The pudgy face of Dr. Marius Warren, head of the research facility on Catarna
4, filled the Enterprise's viewing screen as he spoke to Capt. Picard. "Research
is proceeding normally, Jean-Luc," said Warren.
"So normal as to be boring. Why don't you beam down and have dinner with me? I'd welcome the company of an old friend. Bring your first officer and your lovely counselor along, too. It would be nice to see some new faces."
Picard smiled slightly, his hand on his chin. "We've had reports of Romulan activity in this sector. You're sure you've had no problems?"
"Heavens, no," Warren replied, then laughed. "I'm so tired of seeing the same old faces that I think I'd even welcome a few Romulan ones."
The captain chuckled, then said, "All right, then, Marius, we'd be happy to join you for dinner. We'll beam down in a few minutes. Enterprise out."
Picard turned to Troi and Riker and said, "Well, Counselor, Number One, shall we go?" Picard did not miss the look that passed between Troi and Riker. He sighed. "All right, you two, out with it."
Riker spoke up first, "Captain, in view of the reported Romulan activity in the area, I have to protest your beaming down to the surface."
Picard frowned and replied, "Dr. Warren reported no problems, Number One, and the scans of the area picked up no Romulan ships. Yes, there were Vulcanoid readings at the station, but Marius has some Vulcan scientists on staff. I believe it's safe enough. Did it ever occur to you I might get tired of staying on the ship all the time?"
"With all due respect, Sir, every time you do leave the ship, it seems like you get in trouble," Riker pointed out.
Picard gave him a stern look and Riker shrugged. Troi cleared her throat. Picard turned to her in exasperation. "You have an objection, also, Counselor?"
"Not exactly, Sir, but I sense a certain apprehension in Dr. Warren. I can't pin it down, but I don't like it."
"I think you two are unduly concerned, but your concern is noted," Picard conceded. "Very well, if it will make you feel better, we'll all carry phasers and take a couple of security guards. While we're there, we'll take a look around." * * * * * * *
Picard, Riker and Troi, along with two burly security guards, materialized inside the research station. Warren greeted them warmly. "How's the research coming along, Marius?" inquired Picard. "Is this world going to make a uitable colony?"
Warren pushed his unkempt graying hair from his eyes and answered, "If it weren't for the fantastic variety of animal life here, I think it would. The soil is extremely fertile and would be excellent for farming. Unfortunately, that would mean clearing off large areas of rainforest. I think it would make a better zoological garden than a colony. If a colony was established, extreme care would have to be taken to preserve the animal and plant life. The danger of ecological damage would be too great. You remember what happened in the Amazon River Basin back on Earth. We're just now beginning to reclaim the desert that resulted from the total destruction of the great rainforest that once existed there."
Warren laughed at himself. "Sorry for the speech. Why don't I take you on a tour of the facility here before we have dinner?"
"Where are the other scientists," asked Troi.
Reaching out with her empathic senses, she detected an air of nervousness as Warren replied, "Oh, they're scattered all over. Some of them are working in the lab. Come along and I'll show you the lab and introduce you to them."
Warren led them all into the adjoining room where the lab was located. As they entered, Troi, in front of Picard and Riker, suddenly had a strong sensation of someone behind them. She whirled around, and the others turned to see what she was looking at.
As soon as they spotted the five Romulans, the Enterprise security guards tried to aim and fire, but the Romulans had the drop on them and killed the two guards outright. Riker and Picard eased their own hands away from their phasers. The Romulans disarmed the three remaining Starfleet officers. Picard's communicator trilled at that instant, but he did not answer it. He looked questioningly at the Romulan who seemed to be the leader.
The Romulan in charge addressed Picard, "Answer them and say that everything is peaceful. One wrong word and I will kill all of you, despite your value to us as prisoners. Cooperate with us, as Dr. Warren has, and you may yet live to see another day."
All three Enterprise officers looked at Warren accusingly. The scientist gazed down at the floor and said apologetically, "I'm sorry about this, Jean-Luc, but they're holding all my people hostage."
Picard turned away from Warren, ignoring him. He pressed his communicator. "Picard here. Go ahead, Enterprise."
Data's voice came over the communicator. "Captain, we are picking up several very strange energy anomalies and attempting to analyze them at this time. In view of recent reported Romulan activity, I suspect they may be cloaked vessels." Data went silent for a moment. "Make that affirmative, Captain. The automatic defense shields just clicked on. We are being targeted by four Romulan warbirds. I am issuing a red alert."
The officers on the planet could hear the whooping klaxons through the communicator. Picard did not reply, but looked for instructions from the Romulan pointing the phaser at him. The Romulans' attention was focused on Picard, so Riker took advantage of the opportunity to quickly press his own communicator. "Data, get that ship out of here. Now!" Riker ordered.
The guard nearest Riker stepped over to him and struck the commander viciously with a phaser across the side of the head, knocking Riker to the floor several feet away. The other guards quickly put their weapons to the heads of Picard and Troi. Riker lay still for a moment, blood streaming from the cut on his temple, the propped himself up on his elbows.
Picard and Troi watched him struggle to remain conscious. Troi's dark eyes flashed as the guards prevented her from going to Riker's aid. Two Romulans roughly hauled him to his feet. They each held onto an arm, both to restrain him and support him.
"Are you all right, Will?" Picard asked in concern.
Riker exhaled heavily and replied, "Yes, Sir, I think so."
The Romulan commander growled, "I should kill you for that, human. However, you may be useful to me." He ordered the guards, "Take their communicators, then lock them up."
The guards ripped the communicators from their prisoners' uniforms before escorting them to another room and locking them in. Picard paced the room as Troi bandaged Riker's head with a piece of cloth torn from her tunic.
"Damn!" Picard swore. "I just hope Data was able to get the Enterprise away from here safely. We're no match for four Romulan ships. If the Enterprise got away, Data can call for backup."
Riker thanked Deanna for the first aid and leaned back against the wall. "In the meantime, Captain, our hosts will no doubt be planning an interrogation for us," Riker said.
Picard nodded in agreement, replying, "Undoubtedly. I believe it's time we took our leave. Counselor, I believe a convincing distraction might be in order."
Troi shrugged as Picard and Riker took up positions on either side of the door. She shrieked once then moaned and grunted suggestively several times. Riker grinned at her choice of distraction. Soon, they heard footsteps approaching their room.
The door swished open and two guards entered, phasers in hand, and a look of curiosity and suspicion on their faces. Riker decommissioned the first with a savage chop to the back of the neck and a kick to the head, while Picard doubled his fists together and struck the second guard in the solar plexus, stunning him, then dispatching him by beating his head repeatedly on the floor.
Riker peered cautiously around the door, but saw no one. "All clear, Captain," he whispered.
They drug the guards further inside the room. Relieving the Romulans of their phasers and communicators, the three Enterprise officers swiftly left the room. They moved furtively through the station, hiding whenever they saw a Romulan, and soon reached the exit.
The doors opened and they surprised two more Romulans standing guard outside. Picard and Riker stunned the pair and ran with Troi down the trail leading into the jungle. Riker brought up the rear and they had just reached the edge of the forests, only a few yards from the station, when one of the guards from the cell staggered outside, apparently having regained his senses.
The guard reached into a pouch on his belt and withdrew a throwing star. He let it fly at the retreating targets. Riker grunted as the star deeply imbedded itself in his back. He fell to his knees, turned, and fired the phaser, hitting the guard. Up ahead, Picard and Troi seemed oblivious of Riker's difficulty.
Fearing they would vanish from sight into the dense forest, the commander managed to regain his feet and stumble after them. After a few minutes, they left the trail and battled their way for nearly another half-hour through the thick foliage to a small clearing. Picard stopped, Troi alongside him and they waited for Riker to catch up. He soon joined them, breathing heavily. He could feel blood trickling down his back.
Picard grinned at the younger man. "Out of shape, Number One? Having a bit of trouble keeping up?"
Riker gave the captain an annoyed look and sank gratefully to the ground. He gritted his teeth as the throwing star in his back shifted with his movement. Troi moved toward him, "Will, you're hurting!"
Picard dropped his joking demeanor, realizing that something was wrong with his first officer. "What's the problem, Will?" he inquired as he walked over to Riker.
"My back ... " Riker gasped.
Picard and Troi took a look. The captain narrowed his eyebrows in concert. He knelt beside the commander. "Good God, man, why didn't you say something?"
"Wasn't important. We had to get out of there."
Picard nodded. "Hold still, Will, I'm going to pull this out."
Riker braced himself as the captain slowly worked the star out of his back. Once the star was out, blood began to flow freely, staining Riker's uniform a darker red. Troi helped him ease his tunic off over his head. She gave it to Picard, who ripped it into strips. Troi folded up one piece and held it against the wound as Picard wound some of the strips around Riker's chest.
Riker remained stoically silent throughout, but his face was beaded with a cold sweat. Picard examined the throwing star, noticing the black stains on the tips. He showed the weapon to Troi, then Riker. "Number One, take a look at this. The tips are coated with some type of substance."
Riker stared at the star, then looked Picard in the eye. "Poison?" he asked.
"It would appear so, Will." Picard avoided Riker's gaze, wrapped the star in two thick, broad leaves and tucked it inside his uniform for future analysis. Riker looked away, his thoughts a jumble, and barely heard Picard's words. "Data will probably be back shortly with an armada of starships," the older man assured him.
"Sure," Riker replied, but his tone indicated he wasn't hopeful. "I think we'd better move on, though. The rest of those Romulans are probably on our trail."
Troi spoke up, "Will, the more you move around, the faster the poison will spread through your bloodstream."
"Don't you think I know that?!" snapped Riker. Regretting the sharp words, he squeezed Troi's hand and said, "Sorry, Deanna. If it's a choice between me staying here and waiting for the Romulans to find me and kill me, or moving on and hoping Data returns before the poison kills me, well ... Besides, it may not be deadly, after all."
Troi's eyes filled with tears as she sensed Riker's pain and emotional turmoil. She and Picard helped Riker to his feet. He was beginning to shiver in spite of the hot, humid day and his face was slightly flushed. Without a further word, the three continued deeper into the jungle.
Despite his worries, Picard was able to marvel at the myriad variety of bird life in the towering, centuries-old trees. The lush foliage formed a colorful canopy of red and green against the pink sky. Several times, Picard felt as though he were being watched, but shrugged off the feeling and walked on. They were forced to slow their pace as it became evident that Riker was in considerable difficulty.
The captain and counselor awkwardly helped support the tall first officer as they trudged through the forest. When the vegetation became too thick, Picard burned a path through with his phaser. Almost another two hours passed before they stopped again. This time, they halted at a clear, swiftly-running stream. Riker groaned as they eased him to the bank beside the stream.
Picard began looking around and found some apparently ripe, round yellow fruit that had fallen to the ground. He examined it carefully and searched his memory for the information he had read in the data tapes about the planet. The captain recalled seeing a picture of this very same fruit, along with the caption that it was safely edible and quite delicious. He gathered up several pieces of the fruit and carried it back to Troi and Riker.
The exhausted first officer was already asleep, his head in Deanna's lap. She was bathing his flushed face with a piece of cloth she had soaked in the stream. She heard Picard approach and looked up at him, her face filled with anguish as she asked, "Captain, couldn't we try the communicator, now? "
Picard sat down beside them and replied softly, "I don't think it will be of much use right now, Deanna, but I am going to try to change the frequency on it."
He broke open a piece of fruit and handed it to her, assuring her when she turned it over curiously in her hands, that it was safe to eat. "There's also a real danger that the Romulans will get a fix on us when we do use the communicator," Picard told her.
He was startled when his first officer spoke, "Too soon, Captain. Too ... dangerous. Must wait."
"I understand, Number One, but that option is rapidly fading. We're running out of time." Picard turned his eyes away from the penetrating blue gaze fixed upon him. Troi coaxed Riker into accepting a chunk of fruit. He didn't really feel like eating, but forced himself to chew it and swallow. But a sudden cramp seized his stomach and he curled into a tight ball, clutching his middle and moaning. He rolled away from Troi, pushed himself up with his arms and began retching violently.
Picard and Troi supported the miserably sick man and helped him lay back down when the vomiting was finished. Deanna wiped his mouth and face with the wet cloth. Picard dipped up some water in half of a hollowed-out fruit rind. He lifted the man's head and offered him small sips of the water, which the commander managed to keep down. Troi took Riker's head in her lap once again and stroked his damp hair away from his bandaged forehead.
Very much aware of his situation, Riker's blue eyes met Deanna's and he reached up a trembling hand to caress her cheek. Picard moved tactfully away. Riker spoke again, his voice weakening, "I've ... been so distant, sometimes. I'm sorry. Didn't want to hurt you ... again. Wanted you to know. Might not ... "
She put her fingers over his lips, shushing him. Tears glistened in her eyes. "You're going to be all right, Will, just rest."
He took her hand, kissed it, then held it tightly until his eyes closed and consciousness slipped away. Seeing that Riker was asleep, Picard returned to Troi's side. Kneeling beside the pair, he touched Riker's cheek lightly with the back of his hand and was shocked at the amount of heat radiating from the unconscious man.
The captain exchanged a worried look with Troi, then announced, "I'm going to leave you two for a while. I want to try to use the communicator. In case the Romulans get a fix on the transmission, I want to be sure I'm well away from here so I don't bring them down on you."
Troi would have protested, but realized the necessity of Picard's proposed action. The captain rose, brushing leaves and dirt from the knees of his uniform, and swiftly made his way through the brush. After Picard had been gone for some time, Troi eased Riker's head from her lap and stood up, stretching her cramped arms and legs. She walked a short distance away to the fruit tree and began picking up the sweet, yellow fruit from the ground. When she finished, she strolled back to the stream. Troi gasped and threw down the fruit at the sight that greeted her.
A huge blue snake, easily 12 feet long, stood head high, the darker reticulated pattern on its back shifting as it swayed hypnotically from side to side beside the still body of Riker. Troi reached for her phaser and cursed when she remembered she'd left it lying beside the commander. Having no other recourse, she began hurling fruit at the snake, trying to drive it away. Having easier prey at hand, it ignored the woman. Troi screamed at the snake, trying to distract it.
Suddenly, from a nearby tree, a tan, furred figure, obviously feline, leaped down behind the snake, wrapped a sinewy forearm around its neck, and plunged a crude knife into the serpent's head. The snake collapsed and the furred creature sawed the snake's head from its body and tossed it into the brush. The furred one washed the blood from the knife and dried it on his blue-scaled tunic before sheathing the blade.
The feline turned, looked Troi in the eye and stretched out its empty hands. The pointed ears on top its head cocked forward as it regarded the counselor. It's eyes were the most intense shade of green Trois had ever seen. Its pupils were narrow slits. She felt no hostility emanating from the felinoid, only curiosity. The alien opened its mouth and said something in a yowling voice, but without the built-in translator of a communicator, Troi couldn't understand what it said.
Picard, phaser in hand, burst upon the scene, apparently having been alerted by Troi's screaming. At the sight of the felinoid, he stopped in his tracks. "It's all right, Captain," Troi assured him. "He means no harm. He saved Will from that snake." She pointed at the huge dead reptile stretched out on the ground. "Did you have any luck contacting the ship?"
Picard shook his head in reply and cautiously approached the intelligent feline, stopping a few feet away from him. The captain slapped his hand against his own chest and said, "Picard." He pointed to the counselor, then the commander, and introduced them, "Troi,", "Riker."
He pointed to the felinoid and cocked his head questioningly. The feline indicated himself and said, "Mowl."
Mowl walked a short distance away and beckoned to Picard, who nodded in agreement. The captain motioned to Troi and the two of them bent over Riker. Picard gently grasped the commander's shoulder and shook him. After a few minutes, Riker opened his eyes. A flicker of pain crossed the commander's features as he sat up.
"Number One," said Picard, "we've encountered a native. He seems friendly enough and wants us to go with him. Can you walk?"
Riker blinked and answered, "I ... think so. If you can help me a little."
Picard and Troi helped him to gain his feet and supported him as they followed Mowl. They had only gone a short way when the felinoid stopped at the base of a particularly huge tree. He leapt up onto the trunk, dug in with his claws and began to swiftly scale it.
Mowl disappeared among the leaves, but returned after a few minutes with two other felines. He indicated their names as Rowl and Garrul. Picard nodded politely and repeated the names of his own team. Riker's fascination with the natives had made him forget his pain for a short time, but now it returned in earnest. He doubled over as the pain and nausea hit him worse than before. Picard and Troi wrapped their arms around him and encouraged him to sit, as his body was racked with dry heaves.
Mowl walked over to Riker and cocked his head to one side. He looked inquiringly at Riker, then Picard. The captain removed the throwing star from his tunic and showed it to Mowl. Picard made a throwing motion, then bent over and pointed out the blood on Riker's back that had seeped through the bandage. Mowl nodded, apparently understanding. Garrul looked up into the branches of the tree and yowled something. Moments later, a wooden platform lowered to the ground. He and Mowl easily lifted Riker onto the platform of branches lashed with vines. They took the free ends of some vines hanging nearby and began to pull them. The platform rose to the top, into the leaves. Again it lowered to retrieve Picard and Troi.
Upon reaching the top, another felinoid greeted them and assisted Riker in moving into a huge hollow in the tree. Troi followed, gazing around in wonder. The hollow was quite spacious and furnished with wooden chairs and a table, as well as soft pallets upon the floor. Riker moaned as the feline helped him to lie down on one of the pallets. He smiled his thanks and it chittered. Mowl, Rowl and Garrul came into the hollow and Mowl nuzzled and licked the one who had helped Riker.
Picard got the distinct impression that the new felinoid was female and Mowl's mate. Rowl and Garrul plopped down on the floor near the table and Mowl indicated Troi and Picard should sit in the chairs at the table. Mowl and his mate, whom he introduced as Prera, went into an adjoining room.
"This is incredible," remarked Picard to Troi and Riker. "Our research station has been here for nearly a year and the scientists have never mentioned encountering any intelligent lifeforms."
Prera carried a gourd of water to Riker. The first officer drank it gratefully, then laid back down on the pallet and commented, "Warren mentioned ... indigenous life. Sensors ...probably indicated only felines." He paused to rest before continuing, "Could be Mowl and his friends ... didn't want to be found."
Picard got up, crossed over to Riker and squatted on his heels beside the man. "Obviously, Number One. However, why did they show themselves, now?"
Riker shook his head.
Troi theorized, "Maybe seeing another intelligent being helpless and in danger prompted them to help."
"Perhaps, Counselor," said Picard. "I suspect there may be more to it than that. A large part of the time we were walking, I felt we were being watched."
"I, too, had that sensation," replied Troi.
"Want something from us," ventured Riker hoarsely. He stifled a moan as pain coursed through him once again.
"Let us do the talking, Number One. You just lie there and rest," Picard ordered. "I agree with your thinking, though. I only hope they want something we're in a position to give. As grateful as I am for their help, I have no intention of violating the prime directive. It's enough that they've seen us."
They were interrupted as Mowl and Prera reappeared, each carrying a plate of steaming meat, which they set on the table. Rowl and Garrul wasted no time in helping themselves to a chunk of the meat. Mowl sat down in one of the chairs, his tail sticking out through a gap in the back. Prera stuck her head out the entrance and mrrowed loudly. A few minutes later, a much smaller feline, apparently a child, scampered through the doorway, leaping about inside the room. Prera extended her claws and gently restrained the male cub. She pointed out the visitors to the cub and his eyes opened wide. Prera repeated the humans' names as best she could. She presented her cub to the guests.
From her motions and words, they gathered the youngster's name was Marl. He approached the humans cautiously and touched the furless skin of Troi's hand. He chittered and turned to his mother, apparently making some comment on the strange guests.
Troi smiled, reached her hand out and placed it on the cub's head, softly stroking it. He purred a moment, then, his eyes twinkling, he reached his own fingered paw out and stroked Troi's hair. Marl tilted his head to one side, in amazement, Troi guessed aloud to Picard, at the difference in texture of her "fur" and his own. A yowl from Prera called him to the table and he sat politely, stealing a glance at the strangers from time to time.
Picard rose and joined the others at the table. Prera disappeared once again into the other room and brought back a steaming gourd of broth, which she offered to Riker. The commander graciously accepted the broth, though his stomach rebelled at the idea of food. His hands shook, threatening to spill the whole thing.
Troi came over and took the gourd from him. "Sit up, more, Will, and I'll help you manage this." Riker grimaced. "Come on, now, you've got to take something. Besides, you'll hurt their feelings if you don't."
He struggled to rise and finally had to ask for her help. She assisted him in sitting up and put the gourd to his lips. He took a few sips, then lay back down, his face very pale and his stomach churning. "No more. Feel sick," he whispered to Troi.
Her eyes softened in sympathy as she gave in. "All right then, get some rest."
Though he tried to stay awake - he feared the darkness and the loss of awareness - his exhaustion and pain overcame him and he drifted off. Troi pulled up a fur blanket over his shivering form before standing and going to the table. The others were already eating. The meat was quite good, but Deanna found she herself didn't have much appetite. From time to time, she looked over at Riker, making sure his chest was still rising and falling with each breath.
After the meal, Mowl sent Marl outside with a skin sack. He returned in a few minutes and Marl poured the dirt in it out on the table. He smoothed out the surface of the soil with his hand and beckoned to Picard. With a stick, Mowl drew a picture of a humanoid - one with pointed ears.
"Well, I'll be damned," Picard said in amazement.
As he and Troi watched, Mowl violently drove the stick into the picture of the humanoid. Picard nodded and took the stick from Mowl. He too, stabbed the image of the pointed-ear humanoid. Mowl bared his teeth and chittered. Picard pointed at the drawing and said, "Romulan," and growled convincingly.
"Rom-u-lan," repeated Mowl, and also growled.
Picard took out the throwing star once again. "Romulan ..." Picard said, making a throwing motion at his first officer, "hurt Riker."
Mowl nodded his understanding. He pointed at Garrul. "Romulan ... hurt Garrul." Mowl said something to Garrul, who opened his tunic and showed Picard a partially-healed phaser burn on his side. All the felinoids hissed. Realizing how quick the felines were to understand, Picard tried something else. He pointed at Troi, Riker and himself, repeating the word "human" each time. Pointing at the picture in the dirt, he said, "Romulan."
Mowl indicated his friends, family and himself and said, "Farrol."
The captain indicated he understood and the mutual language lesson continued into the night. Garrul and Rowl eventually left. Mowl made three additional pallets on the floor as he and his family went to sleep. Picard finally had to order Troi to lie down, as well. She agreed, only after he assured her he would keep watch on Riker, who was sleeping restlessly.
Troi laid down beside Riker, taking his hand into her own to reassure them both. Picard woke the commander from time to time and offered him water. The injured man drank, but didn't always seem to know the captain. Picard was beginning to feel considerably frustrated. At one point, he stepped outside onto a thick branch and tried to call the ship. He received no reply. At dawn, Troi awoke and insisted that Picard get some sleep. She felt Riker's forehead and was alarmed to find his temperature had increased noticeably. She bathed his upper chest and face with water from the gourd.
Picard watched her tend to Riker for a bit, then spoke, "I thought about not telling you, but you have a right to know. I tried to contact the ship again, but still didn't get an answer."
Troi looked up at him and said, "Data will come. He has to. Surely, it won't be long, now."
Picard silently agreed with the latter statement. Riker was slipping away and there was very little they could do about it. It was hard to lose a man like this. In their line of work, death was usually quite sudden. He thought of Tasha Yar, who had died instantly when Armus attacked her. When death came for Picard, he hoped it would be equally sudden. He particularly hated the idea of slowly deteriorating of old age. A poem he had read many times came to his mind, "Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day; /Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Yes, Dylan Thomas had said it well, Picard thought. But what about Riker? And Tasha for that matter, both young with their entire lives ahead of them. Tasha hadn't lived to see old age and it was quite likely Riker wouldn't either. Perhaps old age wasn't so bad, Picard mused, as long as one never gave up the struggle for life.
He suddenly realized Troi was speaking to him, "Get some rest, Captain. We may need all our faculties in the coming day. Give me the communicator and I'll try again in a little while."
Picard acquiesced and lay down on the pallet provided. He was soon asleep. Troi watched over Riker, worry gnawing at her. Despite her earlier words to the captain, she didn't have much hope. With her empathic senses, she could feel the fight in Will fading away. At mid-morning, she left the hollow to try to call the Enterprise. Mowl and his family had left earlier to go hunting. Picard still slept beside Riker, who tossed and turned frequently.
She tried the communicator, but like the captain, got no answer. What if the Enterprise had been destroyed, she speculated. Then Will would surely die. She thought of all her friends aboard the ship and fervently hoped the Enterprise had been able to escape. She heard a sound behind her and turned to see Picard.
"Any luck?" he asked hopefully.
The tears running down Deanna's cheeks gave him his answer. He put a hand on her shoulder and drew her to him. She sobbed into his wiry shoulder, worry and lack of sleep getting the best of her. When she had finished, she wiped her face on her sleeve and told the captain of her fears for the ship. Picard reassured her, "I feel certain they're all right. Data knows better than to take on several Romulan ships on his own."
"I know you're right. I just hope they hurry."
Suddenly, they heard voices, obviously angry from the tone, and not very far away on the round. A few moments later, they saw two Romulans pointing phasers at Mowl and his mate. Marl was hiding on a lower branch. Picard carefully climbed down to the cub and motioned for him to return to the hollow. He gripped the youth's shoulder reassuringly and the youngster silently climbed back up the tree. He ran inside his house and peered out the door.
Troi began to descend to Picard's branch. Realizing he couldn't shoot the Romulans without hitting the Farrols, Picard hesitated. Coming down the tree, Troi slipped, but the captain caught her.
Unfortunately, the noise alerted the Romulans and they quickly fired stun bolts at the pair, who collapsed on the wide branch. Mowl and Prera took advantage of the distraction to attack the Romulans. Marl swiftly climbed down to Picard and Troi. He took Picard's phaser and returned to the hollow.
The youth immediately went to Riker and began shaking him. The commander was disoriented at first, but his thoughts cleared quickly when he noted the cub's agitation. Marl gave Riker the phaser and pulled on his arm, urging him toward the door.
Unable to walk, or even crawl, the first officer called up the last of his strength and dragged himself to the entrance. Looking out, he immediately understood the youth's alarm. Mowl and Prera seemed to be getting the best of their opponents, but two more Romulans had just arrived on the scene. Riker pointed the phaser at them, his hand trembling badly.
Resetting the phaser to kill, he steadied the weapon with his left hand and fired at the approaching Romulans, vaporizing them instantly. Mowl forced his opponent to drop his phaser, then ripped out the Romulan's throat with his fangs. The feline then jumped on the back of his mate's attacker. He jerked the Romulan's head back savagely 'til he heard the neck snap. Riker sighed in relief. The phaser dropped from his hands as he lost consciousness.
* * * * * * *
Riker finally became vaguely aware that Deanna was passing a cool cloth over his face. Someone had apparently moved him back to the pallet once again. He looked up at Troi. "You ... all right?" he inquired of her.
"Fine," Deanna replied.
"Enterprise?" Riker asked.
She turned her face away so he couldn't see the tears in her eyes. "Not yet, but soon," she told him. "The captain's gone to call them."
"Soon ...," he repeated and closed his eyes to rest. The act of breathing itself was becoming a chore, the breaths coming in ragged gasps as he struggled to get enough air. The darkness closed in once again, more solidly than before.
* * * * * * *
Riker felt himself drifting and from far away, he could hear Deanna shouting for Picard. From some distant vantage point, Riker saw his body convulse, gasping for a breath of air which wouldn't come. He became aware of a bright light shining from behind him, and he turned and started walking toward it. Riker heard Deanna calling his name, so he stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
At that moment, his attention was claimed by a figure clad in a tunic and old-style Starfleet uniform from more than 100 years ago - a gold tunic and black pants. The braid on the man's sleeves pronounced his rank as captain and Riker thought he looked somewhat familiar.
"Hello, Will," said the man.
Riker studied the man. "Do I know you?"
"Not exactly," the man replied with an easy grin. "We've never met before."
"Am I dead?" Riker asked.
"On what?" Riker inquired suspiciously.
"On the outcome of your fight with him," the captain replied, pointing at a dark figure approaching through the mist, wearing a cowled cloak.
"Why do I have to fight him?" Riker asked.
"Well, if you want, you can just go peacefully with him," the man said.
Riker watched the sinister figure draw nearer, and tensing himself, decided, "I think I'd rather fight."
"I kind of thought you might," the captain answered.
The cloaked man arrived, pointed a bony finger at the commander and spoke in a booming voice, "William Riker, come with me."
"No way," Riker retorted.
"Very well," said the darkly-clad man and jumped on Riker.
They traded fierce blows and rolled around on the mist- covered ground. The captain in the gold tunic shouted encouragement and advice to Riker. It seemed forever before Riker managed to get a choke hold on the cloaked man. He increased the pressure on his opponent's throat and asked calmly, "Give up?"
The man nodded and Riker released him. Before leaving, the cloaked figure turned to the sandy-haired captain and said angrily, "Once again, you have broken the rules."
"No, I just bent them a bit," was the captain's reply. "He deserved a chance."
The cloaked man walked away, shaking his head.
"I know who you are!" Riker said excitedly to the man facing him. "You're James Kirk!"
Kirk nodded and grinned. He reached out his hand and Riker shook it. "Good to meet you, Commander, but I think you'd better go back, now. Take care of my ship. She may not be the same vessel I knew, but the spirit is the same."
"I'll protect her with my life, Sir," replied Riker. "Thanks for the advice."
"Believe me, it was a pleasure," Kirk said. "I never did like that guy. Goodbye, Will."
The mist rose and enveloped Riker.
* * * * *
Riker became aware of his body once again. There was pain, now, but at least he knew he was alive. He gathered his strength and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times and forced his eyes to focus. Looking around, he was amazed to discover himself in Sickbay. Beverly Crusher was bent over him, checking his vital signs. Picard and Troi stood nearby.
"Welcome home, Number One," said Picard. "We've been waiting two days for you to wake up."
Deanna simply beamed at him. When the doctor moved out of the way, Riker stretched his hand out to Deanna. She took it and he drew her into his arms. She hugged him fiercely, then sat up on the edge of the bed, smoothing her hair from her face. Picard poorly suppressed a grin at her embarrassment.
"Thanks, Captain," Riker answered. "Believe me, it's great to be back. Speaking of which, how did we get back, anyway?"
Picard pulled up a chair and filled him in. "Just when we thought we'd lost you for sure," said the captain, "I managed to contact Data and he beamed us aboard. As we had hoped, he'd returned with help - two starships and five heavy cruisers. After a bit of a battle, they defeated the Romulans. They cleaned out the nest of them back at the research station, too - unfortunately, not before the Romulans killed the scientists there."
"What about Mowl's people?" asked Riker.
"They're fine," Picard assured him. "The Federation is declaring Catarna 4 off limits to prevent further contamination of the Farrol society. We'll be keeping a watch, though, to make sure the Romulans don't return."
"Good," said Riker, nodding in satisfaction. "What did they want with the planet anyway? It has little strategic value."
Picard replied, "We think they wanted to establish an agricultural colony there. The word from intelligence is that they've had some massive crop failures on Romulus."
Crusher studied Riker closely and pronounced, "That's enough for now, he needs to rest."
Riker grinned as a thought occurred to him, "You know, Captain, every time you insist on going on an away team, someone gets hurt. You'd better stay put on the ship from now on. You're a jinx."
Picard laughed and shrugged as he replied, "What can I say, Number One? It's a jungle out there."
Riker, Troi and Crusher groaned at the joke.