn," he grumbled, not even freeing her from his hold until he checked the console panel, "That's a federation ship!" He scowled, slapping the switch above him, almost knocking her off his lap.

"What did you do?" She asked, smoothing her hair as she flopped loosely back into the copilots seat.

"Engaged the net," he answered distractedly, his hands flying over the ship's readouts, "I don't need anymore company."

She felt his emotions changing, and watched him play the controls, his hands racing to the switches above and below him, with each swipe his urgency seemed to escalate.

"Something's wrong," he practically whispered, the forward section of the dome cockpit shimmering, flattening and finally filling with an image, "That's the Pegasus," He glanced at her, "It's just hanging there."

His observation promoted her to deflect his emotions, and try to latch on to the ship he was referring to, she wished almost instantly she hadn't, "Captain," she cautioned, the deadly emptiness she'd felt when they entered Onius replaying itself in her mind, "There's no life on the ship."

His hand reached out and covered hers instinctively, as if he could protect her, but his eyes never left the view-port.


Chapter 19

"Why engineering?" Deanna asked, latching both her hands around the single hand he offered her. It was cool and damp, as chilling as the emotions Captain Riker was doing his best to shield her from.

"Cowardliness." His answer, barely a whisper could hardly be heard above the thumping pulse of the warp core, and yet to her it rumbled like a crack of thunder. She held her shiver at bay and followed behind his slow cautious steps, almost wishing she'd listened to him and stayed on the ship as he'd suggested.

He stopped at every station, knelt beside every body, but never spoke, his emotionless expression betrayed only by the bobbing of his Adam's apple as he struggled to swallow past his internal grief.

Almost like an animal making sure it was safe to leave its den he paused before stepping out of engineering into the corridor, his eyes narrowed, his head tilted, he inhaled a deep breath and finally stepped through. He looked in only one direction, the crimson pulse of the light that flashed above one of the doors colored his ashen features, and hardened the deep frown lines on his face.

"The Jager alerts been sounded!"

Her body reacted to the sudden breach of the endless silence, jolting through her as if her soul had been elsewhere and suddenly returned.

"The captain had time to scramble the Jagers," he lowered his voice, "So this didn't come out of nowhere." He almost smiled, the emotions he'd distanced himself from crashing to the surface as if having something, anything concrete to work with had breathed new life into his lungs.

"Computer?" The computer pulsed to life, the soul heartbeat left in this empty shell, "Relay a twelve hour bridge observation to the Captain's ready-room." He took a half step before the response came back.

"Unable to comply, all ship's data for the last 738 days has been transferred to command and subsequently deleted from the Pegasus systems."

"On whose authority?" he asked, tipping his head at Troi and tugging her towards the lift. The computer chimed, but remained silent.

"Computer," he snapped, moving inside the lift, "Who authorized the ship's transfer?.....Bridge," he added as the lift doors hissed closed. He drummed his fingers impatiently against his thigh as the computer's thought process sounded its high-pitched hum through the lift.

"Authorization protocol has been breached, self-destruct has been activated."

Riker's emotions snapped to life as rigidly as his body with the computer's response. "What?" He barked, watching Deanna's eyes widen.

"Five minutes and thirty-eight seconds until self-destruct."

"Captain, we have to get out of here."

He heard her, and he sure as hell understood her, but he couldn't leave, not yet. He held up a hand to assure her he understood. "Computer, silent countdown." The warnings fell off.

"Computer, run a DNA scan of the bridge, limit to only the last twelve hours... Relay on data code frequency two to the closest ship." He gave the order and hoped like hell that meant his ship, and not some cloaked warbird or cruiser hanging off the starboard bow.

"Now can we go?" Troi suggested rather adamantly as the doors opened to the bridge.

"In a minute," he consoled, gulping a breath, initiating an impenetrable shield around his heart.

Deanna stepped back, the tidal wave of emotions that crashed over him and suddenly receded stole her breath from her chest as he moved slowly down the ramp to the bridge. Her arms folded protectively around herself, her thumbs massaging the tingling skin beneath the fabric of her shirt, she watched him, and followed cautiously behind.

He headed straight for the captain's chair, and knelt on one knee in front of the woman slumped there. His hand brushed away the strands of graying onyx hair that had fallen over the woman's face, he stroked a finger over her aging cheek. Her blue-gray eyes, wide and cold with death seemed to lock with his, and as if he'd forgotten the clock was ticking, he stared momentarily into them. "You'd be proud of her captain," he whispered, standing up and brushing a kiss against her cheek, "Her balls are bigger then mine." He smiled, and with two hands straightened her as best he could in her chair. He glanced with liquid blue eyes over his shoulder and nodded to Deanna.....Stopping her before she activated the transport relay.

"One second," he whispered, reaching behind the woman's neck and unclasping the necklace that hung beneath her tunic. He gripped the intertwined silver and black stone in his fist, the almost invisible chain glimmering under the ship's light.

"Ok." he sighed, tucking the necklace in his pocket and taking her hand. Deanna pressed the amber light that glowed around her arm, the silver transport beam shimmered around them, swallowing the thumbs up he'd sent the captain in a kinetic beam of light.


"Ok, let's get out of here!" Riker threw himself into the pilot's seat, and engaged the engines, the explosive vibration rattling the deck under their feet.

"The data transfer from the Pegasus is complete." she observed, watching him only out of the corner of her eye, but feeling him with her entire being. As strange as it sounded, this Captain Riker was unlike any man she'd ever met before; a kaleidoscope of emotions as deep and diverse as the man himself.

He nodded.

"Hang on," he said, banking the ship and leaning on the manual controls, taking them as far away from the Pegasus as he could before the silent vibration of the explosion rocked through the T26.

He exhaled a long breath as he felt the tension of the controls under his palm ease, and reprogrammed his original coordinates.

"We should take a look at those readouts," he said, blowing away the tousled waves of hair that had fallen over his forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said, once again targeting what he was thinking, and not what he'd intended to discuss.

"Me too, she was a hell of a captain," He folded his arms across his chest and pressed back in his chair, "She was the first female captain I ever served under." He watched her brows raise in anticipation of what he assumed she thought would be a sexist remark. He shrugged, "I don't know, I was young, think I thought women were too emotional to command an entire warship...... Obviously I was wrong, she taught me a lot."

Lieutenant Troi's lips relaxed into a satisfied smile that fell away quickly, "Are you going to tell Commander Merek?"

"How'd you know that?" He shook his head almost immediately and waved off his own question, "Never mind, doesn't matter, I'm getting used to you knowing things you shouldn't." He looked to the console and intensified the stabilizers, settling the vibration of the ship's deck, "Nah, I'm not going to tell her, not now, it'd chew her up."

"Were they close?"

Riker chuckle dryly. "Hardly, Piper hasn't spoken to her mother since she was taken by the Ro...." he curtailed his response, "Since she was eighteen. It's gonna chew her up because that tomorrow she's been waiting for is never going to happen..... I don't understand things like that I guess.......Grudges, waiting for tomorrow. You ever notice that people worry about the damnedest things, for the dumbest reasons. Sometimes I thi....," He caught a glimpse of the intense gaze she had on him, "Sorry, I don't usually think out loud."

"Sometimes it helps," she said, in that rich exotic voice he'd found himself mentally trying to recreate in his mind when he couldn't actually hear it.

"Well, I'm done now," he smiled, "Let's check the readouts."

"Will?" she said, stopping his hand from reaching for the control switch.

That was only the second time she'd called him by his first name, and the first time he was certain it wasn't really him she was talking to, sadly he wasn't sure now either. He arched his brows in response.

"Are you in love with Commander Merek?"

He'd already drawn a breath, prepared to answer anything she wanted to know, it escaped his lungs in a few flustered bursts, "No, I don't don't know......Shit, what the hell kind of question is that?"

Chapter 20

"Are you in love with Commander Merek?"

He'd already drawn a breath, prepared to answer anything she wanted to know, it escaped his lungs in a few flustered bursts, "No, I don't don't know......Shit, what the hell kind of question is that?"


"One that needs to be asked." She answered his question and his scowl without missing a beat.

"I love the way her hair smells," he answered, skipping around a question he'd never considered, and could find no logical reason to discuss. Her expression, one he'd targeted as gentle curiosity lapsed into a very easily read frown. If he'd been anywhere except on a ship with only three compartments he'd have fled the scene. But with his only escape, suiting up and strapping himself to the hull, he answered with the only words he could think of, "Considering less then six hours ago I was willing to eat you alive, I'm going to have to say No......I don't love Piper."

"That's assuming you think there's a correlation between love and sex." He wasn't sure how she did it, but she arched one perfectly manicured brow only over her discerning stare.....He used the only defense he could think of...... stupidity.

"I don't understand the question. If you mean do I love sex, then the answer is yes."

"I don't think that was ever in question," she smiled, relaxing the visual hold she had on him, "I just don't think you understand how deeply Piper cares about you."

"I think I do, I just don't think you, being from your time can understand it," He turned the tables, piercing her with his own visual assault, "Piper's my friend, she keeps me on my toes, we're intimate if either one of us needs to be, and I'd die to make sure she didn't. I'm not in love with her in that swoony female sense you're referring to, she needs me, and I need her.......Nothing more, nothing less." He'd never been forced to put his feelings for any woman into words, and as he finished up, he found himself smiling to himself, surprised at how easy it had been to accurately describe his relationship with Piper. Now, as long as the meddling little betazoid didn't ask him any questions about his feelings for her, he would die knowing he wasn't as inarticulate when it came to his feelings as he'd thought.

"That's it?"

"What do ya mean is that it, I thought that was damn good." He glanced at her and flashed a crooked smile, simultaneously reaching under the console releasing the flat screen beneath.

"For a roué, I guess."

"Mmm, a roué," He slid his chair back, making room for the screen as it glided out and up, "You flatter me." He heard the chuckle she tried to mask by standing up, deliberately squeaking the leather chair.

"And what about you," he asked, tossing a look above him before deflecting the Pegasus data from the small screen to the one that hovered like a small desk in front of him, "You told me you loved your Captain Riker and he loved you."

"Commander Riker, "She corrected, "And our relationship is very complicated."

"Commander?," He used the complicated medical equations that blipped across the screen to deaden the chuckle that was dying to escape him, "I thought you said he chose to make his career a priority?"

"He did, he just hasn't received the right offer yet."

"Sounds like COMMANDER Riker doesn't know his ass from his elbow. And with that in mind, I'd appreciate it if you'd stop comparing us." He'd wanted to issue that warning since the day on Onius, but now, as it shot out of his mouth, a bit more sharply then he'd planned he wished he hadn't.

"Actually Captain," she responded, sitting rigidly back down in the chair beside him, "I stopped comparing you two days after I arrived."

He revamped the screen, toying with two switches, ordering the computer to simplify the DNA formulas, waiting for the verbal slap he figured he deserved. After all, if he'd been slapped into another time, jerked away from his life and the people he cared about, he'd probably be about as jolly as a Klingon in a room full of tribbles.

"I find you very interesting in your own right." There was a coy little lilt to her voice, playful and a far cry from the anger or hurt he'd been anticipating.

"How do you mean that?" he asked cautiously, "As a man, or a patient."

"A little of both I guess." She watched his finger scroll over the emerald symbols and numbers that filled his data screen.

"Yep, that's me, troubled and sexy." he answered inattentively, his head bowing closer to the screen.

"More sexy then troubled."

"That's weird," He tapped the screen thoughtfully, "Give me your hand."

"Why?" She only stared at the hand he held out to her.

"I want to probe you." He waggled devilish brows and slid his tongue teasingly over the inside of his bottom lip, "Come on baby."

"Captain, be serious.....what did you find?"

"Betazoid DNA on the Pegasus bridge," He snagged the hand she was still hesitating in giving him, and accessed another panel in the ship's console. There was a faint sizzling sound, followed by a low-pitched whine and a crystal panel, with readouts similar to a tricorder unfolded in front of him.

"Why is that weird....Betazoid DNA?" She watched him gently scrape her palm against the cool pad, an odd sensation like the tickle of hundreds of feathers against her skin sent a tiny chill through her body.

"There are no Betazoids in Starfleet."


"It's a long story," He pulled her hand back and returned it to her, "Let's just say they're a neutral planet."

He had tried to keep his voice as neutral as the planet, but she felt a fleeting bitterness that he caged quickly. She considered asking him about it, especially since that was the second sense of negativity towards Betazoids she'd felt in the last several days. In contrast to Commander Merek's volatile feelings, Captain Riker's trace of bitterness forced her to assume that their feelings stemmed from completely different sources, in recognition of that, and the grave look on Captain Riker's pursed lips she let it go.

"What do you see?" she asked.

He flipped her a sideways glance, flicked a switch and pushed his chair away, affording her a better view of the screen he'd split and narrowed to only hers and the other Betazoid's DNA.

"Could be my DNA patterns are different due to my timeline." She swept her hair away from her face and turned her head to look at him.

"Nope," His fingers interlaced, his index fingers steepled, he tapped them thoughtfully against his lips as he spoke, "Before I came to the realization that you were merely a busybody and not a bitch," His lips twitched a smile, "I ran a check on you.....did an overlay on the people you claimed were your parents, I never ran into that." He tilted his head towards the screen.

"So you think?"

He kicked his legs out in front of him, slouched in his chair and dangled his arms loosely over the sides, his outward nonchalance doing nothing to mask what he was inwardly feeling, "There wasn't much about genetics I found interesting, but I do remember that the humanoid body is in a constant state of evolution, a daily occurrence as I recall. So unless you're some kind of Betazoid primate..... amphibian," he corrected, "This guys DNA is at least three hundred years ahead of yours."


The tickle of Lieutenant Troi's hair against the underside of his nose stirred him from sleep. He repositioned the jacket that lay across her shoulders, and tightened his arms around her, realizing in that instant that his entire body was numb. With his legs propped on the copilot seat, the rest of him slouched under the weight of the tiny Betazoid in the Captain's oversized chair, repositioning himself was impossible.

"Wake up," He jolted her head softly with his shoulder, shaking the cobwebs from his mind, trying to remember how a very passionate kiss had ended up with him falling asleep.

"Did you get a hold of Piper?" Groggy, and appearing just as shocked as he was as to how they'd ended up like this, she pushed up on his chest and pulled herself off of him.

He started to answer her, explain that their close proximity to the Devil's gate was crushing the ship's weak communication system, but instead he moaned, loud and long. Without the weight of her pressed against him, the lack of feeling in his shoulders and legs was replaced by nothing less then spears and daggers.

"Are you all right?" She stopped massaging her own legs and shot beside him.

"No," he groaned, glaring at his own legs as he struggled to lift them off the copilots chair, "Hard to believe someone no bigger then a nanite can quadruple their weight while they sleep." He shuddered as his feet slapped against the dimpled deck of the ship, "MoVas ah-kee rustak."

"I'm sorry," She stopped shaking her own legs and rolling her own shoulders and reached for his.

"Don't!" He warned, cringing when his arm shot upward to stop her and the burn across his shoulder's flared, "I'm fine, I'll walk it off, I've been in worse shape." He pushed out of his chair, snagging the back of it to catch himself when his knees buckled.

"You're such a hero." she said, laughing at his pain, showing very little compassion. He responded as any hero would, ignoring his pain, he reached out and pulled her hair.

"That was mature." She smoothed the hair he'd just tugged on and shook her head.

"I have never claimed to be, or even coveted maturity." He walked stiffly to the small and inefficient replicator and smacked it with a heavy hand, "Coffee, hot and strong."

"Captain?" Troi's voice and the grinding chirp of the ship's alert sounded in unison. He didn't need to turn around to know where they were, the eerie green glow of the Devil's gate brightened the cockpit. Taking his coffee, he sipped it slowly and headed to his chair.

"Why are we here, you said...."

"I know what I said," he took another drink of coffee and offered her the cup, she accepted it and slid into the chair. "I didn't have the equipment to log the proper coordinates to the anomaly I saw, I had to wing it."

"Wing it?"

"Arrr, thirty paces from the tree that looks like duck." It was the best pirate imitation he could accomplish, but from the look on her face, either they didn't offer Pirate Lore as part of the Betazoid learning system, or he needed practice.

"You don't have to understand," He grinned, releasing the auto-controls, "Just sit back, and be speechless at how damn clever I am."

Chapter 21

" Incredible!" Captain Riker's voice boomed above the howl of the ship's engine, the challenging grin on his face personified by the flames that crackled over the panel in front of him. "The planet's protected by some sort of undetectable isocyclic-web!" The crack of enthusiasm in his voice, caused by some sort of bizarre admiration darkened the frown on Deanna's face.

"And that pleases you?" She swallowed past the nausea his wild and frenzied flying past the remotes had caused her and stared down on him.

"No, I guess it doesn't please me," He shrugged, flinching as the fires on his panel fell victim to the foam that fell from overhead, "It's just a pretty elaborate defensive system, Makes me all the more eager to see what's down there."

"And you plan on doing that how?"

"We can just glide through it, it doesn't pose any danger to the ship. I just need to leave a message for Piper, I'd like to prevent her from frying my crew when she gets here." He reached above him and turned two knobs, the roar of the overextended engine faded to only a low rumble laced with intermittent sputters.

"I don't understand?" she finally said, when it was apparent he wasn't going to explain, and his mind, one that seemed capable of concentrating on a million things at once, had left her and her perplexed expression out of his agenda.

"Nobody lands their ships anymore, the whole quadrant's intent on displacing their molecules and sending em god knows where. I prefer the good old days of set down and lift off." He stood up, but kept his hand on the trembling stabilizer slat, "Do me a favor, hold this steady......Two hands." he suggested as she dropped into his chair and took the control.

"You're afraid of transporters?"

"Not afraid exactly," He knelt in front of the khaki bag on the floor, "I just have a way of envisioning the worst possible scenario every time I use one. Ya know, coming back missing an appendage, or having someone else's. Lotta weird shit can happen with those things you know. Childhood nightmare that kinda sunk its teeth into my psyche and never let go, I guess, " He pulled a flat piece of chrome out of the sack, not much bigger then his hand and sat down on the deck, "You'd probably have a heyday with that one doc." he grinned, accessing switches in the flat chrome that changed its shape and revealed a circle of hidden lights.

"I'll look forward to hearing about it someday," She said, returning his smile and using the confidence and composure that emanated from him to settle her concerns, "What is that?"

"Banshee sensor spark," He stood up and brushed off the back of his pants, "If Piper follows protocol, which is always up in the air.... She should sweep before she goes in. This little puppy is programmed to only answer the call of its master, should warn them to send in the Jagers, and not try a transport." He'd already stepped up and over the circular doorway that led to the back chambers as he finished his explanation.

"Do you really think Piper will show up here?" She yelled over the loud whoosh that whistled through the ship, her eyes dipping to the readouts that had somehow told him a transport attempt would be fatal.

"I told her not to," he said, poking his head back into the cockpit, "With that in mind, I'd lay odds on it." He smiled, a very glib smile, and disappeared again, "Take the ship's power off-line and take her in!"

"What?!" She yelled back, feeling the sweat building under her palms.

"Hit the blue switch and press the squiggly little lever forward......It's all right, nothings going to happen!"

"Why, where are you?" Her eyes flew over the controls, looking for the blue switch and the lever he'd mentioned. Finding them both, she inhaled a breath and tossed a concerned look over her shoulder.

"Sometime today please!" His amusement at her hesitation danced over his every word and spiked over every one of her nerves. Without thinking she released the stabilizer slat, followed his orders and tried to keep her eyes open.


"Where have you been!" Her eyes glued to the treetops, so tightly spaced they looked like a carpet of moss, she snapped at Riker before he'd stumbled into the cockpit.

"Making sure the hull handled the pressure without giving up my net." He was still smiling, at some level this appeared to be great fun for this captain.

A quick jerk of his head vacated her from his chair. She massaged her hand, numb from gripping the control so tightly, and slipped into her chair.

"This sure as hell isn't what I expected." His grumbled observation was barely audible, but his sudden shift in posture stirred her curiosity.

"Shouldn't you engage the engines?"

"That'd be nice," he said, flipping a quick look over his shoulder, "Cept I had to drain them to maximize the shields......Don't worry though, I'll be able to fix them once we set down."

"Do you know how fast you're going?"

"Don't you think it's odd that this planet is able to sustain life......Look at that," he stabbed a finger at the clear dome, "Shouldn't be possible with the cloak and the web."

"Are you listening to me?"

"Yea sure.....what did you say?"

He jerked back on the control in his hand and Troi's next objection stuck in her throat along with her stomach. Her entire body vibrating from the sudden drop and fall Captain Riker had put the ship into, she closed her eyes and gripped the arms of her chair, vowing to never again believe that his Captain Riker knew what he was doing......

Her eyes squeezed tightly shut, prepared for the inevitable, they opened slowly when the ship rumbled slightly, dipped, and stopped with a loud gurgle.

"There's no humanoid life sign readings?" He spun around and grinned at her ashen complexion, "You OK, I thought it was very smooth." The way she was glaring at him, he wondered if those eyes would burn a hole right through him, "Come on, don't you ever have to wing it in your timeline?"

"Of course we do," she returned, trying very hard not to let his contagious grin snatch her frown from her face, "But it seems to be your only course of action. But then.... I was warned..... Commander Merek did say you'd gone off halfcocked."

"That's like the Ferengi calling the Klingon ugly...... And I'll have you know," he smirked, waggling a finger in the air, "Captain William T Riker is always, fully cocked."

Her frown was swallowed by the arrogant waggle of his brows as he pushed out of his seat. She wasn't sure she'd ever be comfortable living her life this way, but she was certainly sure why he was such a good captain, and why his crew relied on him. The man, with the smile of a demonic angel had a way of making anyone believe the darkest night still held the hope of dawn.

"No doubt in my mind Captain Riker, it was a mistake for me to doubt you....please be lenient."

"I'll consider it," He tipped his head towards the hatch of the ship, "Shall we, Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi of the Enterprise."

"Of the Banshee," she corrected, drowning in the magnetic smile and the tangible energy that charged through her as he slipped a hand under her hair and stroked the back of her neck.


Chapter 22

"Piece a shit," Riker snarled, smacking the edge of his scanner against his palm, "I'm getting condensed localized readings only," Still shaking the scanner, his eyes lifted to Troi, "How bout you, your internal sensors picking up anything."

She smiled distractedly, obviously reaching out with whatever kind of probes powered her empathic sense. "There is life here in abundance, but I'm not sensing any sentient life, only instinctive emotions......animals I imagine."

"How big?" he asked, casting a look over his shoulder to the endless blue-green ocean behind him, then returning his gaze to the thick tangle of lush green foliage that sheathed the jungle beyond the grainy stones of the beach.

"I don't know, I don't sense in centimeters." She laughed softly, brushing her hair away from her face, "What do we do now?"

"Explore I guess. I'll get the gear together." He squinted his eyes against the sun, that by all rights shouldn't be hanging in the ice-blue sky, nodded once, and disappeared inside the ship.

She watched him go, his arms moving casually at his side, his shoulders high, once again painting the picture of confidence, but inside of him she felt doubt, and his inability to confront it. Under the circumstances she understood both of them, what amazed her was he'd made no effort to construct a wall around his feelings, he'd offered them as easily as the smile he'd flashed before he'd moved inside the ship.

"Hey!" His voice echoed from inside the ship, drawing her eyes to the hatch before he appeared. "What are these?" he asked, holding up the two PADDS Piper had given her before she left.

"Commander Merek asked me to bring them," she responded, stepping towards the ship, slipping on the damp pebbles and catching her balance before he'd leaped out of the ship, "One holds the medical database for the Oni and the auroia breakdown. The other's blank." She accepted the hand he offered her, and watched her feet as he moved her inside the ship.

"What are you's blank?" She stepped over the bag he'd packed and peered down over his shoulder.

"It's not blank." He shot her a quick look and tapped a string of words into the PADD.

"That's disgusting," she said, reading, and then rereading the obscene sentence he'd typed into the PADD.

"In print maybe, but it feels damn good." His shoulder's shook with the rough chuckle that escaped him, "Only a fellow pervert could crack this code."

"Mmm," she agreed, biting her lip, looking away from his sinister smile, hiding the flush she felt rising across her cheeks.

"What is it?" she asked, as his chuckle fell away abruptly.

"Nothing, nothing." He made no attempt to be discreet as he tipped the PADD away from her eyes, and cupped his hand over the screen, "It's personal and unimportant."

He tucked the PADD in his inside jacket pocket and freed a breath, a jagged breath that shook unevenly from his lungs.

"Let's go." Standing up, he snagged his pack off the floor, flung it over his shoulder, and moved out of the ship without affording her a look. She found herself staring, openmouthed at his empty chair, the unmitigated rage he'd left in his wake, caging her, almost tangibly in its fiery wrath.

"Oh lieutenant ......The clock is ticking!" His voice, cool, embroidered with his usual arrogance blew into the ship on emotions nothing like the ones that still loomed over the cockpit. With heavy steps she moved outside and called up a smile to match the one he offered her, "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yea, I'm fine," he said, tilting his head towards the winding beach that hedged the jungle, "Just a core breach I wasn't prepared for......It's been contained." His eyes flashed blue-gray under the sunlight, and twinkled with the same conviction as the grin on his face. She fell in beside the slow easy steps he'd begun to take down the beach, her eyes fixed on his profile as he stared straight ahead.

"Really, I am," he said several minutes later, draping an arm around her shoulder, "Stop worrying."


Deanna, several steps behind Riker watched a bead of sweat roll down his neck and disappear inside the tank he'd striped down to. His emotions, still on an even keel, driven and optimistic, it was only his fatigue that had slowed his steps.

"Take a break," he suggested, his eyes dipping one more time to his scanner, then to her. She answered his unspoken question with a brisk shake of her head.

He shed his pack and the jacket he'd tied around his waist and dropped to his knees on the now sandy beach, "Jesus, I hate the heat," he grumbled, splashing his face and shoulders with the salty water, "Doesn't seem to bother you." He tossed a glance over his shoulder, "must be that amphibian blood." he added, shaking his wet hair, deliberately splattering her with water. She rolled her eyes and stepped towards him, readying herself for a counter attack, but as his gaze shot behind her, and he jumped quickly to his feet, she stopped short. In a heartbeat his playful grin waned, grew intent, then curled again into a lopsided, if not somewhat goofy smile.

She turned in the direction his eyes were fixed upon, gasped and moved closer to him. Women; at least twenty five of them, their primitive weapons held tightly in their hands, stared at them through teal-green eyes, veiled by lashes as thick and dark as the sleek jet-black hair that tumbled over their tanned, and basically naked bodies.

"Oh my God!" Captain Riker's grumbled and less then profound exclamation drew her eyes momentarily to him.

"Shit like this never happens to me," His eyes lowered to hers for a second, then returned to their transfixed, and slightly dazed straight ahead stare.

"Captain, they DO have weapons?"

"I don't care."

The beguiled amusement that imbued the whole of the man beside her did nothing to settle her uneasiness. Even now, with these silent beauties standing like some sort of chiseled female statues in front of her, the life signs she'd been unable to find earlier still remained silent.

"Captain, this isn't funny."

"Funny wasn't the word I'd have used Lieutenant," he whispered, "Just relax, I've got it under control." With his eyes he called her attention to the hand he held behind his back, and the octagon shaped weapon, barely visible through his clenched fist. The weapon, though unfamiliar to her relaxed her shoulders. She nodded an understanding.

"I'm always in control," he said quietly out of the corner of his mouth, "Do you mind if I handle this?"

"By all means," she returned, her slight gesture towards the women stirring them from their frozen state and moving them a step forward.

"It's OK," Riker smiled, holding one hand up defenselessly in front of his shoulder, "don't be afraid of her." The women stopped as if shocked by the Captain's voice, dropped their weapons on the sand beside them and fell to their knees.

"Oh great," Troi muttered under her breath, half afraid to look up at the glib smile she knew would be adorning Riker's bearded face.

"That's it," Riker smirked, "I'm either dreaming, or I'm dead and this is heaven."

"This would be a good time to get out of here," she proposed, tugging his arm with both her hands.

"What are you crazy?!" He unlatched the hands she'd snared him with, "They live here, they might be able to help us. I think we should try to communicate with them."

"I'm sure you do Captain, but considering they haven't spoken, and I can't sense them, I don't see how that's possible." She paused and considered whether or not she wanted to share her next thought with him. As he moved closer to them, and she observed all the women's gazes fall in unison to the sandy ground, she put aside her better judgment, and stepped quickly beside him. "Captain, I don't think they've ever seen a man before."

She prepared herself for a flip remark, a glib grin or even a lewd gesture, she shifted her weight impatiently as he only stared dumbly into her eyes. "What?" she questioned, after endless seconds.

"Did you hear that?" His gaze dusted along the line of the jungle, fell again to the heads of the knelled women, and finally came to rest with hers.

"Troi?" he whispered as if he was speaking to someone, somewhere else...... "Run!" He snatched her wrist in his hand and jerked her forward so quickly her neck snapped back, the pain burning down the back of her spine. She stumbled, but he continued dragging her, the objection she attempted to voice torn from her throat as the explosion ripped through the jungle behind them. She felt the loss of Riker's hand, and a magnitude of force that catapulted her off the ground and sent her flying with a jarring force into the choppy surf that broke over the beach.

Semiconscious, the cool water against her cheek helped restore her lucidity, and ease her back into a pain filled awareness. She choked on the water in the back of her throat, and pushed up on arms that still shook from the blow. Behind her, the billowing debris of vines and bark rained into the sandy crater where she and Riker had just stood.

"Captain!" Her call, weak and broken hardly carried to her own ears let alone above the sound of the surf, and the aftermath behind her. She sat quietly for a moment, looking for breath, looking for him through her own smoky emotions. There was only a trace of him, so vague, so distant, the heart she'd managed to calm began pounding harder against her chest. Her dark eyes, stinging from the salt scanned the beach, targeting Captain Riker's still body like a magnet.

"Captain," she choked back tears as on hands and knees she crawled to him. "Captain?' she repeated, using bloodied hands to turn him over.

Her hands instinctively slapped against the gash in his temple, the profuse bleeding weeping through her tightened fingers.

"Will," she choked, fighting tears that left her throat raw, "Don't go, please......don't go!"


Chapter 23

The wind that had kicked up on the planet lifted Deanna's hair, tossing it away from her neck, evaporating the pearls of sweat on her skin. She leaned against the hatch of the ship and inhaled a breath of it, cool and fresh, rich in the scent of the tropical flowers it should have soothed her, but only aggravated her heightened sensitivity.

<Wake up Captain,> she thought, not to herself, but to him. It had been twelve hours since she'd floated him back here, proud of her ingenuity, pleased to find at least one thing on this ship not held together on a wing and prayer. The med-kit had surpassed even Enterprise standards, and mending his wound had been easy, but still he laid there, unconscious.

<I can't do this alone.> Again she reached for a bond that wasn't there.

She moved towards him, her own steps staggered and weak. "I need you...." she hesitated, uncertain as to whether or not to admit her own fear to a man who seemed to find that particular weakness a nasty offense. "Will," She knelt beside the cot that hovered only inches from the deck and brushed a gentle finger over the scar above his brow. The scar, her only reminder that this man was not her Will Riker. "I'm afraid......I'm afraid to go out there alone."

This was her time now as he had said, and she'd found what he'd been looking for, but she'd also found a planet that presented one pitfall after another.

"Imzadi." If she hadn't seen his mouth move, felt the brush of his breath against her palm as the word left his lips, she would have thought it had come from only inside herself. But the reiteration of the single word came only seconds later, taking her breath from her lungs with a gentle hand. His eyes were still closed, his thoughts and feelings only hushed whispers; the murmurings of an unconscious mind.

"Will?" She managed, after endless seconds, nudging him gently, resisting her urge to shake him back into consciousness. She felt a twinge of anger as only his soft shallow breathing answered her, and his eyes darted in a peaceful dream behind closed lids. She tugged the thin metallic-blue blanket further up over his bare chest and sank completely to the floor, slouching her body against the wall behind her.

"Who is your imzadi Captain Riker?" Insane as it was, she found herself glaring at him; angry, jealous and feeling somehow betrayed. She gulped a breath that smelled of him.... of them.

"Captain," she sighed, "Imzadi," trembling from her lips in the same breath. She'd tried so hard not to think of him since she'd been here, too complicated, too heartbreaking, too confusing. Two men, so alike and yet so vastly different, both with the uncanny ability to get under her skin and move quickly into her heart. She fingered a lock of his hair and smiled, untangling herself from the web of her complex feelings for them and zeroing in only on the now.

She considered the hypo-spray, drawing Captain Riker out of unconsciousness before he was ready. Beverly never liked to do that she reminded herself, instead turning to the PADDS and computer disks strewn over panel.

Moaning softly as her muscles protested her shift in position, she walked very slowly to the Captain's chair and slid into it. The PADD Piper had sent him peeked out of the pocket of the wet jacket she'd slung over the chair, her curiosity batting her good conscience around like a kitten with a ball of yarn. A chilling breeze blew through the open hatch, an ominous warning, or only the nightly sting of the jungle air. She withdrew her hand.

Pulling her feet up into the captain's oversized chair she plugged one of Piper's disks into the console and lifted the data padd she'd sent. She only glanced at the PADD, Piper's music bringing a smile to her face. She leaned back and listened: <Is it an earthquake, or simply a shock

Is it that good turtle soup, or merely the mock

Is it the whisky, this feeling of joy

Or is what I feel, the real mcoy

Is it for all time, or simply a lark

Is it Granada I see, or only Asbury Park

Is it a fancy, not worth thinking of

Or is it at long la....">

"Turn it off......God, turn it off!" Above the sound of the music, the voice, though scratchy and weak jerked her smile from her face and sent her practically diving to the deck beside him.

"Captain, are you all right."

"I will be if you turn it off." Something between a smile and a grimace played over his lips....She obliged his somewhat urgent request and hurried back beside him.

"I thought I'd died and gone to hell." He arched his brows, flinched, and reached his hand to his head.

"It's all right, it looked worse then it was. How do you feel."

He ran his tongue over his lips, his eyes glassy but clear inspecting her and his surroundings as if he'd never seen either of them before.

"Do you know who you are?"

"yea, I just don't understand how I got here," His hand fell limply on his chest, his gaze following it, "Why am I naked lieutenant?" His smug and teasing smile fell well short of its full potential, he winced again, "Shit, I move my eyebrows a lot."

"I'll get you something for the pain." she said, reaching for the medkit before he stopped her.

"No, no drugs!" she turned in time to see him peek under the blanket. "I am completely naked.....Do I have other injuries I should know about?"

"No," she answered, hiding her smile, "but you were soaking wet, I couldn't leave you in those clothes." She paused.

"I'm not going to touch it," he assured her, struggling to sit up, "and it's certainly not the first time a beautiful woman couldn't help herself."

"Believe me captain, its nothing I haven't seen before." It was a joke, one she purposely punctuated with one of his own smug grins, and yet somehow she felt more as if she'd just kicked him in the stomach.

"Whiskey, it's in the cubby by the hatch." He stabbed a limp finger in the direction of the door, "Tell me everything that happened while I was out. Planets a minefield, isn't it?"

"From what I've seen," she stared at the bottle in her hand, "I really don't think you should be drinking Captain."

"I don't care what you think lieutenant." His voice was hoarse and weak, but held a brutal bite, "Keep going, tell me what you encountered."

"The fresh water supply is laced with some kind of acid, there's an electrical current running through most of the fruit trees......And the women we encountered, no remains." She let him slip the cool glass bottle out of her hand and watched him carefully as he gulped twice. "The ocean, if that's what it really is seems fine, no evidence that it's a hologram."

He gulped another drink, wiped his mouth with his arm and set the bottle down on the deck beside him, "Anything else?"

"Yes," She could feel the effects of the whiskey on him, the tension that had welled up inside him with a ferocious force dulled, as did the look of pain on his face. "There's an active volcano on the other side of this lagoon, I couldn't see that well, but it looked like something was moving it and out of it."

"Something?" His tone was curt and sharp and slapped like a razor strap against her skin.

"What is wrong with you?!" She targeted him with her own anger, "Why are you acting like I'm the enemy? Is it because I stripped off your clothes while you were bleeding to death and it didn't turn me on, or is it because I didn't let you bleed to death? It's got to be one of those, because that's all I did......Is that it....Do you have some kind of perverse desire to die?"


"That's it....shut-up?! The smart-mouthed Captain Riker, the man that has a wise crack for everything and all I get is shut-up?" If someone had asked her why she was so angry with him she couldn't have told them, but she felt her nails digging into the palms of her tightly clenched fists. "You're upset because I hit the nail on the head!"

"You hit nothing lady, if I wanted to die, believe me I could find plenty of ways to do it. Now back-off or I'll......"

"You'll what? You're so weak I could take you out with one hand."

His stare had been frigid, a steely gaze she had to will herself to return, with her threat, a smile melted his frown, a chuckle hedged with pain escaped him, "You're going to beat me up?" He held up his hands in mock surrender and bit down on his bottom lip fearfully, completely taking the wind out of her sails.

"No," she laughed softly, feeling very foolish, "I'm sorry, I don't know what happened there."

"You lost your mind....It happens," He held out his hand and trapped her in his gaze, "It's OK......I think I lost mine too." When she only stared at his outstretched hand he waggled it invitingly, "Please," he said, "I think it's time I was honest about something."


It seemed an eternity before Troi slipped a small hand into the one he held out to her and settled on her knees on the floor beside him. "You can sit on the cot." he suggested, scooting over, biting back his groan.

"No, that's all right, the floors fine."

Her eyes moving over him, he found the blush that lightly tinted her cheeks refreshing. "Every muscle in my body aches Lieutenant. This doesn't happen often, but I guarantee you'll be safe up here." He nodded repeatedly and offered a tame boyish grin he'd practiced for years in the mirror. She eyed him cautiously and finally moved to the cot, seating herself cross-legged so close to the edge he thought she'd fall off.

"It's a thin blanket Lieutenant, if any part of me as a miraculous recovery I won't be able to hide it."

She looked down to her lap and scooted ever so slightly away from the edge of the bed, "There," she said, "Now tell me what you wanted to tell me." She looked nervous, he wondered what it was she thought he was going to say. She answered his question before he'd constructed his thoughts.

"Is this about why you don't trust Betazoids?"

"What.... No." That wasn't anywhere near what he'd planned on confessing, but her question complicated the one he'd planed on making. "When did I tell you I didn't trust Betazoids?"

"That wasn't it was it? I'm sorry, please... we can talk about that later?"

"No, Let's talk about it now, when did I say that?"

"You didn't, I picked up on it when you found the DNA on the Pegasus." If there was one thing he'd found to be consistent about women, it was whenever they were lying or skipping around the truth their hair became very important. He watched her, a bit more discrete then Piper; who knotted, and unknotted her hair at the base of her neck, Troi only focused on the two long curls that dusted against her cheek.

"Did you read the PADD from Piper?" He felt no need to skip around his feelings, and even though he'd try to make his question sound more like an off the cuff remark then an accusation, he heard the acidity that crept into his voice.


Her negative response, a little too defensive, he stared at her until her eyes looked directly into his. "You're sure?"

"I didn't," her shoulders dropped, "I wanted to, but I didn't." He regarded her carefully, her eyes, her mouth, her soft but rhythmic breathing, nodding once when his own form of empathy assured him she wasn't lying.

"OK," He relaxed back against he wall, "Then I'll answer your question, it's not that I don't trust Betazoids, I can't say I've ever really known one, until now." He lifted his hand towards her, "It's just that I have reservations about a race that straddles the fence, claims neutrality, but relies on others to assure it."

"But you were stationed on the planet?" Not what he'd thought he'd be questioned on, and certainly not the tone he'd expected her to use. And she was holding him with that look; the same doubtful one she'd used for the first twenty fours after he'd met her. He felt a twinge of panic deep in his gut, an uncanny sensation like the kind one gets when they can't draw enough oxygen into their lungs. He gulped a few breaths.

"Let's just say I avoided contact with them as much as I could. It was a military assignment, and aside from very shallow contact with the civilians, I never found any reason to socialize. It's not like we were welcomed with open arms." The sensation faded.


"Why what, why didn't they welcome us, or why didn't I want to rub shoulders with em?" He could see he was offending her, it certainly wasn't what he'd intended when he'd screwed up his courage to tell her what it was about her, about them, that frightened him, but he could see by the molten lava that simmered in her eyes now wasn't the time to explain his insecurities. And maybe it was for the better, he'd have probably screwed those words up too and opened himself up to another kind of pain.

"Why you're afraid of Betazoids?"

"Now I'm afraid? Where'd that come from...I don't remember saying that either. If you're an empath.... you really suck at it." The sound of his head slapping the metal wall behind him echoed through the cockpit and screamed like a shrill alarm through his head. He closed his eyes as if he could cut off the pain.

When only her accelerated breathing answered him; he opened them as if he'd received a divine revelation. "Was that what they call a Freudian slip, is there a reason I should fear Betazoids?" He wasn't sure when it had happened, that his own anger had overridden his pain, that his need to confess something to her he'd never told anyone else had been hushed by a dark suspicion.

"Of course not!" she shot back, her anger scorching her voice and yet somehow losing its potency by the dubiousness in her eyes. Her boots clicked against the deck and stopped just shy of the open hatch. For along time she stared out into the dusty night and he watched her in silence; wondered if she was crying, but made no effort to find out.

"This isn't my time," she said, inhaling a breath as if it could fortify her, "I don't know what Betazoid's do here."

"But you know what they'd be capable of if they were so inclined." He felt like his words were sticking to the lining of his throat; she seemed unaware. He shook it off, deciding it was his imagination.

"I'm not sure I do," she returned, sounding defeated and very alone, "But since I felt Commander Merek's fear of me......Your apprehension," she turned back to him slowly, "I think I'm the one that's afraid." A breeze gusted through the cockpit, lifting her hair and dusting it against her cheeks, the loose strands clinging to her moist skin.

"Hey," he almost whispered, "talk to me, don't check yourself, being angry isn't bad.....Not being angry and not caring is where the danger lies."

"I know," she moved towards him slowly, "but something.... something very bad happened to Piper at the hands of a Betazoid...... illogically I feel guilty."

He leaned forward and immediately back, allaying the nausea that engulfed him with a few deep breaths, "Can you bring me the PADD in my inside jacket pocket?"

She hesitated before following his request; he would have encouraged her with a few reassuring words, but he was too busy eyeing the hypo-sprays on the mat beside the cot, "Did you use Asinolyathin? "

"Yes," The PADD gripped tightly in her hand she turned back towards him, "why?"

"Nothing, no big deal," he lied, "I just need a shot of Cordazine." <Or I'm going to die.> he thought.

"You're going to die!"

"Calm down," he returned, watching the PADD she'd dropped on the cot bounce a few times, "It's my fault I should have recognized the feeling." He didn't bother mentioning that he never kept the stuff on his ship, but then he'd never mentioned he was going to die either.

"Here!" She slammed the hypo into his neck.

"Son of bi...," he choked, massaging the sharp pain in his neck, "It doesn't work any faster if you puncture my skin."

"I'm sorry, I panicked ........I've never been responsible for killing anyone before." Bullshit smiles apparently weren't her forte, the encouraging one she was trying for somehow lost it potential on her trembling lips.

"Your heart rates increasing," she said, waving the tricorder over him, "the constriction to your lungs is easing."

"I'm all right, it's not the first and it's not the last time this has happened to me." <I just wish I knew how that shit got on my ship?> he thought.

"You think someone deliberately put it in your med-kit?"

"Stop doing's very disconcerting."

"Doing what?"

"Answering my gets me confused." She looked as confused as he felt. She knelt slowly on the cot beside him, "I didn't know I was."

"Forget about it." With a weak hand he waved it off, sucking in a deep breath, appreciating the sensation of being able to fill his lungs, clear his head. For several minutes he repeated the procedure, watching her, watching him, "I'm going to be all right." he finally said. "I want to ask you something about this talent you say you don't have."

She nodded apprehensively, her eyes lowering to the PADD he picked up off the cot.....Making a few adjustments to the text, he handed it to her, "Read the highlighted print, tell me if a Betazoid would be capable of this."

He'd modified Piper's graphic descriptions as much as possible and shielded as much of her secrets from Troi as he could.......But betraying Piper couldn't be helped anymore. He watched Troi's brows wrinkle, deep lines creasing between her eyes, her breathing becoming erratic, he rested his hand against her knee.

"No, it's not possible, not even for the most powerful of telepaths." Her hand fell on top of his and gripped it tightly.

"Would drugs tighten a stimulus-reaction enough to cause physical sensations?"

"What?" The revulsion that portrayed itself over her fragile features changed into what he assumed to be shock. He pulled the PADD out of her hand, protecting her from reading anymore about Piper's perverse experience.

"I said would drugs...," He began to repeat.

"I heard what you said....why did you say it?"

"Because you said she must have been drugged........Why are you looking at me like that?" He shifted uncomfortably, diverting his eyes from the dark ones that appeared to be looking not at his, but behind them.

"I never said that, I only thought it."

"No, I heard you say it......You just think you only thought it.......Maybe you should sleep." He held out his arm, but she continued to stare at him, "Come on, I'd recognize my first telepathic experience ....don't ya think?"

"I don't know," she sighed, her eyes dropping to his chest and the hand he patted encouragingly against it, "I don't like this planet."

"I'm not too thrilled with it either.......Now lay down, that's an order." The weak tug he placed on her arm to punctuate his order all the persuasion she needed to slid her legs out from under her and rest her head against his chest. When he felt her relax, he encircled her with his arms, smiling weakly to himself when she rested her hand on his chest.

"Deanna?" He really had planed on letting her go to sleep, but the nagging voice of Captain Riker continued to haunt him, "Do you think in maybe, two-hundred years Betazoid's will evolve to that level of thought control?"

"Why would they want to?" Her breath tickled against his chest, warm and moist it motivated him to draw her closer.

"They probably wouldn't," he whispered, "just thinking out loud."

Her head nodded once against his chest and for a second he thought she'd fallen asleep. "Will," she said, raising her head, resting her chin against his chest, "Have you ever heard the word Imzadi?"

He shook his head as he searched his memory, "No, but I like the way it sounds when you say it......What's it mean?" Her eyes glassy with sleep, her lips parted, her breath blowing rhythmic heat against his lips, he found himself momentarily wondering if there was some way he could trick his body into believing it wouldn't die if he followed his lust and not his logic.

"Nothing," she reached up and dusted the faintest of kisses against his lips, "Goodnight Captain."

"Goodnight Lieutenant." He slid the rest of the way down the wall and rested his head on the pillow, "Thanks for saving my life."

Chapter 25

Shades of red streaked across the horizon beyond the jungle, igniting the pale blue sky with a sailor's warning. Riker slapped his hand against the smooth control for the hatch and glared in disgust as the door screeched, rattled and fell silent. He pressed the heals of his hands against the door, and leaned into it with his weight, it rolled halfway and stopped.

"Oni," he grumbled "can't even make a hatch that closes." He eyed the swollen metal ridges, cursed the humidity of this chameloid planet and took the only action that made sense to him. Putting all his weight into it, he smacked the sole of his boot against the hatch twice and smiled to himself as it slid shut. He slouched into the captain's chair, tossed a look over his shoulder to Deanna Troi who had somehow managed to sleep through all the modifications he'd been making since early this morning.

Enhancing the net, he engaged the engines without looking away from her. She shifted slightly as the engines roared, fluttered her eyes and lapsed quickly back into sleep. He glared at her, envious .......He assumed the stimulant she'd given him had killed his ability to sleep, and caused him to awaken each time he fell into it. His dreams; haunting, intoxicating, filled with vivid imagery and sensations had roused him awake each time.

Setting the altitude controls he locked the ship on the volcano Deanna had spoken of......Getting in there, looking around and getting the hell off this planet was his only motivation. He didn't like to admit it, but this place scared him, and being scared without provocation was a feeling he was unfamiliar with. He pushed the sleeve of his uniform up to his elbow and once again inspected his only "provocation"; the bruise that wrapped around his wrist, and the red finger marks that accompanied it.

"Worf!" His head snapped towards Deanna's unfamiliar call. Her eyes wide open but still glazed with sleep stared straight ahead then finally turned to him.

"Hey," He stalled the ship's activation and knelt beside her, "You OK?"

"I was dreaming, I guess." Her eyes darted around the ship, closed then opened as if she was trying to get her bearings, "Are we going somewhere?"

"I'd like to check out your volcano and get outta here."

"Mm, OK." She rubbed her eyes with her fingers and massaged her cheeks, "I'm so sleepy." she added.

"If your night was anything like mine, your dreams alone could wear you out."

"Mm," she nodded and with his help got to her feet, "More like a vivid memory." She slouched in the copilots chair and smiled a dazed smile.

"What's a Worf?" He grinned and activated the ship.

"He's the security officer on the Enterprise," Lifting the lukewarm coffee he'd left sitting on the floor in her hand, she sipped, swallowed and wrinkled her nose.

"Sorry, can't get any hot.....had to take the replicators off line, needed to infuse the transporters with the replicator's enhancers." He shrugged, glanced at the ship's readouts making sure she was only skipping the surface of the water, "So, you got a thing for this Worf?"

"Hardly," she laughed lightly, "I'm not sure a Betazoid and a Klingon could ever see eye to eye on things......If you know what I mean."

"You mean he might kill you in the heat of passion," He gave her a provocative once over with his eyes, "But then if you gotta go, death by orgasm would be my choice."

"I'm sure it would captain," she bravely took another sip of the coffee and smiled; a smile that resembled the Cheshire cat. He racked his memory, trying to think of exactly what he'd been thinking before she donned the grin.

"OK, what did I think?"

"Nothing, it was my own thoughts that made me smile." She arched teasing brows.

"Figures, I don't get those." he mumbled under his breath, "Tell me what you were dreaming abo...." The low hum of the T26 warning buzzer interrupted his question. His eyes dipped to the Nav-screen, catching a muted flash that vanished before his eyes had completely focused on it.

"What was that?" Deanna asked, still staring at the now blank screen.

"Not sure," Riker stroked his chin pensively, "Nah, it couldn't a been.......Hold her steady." He waited until Troi's hand replaced his and stood up, moving distractedly to the back of the ship. He stared through the misted dome that encased the cockpit, watching the water behind them, looking for any disruption in the swells of the ocean not caused by his own ship's mass. Giving up his search, he snagged the back of his chair in time to steady himself against the sudden dip and rock of the ship.

"This is a spaceship," He chuckled smugly, taking the control away from his copilot, "Not a catamaran."

"Sorry, I was watching you."

"Not a good idea for a rookie pilot." He waved a disciplinary finger in front of her mock expression of indignation before returning his attention to the readouts, "I don't know what that was," he tapped the blank screen, "but I can tell you what that is" He thrust a finger towards the magnified viewer, "It's an unknowing, unsuspecting, decloaking Warbird."

The poisonous smile that curled his lips, the smoke that filtered over his crystal clear eyes generated a fear that took her breath away, "What are you going to do?" It was one of those questions you asked, but really don't want to know the answer to; and the silence Riker let hang in the air between her question and his answer only fueled her concern.

"Not a damn thing," His eyes never looked away from the eerie green hull of the warbird as it hovered like a feeding insect over the blue-gray vapor that rose from the cragged mountain, "We'll just sit back, relax and watch, find out what the pointy eared bastards are up to."

"Are you sure they can't scan us?" she asked, snagging the hand he'd blindly reached over to her.

"Sure.....Pretty sure.......Damn sure I mean." he corrected himself as if the feel of her hand in his had suddenly reminded him that he and his tangible vengeance weren't the only ones in the cockpit.


Chapter 26

"So these Ullians had the same kind of telepathic ability Piper experienced?" Deanna jumped when Riker snapped his head around and offered the question. He'd asked her to tell him about her dream, but she'd taken it as merely a ploy to keep her occupied and relaxed while he ran scan after scan on the vapor and the Warbird.

"No, nothing like that," she shook her head, catching a glimpse of the disappoint on his face before he resumed his scans, "I've never heard of any species capable of issuing physical scars and sensations through thought transference." She shivered at the memory. She'd counseled women that had been the victims of abuse, prisoners that had suffered horrendous tortures; an escape into the inner psyche, a natural human response in protecting themselves from the outward pain. But Piper Merek had been left with nowhere to hide.

"Try not to think about it." He'd never looked away from the shimmering glow of the rectangular shaped grid he'd enlarged on the screen in front of him, "It'll just make it worse."

She nodded, never confronting him on how he knew what she was thinking. It seemed like a logical assumption. The change of light that filtered through the viewport drew her eyes to the warbird, she immediately recognized the intermittent pulse that broke over the hull, "They're preparing to cloak."

"Yep," Riker confirmed, enhancing the signal he'd been feeding on for the past hour and then withdrawing it, "Sure wish I could have gotten inside that thing?" He slouched back in his chair, and flipped her a crooked smile, "They just filled every Phaser bank and every torpedo hold with whatever the hell that crap is.Which means either they came in here defenseless, or they've got an escort waiting up there." He jerked his thumb towards the overcast sky.

She knew what his concern was, his ship and its rookie captain. Falsely assuring him that the Banshee would be fine was her instinct, but not what this Captain wanted to hear.

"We could go up, find out what's going on." She proposed.

"We could," he answered with a smile and a wink that suggested he understood what she'd just done. It was the first time he'd looked at her like that, not with lust, not with caution, but with a genuine trust and affection. "Or we could go in there." He cocked his head towards the jagged lines of the mountain.

"I knew you were going to say that."

"And that should surprise me somehow?" He lifted from his seat and opened the weapon's hold. Disengaging the force-field that held the weapons in the tightly packed chamber he withdrew several small phasers, a larger pistol, and a few oddly shaped, what she surmised to be, explosives.

"I thought you said there were no lifesign readings?"

"Better safe then sorry," He shrugged, "I'm taken down any naked women I come across this time, present company excluded of course."

"Thank goodness," She rolled her eyes, "That might have spoiled the whole seduction scene I had planned for later."

"That was pretty good," he chuckled, "Keep it up and you may become as arrogant and snide as the master here."

"I have hopes." She smiled, warding off a shiver as he strapped a holster around her waist, dropped to his knee in front of her, and tied a holster strap securely around her thigh.

"So do I." It wasn't quite a smile he looked up at her with, but whatever it was filled her with the same heat as the hand he stroked lazily down the inside of her leg.

"That's fine," She said suddenly, stepping back.

"Only fine?"

"The holster I mean. You know what I mean." He didn't seem to notice the crack in her voice, but she inwardly cursed it.

"You look damn sexy when you get all hot and flustered like that." He made no effort to move, just sat back on his heals and looked at her with that smile or whatever it was, and those eyes. For a moment it was if his eyes comprised her entire universe.

"We should go, don't you think we should go?" She heard the voice, her voice, suggest they venture into a mountain cave and considered slapping herself.

"I guess so." He said casually, slapping his hands against his thighs and lifting to his feet.

She folded her arms and watched him thoughtfully as he tucked a phaser in each of his boots and the larger pistol in the holster at his side.

"Will?" She wasn't sure why she felt she had to say something, she wasn't sensing anything from him that would lead her to believe he was hurt or angry. Quite the opposite, his emotions were stable and driven, if he'd had a visible aura it would have sparked with an electrical current.

"What," He handed her a phaser, moved his eyes once over her face and smiled, "Don't worry, I'll make sure we get back here in one piece."

"No, that's not it.I know you will." She studied the tip of his boot, and the phaser at his hip. Her eyes followed the clasps of his jacket over his stomach and chest, and finally met with his anxious eyes. "I just want to say." She hesitated when she saw his smile widen, "I just wanted to say it's not that I didn't want to.I just didn't think it was the right time."

"I know. it wasn't." he whispered, cradling a cool hand against her warm cheek, "I just wanted to see your eyes." His smile faded and his lips grazed hers before his words had registered in her mind.

"What?" she said, her lips dusting against his beard as he pulled his face away from her, "What does that mean?"

"Nothing," He shrugged, "They are beautiful ya know."

"Thank-you," she stammered, feeling more flustered now then she had earlier, "But I still don't understand."

Riker exhaled a breath, hesitated, and took a half step towards her. She'd never seen him look quite as he did in that moment; the eyes that usually flickered in the light, shifted hues with each of his thoughts had become deep, constant pools of blue that tamed his normally dangerous features. It was only a heartbeat in time, but she found she'd held her breath in her lungs, anticipating what he was going to say.

"Call it a quirk," he finally said, shaking his head briskly as though trying to wake up from a deep sleep. "I have a few of those." He added, his eyes flashing, his mouth breaking into a captivating grin.

"Where were you?" she asked, ignoring the man grinning at her now, her mind still awarding her a picture of the image she'd taken only a second ago.

"Home." His perfectly rehearsed expression was held in check, but his tone in speaking the single word sounded as if it had crawled over a thousand years of pain to leave his lips.


Chapter 27

The burn in the back of Riker's neck wasn't from hovering over the readouts for the internal layout of the mountain, but from the dark eyes that had been targeting him since he'd let his guard down earlier. He'd tackled the memory and taken it down before he'd even drawn a breath, but obviously not soon enough to shield it from her. He heard her boots click against the deck behind him, he keyed a few coordinates into the transporter, coordinates that would probably beam them into the center of a rock, but maybe if he looked busy she'd hold off her inquiry. If he just knew what she'd felt, how much she knew, he could plan his strategy accordingly, or tell her to back-off, mind her own business, if she'd only grazed the surface of his feelings.

Reconfiguring the coordinates, he chuckled to himself, a chuckle drenched with irony. Not more then twenty-four hours ago he'd planned on telling her everything, about Shayla, about Sky, about the completeness he felt when he was near her; a kind of completeness he'd left behind a lifetime ago and abandoned hope of every feeling again. But if the components he'd found in the vapor proved to be what he thought, there was no reason to tell her, if he was right, she wouldn't be here, she'd be on her way home before he could say palekaiko.

"Did you figure it out?" Her hand against his shoulder as soft as her voice still caused him to startle.

"Guess I was concentrating harder then I thought." The practiced grin he flashed did nothing to rid her of her frown.

"I thought you'd fallen asleep when you stopped programming."

"No, I was just thinkin' that's all."

"About home?"

Her tone was matter-a-fact, even her eyes appeared to only graze over his features, but like an animal preparing to defend itself, he was sure he could feel the hair across his shoulders bristle.

"No, not home. You. I was thinking maybe it might be best if you stayed here with the ship.No sense in both of us walking blindly into the lion's mouth."

"Like hell," she responded, stabbing him with a look worthy of a Klingon, "I put a lot of time and effort into keeping you alive and I don't trust you to take care of my handiwork."

He regarded her thoughtfully a few minutes. To be honest he was amazed she fell for it, he'd have never considered leaving her alone anywhere on this planet, but from the black-ice look she was holding him with, it was obvious even empathy had its limits.

"Fine," He held his hands up in surrender, "just don't hurt me."

She rolled her eyes at his goading smile and overly dramatized tremble, either she wasn't amused, or she'd seen through his charade the entire time. "Can we go now?" he asked, when her stare and rigid posture resumed.

"I'm ready, I guess."

"Let's go then."

"Will," She said his name in that rich tone she used before all her probing questions. He snapped the tranport-bands off the table and pivoted around to face her, holding on to a poker-face that had allowed him to bluff his way out of many a tight spot.

"Is there something wrong?" she asked, pinning him with a worried look.

"Wrong. Nope. I'm not looking forward to our little trip, but other then that everything's fine."

"You're not keeping something from me?"

<No more then usual. > he thought, outwardly only shaking his head.

"I thought when you made that sudden decision to leave me here, you might have found something." She looked uncertain, uncertain about his assurance or her own question he couldn't tell.

"No," he waved a hand in the air, "that was just the captain in me sneaking out."

She answered the smile he sent her, but there was a shaky vulnerability to it, similar to the first one he'd ever seen from her, "You OK?"

"I'm fine." She said, nodding her head a few too many times to be convincing. "Are you just going to gawk at me or are we going?"

"I'm going to gawk for a minute if its all right lieutenant." Resting one of his hands firmly but gently against each of her shoulders he felt her muscles stiffen under his palms. "You can write this off as an overcautious captain concern if you'd like, but if there's something wrong with you that's going to affect your performance over there I need to know."

"I don't think it will."

"That's not good enough." This time it really was the captain that stepped up to the plate, a captain whose voice was a bit sharper then he'd planned. She hesitated for too long.

"Now Lieutenant, Yes or no, are you fit to beam over there?" The way her eyes searched his it was as if she thought the answer she was looking for was hidden in them.

"I can't sense anything," She looked to the floor then back into his eyes, "It started fluctuating once we left the lagoon, but now.within the last few minutes I can't feel anything."

This was something he wasn't sure how to deal with or even how seriously to take, after all, he couldn't sense anything and he was perfectly capable of functioning. He watched the hand she'd draped over his upper arm, her fingers kneading against his muscles as if she needed to assure herself he was real.

"What would cause that?"

"I don't know, it happened to me once before but this is different. In the lagoon my sense of you was more acute then I'd ever felt with anyone. Like something there infused it," she gestured with her head behind him, "and something here is taking it away."

"I can't begin to understand this ya know, your gift seems like gravy to me." After he'd said it he wondered if it sounded cold, but the gentle nod of her head and the almost smile that twitched the corners of her mouth assured him it wasn't. "But since you say this place has affected your ability, and your ability is controlled by neurological function, maybe.. Maybe we shouldn't go in there."

"No, we have to.You need those readings."

"Not by putting you at risk I don't."

"That doesn't sound like the captain is talking?"

"Even a captain can make a decision here and there for the good of the people they ca.." He choked off his own response, shocked at how easily they'd begun to flow from inside him. Inwardly he wondered who he was really protecting, Deanna, or himself from the pain of watching something happen to her.

"I can function without my empathic sense, we'll be fine.. We have to go."

"I don't have to do anything, I'm the captain." He arched challenging brows. The hand he'd laid with authority against her shoulder drifted to a more intimate position against her neck, his thumb mapping a trail over her cheek and jaw.

"Will," she began, momentarily closing her eyes then opening them, "Captain," she corrected, "Six hundred Oni are dead, I don't know how many people were on the Pegasus and neither of us knows if that's the extend of this weapon's damage. If that mountain can help stop anymore deaths I'm willing to take the risk."

He wasn't sure how he felt, sick, proud, petrified, all of the above, all he knew was he had to be honest with her. "This isn't your time, no one, including me expects you to risk yourself for our causes. I think," He swallowed over a lump he'd kept balled up tightly in his gut for years, "I think there's a way to get you home.. where you belong. The devil's gate is a horizon, an Event Horizon created by the aligned quasars. The Romulan's are ciphering off the emissions from the negative side, that's why it's fooling us. I'm sure I'm right and I'm sure there's a way to get yo.." It was her lips that cut him off, moist and desperate, sweet and exotic the combined pressure of her mouth and the body she molded into his snared his rational thoughts in a place he wished he could exist in forever. A place where ice and fire, turbulence and tranquillity, wicked and good lost their definitions and joined to together to create palekaiko. Her hands were unbridled, her tongue and her body, her essence surrendering, but he found himself hovering on the edge, afraid if he stepped off he'd tumble into an endless abyss that would take another lifetime to crawl out off.

"Don't!" He didn't remember when he'd tangled his hand in the back of her hair, but the force he'd used to jerk on it widened her smoky eyes, "Did you hear what I said...I said you can go home."

"Yes, I heard it several hours ago when you completed your first scan of the vapor."

"And you didn't say anything?" He eased his grip on her hair and let his hand fall over her shoulder and down her arm, stopping it when her hand met his and held it gently.

"All you have is a theory Captain, nothing concrete, and getting me home isn't why we're here. To be honest," she said, "I don't remember asking to go home."

"So given the chance you wouldn't go?"

"No, that's not what I said."

"Is this some form of female payback for not accepting your advances or do you naturally talk in circles."

"Hardly," Her eyes dipped to the hand she held in hers something between a sigh and laugh dusting his palm with warm breath, "If given the chance, I'm not sure what decision I'd make."

"Why?" To say her admission caught him off guard would have been a vast understatement, why anyone given the opportunity to escape this war and this quadrant would struggle with the decision left him uncharacteristically speechless.

"I know that's not what you expected me to say," She looked up at him and shook her head, "It's not even what I expected me to say."

He still found himself without words and only studied her eyes, eyes where his own reflection stared back at him, not only in the onyx orbs that held his, but behind them as well. Maybe it was the same for her, maybe she had an ache, an empty void inside herself that had been filled as his was whenever she looked at him.

<No, that's nuts Riker.> he thought, "Like you said," He cleared his throat, recovering his voice, "It's only a theory anyway...It's not a decision we, I mean you, have to make now."

"Right," He saw her jump, felt her hand tighten and ease around his, the eyes that only seconds ago had held his soul in a stasis of calm flickered under the ship's light, "I'm fine to go over to the mountain and I feel a little foolish about attacking you."

"I'm feeling more foolish for stopping you, believe me." She answered his smile, but it fell away quickly, her discomfort at not being able to sense anything apparent by her unusually antsy behavior. "You sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine." She said only two words but Riker could see a million more sitting on the edge of her tongue. It wasn't like he had a time quota, sitting in the camouflaged T26 in the middle of an uninhabited planet was a bit like having your own little pocket universe, he could tell her now. Shayla would him to, wherever she was she was probably heading the cheer leading team encouraging him to do it.

"Is it because I'm Betazoid?"

He found his eyes had drifted up to the sky, staring at a single cloud that shimmered silver under the sun's light. He lowered his eyes as he spoke, "No, definitely no..... believe me, empathic awareness is definitely in the positive pile." His devilish grin and the similar waggle of his brows brought a smile to her lips and painted her cheeks with a pale pink glow.

"I'm not ready to talk about it right now," he flipped a defeated glance towards the heavens, "but it's a bit like that song Piper likes to haunt me with......I can deal with a million shocks, but when that earthquake comes along, it scares the hell outta me."

Chapter 28

"This is perfect," Riker said sarcastically, glaring at the burned out transport bands in his hand, "Oni are technological morons." He stuffed the bands in his jacket pocket, and for the second time since they'd beamed into the room stepped in a full circle as if it was possible he missed something the first time. The walls, a tarnished metal were devoid of controls of any kind; the floor under his feet, splintered wood as was the ceiling. "Strange that they'd use a sturdy metal for the walls and then use wood on the floor." An unnecessary comment, but one that prompted Deanna to scan the walls. She shook her head, "nothing unusual about it."

"Except that it's there," Riker mumbled under his breath, cocking his head towards the only sound, a low gurgle coming from the other side of a wooden door. He pressed his ear against the door, the gurgling sound clearer, but more hallow. A sound like one would hear under the water as their air bubbles breached the surface. A quick scan and he opened the door, amazed when the rickety piece of wood didn't fall off its hinges in his hand.

The humidity in the wide corridor made the jungle air seem arid, the walls, same material as the room they'd left behind glistened with condensation. He held out an already damp hand to Deanna, she accepted it and held it as tightly as he was holding his phaser. His steps were cautious, but still seemed to rumble through the corridor. Ahead of them the lights shifted, brighter, but still a pale translucent blue like the glow that illuminated the corridor.

"The scanner's picking up mechanical mechanism ahead." Deanna said.

Will glanced at her readouts, "Damn quiet machinery." To his right he noticed a narrow offshoot of the passage. He stepped past it quickly, but not quick enough to avoid the blast of heat that whizzed past the back of his head. The emerald beam that had only scorched him was followed by a volley of others, all equally spaced, with no deviation in the level of the fire.

"Get in there." He ordered, shoving Deanna into some kind of storage vault embedded in the lower wall.

"I don't think...."

"Don't think, just stay put, I'll handle this." He heard the order that left his mouth, and another more violent reiteration of it that scratched over his spine like a jagged blade, "Get out of there!" He was sure he heard her shoulder pop when he tugged out of the vent, wrapping both arms around her, her head smacked into his chest.

"Are you insane!" The anger in her voice sounded well above the ricocheted blasts that still battered the wall behind them.

"The walls are charged." The condensation snapped and crackled over the metal walls, Riker's eyes fell to the electrified vault and the breath he'd held in his lungs escaped him in several shaky bursts. If he had the time he'd have dropped to his knees and thanked whoever the hell one thanks for saving him from making the same mistake twice. But the time span between the blasts was getting shorter, which meant whatever was firing with such a steady rhythm was getting closer. Staying in the middle of the floor, he moved as fast as could without causing Deanna to stumble, towards the room at the end of the hall.

"Great," He said, spinning in a circle, eyeing the room, "A metal door."

"Will!" He spun towards her voice and grinned at the wooden floor plank she held out to him. He snapped it out of her hand and moved in front of the door, ducking out of the way of the beam that hissed past him and catching only a glimpse of their assailants before slamming the door shut and using his phaser to meld the metals.

"What are they?" Deanna asked on a winded breath.

"Leprechauns... mechanical leprechauns." He answered her question, but his eyes were on the three cylinder shaped vats against the back wall that Deanna was already scanning.

"What's in em?" He snapped his head towards the door as the phaser fire fell away and was replaced by the pounding and subsequent buckling of the little Munchkins breaking through the door.

"I don't know, the center ones water, the other two I'm not sure."

"What about that tube extending from the blue one, looks like a frequency-detector," he snapped his own scanner from his belt, "Little shits deactivated the door only."

"They're coming through Captain."

"Let em," he said, feeling the panic that had bubbled up inside him begin to recede as he lunged for the wheel for the pump control.

"What are you doing?"

"Overloading the tank," he grinned, wiping the sweat from above his brow, "I'm gonna fry the little mother f...we're gonna fry em." he amended.

"And us with them."

"No," He stabbed a finger towards the piping that crisscrossed about ten feet from the floor, "Piping's insulated, it won't be charged." He held out a cupped hand before she could form a question, "Don't look for the words, I'm too damn clever for any."

"That's not what I was going to say." she choked, her foot slipping on Riker's shoulder as she struggled to hug the pipe and sling her leg around it. She grunted and tried to see him though the sweat that burned in her eyes as she straddled the pipe and locked her legs around it. "I was going to say how are you..."

Her question was cut off by the smack of his shirt against her face, his shirt tied to his pants. She only glanced at what could have been a humorous image, and would be once he got up here. Captain Riker, dressed in boots, royal blue boxers, his holster still dipping over his hip and his Starfleet jacket hanging open over his bare chest grinned up at her..."Let's go lady, you can gawk at my magnificent body once I'm up there."

Doing her best to ignore the buckling of the tank and the puckering of the door she wrapped his clothes around the pipe and prayed her strength as well as the Starfleet issue clothes would hold out. Once the pressure in the tank reached it's capacity, the millions of gallons of water Riker had opened the valve for would flood the room enough to contact the walls, sending a current of electrically charged water crashing through the door the little robots had almost carved there way through. She assumed there had to be some kind of timing for this to work right, she wondered if he'd considered that.

"Shit!" His exclamation as his arm draped around the pipe assured her he hadn't. "Shoot the tank!" he ordered, slinging his leg over the pipe just as the door clattered in pieces to the ground. She was a step ahead of his order, her phaser already drawn, she fired a long burst.

"You shoot better then you fly I see." He yelled as the room sparked and sizzled, the avalanche of water rumbling the room.

She couldn't quite bring herself to share his overly confident smile, the water level in the room was rising too fast, "Did you take into account how much water you were flooding this compound with?"

"No, but it's fine, the place is huge, beside, I'm sure sleepy, happy and dopey down there have friends that will vent it."

"How do you know?"

"I know, that's all." She watched his eyes dip to the water then watched him fumble through his jacket pocket.

"If you know, why are you trying to fix the transport bands?"

"I just saved your life, you could be a little nicer."

"You didn't save my life, you extended it by a few minutes."

"I didn't hear a fountain of ideas flooding out of your mouth..."Will, there coming through!"" he mimicked her in a singsong voice, "That's all you of...."

His voice and her awareness dissolved on a spiral of blue and white, the realization of what hit her not taking hold until the beam released her into the confines of T26.

"New uniform Captain?" Piper Merek, her arms folded loosely across her chest made no attempt to hide her laughter or the smoky leer she prowled over her Captain's body.

"What the hell are you doing here!" His commanding voice and his reprimanding look were completely lost behind his bizarre attire, and only elevated Piper's contagious laughter. The stifled chuckle that escaped Deanna awarded her a share of the glare he was holding Piper with.

"I knew that was a jager I picked up earlier," he said, waving a disgusted hand towards Deanna that shifted to a chastising finger as it faced Piper, "Hasn't anyone ever told you a captains place is on her bridge."

"Don't try to intimate me captain, it's hard enough for you when you're properly attired.... any attempt at the moment would be completely futile." Piper's eyes flashed with a mischievous defiance that only enhanced Deanna's amusement. It was obvious she delighted in aggravating her captain, and from the almost identical personalities of the two of them, she could only assume that for Captain Riker it was a bit like squaring off against himself.

"I'm sure you weren't stupid enough to come here by yourself," Riker's eyes darted over the surrounding ocean, "Jesus Christ you came here by yourself...Have you lost your mind!"

"No, I'm just following in my captain's footsteps...Besides from the looks of my readouts I beamed you both out in the nick of time."

"We were fine." Piper's eyes drifted over Riker's rigid shoulders and met with Deannas'.... Deanna shook her head.

"Do you want me to beam you back?"

"No!" It was nothing less then a roar that shot out of Riker's mouth and nothing less then blue fire that leapt from his eyes. "I want to know who's sitting in the captain's chair of MY ship, I want to know where she is and more importantly I want to know when you and Lieutenant ungrateful over there," he jerked a finger behind him, appointed yourselves guardians of my fate!"

Chapter 29

"Set course for the Devil's Gate, warp nine!" Riker, his eyes fixed tightly on the Banshee's view screen barked the order before he'd stepped down the ramp. Commander Merek kept pace with her captain, Lieutenant Troi a few steps behind felt the inward relief of his bridge crew.

"Belay that order!" The sound of the firm objection to Riker's order preceded the view of the older man that rose from the captain's center seat. A few inches shorter then Riker, his sleeves adorned with the gold piping Troi had learned was the rank insignia for admiral, the man pinned narrow chocolate-brown eyes on the young Banshee captain.

"Admiral Bannon?" Riker's jaw visibly tightened and he snapped to a rigid attention, "With all due respect admiral an emergency beaco....."

"I'm well aware of that Captain."

"Then you must also understand Sir that the Romulans....."

"Our course has already been plotted, we've just been waiting for you to join us." A bitter contempt saturated each of Bannon's words, and though outwardly Captain Riker appeared to display only respect, inwardly Troi sensed everything but. "Good work Commander Merek."

"Thank-you Sir." Piper's reply was composed, but the hands she'd folded behind her back fidgeted nervously. Troi got the distinct impression that this Admiral's presence here was as much of a shock to Piper as it was to Riker. Troi was also sure that the almost invisible brush of Piper's shoulder against Rikers was a silent assurance that she was as much in the dark as her captain.

"Where is Admiral Picard?" There was a note of defiance in Piper's tone, one that deepened Bannon's frown, and drew Riker's stormy eyes beside him where they appeared to issue a cautious warning.

"Following orders," Bannon said dryly, his eyes moving for the first time to Troi. She held them in spite of the tangible chill they caused her. "Which is more then I can say for the captain of this ship." he added, still targeting Troi.

Riker, breaking his attention, and protocol stepped back and moved in beside her, "I don't think you understand what's going on Admiral."

"I think it's you that doesn't understand Riker. Perhaps you'll let me explain." he gestured to Riker's ready-room doors with a chubby finger and failed to mask the poisonous smile that grew under his mustache. "Bring the betazoid."

"Lieutenant Troi.....Sir." Riker's curt correction went unnoticed by Bannon.

"Lay in a course for sector 001 Commander." Bannon added, after the ready-room doors had hissed open.

"Earth!" Riker's gut reaction took his voice up several notches, "I don't thin..."

"You don't have to think Captain."

Troi saw the visual exchange between Riker and Commander Merek before she felt Riker's hand against her arm and he guided her inside the ready-room.

"OK Dutch," Piper said, her posture relaxing as she slipped into the captain's chair, "You've laid in the admiral's course?"

"Yes Sir."

"Was that the extent of his orders?"

"Yes Sir." Dutch's lips broke into an uncharacteristic smile that served to widen Piper's grin.

"Then by all means set course for earth," she said, gripping the arms of her chair, "Warp one."


In the ready-room, away from the eyes of the crew, the friction between these two officers clouded the room with an icy mist that left Deanna's skin cold, inspired goose bumps to break over her arms.


Riker failed at taming the look in his eyes when he dropped his gaze to hers, and the fact that he made a point to move his chair close enough to hers that the arms were touching did nothing to alleviate her tension; a tension that tittered on fear under Bannon's frigid gaze.

"What is this about Admiral?" Riker asked once Bannon had fallen into Riker's chair on the other side of the desk.

"A young captain that apparently has decided that he's above following federation rules and procedures. A captain that suspects a member of his crew is an infiltrator and sees no reason to report it to his superiors. A Captain who allows an unknown to serve as a member of his crew. An unknown I might add that should have been brought immediately to the attention of the counsel."

"Admiral Picard," Riker interrupted.

"Admiral Picard is soft and being dealt with. His inability to control you has always been his weakness."

"No one controls me Sir, you of all people should know that!" Riker leaned forward, the guise of respect he'd held in his voice replaced by his genuine anger, "I found a planet completely destroyed by an unknown, I did what any captain worth his salt would have done...... Everything in my power to prevent it from happening again."

"There's where you're wrong Captain." The Admiral drummed in his fingers against the wooden desk, "If you hadn't seen fit to pull one of your irresponsible stunts and stayed with your ship, you'd know that we've already found the cause of death, and the origin of the virus used."

"It's not a virus Sir. We've seen the plant, we've read the scans," Riker gestured back and forth between himself and Troi, "They're using emissions from the devil's gate.....Sir, there using frequency-detector's on the gate's emissions....the quasar's emissions. Don't you see...."

"I see that once again Captain Riker values his own opinion above the top ranking scientist in the federation."

"It's true Sir," Troi validated Riker's statement, her three words drawing a deadly look from Bannon. She ignored it and continued, "We think the rea..."

"Shut-up, I'm not interested in the opinion of a Betazoid."

"You shut-up Admiral!" Riker shot to his feet so quickly his chair toppled over behind him, "If you'd pull your head out of your bureaucratic ass and look at the readings you'd see the same thing." The veins on Riker's neck pulsed with heated anger even as he inhaled a breath to restrain his temper, "Taking my ship, sending me back to earth to face an inquiry on trumped up charges you know won't hold water may satisfy your vendetta against me, but it's gonna leave you with a hell of a lot of deaths on your conscious!"

"Still having trouble controlling that nasty temper I see." Completely unaffected by a firestorm of rage that had caused Deanna to practically gasp for breath, the admiral lifted calmly from his chair. "Confine yourself to quarters Captain."

Riker pressed the heals of his hands against the edge of the desk, flopped his head forward and exhaled an angry breath that trembled from his lungs. Troi watched him in silence as he repeated the procedure until only steady breaths escaped him, his emotions still too volatile to focus on.

"Admiral," He tugged a PADD from his inside jacket pocket and stepped towards the older man. "It was an accident," Riker said, holding out the PADD, watching the shadows of light dance over the admiral's face from the bottle in the stand that stood between them, "You can take me out of here, you can ignore my findings, you can take that knife in your boot and drive it through my chest.......all of it may make you feel better, but none of it will bring her back." Riker swallowed over the burn in his throat and waited patiently, trying to remember when the pain that had muted Avery Bannon's eyes had been obscured by only bitter hatred.

Bannon's sudden movement jerked Riker from his thoughts, and for a heartbeat he thought he was reaching for the PADD, but instead his hand slapped his communicator, "Mister Montgomery, escort Captain Riker and the Betazoid to their quarters. Place a guard outside the Betazoid's door."

There was a long delay between the Admiral's order, Dutch's confirmation and the hiss of the opening ready-room doors. "She was proud of you," Riker shook his head, "She wouldn't be right now."

"She would," Bannon responded through thinned lips, "if you hadn't killed her."


"Virus my ass!" Riker chucked the PADD across his quarters and watched it clatter to the floor. He'd been in here for over twenty-four hours, held captive by the top-ranking admiral in the federation, an admiral that was definitely off his nut, but an admiral no one in their right mind would go up against.

"He's gone too far this time Shayla," He fell onto the couch and poured himself another shot of whiskey, "It's not only me he's going to hurt. God, I wish you were here." He downed the drink and felt the fiery liquid envelope the ache in his chest. It had been years since he'd uttered those words; Once, along time ago, every high, every low, every in between in his life had been followed by that wish. Ironic that after spending years constructing the impenetrable fortress he lived in, his feelings for another woman had permitted him to face her again.

"Ko'u Pu'uwai," he said, patting a hand against his chest, "My heart," he repeated in English, "hurts."

Chapter 30

"You're putting me in a very awkward situation Will." Riker nodded understandingly to the woman on the other end of his transmission.

"I know I am, and under any other circumstances I'd never ask you, but..." At a loss for words to describe his alien feelings of helplessness, he finished his sentence with a heavy sigh, and hoped she'd not only listened, but heard everything he'd told her. Focusing only on the dark crystal eyes that gleamed with affection he tried to look behind the smile that always shone in them.

"I hate this war," she said, "and not the one with the unification."

He considered defending himself, saying it wasn't him that had allowed years of hatred to build inside him, but though the emotion was a different one, he'd permitted his pain to consume him. "Tell the counsel it's me you're concerned about, I'd understand. I just need somebody to intercept this ship." His last ditch effort forced her to close her eyes, take away the more mature, but hauntingly familiar eyes he'd been basking in.

"I'll talk to them." She rolled her eyes and smiled, "Shayla always said you could talk a dying man into giving you his last breath." His posture, relaxed through most of his encounter, stiffened as he watched her brilliant smile lapse to the one that always seemed to grace her lips, "I wish I had the same ability." she whispered.

"I will come back."

"When Will? When's she's ten, when she's fifteen, the day of her wedding? She's stopped asking when her daddy's coming home." Her voice raised, cracked, but not with anger.

"I can't, she's safer there with you." He answered her challenge as he had a hundred times before, with a practiced conviction that painted his eyes in a placid blue, while behind them his world rocked, spun with a furious force out of control.

{{ "We've lost her signal Commander!" The transporter chief's words, drowned out by the blare of the red alert echoed through Riker's mind with an earth shattering clarity, and tangled with the wails of the infant caressed tightly against his chest. "Get it back damn-it!"

"I can't Sir, the radiation levels are..."

"Now Lieutenant!" The infant startled, the roar of his voice shifting her hysterical cries to only silent tears. Pulling her away from his chest, he passed her to the nurse. The warm tears that had dampened his uniform chilled to a frigid cold, the raw heat that pulsed through his body, bled from every pore devoured the chilling loss in an inferno of rage.

"Move!" A forceful shove against the transport chief's chest marked his order and sent the young man back with a crack against the wall. The crimson trail of blood that trickled over the man's closed eyes went unnoticed by Riker, his blue eyes shadowed by panic, he watched only muted shades of red dance across the transport controls.

"Commander, there's no time....There's no way she's still alive!"

"We don't know that!" He jerked out of the second officer's grasp, his trembling hands moving over the pad, his heart exploding in scarlet fire inside his chest.

"You have to make a decision Commander, if that transport hits the grid!" Commanding hands gripped Riker's shoulder's, slamming him against the back wall with a jarring force, "Damnit Will, you're in command......Give the god damn order!"

Riker shot a look to his daughter, fixing his gaze only on her eyes, black pearls, misted by tears, swallowed the man that he was. The fiery panic, the brutal pain that engulfed his soul and corroded his heart cooled and numbed.

Away from his body, on the outside looking in, his order spoken by only the shell of the man he'd left behind, he slapped his communicator, "Destroy the transport!"


"Fire Ensign MacNeil... Now!"}

"I'm not sure it's Sky you're protecting Will, and I think you'd be amazed how quickly she'd heal your pain." So accomplished at keeping his emotions in check, even as the memory of the explosion ripped through his gut, he shook his head calmly to Mrs. Bannon.

"Tell her Aloha wau ia oe." he said, holding on to an outward composure, the belief in a decision he'd made years ago, and convinced himself was the right one for everyone.

"You tell her." With the three words and a sharp shake of her head she cut the transmission, leaving Riker staring into a void of blackness. He slid the bottle of whiskey off the desk, brought it almost to his lips and inhaled a deep breath, the pungent odor biting the back of his tongue with a bitter taste. Without drinking, he slammed the bottle back down and pivoted his chair away from the screen.

"What'd ya think Shayla," he said, glancing at the corked bottle against the far wall before lifting his eyes to the ceiling, "Should I quit fighting.....go home."

<You should quit lying to yourself, then you'd be home.> The voice came from inside himself, carried on a familiar voice that caressed his soul and kissed the darkest corners of his mind. He let himself feel it only for an instant.

"It's easy to be philosophical when your dead, try it from my end." His bitter remark rattled through his empty quarters.

"Am I doing the wrong thing?" He knelt in front of the bottle and stared into the bubbles of colored lights that captured her emotions, her dreams, danced around her perfect moment with a heavenly reverence that misted his eyes, "I don't want her to see her father die Shayla, and I will die, eventually I'm going to play my last high card." Only the hum of the ship's engines sounded through his quarters, but Riker heard more, he heard crying, his crying as a little boy, his crying as a man, and he felt the constant pounding in his head from the millions of tears he'd willed away. But that was all he heard, and all he felt, his own pain, his own grief, he'd never really stopped to listen for anyone else. Until now.

"Dutch!" He said, slapping his badge, "reestablish my last communication, I think I forgot something."


Riker tugged his shirt off over his head and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. <I love you daddy.> The four simple words and a promise he should have made years ago stilled the demons that had stolen his soul. Not even Avery Bannon had been able to turn his daughter away from him, and that had been his greatest fear. To see eyes, her mother's eyes look at him with anger or hatred.

He looked towards the bathroom, but instead dropped down on the couch. The healing kiss Sky had offered his soul had mended his bleeding wounds, but escalated his urgency. Now this war, stopping this weapon of destruction, living, had become more important. He couldn't die, not now, amazingly he found he didn't want to.

The chimes to his quarters sounded and he considered making a run for it, sealing himself under a steady pulse of hot water in a bathroom locked by a captain's access only. He'd never realized until now how many times he must have walked out on Piper and her slightly off-color ideas.

"Who is it?" he called, pressing his shirt against his mouth to muffle his voice.

"Piper," There was a slight pause, "and lieutenant Troi."

"Oh God, she's unified," he grumbled, taking a few more steps away from the door. "I just got out of the shower.... Don't come in, I'm completely nak..." The doors whooshed open.

"I told you," He heard Piper whisper to Troi before directing a gloating smile to him, "I'm a captain now, I can override any lock."

"Well aren't you just the balls," he sneered, "Hi lieutenant." he added in a much kinder tone, flashing a grin that still lit up his features after he'd pulled his shirt back over his head. "You OK."

Deanna returned his smile and nodded a confirmation.... he'd been assured that she was being treated well, but he still found himself visibly scanning her for eltro-pulse scars. And even after he'd convinced himself she was fine, he found himself staring at her. It had only been 48 hours, but he'd almost forgotten how that smile made him feel.... or had tried to forget. Maybe now he could stop trying to fight it, stop trying to forget.

"What do you want Commander?" He tugged his gaze away from Troi, his relaxed shoulders automatically tightening under Piper's devilish, No, fiendish grin. "Have you found a way to launch us all out of the torpedo tubes?"

"Very funny, I'm only trying to help you."

"I know, knock it off." He curled his lip and snarled at her before stepping over the coffee table and sitting on the couch, his eyes darting back and forth between Piper's blue fire and Deanna's black tranquillity. "This is a bit," He cleared his throat, "odd...shouldn't you both be cat fighting or something."

"Turning you on isn't our objective." Strangely enough Troi retorted and stepped around the table to sit beside him.

"Too bad, I could use an outlet for my frustration." He tossed a weak facsimile of his arrogant grin between the two. To be honest, with the mood he was in, they could both strip off out their clothes right here and now and it wouldn't do a thing for him...not instantly anyway, he decided after more detailed thought.

He flopped back and caught a glimpse of Troi's flickering smile, "What?" Maybe it was all the whiskey he'd consumed in the past two days, but his poker face gave way to a guilty smile.

"Nothing Captain," Troi said, "but if I was your mother."

"I already have a mother," he interrupted, patting Piper's knee as she slid in on the other side of him.

"OK," Piper clapped her hands together, jerking his attention from Troi, and hers from him. "I have something to say and I'm just going t say it." The word "shit" tumbled repeatedly through Riker's mind as he watched Piper knell on the couch beside him and sit calmly back on her heals. " I will do anything to get you back on the bridge, even if it means working with Lieutenant Troi, even if it means court marshal."

Will inhaled a breath to assure her he knew that, but she cut him off with two fingers pressed less then gently against his lips. "But you should also know, your flirting pisses me off, and I am a little jealous of how he feels about you." She lifted her eyes to Deanna, "So, if you can not rub my nose in it, we can carry on here." She flipped her hair behind her shoulder and arched anticipatory brows, what she'd just said, and the expression on her face totally contrasting each other.

"Don't beat around the bush Piper, say what's on your mind." His hand still resting on her knee he patted it harder, "I'm sure no one feels uncomfortable now."

"I'm sorry."

"No you're not."

"No, I'm not." She shrugged one shoulder, "But I'd like to talk about my idea and I needed to get that off my chest."

"Your idea," He happily changed the subject, "The mutiny one you mean...we killed that one."

"You killed it."

"It's not a bad idea," Troi chimed in, and under the circumstances he only glanced at her. "He is only one man, if you're right, it's the only way."

"What makes you think the rest of the crew would support a mutiny...Dutch, have you considered Dutch?"

"We talked about him," Piper said, tossing a wrinkled nosed look to Troi, "we're not sure how to convince him. Doctor Howard, our version of her anyway, looked at your theory...She thinks it's very possible, and she agrees the Komarin virus could never have been responsible for this.... even with its short life span."

Riker raked a hand through his hair, "Never thought I'd see the day doctor Howard validated anything I thought."

"We didn't tell her it was your theory...we were hoping to hold on to her objectivity."

He snorted a chuckle and shifted his gaze between the two women, both displaying their own brand of conviction, "I have one more hand I'd like to play, if it doesn't pan out, we'll take him do..."

<Commander Merek report to the bridge.>

The smile that had just begun to blossom over Piper's features dulled. She slapped her communicator, returned a response and sighed disgustedly. "Gotta go," She stepped towards the door and pivoted around, "No plotting without me." She smiled, a smile that made Riker glad she was on his side.

"Piper wait!" Will almost stumbled over the table trying to reach the doors before they closed, he tossed a cautious look up and down the corridor before stepping out beside her. "If we're wrong, or the crew doesn't back us, you could be throwing your career away."

"I don't care," She waved her hand in front of her face, "I'd find something else...Med-lab shuttle pilot. I'd put some excitement in those old folks lives that's for damn sure."

"Thanks Piper," He snatched her hand before it fell to her side and kissed it, "I love you ya know."

"I know," she replied, kissing his hand before letting go, "Me and any other woman with a bust line over 34."

"36!" he called after her, watching her until she disappeared into the lift at the end of corridor.

"Piece a work." He grinned at Troi, stabbing a thumb over his shoulder as the doors hissed closed behind him, "Fortunately for the rest of the universe her creators realized early where they'd gone wrong and made her the last of her kind."

"And were you the prototype?"

"Pretty slick." The bottle of whisky Will snatched in his hand scratched across the glass tea table and splattered over the couch as he dropped into it. She was going to want to talk; from what he'd leaned about her, she really liked doing that. He gulped the whiskey, and busied himself by brushing away the few drops he'd spilled, looking for a conversation starter that she couldn't convert into questions about his encounter with the admiral.

"What's this other card you'd like to play?" Her eyes followed his hand as he placed the bottle on the table, but all too soon returned to his.

"If I lay down here," He carried out his if as he spoke, sprawling out on the couch and plopping his head in her lap.

"You mean when you lay down here?" She smiled down on him, tangled her hand softly in his hair and rested her other against his chest. He took it as a good sign, least he wasn't on the floor.

"Would you tell me a story." It was the best he could do, pretty lame, but still it held her smile and awarded him a nod, "about the beautiful princess that kissed the horny toad."

"And he turned into?"

"A hornier toad." He snuffed out her smile with that remark, but got a piece of it back by smacking a kiss in the air.

"How about," She shifted, pulling her legs out from under him and sliding down beside him, "I tell you about the princess that did more then kiss the horny toad." She swallowed his smile with her lips, not a furious kiss, a lot of little ones that packed more of a punch as she draped her leg over him.

"I should warn you I will still be a toad when you're done." He watched his hand slide over the curve of her hip, dip behind her upper thigh, her hair once again falling over his face, he retraced the smooth lines he'd memorized. "But then you seem to be a horny princess."

This wasn't exactly how he'd planed this, making love was in his agenda, but its place in his well constructed order of things didn't fall until step four, he'd barely grazed step one, he wondered what the damage would be skipping over the first four steps. If he were reconfiguring the phaser array he thought, taking her tongue deeper into his mouth, the results could be deadly...explosive even.

"Hey," he whispered, pulling her mouth from his, "Maybe I should tell you a story?"

"OK," she answered all to quickly, resting her chin on the fisted hand she leaned against his chest.

"I was just bamboozled, wasn't I?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. We can go back to what we were doing."

"No we can't, this is some psychological thing isn't it."

"Yes, yes it is," She smiled one of those female smiles that in thirty three years he hadn't been able to decipher. "I find most of my patients confess their secrets much more readily if I lay on top of them and use only my hands for communication." She lifted her head and waggled her fingers in front of his face.

"You got a long line at your door I bet."

"Just tell me your story, I'll help you, I'll start," As he straightened up against the arm of the couch she shifted her position, settling under his arm, she rested her head against his chest, "Now," she said, "Once upon a time, there was this girl..."

Chapter 32

"The counsel pulled be off of Betazed after only four months," Will stroked his beard thoughtfully. She could sense his apprehension, but not the source, she lifted her head off his chest and silently assured him whatever he had to say she'd understand.

"I hated Betazed, not the planet, maybe not even the natives. It was the way I felt when I was there....antsy, no, expectant," he shook his head, "I don't know, doesn't matter. When the Unification continued to push closer to Earth's defensive grid, they sent me back home."

"And that's where you met her?"

"Shayla." The way he spoke her name sent a chill up her spine, soft and smooth, with almost a reverence, a total contrast to his normally playful tone. "But yea, that's where I met her. You're sure you want to hear this?"

She nodded.

"I'd just turned twenty when I first saw her, she was a singer in one of those high-class south pacific nightclubs, the ones junior officers blow their entire pay on in one night, and then bitch about base food for the other six. I couldn't even see her through the crowd when we first walked in, I just followed her voice, rich and smoky .....I figured anyone that sounded like that had to be the hottest thing to set foot on the islands. I'd painted this picture in my head before I'd pushed my way to the stage." he paused and chuckled nostalgically.


"And," He smiled a lopsided smile and rolled his eyes, " she wasn't five-foot ten with legs up to here. She didn't have a mane of wild auburn curls or smoky blue eyes. I just stood there with my mouth open, looking pretty stupid, staring at this tiny little dark-haired woman that looked like she should be holding pompoms and shouting cheers, instead of kissing a microphone and singing in the sexiest voice I'd ever heard. And then she looked at me, not surprising since I was still standing there gawking at her like she was the biggest disappointment of my life."

The image of a very dashing young man, one who had probably never even looked twice at woman that didn't fit his specifications staring opened mouthed at this poor woman forced her to share his laughter.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing, I couldn't," His eyes shadowed, she could almost see the memories churning behind them. "She had these eyes....Eyes like I'd never seen, and thought I never would again until yo..." He swallowed over the end of his admission, and self-consciously she looked down at his chest.

"I'm sorry," he said, dragging a finger under her chin, gently urging her to look at him, "I didn't mean to compare you, god knows I hate that." Stepping quickly back into captain Riker mode, he wrinkled his brows and resumed the insolent grin she'd learned to expect from him. "Maybe I shouldn't tell stories, I'm not that great at it. And I know," He thumped his thumb against his chest, "I wouldn't want to sit here and listen to you talk about Commander Riker."

"But you would if I needed to tell you."

"Do you...need to?"

"Not yet, but I will if you'll keep going."

"I don't understand women." He swept a hand through his hair and slipped out from under her, "I'll be right back."

She watched him disappear into the bedroom and wondered if that was it, if when he came back, he'd be on a completely different track. She could hear rustling, and the soft hissing of cabinet doors, she tucked her legs underneath her and waited for what seemed an eternity.

"I'm not great with words." he said, stepping back into the room, a wooden box tucked under his arm. "Have you ever seen a black pearl," he asked, opening the worn wooden lid to reveal a velvet lined interior filled with things....memories she assumed. "I don't mean a replicated one, or a cultured one... I mean a real black pearl, the kind you have to risk your life to dive for." She didn't answer him, she only watched him.

"I could probably retire and buy my own planet with what these are worth," He unrolled the shimmering piece of ivory satin he'd pulled from his treasures, scooped up the eight tiny pearls and dumped them in her hand. "Each pearl holds an entire universe inside a fragile shell, just like her eyes......Like you're eyes." Deanna moved her eyes away from the onyx orbs and the layers of iridescent light that seemed to reflect into a depth that surpassed the tiny jewels, and smiled at him.

"There's a power in them," he whispered, "Did you feel it?" Another layer of the man she'd come to know peeled away, exposing a raw vulnerability .....a vulnerability she'd felt only once before, and she found herself drowning in all over again.

"Anyway," he said suddenly, his body snapping to a rigid attention as if he'd just prevented himself from falling, "That's how I felt when she looked at me."

"And you fell in love?" Strangely she found she had to struggle to pull the question out of her throat.

"I did," He crumbled back on the couch like a deflated child, "She thought I was a jerk, she hated the federation and had some dumb-ass policy about never dating military personnel."

"Because of her father?"

"Never found out," He shrugged, "She hated the war, had a lot of pacifist views.....We mixed like fire and water that's for sure."

"But you persevered."

"Oh yea," he chuckled, "I'm sure there were nights she didn't want to go to work, because if was planet side, I was planted at the first table in front of the stage......I spent more credits in those two weeks then I've probably spent since."

Deanna smiled a nostalgic smile of her own, "You obviously outlasted her, I take it this story doesn't end here."

"Yep, she finally agreed to go out with me. She gave me some cock and bull story about how she was waiting for more then lust to show in my eyes......Course I believed her, until months later when she tells me she'd thought I was cute all along." Deanna covered her mouth, failing to nab the laugh that threatened her.

"I didn't think it was funny." he growled through a tongue-in-cheek smile, "but then you would, you're one of them.....females."

"Then you fell in love?"

"Yep, it took awhile, and I'm not sure we'd have ever been used as the poster couple for a perfect relationship.... I was still reckless and driven by the war, and she still hated it....More after we got involved then before I think."

"That makes sense," She watched the shimmering pearls roll from her hand to his and then watched them disappear inside the ivory fabric. "There's a lot memories in that box, all of her?"

"Yea," he said, handing it to her, "Nothing special, not to anyone but me I'm sure."

"What's this?" He tried to snag the yellowed piece of paper from her hand, but she fell back against the other arm of the couch before he could reach her.

"Oh my god," She felt her insides tremble as she only scanned the words on the paper, words she already knew by heart. <<I hold you close to me. Feel the breath of you, the wonder of you and remember a time without yo...>>

"I know it's bad.....I told you I suck with words."

"No, it's not bad," She tried looking over to him a few times, but her eyes continued to dip to the poem, "This is very strange."

"Strange, bad, what different does it m...."

<Bannon to Riker.>

<Riker!> His cool blue eyes darkened, shadowed with a steely cloud of anger that completely consumed the gentle man that had looked at her seconds earlier.

<Mister Riker, > Riker knew Bannon had deliberately dropped his rank in an effort to provoke him. He swallowed his gut reaction. <In my ready-room now. And Mister Riker, since once again you've rewritten the definition of yet another federation regulation, confined to quarters....Bring the damn Betazoid with you.>

"Aye sir, shall we proceed on out own or await an armed escort?" Riker smiled, a dry, nasty smile. His response only the chirp of the terminated transmission.

"Guess your critique of my poetry will have to wait Lieutenant." He glanced at the box that still sat opened on the table and then at Deanna, "Seems my last hands been dealt, and I got shit."


Less then a second before the lift doors opened the shrill siren of the ships alarm enveloped Riker's anger in its steady red pulse.

"Shields up!" The standard order rumbled over his bridge as he lunged onto it....The flickering hull of the decloking warbird shimmered outside the viewport.

"Belay that order lieutenant!" His voice echoed in his ears, mingled with the beating of his heart and the blare of the alarms. He watched Arla's fingers hover over the control.

"Lieutenant Manning," Bannon's face under the ship's lights glowed a deep red, "Carry out my order."

"Don't!" Riker's eyes flashed a blue-gray warning to the young officer, a warning that forced her to move her hand away from the controls. "Commander Merek!" Riker's voice rose above Bannon's angry admonishments, and drew Piper instantly to his side.

"Our Captain doesn't want us to raise our shields."

"Then your captain will be responsible for all your deaths."

"Shut up Admiral," Riker tugged Arla's phaser from the clip at her side, "That warbirds practically kissing our hull......Why the hell do you suppose that is?

CH 33

"Status of the Warbird's shields?" Ignoring Admiral Bannon's heated warnings, Riker moved closer to Piper's station.

"Fully operational."

"Weapon systems?" His voice inaudible to anyone but his acting first officer showed no more emotion then a man asking for the wine list at his favorite restaurant. But then the way he had it figured, he stood a better chance of getting a bad bottle of wine at The Outrigger then engaging the Warbird.

"No weapons," Piper's brows wrinkled, "Their disruptors are off-line, their bays are empty."

"Sure they are." he mumbled under his breath, taking a few steps towards the main viewer. The Warbird, like a panther lying in wait dwarfed the young Banshee captain as he stood under it's flickering image and stroked his beard methodically.

"What you're doing is insane...It's mutiny!"

Riker had silenced the shrill alarm of the red alert, dulling the urgent screech to only a pulsing glow that bathed the silent bridge in only blood-red shadows. Unfortunately he hadn't been able to do the same to the admiral.... And his offensive growls finally cracked through Riker's churning thoughts.

"Get him off my bridge!" He ordered, pivoting around towards the older officer, lunging as he realized the man's intent...But falling short of the communicator he tried to tear from his chest.

"Security to the bridge!"

"Shit!" Too late to stop Bannon from summoning his security chief to the bridge, he still tore the communicator from Bannon's chest and fisted it in an angry.

He shared a look with Troi, then with Piper, then skirted his eyes over the rest of his standard bridge crew.... No one here would question him. Dutch Montgomery was a different story.

"Back us off Arla, nice and slow." The reverse engines purred under his boots, he watched Piper draw her phaser from her side and issued a silent warning.

"They're matching us Sir."

"Like a dog in heat." He shot a look over his shoulder, the Warbird holding on to a perfect distance, a distance wide enough to avoid impact, but not enough to allow the Banshee to fire. Launching any weapons at this range against hundred percent shields would bring the little warship down in a fiery blaze.... Unless they raised their own, and in doing so, Riker knew their own shields would be their destruction.

"Do a little dance Arla, deviate course and speed...Keep em guessing."

"Admiral!" The thunderous voice of his oversized security officer rolled onto the bridge before the man and the two armed ensigns that flanked him.

"Mister Montgomery, arre....."

"Dutch!" Piper, her weapon drawn, interrupted the admiral and stepped in front of Riker. Seldom if ever had Riker seen Dutch hesitate, let alone reveal any facial expression except his stone faced scowl ...But this was shock, pure and simple.

"Don't stop Arla." Still encouraging the young lieutenant, still glancing intermittently at the Warbird that stalked them, he held up two submissive hands. "I know what I'm doing Dutch." There wasn't much more he could say, either the big bloat trusted him or he didn't, either way he wasn't giving up control of his ship.

The two young ensigns, their bodies swaying in response to Arla's gentle maneuvers looked to their commanding officer.... Their commanding office skipped his eyes over the crew of the bridge.

"I'm sorry Admiral," Dutch rumbled, after little less then a moments thought, "If he says he knows what he's doing, then he does."

"Get him off my bridge Dutch," Riker half-smiled.

"To the brig?"

"No, confine him to quarters, put a guard outside his door and disable all Comm systems in his cabin."

"Aye Sir." Riker turned back to the view screen and only listened to the Admirals ranting as he moved of his bridge.

"Troi," Riker said without turning, "Call up the Banshee's shield nutation, over lap with the harmonics we discussed earlier...I'm getting bored." Behind him he heard Troi's soft footfalls, and then the low hum of the schematic screen she accessed, he also heard the more urgent tap of Piper's boots against the deck.

"Captain, we're not ready to try this." Piper leaned so close to him her hair brushed against his beard.

"What do you suggest Commander, a perpetual game of tag until they can call in another bird, a bird that will force us to raise our shields."

"You said yourself that if the..."

"Captain, we're picking up another ship bearing 740 mark 15."

"Another Warbird?" Piper jumped quickly away from Riker's side and leaned over Arla's readouts.

Negative, unknown configuration."

"Great, unknown recruits!" A sharp jerk of Riker's head propelled his nav-officer out of his chair. "Guess you win Commander." Riker said, sliding into the vacated seat.

"The Warbird's scanners are activated, she's going to cloak Captain."

"Why," Riker mumbled to himself, his fingers moving over the controls in front of him, slowing as the green-white shadows of the warbird's cloak clashed with the amber pulse of his screen. "Engage the net.... If they're having a party, we're going to crash it. Tag that other ship Piper, I want to know how many bathrooms they have on every deck."

"Yes Sir," Piper's smile sounded in her voice. He chuckled to himself as he increased the Banshee's speed. Hopefully with the amplification process that was churning in the belly of the Romulan's weapons hold, out flying her should be a piece of cake.

"The other ship is badly damaged."

"An easier target," Riker grumbled, "No wonder they left us. How bad?" he added as an after thought.

"Severe damage to the exterior hull, warp field coils in the starboard Narcel are bleeding back into the matter-antimatter chamber." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Piper pull her hair away from her face and lean even closer to her screen, "Weapons at ten percent."

"How about their shields?"

"Their dumping all they got left into em...forty percent."

"Too much, relay a transmission, use an alpha code scramble, tell em to drop their shields and play dead." Riker jerked the ship up before he heard Troi's gasp behind him, and held up a silencing hand.. using his other he leaned the banshee hard to port and used a thruster boast to ensure his ship arrived before the Warbird.

"Shit...Piper!" The crack of Troi's head as it struck the metal ledge beside his controls sent him to his knees beside her as Piper took over navigation.


"Captain, they're not responding!"

"Intercept, bring us in right over their heads... If they don't respond...Fire on em, target their shields.... Very carefully." he added, grimacing as Troi raised a hand to the blood that dripped from her forehead. "I'm sorry, you OK?"

Her eyes blurry, she nodded and groaned slightly as he helped her to her feet, "Captai."

"Not now Lieutenant," he cautioned, jerking his head to his science officer, "Ensign, take the lieutenant into my ready-room, take care of that cut."

Troi resisted the ensigns hand as they wrapped gently around her arm, "Captain please."

"Sir, the ship is firing on us!"

"Jerks, that's gratitude for ya...Return fire." The Banshee bridge barely rumbled under the crippled ship's weak phaser burst. In Contrast, the Banshee's answer lit up the bridge with a pulse of blue-white light; he shot a look to his ready-room and shook his head as Troi continued to argue with the ensign. He couldn't tell under the flutter of lights that drizzled their shadows over her face whether she was delirious from the welt that was growing on her forehead, or angry with him for sending her away.

"Their shields are down Sir."

Riker eyed the unfamiliar ship and the extensive damage visible with only the naked eye, and wondered if this was worth it. "Net the ship, drop us down and back...Lock in these coordinates." He tapped the panel in front of her and watched the blurred figures clear on the onyx screen. "And be prepared to shove everything we got up the Warbirds ass." Piper flashed a vindictive smile that mirrored his own feelings as she transferred her commands into the Banshee's computer.

"Captain?" Arla's voice, compassionate as always, held a childlike question.

"Don't worry, we'll launch, come around and extend our shields.... They'll be fine, whoever the hell they are." Riker leaned both his hands against the back of Piper's chair and braced himself.

"Now Commander!" he barked, before the first flicker of the Romulan ship breached the black space, hoping that first shot would crawl up their ass before she raised her shields. The Banshee rattled under the first volley, he waited for Piper to re-launch before ordering the ship down and away, bringing her up behind the rolling hull of the damaged ship.

"Extend shields!"

The Warbird, more explosive then he'd considered, sparked orange, then red and exploded almost before his shields had engulfed the unknown. He monitored the injured ships warp core, sticking his neck out for them was one thing, but hanging himself was another. This wasn't exactly what he'd wanted to happen.... He wanted to prove his theory, spit the Warbird's own venom back in its face.

"Our shields are down to sixty percent." Piper's warning went unnoticed by the Captain of the warship, gripping the chair with sweaty palms he rolled with the debris that tackled his ship and studied the scared shell through narrowed eyes.

"The other ship is hailing us Captain?" Arla said on a staggered breath, he could see the relief on her face before he turned to face her.

"Now they want to talk...On screen." The view screen rippled and blurred, finally a fuzzy image of a man replaced the receding debris that dotted the outside space. Riker stepped closer, "Admiral?" he said, grinning at the choppy, but familiar face on the viewer.

"This is captain Jean-Luc Picard of the federation starship enterprise."

Riker choked on his standard greeting and shot a look to Piper, her eyes smoky with caution.

"They're not getting a visual Captain."

"I'm captain Wil..." He cut himself off. "You look to be in pretty bad shape Enterprise." he finally said, putting everything he had into holding his composure as this Captain's first officer stepped in beside him.

"I think we owe you a thank-you." Picard continued, "To whom am I speaking?" Captain Riker reacted to the low hiss of the ready-room doors as if a bomb had been dropped behind him.

"Captain," Deanna practically ran across the bridge to stand beside him.

"They've got audio only." Will somehow managed to say, more interested in the shared look of this Enterprise Captain and the all too familiar first officer.

"Deanna?" Commander Riker stepped almost in front of Picard, "Deanna is that you?"

"Will." She returned on an unsteady breath before stepping closer to the screen.

"Arla, "Riker turned away, long strides bringing him beside the slender blond, "See if you can boost their transmission."

"Damn sexy first officer," He heard Piper move in beside him, and for once he wished she'd keep her glib remarks to herself...Too much to wish for. "And you were so close to picking out china patterns."

"Shut-up Commander." His snapped warning took Piper down faster then he'd ever thought possible...She opened her mouth, stumbled over an apology, but he didn't hear it, he was too busy listening to the conversation behind him.

"I got it Captain." Arla announced just as Troi had come up behind him and taken him by the upper arm.

"Captain," she said, "This is Captain William Riker." She tugged him closer to the screen, stopping in the center of the bridge. In that instant he was relieved to see he wasn't the only one struggling to hold on to his composure. Captain Picard only nodded, Commander Riker's chin raised as if readying himself for a blow to the jaw.

"He saved my life." Troi added, her hand still holding his arm, her other joined it and squeezed gently. His eyes dropped to hers, her smile, heartfelt and uninhibited bribed him to return one.

"It seems we all owe you Captain Riker." Picard observed, his voice strained but achieving some degree of balance.

"My pleasure." Riker replied, using Troi's touch and the restless shiftings of Commander Riker to recover his usual presence. "She's been quite an asset to my crew." He flashed another smile to Troi and moved a step closer, pleased when she stayed by his side. "But with all due respect Captain Picard.... What the hell are you doing here?" Riker's question was directed to the starship captain, but his frigid blue stare targeted only Commander Riker.

"It's a long story I'm afraid Captain."

"I'd like to hear it Captain Picard. My crew will be happy to help yours with repairs to your ship. Perhaps you could transport over here, fill me in."

Certainly Captain," Picard nodded, "Counselor, I'm sure Doctor Crusher would like to see you."

Riker felt Troi's posture straighten beside him, the Captain's innocent request pulling through his heart like a dagger of fire.

"Actually Captain, if it's all right, I'd like to remain on the Banshee."

Riker had a hunch the dagger that had embedded itself in his chest had traveled through the vacuum of space and lodged in Commander Riker's heart. He tried not to let his relief or his gloating smile bleed into his somber expression.

Riker glanced one more time at the image he'd transferred to his Comm-screen, and smiled briefly before deactivating it. Downing the rest of his whiskey, he eyed the chronometer, then tapped the communicator still adhered to the uniform he'd draped over the arm of his chair.

"Riker to Merek?" He kept his voice soft and stared at the swirled lines of his cabin ceiling waiting a response.


"Did I wake you?"


"Why not, it's late?"

"Is something wrong?" Her voice shifted to full alert. Riker inhaled a breath to assure her, another voice, definitely not hers, not female at all sounded in the background.

<Shit, > "Never mind, I'm fine...good night." He cut the transmission and flopped back in his chair, mentally replaying the male's voice, trying to place it.

The chimes to his quarters sounded, repositioning his robe he dragged himself out of his chair as the doors slid open. "Piper...How the hell did you do that?" He glimpsed at his communicator then back to the winded and tousled young woman that now leaned against the closed doors.

"I was afraid something was wrong." She tightened the silk tie of her bathrobe and pulled at the hem, tugging the turquoise fabric down as far as it would go.

"You didn't have to come over here, and you could have dressed." His eyes slid up the mile and a half of legs her robe didn't cover. "You're like a mother hen."

She stepped around him, still fighting to keep the flimsy piece of silk over her ass, an action Riker didn't quite understand, but found amusing. His chuckle drew the eyes that were studying his cabin to his, where they afforded him the same discriminating look.

"Where's your perky little sidekick?" she asked, glancing towards the bedroom and pulling the empty bottle of whiskey off the desk, "Are you drunk?"

"On the Enterprise, and no." He slouched onto the couch. "You can go back home, I know you were entertaining." He wasn't sure whose voice he'd just heard, but the dose of poison he heard in his simple statement hadn't come from him.

He followed her legs with his eyes as she strolled to the couch and sat cross-legged on the other end of the couch.

"Does that bother you?"

"Why do you keep doing that?" he asked, watching her once again fidget with her robe, "I've seen it all before."

"You are drunk...Why do you get snippy when you drink?"

"You don't see me worrying about it," he untied his robe, slipped it over his shoulders and held out his arms, exposing all there was to expose.

"You're an ass-hole," she said flatly as she stood up, "I'm going, call me when you sober up."

"Captain ass-hole to you bitch!" He had no idea why he was being mean to her, why everything he'd said to her since she'd killed herself to come over here held a nasty bite...Hell, she was probably the only person he wasn't mad at.

She hesitated in the open doorway, biting her lip and squinting her eyes as if she'd just been issued the universe's most challenging puzzle. He slung his robe back over his shoulders and kicked his legs out on the couch, closing his eyes on her and the silver hull of the starship that flickered outside his viewport. He heard the doors hiss shut and opened his eyes slowly.

"What's wrong with you Will." His eyes widened when they met with hers, his hair rustled against the fabric of the couch as he shook his head. "Why did she leave?" Piper knelt on the floor beside him.

"Her captain's orders, she left with him."

"Then she had to go." He could tell every consoling word she was offering him was being drawn unwillingly from some compassionate compartment in her heart she'd have loved to slam the door on.

"You're the most beautiful, sexy woman I've ever known...I mean that." There wasn't a lot of spirit in his voice; in fact he sounded like he was reading off the duty roster.... However, he did mean it.

"That was the flattest compliment I've ever gotten. I'm not sure where it came from, but I'm positive I don't want to know."

"Any man would fall in love with you, I should have." Her lips pursed, her nose wrinkled, her expression looked as if she'd just sucked the juice of a Mnarian bita-fruit. Something in his gut told him the look wasn't because he'd just admitted to her he wasn't in love with her.

"This is pitiful," she said, bumping his legs with her hip, forcing him to make room for her to sit down on the couch, "I never realized how much of your sex-appeal stemmed from your obnoxious overconfidence."

"I have a daughter you know."

It took almost a full minute for her to respond, he figured she was processing each of the six words one by one.

"Your married!" She jumped off the edge of the couch as if the cushion under her had just gone up in flames.

"No, but I just thought you should know that."

It wasn't often Piper considered her words before she said them, but from the far away look in her eyes it appeared she was mentally reciting and tossing out anything that came to her.

"Should I ask about her?" She sat back down, "Or her mother?"

"No, that won't be necessary."

"Are you doing this to me because I had sex with Ensign Maynard?"

"Ensign May." He bit back his flip comment. Piper looked disappointed.

"Because there's another more animated you on that other starship?" She half-smiled and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

"I haven't met him yet, but all things considered, I'm sure he's a hell of a guy."

"I heard a little ego in there, keep reachin Captain."

He hadn't wanted to, but the smile he'd tried to contort into a frown resisted his attempt. "OK Piper you win, I had one too many shots, way too many words with that stuffy captain Picard.. I was pissed when Troi went back to the Enterprise and more pissed when I heard you with another man.. Or should I say boy." He chuckled dryly.

The slick retort he'd already prepared a response for never came, instead she folded her arms across her chest and speared him with that look, that I'm not sure I agree with that order look.

"You know what I think," she said, nodding her head repeatedly, "I don't think you had too much to drink, I don't think you're pissed about me, lieutenant Troi, Captain Picard or his studly first officer.I think you're plotting, and what you're plotting is gnawing at you.Why, what did Picard say?"

He inhaled a breath and exhaled with a defeated growl. "Picard said nothing. He wants me to meet with someone named Data, a machine, an android I guess."

Piper laughed softly, "Bet you're looking forward to that, considering you can't even get along with our ship's computer."

"I'm going to get along with this one just so I can get on that ship. I've been doing a little research into her science and research systems while they're over there diddling around with repairs. If we had that technology, we could dissect that holographic planet without setting foot on it."

"I know this would never occur to you," she said, climbing over his leg, positioning herself between them, "But why don't you ask them?"

"I did," he hesitated while she tried to find a place for her legs. When she finally kicked them out in front of her and rested them on his stomach, he continued, "It violates the Prime Directive."

"The what?"

"Some dumb ass policy in my opinion they violated when they decided to step over into my turf."

"Why are they here?"

"It was an accident.. God You have big feet?"

"Like Lieutenant Troi's?"

He decided instantly even if she was talking about feet he would address the earlier topic. "Something like that.Whatever the Unification is up to is affecting their sector, disrupting the event horizon, destabilizing the gate. Their mission is only to eradicate the cause, involving themselves in a war would violate regulation 157, Section III, Paragraph eighteen." He rolled his eyes and shook his head in disgust.

"My feet aren't that big," she studied the foot she'd pulled to her chest, "What about Troi, she knows what were up against, maybe she'll talk to her captain."

"She's the one that flipped me off with this prime directive crap." The deep seeded anger he'd managed to contort into every emotion but dripped off his every word.

"Why," Her interest in her foot ended abruptly, "I don't believe that."

"Believe it," He ran a harsh hand through his hair several times, warding off the kick in the stomach that continued to strike him, "I'm tellin ya, Picard walked into that room and she just.Well shit I didn't even know who the hell she was."

"Did you confront her?"

"Not yet, I'm not sure I'm going to. There's a lot more at stake here then my bruised ego." He shrugged. "Maybe she did what any of us would do offered a chance to leave this shit-hole quadrant.. I'm sure her life was a whole hell of a lot better there then it's been here." She ducked as he flung his leg over her head and pushed off the couch. <Or maybe something on that holo-planet scared her, > he thought, staring at the blue-black gases of the Nebula that lapped like waves against the hull of the Enterprise.

"Maybe you're right Piper," he said suddenly, "Maybe I am letting my emotions cloud my judgment."

"I never said that, I don't care if you like Troi."

"Get dressed."

"Why, where are we going?"

"We're not going anywhere," he said, taking long determined strides into the bedroom, "You are," he continued after he'd returned, a bottle of Magarin Spring in his fist.

"You want me to get her drunk?"

Piper's unusually fragile expression would have brought a smile to his face if it weren't for what he was going to ask her to do. "This isn't an order." He accentuated the point by kissing her softly on her cheek.

"Oh God, what am I going to do?" she asked, massaging the spot he'd kissed as if it burned.

"I want you to tell her every graphic detail of your stay in the prison camp."

"I can't do that Will."

"I don't think you'll have to, I think she knows, and from firsthand experience."

Chapter 34

At breakneck speed Riker could make it from the lift to transporter room two in nine long strides.... At a normal pace he'd clocked himself at about 12 steps, he figured on his hands and knees he could still make in less then 15 seconds, and yet now walking beside Piper he was certain it was taking at least several hours.

He returned the sidelong glance she sent him, her eyes partially hidden behind the burnished strands of hair feathered over them, he could still see her trepidation. His arm draped loosely over her shoulder he watched his hand move with her slow strides, and eyed the deep black and blue bruise that peeked out from under the cuff of his uniform. A bruise that by now should be nothing more then an ugly yellow-green smudge on his wrist.

In the desolate corridor, under the Banshee's bland night lighting the door to the transporter room cracked through it like a rumble of thunder and a bolt of lightening.

He stopped Piper. "Forget it Piper, you're not going."

She didn't protest, she didn't look shocked, she just looked at him... Looked at him with eyes that held dark memories in their depths like unshed tears. He'd brought that look to her eyes once before, he'd be damned if he was going to live with it again. "I'll handle this myself."

"Captain?" The surprised voice from inside the transporter room was followed by the dry thump of boots against the transport control pedestal. He turned quickly, his own version of surprise obscuring his features with shadows of suspicion.

"Ensign Maynard?" He didn't flinch under the severe pinch Piper offered his arm, snide remarks weren't in his agenda...Finding out why a member of Alpha-shift was manning a station that shouldn't even be manned at this time of night was. "What are you doing here ensign?"

Riker wasn't sure if the ensigns brief hesitation was because he was holding him with such a hard gaze or because Piper happened to be attached to his arm. "Ensign?"

"Waiting for Lieutenant Troi Sir, I thought you knew."

"Excuse me... Lieutenant Troi is beaming over here?" Maynard's rigid attention faltered; his hazel eyes dusted by disheveled hair dipped to the floor.

"No Sir, she's onboard, she said she wanted to see you."

For a half second Riker's adrenaline surged. The half second it took him to realize that Maynard had been pulled out of bed to initiate this transport, and he knew whose bed and how long ago. "And you're waiting for her to come back?"

"Yes Sir, she said she wouldn't be long, but that was over an hour ago. I was just about to contact you." He tipped his head towards the communication he'd already opened and nodded a few times.

"Ensign." Riker slurred the title, enough of a warning to let the young man know he held his rank in the palm of his hand, "Did it ever occur to you to clear this with a superior officer?" Riker felt a burn, the same burn of sympathy he always got when he put the visual screws to a young officer...Even after years of command he remembered well being where Maynard was at this moment.

Of course he hadn't Piper. He felt the burn cool as she stepped around in front of him; beautiful defender of all junior officer...he wondered how many times she'd played this part since serving on his ship.

"With all due respect Captain." Never once when she'd uttered those word had he heard anything that slightly resembled respect. With a concerted effort he stopped his lips from twitching, revealing the smile behind his reprimanding glare. "Lieutenant Troi IS Ensign Maynard's superior officer, that was made clear by you when you instructed the crew to afford her the rights and privileges of any member of your crew."

Touché.> he thought, his lips thinning into a nasty sneer. He glared at her for what he considered a reasonable amount of time, then relented, not nicely, but it was all he could do.

"Commander Merek has a point.... But under the circumstances I'm going to suggest from now on you don't take it upon yourself to make decisions like this without speaking to the first officer," His nasty sneer contorted into a nasty smile, "She's almost always available to the junior officers."

The look in her eyes, a rolling slate-gray like the sky before he opens up and threatens the ground with electric fire and icy rain was all the satisfaction he needed, behind his mask of serious reprimand he was certain Piper could hear his internal chuckle.

"Computer," he said, "locate any non-personnel onboard the Banshee." He hadn't asked the ensign, but he had to assume she'd striped off the uniform they'd given her and jumped right into the nicely tailored Enterprise standard.

"Only crew of the warship Banshee are onboard."

He shared a look with Piper, unable to suppress the crooked smile that ached to break over his face. His inward satisfaction awarded him Piper's rolled eyes and a slow shaking of her head.

"Locate Lieutenant Troi." He asked, before she vocalized her irritated look.

"Lieutenant Troi is in sickbay."

Piper's steps towards the exit, way too determined combined with the long fingers she clenched into fists at her sides prompted him to snag her by the upper arm.

"Ensign, stay here." With his free hand he gestured towards the console, his gaze followed his movement and froze. "And no one gets on or off this ship without my permission." he added, warding off the icy needles being thrust at him from inside his chest.

He didn't, or couldn't wait for a confirmation... Piper, out of his grasp was on her way out the doors. He caught her halfway down the corridor.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." he said, "You go to your quarters and go to bed." She opened her mouth. "Or I'll use that word you hate so much." He said it with a smile and watched her shoulders droop...She nodded, but a little too quickly. He took two steps towards the lift, all the time he needed to remember how many times he'd been caught on that technicality.

"That's an order Commander," he called over shoulder, taking long strides and using the closing lift doors as a shield against the acid darts she lunched at him.


The holo-Med programs shut down; the corridor to sickbay was only vaguely lit and hushed in a cold silence that always reminded him of the morgue, aside from an activated sickbay, his least favorite place on the ship. He slowed as he approached the opened exit, the pearly blue lights from inside pulsing lacy shadows on the cool white walls.

He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, watching her, her hair shimmering blue under the screen light she sat in front of. From where he stood he couldn't see what she was studying so closely. But either it was so important it had killed her ability to sense him, or she didn't care that he was there.

"Hey." His voice barely above a whisper still caused her to jump practically out of her chair, "Interesting reading?"

"Captain," Her hand tapping against a heart he had no doubt was beating out of her chest, she eyed him from head to toe as he held his position in the doorway, "You scared me to death."

"The guilty tend to startle easily." Using the manual controls he accessed the lights and pushed up his sleeves.

"Guilty.... I'm not guilty."

"Then what are you?" He knelt in front of her and rested his arms on her knees...The readouts on the screen weren't important, he had a hunch he knew what they were.

"You're an uninvited guest on my ship." Avoiding her eyes wasn't difficult; she afforded him only intermittent glances, her attention continuing to zero in on his bruised arm. "It has a twin on my shoulder." he added, "But you know that?"

"I'm hurting you," she said, "I don't want to." Her thumb, frail and delicate in contrast with his skin stroked repeatedly over his wrist.

"I know that," he said, sucking in a breath he was sure never entered his lungs. He stood up and glanced at the DNA screen, purposely not studying it. His mind focusing only on the image of opulent onyx he'd generated with his thoughts. He turned his back to her. "Computer initiate holo-doctor, program 1"

The computer complied. With the soft ivory light and the hum of activation, he turned back to Troi before Doctor Beverly Howard shimmered into view.

"I don't think so." He said calmly, ignoring the phaser she held in an unsteady hand, "An impossible command, Cold blooded murder." He reached for the phaser, it clattered to the floor, and he caught her empty hand instead.

"Will?" For less then an instant he looked into her eyes, obsidian soldiers and crusaders of light depicting her internal battle across wide frightened eyes.

"Sedate her doctor."

Troi, mentally stronger then he'd thought hardly struggled as Beverly Howard pressed the hypo-spray against her neck. Her body crumbled over the arm he'd latched around her, he used his other to scoop her off the floor. He laid her on the closest bio-bed, amazed that the overly opinionated holo-fireball followed him in silence to the bed.

"Induce coma." His order, assertive and settled was contrasted by the soft stroke of his hand as he brushed Deanna's hair away from her cheeks.

One arm folded across his stomach supporting his other elbow, he stroked his beard and watched the monitors flicker above her bed. "Why is there still so much brain activity?" The amber lights drizzled softly over Deanna's cheeks, giving a deceiving blush to her ashen skin.

"I don't know, there shouldn't be." Doctor Howard's tricorder moved over his line of vision.

"Can you deepen the coma?"

He watched her hand tighten around her tricorder, heard a mumbled profanity, but no objection.

"I would feel much better about this," she said, administering another hypo-spray and toying with the controls on the med-scanner. "If you'd explain yourself."

Riker heard, not saw the slowing of the readouts and watched the movement of Deanna's eyes behind closed lids follow suit.

"There, are you satisfied."

"I'll let you know in a minute."

"What does that me.."

<Maynard to Captain Riker.>

"I'm satisfied now doctor," he said, lightly tapping his communicator, "Riker. Go head ensign."

<Captain I ...>

"Just noted the transport warning." Riker compassionately finished the Ensign's admission.

<I don't know how I missed it Sir, Lieutenant Troi's trace patter...>

"Doesn't fit our record scan?"

"Yes Sir?"

"It's all right Ensign." Riker assured, "Could have happened to anybody, you weren't thinking clearly." He met Doctor Howard's chilly stare and listened as the ensigns labored breathing slowed just a hair.

"No Sir, I wasn't Sir, but I..."

"Ensign, we'll discuss it later... right now I want the transport signature from Captain Picard relayed to the bridge...Riker out." He cut the communication before the bemused young man could ask any further questions and arched his brows at the doctor.

"What is going on?" she said on cue.

"I have no idea," he said with a shrug, back-stepping towards the exit of sickbay, "Maybe you can tell me." He tipped his head towards the readouts Deanna had been studying and stepped outside before she could cross-examine.

"Computer, seal all doors to sickbay.... Captain's voice authorization release." Behind his long strides he heard the computer's response and the vacant hum of the doors engaging.

"All Senior staff to the bridge!" he ordered, stepping into the lift, "Gamma alert protocol!" The silent alarm, the warning a ship used when they wanted to keep their fears and suspicions away from the predators outside.

"Bridge." he grumbled under his breath, further tousling his disheveled hair with a swipe of his hand. Troi, he thought, leaning with a thud against the lift wall. How long has she been like this, since the beginning, or only since returning from the planet? The scans in sickbay were evolutionary scans; the fluctuating swirls on the screen an unreadable pattern to him, one he hoped doctor Howard could figure out. If she was being affected like the Betazoid they'd found evidence for on the Pegasus bridge, it meant he wasn't hundred's of years from the future, but from their own time. Which also meant someone was using something to accelerate their telepathic ability.... The someone he had in mind had pointed ears and was in dire need of a barber.

Delta shift snapped to attention as their captain appeared on the bridge at this unusual hour of the day.

"Captain." The sandy-haired Commander operating his station jumped quickly to his feet...Riker afforded him only a nod and slid into his chair, tugging his screen in front of him. "Infiltrators." Riker mumbled what he'd already suspected as he viewed Picard's pattern.

"Hail the Enterprise." he ordered, just as the lift doors opened and his command crew strode determinedly onto the bridge. The smooth transition as Delta shift left and Alpha replaced them delayed his order by only a breath. He swiveled his screen towards Piper as she sat down on the edge of her chair. He shared a brief look with her before he stood in response to the face that shimmered onto the view screen. Then, a look was all it would take.

<Captain Riker, how may we help you? >

He didn't recognize the face on the screen, but with his metallic skin tone and golden eyes it didn't take a mastermind to figure it out.

"Commander Data, I'm sorry to be contacting you so late...or early as the case may be." <Stay loose Riker. > he warned himself, stopping himself from literally shaking the tension from his arms and shoulders.

"It's not a problem Sir, I do not require sleep...How can I assist you?"

"We'd like to get your shields back up as soon as possible.... Not safe out here without them." He smiled and hesitated at the sound of Piper's nails drumming on the console. He didn't have to turn. "We're having some problems incorporating our technology with yours, if we could run a quick scan I'd like to get my engineers right on it."

"Of course Captain," Data replied, after a brief hesitation.... A hesitation that had caused sweat to form on Riker's back.

"Thank-you." He offered his insincere gratitude after he heard the warble of Arla's scan, and cut the transmission.

He spun around, waiting as Piper and Arla studied the screen. Piper looked up and nodded.

"Shields Up!"

"Captain," Piper was beside him in a heartbeat, reminding him of the obvious, playing her role as first officer even though he knew her gut instincts were in sync with his, "We don't know if it's all of them."

"It's good enough for me...Load torpedo bays Dutch.... Fire when ready!"


Chapter 35

Riker folded his arms over the back of the chair he straddled and rested his chin against them. His eyelids heavy, they continued to droop over eyes he drifted methodically between Doctor Howard and Lieutenant Troi.

"Talk to me doc or I'll be floating in never-never land like Troi." With a trace movement he leaned his head in the direction of the deeply sedated Betazoid, the only indication that she was alive the rhythmic blips on the screen above her.

Howard looked away from the PADD in her hand, biting the end of the key-wand she'd been using. "I don't know," she said, removing the wand from her mouth and tapping it softly against the metal table that lined the wall below the display screen, "If I knew for sure that the anatomy of a Betazoid from her time was the same has here I'd speculate."

"Speculate anyway, anything's better then staring at the top of your head." He glared at the wand she was tapping until the sharp little hologram got his silent message and stopped.

"The Betazoid telepathic lope is the paracortex...a biochemical, psilosynine acts as a neurotransmitter." She stopped and wrinkled her nose.... another silent message received; he didn't care how the Betazoid brain worked.

"OK, try this Captain...Hers isn't." Her eyes drifted over her shoulder, Riker's followed. "From my scans it appears her brain has developed a separate telepathic cortex. I've never seen anything like it in any of the lifeforms I've encountered."


"Because," she answered, "Something like this would take millions of years of evolution, and unless her species of Betazoid has been around a hell of a lot longer then ours then..." her words lapsed into an exasperated breath that dusted over the hair on Riker's forehead.

"Is it dangerous to her?" He stood up and walked lethargically to Deanna's bed.

"If it's not natural ...Yes, definitely."

"I'm sure it's not natural if her pattern trace shifted enough to evoke a warning. Which means something happened to her on that damned Enterprise." He wiped a hand over his mouth and shook his head at the sleeping woman, wishing he could see what she was seeing in the muddy trenches of her unconscious, know whatever it was she'd found out while she was on that Romulan ridden Enterprise. "If it's not suppose to be there, can you remove it?"

"Not without killing her." With what Will deemed a maternal hand Howard adjusted the thin blanket that draped over Deanna's body. "I could however," she said, "Use a neuroimplant to deaden the stimulus." He could see her eyes flashing before they looked up at him.

"Then do it!" He shouted, his voice ripping the cobwebs from his brain like an angry gust of wind.

"I'd be severing all her abilities," she said cautiously, "That would be a bit like me taking your sight or your hearing or your obnoxious overconfidence." Her mouth twitched into a smile, she stunned it quickly by biting her lip.

"I don't care," he said, pretending he hadn't noticed her smug remark, "I know her, she'd rather be awake and in control."

"That may be another problem Captain, you theorized to me earlier that you thought she was being used.... If that's the case, and we break that link we may be sending an alert."

"Yea I know." He stepped back as if distancing himself from the form on the bed would somehow make his decision easier. As the captain the decision *was* easy; forcing his adversary to show its hand was the only option. But the damn foolish man that seldom surfaced insisted on making his presence known... the coward that couldn't live with another death on his conscience.

He stared down on her for along time, "What was she studying so intently?" Obvious question, one he'd only used to stall.

"I don't know, I haven't had time to study the screen."

"Do it!" Sharp and bitter he'd expected his angry order to ignite that nasty temper that always seemed to be brewing under her catlike eyes. He braced himself for only the soft tapping of her boots as she moved to the screen. Somehow all the doctor's calm compassion engendered in him was escalated panic.

"This is odd." She answered so quickly he wondered if he should have picked up on it.

"What is it?"

"These aren't her scans, they're scans of the Enterprise crew." She fisted her hands and plunged them in the pockets of her lab-coat, "The Romulans? The ones you blew up without a thought."

She always spoke like a crusader of peace, for a hologram he figured that was easy. But he often wondered if the real Doctor Howard thought the same way, find away to only stun them, take all our enemies into stasis until we can reason with them. Inwardly he cringed, choosing not to reenact that argument for the thousandth time. "She must have known."

"Mm," she mumbled several times, enough to make him want to shake her. "But that's not the odd part." She punched a few buttons, the swirling lines on the screen contorting into black and white outlines, outlines that pulsed over the display. "These are Romulan, their DNA is ALMOST identical to the ones we know." She enhanced and colored only a certain part of the screen, "But these Romulans show evidence of the same kind of telepathic cortex as Troi... Smaller, undeveloped, but the potential is there."

"And that means what doctor?"

"It means that these Romulan's have evolved from a completely different DNA pool then the ones we're used to encountering. I believe" she said thoughtfully, "That these Romulan's are from her time."

"It would make sense," His faraway response was spoken only for his own benefit. An attempt to alleviate the same dark foreboding terror that had chilled his heart earlier when he'd realized the Enterprise crew had been infiltrators. Doctor Howard continued to explain, but his thoughts were elsewhere; theorizing, plotting, fearing a war that had moved beyond the confines of Alpha quadrant and overlapped time. Everything became clearer, the overwhelming arsenal of power the Unification possessed, the negative sonar-waves he was certain they were using as a weapon, and the recent activity along the Devil's gate... But what didn't become clearer was Deanna Troi. What possible advantage could one tiny Betazoid give an alliance has threatening as the one they now faced.

"Wake her up." He demanded, "I don't care what you have to do to keep her safe, but I want her awake and talking in one hour!"

Chapter 36

<ETA to the Devil's gate three hours twenty-seven minutes Captain. > Riker returned a response to Commander Merek and severed his link to the bridge, flinching slightly as Howard pressed a stimulant infused hypo-spray into his inner arm with a less then gentle hand.

"This in no way will compensate for the sleep you're determined to deprive yourself of."

"Yea, yea." He waved her warning off with a loose hand before using it to massage the tingling spikes of pain in his arm.

He watched Howard settle into her chair behind her desk. Behind her, through the open door, he could see Lieutenant Troi sitting cross-legged on the bio-bed, her hands massaging her thighs, her normally polished hairstyle nothing more then a loose braid hanging down her back; she looked more like a frightened teenager then the controlled woman he'd come to know.

"Tell me what you think," he said, "I don't want to leave her alone in there too long."

"I'm not sure what to think, but I do know something is, or was stimulating the increased activity of her telepathic lope."

"Very astute doctor," he snapped sarcastically, "Jesus I could have called that one... I want to know what, why and how!"

"Unlike the rest of your crew Captain." Doctor Howard inhaled a breath, composed and calm and infuriating. "I do not bow to the belief that in the beginning god created Riker and designed the rest of the universe around him. I'll do what I can, when I can, and right now I'm more concerned about my patient's mental well being."

"That's kinda what this is about doc, don't ya think."

"No I don't. You're driving force is this ship, not a single woman.... You'd sacrifice her in a heartbeat if it meant saving this scrape of metal." Doctor Howard's cold, well calculated attack, one step over the line they'd both drawn for each other cut through his chest like a jagged piece of steel.

"Computer discontinue Doctor Howard." The nasty redhead disappeared before his garbled emotions and the stimulant that surged through his body collided and escalated into an angry storm. Unfortunately, the holo's disappearance put him eye to eye with Deanna, and even at this distance he found himself falling into the tranquil universe, the palekaiko that lie in the onyx pearls. He hesitated for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists as if he could pump his feelings for her out of his body and replace them with the icy cold captain doctor Howard had referred to.

He'd already tried talking to her, his pressing need for answers taxing his patience and flaring his temper. He was sure each angry word he'd spat at her had caused him more pain then it had her. At least he hoped so.

Lieutenant," he said before he'd stood up, "Let's try this again."

"Will, I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too," he said, sitting on the edge of the bed, "Sorry this is happening to you, and sorry you didn't trust me enough to tell me." What had begun as a sincere apology ended with the same biting hurt he'd been feeling since he'd found out.

"I thought they were dreams, distorted memories, I didn't become aware of the reality of it until we got to the planet and I saw the bruises on your wrist and shoulder in the mountain. And even then I wanted to believe it was a coincidence."

"But you admit you deliberately used this new found talent on Ensign Maynard to get on this ship?" The hand she'd begun moving towards his fell still on her leg.

"I had to when I found the Enterprise crew wasn't what they seemed.... I was going to tell you when I was certain."

"I believe that." He picked up her hand... Strange, even with all the tension inside him he saw her shoulders relax with his touch. "What I don't believe...Or understand," he emended, "Is why you can't remember anything, like why or when this happened to you."

"Doctor Howard says it's all in my mind somewhere... She thinks the dreams I've been projecting to you are my brains way of dealing with it. I'm sorry."

"It's all right." He found he was smiling at her. "If anybody's going to use me as a punching bag I'd just as soon it was you." He chuckled to himself, visualizing Commander Boris Carlyle, his instructor in interrogation tactics at the academy frowning at his emotional lapse.

"Thanks Captain, I know how you feel about this ship and I know I'm a risk."

"I like risk...a lot." He considered kissing her, then he considered backing away from the warm breath that tickled over his beard, and then he considered it all over again. Troi made the decision for him.

"Maybe we're tackling this wrong," she said, scooting away from him and leaning against the wall behind the bed, "Maybe we should try looking at what I know instead of focusing on what I don't."

Riker's to kiss or not to kiss was soon forgotten. "I'm game...What do you know?"

"I know that that wasn't the Enterprise."

"Deanna." He'd danced around this subject as best he could, he wondered if she understood that infiltrated victims were usually killed.

"I'm sure it wasn't the real Enterprise, it's the reason I became suspicious and ran a DNA sweep of the crew." She certainly looked convinced, color returned to her cheeks, excitement tinted her voice. He wasn't about to take that away. He nodded, hiding his reluctance.

At first he listened. Then only half listened. Commander Riker's missing Horga'hn, a different kind of fish swimming in Picard's ready-room and a missing flute wasn't enough to convince him that the Romulan's had replicated an entire ship. <But then again. > he thought, watching her mouth move but not hearing anything she was saying, <They did pull off an elaborate charade to get them to this Enterprise in the first place. >

"We didn't detect a pilot on your shuttle when we pulled you out of the gate." He blurted it out as it occurred to him. She looked a little stunned. "You insisted there was a pilot, remember?"

"There was a pilot... after seeing my flying skills you must believe that."

"But there wasn't...not alive or dead."

"Meaning what?" she said a little indignantly.

"Meaning maybe you, your helpless situation was just as much a pretense has our encounter with the Warbird."

"So I'm a spy again?"

"Of course not," he answered as soon as he realized she wasn't following him and with her empathic sense off-line she couldn't read him either. "I'm not sure I ever believed that," he added with a lopsided grin. "A lot a weird shit has happened since you came onboard though, I don't think it's a coincidence."

"Isn't that a contradiction?"

"Deanna." He leaned over her and lowered his head so his eyes were level with hers. "I'm angry," he hesitated, "But not for any of the reasons I should be."

For a lot of people that admission would have been nothing, but for Riker it was like... "Suicide-diving." he mumbled it under his breath as he felt her fingers entwine with his.


Shaking his head was all he was capable of doing, he'd already gone into a spiraling nose-dive, all he could do now was hope after he penetrated the water he'd pull up before the forces of nature tore his hull apart.


His body was there. He tasted their combined flavors as he kissed his way back up over her breast, he felt her moist heat, swollen and contracting around him, and he heard the soft breathless whisper of his name.

"Will." she repeated, but this time he heard it inside himself, it blended with the crashing sound of the falls and was sweeter then the fragile scent of plumeria. He wrapped himself in it... his heart complete, his soul combined with hers, his body moved faster determined to take him from this place.

<<Mea aloha>> whispered through his mind. In the same breath another word danced around it. <<Imzadi>> The word rippled across his sweat slicked skin like a cooling trade wind; he shivered then shuddered, a shock wave of physical pleasure taking him over the edge, a painful euphoria cutting through his heart as he fell spent on top of her.

He kept his eyes closed as his body crumbled on top of hers and even as he brushed a kiss against her lips. He felt tears burning at the corners of his eyes, violating the border he'd set for them, and slipping over his cheeks. He also felt a hand, small and fragile brushing them away. He opened his eyes slowly, almost fearfully and watched her watch him.

"Are you all right?" she whispered after endless seconds, her hand brushing over his chest, her eyes reaching into his heart.

"Mm," he mumbled, "perfect.... You're beautiful." He kissed away the doubt he saw shadowing her smile, soft and perfect, he was sure he could smell plumeria as he buried her face in her hair.

"Will?" He held her to him, gently refusing to allow her to pull away...But he had to tell her what he finally understood.

"Deanna." he whispered into her hair, the damp curls tickling his nose. "We have to...."

The ship rocked violently, tossing him from the small bio-bed with a jarring crash, the captain to the bridge barely audible above the thunder.

"On my way!" he announced, the doors simultaneously shutting on any and all of his emotions. "Guess that's what you call rocking the universe." he grinned. Easily slipping back into his role to allay the fear in the wide dark eyes that stared down on him.

Chapter 37

Seconds before the lift doors opened he felt the cushioned tremor under his feet, the spasmodic aftershock of a ship destroyed. "The Banshee never fired." His observation, grumbled and spoken lower then a whisper was directed more to himself then Deanna, but he saw her nod an agreement before he lunged out of the lift. His eyes as always shot to the view screen, remains of the battle tumbled and ricocheted off the Banshee's deflectors.

"You missed it Captain!" Commander Merek, flushed, breathless, grinning as if her squad had just been awarded the Crystal-Star Cluster met him as his steps slowed in the middle of the ramp.

"And what exactly did I miss." In that moment he noticed the rest of his bridge crew was similarly excited, their out of character cheers overriding the ship's alarm. To ease his own mind he checked the weapons terminal; unfired, just as he thought. "The exact moment my bridge crew lost their minds?"

"The showdown between the warbird and the K-cruiser."

"The Romulans and the klingons were fighting?" He checked for empty glasses and even eyed the environmental controls, making sure Glistine hadn't been infused in the bridge's oxygen supply. "And they destroyed each other?"

"Yep, you'd have loved it captain....we just hung back and watched."

It was difficult not to allow the surge of energy that charged over his bridge to infect him as well, but one too many disappointments had sent his heart into the deep freeze. "Has there been another uprising on the Klingon home-world?"

"If there has we haven't been informed." Arla responded to his question, not returning her infectious smile proved impossible.

"Think we could kill the alarm now Dutch." Still smiling, superficially sharing his crew's enthusiasm he nodded encouragingly to his security chief. "Commander," He turned back to his first officer, he watched her smile flicker and die. "Can I see you in my ready-room." He tipped his head towards the muted blue-gray doors. Lieutenant Troi?"

Deanna stopped whispering to Arla and looked up at him. "Could you join us?" Two more smiles fell away, before he began following the two women into his ready-room his cautious mistrust of the situation had snatched the optimistic smiles from all of his command crew's faces.

"Captain." Riker stopped between his ready-room doors. "We're getting fluctuating readings from the gate, it looks like a ship Sir."

"On screen." He tossed a look at Arla's read-outs as he passed by, checking their net and the distance to the gate. "Magnify." Behind him he heard the ready-room doors reopen and the hurried footfalls of Merek and Troi. In front of him the screen ignited with the hazy glow of the gate.

"They're gone Sir...No wait, never mind." He heard Arla's uncharacteristic expletive behind him and chuckled to himself.

"Lock your sensors on the coordinates, she'll be back. Increase speed to warp eight."

"Sir, with the net engaged war..." Riker intercepted Dutch's objection. "I'm aware of that." he snapped, turning towards Piper. "Call up the scans you ran on the K-cruiser and the Warbird!"

"We didn't scan them Sir."

"Why not?" He directed his angry stare at Piper, but his anger didn't stem from her irresponsible and incorrect decision, it stemmed from years of fighting a war they were never going to win, and a little girl with wide dark eyes and a mischievous grin who had nothing but an ugly future to look forward to.

"That's it!" His growled internal decision cut off Piper's lame excuse and drew all eyes but Arla's away from their station. "If they can go in and out of that god damn thing so can we."

"Captain." Arla's timid voice barely carried above Piper's objection and the pounding in his ears, if he hadn't seen the look on Troi's face as she looked up from Arla's screen, his rage would have prompted him to ignore it.

Troi moved aside as he replaced her beside his tactical officer. The ionized bursts of the gate and the electromagnetic field distorted the readings, but not enough that he didn't recognize the ship that had momentarily emerged from the gate. "The Enterprise....Again." he confirmed, swiping an enraged hand through his hair.

Troi nodded, her reservations about his intentions very evident through the guise of detachment she was shooting for. He watched her shoulders relax as he announced his intent. "Try to get a lock on their antimatter trail, we'll follow em through." He tapped his hand lightly against the terminal and nodded to himself. "Or not!" he snapped, his hand curling into a fist, replacing his light taps with a angry blow. "So much for regulation 157, section three, paragraph five, huh lieutenant?"

"If that's my starship they'd never come through without just cause."

"But we can't tell if that's YOUR starship," he said bitterly, "I don't think our sensors are equipped to pick the kind of fish that's in a captain's ready-room." Her gaze stung him, probably more then his attempt to blame somebody... anybody for this imbalance in power.

"There weapons are powered up."

"Of course they are," he replied sarcastically, "I know that's how I'd make my entrance into unknown timeline."

"They're rerouting a lot of power to their aft deflectors, our sensors are picking up disrupter bursts from inside the Gate. Could be another ship Sir."

<Who cares.> Spun out of control through his mind.

"Captain it is a Warbird, they've reengaged the Enterprise." He felt the eyes of his crew, a crew that had never seen their captain hesitate or admit defeat. But he studied the eyes of Deanna Troi; dark and desperate, rich with understanding, he wished he could crawl inside her, take what he knew he was missing. He looked away from her, but he couldn't hide from what he knew. He may not be able to beat this new threat, but he could give her a chance to return to him, the soul that would be empty forever without her.

"Time to intercept?" To him his voice sounded as far away as his thoughts, but to his crew it must have worked, the flat-line that had taken his bridge with a deathly silence pulsed to life with a kinetic charge.

"Ten minutes Captain." He barely heard the response, instead he watched Troi. She smiled faintly, almost as if she understood, and stepped closer to the viewscreen as if she could speed up the process.

Then maybe she did understand, destiny, fate, perfectly blended souls...Shyla had.

"Only one soul in the universe can complete your own." She'd said it to him a million times, a million and one, it wouldn't have matter. He never would have understood it if an identical soul hadn't crossed into his time and proven to him he had an eternity to look forward to.

Chapter 38

Riker raised his hand to issue the all stop and caught a glimpse of Deanna’s startled and perplexed expression. He was pleased when like the rest of his crew she didn’t question him, but even her silent objection caused his hand to tighten around the edge of the display in front of him. The Enterprise was winning their battle, the static laced images on the screen and the reddish flames that flickered, died and ignited over the wobbling hull of the Warbird was enough to convince him. Revealing themselves and charging in if it wasn’t necessary wasn’t in his plans.

"The Enterprise is still struggling to lock down their stabilizers."

"I see it." He pushed aside the display he‹d been studying and moved to the view screen thoughtfully. The Warbird was deliberately leaning into the Enterprise, keeping her as close to the Gate as she could, a sound strategy, the one he‹d have chosen if he knew his own ship was going down. He felt Deanna‹s hand barely brush against his own, another silent message. He nodded down to her.

"Disengage the net, raise shields and bring the Banshee in beside the Enterprise." He squared his footing in preparation for the drag of the gate and positioned himself behind Deanna. She was distracted or focusing, either way she appeared unaware of his intent.

He heard the strain on the ship‹s hull before he felt it under his boots. Deanna stumbled, shocked as his hands snared her shoulders and his leg braced against hers. "Try to stay with us Lieutenant." He smiled down at her and raised his hand towards Arla.

There was no need to verbally communicate his order, this was the only option they had. Firing would take both ships, possibly his, pushing the Warbird back and into the beautiful but deadly mist with a reversed tractor beam was the only course. The shimmering hull of the Enterprise tumbled, steadied and rocked beside them, its massive size completely dwarfing the small warship. The Warbird never protested the ivory beam, and as he did each time he watched a ship go down he wondered what the Captain was thinking in those moments when he realized he‹d failed his crew. He swallowed hard and felt Deanna‹s shoulder‹s raise and stiffen under his palms, but her eyes weren’t focused on the consumed explosion that rattled over the bridge, but the still struggling Starship that had been pushed behind them.

"Bring her about," he ordered, "Give em a hand." Still keeping a gentle hand on Deanna‹s arm he returned Piper‹s rolled eyes of relief and listened to Deanna‹s ragged breath as the Banshee‹s tractor beam steadied and pulled the larger ship.

"All set Captain," Arla affirmed, "shall I release the beam."

"No... I don‹t think so, not yet. I want a scan of the crew.....Just a precaution," he added, intercepting Troi‹s objection. She hesitated and sighed, but nodded an understanding, the hail that sounded over the bridge taking the shoulders she‹d just relaxed and squaring them tighter again. Riker shook his head and waited for Arla’s probe.

"I think they‹re jamming us Sir." Arla’s bemused expression mirrored his feelings.

"They’ve got shit for power and they‹re wasting it blocking a scan!" Deanna Troi being the only member of the Enterprise crew on his bridge fell victim to his "what the hell" frown.

"I‹m sure Captain Picard is concerned about contaminating the timeline with their technology, if you explain to him why, I’m sure he‹d agree."

<Right and show my hand?> The thought played only through his mind, but lost its formation as it reached his tongue. Instead he found himself looking at her, feeling her touching his soul, completing his soul as deeply as she had when his body had been embedded inside her. It was an uncanny sensation, and one even the most well disciplined officer couldn’t help but buckle under. He smiled to himself.

"Arla," he ordered, "Disengage the tractor beam and open a channel."


"Computer initiate force-field and release the door in Jager bay one." He stepped closer to the doors as they roared open. "And kill the lights," he ordered as an afterthought.

The withdraw of the bay’s artificial lighting was hardly noticeable under the brilliant threads of silver-blue lights that hung like a shimmering curtain outside the Banshee. Angel‹s breath, an offshoot of the gate‹s gases and debris, a haven for ships that had been stung by the venom of the gate and needed a place to heal. He’d never found a need to hide in any of them, but with the Enterprise damaged and unable to Net his choices had been limited to one. He focused on the ghostly lights, the refracted rays that appeared to bounce off the hull of the Enterprise, distorting her surface until through his eyes the hull seemed to bleed into the lights.

"Awe inducing isn’t it?" Entranced by the lights he hadn’t heard the doors or the footfalls approaching him, he didn’t bother turning towards the familiar voice.

"It’s late, how‹d you get onboard?"

"Your tactical officer, I came back with her... I told her you were expecting me. I take it you were."

"Sooner or later," he answered flatly, and turned slowly towards his guest, "If you think I’ve got the answers you‹re looking for Commander Riker, you’re looking in the wrong place."


"Why’d you remove the implants?" Captain Riker propped his foot on the console of the T26 and stared at his boot. This little encounter with Commander Riker hadn’t been as difficult as he‹d expected, but there was still something disconcerting about looking into his eyes. He‹d surmised the Commander felt similarly since the smudge on the officer boot tip appeared to fascinate him.

"Doctor Crusher said it was killing her, the slight phase frequency variation."

Riker grunted a reply; phase frequency seemed to be at the brunt of almost everything he’d encountered. "She‹s projecting her sequestered memories." He heard the commander‹s uniform rustle as he pushed his sleeve up his arm, he didn’t bother looking at the bruise he knew he was studying. "What she can‹t remember, maybe we can."


"I don’t know, but I know I already have." His foot fell to the floor, "I got an ego as big as the quadrant, but I‹ll be the first to admit that I‹m not smart enough to know that by using a negative sonic frequency and feeding it through the steerable central component of the main deflector and enhancing it with distortion amplifiers I‹d create a parallel phase-lock that could contort simple emissions into a deadly weapon." He inhaled a dramatized breath, "Shit," he added, raking a hand through his hair, "I wouldn’t have even considered sound as a weapon.

Commander Riker‹s chuckle answered his, "Good point, even our Commander Data is struggling with the feasibility of the procedure, and he‹s an android."

"I feel like somebody‹s leading me somewhere, and I just keep stumbling off course."

"And you think it‹s Deanna?"

"Why not, she‹s been here for a month and I’ve been stumbling on a lot of shit."

"What are you talking about...a month!" Riker‹s voice had been as monotone as his own up until now, the change pulled his reluctant eyes to his. "We lost Deanna in the explosion three months ago."

Intentional or not Riker heard the Enterprise officer‹s accusation coat every word. He let it slide, this meeting of the minds was difficult enough without dragging personal feelings to the surface. "One month." he reconfirmed, visually challenging the commander.

"Then where the hell was she for the other two months?" Commander Riker‹s words ran parallel with his thoughts, except his silent questions kept bringing him inside the gate.

"What’s in t..."

"Captain?" Piper Merek’s voice preceded the long leg that stepped over the shallow ledge of the arched hatchway. Its appearance and the woman attached to it drew Commander Riker quickly to his feet.

"Commander," he said, scowling at Piper, "This is my first officer, backslash mother, Commander...."

"Piper Merek." Commander Riker completed his introduction, extended his hand and donned the dopey smile Piper tended to get from men. Piper accepted it, did the little hair flip and flashed a smile that would bring any man to his knees. She denied it, but he was certain she spent her free evenings perfecting it.

"Do we know each other?"

"Not in this time I’m afraid," Riker returned, releasing her hand, "But about eighteen months ago Deanna and I interviewed a Piper Merek from our time for a position on the Enterprise."

"Do you want something Piper," he interrupted what he could see was going to be her next flirtatious remark, "or have a missed my curfew."

"I just thought you might want company, I didn‹t know Commander Riker was onboard."

He arched his brows doubtfully, but didn‹t challenge her. "I‹m Ok." He answered her true motivation for being here before she said something that might strain this meeting more then it already was. "Goodnight."

"Good night," she dropped her concerned look and dazzled the cockpit with another one of her smiles before slowly and very reluctantly stepping out.

"Beautiful woman." Commander Riker validated the obvious.

"Be proud you didn‹t drool."

Commander Riker chuckled, "I did the first time, Deanna still swears she had to physically close my mouth."

"I walked into the door frame myself." He cringed at he memory. "Lieutenant Troi never mentioned a Piper Merek serving on your ship."

"That‹s because there isn‹t one." He watched the commander stroke his hand methodically under his chin for what had to be the twenty time and wondered if others found that habit as annoying as he did. "it‹s a long story. and probably not that important at the moment." He tipped his head towards the ghostly image of the Enterprise. "I‹m more concerned about where Deanna was for those two months and why."

Chapter 39

"I thought this was a ship of exploration?" Captain Riker rested his hands on the back of the high-backed chair in the observation lounge of the Enterprise and pinned its captain with a defying look.

It is Captain, and we are explorers, but explorers in our own time." Picard smiled, one of those diplomatic smiles Admiral Picard also excelled at and shook his head slowly. "I spent several hours this morning having this same discussion with my first officer."

"Really?" Riker called up a look of surprise. "And were you able to convince him that taking the Enterprise back to the holo-planet was a mistake?"

"He's my first officer, he abides by my decisions."

"Even if it's wrong?"

"Even if it's wrong." Picard never batted an eye; unemotional, unwavering, set in his decision, continuing this discussion would be as fruitless as swimming against the Molokai express. But then he'd tried that.

"Captain, your ship has no readouts from the time you passed through the gate, your crew has no memories, nothing, it was as if time didn't exist...doesn't that make you just a little curious?"

Picard stood up and inhaled deeply, adjusting his black and red tunic as he walked calmly to one of the bay windows on the wall beside him. "Of course it makes me curious." Riker watched the flickering shadows from the lights outside dance against the captain's profile. "You're unknown elements from the planet also make me curious, but so does that." He gestured towards the hazy lights of Angel's breath. "How is it possible that the almost identical elements found in the gate can be so volatile and yet these offer a shelter? Some mysteries will never be solved."

"Not by you anyway," Riker grumbled under his breath, sweeping a hand over his mouth to further muffle his comment. Picard obviously didn't hear it, or more likely diplomatically chose to ignore it.

Riker inhaled a breath, rehearsing his next strategy when the doors to the observation room hissed open. It was the first time he'd seen Deanna since she'd left the Banshee, if it hadn't been for the cloud of tension that was spiraling around the Betazoid and the Enterprise first officer he'd have found it difficult to keep his pleasure from showing through his impassive expression.

"Lieutenant." His smile in response to her intimate gaze broadened a bit further then he'd planed, he contained it quickly. "Commander Riker." There was a question in his voice, one Riker answered with an almost invisible shake of his head before his gaze moved to his captain.

"Nice uniform," he whispered to Troi when he heard the muffled whispers of the Enterprise top brass fall behind him.

"It feels strange." Her smile and the way she shifted her weight uncomfortably was almost childlike, but the sensation he felt in his mind was quite the opposite; His breath stalled hot in his lungs, and for a long moment he forgot where he was, why he was here. It rushed back into him with the air he'd forgotten to breathe.

"Is everything all right?" he asked, recovering from what felt like a ten mile run instead of a few seconds without breath.

"Everything's fine Captain." He felt the air as the other members of Picard's crew and his own first officer brushed by him, but he waited until her eyes and her smile validated her verbal assurance before turning his attention to the conference table.

Picard gestured to the chair at the opposite end of the table and waited for him to settle into it before he sat as well. At least two chairs away from the rest of the crew and his first officer he wondered if it was Picard's hope that by keeping him sequestered in the background he'd also keep him quiet. He caught Troi smiling at him and discreetly returned it. Commander Riker's hand tightened on the wooden panel beside him.

He leaned back in his chair as Picard reiterated the "fabulous" plan to close the void, but no matter how many times he repeated it, it never sweetened the bitter taste it left in his mouth. Instead of listening he studied the crew, noting the absence of the Klingon Deanna had mentioned, he wondered if that was deliberate. He noticed the more gentle tint to Doctor Crusher's eyes then the hologram he was used to. He studied the chief engineers visor, the android's metallic but almost human gaze, he noted the exchanged glances between the crew, including the Betazoid he wished could stay Onboard his ship and smiled to himself.

His internal smile became an exterior frown as he noticed for at least the tenth time Commander Riker's inability to keep his eyes off his First officer. Piper seemed oblivious, but she usually wasn't aware of the attention she received, and Riker's covert glances were more probing then lustful. He heard the android mention his ship and shifted his attention, but not before snaring Riker with an inquisitive look. Riker ignored it and turned back to his captain.

"Captain Riker's ship will be in the most danger, the majority of the void's instability lies in his time frame."

"Captain Riker's ship will be fine." He nodded to the android and then to Picard, "Because Captain Riker's ship isn't going in. I can set the charges from the T26, I don't need to risk my entire ship."

"Captain I don't agree." Piper's objection drew her to her feet, emotion coating what should have been a routine objection.

"I agree with Commander Merek Captain." Troi's objection was more composed, but was laced with a heavy dose of her feelings that physically stung him from the inside out.

"I know what I'm doing." His standard response and his standard smile were divided between both of them.

"I agree," Picard thankfully intervened. The combined forces of these two women something the young Banshee captain wasn't prepared for. "The Banshee is his ship and he knows what's best." Riker recognized the jab and the gloating smile Picard was trying to hide.

"Thank you Captain," he conceded silently. "If there's nothing else I'd like to prepare my ship."

"Nothing further," Picard returned, "Dismissed," he added to the members of his crew.

Captain Riker was on his feet and out the door before Piper and Troi had a chance to regroup. He could hear their whispers behind him and slowed his step as he passed past the Science station in the back of the Enterprise bridge. It was either make a run for the forward turbolift or face the music. He was surprised when he turned to see Commander Riker standing between the two dark-haired women. He drifted his tongue in cheek smile between Piper and Troi, but afforded the Enterprise officer a more curious one, but then he had a hunch this was the one he needed to talk to.


Captain Riker tossed a look around the Ten-forward lounge; just as cushy as the rest of the ship, he wondered why Troi hadn't plunged a dagger through her heart when she'd found herself on the Banshee. He accepted the drink Commander Riker placed in front of him and waited for him to settle into the chair across from him. It had taken a direct order from both of them to get rid of the ladies.... Not rid of exactly, but two tables away.

"Have you remembered something?" He asked, staring for a second into the clear gold ale the Commander had given him.

"Not exactly." Riker gulped a sip of his drink. "It's about your first officer."

"Piper, you've got the hots for Piper?"

"Are you and she...ya know?"

"You've got the hots for Piper?" He gulped a sip of his drink to tranquilize the anger and shock that had slipped into his voice.

"No, what the hell's wrong with you?" Commander Riker leaned back and slid down in his seat.

"Nothin." He held up one hand in surrender and gulped another sip of his drink, "I just over reacted, that's all."

"Why, because of Merek or because of Troi?" He didn't bother following the Commander's gaze as it drifted over his shoulder to the women he knew were behind them, Riker's distant stare and phlegmatic expression intrigued him more.

"Ya know." He folded his arms on the glass table and leaned closer to the distracted first officer. "You're handling this.... Really well, a hell of a lot better then I would."

"How so Captain?" It was the first time this commander Riker had shown him the contempt he'd expected from the beginning, but even now it was lacking venom. "Should I be.... Upset...that Deanna's in love with you."

"She's confused and you know it." He answered without pause, and he knew he was right, but each word slurred over his lips as if his tongue were coated with sand.

"She thinks she is."

"Only because you fucked up, you know what it's like to live with half a soul...she doesn't."

Commander Riker dragged his hands over his face, contorting his features as much as his emotions. "Deanna told me about Shayla...How did you know, not to...fuck up?"

Riker downed the rest of his ale and stared out the window, permitting the synthehol to numb his senses. "I didn't." Fighting the emotions the memory stirred he felt the pounding in his temples as he vied for control of his emotions. "I wanted it all, my career, her, our daughter...I couldn't stand being away from her to fight this war. I asked...No, I demanded she leave Hawaii, move to a more convenient planet." He couldn't look at Riker and in the lights that shimmered like silver rain outside the ship all he could see was Shayla's tears. "I think my exact words were, Do it, or I'm gone. I was so buried in red-tape trying to get back to them to visit, my career was stumbling back on itself, I had to do something...This long distance relationship wasn't working with my plans." he chuckled bitterly.

"What did she do?" His peripheral vision allowed him to see Commander Riker's eyes were still fixed over his shoulder, the pain in his question allowed him to know he understood.

"She hitched a ride on the first transport she could find...a Mercenary ship bound for sector 413." His words fell off as his mind displayed the image of her his imagination had created, onyx eyes, flooded with crimson, creamy skin bristling brown then red as the radiation consumed her. He choked trying to swallow over the hot lump in his throat and turned slowly back to the Commander. His expression appeared unchanged; apathetic and distant, he wondered if he'd heard anything he'd said. "You got another chance," His voice was faint and hoarse, but drew Commander Riker back from wherever he'd been. "If you don't take it, I will." It was a hollow threat, but he overcame his weak voice to make it sound as brutal as the feelings that were tearing him apart. He pushed his chair back and stood up before the dumbstruck officer could form a response.

"Piper let's go...Deanna I'll see you later." He shared a smile with Deanna, but was astutely aware of the long visual exchange between the two first officers, the intensity of it almost sending him back to his chair to reopen the conversation.

"Piper." His firm voice needed to be accompanied by a firm tug on her arm to break the mutual trance between them.

He flipped a dubious look over his shoulder, but Riker didn't see it, his gaze had moved to Deanna. He saw him whisper something to her and caught only a glimpse of the look in Deanna's eyes before the Ten-Forward doors shut behind them. He patted his chest as if he could appease the ache in his heart.


<<"Get back in here!" It was only a voice, drawn out and hollow, the urgency of the moment swelling under a spiraling red light, a blaring alarm and the harsh two handed grip on his wrist. He could see the hands, a man's hands, knuckles white from the force he was using to pull him. With each tug he could almost feel his blood vessels popping, something sharp cutting against his shoulder.

"This is it!" He heard the warning, felt a slight vibration and then a searing pain, heard a loud pop and a distinct crack as his helmet smacked against a dimpled floor. He saw the same hands move over him; at first through flushed vision and then from above. He could hear his breathing, each breath, each gulp for air sounding more liquid then the last, until he felt his stomach clench in panic and saw the hands break the helmet from his face. The helmet shattered around his face, the security clip slicing deeper into his throat. His head flopped back, his eyes went vacant, a sputtering fountain of blood all that was left of his life.>>

Commander Riker shot up in his bed, his hand clenched tightly around his throat, choking his own breath, even now he was certain he could feel the liquid death in his lungs. He gulped breath after wheezing breath, and like a child in the midst of a night terror he couldn't call out for the lights. He used the trace light that filtered into his cabin to exorcise the demons that had brought an almost tangible chill into the room. The air cooled his skin and drew his attention to the sticky warmth that crept over his back.

"Lights." His voice softer then a whisper was ignored by the ship's computer. "Lights damn it!"

"Jesus," He jumped out of bed and staggered, his head spinning he stumbled for the communicator, smashing it with a bloodstained hand before his vision went black.


Chapter 40

Captain Riker leaned on the door chimes for the third time and cursed under his breath. He didn't really need Piper's help working on the T26, but he didn't want to be alone either, he'd assumed that was the main reason she'd offered to help him, but when she hadn't shown up, he'd decided to make her company mandatory.

"Computer locate commander Merek."

<Commander Merek is in her quarters.> He hesitated before tapping in her code to override her lock, if the man child was keeping her company again he was going to be fairly uncomfortable.

The doors hissed open and he listened before stepping inside, the cabin was dark, but quiet. He took it as a good sign, Piper wasn't the most silent lover.

"Piper!" He called her name twice from her living quarters, both calls went unanswered. She must be in the bath he assured himself, denying the uneasy feeling that seemed to follow behind him like an icy breath against the back of his neck.

"Piper." He exhaled a breath and called for the cabin lights when he spied the shadowed form on the bed. She looked like she was sleeping, still in her uniform, the bed still made up, he realized as he moved closer that she wasn't asleep.

"Piper." He shook her with a rough and urgent hand and pressed his ear against her chest. "Shit!" He smacked his communicator so hard his profanity rattled from his chest. "Medical emergency, Commander Merek's quarters...two to beam sickbay." He felt the tug of the transport instantly, the molecular displacement that normally numbed all fear and all thoughts, but as the beam released them in the confines of sickbay he realized his panic had never vanished, it had only escalated.

"Computer activate holo-med program on..."

"Will, what are you doing?" He felt her move under the arm he'd latched around her waist, the voice stalling his command.

"Piper.....Piper?" His gut controlled his emotions, unrestrained and strictly instinctive he hug her so tightly he heard her choke.

"Captain?" He felt her push against him, trying to move away from the hug that was probably squeezing her breath from her lungs. "You're killing me Will." He eased the hold he had on her, but kept one hand around her waist, searching her face, listening to her breathing, feeling her heartbeat against his chest.

"Are you having a breakdown Captain." Her eyes darted around the room. "Or is this a fantasy you haven't told me about yet....Sickbay?" she added, wrinkling her nose.

"What the hell happened to you?"

"My captain abducted me from my bed?" She wiggled out of his hold. "You're mad....I was suppose to help you, I fell asleep."

"You were not asleep!" His voice elevated, he healed his assault by stroking his hand gently through her hair. "You weren't breathing....your heart..." His words fell off with the look in her eyes, the brows she creased worriedly. "I'm sorry, I haven't been sleeping, I guess I overreacted."

She gave him a long measuring look, the flat look in her eyes finally spiraling with her usual mischievous twinkle. "Guess this means I'm not going to get laid in sickbay." Her attempt at a disappointed sigh failed miserably. "and I've fantasized about that all my life...The ambiance here is so titillating." She dramatically added a shiver.

"OK, enough. I admit it, the pressure's getting to me and I lost my mind." He returned her lopsided smile, and even enjoyed the look she was studying him with, but not even her bedroom glances really soothed what he knew he saw. "How about the T26?"

"The T26, moonlight and lace really isn't your strong suit is it Ri...."

<Bridge to Captain Riker.>

"Riker, go ahead."

<Sir someone on the enterprise has opened a channel, but we're not getting a response to our answer.>

"Have you tried contacting the bridge?" Riker shook his head.

<Yes Sir.> He could almost feel Dutch's temper filtering through the comm-linc. <Our communications are being jammed. We've pinpointed the source of the transmission ...deck eight, corridor B, cabin 912.>

"And what's on deck eight?"

<Crew quarters sir.>

<Deanna.> He thought, wondering if he'd once again misjudged an Enterprise crew. "Are the transporters functioning?" he asked as his mind wove him through the worse case scenario.

"Aye Sir.>

"Lock on to my signal and beam two directly to the communication's source." Piper was beside him and attached to his arm before Dutch had returned a confirmation. The beam took hold seconds later.


"Holy shit." The millisecond of relief he'd felt when he'd realized this wasn't Deanna's quarters fell away as quickly as he fell to his knees beside Commander Riker. He eyed the blood that soaked the mattress, dribbled over the sheets and reached out from underneath the commander's back, the pulse he was looking for felt thready under his fingers.

"Screw the, get help," he ordered Piper with a sharp jerk of his head.

<Don't move an injured patient.> he reminded himself as he did just the opposite, prepared to stop the bleeding in anyway he could. Strangely the Commanders uniform wasn't torn, he ripped the closures away and pressed his hand against the jagged wound on his shoulder. Considering the amount of blood that covered the room, the injury barely leaked against his palm. his eyes instinctively moved to Riker's wrist. "Deanna." He mumbled her name under his breath and felt a rough vibration ripple over Riker's back.

"What the hell are doing?" The voice was as strong as the muscles that flexed under his hand as the Commander rolled to his back.

"What am I doing, I'm not the one taking a blood bath." Captain Riker fruitlessly tried to wipe the thick sticky blood from his hands onto his pants.

"I feel like someone kicked the shit out of me." His bloodshot eyes moved around the room. "I had a dream." His eyes glazed and then sharpened.

"Where's Deanna?" He skipped all his other question as he heard the muffled voices moving closer to the bedroom. His question left unanswered as Doctor Crusher practically knocked him out of the way.

"What happened here?"

"He had a dream." The Banshee captain said dryly, ignoring Crushers momentary glare. "A dream he wouldn't have had if you'd listened to me and found a way to readjust Troi's modifiers."

"How are feeling Commander?" She ignored his remark, but he caught the look in Riker's eyes before he grumbled an unconvincing fine. He watched her shake her head and dipped his eyes to her readouts, not that anyone needed readouts to know with the amount of blood loss Riker had sustained he should be dead or at the very least in stasis fighting for his life, not struggling to sit up and talk.

"I need to talk to Captain Riker."

"You'll talk to Captain Riker after I've taken you to sickbay and after I've done a complete medical work-up."

He saw Commander Riker open his mouth to object again and cut him off. "Forget it Commander, you're banging your head against a red brick wall...I'll find Deanna and I'll be back."

"Don't go far Captain I'm sure our captain will want to talk to you."

"Whatever," he said, moving towards the exit, waving off Crusher's warning.

"Riker." He stopped in response to the Commander's call. "If she doesn't know what happened, don't tell her."

"I won't, I promise." He nodded, understanding completely Riker's desire to protect Deanna from herself.

He stopped at the entry way to Riker's quarters and tapped the comm. <Captain Riker to lieutenant Troi.> There was a long pause, long enough for him to catch Piper's glare and realize he'd completely forgotten his first officer. He held up his hand. "Computer locate Deanna Troi."

<Deanna Troi transported to the Warship Banshee at 0430.>

"We gotta do something about this unmonitored ship to ship transporting." He rolled his eyes at Piper as he tapped his own communicator. "Riker to Montgomery."

"Yes Captain."

He backed out of the way as Crusher and Riker strapped to an anit-grav bed moved through the door. He flipped a thumbs up to Riker, easing the pained look on the officer's pale face.

"Is Lieutenant Troi over there?" There was another delay before Dutch confirmed Deanna's whereabouts.

<She's in Jager bay two sir, do you want me to send someone down.>

"No, that's all right, I'll handle it. Riker out."

"Captain!" Piper's objection to his lack of concern would have held more of a sting if her eyes weren't focused on the doctor and her patient as they disappeared into the lift.

"Don't worry about it Piper, Deanna Troi may be capable of tearing our limbs off with a thought, but she can't fly for shit." He took a half step and paused. "Are you coming with me or were you planning on staying and holding the Commander's hand."

"Actually captain, I would like to stay."

Her response, even though he'd suggested it wasn't what he'd expected. "Whatever you want to do Commander, but remember he almost died tonight, and even us Rikers have our limits." His snide comment and his similar grin deepened the frown on her lips. He stepped quickly down the corridor.

"Kiss my ass Sir."

"No time now Commander, maybe later," he called without turning back.


He hovered outside the doorway to the T26 cockpit, unnoticed by Deanna Troi. Her forehead resting on the knees she'd pulled tightly to her chest she sat on the floor, only her shoulders moved lightly with each breath she took.

"Hey, what cha doin?" He waited for her to slowly pull her head up from her knees before stepping over the ledge into the cockpit. He tilted his head questioningly as he noticed the strands of hair that clung to her wet and flushed cheeks. "Why are you crying?" He tiptoed around the question he wanted to address in light of the promise he'd given Commander Riker.

"I was afraid." She shrugged. "I feel safe here, in this ship."

"In the T26?" He slid down the wall beside her and smiled faintly. "You really don't know much about ships do you?" Her liquid chuckle was forced. He scooted around in front of her and crossed his legs in front of him. "Why were you afraid?"

"I was dreaming about," She stopped suddenly and gasped. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." He displayed the healing bruise on his wrist and smiled. At least he knew now she didn't know about Commander Riker. "Do you remember what you were dreaming about?" He checked the urgency in his voice; this kid glove questioning wasn't his strong suit. Even though he cared about this woman, more then he was entitled to, he still wanted the facts and not demanding them didn't come easily.

"I was dreaming about you."

"That's enough to scare anybody," he said, fingering the cuff of her pant leg. She didn't smile, instead her expression grew so dark and distant he had to fight the urge to look over his shoulder, follow the gaze she'd focused behind him.

"If you take this ship into the gate, you're going to die." Her voice mirrored her expression. He wrapped his hands around her calfs, if for no other reason then to use her warmth to ease the chill that inched slowly up his spine.

"It was a dream Deanna, not a premonition." he squeezed her legs. "I'm not going to die, every time I come close the powers that be spit be back. Besides, when was the last time you saw an angel playing the trombone?"

Her eyes regained their focus and met with his, she smiled briefly. "I don't know Will, It didn't feel like a dream, it felt like a memory...A vivid memory." He saw the light in her eyes begin to flicker, he stopped her from drifting again by cradling her cheeks firmly but gently in his hands, forcing her to look at him.

"I'm more alive then I've been in along time Deanna, thanks to you." His lips barely grazed hers and he willed himself not to look too deeply into her eyes, step again into a realm of perfection it wasn't his place to invade.

"I love you Will." He felt his breath stall in his chest and felt his heart swell and ache to return the words, hear himself say them again.

"No you don't Deanna." Every word, every syllable had to claw its way past his desires, his memories and his purest emotions. "In your soul you know that too."

"No, no I don't." With her thumb she wiped a tear that had escaped unnoticed from his eye, she held it up to him, the liquid crystal clinging to her thumb as if refusing to go before nature forced it to fall onto her knee. "Our souls are joined."

"But they shouldn't be." He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against hers. "I love Shayla in life or death, I just didn't understand until you..." He let his thought hang unfinished. Behind his closed eyes Shyala's face smiled at him, completing the intimacy he was drawing from Deanna. She pulled away from him slowly, he was afraid by opening up his feelings and soul to her to help her understand he'd hurt her.

"I think I understand."

He exhaled the breath he'd been holding and kissed her softly, permitting the physical to linger a bit longer then he'd planed. "Commander Riker is a lucky man...He just needs a kick in the ass to realize it."

Her smile tickled his lips before she pulled further away from him. "If we get home and I get better, I'll be sure he gets it."

"No ifs," he smoothed his hand through her hair. "Onl..."

<Bridge to Captain Riker.>

"Riker." He watched Deanna's shoulder's slouch, listened to the disappointed breath that escaped her; both mirroring his feelings.

<We're picking up anomalous readings from the gate Captain, we can't get any clear readings from behind the breath.>

"Net the ship, take her out, I'm on my way." He held his hand out to Deanna. "You're going to stand out like a virgin at the Naked Lady on Risa in that tailored uniform, but would you like to join me?"

"I would." She accepted his hand, and he appreciated how her eyes sparkled with drive.

"Piper's on the Enterprise," he said, tugging her out of the ship, "You can have her chair, god knows I've served under her long enough...Let Picard have the honor for awhile."

Chapter 41

"How are you feeling Commander?" Jean Luc Picard spoke softly to his first officer; his eyes focused on the bed display above him.

"Fine, considering I've apparently come back from the dead." Riker had spent more then enough time in sickbay to remember the slow grueling process of recovery, every day feeling a little stronger, waiting for Crusher to finally admit it. But this was minutes; each minute since Captain Riker had woken him his body had mended as if he'd spent a month under Doctor Crusher's overcautious guard.

"Yes." Picard smiled briefly, then resumed his thoughtful frown. "I read doctor crusher's report, even the scaring on your heart is practically nonexistent...Amazing," he added, shaking his head.

Riker rolled his eyes as Beverly adjusted the pillow behind his back. "I always told the doctor I was indestructible."

"I'm sure I'll never hear the end of this," She smiled and ran her tricorder over him several times.

"Come on Beverly, believe it...I've got an angel on my shoulder."

"An angel probably trying to protect all the other angels by keeping you on the other side of the pearly gates." She tossed him one of her more wicked smiles and disappeared into her office.

Doctor Crusher's departure gave him a clear view of Commander Piper Merek; her long fingers interlaced fidgeted on her lap, frown lines wrinkled her smooth forehead and she chewed her lip thoughtfully, her eyes looking somewhere behind him. Why she was here hadn't come up, Captain Riker's secret liaison he'd surmised.

"Perhaps it's time to bring Counselor Troi in Commander, if she is projecting her thoughts as Captain Riker has been insisting she may be able to help you reconstruct your dream."

"I remember everything Captain, I don't need Deanna's involvement. Captain Riker is with her, he understands this better then we do, obviously." He gestured around himself to his circumstances.

"Perhaps, but then Counselor Troi's improved telepathy did occur while she was serving under Captain Riker."

Riker looked up quickly from the folds of the sheet he'd been fondling, shocked at his Captain's speculation.

"What the hell are you suggesting Captain!" Piper jumped to her feet quickly, the stool she'd been sitting on tilted and rolled behind her, hitting the wall with a hollow crack.

"I'm not suggesting anything Commander, only stating the facts...Counselor Troi's tendencies appeared in this timeline."

"But she was sent from yours. He could have let her die, more then once," she added with a nasty frown.

Picard was unaccustomed to having someone, especially a subordinate officer square off against him, the momentary crack in his resolve caused a grin to threaten Riker's face, he looked down and concentrated on not allowing it to show.

"Relax Commander Merek, I'm only looking for answers...I'm not accusing your captain of anything. Another reason we should bring Troi into this discussion, to be honest I'm more at fault then anyone for not taking Riker's warning seriously enough."

Riker knew his captain, and every sugarcoated admission he'd just made had been smothered in bullshit. He wondered why, aside from Captain Riker's knowledge, knowledge he shouldn't have, the banshee Captain hadn't given anyone a reason to suspect him of anything except maybe an unsinkable devotion to his ship.

Lieutenant Troi is with Captain Riker right now, and they're both on the Banshee."

"Why did he take her there?" Commander Riker stopped studying his captain and arched his brows at Piper.

The supernova explosion that had spiraled like icy star dust across her eyes flattened to a more understanding look as she turned her attention to him. "He didn't, that's where he found her."

Riker nodded, oddly enough understanding why Deanna would return to that ship, seek out the Captain that was able to offer her what he hadn't. Even now, since he'd found her again he hadn't found the time to tell her how incomplete he'd felt when she'd disappeared from his life, about the nights he'd spent conjuring up images of her in his mind, trying to dull the empty ache in his heart. He stroked his hand over the deep bruise on his wrist, the only injury Beverly hadn't been able to rid him of. He studied the ugly purple splotch, the fine crimson lines of the broken blood vessels and ran his thumb several times over the deep imprints below his hand.

"Captain?" He interrupted another wave of friction between the enterprise's captain and the headstrong first officer of the Banshee. "These imprints on my arm are very complete, how detailed a scan do you think Doctor Crusher could run on them. Detailed enough to know if I inflicted these on myself?"

Picard arched pleased brows and Piper flashed a perfect smile; Riker decided then and there her beauty eclipsed her stubborn tendencies.

"I'll get Doctor Crusher." Picard headed for the doctor's office before he'd completed his sentence.


"Very good Commander, I'm impressed." She said it with nothing but sincerity, and punctuated with another brilliant smile, but he felt as if she wanted to say more, as if he should be reading between the lines.

<Bridge to Captain Picard.> Hearing the call Riker straightened and listened closely to the conversation. He heard Picard respond and Worf's advisory that the Banshee had cloaked and moved out of the breath. He heard Picard's response and a second later saw him emerge from Crusher's office, the doctor beside him. Picard nodded and moved towards the exit, Piper was after him like a shot.

"Captain, permission to accompany you."

Riker smiled at her request and watched them disappear out the doors. "Snowballs chance of that happening." He said to Beverly.

Beverly smiled and stared at the empty doorway. "I think you'll be surprised Commander, I don't image Commander Merek has many requests turned down. She's very beautiful."

Riker shrugged. "Isn't that thinking a bit outdated doctor?"

"Someday it might be, once your gender begins the climb up the evolutionary ladder...Now sit back and let me get these readings."


Captain Riker stepped closer to the viewscreen as if the two steps would change what he was seeing, the obvious change in the gate. The green auroia emissions flickered almost white, the translucent silver dust that normally twisted against its border like hundreds of tiny whirlpools moved almost in slow motion, the color shifting to a glimmering ivory, waves of pale pastels brushing over the gases, retracting and leaving behind tiny pearls of color. The normally threatening gate shimmered like a spider's web after a summer rain.

"What's happening?" He asked the question distractedly and back-stepped to read the display himself.

"It appears to be stabilizing and expanding Captain, the ionic wake and the electromagnetic field are being overtaken by another energy of unknown origin."

"No," he shared a look with Troi and let his eyes move back to the gate, "I know I've seen this before."

Resting his hand against the back of the chair at Ops he lowered his eyes to the ensigns display screen... A searing pain as if a knife was being brutally twisted into the back of his head caused him to scream out, slap his hand against the source, only the chair he held onto stopped him from crumbling to his knees.

"Captain!" He heard Arla's voice and several other members of his bridge crew, he felt them hovering around him, but he locked his hooded eyes on Troi.

"Deanna stop it!" He felt his knees shake and slapped his other hand against the back of the chair, half expecting it to come away saturated with blood. A coating of tears veiled his eyes and he watched Dutch move towards the entranced Betazoid.

"Deanna." His weak plea went unnoticed and he fought back with the only weapon he had, his own pain. He gave into it, let it consume him until sweat soaked his uniform and his breath was nothing more then shallow gasps. Through hooded eyes he saw Deanna begin to tremble, Dutch catching her before her body fell like a stringless marionette on the floor of the bridge. He wondered as his pain began to recede if that's what she was.

Dutch picked her up as easily as one would pick up a small child and headed up the ramp to the lift.

"No Dutch!" he said, his voice hollow behind the pounding of his heart as it worked to replace what the pain had deprived it of. "Take her to my ready-room, have a medic sedate her. We'll take her back to the Enterprise."

Dutch's reluctance to follow his order was apparent by the slow heavy steps he took back down the ramp. He completely understood it, but what he didn't understand was Troi's increased power and his inability to prevent it. Something was different; he narrowed his eyes at the pale shadows of gases and light and ran a weak hand over his beard. "That stuff," he said, turning towards Arla, "is any of it evident on the ship?"

He heard the chirps and beeps as she ran her scans and watched the blue lights of the display dance against Arla's pale hair. "Negative Sir."

"Guess that screws that theory." He ran a hand through his hair and sighed through the smile he offered his tactical officer.

The lift doors opened, but he turned back to the screen, only listening to the footfalls of the med-techs as they raced down the ramp to his ready-room. "Take us back into the breath ensign, we'll study the readouts in there...Whatever that is must be damned important." he tossed a look to his closed ready-room doors and felt the impulse engines vibrate under his feet.

"Captain!" He was beginning to hate the sound of his title when Arla said it, a warning that another complication was going to be tossed in his lap. "There's a ship emerging from the gate."

He hesitated before issuing the standard order, to be honest this little expressway into the unknown was beginning to grate on his nerves. "Magnify," he grumbled.

The screen tightened in on the gate, Arla's id coming just as the small ship came into view. "It's a spook ship captain, no life signs, all systems off-line. She's adrift Sir."

"Phantoms," he mumbled under his breath, correcting the description coined by the military about this covert branch of Fleet security. "Disengage the net, move the ship in see if we can lock on to it, take it back into our web."

Chapter 42

Captain Riker, an unconscious Betazoid held in his arms stepped through the doors of the Enterprise sickbay. He saw Riker straighten further up in his bed and Crusher practically catapult from her stool.

"What happen?" she asked, gesturing to the bed besides Riker.

"Insubordination." He rolled his eyes at Riker; the Commander closed his and shook his head, indicating he understood even if the doctor didn't.

"Your sarcasm isn't helping Captain."

"I tried to help, you don't listen. Whatever is going on with her is getting stronger." He rubbed his hand over the back of his head. "She tried to kill me and she wasn't sleeping.."

"Captain?" Riker interrupted his chastisement of the doctor. He turned around to face him and shrugged.

"I don't know, her eyes were flat, her face was harsh, it was like Deanna left and somebody else replaced her." He shook his head, "I've been dealing with this for a long time and I've never seen this, I just kept thinking, if she doesn't stop, Dutch is gonna kill her..." His words fell off and he drew a fortifying breath, watching the Commander do the same.

Behind him he heard Crusher's instruments hum and chirp to life, he'd already decided telling her anything that didn't first show up on her trusty tricorder was useless, he continued his speculation to Commander Riker. "The gate is destabilizing ...or stabilizing as the case may be." Commander Riker nodded, assuring him he was listening, but his narrowed eyes, rich with concern stared passed him to Deanna. "I should be talking to your captain."

"Yes, I believe you should." Picard's voice, rigid and solemn as always inspired him to turn slowly towards the door.

"Are you all right?" Piper's concern was written in her eyes, her posture and the gaze she searched his body with.

"I'm fine Piper, it was a short flight."

"I'd appreciate it if next time you decide to go off with a member of my crew onboard you let me know."

"I left one of all evens out." he smiled, a sly smile and had to mentally construct a wall around his chuckle. Picard's face as he looked at Piper and nodded looked strangely like a certain Admiral he knew whenever he was asked to deal with his niece. He stepped aside and revealed Troi's motionless body, if only to stop the reprimand Picard seemed intent on giving him.

"What happened?"

"Riker can fill you in. We pulled a ship out of the gate, I'd really like to look into it...I'll have Dutch relay the information we collected." He sidestepped towards the door, not waiting for this Captain to approve or disapprove, and nodded to Piper.

"Captain Riker, hold on." Commander Riker, the only one on this ship that didn't look at him with reservations stopped his progress towards the door. He moved quickly back towards him. "Doctor Crusher," he began, seemingly struggling to pull his attention from Troi, "Ran a scan of the imprints in my wrist, she was able to extract a clear thumbprint from the wound. It's not mine." His full attention finally drifted between himself and Picard. "The doctor admits there's room for error, but we still decided to compare it against the members of the Enterprise crew...No match."

"I'll relay the Banshee's crew files," he said, knowing what the first officer was going to suggest. He nodded to Riker and Picard and against his will let his gaze drift to Troi, "Keep me updated on her condition?"

Riker almost smiled and nodded an agreement. The banshee Captain moved quickly towards the exit when he heard Picard draw a breath to speak.

"Later Captain," he said, disappearing out the doors, avoiding any of the multitude of questions the Enterprise Captain might have. He found it odd that a man could offer so many questions and find no reason to locate answers. He had to wonder how many of these Enterprise crewmembers were thinking for themselves and how many were being manipulated by Troi.


Captain Riker sat on the bridge of the Banshee, his leg crossed over his knee his foot bouncing impatiently. It had been over two hours since Dutch and Piper had begun the Izine sweep to rid the Phantom ship of its high radiation content. Troi was still unconscious, he hadn't heard anything from the Enterprise, and the memory he'd had on the bridge about the gate's gases had vanished from his mind. He slid a sidelong glance to the display beside him, and shook his head at the updated readouts

<Enterprise to Captain Riker.>

He sprung from his chair and moved towards the screen, eager for anything that would relinquish him from this stationary command.

"Go head Captain," he said as the Captain's face appeared on the screen, "What'd ya find."

"We've completed our comparisons on the Banshee crew." Picard paused, stoking Riker's urgency. "There were no matches for your present crew, however Mister Data was able to access a sub-folder and found a possible match in a Commander Maxwell Corrigan...Your x-first officer."

"Max." Riker said it three times and sat down rigidly on the edge of his chair. "How can that be Captain, Commander Corrigan left with Admiral commanding officer," he amended, "weeks ago."

"My second officer has a theory based on temporal signature, he's working on it now. Once you've finished your scans of the unmanned ship, I'd like you to join us."

"Of course," he answered inattentively, not bothering to look at the screen. "Captain." He sparked back to life when he heard Picard begin to sever the transmission. "How's lieutenant Troi?"

Picard shook his head, it was the first real emotion Riker had ever seen on this man's face. "Doctor Crusher has induced Coma as you suggested, but she's been unable to find a way to modify her telepathy without repercussions."

Riker dragged his hand over his face and sighed. "She's got all the answers Captain, there's got to be way to tap into her mind without hurting her."

"Commander Riker said the same thing, but the risk far outweigh the benefits. We've been dealt enough evidence. I think we should study what we have. If Commander Data's theory falls through, then I will agree to your earlier suggestion that the Enterprise be equipped with a Net and return to the holo-planet."

Riker's surprise pulled him to his feet, his earlier questions about manipulation answered in spades. He kept it to himself and nodded. "Understood Captain, thank you." He spun towards Arla before the transmission faded.

"Tell Commander Mason to suit up and ready a Jager. I need a communication sent to fleet Command, I'd like an update on Commander Corrigan's condition."


Captain Riker walked briskly past the open mess hall doors, stopped suddenly and back stepped in front of them.

"Mister Montgomery?" he called, stepping inside the almost deserted mess hall eyeing his security chief with an angry glare. "Shouldn't you be in engineering, performing the sweep I expected to be completed over an hour ago."

Dutch swallowed hard, the few crew members that sat at the tables beside his lifted their eyes to a captain that seldom displayed his temper; He eyed each of them with the same stern glare, and watched their gazes fall back to their meals.

"The sweep has been completed Captain."

"I expected to be notified."

"Yes Sir, Commander Merek said she would handle it Sir. Would you like me to locate her Sir."

Three Sirs in one sentence, Riker had to bit back a smile. "No, I'm sorry Dutch, I'll handle Commander Merek."

Riker tapped his communicator as he pivoted towards the door then severed the transmission. "Computer," he said instead, taking long strides to the lift, "Locate Commander Merek."

<Commander Merek transported to the phantom XLT at 1133.>

Riker nodded to himself and checked the time before he stepped into the lift. "Deck twelve." he snapped, putting very little effort into containing his anger with his first officer.


"What the hell are you doing?" Riker tugged on his other glove, barely aware of the chilly air on the ship through his insulated suit and his own internal fire.

Piper startled, the comp-enhancer she held in her hand clattered to the floor. He heard her draw a deep breath before she spun to face him. "Captain...," With a thinly gloved hand she brushed the hair away that covered her face from her sudden turn. "...I'm trying to help you, take some pressure off."

"I don't remember giving that order Commander. I do however remember giving the order to notify me when you'd completed your sweep."

"Yes Sir, I know that, but there's nothing here that I'm not capable of doing...You've got more then enough on your mind." She tilted her head and held him with one of her more sincere and innocent looks; another practiced maneuver that threw him off for a second.

"Commander Merek." He looked down to the light khaki fabric that wrinkled over the tops of his boots then lifted his eyes to hers slowly. "You mean more to me then anyone on this ship...But if you disobey or rewrite one more order, your stint as first officer as well as your time on the Banshee is over, do you understand?" A far cry from what he'd planned on saying when he'd transported over here, but very effective; He watched her squared shoulders round, her eyes lose their spark and felt her long defeated sigh tickle over his beard.

"I understand Captain, I'm sorry." Her chin raised proudly, but he could see hurt in her eyes. He felt a pang of guilt, not for bluffing her so efficiently, but because most of her rule bending and order evading had been learned from him.

"Good." he smiled, not a big one but enough to erase the frown from her face. "What have you found?"

"Nothing." She shrugged stiffly. "I was about to access the computer."

"What about the crew," he asked, stepping in a complete circle, "No crew?"

"I don't know, I haven't scanned for bodies."

"Why the hell not!" To him that would have been the logical first step but he still chided himself for snapping at her.

"I'll do it now." She tossed a reluctant look over her shoulder to the computer screen and stepped past him, he snagged her wrist before she'd moved into the back of the ship.

"I'll take care of it...You continue with what you were doing."

"Thank you captain." She closed her eyes, the breath she'd apparently been holding freed itself in one long burst of relief; Relief he completely understood. Radiation victims weren't the most pleasant sight and victims that had probably been frozen in the process appealed to him less.

"No problem," he said, outwardly cringing before leaning against the switch plate for the door.

He took his time pulling his tricorder from the deep pocket in his pant leg and fumbled through gloved hands to tighten the readings; the little screed buzzed, its enhanced signal sparkling amber instead of its customary blue. He noted the open storage chamber beside the door to the galley, out of the four standard radiation suits only one was missing. Not that odd, he thought, if only one member of the crew was in the pit when the alarm sounded. He stepped through the door and only glanced at the cleanest galley he'd ever seen and the four sealed crew quarters to his right.

He stepped past all of them, he had to assume with a radiation warning and environmental controls fluctuating the crew would head straight for the engine room and the evac-pod. Not necessarily a means of escape, but a safe haven from the ship's malfunction and a way to lock-down the leak through the linked computers.

Behind him he heard the hollow hum as Piper engaged the ship's systems, his eyes shooting upward as the lights between the ceiling and the walls rippled with blue light.

Blue alert, he thought, wondering why the crew would have sounded an emergency landing alarm, and where in hell they planned on setting down. The first door to the engine room slid open, he stepped cautiously down the short ramp that led to the next set, intermittently dropping his gaze to his silent tricorder. With the radiation and the Izine sweep he hadn't expected to pick up much, but the remains of the crew should have registered by now. Surprised when the heavier protective doors slid open without manual activation he paused before moving any further. The blue light that bathed the engine room cast ghostly shadows over the silver gray walls, the sound of his boots as he stepped in further echoed in the dead silence. All systems; hover jets, compression capacity, set down gauges had all been set for a time-delayed E.L.P. He shook his head and turned slowly to the Evac-pod. The glassanite portals of the silver cylinder were fogged, suggesting a temperature shift, but the lights that signaled activation were dormant.

The steps he took towards the pod were slow and heavy, the kind he used to take towards his father's room when he was a little boy and his nightmares about his mother's death use to invade his sleep. He gulped a breath before he rubbed his pale glove over the fogged portal and pressed his forehead against it, trying to see what he was going to walk into. The reflections of his own eyes stared back at him. He squinted past them to the interior of the pod. The pod looked empty and yet a dark foreboding snaked up his spine like a demons finger, he blinked, then looked again.... Wide eyes, black like space, desperate like his deepest feelings shimmered in front of his own.

"Shit!" He jerked backed, snagging the console beside the pod stopping his fall.

<Think Will, don't die. > He heard it in his mind and felt it in his soul; a thousand years of wishing to hear her voice again and the haunting warning caused his blood to run cold.

"Shyla." he whispered her name under his breath as he pressed his palm against the activation switch for the Pod.

<Think Will, don't die. > He heard it again but only as a distant echo as he stared into the empty pod, an echo distorted by the pounding of his heart.

<Riker you there? > He heard the deep baritone voice over his communicator but his mind was still trying to chase her voice, understand her warning.

<Captain Riker, damn it are you there? >

"Yea." He answered moments later after he'd entered the pod and slouched into the control chair, his arms hanging loosely over the arms. "What is it Riker," he returned, reminding himself to breathe, "Is it Deanna?"

<Yea, > The enterprise Commander sounded as upbeat as he'd ever heard him. <You should get over here, see what doctor Crusher's found. >

Chapter 44

Captain Riker's ghostly encounter as well as his questions about his own sanity faded into the back of his mind, the information on the PADD he gripped firmly in his hand moved to the forefront.

"Deck twelve," he ordered distractedly, only vaguely aware of how he'd gotten from the Phantom ship to the lift on the Enterprise.

Again he let his gaze fall to the psychological profile of his old first officer and again an anger welled up inside him, an irrational anger, but one he couldn't quite smother. He knew Deanna wasn't responsible for anything she'd done, but the longer he stared at the court marshal charges being brought up against a perfectly sound Commander Maxwell Corrigan the more enraged he became. Max hadn't trusted Troi when she'd first come onboard, why hadn't he listened to him. He ran a harsh hand through his hair, cursing himself for being conned by the oldest trick in the book, a beautiful, vulnerable woman.

"Jerk," he grumbled under his breath as the lift doors shushed open. He tucked the PADD in the pocket of his insulation suit and pulled at the collar, wiping the sweat off his neck, wishing he'd shed the damn thing before transporting to a ship with climate controls set on tropical paradise.

He inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly before stepping into sickbay. Commander Riker, back in uniform, Captain Picard and the Enterprise second officer all turned as the doors opened.

"Captain Riker, good." Picard waved him towards the doctors officer. He nodded and shot only a fleeting glance to his right, eyeing the beds he could see from his position, looking for Lieutenant Troi.

"What's up?" he said, conveying a guise of calm. He finally spotted Troi through the windows that circled Crusher's officer; She was still unconscious, but from what he could make out of the readouts that flashed over her bed, she'd been revived from her coma.

"Doctor Crusher found and removed...something," Commander Riker shrugged. "We think the source of Deanna's conditioning."

"What kind of something, and why didn't my ship's doctor pick it up?" He wasn't about to float off on the cloud of optimism that had taken over the room, from his experience with this crew they were cautious at all the wrong times and never when they should be.

"I found this." he spun towards Crusher and narrowed his eyes at the vile she waggled in front of his face.

"An empty vile?"

"Hardly," she said, stepping past him, he didn't have to see her face to know she was rolling her eyes at his smug comment.

He studied the image Crusher called up on the micro-screen for several minutes. "What is it?"

"We believe it to be a transmitter." He didn't look at the android or the doctor as she continued.

"A transmitter that's using phase variance frequencies to stimulate and encode her cerebral cortex."

"Phase frequency, there's a surprise." He shook his head at Commander Riker. "And how's it work."

"We can only speculate Captain, but I believe the low ban frequencies are acting as a positive stimulus.... Whoever did this has used cerebral coding to intensify and lessen certain portions of her neuropaths."

"Come on doc, we're not talking about a mouse with a piece of cheese, we're talking about a human being." he tossed a look to Deanna. "And even under normal conditioning procedures it takes a hell of a lot longer then two months."

"Actually Captain," Picard said. Out of the corner of his eye the Banshee Captain saw Riker roll his shoulders as if he were fighting a chill.

"Doctor Crusher has surmised from the surrounding tissue the implant was embedded in the base of Counselor Troi's spine over two years ago."

"Two years?" he practically gasped, better understanding the first officer's reaction, "Why?"

"Why does seem to be the important question, along with how and by whom." Even with her hands buried deeply in her lab coat he could see the doctor's fists clench and unclench. "Maybe when Deanna wakes up she'll be able to tell us more."

Riker leaned his hands against the narrow chair rail in the center of the window and stared through it at Deanna. "You said you found this...thing, in the base of her spine?" His breath misted the glass, distorting Deanna's image as much as his feelings.

"That's right, I wouldn't have looked except after deepening my scans I found scarring under the implanted telepathic lope."

"Neuro-phase tissue scars?" He turned around slowly, in time to see Doctor Crusher's auburn brows disappear under the wisps of hair that dusted over her forehead.

"How'd you know that?"

"I'll bet a scan of any one Troi's victims would show the same thing."

"Victims Captain?"

"Bad choice of words Commander," he said, holding up an apologetic hand towards the Enterprise first officer. He had no intentions of butting heads, not now, not ever. His feeling for Deanna Troi were completely irrelevant, no matter how deep they ran...He understood that even if the rigid Commander was still struggling with the concept.

"How long until she wakes up?" He deliberately changed the subject and avoided Riker's persistent, but discreet glare. "I'd like to get back to the spo...Phantom ship."

"I'd like her to rest until she's ready to awaken."

Riker nodded, knowing well enough that Crusher's decision was probably more final then Howard's since this doctor couldn't be shut off.

"Have you found anything on the ship?"

Picard finally had something to say, and for once his eyes weren't moving calmly back and forth between himself and Commander Riker, gauging their reactions to each other.

"The cleanest damn ghost ship in the sector." He smiled in spite of his frustration. "Piper's probably accessed the computer logs by now, I should have a better idea later." He took a half step towards the door and turned back. "The system may be encoded, if you could spare Commander Data I'm sure we could use him."

Picard's customary caution shadowed his eyes, but he actually seemed to be considering it.

<First time for everything, > he thought, catching a glimpse of the discriminatory stare doctor Crusher had on his upper arm. If he'd been in a better mood he'd have pushed up his sleeve and flexed for her, but under the circumstances he only smiled curiously.

"Is that blood on your arm?" She chose to speak at the exact moment Picard had agreed to lend him Commander Data. It was hard to say which one floored him more.

"Thank you Captain." He smiled, nodded to Picard and then frowned at Crusher. "It's not blood doc, I transported straight from the phantom to here."

"Oh yes it is Commander." She touched his arm and massaged some of the substance between her fingers. He ignored it; doctors were strange birds. Her tricorder scan followed just as he'd expected.

"At least three days old, AB negative, a DNA breakdown may be difficult due to radiation contamination."

"My scanners didn't pick up anything...and I tightened the survey." he answered her inattentively, trying to recollect exactly where his inner arm would have picked up the blood. "I sat in the command chair." He shook off the haunting memory that flowed into him and focused on Picard. "I don't suppose I could borrow a medical tricorder AND your second officer?"


<Counselor Troi's awake and she's asking for you. > The request from the Enterprise had come in over an hour ago, but Captain Riker still sat rigidly in the center of the couch in his quarters staring at the results of his computer scans. He tossed the PADD aside and slouched back on the couch. "OK Computer, lets try this again."

The ship's computer chirped to life, he prepared to challenge its findings once again.

"Computer, without an organic base is it possible to replicate DNA?"


"How about tissue samples, let's say skin fragments?" He referred to something the android had picked up on the phantom and he'd already quizzed the computer on twice.

"Affirmative, with a point nine eight variance for error.>

"OK." He inhaled deeply, looking for any escape from the computer's previous speculations. "Given the match you found earlier, the margin for error due to radiation and the age differential, could the sample I fed you earlier have been replicated?" This was his last ditch effort to prove to himself that the computer was wrong, ease the tension that coiled tighter in his gut.

<Negative, precise replication of deceased tissue is impossible.>

He pulled his hand over his face and felt his eyes sting, his throat burn. "Computer, for the record restate the organic match for the blood, hair and tissue samples found on the XLT."

<Shyla Bannon-Riker.>

Chapter 45

"Ya did your best Commander Data, thanks." Captain Riker slapped the android on the shoulder. "Some people say the phantoms have super natural powers, maybe they cast a spell on the ship's computer."

Data's brows arched, his head tilted, until Riker smiled the android appeared to be processing the information.

"You were not serious?"

"No." He sighed a chuckle and tugged a couple padds from his pocket. "Do me a favor Commander, take these back to the enterprise. These are the readings we took of the Gate." He held up one PADD and waited for Data to take it. "And this is the tissue scan you took, see if you can access a match in your civilian database."

This idea was the one he was using to sedate the flutter of hope he'd felt when the computer had confirmed Shyla's DNA. Hope was a detrimental emotion, more dangerous then love. Knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that Shyla had died in the Interceptor's explosion had kept him sane, kept him from looking over his shoulder, searching every pair of dark eyes he encountered. He knew too many officers that spent their lives that way, looking for a loved one that disappeared or was taken captive, the obsession caused second-guessing, risked lives and eventually ate the person alive.

Data accepted both PADDS. "I will run a temporal scan as well Captain."

"Picard mentioned something about temporal signatures." He shrugged. "I guess with the timelines overlapping the scan should become routine."

"Yes Sir. Are you remaining here?"

"For a little while. I'd like to look around some more." He kept his voice as flat as possible. But the truth was he'd felt Shyla on this ship, and although his mind was continuing to warn him, he needed to feel her again. "Tell Lieutenant Troi I'll be over as soon as I wrap this up."

"Aye Sir." Data tapped his communicator and requested a transport, his eyes studying Riker with an unsettling amount of human concern.

"Thanks again Commander," he said, flipping the android a thumbs up as the beam enveloped him. He stared at the spot where the android had stood until the last of the blue-white light flickered away, wondering if he'd fooled him.

"This is exactly what I shouldn't be doing," he reminded himself as he stepped out of the cockpit and stood arms folded in front of the crew quarters. For a long moment he merely stared at the doors, manufacturing reasons he needed to access them again.... Command reasons.

He inhaled a breath and took a half step forward, withdrawing it as the low buzz and silver-white flash of a Banshee transport beam filled the cockpit. Captain's instinct told him to act on the unauthorized transport, but gut instinct held him still, out of sight behind the ledge of the door. He listened to the tap of boots against the deck, heard the faint squeak as the captain's chair swiveled and soon enough smelled the familiar scent of Piper's shampoo.

He rolled his eyes, gave himself little time to think about how he was going to kill her, and began to step around the corner. The Phantom computer hummed to life, the displays sparkled with light and Riker felt his heart tighten. For a second he stood at the edge of the doorway, watching her hands flying over the panels with the precision of a concert pianist.

"What's up Commander Merek?" She startled and jumped to her feet so quickly she had to snag the back of the command chair to catch her balance. "Or should I say agent Merek."

"Captain, you scared me to death.... What are you doing here?" She recovered like a pro, but then she was.

"You're a Goddamn spook."

She laughed, a nervous laugh, and gathered her hair in her hand at the nape of her neck, twisting it repeatedly around her fingers. "I think you're getting paranoid Captain."

"Maybe, but then if anybody has a right to be it'd be me." He took a step towards her and watched her shift her weight, block the screen. "I mean after all my x-first officer tried to kill me, the woman I allowed myself to get involved with is controlling people's minds and now I find out my best friend is..." He shook his head. "Isn't my friend at all," he completed his sentence wishing his bitter feelings were capable of hurting her. But then spooks didn't have hearts, so hurting her was out of the question.

"I am your friend Will."

"Because you were assigned to be." He took another slow and cautious step towards her and more importantly towards the computer screen; She knew him too well, she wasn't going to relax her guard, and if she shut down the power he'd never get back in. He gave it up for now and slouched into the Nav-chair in the back of the pit.

"I am your friend Will and no one assigned me." He looked up into her crystal blue eyes... eyes he'd seen in passion, in grief, and filled at times with the darkest fear and felt like he was looking at a stranger.

"You're a spook." He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees and flopped his head down. "Tell me," he said without looking up, "How much of this bullshit are you directly responsible for." He heard her sigh and watched only her boots as she moved to the command chair and fell into it. "Well?" he encouraged, inching his hand up his sleeve, reaching for the weapon he kept hidden there; one unfortunately Piper knew all about.

He snapped it from its clip in one fluid movement.

"Are you going to fire on me?"

"Probably not." It wasn't so much the way she was looking at him that had turned his damn right into a probably not, it was the fact that she never even made a move for her own weapon, one she could have easily drawn before he had. "Why didn't you draw on me, why didn't you shoot've always been able to outgun me?"

"I love you Will, why would I shoot you?" She said it simply and honestly and shrugged one shoulder before drawing her knees up to her chest and cradling them tightly with her arms. "Besides," she said, "My assignment is to keep you alive."

He didn't put his phaser away, but for a reason he couldn't comprehend he couldn't continue holding it on her. He let his hand fall to his knee. "Then you're one busy lady."

She smiled, an easy smile, shifted her position again and dangled her booted feet over the arm of her chair; So at ease he found himself staring at her openmouthed.

"You can't expect me to believe you?" His voice was as stale as his emotions.

Again she shrugged. "It doesn't matter if you believe me or trust me, at least not anymore. Just continue being who you are."

He felt his forehead wrinkle as his frown deepened. "You're not only a spook, you're down right spooky."

"Come on Will, I'm the same person you've been making love to for the last year and half...Nothing is different except what I do. You can't throw me in the brig for being a Phantom, actually I think I outrank you."

She startled slightly when he suddenly stood up. "If you're the same person, let me see what's on the computer."

"Be my guest Captain." She swiveled her chair and stood up, giving him the access he'd asked for.

He watched her cautiously out of the corner of his eye and stepped slowly towards the screen, his thumb hovering just above the firing button of his phaser. Without relaxing his guard he let his gaze fall to the flickering screens of the console, before he could focus they all went blank.

He blinked once trying to recreate the momentary glimpse he'd gotten of the command screen; his mind gave him only one memory.

"Why'd you change the stardate...and how the hell did you shut the computer down from over there?" He added his second question after he noticed she hadn't moved, that her hands still lightly gripped the back of the command chair.

"I was instructed to change the stardate." Her perfect blue eyes examined the pale pink polish on her nails, the rank insignia on his sleeve, the phaser in his hand and even the lock of hair that fell over his forehead, but never did they meet with his steady gaze.

"You're a shitty liar for a spook."

"Why would I lie?"

"I don't know, but you're twirling your hair."

She dropped the burnished strand of midnight she'd tangled in her finger and tried to smile. "Come on Captain, you saw the date, it's three days from now...We both know that's impossible."

"Ten minutes ago I would have thought it was impossible that you were a phantom." He shrugged. "And to be honest I'm still questioning how desperate they must be for recruits to have hired you...You're not that strong in the heartless deceit department."

She sighed a sigh that drooped her shoulders, her perfect features falling under a dark shadow of disappointed sadness. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm not sure." She didn't resist when he pulled her phaser from the clip at her side and practically offered him the smaller one he knew she kept in her boot. He tossed them both aside. "I guess it depends on if you'll talk to me."

"And tell you what?"

"You could start with why you're posing as a member of the military and serving on my ship...Then you can explain what the hell is going on with you and Commander Riker, and most important of all you can explain to me why and how you planted my wife's DNA on this ship." Up until his last question she'd been doing a hell of a job holding onto a detached, you can kill me but I won't talk expression... at the mention of his wife he heard her breath catch in her chest, watched her eyes glisten and grow wide in shock.

"What are you talking about...How would Shayla's DNA get on this ship. Where'd you find it?"

Maybe her response had slowed his own reaction speed, but within a millisecond of her question she'd snapped his phaser from his hand and turned it on him. "Where Captain?"

With her free hand she accessed the computer she'd been determined he didn't see and scrolled through the information. "She wouldn't come through unless something was wrong! Punch the engines we're going through the gate."

"What the hell are you talking about...Shayla's dead!" He made a move for her wrist when he saw her hand tremble and felt his mistake a second later as the fiery burst grazed over his shoulder.

"Shit...You fucken shot me!" He tore the material away from his bristling skin and glared at her through teary eyes.

"And I'll do it again if you interfere." She slapped the control switch over his head...The engines growled to life; the ship bucked, rolled and evened as she managed to free it from the Banshee's beam.

"I thought you said your job was to keep me alive?" He groaned and stumbled to the med-kit attached to the wall, fighting his pain and his anger, but mostly his shock. Piper wasn't referring to Shyla in the past tense, and even though this ship was taking him god knows where with a lunatic at the helm, he couldn't bring himself to try and stop her again.

"Don't be such a baby, it only kissed your shoulder." She turned her head to face him, the moon pearl in her hair tumbled to the deck, freeing her shaggy bangs and cloaking the gleam in her eyes. "Use an inhibitor and get the hell over here...I need your help to fight the drag."

He winced as he applied the pain pack to his shoulder and stumbled back into the chair beside her, gripping the stabilizer controls with both hands as the colored lights of the gate lit up the cockpit.

He stared at his hands, his whitened knuckles, the ridges that deepened in his forearms as he flexed his muscles to hold the ship steady...He heard Piper relay a transmission to the Banshee and couldn't find it in himself to care what line of bull she was offering them, the longer he sat silently in the Command chair the harder he was finding it to care about anything.

"Hey?" he said in a thready whisper that hardly carried above the protesting engines, "If I let go of this stabilizer what do you think your chances are of surviving."

She reacted just as she should, her head snapped towards him, her eyes flashing in dark blue protest... He had her where he wanted her. She couldn't fire and risk giving up his strength, she couldn't do it alone, she had no choice but to answer the questions that were swimming through his head.

"You can't do that Will." She said it with a tranquillity he hadn't expected, and snared him with a look that generated the same feeling. "You help me and I'll help you...It's what we have to do."

Set to disagree, the fierce tingle that he'd first thought was the muted burn in his shoulder spread up his neck and prickled over his scalp. He recognized the feeling as his own internal alarm, but at the moment he understood it wasn't himself that was cautioning him.

"We'll be fine." He heard her voice and felt a cool hand against his cheek, warm lips against his chest, the comforting arousal of her body entangled with his, but Piper still sat rigidly in the chair across from him. He didn't ask how, he couldn't ask how, all he could do was focus on the pure trust and profound emotions the sensation engendered.

"OK?" Oddly enough even with this unnatural power she possessed he could hear uncertainty in her voice, see it in the soft lines of concentration on her face.

He nodded silently and felt his body chill as she withdrew the tangible thought from his mind.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice laced with regret, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She turned back to the controls before he could shake his head, controls he knew damn well she didn't have to look at to command.

"Piper." He pushed harder on the lever under his palm, propelling the ship faster through the curtain of ice fragments that hedged the inner line of the gate. He hesitated before continuing, not because he had a hunch the woman beside him could probably kill him with a thought, but because at the moment she looked more fragile then he'd ever seen her. "This is what happened to you in that prison camp isn't it?" She ignored him but he kept going. "You, Troi and others like you...You're the silent weapon the Romulan's have been perfecting?"


Chapter 46

"I'd like to see a copy of the Phantom's transmission and get a look at your captain's logs." Commander Riker looked down at the slender officer beside him, her blond curls billowing behind her as she double-stepped to keep up with his long strides down the Banshee's corridor.

"Yes Sir." She stepped into the lift beside him, her uncertainty and perhaps a bit of self disappointment aged her youthful features. "I think most of his research on the present situation is in his ready-room."

Riker nodded and called the lift to a halt. "Lieutenant."

"Arla," she corrected, answering the smile he'd offered her to relax her shoulders.

"Arla, one of the most important responsibilities of being in command is knowing when you're in over your head and not being afraid to ask for help. You did the right thing in contacting us."

She nodded a bit uncertainly and chewed her lip; he couldn't help wondering how old she really was. His guess would be about twenty four, but under the circumstances he wasn't going to make it worse by asking. However old she was she wasn't ready to be the senior officer on a battle bridge. "How is Mr. Montgomery?"

"He's still unconscious along with a lot of the crew, the back-surge from the phantom ship really rocked the bridge."

He reengaged the lift with a word. "I'm sure your Captain had his reasons for doing what he did."

The childlike sparkle in her eyes deepened to a dark and fierce devotion. "Captain Riker would never endanger his ship...Never!" Her voice elevated and her shoulders squared, a second later as if she'd just caught herself she recoiled. "He loves this ship and this crew."

"You think he was taken against his will?" His question was a smoke screen, certainly not what he suspected. He'd seen the data PADDs the Banshee Captain had sent back to the Enterprise; his suspicions were that Captain Riker was acting for personal reasons alone.

"No." He barely heard Arla's immediate objection as he stepped onto the Banshee bridge and scanned the sparse bridge crew that manned only a few of the stations. He followed Arla's gesture down the ramp, eyeing her cautiously. How could she possibly still feel loyalty to a man that sent a deliberate energy feed into his own ship?

"What's your theory then?" he asked, tossing a look around Captain Riker's rustic ready-room before taking a step inside.

"Piper's transmission was sent on a modified subsignal internal ship override, that suggests their communications were down or maybe recognized n-code only. If their departure was as urgent as Piper's transmission indicates then transporting back, releasing the beam and transporting back to the Phantom ship would have been unnecessary steps."

Not rolling his eyes at the young officers misplaced loyalty took a concerted effort. He nodded and moved towards the black oak desk quickly. PADDs, at least twenty of them littered the smooth surface of the desk; Riker frowned and shot a quick look to the Enterprise, her polished hull shimmering in the silver-gray threads of the Angels Breath.

"I know you don't trust my Captain," Arla said, meekly defending her captain again, "But he's saved out lives and come close to sacrificing his own so many times even if he is acting irrationally I think I can speak for the crew in saying we'll still follow him."

"I understand that." He pulled out the worn leather chair behind the desk and slid into it. "And I respect it." He nodded encouragingly and smiled faintly. He wasn't lying, for a captain to engender that kind of trust, he had no choice but to concede that Captain Riker was a born leader. He held Arla with a soft look until hers matched his. "Make the modifications we discussed Lieutenant. Dism..."

<Bridge to Lieutenant Manning.>

"Go ahead Ensign Maynard, is something wrong?"

There was a slight pause, a long enough one that Riker tipped his head curiously at Arla.

<Captain Riker left specific orders to be notified if Lieutenant Commander Troi transported to the ship.>

Without thinking Riker stood up and stepped out from behind the desk, his frown deepening, his concern escalating.

<She beamed onboard ten minutes ago; the transport was just logged. >

He heard Arla's objection at the lag and was vaguely aware of the reprimand she issued to the officer. He perked up when he heard her ask for whereabouts.

<Deck six, cabin 614. >

Riker felt his brows raise and tried to keep his anxious feeling at bay...Why was she here, how in hell did she escape sickbay, and would Arla order a security detail.

"Thank you Ensign." He heard her respond before answering his inquisitive look. "Do you want to handle this Commander?"

"Yes I would." The doors hissed open to the bridge and he paused in between them. "Where is she Lieutenant?"

"Commander Merek's quarters Sir."

His slow nod, his impassive steps up the ramp completely contradicted the dark suspicion that beat out of control in his mind.

"What are you up to now Deanna," he whispered to himself after the lift doors closed. "What do you remember?"


"What happened?" Captain Riker cringed as he pulled his cheek, sticky with sweat away from the leather command chair.

"You lost consciousness." Tucking one leg underneath her and sliding into the chair beside him, the expression on her face displayed more pain then he felt. "Head hurts huh?"

"Ever play rampage with Shanow whiskey?" he groaned, rolling his shoulders and tilting his head from side to side to alleviate the pain and stiffness. "This is about ten time worse."

She shuddered in sympathy but her eyes were dark and probing. "Can I get you something: inhibitor, whisky.... Poison?"

"No," he answered as his head began to clear, "just tell me why I feel like I just did ten rounds with a Klingon Patrol and you look like you've been sunning on Risa for a week?" He did a double take as he looked out the view-screen, eyeing the unfamiliar space, the sparkling swirls of pale almost translucent wisps of fog that surrounded the ship. "Or you can just tell me where the hell we are?"

"Inside the gate Captain." She stood up and tapped the emergency rations cubical, bringing him the water he'd been thinking of but was too sore to retrieve.

"We're not moving." He guzzled the water she handed him, ignoring the slowing hand she pressed against his wrist. "Why?" He wiped the dribbles of water from his beard with his sleeve and tilted his head.

"We're moving," she said, her nails clicking against the V-scrren, "It only appears that we're not."

Riker dipped his eyes to the V-screen, inspected the Enviro display then returned his eyes to the beer foam they appeared to be drifting it. "Fine." He tossed the plastine vat over his shoulder, heard it roll repeatedly and finally come to rest under his boot. He kicked it away, all without looking away from the screen. "This stuff," he observed, rasing a hand to the view port, "is the same stuff that's bleeding through the gate...The part of the gate I apparently missed due to unconsciousness."

"I'm not going to tell you what you missed," she said so matter-of-factly in wanted to choke her, "But I can tell you where you are and why it's so damned important that you fix what should have happened a month ago."

"But didn't because..." He nodded repeatedly, encouraging her to fill in the blank.

"Lieutenant Troi interfered ...I thought, we thought," she corrected, "that we could control her. I did have her under control." She swore under her breath and he continued to stare at her, her rain blue eyes riddled with conflict and frustration. He reflected for a moment on every deadly encountered he'd had since Troi had come onboard.

"You took the bomb on the Onius moon," he said softly, events passing through his mind at light-speed, "you compensated for the Jager error, warned me about Max, and just happened to show up in the nick of time on the holo planet. You're the one that's been leading me....Why?" He practically roared, "If you know so Goddamn much why didn't you just tell me?"

"I couldn't." Her voice broke and he wanted to touch her, console her, but all he could do was stare at her stiffly. "The risk of your understanding the Gate was too great."

"Greater then having the Romulans understand it?" he said numbly.

"They don't understand it." Her caring, regretful emotions hardened, he could feel them shifting in the core of his being; bitter and vile, shielding himself from them was almost impossible. "It was an accident that they stumbled on the true nature of the gate... ironic really that they should find eternal peace while developing a weapon of destruction."

"The sub-sonar weapon?"

"Right, the weapon you would have found evidence of the day you encountered the Klingon cruiser, and that same day you and Max would have closed the gate. But Troi's shuttle distracted you... They programmed her to kill you and Max, prevent the sealing of the gate." She laughed, but her laugh was pained and forced. "They didn't count on her falling in love with you, the simple idea of two predestined souls. Too simple for their perverted minds."

Everything she'd just said consolidated into two words, predestined souls...He inhaled a sharp breath as the memory he thought he'd lost flashed back into his mind with an explosive force. "Where's Shyla!"

He watched her swallow, tangle a lock of onyx hair in her fingers. "Shyla's dead Will."

Primal instinct and adrenaline dominated him, before she could react he'd wrapped a gloved hand around her throat. "No she's not," he exploded, "You tell me everything now or we'll fucking die here!" With his free hand he reached above him and cut the ship's power, dropping the shields simultaneously.

Piper's eyes closed, her jet-black lashes contrasting her milky white skin. "Remember you're only one man Captain."


Chapter 47

I'm not thrilled about how this reads, but if i drag my feet on this single chapter any longer i'll have to pack it in. Simple lesson, never rewrite an ending, after this i never will...Let the Rikers fall where they will..My new motto;-))

"Enterprise to Commander Riker." Commander Riker eased his brisk steps down the corridor of the Banshee and returned a response.

"Riker, what is it Mr. Data?"

"Sir, I have been studying the information Captain Riker gave us." The android paused. Riker stopped completely a few doors from Commander Merek's quarters and rolled his eyes impatiently.

"And Data?"

"I eliminated all the known elements and extracted only the components found since the gate began to destabilize. Chroniton particles, tetryon traces and increased Theda..."

"Data, spit it out...I'm a little busy."

"Yes Sir." The android sounded almost disappointed; if it had been any other member of his crew he would have felt it necessary to apologize for his short fuse.

"I believe the external lines of the Gate are an enlarging temporal stream, a swift flow of past and future lines clashing to form..."

"A subspace rupture." He chided himself as he interrupted again.

"Negative Sir, I believe it was always a rupture in subspace, a naturally occurring stream of time... but I believe our own warp field effect, combined with the extended use of the Romulans and the Klingons has increased its mass and possibly destabilized both lines.

Riker folded his arms and leaned his shoulder against the wall. "Time travel," he mumbled aloud, mentally conjuring reasons as to why Captain Riker would find this phenomena so intriguing.

"Is it possible Captain Riker knew about this disturbance, understood the possibilities."

"It is highly unlikely, he appeared sincere."

"How sincere Data, as sincere as I was Tuesday night at poker?"

"You believe he was bluffing?"

"I don't know, Thank you Data."

Riker pushed off the lift wall and took the few additional steps to Commander Merek's quarters, asking himself over and over if the situation were reversed and he had to risk everything to get Deanna back would he do it. He shook his head, convinced he'd never make that decision, but then that was easy for him to say, the woman he loved more then his own life was only on the other side of the doors.

He accessed the quarters and arched curious brows at the pale and extremely frail looking woman sitting on the floor in the center of Commander Merek's living quarters surrounded by what he assumed were Commander Merek's things. He wasn't sure what he'd expected her to be up to when he'd entered, but this sure as hell wasn't it.

"What are you doing?" He squatted beside her, skipped his eyes over the things on the floor then looked back at her with a curious but gentle smile.

"I know Piper Merek!" Her normally clear eyes clouded with fatigue, tinted with flecks of crimson widened as if she'd just spouted a divine revelation.

He wasn't sure how to react or even whether to react. She'd been through a lot and she had escaped from sickbay, he wondered how coherent she really was. She answered his internal questions before he could form a kind way to ask.

"Don't look at me like I'm a fragile little flower that's a few petals short." Her smooth forehead wrinkled. "Look at these." She unclenched the hand on her lap and presented what he guessed was suppose to be evidence. They both looked like rank insignia; one was vaguely familiar, a tarnished bronze pentacle worn by Starfleet's FIA operatives, the other a similar shape was etched in gold, two twisted onyx swords chiseled in the center of the five-point star.

"This is FIA, and this is the Phantom's mark...I looked it up," she added, obviously noticing his doubt. "Piper Merek, this one and the one we encountered in our timeline are the same...I remember."

Riker swallowed over the uncanny feelings that were welling inside him, the same feelings he'd had when he'd encountered Captain Riker's first officer for the first time in the T26.

"Until Doctor Crusher removed the implant I had no memory of ever meeting a Piper Merek."

Riker only half listened to Deanna, his mind was presenting him with an entirely different memory of the young Lieutenant that applied for a posting to the Enterprise, a very clandestine and very unprofessional one.

"I can't believe she's at the root of this," he finally said absently, unwilling to share his thoughts and hoping he didn't sound too defensive. "She seems to really care about Captain Riker."

"I don't think she's the enemy either Will and her feelings for Captain Riker run very deep." She tilted her head thoughtfully, "And for you to a lesser extent."

He stroked his thumb and index finger repeatedly over his mustache hoping to hide the grimace on his face and stood up, avoiding eye contact as well.

"Will, you didn't do anything wrong." He heard Deanna get up and tensed as her light footfalls moved towards him. "She'd already resigned her commission when you met her on Risa and I don't think it was because of you."

"How'd you know that?" he asked without turning.

"Because you were thinking it."

He frowned. "But Beverly removed the implant, I thought..."

"My telepathic ability is so evolved Beverly doesn't think it will return to normal." Her voice, sad and needy inspired him to turn. He took a step towards her, and apprehensively slipped his hand over her shoulder, he felt her relax instantly, and his apprehension caused by his affair with Piper and her deep feelings for Captain Riker dissolved.

"At least I'm thinking for myself now."

"You've always been pretty damn good at that." He smiled a weak smile that brighten as she stepped closer to him. But it wasn't the touch of her body against his that caused his mood to lighten, it was the look she was holding him with; one he hadn't seen from her since the good Captain had entered their lives. Such a simple gesture, but one that assured him she was as much a part of him now as she'd ever been.

"You're beautiful," he said, surprising himself at how easily the compliment had tumbled from his lips.

She smiled, her ashen skin flushed with a light pink glow and she wrinkled her nose. "It's the light in here."

He shook his head, objecting instantly, his eyes moving from hers to the subdued pinkish lighting Piper Merek had chosen for her quarters. A stray thought entered his mind; one Deanna snatched before he'd had time to complete it.

"Soft light and Frank Sinatra!"

"Deanna," he started to defend himself, but as he watched her slid out from under his palm, finger through Piper's sound files, relized what she was going to do he urgently tried to stop her. "Don't play it!"

"Why?" She kept her finger on the last file she'd come to and looked at him, not with anger or hurt, but an avid challenge. "Don't you like it?"

"What difference does it make, we've got other things to think about beside Long Last Love." He felt his lip curl, the disgust that was probably written all over his face only amplified her pleased grin.

"Long Last Love, that's it!" She snapped her fingers, flicked the access and started the song before he could object again. His frown darkened before the earthquake became a shock. He groaned a curse and reached for the controls, the look of concentration that lined her face convinced him to stop.

"Why do you hate this music?" Her question was barely audible above the song.

"I don't know," he announced seconds later when he realized he couldn't pinpoint a reason. "It gives me a headache." He ran his hand over the base of his skull suddenly aware of the faint tingle that seemed to be brushing over the inside of his brain. He looked at Deanna for a moment with an openmouthed stare and then smacked his hand against the access switch, cutting the music. The music stopped, but the buzzing in his head and Deanna's distant frown remained.


Captain Riker blinked once, then again, leaning closer to the viewscreen as if he was seeing a mirage.

"What do you see Will?" Piper's voice, strained from the hand that had been wrapped around her throat barely filtered past his own thoughts.

He shook his head and opened his mouth, closing it immediately when he realized he couldn't explain. The ship wasn't floating in a vast cloud of endless mist anymore but settled on a blue-white ridge of liquid glass that stretched out with endless colors. It was a world, perhaps a universe of some kind, but it was as if he was viewing it from behind a waterfall. When he was young he'd trek up to the top of a mountain near his home, three levels of falls fell like crystal threads over shimmering rocks and he'd climb behind them, into the caves. His world became different there, real but surreal, fractured by light and rainbows, and that's how this world now appeared to him...Almost.

"There's life here," he mumbled almost to himself, slowly turning towards Piper.

She looked surprised and then pleased, her pleasure lapsing quickly into a wrinkled frown of concern. He watched all her feelings, flicker ignite and shadow her features and only tilted his head silently before turning back to the view port. Maybe he was wrong he decided, targeting only his logical side and vanquishing any emotions that tried to convince him otherwise.

He failed and although he couldn't see life as he knew it; he knew it was there, he felt it with his most basic instincts.

"Who are they Piper?"

"I don't know, but they're a life force and Our interference is suffocating their world."

She was skirting the truth and making no attempt to shield him from the fact... with an effort he turned away from the diluted reality and pinned his best friend with a hard look.

"I'd die for you Piper, even if you were wrong." He was frustrated and wished he had the same ability she did, but all he could hope was that she'd use hers and know he wasn't feeding her a line. "I think I can say that about maybe five people I've known in my life."

She swallowed, perhaps to choke back an audible sob, but silent tears still escaped from her eyes. "I was nineteen when I was rescued from the prison camp." She paused and leaned forward, almost reaching for him but then drawing back.

The angry and betrayed part of him wanted to stay away, but the part of him that trusted her, cared about her, reached out for her hand. He kissed it and nodded slowly.

"I owe everything to the Phantom operative that rescued me, saved me before I became just another experiment."

At least that helped him to understand how she'd ended up in this covert and less then orthodox branch of Starfleet. He nodded again.

Her chin began to quiver, she bite her lip for moment as if she could control her emotions. "Will, it was Shayla... Shayla Bannon was the operative that saved me from block sixteen."

Chapter 48

The tension level on the warship Banshee was as high as it had been when Deanna had first come onboard, there was almost a sound to it, one that scratched over Deanna's raw nerves. She shifted in her chair on the Banshee bridge and sent a sidelong glance to the acting Captain Riker. It had been hours since they'd left Commander Merek's quarters, but her sense of him was still muffled, muted to only a whisper of what she'd become accustom to.

They'd spent over an hour reaching for her memories, the hushed lighting, the distorted pain, the icy cold chill of a violating hand, the flashes of bloodstained death...They played out sporadically and distantly and seemed to span several years of her life. Even encircled by Will's strong arms, assured that he was very much alive, the haunting recollections had caused uncontrolled tears and violent tremors to overtake her body. Aside from the procedure she'd undergone on the false Enterprise the only other concrete memory she retained was one of Subcommander N'Vek.

She massaged her thumbs over her upper arms, her movements after sitting still for so long drew Riker's eyes from the schematics he'd been pretending to study so closely. He arched curious brows and attempted a smile, a smile that did nothing to mask how shaken he was.

"Do you want to transport back to the Enterprise," he said quietly, pushing his display aside.

"No," she objected instantly but just as quietly, "I want to stay here...with you," she added, dropping her voice even further.

She could see his reservations, the conflicting emotions of friend and commanding officer. Until now she'd never realized how easily this man could be read by a wrinkle in his brow, a twitch of his mouth or the shifting flecks of color in his eyes. He appeared to be judging her in much the same way, his collected gaze moving over each of her features.

"How bout we both take a break?" He stretched his arms over his head and did a double-take of the sly smile Arla was moving between the two of them.

"Should you be thinking things like that on duty lieutenant?" The glib smile he'd tried to hide broke easily as Arla's fair cheeks flushed and her dusty blue eyes returned to her readouts with a barely audible no sir. His gaze moved back to Deanna and with his chin he gestured to the lift doors.

"Come on Deanna, we'll get something to eat."

"Eat." Her nose wrinkled above her crooked smile but she nodded, wondering if Commander Riker had broken bread on the Banshee yet. She stood up, anxious to get away from the structured bridge environment and very anxious to watch Riker eat Banshee rations.

A step behind the Commander, she heard the low buzz of Arla's display and recognized the alert. She caught Will's arm before Lieutenant Manning called to him.

"The Phantom ship has emerged from the Gate Commander." Riker shared a concerned look with Deanna before moving back down the ramp, the lines that had just relaxed around his eyes deepened.

"They've slowed to half impulse Commander." Riker held up his hand, silencing Arla's report and instead verified the Captain's targeted trajectory for himself.

"Raise shields and open a channel once they've enter the breath... let's make sure this is your missing Captain before we open our arms to him."

Arla nodded reluctantly.

He slid a sidelong glance to Deanna, wondering if she could tell if it was Captain Riker. She shook her head after only a moment, her shoulders drooping with her frustrated sigh.

"It's all right," he assured, "we'll be able to scan em once they come inside."

He moved closer to the viewer and propped his foot on the slanted ledge beside the ops display, waiting patiently for the Captain to make his move. He could hear Deanna's breathing beside him, slow and controlled he didn't have to look at her to know she was trying to concentrate.

"This is Captain Riker, drop your shields and ready Jager bay four."

He didn't have to wait long for the Captain to contact them, his communication coming well before he'd entered the breath and assuring Commander Riker Arla's theory on why her captain had chosen to backsurge his ship instead of contacting it was wrong. He shot a look over his shoulder, wondering if she'd noticed before he straightened and returned a response.

"Stand by Captain."

"What the hell are you doing on my bridge?" The captain's voice sounded raw like a man recovering from a choke hold from a Klingon. He saw Deanna's hand raise unconsciously to her mouth assuring him he wasn't the only one that had heard it.

Baby-sitting," he finally said flatly, not bothering to turn to Arla as she announced the affirmative scan readouts on the ship.

"Lieutenant Manning." Captain Riker ignored his snide remark and the subtle innuendo he'd tried to put between the lines. "See if you can get a transport lock, beam me directly to the bridge. Commander Merek will dock the ship."

The footprints Captain Riker had just indented in his head would have bothered him under normal circumstances, but there was something in his voice, an apathy that overrode his need to object and instead froze his heart into an icy ball inside his chest.

He watched Deanna shiver, hardly had enough time to remind himself to breathe before the low hum of the transport brought a tattered and hardened version of himself onto the bridge. His hair was matted, stuck to his forehead with sweat, his uniform ripped off his shoulder below his chest, his eyes swollen, outlined in red, but it was in his eyes, in the dangerous blue-gray steel that Riker focused.

"Lieutenant Manning," Captain Riker said without affording anyone, not even Troi a hard look, "Increase the duty roster by two hours..."

"But Captain the shifts are already in ten hour rota..."

"Do as your told Manning!"

Arla bit her lip, her eyes wide and glassy fell back to the display in front of her, tangled blond curls cloaking her tear threatened eyes.

"Captain." Riker stepped forward, detaching himself from the stone cold spell of undirected rage Captain Riker had cast over his bridge. "Could I see you..."

The Captain spun towards him, a severe and threatening glint in his eyes, one that hushed the already silent bridge even further. "Go back to your ship Commander Riker, inform your captain that I'm closing the gate in exactly thirteen hours... if your ship isn't up and running by then you can consider this your new home." His voice was flat, dead like a machine reading the cargo inventory on a freighter. He spun around and moved up the ramp to the lift before Riker could form an objection.

The bridge remained quiet, even the engines sounded muted as if they too had fallen under the cloud of dark desolation that the captain had left behind. Will shared a look with Deanna and watched her take a step up the ramp. She stopped suddenly, weather it was due to protocol or her feelings for him he couldn't tell, but he nodded to her silent request to go after the captain.

"Has the Phantom ship docked?" he asked Arla, staring entranced at the lift doors as they closed on Deanna.

"Aye Sir."

"Relay your captains orders to mine...I'll be in Jager bay four."


Reminding herself to breathe Deanna pressed the palm of her hand against the door for Captain Riker's quarters, certain she could feel the intense current of his emotions through the cool metal. If she'd been able to think clearly she would have questioned why she was able to sense his emotions so profoundly, but thinking past Riker's vehement betrayal and rage was impossible. Her hand hovered over the chimes and dropped limply at her side, she startled when the doors hissed open anyway and Riker's powerful presence filled the doorway.

"Don't bother...Counselor." The nasty way he slurred her title matched the poisonous gaze he'd fixed on her, every negative he was feeling launching directly inside her.

That's what was different, no matter the circumstances this captain had always taken the blame, carried the weight of everyone's mistakes on his shoulders, any anger he felt was reaped heavily on himself. But this anger reached outward, uncontrolled and saturated with pain.

She tried to speak but choked on her words, stepping inside after he'd turned his back to her, before the doors could close. He stripped off what was left of his uniform tunic as if she wasn't there and disappeared into the bedroom. She followed in spite of her apprehension, stopping short at the shattered fragments of glass on the floor. The bottle that had stood in its protected shrine lay like crystal teardrops, the iridescent colors that had flickered inside the bubbled glass reflected only crimson from the globe light that shimmered over them.

"Shayla," she whispered over a throat that felt as if the tiny fragments of glass had cut through it. Her hand lifted unconsciously to her neck and she walked blindly into the bathroom.

"Get the hell out Deanna!"

Through the translucent shield and the steamy air she watched him, his hands pressing against the shower wall, the hot water beating against the phaser wound on his shoulder, it reddened and puckered.

"Stop It!" Deactivating the curtain and slamming her fist against the water control, she faced his hard glare without flinching.

"Get out of here Deanna." His warning was spoken softly, but his body trembled, whether it was from anger or pain she couldn't tell.

"No, I won't...I'm not leaving you alone." Her eyes burned hot from the tears his pain was causing her, but she matched his potent stare without blinking them away.

"Why are you so..." she hesitated, the new, single emotion, the source that had spawned his anger struck her, "...hurt?" Her revelation came out as a question and she wished she could chip away the layer of ice he'd encased himself in, find who hurt him so deeply and had left only a drained shell of the man she'd grown to love. Instinct moved her towards him, the same instinct caused her to flinch and draw back as his hand raised. It was a rough and angry hand, but it didn't strike her as she'd anticipated, it tangled tightly in the hair at the nape of her neck, forcing her face flush against the moist heat of his chest.

The quivers that coursed harshly over his body now were caused by pain, his body's response to the heat he'd forced his wound to absorb. But the tremors she felt from deep in his chest, the silent sobs he attempted to damn rattled through her as he slid his body down the wall, dragging her with him.

"Shayla's not dead Deanna." His arms stiffened around her, pulling so tightly her ribs ached.

Deep inside herself she understood his pain, the fierce betrayal he was feeling. Rationally trying to justify whatever Shayla had done wasn't what he needed, She draped her body over him as if she could shield him and let her feeling bleed into his.


Chapter 49

"What the hell did you do to Deanna!" Commander Riker's booming question echoed through the Jager bay and flared the tension that already blazed across Captain Riker's shoulders. The tool chest in his hands dropped to the floor with a low metallic thud, he turned slowly and cautiously towards the Enterprise officer.

"I'm not sure that's any of your damn business."

He grunted as he picked up the tool chest again, braced the weight of it against his thighs and shuffled inside the T26 before the Commander could respond. The footsteps that followed behind him were driven and angry, matching the look he'd turned his back on.

He sat down on the chest he'd placed in front of the weapons display and made a few unnecessary modifications to the lift tubes, concentrating more on the pangs of concern he was feeling then the equations he tapped in. Making love to Deanna earlier was a mistake, one he'd continued to chastise himself for through every salty tear he'd kissed from her cheeks, but in those liquid kisses, in the shared vulnerability, the mutual need, both of them had to escape what was reality.

"She won't return to the Enterprise-She's staying on the Banshee."

Inwardly stunned he never let it show as he pivoted his weight around to face Commander Riker, a slow glib smile spreading over his face. "She's a grown-up, she can do what she wants." He shrugged one shoulder. "Bet it was kick in the ass for you though...huh?"

He knew the mannerisms all too well, the rolled shoulder, the tilt of the head, the deep inhale and its controlled release all a way to maintain composure, contain the temper he knew was raging out of control.

He leaned forward on his knees as if he was waiting for a response, but he could have cared less what the commander had to say. He had no intentions of allowing Deanna to stay onboard or in this timeline, if he had to drag her back to the Enterprise and induce coma again he'd send her back. Once she recovered, learned to control the amplification process like Piper had she'd thank him and she'd understand better that it wasn't him that was completing her soul.

"You're using her." Commander Riker had curbed the edge in his voice, but his insinuation brought Riker to his feet.

He folded his arms, hiding his fists and waited.

"You're using this uncanny telepathic link she shares with you to play on her feelings, make her believe you love her when you have no intentions of..."

"If I were you Commander," he interrupted, "I'd look in the mirror and recite that speech to myself, because I've never led her to believe anything that wasn't true. She knows and she understands." He exhaled a breath that burned hot in his chest and turned back to the ship's control panel.

"Does she know you plan on deserting your ship again, that you're going off to satisfy your own selfish motives."

As far back as he could remember his motivations for everything had been controlled by a selfless dedication to his ship, his crew, an all consuming need to contain an ugly war. Commander Riker's suggestion stung him; he felt a less potent sting across his knuckles as his fist slammed into Commander Riker's jaw.

The two steps Commander Riker stumbled back were quickly compensated for with three angry steps towards him. He didn't move but merely braced himself for the welcome impact, an impact that never came.

"It's not worth it." The Commander's clenched fists flattened, with the side of his hand he wiped the blood away that dripped from his mouth. "You do what you have to do, I'll do what I have to do."

"You do that Commander," Riker said stiffly, "From what I understand YOU are usually at the center of your universe." He wasn't sure why he'd made the snide remark, if it was because the pompous first officer hadn't hit him or because he didn't understand what he'd meant by not worth it.

Commander Riker ignored him and took a few steps towards the down-ramp, he stopped suddenly. "You should know Captain, Deanna's not the only one you've managed to drag down to purgatory with you-Your first officer is also choking on your destructive emotions. She took the phantom ship through the gate."

Commander Riker's direct words smacked him with more force then the blow he'd prepared himself for a few moments ago. "And you didn't stop her?"

Commander Riker turned and kept walking, out of the ship and through the Jager bay; Riker watched him until the doors hissed shut behind him. He shot a look over his shoulder into the cockpit he'd prepared to take him away from this ship, through the gate and onto the twin planet he'd learned was on the other side. He slid, defeated down the hatch frame and covered his face with his dirt smudged hands.

The doors of the bay opened again, he didn't have to uncover his face to know who was walking towards him.

"I came to say good-bye."

It was what he wanted, the way it had to be, but the five words took an already aching heart and swelled it painfully in his chest.

He dragged his hands over his face. "I hit Commander Riker." It wasn't what he planed on saying, but all his other words stuck in his throat.

"I know, I saw him in the corridor."

"He's a jerk."

"Sometimes," she answered his smile, "I think it might run in the DNA."

"Could be," he chuckled sadly, his eyes drinking in every inch of her, engraving the image in the sacred corners of his mind. "Thanks Lieutenant commander Deanna Troi."

"You too Captain." The lips she pressed against his forehead quivered, he heard her choke back a sob and felt his own throat tighten. "Be safe Will." Her fingers lightly dusted over his forehead, pushing away the untamed hair that fell over his brows.

"Mea aloha," he whispered, forfeiting control of the tears that stung the corners of his eyes, "I meant it Deanna."

"So did I-Imzadi," The small hand he guarded in his own slipped reluctantly away, he watched it fall and watched her walk slowly away, the fragile threads she'd used to mend the hole in his heart tearing open with every step.


Deanna stepped off the transport pad then back stepped up again, feeling as if her conflicting feelings for the captain and the commander had caused her to overlook something important.

"Is everything all right counselor?" It was only then that she realized she wasn't alone in the room. Still distracted she lifted her eyes slowly.


"I asked if everything was all right." The young ensign smiled uncomfortably. "Did you forget something on the Banshee?"

"I'm not sure," she said, more to herself then the young officer, "I don't think so."

Blind to the perplexed stare of the ensign she tossed a look over her shoulder at the transport platform and walked slowly out the door.

Her steps down the corridor were just as lethargic, her vision blurred as she tried to chase a feeling that seemed set on evading her senses.


She didn't hear her name or see the Enterprise first officer until her face connected with his chest. "Will, I'm sorry-I was daydreaming I guess."

His expression never faltered, his perfectly rehearsed grin wrinkled his smiling eyes but behind the front she felt his uncertainty about her escalate. Under the circumstances, trapped by her own feelings for Captain Riker she couldn't think of anything that might kiss away the wound she knew she was responsible for.

"How's your jaw." She opted for changing the subject and brushing a sympathetic hand over his beard, unfortunately the touch complimented by his overpowering feelings completely eclipsed any sense she'd had of Captain Riker.

"He's a jerk Deanna," he said only after she'd drawn her hand away.

"Sometimes," she answered, a genuine smile replacing the guise she'd been presenting earlier. She immediately felt the shift in his emotions, the pure affection her mood change had generated. Her smile deepened.

"Is the Enterprise ready," she asked stepping into the lift.

"Yea, the shields have been modified... and assuming the jerk and our android have a clue what their talking about we should be able to repulse a sonic wave from the other side that will clash with the Banshee's frequency." He nodded affirming the procedure and smiled a smile that radiated confidence, but she knew the commander and he had a knack for making others feel secure while his own doubts spun out of control.

"Deanna." He interrupted her as she tried to cut through the smoky mist that was deliberately cloaking the source of his doubts. She looked up at him with arched brows, but she already knew what he was going to ask.

"What made you change your mind about coming back, was it Shayla."

"No...Not exactly," she amended, watching his brows raise as he called the lift to a halt. "It's hard to explain Will."

"I have time." He folded his arms and leaned casually against the lift wall.

Composing her thoughts and feelings, giving them any structure was impossible; she exhaled a long breath and tried to back each one of her words with a more concrete emotion. "Right now Will I feel afraid, I feel guilty, I feel hurt, I even feel alone." She rested the palm of her hand against his chest; the rhythmic beating of his heart pulsed against it. "but I'm not alone-ever. My soul is complete; I've never had to live without that which completes it. Can you understand that?"


She felt his compassion, his profound understanding, but also the underlying jealousy that frayed the smooth lines of the feelings. He didn't say anymore for a long moment, a moment that left only the increased beating of his heart against her palm, his essence drifting away from her.

"Will," she finally said when the moment went on too long.

"I was just thinking...About my mom." It was a crooked, almost insecure smile he offered her and although she was surprised she kept it from her face.

"When I was about ten my father gave me a letter, a handwritten letter she'd written to me the day I was born. It said a lot of things, but I remember her telling me about a place, palekaiko; a paradise of souls."

"You never told me that." It was a gasped response, she knew it and she chided herself for it; Riker seemed completely unaffected by it.

"That's because I didn't believe it-didn't want to believe that one person, one spirit could so deeply affect another."

He was uncomfortable sharing and even as he took her hand in his she could feel his apprehension.

"Deanna...When you were gone," he paused and exhaled, "I WAS Captain Riker. I know I was a jerk to him but I understood, even though it went against everything I believed. I would have torn down the heavens to bring you back."

Moved by his admission, one that went against everything he thought he was, she felt tears again drip over her cheeks and the gentle kisses he used to wipe them away. For an instant she was there in captain Riker's palekaiko, safely sealed in a globe of perfection. But angry claws scraped against the perfection, a banshee's warning she couldn't ignore.

"Will." She pushed away from the chest she leaned her head against. "That's what they want Captain Riker to do.... Forfeit everything to save Shalya."

Panic wrapped an ugly hand around Riker's throat, panic generated not by Deanna's warning but a long forgotten memory that leapt to the surface. "We've got to stop him Deanna or he'll kills us all!"

Chapter 50

Amber, red-amber red. The alternating colors and the simultaneous high-low pitch that accompanied them held Captain Riker in a dulled hypnotic trance as he reprogrammed the T-26 sensor range, modifying the ship to emulate some of the technology he'd liberated from the Enterprise. The task was mundane and had managed to keep his mind off his AWOL first officer, but as the two colors merged, a solid band of orange filled his screen his thought processes returned and churned his stomach.

"Damn headstrong little bitch," he grumbled, wrapping his hand around the cool metal lever on the consul, pushing it up and then slowly back. The rapid metallic clicks slowed and finally stopped assuring him his changes had been locked in. He slouched down in his chair and slapped his communicator.

"Riker to bridge."

<Go ahead Captain.>

Arla's response was instantaneous, but Riker didn't hear it, his eyes suddenly dropped to the wrist that rested on the display screen. With almost cautious fingers he stroked the shadows of the bruise on his wrist, the tactile sense stirring the echoes of a memory to haunt his mind.


Invisible threads pulled him to his feet- emotions, sensations and fractured memories came from outside himself and moved him hypnotically towards the top-hatch for the ship. With a two-fisted grip he turned the containment seal and pushed up, watching the bruise darken. The screech of the grinding metal shocked him from his trance, the bruise muted, coherence returned.


"Stand by Arla."

The calm answer he returned to his tactical officer hardly portrayed his feelings, and the chill that swept through the cockpit contrasted the sweat that soaked his uniform.

"It's not me-It's never been me." He repeated his revelation several more times and continued to spiral a finger around the jagged edge of the latch closure. He squinted his eyes, studying it closer as if his mind was forcing him to see ghosts where there were only shadows, but the longer he looked, studied the split and ragged edges of the crooked latch the more he was sure where he'd seen its after image.

"Arla," he said, pulling his fingers back, certain he could feel the sticky residue of blood penetrating the tips of them just as it had in Commander Riker's quarters. "Have you installed the temporal relay Commander Data sent?"

<Aye Sir.>

"Has the Enterprise left?"

<No Sir.>

"Contact Commander Riker, ask him if he can meet with me." He exhaled a breath that was meant to rid him of the doubts that were filtering through his mind. "Tell him it's urgent-I'll be in Lieutenant Troi's old quarters."

Arla returned an affirmative, but for the first time since he'd known her he heard doubt in her voice, he wondered if it was justified.

The metallic sound of his footsteps disrupted the sterile solitude of the bay, he stared at the shimmering threads of the breath as if answers dangled in the prismatic curtain. There was more contained between the flows of time then Piper had been willing to share and the silent and unseen life forms he'd felt inside the gate played into it somehow.

"Who are you," he said, permitting his fingers to breech the force field protect hatch, "I can't help you if you don't let them talk to me."

The godlike response he'd hoped for never came, he exhaled a long breath and watched the tips of his fingers react to the force field. The low-grade energy appeared to penetrate his hand, creating an illusion that his fingers had actually moved beyond the field, the very tips floating to the right as if they'd moved into a different time-scape--a time-scape seconds ahead of his own.

He drew his hand back slowly and fisted it as if the answer he was looking for could escape his grasp. "I wonder," he mumbled to himself, thinking, remembering what Deanna had insisted were premonitions, what he'd insisted were only dreams and how frightened she'd looked when she'd described them as memories.

<Bridge to Captain Riker.>

"Go ahead lieutenant."

<Commander Riker and Lieutenant Troi have just transported over.>

"That was fast," he said, speaking his thoughts aloud.

<Actually Captain, Commander Riker contacted me right after you did requesting permission to beam onboard.>

He nodded and grunted an affirmative.

<I directed them to Jager bay three.>

"That's fine Arla." He answered quickly, picking up on the note of nervousness in her voice and made a mental note to himself to apologize to her for snapping at her on the bridge. He started to end the transmission and stopped himself.

"Arla, dispatch a Jager, see if it can pick up on the matter-antimatter trail of the Spook ship that Piper high jacked."

Arla's affirmative was drowned out by the baritone voice of the Enterprise first officer. Riker pivoted towards the two officers that approached him asking his one and only question before the Commander had ducked under the wing of the first Jager in the bay.

"Stardate Commander...I need the stardate that the Enterprise came through the gate." He could feel Deanna, the tangible sensation of her gaze, the gentle nudge of her thoughts that were trying to temper the anxiousness he was feeling, but he never moved his eyes from Commander Riker.

"Two three six nine." Riker answered quickly, but continued to look at him as if he were some kind of threat.

"The entire date Commander."

"Tuesday, November third...What the hell difference does it make."

Commander Riker shifted his weight and shared a look with Deanna.

The Banshee Captain remained rigid.

"Computer," he said, hardly waiting for the warble of acknowledgment before continuing. "Please state today's date."

"Two three six nine.eight.five."

"August fifth," he interjected before the Commander could speak, "I haven't turned thirty-three yet. How old are you Commander Riker?"

The Enterprise officer stroked his beard thoughtfully and looked past him at the twinkling strings of the Breath. He cast a look to Deanna, she looked cold, wasn't his intention and now that he'd blurted out his thoughts he wished he'd done it only to the Commander. He didn't bother asking her if she remembered the date, because he had a hunch she wouldn't, just as he had a hunch she hadn't come through the gate.

"You have a theory I take it Captain."

He found he was impressed with Commander Riker's controlled question, because he also had a feeling the Enterprise officer understood already what he was thinking.

"Not a theory," he answered, "More like a premonition." His eyes drifted to Troi and Riker's followed. "I suggest you contact your Captain, tell him to sit tight. I'm not sure he'd enjoy the timeline he's going to return to."

Commander Riker nodded and took a step closer to Troi. Captain Riker watched the discreet gesture, the almost invisible comfort and frowned, an inappropriate anger consuming him.

"Do you understand Commander," he practically yelled, "If we can't fix're already dead. Jesus-" He swallowed the rest of his judgmental comments with a deep breath and raked a frustrated hand through his hair. "Let's go." He jerked his head towards the doors and began walking briskly towards the exit.

"Where are we going?"

Behind him he heard Riker's heavy footfalls moving closer and the fainter sound of Troi's double steps to keep up. He stopped as the doors hissed open.

"Sickbay Commander...we need to see if we can pinpoint the timelapse." He leaned against the opened doorway. "If we can't, then launching the sound waves will do shit to close the gate."


"And Commander Merek?" Captain Riker spoke softly, almost guardedly, aware that his uncharacteristic fidgeting, his visible anxiety was projecting itself to Riker and Troi.

Doctor Howard tapped a few buttons and glanced only for a moment at the pattern on the display screen. "They appear to coincide with yours Captain." Riker's brows wrinkled. "For forty-three minutes and twenty-eight seconds Commander Merek's aging process shutdown, her evolutionary pattern ceased to develop. If these readings are correct and correlate to your time inside the gate it would appear that for both of you and Commander Riker time ceased to exist."

"Why not Deanna?" Commander Riker vocalized the question the Banshee Captain had been turning over in his of the questions he'd been turning over in his mind. He'd interrupted Dr. Howard's explanation of a theory that time was nothing more then a product of human perception. Once she'd launched into the long debated discrepancies between quantum theory and general relativity the pounding in his head had become far more crucial then understanding what he'd experienced inside the gate. Sometimes he'd decided as he'd watched Riker and Troi's blank stares mirror his own, ignorance really was bliss.

Dr. Howard shrugged. "I'll do more testing, it could be her Betazoid DNA base reacts differently."

Captain Riker nodded and watched Deanna walk slowly to the back of sickbay, he could tell she was concentrating, trying to remember, but he could also tell she was frightened. He took a half step towards her and stopped at Commander Riker's question.

"But Commander Merek isn't Betazoid and if Deanna is right about this Piper Merek and the one we encountered in our own time being the same, she should have more then one timelapse in her readouts."

"I am right." Deanna turned, her wide dark eyes drifting between the three of them, they finally locked on the Banshee Captain. "You know I'm right Will."

"I don't know that." His reply was dry and sharp and though he'd used the intonation he wasn't sure what had spawned it.

He knew she was accessing his thoughts, had the ability to reach in and take the information she wanted. Fatigue and frustration had made him vulnerable, fighting the invasion that burned through his mind was impossible, he exchanged resistance for cooperation and sent her what he'd been keeping to himself since he'd left the interior of the gate.

<There's life inside.> Intent on watching her reaction he hardly noticed when the kinetic tingle in his head dissipated and was replaced by only the dull throbbing in his temples. She said nothing and broached the topic with only an arched brow. He shook his head, aware of the intensity of Commander Riker's stare.

"Would you two like to be alone?" Curt and nasty, Commander Riker punctuated his annoyance by stepping between them.

"I think," Captain Riker said, ignoring the Enterprise officer and speaking to Deanna over his shoulder, "I think Piper, Shayla-" God, why did it hurt so much to say her name. "-maybe the phantoms in general aren't working as part of a war effort or at least not part of a war effort for this war." he gestured around himself and dragged a heavy hand over his beard.

"Captain." The single word was tart enough to finally force him to give Commander Riker his attention.

"Deanna can fill you in Commander." More to annoy then comfort he slapped his hand a few times on Riker's shoulder. "I have a brief flight to make."

The Commander's I don't think so and Deanna's Captain sounded in harmony with Arla's call from the bridge. He chose only to respond to his tactical officer.

"Go ahead Lieutenant."

<We just received word from Commander Marks. The transmission was tacky, but I think he said he picked up the phantom's trail in sector 413.> She paused. < We did pick up pulsar interference.>

"Send word to the Enterprise...tell em to stay put." He broke off and looked at Riker and Troi. "You two want to jump ship do it now." He continued his orders without waiting for a response. "Net the Banshee, set course for Onious, warp nine."

Chapter 51

Since the first day Deanna Troi had set foot on the warship Banshee the energy and drive of her crew had been a source of comfort for the Betazoid. Now with the source of that electricity so deeply embedded in himself the bridge was sheathed in an aura of indifference and doubt that grew more powerful the closer the ship moved towards the pulsars. Beside her she could feel Commander Riker's eyes watching the hands she fidgeted in her lap. She looked up at him, projecting her silent request only when she was certain that the Captain of the Banshee shouldn't be alone in his readyroom.

Commander Riker's nod was almost invisible; she stood up astutely aware of Commander Riker's doubts about the Captain's ability to command. She couldn't agree with his feelings, but she could well understand. She nodded over her shoulder before stopping in the archway of the open ready-room.

"Captain?" The fact that he'd left the door open when giving Commander Riker the bridge hadn't surprised her and only reinforced her conviction that there was no one else more worthy of captaining this ship. She hoped she could convince him.

"Back to square one aren't we lieutenant?" Pressing the heels of his hands against the edge of his desk, his chair rolled back; the haunting blue-white threads of the pulsars shadowing the guise of a smile he offered her. "Maybe I did go off halfcocked."

He gestured to the chair across from him, and though she sensed that he was pleased she was there she still found herself approaching cautiously. It was the uncharacteristic emotion that twisted and curled around him that kept her steps towards him slow; a fear so black she could almost smell it.

"Captain Riker is always fully cocked, isn't that what you told me?"

His chuckle forced and unnatural complimented the sensation of the cold metal chair she sat down in. The smile she'd willed to her lips trembled away.

"Why are you afraid Will?"

"Not for any of the reasons I should be." His shoulders slouched; he tugged on the collar of his uniform as if it was choking him. "We may die here...I may have failed my crew in bringing them here...In our own need for power, the ultimate strength, we may have destroyed an unknown race and possibly ourselves in the process." His voice became softer, but more bitter with each offering. "But that's not why I'm afraid...I'm afraid that Shayla is alive, that Piper's telling me the truth." He swallowed hard and his jaw visibly tightened. "I can't forgive her Deanna."

He pivoted his chair away from her; she understood why and felt the weight of his pain constrict her own chest. "Pretty damn selfish aren't I. My wife could be alive and all I can think about is how could she do this to us. How could anything be more important to her then we are." He inhaled a deep, staggered breath and exhaled slowly; she knew to compose himself. He pivoted back to face her slowly. "Ironic isn't it?"

"You're being too hard on yourself Will...You're always too hard on yourself. I'm not sure what you think you are, but you're only a man. Feeling anger, resentment, even fear is normal."

"Not for me it's not." He thumped a thumb against his chest and stood stepping towards the bridge without affording her a look.

"That's a crock of shit and you know it!"

He stopped short and turned back, his brows arched high over his glistening blue eyes. "Is that your professional opinion?"

She squared her stance and prepared to defend herself, protect him from his own detrimental feelings, the sharp rock of the deck and Commander Riker's Captain to the bridge silenced her attempt.

"Report!" Captain Riker was on the bridge, making demands before she could collect and contain the emotions she was sensing from him. The Captain on the other hand had wrapped his up tight.

She stood, mesmerized by his control in the ready-room doorway, at first studying the battle that was rocking the warship and then studying the Captain that had slid into the chair at Ops.

"Captain, the Romulan patrol ship can't withstand another hit from the cruiser!"

It wasn't Arla's warning, but Captain Riker's order that hastened her steps onto the bridge.

"Disengage the net, position the Banshee between the patrol and the cruiser and open fire."

With a firm but gentle hand she stopped Commander Riker's objection, but the momentary lag between command and the obedience of his crew seemed endless. "He knows what he's doing Will," she whispered, hoping to relax the rigid muscles that flexed under her palm.

"He thinks he knows what he's doing." Pulling away from the hold she had on him Commander Riker moved closer to the view screen, bracing himself on the OP's chair as the black space ignited in fiery flames and the tiny warship yawed and sputtered from the impact.

"Reroute power to forward shields!" Above the warning sirens Captain Riker's order thundered.

"Have you lost your mind.... You've got Romulans up your ass too."

"If you can't follow MY orders." The Captain stood, his glare more dangerous then the anger that consumed his voice. "Then get the hell off my bridge. Deanna," he said, staggering under the shivering deck. "I need a damage report."

She amazed herself at how quickly she slid into Piper's chair and accessed the quivering controls. The smell of smoke and the whine of protest she heard in the familiar engines assured her the Banshee Captain wasn't going to be pleased.

"Hail the Patrol ship Arla!"

Above her she heard another curt exchange between Commander Riker and the Banshee Captain. Captain Riker's angry words stretching the bridge crews emotions so tightly she found herself shifting in her chair.

"I'll have you physically removed Commander if you can't follow my orders!"

It wasn't the sharp reprimand that lifted Deanna's eyes to the Banshee captain in time to see him discreetly drum his fingers over the display below him, it was the lack of rage she felt behind his angry words. When she felt Commander Riker's feelings also temper as he eyed the display she stood up slowly.

"Return to your post." Commander Riker punctuated his order with an icy look that forced her back to her chair.

"No response from the patrol ship Captain." Behind her she heard Arla's report to her captain. "They appear to be deliberately blocking us."

"Why?" Captain Riker's mumbled question was spoken only to Commander Riker. "What's she up to?"

Concentrating so hard on the whispered conversation between the two officers Deanna hardly heard Arla's repeated warning and was snapped from her concentration only by the blue-white burst of light that ignited the bridge. The inky black space outside churned with multiple colors, a tunnel of spiraling light swelled in the silent vacuum.

"Sir we're picking up quantum residue. It's a cloaked Warbird Sir."

"Load torpedo bays, prepare to fire." The captain's order was instinctive, but his confusion bled through the front of Command he was displaying.

"Extrapolating coordinates from residue traces." Arla's play by play, the warble of her consul and the low rumble of the weapon's bays loading all muted into one nerve-racking sound. Deanna ran a damp palm over her display. "Will!"

Both officers turned towards her urgent call. "This is an antimatter's the phantom ship!"

The quick step that Captain Riker took towards her display was stopped abruptly by the voice that sounded through the bridge.


"Shalya." The Captain's voice was flat calm, but the white knuckled grip he'd taken on her chair and the fierce emotions that caused her breath to stall brought her to her feet.

"We've pinpointed the coordinates ---The Warbird's cloak is fluctuating we have to fire now!"

Arla's warning went unnoticed by Captain Riker. "Status of your shields Shayla?"

"Fire Will, do it now!" Shayla's voice was strong and commanding, but her fear and heartache seeped between her words. "Don't risk your ship!"

Captain Riker seemed entranced, not by the ghostly hull of the Warbird that seemed to be struggling to de-cloak, but by Deanna's eyes.

"No damn it!" He said it suddenly, and in spite of the high-tension and noise of the bridge his ardent reaction still caused her to jump. "I won't make that decision again. Lower shields, lock onto the occupant of the spook ship!"

"Captain, that's suicide."

Deanna hardly heard the extended objection from Commander Riker, another emotion, distant, but determined wrapped around her throat like an angry hand. "Piper," she mumbled under her breath only seconds before Arla announced the power-surge from the Romulan Patrol ship.

"They're dumping all they've got into warp power. Captain its Commander Merek."

"She's set a collision course." Commander Riker's grip on the Banshee Captain went unnoticed.

<You've got 45 seconds Captain charming.... Beam her out of there or I'll kick your ass from here to Cardassia. >

"Piper NO!" His own voice sounded hollow in his ears. The orders he barked to his crew, the flash of crystal light that filled the bridge and the blur of the Patrol ship as it rejected his attempt to stop it all slowed and dulled as if the interior of the warship had been taken by the vacuum of space.

A single moment of coherent thought filled his mind as his eyes locked on the dark familiar eternity of shalya's gaze. Flames and a thundering crash that rocked and tumbled the warship shattered the fraction of a moment. Through the haze of smoke that sheathed the bridge he saw Shayla stumble.

Still barking orders he lunged for her, his hand only grazing hers before his head hit the deck with an ugly crack, his orders and the heartbeat that was the pulse of the Banshee bridge both fell forever silent.