"Are you sure you're all right?" The concerned voice caused Will Riker to pause in the doorway. He eyed the woman on the couch and smiled to himself at her tousled appearance. She brushed a few strands of her golden curls away from her dark eyes, and arched an untamed brow impatiently.
"Fine." He answered, reinforcing it with a wink, "Go to sleep, I'll be on the bridge."
He smiled before he left, the one she returned him almost made him believe his own lie...the woman herself making his life bearable for the last two years. Theresa Macgrath had been an intricate part of his crew since he'd taken command of the Enterprise E, but in the last two years her importance in his life had taken precedence over her duties. She'd slipped into the job of ship's counselor when Deanna Troi had chosen to give up most of her duties, and he'd doubted her ability to fill her shoes. But within a few weeks she'd taken most of Deanna's workload and been accepted warmly by a crew he was sure had had the same reservations he'd had. But none so quickly as Deanna, amazingly their contrasting personalities blended with perfection and seemed to play off each, the job taking the strengths of both of them.
He found himself smiling outwardly at the memory as he stepped onto the Enterprise bridge, the handful of personal on duty for the night shift stiffened at his arrival and relaxed instantly. He nodded silently... slowly, almost cautiously approaching the view screen. He watched the expanse of blackness, drew in a breath at the familiar constellations.... Finally.... hesitantly, looking down at the blue green planet below. Betazed took center stage in the midst of the black and the white, a shimmering light sparking with life in the otherwise dead vacuum of space.
There were times he wondered if this was where his life had begun, sheltered beneath a tangle of vines, surrounded by the heat of the jungle and the sweet breath of her. Yet the things he'd pledged he'd never forget, the flavor of her lips, the scent of her skin as they consumed each other in love, had all drifted so far into the recesses of his mind, it felt at times as if it were muted dream.
<<Crusher to Riker?">>
Beverly's voice sounded loudly over the Comm and filtered faintly into his thoughts.
"Yes Doctor?" He replied on instinct, his mind still vying to remember.
<<It seems Jacen as gone on another nightly adventure.>>
Her voice was calm enough and he'd gotten this call often enough that his heart had learned to only jump half way into his throat.
"I'm on my way Beverly."
He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, a hint of a smile playing on his lips...Maybe he couldn't remember all the details about Deanna, but the most precious piece of her was in sickbay.... unfortunately that precious piece seemed to be peppered with a great deal of his father.
Will paused in the doorway, if for no other reason then to wipe the grin from his face before he entered.
"I don't have to stay here do I doctor?"
Jacen Kyle Riker looked strangely familiar to Will as he sat on the table, arms folded defiantly across his chest demanding to be released from sickbay. The reproving look of Doctor Crusher also stirred his memories, none of them distant enough.
"You young man have to stop pretending to be bigger then you are. Free climbing is not something for little boys...actually from my dealings with your father, it's not something for grown men either."
"I have to agree with the doctor Jacen," Will said, stepping beside his son, visually scanning him for injuries and running an affectionate hand through his dark hair, "No more free climbing.... Not until tomorrow when I'll take you myself."
1He didn't have to look up to know Beverly was rolling her eyes and probably biting her lip to keep from expressing her opinion on what he'd just promised.
"Does grandma free climb?" Jacen's indigo eyes stared questioningly at his father, Will couldn't help but chuckle at the serious expression on his son's face.
"I really doubt it Jace. But then your grandma is full of surprises." Will flicked his finger under his son's dimpled chin before raising his eyes to meet with Beverly's. "Considering you haven't intervened I can only guess it wasn't anything serious."
Beverly shook her head, "No it wasn't, but I still think he's too young for some of these things he's attempting. He's only 7 Will."
1"I devised the program myself Beverly," He answered, keeping defensiveness out of his tone. Since Deanna's death it seemed Jacen's upbringing had been logged into the duty roster. He appreciated all the help and constant advice, but there were times he had to remind some people that he was his father. "It's perfectly safe."
"I wouldn't have fallen at all if it weren't for Mac." Jacen interrupted his father and pointed an accusing finger to the woman that had just come out of the next room.
"What happened to you?" He swiped a hand over his mouth, hiding his smile from the dripping wet woman in front of him.
"She stepped on the third foothold." Jacen said, unlike his father making no effort to keep his amusement from his face.
"Big mistake," Will said, folding his arms across his chest and slowly shaking his head in mock disappointment, "How many times have you done that now? And how is it you saw fit to take my son climbing after bedtime?"
Will had to join his son in his laughter, she didn't look like much more then a kid herself, and dripping wet she looked even younger. When he'd first met her, he thought there'd been a mistake in orders, and he'd found himself verifying that she was who she said she was. But her looks were the only way she seemed younger then her thirty years, she'd worked hard, pulled herself out of a painful childhood, and more then likely shook hands with the devil more then once to graduate sixth in her class from the academy. He admired her for that, and for the caring person she'd managed to salvage from her unfortunate youth.
"I don't think I want to stay here any longer," She said, the deep dimples in her cheeks betraying the expression she was trying to portray, "you're both bullies."
"Thanks Mac," Jacen called after her as she squished out of sickbay.
"Now that you've both finished picking on Theresa, I'd like to go to bed," Beverly smiled down on Jacen, "I won't be needed anymore tonight will I gentlemen?" She asked, arching an auburn brow.
"I think we can guarantee your rest Beverly...Thanks."
Will sprawled out on the couch in his quarters, staring at the ceiling and wishing the night would end. His hours alone consumed him piece by piece; his mind set in continuous playback, reliving the nightmare that took her away. He covered his eyes with his arm as if he could shield himself from his thoughts, protect himself from theorizing on what he could have done differently...But it was no use, the black abyss of space spread through his mind, and amidst its depths Deanna's shuttle sparkled like a single star as it approached the enterprise. Her face reflected itself on the view screen, smiling at him and Jacen, her dark eyes dewy with unshed tears.
"It's so nice to be home." She'd said...and as if the gods of time and space resented her joy, the eternal blackness was severed with light.... A fiery red tear, a tiny line of crimson that continued to grow and widen like an earthquake in space, violently shaking the Enterprise, distorting its systems, and tossing Deanna's shuttle like a leaf in the wind. Deanna's horrified face remained on the screen, her terrified screams echoed through the bridge and mingled with Jacen's heart wrenching cries. There was a final roar, an unlikely noise in space and Deanna's shuttle was gone. Her sacrifice seemed to have appeased the demons, with a final burst of blood red light the universe became still...a smooth carpet of black velvet masking any evidence of the lives it had devoured.
Will sat up with a start, running a hand over his damp hair, silently cursing himself for giving his mind the power to control him. He reached out in the darkness, tapping the Comm link beside him.
<Riker to Macgrath.... Mac are you there? >>
There was a slight delay before her response, understandable given the hour.... He took the time to try and compose his voice and soothe the agonizing ache in his chest.
<What is it Will...Have a desire to go rock climbing? >
The soft sound of her voice caused a smile to pull unsuccessfully at the corners of his mouth.
<I've made a decision about Jacen...I can't leave him here. > He hesitated for a moment, his mind still chasing away the shadows of his memories. <Can you come over here, I just want you to validate it for me. >
Jacen wiggled out from under his father's gentle hand, and ran eagerly up the polished stone walkway that led to the Troi estate. Will didn't share his son's enthusiasm. He'd spent hours talking to Mac the night before, he knew he was making the right choice, but convincing Lwaxana Troi was something he was never prepared for. He inhaled a deep breath, stilling his grief as the gentle sound of Muktok carried to his ears. He felt Mac's hand place light pressure on his arm as he veered off the walkway and moved closer to the plants.
"Deanna planted these the day before our wedding." He wasn't sure why he'd felt the need to tell her. "She only planted two that day, and then when Jacen was born she planted another. She was going to plant more when..." His words fell off, his eyes resting on the three flowers. He felt his emotions shifting just as they always did, his grief transforming into anger, "There should be a whole god damn field of these things!" He growled, swiping his hand roughly over the flowers sending their bristled petals to the ground.
"Will." Mac's voice was softer then a whisper, but it cut through his rage and drew his gaze to her.
"I know, I'm sorry." He said, ironically wiping a tear from her cheek while his own eyes remained dry.
"Grandma's coming.... Grandma's coming!"
Jacen's excited cries pulled him momentarily out of his personal hell. He closed his eyes and mentally prepared himself to enter another one.
Will crossed his legs and tried to get comfortable on the plush velveteen sofa in the Troi living room. So far, with Mac and Jacen in the room the conversation had remained superficial, but every so often Lwaxana's eyes would rest on him, each time his foot started to bounce. He rested his hand on his ankle to stop his nervous habit, and watched his son whisper to Lwaxana.
"I think we should explore the labyrinth now!" Jacen announced suddenly, shooting off Lwaxana's lap and eyeing Will and Mac expectantly.
"Sounds good to me." Will answered quickly, slapping his hands on his knees and getting up.
"William... perhaps Theresa and Jacen could play in the gardens...I'd like to have a word with you alone." Lwaxana gestured for Will to sit down, her statement had been phrased as a request, but her tone, and the look in her aging eyes told him it was more of an order.
Will nodded, looking to Mac for an out that unfortunately she didn't offer.
"That's sounds fine to me," She said, taking Jacen's hand in hers and sending Will her "you're screwed" look.
"You will be the helpless damsel, and I will be the brave and chivalrous knight." Jason said adamantly, a loose strand of his wavy hair falling over his forehead.
"How bout if I be the brave damsel, and save the helpless knight." Mac returned, her brows raising challengingly.
Jacen scrunched up his nose, his blue eyes wide with shock, "Who ever heard of a brave damsel?"
Will closed his eyes at his son's response, but even through closed lids he could feel Mac and Lwaxana's eyes digging into him.
"Hey," He finally said, cloaking his smile, "He gets this stuff from books, I swear." He held up his hands, exposing his palms, surrendering that of course these ladies had every reason in the world to be looking at him as if he had brought his son up in the dark ages.
"You'll come out later Dad?"
Will threw a thumbs up to his son, watching his guardians disappear into the foliage of the garden. Even after they were gone, he kept his eyes forward, studying the bed of yellow roses as if it substantiated the matrix of life.
"Anytime you're ready William." Mrs. Troi said, resting her hand on his ankle, stilling his foot.
"Mrs. Troi, I've given this a lot of thought...considering who you are, I'm sure you already know I just can't leave him here. It wouldn't be right. It's not what I want, and I'm sure it's not what Deanna would have wanted."
She studied him for what seemed an eternity, her dark eyes, so like her daughters, looking beyond the man he portrayed, penetrating into the man he was.
She composed her thoughts with a deep breath, and smoothed the abundance of emerald fabric that fell in glimmering creases on her lap, "How long has the Enterprise been in deep space...And how long since you, or any member of your crew has had shore leave."
"Eighteen months," Will answered, knowing she already knew the truth, "But you seem to be the only one complaining Mrs. Troi."
"Maybe because I'm the only one not afraid to say what they think."
"No one could ever accuse you of that," He swallowed hard, checking the bite in his voice, "But I honestly don't believe my crew fears me."
"They fear upsetting you," She said collectedly, "your internal grief is not as imperceptible as you'd like to believe."
"So your answer is ditch my son." He cringed inwardly as his voice elevated, he had no intentions of allowing Jacen to relive his own childhood...and leaving him here in favor of his career had a very familiar ring.
"I just think a few months of normalcy would do him good...and I'm not so sure you wouldn't benefit from it as well."
He fell silent, in his eyes she was wrong, but he stood a better chance of explaining the nature of the universe then convincing her. He massaged the back of his hand methodically under his chin, looking everywhere but at her.
"When was the last time you had sex William?"
His hand stalled in mid stroke, the shock in his blue eyes deepened by his raised brows. "Pardon me?" He said, his suddenly dry throat strangling his words.
"It's a valid question, celibacy isn't in your nature." He was sure she was hiding a sinful smile, and for the life of him he couldn't understand why. "Deanna certainly wouldn't have wanted you to give it up because of her."
"I'm not sure Deanna would have wanted me to discuss it with her mother either." He answered, wiping his damp palms on his thighs.
"Well, there's really nothing discuss, is there William?" One manicured brow arched knowingly.
Will picked up the glass on the table beside him, gulped the liquid, appreciating the relief to his parched throat, and the way the sweet sour taste toyed with his taste buds.
"The Enterprise upgrades will take over a week," He said, changing the subject, and praying that she'd allow it, "If Jacen wants to, he's welcome to stay here with you."
Lwaxana smiled and nodded, but continued to study him closely, "Theresa told me you haven't slept in your bed since the accident," She paused, when no response came she continued, "Dr. Crusher has also told me you haven't been eating or sleeping well. At one point I believe she said she had to threaten to relieve you of command to get you to take better care of yourself. We're all concerned about you William."
He made a mental note to wring both Beverly and Mac's necks first opportunity he got, took a deep breath and answered, "And I'm very fortunate to have three such beautiful women looking out for me."
"Very smooth Captain, but I'm afraid your charms are wasted on me." She waved her hand, dismissing his statement, smiled faintly, and again pinned him with her dark gaze, "I'm Deanna's mother. If I believed there was even a remote possibility she were alive I wouldn't be pushing you to discontinue this self-destructive mode you've set for yourself. Your need for the tangible, your desire for explanations will never be appeased...Please William, stop this, if not for yourself, for Jacen."
The tears that threatened to fall from Lwaxana's eyes, combined with the warmth of her hand as it slowly stroked his, caused his throat to burn and his eyes to sting.... Unfortunately, the tears he willed away weren't caused by acceptance or grief, but a rage that burned with an ever-increasing fury in his belly.
"This conversation is over Mrs. Troi," He snapped, jerking his hand free of hers, "My primitive nature won't allow me to still my feeling because it suits me, I'm very sorry if that disappoints you." He moved through the large French doors, his long strides taking him away from Mrs. Troi's scrutiny, and into the sanctuary of the gardens.
Will poured himself another shot of Marvian whisky and downed it just as quickly as he had the first three. He tossed a look to his son's empty bed, the bitter whiskey clouding his mind, and mitigating the feelings the sight provoked. He dimmed the lights, flopped on the couch and poured another drink, knowing its numbing effects would take hold soon. The light of his computer terminal cast an eerie green glow in the dark cabin, he watched the sensor scans just as he did every night, and every night they remained dormant.
The door chimes sounded, the intruder he'd expected entering before he was able to initiate the lock.
"I thought you were my friend." He grumbled, ignoring her rigid stance and her exasperated sigh as she looked at his Computer station, "Why do you give her ammunition?"
"If there's a way not to tell Lwaxana something...please enlighten me."
She had a point, but he wasn't going to let her off the hook that easily, "You discussed my sex life."
"You don't have a sex life Will, it was a very short conversation."
She ordered the computer to half-lights, Will squinted against it and groaned.
"How do you know Mac, while you're asleep I could be out screwing the entire female compliment of the ship."
"Wouldn't that be a bit redundant? From what Deanna told me, before you were married if a new female ensign hadn't gotten laid by Commander Riker, her Starfleet training was considered incomplete."
"Deanna said that?" He asked doubtfully, somehow feeling better inside. She had a way of doing that, it was the way she never hesitated to mention Deanna, while everyone else took great pains not to say her name.
"I think she worded it differently, but the idea was the same." She brushed her hair behind her shoulders, waggled her brows and sat down in front of the computer screen.
He poured another shot, watching her magnify the image on the screen, "Maybe we should have sex." He said.
"And maybe you should stop drinking that garbage." She answered without turning; he shook his head, half smiling at her lack of interest.
"Have you noticed these readings have increased?" Now she turned to face him, the excitement he'd been unable to generate at his suggestion now sounded loudly in her voice, "Look they're spiking every thirty seconds."
Will jumped off the couch, stumbling forward as his spinning head reminded him his brain was fermenting. He steadied himself on the back of Mac's chair, through blurred vision he watched the diminutive changes she was talking about.
"Maybe this will actually shed some light on the anomaly that took Deanna." She looked up at him hopefully, he nodded and returned his gaze to the screen.
He'd left the sensors at the accident point in hopes that someday the anomaly would reoccur.... What Mac didn't know was studying them on the screen wasn't what he had in mind.
With the Enterprise systems off-line he was hard pressed to come up with a way to check out the recent developments in the anomaly. One of the Enterprise shuttles wouldn't have been good enough and he'd seen one of the older runabouts when he'd beamed off the Enterprise. Admiral Picard was more then willing to arrange for him to use it when he'd said he wanted to take Mac to Risa while Jacen was staying with Lwaxana Troi.
The young lieutenant that stood watch at the entrance to the landing bay jerked to attention as Riker came into view. Will smiled and with a gesture of his hand set the young officer at ease. "Is the Gauntlet ready lieutenant?" he asked, looking past him to the creamy white hull of the runabout.
"Yes Captain, Admiral Picard's orders just came down...she's at your disposal."
"Very good." Will nodded, resisting the eager grin that was threatening to breach his bearded face.
<I'm doing the right thing Deanna. > He was beginning to wonder who he was trying to convince, Deanna or himself. But he needed a how, and he needed a why, even if the results forced him to admit to himself that Deanna was dead.
He dropped his bag on the floor and accessed the hatch...the hum that sounded as the hatch responded to his command increased the blood that pumped through his veins. Since he'd taken command of the Enterprise, his away missions were limited; he'd almost forgotten the rush he got each time he ventured into the unknown.
He uploaded the data from his computer on the Enterprise, set his coordinates, fired the engines, and moved outside to retrieve his bag. He picked it up and slung it over his shoulder; his shoulder slouched under the weight and tensed at the sound of footsteps behind him. "You're not coming," He said, tossing his bag inside and turning to look at her.
She didn't argue, she didn't say anything, she only tossed him a measuring look and planted her hands on her hips.
"Did you hear me?" He said, back stepping into the runabout as if he could escape her glare, "That's an order...do you understand."
She still remained silent, slowly, and unaffectedly moving closer to the ship. When she was so close he could feel the heat of her body against his, she finally spoke, "I made a promise, and I won't break it."
His obstinate blue eyes locked with her similar brown ones. "I don't care about your promises, I'm not backing down on this Mac." He took hold of her upper arms, gripping them more firmly then necessary. "I'll say this only one more time," He cautioned, "I'm going alone."
Will stared out the view screen of the shuttle, the pearly white stars appearing to liquefy as they flew past them. Jacen had dubbed the small sector of space that swallowed Deanna alive; The Dragon's Mouth, he also found it fitting, and the words still haunted him.
He sent a sidelong glance to the copilots seat and then quickly turned his attentions back to the view screen. The perfectly timed blips that Mac had found the day before continued, intensifying the closer the shuttle got to the black abyss of the dragon's mouth. He found his gaze returning to the seat beside him, this time his look didn't go unnoticed. His face twisted into a scowl, he raised a finger of warning at his unlikely copilot, "If you don't wipe that god dam smirk off your face, I'll wipe it off for you."
"I'm sorry, but bullshitting Captain Riker is a great accomplishment."
"Bullshitting isn't the word," He replied sharply, "Blackmail is the word. You threatened to contact Admiral Picard if I didn't let you come."
She stifled a laugh, her infuriating grin deepening the dimples in her cheeks, "But what I failed to tell you, is it was Admiral Picard that contacted me and told me what you were up to."
"Wha..Yo....." Will stammered, searching his mind for his best insult. He stared at her, shaking his head slowly, the fact that he was at a loss for words only seemed to heighten her pleasure. "I never really liked you ya know, I only tolerated you because of Deanna. You're a short, smug, bleached blond with a foul mouth."
She chewed her lip to keep from smiling, arched one thick dark brow and ran a finger over his beard, "And you're old," She said matter-of-factly before returning her attentions to the computer readouts.
Maybe it was the familiar fragrance of Mac's hair, or maybe her warm breath as it tickled against his throat, but for the first time, in a very long time, Will Riker slept soundly. His nightmares of fire and terror were momentarily replaced by candlelit images of Deanna...Images not of the twisted look of fear that had been branded into his mind, but the smile he'd been unable to revive. Behind his closed lids, his mind's eye granted him amnesty, allotting him an unconscious moment to savor the flavor, the scent, and touch his life had been stripped of. From the beautiful young woman he'd lusted after at Chandra's wedding, to the woman he loved looking up at him at their wedding, to her heart stopping beauty as she held their tiny son in her arms...the visions stroked a soothing hand over his aching soul and momentarily filled his empty heart. But with a jarring crash, a flash of crimson, and the shrill sound of the red alert, his memories were raped by his ugly reality.
"What the hell was that!" He shouted, scrambling to his feet and making a beeline to the view screen. His eyes darted over the controls, and then to the eternal black carpet devoid of stars that was the dragon's mouth. The outside space was still, undisturbed inky darkness blemished only by the flashing red alert of the shuttle.
"Shut that damn thing off!"
Mac instinctively followed his order, silencing the alarm, and cutting the engines, "There's no indication that anything hit us."
He agreed, keeping his eyes forward, moving them between his readouts and the space outside. "Launch a probe." She followed his order, the shimmering shell of the probe cutting through the blackness until its image dissolved in the distance. "Again," He said, narrowing his eyes as the probe released. "There.... Did you see that?"
"There's something there," Mac answered, a whisper of fear slipping into her voice, "It's like a panther lying in wait."
He swallowed hard, wondering why no one had ever picked this up before. The probe had caused an almost unnoticeable ripple in the black; the interment spikes of the readouts had waxed and waned when the probe had past.
"More like a Venus flytrap," He observed, "Testing its prey before it opens its mouth and devours it."
"Well it certainly didn't like your probe." Mac returned, resting her hand on his wrist.
"But it like Deanna's shuttle...why?" He stroked his fingers thoughtfully over his lips, they curled into a nefarious smile, "We have to find out what it likes to eat...and then we have to feed it."
"Damn" Riker said, slamming his hand into the console of the shuttle, "There wasn't a thing on Deanna's shuttle that wasn't on the Enterprise, or any other shuttle in the fleet."
Mac startled as he violated the silence with his outburst, her wide eyes almost instantly creasing as she smiled, "Let's not to do that anymore."
His apology was spoken with only a look; her acceptance came in a similar way. Her eyes fell forward, blond curls veiling her features, and Riker's ability to discern what it was that had intrigued her. "What do you see?" He asked, pushing her hair away from her face, interpreting her expression.
"Nothing." Her tone was far from convincing.
Taking her chin between his thumb and index finger he raised her head, forcing her eyes to meet his, "I know what you're thinking," he said, "You think, I think I'm going to find Deanna alive and helping me is only kindling false hopes."
For a moment she only studied him, her chestnut eyes settling on each of his features as if they all held a clue as to what she should say. Finally, releasing him from her scrutiny, she breathed deeply and answered, "It's not what I think that concerns me, it's what I know, and I know you. You won't be satisfied when you find out what will arouse whatever that is into waking," She gestured out the view port, "You'll answer questions and create more for yourself, and you'll continue in this self-destructive loop until you die. And to be honest... I'm not certain you aren't looking for that outcome, an eternal, and permanent end to the hell you force yourself to live in."
Riker sat rigidly, assuming a defensive posture, "I have a son...or have you forgotten, do you honestly believe I'm selfish enough to take away the only parent he has left?"
Mac frowned, "Yes I do."
Riker was struck dumb, not only by her blunt answer, but the resolution that clouded her normally sparkling eyes.
"I'm sorry, I didn't me..." She began to amend her statement.
Riker stopped her by placing a finger to her lips, "That's why you insisted on coming isn't it? You knew I'd think twice before risking someone else's life, but I wouldn't hesitate to risk mine."
"I hoped so, but then I know I have a way of pissing you off, so I couldnít be sure." She shrugged, smiled faintly, and walked to the back of the runabout. He watched her walk away, knowing she was right, and appreciating the fact that she hadn't found it necessary to have him outwardly admit it.
He followed behind her as he realized she'd also avoided his earlier question, and was becoming quite accomplished at the fine art of bullshit.
"If I promise not to get you killed, will you tell me what you were thinking before you drew up my psychological profile." He raised his brows pleadingly.
"It could be nothing, but..." The chirping of the sensors kept her idea from being shared, both dashing back to the front of the runabout.
"Hail them!" Will ordered, eyes fixed on the federation shuttle that would soon pass over the Dragon's mouth.
"No response," she said, "Sensors show all their systems are on line, they're ignoring us!"
"Attention federation shuttle," Will intervened, hoping authority would dissuade them from moving forward, "this is Captain William Riker of the federation starship Enterprise, you're in danger, I repeat you're in danger."
Will set the warning on continuous playback, watching the almost nonexistent blips begin to spike, the black space outside begin to ripple. The shuttle continued on its course, seemingly unaware of the fine line of crimson that was beginning to bleed into the blackness. He shot a sidelong glance to Mac, she folded her arms across her chest, her hands resting on her shoulders as if she were cold.
"How many on board?" he asked, smacking his hand helplessly on the console, wishing he'd brought the Enterprise.
Her answer came just as the fiery jaws of the Dragon's mouth opened, displaying a belly alive with lights that reached out for the shuttle like hundreds of tentacles. The lights tangled around the shuttle, reaching further, closer to the Gauntlet.
"Full reverse!" Will barked as the tentacles began to retract. The mouth of the Dragon opened wider, a scarlet wave spilling over the inky black space, blanketing the runabout. The shipís engines whined, the deck shivered, gray-blue smoke prowled from under the console. Riker recognized the smell. "Cut the engines!" He shouted, gripping his seat, his knuckles whitening as the runabout jerked back.
"It's like a goddamn undertow!"
He reached above him, tapping the ship's systems, dumping all but shields and life support into the stabilizers. The severe jolts to the runabout mitigated, she only shuddered as Will watched first the shuttle, then themselves being consumed by the unknown. The deafening roar diluted to a deafening silence, the vibrant red interior of the anomaly muting to a pearly white.
"All right?" He asked without looking away from the view port.
"Yea." Her reply was spoken on a ragged breath, "It's beautiful."
He ignored her observation; somehow finding time to appreciate the pearly white stomach lining of the anomaly didn't appeal to him.
"The shuttle's gone," he observed, his voice sounding loudly in the hushed environment, "And I don't think we're suppose to be here, I think we just got caught in the tides."
He stared at the dead console thoughtfully, finally without offering an explanation to Mac he slid from his seat to the floor, and moved to the panels below.
"What are you doing?" Mac dropped to the floor beside him.
"The shuttle's not in here.... but I never saw it destroyed, which means there's a way out." He jerked some wires free of there casing, a crooked smile curling his lips as a few sparked with life. "I've heard of some caterpillars that eat their way out of Venus flytraps, turning the tables on their captor. I think we should eat are way out, or at best piss whatever this is off."
He sent a glance over his shoulder to Mac, saw a smile of understanding ignite her fearful features and continued his efforts. All he needed to do was draw enough power to infuse the hull with electricity, and hopefully not short out life support.
The runabout rumbled, shivered as the outside space responded to the electrical current he'd generated. Will pulled himself to his feet in time to be slammed back down to the deck as the runabout caromed out of control. He crawled forward, trying to reach Mac as she struggled with the manual controls.... another burst sent her to the deck with a crack.
He tried to stand, tried to reach her, but the runabout lurched, rolled, tumbling both of them from the floor to the ceiling as she skipped like a rock across a pond. There was a screech like metal against metal...He knew the hull was breaking apart, he felt the cabin begin to lose its pressure, but continued fighting against the force, trying to reach her. He used his boots to grip the metal floor, kicked off as hard as he could and fell with a thud beside her. He draped his body over hers, his protective gesture vetoed by the runabout as it slammed forcefully to a halt.
The warm moist heat below him contrasted the cool sweat that evaporated over his back, he shivered before he forced his eyes open. A blue-black smoke curtained the cockpit in a dreamlike haze, the stench of burning insulation that already burned in his throat and nose immediately stung his eyes.
"Mac!" Spotting the source of the blood and the still body protected under his right shoulder he shouted her name. Covering the wound on her shoulder with one hand, he felt for her pulse with the other. He breathed a jagged sigh of relief as it pumped strong against his fingers.
Keeping one eye on the small fires that crackled through the cockpit he removed his blood soaked hand from Mac's shoulder and took off his shirt, tying the damp cotton fabric snugly around her shoulder. When he was satisfied he'd stopped the bleeding; he struggled to his feet and used manual extinguishers to douse the flame.
Finally he turned to the shattered view port.
"Nice place" He groaned as his own injury made itself known. He pressed his hand against his cheekbone, feeling the swelling, and the sting of the gash. But his eyes remained fixed on this world outside...the ground dry and cracked, void of vegetation, the sky masked behind billowy clouds of gray-black smoke, only traces of sunlight filtering through the thick blanket of soot.
A few strides brought him to her, he knelt down beside her, "How are you feeling?"
"I thought you were suppose to be an ace pilot." She said, flinching as he tightened the bandage on her shoulder.
"Hey, you're not dead are you?" He cocked an eyebrow and got back to his feet, "I'm going to get the med kit."
"Wait.... Where are we?"
"Hell, I think," He said, coercing a chuckle to mask the eerie feeling that was blossoming inside him. It was only a flutter, like nervous knots in the pit of his stomach, but it continued to intensify, raising the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. "Deanna," He whispered, moving closer to the view port. The sensation climaxed, causing actual pain to his heart, and then vanished.
She awoke with a start, her dark eyes darting over the candlelit room, the familiar surroundings taming the panic that had welled inside her. A few wisps of her hair clung to her damp cheeks; she brushed them away with her hand, and used the sheet that covered her to dab away her tears. Her empathic skills had been all but forgotten, the feelings of those around her never invading her as they once had. But sometimes in her dreams buried and unexplained feelings made themselves known...her own unresolved issues rained havoc on her subconscious. She shivered as a chill swept over her and slid back down under the covers, pulling them around her neck. The warmth beside her motivated her to turn to her side, draping an arm around the sleeping man she curled her body into his, listened to his steady breathing, and basked in the security it offered.
"Get that thing away from me!" Will snapped, batting Mac's hand away from his face, "You shouldn't be using your arm anyway."
"Come on Riker, be a man, let me suture your cheek. I let you do my shoulder." She returned, waving the laser torch in his face.
"I'm not playing doctor with you," He insisted, as he continued his tricorder scans of the outside environment. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her gaze at the outside readings, he hoped they'd interest her more then the injury on his face.
"What do you think happened here?"
He smiled inwardly as her attentions, at least for the moment shifted. "At first I thought it looked a lot like the aftereffects of a nuclear fall out, or maybe even some kind of natural cataclysm." He stroked his beard thoughtfully, "These outside reading though suggest something different, Look at this..." He said, pointing to the elements that had broken down, "Nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, the list goes on."
"Pollutants." She frowned, shaking her head, "Self-destruction then...are you getting any life sign readings."
"Trace readings, non human life forms everywhere, insects mostly," He said, grinning at the disgusted look she sent him, "Big insects," He added, mostly for his own amusement.
She looked at the readings for a moment, then watched as he widened the scan. They shared a look, "Is it safe to go out there?"
"I think so, but I'm going to suggest we bring oxygen just in case.... the concentrations of humanoid life forms are over sixteen kilometers away."
"Great, I'd love to get out of this metal coffin." She smiled, stood up, then tossed a look over her shoulder, "I hear bats have a high resistance to pollutants. Do you think we'll run into any of them," She asked, her smile thinning to a nasty smirk as he shuddered.
"I hope not, I hate to think what a bitch it would be to run while weíre slipping and sliding over all those disgustingly crunchy cockroach shells." He smiled victoriously as she mumbled several curses, in several languages and stomped away.
"Hurry up," he called into the runabout as he paced over the petrified surface of the eerie planet. The air was cold, and left a metallic taste in the back of his throat, and the silence was chilling...He'd mentioned bugs to Mac only to push her buttons, but right now the sound of anything, even mutant mosquitoes would have been soothing.
He hadn't mentioned his bizarre feeling about Deanna to Mac; she thought he was unstable enough, fueling the psychologist in her didn't seem like a good idea. Honestly now that he was out here, staring at the miles of devastation, he found himself hoping it wasn't Deanna he'd felt, the thought of her being trapped in this place for over two years turned his stomach.
"Ready." She announced
"That's my shirt..... My favorite shirt."
"I didn't bring anything. Shit, I never thought you'd fall for that cock and bull story I gave you."
She fell in beside him as he began to walk, battling the shirtsleeves that kept unrolling and covering her hands, "When are you going to tell me about Deanna?"
He stopped short and looked down at her, "How the hell do you do that, it's really irritating."
"Just tell me... I swear I won't analyze it. I won't equate it to your lack of sexual activity or the deep-rooted problem you have of insisting all questions have to be answered. I'll just listen."
"Why is everyone so concerned with my lack of sex life."
"Because, from what I understand for most of your life a major part of your thought processes were done without the aid of the head on your shoulders, if you know what I mean. Deanna said it was like an override switch for your good sense."
He rolled his eyes to the dusky gray sky, "Just shut up, if you never speak again, I'll tell you."
"I can't believe she never told you about the bond we share." His brows raised in surprise.
"She started to once... seemed kind of personal... just didn't seem like something I needed to know." She shrugged.
"It seems you allowed her to tell you everything else."
"That's different, it's sex.... All women discuss sex. Men are the ones that have the stupid don't kiss and tell mo....." Her words trailed off, both turning towards the sound of hoofs that echoed over the parched sandy soil.
"We have to hide!" She said urgently.
"Where? He tossed her a disgusted look, "Our only real option would be to dig." The two riders, their features hidden under thick black cloaks, their gloved hands gripping the shaggy fur of their mounts approached slowly. Riker slipped a hand under the back of his jacket and fingered the phaser heíd hidden there. "Donít use it unless you have to," he warned as Mac followed his example.
"Are you lost?" The larger of the two slid off the back of his mount, using its mahogany fur to lower himself to the ground.
"Yea, that's it we're lost." Will said, "Maybe you can help us."
The person under the cloak pushed his hood from his head and revealed his features. His hair was black; long and tangled it fell in disarray below his shoulders, the dark color intensifying his ashen skin and translucent gray eyes. His lips thinned into a chilling grin, even as he spoke to Riker, his eyes were intent on Mac.
"Your cartel is?"
Will stepped a bit closer to Mac. "It's only the two of us, we've come a long way."
"You should be more careful." he replied, "Traveling with her is dangerous." He tipped his head to Mac. "She is fertile?" Will took another step towards Mac as the young man reached for her hair. "Your hair is the color of Macne"
Mac drew back before the man could touch her hair, her brown eyes darkened and narrowed, "You touch me and you'll be worrying about your own productivity."
Will shot her a look, looped his hand around her waist, and firmly grasped her hand, blocking her access to her phaser. "What should we be afraid of?"
The young man chuckled, as he turned Will caught sight of the blade that hung from the his belt, "The mutant society is near here, a fertile woman would be a great prize for them. Come with us, we'll guide you to sanctum."
He had to argue to get Mac to agree, the battle escalating when she had to climb on top of the smelly animal.
It was apparent these two didn't consider them a threat, they gave them access to their own Eline, never searched them or their belongings, only guided them through the bleak terrain. The had ground changed gradually, the cracked sandy soil replaced by a thick black mud; a stream that looked like curdled milk ran beside them.
"Look at that." Mac pointed over Riker's shoulder to the elaborate copper dome in the distance.
"And look at that." Will said, cocking his head in the other direction, "No segregation here." A large wall of inlaid stones stood ominously in the distance, shielding whatever was behind it from view.
"What's behind that wall?" Mac asked, ignoring Riker's silencing look.
"Mutants." The dark-haired man answered, his voice dripping with malice, "Like that one."
On the other side of the milky stream a young woman, her face hidden by long silver-gray hair startled when she heard the voices. Without warning, and certainly provocation the man still hidden behind his hood pulled a sword from his belt, and with a swift motion shot a burst of electricity from the blade, cutting the woman down where she stood.
"What the hell are you doing!" Mac shouted. Her heated words drawing perplexed stares from the two men.
"Ridding the planet of one more."
"Control yourself Counselor," Will whispered, punctuating his annoyance with an icy look. Will nodded to the men, driving away his own disgust at the now still body of the small woman.
The man who had been veiled by his hood until now nodded back and slid off his mount, retrieving the basket the woman had carried. He dumped its contents into the mud, grinding it deeply into the ground with the heal of his boot.
Will's jaw tightened as he eyed the bristled petals the man seemed set on destroying, and turned his gaze to Mac.
"Muktok" He mouthed the word.
"Sanctum," The man Will had learned called himself Shoue smiled and gestured at the massive structure ahead. Mac's arms wrapped tighter around Will's waist, her body pushing tightly against his back. "I don't like this," She whispered. He patted her hand in agreement as he smiled outwardly at Shoue. He watched as the two men slid off their mount, leaving their Eline behind they began to walk to the copper dome. They only took a few steps, stopped and looked at Will, "Sanctum." He repeated.
Will shrugged, sent a look to Mac and dismounted as well. "Come on Mac, we'll be fine." She stared at him for endless seconds before finally giving in to the self-assured grin he offered her. Shoue and his partner began to move again, Will followed behind, Mac's hand uncharacteristically clutching his.
"This is a shitty place." She said.
"Yep, pretty shitty." He agreed, allowing the gap between them and the two men to widen.
Mac must have understood why, because she offered him an answer to his unspoken question as the men moved further ahead.
"The shuttle...the one that fell victim to the Dragon's mouth, the scan I ran before it disappeared revealed its cargo."
"I don't know, I wasn't looking that closely...but I remember thinking they must be terraformers because of the fauna, and Genesis-enhancers on board. And Will," She paused, "I know Deanna was bringing Muktok from Betazed when her shuttle was destroyed."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I asked her to.... It's a long story and not important right now.... But what if the Dragon's mouth isn't an anomaly.... What if its this planets way of restoring itself."
"Sounds a little farfetched Mac...but," He added with a grin, "If that's true, then maybe there's a way out. Maybe we should..."
A thunderous roar silenced his thought and drew their eyes to the copper dome, its shell quivering; a large door breached the seamless metal. The two men stood at the entrance making sweeping gestures of encouragement.
"Come into my web said the spider to the fly," Will mumbled, taking slow cautious steps towards the opening. The humid air inside the dome was like a visible steam, it greeted them before they stepped inside. The thick air took his breath away, and caused sweat to trail down the back of his neck. The doors rumbled behind them, a frosty blast of air against his neck and an all too familiar voice in his head caused him to snap his head around.
The single word literally screamed in his head, the doors slamming shut, its echo began to mute.
"Are you all right?" Mac's eyes moved between him and the empty space behind them, she tugged insistently on his arm, "Will."
"Fine...I'm fine," He answered, running his hand over the back of his neck as the icy needles melted away, replaced by the sweltering heat of the dome. The look in her eyes told him she wasn't satisfied with his answer, he stalled her added questions with a finger of caution, then turned his attentions to the two men.
"Nice place you've got here." He said, summoning up a grin and lying through his teeth. The heavy machinery beneath the metal grating of the floor echoed deafeningly through the dome. A soft golden light blended with the steamy air, it played over the black walls making them appear to be liquid, instead of solid.
The men smiled and pointed to a large metal door on the second level of the massive installation, "You will eat and then she will see you." He offered, tilting his head towards a steel cage that looked to be a lift of some sort.
"She?" Mac said so only Will could hear. He shrugged, "Maybe we shouldn't ask too many questions."
She agreed silently and followed Will and the two men to lift.
Will flopped down on the bed in the quarters they'd been assigned, tucked his knee under his chin and tried to recreate the one word warning that had lashed through his mind. He was positive it was Deanna, but he had to wonder if she was here, and knew he was too, why hadn't she tried to find him. That single thought caused his mind to spin with all kinds of nasty scenarios, and made his anxiety about getting out of this dome heighten.
"Are you going to tell me what's on your mind?" Mac's voice filtered into his thoughts, a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth as she stepped into the room.
"I can't believe you're still eating."
"I was hungry, besides there was nothing else to do you've been a million miles away since we entered this mechanical nightmare."
"I'm sorry," He said, matching her probing gaze with his own, "But something tells me we shouldn't be here, that we're in danger."
She popped the last piece of fruit in her mouth and knelt on the bed beside him, "Something or someone?"
"Deanna's here somewhere, I know it." She opened her mouth, he knew to object, he intervened, "I'm not crazy...and I need you to believe me."
"Fine," She answered without hesitation, "let's get the hell outta here and find her."
He released the breath he was holding and kissed her quickly on her cheek, "I love you, ya know."
"I know.... me too." The smile she offered him did nothing to mask the caution and concern in her eyes.
"Let's go th...."
The doors to the quarters slid open, drawing their attentions to their visitor. Will rose to his feet, meeting the women who stood silhouetted in the doorway. She was tall, taller then himself he thought, with hair the color of mahogany, and almond shaped eyes as black as sable.
"I'm William Riker." He said, extending his hand, "And this is Theresa Macgrath."
She ignored his introduction to Mac and his outstretched hand, instead she circled around him with slow and easy steps, her dark eyes moving over him approvingly.
He cleared his throat, and shifted his weight.... More in response to Mac's disgusted sigh then the sizing up he was getting from this statuesque beauty.
"I'm sorry, I'm not one to fall on formality ...I find you very attractive." Her voice was throaty and seductive, exactly how he expected it to be.
He tipped his head appreciatively, and matched her provocative smile with his own. He took her hand in his, hoping she'd share her identity, and hoping for once Mac would keep her mouth shut.
"My name is Julana, and having you here William Riker is my pleasure. I hope we can mutually benefit each other."
"And what did you have in mind.... Julana?" He asked, throwing a threatening look to Mac before gesturing for Julana to sit down.
"Could we dismiss the little one?" She asked, offering a fleeting glance to Mac.
Will stiffened, waiting for the bomb behind him to explode.... When he was met with only silence and Julana's questioning gaze he turned around.
"Do you mind Mac?" He asked, offering her one of his most pathetic expressions.
"No, not at all." She answered, scooping his knapsack off the floor and disappearing into the other room sporting the grin of the Cheshire cat.
Will felt Julana's hands begin to prowl over his thighs, he stopped them with his own and offered her a cautionary smile. She laughed, and pulled her hands from under his, relaxing back in her chair. "You're right," She said, "My physical gratification can wait, first I.... We, my people need your help."
Will tilted his head questioningly, warding off his insistent curiosity about what had Mac acting so oddly, and devoting his full attention to Julana.
<Imzadi> She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, focusing on the word, her tears slipping unnoticed down her cheeks. Large hands, warm and comforting pressed softly on her shoulders, allaying her concerns.
"You can't stay out here Deanna. It's dangerous."
She opened her eyes and turned to the man who had spoken; her tears distorted his image, but not the genuine concern on his handsome face.
"We have to help him David, we can't let him fall victim to Julana." She could see the profound pain she was causing him and the battle that raged behind his blue-gray eyes.
"If he is as clever as you've been telling me for the past two years, it's unlikely he'll be tricked by Julana."
She dropped her head forward and watched her tears dot the fabric of her dress, "Why is he here David?"
"I don't know."
She raised her eyes to his and pushed his thick dark hair away from his face, "Please help him."
He inhaled an unsteady breath, released it slowly and pulled away from her, "I can't.... I'm not that noble Deanna. If I bring him here, you'll choose to be with him...why would I do that?"
She didn't answer him, she didn't have to, she knew this man well enough to know what his ultimate decision would be. A single tear slipped from under his dark lashes, she wiped it away with her thumb and kissed his cheek softly. He nodded slowly, reluctantly pulling his gaze from hers, "Marnoc!" He shouted over her head, "Get the Eline, we're going to get them out."
Deanna smiled faintly, "You're a good man David."
"I'm a stupid man," He grumbled, a crooked smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.
Back so soon?" Mac asked without looking up from the readouts she was studying, "Tell me, what did the tigress want, besides the obvious." She finally looked at him, her eyes widening as she took in his tousled appearance, "Oh my god, you didn't?"
Normally he would have taken great pleasure in playing this out for all it was worth, but he was more then a little curious about her findings, and more then a little bewildered by what Julana had told him.
"It was touch and go for awhile there, but I managed to talk her out of having me as her main course."
She rolled her eyes, "By touching what, and going where?"
He only chuckled, edging closer to her, trying to get a look at her readings.
She pulled the tricorder to her chest, the playful flicker in her eyes vanished, "Are you positive you didn't do it with her?"
"Have I ever lied to you?"
"Yes, several times." She said flatly.
"Those are poker games Mac, and it's not lying it's bluffing. I care about you too much to ever lie about anything that might endanger the relationship we share." He half smiled, held her eyes and with one clean jerk snatched the tricorder from her hands. He ignored the curse she mumbled under her breath, amazed that she'd fallen for his ploy.
"Are you sure about these readings?" He asked, sitting on the arm of the chair beside her.
"Sure as I can be, unless something in this place is interfering with the scans...why, what did she want from you?"
"She asked if her people were able to send us back through the vortex would we be willing to seal it from the other side, prevent the mutants from entrapping life forms and technology. She said the mutants are continuing forward with the same self-destructive acts that ruined the planet in the first place...a bit ironic considering these readouts."
"Do you believe her?"
"Maybe.... I don't know...could be a form of self-preservation.... A manmade evolution, created to help them survive." He looked down at her and scratched his beard thoughtfully. "I'm going to suggest we don't burn any bridges...yet."
He could tell by the way her eyes avoided his she didn't agree.
"Come on Mac," He said, cradling her neck in his hand and stroking his thumb along her jawbone, "You can't judge them because they're not like us, and if she's being honest it could mean we can find a way home."
"What about Deanna?" She paused, he knew not wanting to say out loud what had already occurred to him, "You said she was here, if survival here is contingent on a synthetic shell..."
"I don't care if she has eight arms, and horns growing out of her head, her mind and her soul will still be the same."
"I guess, if you say so...I just don't like it here, and I don't trust Julana for shit."
In his gut he agreed with her, but he didn't bother sharing it...more then likely she already knew what he was feeling, and shedding more dome and gloom would only make her more antsy.
"I don't think we're captives here, maybe we should go see how the other half lives.... The alleged bad guys." She lifted from the chair and nodded eagerly.
A deep rumble vibrated through the room, the walls sparked to life with a rippling pulse of topaz light, a shrill whistle echoed through the compound.
Mac made it to the door before Will had snatched his knapsack from the floor, "It's locked...guess I was wrong about not being captives," She said, slamming the door with her palm. "I knew she was a bitch."
"Calm down, maybe this is a precautionary procedure.... Maybe the doors lock automatically when the alarm sounds."
"And maybe you're blinded by long legs and perfect breasts." She snapped, "Which I might add we could all have if we were made on an assembly line."
He ignored her remark, which he knew would annoy her more then any retort he could offer.
"Help me get this control panel off."
Only silence followed his request, he turned his head to check on her. Mac was still behind him, but on her knees peering into the floor vent on the far wall. He figured she was looking for another way out, he wasn't however prepared when she moved the circular covering aside and a man climbed out.
"Are you William Riker?"
Riker felt the muscles in his shoulders tense and begin to burn, usually his body's way of issuing a warning. He slung his arm behind his back, grasp the handle of his phaser and held his other hand out towards Mac.
"Who wants to know?"
There was nothing at all threatening about this man, his eyes were gentle, his face showed no signs of malice, but for a reason on unbeknownst to Riker he didn't trust him.
"He's going to get us out of here." Mac said, watching him with confused eyes, and attempting to twist out of the hold he'd issued on her wrist.
"Deanna ask me to come for you."
Will's peripheral vision allowed him to see Mac's shocked and excited face, he kept his own reaction to himself, buried as deeply as he could.
"So I must have you to thank for bringing her here in the fi......"
Will snapped his head towards the door, the sound of footfalls nearing.
"Come on Riker, we'll work on your jealousy issues later." Mac pulled him forward, he followed reluctantly, slipping into the vent behind Mac and the stranger. Mac was pretty good about judging people, and he knew right now his own may be clouded, but he still had an uneasy feeling about this guy, whether he was taking him to Deanna or not.
The metal tube trembled, Will gripped the grating with his hands, but not in time to prevent his head from being slammed against the side.
"They've closed both doors...We're trapped!" This dark-haired man with his perfectly chiseled features turned his head to Riker, a marked look of panic on his face, "I told her I didn't want to do this."
Will swallowed his emotions, maybe this guy was telling the truth, maybe he was going to see Deanna. He felt his heart increase, a sense of anticipation pump through his veins, he masked it all behind an icy look, "Calm down..."
"David." The man said, filling in the gap Riker had left.
Will nodded, "Are you saying you don't know how to get out?"
"I've never gotten caught before... probably wouldn't have this time, if you hadn't hesitated."
"Don't even try to put this off on me!" Will snarled, massaging the lump that was growing on the side of his head, "How can you have a plan to get in without a plan to get out."
"I've never had such valuable cargo before, it's never come to this." David spat back defensively.
"That's it!" Mac intervened, "Macho time is over.... You" she said jerking her finger at Riker, "Think of something, and do it now, I want to get out of this sweat box ....and you," She added, tossing a look to David, "will shut up and let him think.....on the chance that you're not full of shit, I'd like to see my best friend again."
Will had stopped listening to her soon after 'that's it.", when she went nova like this, tuning her out had served him well.
"What is that room?" Will asked, gesturing through the narrow grating to the chamber below.
David shrugged, Will rolled his eyes, "How does this place function ....is it interlaced by computer."
"I think so."
He laid down on his belly, checked the room for life signs and nodded up to Mac.... He noted the glimmer of a smile on her face and knew she understood.
He heard Mac chastise David for beginning to speak, he found himself smiling outwardly as he worked the bolts away that held the grid in place. Never in his life had he met someone and despised them on sight, never until now.
"OK," He said, peeling the grating aside and swinging himself to the floor below. He helped Mac down, not bothering to wait for David.
He heard David drop to the floor behind him as he attempted to tap into the low-grade security panel.
"What are you doing?" David asked.
"Opening a door I hope...amazing they haven't located us yet though, considering this is the most sophisticated equipment I've ever seen." He shot a dubious look to David before sliding out of the seat and under the terminal.
"Ya know what would really suck?" He heard Mac's voice just as he'd finished his last adjustment that should trick the entire compound into thinking it was on fire, "If this complex fights fire with a vacuum seal."
"Why do you say things like that?" He said, hearing the alarm that sounded, and breathing a sigh of relief as the ceiling broke open, spitting the white foam he'd hoped for.
"Which way?" He asked, giving Mac little to no time to access the layout.
"This way" She yelled, shielding her eyes from the thick white suds, and skating across the floor. He followed behind her, pleased when the compounds systems reacted just as he'd thought; sealing doors behind them, opening the ones in front, offering a free and easy escape. Too easy, that thought kept eating away at him as he glided and stumbled through the foam. He heard David choke behind him, caught a glimpse of him slipping and disappearing into the cloud of suds on the floor. The final doors opened, revealing the dismal landscape, and not surprisingly no threat of intervention from Julana or her people.
"Are you going to help him?" Mac asked, tilting her head towards David, who had obviously made the mistake of breathing too deeply around the fumes.
"I wasn't planing on it." He answered, the look on her face stirring him to do the opposite.
"You all right?" He asked, tugging David to his feet with more force then necessary.
Will watched him walk away and join Mac on the outside. He tossed a look behind him, before picking up his pace and heading for the exit.
He heard a loud buzz, saw a fiery orange glow and felt his heart leap into his throat.
"Mac!" He roared, skidding through the exit, his phaser targeted in the direction of the blast.
His feet slipping out from under him he slid onto the dusty sand on his back and rolled quickly to his stomach, training his phaser in the direction of the shot. An eerie kind of twilight had set over the bleak landscape, dusting threatening shadows over the milky white rocks beyond the dome.
"Whereíd they go?" he demanded when he was certain it was only shadows that lurked in the distance.
"I didnít see anything."
He couldnít look up from Mac to gauge Davidís expression, but even his voice echoed deception. "Mac," he whispered, wiping away the sweat that was beading over her lips and brows. "Hurts like a mother doesnít it?" The wound on her neck didnít look too bad, but phaser burns, even minor ones had a way of convincing your body someone had lit a bonfire in your belly.
"I understand better now why I never coveted a command position." Her brave chuckle sounded more like a sob. He brushed back her sticky bangs and kissed her forehead.
"How much further to this place?" He glanced up at David and waved his hand towards the pack heíd dropped a few feet away.
"Not too far," David answered, scooping up the pack and placing it in Willís outstretched hand, "Just over that ridge."
Riker looked over his shoulder, following Davidís gesture. He stared at the wall of inlaid stones as he gave Mac a drink, giving her his full attention as he applied the localized pain inhibitor to her wound site. "Youíre still gonna fell like shit, but it might stop your bodyís reaction. Let me know when you think you can get up."
"Iím fine." The nails she dug into his hand negated her fine, but with only a brief hesitation he helped her struggle to her feet.
"We should hurry." David cautioned urgently.
He watched Davidís eyes dart nervously around, his sudden warning and his new found caution escalating his anger. "If you were so damned concerned about what was out here...Why the hell werenít you protecting her." With both of Macís arms wrapped securely around his waist heíd be hard pressed to get off the punch he longed for. <Shit, why do I hate this guy.>
David started to respond. "Donít bother, Iím sure itís common practice here for the armed to hide behind the unarmed." David mumbled something under his breath as he started to walk away. "What did he say?" Will asked, scowling down on Mac.
"Probably something like, youíre an ass-hole," Mac said, grimacing up at him.
"I donít like him Mac and I donít trust him." His eyes focused on the grainy soil that crunched under his boots, every step taking more effort then the last. But It wasnít Macís weight leaning against him that made him feel as if every step was laden with lead weights, it was his own fear and uncertainty. This guy had allegedly been with Deanna for the last two years, a helpless and trapped Deanna...A Deanna he was going to see again. Why did he feel like someone just carved another chunk out of his heart.
He wasnít sure how many steps heíd taken, heíd chosen to concentrate only on Macís familiar touch and the grains of sands that whispered over his boots. <Imzadi> He heard it in his heart before it carried on the cool wind.
"Deanna?" In the surreal twilight she appeared as a vision, a distant image muted by a cloud of billowing sand. He stumbled, his legs weak he almost lost his grip on Mac.
"Will." It was Macís voice, exuberant and choked. He looked down at her as if he needed her confirmation. "Go!" she said, steadying herself against a boulder.
He nodded and moved towards her, the weights still tight around his ankles he felt like he was running against a force determined to keep him away.
"Deanna!" He felt sick, dizzy, he stopped a few feet away from her, the echo of her name still carrying over the desert.
"Are you real?" His hands reached out but stopped just shy of her, he could feel the warmth of her body against his fingertips but held back, afraid to touch her and find out this was only another of his dreams. Deanna soothed his internal doubts by placing real arms around his neck and a real kiss against his lips. His knees gave way. He kept his arms around her as he slid to the ground and pressed his face against her stomach...He listened to her breathing, inhaled her scent, felt her fingers tangle gently in his hair.
"Will." She dropped to her knees in front of him. He cut off her words with his lips and tangled his hand in her hair; tasting, inhaling, touching, proving to each of his senses that she was really there.
"Deanna." The low voice from above him stole over his heart like a dark phantom, the way Deanna looked up at this man chilled him to the bone. "We canít stay out here."
"Will, come on." She urged, "Heís right, they may be looking for you."
"They," he said, his eyes pinned on David, the trace moonlight that filtered through the hazy sky igniting the sparks of angry light in them. "You mean they as in the people whose compound I just god damn destroyed that never lifted a finger to stop us!"
"Will!" Both Deanna and Mac chastised him in unison, Deannaís hand came down simultaneously on his arm.
"Itís all right Deanna," David said with an infuriating amount of calm, "I understand his anger and his resentment."
In response to the gentle look Deanna held him with and the surge of familiar sensations resurrected in his mind he bit back his nasty response and nodded.
"Macís hurt we have to get her home."
"I know, Iím sorry." Practically knocking David out of the way he slipped a supportive arm around Macís waist. He expected Deanna to fall in beside him, but instead she smiled and walked beside David. He felt a pang of hurt, a pang engulfed in an instant by the flames of mistrust that blazed inside him.
"Mac," he whispered when David and Deanna had moved further ahead, "Did you see the weapon that fired on you?"
"They could have other weaponís Will."
He didnít have to look down at her to know her suspicions were just as potent as his. Her point, counterpoint role came too soon, at least three questions ahead of his speculations. "You have a phaser wound Mac."
"Shoue used an electrical charge."
"Why eat shit when you can eat chocolate ice cream."
"I donít know," Her nose wrinkled, under the murky light it was hard to say if it was pain or disgust, " but that was bad."
"Sorry, best I could do under the circumstances," he tilted his chin ahead of them, "Or have you forgotten thatís my wife. Looks like she has," he added under his breath.
"I didnít see you run to catch up, maybe she thinks you and I are...ya know, fucking."
"Fucking?" He slowed his steps making sure his glare could penetrate the darkness, "Sheíd never think that, and even if she did, she wouldnít think that."
"How do you know that Riker, for all you know Deanna could be a closet foul mouth."
"Knock it off Mac," he said when he saw her smile flash under the trace lighting, "Distracting me by sucking me into one of your gibberish sessions isnít going to help."
"Will." Heíd been so busy glaring at Mac he hadnít noticed Deanna had fallen back. "I hate to interrupt this hushed conversation." She said it with that smile, the one she always drifted between himself and Mac when they insisted on pushing each others buttons. "David would like us to remain here while he accesses the wall."
"Why?" Every nerve in his body tingled with suspicion, even the hand Deanna slipped into his did nothing to settle it.
"Only David and a few of the elders know the sequence that opens the wall." Rikerís eyes lifted to it, what he had deemed to be stone now appeared more clearly as inlaid sensors.
"So youíre a prisoner here?" He gripped her hand tighter and drew her to him. He felt Mac shift uncomfortably beside him but refused to release her, at the moment she seemed his only secure link to reality.
"Iím not a prisoner Will and Iíll explain everything once we take care of Mac." She rested against his chest and he smoothed his hand against her hair, but his eyes were locked on Macs. That was the second time Deanna had called Theresa McGrath Mac, a name she hated, and was only used by the two people not afraid to face her wrath, himself and his son.
This reunion had played out in his daydreams and his night dreams for two years, and never had he envisioned it as being the most uncomfortable, unnerving experience of his life. He cast a look behind him through the circular window of the dwelling; in the trace candlelight he could see Deanna sitting beside Mac, both women were smiling. He took a few steps, his boots sank into the lush grass, he sidestepped around some flowers that glowed under a moon only visible from the healed sky above this sequestered village. The village, larger then heíd envisioned from outside the great wall that encircled it was primitive at best. At least fifty adobes like the one Deanna was living in were scattered between the jungle of foliage, the various flowers and the small saplings that reached upwards towards the untarnished sky. He pressed the heals of his hands against the stone of one of the wells that stood outside each home, he listened to the water rush from below and drew in a deep breath.
"Hi." He pivoted around to face the voice, his defenses relaxing as he smiled at his visitors. A young girl, not more then sixteen smiled at him over the head of the infant she held to her chest. "I donít know you."
"My names Will, I havenít been here long....Iím a friend of Deannas." He gestured with his head towards Deannaís home.
"Really." Her smile brightened, the trace of caution that had reflected in her charcoal eyes vanished. She shifted the baby from one hip to the other and brushed a lock of her hair behind her ears. He noticed the pointed crest on her ear and studied her a bit more closely.
"My nameís Tisnia. And this," she said, resting her lips against the babyís head, "is keeping me awake." Under her sighed laugh the babyís fine onyx curls tickled against her cheek.
"No." Her nose wrinkled and her eyes rolled in pure adolescent fashion. "I thought you said you were a friend of Deanna Troi?"
<Riker.> He mentally corrected her. "I am."
"Then maybe you can take her home to her mother." She held up the baby, " I think thatís what she wants, and Deanna knows I canít keep her all night."
Riker gripped the stone wall of the well tighter, if for no other reason then to stop himself from falling backwards into it. "This is Deannaís baby?"
"Are you all right, you look sick?"
He didnít answer her, couldnít answer her. The jagged pebbles in the wall dug deeper into the palms of his hands, but still he squeezed tighter, until cool stone was heated by warm blood. He wished he could feel the pain in his palms, focus on it instead of the acute ache in his stomach, the fire that burned with each ragged breath he inhaled.
"Will." He vaguely heard the young girls repeated calls to him, but he heard the small cries of the baby she was bouncing in her arms. He glared at the baby as if he could will it away, then closed his eyes and wished heíd wake up in his quarters on the Enterprise, feeling only pain and not betrayal. He opened his eyes slowly, inhaled a breath and confronted reality.
"Tisnia." Using his learned diplomatic skills he kept his voice as level as he could. "Take the baby to her mother and asked her if she can join me here," he paused and drew another heated breath. "Please." he added, "Itís very important."