The figures of the Enterprise away team shimmered as they materialized behind
a building in the capital city on Vitus. Cmdr. William Riker quickly glanced
around at his team - Data, Deanna Troi and Ensign Richard Barnes - making sure
everyone had made the transport safely, and reported as much to his ship. Data
already had his tricorder out, scanning the unusual energy readings he had initially
detected when the ship had pulled into orbit to investigate the disappearance
of two Federation freighters in this sector.
The android looked up from his tricorder and reported to Riker, "The energy source we detected earlier is approximately 3.53 kilometers from here, Commander."
Riker nodded, "We don't hold out much hope for the missing crews, but we're here to try to find out what happened to them, anyway." He made an elaborate sweep of his arm. "Lead on, Mr. Data."
The team followed the android around the building and emerge onto a plasticrete walkway crowded with pedestrians. In the street, a truck glided along silently, stopping every 100 meters to allow robot drones to unload crates at buildings marked with two horizontal red stripes.
"Those buildings must be some sort of distribution centers, don't you think, Data?" asked Riker. "Look at the lines of people going in there. Every one of them comes out with a package."
"Your theory seems reasonable," replied Data.
As they watched, another vehicle, one with seats inside, pulled up in front of a different building, one marked with a blue X. Once again, robot drones entered, though they carried nothing. They emerged moments later, escorting five humanoids who boarded the vehicle, which then drove away.
"Deanna, did you see the expression on those people's faces? What do you make of that?" Riker inquired.
"They seem very troubled and nervous," she answered thoughtfully. "I can sense fear and dread, but also a feeling of resignation."
"Odd. Data, get a fix on that vehicle. I want to know where it's going. I suspect we may find some answers there," ordered Riker.
Following Data's reading, the away team tracked the vehicle to a huge, official-looking metal building. The android cocked his head at the readings on his tricorder, and informed Riker, "This is also the location of the energy readings."
"Good work, Data." After first glancing around surreptitiously, Riker tapped his comm-badge, called the captain and relayed their findings so far. "We're going on inside to check it out," he told Picard.
"Very well, Number One. But take every precaution and report back to me in one hour.
"Will do, sir. Riker out."
The team entered the building, the commander in the lead. They headed down a long corridor lined with doors. They had only taken a few steps when a balding, middle-aged man wearing blue robes stepped out from one of the side doors. He blinked at them in surprise.
"Can I help you, he asked?"
"Yes," Riker replied. "We're visitors here and would like to speak to someone in charge about some friends of ours who turned up missing."
Troi felt a flicker of suspicion from the man at Riker's words. She touched Riker lightly on the arm. He gave her an infinitesimal nod at her silent warning. "As I was saying," he repeated. "We were wondering if someone here might have information concerning our people."
"I am Darnel. I will direct you to the administrator. Perhaps he can help you."
Darnel lead the Enterprise officers down the hall. He stopped at a door on the left just before they reached a larger door at the end of the hallway. The door slid open and they entered to find a somewhat younger man seated at a large desk.
His eyes fixed on Troi and he stood up, smoothing down his close- cropped blond hair and straightening his gold-embroidered blue robe. This is Administrator Galen," said Darnel. "Revered Administrator, these four come in search of friends whom they say have disappeared."
Galen nodded and dismissed Darnel with an imperious flick of his hand. He redirected his attention to the others. "Are you offworlders?"
Surprised, Riker answered, "Yes. I take it you've had other visitors, then."
"From time to time. Most recently, a freighter crew took rest leave here. They enjoyed themselves greatly before they left."
Galen was so calm and self-assured, Troi couldn't discern whether he was telling the truth. Riker glanced at her and she shrugged. "I'm Cmdr. William Riker of the Federation starship Enterprise. This is Counselor Troi, Lt. Cmdr. Data and Ensign Barnes. Was the freighter by any chance the Deltan Queen or the Andorian Angel?"
Galen bowed slightly. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Commander. Counselor, your companions are fortunate to have one so lovely as you to serve with."
Troi politely thanked him, but inwardly she was rolling her eyes. She did not relax her guard.
Galen continued, "To answer your question, Commander, I believe it was the Deltan Queen. Is it missing? I'm sorry to hear that. They were very nice. I'm sorry I can't tell your where they went. They never mentioned their next destination. You are welcome to be our guests, however. We don't get many. Tell your crew we have excellent facilities for rest and recreation if they would care to come down."
Riker replied with a charming smile, "I don't know if our captain would permit shore leave at this time, but we four would be happy to take you up on your offer. If you don't mind, I need to speak to my captain about it."
"Certainly. Go right ahead. I'll step out and you can call him in private."
After Galen had left the room, Riker called the ship and spoke with Picard. "Captain, they say the Deltan Queen was here, but according to them, it left. Administrator Galen has invited us to stay over as his guests and I've accepted. He also invited the crew to come down on shore leave," Riker added, wishing he dared say more, but knowing the probability of surveillance was great.
"Under the circumstances, I think not," answered Picard. "Continue your investigation, but be careful, Number One."
"Yes, sir. We'll check in before going to bed and again in the morning."
Shortly after the first officer finished his conversation, Galen reentered the room, accompanied by Darnel. "If you're ready, now, Darnel will show you to your quarters on the next level," said the administrator. "I'll see you again at dinner after you have rested and refreshed yourselves."
The team, escorted by Darnel, boarded a lift and ascended to the second floor. Each member of the away team was provided with an individual room. The rooms were lavishly decorated with colorful fabrics and original paintings. Riker was the last to be assigned a room. As he left to return to his duties, Darnel said, "Administrator Galen will call for you in two hours to take you to dinner and tonight's entertainment."
The commander thanked the man and after Darnel left, Riker summoned Data and the others to his room. They arrived momentarily and gathered close to the first officer. Riker whispered to Data, "What have you got?"
"The source of the power readings and fluctuations is a large room on the fifth level," replied the android.
Riker thought for a moment. "They'll be watching us too close tonight. We'll try to put them at their ease and inspect the room tomorrow night." Riker glanced at his chronometer and said, "Galen will send for us soon. Everybody go back to your rooms and we'll talk later."
* * * * * * * * * *
Galen came for them himself at the prearranged time and the away team accompanied him outside and got in his completely automated private ground car. They drove a short distance before stopping at a building Galen informed them was a restaurant. Once inside, Galen took the liberty of ordering for them.
When the food arrived, Data took a tricorder reading of it and pronounced it safe. Everyone ate but Data, who excused himself by saying he wasn't hungry. Between mouthfuls of dinner, Galen looked intently at the science officer.
Finally, Galen said to Data, "You're an artificial construct, aren't you."
Riker exchanged glances with Troi then said to the administrator, "You astound me with your access to information. Yes, Mr. Data is an android. He's also third in command of the Enterprise."
Galen nodded and responded, "I'm sure he's very capable. You know, we have infinite respect for machines in our society."
"Indeed," said Data. "I would be very interested in seeing some of these machines."
Galen smile non-committally. After dinner, the group left the restaurant and walked next door to what Galen informed them was a scenario merchant. On either wall were padded platforms resembling the diagnostic beds on the Enterprise.
Upon each platform rested a person with a helmet that came down over their eyes. The people did not move and appeared to Riker to be drugged. Above the head of each person was a monitor. On the monitors were the images of the people on the beds and each one of them was depicted participating in some adventure. "They actually feel they're a part of the action," explained Galen. "This is our most popular form of entertainment. Would yo care to try it?"
"No, thank you," replied Riker. "Aboard our ship we have something like this, only it allows physical involvement, as well, and does not require any drugs."
"That sounds terrible fascinating, Commander. We would be interested in trading for such technology."
"I'll pass along your request," Riker said. "You know, you have a beautiful, interesting city. I'm sure the Federation and your planet could establish mutually beneficial ties. By the way, if you don't mind my asking, what is the function of the buildings with the blue X's?"
Galen gave Riker a hard look and replied, "That is merely a public transportation station. It is really quite mundane and rather boring."
Riker nodded. "I see."
"If you don't mind," said Galen, "I have an early schedule tomorrow morning and would like to return to the citadel, now."
"We understand completely. We're rather tired, ourselves," responded Riker.
The group loaded into Galen's car once again and traveled back to the citadel. Galen invited his guests into his officer for an after dinner drink and they accepted. As they sat down, Galen presented a bottle of liqueur for their inspection. "It's our own product. I think you'll find it quite tasty,"
Galen assured them. Riker reached for the bottle, saying, "I'm sure it's very good, but if you don't mind, I'd like for Data to make sure it's compatible with our physiology."
Galen surrendered the bottle and smiled charmingly. "Naturally, go right ahead."
Data analyzed the bottle's contents and reported, "A high alcohol content, Commander, but otherwise quite harmless."
The android returned the bottle to Galen, who turned his back to them and poured four small glasses of the liqueur. They sipped the liqueur, which reminded Riker of brandy, and talked about the planet Vitus. The administrator talked in generalities without giving any real details on the society. After Barnes and Troi had also finished their drinks, Riker stood up and announced he was retiring for the evening. His fellow officers immediately did the same, and all four took their leave of Galen, but not before he had gallantly kissed Deanna's hand and told her good night.
Barnes and Data entered their rooms after acknowledging the commander's instructions to meet in his quarters at 0700 the next day. Riker saw Troi to the door of her room. He leaned against the wall outside her door, feeling a bit fuzzy, and he shook his head. A moment passed and he realized Deanna had said something to him that he hadn't heard.
He looked at her quizzically and said, "Sorry, Deanna. What did you say?"
"It wasn't important. Will, are you all right? You seem ... remote."
"I'm fine. I guess I'm more tired than I thought." Riker reached out and stroked her hair, and added, "But thanks for asking."
Troi smiled and took his hand, squeezing it. "I know what you mean," she said. "It has been a long day. I wish you could come in, but we ARE on a mission."
Riker returned her smile, bent down and gently kissed her. "Maybe when we get back to the Enterprise?" he asked.
Troi chuckled and nodded. "It's a date," she confirmed, and went into her room.
Riker made his way to his own quarters, and feeling exhausted, lay down on his bed without undressing, and was asleep in seconds. He had strange dreams of being carried into some huge laboratory.
* * * * * * * *
The commander awoke the next morning to someone shaking him and calling his name. He opened his eyes and saw Troi shaking him. Data was standing nearby. Riker lay there a moment, disoriented, then sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood, but his knees gave way and he would have collapsed had not Data caught him by the arm and supported him.
Deanna peered up at him in concern. "Will, what's wrong?"
Riker sat back down on the bed. "I don't know. I felt dizzy there for a minute. Stood up too fast, I guess." "Commander, perhaps you should transport up to the ship and report to Dr. Crusher," suggested Data.
"No, I'm all right, now. The dizziness has passed." Riker stood up again, more carefully. He looked around him. "Where's Barnes?" he asked.
"I do not know, sir," replied the android. "He is not in his room. I checked before coming here, but he was gone. The counselor and I have been trying for 10 minutes to wake you."
"Really? I didn't hear you." Riker absently rubbed a sore spot on the inside of his arm and tried to think.
"What's the matter with your arm, Will?" asked Troi. "I see it is causing you pain."
"Hmmm?" Riker said, and blinked at her curiously. He pulled up the sleeve of his tunic to find a bruise in the crook of his arm. "Now, where did that come from?" he said.
Troi looked at the bruise, then met Riker's eyes. "Something is definitely not right, here," she said.
The commander nodded in agreement. "You don't have to be an empath to sense that." He touched his communicator and called, "Riker to Barnes, report, please."
The ensign's voice came over the device, "Barnes here, sir. I was just having another look at the town. I'm on my way back now."
"You were supposed to be here at 0700, Ensign," Riker reprimanded.
"Sorry, sir. I forgot. Be there shortly. Barnes out."
Riker frowned and said to Data and Troi, "He forgot? That's not like him. I may be wrong, but I rather doubt he's going to show up anytime soon."
The first officer reported in to the Enterprise and spoke with Picard, informing of what had transpired. Riker waited about 15 minutes for Barnes, but when he still did not show, the first officer said to Troi, "Deanna, I hate to ask you this, but Galen is obviously taken with you. Would you go to his office and get him away from here? Ask him to show you around some more. Leave your communicator line open."
Troi grimaced, but acquiesced. Riker and Data waited in the commander's quarters until they heard the counselor say over her open communicator, "You're so kind, Galen, to take the time to show me the sights."
The android and the human went up to the fifth level. No one was in sight, so they approached the large room Data indicated. It had a series of buttons on a control panel outside the door. Using his tricorder, Data easily broke the code on the lock and the door slid open.
They entered cautiously. The room was empty of people and devoid of furnishings, other than some unusual projections mounted high in the wall. Up ahead was another, smaller, metal door. Riker and Data drew their phasers, but just as they reached the second door, two bolts of electricity arced from the projections nearest them. The two Enterprise officers trembled violently as the current struck them, then fell to the floor, Riker unconscious and Data shut down.
* * * * * * * *
After an hour of touring the town with Galen, Troi continued to worry about her two shipmates. She had earlier felt a strong surge of pain from Riker, followed by mental silence. She knew he was still alive, but sensed he was in terrible trouble. She had to restrain herself from rushing immediately back to the citadel. Now, she complained of a headache and asked Galen to take her back.
Upon their return, Galen went to his office and Troi went upstairs to Riker's quarters. When she didn't find him there, she checked all the other rooms the away team members had occupied, but found them all empty. She attempted to call the ship, but got no response. She deduced a communications shield was in use, so she took the lift back to Galen's office.
"My friends seem to be missing," she said to the administrator. "Do you know where they are?"
Galen's mouth smiled, but his eyes did not as he replied, "Well, perhaps I do. Come with me."
Galen rose from his desk and escorted Troi up to the fifth level. He pushed the correct sequence of buttons on the large door there, and it slid open. They crossed the outer room and stood at the inner door. Galen unlocked it with a code and it opened to reveal two huge banks of what appeared to be computers, flanking a large vat of red liquid.
Suspended in the liquid were three human-like brains, connected to electrodes. Her mouth dropped open in horror when she saw Riker and Barnes nearby. The two unconscious men were strapped to tables tilting at 45 degrees. They wore helmets similar to those at the scenario merchant. Each had a metal band around his arm that passed around the elbow. A tube from each band carried blood from the men to the vat. Wires connected the helmets to terminal on the vat's control panel.
Troi looked around for Data and saw him lying motionless on another table, although he wasn't hooked up like the two humans. She swallowed hard, glared at Galen and demanded, "Stop this at once! You're killing them!"
"I'm sorry, my dear," replied Galen, "but it is necessary. The coordinators must feed to live. To live, they must have fresh blood and intelligent life essences. Without the coordinators, our world could not survive as it is. These great ones provide all our technology and keep it running. By taking outworlders, our own people can be spared."
"This is barbaric!" Troi said angrily. "A parasitic society like yours shouldn't be allowed to exist."
She pulled her phaser and aimed it at the vat. Galen quickly stepped forward and twisted the phaser out of her hand. "Oh, no you don't. I'm sorry you feel that way, but it changes nothing. I had hoped to spare you, but I see, now, that will be impossible."
Galen signaled Darnel and an assistant. He handed over the phaser to the assistant. The administrator ordered Darnel, "Put the counselor on that empty table over there and sedate her before you hook her up."
"No!" screamed Troi. "Will, help me!" she cried as she struggled with Darnel. She called to Riker with her mind,
<Imzadi, wake up! They're going to kill me!>
* * * * * * * *
Aboard the Enterprise, the captain tried to contact his away team. Finally, Riker's voice came over the communications system. "Riker here, go ahead, Captain."
"Commander, what's the status of the away team?" asked Picard. "Have you found Ensign Barnes?"
"Yes, sir," was the response. "He's fine. He was just out looking around. It seems our suspicions were completely misplaced, Captain. These people had nothing to do with the ship disappearances. I recommend that the entire crew be given shore leave on the planet. The people are very hospitable."
"That's not the impression you gave me earlier, Number One."
"I was wrong, sir."
"Yes, well stand by," Picard ordered and cut the communication. "Mr. Worf, analyze the commander's transmission. I want a complete voice print comparison."
It took Worf only a few minutes to comply. "Sir, the voice print of the transmission is very similar, but it does not match that of Cmdr Riker. Obviously, someone is impersonating him."
"I'm not surprised," said Picard. "Worf, assemble a 10- person security detail and prepare to beam down to the citadel. our people are obviously in trouble."
The captain also called Sickbay and ordered Dr. Crusher to report to the transporter room to join Worf and his team. * * * * * * * * *
Riker was dimly aware of Deanna calling to him for help. He opened his eyes and saw her struggling in the grip of Darnel and another blue-robed man. Adrenalin surged through the commander and he pulled an arm from the straps and shoved the helmet from his head. He quickly unbuckled the other straps and jerked his left arm from the metal band enclosing it. As he did so, the needle in the band ripped his arm and broke off in the vein. Riker ignored the pain and the blood flowing freely down his arm as he lurched across the room to where the two blue robes were trying to strap a fighting Troi to a table.
The commander brought the edge of his hand down in a savage chop to the back
of the assistant's neck and the man sagged to the ground. Darnel tried to fend
off Riker as Galen rushed over to help. Riker's fear for Troi drove him and
he wrapped both hands around Darnel's throat, trying to choke him. Rather than
tangle with the larger man, Galen pressed a button on the wall. A robot drone
rolled out of a storage area and Galen ordered it to attack Riker, who had just
finished off Darnel and had turned toward Galen.
Before the robot reached him, Riker leaped upon Galen, grabbed him by the front of the robe and began punching him in the face. The commander heard Troi cry out a warning just before the robot smashed him over the head with its mechanical claw. Deanna heard a sickening thud as the blow connected. Riker collapsed as Galen struggled to his feet. The robot stood still, awaiting further orders.
Eleven figures materialized outside the large room. They wasted no time in cutting through the door with their phasers. once inside, the room's automatic defenses engaged and quickly knocked out two of the Enterprise's security team. The rest of the team destroyed the wall weapons and proceeded to the inner door. They forced their way in to find Galen's robot about to attack Troi. Worf destroyed it and his team pointed their weapons at the administrator, who ceased to move, and stood very still.
"Destroy the vat, Worf," Troi said, crossing over to kneel beside Riker. "It's killing Barnes."
The security team took aim at the vat and the computers, but Galen cried, "No! You mustn't!" and rushed the guards just as they began firing. He was vaporized along with the vat and computers.
Crusher went to Troi, who was cradling Riker's bloody head in her lap and trying to stop the bleeding from his arm by holding a pressure point. The doctor knelt, ran her mediscanner over the commander and gave him a series of stabilizing injections.
Crusher said grimly in response to the counselor's questioning look, "He's alive, but he's in a bad way - nasty skull fracture, subdural hematoma and severe blood loss. Apparently, they gave him a large dose of anti-coagulant. He's in deep shock. We've got to get him back to the ship if he's going to make it."
At the doctor's words, Troi's face went as pale as Riker's. She pointed to Barnes and Data. Crusher went to Barnes, but found him dead - his blood and life essence completely drained. she shook her head and walked over to Data. She felt his side for his on-off switch and pressed it. Data blinked twice, sat up and after running a self scan, pronounce himself operating normally. The android got to his feet and looked around him, appraising the situation. With the brains and computer destroyed, the communications shield was deactivated. He called the ship and requested a beam-up for the entire team.
* * * * * * * *
After stabilizing Riker with transfusions, Dr, Crusher spent several hours operating on him. After the surgery, Picard and Troi joined her at Riker's bedside. He lay very still, his head and arm bandaged, and the vital signs on the monitor above his head were low.
"He's still critical," Crusher told them. "But he's got a chance."
For four days, Troi stayed at Riker's side, leaving only as her duties demanded. Late into the fourth day, the commander awoke to see Troi asleep in a chair beside his bed. "Deanna?" he croaked.
Troi immediately opened her eyes at the sound of her name and beamed at Riker. "Will! It's about time you woke up." She hugged him gently, resting her head on his chest. He put his uninjured arm around her and brushed her hair with his lips.
"You didn't think I was going to leave, did you?" Riker quipped weakly. "After all, we have a date, remember?"
They both grinned. Capt. Picard and Dr. Crusher entered the room about that time and Troi quickly sat up. "Captain, I uh ..." she spluttered, blushing.
"It's quite all right, Counselor," Picard replied, smiling warmly. "Good to have you back with us, Number One. How do you feel?"
"Thank you, sir," Riker responded quietly. "I'm a bit tired and I've got a pounding headache, but all in all, I feel pretty happy to be here."
Crusher bent down and pressed a hypospray against her patient's neck. "The headache and fatigue are to be expected, Will, but this should help."
With Troi's and Crusher's aid, Riker sat up. He asked, "Captain, what happened on Vitus?"
Picard pulled up a chair and sat down. "We destroyed their entire setup," he said. "They'll never use it again. The Federation is sending advisors to help them restructure their society. I'm told the people are feeling somewhat confused and lost, but are very glad to be free of the coordinators. From what we can find out, Galen and his people killed the freighter crews, then sent up drones to dismantle the ships."
Picard mused for a minute, then commented, "You know, those coordinators remind me of some old Earth legends about creatures that sucked the blood from their victims."
Riker nodded carefully in comprehension, and replied, "You mean vampires? Yes, I see what you mean. I'd say that's a very apt description."
"Only in this case, the vampire was a machine - alive in one sense, dead in another," Picard said. "We lost Barnes. They completely drained his blood from him. And they did a pretty good number on you, as well. Apparently they didn't find Data to their taste."
Riker shuddered and was quiet for a moment. "I suppose there's something to be said for being an android."
Picard chuckled and said, "Tell that to Data. Well, you get some rest and I'll check in on you a bit later."
He motioned for Crusher to join him and they left the room together, leaving Riker and Troi alone. Riker turned his attention to Deanna, "Now, I think we were discussing our date."
He reached out, drew her onto the bed with him and kissed her.